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"A blockbuster [is]…the place where collective social desire for transformation and salvage, revolution and restoration, anarchy and obedience is simultaneously fastened and split."
The largest costume retailer in the US, rejoicing at the empty box stores left behind by the bankruptcy of chains like Circuit City, reported that its most popular disguises for the lucrative (and unusual) Saturday Halloween of 2009 were Zombies, Vampires, and Michael Jackson (NPR 10.22.2009). Dead white men all, except not quite. Zombies and vampires are not so much dead as undead, and Michael Jackson was not white, except perhaps in his later years.
The popularity of both the undead white man and the newly dead, whitened, black man points to what anthropological studies of popular cinema have long taken into account: the stories movies tell are in accord with the "attitudes, daydreams, ethics, and modes of life of a people" (Wolfenstein 1953:268). [End Page 401]
It is not only that Americans watch the action, science fiction, or horror movies that will be central to this essay and in which whiteness, deadness, and maleness are all under strident attack, but that they delight equally in becoming the blood-spattered bearers of these fantasies themselves. With capes and fangs, or with bandaged heads and rotted skin, they lurch through bars and downtown city streets. Some even (in the finest bit of irony available today) play at being the zombie Michael Jackson—these grave risen moonwalkers, with tight black pants and chalk-whitened faces, dance en masse to the dated strands of his "Thriller,"each fluttering a single spangled glove.
The last forty years has seen a slow rising tide in the popularity of the living dead, on screen and off. This same period has also seen the nascence of a second set of characters who, though more powerful today than the dead white men they very often vanquish, have received much less popular commendation. These are the black (super) heroes, first born into popular culture in the 1970s in film and in comics (cf. Brown 2000), who have slowly developed into the killers designate of evil white men, both dead and undead.
This trend, which was at first only tentatively present in the careful unfolding of story and character, has becoming an increasingly predominant element in the story-lines of US blockbusters. There are hints of it in the buddy films of the late 1980s when Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), for example, shoots with aggressive glee a single white south African who has stolen and threatened his daughter (Lethal Weapon 2 [dir. Richard Donner 1989]). It is there even slightly earlier in Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), one of the first black characters in a mainstream film to kill a white man specifically as a means of establishing himself as both good and trustworthy—though he, like Glover, dispatches only one: a "white skinned" storm trooper (Return of the Jedi [dir. Richard Marquand 1983]).
What began, however, as a tentative pattern within the narrative structure of action films and in comics has since exploded into a new configuration of race relations evident in, if not governing, these films. Blade (Wesley Snipes, in a film of the same name [dir. Stephen Norrington 1998]) hunts white people, as does Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) in the horror/scifi/action crossover film I am Legend (dir. Francis Lawrence 2007), so too does Darious Stone (Ice Cube) in the poorly reviewed 2005 blockbuster XXX2 - The State of the Union (dir. Lee Tamahori). And though Blade may hunt vampires; Neville—zombies; and Stone—politicians, each of these (lifeless, white) villains [End Page 402] is marked by a very similar set of characteristics. Evil is white. It is usually male; it "reproduces" itself orally (if at all)—that is, via the mouth rather than the genitals; it finds pleasure in greed and overconsumption; and its passage through culture, its very...
Undead Hyperwhite Vampire: Underworld Evolution, 2006.*
© 2006 Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC., All Rights Reserved Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
By David Gosselin
The answer to the above question is of course no. Shakespeare and Dante are not dead because every true poet is immortal.
However, much of our contemporary thinkers seem to be under the impression that they are dead, and that they are not as relevant and talented as first thought, but that rather their qualities were simply exaggerated because they happened to belong to a ‘historically dominant gender and ethnic group’. However any discerning eye will notice that such a ‘dead white European male’ argument avoids actually taking on the content of a Shakespeare’s or Dante’s ideas, which in fact have a continuity spanning over thousands of years, through the Golden Renaissance, through the Dark Ages, back to the times of ancient Greece and the Homeric epics. Moreover these ideas address some of the most fundamental questions concerning the human condition.
However, before we continue, I can hear protests saying that the canon above mentioned, really only refers to dead white European males. But the truth is that this kind of humanist thinking has parallels in virtually every culture, from the Confucian traditions in China, to those of Tilak and Tagore in India, to those of Ibn Sina of Persia and the many bards of Moorish Spain. There are great thinkers from cultures across the world.
Therefore, what the contemporary brand of thinking is really dismissing, is not a specific grouping or period, as the ideas embodied by these individuals span virtually as far back as recorded history, but rather they are wittingly or unwittingly dismissing those humanist ideas traced throughout history.
Unfortunately much of what is referred to by the ‘contemporary’ and modernist schools of thinking, renders itself largely irrelevant by virtue of the fact that they wish to treat the recent decades of modernist thinking, which span mere seconds on the scale of human history, as some isolated phenomena detached from the entirety of that continuity out of which it unfolded.
Were they to compare those few seconds with the universal arc of history, they would quickly discover the relevancy of a Shakespeare or Dante’s ideas.
Take but one small example from Shakespeare, which in only 14 lines manages to capture and develop the most fundamental of paradoxes underlying our individual mortal existence:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
___Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
___To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Shakespeare opens by saying we are all attracted to beauty and long for it, and desiring ‘increase’ i.e. to reproduce, yet even in the first two lines, it’s stated that this beauty fades and that even the fairest of creature’s is no match for time. Yet, in recognizing that this beauty does fade, only then is one ready to discover an even higher order of beauty: the power to generate new beauty.
What does a world look like, where each individual is acting with the conscious idea that they are responsible for the recreation and continued development of the human species; that they are not a mere individual but are defined and in turn define themselves by this eternal process for which they are now a mediating part. What does that look like versus someone who has a baby because they made a mistake or someone who does not want children because it takes to much time and costs too much? What image of beauty are they after?
The truth is they have not truly considered the paradox of their mortality, likely, they refuse to face it, and prefer to hang on to that ever fleeting image of earthly beauty, which so entices the senses, but ultimately ‘eats itself by the grave and thee.’
Originally published on TheChainedMuse.com
David Bellemare Gosselin is a student in classics and languages in Montreal.