Tuesday, June 4, 2013

White Culture

 Full disclosure: this article is coming from the perspective of a young, middle-to-lower class Hispanic who was never been to California or Asia, and lives in New York City.

I recent sat through Sofia Coppola’s slick, fascinating “The Bling Ring” absolutely horrified at what I was watching. This true story about a group of young culture vultures who broke into the homes of celebrities they worshipped, proceeding to jack their possessions, is as vivid a picture one will make about cannibalism. It was as if I was specifically watching the original “Dawn Of The Dead,” but this time from the perspective of the zombies. Commercialism was all that mattered to these Gucci-clad criminals, and the illusions therein; the protagonists of “The Bling Ring” want to become their single-named heroines, like Paris, Lindsay, or Audrianna (from… “The Hills”? Not my scene), and so they consume every tangential element, whether it were paparazzi photos, glitzy designer brands, or eventually their own prized possessions. Startling that a certain socialite mentioned above (additional Google hits are not necessary) agreed to participate in the film, allowing them to film the insides of her house, a portrait of narcissism that, to these identity-less youths, is like a haunted house of mirrors.

“The Bling Ring” isn’t confrontational or violent or as transgressive as a similar youth-gone-wild film, the recent “Spring Breakers.” But the film has the same sort of lived-in familiarity with both the milieu of these characters and their casual, toxic shorthand. One moment that I can’t shake is the knowingness of Taissa Farmiga’s work, as a member of these cashmere-collar criminals who places self-celebration over all potential avenues. In one scene, she finds a gun in one of the invaded homes and immediately twirls it around, shoving the pistol right in the face of hapless accomplice Israel Broussard. Her aggressive half-joking machismo isn’t as notable as the fact that she’s brandishing this firearm as a fool would, into the face of the most vulnerable member of their crew. Obviously bothered, he quietly protests, but when she continues, he delicately but forcefully places his hands on her to separate them. In the middle of her hateful boasts, she responds angrily, interrupting her braggadocio with an entitled, “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me!” These angry demands keep getting peppered through her jokes as she continues to aim the gun in his face, oblivious to the fact that she’s committing a grave violation. For her, it’s her own boundaries that are most important, followed by her own amusement, and then maybe your boundaries. Maybe. Doubtful.

What struck me was that “The Bling Ring” comes across as the portrait of a small subculture of rich, white kids in the Hollywood suburbs, and that among their celebrity targets, none are of mixed race. Subtly interjected into this film is roughly the same cultural suggestion as “Spring Breakers”: it’s okay when it happens to people like them, but you get the sense the hip-hop loving kids in “The Bling Ring” would never dare rob a black or Hispanic celebrity (one girl is Asian, but she lacks a cultural identity of any type). Whereas attacking a black target in “Spring Breakers” was essentially stepping it up a notch, there’s the sense that the kids of “The Bling Ring” don’t take their crimes seriously (once spotted on the news but not arrested, they continue their spree unabated) because it’s happening to the likes of Orlando Bloom. They are the establishment, and so are we: we are all bulletproof.

Thankfully, “The Bling Ring” made me feel like an outsider, as I’ve never given a second look to these types of celebrities, and I’m decidedly in a different tax code than these kids. But it also made me consider cultural identity, specifically theirs: is this a film about a subset of “white culture”? The term “white culture” always seems to crop up in problematic statements of entitlement and coded hate, but it’s as real a concept as “black culture” or “Asian culture,” and just as abstract. And it made me think about what films were reflecting white culture, and if this is a concept worth plumbing: to identify “The Bling Ring” as white culture, one need only look at the racial makeup of the cast, and to what they aspire. This is a specific, fairly ugly side of that culture, but is it specifically relevant to a certain demographic? Granted, the surface-level themes of the film lend themselves to a more universal reading, but this is a film that courts the identification with a “white” identity. As if it wasn’t enough that the only significant minority character in the film is passionate about the lives of white celebrities, there’s the fact that “The Bling Ring” is the latest from director Coppola, who has made a career out of observing the ennui of disenchanted rich whites.

Of course, perhaps to look to the cinema for a true representation of ANY realistic culture may be folly, particularly in the warmer seasons of escapism. Usually you have to move into the arthouse for such a thing, which is where you’ll find “Before Midnight.” The third film in Richard Linklater’s series dealing with the ongoing romance between an American writer and a French… woman has garnered rave reviews from critics, though Linklater’s three films are stripped-down, talky, European art pictures in nature, but without the style or intellect implicit: both Ethan Hawke’s restless raconteur and Julie Delpy’s erratic, maternal neurotic are obsessed with talking themselves into circles, usually in self-important attempts to be clever and/or cute. I’ve always had a problem with these films, given that they’re based around the certainty that the audience likes these two, but I’ve found the films occasionally honest about relationships, and charmingly free of gimmickry and plot contrivance.

But what if “Before Midnight” replaced Hawke and Delpy with black leads? What if this film were relatively the same in plot and theme, but it starred Richard T. Jones and Sanaa Latham, and perhaps was helmed by Kasi Lemmons? There’s the sense that the critics wouldn’t blast it, but probably wouldn’t even acknowledge it: on the Friday of release, the reviews of other films would press up against a P.R.-written plot blurb for the black “Before Midnight.” It would be lucky to be treated like “After Earth,” the recent Will + Jaden Smith starrer that critics recently savaged as toxic, despite being a smarter, more muscular version of the recent “Oblivion.” Scores of critics (including, shamefully, myself) failed to mention that “After Earth” was significant in that it was a science fiction genre film that featured two black protagonists. After scores of films like “Oblivion,” which posits that aliens studying the Earth in the future would do best by cloning a fifty year old white guy to be their eyes on the ground, it was a blessing to see two minorities hold the center in an otherwise not-great, generic sci-fi programmer.

