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The Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration

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Feature by: Matt Bailey

Posted on: 07 December 2004

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Chang, Grass, Simba and Legong (with Kliou the Killer) are available on DVD from Milestone Film and Video.

It is impossible to determine when the West’s obsession with the cultural other began, but we can determine that this obsession became a commercially institutionalized form of entertainment in 1842 with the opening of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum. “Primitive” people from around the globe (most commonly Fiji, the Philippines, Borneo, and Eastern and Southern Africa) were lured out of their homelands with promises of wealth and put on display in circus side shows or urban dime museums such as Barnum’s.

The rise of the exhibition of the cultural other (within the context of the traveling freak show and permanent site exhibitions) was likely concurrent with the rise of ethnology as a science around 1850, but despite pretensions to science, the exhibition of aboriginal “freaks” remained a commercial activity, with all the attendant ballyhoo and salesmanship that goes along with commercial promotion. Instead of educating exhibition patrons in the customs and beliefs of the non-Westerners, showmen were more likely to cast their cultural specimens as cannibals, savages, and barbarians to be feared.

Despite the popularity of displays of human oddity and the ease of transportation cross-country by itinerant showmen on the rapidly expanding railroad system, economics often prohibited such showmen and smaller dime museums from procuring authentic non-Westerners for exhibition. Instead, they resorted to that most beloved technique of the sideshow: fakery. It was common practice for showmen to hire locals, dress them in rags and animal skins, and pass them off as authentic “natives.” This practice of fakery is well-documented and has even been a point of braggadocio among freak show exhibitors. Indeed, one particular anecdote recounted in showman George Middleton’s 1913 memoirs boasts of a black dockworker dressed up “with rings in his nose, a leopard skin, some assagais (spears), and a large shield made out of cow’s skin,” and is reprinted in at least three different books on freak shows. Fakery became so commonplace in sideshow exhibits that the term “Zulu” (in American circus jargon) came to refer to any black circus laborer or musician who dressed up in African costume for a parade or exhibition.

Once the public’s interest in sideshows petered out and interest in motion pictures rose in the 1930s, the “Zulu” became a stock character in Hollywood comedies and adventure movies. A particular type of film of that emerged was the exploration or “safari” film.

Explorations of remote areas by film crews had been a cinematic enterprise as far back as Lumière’s Coolies at Saigon in 1897, Edison’s 1898 films of Pueblo dances, and Charles Urban’s Bioscope Expeditions in 1903. One of the more successful early films of this type was Martin and Osa Johnson’s 1912 film Cannibals of the South Seas, an explorer-as-documentarist film so popular that it became a film franchise for the Johnsons.

Despite the success of exploration and travelogue films well into the era of the feature, it was not until Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North that the exploration film became a genre unto itself. While entire books can be (and have been) written about the degree of correlative accuracy of Flaherty’s film to the reality of the Itivimuit Eskimos, the film’s dialectic between presenting a culture as it is and turning out a good story, and its usefulness as a document of Itivimuit culture, two things are specifically important about it: the film purports to tell the truth about its subject, and the film contains scenes that were staged for the camera of events and customs not endemic to the Itivimuit culture. The extraordinary success of the film, despite its questionable validity as an ethnographic film, was instrumental in giving Flaherty cachet to continue making films of this sort, in persuading other filmmakers to follow suit, and in conditioning the film audience to swallow whatever was presented as authentic by the explorer-filmmaker.

A particularly noteworthy filmmaking team that surfaced in Flaherty’s wake was the pairing of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The team who would later go on to success in fiction film with King Kong (1930) began their partnership with 1925’s Grass, a film of a tribal migration of 50,000 people over a treacherous mountain range. In spite of the heroic accomplishment of the tribe, the beautiful cinematography of mass movement in nature, and tragic loss of life, the film was criticized for being essentially a commemoration of the effort undertaken by the filmmakers themselves and a textbook case of cultural decontextualization and condescension. The next film the duo produced is one that pops up often as a footnote in histories of documentary filmmaking. Cooper and Schoedsack’s 1927 Chang followed a pattern of narrative similar to that of Nanook: a family’s struggle for survival against nature. Like Nanook, Chang is infamous for its staged sequences and manipulation of native customs for dramatic effect. The first thing about the film the spectator notices is the loose translation of dialogue. When a Lao tribesman speaks to his daughter, the intertitle reads, “The very last grain of rice is husked, O very small daughter!” Later, the spectator is treated to the destruction of a Lao “village” (in actuality, a hastily-built line of small huts) by some elephants that most likely had to be provoked into movement of any sort. Finally, the film tops itself when the chatterings of a gibbon are, without a trace of irony, “translated” in an intertitle.

