A given topic for a Cinema Studies subject that focused on cinematic representations of place and space. With this essay, I wanted to explore Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism by examining its applicability to two films that deal explicitly with otherness – Dr No and Hiroshima Mon Amour. As often happens when writing papers for cinema studies, my once cinematic heroes turn out to be zeroes. In this case, poor old 007 got retired; at least there’s Fleming’s Bond to still hold dear.
“Edward Said defines Orientalism as a ‘Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient’. He proposes that the orient functions within the Western imagination as a fantasy space associated with ideas of exoticism, eroticism and cultural otherness. Examine the ways in which Western cinema has adopted this view through the organisation of the urban landscape and the depiction of the relationships between the Western/European subject and the Oriental city”
As a mode of discourse, Orientalism provides a structured framework through which a work of cultural production can access and portray exotic elements that may be unfamiliar to its audience. Particularly in relation to popular Western cinema, Orientalism affords filmmakers a facile shorthand with which to quickly establish characters, settings, motives and persuasions within the narrative of the film. In so doing, however, such films are informed by, and inform further the Western fantasy space wherein ideas of exoticism, eroticism and cultural otherness are reduced to stereotyping and banality. In this essay, I will examine the ways in which an understanding of Orientalism informs the reading of Western cinema, particularly in the case of Dr. No (Young, 1962) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959). To do so, this essay will primarily explore what is meant by Orientalism, and then subsequently apply this understanding to identify how and where the two selected films access and diverge from Orientalist discourse.
In order to examine its applicability to Western cinema’s depiction of the Orient, what is meant by the term “Orientalism” must therefore be explored. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said puts forward three interdependent meanings, the first of which is academic. Broadly defining ‘anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient’ as an Orientalist, Said places their work within the rubric of Orientalism (1978: 2). He suggests that this definition is equally applicable to anthropology as it is sociology, history or philosophy, placing it alongside the ‘high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century European Colonialism’ (ibid). In addition to this academic tradition, Said also provides a more general meaning for Orientalism as a style of thought ‘based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and “the Occident”’. Here, Said captures the writers, poets, novelists, political theorists and economists who
have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on.
These first two definitions chart a course through Colonial and Post-Colonial thought that raises questions as to the validity of academic classification, the applicability of artistic expression and the pervasiveness of Orientalism. Said further classifies a third interpretation of Orientalism that places it within ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ (1978: 3). In other words, Said suggests that Orientalism has, as its imperial purpose, a corporate mindset that seeks to analyze, describe, proclaim, teach, settle and rule over the Orient. In this sense, while traditionally defined as referring to the Middle East – especially when viewed from a European perspective – Orientalism can broadly be seen as an imperialistic discourse that seeks to quantify and control the unquantifiable Other. I use the term “Other”, but do not provide a specific reference due to the innumerable sources that contributed to its development as a philosophical construct, including among others: Hegel, Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. Here, the Other will refer to the philosophical tradition that seeks to establish a definition of Self as opposed to an Other.
In this light, Orientalism is a presupposed system of representations applicable to anything seen to be the Other, that has – after continued and determined acceptance by generations of writers and scholars – come to be seen by what Nietzsche referred to as ‘firm, canonical and obligatory to a people’ (1977: 47). In other words, Orientalism is established upon a set of assumed illusions, which after repeated and unquestioned use, have become cultural truths. Delineating the truth from the illusion is thus of interest when discussing the ways in which Orientalism has informed Western cinema. This essay will therefore seek to bifurcate cinema tradition around this central concern of Oriental truth/illusion, describing the ways certain films and genres refer to, and make use of, Orientalism. To do so, Dr. No will be examined for its adherence and application of the Orientalist gaze, while Hiroshima Mon Amour will be investigated for its questioning of the Orientalist mindset. In other words, this essay will analyse the ways in which Orientalism informs the British-Jamaican and British-Chinese dialectic present in Dr. No, in addition to the French-Japanese dialectic found in Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Here, it also pertinent to address the apparent inconsistency of applying Said’s framework to films made before his theories were published. However, as outlined above, Orientalism as a socio-cultural position is a product of presupposed truths built up over hundreds of years. To apply it to films made before its inception as a critical framework is therefore not only logically valid, but is also of academic interest in as far as appraising how well the theory informs earlier cultural productions. The comparison of the two films will therefore revolve around their respective depictions of Orientalist tropes: the sensual women, there to be used by the man, and the East as a mysterious place full of secrets and monsters.
