Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gleaming The Cube

Released in 1989, Gleaming the Cube was written by Michael Tolkin (Deep Impact), and directed by Graeme Clifford (many TV movies and episodes, including #2.5 of Twin Peaks). An unimaginative script and unmemorable directing left the weight of this movie to rest on the 19-year-old shoulders of then-heartthrob Christian Slater, who is not exactly up to the task.

Set in Southern California in the late 80s, the action begins when Brian’s (Slater) adopted Vietnamese brother Vihn (Art Chudabala) is killed because he discovers that his employer is secretly sending guns to Vietnam. The Vietnamese ‘villains’ and a white American who profits off these arms shipments make Vihn’s death look like a suicide. Brian doesn’t believe it, and thus we embark on a 105-minute justice-seeking journey through teenage snark, high school romance, and angry skateboarding.

In terms of aesthetics, the film provides us with a nostalgic snapshot of late 80s American consumer culture, featuring plenty of Coca Cola and Pizza Hut product placements. On a critical level, the film is an insidious assertion of American imperialism aimed at impressionable American teenagers. The creators and financers packaged this movie as the latest installment in PG-13 escapist adventure cinema, attracting a moldable audience expecting a spectacle devoid of critical social or political insight.  I’m reminded of the phrase used to describe Facebook users: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product”. In other words, if big business is giving you a product to “just enjoy”, something more sinister is almost certainly going on.

Not only are they hooking you on their brand of cinema in the hopes of turning you into a consumer-for-life, they are manipulating you into subconsciously internalizing specific capitalist and imperialist patterns of thinking. Hey parents, the new teen skateboard flick is out – drop your kids off at the mall theater for their seasonal inoculation of cultural hegemony.

The premise of “Gleaming the Cube” is based on the construction of a Vietnamese enemy who brings violence and harm to Vietnam, and a Vietnamese hero whose unjust death the American protagonist can avenge. This basic plot sets up a framework which allows the white male hero to attack certain Vietnamese characters while protecting others, mirroring the United States’ war on Vietnam in which US forces ostensibly fought to rescue Vietnam from the horrors of Vietnamese Communist groups. Of course, the United States’ mission was a failure, and the Vietnam War remains an uncomfortable blemish in the nation’s history.

Haile Gerima writes that such imperialist films are meant to compensate for reality. “Even though they lose a war in the actual battlefield, they reward themselves by the illusion of winning in cinema”.[1] Targeting American teenagers over a decade after the war is a calculated way to subtly introduce a retelling of the America-Vietnam narrative into public consciousness. Recruiting a cool sex symbol like Slater as the film’s main star is not so much predictable as it is industry standard, as Gerima states “stars are the soldiers of cultural imperialism”.[2]

One intriguing moment in the film occurs in the police station between two Vietnamese antagonists and a few American cops. As the villains joke about the crime in Vietnamese, one of the American cops smiles and butts in saying, “Thanks, you’ve just told me everything we need to know.” A look of horror emerges on their faces as they realize that the white cop speaks Vietnamese. On the surface, the audience is supposed to laugh at the incompetence of the criminals. On a deeper level, it’s a playing-out of a fantasy where the United States controls everything about Vietnam. How could they not have known that one of the Americans would speak Vietnamese? How could they be so ignorant as to think America does not own their culture, right down to its basic component - language?

Similarly, the film carries out a familiar romantic trope in which the national male hero, Brian, possesses another national female, Tina (played by Min Luong), symbolizing America’s dominance over Vietnam. As Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias argue, in terms of nationalism the woman represents “the maintenance of the ethnic boundary” within the nation.[3] In Gleaming the Cube, the young Vietnamese woman’s acceptance of the young American man as a romantic partner furthers the Vietnamese’s subordination to the Americans. This relationship is an important feature of the film’s message that only an American, as opposed to the dead Vietnamese hero, is the character competent enough to defeat the Vietnamese enemies. It’s an idea used to justify military operations all over the world: there might be groups with ‘good intentions’ (meaning ideology in line with America’s) in country X, but American intervention is necessary for them to succeed.

A short exchange between Brian and Tina reveals the film’s intentions as an instrument of imperialism even more. At a party, the two exchange friendly jabs at each other’s national cuisines, each finding the other’s to be “weird”. The moment is an attempt to normalize the two cultures in relation to each other, by finding the same fault with each. The use of comedy to package the situation causes it to appear to be empty of any serious significance. But in fact, the point of this playful criticism is to equalize American and Vietnamese culture, erasing the fact that the relationship is in reality quite unbalanced both in power and intentions.

Todd Gitlin writes, “Hegemonic ideology changes in order to remain hegemonic”.[4] Such is the case with Gleaming the Cube, as popular American cinema entered in the 1980s what Hamid Naficy calls “Phase III” of mainstream media’s treatment of the Other. Phase I is characterized by denial of the Other’s existence, Phase II by treatment of the Other as a threat or a spectacle, and Phase III by the assimilation and domestication of the Other.[5] In the first stage, the state continues the illusion that a certain group does not exist, because firstly it cannot acknowledge that it is involved in a conflict that might threaten its stability, and secondly because the group, for whatever reason, is worthless to the state at this point in time. In the second and third phases, the relationship shifts and the state begins the process of turning the Other into a product to be consumed. Now, the state enters the Other into popular consciousness on its terms, in order to control the shape that the Other takes and to profit from it.

Gleaming the Cube is not a great work of cinema. It will not be praised down the line for years to come, nor will it emerge as a cult classic. It is throwaway film, good for one viewing only. But don’t let that fool you; Gleaming the Cube is forever being reincarnated on screens across the country in the form of its underlying messages. It, and all other films produced by big cinema, is dripping with state sanctioned ideology, justification for imperialism, and commodification of the Other as a threat, spectacle, or domesticated being. I admit that I fell for the trap when I rented it. I wanted to have a goofy night, and Christian Slater’s spiky beach blond hair coupled with the promise of Tony Hawk skateboarding his way through high-speed chase scenes pulled me in. Perhaps now I’ll be more vigilant in remembering that there is no such thing as a free ride.

[1] Haile Gerima, “Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy” in Questions of Third Cinema, ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen. (Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1989), 85.
[2] Ibid, 72.
[3] Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, “Introduction”, in Woman-Nation-State, ed. Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 13.
[4] Quoted by Hamid Naficy in “Mediawork’s Representation of the Other: The Case of Iran” in Questions of Third Cinema, ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen. (Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1989), 227.
[5] Ibid, 230.