Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Alamo

The point of legends is their adaptability. Freed from the requirements of realism, a legend can be re-invoked for diverse purposes as circumstances demand.

John Lee Hancock's The Alamo is, as Philip French notes, "clearly a post-9/11 movie," whose message, French argues, is that the war it portrays is "a war that should not have been fought, but having engaged with a monstrous enemy, it must be carried on, however reluctantly."

But if we can indeed follow contemporary parallels, then the movie is hardly the "decent, rather half-hearted liberal affair" that French contends.

The story of the Alamo is, in the first place, a story of defeat: the Mexican army's massacre of some 180 defenders holed up in the former mission near San Antonio. In the second place, however, it tells of the power of memory to stir a victorious counter-attack: Sam Houston's subsequent defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, spurred by the shout "Remember the Alamo!"

And the prime ideological justification for the war against Iraq (especially now that talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction has faded) likewise invokes the memory of trauma to stir resolve against a "monstrous enemy": "Remember 9/11!"

The connection between 9/11 and Iraq is specious, of course, but in so far as The Alamo is indeed a 9/11 allegory, it naturalizes and secures the relation between this trauma and subsequent US bellicosity.

And The Alamo's Santa Anna, played with some panache by Emilio Echeverría, is indeed the very model of a modern tyrant: cowardly and effete, more concerned with pomp and appearance than tactics or efficiency, he callously sacrifices his soldiers and ignores his officers' pleas to respect the rules of war.

For this is the trauma according to Hancock: the fact that Santa Anna plays "dirty" in his assault on the Alamo. (By contrast, for Christy Cabanne's 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo what's at issue is the threat that the Mexicans pose to the honour of Texan womenfolk.) The point, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Alamo's defenders are themselves not the most clean-cut of heroes: Jim Bowie is an unabashed slave-owner, William Travis a dandy with a shady past, and Davy Crockett a troubled character overshadowed by his own mythology.

In the end, though, there is one constant in all the various re-tellings of the Alamo legend: it is a tale about the constitution of an American people.

The mission's defenders are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers and regulars, brought together for a variety of motives, often disreputable. It is only in the face of a foreign aggressor that their internal conflict, essentially between the principle of a citizen militia and the imposition of military hierarchy, is resolved in favour of the state: both the state of Texas and statehood itself.

Ultimately, this is the narrative of how the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers and the New Orleans Greys and other disparate powers come together to defend the idea of a unitary power, which eventually will become the 28th State of the United States of America.

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Carmen Miranda

Off and on, over the past couple of days I've been watching Helena Solberg's Bananas is my Business, a documentary about Carmen Miranda.

Bananas is my BusinessMiranda is (or was) a curious figure. She was, apparently, the highest paid performer (male or female) in 1940s Hollywood, and the highest paid woman (in any occupation) in the US at the time. She was extraordinarily popular: one of the first "crossover" artists, who brought something like what would now be termed "world music" to a mass audience in North America. But I'd be surprised if anyone actively sought out her films or her music now. Her image very quickly transformed from serious star to epitome of kitsch, and her films, while often entertaining, hardly stand up well compared to other classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Her acting was never convincing and her musical performances were seldom well integrated into the film narrative. (Oddly, an exception is probably Down Argentine Way, a Betty Grable vehicle for which Miranda's scenes were shot only after the rest of the film was finished.)

But the decline in Miranda's reputation says more about her audience, and perhaps still more about twentieth-century geopolitics, than it does about her.

She was, after all, always already a caricature, an exotic curiosity. On her first arrival in the USA, when she knew little English but a lot about what she had to do to become famous, reporters wrote up interviews with her as though she were some comic primitive but also idiot savant who gave voice to everyone's unspoken desires. Miranda declared that she knew only 100 words of English, among them "men, men, men and money, money, money." Her costumes, especially the famously elaborate headgear, were manic exaggerations of the clothing worn by Bahian market women, but they also resonated with sixteenth to eighteenth-century images of South America as a dusky maiden bearing the fruit of her fertile soil.

Her success owed much to US post-war "good neighborliness," a policy that emphasized and enhanced economic and cultural exchanges between North and South America. The cultural arm of the good neighbor policy was directed by Nelson Rockefeller, and also gave us films such as Disney's Saludos Amigos, a strange mix of documentary, anthropology, diplomacy, and tourist guide. Latin America was promoted as a region now coming to modernity, fresh and vital compared to a Europe worn out by world war. It could be a source of markets and raw materials, but also a site for the indulgence of otherwise perhaps repressed desires. Latin Americans themselves were portrayed as slightly shady but definitely fun: prepared to break a few rules here and there thanks to their irrepressible vitality and desire to make good. Miranda very much fit into this mold. Havana, Acapulco, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro were now portrayed as filled with high-class nightclubs with sparkling entertainment, the ideal locations for hedonistic holidays from the rigors of making money at home.

