The poem ?The Critick and The Writer of Fables? published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch?s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch?s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.
Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although?references to?”navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.
The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos
This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today?s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.
In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail?s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity?s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.
Having selected Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) as my ?Writers in Motion? film of choice, I watched it twice, first to take in the entire story and again to take notes. For further insight, I watched the DVD extras on screenplay writer Doug Wright’s commentary, costuming, setting and casting, searched for the text of the screenplay to read for sheer literary value, and hit JSTOR for some scholarly direction. I also found accounts of the Marquis de Sade?s real life on the Time Warner True Crime site and discovered another devoted to PVC fetish wear designed in the Marquis? name. Before I knew it, I had shoved so much material into my feeble little brain that my ability to create a single thesis ground to a screeching halt. I screamed, ?TOO MUCH INFORMATION!? and took a break. This is how I roll.
Reading Barsam?s last chapter of Looking at Movies offers the perfect springboard for this paper I have yet to begin. With graduation looming just 15 days away, that?s what I call salvation in print. One method Barsam suggests is a tracing of dualisms or binary oppositions. In Quills, that could include things such as:
- freedom of speech/censorship
Postmodern Realities in the Film The Last King of Scotland
To examine Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Giles Foden, is to explore the implications of historiographic metafiction as well as its limitations. This film, in particular, offers an interesting vantage point having been produced for Western society while simultaneously popular within Uganda. To reach some determinations, I will begin by addressing the ways in which fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, helps to reveal the problematic Western representation of Uganda’s former president, Idi Amin, a dictator known as the Butcher of Africa during his rule from 1970-1979. I will also examine the repercussions of Garrigan’s insertion into the story and the ways in which his presence impacts the Ugandan nation’s sense of history. By doing so, I intend to make a case for the ethical handling of postmodern art in order to avoid further Western colonization.
This film’s popularity in Uganda is undeniable, as is the reason for it. According to the New York Times World Africa video, “The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda” by Jeffrey Gettleman, nationwide accessibility to the DVD had been prevalent prior to the official release thanks to the influx of pirated DVDs from the Chinese underground. For the equivalent of 20 cents, as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda’s only theater, masses of people have continued to file into small huts lined with wooden benches to see their history (Gettlemen). National interest signals the grand scale of a Western cultural impact upon this African nation and the social effects are important to explore in order to avoid future erasure of Uganda’s historical heritage.
The reason for this film’s popularity is the disparity of historical knowledge that spans the generations. Seemingly not addressed for the youth by their education system, it appears that Ugandans are using this film to fill in their historical gaps, many referring to the ability for children to learn about their country (Capturing Idi Amin). According to the Washington Post article, “In Uganda, “Last King of Scotland” Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin,” Timberg explains why this film is so important to them:
For Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin’s reign, “The Last King of Scotland” gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history… After seeing the movie, said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, “it was, Wow, this is real.” (Timberg)
Anyone over twenty remembers Amin in some way. Mwesigwa has her own experience to compare with the film and comes to an interesting determination about reality. But is this real? Does this film constitute Uganda’s history? The answer to that question is not so clear.
Reference to the story as “real” is problematic in that?certain elements of the story are obviously not real. While contamination of reality is inherent in any narrative, this particular process begins with the novel. In the interview “Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland” conducted by BoldType, the English author (who spent a portion of his early life in Africa) is asked whether his portrait of Amin is based on “research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three.” Foden answers:
All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being “dictated” to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page. (Boldtype)
Foden embraces the stereotypical ideas surrounding the dictator, those of his disturbing behavior and belief in demonic possession, and applies them to the research process itself, as if the unearthing of facts is somehow unearthing Amin’s power and forcing Foden’s hand in what to write. This interpretation reveals the lens through which Foden performed his research, indicating his own biased making of meaning through his processing of facts. Foden also reminds us that his novel is ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain, a process that allows him to distill Amin’s many advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Screenwriters further distill Foden’s entire novel down to a screenplay where the collective influence of the director, producers, actors and editors departs from the novel and adds their own impact to the film.
