What Is a Movie?

I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them.
– John Nash, A Beautiful Mind


I’m your average Jane when it comes to movies. As a member of Netflix, I’ve opted for the one-movie-at-a-time-for-$6.99 package. The only technical film operation I am familiar with is filling my online movie queue, checking snail mail, and pressing “play.” Thank goodness for Richard Barsam’s guide, Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. Without it, the lexicon used both in the production/direction and analysis of film would be lost on me. The closest I have come to analyzing film technique, aside from story, is when I found porn in my genealogical research. Essentially, until now, I’ve preferred to see without really looking.

That said, and since class didn’t officially have to write for today, I’m just going to wrap up Chapter 1, “What Is a Movie” for myself. You?re welcome to read along.

To summarize ultra-simplistically, a film is both form and content inextricably intertwined on celluloid (unless it’s digital). That’s the easy part. It’s the myriad ways in which form and content can be manipulated that blows my mind:

  • Through the camera lens (as both perspective and frame)
  • Coexpressibility of time and space (parallel edits and montages)
  • Lighting (chiaroscuro: a term that describes contrasts of light and dark which I?m thrilled to recognize from an oil painting class)
  • Via the constructed illusion of realism and the opposite, or antirealism (fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers)
  • Striving for verisimilitude: a convincing appearance of truth based on “realistic” expectations as well as a filmmaker’s and audience’s mediation of conventional and innovative cinematic language (scenes, sequences, dissolves, etc.)
  • Through a flexible dependence upon the conventions and overlap of genres and subgenres
    • Narrative or fiction (action, biopics, comedy, fantasy, film noir, etc.)
    • Non-fiction (factual, instructional, documentary, propaganda)
    • The conflation of both via historiographic metafiction (This note is my own written especially for Michael)
    • Animation (drawing, puppet or clay animation, pixilation, computer animation)
    • Experimental film (Un Chien Andalou – An Andalousian Dog, as the book translates – is on UbuWeb if you want to see it. The eyeball scene is a trip.)

In the end, it is all simply an illusion of movement – but a complicated one at that. And so here we end where we’ll begin another day…


FoYoInfo: English Department Visiting Scholar
Jim Collins Lectures on Film and New Media
April 8th, 7-9 p.m. in Saint Joseph Hall

Does anybody wanna go?
(The old Postmodernism gang perhaps?)


PS: How odd to be reading references to the filming of Brokeback Mountain on the day that Heath Ledger was found dead.

Charles Baxter’s Defamiliarization

Charles Baxter’s Defamiliarization: A Summary

In Burning Down the House, Baxter addresses the issues of stale character and meaning in fiction. Avoidance of overdetermined characters and events is achieved through what he calls defamiliarization. Only when this idea is employed does a piece of fiction become interesting.

To create fictitious people in the same way an elegy is written about the deceased is to create something flat. “Such a recital is all overdetermined. All the arrows point in one direction” (31). A limited scope of the whole of the person is neatly packaged and presented as deemed fit by societal expectations. The result is a staging of what Baxter calls “the show business of every day life” (29). This predictable approach, where characters are created according to form, is what detaches them from memory. They are “overparented” by the author. Characters must be comprised of more than one side. A reader identifies most with interesting details of struggle and failure; otherwise a character has nothing to distinguish him or herself from the norm. As Baxter says, “the difference between fictional art and public rhetoric is that in fiction, the arrows point in all sorts of directions” (32). In essence, the character becomes an identity with which the reader is too familiar.

The way in which an author creates meaning in a story can fall into the same trap. To focus on one “truth” and fit the narrative neatly within the boundaries of that truth is to deny the reader dramatic tension. There is no learning involved. Modernists felt that “truth had gotten stale” (36) and cliche so they broke the rules and shook their audience. After they ran out of rules to break, time passed and what they had produced had also become familiar. As Baxter says, familiarity means security and the “power to predict” (38). In this attempt at newness, what becomes new also becomes old. Additionally, the avant-garde approach of innovation and marginality offers no real solution. To throw out the old for mere novelty simply creates and adds to the confusion avant-garde artists construct. Baxter believes we need an alternative approach and offers the solution of defamiliarization.

