Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Two: Film Culture

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.

Guilt Against Death

July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.

But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.

Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ.  (Did it ever?)  But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.

The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”

After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”

He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.

Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.

It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.

One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.

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