December 02, 2007

Love/hate relationship with film

Apodaca:  Hollywood tragicomedyThe film industry is arguably the most influential entity on the planet and is an almost universally accepted American icon. It shapes our views about almost everything, and American Indians are key players in the history and continuance of American film. The earliest commercial documentary films dealt with American Indians: "In The Land of the Headhunters" (1914) and "Nanook of the North" (1922). Natives found new work in rodeos and as movie actors and actresses as "Wild West" shows faded. American Indians appear in hundreds of movies from silent to talky. The careers of countless directors, producers and movie stars have been made through their associations with Indians and films. But how do Natives feel about film?

American Indians hate film. The most feared person at any Native gathering is a person with a film or video camera. Tourists have to register their cameras at many reservations now or are requested to do so at pow wows. Anyone involved with film is suspect and Natives who help filmmakers are likely to be seen as quislings, traitors, selling out their own people. Film portrays American Indians as American playthings to be shot off horses, raped at night, left drunk at the curb and rendered helpless before new technology like guns. Nothing has dehumanized American Indians like film. Movie Indians have replaced real people in our popular understanding of America.

On the other hand, American Indians love film. The answer to Indian problems can be found in Indian control of film, or so goes the popular sentiment. The fulfillment of many Native dreams is to be on the big screen, to be recognized in the street as a film star, to make the movie that will set all things straight, to finally gain justice through the use of film. The most honored person at the pow wow, school night gathering or cultural festival is the American Indian actor or actress who attends. American Indians look to film acting as a higher calling than that of president of the United States: We have had only one Native U.S. senator during a time when whole generations of actors have become national icons.
Comment:  Let's reiterate what Apodaca said: "The film industry is arguably the most influential entity on the planet." And let's note what Chris Eyre said about the medium's significance: "Second to religion, I think movies have been the most damaging thing to Indians."

I'm glad some people recognize the central role of film in shaping our perceptions of Indians. None of this "It's just entertainment" nonsense for them.

11 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Then it must be asked: writerfella has had an off and on relationship with TV and film since 1969, making him at least some kind of pioneer with those media. Just what are the media of TV and film? Conspiracies? Propaganda industries? House organs of the Dominant Culture? Billions of dollars are invested in such media each and every year. Are those monies solely being devoted to the destruction and defamation of non-white races? Are DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? and THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS and POSEIDON and VALKYRIE and I AM LEGEND ostensibly, to name only a few, somehow devoted to perpetuation of a dominant society? It is one thing to ask certain questions and quite another to have all the answers to such questions. Geez, HAPPY FEET and THE POLAR EXPRESS and SHREKS 1 - 3 and THE ABYSS had better be called on that same carpet, or someone's reach really has outstripped their grasp on reality...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

dmarks said...

"Chris Eyre said about the medium's significance: "Second to religion, I think movies have been the most damaging thing to Indians.""

What a total lack of perspective, when you think of smallpox, racism, economic exploitation, and other evils...... and all the stuff done to the indiginous people of the Americas in the 400 years before the first film was ever made.

dmarks said...

"and I AM LEGEND ostensibly"

Russ, I suppose those who read race into everything, even, where it is not present, might have a field day with "I Am Legend" being about the "white man's racist fear of going out at night in the city".... except the movie remakers sort of short circuited the idea by having Will Smith play the main character.

Rob said...

I haven't seen most of the movies you named, Russ. But it should be obvious that the Shrek and Star Trek franchises uphold the idea of a stable, top-down society with no room for poverty, disease, or hunger. They provide no comfort to people who are have-nots rather than haves--i.e., who are dominated by big government and business.

One could write whole books on how the media conveys our cultural values. For a hint of what these books would say, see the following postings:

Technology vs. Native Values

In his 1978 bestseller, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander argued that television is, by its very nature, a harmful technology. The trouble with television is not a matter of content, as the current debate suggests, it goes deeper than that. Whether one watches children's programming on public television or violent, late-night crime dramas, the effects are essentially the same, Mander said: the medium itself acts a visual intoxicant, entrancing the viewer and thereby replacing other forms of knowledge with the imagery of its programmers. Television's effects on young children are especially deleterious, Mander insisted, since it infuses them with high-tech, high-speed expectations of life and separates them from their natural environments. Furthermore, television is used as a vehicle for commercialism—a commercialism predicated on the need to sell viewers back the very feelings their entrancement has eclipsed. We cannot hope to understand television, Mander concluded, without looking at the totality of its effects.

"Our assumption of superiority does not come to us by accident. We have been trained in it. It is soaked into the fabric of every Western religion, economic system, and technology. Judeo-Christian religions are a model of hierarchical structure: one God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over nature. Political and economic systems are similarly arranged: organized along rigid hierarchical lines, all of nature's resources [including 'other humans'] are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one god—the god of growth and expansion. In this way, all of these systems are *missionary*; they embrace dominance. They are the creators and the enforcers of our beliefs. We live inside these forms, we are imbued with them and they justify our behaviors. In our turn, we believe in their viability and superiority [as systems] largely because they prove effective: they gain [us] power."

