Monday, November 30, 2009

The Movie "2012" - Who Lost Tibet?

The world as we know it pretty much comes to an end by the end of Roland Emmerich's new globe-busting block-buster 2012.  My apologies if this comes as a spoiler, but, honestly, revealing that an Emmerich film finds a way to decimate the population of the planet - flora and fauna - is like revealing that a romantic comedy winds up with its initially mismatched, bickering couple entwined in each others arms as the closing credits roll.  Not exactly a surprise.

Apparently. such is the power of cataclysmic crustal displacement that no tectonic plate will be left unturned, as an infelicitous planetary alignment and a stampede of mutant solar neutrinos conspire to wipe every nation, save one, from the face of the earth.  One nation is spared this particular fate, but not because it miraculously survives the natural disasters that Emmerich serves up, but because it has met an untimely editorial demise long before 2012 went into production.  That nation is the nation of Tibet.

To watch this film is to be taken by an odd sense of geographical "dislocation", in a very literal sense of that word.

Scenes of Tibet and its people appear early on.  Indeed, images of Tibet, including one of an iconic maroon-and-yellow-robed Tibetan Buddhist monk gazing meditatively as a tsunami sweeps across the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau and a Tibetan monastery is engulfed by waves in the distance, have been used to promote the movie.  It is a Tibetan family whose acts of compassion and heroism deliver the American Curtis family, the featured characters, to a safe haven in the final act of the film, which unfolds on the crucial high ground surrounding Mount Everest, which itself lies near the border of present-day Tibet and within the land claimed by the ancestral Tibetan kingdom.

But the word "Tibet" is never uttered in the film.  It is even absent from the map that is used by the Curtis family to direct their flight across a crumbling continent and a tsunami-riddled ocean to safety.  Their destination is China, only China, a vast, monolithic China.  It is as though, for purposes of 2012, Tibet has become "the province that dare not speak its name".

Now, what may appear, superficially, to be an act of omission is anything but.  The elimination of references to Tibet in the film is the result of a high-level financial calculation, and it is also an illustration of what happens when the standing of a culture perched on the roof of the world runs afoul of the bottom-line of one of the most expensive movies ever made.

The fact of the matter is that the cost for making and marketing 2012 is estimated to exceed a quarter of a billion dollars.  There is no way on God's green earth - or on Roland Emmerich's lava-riven one - for the people and corporations who invested in that film to turn a profit without massive international ticket sales.  Critical participants in that prospective box-office are tens of millions of Chinese movie-goers.  And there is also no way, given the current political climate, that the People's Republic would tolerate the distribution of a mass-market film that placed Tibet or Tibetans anywhere near front and center.

Be that as it may, I must admit to being taken aback that Emmerich's kowtowing in response to either actual or to anticipated editorial demands by the Chinese authorities would result in the removal of every mention of Tibet from the 2012 screenplay.  Sadly, given the money at stake, some amount of obsequiousness on the part of the director could have been expected, but what Emmerich has done here by tossing Tibet under the bus - or the ark, as the case may be - approaches the Orwellian.

The phrase "memory hole" was devised by George Orwell in Nineteen Eight-four, his classic dystopian novel set in a near-future totalitarian state, as a nickname for the chutes into which potentially damaging or embarrassing political documents - even scraps of paper - were tossed to be incinerated and thus expunged from the historical record.

From all appearances, every allusion to Tibet was excised from the production documents of 2012 by is creators, and the resulting scraps of paper were collected and tossed down a Tibetan memory hole, one made to order for the film.

Admittedly, artists make compromises to realize their most cherished visions.  But what artistic vision was realized by Roland Emmerich in making of 2012 that was so worthy that it demanded that he purge the words "Tibet"  and "Tibetans" from his movie, inconvenient bits of truth, jettisoned in the pursuit of globe-busting box-office receipts?  Unfortunately, the answer is, "none at all."

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2012 - Who Lost Tibet? by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Ernie Croot said...

This film was absolutely rotten, and not worth seeing except to experience the special effects (which is the only reason I went to see it).

I suspect that the movie producers and director not only didn't want to offend Chinese officials, but also recent Chinese immigrants living in the U.S. and elsewhere. I have spoken to several immigrants from China about Tibet in the past, and most of them think that China was in the right to invade and seize Tibet. Invariably I hear that they think the Dalai Lama is a ``cult leader'' who had enslaved his people with religion, and that China's invasion was a righteous act.

Perhaps the best argument I have heard against the Dalai Lama being a ``cult leader'' is the fact that he didn't choose to be the leader of Tibet -- he was chosen (recognized as the reincarnation of the D-L while only a poor, very young child). Of course, one could argue that ``cult leader''-type corruption is a consequence of power -- power may not corrupt absolutely, but it does corrupt (e.g. the ring of Gyges). That may be so to some limited degree, but I suspect that there is probably also a strong genetic component to corrupt power-seeking behavior, and that such a proclivity is exceedingly rare in the general population. So, unless the infant Dalai Lama was selected for power-seeking behavior, it is unlikely that he has these tendencies now.

Marc Merlin said...


Thanks, as usual, for your comments.

I couldn't agree with you more, this was one rotten movie. I will forever hold it against Roland Emmerich that I saw it twice; the first time, like you, because I was in the mood for special effects extravaganza and the second time, in part, because I felt duty-bound as a blogger to verify my suspicion that the word "Tibet" was not mentioned in the film.

I want to be clear that I did not write the essay with the aim of promoting the cause of Tibet, and I certainly do not long for return of the kind of state that existed there before the Chinese invasion - a theocratic, feudal government largely unconcerned with the welfare of the people under its rule.

This set of circumstances was used as a pretext for a brutal "liberation" of the country with the resulting emplacement of a Maoist, authoritarian government largely unconcerned with the welfare of the people under its rule.

Of course things are much better now for the rest of China and, to a much lesser extent, Tibet.

Whether one is a fan of Tibet or not, it exists as a recognizable geographical and cultural entity. To locate a film there without mentioning the place or its people by name is like setting a film in New York City and insisting on referring to Manhattan as "America" in the screenplay.

It is this legerdemain with place names for political purposes that I object to.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but i dont agree.Its a very good seem to have allowewd your politics to get in the way of your movie viewing.
What makes the film 'absolutely rotten'?

'I want to be clear that I did not write the essay with the aim of promoting the cause of Tibet, and I certainly do not long for return of the kind of state that existed there before the Chinese invasion - a theocratic, feudal government largely unconcerned with the welfare of the people under its rule.'

This is that WAS rhe justification for the chinese invasion!
Its also ironic to quiz chinese americans about what they think of tibet, when americans are so ready to be enslave by ameican ideas of US occupations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile. tibet apart, 2012 is one fine movie.


Anonymous said...

''I saw it, it is an interesting movie. I agree with you first point, he should have used Tibetan actors or actress, the accents are not clearly Tibetan, rather several Inji speak Tibetan, kind of funny though.
But I disagree with your second point, the movie is telling a very important political messages about the current situation in Tibet without insulting Chinese, btw, the movie is very popular in china now. (1) the Chinese forcibly moved Tibetans (actually, PLA with guns ask Tibetan to move from their own land) from their land to “accommodate” these international gigantic arks. (2) It suggests that Tibetans have no choice, but killing chicken ( not Tibetan ways of life) to survive. (3) Even though the most workers are Chinese, they are not even told the mission and did not tell to “board” the ship, it portrayed Chinese are cheap and the government are brutal'


Miguel Juliao said...

The older this article gets, the more golden/gold becomes.