Sunday, 24 December 2017

Trading Places

I recently spent a pleasant couple of hours watching an old (1983) Christmas themed film called ''Trading Places'' starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy and directed by John Landis (yep, he's Jewish). What I found interesting about Trading Places is that it's essentially two films rolled into one, or rather, there's two different levels, perspectives, from which to view the movie. The first is as the film was intended to be seen, a very witty and, by today's standards, politically incorrect film with likable characters and a tight plot. The second way of viewing Trading Places is as a Jewish canon ball being fired upon White Anglo Saxon Protestant America and their cultural mores, traditions and centres of power.

 So the plot revolves around a pair of geriatric stock exchange giants ''The Duke Brothers'', Randolph and Mortimer, who have a disagreement over the Nature vs Nurture argument. 

What is it exactly which differentiates hotshot WASP and rising star of commodities trading Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and common ''street negro'' Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy)?
 Could the ridiculously pompous and pampered Winthorpe survive in Valentine's world, would his superior ''breeding'' save him? could Valentine survive in the world of high culture and the entirely white and upper class New York stock exchange scene?

 The Dukes concoct a scheme in which Winthorpe is fired, arrested, disgraced and bankrupted and Valentine wafted into Winthorpe's world of extreme white privilege. Amazingly the upper most strata of New York is seemingly completely without any Jewish people, indeed, WASP America as depicted here looks more like it would have in the 1930's rather than the mid 80's.

 Having landed himself in the heart of the white protestant power structure Billy Ray soon discovers that he can use his street smarts to swiftly understand the game being played on the stock exchange and becomes a rising star. Winthorpe, however, finds that he's utterly incapable of surviving without his privilege and is taken care of by a prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis).

 So superficially what we have here is a smart movie exploring the ideals of a meritocratic society, and indeed, upper class white society seems to be happy enough having Billy Ray within their ranks as long he continues to make them money. Given that the power of WASP America has drastically diminished over the last half century this is a rather damning commentary of their naivete. If greed was the dominant ethos of upper class white America, overriding ethnic bonds, then it's no surprise that we were outmatched by more motivated groups, especially Jews.

 But this interesting avenue is cleverly closed off by Landis, the Duke brothers in earshot of Billy Ray, decide that they've had enough of their experiment and wish to return Winthorpe to the fold and cast Billy Ray back into the gutter, with Randolph exclaiming ''We can't allow a nigger to work for Duke & Duke!''. The meritocracy will have to wait, what matters in the end is maintaining the racist white power structure.
''Here's your Father Christmas, Goy!''

Winthorpe's character arc is of course the opposite of Billy Ray's except Winthorpe can't cope without his unearned luxury and becomes utterly reliant on marginal groups he previously despised.

The spoiled fop Winthorpe must be made to understand and feel empathy for ''The Other'', the street blacks, the prostitutes, his butler whom he treated so badly. He must atone for his whiteness, for his easy existence and wealth, his ''privilege''.

As Billy Ray and Winthorpe discover they've both been played by the Duke brothers they form what amounts to a coalition of the oppressed. In one scene Winthorpe blacks up and pretends to be a Jamaican, he's then joined by his former butler (Denholm Elliot) who's dressed up as a catholic Irish priest, Billy Ray as an African prince and Jamie Lee Curtis as a parody of a Swedish girl. All that's missing is a Jew but that's fine, they were making the movie. 

To Jews and to a lesser extent Catholics, WASP America was a closed shop, they didn't get invited to the country clubs and the swanky dinners, and oh boy, did the Jews hold a grudge about it. So what we're seeing in Trading Places is the coalition of outsiders and the oppressed forming itself to attack the WASP centre, this is a particularly Jewish vision, or rather, it's been their primary pursuit in American politics for the last 70 years.

 Like Winthorpe, the role of the white man is to attain a new moral stance within society by joining the coalition of the oppressed, the outsider, and search for ways to break down the power and influence of his own group, here lies his path to salvation, his absolution from the guilt of being a White Anglo Saxon Protestant with a ''Euro-centric'' and conservative world view. The prostitute who disgusts him becomes his lover, the black thief becomes his friend, his own kind become his enemies, only through this self abasement can a true meritocracy be ushered in for all and equality of opportunity be reached.

 It's interesting to contrast Trading Places with the hyper moralizing PC nuttiness of today's Hollywood. Trading Places works, it does not insult your intelligence, it's funny and well written and therefore much more effective. The manner in which blacks are depicted in Trading Places would have today's left howling with outrage, they're frequently called ''Negroes'' and portrayed as dangerous ghetto criminals. But this only serves to strengthen the message of the film because the audience do not feel as if they're being preached at.

 There is of course a rather cruel irony in analyzing such a movie from an obscure blog, fully in the knowledge that no mass media outlet would ever write about the movie as I have here, it's almost like we, white people, are now on the outside looking into the centres of power, that we have become the ghetto black or Jew barred from the country club, that we have, in effect, Traded Places with them..... 

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