About a year ago I watched Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise with a brilliant teacher. This past summer I took part in a seminar run by a gifted colleague that introduced us to the history of various immigrant communities to the United States in the 20th century. For my project, I produced the following review of Parker’s too-little-known movie.
Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise: Visualizing History
Visual images have a power over us unmatched by the power of words and even by the power of sounds. In the remembrances of Rodney King after his death two months ago several commentators pointed out that absent the video footage of the beating, King’s complaint against the police for brutality would have been merely words—and King likely another anonymous victim.
Repressive regimes have long regarded visual images as incredibly dangerous and have worked diligently to control them. The Nazis, whose obsessive organization and categorization of all things related to the death camps down to the amounts of Zyklon B to be used in any “extermination” and how many corpses could be burned at one time were equally fanatical about keeping photographs of the camps from becoming public. It is believed that only two sets of photographs from camp workers exist.
Visual images can take the form of documentary work and of fictional representations—and there can be a blurred line between these two. One thinks of Matthew Brady “posing” corpses for photographs during the Civil War to make his point more clearly or the work of Dorothea Lange and her relationship to her subjects, the staging of certain iconic shots. In documentary work there are countless ethical questions raised by even taking pictures—by being an “observer” when, critics often maintain, you should be a participant. The relationship between documentary and fictional representations raises both moral and epistemological questions; and perhaps nowhere are those questions more vexed than in a work of historical fiction.
In 1988, British filmmaker Alan Parker released Mississippi Burning, a retelling of the disappearance and death in 1964 of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner that drew outrage from numerous vantage points. Parker had already had some commercial success—and engendered some mild controversy—with Midnight Express (1978) and Angel Heart (1987)(based on the scariest novel I’ve ever read, William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel)
Parker was criticized pointedly for two choices he made. Instead of focusing on the three young civil rights workers, Parker chose to focus on two FBI agents as they searched for the missing workers. Parker defended that choice and he makes a plausible argument. The episode, though it should be extremely well-known, is not. And, by putting the audience with the FBI we follow the investigation and “learn” as they do not only of the crime but of the effects of Jim Crow and the kind of prejudice that ruled Mississippi at the time. The other choice that drew such criticism was to “create” a black FBI field agent who—in a remarkably tense scene, describes the castration of a black man with a heated razor blade and a paper cup. His threat to perform the same “operation” on one of the people who participated in the crime helps the FBI break the case. Problems abound, to point out only two: there were no black FBI field agents at the time because the FBI was a deeply racist organization. In addition, this fiction makes the FBI out to be criminals whose justification is that they are serving a greater good, a position voiced most thoroughly by the character played by Gene Hackman.
The actual facts of the case are now well-established. The three civil rights workers were almost certainly killed on the night of June 21 or early in the morning of June 22 following their release from the county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, working with the Klan, ran the workers of f the road. They were beaten and shot and then buried in an earthen dam. On July 10, the FBI opened a Mississippi office of the FBI and by July 31 they had discovered the probable location of the bodies when someone claimed a $30,000 reward. On August 3 a search warrant was obtained and the bodies were discovered on August 4.
Parker was stung by the criticism of Mississippi Burning and when he announced that his next project was to concern the internment of Japanese American during WWII he faced a barrage of criticism before he got to production. He has said that he is drawn to “the unfinished business of racism in the United States” (DVD commentary). To ameliorate concerns, Parker met with hundreds of survivors; he studied photographs from the time; he scrupulously constructed sets, used background music, and significantly used only Japanese and Japanese American actors for their parts.
Come See the Paradise is the result and while not a wholly satisfactory film, it has many things to commend it—particularly the visual rendering of an event that the United States government sought to diminish or suppress by controlling visual images. Parker has said that he wanted to write a love story after Mississippi Burning and that at the same time he was haunted by a picture taken by Dorothea Lange of a Japanese grandfather and his two grandsons that he had in his office (“Director’s Commentary,” Come See the Paradise). These two sources exist in an uneasy tension in Come See the Paradise.
The movie is told in a frame where a Japanese American mother is telling her daughter about her relationship to her husband and the daughter’s father. They are walking to the train station to meet him. The scene shifts Brooklyn in 1936 when James McGurn, an Irish American labor activist gets involved in the burning of a movie theater that has hired non-union projectionists. They are supposed to only set smoke bombs but one team intentionally sets a fire and it nearly causes several deaths. McGurn is seen going back to rescue people and identified as an agitator. His local boss gives him money and tells him that he needs to get lost and get a new identity. With a brother in Los Angeles, he changes his name to Jack McGinn and heads to LA. Parker is often heavy-handed in his expository scenes and the scene with Jack (Dennis Quaid) and his brother (Colm Meany) is a primer on labor relations coming out of the depression. A series of events leads him to take the job as a projectionist (non-union!) at a theater in Little Tokyo.
Before Jack gets the job as projectionist we are introduced to the Kawamura family—Mr. and Mrs. are Issei but their six children: Lily, Charlie, Harry, Dulci, Joyce, and Frankie, are Nisei. When we meet the Kawamura’s they are at a Japanese social club where the father gambles and Harry, the oldest son, entertains—his signature song is the catchy “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.” The night we are introduced to the Kawamura’s there is a play being put on at the community center—Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—in Japanese. Parker filmed the whole thing and then left all of it save the curtain call on the cutting room floor.