Defamiliarization is “a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready made symbolization” (42). Viktor Shklovsky calls the silhouette concept algebrization, “the process of turning an event or familiar object into an automatic symbol” (41). This factor which can be plugged in to mean something familiar fails to add interest. Baxter combats this boredom with an idea of Gerard Baxter Hopkins, that “images [become] memorable when some crucial part of their meaning [has] been stripped from them” (41). Mundane, predetermined meaning must be removed from objects and images to add unpredictability. Another form of defamiliarization is misalignment or diversion from a single truth via juxtaposed contradictions of emotion. People often feel many opposing emotional reactions when impacted by a single change in their lives. These combinations represent simultaneous forms of existence within one individual and create an unpredictable outcome. It becomes uncertain which emotion will rise to the surface and influence the next action. Another tool in the arsenal of defamiliarization is point of view. This provides the framework of observation and works best when the narrator doesn’t know what their own journey means. Their position offers a picture that is moderately strange. This speaks to the idea of renormalization, where “moderately strange in the middle of ordinary is the lens for focusing the ordinary. Without it, the ordinary has nothing against which to define itself” (49). Ultimately, defamiliarization is about “not finding ourselves where we expected to be but where we did not expect to be found, and at a moment when our defenses are down” (49).

Works Cited
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1997.

Historical and Perpetuated Colonization in The Last King of Scotland

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.

Annotated Bibliography

“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.


Self Analysis

ANALYSIS PART I: I am the One Trick Pony

As I wrestle with what postmodernism means, how it functions, and what I’ve written about it, I’ve discovered that I am absolutely obsessed with limits. Reading through my blog I see frustration with and examination of:

  • language as limitation on thought
  • the subject’s limited ability to represent
  • limits on history as merely one version of truth
  • limits on context within postmodern fiction
  • and limits of form when representing the real.

Is this supposed to be therapeutic? I’m just asking. I suppose it’s cheaper than therapy, although I don’t recall seeing it on the ENG377 syllabus.


2007.09.02 Modern or Postmodern? That is the Question.
2007.09.06 So, What’s the Difference?
2007.09.07 Written WITH the Body
2007.09.09 ‘I’ – Thinking
2007.09.14 Where the Story Starts
2007.09.17 Post Modo Condition
2007.09.19 Fight Club – The Movie
2007.09.20  Futurism in Fight Club (add-on to previous post)
2007.09.25 Why Jameson’s Piece is Postmodern
2007.09.29 Life in Dying
2007.10.02 Fight Club Environmentalism
2007.10.05 Making Sense (???)
2007.10.08 Cindy Sherman
2007.10.10 Linda Hutcheon (expertise project)
2007.10.15 Nikki Lee

2007.09.01 To Esther on Post/Modern Stance
2007.09.01 To Misty on Post/Modern Stance
2007.09.07 To Kim H. on Winterson
2007.09.07 To Alex on Winterson
2007.09.17 To Michael on Winterson
2007.09.17 To Christine on Winterson
2007.09.23 To Marina on Fight Club, the film
2007.09.23 To the Class Experts on Lyotard
2007.09.29 To Hannah on Fight Club, the book
2007.09.29 To Esther on Jameson
2007.10.04 To Zena on Fight Club, the book
2007.10.04 To Tammy on Fight Club, the book
2007.10.15 To Aliya on Cindy Sherman
2007.10.15 To Melissa on Hutcheon

Postmodernism has revealed the ways in which I’m confined within the ideological prison of my own thought, AND it has simultaneously slipped me the key to freedom. Now that I understand how postmodernism functions, I see it in fiction, film, magazines and photography. It has become relevant in my other classes and has even jumped out at me while watching television. I love that ideology is being exploited all over the place, but still, I have one question burning deep within my soul. It’s the one that everyone in class either fully?understands or isn’t asking.

When Lyotard says:

“The artist and the writer , then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done” (Lyotard, 81)

I still need to know… What the Hell does this mean?!?!

