Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Temptress

Fred Niblo’s The Temptress (1926) is a classic black and white silent movie that recounts the love and hate relationship between a hard-working Argentinian architect and an extravagant European woman. The Argentinian Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) falls in love with Elena, the Marquess de Torre Bianca (characterized by the famous actress Greta Garbo). After a quick visit to France, Robledo goes back to work in Argentine and all the plot moves there when Elena and her husband travel as well to “the land of the second chances” escaping from criticism and poverty.

Though Elena’s beauty is the center of attention throughout the movie (in France and in Argentine), Robledo’s appearance and personality too play an important role for this romantic drama since he is presented as the Latin lover, like in other films of the decade starring Antonio Moreno.

The movie begins in a masked ball where the Marquess and Robledo meet. They declare their love for each other, but the next day Robledo discovers that Elena is married to one of his friends and that she uses her beauty to obtain jewels from rich men to maintain her and her husband’s status. Here we see a Europe in crisis (probably a consequence of the Great War), even the richest person is broke. It is a place of appearances and men are not real men because women have become the real rulers (with their beauty). In contrast, Latin America proves to be a land without appearances. The rich are really rich, and the poor are really poor, and every man works hard to provide his women at home. Fixed gender roles are clearly portrayed and even prized in the movie.

Robledo is received like a national hero when he arrives in Argentine. All the people in the village get excited to know what things the architect, whose projects provide jobs for the local and the foreign, has brought from the old continent. Thus, we meet two European men (one French and one Italian) and their reason for being in Argentine. Like those two, hundreds of European have migrated to work in Latin America to pay their debts back home and support their families. Latin America then was the land of the opportunity.

Elena brings to the Argentine many things from France; her expensive clothes, her luxurious lifestyle, and of course her beauty which has become a mortal distraction for the hardworking men that now fight to earn her love. “This is not a place for European women” exclaims Robledo very worried about what could happen to the temptress woman. Elena is not only there to play the role of an elegant European woman, but to portray Europe itself and compare it to what she finds in Argentine. Thanks to her presence in the village, the high-standards of European lifestyle are compared with those ordinary practices of the Argentinian people; a masked ball versus a village party, a huge dinner wearing the best clothes versus a dinner after a long day of work. Though Argentine for Elena is better than a France full of appearances and lazy men, and that it is also the opportunity for many European migrants to overcome the economic crisis, by the end of the movie we can see that Robledo chooses to live in France. His decision as well as the fights occasioned by the temptress give us a clear message: European women and European life are better (if we exclude the economic problems).

The ways in which Latin America is portrayed in this movie are very different to later depictions of the place. In “The City of Your Final Destination” for example, we are presented with some images supposedly from around the same time “The Temptress” was filmed to explain some of the reason and conditions in which Europeans migrated to South America. In that movie, we are only introduced to rich European migrants that arrived at Uruguay to continue living in opulence and did not want to go back to Europe. Some contemporary American movies about Latin America still present the place as an opportunity to begin new lives, but that does not include economic reasons, indeed, now Latinos are the ones who migrate to North America or Europe in the movies.

Gender roles as well are particularly different than what we see nowadays in the movies. Latin America itself becomes a place to determine standards of masculinity (Latin America is the land of men), like hardworking and provider for women, and not the contrary, which helps to shape Robledo’s Latin lover personality; and the temptress, of course, is also a sample of the most desirable woman. It is evident that European women like Elena are attractive and seductive, desirable for any men. Totally opposite to what we see in Carmen Miranda’s movies, here Latinas are not an exotic sexual symbol at all.

Hearing the phrase “the land of the second chances” one might think it is talking about the Americas as a whole (including North America). However, it is clear that in this movie that phrase makes reference only to Latin America, even though both Antonio Moreno and Greta Garbo migrated to the United States for economic reasons as in the movie. So why not to film a movie in the US and choosing Argentine instead? Niblo’s Latin America is the scenario to portray a society nothing like Europe, which perhaps could not be done in a more Europeanised or modern place such as North America. Like in the movie, the idea that European appearance is better might be also the reason to present Latin America as the other with respect to North America, the different, the less European.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Tetro

Francis Ford Coppola described his movie Tetro (2009) as symbol of reinvention for his now more personal narratives (autobiographical in some respects) and opposing to the Hollywood mold that “makes the same movie over and over again”. “I view this as the second movie of my second career” Coppola commented about Tetro and the first of his 2000s’ movies “Youth Without Youth”. Both movies very different to the ones that made him famous like The Godfather trilogy, but in which cinematographic images of colourful but confusing memories, dreams, and traumas typical of Freudian psychoanalysis persevere. Following this new wave in Coppola’s work (but maintaining some of the recurrent themes of previous productions: black-and-white films, family dramas, and Italia American influences), Tetro comes with a plot about a truth that is being repressed.

