Shots out at Slavery (Part 3)
Wes Anderson is a bright, intelligent young man with a refreshing do-it-yourself sense of humor. His film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou made me laugh. But it was the kind of laughter I had to work for—and, since “we” Americans have a rich and detailed history of slavery, working for things is often frowned upon in favor of the fantasy of getting shit “for free.” When Wes shows you the scene of Jeff Goldblum’s character sitting on a yellow sofa on the deck of Bill Murray’s character’s ship, The Belafonte, you have to work a little bit to get your laugh. You have to think about why Jeff’s character went through all the trouble to lower a sofa on someone else’s ship. And you can tell by the art direction that the sofa is a special shade of yellow and a particular style. You have to imagine him handing out detailed instructions about the sofa to his crew and what must have gone through the minds of new crew members hearing about this ‘sofa protocol’ for the first time. This is not stupid shit that Wes is making up just to fuck around… What I see is a small homage to Howard Hughes and other real-life eccentrics… In the meantime, the film goes on and you may come to realize that there is this man with strong African features in the background singing and strumming his guitar, this is Seu Jorge, his character. And you may come to understand that he may be singing this in Portuguese:
I’m closer to the Golden Dawn Immersed in Crowley’s uniform Of imagery I’m living in a silent film Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm Of dream reality I’m frightened by the total goal Drawing to the ragged hole And I ain’t got the power anymore No I ain’t got the power anymore
He is strumming the chords of “Quicksand” by David Bowie from his album Hunky Dory. The chorus of the song is, “Don’t believe in yourself! Don’t believe in belief! Knowledge comes with death’s release!” But “we” Americans can’t see this right away. It is hidden like the “secrets” of the pyramids. The superficial laugh for the bright sophomores in the audience is that we have an African man by way of Brazil or Portugal—or Angola—playing David Bowie songs with lyrics in Portuguese. This is a world traveler with a lot of time on his hands. This deserves a laugh. But there’s more…
First, Wes states quite clearly on the commentaries and documentaries on the Criterion DVD that he was making a film with European-style characters. What immediately comes to the rasx() context is the ‘traditional’ way characters with strong African features are portrayed in European film—especially the films of the 1960s and 70s. They have been used mostly as decorative, non-verbal elements—and this is what we have in Wes’ treatment of Seu Jorge’s character. The character is used as a decorative, background element literally adding color.
The image at right places the African guitarist under glass. A specimen of his music is being captured and catalogued by a fellow admirer and crew member (who is still, by the way, armed with his coveted GLOCK strapped to his thigh). This African man is singing in the language of the earliest of European slave traders in Africa. And the fact that he is on a ship immediately makes me think of the stereotype of the Slave Ship Cabin Boy and its exotic-pedophilic overtones—this may be a delicious subtly for Wes Anderson or “of course” this has never crossed his conscious mind. Bill Murray’s character is ‘of course’ not a slave trader, he is in a more subtle, abstract, humorous business of exploitation/deception and the postmodern cabin boy goes along for the abstract ride—more lyrics from “Quicksand”:
I’m not a prophet or a stone age man Just a mortal with the potential of a superman I’m living on I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation Of bullshit faith If I don’t explain what you ought to know You can tell me all about it On, the next Bardo I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought And I ain’t got the power anymore
In order to understand the depth of this ‘decorative’ character you have to travel through the Portuguese and then the English to reach finally the edge of what it means to incarnate Greco-Roman Imperial consciousness in the 20th century as interpreted by the mind of 70s pop-star David Bowie. Funny, huh? There is no way you can lower this in as 16-ton exposition with a big, American, Hollywood film crane such that “everyone gets it.” You have to work for it. You have to think about why this man decided to learn David Bowie songs. Was it to ingratiate himself with people who would otherwise have nothing in common with him? Was it because he loved “all kinds” of music and refused to be limited to what was “socially expected” of him? You have to think about why he decided to sing these particular songs. Ah! Here’s a slightly racist question for you: Does this Black guy really know what it means to be “immersed” in Aleister Crowley or is he just parroting Bowie’s English words that he somehow obtained in Portuguese? All of this speculation is held captive under layers and layers of do-it-yourself humor. Experience tells me that it is not impossible that there exists a complex character underneath the decor. Experience goes further to suggest that not only is this Black character profoundly brilliant, he is probably deeply troubled and his instability keeps him firmly “tethered” to The Belafonte. He is sinking in the quicksand of his thought and he ain’t got the power anymore.
It may be fair to mention way down in this paragraph that the “real” Seu Jorge—as in not the character from the film—was not singing the David Bowie lyrics. According to the lusolife Blog, Seu Jorge creates his own Portuguese lyrics for his Bowie cover songs as shown in “Life on Mars? Seu Jorge Translation.” There are no Portuguese translations for names like Himmler or Crowley. When you listen closely to “Quicksand” on the Criterion extras disk, you do not hear these family names in a heavy Portuguese accent. Whether this makes the Seu Jorge character more shallow or more deep remains to be seen… and heard.