When Ugandan viewers make meaning of the final product based on their own cultural experience, they seem to confuse the film The Last King of Scotland with history and reality. This confusion is understandable and reflects the concerns of theorist Frederic Jameson. As stated in Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:
The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified… the past as “referent” finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts. (Jameson, 18)
Jameson blames the postmodern, in this case historiographic metafiction, as having foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled the difference between fiction and reality. Furthermore, Jameson would argue that the filmmakers are referring to a history that never happened, a simulacrum, a copy with no original. History has been replaced by the likeness of history.
In response to Jameson’s disapproval, one must question whose telling of history gets privilege. History has generally been the tale of the victor or dominant culture. Theorist Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism offers an alternative position in relation to Jameson’s argument:
Such a clashing of various possible discourses of narrative representation is one way of signaling the postmodern use and abuse of convention that works to de-doxify any sense of the seamlessness of the join between the natural and the cultural, the world and the text, thereby making us aware of the irreducible ideological nature of every representation – of past or present… postmodern fiction does not, however disconnect itself from history or the world. It foregrounds and thus contests the conventionality and unacknowledged ideology of the assumption of seamlessness and asks its readers to question the processes by which we represent ourselves and our world to ourselves and to become aware of the means by which we represent ourselves and construct. (Hutcheon, 51)
Although the business of reality and historicity appears convoluted up to this point, to apply Hutcheon’s theoretical definition of historiographic metafiction allows for the elevation of the fictional Dr. Garrigan to the status of a useful tool used to explore the multi-faceted Amin and allowing for new interpretations. James MacEvoy who plays Garrigan says of his role:
This film is not just about Idi. It’s not just about Uganda. It’s about the way that Britain, and maybe the rest of the world… looked at Uganda because I’m very much Britain’s looking glass in the film (MacEvoy, Capturing Idi Amin).
MacEvoy, through his character, reflects back the full spectrum of how the British government has played a part in Amin?s dictatorship. Garrigan has access to Amin in ways that Amin’s friends, family, government, subjects and the international community never have. Many individuals saw only the side that Amin wanted them to see. The British media saw only what they wanted. Garrigan sees all.
The most widespread information about Amin’s dictatorship consists of a collage of stereotypes. Jon Snow, a well known journalist in the United Kingdom with former access to Amin says:
In the early 1970’s there was still a lot of racism about and I think Amin appealed to a racist stereotype of Africa. If he hadn’t existed we would have had to invent him. He was a perfect kind of larger than life, ogreous, you, know, people eating monster of a dictator. (Snow, Capturing Idi Amin)
The problem with this statement is that Amin was not always perceived as a “monster of a dictator.” In fact, he began as a loyal soldier of Britain, escalating in status from mess hall duty to commander and eventually president. He was initially known as a charismatic and gregarious man by the British government. So what brought about the change? If the movie teaches us anything new about Amin, it is that he was largely invented by the media through a dance of push and push-back.
MacDonald, Whitaker and McAvoy met with journalist Jon Snow to better understand Amin’s relationship with the press. As MacDonald recalls from their interview:
[Jon] had got to know Amin very well when he was a young journalist. He talked very interestingly about how Amin had seduced him, how he had seduced all the press corps. So even when people went to Amin to ask tough questions, to say “I’m going to find out what’s really going on in this country. I’m going to put him on the spot about his murders that we’ve heard about,” they would come away laughing. They would come away feeling that Amin was a decent guy. He was funny, and also the news desks back home would be saying, “Give us more of that footage of Amin dancing, or footage of Amin in his kilt. We love that. It’s so funny.” And Jon Snow says that he still feels guilty about that, that the press betrayed Uganda or let them down, at the very least. (MacDonald, DVD Commentary)
At the very least, the press failed to represent an accurate portrayal of Amin’s wrath and fury but that is not the least of it. Because the media played a significant role in suppressing all but Amin’s folly, they essentially created the caricature he had become and drew a stereotypical shield of protection around a madman’s murderous activities. This stereotype became a veil used by Amin himself. Amin’s character became a Saturday Night Live skit. Song parodies surfaced. On the “Sucks or Rules” website posted in November 2007, Amin’s image battles for votes against a picture of Bob’s bitch tits from Chuck Palahniuk’s contemporary film Fight Club. That this legacy of buffoonery continues today is lingering evidence of the enormous impact of 1970’s media.
