Representation, pt. 1

The representation of nudity is much less interesting than, like, actual nudity.

This doesn't mean there is nothing to talk about with respect to representation in, say, Hollywood movies. I won't pretend I don't ever indulge, and I suppose it annoys me to see problematic representation of any kind, particularly if the movie was produced in an era when I suppose I expected better. Obviously this applies to lots of things, including subjects well-covered elsewhere: racism, misogyny, transphobia, and so on. But sometimes, the depictions are not so much morally egregious as they are gratingly unrealistic.

For instance, let's talk about language. Why did the grandmother in Krampus (2015) speak German for most of the movie, then reveal her backstory to the other characters while also revealing that she had been able to communicate in more-than-competent English the entire time, and then go back to communicating in a German that she definitely knew some of the other people involved in the unfolding life-and-death situation wouldn't be able to understand? It makes no sense. Why, in シン・ゴジラ (2016), did Satomi Ishihara's character—the daughter of a white American senator as well as a CIA operative—speak English to other American characters no less with a strong Japanese accent rather than a typically American one? The answer is pretty obvious: Ishihara's native language is Japanese, she wasn't provided adequate accent coaching, maybe she shouldn't have been cast in that role in the first place, and most of the movie's domestic audience probably wouldn't notice or care. But all of that is cold comfort for me.

I am a bit of a language nerd, so obviously this sort of thing distracts me. I get the sense that lots of academics also get a bit bothered by things they see in movies that happen to pertain to things they know a great deal about. These things may not matter much to the overall story or the average viewer, but for the informed minority, they are distracting, and make it harder to suspend disbelief.

In any case, on to nudity, a subject with which everyone is familiar.

Here's my proposal: when a character is naked—when nudity is a condition that a character is experiencing—it would be better to have a matter-of-fact cinematography that neither focuses on this fact nor hides it, rather than the weird and principally distracting dance that keeps various “private parts” hidden behind foreground objects. I don't want to be too categorical, of course, because the dance often has a bit of artistry to it. But it is a strange exigency that we could all do without.

It is frustrating, too, when characters aren't naked even though they ought to be. The word “ought” is a bit loaded, to be sure, but let me give an example. In the novel Life of Pi (2001), the main character's clothes rot away in the Sun and the salt quite early in the book; he ends up spending the majority of his time stranded in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean naked. In the 2012 film, however, he keeps some kind of loincloth on throughout his journey. This is hardly the greatest failing of that movie (my subjective opinion: the whole thing was bad), but logistically, it seems like this issue could have been more easily addressed than most others.

The only thing necessary would have been an actor willing to do the movie naked, and a production environment that would go with that idea. Then we would have had something truer to the images of the novel, and to the reality of what would actually happen in that situation (namely, being stranded in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean for the greater part of a year).

Problems of representation keep me from getting immersed in the stories. The biases and actions of the producers of the film come to the fore, and not what is happening in the world, with the characters. The fakery of it all is glaringly apparent and, once again, distracting.

So, I'm not interested in better representation. But I also don't mind better representation, when it happens—and I would even daresay that I could have benefited from various kinds of better representation when I was growing up, given that TV and movies were a significant part of my upbringing (and I think less self-conscious and/or sexual, and more matter-of-fact and frequent representation of normal human bodies, naked, would have been pretty beneficial for me). But I think it's important to go beyond representation, and not get sucked into the trap of trying to fight a culture war from a weaker position.

To the extent that a counterculture is able to form, with its own resources, its own prerogatives, and its own capacity to ignore or defy various kinds of externally imposed laws and regulations, perhaps it will produce some art that is better by various metrics. But this part comes second, I think, both in the sequence of events and the ranking of priorities.