Moving on, the following passage from “‘I’-Thinking” shows my concern for the limits of language and subject:

I found what Winterson hasn’t written is most important. Where power exists and determines what is “acceptable,” or at least “attributable,” lies in our perception of how the masculine and feminine are defined by language. (Hello Saussure, my old friend.) Winterson’s brilliance demonstrates the subversive by using that very device. The notion of the free-“thinking I” is exposed for all its cultural baggage.

Here I refer to Cixous’ idea that language shapes our thoughts along problematic dichotomies such a masculine/feminine, strong/weak, etc. Winterson challenges the reader’s need to assign a male or female identity to her genderless narrator, pointing out the limitation of “thought dichotomies” in practice. Rereading this passage surprises me after just having just presented on Hutcheon. While my language here isn’t quite right, the idea of the self-reflexive operation is interesting. Both the power of language to define, and the limitations as it confines are revealed simultaneously. Perhaps we discussed this idea in class that day, but prior to reading Hutcheon (my hero) I didn’t think I understood. Apparently I did. Go me.

Don’t you worry. I’m not getting all high and mighty over this one small victory. I continually struggle with other issues, particularly the end result of mixing fact and fiction in historeographic metafiction. All across my blog and strewn about comments to classmates are references to the movie The Last King of Scotland. Apologies “for bringing it up once again” generally accompany the post because I can’t seem to let it go. In “Why Jameson’s Piece is Postmodern” it appears for the third time:

This movie is … about a very real Ugandan dictator, but his life is revealed through the perception of a fictional doctor… the main character with significant influence on very disturbing events within the film… Then, in the DVD special features, Ugandan extras said they are glad children can watch this film and finally learn about Ugandan history. (BIG) PROBLEM! This isn’t history!… Will Ugandan children know? I think not.

Here is where I get stuck between Jameson and Hutcheon. Like Jameson, I have this engrained notion that context is important. As I say later in the same post, I attribute my discomfort with this specific historical fiction to the fact that this film will likely be the only access Ugandan children have to their country’s history. Since they have no background in postmodern analysis, they will surely mistake this representation (one portrayed through the lens of white culture) for the real. This is the result of Third World, culture consuming capitalism that Jameson talks about.

On the other hand, when it comes to my personal consumption of the postmodern, I want the veil lifted from the powerful ideology that orders my world. To understand that there is no one absolute truth, as far as I can see, is the only way to open the door to new ideas… without limitation (ha!). Hutcheon, with her positive spin on the postmodern and its power to reveal, is – quite frankly- my hero, as I’ve already stated above. I’m not sure if I will ever resolve this internal conflict. I fully believe there is value to both sides of this coin.

From the argument above, my question becomes, what is real or contextual anyway? Hutcheon says that “history” has only ever been a representation and access to “reality” has only ever been an assumption. To follow this thought into the realm of photography, as I understate when summing up my “Cindy Sherman” post:

Interestingly, using a doll as an unrealistic representation of a human being, although it seems to be a drastic difference of subject/object from the first [human] pictured above, is no different in concept. Sherman brilliantly exposes photographic “realism” as equally flawed in all.

Sherman offers a quick and dirty example of Hutcheon’s self-reflexive form. Her photography is used to demonstrate the power of historic photo documentation and realism as it influences our perception of reality, to subvert it using the very form we trust to be real, and to reveal the ways in which photography fails to grant access to the real at all. By subverting or turning the medium in on itself, the limitations of ideology implode. Sherman is at once artist/actress, subject/object, woman/cliche. When I see this mental back flip in action, it makes my heart soar. I want to scream “THAT’S A PERFECT TEN!”

And yet… there is still The Last King of Scotland playing to children in Ugandan theaters. Thanks to Hutcheon and Sherman I’m left to wonder whether concepts are more or less important than the events that actually happened. Is the insertion of a fictional narrator within an historical setting really any different than the history written by a textbook author with an eye toward patriotism? The more I grasp how little we’ve learned from a history we’ve assumed was real, perhaps this fictionalized account of a real dictator bears less negative impact than the lessons learned from such a story. I suppose the best we can do is handle postmodernism with care, limiting its political and capitalist consumption of culture in the Third World… whatever that means.

