Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mischaracterizing sources (Wes Anderson edition)

Jonah Weiner has a new piece in Slate bashing Wes Anderson for, among other things, his depiction of non-white characters in his films. Weiner’s argument centers primarily on Anderson’s new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, which is set in India (and which I have not seen). While the argument is largely compelling, one of Weiner’s claims so misrepresents a scene from The Royal Tenenbaums that it damages the whole. Here’s the quote:

Anderson generally likes to decorate his margins with nonwhite, virtually mute characters: PelĂ© in Life Aquatic, a Brazilian who sits in a crow’s-nest and sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese; Mr. Sherman in Royal Tenenbaums, a black accountant who wears bow ties, falls into holes, and meekly endures Gene Hackman’s racist jabs—he calls him “Coltrane” and “old black buck,” which Anderson plays for laughs; Mr. Littlejeans in Rushmore, the Indian groundskeeper who occasionally mumbles comical malapropisms (Anderson hired this actor, Kumar Pallana, to do the same in Royal Tenenbaums and Bottle Rocket). There’s also Margaret Yang, Apple Jack, Ogata, and Vikram. Taken together, they form a fleet of quasi-caricatures and walking punch lines, meant to import a whimsical, ambient multiculturalism into the films.

While in aggregate I think Weiner has a point, I think his summation of the scene between Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman and Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum is tremendously misleading. Here’s the scene that Weiner is referring to:

I think it is really difficult to describe Glover’s reaction to Tenenbaum’s racial taunts as “meek endurance.” On the contrary, the scene explodes into a furious shouting match, and, unlike Weiner’s claim that all Anderson’s non-white characters are “virtually mute”—with the implication being that they are one-dimensional caricatures—Glover’s dialogue is succinct and his performance in the scene is extremely nuanced.

I understand the impulse that led Weiner to overstate his case here: once you have created a theory, it is easy to assume that that theory is totalizing and to try to apply it to all situations. This is a problem faced by everyone who has ever tried to create an argument. However, I think the Glover example suggests the difficulties in trying to be this totalizing. A more nuanced argument would account for this apparent aberration—I would suggest that it might have something to do with Glover’s status as a professional actor, a status that is not held by many of the performers who played the roles of the offensive characters Weiner lists—or possibly scrap the argument in favor of one that could account for this scene.

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