And what better way to give a new face to the plot than to take it to a place like Latin America. Presented at first in black and white, the movie starts with the arrival of Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich) to La Boca neighbourhood in Buenos Aires looking for his older brother Angelo (Vicente Gallo), an unsuccessful novelist who now is known under the name of Tetro. Bennie wants to understand why Tetro moved to Argentina and why he hides his past. To unveil Tetro’s mystery, Bennie reads and completes an unfinished novel written by Tetro and that seems to be based on his life. This codified text allows every character to remember fractions of Tetro’s traumatic experiences like the death of his mother, and the treason of his first love with his father the opera conductor Carlos Tetrocini (whose fame always overshadowed Tetro). This text triggers flashbacks, but it also influences the creation of dreams and stories for a play that are the only colourful parts of the movie.

Convinced that his bother’s dark personality is explained by the traumatic stories of the novel (and aware of the potential of the material) Bennie decides to publish the novel to help his bother overcome the past, and produces a play using his brother name, Tetro. However, the cure ends up being worse than the disease. Like in psychoanalysis itself, interpretations might be relative to those trying to materialize what is in the mind. Even though dreams and memories are fragments of a truth, they are still a fantasy representation that projects something else, and in this case, it is also the repression of Bennie’s own memories.

Tetro means many things. It is the apocope of the surname Tetrocini. Tetro is also the new name that Angelo Tetrocini has decided to use in Argentina to start a new life. "Angelo no longer exists, I am Tetro" the protagonist exclaims, referring to Tetro as a totally new person, with no past (although in reality he is hiding one that torments him). But Tetro is also an artistic name. It represents the ambivalence of the family drama that is recurrent in Coppola's films. This ambivalence is also part of the family trauma that makes us see several flashbacks and surreal mental representations (quite expressive and colorful moments) are characteristics of neo-noir cinema. But despite the color scenes, most of the video is true to the black and white of the classic noir.

In this movie, the way in which Argentina is portrayed contributes a lot to the family drama of the plot and to the style of the movie. The streets of La Boca neighbourhood are surrounded by a bohemian life environment: people going out all the time, enjoying street art and open sexuality, and meeting at nightclubs to present their new creations. Music, theater, literature and the importance of art as a whole in Tetro’s life help to build a plot charged with emotions and mystery. Those same elements maintain the noir genre though it is adapted to new audiences and times, as the New York Times called it: “Family Dynamics, Without Bullets”.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

The City of Your Final Destination

James Ivory’s The City is Our Final Destination (2009) is a drama film that recounts the adventures of Omar, a literature doctoral student that travels to Uruguay to convince the family of the deceased novelist, Jules Gund, to grant him permission for writing his biography. Ocho Rios is a huge farmhouse owned by the Gund family and the place where Omar will reconstruct his own identity while unveiling the history and the secrets of his favourite author’s family. Based on the novel with the same name by the American writer Peter Cameron, Ivory takes us to a place that evinces a dichotomous reality about the Latin America of the past, and the Latin America of the present, both envisioning a better future. This magical destination is the meeting place for those trying to flee from their sad unwanted realities, but it is also the place some want to escape from. It is a movie about what one is, what one pretends to be, and what one wishes to become.

Wanting to please his girlfriend, Omar travels to Uruguay seeking for the authorization to write Jules Gund's biography. In Uruguay (but filmed in Argentina), Omar arrives at the Ocho Rios ranch which had been the writer's home, and also the spectacular scenery in many of his works. The house is large, elegant, but full of old artifacts that reflect its origin, and the origin of what was once a rich European migrant family getting to enjoy the wonders of the New Continent in Uruguay. Although Omar finds a dream place according to Gund's books, he will soon discover that his knowledge about the author is nothing compared to the complexity brought by the family and the secret behind his suicide (which happened in the same house).

Ivory leads us to understand the many reasons why the characters in the film have come to Uruguay, which is also part of the history of the region and the reason for filming there. Thus, we are presented with images of the beginning of the twentieth century before and after the Second World War. Numerous shipments full of rich Europeans arrived in South America to rebuild the lives that the political and economic crises of their countries had destroyed. “They lived in the past, their past, they did not want to know anything about the present, any present, anywhere. South America is good for that if you reach far enough” Adam (Jules’ older brother) comments while showing Omar pictures of his parents on their way to Uruguay.