Despite its failings as documentary or ethnography, Chang is an important entry in the history of exploration films precisely because of its willful dismissal of cultural context and underscoring of cultural difference at the expense of showing cultural similarity.

After Chang, the dam separating documentary and fiction in the realm of the exploration film collapsed completely, resulting in a deluge of films such as Simba (1928), Africa Speaks (1930), The Gorilla Woman (1930), my personal favorite Goona Goona (1932), Voodo (1933), Forbidden Adventure (1937), and the apex of the trend, 1930’s Ingagi.

Like Nanook and Chang, Martin and Osa Johnson’s Simba used a certain amount of fakery to achieve sensational results. The Johnsons built special pens for filming animals that would make an animal appear to be in the wild while it was, in truth, caged and restrained. The Johnsons were thus able to shoot, in minutes, close-ups of animals that would have taken hours or days in the wild. Simba also uses footage bought from other filmmakers to lengthen and enhance sequences the Johnsons shot either on their animal compound or on an exploration. According to the Johnson’s biographers, the duo purchased nineteen seconds of footage of Maasai warriors from big game hunter Albert J. Klein and inserted it in a sequence of a group of Lumbwa men spearing a lion to make the sequence more dramatic. Upon a first or cursory viewing of the sequence, the fakery is not apparent; it is only on close and subsequent viewings that the spectator can notice that the film cuts to a different group of people in a different time and place.

Although the above cited films of Flaherty, Cooper and Schoedsack, and the Johnsons use a high degree of fakery and manipulation in the service of the exploration film, these examples are nothing in comparison to the ne plus ultra of ethnographic forgery, Ingagi. Ingagi was apparently comprised of footage that was filmed by a cast and crew who never left California and stolen footage from earlier films. One scene that remains infamous to this day is a scene in which several topless women (ostensibly African) are chased by a gorilla. As it so happens, the women actually are all natives, just natives of California, and the gorilla is an actor named Charlie Gemora in an ape suit. The film also features a bogus narrator by the name of Sir Hubert Winstead (played by actor Louis Nizor) and a “virgin sacrifice.” Once the film was exposed as a fake, the nudity in the film caused it to be banned in several regions and pulled from theaters. Kilgore reports that “censors at the time felt it was okay to look at a naked African, but a naked Californian of any color was off limits.” Ingagi, then, was only successful as long as it was perceived to be real. The film preyed on the ignorance of the audience, hoping that not enough people had seen a live gorilla close enough to be able to discern one from a man in an ape suit. Because the film claimed to tell the truth, it was believed to tell the truth until it was proven otherwise.

One late entry into the cycle of exploration films, Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935) appears to be relatively beyond reproach. Although it tells the pat Hollywood cautionary tale of a young woman spurned by her lover in favor of her sister, the film (shot in extraordinarily beautiful two-color Technicolor), makes a serious attempt to show indigenous customs as they existed at the time. Although the film is silent (a score was added later for exhibition), it features extensive footage of gamelan players accompanying dancers performing a number of ritual temple dances. The film also devotes time to documenting a cremation ritual, helpfully explaining the significance of the funeral pyres and the movements of those who carry them on their backs. While it is certain that scenes of this sort were performed specifically for the camera, there is no indication of a desire to paint the rituals as strange, dangerous, or shocking. The film acknowledges that, yes, these people have different customs from us Westerners, but it also allows the customs to speak for themselves. The filmmaker, the Marquis Henri de Falaise (former husband of Gloria Swanson and current husband of Constance Bennett at the time of shooting), is more in awe of the beauty of the rituals than he is interested in exploiting them for shock value. Of course, this does not mean he shies away from stocking the film with as many bare breasts and cockfights as he can. No doubt, the Marquis (and his producing partner, Mrs. Marquise) wanted to see a return on his investment, but the film overall seems to be an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the dying exploration film genre. In fact, de la Falaise’s subsequent film, Kliou the Killer (1937) was one of the final entries in the genre (before it was revived via the exploitation film in the 1950s) and was also the last commercial film made in the two-color Technicolor process.

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