WHITE MATERIAL: Obscene Whiteness as an Occidental Residue in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgive
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.26, 2014
In his post yesterday, Johannes made an interesting observation in passing on the Thai setting of Nicholas Winding Refn’s widely reviled Only God Forgives:
Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103″ it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…
One of the film’s obscenities is the obscenely patent Orientalism of Refn’s mise-en-scene. The film unfolds in a claustrophobic Bangkok-as-‘Chinatown’ , on sets reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Death of a Chinese Bookie, and Polanski’s iconic so-named film in which Chinatown stands in for Hollywood’s Heart of Darkness, complete with reddish-green lights, drug haze, voyeuristic, curtained chambers, catwalks and corridors, sightlines which don’t match up, and theatrical spaces like operas, burlesque stages, go-go cages, boxing rings and nightclubs. The obscene is that which should remain hidden but is not; in Refn’s film, the latent racism of Orientalist tropes so common in Western film is right out there into the open, neither ironized nor dressed up as Keanu-ish spiritualism for the benefit of the Western individual’s soul.
An effect of this Orientalist palette is to make the white figures seem particularly artificial. More than ‘American’, they read to me as white; the phrase ‘white material’ comes to mind, after the semi-autobiographical Claire Denis film about French colonists in North Africa. The mother character, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, is not only a sexed-up outre Mommy MacBeth, part-Real Housewife, part -Freudian bingo card, but she is in whiteface with blonde extensions, golden dusting powder that simulates clublight or the mandate of Heaven, an impractical manicure, and elaborately painted on eyemakeup that obscures any kind of ‘natural’ eye.
Why is it significant that Refn’s protagonists are in whiteface? [In Refn’s previous, not-reviled Drive, blondissima Ryan Gosling wears a white and gold jacket to drive this point home.] Refn’s mise-en-scene re-renders whiteness not as an originary, natural term from which all other terms are derived and against which they fail to measure up, as in Imperialist logic, but as an artificial mask made from dusting powder, hair extentions, eyeshadow, hairdye, Western suits, acrylic nails, foiled tips. These toxic, inhuman substances truly are the ‘white materials’. In the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, structural violence comes from the West, from the Heart of Whiteness. Evil, which only God can forgive, is a white material which can be piled up or smeared on in various configurations and manifestations.
Finally, as Johannes’s observation indicates, so much of the Modernism which is so beloved to me carries with it the trace of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and Orientalism. A chief offender is my beloved Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty (ahem) derives from his febrile, Paris-World-Fair impressions of Balinese dance. I recognize the racism inherent in this theatrical encounter, and I hope I do not replicate this relationship of colonization in my writing or reading. Yet if I am not willing to discard Artaud’s body of work, I am also not willing to divorce this racial element from his work. Instead I keep it always in view when I think about Artaud, because it becomes a site where Art’s violence, its unwholesomeness, its predatory tendencies, as well as its theatricality, its artifice, its relationship to Evil, comes into view—that is, where Art becomes obscene.