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Oriental and Postmodern Elements in Moulin Rouge!

Bachelorarbeit 2007 118 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Orientalism
2.1 From Oriental Studies to Orientalism
2.2 Orientalism in English Literature
2.3 Orientalism in Film
2.4 Preliminary Conclusion

3 Bollywood – the Hollywood of the East?
3.1 History of Bollywood Cinema
3.2 The Bollywood Aesthetics
3.3. Preliminary Conclusion

4 Postmodernism
4.1 A Short Note on Postmodernism
4.2 Postmodernism in Film
4.3 Preliminary Conclusion

5 Film Analysis of Moulin Rouge!
5.1 Postmodern Elements in Moulin Rouge!
5.1.1 The Many Faces of Moulin Rouge!
5.1.2 The Theatricalized Cinema Style
5.1.3 Essential Postmodernism: Imitation, Intertextuality and Self-reflexivity
5.2 Orientalisms in Moulin Rouge!
5.2.1 Orientalism and the Bohemian Revolution
5.2.2 The Bollywood Style

6 Conclusion

Works Cited

Appendix: Film Protocol of Moulin Rouge!

1 Introduction

"The show will be a magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement! A sensual ravishment. It will be Spectacular, Spectacular." (Moulin Rouge 12). Zidler is right. That is what Moulin Rouge! is – spectacular. Zidler, the impresario of the Moulin Rouge, tries to sell the bohemian play 'Spectacular, Spectacular', which Toulouse and Christian present to the Duke. However, Moulin Rouge! is 'Spectacular, Spectacular' and vice versa. The Duke is the maharajah, Christian is the penniless sitar player and Satine is the beautiful courtesan. Luhrmann's latest work is loud, colorful, fast, postmodern, a melodrama and a musical, and it is about love. Opinions are much divided over this film and many critics wonder if it is just bad taste and kitsch or an ingenious piece of film art. In other words, it is an original Baz Luhrmann.

Until today, the Australian director produced three movies, which he calls the 'Red Curtain Trilogy'. He started with Strictly Ballroom in 1992, followed by William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and ended with Moulin Rouge! in 2001. Luhrmann calls his way of filmmaking "a theatricalized cinema style" (Luhrmann 9). Baz Luhrmann definitely is a unique and versatile character. However, if his film is art or trash remains a matter of opinion. Luhrmann himself disassociates from any categorization in the sense of low culture and high art, taking into account that back in time Shakespeare was also considered as popular culture in the same way, as operas were the lowest form of culture at their peak times. He counters his critics and their objections, "die Story ist dünn und simpel", with, "Doch gerade das ist eine Konvention des Musicals, aber auch der Oper, mit Ausnahme von Wagner. Aber eigentlich zieht auch Wagner nur einen dünnen Plot in die Länge." (Bühler). The other often expressed criticism that his latest work, "is a direct assault on eyes, ears, and expectations" (Abele), and hard to exceed in terms of kitsch, he only defies with the credo that, "Persönlicher Geschmack ist der Feind der Kunst."[1] (Bühler).

Moulin Rouge! is a mélange of film, music and dance. Set in 1899 but with contemporary music it is a work of extremes. Everything in this film seems to scream: 'anything goes!'. Nevertheless, Luhrmann follows a concept. Nothing in this film happens accidentally but it is his own style. Luhrmann's 'Red Curtain' style comprises several distinct storytelling choices. He uses a rather simple story, based on a well-known myth, which in Moulin Rouge! is the myth of Orpheus. Luhrmann wants the audience to know from the very beginning how the story will end and with a simple play-within-the play Luhrmann captures the audience's attention. He sets the story in a created world "that is once familiar yet distant and exotic" (Luhrmann 9). Finally, each of his films has its own device, which makes the audience aware of the storyteller's presence and the fact that they are watching a film (cp. Stoppe 19). In Moulin Rouge! music and dance is the device that creates the effect of an unnatural world. Although this movie sometimes seems chaotic with all its influences of opera, Greek myth, latest film techniques, modern pop music and Bollywood in particular, in the end Baz Luhrmann meets the ravages of time.

