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The People vs. The Director: An Object Lesson in Opinion

By LaVerne Zuk

[1] In 1990 and 1991, reviewers and critics of Come See the Paradise struggled between accepting Alan Parker's intention to tell an interracial love story within an historic setting and their desire to have the film focus on the injustice of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. One critic went so far as to state that it "isn't really about the internment of Japanese-American civilians so much as it's about Parker's idealized fantasies of life in wartime America" (Cosford). This quote is an example of the pervading opinion of Come See the Paradise. First, why does Parker choose an interracial love story rather than focusing on the internment? Second, what was Parker's purpose for casting a white male lead? Third, does Parker present history accurately within his framework of the love story? Lastly, why does Parker continue in his role as a foreign cinematic historian who focuses on America's past? Parker may have addressed all these questions in interviews after the film's release, yet critics and some of the public refuse to accept his choices.

The Focus Is on the Love Story

[2] "I wanted to do an interracial love story," said Parker. "I decided on Japanese-Americans because it was a very dramatic period of American history that hadn't been told" (Parker qtd in Tawa). Parker is very clear about the kind of movie he set out to create. He writes a tale that is based on a traumatic historic event, creating tension and drama in the love story. Many critics disagree with Parker's love-story focus. With so few modern movie references to the Japanese-American internment and with the first financial reparations for the denial of personal justice taking place in 1990, critics opined that it seemed to be an obvious choice to use the film as a mechanism to teach America an important lesson. But "Paradise turns out to be not so much of a drum-beater about displaced persons and injustice but instead a love story, complete with music swelling on the soundtrack with each clinch. . . . The internment situation doesn't even enter the storyline until well into the second half of the film" (Osborne).

[3] The subsequent reviews of the film reflect the disappointment many feel at Parker's handling of such intense history: "Parker picked a good subject, seldom dramatized before: the internment of Japanese-Americans in barbed wire camps during World War II. But nobody was interested. In cities where it was released between December and March, business was abysmal. And critical response was surprisingly negative -- something about the love story getting too much emphasis" (Blank). Others are more direct in their assessment of the film: "Parker has so little faith that a general audience would care about watching Japanese-Americans that he turns a piquant story of civil-rights abuses into a bland interracial romance" (Rickey); "If Parker had been content to focus on [the theme of the internment], he could have made a movie that would have left the viewers' blood boiling. Instead he summons yawns as he moves away from very real violations of human rights to a fluffy love story" (Strickler); and, "Subtlety doesn't seem to be a part of Parker's directorial vocabulary. He piles on romantic cliches that make Jack and Lily's rapid courtship and marriage seem like a fairy tale, and he underscores his points by having people burst into song so often you'd almost think the movie was a musical" (Mills). These criticisms make Parker defensive in his interviews: "I didn't make the -- their film; I made my film. I started with a love story, and a love story is what I wanted to tell. That's my film. I didn't set out to do a definitive story of the internment of Japanese-Americans. They might have wanted that, and they might have made that. They didn't; I did" (Parker qtd in Drummond).

[4] While the critics are entitled to voice their opinions, to do so in a manner that negates the right of Parker to choose whatever movie he wanted to make seems uncalled-for. If Parker had stated that he was making a film about the internment but threw in a "fluffy love story" for color, then, yes, it's possible that the reviewers would have a right to comment so negatively over the work. However, Parker's full intention from the beginning of the project was to write an interracial love story situated in a dramatic time period; of that, no critic can claim that he wasn't successful.

The White Man Leads

[5] In a film that focuses primarily on the Issei and Nisei suffering racism and imprisonment, it seems odd that Parker would cast a white male lead. Sometimes the inclusion seems distracting from the plight of the Kawamuras, especially during the internment scenes: Jack is all but forgotten as we focus on camp life and the hardships faced by the internees. Reviewers were quick to pick up on this strange character who seems to have no place: "Dennis Quaid plays the movie's token Caucasian, an inept union organizer named Jack McGurn. Somehow imagining that a major white character will draw in a wider audience (which it won't), Parker wastes half of the film on this ineffectual dolt's marriage to the beautiful daughter of a Little Tokyo businessman" (Strauss). Some reviewers justified the inclusion as a financial decision: "It seems the writer-director was hit with a classic Hollywood dilemma: should he make a film about an oppressed minority, focusing entirely on the minority, thus making a powerful, honest, but not especially commercial film? Or should he plop a white U.S. movie star in the middle of the project, diluting its impact but increasing the box office" (Garner)?

