Friday, February 28, 2014

Addio Zio Tom

Addio Zio Tom (1971)
Dir. and written by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Oh good, another chance to use my “Controversial opinions” tag. What we got here is a real doozy, a film from Mondo documentarians Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the ones who did MONDO CANE, WOMEN OF THE WORLD, and AFRICA ADDIO (and MONDO CANE 2, I guess, but usually we don’t talk about that). But it’s not a documentary, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a faux-documentary, where the filmmakers go back in time to the Antebellum South so they can “document” the various horrors associated with American racial slavery, seen here depicted by modern Haitian actors/extras. Again, from the sophisticated good taste that brought you the scene in WOMEN OF THE WORLD where dozens of the topless title characters on a beach run away from a weird old Scottish polygamist. And they’re making it, at least in part, to try to apologize for what a lot of people (including that nut Roger Ebert) thought were some extremely questionable choices in their previous film, which may or may not have been a little racially insensitive. Or as Ebert put it: "AFRICA ADDIO is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit.” (he gave it a thumbs down).

So, you got two Italian semi-documentarians/semi-exploitation filmmakers, not native English speakers, who already made one film with some pretty iffy racial content, who are now trying to make an entirely staged mockumentary about slavery, using Haitian reenactors, based on historical sources, in order to prove they’re not racist. That sound like a good idea to you?

The result is what you’d expect, I think; a shocking, appalling parade of horrors which feels equally stunning and leering, piercing and sleazy. I can confidently say that there’s nothing else like it in the world, and thank sweet merciful Zeus for that. Still, even though it’s an unequivocally unpleasant experience, I’m sort of glad I watched it. It’s like those horrifying Nazi psychology experiments that we could never ethically reproduce, but we’re kind of glad to have data from. If you can keep watching, you’ll see things here that you’ll never, ever see attempted again.

See that? Pretty fucking shocking, ain't it? I warned you! This is only gonna get worse from here.

For one thing, this is a film about the horrors of slavery which is pitched as a dryly ironic, straight-faced satire. The film shows you a non-stop parade of eye-popping sadism and dehumanizing cruelty, but depicts it with a kind of “Gosh-isn’t-this-interesting” cheerfulness (that was pretty commonplace in World Documentaries from the 60’s) and then trusts the audience to be in on the joke, which it decidedly was not. And who could really blame them; these wounds are just way too fresh and too personal for this type of droll absurdism to be possible, let alone appropriate. But I’m not sure these Italians understood that; they’d been culture hopping since the early 60’s with MONDO CANE, perpetually interested in the bizarre, shocking and macabre details of a world which was really opening up and coming together for the first time in history. We were with them when they were gawking at foreigners and native cultures in MONDO CANE, but I don’t think they counted on how how deep the scars of slavery go in America, and how utterly unable we would be to join them in their curious outsiders’ distance. Rubbing our faces in depravity and setting it to cheerful, catchy Italian pop songs (by Italian horror maestro Riz Ortolani of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MONDO CANE fame) might be a clever, brazen way of highlighting the cognitive dissonance that allowed slavery to continue. If we were watching from a safe distance. But as of now, there’s no way of getting around it, this is just way too much, the pain is still way too real for it to play as a pitch-black comedy.

Still, I think the movie’s heart is in the right place, and in a way it’s almost admirable to try something like this, to really play up slavery as grand guignol, to make us face a level of barbarity that no other movie would dare show. It definitely does that. There’s a long procession of sickeningly degrading scenarios that just drop your jaw, and they just come one after another after another. Slaves forced to eat out of troughs like animals, casually raped, hunted for sport, tortured by curious academics. These scenes are not coy, there’s nothing subtle about them whatsoever, and indeed in many cases they’re clearly the result of elaborate choreography and camera setups, long takes involving hundreds of extras being explicitly and blatantly brutalized. There’s simply no other visual document that I know of this dedicated to hurling humanity’s cruelest impulses into your eyes, forcing you to see just how fucking ugly this system was. I mean this is some SALO level shit, but on a exponentially larger scale and closely based on real history.

Though billed as a documentary, the directors don't shy away from using vaguely surreal perspectives to enhance the intensity of the horror show.

