By Ben Owen
Isaac asked me to contribute something to the blog while he’s away. Confronted with the problem of writing original material, I decided to cheat, and to write a little about the work I’ve been doing in grad school. I realize reproducing academic work on a blog runs the risk of seeming dull, tendentious, or obscurantist, and so rather than presenting condensed versions of my papers, I’ve tried to describe some of the more interesting ideas I’ve encountered in my recent work, and also to talk about Mario Kart 64, because I don’t do that enough.
A few weeks ago I finished a draft of a paper about the 1931 jungle movie Trader Horn. The film is a weird racist fantasia, remembered, as far as it is remembered at all, because it was the first talkie shot primarily on location in Africa, or possibly because some of the unused footage from the shoot ended up director WS Van Dyke’s other more popular racist fantasia, Tarzan the Ape Man.
I got interested in Trader Horn because I was fascinated by the idea, proposed by some film scholars, that filmmakers rely on racial stereotypes as a way of compensating for the unsettling qualities of technological innovation, whether it be the emergence of film itself or the transition to sound. In the case of Trader Horn this meant that while location sound recording was still a dicey proposition in the late 1920s and very early 30s, leading to the sense that synched dialogue wasn’t actually coming from the actors’ mouths, you could to some extent fool an audience invested in the logic of white supremacy into believing that a generically African sound (drumming and chanting) was coming from the stereotyped Africans on screen, whether or not it was technically synched. So a racist expectation of what Africans should sound like on the part of the audience would, up to a point, do the synchronization work for the filmmakers.
My mnemonic for understanding this idea that a voice might emanate from an undifferentiated notion of Africa, whether or not any actual on-screen African appeared to speak, was—of course—the DK’s Jungle Parkway course in Mario Kart 64. When you drive off course “restless natives” pelt you with stones (the Super Mario Wiki confirms that that is actually the language used in the instruction booklet for the game), which slow you down or, if you have been shrunk by a competitor’s lightning bolt, flatten you. Except of course the “restless natives” never appear. They are entirely notional; the only sign of their existence is the stones that arc from the edges of the track. The game relies on the player to assume the “natives’” presence without any justification beyond the stones and the jungle setting, just as Trader Horn relied on viewers to assume that a sound could naturally come from Africa, even without any sign of an African making it. Over the six-year period in which I played Mario Kart 64 obsessively, I occasionally found the absence of these “natives” disturbing. A fan of the game, I didn’t criticize it on the basis of its racist, colonialist assumptions, even though—as a student at a lefty liberal arts college in the late 90s—I had the language to do so. Instead, I think the absence disturbed me because it suggested how incredibly empty the game world was, and I translated that feeling of emptiness not into politics, but rather into of the sensation of luxuriant loneliness that, as a young adult, I loved so well.
But what to do with the paper now? In my more feverish moments I would obviously like to make it primarily about Mario Kart 64 and the softcore Trader Horn parody Trader Hornee (1970, tagline: "The film that breaks the law of the jungle!"). One slightly calmer idea, however, more a book proposal than a paper, would be to trace the history of the jungle movie forward in time, accounting for other technological shifts—so starting with Trader Horn and sync sound, and moving to Bwana Devil (1951) and 3D. It could be fun to write about Bwana Devil, a profoundly shitty movie in profoundly shitty 3D, which, in its fervent desire to get back to cinema’s earliest racial fantasies, even includes a black-baby-washing scene, a staple of cinema in the 1890s. My hook would be that in times of technological change Hollywood can be relied upon to make a jungle movie, smoothing over the spatially disorientating properties of the new form with a reassuring primitivist fantasy. The next stop would obviously be Avatar.