The Amazing Chan and the Fox Klan
It was set to be a good summer for mystery buffs who get the Fox Movie Channel (both of them). The cable-movies network had planned the Charlie Chan Mystery Tour, a scheduled double feature of Chan films every Monday in June, July and August. But then the Fox got chicken. They got some letters from Asian pressure groups and cancelled the series, with a explanatory note on their Web site. Some uproar and letter-writing campaigns ensued on movies-discussion groups and the network kinda-sorta took it back later, changing the verb on the pop-up from “cancelled” to “suspended.”
In some ways, it would have been difficult to get very upset about the lack of a Charlie Chan movie marathon a couple of months ago. We are NOT talking about BIRTH OF A NATION, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN — films whose historical significance and dazzling artistry make them far too important to hold their repugnant (and explicit) politics too heavily against them. But we’re also not talking about agitprop here. The Charlie Chan movies are not the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF SIAM — they’re a B-program series of mystery stories, of which, full disclosure, I have seen only one (I actually saw more often the early 70s cartoon “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” and can still hum the chorus to its Archies-style pop song “No. 1 Son.”) Still, the Chan films’ general reputation is sufficiently low, though like everything it has its fans, that I am confident in saying that world is hardly much the poorer for their relative lack of prominence.
But everything changed once Fox programmed the marathon — in a way similar to how, in the field of employment law, a decision to fire (or revoke tenure) is reviewed by a different set of standards than a decision not to hire (or give tenure). It’s easy (too easy, in fact) to mock the Asian pressure groups for their basic cinematic and dramatic illiteracy, like seeing Chan’s meek and subservient demeanor as an Asian stereotype, when any fan of detective shows or stories knows that this is a common detective mask, playing “dumb like a fox” (oops!) to lure the quarry into giving himself away. You can see it in Columbo, in Hercule Poirot, in Father Brown, in DIABOLIQUE.
But I want to be harder on Fox Movie Channel for their pussilanimity. Is this kind of weakness and toeing the ethnic-lobby line that people expect from *Fox* — The Conservative Tool Of Rupert Murdoch’s Plan For World Domination? If *they* are not gonna tell some ethnic Jacobins to go stuff themselves, who will? The sentence in the statement on their Web site that most beggars belief is this one: “In the hope that this action will evoke discussion about the progress made in our modern, multicultural society, we invite you to please click CONTACT US to send us your thoughts on the matter.”
I guess I don’t see what kind of discussion one can have in “our modern, multicultural society” (good gawd … *this* is the language of The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy) when Fox has pulled an example of something made in “their premodern unicultural” society. If you never see anything from outside your own cave, how can even know that you are even *in* a cave much less know its contours, i.e. its virtue and vice (yes … that *is* a Plato reference … get used to them.) The only discussion I see being provoked by this action would be plenty of self-congratulation about how “modern” and “multicultural” we all are, patting ourselves on the back for all our “progress” (good gawd … *this* is the language of The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy).
I may have to take all of that back however, because I must say that I have some serious doubts about Fox’s honesty. The statement announcing the cancellation of the Chan marathon said that Fox “has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers.” Huh? Forget *may contain* (there’s no “may” about it … they do). What does *has been made aware* mean? Is there anybody alive and culturally awake who doesn’t know that many Asians, however rightly or wrongly, see Charlie Chan as an offensive stereotype. Or that the term “Charlie Chan” has been used a disparaging common noun or moniker for Asians in general — at the level of “chink” or “gook.” (truth be told, I think the experience of being disparagingly called a “charlie chan,” not the actual content of the films, is why Asians see these particular movies as a special red flag). Program the films ordon’t program them — but don’t pretend that their perceived offensiveness is something that Fox just “has been made aware of.”
So unbelievable is that particular construction that I’m tempted to agree with a silent-film scholar who said at a rountable discussion at a film convention in Arlington, Va., this weekend that he thinks that Fox might have planned on caving in upon the first receipt of protest letters and then planned the tentative reversal once the publicity had been generated. The use of the letters and the cave-in were just a way of ginning up publicity for their Charlie Chan series — a group of movies for which the public is not exactly beating down the door.
I suppose I should make clear that when I called the Asian groups Jacobins, I mean that in the cultural rather than head-chopping variety (a more-recent analogy would be the Taliban’s destroying the Buddha statues in the name of Islam — hey, let’s discuss the progress Islam has made over paganism). For one thing, these low-rent Robespierres have an one-dimensional, essentially propagandistic and self-centered approach to art. In his letter to Fox, Eddie Wong, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association executive director, explicitly set up this standard for representations in the following phrase — “humanistic, historically accurate, and empowering images.” Yikes. Doesn’t this “humanistic … empowering” talk sound like a schoolmarm addressing her charges? Anybody who uses the term “empowering” should be “empowered” all right — by the attachment of some jumper cables.
And then he complains that Chan’s behavior “did not resemble my parents, friends or any Chinese person I knew.” Double yikes. Can a human being be that narcissistic or is this “I don’t know anybody like this” seriously meant as an argument? Who started these humorless nursery games of “I have to see myself on the screen” and “Characters of my ethnicity have to resemble my life-memories.” I can recall seeing only one Scottish-born American resident in a noncomic U.S.-made movie — Ted Danson’s cop in THE ONION FIELD, and look what happened to him (but he wasn’t Catholic, so maybe he doesn’t count). Isn’t the point of art to see something other than yourself, or has reality TV changed all that?
While it is true that the Asian pressure groups are not calling for censorship in the formal sense, their efforts, if successful, would destroy the Charlie Chan movies just as effectively as (if more slowly and less self-consciously than) any fire lit in the name of destroying the offensive past that The New Revolutions (Revelations) Hath Made Obsolete. If the films’ are offensive, inaccurate, stereotypical and whatnot now — they will be that way forever. And if the Charlie Chan movies should not be shown now on those grounds, that argument will be just as persuasive until the lion lie down with the lamb. And there could never be any historical revisionism or rethinking about them — on two grounds.
First, because these ethnic pressure groups prevent them from being shown, they’ll eventually go down the flusher of social amnesia as they never get a chance to make the case for themselves. Second, film is fragile. Decent preservation costs money, and whoever owns the rights to the Charlie Chan series (or any other movie) needs to have some way of recouping the cost. A red-headed stepchild movie that essentially cannot be shown for any reason (ethnic protests in this case, but the point is generalizable) cannot recoup its preservation costs. The films will eventually fall apart, evaporate, explode, fade away, get lost or any of a number of other fates. Yes, the Charlie Chan movies also are readily available on tape now, but tape falls apart and fades as well.
One can say “no great loss” and he may very well be right. But let’s not kid ourselves about what the Asian groups want. They may not be government censors (and so the First Amendment Fundamentalists breathe easier) — but they will destroy these movies just as surely as any “censorship.”
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