There’s not a ton of other movies to compare this to, since there just aren’t too many movies that focus on this topic. Even DJANGO UNCHAINED kind of shies away from depicting slavery this explicitly. We do have 12 YEARS A SLAVE, though, and it’s interesting to watch that one and ADDIO ZIO TOM so close to each other and see what differences emerge. Most notable of those differences is that 12 YEARS was --it has been suggested, anyway-- a movie about the tortured and ambiguous relationship between masters and slaves. This one isn’t. It’s a movie about the relationship between masters and property. The whites don’t acknowledge the humanity of their slaves even enough to talk to them. In one of the earliest scenes, the camera approaches a decadent dinner party of older white Southerners, who acknowledge the filmmakers and talk directly to them about why they feel blacks are so inferior. All while they’re being served by a silent company of slaves! In one of the film’s precious few moments of subtlety, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe babbles on about why blacks are inherently inferior to whites while the camera suddenly catches the eye of the silent black butler waiting on her. She doesn’t think twice about talking this way around him, but this quick moment of eye contact tells us that not only does he understand exactly what she’s saying, he’s silently seething over it. But all he can do is look away from the camera and keep serving.

That scene is a perfect encapsulation of what the film is going for, and also a perfect example of why it was such an easy target for critics claiming it was racist. While we see literally hundreds of Haitian extras being degraded in every possible way, the camera never directly addresses any of them. A broad cross-section of whites are interviewed about their attitudes and their relationship to slavery, but the slaves themselves stay painfully silent (in fact, the one and only slave who speaks to the camera is a sniveling Stockholm-syndrome weasel, arguing that slavery is actually for the benefit of blacks). Combined with all the dehumanizing scenarios, this makes it pretty easy to accuse the film itself of playing into dehumanizing narratives, feeling sorry for the blacks but at the same time affording them no agency.

But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here; I think Prosperi and Jacopetti are actually doing two fairly clever things which sort of dovetail into each other. First, they’re attempting to directly adapt historical sources and depict them literally. While slave narratives are certainly available (see: Northup, Solomon) the lion’s share of primary sources on the subject come from the white people who absolutely dominated the cultural dialogue at the time. The movie depicts just how shut out of the conversation slaves were; they’re not even interviewed in a movie which is actually about them, and instead have to sit there and listen to a bunch of ignorant honkie fucktards pretend to be experts. But the second thing is even more interesting: by blithely playing along with the racist claptrap from the whites, Jacopetti and Prosperi highlight just how little these crackers actually understand about what’s happening here. These whites aren’t just conveniently ignoring the humanity of their slaves, they’ve actually convinced themselves that it really isn’t there. They’ve invented an alternate reality to live in, where they can cheerfully subjugate another race and genuinely believe they’re humanitarians for doing so.

You had my curiosity. Now, you have my disgust.

That in itself is repugnant enough, but Jacopetti and Prosperi aren’t quite done just yet. Because while the willed blindness of the whites is convenient at the time, it also puts them in a dangerously ignorant position. And the movie subtly intimates that this isn’t a forgotten relic of the past either; whites today (1971) are still utterly oblivious to the black experience, and the result might just be that they get exactly what they deserve. The end of the film is filled with (mostly fictional) images of modern blacks rioting and fucking up a bunch of utopian white suburban drones who seem completely confused as to why this is happening. The suggestion is that they just don’t get it. ’Why are black people so mad these days?’ they wonder, not realizing to what extent their complete ignorance of what the African American experience has been like is making them dangerously unable to deal with the reality here. Indeed, though I watched the shortened American version first, the director’s cut (and the one shown literally everywhere else on Earth except America) begins with almost 20 minutes of (apparently genuine?) civil rights movement footage, which is also sporadically interjected into the main narrative.

And that’s the point here, I think: to explain how we got to the tumult of the 70’s without white people having the slightest clue what was really going on. And it’s hard to believe now, but seriously, they really just didn’t. When riots started decimating American cities in the late 60’s (for example, the Watts riots in 1965, Detroit riot in 1967) white America was scandalized and baffled. While the Detroit riot was still underway, President Johnson ordered the formation of what would become known as the Kerner Commission, which was ordered to answer three simple questions about the riots: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?" These are not questions asked by people who have the slightest knowledge about what life was like in the segregated urban ghettos of the North, and people where genuinely surprised by the commission's findings that maybe, in some small way, virulent racism, segregation, and discrimination might have something to do with all the anger. Collectively, white America panicked and reacted with fear and confusion, generally rallying around the kind of fascist, law-and-order conservatives who to this day continue to stoke racial fear as a tool to get themselves into power. And that’s where ADDIO ZIO TOM comes in: they’re trying to suggest that whites have forgotten just how deeply culpable they are in this violence, and just how justified the pent-up frustration of the blacks has become. The last scene is a fictional sketch of a modern-day black man reading The Confession of Nat Turner* while oblivious, obnoxious white people frolick around him on the beach. To the extent that they even notice him at all, they seem confused as to why he’s not having as much fun as they are. “Well,” Prosperi and Jacopetti seem to be saying, “now you know.”

