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Fareed Ben-Youssef (NYU Shanghai), “'Just Make Me Look Good’: The Duel Against Mythic Representation in the Transnational Western Films of Chloé Zhao”


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Fareed Ben-Youssef (NYU Shanghai), “'Just Make Me Look Good’: The Duel Against Mythic Representation in the Transnational Western Films of Chloé Zhao”

Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao has established herself as a foremost chronicler of the experience of Native American youth. Her Westerns—"Songs My Brother Taught Me" (2015) and "The Rider" (2017)—center upon teenagers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

In “Songs,” Zhao speaks to the burden of mythic portrayals upon these often-invisible populations. A white outsider—a proxy for the filmmaker—asks if she can take a photo of the film's hero on horseback. He replies, "Just make me look good." Commenting on this scene, Zhao stresses that the people of Pine Ridge fight codified archetypes of themselves as depicted in Western film and in American media which present them “as either savages or perfect, holy medicine men." She finds that such representation “is so dangerous because it actually reshapes how people see themselves.” This paper thus examines how the pressure to ‘look good’ on camera speaks to a rigid construction of the Native American self that Zhao's cinema works to interrogate and disrupt. In so doing, Zhao proposes a transnational Western form that articulates a newly fluid identity, one where a complete self may be gleaned within a frontier space of discontinuity and lost bearings.

My paper brings together formal analysis with personal interviews with the director. I position these materials within a theoretical framework centered upon identity formation, upon Stuart Hall’s formulation: “Identities are constituted within, not outside representation.” I thus illustrate how Zhao frames the plight of constituting an identity within a void of representation wherein one can only see oneself through mythic lenses—as either a cowboy star of the rodeo or the salvation of a downtrodden tribe.


 

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