Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Who was the fifth "fifth Beatle"?


Windtalkers (John Woo 2002)

A conversation. We thought a bit of editing afterwards would make it more clear but instead seems to have only made it non-conversational.

Lang: Well it's taken a few years but Hollywood has finally crushed John Woo.

Julie: Oh, you're just bitter because there's no sex in your violence.

Lang: No, think about it: Anybody could have directed this film. Somebody once said directing a Marx Brothers movie was just being a traffic cop and isn't that true here? Line up the actors and make sure they won't be hit by the explosions. Then give 'em a few moments of down-time to prove their humanity.

Julie: That doesn't bother me. After all, isn't that what all the best directors do? Trust the material and the actors? Of course the problem here is that the material appears to be a script from 1950 only recently discovered. You got your racist, your Greek, your Swede, your Catholic, your generic American, etc. Actually I guess two lapsed Catholics count for one.

Lang: Right. I read some review that complained that Woo as an Asian should have been more sensitive to the portrayal of Japanese who are mostly faceless hordes here. But is it racist of me to point out that Japanese often are portrayed negatively in Hong Kong films? The Chinese Connection is the best-known but you've seen as many as I have. I'm not saying anything about Woo in particular because I don't know, but this doesn't really surprise me.

Julie: Well, I always amuse myself at films like this by imaging other ways to make it. What if the Navaho were the racists? Or Nicholas Cage's character but contrary to Hollywood standards he never reforms? Or Cage becomes too good at killing other Marines? How about filming the entire first battle in long takes, possibly even with a stationary camera?

Lang: Now you're just planning some indie film. There have to be things you could do that still would have been within the boundaries of Hollywood action films, if that's not too snobby.

Julie: Probably.

Lang: Anyway, I might have made more of the soldiers suspicious of the Navaho--subtly but clearly refusing to eat with them, expressing surprise they know the rules to poker--but eventually many (certainly not all) would become friendly of one but not the other. Or that officer who gave Cage the medal: He shouldn't have been confused or taken aback but completely confident and presented as a good, intelligent guy. Those are the people who institutionalize racism.

Julie: How much could you have gotten away with anything like this? Most filmmakers have a deer-in-the-headlights approach to race. They just freeze and say the same things everybody else has.

Lang: I particularly like a trick Christopher Priest used in some comics he wrote where a black character speaks perfect English to whites/authority figures and slang/"street" to other blacks. You'd think this would be pretty obvious but it apparently went unnoticed by many people who complained Priest doesn't know how to write black characters. Which maybe he doesn't though you'd think his actually being black might help.

Julie: Aren't you putting too much emphasis on race, though? This is supposed to be an action film, not The Defiant Ones.

Lang: I don't know. You started this. Isn't race an important element of the real life codetalkers' story? Why else were they not recognized for decades?

Julie: But in a way the movie is hardly about codetalking. That's just a plot device that could almost have been anything. Even in the movie it almost is nothing else considering how little any of this is explained. I've read bits about it over the years and had the impression that Navaho was used because there were so few speakers and because since it wasn't related to any European or Asian language it couldn't be understood. Just look at the scenes where they give out bombing co-ordinates. Why couldn't those have been in English? The Japanese undoubtedly knew what the artillery would be targeting: themselves.