Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Gringo in Mañanaland

DeeDee Halleck's The Gringo in Mañanaland is composed of several hundred clips showing US film portrayals of Latin America from around 1910 to 1960.

The most recent film cited is, in fact, the 1963 Fun in Acapulco, but the majority of Halleck's sources are from the period 1925-1955 and so cover the height of "good neighborliness."

Films spotlighted include Flight (1929), The Stoker (1932), Marines Fly High (1940), Carnival in Costa Rica (1947), Tropic Zone (1953, with a young Ronald Reagan), and The Naked Jungle (1954), but also many others. In addition to fiction and feature films, Halleck incorporates newsreels, promotional films, and documentaries.

The Gringo in Mañanaland shapes this collage into one overarching plot, articulated in terms of the film's titled subsections: "Arrival," "The Past," "Paradise," "Ambition," "Problem #1" (white women), "Thrift," "Problem #2" (armed men), "Technology," "Cooperation," and "Partners."

As Halleck herself puts it, the narrative that emerges is, in brief, that "the hero discovers paradise and bananas, he has a problem with bandits and women, he calls in the marines, the bandits cooperate, and the good neighbors are happy." From Paradise Found to Paradise Profitably Exploited to Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, all thanks to US enterprise and US armed enforcement.

Halleck suggests that this narrative combines "the essential Latin American stereotypes." I'd say, rather, that it's in the very nature of a stereotype to be inessential: there is always, in other words, something arbitrary or excessive about a stereotype, however recognizable or intuitive it may be.

The plot that The Gringo in Mañanaland distils certainly resonates not only with the pre-WWII period of American interventionism (in Cuba and Puerto Rico, Haiti and Nicaragua, and elsewhere), but also especially with the Reagan era's tragi-comic return to gunboat diplomacy. After all, Halleck began her project in the 1980s, during which time she was also very invested in Central American, and particularly Nicaraguan, solidarity.

But each generation constructs the Latin America that it deserves. And to argue that that the stories told about the region are always only about the armed enforcement of economic exploitation is as simplifying, reductive, and, in the end, misleading as any of the "stereotypes" that are here subject to critique.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

My Best Fiend

My Best Fiend posterMy Best Fiend is ostensibly Werner Herzog's film about Klaus Kinski. But it is soon clear how much it is a film about Herzog himself.

Herzog tells us endlessly about Kinski's madness, his fits, his ravings. But Herzog protests too much. He talks too much. He raves.

An early sequence is paradigmatic: in what used to be the boarding house where the young Herzog and the young Kinski once lived together, a building that has now been renovated and turned into a swish bourgeois home, Herzog goes on at far too much length about Kinski, his eccentricity, his obsessiveness. The building's current owners start tuning out. It is Herzog who has begun raving, allowing his own obsessions to dominate the screen.

The various other people we meet--such as the actress Eva Mattes, the still photographer Beat Presser--all seem to have heard Herzog's schtick before, and treat him warily, carefully, respectfully. " You would also have been a good Fitzcarraldo," says Presser cautiously, measuring his words, watching Herzog for his reaction. But of course it wasn't Herzog. It was always Kinski who was Fitzcarraldo (even though Jason Robards was Herzog's original choice).

The madness is Herzog's, however much he spends the entire film performing reasonableness, recounting his patience in the face of the untamed beast that was Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski
And the mourning, for this is a film that is a prolonged work of mourning, the mourning that is Herzog's despair at being without Kinski, that he can only fill with a torrent of words, of recrimination. It is as though finally he also blames Kinski for leaving, for leaving his friend (his fiend) alone again.

So much of Herzog and Kinski's relationship played itself out in Latin America. They fought each other against the backdrop of an encroaching, suffocating sense of Latin America as a natural force that threatened always to overshadow the puny rages of these all too human f(r)iends.

