Is Jane Campion Really a Racist?

The Year in Movies

Is Jane Campion Really a Racist?

The Year in Movies

Is Jane Campion Really a Racist?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2004 7:38 AM

The Year in Movies

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(This post was filed last night.)

So, I'm back from our Sundance strategy meeting. Hold the presses: We decided that the vast majority of American independent films suck and that far too much attention is paid to this festival, therefore, we are not covering it at all. Nothing, nada, rien. Kidding! OK, I've had three cups of coffee and am a bit giddy. I guess I really am trying to pretend that I'm just writing these dispatches for the entertainment of four movie-crazed colleagues and not the entire Slate readership and beyond. (Which is a feeble pre-emptive attempt to excuse/rationalize/justify any factual error, spelling mistake, and off-the-cuff, what-the-hell-was-I-thinking comment.)

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Getting back (briefly) to In the Cut and Tony's remarks about that e-mail I sent him. First, Tony, remind me never to share anything with you (including my irritation) without first indicating that what I'm writing to you is off the fucking record. If I'd known that you would share what I wrote to you with the entire Web, I would have phrased my argument more carefully and with greater intellectual precision. As it stands, I read your review, got irritated at you for dismissing one of my favorite filmmakers—in the New York Times, no less—and fired off an e-mail. I don't want to rehash your review; this isn't the right forum, and, frankly, I'm not interested in rehashing any of our reviews. But since you raised my objections here's what I was trying to say. I didn't have a problem with your suggestion that Campion may be racist in the way she represents nonwhite men in both The Piano and In the Cut. I don't think she's a racist, but I do think she's naive and that she likes to explore (sometimes at her peril and, again, naively) a lot of uncomfortable, "unsafe" territory, including white female sexual desire for nonwhite men. I just wish that you had engaged this as problematic; I think she deserved better from one of the most important film critics in the country.

As to the issue of politics: I agree with David, though it kind of kills me to do so. (And, David, if that's begging … jeesh.) The absence of political context is, of course, political. My own politics are a big confusing jumble, which means that I don't look at movies through a specific political lens. Yes, I'm a feminist (surprise!), which just means that I believe that women should be treated equally, and I think that the richest country on Earth should feed and house every one of its citizens, but that's about it. But when I look at movies, I don't check my sense of ethics or vague politics at the door—how could I? So, for instance, I was offended that at the end of Bad Boys II the two stars drive a Hummer through a Cuban shantytown, mowing down one shack after another. I noted that this was certainly a remarkable image of American capitalism mowing its way through the Third World (and received the usual hate mail as a consequence), but I didn't write that the two stars also use the word "faggot" liberally throughout the film. Was I a coward because I didn't write that I was offended? Maybe. But I never want to write a review with some sort of (political) checklist in hand. I also think you have to pick your battles and reserve your outrage, and then there's the fact that I also enjoyed a lot of the movie. (I'm a sucker for blowup movies in which sweaty men run around shooting guns.) Which made me feel kind of bad, but that's part of being a movie critic, right? Honestly embracing your pleasure even when it makes you feel like scum.

Last, I don't really want to put anyone on the spot (OK, I do), but I wonder if Sarah feels as depressed as I do about women and American film, both in how women are represented in front of the camera and what's going on behind the camera. The fact that I actually enjoyed Something's Gotta Give somehow seems like evidence that things are very, very bad ... or that I am getting really old.

Love,
Manohla

Each year, film critics gather in the "Movie Club" to chew on the year in film. This year's group includes Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times, David Edelstein from Slate, J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, Sarah Kerr from Vogue, and A.O. Scott from the New York Times. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.