Friday, September 30, 2005

The Mask of Zorro

Zorro posterThe Zorrathon continues. In The Mask of Zorro, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, and Catherine Zeta-Jones revive the character for the era of the summer blockbuster; they also resuscitate the values with which the Zorro series had been associated, applying them to our contempory era of national insecurity.

Or rather, what they revive is a son-in-law of Zorro, less high class than the original. Which is pretty much the relationship between this film and the versions of the story that precede it.

Hopkins plays Don Diego de la Vega, and we see him at the outset as Zorro in his last hurrah, ridding California of Rafael Montero, the corrupt Spanish governor, before preparing for retirement with his wife and newborn baby. But his plans are interrupted as the governor turns up at his hacienda, his wife is killed, his child taken from him, his property burned to the ground, and he himself is taken away to rot forgotten in a dank prison cell.

Until twenty years later... when Montero returns with dastardly ambitions to wrest California from the Mexicans, Don Diego escapes from his dungeon, and Alejandro Murrieta (played by Banderas) is trained up to assume the mantle of Zorro and so to avenge both Don Diego and his own murdered brother. Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, is Don Diego's now grown-up daughter, raised by Montero as his own, and soon to seduce and be seduced by the dashing Alejandro.

Banderas as beauBy the dashing Alejandro, that is, because unlike previous Zorro incarnations here Zorro himself is no aristocrat. Murrieta has to be taught charm by his older mentor; but he is taught so well that he passes perfectly for a young gallant and so wins Montero's trust (and learns of his dastardly plan). Indeed, in a reversal of the pattern established by Douglas Fairbanks and continued by both Tyrone Power and Alain Delon, Banderas as bandit raises more laughs than does Banderas as beau. He is even, if anything, less accomplished as bandit: late on in the movie, he is still falling off his horse in a series of comic pratfalls.

So in the transition from older to younger Zorro, honour is universalized (the poor too have their honour) and class relativized (anyone can be taught taste). No longer is Zorro's aim, as it was in 1920 and 1940, to rally his fellow blue-bloods against colonial tyranny. Rather it is his nemesis who is the usurper, and our hero is fighting to preserve national unity by preventing the country's disintegration, and to serve the state whose assets Montero is plundering.

This is, in short, the first postcolonial Zorro: postcolonial not simply because it takes place after Mexican independence has been achieved, nor even just because it foregrounds subaltern mimicry, but also because its theme is the populist cross-class alliance to consolidate national identity.

It is also perhaps the first pop culture Zorro. Though, as I've commented before, in many ways Zorro is the model for future superheroes such as Batman and superman, here the Zorro story is itself in turn influenced by, for instance, the Bond franchise (which provides the scheming and megalomaniac villain) and Star Wars (which gives us the mentor instructing his pupil in the way of good combat and good conduct). The movie is a homage not only to previous iterations of the Californian crusader, but also to the whole gamut of wholesome swashbuckling and cheeky anti-authoritarianism that marked so much of Hollywood production across the twentieth century.

Latin America becomes the setting within which US popular culture can rediscover the best and most uplifting elements of its heritage. This 1998 Zorro is self-consciously a throwback, to Saturday matinées and violence without gore, in fact with remarkably few fatalities. Is not the fear of a fragmented postcolonial nation not a fear felt acutely in the US at the turn of the century? Neither anti-communism nor shared prosperity, Hollywood's great post-war unifiers, can mask an increasing sense of political division and cultural balkanization.

Kenyan Embassy bombingThe year this movie came out was, after all, also the year in which the Lewinsky scandal broke and political battle lines between liberals and (neo)conservatives were more spectacularly on display than at any time since the Vietnam war.

And that same year was the year that the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, by the then little-known al-Qaida network, and so an early premonition of what would become the war against terror.

So, if postcolonial texts are always (as Fredric Jameson suggests) national allegories, what better vehicle to allegorize Hollywood's power to bind together a nation starting to fall apart than a feel-good return to 1940s values displaced to a pop-culture inflected postcolonial Latin setting?

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Monday, September 26, 2005

South of the Border

South of the Border posterIt would be hard to overstate how odd South of the Border is, or how convoluted a plot it fits into its paltry 71 minutes.

Briefly, Gene Autry and his rather hapless sidekick Frog Millhouse (played by Smiley Burnette) are federal agents on a mission in Mexico.