Bollywood is en vogue. In 2001, Andrew Lloyds Webber stages his West End and Broadway hit Bombay Dreams, the Victoria and Albert Museum opens an exhibition about Hindi Cinima's visual culture, and Bollywood music and Bhangra raps enter European hit parades (cp. Stadtler 518pp). Luhrmann uses the exotic Orient in form of relatively unknown – at least the to Western audiences - Bollywood cinema to reinvent the old musical tradition "in a style as iconically heightened as any of the classic musical spectaculars [...] in a form ironic as never before." (Luhrmann 73).

This paper aims at examining the use of the concepts of Orientalism and postmodernism in Moulin Rouge! and their significance in the larger scale regarding Bollywood as a representative of the East and Hollywood as the agent of the West. This paper shows that first of all, Luhrmann is in good company when utilizing the Orient for a genre rejuvenation and second that the use of oriental reference inevitably leads to the broader discussion of Orientalism. More precisely this paper explores on the subject of oriental and postmodern elements in Moulin Rouge!. But what is considered oriental or the Orient respectively? Moreover, what was Luhrmann's motivation to give this film an oriental look? The answer to the first question is part of a diverse and complex discussion circling around Edward Said's Orientalism. Thus, chapter two gives an overview of the development of the term 'Orientalism' and critically explores the subject of using oriental styles in literature and film. The latter aspect also partly covers for the second question, but the essential word here is Bollywood. Therefore, chapter three provides a history of Bollywood cinema and the basics of Bollywood aesthetics. Postmodernism is the term that is always mentioned in one breath with Moulin Rouge!. In a short note on postmodernism, this concept will be discussed firstly with regard to its general meaning. Secondly I will present its use in film, which provides the basis for the discussion of postmodern elements in Moulin Rouge!. Each of the first three chapters ends with a preliminary conclusion to link those different concepts. The main part is the film analysis with regard to the oriental and postmodern elements in the context of the previous discussions and results. Luhrmann's 'Red Curtain' style serves as structuring element for the postmodern analysis. The citation is based on the MLA Handbook. The referencee of film quotations refer to scene numbers according to the film protocol in the appendix.

2 Orientalism

2.1 From Oriental Studies to Orientalism

The all-embracing name in the discussion of Orientalism, or rather anything that is related to the orient, is Edward Said. This name is omnipresent in nearly every book or essay that deals with Orientalism or oriental studies after 1978. This is the date when Said's influential and controversial book Orientalism was published. This chapter gives an overview of the development of oriental studies and the term Orientalism before and after Said. This implicitly means, before the term Orientalism becomes "an academic buzzword" (169) as Heehs calls it in his essay Shades of Orientalism. What he means is the negative connotation of Orientalism as "the Other" and the associated imperialistic discussion in postcolonial studies.

Oriental studies as a discipline have a long tradition especially in Europe and particularly in Germany (cp. Irwin 153). However, the attempt to commit on a date that marks the beginning of Orientalism turns out to be rather difficult. Some regard the ancient Greece as origin of Orientalism. Others in turn have thought of scholars such as Guillame Postel (1510-81) and Edward Pococke (1604-91) or Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) as the founding fathers of Orientalism. There are also scholars for whom it is not until Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1789 to speak of Orientalism (cp. Irwin 6pp). The institutionalization of Orientalism proceeded with Sir William Jones - also known as 'Oriental Jones' - who founded the Asiatick Society of Bengal in 1784 (cp. Irwin 122). In the first half of the nineteenth century, other important scholarly associations as for instance the Société Asiatique (1821), the Royal Asiatic society of Great Britain and Ireland (1824), the American Oriental Society (1842) and the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (1845) were founded (cp. Gaeffke 67). This was also the time of the establishment of English rule in India and shortly after Napoleon's raid on Egypt, which Said often uses to legitimize his view of Orientalism only in relation to Imperialism. However, many scholars among Said's critics continually stress that originally, interest was primarily put into Oriental languages mostly with regard to theology or as Irwin describes it, "Orientalism was founded upon academic drudgery and close attention to philological detail" (Irwin 8).