Latin America becomes a place to reinvent yourself the way you want. As its title says, it is the city of final destination. Throughout the twentieth century, people travelled to Latin America because of their nostalgia for the old good days in Europe. Adam, for example, so in Latin America an opportunity to openly experience his homosexuality with his partner. Arden (Jules’ mistress) had arrived in Latin America as a gypsy looking for an adventure. Omar found in Uruguay his real self, and his real romantic love. Romance itself is a characteristic of Latin America and its people. “People here like imagining men and women together,” says Arden about the comments people make about here and Omar.

But on the other hand, there are those that want an escape from the present offered by Latin America, a present that seems to be stuck in the past, with no technology, no places of entertainment other than talking about the lives of the neighbours. For those people, adventure, romance, and renouncing to what modernity has to offer could be something beautiful, but wild and extremely boring. In the movie, those who have their feet on earth (and the necessary amount of money) will rather live in a city like New York like Caroline (Jules’ widow) and Deirdre (Omar’s girlfriend) decide by the end of the movie.

The versatility provided by a place like Latin America is the ideal scenario for the plot represented by Ivory: it is beauty, it is wilderness, it is love, it is past, it is present, and it offers a future at the same time. Perhaps, in literature, it is easier to create a fantastic, romantic place. But as Ivory comments, when they read the novel, they undoubtedly knew that it should be filmed in Uruguay or some similar place like Argentina, that it could not be faked in a studio. What Latin America provides to the process of filmmaking was in this case irreplaceable. In the plot (as in the filmmaking process) Latin America is a beautiful place, but it is stuck in the past, and places like New York or European cities are the symbol of modernity, culturally and technologically.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Salt and Fire

Filmed in Bolivia, Salt and Fire (2016) is another episode from from Werner Herzog’s catalogue of man-vs-nature stories. This time, Herzog’s fascination for Latin American nature is presented as a manner of critique to environmental studies that separate human interrelations from their “objective” measurements of natural disasters. A scientific delegation funded by the United Nations travels to Latin America to finish their studies of Uturunku, an active supervolcano whose eruption could cause a worldwide catastrophe. Upon arrival, the delegation is taken hostage by the CEO of an international company that has been declared responsible for producing the ecological disaster in Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world, whose growing toxicity will soon affect the surrounding villages.

A militia group led by a company easily bribes the government, police, and people in the airport to take their place when the international scientific delegation arrives. With fake documents, they convince the group that there was a change of plans and then take them hostage to an unknown location on the mountains.

As in Aguirre, Wrath of God, the plot of this Herzog movie develops around mystery and the unknown. Soon the dialogues are only between the leader of the scientific delegation Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) and the CEO Matt Riley (Michael Shannon). Many days pass and the long conversations of Laura and Riley only confirm that there is something that we do not know. We see a lot of dysmorphic art distorting reality or exposing a different one. Typical of Herzog’s nihilist messages of his movies. Everything is in question.

Laura is taken to an island in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni and she is abandoned with two blind children called Huascar and Atahualpa. After a week, the few supplies Laura and the kids had on the island are at an end. Riley comes back and explains that everything was part of a plan, from the hostage-taking to the week with the two blind children in the island. The mystery is exposed. The salt flats were a man-made disaster (Laura already knew that), but Riley wanted Laura to understand that studies of nature with statistics and calculations could not reflect a deeper layer of the problem which is the human cost of the disaster.

Bolivian landscapes are the perfect set for Herzog's story. As in many of his movies, Latin American history, resources, culture, people and landscapes are the inspiration for fascinating plots for fictional stories. Herzog portrays the beautiful scenery of the Bolivian salt flats and Andean volcanos, but at the same time presents another reality in which those same elements could be equally disastrous. Latin America can be dangerous, its governments easily corrupted, its tourists easily kidnapped, but it can also be a beautiful place with incredible geological formations that are so magnificent that seem close to fantasy. We can see this dichotomy at the end of the movie. Riley is tormented about the noxious atmosphere his company has created around the salt flats which killed the mother of Huascar and Atahualpa (the same toxins caused their blindness), but then they take pictures that foreground the remarkable beauty that looks like it is taken from a surreal painting.

Though the extraordinary locations of the movie are real, Bolivia is not once mentioned throughout the movie. the salt flats and the volcano are the only places that are important. Other locations, like the airport where the group arrives or the village to which they are taken, remain anonymous. There is nothing to learn about Latin America in this movie. How can someone learn something from a fictional place with fictional history? Following the pattern of Herzog's previous films, this movie asks us to make our conclusions. Everything in this movie (locations, kidnapping, dialogues, images) exposes different manner to see reality, multiple intentions, theories and points of view.