In this light, the James Bond series of films, based on Ian Fleming’s novels, has traditionally seen Bond traveling to exotic locales in order to uphold the freedom of the West. In combatting the agents of S.P.E.C.T.R.E, and countless other diabolical masterminds aside, Bond’s role within a threatening post-colonial world is as an agent of MI6 – in the service of Queen and Empire. For Cynthia Baron:
007’s homour and ‘masterful’ style have consistently reassured the First World of its hegemonic position, and have provided a nostalgic bandage for England’s wounded pride in a ‘post-colonial’ era, the Bond phenomenon also illuminates aspects of a ‘modern’ British identity that emerged in opposition to ‘colonial’ Others …
Bond’s relationship to this new identity of colonial Others invites us to examine the films’ portrayal of British strategies of self-definition in the post-colonial era. In particular, Dr. No provides an insightful representation of Said’s third definition of Orientalism: the ‘Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’ Dr. No is additionally of interest due to it being the first film in a highly popular and wildly profitable series. Its implicit British identity and socio-cultural perspective can therefore be seen as the seed for the later Bond films that have remained highly relevant in today’s popular culture.
After a suspicious transmission is received from two agents stationed in Kingston, Jamaica, Bond is sent by M to investigate their disappearance. Bond’s role within the narrative of the film – as spy – is therefore characterized as intrusive, suspicious and codifying. His 007 moniker – apart from signifying Bond’s license to kill – is also a license to look, and to examine, and to quantify. Accepting for a moment the supposition that Bond’s place within Jamaica is that of an Imperial representative, sent to dominate, restructure and have authority over a colony, parallels can be drawn to the classic example of European Orientalism: Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt in 1798. Ostensibly a military campaign, Napoleon’s incursion into the Orient was motivated equally with the desire to produce knowledge (Said, 1978: xxii). Over and above the power to be in the Orient – the act of conquest – Said posits that Napoleon’s campaign projected the power to see the Orient – in expert ways – things the natives themselves could not see. Made up of countless scientists, writers, artists and cartographers, Napoleon’s army embarked on cataloging, as much as it did on conquering – and in so doing traced the roots of Orientalism through the Enlightenment and Colonialism.
Within a similar framework, and accepting Dr. No as an Orientalist work, Bond-as-spy is an amalgamation of Bond-as-weapon and Bond-as-looker, who’s job it is to physically capture Otherness as much as it is to capture Otherness within his gaze. In Dr. No, the notion of capturing the Other as a way of reasserting a British identity can be seen within the historical context of the film’s production:
… by the end of the 1960s, Britain was dependent on American military force, had been denied entrance into the European Common Market, and was shorn of empire except for headaches like Rhodesia and Ulster.
(Baron, 2003: 137)
Through this context, the film’s opening is emblematic of its Orientalist attitude. As the title sequence ends, a Reggaeton version of Three Blind Mice – ‘Cut da pussycat’s tail’ – begins to be heard as the the film fades in to reveal the silhouettes of three blind black men walking though bustling Kingston. Contrasting sharply with the subsequent cut to the cool, calm indoors of a private club, the film portrays the orderly, rigorous and self-asserted world of the British upper class: ‘gentlemen spend their afternoons playing games of strategy, exchanging witty repartee, and drinking cool cocktails served by a docile manservant’ (Baron: 2003, 139). The Orientalised figures of the three singers calls on a coloniser’s logic wherein the native is reduced to a world of childish nursery rhymes. In opposition, the world of the coloniser is sophisticated, tasteful and exacting – and it is from this world that Bond himself projects his gaze onto the subjugated Other.
