Category Archives: American Cultural and Market Expansion

The Performativity of Otherness

In Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, Stephanie Leigh Batiste “focuses on black American cultural and ideological struggles against racism and oppression during the 1930s, as these were embedded within an attempt to define and articulate an inherent Americanness that was also black and to develop a diasporic sensibility that reached beyond national boundaries” (Batiste, 2).  Batiste’s quote speaks to the cultural representations of Americanness and how black performance and black performers fit or don’t fit into those representations of America.  Therefore, Batiste examines how “race itself is performative, taking on race as a structure of power, and thereby assuming a hand in producing race and blackness” (Batiste, 7).  This idea supports the concept that race is a social construct and is constructed in order to create a structure of power and therefore, a hierarchical structure.  Batiste discusses how the concept of race performativity has allowed for the constructions of blackness and black otherness performed by African Americans, but the effect of that element of performativity is something that performers have no control over (Batiste, 9).  As a result, “Such performance of an othered, markedly different, and fully constructed culture and identity permitted performers both to embody rejected cultural characteristics and to distance themselves from an identity they demarcated as ‘not me’” (Batiste, 15).  However, in a film or a play, while someone may reject the assigned cultural characteristics, as a performer, they must still act that cultural characteristic out for the viewing of the audience and ensure that their own personal distancing from the assigned identity is invisible.

The elements of construction and performance were extremely reminiscent of Marcus Rediker’s passage, The Slave Ship, in the sense that Rediker also emphasizes the construction of race aboard the slave ships, with the intention of categorizing people for trade.  This categorization was also something that could not be controlled by those being categorized, and was something that was done in order to create a certain “presentation” or performance of slaves.  Rediker discusses how those in the slave market were segregated based on skin color, size, and general appearance, which automatically separates people based on a certain sense of “otherness” or a characteristic that could be considered “markedly different” (Batiste, 15).  Therefore, the experience on the slave ship was central to the capitalist facet of modernity in the sense that the ship was used as a factory to produce and distribute, while also producing categories of race.  And as Batiste says, “Given the radical exclusion of African Americans from mainstream society and its dreams of freedom and expansion, it seemed overly hopeful, if not radical, for blacks to participate in imaginative appropriations of open lands, a material process from which they had been excluded in American history except, for the most part, as bound labor” (Batiste, 27).  This quote emphasizes Batiste’s point of how the element of performativity can create a system of exclusion, while at the same time can support modernity and redeploy those dreams of freedom and expansion in order to engage “with this major symbolic discourse of American identity” (Batiste, 28).

However, with respect to performing within the limitations of a “fully constructed culture and identity,” does performing that cultural identity perpetuate the constructions of race by continuing to create cultural characteristics that people may in fact reject?  Because “Artists struggled to communicate black stories that would ring true to black American experiences and not offend federal or white sensibilities or violate tricky antimiscegenation laws,” how effective was their communication in the end (Batiste, 22)?  As a result, does that message then reinforce the symbolic discourse of American identity or challenge it?

Ideological Representations in One, Two, Three

Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three alludes to the ideological conflicts between the capitalist and communist worlds. The film is set in West Berlin during the Cold War. The location of the protagonist MacNamara and his company Coca Cola symbolize American ideals clashing against those of East Berlin and the USSR. Through a comedic portrayal, a battle ensues between the character’s competing values of their respective political and economic systems.

Scarlett Hazeltine and Otto Piffl’s union represent the ideological conflicts between communism and capitalism. Scarlett is the product of American consumerism as the daughter of wealthy Coca Cola executive, Wendell Hazeltine. She is adorned with the latest fashions including expensive jewelry and fur coats. Conversely, Otto is depicted in ragged clothes, no socks, and he doesn’t wear shorts – an Americanized view of a typical communist. He despises the materialist draw to capitalism and its inequity, describing the system as “… a dead herring in the moonlight. It shines, but it stinks!” Following plans of their move to the USSR, Scarlett gives up her fur coat in response to Otto’s communist claim that every woman should have a fur coat before somebody has two. She is too stupid to comprehend his meaning and looks forward to breakfast in bed due to a lack of table and chairs. The respective possessions and values of Otto and Scarlett represent the variance in principles between the two systems.

At the end of the film, MacNamera attempts to “Americanize” Otto as he must pretend to renounce his communist background in order to appear presentable to Scarlett’s parents. Otto vehemently resists these attempts, sticking to his belief that capitalism is an inferior system. Through a series of fast paced scenes, American capitalism ‘triumphs’ over communism through the benefits of consumerism and capitalist culture. “Consumers could choose liquids, powders, or flakes; boxes, sacks, plastic bottles, or cardboard drums” (De Grazia, 421). This quote provides a real life example of consumer culture and the production of a wide range of products in a capitalist market. MacNamera chooses between a mass of different colored suit jackets, coats, pants, and accessories to properly dress Otto as a respectable American and non-communist. In the race against time scene driving to the airport to meet with Scarlett’s parents, boxes of hats are carelessly thrown out the window until one is chosen as suitable. After a few blunders in maintaining his role, the Hazeltines fall for the façade and capitalism succeeds.