As well as a reorientation of US economic and cultural interest from the Old to the New World, the Good Neighbor policy was also a pre-emptive strike as the Cold War got off the ground. Latin America already had strong labor movements (e.g. in Argentina and Chile), established socialist and communist parties (for instance, Peru), and had shown stirrings (or in the case of Mexico, more than stirrings) of revolutionary impulses. But at the same time the region was far from the Soviet sphere of influence, and could be imagined as a showcase for the benefits of liberal, democratic modernization. The US therefore welcomed the democratization and modernization that swept Latin America in the mid to late 1940s.

But within less than a decade, good neighborliness had been discredited. Prompted in part by lobbying from United Fruit, whose banana plantations occupied large swathes of the east of the country, in 1954 the state department engineered a coup in Guatemala, bringing down a left-leaning regime that had, in US eyes, gone too far in suggesting that modernization should be accompanied with social justice, that the benefits of democracy and openness should be felt by peasants as well as party-goers. Toppling the Guatemalan government was the CIA's first major foreign operation, to be repeated soon in Iran. Both were viewed as great successes for a new, burlier and bolder, approach to international relations. Regime change came to be seen as an acceptable solution to problems that democracy and modernity could no longer be relied upon to resolve.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the shift in Latin America's image and US tactics was soon complete. The Cold War was fully global and Havana was no longer the destination of choice for high-rolling gamblers or the emerging jet-set.

Carmen Miranda had died in 1955, but in any case nobody could now make a film such as Week-End in Havana. Orson Welles's 1958 Touch of Evil better portrayed the new Latin America: a place of real danger and violence, whose seedy and superficial pleasures could too easily lure the unwary tourist into incomprehensible peril. The border between North and South was both absolute (separating cultures that were incommensurably different) and frighteningly fragile. There might still be a need for Americans to go down and do business with their neighbors the other side of the Rio Grande, but this would be man's work, no job for a woman with fruit on her head.

(Crossposted from Posthegemonic Musings.)

[Update: links to Carman Miranda's official site and a very comprehensive fan site.]

See also: Copacabana, That Night in Rio, Week-End in Havana, The Gang's All Here.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Daniela, Jon, Katie, Serena, Valerie.


The Fountain
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada


The Adventurers
Aguirre, Wrath of God
The Alamo (2004)
The Amazing Zorro
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
Bird of Paradise
The Border
Border Radio
Born in East L. A.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García
Burden of Dreams
Carry On Columbus
Cat Chaser
Creature from the Haunted Sea
La Cucaracha
Dancing Pirate
Don Q Son of Zorro
Dr. No
The Emerald Forest
The Emperor's New Groove
End of the Spear
For the Common Defense!
Fun in Acapulco
The Gaucho
The Girl from Rio
Grand Slam
The Gringo in Mañanaland
The Heart of Texas Ryan
Herbie Goes Bananas
The In-Laws
It's All True
Jungle 2 Jungle
Kill Bill: Vol. 2
The Lady from Shanghai
The Long Goodbye
The Lost World
Marathon Man
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
The Mask of Zorro
Melody Time
Men with Guns
Moon Over Parador
My Best Fiend
Nacho Libre
The Naked Jungle
Now, Voyager
Only Angels Have Wings
Out of the Past
El patrullero
The Pilgrim
"Pluto and the Armadillo"
¡Que Viva México!
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Road to Rio
Rio Rita
Romancing the Stone
The Royal Hunt of the Sun
Saludos Amigos
Secret of the Incas
A Show of Force
Something New
South of the Border
The Swarm
¡Three Amigos!
The Three Caballeros
Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made
Touch of Evil
Under Fire
The Undefeated
Vera Cruz
Viva Knievel!
The Wrong Guy
Zorro Rides Again
Zorro's Fighting Legion
Zorro, the Gay Blade


American Me
The Americano
La Bamba
Blame it on Rio
Brenda Starr
Captain Ron
Dance with Me
A Date with Judy
A Day without a Mexican
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Doll Face
Emanuella and the Last Cannibals
The Forbidden Dance is Lambada
Forever Darling
Four Jills in a Jeep
The Long, Long Trailer
Le Magnifique
Mexicali Rose
A Million to Juan
The Mission
Mi Vida Loca
The Mosquito Coast
Next Stop Wonderland
One-Eyed Jacks
One Night in the Tropics
Real Women Have Curves
Tequila Sunrise
That Night in Rio
Too Many Girls
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Wild Orchid
You Were Never Lovelier


