In case you’ve failed to look outside your window today, I’ll update you: snow. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, there’s a 96% chance that there is currently snow on the ground. (Sure I made that statistic up on the spot, but this is the Internet. I’m allowed to.) I’ve heard that there are some people who enjoy the snow, but I haven’t witnessed this madness myself for about two years. The rest of us, I’m guessing, are keeping warm inside by way of our Netflix accounts.
Netflix recently added several films to their collection for 2014, so I decided to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a Hollywood classic, or so I’ve been told, by people who stare at me with their eyes bulging in disbelief. “You’ve never watched it? You need to, Kasia. It has Audrey Hepburn. Classic film. Watch it. Watch it.” I knew that Audrey Hepburn’s beehive haircut and black dress are iconic, and this was reason enough for me. So I watched it.
I was left with mixed feelings about the film. I enjoyed it so much on a visceral and aesthetic level, but I cringed at the grotesque depiction of the Japanese landlord and was disappointed that the resolution bowed into more conservative cultural norms of 1961.
Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, a well-respected comedic actor during this time. Rooney was white, but his character was a Japanese man. In order to depict this caricature of a Japanese person, he wore makeup and a prosthetic mouthpiece to change his features. He spoke with an exaggerated ‘rrr’ in every word, and there were hints of perversion, as when he hoped to have Holly Golightly in his apartment for a private photo shoot. A 1961 review in the New York Times concluded that “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed, myopic Japanese is broadly exotic.”
Contextualizing the film historically is important, of course. It was made about 15 years after the Second World War, when the Japanese in America were sent to internment camps. This doesn’t excuse this disturbing brand of racism for humor’s sake by any means, but it does raise questions about art as a product of its time. I’m still struggling to understand the dynamics of this cause-effect relationship between culture and representations of culture. Does the historical context of an art piece somehow absolve or justifiably explain the bigoted parts of the dominant culture during that time, or is the art piece at fault of actively perpetuating racism?
The ending also left me uneasy. (Note: spoilers follow. If spoilers count as a thing for a movie made 53 years ago.) Holly Golightly had such a grand speech in that New York City taxi cab: “I’m like cat here, a no-name slob. We belong to nobody, and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.” But the film ended with her running back into the embrace of Mr. Fred-or-Paul-Valjack, so I suppose a woman in mid-century America really couldn’t belong to nobody.
Despite these notes, the dialogue in the film was the kind that I mull over in my head for days, the kind that I put on repeat when I’m bored at work because those little snippets of conversation cheer me right up.
As soon as this horrible snow melts, I plan on driving to Prospero’s Books to find the original novel by Truman Capote. In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books, so I expect to enjoy Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I hope that the novel will be markedly different from the Hollywood-ized version in film.