Their task is to help a landowner on the island of Palermo move out his cattle in the midst of a nascent revolution. The rebels are supported and financed by unspecified "foreign powers" who want to make use of the island's natural harbour and oil fields to construct a submarine refuelling base. Were they to succeed, they would compromise the "Pan-American neutrality" of the early years of World War II. As an added complication, the landowner (Don Diego) is uncle both to the rebel leader and to the girl, Dolores, for whom Autry had fallen in the film's brief prologue.

Oh, and there's Lois Martin, the beautiful American double (then triple) agent. And an orphan who attaches herself to Autry as surrogate father. There is a missing $200,000. And code-breaking. And telegraphy. And fortune-telling. And singing, much singing, some of which even aids the plot, as when Don Diego's vaqueros are persuaded to stick around thanks to their enchantment with Autry's dulcet tones.

(For a final twist, and turn away now if you don't want the ending spoiled, Autry returns to his sweetheart Dolores only to find that she has become a nun out of shame for her brother's rebellion.)

In this movie made (and released) between September and December 1939, Autry spells out US foreign policy in the face of the outbreak of war in Europe.

Moreover, the film is effectively the Monroe Doctrine committed to celluloid: foreign powers should stay out of the Americas, and in return the United States would maintain its neutrality towards disputes overseas. Latin America was therefore ceded to the US as its exclusive sphere of influence, and Washington felt free to send its forces south of the border as and when necessary to secure its national interests. As subaltern rebellion was almost inevitably destined to disturb this continental Pax Americana, keeping the region free from external influence was inextricably linked with counter-insurgency and support for native elites.

All these elements of US geopolitical strategy are quite evident from South of the Border, and little attempt is made to provide ideological gloss: Autry and his gang act out policy, accepting it implicitly and unquestioningly, rather than seeking to justify it or have it justified for them.

Within the terms of the movie, it is Millhouse who is the simple one: Autry is preternaturally skilled at any task to which he puts his hand, from singing to horsemanship to courtship to code-breaking. All these abilities come to him without effort. But this is another form of simplicity. And it is this pre- or non-ideological effortlessness that the film inculcates.

The Country Music Hall of Fame describes Autry's persona as that of "a guileless young man who triumphed over all odds by virtue of his innate goodness". And it is this guilelessness that performs the work of depoliticizing politics. The mission Gene and Frog undertake in this film is eminently political; but they carry it out as political naïfs, as though it were simply a matter of carrying out orders, flirting with the ladies, and singing in the saddle.

Autry has his cowboy code, which includes the mantra that he "must be a good worker," must "keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits," and that "the Cowboy is a patriot." But Autry's special virtue is that he doesn't need a code: he simply, simplistically, thoughtlessly, and innately incarnates diligent obedience to US Realpolitik.

Purchase your Gene Autry tribute revolver here. Only $2,195.

See Also: Mexicali Rose, Down Mexico Way.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005


Copacabana posterlIt's no great surprise that latinidad can be and often is a matter of performance. Indeed, it was Carmen Miranda, Portuguese-born, Brazilian-raised, US-domiciled, who had established the model for Latin performance in the early and mid-1940s.

But in Copacabana, seven years after her Hollywood debut in Down Argentine Way, Miranda tries to shake off her image, show that she can perform European, act as well as sing, and veil the "Brazilian bombshell" reputation that was leading her career nowhere.

The film's plot has Groucho Marx as Lionel Q. Devereaux who, with Miranda's Carmen Navarro, is one half of a down-at-heel double act unable to get bookings. Frustrated, Devereaux turns agent and by mischance books Navarro at the Copacabana club twice: once as herself, a South American cha-cha girl, and again as blonde French chanteuse Mademoiselle Fifi. Naturally, this double identity has to be concealed from the club owner Steve Hunt and the ever more curious press. But the duplicity becomes unmanageable as Hunt falls for Fifi and press attention brings Hollywood movie producers to town.

Carmen as FifiMademoiselle Fifi, in short, soon eclipses Navarro, who from the start is portrayed as but one more in a line of what have become seen as Latin novelty acts. "I've got sixteen of them on my list," says talent agent Liggett of South American singers, "they're a dime a dozen."

