Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

15 October 2011

You Can't Handle the Himalayas

Black Narcissus (1947) is one of those films that manages to fill me with both love and loathing.  I love it for Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking cinematography, hate it for the creepy presence of white actors in brownface, and simultaneously love and hate it for its very complicated eroticism. It is a film rightly hailed for its exquisite use of Technicolor, from the majestic, sun-tinged Himalayan landscape to the sudden shock of the red dress, redder lips, and increasingly red-rimmed eyes of a nun driven mad by desire.  That Himalayan landscape is itself a marvel of artifice in a film shot mostly in the studio and entirely in England and Ireland.

Just look at this gorgeous shot near the end of Black Narcissus, the rising sun just beginning to illuminate the snow-capped mountains in the background, as Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) reaches the end of an all-night vigil, hoping for the return of the wayward Sister Ruth (Kathleeen Byron):

This particular type of shot, found in more than a few movies, never fails to dazzle me, to momentarily take me out of the narrative and make me whisper, “How beautiful!” It’s a shot most often associated with John Ford: the moment in The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) stands in silhouette, in a field of light, color, and openness, but tightly framed and contained by darkness.

John Wayne in The Searchers
This visual composition can be found in a lot of my favorite movies.  Here it is in a shot of Uncas (Alan Roscoe) keeping watch over the Munro sisters in one of the earlier versions of The Last of the Mohicans (1920), directed by Maurice Tourneur:

Had I world enough and time, I’m sure that I could find many other examples as well, but you get the picture (literally). It is a beautifully composed image, gorgeously balancing the solitary figure within the space between light and darkness, between openness and constraint.

But, enough of this giddy praise. On to one of my pet peeves: white actors slathered in bronze make-up to play the role of the exotic Other. My almost visceral reaction to this phenomenon might seem to fly in the face of my own mantra that film must be considered within the context in which it was made. Unfortunately, for much of the 20th century in Hollywood that context involved the belief that acting was by and large the domain of white people and that people of other races were usually best represented in film by slightly darkening those white people.  So I guess it’s safe to say that what bothers me isn’t the films or the actors themselves so much as the context of racial weirdness that led these bizarre characterizations to be accepted by filmmakers and audiences alike. A corollary of this is the "natives-show-a-lot-more-skin-than-white-people" rule. Going back to The Last of the Mohicans, we have Wallace Beery, in brownface and some very odd warpaint, as the malevolent Huron guide, Magua:

 The remarkably strange casting of the ultimate Aryan gal, Marlene Dietrich, as a Mexican saloon keeper in Touch of Evil (1956):

Charlton Heston in the same film, as Mexican sheriff, “Mike” Vargas. The mustache is an additional marker of his Mexicanidad:

 And finally, Jean Simmons as Kanchi, the dangerously erotic and nubile Indian girl brought to stay with the nuns in Black Narcissus:

The same actress as Ophelia in Hamlet the following year:

Even the relatively modest flash of shapely, bronzed gams and the pleasure with which she eats the piece of fruit in this, the viewer's first sight of Kanchi, accentuates her sensuality and establishes the contrasts between her and the nuns, in their heavy layers of white fabric and large crosses. 

If the meter were only right, you could almost imagine the good sisters bursting into a chorus of "How do you solve a problem like Kanchi?" 

Of course, as a British film set in India and released in the same year as that country gained its independence from England, Black Narcissus carries some additional colonialist baggage. The uneasiness of the colonizer is expressed here in climatological terms—the directness of the light, the thinness of the air, and their potential for putting one in danger of losing control of one's emotions and desires. India is an eroticized landscape. The order of nuns sent here to run a hospital and school are housed in a decaying palace, that was most recently and most significantly a brothel. The iconography of Christianity, focused on the chaste Virgin Mary, is juxtaposed with the sinuous murals and statuary already in place in the palace. The feminized sensuality of the perfumed and bejeweled young general (Sabu) and the even more bejeweled and hot-to-trot Kanchi (Jean Simmons) contrast with the increasingly less controlled asceticism of the sisters swathed in their white habits. The British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) has already appeared to cross the line and gone (at least a little) native. He is a slightly ridiculous figure, a long-limbed Englishman in very short shorts, making his entrance on a pony much too small to carry him with any vestige of dignity.  

Appearing throughout the film with his bare legs and chest exposed, Mr. Dean transgresses the aforementioned "natives-show-a-lot-more-skin-than-white-people" rule. In fact, the only character less clothed than him is the holy hermit who sits in silence on the mountain side. Dean seems a sorry representative of British decorum and an irritant to the contemplative celibacy of the two youngest nuns, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and the already emotionally overwrought Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).  Sister Clodagh, who is the recently appointed sister superior of the convent, struggles to put the secular life behind her. A young woman who has turned to the religious life by default after being abandoned by her fiance, she finds herself in chapel losing track of her prayers and drifting into memories of happier times in the Irish countryside. She and the perennially underdressed Mr. Dean act as foils for each other in a way that would inevitably lead to a Tracy-Hepburn type of romance under other circumstances; but despite the temptations of memory, Sister Clodagh is firm in her religious commitment. Poor Sister Ruth, on the other hand, is quite literally marked from the beginning as the character most likely to surrender to her least spiritual urges. In her first encounter with Mr. Dean, she bursts into Sister Clodagh's office while he is there. Her hands and her white habit are smeared with blood, and she is wild-eyed with excitement after having saved the life of a local woman who was bleeding to death. Despite what would seem to be a positive--even heroic--entrance, her exhilaration seems troubling, as though she were so starved for stimulation that her life-saving actions are motivated more by personal than by charitable concerns. The color red will mark the unfortunate Sister Ruth again when she finally rejects her vows and exchanges the white habit of the nuns for a red dress, lipstick, and a poignantly awkward-looking pair of snow boots. Alas, for Ruth, there is to be no happy ending, as she is never perceived as a woman motivated by love, but rather as a victim of her own weakness, rapidly devolving into homicidal lunacy. 

This theme of pitting controlled and over-dressed western civilization against id-driven native sensuality and impulse always drives me a little crazy, but at the same time, it provides rich fodder for further exploration. Watching Kanchi’s wild dancing made me want to dig out my copy of Bride and Prejudice (2004) and watch Gurinder Chadha's comical response to this stereotype in the Cobra Dance scene. Looking at David Farrar in his short shorts, led me scrambling to YouTube in search of the ironing scene in Beau Travail (1999). In that film, an adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd set in a North African encampment of the French Foreign Legion, director Claire Denis completely disrupts the standard erotics of the colonial narrative, making the Legionnaires the object of both the viewer’s and each other’s gaze. I admit that it's a little disturbing that I find a bunch of guys in shorts ironing to be such a turn-on, but so be it.  And now I'll be on my voyeuristic way to watch Beau Travail once again.
Legionnaires ironing (Beau Travail)