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Liana Ecology Project
" The jungle Is my home": questions of belonging, exile, and the negotiation of foreign spaces in the Tarzan films of Johnny Weissmuller.
In this essay I contend that the Tarzan films can be understood as narratives around all-too perfect integration into an alien environment. The jungle is Tarzan’s ‘home’, yet he is corporeally inscribed with signs of not belonging. He is smooth-skinned, hairless, demonstrating a human trait of modesty through the loincloth he wears. His knife, a tool, indicates a knowledge that is alien to the animal kingdom over which he rules. He walks upright, and swings from lianas. In doing so he subverts the space of the jungle and negotiates it in a way that reaffirms his not belonging. Yet he is also of the jungle: he knows it and its inhabitants intimately; he understands its rules; and he rules it completely. When the colonizers come to discover, explore and conquer the jungle, they express Tarzan’s liminal position between belonging and not-belonging. They call him ‘Ape Man’, thereby positing him as an impossible presence: one who looks like one of ‘us’, but is perceived as one of ‘them’ (Gergely 2012, 168). In this essay I build on a critical framework I first developed for Foreign Devils: Exile and Host Nation in Hollywood’s Golden Age (Gábor Gergely, 2012., New York: Peter Lang). I bring Hamid Naficy’s Accented Cinema (2001) into productive dialogue with Sander Gilman’s work on the corporeal inscriptions of difference (1985; 1995), Behdad’s work on immigration (2005), and theories of knowledge and space (Foucault 1979; Lefebvre 1991) in order to re-read the Tarzan films as complex reflections on the fraught and traumatic experience of exile, migration, and the negotiation of foreign spaces.
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