As the consequences of her performance become evident, Carmen-as-Fifi tries to deflect attention back to Carmen-as-Carmen, but no dice: latinidad is no longer saleable, and it's Fifi's contract alone that becomes subject to an increasingly inflationary bidding war.

In the end, the blonde chanteuse has to be killed off, but the police are called in as Devereaux's disposal of his former star is taken a little too literally. Carmen therefore has once more to veil herself and play French, but this time in order that she be unmasked as "really" Navarro. Even with her veil off, however, doubt remains, which Carmen can only dispel by kissing Hunt (and the various other male characters). For only Carmen, it turns out, can kiss like Fifi.

The final twist (if one can really talk of twists in such a thoroughly predictable movie) is that the whole story is taken up, self-reflexively, to become the plot of a movie to be entitled... Copacabana.

It would seem, therefore, that here almost everything is on the surface: Miranda's own declining appeal, her inability to break out of the mold that she herself helped shape, the limits set to performativity by Hollywood's economic realities. But almost un-noticed, the film subtly indicates another story, of successful whitening.

Andy RussellAndy Russell plays (a version of) himself as the Copacabana's male star. Russell is presented as all looks and voice and no brain, a clean-cut kid continually befuddled by what's going on around him.

Yet Andres Rabajos (as this Chicano vocalist was born) was no doubt more aware than anyone of the dangers and possibilities of Anglicization as a strategy to make it in the USA. A crooner in the style of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo, Russell's first hits had been Spanish language ("Bésame mucho" and "Amor"), but he crossed over and by the later 1940s had become arguably "the first truly successful Latino-American vocalist".

By the 1950s, Russell's star, like that of Miranda, was on the wane, and he moved to first Mexico then Argentina. But his apparently unquestioned all-Americanness in Copacabana is a reminder that for many--from Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Cancino) to Anthony Quinn (Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn)--success could come for Latinos playing gringo.

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

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¡Que Viva México!

Eisenstein in MexicoIt's only fitting that ¡Que Viva México! should be incomplete, fragmentary, subject to competing claims to ownership and reconstruction.

Chris Dashiell notes, in his long and informative article "Eisenstein's Mexican Dream", that "the film, like the pyramid at Chichen Itza" with which it opens, "is a ruin."

It's an artefact from a lost time when state communism was still the object of curiosity and even celebration among Western artists and intellectuals. It's also the residue of modernist fascination with Mexico, a country in which the surreal could be portrayed as everyday reality, and where time was out of joint: both the repository of age-old, unchanging primal imagery, and the location of the Americas' newest, most revolutionary impulses.

Latin America has always been caught within this double temporality and has often been cast as a universal unconscious. But Mexico in the period 1920-1940 incarnated these fantasies in peculiarly vivid fashion.

Moreover, the West's imagination of Mexico at this time resonated with and was magnified by the international success of the muralists José Orozco, David Siqueiros and, above all, Diego Rivera. Rivera (and his wife Frida Kahlo) hosted visiting luminaries such as André Breton, and befriended director Sergei Eisenstein. More importantly, the muralists' work served as the filter through which left-leaning intellectuals viewed Mexican society and history, leading them to think on epic scale of narratives by which timeless indigenism gave birth to the historic event of revolution.

And essentially this is the story that ¡Que Viva México! tells, of the Mexican people's slow but sure entry into history. The fact, however, that the crucial "Soldadera" section, in which the peasantry would be portrayed as finally agents of their own history, should be the section that was left unfilmed, could be read as a symptom of the ways in which that image of subaltern agency was multiply overcoded and orchestrated by the state on the one hand, and an international elite on the other.

What remains of Eisenstein's film, as repeatedly reconstructed (most fully to date in Grigori Aleksandrov's 1979 Soviet version), is a rather awkward hybrid of a study in visual form and an exercise in dramatic narration.

From Maguey section
The Prologue, for instance, is a beautiful meditation on atemporality and ahistoricity, in which the indigenous are literally monumentalized, objectified as at one both with nature and with the ruins and carvings of Mayan civilization. The bullfight sequence in the "Fiesta" section, by contrast, is, as Dashiell rightly observes, full of narrative commonplaces that structure the clichéd action banally in terms of filial devotion and romantic courtship. Meanwhile, the central "Maguey" sequence alternates fascination with the visual architecture of the Maguey plant (at the outset) and the hacienda (at the end), with interspersed action sequences reminiscent of a second-rate Western.