This passage also reveals the reciprocal mastery of Amin’s personal representation, even at the time when his paranoia was out of control and there were international rumors surfacing about his massacre. He gave the press what they wanted and they settled for what he fed them, the “charming fool.” While journalists had no direct hand in Amin’s slaughter, they cannot be exonerated from playing their part. Snow may feel some remorse about the veil that media cast over the truth, allowing the world to giggle throughout the massacre of an estimated 300,000 people, but he appears to have little understanding of the media’s own bloodstained pen if, in 2006, he can say that the media would have created Amin had he not existed.
Amin intentionally re-represented this stereotype repeatedly to the press, in part because his reality had become terrorized by it and, in part, because the exertion of terror at his hands had exceeded it. According to MacDonald:
Amin wore a distorted mirror reflecting back to the colonial masters in Britain what he had learned from them. He took ideas like bagpipes and kilts and imposed them into a completely inappropriate world. In some horrible way he was like a sort of puppet who has come to life. He was like a plaything of the Empire that turned around and said, “boo.” (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
Like Hutcheon’s example of the marionette in Lady Purple, Amin becomes the puppet of the Empire, a dually constructed reality as both the stereotype and the representation of that stereotype. In this sense Amin is himself postmodern, somewhat illusory with his multiple costumes and cultural allusions, a fractured identity representing something beyond explanation and yet harkening toward something familiar.
More than that, the very tactics the British taught him as a soldier in their colonizing army, using the power found in the barrel of a gun, are the tools Amin used to shape his own national and international identity. Which is Amin’s real identity, clown or tyrant? His is neither under the constraints of the small box of meaning he is placed within and both simultaneously. In revealing the construction of the real by the press and by Amin, we reach a new understanding that representation becomes its own reality.
In The Last King of Scotland, although Amin addressed the press with complete composure and charm, Garrigan allows us access to the extreme rage and paranoia Amin unleashes behind closed doors, as well as his genuine struggle, confusion and cries for help to his advisors. Whitaker says of researching his role of Amin through countless interviews with those who knew widely varied sides of him:
I wonder if we can look at Africa without the context of intervention? There is a schism in African history, and Amin was a big product of it? He’s not Satan? He’s not the devil. My search was to find the reasons he made the decisions that he did. (Haygood, 1)
Through Garrigan, we learn the secrets that Amin’s advisers kept while in fear of their lives during his rule. Amin felt betrayed by the British. Once embraced and empowered by the country that flat out ignored his first massacre while in their service during Uganda?s colonization, the country had finally turned its back to him at the time of Uganda’s independence. This is the information that Whitaker refers to as having fallen into “history’s schism.” This interesting phrase implies a failure on the part of history in general, one that Garrigan’s story helps to supplement by revealing Amin as a multifaceted human being, lifting the veil from the limitations of media stereotyping and historical representation.
Although this new multifaceted representation of Amin is interesting, it does not come without a price. Regardless of the attempt to create a composite of Amin’s advisors through Garrigan, this character influences Amin’s decisions within the film and impacts storyboard situations that never actually happened. These events, in turn, fictionalize Amin?s story. Director Kevin MacDonald defends this by saying:
We have taken liberties, as the novel does and I think one of the reasons we feel happy doing that with Amin in particular is because there is something about [Amin] that is almost more fictional than it is real. You never really can pin down what the historical reality is. (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
This is Hutcheon’s point as well. One might consider this a small price to pay for the revelation of history’s limitations, and perhaps this is true in the case of the film’s attempt at respectful representation of Amin as a person. In other aspects of the film though, liberties are taken too far.
The story of Kay, one of Amin’s many wives, is as mythical and mysterious as Amin’s. Some suspect Amin killed her for being unfaithful, although, in Time Magazine’s 1977 article “Big Daddy in Books,” Kay’s most probable story is summarized in a review of Amin?s former health minister Henry Kyemba’s novel, A State of Blood:
For once, Kyemba exonerates Amin: “I do not believe, as I first did, that Amin had a direct hand in Kay’s death.” Instead, he writes, she died during an abortion that was being performed by her lover, a doctor. Kyemba speculates that the doctor dismembered the body in an effort to hide it, but then changed his mind; he committed suicide a few hours later. When informed of his former wife’s death, Amin requested that the body be sewed back together; at the funeral, he raged to her assembled family about her unfaithfulness. (“Big Daddy in Books,” 2)
In the film, there is a departure from this story. Kay and Garrigan have a one night stand and consequently conceive a child. Garrigan asks permission to use the presidential hospital to perform an abortion in order to spare Kay and himself a torturous death at the hands of an angry Amin. When Dr. Thomas Junju denies them access to Amin’s hospital, Garrigan asks, “What other choice does she have, some back street job in a village somewhere?” Thomas replies, “It’s the only choice you’ve left her. But I don’t expect it had crossed your mind here to wonder, a white man with a black woman. What does she need with such things? (The Last King of Scotland). Junju brings up a new colonizing aspect to Kay’s story that had never existed prior.