Weirdly, Japan gets it.

Honestly, I think this is a pretty brilliant setup for a film, and there’s an undeniable evil power here which is easier to appreciate now than it would have been in the 70’s. And for better or worse, only these two particular cultural outsiders could have showed us this perspective. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacopetti and Prosperi were such keen observers of the world by virtue of their being outsiders. But, unfortunately that outsiders’ quality which gives them the perspective they needed to create this vision also just makes the camera a little too excited about all this for us to really feel comfortable. There’s a leering, voyeuristic fascination with spectacle here which just doesn’t sit right. I mean, ADDIO ZIO TOM is in no way the first film to turn real life horror into overwhelming, cinematic spectacle with only lip service to its human cost; any number of swords and sandals epics do the same to older periods of history, for example. But had those films come along only a hundred years later, it would probably have been too soon for that, too. It seems kind of unfair, but it’s also undeniable. The movie is just a little too eager to entertain you with things you simply are not ready to find entertaining.

In fact, the film’s achilles heel is that it’s probably a little too Italian for its own good. While the US has serious racial issues which get addressed in the film, Italian culture is not without its own biases and troubling contradictions. This movie feels uncomfortably close to the obligatory rape scenes in a million Italian horror movies, where the movie ostensibly condemns the rape, but also uncomfortably ogles the poor gal while she screams for help.’ Yes, it’s horrible that these poor people were subjugated and exploited, but come on, look at those titties!’

The fact that these extras were provided to the film by Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier makes this aspect particularly questionable. Were they even paid? Did they have any choice but to participate? It’s the kind of thing that makes the film harder to defend on charges of exploitation, even if its intentions were good. A more somber, elegiac tone might have made this a little more palatable to the few people who might have been open to the film’s underlying message. As it stands, it seems like this one managed to alienate just about everyone: Ebert thought it was shameful exploitation, Pauline Kael thought it was an incitement to racial violence (incidentally, David Duke agreed with her, adding that it was a Jewish conspiracy for good measure --I guess the Italians were just patsies? Anyway, not too often that you hear Pauline Kael and David Duke agreeing on things, so treasure this moment). It’s funny, because I think Ebert would have liked it better had he agreed with Kael on the film’s intentions, and Kael might have enjoyed the film more if she thought the film was less political. But something this extreme is just bound to push people’s buttons, and that pretty much ensures that any other point gets lost.

Since the movie is really as much a commentary on the present as it is on the past, there are plenty of little meta elements. But this cameo might be a little on-the-nose.

The filmmakers, for their part, strenuously objected to charges that the film was racist, and I believe that they were earnest about making an anti-racist film, especially considering it was 1971 and Nixon was still president and saying things like this:

“The second point is that coming out--coming back and saying that black Americans aren't as good as black Africans--most of them, basically, are just out of the trees.  Now, let's face it, they are.”
                                     -Richard Nixon to a young Donald Rumsfeld, July 11,1971

Now THAT’s fucking racist, and not only that it barely even makes sense.** In fact, it’s white ignorance like this which is being satirized here. But even so, it’s hard to get past the fact that there’s an ill-considered desire to recreate MONDO CANE’s breezy, droll charm which permeates the film. This stuff is just way too horrible, and, again, too recent, for it to be anywhere near an appropriate subject for the kind of spectacle and titillation that Jacopetti and Prosperi were experts at capturing. Their good intentions end up being overpowered by their obvious enjoyment in crafting meticulous and horrible scenarios. Which, again, pretty much exactly what Italian exploitation cinema is known for, and what we love about it. But there’s no getting around it, even if this film weren’t billed as a documentary, this would be way too far. I thought even DJANGO UNCHAINED was a little cavalier about its appropriation of slavery narratives and images in search of entertainment; this, obviously, goes way further. We’re just not capable of being entertained by watching this stuff, so the combination of cheeky parody and horrific brutality quickly becomes nightmarish and repulsive, and the film’s genuine points and genuine history get easily overwhelmed by our shock and revulsion. Which, admittedly, still makes it a pretty unique and affecting experience, but probably not the kind the filmmakers intended.

