April 01, 2011

Pro-colonization propaganda in Up

Despite the Native sources for the animated movie Up, there are no references to Indians in it. The closest it comes to one is when Russell the Wilderness Explorer says he's a member of Tribe 54 and Sweat Lodge 12. Which is vaguely insulting, especially the "sweat lodge" part. A "lodge" for Boy Scouts or the equivalent isn't anything like a sweat lodge.

The movie treats all of South America like a vast "land of the lost." A map of the continent shows geographic features and fauna but no countries or cities. Indeed, I saw only a couple of references to any kind of modern politics or culture. When Carl Fredricksen visits a travel agent, he holds brochures or tickets labeled "Brazil" and "Peru." A handwritten note in his childhood scrapbook says something like, "If I move to Venzuela [sic], I wonder if I'll live near a village."

The attitude that South America is an unexplored wilderness might've made sense in the 1930s, or whenever the opening sequence takes place. People were still exploring the Amazon jungle, although plane flights were quickly revealing its mysteries. But everything indicates Up takes place in the near present, when people should know better.

Carl dreams of colonization

Let's think about this a minute. The lifelong dream of Carl and his wife Ellie is to have a home on top of a tepui (mesa) near Paradise Falls. After Ellie dies, Carl pursues this dream by launching his house toward South America with balloons.

Really? Consider the fact that Carl's house would past through the airspace of at least two countries (the US and Venezuela or Brazil) and probably several. What was he planning to do when the first South American country he entered sent fighter jets to intercept him? Wave hello before continuing on?

The real problem is Carl's goal of setting down on the tepui near the world-famous falls. First, it's the sovereign territory of a foreign country. Second, it is (or would be) a tourist attraction--probably part of a national park, World Heritage site, or the equivalent. Third, it's sacred to the Amazon Indian tribes who live nearby.

As a 21st-century citizen, Carl should know and consider all these facts. That's what Google or the library is for. Yet he--and the movie's producers--consider none of them. It's as if national sovereignty and tribal rights mean nothing to them. As if the Latino and indigenous populations don't exist and South America really is an untamed wilderness.

Waiting for a Mexican Up

I'd love to see the reverse scenario in the next Pixar film. A Mexican citizen who dreams of Aztlán, the mythical Aztec homeland, launches his house toward the United States. He sets down on the rim of the Grand Canyon, where he plans to live. The political ramifications of this would be instantaneous. Politicians, the media, and the public would scream for answers and action. One way or the other, the house would have to go.

I'm not sure a studio could even make this movie in the present political climate. Conservatives would denounce it for its pro-immigration message. Even if the movie ended with the status quo, they'd call it liberal propaganda. They'd say it legitimizes the idea of reconquista--that America's indigenous population has a right to its former territory.

But no one apparently thought to question Up's actual scenario. A white man colonizes a sacred Indian site in South America...ho hum. Who cares if the movie reiterates the theme of countless stories about explorers, pioneers, and settlers? We're Westerners, Up seems to be saying, so the world is ours for the taking. Who's going to object...a few llamas and jaguars and bears? The only people "down there" are brown-skinned savages, and they hardly matter.

This is an excellent example of what Ward Churchill calls America's master narrative. It's unconscious propaganda promoting the goodness and rightness of the American way. We explore, invent, and conquer because we're doers and achievers. While the brown-skins waste the potential of Paradise Falls, we're ready to pave it over and put up a parking lot.

Moviegoers get a message

It's not as if Up's omission would've been hard to rectify, either. Muntz the half-crazed explorer could've had Indian servants or slaves. He could've remarked that the location was sacred to Indians but he didn't care. Carl could've wrestled with the morality of his decision and ultimately realized his mistake. He could've decided to leave because of the Indians, not because he had to return Russell.

Approximately 99.9% of Up's viewers won't think of its sociopolitical message. But they'll get the message nevertheless. Namely, the message that their Western way of thinking is the right way. That the colonization of foreign territory is the norm.

Again, imagine the reaction to the Mexican version of Up (Arriba). I suspect it would be a firestorm of controversy. Everyone would get the sociopolitical message then. They'd be talking about it just like they talked about Avatar and its sociopolitical message.

The fact that no one thinks about movie messages doesn't mean the messages aren't there. You just have to look at movies like Up from a multicultural perspective. What would an Amazon Indian say about a foreigner landing in his backyard and intending to stay there permanently? Nothing good, I'm sure.

For more examples of our ignorance of South America, see No Indians in Off the Map, Hidalgo in FIRST WAVE #4, and Review of Running Wilde. For more on the American mindset, see How America Became Cowboy Country and Movies Convey "America's Master Narrative."

Below:  "I don't see any Indians or other Venezuelans, Mr. Fredricksen. I think you can claim this place as your own!"


dmarks said...

"Really? Consider the fact that Carl's house would past through the airspace of at least two countries (the US and Venezuela or Brazil) "

And get shot down by dictator Hugo Chavez.

At least with "Land of the Lost" they avoid this by moving it out of the New World entirely... and into a place that has no indigenous anything.

Anonymous said...

Most people see South America as just jungle. Yes, there is a large mountain range, including the tallest mountains outside of the Himalayas. Yes, there is a huge plain in southern Brazil. Yes, the inhabited landmass closest to Antarctica is Tierra del Fuego. Why do you ask?

dmarks said...

If they even know where it is. Or what nations are in it.

See this page which moves Nicaragua from North America to South America.

I hope they didn't break anything to move that country so far south.