It’s this type of thinking that renders “white culture” the default, forcing one to look deeper to find authentic cases of such a concept. Rejecting “After Earth” was audiences’ prerogative, but the needless savaging it received at the hands of critics was fairly irresponsible, suggesting there was no weight in a genre picture that attempted to occupy the same territory that has been commandeered by white actors and filmmakers, always assuming there was no problem with the tokenism implicit in having a minority stand around in the background as white fantasy characters save the day. Even Marvel has gotten into the act, with CEO Kevin Feige talking up the logistic difficulties of bringing the “Black Panther” to the screen while promoting the start of pre-production on space opera “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” a film that will feature a talking tree and a gun-toting raccoon among its main cast. Joss Whedon gets the keys to the kingdom for “The Avengers,” where the six white heroes save the world for desk-ridden Samuel L. Jackson, before going home and recharging his batteries with an ultra-low budget adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” filmed during a weekend with his famous friends walking around his own extravagant home. Not a surprise that the takeaway from “Much Ado” is that Whedon doesn’t have any black friends.

What I want to think is that America is in a post-Obama world, where cultural makeup matters more, and the idea of “white culture” matters just as much to white audiences as “black cinema” does to African Americans. An untested theory I’m nursing is that, even if it is tokenism, every contemporary blockbuster needs a couple of actors of color, and films almost entirely loaded white actors are soon to become extinct, as even white audiences reject them as a falsehood, given that even the most exclusionary white audience members encounter minorities frequently during their average day – it’s as good an explanation as any as to why, say, Morgan Freeman is given equal weight on the “Oblivion” posters as Tom Cruise, a late marketing decision that obscures Freeman’s listless five minutes of screentime. This results in blockbusters like “Fast And Furious 6,” where it seems every demographic is served, the cast made up of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and the multiculti combination of Dwayne Johnson and Elsa Pataky.

A brave new world, perhaps, but it also makes me wonder about whether white cinema is as much a niche as cinema for anyone else. And does it including films like “The Hangover III,” the last in a billion dollar franchise about three upper class white males and their shocked ongoing reactions to the Other? I certainly hope it doesn’t include Platinum Dunes’ appalling “The Purge,” a pornographically violent piece of speculative sci-fi that suggests in ten years that the government would essentially sanction ethnic cleansing.

The premise, which does not stand up to scrutiny, Involves an America gripped by indistinct financial and social tragedies that somehow rebuilt itself with the passing of The Purge, an annual night where all crime is completely legal. Implicit in society’s boasts about lowered crime and unemployment rates is the fact that many Purge participants single out the impoverished and defenseless, and the racial makeup isn’t hard to miss, nor are the parallels to America’s current health care deficiencies. Words like “entitled” are used by white characters to describe the function The Purge serves in their lives, while others are credited with referring to it as a “cleansing,” curious language, both. “The Purge” takes place over the course of one such night, where a rich white family in a gated community attempts to lock themselves in safely to avoid becoming anonymous victims.

When a stranger sprints down the streets begging for help, the family’s young son opts to open the doors to let him in. They later learn that he’s been targeted by a wayward gang of Purge participants, but it’s interesting to see how the film treats him, a loner with few lines or distinguishing characteristics save for the prominent dog tags around his neck. Is it a surprise that he’s black? And that, as soon as he enters the house, he scurries away to hide, appearing and disappearing in the background with a ghostly supernatural sting on the soundtrack? When the thugs, all white and dressed in prep school outfits, demand the family release their prey, their threat is honored by patriarch Ethan Hawke (him again!), who vows to capture this wily black loner and surrender him like a dog to the armed marauders in order to save his family.

A third-act secondary threat involves a group of neighbors, which counts as something of a Rainbow Coalition given that there are wordless appearances from a black woman and an Asian man. The group’s class distinction carries the most prominence though, even if it’s easy to notice the white men and women are the only one with lines. Suddenly (and I’m spoiling this because fuck Platinum Dunes) the family’s savior arrives, and it’s that homeless black man who has been hiding in the house, barely speaking much but terrifying Hawke and company. With pools of blood on the floor, he eventually walks away a hero. The matriarch (Lena Headley) asks, are you okay? He answers in the affirmative while walking away, while this rich woman never once thinks to offer food, a shower, or even thanks. Nor does she even seem interested in the name of the man who saved her family, who walks off having no goals of his own aside from self-preservation, having served his purpose in the story of protecting the noble white people from the evil white people. His is roughly the sixth most important character in the narrative. He is given no name in the credits.  


  1. Sorry, are you saying that "After Earth" is good? After all the trash that Shyamalan has foisted on us, surely it's not "needless savaging" to note that leaving his name off the trailer hasn't fooled us?

    What actually surprises me more is the poor reviews for Jaden Smith in the lead role. As much as I was shocked by the whole idea of relocating Karate to China and was rather disenchanted by the publicity material, I have heard that the remake of "Karate Kid", which also starred Jaden Smith, was actually really good. Yet strangely I haven't heard Shyamalan, who has produced pretty horrendous performances from Oscar-nominated actors in the past, getting the blame for Jaden's poor impression here.

    1. I was not a fan, but a response to the backlash was necessary.

  2. (one girl is Asian, but she lacks a cultural identity of any type)

    I'm not sure I understand. What must one do in order to possess a cultural identity? Is she supposed to fit some kind of cultural stereotype in order to count as genuinely non-white? Or are you suggesting there's something unnatural or unrealistic about the way she acts or the way she is portrayed?

    1. I'm saying that what the film implies is that she identifies as white, and she identifies with her white friends and the white celebrities they are robbing. The question this article is posing is, is this an identity? And is it a "white" identity?

  3. Hi gabe t. Its shirin, Nicks friend. Nice article