PART II: Old Tricks, New Tricks

And the award for best posts to date goes to:

  • Life in Dying
    I felt I made a new connection in Fight Club between body, as the limited modern form striving to achieve a real experience, and the soul or idea of legend as postmodern form struggling to break free from the limitations of form. I spent FAR more time on this than any other post, engaging with the narrative as well as narrative- through- the- lens- of- theory, and organizing these thoughts into essay form. Yeah, I was home alone for two days.
  • Making Sense (???)
    Here I was able to follow several significant threads discussed in class, applying one aspect of a particular theory to every text. Addressing issues from the complication of all our narrators, to the problematic concept of gender, I was able to beat these topics into submission, taming my unruly, jumbled thoughts.

The award for best comment to date:

  • To Zena on Butt- Wipe
    This comment engaged with Zena’s question, recounted a class comment, brought in textual evidence, and also taught me a thing or two in writing it.

The award for best classmate post goes to:

  • Esther’s “I Can Spell Jameson, So It’s Not a Bad Start”
    This post came along right when I needed it, particularly since Esther posts early, if not on time. She summarizes the highlights of Jameson’s theory, adds visuals to demonstrate her argument of lacking historical reference in architecture against Jameson’s need for context, and poses a few questions for comment. You just can’t ask for more.

Based on my previous accomplishments, these next three goals?are what I plan to strive toward for the remainder of my blogging career:

  • Increased engagement with comments
  • I should get over my need to be original and address some class topics already. I’m always pushing so hard to move beyond what has already been discussed. The alternative would be to “go deep.” Wait, I do that.
  • More humor. I used to be funny.
  • More silly pictures. That used to be fun too.
  • Oddly, perhaps I need to spend LESS time banging out these marathon posts and more time on other classwork – or just living life.

How to achieve these things? I could just relax. The problem is that I find this class so darn interesting. Yeah. I happen to like taking our shiny, new information out for a spin through the informal blog, particularly where a little misjudgment and hitting the guard rail is allowed. Sue me.

Life in Dying

An obvious theme throughout Fight Club is the partnering perceptions of death between the narrator and his alter ego, Tyler Durden. Obvious though it may be, the intricacies challenge our own perceptions, making us ask which is right. Either? Elements of both? None? And how does this relate to the shift from the modern to the postmodern?

In response to the narrator’s living death, his doctor rejects the plea for chemical escape from the emptiness of the waking dream. He says, “Insomnia is just the symptom of something larger. Find out what’s actually wrong. Listen to your body” (9). From this advice comes the equation of the narrator’s empty soul with his ailing physical form. (Consider the connection of modern form and function.) The narrator recognizes this in himself when he says “the bruised, old fruit way my face had collapsed, you would’ve thought I was dead” (9). This idea of the body and soul as inextricably connected, the former a symptom of the latter, is echoed in the support groups for the diseased. The narrator finds it “easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will either reject you or die.” Crying cures his insomnia because, for him, “losing all hope [is] freedom” (12). For the narrator, dying bodies, if only in part, are a release from the meaningless empty space between birth and death. Through oblivion and destruction the ultimate end becomes the beautiful freedom of escape from society and all its rules.

Tyler sees things differently. For him, death is not the end. In chapter 1, the opening scene, a gun is jammed in the mouth of the one body that makes his conscious self possible, and the Parker Morris building he stands on is about to slam down on the national museum. Flanked by death on all sides, Tyler says, “We really won’t die … This isn’t really death. We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old” (1). For Tyler, death is a merely the transition of being. He is enamored with becoming legend. To eradicate previous history, that which is trapped in statistic data, financial?records, and even old literature and art is not the true essence of what makes life worth living. He wants to replace the old and dead with the realization of his own legend, “This is our world, now, our world … and those ancient people are dead” (4). The ancient dead he refers to are the living museum legends he is about to obliterate, destroying all historical record of old ways of thinking. For Tyler, oblivion and destruction are not the ultimate end, but a way for him to live forever. In fact, through Fight Club, he endeavors to destroy his own body or form, to find the true meaning of what he is made of, a notion unachievable through the material world.