The very “Americanness” of the Japanese comes through in all of their interests. Harry is getting small roles in Hollywood—ironically as a Chinese house-boy—and the children from older to younger understand and speak less Japanese until Frankie, the youngest, neither speaks nor understands the language of his parents. Jack and Charlie become friends—going to lunch together and playing baseball together. Charlie introduces Jack to his sister, Lily (the beautiful Tamlyn Tomida), and Jack is love-struck.
The burgeoning affair between Jack and Lily allows Parker to have Lily assert herself as a woman not merely be a Japanese daughter. Parker is conscious that intermarriage was rare though not unheard of in the 30s and he acknowledges as much in his commentary. There is substantial tension in the family as the father has tried to marry Lily off to a much older cannery owner—Lily fights back mightily even though her brother Charlie tells her it will clear the family debts (the father has a gambling problem) and she should marry to help the family. Jack and Lily are forced to move to Seattle, Washington to get married due to the anti-miscegenation laws in California. Their life there, with a child—Mini—and a Jack’s job in a cannery that treats its workers brutally is wonderfully evoked. Lily reminds Jack that he cannot think only for himself but despite her warnings he is caught up in a “work action,” kicked by a police horse breaking his arm and he is arrested. Lily takes Mini and heads back to California to be with her estranged family. It is 1941.
Jack, on parole, goes to rekindle his life with Lily and Mini. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Mr. Kawamura is taken away for questioning. At Christmas of 1941, Jack takes Mini to see Santa Claus and she is kicked out of the store for being a “Jap.” Jack’s “loyalty” to America is questioned by those who know he is married to a Nisei. After Executive Order 9066 is enacted on February 6, 1942, the Kawamura’s have only a few days to get their belongings together—only what they could carry. In an arresting scene at the yard sale Charlie sits spinning a basketball in his hands watching people pick over the family’s goods. Inside Harry, Lily, and the others break all of the albums they have collected and they destroy their piano—in response to the terribly insulting offer of $10. Mrs. Kawamura sits upstairs in the house burning letters, pictures, report cards and mementos. She explains to Lily that she doesn’t want strangers going through their things but that she is completely conscious that she is cutting them off from their history. Lily promises that she’ll remember.
The evacuation to the horse farms which house the 120,000 displaced people while the 10 “camps” were being built, up is depicted with extraordinary fidelity to the few photographs that exist. As the family is being relocated to Manzanar—perhaps the most famous of the camps—Jack is enlisting in the army. Scenes of his basic training where he is expected to bayonet straw dummies with Japanese faces are intercut with the Kawamura family’s installation in Manzanar. Charlie’s bag is searched and his camera is taken from him. One cannot help but think that this is a commentary on the lack of photographic evidence of the camps. Even though the government would hire Dorothea Lange to photograph Manzanar they required her to avoid shots that would show the barbed wire or guard towers in the back ground. In fact, her film was eventually taken from her and the photographs that have been released have been heavily edited.
In an act of historical fidelity, Parker depicts a group of Japanese American musicians playing to welcome the “prisoners.” For those who have studied the induction to Auschwitz the whole scene with the “prisoners” marked with their tags parading past the musicians playing to make them docile and comfortable is exceptionally disturbing—and accurate.
Life in Manzanar is extraordinary–the barracks at Manzanar contain pictures of Roosevelt, a school where the children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, baseball and basketball games, a structure for the making of camouflage nets (Lily gets paid $14.00 a week to do this), and a factory where the inmates work for the government that has betrayed them. They have “Miss Nisei” night and sing Andrews’ Sisters’ songs at gatherings. Every one of these activities is painstakingly rendered and is the result of hundreds of interviews and substantial research. That we “see” so many of the prisoners participate in these activities has an effect on the viewer that mere reading cannot replicate. Parker drew all of these images from diaries, histories, sketches, and interviews.
In camp, Mr. Kawamura—now a profoundly broken man—is returned to the family. He is suspected by the rebellious inmates (mostly kitchen workers) of having informed to the FBI—though he did not. Charlie and Harry battle for the soul of the family. Charlie participates in the uprising that leads to the Manzanar riot. Harry recommends that they answer the infamous survey questions 27 and 28 regarding loyalty with “yes.” Charlie becomes one of the “no-no” boys (those who answered “no” to questions 27 and 28) and is patriated (“repatriated” seems wrong as he is NOT Japanese) to Japan and Harry joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the most highly decorated Army division in history. Jack goes AWOL to see his family and arrives at the end of the riots. Parker’s sense of the dramatic and ironic is on display when Jack sits with the extremely ill Mr. Kawamura treating him as a father while Charlie is sent to Japan and Harry is in the army.
Mr. Kawamura dies. Harry is killed in combat. Jack is imprisoned for his involvement in the long-ago Brooklyn theater fire. The family never hears from Charlie. Dulci returns from a work camp pregnant. In a stunning series of events the Kawamura family is nearly broken—its male members are all gone except for Frankie who is so young he has the least connection to his own culture. When the Endo case is decided in late 1944 and the camp is eventually closed, the Kawamura’s are sent to Idaho. They will listen in horror to the radio reports of the bombing of Hiroshima in August of 1945.
The movie closes with Jack’s return from prison and his welcome on the train station platform by Lily and Mini. Finally, despite the destruction of family, geography, culture, and principles Parker seems determined to end on a hopeful note.
As a work of art Come See the Paradise is almost certainly too long—and not long enough. Its remarkable ambition guarantees that not enough time can be spent on any single story and yet its determination to tell a story that is still too-little known with as much fidelity to history as possible is a mark of distinction. Parker’s sense that a whole sweep of history can be told—shown—through an exhaustive examination of the “real” and “true” experiences of a fictional family is a claim that demands our attention.
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