In short, the film is a strange, at times enthralling, but fundamentally unsatisfactory encounter between the Soviet avant-garde impulses of the director, the Hollywood and commercial imperatives guiding its backer Upton Sinclair, and the images of a revolutionary indigenism on which both converge.

Finally, as Gilles Deleuze quotes Fellini saying, "the film is over when the money runs out." Eisenstein went over budget, Sinclair couldn't raise any more cash, Stalin refused to buy up the footage shot, and the project languished, to become quite literally a museum piece, in the custody of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

And this vision of Latin America would also be packed away for a while, to be resurrected only by Latin Americans themselves in the Cinema Novo and "Third Cinema" of the late 1960s. But the would-be Orozcos, Siqueiroses, and Riveras of the revolutionary neo-avant-garde would come up against the same obstacles that frustrated Eisenstein: that cinema is an art that demands huge capitalization and unprecedented labour power. Perhaps it is only in the era of digital video that an Eisenstinian Latin America could make it to the screen.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

The Three Caballeros

three caballerosI commented recently on how Latin America functions as the West's unconscious. Disney's The Three Caballeros is an extraordinary demonstration of this point.

The first half of the movie is a more or less conventional series of sequences. Donald Duck receives birthday presents from his Latin American friends that include a film projector and a reel of film, plus a book about Brazil. Donald sets up the projector then guides our viewing responses as we watch with him the tale of a mal-adapted penguin from the South Pole who looks for warmer climes further north. We are also introduced to an array of other Latin American birdlife, and are told the story of a Uruguayan flying donkey. So far, so Disney.

Things start to get a little stranger with the introduction of Joe Carioca, a Brazilian parrot who had made his first appearance in Saludos Amigos. Carioca takes us through the Brazilian book, shrinking Donald in Alice in Wonderland style so that he can literally enter into its pages. But these pages offer more, not less, of a sensation of reality than Donald's cartoon universe: within them, latinidad is fleshed out by means of a novel intermixture of animation and live action, featuring Carmen Miranda's sister, Aurora.

This proximity to Latin sexuality incarnate starts to turn Donald's head. And when Aurora kisses him, crossing the divide between cartoon and "real" life, his mind starts to explode in a series of images anticipating sixties psychedelia: lights, multicoloured balloons, frenzied dancing, spirals, lightning...

By the time that he and Joe meet the third of "the three gay caballeros," a Mexican rooster named Panchito, Donald has become an almost purely libidinal subject, keen to cavort, in what Jean Franco terms "a kind of erotic fury" (The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City 27), with bathing beauties on the beach at Acapulco.

Donald and Mexican women on beach
"You are a wolf," Carioca tells him. "Take it easy." But Donald has begun to surrender to his id. And the final ten minutes comprise a bizarre insight into his psyche, as any pretence to narrative almost entirely disappears. Franco quotes the New Yorker review: "a sequence involving the duck, the young lady, and a long alley of animated cactus plants would probably be considered suggestive in a less innocent medium" (qtd. 27).

Donald and woman in firmamentThere are girls, flowers, nightmarish interruptions, transvestism, floating body parts. At one point we see Donald's head in the middle of the screen, superimposed onto a pink flower, while around him other flowers open to reveal images of women's faces looking on adoringly and a voiceover whispers "purty girls, purty girls, purty girls."

Jean Franco again, worth quoting at length:
Disney was not so much bringing to life universal dream-fantasies as inventing them. The Three Caballeros was a celebration of the pleasure principle freed from ethical considerations and responsibility, and most important of all, abstracted from a context while the technical innovation underscored the industrial superiority of the United States. The Three Caballeros heralded things to come. But it also invites speculation on the very idea of "animation"--giving soul and life to an inanimate object, a drawing, or a sketch on a piece of paper. The animated cartoon vies with the real and forecasts the power of the simulacrum that today draws millions of Latin Americans to Disneyland and Disneyworld. (28)

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Saturday, September 17, 2005


Zorro posterAnother day, another Zorro movie. And Alain Delon's Zorro comes with a cheery theme song, courtesy of Oliver Onions. I defy you to listen to it (and you can find a clip here) and not feel, well, something. And the lyrics...
Here's to you and me
Here's to being free
La la la laaa la la
Zorro's back.
Now, c'mon, what more do you want?