[6] As with the love story, Parker is very clear about why he chose a Caucasian lead in his film. "Parker said creating the Quaid role was not an attempt to lure white moviegoers to a story about minorities. ‘It was an interracial love story to begin with,' he said" (Horn). And again, as with the love story, most of the critics choose to ignore Parker's right to write whatever story he chooses, including whatever nationality of actor he prefers.

[7] Roger Ebert is the lone critic who appreciates the addition for what it is: "Come See the Paradise has been criticized in a few places because . . . a convenient Caucasian provides the point of view, so that the audience will have someone to identify with. . . . The introduction of the Quaid character . . . is making a statement not limited to the story of [Parker's] Japanese-American characters. . . . By adding the Quaid character, [Parker] is able to show in one story how eager we sometimes are to deprive people of their rights for both racial and political reasons" (Ebert). Ebert "gets" Parker's intention with the character of Jack McGurn. A union sympathizer with a soft side, McGurn is thrown out of New York, thrown into jail, then faced with his wife's abandonment and subsequent forced internment. McGurn's troubles are only tempered by the impossible situation his wife and in-laws face as they give up their home, their jobs, and their possessions.

The Accurate Portrayal of History

[8] Come See the Paradise, like any drama based in historic fact, was scrutinized for accuracy. Because so much detail is available about the internment, Parker has no excuse to neglect the singularities of the evacuation, the assembly centers, or the internment camps. "Oh, it exaggerated some," said a middle-aged Nisei leaving the theater, "and tried to do too much. The suffering that it showed in the camps was only a little of the suffering that went on" (Nhu). Another group of interviewed Nisei noted that, "Though they quibbled with some of the film's details -- its profanity-laced script is not the language of the Nisei, they point out --they found it deeply evocative of their own experiences" (Haberstroh). It is this point that makes Parker's portrayal of the camp scenes so moving; while he may have missed the mark on some minor details, it is obvious that he put much effort into getting it as accurate as possible. "There was no way, Parker said, that he was going to be accused again [as he was after Mississippi Burning] of taking artistic license with history for the sake of dramatic embellishment. That meant no detail . . . -- from chopsticks to cups -- escaped Parker's eye" (Tawa). Parker's focus on the tangible minutiae exemplifies the research that he put into the historic aspects of the film, though some of the nuances like language may not have been as accessible and are therefore more forgivable. "I felt like I was reliving those times again as I viewed the film," said Harold Harada, who was a prisoner in Poston, AZ (Horn). "The shower and latrine scenes were disturbing and real to me," said another Nisei: "We lost our sense of privacy for a couple of years, all stuck together. It was very powerful" (Haberstroh).

[9] Parker realizes that choosing dramatic settings for his films can cause more judgment than most other films. People look harder at an historically-based drama, and it's inevitable that with that level of scrutiny, flaws will show. "You're always judged by a different set of rules when you get into this area of film making," said Parker: "With 99 percent of the films that get made, no one gives a damn whether they're accurate or not because they're not dealing with a serious subject" (Parker qtd in Guthmann). With a topic as serious as the internment and so many survivors of the era still alive to judge any slip-ups, Parker heard about every detour from accuracy:

Since the film's opening in San Francisco, many Japanese-Americans have gone to see it. Several interviewed for this story said the depictions of camp life were disturbingly accurate and powerful. . . . "According to the movie, the Kowamora [sic] family was released from Mansanar [sic] when the camps were declared unconstitutional. And that's absolutely false, and I couldn't understand why that was put in there because I felt all the way through the film that [Parker] was pretty careful about historical facts. And then there was this big glaring error." (Carol Hioshino, former Associate Director of the Japanese American Citizens League qtd in Drummond)

[10] Yet the choices Parker makes with some deviations from history are not all met with incredulity or anger. "Even though the movie was flawed, I"m glad it was made," said Noriko Bridges, the widow of labor leader Harry Bridges: "Most people know so little about what happened to Japanese-Americans and why it happened during the war that this kind of movie brings the subject to the forefront and stops the denial" (Nhu). Overall, Parker's handling of such a difficult subject can be commended. While it would be impossible to cover ever aspect of the history leading up to the internment and the aftermath when the camps closed, Parker did cover more detail than most high-school history books on the subject, which is more than many "based on history" films manage.

