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June 1995, Week 1


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Birgit Kellner <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 6 Jun 1995 02:50:09 JST
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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        I admit that conditions of employment did not occur to me, when I
asked "why should actors and their characters be of the same race", because
my question was directed at the output (films as wee see them) rather than
at the input (films how they are made, or how they should be made). In the
context of employment, this criterion certainly applies WITHIN one and the
same market, geographically rather limited. You could say that, within the
US, or more specific, within the actor's market of Hollywood, Asian actors
are underemployed and therefore white actors should not be cast for Asian
characters. This implies that actors are cast predominantly because of their
race. Naive question: do you think that is the case (within the specific
universe of Hollywood)?
        Gloria Monti wrote about "misrepresentations". During the last
weeks, I happened to watch two films, both of which involve
"misrepresentations" in some sense, both of which, coincidentally, were
directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and both involve "misrepresentations" within
the realm of white characters, and in both cases, forgive my
"reception-only"-perspective, for I'm only watching, and I neither have time
nor the infrastructure to get a more scholarly (viz. well-read) perspective
on the films I watch.
-       SPELLBOUND. Before Gregory Peck enters the scene, every main
character speaks British English, at least an English with a remarkably
non-US-accent. This lead me to believe that the film was set in Britain, and
I was quite surprised when the plot went on to New York without major sea or
air travel involved.
-       TORN CURTAIN. The German spoken in this film is oddly out of place,
idiomatically ridiculous and hilariously mis-accentuated. East-German
characters with an Austrian accent, East-German post-office-clerks with a
distinct English accent etc. Three key-roles are played by German actors,
Guenther Strack, Wolfgang Kieling and Hansjoerg Felmy (noteably all of later
crime-TV-series-fame), which accounts for at least some broken English.
        In the first case, I would have expected more immediately accessible
signs (language, mostly) to infer the specific geographical setting of the
film. In other words: The language was too foreign to get the
"non-foreignness" of the location across. In this sense, it could be argued
that the actors for the doctors (the ultimate villain as well as the jovial
colleague) were miscast - they should have taken bloody Americans.
        In the second case, the "foreignness" should have come across
"better", from the perspective of somebody who knows it as non-foreign (i.e.
for somebody for whom the foreign, the German, is not foreign). This, I
guess, counts as what Peter Feng recently called "casting across ethnic
lines" - East Germans with Austrian accents.
        But where is the "mis" in the misrepresentation? Hitchcock, an
Anglo-American, depicts Germans as he sees or hears them. This doesn't mean
that he has to represent them as they hear or see themselves. Their
foreignness is adequately dealt with (they are distinctly non-American), and
subtle distinctions within the realm of that foreigness are irrelevant,
anyway. The "misrepresentation" shows a certain misinformedness about the
intricacies of German dialects or idioms, which makes infantile know-alls
like myself raise their voices, but that's about all there is to it. In
other words: The "verisimilitude" doesn't matter in this case. Where does it?
        Another issue is foreign fame, transferred - or attemptedly
transferred - into the Hollywood realm. The case of Takakura Ken popping up
in US-films was quoted before, add Om Puri's odd appearance in "City of
Joy", and I am confident that further examples can be cited, where an actor,
whose domain was abroad, gets cast because of an amalgam of both his fame
and exotic ethnicity in a Hollywood (or US-) film. (BTW, I would like to
know whether all the Ugandans featuring in Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala"
were played by Ugandan actors...)
        Because I don't have a vacuum-cleaner, going on endlessly about
films is about the only excuse for not concentrating on "proper" work I can
come up with.
Birgit Kellner
Institute for Indian Philosophy
University of Hiroshima
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