So, these were not the right guys to make this movie, but then again, I don’t know if anyone really was; it’s kind of catch-22, because this stuff is so appalling there’s no way to depict it all without either going way too far or shamefully soft-pedaling the truth. 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes slavery look pretty shitty, but doesn’t even come close to touching some of the more colorful horrors depicted here; they would simply be too much, no one would notice the rest of the narrative after that. So instead ADDIO ZIO TOM goes the other direction and just throws ALL of it in there, but that doesn’t work either, you just become numb after awhile and the absurdity of it all becomes so apparent that it ends up being a sick comedy anyway. So I dunno. We’re still desperately in need of more popular culture depicting slavery in an honest way, but it’s a pretty hard line to walk. I can’t really imagine anyone, from any walk of life, watching this movie and not being offended on some level, but then again, you can hardly help but be impressed by something this ballsy and confrontational, and if you can get past its more embarrassing impulses I think there’s actually a pretty interesting message here, explored in a shockingly unique way.

Soon to be a major motion picture.

I guess that’s what sort of appeals to me about these Mondo films. They’re all pretty offensive on some levels, but there’s also something sympathetic and genuine about their funhouse mirror reflection on reality. They’re not fiction, but they’re also not pretending to tell some kind of objective truth, either; they use (some might say “exploit”) the richness and strangeness of reality to try and draw out more abstract and complicated feelings. They use unexpected juxtaposition to draw interesting contrasts, and imply connections between things which superficially might not seem intrinsically related. Pauline Kael dismissed MONDO CANE by accusing anyone who liked the film of being “too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect.” But I actually think it was she who was too literal to pay attention to the more amorphous motivations and complications Jacopetti and Prosperi were trying to draw from these fragmented images. It’s gonzo journalism: telling real truths without pretending to tell objective truths. Their genius was in their implication, their suggestion, the parallels they draw, and all at a time when most people expected documentaries to be a bit more direct.*** In this case, the intimation lost on most critics (partly due to the butchered North American edit) is the way the painful history of slavery and the unmitigated horrors it perpetrated linger on, forgotten by white American but still painfully near to African Americans. The “Uncle Tom” of the title was always a fictional creation by white Americans trying to comfort themselves in their racism, and it’s time for us to shatter that fantasy, right here, right now. Hence, GOODBYE UNCLE TOM, the English translation of the title.

Of course, no one was probably gonna pay attention to that message after the scene where a bunch of Black Panthers break into a suburban home, snatch a white baby from a crib and bash its head in against the wall (see below). Like most of the movie, the message gets lost in the static of transgressive and nightmarishly shocking images which just unambiguously cross every line you can think of. You can’t fault people for missing the subtlety of something pitched this hysterically. Still, despite the possibly unforgivable missteps, there’s an undercurrent of genuine brilliance here. The filmmaking is searing, pugnacious; whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to confront what they’re pushing at you. The intense visuals, the propulsive score, the keen detail and slippery mix of reality and re-staging add up to an atmosphere of near-hallucinogenic sensory overload. It’s brash, confrontational cinema at both its very best and most misguided, sometimes simultaneously. But whatever side of the equation you come down on, you gotta admit there’s nothing else like it. And that’s probably for the best, but as problematic as this one is, it’s too potent a force for me to regret having it in the world. Just don’t let it end up the final word on this subject, OK America?

*Especially appropriate for this film, since it’s a fictional narrative that nonetheless has a genuine intent to impart history.

**Trying to decipher the Nixon tapes makes it clear just what a terrible communicator this guy was, on top of being a racist asshole. I’ve never seen anyone constructing such indecipherable ramblings so consistently. It seems like he was utterly incapable of finishing a sentence without changing topic in the middle, swearing, and then returning with a completely different syntax.

***Of course, it’s not like they were exactly ahead of their time, either. Nobody really made films like this before, and no one has since.

Yes, this is really in there.

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