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Saturday, June 09, 2018

MacGruber

Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber (2010) is a comedy (more like a parody of an action movie) about a legendary hero of the US military who moves to Latin America to take a break from his work, after his wife is assassinated by his worst enemy. MacGruber (Will Forte) fakes his own death and hides in Rio Bamba, Ecuador (a fictional city named after Ecuador's real Riobamba). The MIA (a security agency based on the CIA) tracks him down and convinces him to participate in an operation led by his wife’s murderer. He travels to Washington DC and forms a team with agent Piper and an old friend called Vicki.

The plot is built around the character of MacGruber. Considered a legend because of past successes helping the US government in uncountable special operations, MacGruber is depicted as the only hope to stop Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). However, the ten years he has spent hidden in Ecuador seems to have taken his abilities away. He has become the opposite of a hero: a man whose egocentrism and evident mental issues are reflected in constant failure. Thus, as the plot develops, we realize that the legend of MacGruber is more and more fictitious. He still does his job, albeit rather takes the credit for other’s job, from beginning to end.

Basically, only the second scene of the movie portrays something about Latin America (which adds up to about five minutes of the whole production). In Rio Bamba, we see MacGruber meditating in a small monastery with religious portraits over the walls. The village had been MacGruber’s peaceful refuge for ten years. While the MIA general is trying to convince the hero to join the operation, people from what seems to be an indigenous peasant village walk in the background. However, the clothes the people wear, and the landscapes shown, do not belong to an accurate representation of an Ecuadorean village (still less of the real Riobamba, which is not a village but one of Ecuador's largest cities). The place looks more like something inspired on a Mexican village. But these details do not change what is depicted of Latin America, from its name we know that it is a fictional representation of some poor and hidden village that no one cares about.

Arranging the set in which the scene of Rio Bamba is recorded with Mexican molds gives us an understanding that, on the one hand, the imagination of Americans about Latin America is that everything south of the border looks the same. Or on the other hand, that Americans do not know much about Latin American society or its people (or that learning about them is irrelevant), and that their depictions of Latin America are mostly based on general imaginations of it (often stereotyped assumptions).

What is being depicted in the movie about Ecuador does not tell us anything about the country or Latin America, it is not realistic, but it is not important neither. Indeed, the entire movie was filmed in New Mexico, US. The only reason that this scene is included for MacGruber’s plot is to emphasize that a hero decided to go to a place where he was going to be difficult to find. Why would someone go to that village with houses made of dry mud, dirt streets and no electricity? An American hero was there and that made that place interesting enough to travel to.

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Get the Gringo

Adrian Grunberg directs the crime movie “Get the Gringo” (2012). Following the themes of many other film productions in which Grunberg has had a part (Narcos, Going Back to Cali, among others), Get the Gringo comes with a chaotic portrayal of criminal life in Mexico through the eyes of a criminal, but an American one. The Spanish title for this movie is “Vacaciones en el Infierno” (Vacation in Hell), which better reflects what the film portrays. The Hollywood action superstar Mel Gibson is The Gringo, an American criminal captured by Mexican authorities who send him to a local prison called “El Pueblito” (little town) in Tijuana, a city next to the US-Mexico border. “Is this a prison, or the shittiest mall?” Gibson asks himself while walking around the prison’s patio where convicted criminals have set up their businesses, formed families, educated their children, and even keep committing the same crimes for which they were imprisoned in the first place, like they were living in a little town (but much more dangerous), not within four walls.

A former US soldier steals millions of dollars from the United States and drives towards Mexico where he might hide the money and escape to have a beautiful vacation. Though the persecution started on US soil by its police, he is captured on the Mexican side of the border. The corrupt Mexican police take the robber to the worst prison around, “El Pueblito,” and keep the money for themselves. In the border scene, we can see the wall dividing both countries, an old fence that delimits how far American law enforcement can go to.

Being the only American prisoner, Gibson’s character becomes quickly identified as the Gringo. The place is like hell, entire families of criminals, poverty, drugs, sex, music and gambling are everywhere, every day. The prison guards stand around showing a blind eye to all the madness around them because they are getting bribed by a crime lord called Javi who oversees everything from the top of his prison penthouse, deciding over every living being under him, like the devil itself. To survive, the Gringo starts a friendship with a little kid who gives him information about how the place is run. The kid and his mother live in El Pueblito not because they are criminals, but because the father was one, and he took them to live there. In exchange for his freedom, the Gringo leaves the millions he stole to Javi, but after killing the owner of the money he returns to take it back. He kills the bad guys saving the kid and the mother from being killed, and escapes with them to some beautiful beach in Mexico, the real vacation.