"Between Kinski and me there was an unbridgeable gap," Herzog tells us. "This had to do with his feeling for nature." And then we see archive footage of Herzog, for almost the only time in this film, talking in English. It is during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, in Amazonian Peru:
Of course we are challenging nature itself, and it hits back. [. . .] And that's what's grandiose about it and we have to accept that it is much stronger than we are. Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much as erotic, I see it more full of obscenity. It's just that in nature here it's vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotic here, I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and . . . just rotting away. Of course there is a lot of misery, but it's the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery, I don't think they sing I think they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It's not that I hate it; I love it, I love it very much, but I love it against my better judgement.
It is Kinski himself who is also, of course, this uncontrollable natural force, "much stronger than we are [. . .] full of obscenity," that Herzog loves "against [his] better judgement."

But it is the jungle that, as so often, is the figure for the psyche, exemplifying our impossible (but unavoidable) relationship with the other.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fun in Acapulco

Fun in Acapulco poster
"There's something about Elvis that a single ethnic or racial identity cannot contain. [. . .] You have a figure who breaks down if you fix him narrowly." (Greil Marcus)
It's perhaps fitting that Elvis Presley made Fun in Acapulco without in fact visiting Mexico.

Though the film makes much of Acapulco's stunning coastal setting, and especially the cliffs from which Presley's character, Mike Windgren, dives to prove his manhood and get over the vertigo "problem" caused by his involvement in a circus accident that killed his brother, Elvis's presence in Mexico is only ever virtual, achieved through the use of back projection (previously discussed here), body doubles, and sets and stages recreated in a US studio.

Elvis functions like a spectre, a mediatized ghost overlaid over images of sun, sand, and coast, city streets, bars, hotels, and lounges. The magic of film and recorded sound can place this spectral Elvis anywhere, anytime. No wonder he continues to have hit records thirty years after his premature death, his image and voice transcending temporal or geographical distance.

A key component of popular culture, and the property that allows for its dispersal by means of the mass media, is its iterability. Fun in Acapulco was Presley's thirteenth film, but by no means his last, one in a series of what became increasingly formulaic repetitions of the same basic plot in which the singer played down-at-heel characters redeemed through music and irresistible to women.

Here, he is a fired deck-hand turned lifeguard who makes his name as a singer in hotels and clubs and who has to fend off the simultaneous advances of a young Mexican woman bullfighter (Elsa Cárdenas) and his hotel's Eastern European Assistant Social Director (Ursula Andress).

Most importantly, however, the film has to allow for the various set-piece musical numbers in which Elvis plays, well, Elvis, with his trademark vocal and physical gestures, all here adapted to a Latin beat. A certain reciprocity ensues: Elvis goes Latin (the film's big hit was the catchy "Bossa Nova Baby"), while Latin goes Elvis (the various hotel managers are made to bid for his performances, Cárdenas pursues him single-mindedly, and his macho Mexican rival has finally to admit defeat). Again and again: Elvis's music, and his spectral image, triumph over all adversities.

In some senses, then, the latinidad adopted by Fun in Acapulco is simply one more example of the minor variations within difference that constitute US (and more generally, Western) pop culture. Here, Elvis goes Latin; in King Creole he had gone jazz; in Blue Hawaii, Pacific Islander; and so on and so forth. Elvis proves himself to be a musical chameleon--without, for all that, ever ceasing to be instantly identifiable as Elvis.

Elvis the diver
Mediatized iterability, expansive reproduction through virtuality, and domesticated hybridity: these factors explain the now global spread of US mass culture. Any resistance is overcome first through charm, and second through the reiteration and (re-)representation of the potential sources of such resistance, but now on US terms.

So Elvis does Latin better than the house singer ("el trovador") that he rapidly eclipses, and Elvis (or rather, his double) even reproduces Acapulco's prime, exotic spectacle of the cliff dive: the tourists come to see the great Mexican diver enact this somewhat savage (because life-threatening) ritual, but find instead the all-American Elvis re-enacting it (complete with visit to cliff-top shrine) in his place.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Romancing the Stone

From Indiana Jones to Roger Rabbit, Duran Duran and Adam Ant (well, the whole "New Romantic" phenomenon) to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the 1980s nurtured a taste for the cartoonish. It was a decade of larger than life figures spinning remarkable tales of get-rich schemes, brash consumerism, ecstatic entrepreneurship, and big hair.