As the film itself can be viewed as an Orientalist cultural production, Bond’s relationship with other characters within Dr. No can equally be delineated using this central theme. As a hyper-sexualised expression of the liberation of masculine sexuality within British society toward the end of the 1960s (Bennet et al, 1989: 160), the cinematic James Bond neatly divides encountered Others as either rivals or potential sexual conquests. Indeed, Bond’s only amicable relationship with a non-white character is with Quarrel. As Bond’s ticket into the lower strata of Jamaican society, Quarrel’s aid of and affection for Bond are complicit markers of the old Colonial discourse, wherein British order is afforded not by power, but by right. When Bond asks Quarrel to ‘get me my shoes, won’t you?’, it evidences the latent distinction in their relative authority, despite both men having thus far in the film spent an equal amount of time shooting, fighting and risking their lives.
Similarly, Bond’s latent Imperialistic attitude is apparent in his relationship with the film’s Orientalised women, particularly Dr. No’s personal assistant, Miss Taro. Ostensibly invited to her home in a kind of honey-pot trap, Bond is able to overcome her attempts at poisoning him almost through sheer sexual magnetism. Sleeping with her once, he calls the local police to come arrest her, before sleeping with her a second time. Bond’s ability to not only take control of the situation, but also to reassert his Imperial power over Miss Taro, reveals the sexualised fantasy space in which Orientalism deals with.
In contrast to the Bondian universe where Orientalist discourse is accessed as the primary marker of any depiction of the Other, Hiroshima Mon Amour questions and engages with the use of Orientalism in the depiction of both the sensualised women and of the Other, unfamiliar place. Set primarily within the confines of post-war Hiroshima, Hiroshima Mon Amour is characterised as being part of the initial French New Wave breakaway of the late 1950s and early 1960s: including films such 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959) and Breathless (Godard, 1960) (Marie et al, 2002: 13). As such, while ostensibly dealing with the long-term trauma of war, Hiroshima Mon Amour actively questions the tropes and accepted positions of popular cultural production. In this way, Hiroshima Mon Amour critiques Orientalist conventions used to depict the Orient – especially at times of war – to highlight the ubiquitous nature of human tragedy in the face of such war.
Particularly in relation to the depiction of the sensualised Other woman, Hiroshima Mon Amour criticises the hegemonic representations presented by popular media. By placing the French actress Elle within an unfamiliar setting, and by portraying her romantic relationship with a Japanese man, Lui, the film is inverting the traditional Orientalist roles associated with the Other. A clear example of this is found in Resnais’s portrayal of the anti-nuclear protest: Elle is lost within the Other urban space to which she is unaccustomed to, incapable of defending herself and incapable of escaping her alien surrounds. At the same time, the protesting Japanese women are self-assured. Dressed and made-up in traditional attire, they dance and chant against nuclear proliferation. Supported within a cultural framework that is familiar to them, these women place themselves within a national identity that is completely foreign to Elle. Ultimately saved and led out from the protest by the Japanese Lui, Elle inhabits the sexual fantasy space projected from a Japanese gaze – that of the fraught and lost Other woman. In so doing the film problematizes the assumed pro-Western power ideal of Orientalism – questioning popular culture’s use of east/west and north/south distinctions, the film is in line with Jane Park and Karin Wilkins understanding of:
… the importance of Japan … (that) brings new insight into the production of knowledge about the Middle East itself, complicating notions of a primarily western subjugation of eastern cultures.
Interestingly, Hiroshima Mon Amour accepts another characteristic of Orientalism expressed by Said as inevitable: the process by which any cultural production is incapable of fully escaping the confines of Orientalist discourse. As Said posits:
… so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no on writing, thinking or acting on the Orient could do so without taking into account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism, the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.
