Commentary Track

Men in Black (1997)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

Men in Black (1997) 3.1.19
Players: Austin, Maxx

Commentary begins at 14:43

— Notes —

  • Alienhood: Citizenship, Exile, and the Logic of Difference by Katarzyna Marciniak — This is a fantastic book about the prevailing images of aliens in American pop culture, whether its movies, books, news items, college marketing – anything! This is not a book about movies specifically, and its scope allows it to deliver some magnificent insights into the way Americans conceive of the “alien,” in all its forms. We’ll include some of the relevant quotes below:
    • On the opening sequence
    • “The analysis of the establishing sequence in Men in Black, featuring the misbehaving aliens, situates the diegetic focus on an unsettling ambiguity between an alien as a scummy non-terrestrial being and an alien-foreigner. It makes the narrative space as a site of wavering that collapses the distinction between both groups, suggesting that both kinds of aliens are engaged in a threatening invasion of national space” (3-4).

    • “The slogan that ran as a promotional hook before the film’s release only confirms the necessity to guard our national borders: Men in Black: ‘Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe.’ ‘Scum’ refers to the racialized idea of pollution, dirt, refuse – matter that needs to be cleaned up, discarded, and removed. The narrative plays on the ambivalence of the marked-by-scum bodies that need to be purged from the protected national space. Both groups of aliens – foreigners and the extraterrestrial creatures whose bodies turn to blue goo after they have been exploded by the spectacular weapons of the men in black – are coded by the logic of dirt. That is, we see how both types of aliens are bodily inadequate, impure, dangerous, even repugnant. The darkness of Mexicans – visually emphasized via rages, sweat, and actual dirt as unclean and uncivilized – is associated with the slimy bodies of creatures and carries a symbolic weight… Such a reading of ‘scum’ and ‘dirt’ suggests several important points: the very notion of alienhood rests on the assumption that foreigners are polluters whose contamination needs to be controlled, contained, or eliminated; ascribing materiality and its weight to foreigners (as if it inherently belonged solely to aliens) allows rightful Americans to claim legitimate citizenry as organically linked to the clean – that is, white – body; cleanliness has been traditionally associated with whiteness, purity, and nobility, and thus the right to racial superiority; and finally, the logic of purity justifies that treatment of unclean bodies as objects of violence” (5-7)

    • On the methods of assimilating Otherness
    • [Commenting on a speech by Theodore Roosevelt]: “This passage demonstrates the patriarchally privileged vision of a model immigrant: a man expected to strive to become a whole American and, in the process, to sever his ties with the Old World and pledge his sole allegiance to the new nation. This strong rhetoric of national uniformity, couched in a discourse of spirituality, demonstrates the overall generosity and benevolence of the United States that is supposedly willing to accept newcomers as long as they are not the so-called hyphenated hybrids but are ‘heartily and singly’ loyal to one nation” (17).

    • “How in fact does one become ‘singly’ and ‘heartily’ loyal to one nation? How does the remodeling take place?… In “The Making and Unmaking of Strangers,” [Zygmunt Bauman] theorizes the nationalist discourse of strangerhood as typically resting on either ‘anthropoemic’ or ‘anthropophagic’ strategies… The anthropoemic strategy involves ejected of the unwanted alien element. It is a tactic of exclusion that rests on barring strangers from entering the nation or confining them within specific ghettos – vomiting strangers, so to speak. The anthropophagic strategy refers to the nullification of a stranger’s ontological otherness by consuming, or internalizing, his or her difference: ‘annihilating the strangers by devouring them and then metabolically transforming them into a tissue indistinguishable from one’s own’ (Bauman 1997, 47). This coercive assimilation smooths out the stranger’s unsettling otherness and is historically conducted in the name of cultural homogeneity. An example of this strategy might be the seemingly innocent tactic employed by Ellis Island officials when they asked arriving immigrants to alter their names so that they would be more pronounceable” (17).

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