Moreover, it is important to distinguish between the already described academic Orientalism and Orientalism in arts. Schlegel, for instance, spoke of Indian scholars as, "the most cultivated and wisest people of antiquity" (qtd. in Heehs 174). Heehs points out that in arts "the word 'Orientalism' meant the study of literature, language, religion, arts and social life of the East to make the West aware of another culture." (Heehs 174). Novelists and poets were driven out of curiosity and fascination about the exotic, unknown Eastern wisdom and the aspiration of some sort of a second Renaissance (cp. Gaeffke 67pp).

In the same way the term 'Orientalism' changed its meaning over time the term 'Orient' was adapted and expanded with increasing exploration of the East. Much eighteenth-century literature about the Orient refers to what we today know as the Middle East whereas in nineteenth-century texts it also includes North Africa, and in the twentieth century also Central and Southeast Asia (cp. Lowe 7). Despite the British rule over India and large parts of the Arabic world, however, British scholars were not notably engaged in Oriental scholarship for a long time and Germany still held the primacy in this field with names such as Brothers Grimm, Schlegel, Humboldt and Max Müller (cp. Irwin Oriental Discourses). Only during World War II Britain started to put more interest in Arabic, Asian and African languages and culture (cp. Irwin 237). From the 1930s onwards, Orientalism also reached American universities, which heavily started to recruit European and Arab Orientalists to set up their departments (cp. Irwin 247). The period of decolonization after the end of World War II, was the starting point of the transformation of 'Orientalism' as referring to a scholar versed in oriental languages and literature or to an artist playing with oriental styles, into an ideological and political term. The moving spirits were (American) scholars and intellectuals who came from or formerly lived in the Orient, as it was the case with Edward Said (cp. Macfie 2).

Since the 1970s 'Otherness' is an issue. In the course of the growing economic and cultural globalization, ideas of 'self' and 'other', of identity and gender became popular. It seems as if the Orientalism debate awakened all other subaltern studies and postcolonial studies. A new concern about how Western societies have perceived and interpreted oriental societies through imperial expansion was in the air. In the 1980s, the field of 'cultural discourse studies' emerged from those debates. From that point the discussion of 'the Other' entered feminism, black studies an recently postmodernism (cp. Turner 3).

After this overview of the historical development of oriental studies, the following paragraph provides a short discussion of Said's argumentation and the critical reactions. Said acknowledges the ordinary meaning of Orientalism as described earlier but he adds two more. First, Orientalism to him is above all a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistomological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'" (Said 2). Second, it is, "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." (Said 3). His main concerns are that 'the Orient' was abused and usurped to define it as 'the Other' to Europe and that Orientalism and this Western-dominated presentations have a long history in Europe. Thus, the Orient is only a social construct, a set of ideas that project the Western visions of the East into a concept of an 'imaginative geography'. Moreover, for Said Orientalism is a politically and ideologically driven discourse about the Orient as the 'Other' of Europe, that comprises not only politics but also all social, cultural and academic levels. (cp. Balfe 78pp). He heavily draws on Foucault's theory of power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse to argue that the only aim of Orientalist's work and writing was to legitimate the domination and exploitation of the East and to establish a regime of knowledge (cp. Krug 28pp). Said carries it so far as to inextricably link Orientalism and imperialism. Irwin summarizes Said's argumentation as follows, "Orientalism is the hegemonic discourse of imperialism that constrains everything written and thought in the West about the Orient and particularly about Islam and the Arabs.", and, "Characteristically Orientalism is essentialist, racialist, patronizing and ideologically motivated" (Irwin 3).