This interpretation is not simply new, it is riddled with a new sense of conflict, invoking global dichotomies from black/white, masculine/feminine and colonizer/colonized to the ultimate life/death situation. MacDonald explains his intentions:
The man with the black woman was kind of like the racial, political element which has not really been a part of the story so far. And suddenly we see it all from a different perspective. We see him as the white man who has come in to rape and pillage the country in a way and to use a woman in a way that, you know, was the old colonial manner of doing things. You see Garrigan in a different kind of light. (MacDonald, Director’s Commentary)
“Kind of like” does not begin to describe the message MacDonald is sending. Kay is not Garrigan’s first Ugandan conquest, although she is the most important. Garrigan had been scooping up resident women as he pleases since his arrival in Uganda. As Amin and Garrigan’s relationship grows close and they enter a love affair of sorts, Amin’s wife Kay becomes the outlet for Garrigan’s sexual manifestation of that love. Although Amin shares a great deal with Garrigan, Kay is something Garrigan takes without permission, violating not only the Ugandan leader’s trust, but by ultimately destroying Kay’s well being. The resulting child, a symbolic zygote of cultural fusion at the most basic human level, is aborted before it can see the light of day. For her infidelity, Kay is dismembered; her limbs positioned in a gruesome and unnatural position, and put on display at the city morgue by Amin, an adulterer himself. The film’s message here is that, while men enjoy freedoms not afforded to women, women who don’t remain in their place will suffer the gravest of consequences. This is the ideology that is being consumed and reinforced in Uganda for mere pennies a viewing.
That the filmmakers struggled with the inclusion of the dismemberment scene offers little comfort. The only available commentary sympathetic to Kay’s cinematic plight is that of Forrest Whitaker:
Idi Amin kills her, takes the body, cuts her up and sews the parts on differently, which is one of the most gruesome images in the film. And I think that image will stick with people really strongly. And that’s, that’s not true. (Whitaker, Capturing Idi Amin)
With his consuming interest in bringing authenticity to Amin?s role, Whitaker’s tone here is remorseful, as if he finds this a tragic failure within the film. On the contrary, the actress who played Kay, Kerry Washington says:
There are things about [Kay’s] life that people are very sensitive about. People that remember her get very upset when they remember her and while it’s true that she did have an affair behind Idi’s back and she did become pregnant and seek an illegal abortion, she did not have an affair with a white man, which is, you know, I guess, dramatic license. (Capturing Idi Amin)
Washington’s remarks are flippant at best. In the case of Producer Andrea Calderwood, the same holds true when she says, “We just felt it was such a powerful moment to dramatize Idi’s frame of mind we weren’t just being gratuitous about it” (Capturing Idi Amin). An awareness of the decimation of Kay’s memory exists on some level for these women, but not at the level it should. Amin and Garrigan are the prime focus, perhaps in part due to their gendered coding and internal acceptance of the message.
In the end, Garrigan is seen for the traitor he is to Amin and tortured. Hung from meat hooks through his bloody, pale, white chest with arms limply outstretch in the air, the imagery is strikingly Christ-like. Garrigan refuses to scream as if taking on the sorrow of the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered Ugandans, refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer the way he enjoyed watching his people suffer. Dr. Thomas Junju, the man who refused to help at the hospital, cuts Garrigan down and helps him to escape the country at the risk and eventual realization of his own peril. When Garrigan asks why Junju helps him after refusing to at the hospital, the Ugandan says, “Go home and tell the story to all. People will believe you because you are white” (The Last King of Scotland). This statement can be read in two ways, as a tool used to sell the film to Western audiences or as a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites. These interpretations are not exclusive to one another. Although this is the case, in this instance the director offers a frank assessment of reasoning behind this telling of the story. According to an article in the Washington Post, “[MacDonald] didn’t want a movie that fictionalized the story to the point where the white character becomes a heroic figure. ‘It’s unfortunately the economics of moviemaking,’ he says” (Haygood, 1). While meaning and interpretation of the film’s message essentially comes from within the text itself, it is difficult to ignore the operation of capitalism working to direct the tale in order to generate ticket sales.