This 1975 version takes the Zorro story from California and transports it to some generic tropical Latin American locale. The skies are blue, the nights are humid, the aristocrats and their servants are baroque and bewigged, the people are enslaved, and, yes, Zorro is back. Indeed, the sequence showing his arrival is splendid: in the middle of a scene taken directly from the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks movie, in which a priest is whipped for allegedly selling underweight goods, parallel edits show the dark figure of the masked avenger gradually coming into focus silhouetted against the azure sky. "Enough!" he declaims. "I want to show you what justice is."

Power is ever more centrally at issue in this version of the story. Power and its disguises. For here Zorro is the outcome of a double disguise: Alain Delon's character, Don Diego, whose real origin and role are murky, first stands in for the governor Miguel de la Serna, murdered at the outset by the dastardly Colonel Huerta, before he subsequently also transforms himself into the bandit with a conscience.

Don Diego therefore impersonates both legitimate power (as his Excellency the Governor) and illegitimate counter-power (as the masked brigand). In both roles, however, he is restrained from violence by his promise to the dying de la Serna, in which he swore to uphold the good governor's ideals. Only in the climactic final scene, in which Huerta cold-bloodedly kills the (same) priest, Brother Francisco, to avert a social revolution, does Zorro feel that he is released from that promise. Huerta is duly despatched, albeit after a protracted fight sequence.

Zorro on his horse in the desertThen, in marked contrast with Tyrone Power's incarnation, Zorro rides off into the distance, leaving behind even his love interest, the fair (if somewhat ornery) Contessina Ortensia Pulido.

This is, in short, a much less territorialized Zorro than either the 1920 or (particularly) the 1940 outings.

The fictional territory in which the action takes place is named either Nueva Aragon or Nuova Aragona: the movie is uncertain even as to its linguistic affiliations, and is dubbed into English from what could quite possibly have been a Babelic confusion of languages used on set. The colonial outpost depicted is an (almost) any-space-whatever of 70s exoticism: it might as well be Mozambique or Tangiers. (The very similar Burn! was in fact shifted during production from the Spanish Empire to the Portuguese.) What's important about the locale is that almost everything is out of place. This is a faux-European society imposed on the barren land of the Third World.

So no surprise that Zorro himself is very much a man of no fixed abode, a nomad who can only impersonate belonging. Here, almost everything is a matter of impersonation.

Don Diego and Colonel HuertaWhat's highlighted is the very ridiculousness of colonial society. In fact, this is a theme that underlies all Zorro films, however much at the same time they attempt to naturalize and legitimate the ideal of a benevolent imperialism.

The films derive their comedy from the antics of Don Diego as fop (here magnificently realized in a scene in which the governor rises from his throne to greet the visiting Pulidos only immediately to trip and fall headfirst on the ground). And Don Diego, in his uselessness, idleness, and futility, is always typical of the ruling colonial class. Which is why, after all, he has to become Zorro, i.e. to step outside that class, in order to reform it.

But whether incarnated in Zorro or Don Diego (here, impersonating governor Miguel de la Serna), what Delon's film more than any other underlines is the performativity of power.

[Meanwhile I note that Isabel Allende has written a Zorro novel. God help us all...]

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

movie posterTyrone Power's Zorro fights for family honour and the restoration of benevolent patriarchy.

Unlike Douglas Fairbanks's 1920 version, the 1940 remake depicts Empire, centre as well as periphery: the film opens with the young Diego de la Vega in Madrid, before he is called home to California. Spain, however, is in this portrayal some kind of cross between finishing school and holiday camp. There's little sense that the colonial enterprise is a matter of economic and political power relations. Empire, in short, is not here seen as a problem.

What is problematic is when Empire is subject to corruption.

For The Mark of Zorro, colonialism can and should be essentially pacific. Diego tells his fellow "young blades" busy learning "the fine and fashionable art of killing" that nothing happens in California: it is a land, he reports, of "gentle missions, happy peons, sleeping caballeros, and everlasting boredom." There "a man can only marry, raise fat children, and watch his vineyards grow."

But on returning, Diego discovers that this idyllic somnolence has been disturbed, as his father the alcalde has been overthrown and in his place is installed the avaricious pretender Don Luis Quintero with Captain Esteban Pasquale serving as his vicious sidekick. Lear-like, Diego's father Don Alejandro Vega has been humiliated, dispossessed, and subject to internal exile. The son therefore masquerades as the avenging Zorro in order to reinstall his emasculated progenitor.