One, Two, Three presents a comedic take on tensions between the USSR and the United States due to the polarity of their political systems. Each character in the film is representative of their respective systems. The interactions between these characters mirror conflicts in the ideologies of the communist and capitalist system.

One, Two, Three and Corporations Abroad

In just the description of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, on the back of the VHS cover, it was obvious that the film was going to be a fast paced one, if not a completely hectic and overwhelming one.  The film proved to be just that, while also providing a great deal of commentary on United States corporations as well as the United States’ mentality and demeanor as a whole.  The film was funny, witty, and also downright stressful.  At all times of the film, MacNamara could always be found solving a problem, hearing about a new problem, or finding out that the solution to another problem was no longer necessary.  While the film was certainly amusing to watch, the greater message conveyed about American corporations and the attitude towards expanding internationally was certainly not an amusing one, but rather a message that exemplified the severity of how corporations are “generally referring to a for-profit organization that can operate at the discretion of its owners and managers free of social and legislative control” (Newfield, 66).

In his discussion of corporations, Christopher Newfield describes how, “A business corporation can own property; buy, sell, and control assets, including other corporations; pay or avoid taxes; write or break contracts; make and market products; and engage in every kind of economic activity,” while also having no liability for any of the company’s debts (Newfield, 66).  In addition, Newfield examines how corporations have been able to recast themselves “as the world’s only true modernizers, capable of moving the economy and society relentlessly forward, often against their will,” but well enough that we are so dependent on large corporations and therefore allow the initial recasting to occur (Newfield, 70).

These corporate values were very much reflected in One, Two, Three.  In attempting to solve all of the problems related to Scarlett and Otto, MacNamara could constantly be seen engaging in “every kind of economic activity,” in that he was so desperate to reshape Otto into an “appropriate” man, with no communist beliefs and therefore started an entire process of bartering for Otto from East Berlin, buying Otto a completely new wardrobe, reshaping him into an ideal “American” man, and preserving Scarlett’s virtue through Otto’s behavior (Newfield, 66).  MacNamara purchased so many different types of services and products in order to ensure that Otto appeared presentable to his new father-in-law, an example of controlling assets, because MacNamara’s sole intention behind all of the trouble he went through was so he would be able to be promoted and achieve a higher position.  MacNamara stripped Otto of his anti-capitalist values, so that MacNamara would be able to support his own very capitalist values and move up in the corporation.

Throughout the film, we see MacNamara engage in all types of economic activity, everything but the activity that relates to the expansion of Coca-Cola as a corporation.  Instead, MacNamara uses his status as an executive for Coca-Cola in order to manipulate and exercise his power and control with the Scarlett and Otto situation, which supports how corporations can and do “operate at the discretion of its owners and managers free of social and legislative control” (Newfield, 66).  Therefore, the film portrays a United States corporation as a means to solve conflicts that arise in executives’ personal lives, and as a means to manipulate and control outside agencies and factors.  While MacNamara and Coca-Cola certainly had a lot of power throughout the movie, the power was also misused in order to solely benefit the executives of Coca-Cola and create disadvantages for those who were considered un-American.

After watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how accurate this depiction of United States corporations abroad was.  In addition, while the film was released in 1961, how different are our “American” views and values now?  Have they changed?

Capitalist Movie Madness

 

As a avid cinema consumer and Italian student I have experienced many forms of cinematic display from the 1960’s ranging from Fellini’s plays and documentaries to unseen directors cuts from Pasolini’s La Dolce vita. The messages conveyed in movies of this era vary but almost always touch upon the delicate political situations of the time. One, Two, Three by Billy Wilder is no exception, I found myself laughing and even commiserating with the storyline as the gradual take over of consumer capitalism in the movie is still so applicable to life today, while a rather over exaggerated and unrealistic situation is displayed the overarching themes of the movie hit at a deeply political and unstable aspect of the world at that time.