With the film’s break from Amin and Kay’s lived experience, I return once again to the questions “Is this real? Is this Uganda’s history?” It appears that the answer is no on the most literal level, yet, on a subversive level, the film wholly reifies dominant cultural realities. Theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightenment specifically address the medium of film as a form of entertainment, calling out its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures while codifying the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and resistance is futile.
The ways in which this operates can be demonstrated through the specific relationship between Kay and Garrigan as outlined above. Horkheimer and Adorno explain:
In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted upon its victims. To offer and deprive them of something is one and the same? Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers on copulation. In films it is more strictly forbidden for an illegitimate relationship to be admitted without the parties being punished than for a millionaire’s son-in-law to be involved in a labor movement. In contrast to the liberal era, industrialized as well as pop culture may wax indignant at capitalism, but it cannot renounce the threat of castration. This is fundamental. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
This film’s message, not only of forbidden sex but of the forbidden combination of black and white, is imprinted upon both Western and Eastern cultures, reinforcing the ideology of cultural separation and domination of one over another. In this way, cinematic entertainment allows for now escape. “The culture industry tends to make itself the embodiment of authoritative pronouncements, and thus the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1234) We, as a newly global audience in this world of accessibility, do not confine our national ideologies within our own borders. While Western films offer the forbidden to reinforce that its attainability comes with sharp consequences, this Western message now dominates the globe.
What careful analysis of the film’s depiction of Amin reveals is that, rather than being a departure from contextualized history, or what Jameson calls “a ‘revolutionary’ break with the repressive ideology of storytelling generally,” (Hutcheon, 47) this film decenters the ideological notions of authenticity and subjectivity of film itself. In the handling of Amin, it demonstrates the power of news media’s influence of news media while simultaneously revealing that British news broadcasts offered no more objective truth than does this piece of fiction. Hutcheon would remind us that this is not an issue about media per se. Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and media’s neutralization of the “real” assumes that there was a “real” to begin with. She instead counters that “there is nothing natural about the ‘real’ and there never was, even before the existence of mass media” (Hutcheon, 31). Ultimately what we must understand is that narrative, whether in the form of historical record, journalism, cinematography or fiction, is inherently powerful in its representation but also has limitations.
For The Last King of Scotland, this is where the power of historiographic metafiction ends. Through the seduction and consequential murder of Kay as well as the depiction of Garrigan as the white savior of Uganda, the film becomes Western film culture’s colonization of Ugandan history working to reinforce the power of white dominant culture. Horkheimer and Adorno see the only ability to transcend made available through true art. This art:
certainly cannot be detached from style; but it does not consist of the harmony actually realized, of any doubtful unity of form and content, within and without, of individual and society; it is to be found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
What Horkheimer and Adorno call for here, in essence, is the work of the postmodern. Like Hutcheon, they describe the kind of art that truly wrestles with and de-doxifies ideology in order to reveal its power and flaws. As The Last King of Scotland proves, the power of historiographic metafiction is reduced dramatically when it is centered on the laws of capitalism. Its ethical power to expose and inspire revolution against powerful ideologies can only be unleashed when art is produced for art’s sake and not for profit.
“Big Daddy in Books” TIME Magazine. Time Inc. Sep 19, 1977. October 24, 2007 This article covers breaking news of Amin in the 70’s as well as the rise in film and books addressing topics to do with the dictator. The review of A State of Blood, written by Amin’s former health minister, Henry Kyemba, is addressed in the majority of the article. This is where I pulled my information on Kay’s death from in order to compare it with the film’s version. Kyemba is an interesting author to cite since he acted a part in the film as well.
