Cinematic Spreads

Final Picture from “The Chronicles of Keira,” Vogue, June 2007.

 bell hooks opens her essay “Eating the Other” with the assertion that “the commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than the normal ways of doing and feeling.”For the Other is being offered as a consumable, desirable thing it must be recognizable as different; it “must assume recognizable forms.”That difference is therefore not actually different since we must have seen it before in order to recognize it. The Other is signified by symbols that fit into “white Western conceptions of the dark Other,”  and so the Other is fitted into the narrative that is already laid out for those roles.This visual vocabulary of “the dark Other” has been mapped out for and  disseminated into Western society by the cinema. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam point out in “the Imperial Imaginary,” the rise of cinema coincided with heights of imperialism, and the means of production of these images were in the hands of the imperialists.

Each nation produced films that “combined narrative and spectacle” to tell the story of colonialism from the viewpoint of the colonizer. Cinema’s language was formed from off this starting point; this vocabulary is the rudimentary framework that later films are still based off of. For example, in Abouna, a Chadian film directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, opens with a large shot of the desert with one man walking through. This open shot is the shot of the desert: an open shot of soft dunes and then men walk through it—either indigenous people at ease with in the large hostile land, or one small colonial figure struggling against the elements. In both cases, the spectacle is tied to the narrative—the picture is part of story that informs what we know is happening in the picture. Even with just a few seconds of the shot, the viewer knows not only that he or she is seeing a familiar image, but also what  part of which story the figures and surroundings belong to.  This reference is also what allows for a moment of shock in Abouna, when the man walking through the desert—a black Chadian man’s—eyes meet our own. This novel image was not planned, not part of the known language, and so the story must also be new.

This language uses Other surroundings and Other peoples as backdrops to White stories. Even when the image that uses this language is not part of a narrative form, like a film, the viewer still reads it as part of already known narratives. In the June 2007  of Vogue, there appeared a fashion shot called “The Chronicles of Keira.” This piece contained a series of photographs of the actress Keira Knightly in avant-garde re-interpretations of the colonial dress posing in Kenya. The image and its accompanying ideal of the Colonial Lady in crisp white has already been defined by movies such as Out of Africa, African Queen (at one point in the accompanying article Knightley is described as “Vogue’s African princess,” though she, like Katherine Hepburn’s character, Rose Sayer, is a foreigner with no rank given to them within Africa), or the myriad of Tarzan  movies, from 1932 up until today. The last shot  in the piece contains an entire story encoded in cinematic symbols. Knightley, the only white woman in the shot, is perched on the front of the jeep in a floral dress, delicate straw hat, and dusty khaki boots, in what the accompanying blurb calls “1930’s retro cool.” The mix between delicate accessories, full skirted lady-like shaped dress, and the clearly heavy and dusty boots evokes the dainty White Colonial woman and the pragmatic struggles she will need to take on in this new wilderness. On each end of the photograph there is one man in Western dress: on the left there is a White man in pale khakis and a crisp, large hat and on the right there is Black man, again in khakis and a baseball cap. In between these figures and on the back of the jeep brandishing large spears are Masai tribesman in bright red traditional clothing—the only figures not wearing pale clothing. The two individual male figures are assigned roles based on the visual language created by cinematic narratives—the white man is probably some sort of colonialist adventurer and the black man is probably the two White characters’ guide. The Masai are regulated to background—an indication of the exotic difference that these khaki clad figures are not only venturing into, but also allowing into their jeep—into their consciousness.

The difference of the Masai against the Colonial figures is illustrated within the photograph by the differences between color of dress and number, but these differences are familiar ones built on familiar language—a commodified difference first sold as adventure in movies and then used to indicate difference in advertisements, fashion spreads, and other cultural products. This commodification “promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (bell hooks).

The real differences of the Masai from ourselves are changed into familiar differences—erasing apparent meanings of those differences and replacing that history of meanings with our history of symbols and colonial myth. This Other is not new or different and  cannot be new or different in order to be marketed as difference because Otherness relies on being recognizable.

The Other’s thrill is supposed to be based on a difference to our own culture—a “more-ness.” “Encounters with Otherness are clearly marked as more exciting, more intense, and more threatening’ (bell hooks). This “more-ness” promises a difference from our own culture in some sort of “combination of pleasure and danger.”

Supposedly the thrill of danger heightens the pleasure, making it different from the safe, lack-luster pleasures of Western society. But this is a known danger, a “safe” danger that is being shown in Otherness. Its danger is from a distant presence on the celluloid screen that has been ingrained in our visual language. The photographs of Keira Knightley that appeared in Vogue, don’t showcase thrilling new Others or new aesthetic differences, but rather reinforce the old, safe ones.

A last thought: There must be dozen of people approving and editing spreads and photos at a big magazine like Vogue. How has no one thought better of any part of this shoot?

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