Romancing the Stone posterRomancing the Stone is an unabashed product of that heady era. Though derivative in that it trailed in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film is one of the better Spielberg imitations, was a huge success in its own right (inspiring a sequel in The Jewel of the Nile), and made the names of figures who would go on to typify the period.

Director Bob Zemeckis went on to make the "Back to the Future" franchise as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump.

Kathleen Turner, who plays the mousy Romance novelist turned adventure heroine, would star in Prizzi's Honor, Peggy Sue Got Married, and The War of the Roses. For Danny Devito, bumbling criminal sidekick, this was his first big success away from the "Taxi" and the small screen, presaging an epoch in which he seemed to star in any and every comedy that Hollywood put out. And Michael Douglas, well, Michael is still with us, though he's no longer the dashing action adventure hero that is his rather unlikely role here.

And all this thanks to a tongue-in-cheek revival of 1930s and 40s swashbuckling, mediated via the romance fiction of Mills and Boon and Harlequin, set in an Colombia of snapping alligators, uniformed goons, surprisingly literary drug smugglers, misplaced treasure maps, and a buried emerald that resembles nothing more than some hardened gelatine dessert.

The movie is, as it has to be, self-conscious and self-parodic. Douglas's character, the gun-toting Jack T. Colton, mutters to himself several times as he finds himself in yet another scrape "I knew I should've listened to my mother" and at one point adds, in a nod to the lucrative modern business of quick self-improvement, "I could've been a cosmetic surgeon, five hundred thousand a year, up to my neck in tits and ass." In short, Colton, as much as Turner's character the "hopeless romantic" Joan Wilder, is out of place and out of his depth so far from Manhattan.

The joke, however, is that not far beneath its uncivilized veneer of chicken-infested broken-down buses, dusty streets, and ragged boys in ponchos, rural Colombia boasts all the mod cons of Miami Beach or Morningside Heights.

The provincial hard man from whom Jack and Jean seek aid (a fine comic turn from Alfonso Arau) greets the pair with generosity and gusto once he realizes that this is "the" Jean Wilder, "the lady who writes the books" he reads to the rest of his gang every Saturday. As well as a prized collection of romance novels, his compound boasts hi-fi, multigym, photocopier, and a supercharged SUV, and he engineers the trio's escape by means of a nifty infrared-controlled garage door opener. Likewise, though Jack starts up conversations in Spanish, in each case he notes with increasingly accustomed surprise "Oh, that's great, you speak English too."

In brief, the Latin American jungle is here rather transparently a displaced version of the urban jungle in which Jean has unsuccessfully been searching for romance and excitement by purveying narratives of escapism in which she can imagine herself a dashing heroine partnered with a modern-day cowboy.

But it is only in Colombia, as she writes herself into an actualization of one of these exoticized fantasies ("How're you going to write yourself out of this one?" Jack asks at one tense moment), that she can live up to the social demands of someone like her New York publisher, Gloria.

Kathleen TurnerSo as her adventure proceeds, Jean is progressively better prepared not for this oddly familiar Latin environment, but for the wilds of the Manhattan dating scene: her hair step by step acquires volume and a perm and she gains the confidence and entrepreneurial enterprise needed to win her man and for them both to attain the nouveau riche dream of sailing off in a brand-new leisure yacht.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil poster"This isn't the real Mexico. You know that." So says anti-narcotics cop Miguel Vargas to his new bride, Susie, in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil.

Vargas, the senior cop who has just arrested one of the drug-running Grandi family in Mexico City, wants to clean up the reputation and image of his country, and so ensure that the place is safe for his young American wife. "I suppose," he says, "it would be nice for a man in my place to be able to think he could look after his own wife in his own country."

It turns out, though, that, the American motel in which Susie seeks refuge, "just for comfort," is a place of nightmarish danger: Janet Leigh here anticipates her performance in Hitchcock's Psycho, as in this isolated and eerie motel her character is harassed, drugged, raped (metaphorically if not literally), and abducted by a gang of the younger Grandi family members. Over the course of the film, Susie endlessly crosses between the US and Mexico ("Across the border again?" she shrugs early on), but finds no respite either north or south.

