Inertial Frame

The Cineastes – Big Trouble In Little China

Posted in Uncategorized by GL on July 16, 2009

[By way of some notes around Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – ]

“ China is here, Mr Burton. The Chang Sing, the Wing Kong. They’ve been fighting for centuries.”

“What does that mean? ‘China is here’”?

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Without trafficking in causal theories of cultural history, one can say that there was a popular trend in American film of the 1980s  of reviving some retrograde dime-novel tropes: Piers Haggard, grandson of H. Rider Haggard (creator of Allan Quatermain, the progenitor of Indiana Jones)  directed The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), starring Peter Sellers in Lon-Chaney-Chinaman get-up. Lucas-Spielberg’s faith in the eternal return of hoary old narrative tropes (Lucas’ Joseph Campbell connection was only ever an academic fig leaf) yielded Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). And 1981 also saw the release of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (dir. Clive Donner), this time with Peter Ustinov wearing prosthetic eyelids and with pidgin in his mouth.  And then Haggard and Kipling came roaring back, when George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz cooked up the anachronistic, stupid, brutish story and script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)–a film Spielberg has since more or less disavowed. The success of the Indiana Jones pictures in turn led Golan/Globus to seek to cash in by returning to the source material, with King Solomon’s Mines (J. Lee Thompson, 1985)…and its sequel…and so on…

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If  John Carpenter’s gripes about the theatrical run of Big Trouble In Little China are any indication, he clearly failed to see any involvement of his film with the trend I described above:

” The ad campaign for Big Trouble was one of the reasons that the film essentially bombed, Carpenter believes, playing for no more than a month and a half in the nation’s theaters.

‘They positioned it absurdly,’ Carpenter says. ‘They tried to sell the picture like Raiders of the Lost Ark; and they tried to deemphasize the Chinese element. The film’s about the Chinese. It’s about Chinese mysticism, and that’s what you have to put up there.

‘Their (advertising) illustration was a lot like the illustration from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, the same artist did it. Which gave it this idea of a pulp movie. But the problem was that that had been done before. Raiders had been done, Raiders II had been done. So we just looked like another one. And that wasn’t going to do it. This was a unique film…'” Eric Taub, Gaffers, grips, and best boys (90)

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A few weeks into the 1985 theatrical run of Michael Cimino’s The Year of the Dragon, MGM/UA chairman Frank Rothman announced that a disclaimer would be attached to the nearly two hundred prints then being exhibited in the Los Angeles and New York areas, and, eventually, to all prints of the film. (Not coincidentally, a coalition of Asian-American organizations filed a massive class-action suit against the studio that very day.) The disclaimer read as follows:

This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian-American and specifically Chinese-American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any associations, organization, individuals or Chinatowns that exist in real life is accidental.

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Dennis Dun, co-star of Big Trouble in Little China, had appeared in the Cimino film as a fresh-out-of-the-Academy rookie who, no sooner pledges to Mickey Rourke’s Captain White his determination not to be a faithful-to-the-death “Chinaman Joe” [sic] than…he’s bloodily martyred for White’s cause, faithful ’till his last breath. Dun’s role as written by Cimino and Oliver Stone is hollow of any semblance of true identity, and written with a stone-deaf social sense–as are all of the “Chinese” roles in the film.

(Dun and Big Trouble… co-star Victor Wong were fellow travelers across a number of projects for a while, at the time: from Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) – in which Wong was a star and Dun a production assistant, they worked together on Year of the Dragon, Big Trouble In Little China, The Last Emperor, and Carpenter’s next film Prince of Darkness.)

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Bernardo Bertolucci: “ I will never forget Victor Wong, who in [The Last Emperor] is the first tutor of Pu Yi, who is a Chinese-American coming from San Francisco. The second or third night, we had dinner together. I’ll never forget the childish amazement in his eyes; he was saying: ‘that’s incredible to be here, have you seen how many Chinese there are in the streets…’ He’s a Chinese, and he was looking at the Chinese with American eyes. It would have been very nice to do some video work about all these Chinese-Americans coming to China for the first time, discovering their roots for real. They’re used to their Chinatowns…Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers)

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The film/TV acting career of star James Hong (Lo Pan) already extended back thirty years by the time of Big Trouble in Little China; and his filmography yields up certain patterns.  He played son Barry to the Orientalized Irish-American star of TV’s “New Adventures of Charlie Chan”. He waited tables in sundry Chinese restaurants for decades—not in reality, say to augment the income from his steady acting work–but in roles as an actor. He was on many occasions A Man Without a Name Credited Only To His Function. His CV is littered with roles bearing titles/honorifics: he’s been “Corporal Lee” and “Major Chong” and “General Chao”; and Drs. “Hong,” “Chen Lin,” and “Lee”; and Messrs. “Chang,” “Wong,” “Shaw,” “Chung,” “Lee,” “Hong,” “Nguyen,” etc. He was even on a few occasions Hop Sing’s #3 Cousin. By dint of his long career, he’d become something like a pan-Asian Diaspora-in-a-man.

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Jeff Adachi’s 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen is full of very compelling talking-head interviews with Asian-American actors – veterans and current performers alike – all frankly describing the peculiar frustrations of their professional careers due to their ethnicity–or, rather, to the industry’s formulation of their ethnicity and its effects. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, now a familiar actor but in Big Trouble In Little China only an extra, speaks in the documentary of his personal philosophy of playing stereotypes only to move beyond them:

” To me, it’s about how to effectively create change. If it means we have to pass through this to get there, then I’m willing to go that far with it. I have a purpose, it is to make change. And if it means playing stereotypes at this moment, I’ll do it…and we’re going on…My goal is to effect the change of our images.”

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“Uncle Sam’s Nephew vs. Uncle Ho’s Niece,” or “Maoism and climate”

Posted in Uncategorized by GL on July 12, 2009
staging of a Revolution!

staging of a Revolution!

A few choice bits from Colin MacCabe’s only occasionally credulous Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy:

In many interviews that [Godard] is to give to underground leftist journals in the late sixties and early seventies, the linking of his own oppression to the struggle in Vietnam is a constant theme. His solidarity with the Vietnamese is not born from a liberal sympathy for their predicament, but from his own experience of the very same predicament [emphasis mine]. Godard is careful to note that the oppression of a 35-year-old successful film-maker in the West is not as grievous as the Vietnamese  direct experience of imperialist aggression, but he is nonetheless insistent that the oppression is the same [emphasis mine]. And that oppression is understood both as economic and aesthetic. (182)

and also this:

[Claude] Nedjar now persuaded Godard and [wife Anne] Wiazemsky to join him in a trip to the frozen north [i.e., Canada] where they broadcast selections from Mao’s Little Red Book and invited the local population to come and make their revolutionary demands known. But after only three days, when no members of the town had come forward to seize the microphone and Wiazemsky was unable to cope  with the temperature of 25 below zero, their atttempt at Canadian revolution was abandoned. On the drive south, Nedjar and Godard planned a book on the links between Maoism and climate. (214)