Parker as a Foreign Cinematic Historian of the American Past

[11] The most controversial aspect of Parker as a director isn't his portrayal of history or his decision to focus on love rather than social injustice: it's his preference for reliving the worst parts of America's history. Critics either love him or hate him for it. Why does a British filmmaker need to pick on American citizens or American history when he has a world of history to choose from? "The reason I happen to choose difficult dramatic backgrounds," says Parker, "is because I think they are the most interesting backgrounds for films that I want to do," adding "Sometimes, people get upset with me and do not appreciate the films for what they are because the arguments and the controversies sometimes take over" (Horn). Parker is correct in his assessment of people's emotions over his backgrounds. The critics of Come See the Paradise demonstrate how negatively they feel: "British director Alan Parker has come to the United States to make movies dramatizing our greatest national failures. His last picture, Mississippi Burning, lectured us about the 1964 murder of three civil-rights activists. Now . . . he proposes to lecture us about U.S. internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II" (Klinghoffer).

[12] While it sounds scathing, Klinghoffer's statement is an example of the worst that any reviewer can say about Parker's subject matter. Many complained about how he played fast and loose with history in Mississippi Burning, but that was a different film, and Parker admitted to learning a valuable lesson in the criticism that followed. While Americans may be angered that a foreign director focuses on the U.S. government's choices regarding civil rights, Parker has a point when he states that no one else has, so he chooses to. Had any American director tackled such a project, it's possible that it would have received different reviews, but since none has, it is impossible to say.

[13] Like the differences of opinion on Parker's portrayal of history, Parker isn't always lambasted for poking his nose into American history: "Parker . . . can't be faulted for his intentions. This is an earnest attempt to prove to America how wrong it was to round up a group of people just because of their heritage, strip them of their belongings and ship them to thinly disguised prison camps" (Strickler). Reviewer Marshall Fine said it best in his discussion of the film: "The British-born Parker has the nerve to remind the world of one of the United States' most shameful chapters. And he does so in a way that can't help but provoke a strong emotional response." While it's true that a foreign perspective on something as embarrassing as our country's choice to intern its own citizens can be a bit of a slap in the face, there were no others who felt it important enough to focus on, even if it was only as a background to a love story. Parker should not be blamed for selecting little-known history for his films, no matter from what country or how shameful the portrayal may be. He handled it fairly accurately, he was careful to consider the people he was representing, and he should be applauded for a decent effort.

Conclusion

[14] Conflicting answers to these four issues occurred to me as I viewed the film and researched the many aspects of the filmic and historic context of the movie. I agree with the reviewers that Parker lost the chance to make an amazing epic film about a tragic period in history, yet I understand that it is his creative choice, not mine or the critics' or the public's. I was not impressed with the white male lead. Why couldn't Parker have cast the characters in a different way, basing the love story on an actual event like Jeanne Houston Wakatsuki's brother who fell in love with a Caucasian nurse's aid while in camp? Again, my opinion was tempered by the realization that Parker wrote what he wanted to, from his perspective and life experience. As I scoured books and websites about the history of the internment and interracial relationships similar to those of Jack and Lily, I applauded Parker for being very cautious as he represented a race who had already suffered so many injustices. And, lastly, I think Parker's choice to focus on America's past is not one to be judged: even the Nisei found it difficult to talk about what happened during World War II. Our nation hides its shame by not discussing the difficult parts of its past. I'm glad that Parker attempted to shine some light on the subject, however shadowed by other topics it may have been.

[15] Parker is a director who chooses controversial topics for the background of his subjects. He learns from his mistakes and is honest about his decisions to focus on parts of the film on which others may not want to focus. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions too and can choose to criticize the director for such choices, so long as they admit when the director achieves his or her intended goal. Opinions are judgments based on insufficiently evidenced facts; Parker presented the facts, but the majority of the critics ignored them in favor of complaining that what they wanted to see wasn't what they saw. In the subjective world of cinema, the director has a duty only to himself and his creative desires; kudos to Alan Parker for making HIS film.