Globalization According to Gilligan

In his new book, "Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization," Cantor examines four of his favorite television shows—"Gilligan's Island," "Star Trek," "The Simpsons" and "The X-Files"—and explores how they speak to America's understanding of its place in the world. Cantor is a proponent of a thoughtful conservatism that should be interesting to liberals and instructive for conservatives, for he has the courage to say out loud that not everything on television is dross and that some of it is not only entertaining but significant as well. Which brings us, naturally, to Gilligan and Capt. Kirk. The two '60s shows "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" presented a Cold War view of the United States as a country which was doing the globalizing, rather than being globalized. As Cantor puts it, "Gilligan's Island" is about "the Americanization of the globe." The show postulated that a representative group of Americans could be plunked down in the middle of nowhere and establish a miniature America. Each of the characters in "Gilligan's Island" stood for a certain American trait: the Skipper is the military, the Professor is science and ingenuity, the Millionaire is Wall Street, the Movie Star is Hollywood's culture machine, Mary Ann is Midwestern innocence and Mrs. Howell is High Society.

"Gilligan's Island" reflected an America at ease with itself. Even though the country was in the middle of a Cold War, the castaways had a calm confidence in our founding principles and our moral preeminence. The show's creators saw the spreading of American ideals as a form of manifest destiny. Those ideals were also at the heart of "Star Trek." Gene Roddenberry may have made a big deal about the Prime Directive and its mandate not to interfere with other planets, but the truth is that the crew of the Enterprise spent much of its time destroying rival forms of government. Or as Cantor says, "Their mission was to make the galaxy safe for democracy."

Rob said...

The stereotypical notion that Indians are savage, uncivilized, a slightly inhuman "other" lies at the core of Euro-American attitudes toward them. Not only has this generated internal racist feelings, it's generated external racist actions. These actions includes everything from the first wars of extermination to the policy of manifest destiny to the ongoing failure to uphold treaty rights.

Here are a couple of the many, many people who undoubtedly agree with Chris and me. From The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence:

[As part of a quiz on Indians, moderator Jean Gaddy Wilson] asked participants to write down two positive traits of Indians and two negative traits. Among the positive traits were such things as resourceful, traditional, helpful, knowledgeable of the natural world, survival, spiritual and bravery. Under negatives, responses included words such as alcoholic, lazy, mean, dirty, savages, dishonest, raiders and murderers.

Wilson asked participants where they got their first view of Indians or Native Americans, with the common answer being television and/or movies.

--"Discussion Centers on Explorers' Interactions with Indians," Marshall Democrat-News, 4/27/04

Close your eyes and conjure up what comes to mind when you hear the words "American Indian." No matter your political correctness, the dominant image is probably one of feathers and war paint, bows and arrows, buffalo and teepees, beads and skins, wisdom and warfare.

It is an image derived from adventure movies and childhood books, from sepia-tinged photographs and museum exhibitions, from exploitative television shows and earnest documentaries. Even recent publicity about Indian casinos cannot blemish its iconic power.

Whether the Indian in your image is villain or victim, it is likely some exotic "other," a more primal being somehow in touch with elemental nature which can be a source of savagery and spirituality.

--Michael Hill, "Challenging Old Views of the American Indian, Baltimore Sun," 8/29/04

russell said...

Writerfella here --
And writerfella can only point out the classic phrase, "It is the poor workman who curses his own tools..."
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

dmarks said...

Mander's arguments for eliminating TV can just as well be used for eliminating books. I find TV-bashers to be little different than book-burners.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Oh, wow, think how much 'Nuclear Winter' smoke will be generated when they burn all of those TV sets!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Re "It is the poor workman who curses his own tools...":

I'm glad you're still able to point out a phrase. Can you also draw a conclusion so people know what you're talking about?

Chris Eyre, for one, isn't criticizing the filmmaker's tools. He's criticizing the stereotypical products that result from those tools. So if you meant to criticize him, you missed the mark. Oops.

Rob said...

So books have the same effect as television? Well, let's see. In general, books don't act as a "visual intoxicant." They don't fill readers with "high-tech, high-speed expectations of life." They aren't used as a "vehicle for commercialism."

Yeah, you could use Mander's arguments against books, but you'd look silly if you did so. As I just explained, none of the arguments I've quoted applies to books. Mander's argument is about TV's technological ability to bombard the senses, an attribute books don't share.

When Mander makes a claim that applies to books as well as TV, please let us know. Quote his claim if you can. Until then, this argument is demonstrably wrong.

Rob said...

I haven't read Mander's book, but I'm betting he calls for less television, not no television. Which wouldn't be surprising, since it's a position shared by almost every social scientist in the world. In case you didn't know, researchers have linked TV to numerous problems in children. Too much viewing reduces reading skills and school performance and increases aggression and obesity.

See websites such as these for the details:

http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/9908/20/kids.tv.effects

http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/tvkelemen.htm

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/412514/watch_out_the_13_harmful_effects_of.html