“Capturing Idi Amin” Special Feature Documentary. The Last King of Scotland. DVD. 2006. Two Step Film/BBC Scotland. 2007. Asking a question similar to my own, this film explores the implications of inserting fiction into reality. This is helpful in gathering many Ugandan viewpoints in reaction to the movie as well as what the people hope it will accomplish within their own country. It also provides access to Amin?s Minister of Health, and others who remember Amin.
The Last King of Scotland. Dir.Kevin MacDonald. Perf. Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. Primary text.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. “From Dialectic of Enlightenment From The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1223-1240. Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory says that the culture industry, specifically that of film, functions as more than a form of entertainment. They call attention to its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures and expose the ways in which it codifies the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and that resistance is futile. I specifically use the description of forbidden sex, offered and revoked within the film as a lesson for life.
Haygood, Wil. “This Role Was Brutal: Forest Whitaker Tried to Humanize Tyrant Amin.” Washington Post. October 1, 2006. December 1, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article addresses all the ways in which Forest Whitaker educated himself on Amin in order to bring him to life. The portions useful to my thesis are where Whitaker says Amin has fallen into the “schism” of history, a useful commentary about the limitations of history in general. It also depicts how Director Kevin MacDonald envisioned the story. MacDonald states that the “economics of moviemaking” requires a white heroic figure. This falls in line with my use of Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory to prove that this film provides a certain cultural reality.
Gettleman, Jeffrey, Adam B. Ellick, and Courtenay Morris. “The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda.” New York Times. February 21, 2007. October 26, 2007. <http://video.on.nytimes.com/> This video highlights the film’s premiere in Uganda and the reception of this western production within the country. There are several references to the accuracy of Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin and a young man who brings his young brother to learn Ugandan history. The most pertinent piece of information is the widespread DVD underground allowing nationwide access to the film. It demonstrates the grand scale impact of Western culture upon the Ugandan nation.
“Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland.” Boldtype. December 1998. October 25, 2007 <http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1298/foden> This interview with Foden explains his consolidation of Amin’s cabinet into the character of Garrigan and his process in selecting facts to include about Amin. This, in conjunction with Hutcheon demonstrates the fluidity of meaning surrounding facts in history and fiction.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Hutcheon explains historiographic metafiction which, through dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitation employed by the medium of narrative. I use this theory to defend the insertion of fictional Garrigan within the history of Idi Amin as the character provides a new view into Amin, the man.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. Jameson’s points about the postmodern confusion of fact and fiction and the lack of lived history being identifiable is one way to look at historiographic metafiction. With the loss of the referent, this explains the Ugandan’s conflation of fiction and history. It also contrasts nicely with Hutcheons’ positive analysis of the postmodern as performing a very specific task.
MacDonald, Kevin. “Director’s Commentary” The Last King of Scotland. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. MacDonald provides the back story on filming with Ugandan extras, experiences with Amin research and representation, and the western viewpoint of Ugandan culture. There are too many ways to list in which this information influenced my writing. Suffice it to say that the impact is immeasurable.
“Man Boobs vs. Idi Amin.” Sucks or Rules. DWLyle. November 4, 2007, November 24, 2007 <http://www.sucksorrules.com/battles/detail/people/156911/man-boobs-vs-idi-amin>. This website pits one image against another and allows members to vote on which one sucks or rules. Although the point is unclear, what is interesting is that Idi Amin, a postmodern butcher of a dictator is pitted against Meatloaf’s man boobs from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Amin continues to infiltrate pop culture.
Timberg, Craig. “In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain.” Washington Post. February 27, 2007. October 26, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article covers the ways in which Hollywood’s Oscar buzz surrounding the film impacted Ugandan’s in Kampala. He mentions that there are drastic differences between Amin, Foden’s novel, and finally the film and compares the film with others about Africa that have been successful in Uganda. The last paragraph was most useful, highlighting the reactions of a realistic view of history through this piece of film fiction.
The following is a rambling research proposal of sorts.
In my paper, I’ll be examining the film “The Last King of Scotland.” The movie is about a 1970’s real Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, whose life is exposed through his relationship with the main character, a fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan. Garrigan, although based on the collective real men in Amin’s council, varies in cultural origin and significantly influences several less-than-real events within the film. Through this main character, the film moves away from historical representation at the same time it attempts to provide access to it.?Reacting to the film’s powerful story, a Ugandan extra on location interviewed in the DVD special features says he is glad that Ugandan children can watch this film and finally learn about their national history. But is this history? What are the implications of historeographic metafiction in a culture beyond the borders of America, and what are its limitations? (Real thesis to come.)