Zorro kills PasqualeZorro's violence (and he is violent in a way that Fairbanks's character never is, killing his nemesis Pasquale with very little compunction indeed) is, as Julian Savage also argues, restorative rather than revolutionary. It's a displaced violence, performed by the prodigal son rather than the father himself, so absolving the virtuous patriarch, who refuses to take up arms, of any taint of coercion.

With his father back as mayor, Diego can finally settle down with his new-found wife, to raise his own fat children and watch his own vineyards grow--though one presumes that they don't grow far without some input from the "happy peons" and their labour power.

California, in short, and the Los Angeles in which the film's action is specifically set, can return to being the California familiar from so much Hollywood output of this period: a place of relaxation and leisure, natural fertility and good living, fortunately somewhat removed from world events. Oh, and underpinned by unacknowledged Latino labour.

Powers as marine aviatorIt would not be long, though, before Power himself would have to gird up his fighting loins, first putting Hollywood on a war footing in an early World War II propaganda film, and then transforming himself from indolent matinée idol to man of war.

All very inspiring, no doubt. But why should we imagine that Hollywood either before or after the war was so very free from corruption?

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Mark of Zorro

The superhero as double is common in Hollywood cinema. When he is not out saving the world, Superman takes refuge in his alter ego, the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Batman is (and is not) the playboy Bruce Wayne. Spiderman and nerdy Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker are one and (almost) the same.

Don DiegoBut before all these (indeed, anticipating them by twenty years) there was Zorro aka Don Diego de la Vega. As the Zorro Legend website points out, Johnston McCulley's character, part foppish aristocrat, part avenging swordsman, echoes the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel. In The Mark of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks takes this literary doppelganger and makes of him what could well be Hollywood's first superhero.

(William Stoddard also has a good review and discussion of McCulley's book and the 1920 adaptation.)

ZorroZorro's remit, however, is more local and more clearly political than that of most later superheroes. He's not called in to save the world, but he does aim to change it. Lately returned from Spain to his native California, Don Diego is disgusted with the corruption of Spanish imperial power, a corruption manifest in mistreatment of Indians, of priests, and (what is worst of all) of the beautiful Señorita Lolita Pulido.

Zorro's task is to rouse what has become a servile and languid creole aristocracy, and to goad them into ejecting the Spanish interloper from their shores.

Clearly, persuasion alone is not going to galvanize the Californian caballeros. Zorro aims to shame his fellows into action. The split between Don Diego, the fop rejected by the beauty Lolita, and Zorro, the dark knight who charms and impresses her with his hyper-masculine sword-thrusts, enacts the sexualized psychodrama of a quiescent upper class being beaten to the prize by new, mobile men of action. The lesson to be learned is immediately affective: the creole class lacks intensity; but shame could lead to revivified pride, and so to political significance at last.

The two aspects to Fairbanks's character are therefore less different psychologically than they incarnate differing states of the body: tiredness vs. wakefulness; languor vs. vigilance; passivity vs. activity; quiescence vs. tumescence. And the film as a whole is a film of the transition, of the individual but also the collective shift from sedentariness to motility.

Fairbanks's stunts (most of which he performed himself) are always exaggeratedly physical: his body describes ever more impressive arcs and leaps, jumping on to and over horses, over wagons and up walls. His characteristic movement is something like a sideways combined twist and turn and spring from a standing start.

At the same time, Zorro knows when to keep still. A favoured trick is to hide behind a bush, a door, or a wall, while a horde of pursuers blunder blindly past. It is not therefore movement per se that is valorized: it is the right combination of movement and rest. Zorro's stillness is taught with the alert possibility of sudden movement at any moment. His body is a spring coiled and ready to leap. It is the instant of contraction before an explosive power is unleashed.

Zorro behind corner
Just a couple of decades after the US had dispossessed Spain of its last imperial possessions (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines), and a couple of years after Europe had been suicidally bogged down in the First World War trenches, surely Zorro could also be seen as the image of US power ready to unfold. And his warning to Don Diego seen as a caution against the country's resting on its new-found laurels. Fairbanks's Zorro marks America's transition as it becomes superpower.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

The Lost World

In his Seven Theses on the Dinosaur, W. J. T. Mitchell argues that the dinosaur "symbolizes the power of the total state in its modern constitutional form." And Gabriela Nouzeilles has shown how the Argentine state invoked Patagonian dinosaur remains to naturalize its claims of national autonomy and power.

