…and the quest to see everything

Archive for May 18, 2011

Shot: Tarzan the Apologist

This post is a part of Nathaniel’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot‘ series.

Our generation has CGI, earlier generations of movies had whatever this is, green screen. In an early scene in W. S. Van Dyke‘s Tarzan the Ape Man, visitor Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan), her father James (C. Aubrey Smith) and his young associate/Jane’s logically set-up boyfriend Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) happen to be around when African tribesmen are having a trading session. The trio come over to check out the African warriors, the two groups obviously shot separately. This is when contemporary snark comes in, like “As if MGM would let the white ‘actors’ and the black ‘extras’ breathe the same air, am I right?” or “How rude with their backs facing the audience!”

ph. MGM

We can also overthink this shot as a metaphor for cinema, especially useful in racial binaries in cinematic spectatorship. The Europeans examine the Africans while the latter are oblivious to white eyes, take from that what you will. This can go two ways – first, the sheltered European might have a visceral reaction towards the images of difference in front of her/him. Softening the ‘capitalist exploitation’ angle, the movie makes Jane, a pre-code heroine, smarter than that, unhesitatingly approaching the human subject near her and asking for its meaning, assuming civilization in the African’s make-up and armour. Her father tells her that say, the decorations in the shields represent how many lions or humans the guy killed. She’s not fazed. But don’t worry, she’ll be in the same spaces the Africans but for real this time. She’ll also be doing a lot more screaming, but for other, more justified reasons.

Jane screams since discovering Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) is more shocking than the Africans or the animals. Tarzan either represents civilization lost within uncultivated land or a critique of the British/turn of the century empires. What I mean by the latter is that Tarzan’s presence in Africa means that there have been other Europeans who have explored the same territory as Jane and her fellow English are trying to break into, and that the earlier Europeans succumb to wilderness. Now that Jane and Tarzan have found each other and he stops throwing her around like a rag doll, she finds it, inadvertently, her mission to (re)teach the English language to him. I’ve tried the erudition above, but we do need the Weissmuller shots if I’m blogging about the Tarzan movie, as well as to point out that despite of everything, his hair looks better than hers.

Additional cast and character info via oldschoolreviews. Further reading: The first chapter of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Performing Whiteness,” because I’m pretentious like that.