To answer, I’d first like to brush Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism up against Ugandan reactions to the film’s release, examining the postmodern as a means of political and capitalist consumption of culture in Third World countries. When Hollywood, in the name of profit, represents “history” through a predominantly white, fictional lens, what are the implications? Are there limits to what historiographic metafiction can or should responsibly do? To pick out the problems within the actual production, it will be interesting to watch the movie twice more, once strictly for content and once with the director’s commentary switched on. More on this later…
The other side of the coin is Hutcheon’s point that history has always been representation, and true access to reality has only been an assumption. In this regard, historiographic metafiction has the ability to reveal more than the victor’s historical narrative. According to an interview with the film’s director, he suggests that the fictional Scottish Doctor allows a more personal window into dictator Idi Amin, a man who has traditionally been known more-so through mythical stories than fact all along. (I’ll have to watch again to get the exact quote.)
Amin is an interesting problem unto himself. It is known that, during the time of Amin’s rule, journalist access was limited to panel interviews with this man alone. His account was the sole authority of the state of his country. Witnesses to Amin’s slaughter within the country were unreachable and outsiders were unsure whether the mass killing was real. Amin also presented his own personal limitation, offering one side of himself to the press and exhibiting quite another behind closed doors. Fiction certainly provides more perspective into Amin as a character, but this not to be mistaken for reality.
Considering these varied ideas, has historiographic metafiction offered distorted interpretation or greater understanding? Preliminary research has already produced a quote pertinent to Jameson’s point. According to “In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin” By Craig Timberg of the Washington Post:
For Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin’s reign, “The Last King of Scotland” gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history.
“After seeing the movie,” said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, “it was, ‘Wow, this is real.’ “
More appropriately phrased, this movie is merely a believable representation of the real. Mwesigwa’s reaction is problematic in that the story is not “real.” According to Jameson, this form has foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled fiction from reality.
According to “Absolute Power, A chameleonic Forest Whitaker dominates an awkward Idi Amin biopic” by Ella Taylor of the Village Voice:
The Last King of Scotland deals with real events filtered through Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, in which Garrigan serves as a composite of numerous white advisers with whom Amin surrounded himself, then mercilessly cut off when they no longer served his purposes.
To unpack this description is to reveal the multiple layers of removal from the real:
- Actual events as they happened
- Distillation of Amin’s advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan
- Foden’s narrative process
- Conversion from novel to screen play
- Collective influence of director, producer and actors
- Further editing
- Viewer interpretation
Contamination of the real is inherent in any narrative, yet this particular process is influenced by a great many people who had never personally experienced Amin’s regime.
An interview in Boldtype “Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland” reveals the tricky process of narration prior to the further imposition of film placed upon the real. Although the English author spent much time in Africa as a child, witnessing bodies in the rivers and other horrific sights, he had no personal access to Amin.
BT: Is your portrait of Amin based on research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three?
GF: All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being “dictated” to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page.
While Foden’s research lends authenticity to the narrative, his selection of facts shapes what is told and, in the end, he reminds us that this is ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain.
At the end of “The Last King of Scotland” there is a scene where the fictional Dr. Garrigan, viewed as a traitor, is being tortured by Amin. He gets hung on what look like meat hooks through the chest and, as he hangs, the imagery is similar to Christ hanging on the cross. In fact, he refuses to scream – as if he is taking on the sorrow of the thousands Amin had slaughtered and refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer. Garrigan is eventually rescued as Amin’s attention is distracted and when he asks the man who takes him down why he did it, the Ugandan says that if Garrigan escapes, perhaps the story of the Ugandan people with finally be heard, particularly because Garrigan is white and has the power to draw the attention of nations who can help. In the end, the implication is that Uganda is rescued by the white savior.
Is this a tool used to sell the film to American audiences or is it a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites? I can see how both are plausible. Perhaps this is where the power of historeographic metafiction offers a view into the untold and unheard story of those people slaughtered. At the same time, it reinforces the power of the dominant culture.