Since the publishing of Orientalism , numerous critics appeared on scene to offer a different view and to defend an entire scholar field against this compromise. The most popular names among them are Bernhard Lewis, Robert Irwin, Martin Kramer, Lisa Lowe, and John MacKenzie. The following discussion summarizes their major concerns in seven points of criticism. Generally, Said is criticized for his methodological approach, or in the words of Irwin he was caught in "a labyrinth of false turns, trompe-l'oeil perspectives and cul-de-sacs (Irwin 4 italics in original). They blamed him for drawing conclusion from eighteenth and nineteenth century texts to explain current social and political developments primarily in the Arabic world. This argument already includes two more reprovals. First, the politicization of a literary criticism or as A.L. Mcafie tries to explain Said's assault on Orientalism it as "a personal sense of loss and national disintegration", hinting at Said's biography (Macfie 3). The other implicit reproval is the stereotypical depiction of more than three hundred years of Orientalism. According to Said academic Orientalists, explorers and novelists participated in a common Orientalist discourse (cp. Irwin 281pp). Thus, Said also sees no necessity to distinguish between Orientalism in arts and Orientalism as an academic discipline. Kramer quotes a critic who encounters:

Who, after all, had ever thought that Lamartine and Olivia Manning, Chateaubriand and Byron, Carlyle, Camus, Voltaire, Gertrude Bell, the anonymous composers of El Cid and the Chanson de Roland, Arabists like Gibb, colonial rulers such as Cromer and Balfour, sundry quasi-literary figures like Edward Lane, scholars of Sufism like Massignon, Henry Kissinger — all belonged in the same archive and composed a deeply unified discursive formation!

Therefore, a main argument is that the same way Said accuses the West of a monolithic and stereotypical view of the East, he constructs the same view of the West which implicitly is a form of Occidentalism (cp. MacKenzie xviipp). Lowe also rejects "a totalizing framework that would grant such authority to Orientalism" (x) that heavily reduces this discourse. Said should have been aware of the fact that Orientalism in serious scholarship and popular culture is not conveyed similarly. The portrayals of the Orient in films, for instance, differs from those in literature and can not be compared to oriental studies of scholars (cp. Irwin 8pp). Reductionism is the most predominant accuse against Said. He reduces the Orient to the Arab world excluding North Africa and Asia, the Occident to France and England and Orientalism to imperialism (cp. Irwin 5). Krug adds that Said ignores the historical context of Europe in the early nineteenth century where 'the Others' for England, for instance, were France, Ireland, or Jews and not only 'the Orient' (cp. Krug 30). Heehs and Kramer note, that Said neglects the fact that Oriental studies in the 19th century were dominated by German scholars, which did not possess an Eastern Empire and he further disregards the fundamental differences of opinion amongst Western scholars of the Orient. In his book For the Lust of Knowing Irwin presents the work of the most important Orientalists that Said failed to acknowledge but also concedes that figures like Ernst Renan and Jospeh-Arthur de Gobineau were racist. Finally, as already mentioned the very beginning of this chapter, Orientalists blame Edward Said for the stigmatization of an entire scholarly field. Bernhard Lewis complains that "Orientalism has been emptied of its previous content and given an entirely new one – that of unsympathetic or hostile treatment of Oriental peoples". For a more balanced view on this topic, it is important to note that Lewis also is accused of the same fault of over generalizing the debate and of political reductionism (cp. Bahmad 56).

At least, most critics agree on the stimulating effect of Orientalism on postcolonial studies and the influence it has on many other fields such as poststructuralism, discourse theory and postmodernism (cp. MacKenzie xii). Particularly with respect to the ongoing discussion about globalization as 'westernization', it offers a necessary impuls for reflection and consideration. Many critics also come to the understanding that Orientalism was always a source of inspiration for Western arts, that was declaredly manipulated and reinterpreted, produced stereotypes, and had racial twists (cp. MacKenzie 203). The following chapter gives a short overview of Orientalism in literature and film, of how it was used and particularly why the Orient was so popular over a long period of time.

2.2 Orientalism in English Literature

The overview of Orientalism in literature and theatre is limited to British literature with a focus on nineteenth-century melodrama (cp. Krug). The use of oriental motifs and stage settings has been very prominent in that time in England. Whereas, according to Mayer, the American melodrama during that period only offers a few examples that draw on oriental images (21). The focus on nineteenth century texts also causes in the fact that Moulin Rouge! is set in the nineteenth century and refers to coeval theatre practices.

