Moments of Cultural Insensitivity in ‘Licorice Pizza’

Joe Deitch explores for Lippy...

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature film ‘Licorice Pizza’ has been released to widespread critical acclaim, most recently gaining three Oscar nominations to add to its BAFTA and Golden Globe nods. The film is a hazy, dreamlike adventure into 1973 and California’s San Fernando Valley, seen through the exploits of 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and the elder but unfulfilled Alana (Alana Haim). The nostalgia and sentimentality that this period piece evokes is what resonates so strongly with audiences, but its style of representing the past has also led to the film’s biggest controversy.


Debate has been sparked over two short scenes in which white restaurateur Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) talks to his first and then— in a later scene— second wife, who are both Japanese, in English with an exaggerated and racist imitation of a Japanese accent. The film presents Frick as a bigoted, condemnable man: in both scenes the camera allows us to see the disapproving and uncomfortable facial expressions of his wives, who respond in actual Japanese. The confirmation of the film’s disapproval of Frick is delivered in the second such scene, when he is asked to translate his wife’s words, and he responds: “It’s hard to tell, I don’t speak Japanese”. The audience, we understand, is expected to laugh at the idiocy of Higgins’ character, but it’s just not that simple.


As much as I enjoyed my two hours of immersion in Gary and Alana’s world, I struggled to reconcile myself with the scenes of Frick and his wives. My main feeling in response to them was repulsion. His character’s actions didn’t make me want to laugh at him, they just felt uncomfortably cringeworthy.


The Media Action Network for Asian Americans’ (MANAA) response to the scenes cited ‘casual racism’ as the reason why the major award-givers should boycott the film. When challenged on these scenes by the New York Times, Anderson explained their presence by suggesting he wanted to be ‘honest to that time’, yet I feel that the film’s cinematic assurances that Frick was the ignorant imbecile didn’t go far enough. What if audience members with outdated attitudes like Frick’s—which Anderson himself admitted still existed in his interview with the New York Times—had their views of Japanese people and how they can be treated reinforced by these scenes, thinking that Frick’s accent was funny? This paired with the small importance to the narrative of the scenes with Frick, and the way in which, as MANAA highlighted, the scenes were ultimately included ‘for cheap laughs’, leaves the gags as feeling rather unnecessary.


Admittedly, the comforting sunset-warmth of youth and optimism in which the film exists for most of its runtime would not be an at all accurate representation of the seventies. Anderson’s reminder that casual racism was rife in 1973 just would have been less hurtful, and more productive, if this reminder was not also used as a forced attempt at comedy.

 

Words by Joe Deitch

Art by Josh Barnes