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Disneyland: A Reader

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Re-othering the Mother?: Home Movies as a Potential Corrective for Ethnographic Films

In a nature documentary series primarily depicting animals in exotic locales around the world, Disney’s True-Life Adventures aimed to objectively represent nature without humans or evident human intervention. These films in the True-Life Adventures series were produced through the late forties until the beginning of the sixties, both spanning and informing the creation of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Inspiring one of the five themed lands in the park, Adventureland was initially imagined as a sort of “True-Life Adventureland” which would evoke all the exoticism and excitement of the documentary series. This intent of course implied the integration of visitors and thus human involvement in the landscape.

Indeed, humans—and more specifically, native cultures—were eventually introduced into True-Life Adventures, ultimately inspiring a new Disney documentary series in the early 1950s entitled People and Places. Nevertheless, the treatment of native cultures in Disney’s nature documentaries provoke striking resemblances to early ethnographic films. Despite following early ethnographic films by as much as thirty years, Disney’s True-Life Adventures evoke selfsame connections between animals and native peoples, the primitivism of native cultures, and the seemingly uninhabitable environs which sustain them.

With the True-Life Adventures as their heir, ethnographic films took up the opportunity “to act as popular interpreters, to explain science from the outside, to place it in its proper perspective” (Sammond 235). But what are the films translating? And for whom? The ethnographic moment and the ethnographic film—or as Fatimah Tobing Rony not-so-subtly refers to it, the racial film—makes a spectacle of native subjects for the white American spectator. In contrast to this ethnographic power dynamic, Tami Spry defines autoethnography as “a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of self with others in social context” (710). Being evoked as potentially autoethnographic tools, home movies—and self-representation—may indeed act as a corrective to the ethnographic objectification of non-white families and their cultures.

One semantic understanding of the home movies as a corrective to ethnographic films is that such a corrective entails the ethnographer—or the white, Western colonial subject—in a position of objectification. While this variant surely turns the tables of viewing relations, its sustained emphasis on the prevalence of the white Western family maintains the lack of representation for non-white bodies and cultures. As such, the illustrative clips in this paper are drawn from “Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies,” an Internet Archive collection provided by the Center for Asian American Media. These home movies should elicit the potentiality or correcting objectification, and the emancipatory ways in which home movies simultaneously author consensual and authoritative texts about one’s own culture.

This exploration of home movies through a corrective lens will use two methods. The first method will consider how home movies are watched and used by the families who create them. This section will be primarily theoretical since the project of this paper will effectively be brought to bear on the second method of reading home movies which, while productive, is not predicated on the personal. This second method of reading home movies as autoethnography is to consider them as documents through lenses which are cultural and historical, if not distinctly familial. Whether this method of reading home movies can indeed correct the ethnographic gaze—or whether it simply perpetuates and reinscribes it—will be measured twice and perhaps ideologically (and cinematically, and idiomatically) never cut at all.

In the introduction of Mining the Home Movie, author and editor Patricia Zimmerman suggests that “amateur film artifacts present a materialization of the abstraction of race, class, gender and nation as they are lived and…as a site for agency, fissure, and resistance to dominant modalities” (4). Nevertheless, the abstraction which home movies attempt to materialize is always already materialized in absentia by the ethnographic films which precede them. Ethnographic footage is not abstracted; its representation of race is materialized not for fissure but concretion, and is often the only cinematic representation many racialized peoples accrue in the West. Still, Zimmerman posits that “there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the empirical fact and the representation”; this holds true for both ethnography and autoethnography (4).

In “Time and Redemption in the Racial Film,” Rony states that “anthropology is impelled forward by remorse over the West’s failure to fulfill the promise of scientific progress, the promise of eradicating brutality, evil, disease, and ignorance. The anthropologist (and I would add, the ethnographic filmmaker) is thus…‘the symbol of atonement’” (131). In contrast to this apologetic outsider anxiety that Rony evokes, self-representation can be characterized by insider relief—that is, relief that one is represented accurately for and by oneself. If the ethnographic filmmaker is “the symbol of atonement,” then autoethnography might well stand as a symbol of either statement or censure. Whether one’s home movies make an object of their subjectivity, or else objectify their objectification, autoethnography can provide a provocative remediation of the ethnographic gaze.