From simple things like music and physical appearance to corruption and crime, Mexico and its people are portrayed in stark conrast contrast to what we see of the United States in the movie. As soon as we are taken south of the border, music is one the clearest features that portray the low standards of culture and life with nostalgic songs about gangsters, love, among others. “Tortured by mariachi!” complains Gibson closing his ears with the ends of two cigarettes. And crime itself is different on either side of the border. El Pueblito is a prison, so of course it looks more chaotic and dangerous than anything else shown in the movie. However, it is almost impossible to know which scenes are happening inside of the prison and which are on the outside. From the littlest kid to the oldest grandma, and from the lowliest guard to the highest ranking prison officer, they are all involved or know about the crimes and protect each other, especially from outsiders like the Gringo, (for being family and for being Mexican). The perception is as if the life within the prison is equal to the life in Mexico as a whole. When the plot moves to the US, however, we know that the only criminal on camera is the Gringo, and that the only reason he could get away with his plan is because he could not get caught on US soil.

When we see a narco film, the biggest fear of the narcotraffickers is ending up in the hands of the gringos. No matter how dangerous South America criminal life could be or how likely to get sent to the most awful and unsafe prison (as in this movie), US law enforcement is worse than that. Perhaps not because of the violence or conditions, but because once caught it is impossible to avoid getting the punishment one deserves. This is the same idea that Grunberg depicts in the movie about Latin America, but most important, about the United States, the terror of the criminals. El Pueblito might be chaotic, and it has the worst living conditions for its prisoners, but neither its walls nor those who are supposed to enforce order within it can stop the Gringo from escaping. Latin American law enforcement is useless compared with the United States (they could not even find the real name of the Gringo) or so the movie seems to claim. And using the name of a real example gives credibility to this idea. El Pueblito was a real prison in Tijuana that was closed because of the corruption that allowed entire families and businesses to develop in its patio.

The ways in which law enforcement and security in Mexico are portrayed in the movie could help to justify arguments to support US intervention south the border. Without the old fence that we see at the beginning of the movie that stops the US officers, perhaps the Gringo might have been caught by responsible and honest officers that would have given the stolen money back. There are a lot of ideas that may support the opening of borders for justice and law enforcement North to South; however, South to North is a different story. We see the Gringo crossing over to the United States with a counterfeit passport. We see a criminal crossing without constraints. At the same time that we see the need to open up the border towards the South, we are introduced to this scene in which it seems necessary to close up the border towards the North, or at least a need to make it stronger.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Strange Wilderness

Strange Wilderness (2008) is a comedy directed by Fred Wolf about an animal TV show. A son takes over his dead father’s TV show which has become a failure at risk of cancellation as it lacks inspiration, budget and audience. The program is widely criticized because of the inaccuracy between its themes and what is presented on the screen; the show has passed from being an educational natural wilderness-themed program to a sensationalist and ridiculous representation of human wilderness (sex, blood, and drugs). To honour his father’s memory, the son, Peter (Steve Zahn), forms a group of four men and a woman to look for the legendary “Bigfoot” creature in the Ecuadorian forest. A trip to Latin America could help the group increase the show’s ratings, and it is also an opportunity to go on a real and wild adventure. It is a parody of animal-life shows like National Geographic or Animal Planet and questions the concept of “wilderness.”

By the time they get to the jungle, we know that any representation of animal wilderness will have a sexual undertone, a tragic death, or some footage of animal life accompanied by a nonsensical description. When they arrive at the Ecuadorean jungle, for example, the first wild animal to be portrayed in the TV show is a monkey, shown with the comment that “monkeys make up over 80% of the monkey population.” Immediately thereafter, Peter randomly talks about lions, zebras, giraffes, and gazelles, all iconic animals from Africa, not South America. The movie is full of generally mistaken and mismatching information like this one that let us assume that the group has no idea of what they are doing or talking about, which contributes to the simplistic humour of the plot.

Clearly each member of the group has a problem with drugs, alcohol, or/and a perverted mind which relates everything to sex. Men are presented like some kind of prehistoric troglodytes trying to show off their masculinity to the rest of the group Their uncontrollable and desperate need for women, and their failing efforts to prove themselves superior to animals, make their silliness extremely obvious. The only woman in the group (also basically the only woman in the movie) adds the brain to the group. She seems very aware of the ridiculousness of the trip and of the teenage-perversion of the group, but she is doing her job, so her opinion does not really count.