But the creatures in Harry Hoyt's classic silent The Lost World are a little more ambivalent.

Located in the heart of deepest, darkest Latin America, far up the Amazon somewhere at the confluence of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, they certainly instantiate peripheral under-development.

ape manMoreover, these lumbering beasts occupy what is merely one end of a continuum: they share their plateau homeland with both apes and rather menacing apemen. Down below, in the tropical jungle, are snakes, alligators, sloths, and human "half-breeds," the zambo half black, half Indian. Also left behind in camp, while the main exploring party go on above to search for signs of the previous expedition in the area, is Austin, an English domestic servant. The main party itself is divided between the old and more or less unfit (Professor Summerlee) and the young and nubile, not least the journalist Malone who proves his worth as a husband by braving the South American wilderness, so winning Paula White as female prize from the veteran explorer Sir John Roxton.

But this hierarchy is not entirely stable: Jocko, the pet monkey, is (as Summerlee is reminded) more useful than some of the human members of the group; and Professor Challenger himself often (as Deleuze and Guattari point out) appears half-simian, hirsute and hot-headed, becoming-animal in his enthusiasm and stubbornness, and, not least, his vitriol against the written word.

Moreover, if the Conan Doyle novel on which the movie is based frames Challenger's expedition as a civilising mission, concluding with the apemen wiped out or enslaved and a client regime of grateful natives installed on the plateau, the film version differs sharply. Here, the "lost world" is devastated by a sudden volcanic eruption. One brontosaurus, however, escapes and is taken back to London--only there to escape again, cause mayhem in the streets, and collapse the iconic Tower Bridge, before, in the film's final frames, heading back towards Latin America by sea.

brontosaurus at sea
At the head of the tradition of monster movies that it initiates (animator Willis O'Brien would go on to work on King Kong, in many ways a remake of this film), The Lost World introduces a preoccupation with the monster as a genie disturbed, its vengeance a return for modern hubris. In this, of course, Spielberg's own Lost World is a true inheritor.

But if Spielberg's emphasis is on the dangers of science over-reaching itself, is not Harry Hoyt's theme imperial decline, his fear (and the fear radiated in the innumerable close-up reaction shots of Bessie Love playing Paula White) that of the untamed forces of what was once thought natural terrain for colonial intervention?

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Gaucho

Gaucho publicity stillThe original programme notes to The Gaucho, while emphasizing the painstaking research that lies behind the film's script and scenography, state that:
Douglas [Fairbanks] has always held that "things as they are" are never as appealing as "things as we would like to see them."
But what then does this film indicate about what its audience would like to see?

The answer would appear to be: miracles, shrines, macho Argentine country-folk, Lupe Velez's heaving bosom, and the power of religion to redeem even the most inveterate of criminals.

Meanwhile, we would like to see gauchos, if Douglas Fairbanks's portrayal is anything to go by, as raucous, rambunctious folk, who like to drink, dance, and fight, are athletic and a hit with the ladies, and who smoke like a chimney. Fairbanks's cigarette is his constant prop. At one point he swallows it up within his mouth while he pauses to kiss Velez, the mountain girl, only for it to pop out again shortly afterwards.

As always, however, the gauchos are a dying breed. (And it ain't just the lung cancer that'll get 'em.)

Though this film portrays them at their peak, overwhelming Andean villages and evil dictatorial usurpers alike, it also shows the gaucho tamed. Struck by a dreaded lurgy (the "black doom"), a mysterious illness that makes his hand black and numb, Fairbanks's un-named gaucho is about to commit suicide until the saintly girl of the shrine leads him to where Mary Pickford (playing the Virgin Mary) can cure him and turn his life around. Converted to Christianity, he determines to make an honest woman of his lover, Velez, and so presumably an honest, no longer gaucho, man of himself.

The Gaucho was touted for its lavish and expansive sets. The Andes here are near vertical cliffs, within which the people live in no more than caves. The plains, on the other hand, are bedecked with palm trees and throng with cattle for as far as the eye can see.

