Tuesday, November 23, 2010

White Men Are the Best at Everything: Mapping the Birthplaces of the Directors of American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time

My original map is on Google. You can link to it by clicking here.

In 1997 the American Film Institute issued its first list of the top 100 films of all time entitled “100 years… 100 movies.” This was to commemorate the first 100 years of the existence of motion pictures – 1896 – 1996 (Why these dates, I am unsure. Most scholars go back and forth between 1894 and 1895 for the start of the motion pictures). In 2007 this list was revised and republished. Both lists were created from the input of 1,500 “…leaders from the film community (me, not being one of them). Gone from the second list were films like The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer which had characters performing in blackface and, though, technically significant to the history of cinema, were wrought with controversy surrounding their content. Added were films like Do The Right Thing and The Sixth Sense which seemingly added diversity to the list due to the fact that their directors – Spike Lee and M. Night Shaymalan – are men of color. The purpose in mapping where the directors of AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time were born along with a poster of their acclaimed film(s) is an attempt to show that while the new top 100 list attempted to expand the range of films and filmmakers incorporated into it, that the perception of excellence in motion picture production is still from a very white European-American male perspective. Thus, the list reinforces the idea that American films are the best films in the world and the only visual stories that matter to the cinema canon are feature-length fictional narratives.

This is not to say that mapping the locales of the director’s births did not provide any surprises. I was surprised that so many of the directors were European by birth. I was also surprised to find that legendary Hollywood directors Billy Wilder and Frank Capra were not born in America, but rather Italy and Poland. Capra immigrated to the United States around the age of four while Wilder came to the United States after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and took over the film studio where he was working. When clicking through the map the juxtaposition of images of these very iconic American stories – like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – with Europe is interesting and jarring at the same time.

Also surprising was that John Ford, who is so well known for his Westerns, was originally from Maine. Spike Lee, who is known so much for his urban stories set in New York City, was actually born in Atlanta. What this showed me is that you do not need to be from a certain place or necessarily embody a positionality similar to the characters in your film to tell stories that resonate with audiences and critics alike.

However, with that revelation came the issues of all the things that are missing from the list and from the map. First, there are no female directors on the list. There are no documentaries or experimental films. None of the films are non-feature length. None of the films are foreign produced or in a language beside English. All were made within the studio system in Hollywood. This seemed quite odd to me until I looked at the voting criteria on Wikipedia:
  • Feature length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes long
  • American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production from the United States
  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals
  • Popularity Over Time: Includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals
  • Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements
  • Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance
The reason why I used Wikipedia as a source was that this information was not available on the American Film Institute’s website. Buried in the text on the AFI website is the fact that they were only considering the top 100 American films, but the tagline on the webpage simply says “AFI reveals the 100 greatest movies of all time” which continues the deception that this list might encompass more than just American fare. Also not mentioned is the fact that the leaders of the film community were only given a list of 400 nominated films to choose from. Who chose those films and if they used the same criteria listed above in their selection process is unknown.

This exploration and visualization really helped me to think about the naturalization process that is such a big part of the cinema history canon. The fact that AFI failed to prominently mention that they were only considering American feature narratives for their top 100 list is telling of the different ways in which other modes of cinematic production are othered in critical discourse. For instance, at the Oscars there are categories for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, but the grand prize – Best Picture – lacks any qualifiers. A more appropriate name for the award might be Best English-Language Fictional Feature. Additionally, the inclusion of the work of several European born directors – Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, etc. – shows whose creative input we value in the American studio system. In fact, only four directors on the list – M. Night Shyamalan (India), Peter Jackson (New Zealand), James Cameron (Canada), and Norman Jewison (Canada) – were born outside of the United States or Europe.

Primarily, I think the map brings up fascinating points about immigration; who we allow into our country to pursue the "American Dream." Aside from Capra and Wilder there were several other directors on the list that immigrated to the United States. While the rhetoric surrounding immigration is very anti-Latin America at the moment, because they will "steal our jobs," it is telling that we've allowed multiple white European film directors to immigrate and to hold one the most exclusive jobs in the country and then revered their work as the crowning achievement of what can be achieved in their profession. It says a lot about what we value in American society.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Battle: Outsourced the Movie versus Outsourced the TV Show

I love Thursday nights. Sadly, it is because almost every show that I regularly follow is on on Thursday nights - Bones, 30 Rock, The Office, Community, and Project Runway. I watch enough TV on Thursday nights to almost last me a week (Aside from How I Met Your Mother on Mondays. I love that too). So I was interested to see a new television show this season in my NBC Thursday night line-up that, on the surface, seemed very out of the ordinary for American television - Outsourced.