The trip to Ecuador is not only an adventure to find Bigfoot; it also represents hope to find their better selves. For Pete, keeping the show on screen is saving a legacy and part of his pursuit to become more like his dad. For Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan), going to a recondite place in the middle of the jungle is a chance to force himself out of alcoholism and to experience real life (sober). For the group as a whole, this journey forms not only a group of colleagues but a group of new friends.

In the movie, travelling to the South American wilderness (and finding Bigfoot) is the craziest idea one could have. And to everyone's surprise, since the plot is full of failures, in the end they do indeed find the creature. However, their hopes vanish after they “accidentally” kill Bigfoot and go back to the United States.

How is Latin America being portrayed? One of the reasons the group travels South the Border is to fulfill their expectations of presenting “real wilderness” in the TV show so it stays on the screen. Through the journey across the jungle to find Bigfoot, we are introduced to a dangerous place (funny, exotic, but dangerous): a lot of monkeys, snakes, carnivorous piranhas, tribes that cut scrotums and kill with arrows, explorers who will take advantage of you and steal your belongings, and of course the enormous Bigfoot.

Yet the portrayal of Latin American nature is not really important to the plot (we know that all the information given is intentionally mistaken or exaggerated because of the genre). The main reason for going on the trip is to seek out new material that will increase the TV show’s ratings. Animal life, whether it is a Latin American beast or an insect from the tree outside a building, is taken and exploited as a commodity. In the movie, those kinds of TV shows will not portray wilderness as it is, but as the audience wants it. Nature has been fetishized with sensationalist images; sex, blood, or comedy itself are more important than the facts. This is very clear at the end of the movie after the Bigfoot report is not accepted since Pete decides to film an episode about shark attacks, which saves the TV show. "People love shark attacks, you are back again," says the TV director. And what is wilderness? Who or what is "the wild"? Even though the TV show is called Strange Wilderness (referring to wild animals) and the Latin America jungle is the wildest place they could go to, ridiculing aspects of American pop culture like views on the use of drugs and guns, the sexual portrayal of women on TV (even worse of women of tropical places like Latin America and Africa), and sensationalism to create profit, suggest that animal-life or Latin America is not the only wild ideas portrayed in this film (they are scarcely important at all in the movie, to be honest).

Certainly, what is being portrayed about the Latin American jungle might appear quite wild, but these imaginaries of wilderness (like violent indigenous tribes and creatures living in caves) are only the space to which Western Society compares itself to argue it is superior, and a more civilized society. Wilderness is a word used to emphasize the most uncivilized, least human, least Western aspects of life. It is a word used to create a division and to reject certain truths that make "civilized" society uncomfortable. What could be wilder than killing animals for no reason, seeing women as a sexual object, becoming desperate for food or sex, doing crazy things under the influence of alcohol and drugs, feeling entertained when there is a shark attack or someone dies, and then using all these things to have more ratings on screen?

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Monday, June 04, 2018

Snatched

The New Yorker Jonathan Levine directs the comedy Snatched (2017). In this movie, Levine satirizes the typical motivations an American decides to travel to the Latin American “paradise”. Emily (Amy Schumer) convinces her boring mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) to be her partner in a journey to Ecuador. Ecuador for Emily is not the typical resort vacations in some Mexican beach, but rather it is a real exotic adventure that can make her forget about her pathetic life (and it is also a non-refundable ticket that must be used). Ironically, they stay in a fancy resort at the beach, but Emily wants to experience the real Ecuador with a handsome guy she just meets at the pub.

Without listening to the advice of two retiree US intelligence agents, Emily goes to a party in the middle of a jungle landscape with a stranger in which Emily parties as Latinos do, learning capoeira? The day after she brings her mother to an adventure with the same guy who is supposed to take them to see waterfalls, but he was taking them far enough so they can get kidnapped. On the next morning, they wake up in Colombia and try to escape. Trying to get help, they find another American called Roger Simmons in a small village who appears to be their hope for salvation. Roger wears an explorer outfit and is very confident taking the two women through the jungle, though he has been in Latin America only for three weeks.

This movie portrays the ingenuity and imprudence of Americans when they travel to Latin America. Tourist look for adventure in an exotic place. But they also put themselves in dangerous situations, consciously like the American that pretended to be an explorer and the retiree agents that are looking for some action, or unconsciously like Emily and her mother who were too foolish that it becomes part of a predictable and laughable comedy.