Recognizing the insanity within Fight Club, there are obviously deep seated issues with both approaches. The narrator, by using other people’s dark, dying bodies in order to recognize the sweetness of life, is cheating and he feels it most when Marla enters the support group scene. “Marla’s lie reflects my lie, and all I can see are lies … and all of a sudden even death and dying rank right down there with plastic flowers on a video as a non-event” (12). His death and rebirth are copies of a non-event. He experienced neither as something tangible or real. He avoids connecting deeply with his own mortality and must return for a nightly fix of something he has yet to internalize himself. This offers no escape from the emotionally barren life he continues to fill with material goods. Without making fundamental life changes (abandoning the goods, living in the moment and relinquishing the desire of dying to escape) he cannot fully escape his nightmare.

Tyler, while fascinated with the idea of legacy and legend, is simultaneously repulsed by it. He finds himself in a catch 22. As with his log arrangement, creating a shadow hand at the beach where “for one perfect minute Tyler had seated himself in the palm of perfection he’d created himself,” he goes on to say, “a person has to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection [is] worth the effort” (22). The question one must ask is would sitting in the palm of perfection have been so sweet had the narrator not marked the moment by bearing witness to it? Moving forward to the high rise scene, how will Tyler survive death without tracking his new chaotic moment in a historical context the very likes which he wants to destroy? History is the very vehicle that transcends death, giving people life long after their bodies fail. (C’mon, Esther. This is where your first chapter Jesus reference enters in.)

We’re left with the utopic idea that one must give up both history and the material while embracing death to appreciate life. This is the path to living freely in the perfection of the moment. But what is perfection exactly? According to the second law of thermodynamics, all systems tend toward a state of disorder. Tyler is stuck between believing that disorder is the natural, perfect state and yet he is lost as to how to create meaning within that chaotic state. According to his actions, perfection is not natural but something to work toward, a human creation subject to individual perspective and impossible to recognize without context. He is at once modern and postmodern.

Wrestling with what death means, whether as an end or a new beginning, challenges us to think about how we order meaning in this world. I turn to the theoretical debate between Lyotard and Jameson on what the postmodern can do after the death of the modern period, in the temporal sense. Lyotard says in Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?:

Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement [of postmodern experimentation], we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name. (82)

This sounds much like Tyler’s symbolic eradication of a capital institution (the narrator’s disdain for the body) imprisoning and terrorizing the old meanings of the past (the narrator’s waking nightmare). It is the recognition of and attempt to break free from the modern idea that perfection is a form inextricable from function. Tyler wants a new form, or no form, or maybe just reference to old forms to create new meaning. He wants access to the freedom that lies within the grey areas, the presentation of the unrepresentable. Whatever form this takes in the end, he first and foremost requires a (the) narrator.

Jameson, although he finds himself plagued by the postmodern, also feels that we must do it justice. In Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism he says:

This is not then, clearly, a call to some older and more transparent national space, or some more traditional and reassuring perspectival or mimetic enclave: the new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object – the world space of multinational capital – at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our new positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spacial as well as our social confusion. (54)

Jameson’s conclusion is what Tyler butts up against in his execution of chaos and mayhem. Once you destroy what exists, what do you replace it with? Even when beginning anew, one desires to contextualize experience. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is the answer, tracing how we get to the new even as we eradicate the old beyond recognition. If you destroy the body to free the soul, the soul loses context, unless, of course, the path of destruction from “what was” to “what is” can be traced.

Futurism in Fight Club

Having already given my raw reaction to the postmodern Fight Club in a previous post, I wanted to share some bonus material in reference to the car accident scene. I had mentioned the Futurist connection in class but the original text is far more revealing. Connections can be drawn between Fight Club’s Project Mayhem and the modern Manifesto of Futurism by F. T. Marinetti:


  1. We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
    The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
  2. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  3. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  4. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
  5. The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  6. Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  7. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  8. We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
  9. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  10. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

(For the first and last bits, click here. I have deleted them from my original post for their excruciating length.)

While I haven’t done formal research, the parallels with Fight Club are astounding. Much of this philosophy is as disturbing as the film with numbers 8 & 9 taking the cake: Machine + War Woman = Futurism. More unnerving, I might add, is that Futurism moved swiftly in the direction of fascism, with Marinetti personally supporting Mussolini.

Anyway, just some fat to chew on… or sell… or blow up…