In Outsourced Todd, a mid-level manager for an American novelty outfitter, finds out that his job has been outsourced to India and he must go and train the new workers and his future replacement if he ever wants to move up high enough in the company that he can return to America and the safety of corporate headquarters. The premise for the show wasn't new to me. I had seen Outsourced the movie several years prior. However, the more I watch Outsourced the television show, the more I can see the subtle differences between its depiction of the friction between Indian culture and American culture and the culture clash in the movie version.

Anita, from Feminist Frequency, once told me that she liked the television show Farscape because the main character, John Crichton, an American astronaut, magically tumbles through the galaxy into an unknown world and instead of going by the tried and true formula of white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and letting John show the aliens how to run their section of the universe, John Crichton quickly realizes that he knows nothing. Everyday is a learning experience and every episode let the different characters rotate who would "know best" - not just letting Daddy John take the credit all the time for continuously saving the day.

The same idea is true of Outsourced the movie. Movie Todd finds himself in the middle of nowhere India (specifically, Gharapuri) trying to navigate local customs. He unknowingly offends most of the Indians he meets - including a particularly memorable sequence where he discovers why Indians think it is dirty to eat with you left hand. However, like many journeys, Movie Todd comes to learn more about himself as he learns more about the customs and traditions of India. Over the course of the movie he finds himself more estranged from the person he was and, vicariously, America; since the person that he was also sold gaudy American trinkets.

Instead of the sticks, TV Todd is stuck in the middle of Mumbai, a bustling metropolis. He too is middle management for an American novelties corporation. However, unlike Movie Todd who learns about himself through experiencing India, TV Todd is constantly correcting and instructing the people that work for him about American culture. Changing the journey that Movie Todd went through into more of a story of how white-men-are-the-best-at-everything and American culture is the best culture.

The shift from focusing on Indian culture in the movie to American culture and customs in the television show sounds small, but is actually quite profound. For instance, in Outsourced the movie Todd accidentally walks into the middle of the annual Holi celebration without knowing what it is.

At the end of this scene Purohit, Movie Todd's replacement manager, discusses how much he loved Holi as a child. While Movie Todd reminisces about how much he loved Halloween as a child. However, the emphasis in this scene is on the celebration of Holi, not an insistence that Movie Todd expose Purohit and his other workers to American customs like Halloween.

TV Todd has no problem prioritizing American customs over Indian ones. In the "Balloween" episode TV Todd throws a traditional American Halloween party. In it all the Indian characters are ridiculed in one way or another - Manmeet, the wannabe ladies man, dresses as a chick magnet, but is too afraid to talk to the hot Australian girl who finds his costume appealing. Gupta dresses as a "respectable US businessman" not realizing that he's dressed as a pimp. Asha comes dressed as Cleopatra only to be scolded for revealing too much skin when she's in the process of arraigning her marriage. Holi is never mentioned. And all the characters on the show embrace Halloween as if it was the latest and greatest thing. They even choose to dress up as American icons like Michael Jackson and Native Americans.

Not to say that Outsourced the television show is completely without its moments of hope. For instance, at the Halloween party Rajiv, the TV manager-in-training, dresses up as TV Todd and momentarily gets to mock him and, vicariously, Americans: "Is this safe to eat? Where's football? Where can I get that toilet paper with the lotion in it?" Thus, for a split second, we, the audience, are able to see what Indians find strange about our culture.

In the episode "Truly, Madly, Pradeeply" several of the characters, including fellow American, Charlie, become momentarily addicted to paan - an Indian version of chewing tobacco. This exchange also seemed less about the domination of American culture over Indian culture. I was happy to see a little but of screen time devoted to a non-American custom even if the storyline involved one of the other white American characters on the show. But these moments are fleeting. The paan aspect of the episode was a subplot and the Rajiv mockery of TV Todd was even shorter.

This is not to say that Outsourced the movie isn't without its problems as well. In both the film and the television show there is an attraction between Todd and the character of Asha. In both cases Asha is in the process of an arraigned marriage. Both versions of Todd still fall for Asha and pursue her to different degrees. It is as if because Asha's marriage is going to be arraigned by her parents that it does not carry the same weight as a "love match" marriage (the term used in the movie for a non-arraigned marriage). Therefore making her still single in the eyes of her lovelorn American boss Todd.

It will be interesting to see in the coming months if Outsourced the television show is able to gain speed and expand its moments of cultural sensitivity. As a viewer, the most interesting interactions to me are the ones that are completely foreign - the paan subplot for instance - and the ones that are the least interesting are the the cliched moments that I've seen over and over again in media. For instance, when the truly pathetic character of Tonya, a white Australian call center manager, throws herself at TV Todd in lewd and uninteresting ways. I can only hope that the television show continues to develop away from tried and true formulas and shows us something interesting. After all, it is a television show starring mostly an Indian/Indian-American cast on prime time network television. It is already revolutionary on paper. Now let's see it become revolutionary in content.

Outsourced the television show airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9:30pm.
Outsourced the movie is available to stream on Netflix.