When Said attacks Orientalism, he often refers to the depiction of the East in literature and film. "The Orient", Said writes, "was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." (qtd. in Bernstein 2). From early on the Orient had much to offer for writers who where looking for new ideas and inspiration. Everything was different from what was known from own traditions and conventions. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers got bored from contemporary literature at that time and were looking for rejuvenation, which they found in Orientalism. The Orient was admired for its "imaginative power, its characters, vegetation and fabrics" (Mac Kenzie 184). Horace Walpole once admitted, "Read Sinbad and you will be quite sick of Aeneas." (Irwin Oriental Discourses). Jones had the same opinion and found more leisure in reading The Thousand and One Nights and he was not the only one. Addison, Coleridge, Tennyson and Proust read and were influenced by oriental literature (Irwin Oriental Discourses). According to the Norton Anthology of Literature, Orientalism in English literature started with the earliest translations of The Thousand and One Nights from the French into English (Grub-Street translations). The most popular translations produced Edward Lane in 1840, a linguist and anthropologist who regarded the Nights as an ethnographic text full of encyclopaedic information concerning Middle Eastern popular culture, and Richard Burton in 1885. Burton's translation is the main source for the erotic imagery and caused a scandal in Victorian England. (cp. Balfe 79 and Nishio 156). Both translations are criticized for not corresponding to an 'Oriental' reality but for freely enriching their translations with their own images and fantasies about the Orient (cp. Marzolph 5). The Oriental Tale became popular in England of which Samuel Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssina (1759) is a good example. Romantic Orientalism produced various important works, among such are poems, novels, pantomimes or melodramas with recognizable elements of Asian and African place names or historical and legendary people in it. Some examples are the dream of "an Arab of the Bedouin Tribes" in book 5 of Wordsworth's Prelude, a tempting affair with an Indian maiden in Keats's Endymion or Saife, an Arab maiden in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (cp. The Norton).

Another source for Orientalisms was the extensive travel literature at that time as for instance The Turkish Embassy Letters from British woman writer Lady Mary Montagu or Jonathan Swifts' Gulliver's Travel (cp. Lowe 34pp). The depiction of the orient in all these writings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was extremely heterogeneous and, obviously always influenced by its time. The entrancing portrayals by many female writers traveling around the Orient often differ form popular depictions of an uncivilized and exotic Orient that were used to point at the putative stable and powerful West (cp. Lowe 31). However, the question remains if this process only served to separate the English 'Self' from the Oriental 'Other' or rather if the Orient was used as a stage, a free zone to evacuate social or political problems of the time.

For example one of the earliest successful melodramas with oriental motifs and "with entire new Dresses, Scenes, Machinery and Decorations" (qtd. in Krug 39), was Frederick Reynolds' The Crusade (1790). The transformation of the plot in the Orient enabled the indirect examination of the sensitive topic of French Revolution and it offered new perspectives with regard to scenery, costumes and props. Hannah Cowleys A Day in Turkey; or The Russion Slaves (1791) is also a discussion of the French revolutionary society and alleviated by an oriental wrapping (cp. Krug 48 and 160). In 1798, George Colemans' Blue Beard; or, Female Curiosity!, became one of the most successful melodrama of the time. The story was well known by the audience; only the relocation of the story in the Orient was new (cp. Krug 83pp). In the early nineteenth century, theater had a notable Orientalist touch with productions such as (again) Blue Beard, Timour the Tartra and Harlequin and Pamanabe (cp. MacKenzie 183). Still, the Orient functioned as a space for political comment about the own situation. For instance, Sinbad the Sailor (1833) serves as a projection and promotion of the new mercantile social class where courage, industry and commerce become central virtues. The trick was to parody 'the Self' through the portrayal of 'the Other' with the liberation from existing conventions including sexual conventions. Oskar Wilde, for instance, uses the archetype Salomé in his one-act play Salomé (1876) written for Sarah Bernardt to explore the erotic constraints of those times. When he depicts Salomé as femme fatale, he serves a male fantasy of the women with a deadly power (cp. Grimm 8). There is no doubt that with establishing British rule in India and the ongoing colonization, British writing was influenced by the colonial idea and the image of the superior West to the inferior East. Said consults Joseph Conrads' Heart of Darkness (1902), to point out the imperialistic discourse that dominated English literature (cp. Said 200pp). On the other hand, many writers were primarily fascinated by the extravagance of event, character, behavior, the emotions and the escape the Orient offered to English everyday reality. Theaters gained new opportunities for stunning set design, plants and animals were used to convey novelty and to create a new exotic fantasy world (cp. MacKenzie 181).