100 Rifles
The Alamo (1960)
Alvarez Kelly
Bells of San Angelo
Big Jake
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Christopher Columbus
Desperate Cargo
Down Mexico Way
Duck, You Sucker!
A Fistful of Dollars
For a Few Dollars More
The Gang's All Here
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Lawless Frontier
Lone Star
The Magnificent Seven
Major Dundee
The Man from Monterey
Martyrs of the Alamo
The Professionals
The Ride Back
Rough Riders' Round-up
Somewhere in Sonora
Straight to Hell
They Came to Cordura
Two Mules for Sister Sara
Vera Cruz


99 Women
Against All Odds
The Assassination of Trotsky
Assassination Tango
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)
Clear and Present Danger
Dr. No
Four Days in September
Island in the Sun
Moro No Brasil
The Motorcycle Diaries
Old Gringo
Plunder of the Sun
Secret of the Andes
Strange Confession
To Have and Have Not
Touching the Void
The Way of the Gun
Week-End in Havana



the idea of cinema




Sicario (2015)

Nacho Libre (2006)
Moro No Brasil (2006)
The Fountain (2006)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
End of the Spear (2005)
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)
A Day without a Mexican (2004)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)
The Alamo (2004)
Touching the Void (2003)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
Frida (2002)
Dragonfly (2002)
Assassination Tango (2002)
The Amazing Zorro (2002)
Blow (2001)
The Way of the Gun (2000)
Traffic (2000)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

Secret of the Andes (1999)
My Best Fiend (1999)
Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Dance with Me (1998)
The Wrong Guy (1997)
Selena (1997)
Men with Guns (1997)
Jungle 2 Jungle (1997)
Four Days in September (1997)
Lone Star (1996)
The Gringo in Mañanaland (1995)
Assassins (1995)
Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994)
Mi Vida Loca (1994)
A Million to Juan (1994)
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Posse (1993)
Alive (1993)
Carry On Columbus (1992)
Captain Ron (1992)
American Me (1992)
El patrullero (1991)
A Show of Force (1990)
The Forbidden Dance is Lambada (1990)
Amazon (1990)

Wild Orchid (1989)
Old Gringo (1989)
Cat Chaser (1989)
Brenda Starr (1989)
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Moon Over Parador (1988)
Ariel (1988)
Walker (1987)
Straight to Hell (1987)
Born in East L. A. (1987)
Border Radio (1987)
La Bamba (1987)
¡Three Amigos! (1986)
Salvador (1986)
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
The Mission (1986)
The Emerald Forest (1985)
Commando (1985)
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Blame it on Rio (1984)
Against All Odds (1984)
Under Fire (1983)
Octopussy (1983)
Heartbreaker (1983)
Missing (1982)
Burden of Dreams (1982)
The Border (1982)
Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Herbie Goes Bananas (1980)

The In-Laws (1979)
"10" (1979)
The Swarm (1978)
Viva Knievel! (1977)
Emanuella and the Last Cannibals (1977)
Snuff (1976)
Marathon Man (1976)
Zorro (1975)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García (1974)
Papillon (1973)
Le Magnifique (1973)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
The Assassination of Trotsky (1972)
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
Big Jake (1971)
Bananas (1971)
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
Compañeros (1970)
The Adventurers (1970)

The Undefeated (1969)
The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969)
The Girl from Rio (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Burn! (1969)
99 Women (1969)
100 Rifles (1969)
Bandolero! (1968)
Grand Slam (1967)
The Professionals (1966)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Django (1966)
Alvarez Kelly (1966)
Major Dundee (1965)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Fun in Acapulco (1963)
Dr. No (1962) (Jon)
Dr. No (1962) (Valerie)
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Alamo (1960)

They Came to Cordura (1959)
Touch of Evil (1958)
The Ride Back (1957)
Island in the Sun (1957)
Giant (1956)
Forever Darling (1956)
Vera Cruz (1954) (Jon)
Vera Cruz (1954) (Serena)
Secret of the Incas (1954)
The Naked Jungle (1954)
The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
Plunder of the Sun (1953)
Borderline (1950)