Another interesting portrayal of the previous one (not about Latin America alone, but about American in Latin America) concerns foreign intervention for security reasons. Emily’s brother Jeffry calls and goes repeated times to the policy after he is informed of the kidnapping. Though of all the resources the police department has for tracking people, they do nothing until it is almost too late. American intelligence agents appear at the end of like the saviours, but when all the work was already done. The US embassy in Bogota neither could help. Basically, the message is that once you cross the border, the United States will not protect any of its citizens (but it could).

If this plot was not a comedy, a kidnapping and no support from the US will be terrifying. However, Levine makes those events seem better than they look, and mother and daughter even go again on a trip after this awful experience. Latin America is in this movie a place for adventure (though it might be a dangerous one). Even after experiencing violence and almost being killed, the trip was probably better than whatever they could be doing back home, and even inspires them to travel again. The plot might not be clearly promoting or opposing Ecuador, Colombia or any other Latin American country as a travel destination, but it shows that it is the American tourist who put themselves in danger by idealizing Latin America as that exotic place full of adventure, but by overestimating their own capacities and of their country. Latin America becomes attractive because it makes visitors leave their comfort zone.

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Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Green Inferno

Inspired by the well-known cannibal film, Cannibal Holocaust, Eli Roth directs The Green Inferno (2013), a horror and adventure movie that portrays the controversial practice that was allegedly once part (or perhaps still is part) of the cultural rituals of some indigenous tribes living in the Amazon forest, human cannibalism. A group of young American humanitarian activists travel to the Peruvian Amazon to oppose the establishment of a multinational corporation helped by the local government which will destroy “untouched” areas of the jungle and kill indigenous tribes living there.

On their way to the Amazon, the group can see from the window of their plane the beautiful landscape of the rainforest: the predominant colour on the screen is the green of the jungle with some rivers crossing in between. Those images, and later the long trip by boat to the construction site, make the activists think that indeed the Amazon is an untouched environment in danger. They use as a strategy the exposition the corporation and the military supporting it (ready to kill the natives) on social media. Their plan seemed to have worked, so get on a plane on their way home after having saved the Amazon. Unfortunately, the plane crash in the middle of the jungle where they get kidnapped by a Cannibal tribe that tortures them one by one and prepare them as food for the whole tribe. Like Cannibal Holocaust, Roth makes the bloody killings look very realistic and transmits the feelings of the horrified activists. Nevertheless, the movie does not portray the cannibal tribe as evil or inhumane, on the other hand, Roth discusses different controversial traditions (including genital mutilation and cannibalism) and the difficulties on trying to eliminate or condemn certain practices that are deeply rooted in some cultures. The “human” side of the tribe is represented with the little girl that helps the protagonist Justine (Lorenza Izzo) to escape.

Justine finds her way out of a genital mutilation ceremony and runs into an armed conflict between another private corporation and the tribe. She uses this moment to get rescued and appeal for some real action to stop the destruction of the Amazon and the persecution of the tribe. Once she goes back to the U.S. she uses the influence of her father (lawyer in the UN) to denounce the private corporation’s abuse of human rights. At this point, Justine does not mention anything about her experience or how her group was assassinated by the tribe which will protect the tribe and strengthen the argument for the Amazon preservation.

In addition to displaying bloody and shocking scenes of cannibalism, this movie communicates a sarcastic opinion about activism and about efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest. Before the protest, all the activist group is seen excited about promoting meaningful changes in society and politics, but their efforts remain useless. By the end of the movie, we are taken to some point at the beginning of the movie when Justine was still at the university campus; she wakes up from a horrifying nightmare and the little group of activists that convinced her to travel to the Amazon are still protesting for some campus-related issue. Protecting the Amazon forest and its people is solely a fantasy. Even if there are people protesting for a good cause like preserving indigenous communities with centuries of history, there are numerous layers that make the issue more difficult to tackle such as the flow of money involved, corruption, or the fact that Amazon is not really “untouched” nature. Even those aspects of the tribes like cannibalism could change the way one thinks about them (Are cannibals worth fighting for?).

Various aspects of the Amazon forest are portrayed in the movie, but throughout it is suggested that it would be better not to venture too far in the jungle. The Amazon's dangers (be they human or natural) win out over the beauty of its green richness. Interestingly, there is nothing said about the protection of plants or animals of the Amazon like it is usually done in other Amazon or jungle movies. On the contrary, the plot shows little consideration to the animal life (a machete and a gun are given to the young Americans in case they find any animal in the jungle). Travelling to the Amazon for activism or tourism is portrayed as a worthless cause. Its landscape could seem very green, but its insides are more like an inferno for those who are not aware of how life is there.