Autoethnography as statement—or objectifying ones subjectivity—has as its goal capturing one’s own unique experience and understanding of their family and culture. In contrast to ethnographic films wherein “the indigenous person who does not remain in his or her proper space is something abhorrent,” the family in home movies assert authority over their own space, as well as the activities that occur within it (Rony 155). As a tool for the preservation of memory—and creation of it, in cases of historical family footage—home movies tend to portray the positive aspects of one’s family. Roger Odin suggests that “the home movie refuses to represent anything shocking and embarrassing…to reveal a pessimistic view of family life…or too threatening to the image of the ideal family” (262). Of course, the image of the ideal family can be culturally specific and hence still lies in the hands of the autoethnographer.

The Bohulano family’s home movie (Please view the segment between 10.25 minutes and 12.50 minutes) of their Disneyland trip sometime in the 70s documents the strange and exotic (and highly artificial) environ of the park. The Bohulanos find themselves on the frontier, reaping the benefits of imperialism through the Country Bear Jamboree and the comparable representation of a live black jazz trio. The exotic faculties of the riverboat cruise and voyeuristic invitation to animatronic primitives evoke the equal opportunity of Disneyland (apart from socio-economic factors). The Bohulanos meet Mickey Mouse and wave to the camera; they are obviously the tourists, and they are having ideal fun.

On the other hand, autoethnography as censure—or objectifying ones objectification—begins with a disavowal of ethnographic or racial films, and conceives of its corollary. In “Performing Autoethnography,” Tami Spry states that “an autoethnographic voice can interrogate the politics that structure the personal, yet it must still struggle within the language that represents dominant politics” (722). While the autoethnography as statement enacts an objectification of the family’s own subjective experience, the autoethnography as censure explicitly parrots (or apes, or some non-idiomatic American animal parallel) the racialized notions enforced by the ethnographic film. Even the Occidental ideologies inherent in the cinematic apparatus itself enslave the autoethnographic voice to the visual rhetoric of ethnographic and popular American filmmaking.

In the Jung family's home movie (Please view the segment between 0.00 minutes and 0.50 minutes) documenting their trip to Disneyland in 1956, the extreme long shots and slow camera movement are reminiscent of Disney’s True-Life Adventures. The camera pans and surveys the environment, incidentally finding the family within it. The Jung family waves, but whoever they are waving at only stares back from the viewfinder. The lack of directorial intervention and the voyeuristic qualities of ethnographic film are evoked as the family walks through the park: “[just] as in all the True-Life films, the animals are completely unaware that they are being spied upon” (Sammond 237). Nevertheless, while the autoethnographic film may indeed evoke the distance which supposedly ensures the ethnographic film’s credibility, the Jung’s home movie captures an intimacy which precludes the apparently objective ethnographic film.

Zimmerman notes that “home movies position history as memory generated from the point of view of participants... [and] both sides agree to participate in an act of performativity” (20). This suggestion raises two important points: first, if home movies position history as memory, the familial history is not solely etched into remembrance but the entire cultural history which precedes, surrounds and sustains it. Secondly, concepts of participation and performativity evoke a sense of permission; a mutual and active interlocution that has as its center objectification and one’s consent in objectifying it.

Indeed, Zimmerman’s suggestion complicates the idea of spontaneously capturing any family in their natural habitat—especially if the spectatorial experience is not predicated on memory. As such, the second method of investigating home movies as autoethnography is simply to view them as documents. Without any familial connection to the persons either behind the camera or in front of the camera lens, engagement with home movies—or lack thereof—may indeed complicate the concept of home movies as a corrective or rejoinder to ethnographic and racial films. In “Reflections on the Family Home Movie as Document,” Odin suggests that “to read a home movie as a document is to ‘use’ it for something that is not its own function” (261). In other words, anonymously reading home movies may function as cultural appropriation.