Christopher Columbus (1949)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Melody Time (1948)
A Date with Judy (1948)
Tycoon (1947)
Road to Rio (1947)
Out of the Past (1947)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Copacabana (1947)
Bells of San Angelo (1947)
Notorious (1946)
Gilda (1946)
Doll Face (1946)
Strange Confession (1945)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Three Caballeros (1944)
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944)
"Pluto and the Armadillo" (1943)
The Gang's All Here (1943)
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
Saludos Amigos (1942)
Now, Voyager (1942)
It's All True (1942)
For the Common Defense! (1942)
Week-End in Havana (1941)
That Night in Rio (1941)
Down Mexico Way (1941)
Desperate Cargo (1941)
Too Many Girls (1940)
One Night in the Tropics (1940)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)
South of the Border (1939)
Rough Riders' Round-up (1939)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Mexicali Rose (1939)
Zorro Rides Again (1937)
Dancing Pirate (1936)
The Lawless Frontier (1934)
La Cucaracha (1934)
Somewhere in Sonora (1933)
The Man from Monterey (1933)
¡Que Viva México! (1932)
Bird of Paradise (1932)

Rio Rita (1929)
The Gaucho (1927)
Tumbleweeds (1925)
The Lost World (1925)
Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)
The Pilgrim (1923)
Something New (1920)
The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Heart of Texas Ryan (1917)
The Americano (1916)
Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)


Carmen Miranda



The following are all the tags I have used to date, organized into rough and ready categories, giving a sense of some of the topics covered.

andes argentina brazil caribbean chile cuba dominican republic el salvador mexico peru puerto rico uruguay

80s alamo bond border carmen miranda columbus comedy crime dinosaurs disney documentary drugs eisenstein freud herzog hitchcock horror howard hawks indians jungle musicals orson welles prison rita hayworth ruins westerns zorro

affect allegory audience colonialism color contradiction desire deterritorialization difference erasure expressivity flow geopolitics ideology law masculinity modernism modernity money myth nature nostalgia performativity postcolonialism prejudice power race real repetition resources sameness self-referentiality technology unconscious utopia violence

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"Projections" is concerned with the ways in which Latin America has figured in Hollywood and European cinema. Rather than lamenting the distance between stereotype and reality, it is interested in the functions served by the innumerable projections of fantasized Latin Americas onto the silver screen.

For Spring 2009, this project has been aided by a grant from the University of British Columbia's Arts Undergraduate Research Awards, to hire three undergraduate student researchers to expand this online database of Latin America on screen.


It's notable how many classic (and not so classic) Hollywood movies are set in Latin America, from Hitchcock's Notorious or Orson Welles's Touch of Evil to, say, Blake Edwards's "10" or Robert Zemeckis's Romancing the Stone.

One might ask the reasons for what is almost an obsession, especially given the widely-held belief that US Americans are somehow uninterested in things foreign. Hollywood particularly has often been implicated in cultural imperialism, understood as a homogenization of global difference. Why then its concern with the Latin American other?

Some of the reasons are surely historical, demographic, and geographical. Hollywood itself was once part of the Spanish Empire (as the Zorro franchise reminds us) and then, until the mid nineteenth-century US-Mexican war, part of the Republic of Mexico. And with twentieth and twenty-first century South-North migration, Los Angeles is rapidly becoming Latin again.

Yet though there are indeed films that show Latin America as either historical residue or border threat, what's more interesting is in fact the multiplicity and multifacetedness of Hollywood's Latin imaginings.

Many different genres are played out in Latin America: from Musical to Western, Film Noir (Gilda) to Comedy (¡Three Amigos!), Action Adventure to Romance. As the camera moves South of the Border, it can be searching for gritty realism (The Border) as much as for escapist diversion (Saludos Amigos).

So what, if anything, unites these movies that portray Latin America? Is there some shared element beyond the contingent commonality of location or theme? My wager is that there is, and that it's something worth writing about. Indeed, my suspicion is that when Hollywood goes Latin, it reveals something essential about cinema tout court.

My intention is to write a short book on this topic. In the meantime, I am gathering material, watching as many movies as I can, and posting my notes here on this blog.


Listed below are some of the movies I plan to write up in the near future. If you have suggestions of other films in which Latin America plays a part, however small, do mention them in the comments or email me. Ideally they should be available on video or (better still) DVD.

  • Anaconda
  • Apocalypto
  • Cannibal Holocaust
  • Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death
  • Clinton and Nadine
  • Fitzcarraldo
  • The In-Laws
  • Medicine Man
  • The Mexican
  • Predator
  • Proof of Life
  • Red Dawn
  • Revenge
  • Salt of the Earth
  • Toy Soldiers
  • The Wages of Fear


The blog's visual design is indebted to the marvellous Christine Mackenzie at the University of Aberdeen's Directorate of Information Technology.