I was re-watching Clueless of all films yesterday. I’d had an odd urge to watch it, as it’s a film that reminds me of LA. I saw Clueless while I was finishing High school, and I’m ashamed to say that as an English teenager, a few of us actually believed that American teenagers lived like that. I suspect a rare amount do, but Clueless is largely a parody. In any case, it led to a school full of English teenagers with ‘geordie’ accents (think weak Scottish), quoting the famous vocabulary.
Our high school experience in England is very different to here. I had the chance to go to an American homecoming football game a couple of months ago, and I was amazed by the school spirit and the huge celebrations. When we finished High school, we signed each other’s white uniform shirts and tied our ties around our heads/waists, etc for the day. Instead of a prom, some of us went to a local ice cream shop in our village. As English teenagers, we had a big fascination with America. It reminds me of a lyric by a band called Razorlight, who I think are getting popular over here now; “All my life, watching America.”
I’m reminded of just how much of our references are actually from the media and aren’t our real experiences. I’m using America as an example, because I know that growing up, most of the media I consumed was American, even though I was British. If I think of American high schools, I’ll think of Clueless, or Never been Kissed. I’ve never attended an American school, so my information about the subject will come from movies I’ve seen. When I went to see that Homecoming game, it was two worlds colliding- what I’d been fed by the media- and my own experience.
We all know the problem of stereotypes. They are often based in fact, but skewed by our own lack of experience of the real subject. We’re forced to gather information from biased sources. That’s what I love about film theory, or any theory for that matter. Any kind of theory is problematic. There are no right and wrong answers, just ideas, and what matters is the dance.
I often think of how American audiences who have never visited the UK perceive it. For my last year of film school, I studied British and Irish cinema. Studying British cinema meant looking at the problematic representation of our country through film. It’s problematic in the way that film is a directors point of view, that is forced to become a representation when viewed outside of it’s country of origin. It’s a similar principle to the way that actors who are not white heterosexual males always have a certain ‘burden of representation’, no matter who they play. They are forced to represent their minority group or gender.
England as Regency films; for example, Jane Austin adaptations; that make people assume that all we do is drink tea and eat cucumber sandwiches. Then we have gritty cinema, such as films by Ken Loach. As a personal opinion, I feel that British cinema either fodders our landscape, or points out the faults. I’ll pick out two well known British films- Trainspotting and Shaun of the Dead. Both films explore and parody the often mundane atmosphere in the UK; to quote Trainspotting; “Choose life, choose a washing machine…”In Neil Jordan’s Irish film, The Butcher Boy, Jordan famously super imposed an atomic bomb in the middle of an Irish landscape in retaliation to their landscape being constantly overused. In the same fashion, we British watch films about America and Hollywood, and we imagine a different exciting world to ours. Just as I imagine Americans may watch our Regency films and imagine our peaceful countryside and good manners.
As an odd analogy, I like both Polar bears and horses. I’ve owned a horse before, and spent lots of time as a child and teenager caring for horses. I have first hand experience of them. But Polar bears- aside from a sad one I saw once at a zoo – all my information has come from wildlife documentaries and books. If not for the media, I would be clueless about them. I’ve gained enjoyment from learning about them in an easy and organized manner. My alternative if not for TV, would be an expensive and perhaps dangerous trip into the Arctic. Is it better for me to know biased information on bears rather than none at all? How do I know that Polar bears are really dangerous? My evidence is solely from the media. Unless I walked up to a Polar bear, how could I be sure that the bear would maul me or not? To be extremely silly for a moment; how do I know that Polar Bears don’t get up on their hind legs and polish their armor, as in The Golden Compass? Although it’s three books and a film are completely outweighed by the sheer evidence of Polar bear researchers around the world; until I met a bear and talked to it, how do I know that it won’t talk back to me? How do I know that they’re not just playing dumb to the rest of the world? What if ‘The Golden Compass’ is a lone film of truth disguised as fiction? Is it time to book that trip to the arctic?
Co-incidentally, my graduate animated film a few years ago was a fiction piece about Polar bears; ‘Bearology’. I presented Polar bears from my knowledge from books, documentaries and from my own imagination. Are they fairly represented? I like to think so. But they’re not accurately represented, as I took many creative liberties with their behavior for the sake of my film’s plot. The answer to many of the questions that I’ve raised lies in how much do I trust the media?
In some countries, the media is controlled and vetted first by their governments. Luckily there is freedom of speech and media in both the UK and United States. We can trust our media, can’t we? The media is used to both entertain and inform. There are films made for different reasons, but a film will naturally fulfill both purposes. I’m lucky to have travelled to and lived in LA, so I know that Clueless is far from accurate sometimes. But what of the less-travelled person? As a British filmmaker now working in the American film industry, it’s a responsibility that’s definitely on my mind. If I work under an American director, but I’m British, will work I create truly represent America, or will it be somehow British? What makes me British? Am I qualified to represent the American media? I’m learning about the United States. Each day I’m here I’m replacing stereotypes with my own experience. If I decided to wait until I learned more, then how much time would be enough? The best I can do as a filmmaker is to be as well informed as I can be, through trust in worthy media and living in LA myself. I believe in the importance of travel when possible in such matters. Perhaps that’s when I’ll transcend my nationality in my work- when I question what I know with my own mind and stay wary of stereotypes until I can confirm or dismiss them in person whenever possible? After all, what I have learned growing up in England is only an attitude from it’s society. It is not an unchangeable ‘British gene’ that makes me crave tea and crumpets.
In conclusion, there’s no harm in questioning what we think we know sometimes, especially with information that isn’t our own to begin with.
Drawing my Klara; photo by img2.timeinc.net