August 4, 1997
Volume 49, No. 36
In researching Walter Wanger, the subject of his first book, film studies associate professor Matthew Bernstein found a wealth of criticism regarding the producer's Westerns such as Stagecoach and his Alfred Hitchcock-directed espionage film, Foreign Correspondent. But Wanger also had a hand in the production of Middle East-themed films such as Arabian Nights and The Sheik, and Bernstein found he needed a way in which to discuss these types of films as well.
"Why were these themes popular? What was their appeal?," Bernstein wanted to know. "There was nothing in the film studies literature that I could locate that would address this." Then he learned about Orientalism, a book written by cultural theorist Edward Said in 1978. Said's book used a term commonly associated with the Far East to connote Western perceptions and myths regarding the Middle East and North Africa.
For Bernstein, an idea was born. He discussed editing a book of essays on cinematic Orientalism with former Emory film studies professor Gaylyn Studlar, now at the University of Michigan. Their book, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, was published in February. The book's essays critically examine films as diverse as Disney's Aladdin, William Wyler's The Letter (set in Malaysia), the French classic Pépé le Moko and the recent Indochine. Other writers look at particular aspects of film, such as dance and movie violence.
"At the time I was writing [Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent], I learned there were lots of people in the field who were fascinated with Orientalism because it gets into the question of how do you represent different cultures, different ethnicities, different races, different geographies," Bernstein said. Said's book was "the first time any kind of cultural critic had written a thorough study showing that what we in the West believe and read and see about these countries and cultures is a fabrication-not a total fabrication-but a construction that is centuries old," he added.
Said contended that the construction arose from colonialism. "Orientalism describes a strand of colonist discourse in the ideological arsenal of Western nations-most notably Great Britain, France and the United States-for representing the colonies and cultures of North African and the 'Middle East,'" Bernstein wrote in his introduction to Visions of the East. "It is a way of perceiving these areas that has been supported, justified and reinforced by the West's colonialist and imperialist ventures."
The principle of Orientalism is the same, said Bernstein, regardless of geography. "The principle is white, Western, European, Occidental culture looking at another culture and romanticizing it, making it exotic and threatening, but pleasurable. A kind of place where fantasies get played out very safely because they seem to confirm the stability and normality of white European culture," he explained.
Take for example, harems, one of the subjects of Ella Shohat's essay that appears in Visions of the East, "Gender and Culture of Empire." Part of her text looks critically at movies such as Elvis Presley's Harum Scarum and the 1950s musical Kismet. Westerners typically looked upon harems as a "masculinist utopia of sexual omnipotence," she wrote. In reality, few Westerners had access to harems, she said, "yet Western texts delineate life in the harems with great assurance and apparent exactitude, rather like European Orientalist studio paintings, for example the Turkish Bath (1862), which was painted without [artist] Ingres ever visiting the Orient."
The historical harem was largely an upper-middle class, domesticated enterprise, Shohat found. "Memoirs written by Egyptian and Turkish women depict the complex familial life and a strong network of female communality horizontally and vertically across class lines," she wrote. Women living there, Shohat said, had "access to other women, providing a protected space for the exchange of information and ideas safe from the eyes and the ears of men."
That is precisely the kind of cultural misstep that Bernstein hopes his students avoid when they attempt to view films critically. They should ask themselves, he said, "How is it that these images are so persuasive? How is it that we take them on and take them in?
"When you look closely at these films-and this is sort of a motif throughout the book-we find that there were several that tried to set up white Western society as superior to any other North African or Asian culture, but the films wind up in some ways contradicting themselves," Bernstein said. "They wind up showing, in fact, that white society itself is incredibly restrictive or corrupt." The Letter illustrates that dichotomy well.
While the movie is based on the Somerset Maugham story of the same name, the story and the film differ in their representations of the colonist and colonized. Writer Maugham was an unapologetic imperialist with little sympathy for native Malaysians, while director William Wyler was a Jewish émigré, whose background perhaps may have allowed him to empathize more with the colonized "other" of the story, noted essay author Phebe Shih Chao. Moreover, the rigid movie production codes of the 1940s made it necessary for him to punish the white heroine for her transgression, thereby rendering her less superior than the indigenous Malaysians.
Recent films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The English Patient have a strand of Orientalism running through them, Bernstein said. People should enjoy such films, he said, "but you want them to understand that part of the pleasure they derive from watching that film is based on some incredible cultural slight of hand and some absolutely artificial representations."
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