Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sexploitation and Slavery in GOODBYE UNCLE TOM

When the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi visited a Southern plantation sometime in the early 1850s, their plan to conduct an inquiry into the peculiar institution of slavery was met with polite skepticism from their hosts and various other guests. While an envious Harriet Beecher Stowe decided on the spot to write Uncle Tom's Cabin in order to scoop the strangers from the flying machine, others at the dinner table questioned the researchers' motives. Noting that they were Italian and Catholic, one man opined that the visitors were slaves of a sort themselves -- "slaves to the fascination of sin."

Of course, this was but a hint of self-awareness if not self-criticism on the part of the infamous duo, not to mention a warning of their methodology in the making of Goodbye Uncle Tom. Tom is meant to be an anti-racist film in order to make up for misinterpretations of their African documentary. As Quentin Tarantino might put it, their way of answering critics amounted to putting out fires with gasoline. Their challenge was complicated by a more persistent charge against them: that their affectations of seriousness only masked a sleazy cynicism that approached its subject matter in a spirit of exploitation. Their films from Mondo Cane forward were called "shockumentaries," not documentaries, as if sensationalism belied any claims of serious purpose on the part of J&P.

In The Godfathers of Mondo Franco Prosperi says that "violence is another form of objectivity." You can see what he means: violence is a necessary component of showing the world as it is, or at least as he and Jacopetti see it. But can violence be viewed as objectively as Prosperi wants? In their own script for Tom, that crack about "the fascination of sin" hints at how the choice to show violence or other sins might betray a lack of objectivity on the part of the filmmakers. And if the fascination of sin influences their pictorial and editorial choices, what will the audience make of it all? I've described Tom as an attempt to show compassion toward the victims of slavery. But someone might well question whether it's compassionate to stare at someone's absolute subjugation and humiliation -- or to have people re-enact the subjugation and humiliation of their ancestors. After all, as some racists believe, the Bible relates that Noah cursed Ham and his son Canaan, turning their descendants black, because Ham stared at Noah's drunken nakedness. Jacopetti & Prosperi's reading of scripture raises the stakes even further. They have a white preacher state that Ham and Canaan were cursed for castrating Noah. This may have been another, even more subconscious warning to the audience about the implications of what they would see in Tom.

The American cut of Goodbye Uncle Tom is supposed to be toned down from the Italian original (or its modern incarnation as the 2003 Director's Cut), but that toning down turns out to be no more than a dumbing down of the film's present-day political context. The American cut is at several points more violent than the Director's Cut, for instance, and it retains most of the Italian version's sex scenes. The one exception is significant, as is the fact that the scenes that stayed are rape scenes. One has a gang of four poor white "Crackers" invading a slave compound and raping several women. The other has a teenage "mare" delivered to Jason, the imbecilic prize stud of a slave-breeding farm.

Both scenes are brutally filmed but scored to disturbing counterpunctual effect by Riz Ortolani with soaringly romantic yet more insistently percussive variations on the movie's theme song. Ortolani is a master of this kind of counterpoint, as he'd show again with the pastoral lyricism of Cannibal Holocaust. The intent of composer and filmmakers alike is to convey idealism under physical assault, but the effect is not necessarily unlike a more conventional sex scene scored to build toward a climax. It's understandable if critics wonder whether J&P want to have it both ways, outraging and infuriating some viewers but titillating and arousing others. But I doubt whether anyone has ever admitted being aroused by these scenes from Tom. However, if they presume that others will be titillated, isn't their only evidence their own feelings? Beware "the fascination with sin"...

More problematic yet is the sex scene left out of the American cut. In the Director's Cut, a wax museum proprietor relates the legend of Madame La Laurie and her companion Caesar, who purchased slaves for the purpose of stocking a unisex harem of opium addicts upon whom the devious pair could play out all their perverse whims. Caesar tends to go overboard with them sometimes the way Lennie does with mice, while the Madame practices a more refined sensuality. Here she is almost literally swimming in an undulating pool of black flesh, in a scene more insistently, indisputably erotic than the rape scenes.

But look out! All of a sudden it's Bathory time, and out come the pliers. I don't know if this legendary personage made as much use of precious bodily fluids as her Euro counterparts, but what we see is bad enough. It's as if this time J&P dared you to be aroused by the waves of nudity they present, only to throw the pliers at your head. There's an evil sensuality on display in Tom, not so much because sensuality is evil but because evil has a sensuality of its own.

The sensuality and sexuality is an important part of the story of slavery as told by Jacopetti & Prosperi. Slavery as practiced on the plantations had an inevitably sexual aspect because of the intimacy shared by slaves and masters. Tom makes the controversial and perhaps unacceptable suggestion that sex was not only a way for masters to dominate slaves, but also a way for slaves to negotiate their standing with masters. We see a heavy-footed Mammy castigating a girl for going to bed with Massa while still a virgin, and a supposed 13 year old girl urging the man behind the camera (in the Director's Cut this is supposed to be a historical person relating an actual experience, but in the American version it may be one of our time-travelling narrators) to take her maidenhead. She helpfully offers the man a whip in case he needs that to get into the right frame of mind.

At the slave market the diminutive General, whip in hand like a ringmaster, takes us on a tour of the seamier side of human commerce. In separate compartments slave girls learn to dance sensuously, a flaming white man body-paints twin pairs of boys for the trade that dare not speak its name, and the piece de resistance stands stoically like a cartoon ghost under a sheet. What's so special about this guy? "He's got three!" the General explains gleefully, "One, two, three!" The thrice-endowed individual himself has the self-respect to put his hands in front of the camera before the "three what?" question is answered.

Do you see a problem here? J&P claim that they want us to sympathize with the plight of the slaves, but our initial assumption of sympathy often depends on a further assumption that the slaves desire freedom. But what we see more often than not is accommodation, behaviors that begin to look like self-degradation rather than survival strategies. Think about it a little and you may realize that the filmmakers are trying to say that all of this is forced on the slaves, that it's a consequence of slavery rather than proof of their suitability for slavery, as the whites take it to be. But Tom's argument that slavery degraded blacks while fueling a simmering shame-based hatred for whites that limited their political imagination is itself, however well-intended, unacceptable for many American viewers. We want to believe in an unassailable dignity and perseverance that could only have been expressed in the sort of perpetual resistance that J&P do not show. If the filmmakers don't give these traits to the slaves, it makes people think that J&P do think slaves are subhuman. Worse yet, there's one scene that I haven't discussed yet that does seem, in some way, to blame blacks for their own degradation, but I want to save that for the next post, in which I try to determine whether Tom is, in fact, a racist film.


Kiera said...

Where can I get a copy of this?

Samuel Wilson said...

Blue Underground put out a Mondo Cane box set several years ago that has all the Jacopetti-Prosperi films except for their last, Mondo Candido. The set includes both versions of Tom, while the U.S. version, if I remember right, was included in a bargain set along with the U.S. version of Africa Addio and the Godfathers of Mondo documentary.

Anonymous said...

Which version contains the uncut scenes with Madame La Laurie?

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon, it's the Italian-language "Director's Cut" that Jacopetti supervised for the Blue Underground box set. I'm not sure if Blue Underground ever released that version separately but it might be on YouTube somewhere.