Wednesday, November 02, 2005

¡Three Amigos!

Three Amigos posterOstensibly, ¡Three Amigos! derives its comedy from the mismatch between cinematic artifice or stereotype and Latin American reality.

Three of the 1980s' most notable comedians--Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short--star as silent screen heroes Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms, and Ned Nederlander. Seeking some brave men to defend her village against the depredations of the bandit "El Guapo," young Mexican beauty Carmen confuses a Three Amigos film for documentary and invites the actors to come from Hollywood to play their parts for real.

The Amigos, misunderstanding in turn, think that they have been called to Mexico merely to put on a show. They find out their mistake when "Lucky" is shot by a bandit's gun that's loaded with something more than blanks. He holds up a bloody finger.

bloody finger
"Oh great!" shouts Lucky to the bandit. "Real bullets! You're in a lot of trouble, mister." Then, sizing up the situation, he turns to his companions... "It's real," says Lucky. "What?" asks Dusty. "Uh. This is real." "You mean..." interjects Ned. "Yes," Lucky replies. "They are going to kill us." "What are we doing in Mexico?" cries Ned. "I've been shot already," weeps Lucky.

Obviously enough, however, were this in fact a case of the "real" interrupting fictive performativity, the effect would be tragedy rather than comedy. There's nothing particularly humorous about being unexpectedly shot.

What this moment in the film initiates, therefore, is not a shift from performance to realism, but rather a change in the type of performance. It's the point at which the film moves from simply spoofing silent-era Westerns, to taking the entire Western tradition as its target. It's a shift, if anything, from some vestigial historical realism to a much broader farce: from some (slight) interest in the social reception of film, to a self-referential send-up of the Western genre tout court.

So ¡Three Amigos! mocks the formulas provided by, for instance, The Magnificent Seven, the singing cowboy movies of Gene Autry et. al., and more generally all the various parables of good fighting evil played out in Hollywood's version of the West, and on the border that it draws between North and South.

Here, in this second-order comic replaying of Latin America on screen, the bandit leader is delighted by the birthday gift his gang have given him: "It's a sweater!"

Here, the villagers make use of their skills and talents to sew their way to victory: "Sew like the wind!" encourages Ned. Here, the particular is comically inflated to the universal: "In a way, all of us have an 'El Guapo' to face some day. For some, shyness might be their 'El Guapo.' For others, a lack of education might be their 'El Guapo.' For us, 'El Guapo' is a big dangerous guy who wants to kill us."

Self-referentially, therefore, ¡Three Amigos! makes visible the ways in which Hollywood's Latin America provides a template or screen on which to project a series of issues blithely unconcerned with any "real" south of the border. But the comedy lies in the fact that this is not some sudden demystification, some startling revelation. We are not shocked watching this film: we are (if only mildly) amused.

For what Lucky, Dusty, and Ned demonstrate is that we all already know that Hollywood makes few claims to representational accuracy, or even to representativity at all. Which is at least one reason why to lament the distance between stereotype and reality is to miss the point entirely.

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