Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Bandit King

Yesterday's comments from Jack and Maggie got me to thinking about the way the world looks from inside our heads (as opposed to through our eyes). I expect everyone knows Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover:

Yes, the main joke is that -- to a New Yorker -- everything West of 10th Avenue is Injun Country, but isn't it interesting, how much the rest of the US looks like Krazy Kat's Coconino County to Steinberg? That is, not simply "unknown and strange" but "as seen by George Herriman."

My own inner picture of the wider world is still heavily influenced by the kind of stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Empire was still a strong echo, and "racism" a word with no meaning (perhaps something to do with Stirling Moss and Vincent motorcycles). Peoples of the World featured heavily in books and cigarette cards, almost as a form of stamp collecting or bird spotting -- just as you could tell a Robin by its diagnostic features, so you could tell a Mexican or an Eskimo or a Sikh by their diagnostic apparel. There is an amazing set of oil sketches in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria's summer retreat, done in India at her request by Rudolf Swoboda. They are the ultimate cigarette card collection -- portraits of all the "types" of people to be encountered in India -- an orientalist's feast of beards, saris, turbans, and jewellery. Highly recommended.

As I discussed in an earlier post (Is There Gas In The Car?) I'm fascinated both by stereotypes and the liberal urge to deny them, especially when this takes on a moral character. I think of it as the Central Casting problem. For example, if Hollywood wanted to cast, say, a much-feared Brazilian bandit, I doubt anyone would be asking for the phone number of Woody Allen's agent. But check this out:

That, my friends, is not an accountant with a weekend interest in historical recreation, but the notorious Lampião, a cangaceiro bandit of Northwest Brazil, and something of a Robin Hood figure. Doesn't look much of a handful, does he? Here are his friends:

Nice hats! I won't show you the picture of how they ended up, it's a bit gruesome. But you can see Hollywood's problem (sorry, challenge -- I'm never going to get that one right). There's a really great story here (look! there's even a part for J. Lo!) but the "look and feel" is clearly going to need a little tweaking before it is convincing to an audience that knows what dangerous bandits are supposed to look like...

I really wanted to see a film about Lampião starring Woody Allen and Rhea Perlman when, as a junior librarian, I catalogued Chandler's book 30 years ago. It'll never happen, but -- if it did -- it would star Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Lopez, the hats would go, and the whole point would be lost. But I suppose, wherever you live, the world will always wobble between the way it is and the way we imagine it to be, a constant tussle between gritty TV news and the movies. Contrary to most opinion, imagination is a very limited faculty. It is a wonderful thing (and one of the many wonderful things about photography) that the reality can so often be so much more surprising than the imagined version.

But there is a special pleasure when reality and fantasy meet. It has always been a key part of the survival fantasies of the British labouring classes, ploughing fields in the rain or plodding home from the pithead, that -- out there in cigarette card world -- colourful people still wear pretty homespun clothes and do exciting things in faraway places. Every Christmas, a band of Otavalo indians from Peru appear in our drab town centre, playing pan pipes and selling ponchos and wonderfully-coloured knitwear*, the men still sporting their traditional thick plait of hair. It's somehow more festive, more true to the spirit of the season than any number of neon reindeer and snowflakes. I have no idea how we look through their eyes, but I hope we're not as much like a grim, grey post-modern sludge as I often feel. And I do hope they weren't expecting bowler hats and bearskins...

* N.B. those Peruvian hats, suddenly being worn as an indie fashion all over the UK (and looking truly idiotic), are called chullos

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