But who tends these cattle? Hardly anyone here works. Aside from the bartender in the village cantina and the padre at the shrine, the people are divided into three roughly equal parts: beggars, soldiers, and bandits.

This is a story set in some mythical, premodern past. The Latin America presented here is almost entirely a generic image of rural poverty, militaristic tyranny, and popular religiosity, The gaucho bolas, horsemanship, and spurs are the particularistic details around which the shallow characterization is spun. But everything blurs in a haze of cigarette smoke and the dust raised by stampeding cattle.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Road to Rio

Rio has to be one of Hollywood's favourite destinations. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if it were its most favoured Latin American destination, and perhaps even its number one location for Third World exotica as a whole.

Road to Rio posterBy 1947, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dolores del Rio, and Gene Raymond had already flown down to Rio, Basil Rathbone had escaped and gone on the rampage in Rio, even Charlie Chan had made it to Rio, while Jane Powell and Ann Southern would soon be on their way, Carmen Miranda in tow, though she'd already been there for at least a night with Don Ameche. Meanwhile, coming the other way, we'd had both a girl and a kid emerge from the Brazilian metropolis.

So by the time that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope get on the Road to Rio, it's more a well-travelled expressway than a winding path.

Thanks to this slew of 1930s and 1940s movies, Rio de Janeiro was by now almost familiar to US cinema-goers. And it became familiar, as Latin America so often has, via its music, or a version of its music. Most of the films I've just mentioned are musicals, or contain musical interludes, often set in the city's opulent nightclubs, as Hollywood imagined them. Road to Rio is no exception, and can even afford to be self-reflexive about its trading in Latin musical exotica, as in the climactic wedding scene where Bob Hope hams up a parody version of Carmen Miranda.

Gale SondergaardBut for all its familiarity, Rio maintains its distance. There's a dark side to Latin America in these films, though this touch of danger (touch of evil as Welles will soon suggest) is also part of its allure. Here that dangerous enticement is figured as hypnosis: the evil aunt, from whom Bing and Bob have to wrest the beautiful niece, keeps her charge in check by dangling her ever-present pendant in front of the girl's eyes and telling her that she's feeling sleepy... She pulls the same trick on our hapless heroes, almost (but not quite) inveigling them into shooting each other in a duel in the middle of what is, not insignificantly, the only bit of untamed nature we get to see.

It's interesting, however, that Crosby and Hope's characters pick up on hypnosis as a technique to outwit the aunt's henchmen. Moreover, the movie ends with a scene in which Bob has himself subjected the girl to a marriage against her will by means of the same pendant once owned by the aunt. This mirroring or imitation is found throughout the film (and not just this one, it's worth adding). Indeed, Bing and Bob have already used a technique very similar to hypnosis in order to trick breakfast from a seasick liner passenger.

The imitation goes every which way: Hope parodies Miranda's (almost) self-parodic Americanized Brazilianism, while a trio of Brazilian musicians are passed off as part of a Dixie band by being taught the limited "hep cat" vocabulary of "You're telling me," "You're in the groove, Jackson," and "This is Murder."

And the film's best and catchiest number, the one instance of Crosby performing with the Andrews sisters on screen, is "You Don't Even Have to Know the Language", a celebration of affective tourism, the possibilities of immediate contact beneath discourse:
You stop at the Copacabana
With the Sugar Loaf mountain in view
So the words on the menu mean nothing
You can't ask a soul what to do
But, you don't have to know the language
With the moon in the sky
And the girl in your arms
And a look in her eyes.
(Meanwhile, how about this for a song of good neighborliness?)

Despite all this, there remain inextricable obstacles to getting under the Latin skin. Some hard kernel of unknowable difference. Here, this is figured through the mysterious "papers" that drive the film's plot. We never figure out what they are. The film disappoints our expectations, self-reflectively denying us our full enjoyment of latinidad. The cavalry don't turn up in the end. And the papers? We don't get to read them, because fundamentally they must be illegible, an instance or trace some unbridgeable Latin American difference.

And so there's a strange, subterranean resonance here, between this lightest of comedic representations of Latin America, and that most traumatic and anguished view, Herzog's Aguirre, in which Ruy Guerra's Don Pedro de Ursúa dies still clutching some intractable, illegible fragment of the Latin American real...

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