Thursday, January 17, 2008

i walked with a zombie, by jacques tourneur

So Film Club has now reconvened, and its kickoff film for 2008 was 1943's I Walked With A Zombie, which continues the "undead" theme we've been working with of late.

It's an interesting and provocative film. It opens in Canada, with a young nurse ("Betsy") accepting an assignment that brings her to the island of St. Sebastian, to caretake and potentially cure Jessica, a woman who has fallen into a seemingly irrevocable trance state:

No one is exactly certain what has happened to Jessica—there are at least three different hypotheses. Roughly speaking, they can be grouped into the medical ("she never recovered from a fever"), the psychological ("her cruel husband drove her mad"), and, of course, the supernatural ("she has become a zombie"). Our nurse learns about this theory from a representative non-white island person:

Some of these trappings, of course, are familiar from other films that deal with the idea of possession. I'm currently reading Carol Clover's Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film—my notes on the book are here—and there's a whole chapter in there which examines patterns in the "occult film." In this chapter, she notes that the occult film often contains a struggle between Black Magic and White Science (she borrows these terms from another Haitian zombie film, The Serpent and the Rainbow). That struggle is definitely depicted here, and—again similar to many other films—the body being struggled over is female. (Clover writes that women's bodies, in these types of films, are spaces to be "exposed, denied, fixed, filled, colonized, [and/or] detoxified," and that's pretty much in full effect here.)

It's interesting, though, that the selected representative of White Science is female—traditionally, of course, it's male. And it's further interesting that as an agent of Science, Betsy is also an unusually sympathetic one: it isn't long before she decides that maybe taking Jessica down to the nexus of Vodou activity on the island (the "Home Fort") might actually work out as a way to cure Jessica:

It's important to point out that, at least in this point in the film, Betsy doesn't necessarily buy the theory that Jessica is, in fact, a zombie: it's more that she sees the line between White Science and Black Magic not so much as a sharp demarcation but rather as something that is potentially permeable or negotiable, with Psychology representing a kind of murky middle realm. (The film repeatedly considers the possibility that a psychological state can be the cause of a "medical" ailment, and Betsy's willingness to try magic ritual as a cure shows that she might accept the idea that a ritual can enact medical change via the conduit of its psychological force. In other words, Magical = Psychological = Medical.)

All of this is pretty intriguing (and it gets even more complicated before the film ends), and the blurry lines in effect go some way towards complicating the easy binary wherein non-white-people equal Magical (but simple) and white people equal Rational (but blinkered). The film does even more interesting things with regard to race, though: a number of times the island's Black characters, who (unsurprisingly) mostly play the roles of servants, refer overtly to the island's slavery past. as Betsy effuses about how "beautiful" everything is at the same time her Black carriage driver is calling the island a place of deep suffering. It's difficult to read this as anything other than a privileging of the Black point of view over the White one: not because the Black characters are "simple" or "noble savages" or any of that horseshit, but because they simply hold a knowledge that the White protagonist doesn't have. It's not a supernatural, "primitive" knowledge, but a literal, modern knowledge about colonial violence and its effects. The fact that the film opens with a voice-over from Betsy and closes with a voice-over from an unidentified Black character is also provocative in this regard.

This isn't to say that the film is super-progressive: it definitely trades in the image of the Black body as a source of uncanny creepiness:

—but this is still a film making unusually thoughtful and sophisticated points about race and colonialism, especially given that it was produced during a time when Black people still weren't, say, allowed to vote in this country. I'd be curious to revisit The Serpent and the Rainbow, a product of an age we like to think of as being more enlightened about matters of race, to see if it comes anywhere close to being this pointed, although I won't be doing this next week, because as my follow-up I've instead opted for us to take a look at Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).

Skunkcabbage's write-up on I Walked With A Zombie is here.


Chet Mellema said...

Jeremy, welcome back!! I haven't seen the film, but as usual your post has peaked my interest.

jpb said...

Well worth seeing!