Small details of the movie that were meant to be funny or silly really stuck out to me as significant indicators of capitalism, its effects on people and the political situation, the names of certain expensive clothing items in the escalation dressing scene that could be tied to certain negative or unallied countries along with the sheer absurdity and frivolity of the transformation scene in general. The significance of the German secretary and her sexualization, exploitation, and commodification by both the Americans and the Russians ties into the political and economic atmosphere and the real punchline of the entire movie, the pepsi bottle in the vending machine bought by the Coca Cola man just seals the deal for me. I felt like it accurately demonstrated the excess, extreme and competitive nature of capitalism even in divided Germany during the Cold War.

pepsi-vs-coke

As one of my classmates pointed out in their blog post One, two, three, four, five six…. the movie does run extremely long and maybe as they said, 45 mins too long but if we refer to the reading by Pells we are given an insight into the cinematic mood of this time period which would not have necessarily agreed. Movie goers were eager for European movies and European based movies as there was a shift in the demand right around the time of the production of One, Two, Three. While it did not do well at the box office it is a prime example of the cinematic displays of the time, all at once a political satire, comedic show and love story while it’s supremely quick paced actions gave the audience a hard and fast political slap in the face. The movie accurately demonstrates the audiences desire for a break from reality, i.e. length, while still giving them the satire and politics of the time period.

Ironically the building of the Berlin Wall disrupted production of the movie and makes the film an even more significant historical piece to us, capturing both the political and social climates of the 1960’s and forever recording it in black and white. I would love to know if the director of the film had any idea of the political upset about to occur and how his movie was influenced by the building of the Berlin Wall. Did he have any idea of the effects the wall would have or how long it would scar the face of Berlin and it’s people and how relevant his movie would be to capitalism today?

Capitalism and Art

The readings from Victoria de Grazia and Richard Pells illuminate the differences between post-World War II societies in Europe and the United States, and how these differences were shaped and influenced by forces of capitalism. Particularly interesting to me is Pells’ discussion of the expansion of the film industry and entertainment markets during this period, because it forces a conversation about and evaluation of the purpose and objective of art in society. As Pells details the ascendancy of American media (especially film) across Europe in the decade following the second World War, he occasionally editorializes, interjecting his narrative with claims like, “All too often, European filmmakers seemed patronizing, as if they thought their job was to educate and elevate the masses, to introduce them to ‘art’ and high culture. Hollywood, by comparison, was adamantly antielitist.” (Pells 1997:210) The author lauds the allure of entertainment and spectacle that was embedded in most American films, eschewing the pedantic inclinations of Europe’s filmmakers. But this contrast is not merely a matter of style or taste, and it requires an understanding of the strong ideological attachment that the United States held with respect to the free market and capitalist expansion.

As Pells explains,

“This urge to entertain sprang from the need to sell a product, rather than create a work of art. In [the critics’] opinion, the emphasis on entertainment was a sign of commercialization of American culture, another example of how every art form had been ‘commodified’ in a country devoted more than any other to the capitalist ethos. The European response was to insulate films and television programs as much as possible from the pressures of the marketplace.” (210)

Further, Pells goes on to recount how Hollywood and Washington formed a cabal to achieve the dual goals of opening up the European films markets to Hollywood productions and ensuring that the films that were subsequently exported sufficiently reflected a positive view of the United States. (With this in mind, Pells’ characterization of Hollywood as “adamantly antielitest” seems incoherent.) American art, then, became a tool for industrial powers to rake in more riches from overseas markets, and was heavily ensconced in a profit-centered system.

The “highbrow” mindset of European filmmakers, on the other hand, comes from a different set of principles, and from a society that is less oriented around the bent of capitalist production. This ethos is laid out in de Grazia’s book Irresistible Empire. Following World War II many of Europe’s eminent governments (i.e. France, Italy, the UK, Germany) aimed to establish a society that honored civic responsibilities and ensured social welfare. “In principle,” de Grazia writes, “more and more egalitarian consumer habits would be accompanied by more widespread political democracy, social justice, the satisfaction of basic needs for decencies…All in all, getting consumer goods was an important means of achieving the good society. But never could it be the end-all.” (de Grazia 2005:344) Consumption could not be a means in and of itself, which was a stark contrast to the prevailing ideology across the Atlantic. This spirit of civic duty was subsequently manifested in policies across Europe to keep television channels and other media mostly government-controlled, which–in my view–implies that art should be regarded as something of a public good. Diverging from, and even resisting, the perceived American mentality of creation-for-consumption, “the [European] states guaranteed that a certain portion of screen and broadcasting time would be set aside for local productions. Supposedly, these protectionist policies ensured that European audiences would not be engulfed and their tastes polluted by the trash emanating from Hollywood and the American television networks.” (1997:210)

The history presented by Pells and de Grazia offer us questions about how art, specifically film and popular media, should be conceived and applied–and for whom. Is there any responsibility that comes with the creation of art, and how has its “commodification” affected or shifted that responsibility, if at all? The cultural exchanges that this week’s readings brought out between the United States and Europe provide a good setting to start this conversation.