In other words, so pervasive an influence does Orientalism have that no work who’s goal it is to provide a perspective on the Orient can do so without in turn being influenced by Orientalism. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais telegraphs this idea through the repeated narration of both Lui and Elle: ‘You’ve seen nothing of Hiroshima’. Resnais is suggesting much like Said, that despite the film’s portrayal of the effects of war on the people of Hiroshima, such a portrayal is asking the audience to accept its vision sight unseen, and is therefore as much a part of Orientalism as it is a critique of it.
Nonetheless, Hiroshima Mon Amour’s primary prerogative is found in its implicit deconstruction and dismissal of Orientalism and its relativistic cultural assumptions in an age of highly scientific and indiscriminate weaponry. Codifying its narrative using voice-over narration, Elle intones: ‘2,000 degrees on the Peace plaza’, while the camera travels past row after row of bloodied bomb victims. Faceless and nameless, these victims are implicitly presented as Japanese, but without any external identification or racial markers, the film is asking: could this not well be Americans, or Russians? Or could these victims represent the underlying humanity of all peoples and cultures, and in so doing make cultural distinctions meaningless?
Ultimately, the two films can be delineated through their failure – in the case of Dr. No – or attempt – in the case of Hiroshima Mon Amour – at establishing an equal humanity between different races and cultures. Viewed as the proto-modern action hero that has since infatuated Hollywood and Western popular culture, James Bond can subsequently be seen as the proto-American Orientalist that at heart views Islam and Islamic people as reflections of the threatening and demonized Arab terrorist. In other words, Bond’s non-conciliatory role and controlling gaze within an Oriental space have informed much of how today’s popular media processes images of the threatening Other – whether it be the Soviet Block during the Cold War, or the Arab world amidst today’s ‘War on Terror’ – facilitating the paranoid association of entire peoples with negative yet singular aspects of their culture. In the case of Dr. No, the film reduces Jamaicans and Chinese to violent, animalistic and simple-minded stereotypes. James Bond’s every interaction with Chinese women leads to their sexual conquest, while every encounter made with a non-white male is portrayed as a mental or physical conflict. In framing Bond’s relationship with the vast and complex cultures of the Caribbean in this narrow way, the film takes away from the humanity and diversity of millions of people living normal and humane lives there. In contrast, Hiroshima Mon Amour attempts to address the underlying humanity of all people when faced with the culturally indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons and world war. In particular, Hiroshima Mon Amour is aware and critical of the ways in which Orientalism frames the media’s depiction of wars fought in unfamiliar, Other cultures.
In this way, Dr. No and Hiroshima Mon Amour can be seen to respectively access and criticise the domination of individuals or groups in the periphery through Orientalism. Although Dr. No’s interest as a work of popular cultural production is necessarily preoccupied with entertainment and profit-making, the use of stereotyped shorthand as a convenient and facile way of representing the diverse and complex geo-cultural Otherness encountered by Bond is nonetheless informed by Orientalism. On the other hand, Hiroshima Mon Amour is critical of the Orientalist discourse that seeks to dominate, restructure and have authority over subjugated Others. Ultimately, both films reveal how a study of Orientalism can be applied to Western cinema.
Baron, Cynthia, 2003, ‘Doctor No: Bonding Britishness to Racial Sovereignty’ in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, Christopher Lindner ed., Manchester University Press
Bennet, Tony & Woolacott, Janet, 1989, ‘The Transformations of james Bond’ in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, Macmillan
Marie, Michel & Neupert, Richard, 2002, ‘A Journalistic Slogan and a New Generation’ in The French New Wave: An Artistic School, Wiley Blackwell, p 13
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1977, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’ in The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann transl., Penguin Books, p 47
Park, Jane & Wilkins, Karin, 2005, ‘Re-orienting the Oriental Gaze’ in Global Media Journal, Volume 4 Issue 6, p 7
Said, Edward, 1978, ‘Introduction’, in Orientalism, Vintage
Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)