Orientalism fascinated writers and readers, playwrights and audiences and it still does, as Baz Luhrmann proves. In 2001, Frances Sheridan's History of Nourjahad, William Beckford's Vathek and Byron's Giaour have been published as Three Oriental Tales with an introduction by Alan Richardson emphasizing the "use of ‘Oriental' motifs to criticize European social arrangements." (qtd. in The Norton). John Barth takes up the story of Scheherazade for his Dunyazadiad in Chimera (1972) and in the preface to The Arabian Nights and Orientalism, Irwin points out the eroticism and fantasy in Nabokovs' Ada (1969) (cp. Irwin Preface x). Although there are little undiscovered spots left on earth, and although in our global world everything seems to be just around the corner, the Orient still holds an unbroken fascination.

2.3 Orientalism in Film

Oriental motifs and settings have occurred in films virtually form its beginning. From 1910 onwards, several films each year were produced as action dramas with a setting in North Africa. In 1917/18, films like Aladdin and His Lamp or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and the first screen adaption of Kismet (1920) were very popular. They all represented the East as the conventional construction, Said is pointing at (cp. Bernstein 3). Films are looking for sensations and the spectacular and exotic feature that would attract audiences. This urge for exploring new sets, new plots, and new characters often comes at the expense of 'the Other'. Most films express the 'imaginative geography' Said refers to. In contrast to the discussion of Orientalism in literature, cultural critics and theorists take up Saids' paradigm for the representation of race, identity and gender in film. They acknowledge Orientalism in film as often being an expression of colonialist and imperialist ideas (cp. Bernstein 1pp). Ella Shohat stresses the discovery and explorative perspective of films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) or the Indiana Jones series, where the natives are presented as passive, uncivilized and primitive (cp. Shohat Gender 27). Also the sexualization of the Orient, the fostering of rape and rescue fantasies as well as the image of the black or Arab woman driven by her libido were abundantly used in for instance The Sheik (1921) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) (cp. Shohat Gender 41pp). However, as in literature the Orient is used as a space for comment on homemade conflicts. In The Sheik the debate about women rights and Western women rebelling, changing the dress-code and demanding the vote are transferred to the Sahara desert. In the end, the female protagonist has to learn that it is advising to be an obedient woman when the Western hero finally rescues her from the Oriental savage man (cp. Shohat Between 223pp). In prude America of the first half of the twentieth century the Orient was also used for a more revealing depiction of nakedness as it was admissible in those times, as for instance in Vincent Mineli's Kismet (1955) (cp. Shohat Between 222). Dance playes a crucial role in Hollywood's visualization of the Orient and its unreleased sexual desires (cp. Studlar 105). In the 1940s and 1950s Jack Cole and his "coupling of 'accurately observed' oriental, Indian, and African-American dance movements to jazz music" (McLean 131) played a key-role during the peak time of the Hollywood musical that produced film stars such as Jack Lemmon, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.


[1] Baz Luhrmann further explicates: "Die unbequeme Wahrheit über klassische Statuen ist, dass sie zur Zeit der Griechen in Diskofarben bemalt waren, mit rosa Gesichtern und blauen Lidschatten. Sind die nun geschmacklos oder Kitsch? Das ist rein subjektiv."


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filmanalyse moulin rouge orientalism postmodernism bollywood



Titel: Oriental and Postmodern Elements in Moulin Rouge!