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South of the Border

By the end of the twentieth century the United States became head of international politics establishing its neoliberal ideology at a global scale. Western capitalism apparently buried the ideals of a once expanding communism (and socialism) which influence in the Americas only remained in Cuba, which the United States made sure to block and isolate from the rest of the world system. Nevertheless, as the classic liberalism revived with neoliberalism, in the same way the old and feared socialism is comes restored and stronger with the name of “The Socialism of the Twenty-first Century”. Oliver Stone’s South of the Border (2009) is a documentary that recounts the realities of five countries that have turned their traditional right-wing politics to a charismatic left-wing revolutionary mandate of “the people.” The socialist leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador share their opinion of the effecto of United States foreign policy on their countries and how their new movement in the protection of the most vulnerable groups (the poor, the indigenous and the worker) represents independence and real progress for all Latin American societies.

The documentary starts with a recollection of North American news that talks about Hugo Chavez’s “dictatorship” in Venezuela. Stone puts together media reports depicting Chavez’s government as a threat to the United States and all the Western democratic system like Cuba once was. However, by travelling to Venezuela, experiencing the life of its people beyond what is presented on the screen, and personality interviewing Chavez, the narrative of the documentary leans to left to supports the truth that is being hidden by the media (media that is probably influenced by people or corporations that protect American neoliberalist interests). There are very few personal comments from the director about the ideology since providing Chavez with an open floor to criticize U.S interventions in Latin America is more than self-evident support to the new ideological wave developing in most countries south of the U.S-Mexico border. In addition, the only times the United States’ perspective or comments on Latin American left-wing governments are shown, they are considered overreaction resulting from national security paranoia, conspiracy theories, or justification for controlling the region and its natural resources such as the Venezuelan oil.

Stone problematizes and to some extent destroys the idea that everything happening south of the border (politics, economy, culture) is the same. Chavez, for example, created policy that would benefit the lowest economic classes in the country and that meant using Venezuelan oil in Venezuela and for Venezuelans (cutting the supply to the United States). The Bush administration considered Chavez’s national policy dangerous for democracy and threatening for his government, creating tension between the two countries. When other of South America joined the new socialist movement, the United States unsuccessfully conspired to take their governments down because they were all the same as Venezuela, thus more anti-US leaders, less resource-access. On the other hand, we hear interviews from each socialist leader, Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula Da Silva in Brazil, the Kirchner couple in Argentina, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Each of them is intentionally shown very different materially, and ideologically speaking. Chavez with a military background, Morales a coca-grower indigenous, Lula a metalworker and labour union member, the Kirchner shown in their elegant house, and Correa with a revolutionary discourse. Each country has a different history and experiences different realities, but they all have been subjected to and exploited by American neoliberalism.

Cuba comes back to the story. For the Bush administration, Cuban communism might not be a threat or influence in the United States anymore, however, it could have influenced other Latin American countries. In contrast, how the other five countries of the documentary are portrayed, there is no support to Cuba or any of its policies. The interview with Fidel Castros’ brother is included to clear the misconception that the Socialism of the Twenty-First Century is the same as communism. In numerous occasions each president is asked whether the Cuban communism is the “grandfather” of their projects (since the “father” would be Venezuelan Chavismo) or at least it has inspired them, but the answer is clear: no, they share ideology and their projects seem to follow the same pattern, but socialism developed independently.

The last part of the documentary summarizes all the encounters with the socialist leaders, the paranoia and sensationalism of American news, and Latin America’s history of struggles due to indiscriminate foreign intervention in their politics. In addition, possible unfolding of the socialist wave of South America is discussed. Nowadays, this discourse could need upgrades, but by that time Obama represented hope and openness to new ideas that could clear Bush’s intolerance and reconstruct alliances with Latin America. Stone not only supports this new social and political movement, but he suggests that its expansion to northern countries in Latin America has shown that an historical change is starting.

Political changes like this new form of socialism that has decreased poverty, has increased technological and social development, and has stood up against neoimperialist forces to protect their sovereignty might be something that the United States is lacking. Latin America is portrayed as a victim of US foreign policy, powerless in the face of the economic and political control the United State has over most international organizations. Latin American politics are the result of the direct and indirect oppression, and socialism re-emerges within those conditions and to change them in favour of its people.

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