According to the New York Times: World Africa video, “The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda” by Jeffrey Gettleman, much care has been taken by the film crew to portray events as authentically as possible. Filming within the country and using Ugandan extras allowed Forrest Whitaker to speak with the people about their memories. In his portrayal of Idi Amin, Whitaker’s accent and actions also provide a certain amount of authenticity, according to Jingo, a native actor and American movie translator in Uganda. Many have remarked that Whitaker had become Amin. (Quotes to follow.)
Gettleman’s article, “A Film Star in Kampala, Conjuring Amin’s Ghost,” also reveals that the representation may not be far off the mark:
“This is not a bad attempt at history,” said Henry Kyemba, the author of “A State of Blood,” a book he published in exile in 1977 about his years as a minister in Amin’s government.
Kyemba, having been a minister to Amin, is probably the best barometer of the films success in capturing any similarity to the real. His experience lends an authority that most viewers can only imagine. Still, he is but one man with one perspective in an organization of many who had a deadly impact upon an entire nation.
The film’s significant social impact is obvious as Gettleman’s video references the prevalence and popularity of the illegal pre-release thanks to the DVD underground. Nationwide accessibility is available for 20 cents as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda’s only theater. Although it is difficult to gauge the widespread social impact, the only thing known for sure is that postmodern globalization is merging cultures and overwriting that which it erases. Perhaps, while this is inevitable, it can be handled respectfully and responsibly as “The Last King of Scotland” attempts to do.
While the above reports put a positive spin on the film’s reception and acceptance in Uganda, it will be interesting to see whether I can find a different angle or if I’ll be forced to read between the capitalist glorification of American publications.
So much for the seedling? as I wrote, the darn thing continued to grow. I can picture Dr. Middleton rubbing her hands together with a satisfied and somewhat sinister smile saying, “This was my plan all along.”
Between the pages of 155 and 268, our narrator, Powers, and Dr. Lentz struggle with their traditional masculine roles, feeling that they must care for and protect their women. Lentz feels responsible for his wife Audrey’s stroke occurring directly after their argument while?he was intentionally unreachable. Guilt ridden for not taking enough care, he visits her waning consciousness with daily devotion at the Center. Powers also cares for his lost and confused C. but learns that:
The more care I took, the more I turned her into the needy one. And the more I did that, the needier she became. We construed her neediness between the two of us. And that was not care on my part. That was cowardice. (240)
Together, Powers and Lentz search for some sort of answer to the masculine condition through the production and training of Helen, the beloved and experimental neural net in Galatea 2.2. Lentz, although he can’t change the past, has the desire to change the future, developing a way to back up the brain in the case of memory failure. Powers interprets and mulls this goal:
We could eliminate death. That was the long-term idea. We might freeze the temperament of our choice. Suspend it painlessly above experience. Hold it forever at twenty-two. (170)
We have yet to learn what Powers gains from the experiment, but perhaps Donna Haraway might offer a clue.
Pulling out the ol’ Norton, I brushed up on Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” several quotes of which were rather pertinent to Helen. First off, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism — a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (2269). Already, in this one definition, the cyborg blurs the boundaries of human, animal?and machine as well as reality and fiction.
Since Helen is essentially a new “other,” her existence could be construed as a cultural encounter similar to, for example, that of Europeans and Native Americans. It is assumed from the ideology at hand that one must dominate the other. That said, how is it possible to avoid the dominant/male and submissive/female trap that haunts the majority of historical human existence? According to Haraway, the power lies within the technology.
The cyborg has no origin story? they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. (2270-2271)
According to Haraway, Powers and Lentz are “inessential” as fathers. Once they load the data, Helen thinks on her own. Although Powers has coded Helen with gender, it is within the power of the cyborg to blur the boundaries of such a dichotomy as the masculine and feminine. Once blurred, perhaps some revelation will be made to both about the roles of men and women in society.
While this unique lesson of love between man and machine has yet to be revealed , one thing is certain. Helen has already invoked much discussion about what constitutes human intelligence, blurring the distinction between true knowledge and switch flipping. Are we nothing more than weighted switches constantly back-feeding input through our neural nets, or is there something inherently human that sets us apart from a machine?
I’ll be turning pages rapidly to find out.