Monday, July 23, 2007

Bird of Paradise

King Vidor's Bird of Paradise is not a film about Latin America, though it presents an exoticizing narrative that is familiar from films set in the Caribbean or the Amazon.

Here, we are somewhere in the South Seas, on an island paradise visited by a US yacht that, in the opening scene, only barely scrapes across the coral reef that guards its shores. This physical barrier is also, of course, a cultural barrier, and soon enough eager natives are paddling and swimming up to greet the interloping vessel, and they prove themselves only too eager to be pleased by the trinkets that the crew have to offer them.

Suddenly, danger appears, in the form of a shark that appears to threaten the peaceful islanders. But in the end it is an American who gets into trouble: Johnny, who falls overboard trapped in the fishing line that the shark is rapidly dragging out to sea; but help is at hand as an indigenous maiden cuts the line and saves his life.

Soon enough, Johnny falls in love with this enchanting creature, who turns out to be a princess by the name of Luana. He teaches her how to kiss and be kissed, but for his pains the tribe turns on the two of them, who have to exile themselves on a neighbouring island, where they enjoy domestic bliss and discuss the merits or otherwise of civilization.

This tropical reverie cannot last, however, and the tribe come looking for Luana in order to throw her into the local volcano so as to appease a disgruntled deity. Johnny finds himself at risk too, but is rescued along with Luana by his returning crewmates. But in the end, facing the choice between savagery or civilization, extinction in a smoking crater or everyday life in California, Luana chooses to sacrifice herself but save her tribe. Loyalty among indigenes trumps cultural rescue, so avoiding the inconvenience of permanent inter-racial coupling.

Bird of Paradise is mostly notable for a bit of pre-Hayes code titillation: it features a poetic underwater courtship scene in which are treated to the sight of Joel McCrea (who plays Johnny) in a rather figure-hugging pair of underpants, and in which we may be seeing Dolores del Rio nude.

Is that Dolores del Rio's bottom?
For del Rio plays Luana, and this reveals what I think is a revealing tension within Hollywood portrayals of race. On the one hand, as with the narrative that this film presents, what’s emphasized are the barriers between races and cultures: “they” are fundamentally different from “us,” and although this difference can generate desire, in the end cross-cultural liaisons are doomed. But on the other hand, in the casting process, cinematic conceptions of race are quite labile, especially around latinidad. Whites can play Latinos (say, Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, Latinos can play whites (Rita Hayworth), Greeks can play Latinos (West Side Story), and as here, Latinos can also play South Sea islanders.

It’s true that some racial barriers prove more impermeable than others to casting agents, above all the separation between black and white. But the pragmatics of Latino casting, even of major stars, is often in tension with the exoticising narrative strategies of the films in which they are playing. And precisely because these are stars, the contradiction is palpable. The racial ambiguity exacerbates the characteristic tension between star and character. Latino stars can not only play out of character; they can also play out of race.

Indeed some, notably Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn, made a career out of it.

Labels: ,