Fun I

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Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

This essay appears in the Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge (2006). It is, perhaps, ironic that the first post in a cluster devoted to fun films should be so stuffily professorial. Yee-hah!

Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s Chang is an extraordinary entertainment, as well as a document of real people doing real things in real places. In part because of its considerable craft it leaves a vivid record of its time and setting, or at least of an engineered perception of same. If its commercial motivations and narrative contrivances ultimately reduce its strictly documentary value and status, then it remains of great interest and importance in the history of both the documentary and the commercial fiction film.

Grass (1925) and Chang, which Cooper and Schoedsack referred to as their “natural dramas,” were part of a ferment of activity and at least partial actuality that went on as the parameters and ethics of the documentary form were being debated and established. Robert Flaherty’s early work in this period, in both its exemplary and problematical aspects, would have the most influence on this defining process. Grass particularly can be seen as echoing Flaherty, with the way that its faraway places are made accessible by means of intimate, authentic documentary details. In this it at least partly succeeds, but Grass does not have the affection and the individuation, the attention to indigenous processes and their durations, the complicated self-effacement of Flaherty’s most stirring films. Cooper-Schoedsack knew that improvements were in order. Chang, their next project, demonstrated that a move toward greater documentary purity was not the only alternative available to them.

Flaherty’s first films combined the travelogue and industrial strands of the early actualities, adding to them something of a narrative shape and drive. But his human and ethnographic instincts were sharper than his entrepeneurial and commercial ones, on which paradox hang both the continuing value and the initial unprofitability of most of his work. Cooper-Schoedsack took this lesson to heart when they produced Chang. Drawn more by storytelling impulse and profit motives than by a concern for culture or the salvaging of disappearing practices, their innovation and accomplishment was to bring the verve and contrivance of show business definitively into the documentary mix.

Chang was shot and set in Siam (modern day Thailand). It tells the story of a family of Lao tribesmen homesteading on the outskirts of a Siamese settlement, trying to subdue the jungle and fight off its fierce creatures while they eke out a living. The plot of the film was substantially formed in Cooper’s head before he ever reached Siam, and its central aim was to entertain while taking advantage of a novel and exotic setting. Preparations in country were devoted to embodying the producers’ preconceptions.

For all of its undoubted imposing from the outside, the record indicates that there was also much of improvisation and openness, even of collaboration in Shoedsack-Cooper’s production method. As a result, there was some little documentary detail in the film’s fictional representations. We have a vivid if glancing representation of the fictional family’s domestic arrangements and agricultural practices. There were also events, like that of the mother elephant pulling the house down as she rescued her baby, that emerged spontaneously during preparations, and which were then reenacted for the camera. It is certainly true—and here the producers’ deepest interests are most in evidence—that the details of the film’s many hunting sequences, the traps and dummies and deadfalls and flights, are reflective of real processes and real relations.

Mostly, though, these details remain ornamental in, even incidental to the film; in the end, the show’s the thing. Cooper had sold the idea of the film to Jesse Lasky on the basis of what he called his “chariot race,” an envisioned climactic sequence where a few hundred elephants break loose and destroy the village before being captured.Cooper’s reference to Ben Hur’s spectacle is significant. Where Flaherty spent years achieving a kind of intimacy with his subjects, Cooper and Schoedsack arrived in Siam and immediately started hunting tigers.

With all these calculations and preconceptions, it follows that there are things for which the film has been taken to task. Faux-pas, insensitivities and cultural missteps rather abound. Like Flaherty, there were occasions in which Schoedsack-Cooper placed their actors (including the children) in harm’s way for the sake of their story. If this jeopardy was inadvertent and sincerely regretted, then it could not claim even the justifications of salvage ethnography. A modern spectator is also struck by the amount of animal mayhem in the film. Cooper mentions that the custom had been to kill animals in their traps, and it is true that attempts were made, with some success, to preserve the lives of some of the animal subjects. Still, notwithstanding this Hatari-like preservation, it is clear that a number of beasts were rather indiscriminately harmed during the picture’s production.

Though very well received at the time of its release, even contemporary reviews took consistent exception to the film’s alternatively stilted and anthropomorphically facetious titles. (“The very last grain of rice is husked, O very small daughter,” says the noble native. “Give him hell, boys!” says the ribald talking gibbon.)

More seriously, Chang reflects and implicitly countenances the subservience and sometimes oppression adhering to colonial relations. These are evident in the treatment of the animals, which might be seen as having a metonymic relation to the Siamese/Thai themselves. With the many beasts—stock, pets, fauves—we find condescension, domestication, destruction. The fate of the elephants is especially significant in this regard; they are taken from their habitat, run and driven, contained in corrals and ultimately subdued in order to perform labour for their masters. Unlike Flaherty, who tries to excise Europe completely, Cooper/Schoedsack, albeit inadvertently and in a displaced manner, place conquests and the colonial conundrum right in the middle of their picture.

But are we overreaching? These are difficulties all, or at least they can be looked at as such. But each count also contains interest and instruction. In the face of all this it is well to remember that Chang is the product of its time, and that much of the ethnographic etiquette, the common intercultural practices we now take for granted can not fairly be expected of its producers. It is well to consider the good that they intended, and accomplished.

It is clear that Cooper-Schoedsack were motivated by more than just commercial considerations. They encountered numerous technical challenges during the production of the film, and their recollections suggest that much of their motivation and satisfaction came from the successful solution to these difficulties. They had to find ways to trap the wild cats without having to kill them, to make a tiger attack, to shoot said attack without endangering the cameraman, to trap a herd of elephants. They had to learn to protect their film stock from mildew, how to reverse the effects of a serious lab mistake, how to incorporate the wide-screen magnascope process.

As they would show later with King Kong, Cooper-Schoedsack demonstrated remarkable ingenuity and aplomb in solving each of these problems. As with Robert Flaherty (or Werner Herzog, for that matter), the adventure of production was at least as important as the adventure portrayed in the production. What they were creating at this time of irresistible technological expansion and late colonial relations was a kind of popular-mechanics cinema, a Tom Swift-like boys’ fantasy built on and reflective of real relations and technological conditions. The film, for good and ill, reflects the enthusiasms and insensitivities of its time. The influence, and continued presence of these incomplete, essential sensibilities should not be underestimated.

With few exceptions the serious, groundbreaking, critically validated documentary film would not follow in Chang’s manic steps. Nevertheless it has very many descendants, and it’s good natured absurdity and superbly sneaky sleights of hand are echoed in a great many diverse places. They have a place in Jean Painlevé’s surreal scientific films. They prefigure, as Kevin Brownlow has observed, Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures, and in some ways the nature films of Arne Sucksdorff as well. Its traces are found in any number of large format nature films that couch cinematic spectacle in real natural appreciation and wonder.

Though contemporary audiences largely seem to have taken Chang at face value, the lens it turned on its subjects was not so much a window as a mirror. The reflection is gauche, guileless, blithe, boyish, ultimately attractive. Chang is emblematic of a great deal of commercial cinema: though there is much in it to criticize, we may finally find it difficult, and too delightful, to dismiss.