February 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: GraceLand.
Reading next: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, and Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.
Movies are everywhere in this book. Just for one memorable example: when 10-year-old Elvis gets hooked on going to the latest Bollywood movies with his cousin Efua, he starts stealing the money his grandmother gives him to mail letters to her pen pals around the world. But he needs to keep giving her responses so she doesn’t catch on, so “scenes from Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind were rewritten to fit his letters.” But movies — mostly American — are woven into casual dialogue, the thoughts of the characters, everyday life.
An important scene occurs at the movies in chapter thirteen, when the rebellious, enigmatic King of Beggars (yes, this book involves characters named Elvis, the King, and the Colonel) takes Elvis to the new theater to see a Yugoslavian art film entitled Love Film. (Possibly this, but then it might not be a real film at all.) He’s trying to show Elvis an “alternative” to the world of violence and self-interest that threatens to swallow him. And Elvis loves the movie; he loves its first line, “People are important.” This qualifies as a major breakthrough in a world as debased, as corrupted, as nightmarish, as his can be.
But the most interesting scene involving the movies comes in chapter fourteen. Elvis, now thirteen, goes to “the local motor park, where silent westerns and Indian films with badly translated English subtitles were shown after dark.” These, as it turns out, are “shown courtesy of an American tobacco company” which also gives out free cigarettes “irrespective of age.” In this case, the film is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s no glamorous spectacle, though: the screen’s a torn, dirty bedsheet and the old projector often eats films and jitters the picture from side to side, for which the crowd has learned to compensate by “sway[ing] from side to side while squinting off to the left.”
But this is not the best part. The best part is that the films are made into a live performance, based on a kind of new folklore. The projectionist narrates the action on the screen, creating a whole new story out of the images. These narrations mostly involve the exploits of a mythological “John Wayne” and “Actor,” the principles in a recurring good-versus-evil storyline across many kinds of films. As the narrator explains, “John Wayne acting as the villain in a film was Actor, and Clint Eastwood as sheriff was John Wayne.”
I have not yet been able to verify whether this is or was actual practice in Nigeria, but I strongly suspect it was. It’s not even as simple as it seems, either. Elvis walks into an argument between teenagers over whether John Wayne or Actor is superior — which is “the true hero.” And Elvis prefers the figure of Actor, too, as “part villain, part hero,” and explains here:
Women preferred him to John Wayne and men wanted to be him. His evil was caddish, not malicious, and Elvis knew that though most people dared not step out of the strict lines of this culture, they adored Actor. He was the embodiment of the stored-up rebellions in their souls.
Actor, in other words, is a trickster to John Wayne’s ideal. But the narration of the films also allows for audience participation, especially when the projectionist is drunk or annoying or misses something: here, the audience gets going on something and ends up arguing about which person on the screen is Actor and which is John Wayne. (Particularly appropriate, actually, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) That this is taking place in the late ’70s, during the emergence of the antihero (and even the black antihero — Shaft is referred to in this chapter) in American cinema, in the Nigeria of corrupt officials and in Elvis’s world with a drunk, abusive father and even worse uncle, makes perfect sense. And of course, Actor is still alive and well (as one of the debaters argues, he cannot be killed): the Joker in The Dark Knight springs to mind as a prime example.