Odin conceives of home movies as “less a representation than as index inviting the family to return to a past already lived” (259). Using home movies otherwise—as entertainment of anonymous document, say—thus figures as an exercise in representation, riddled with spectatorial assumptions and interpretations. If, as a viewer, one cannot return to the familial past that Odin points up as an invitation to relive it—that is, if it’s their first time—spectatorial activity seriously threatens to reinscribe the ethnographic gaze. The precise interest in the other in the home movie, their quotidian rituals, traditions and conscription to a frozen point in time; these curiosities oddly rhyme with ethnographic and racial films of the 1920s and 30s.

The familial determination of what should be recorded in home movies—and how—may seem to indicate the improbability of voyeuristic racialization through the formal construction of the film. Nevertheless, anonymous spectatorial engagement with home movies inflects familial significance with a secondary function. Just as anonymously reading the home movie is “to ‘use’ it for something that is not its own function,” reading home movies as documents does not strictly entail the content; reading emphasizes the significance of spectatorship and reception contexts. As such, perhaps the ultimate qualifier of ethnographic film is not the film itself, but rather in the blue eye of the imperialist beholder. The home movie thus does not only stand as a potential corrective to the ethnographic film, but a staunch if understated propagator of it.

The real possibility of this unsavoury spectatorial potential is not meant as a justification for some unavoidably ethnographic gaze of white spectators. The ways in which anonymous home movies work—or don’t work—to represent the families which create them runs the whole spectrum from consensually representing and celebrating the families on screen, to perpetuating deep seated predispositions toward white heteronormativity. The spectator—regardless of race—is not caught in a binary. Indeed, despite the potential to re-other the families on the screen, there can also be positive spectatorial consequences to lacking familial connections to home movies.

One such benefit involves resuscitating the entire film text, and transferring the ethnographic gaze onto truly objective aspects of the home movie as document. Odin suggests that in lieu of familial connections to a home movie, “[the viewer] can construct other enunciators…[focusing] on things that are not the topic of the shot itself: the habitat in the décor, the cars on the street, the outfits” (263). This more holistic approach to the anonymous home movie does not presume knowledge about the family or culture, but hints at their legitimacy for the family through aesthetically conjectural means. If typical ethnographic films construct a spectator for whom “the West is…a civilization that can learn from other peoples,” constructing other enunciators in lieu of race allows the white American spectator to truly begin to do so (Rony 138).

Though at Frontier Village in San Jose, California and not Disneyland, the Decena family’s home movie evokes numerous other enunciators. The camera operator’s changing focus, the lush greenery, the children’s matching outfits; through this lens, the family vacation is pronounced quite differently. The Decenas may be within or without the dominant American filmmaking mode, but the balloons, the kids’ table, the corn on the cob, the richly saturated colours express a quality of life and history that white hands and non-white hands cannot wave into interpretation. While some of those hands are wearing watches, and the time itself may be indeterminable, other enunciators evoke a particular moment; the serviette hanging out of the picnic basket indicates clean fingers and not the skin colour of the body that packed it.

The shift from objectifying human subjects to subjecting different aspects of the film’s content to historical scrutiny highlights the corrective potential for home movies therein. Zimmerman similarly posits the egalitarian nature of home movies: “amateur films do not deploy any systematic cinematic language. They reverse the relationship between text and context” (276). Indeed, whereas True-Life Adventures aimed to highlight nature and ended up drawing attention to native cultures, home movies aim to highlight people and potentially return to a document of nature. As such, Disneyland itself changes from the contextual environment of familial history to a text which offers real true-life adventures, where the scenery is synthetic and everyone is a visitor.

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