For corruption and danger seep both sides of this porous border.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film's famous opening long take. In its three and a half minutes, we see a bomb placed in a car outside a Mexican nightclub, which we then follow as its path entwines with that of the honeymooning couple Vargas and Susie. Camera, characters, and audience are drawn in this same uninterrupted sequence across the frontier to the US side. Alongside the raucous noise and music coming from cantinas and bars, alongside the brusque questions or idle chit-chat at the customs post, we hear the timer's tick-tock on the soundtrack, premonition of transborder violence that the guards will be unable to prevent.

Suddenly, the bomb explodes, bringing the film's first cut and tearing apart two mixed race couples: the car's occupants (an American businessman and Mexican stripper), instantly killed; and Vargas and Susie, their honeymoon peace shattered and a rift opened between national interests and private wellbeing. "This is going to be very bad for us," Vargas tells his wife. "For us?" she asks. "For Mexico, I mean," he replies.

But if Vargas starts out with a clear conception of his obligations and responsibilities to the nation, and an equally clear conception of their limits--regarding the US investigation of the bombing he declares himself to be "merely what the United Nations would call an observer"--as the film progresses this sense of a boundary between proper and improper soon becomes frayed and uncertain.

Vargas, dishevelledIncreasingly desperate, searching for his wife on discovering her absence from the motel, he charges into a seedy dive and goes about the younger Grandi clan-members with his fists. "Listen, I'm no cop now. I'm a husband!" he shouts shortly before sending the bar crashing down.

Dishevelled and disorderly, driven by an anguished sense that his wife has been unjustly taken from him, Vargas has come to resemble his would-be nemesis, the corrupt US cop Hank Quinlan, played by Welles himself as a local hero now grotesquely gone to seed.

For thirty years Quinlan has been planting evidence to frame those he is convinced are guilty, after he had allowed his wife's killer, some "halfbreed," to go free. Ever since, he has been disgusted both with Mexicans and with "starry-eyed idealists. They're the ones making all the real trouble in the world." Vargas is Mexican and, at least at first, idealist: no wonder Quinlan should try to bring him down.

Quinlan's no hero: bloated, arrogant, and devious he personifies the state at its most corrupt. Vargas has to remind him that "the policeman's job is only easy in a police state. That's the whole point, captain. Who is the boss, the cop or the law?" The irony is that it should be Latin American chiding a US citizen about corruption and the dangers of dictatorship. But Quinlan's response poses a further irony: "Where's your wife, Vargas?" he asks, indicating his awareness that this macho Latin has failed to protect his woman. And Quinlan's intuition always seems to prove correct: in the film's closing moments, we learn that the man that he had tried to frame (another Mexican in a mixed relationship) has finally confessed to the crime of planting the bomb in what was his girlfriend's father's car.

Welles's vision is dark and unflinching. He allows us few certainties. This isn't the "real Mexico," and there's little pretence that Charlton Heston, playing Vargas, is a "real" Mexican: national identity and difference are presented as illusory; but these are illusions nurtured by the prejudice that drives almost every aspect of the film's plot. Even the otherwise innocent Susie displays a casual racism in nicknaming a Grandi minion "Pancho." "Why?" she is asked. "Just for laughs, I guess," is the best she can answer.

There's not much in this movie that's a laughing matter. Any attempt to save face or to present the law as other than a fundamentally dirty business is as self-defeating as Quinlan's final gesture, his attempt to wash his hands in the fetid rubbish-filled waters of the canal in which he finally dies. In the end, judgement is futile: Quinlan was "some kind of a man," as his former lover Tanya remarks, but "what does it matter what you say about people?"

Tanya (a remarkable cameo from Marlene Dietrich) is one of the few characters who retains self-control through the film. Tanya, whom we see calmly doing her accounts, a financial reckoning that abstracts from the desires and waywardness upon which her brothel thrives. "It's old, it's new," she says of the pianola installed in her parlour. "We got the television too."

Quinlan after shooting Menzies
And behind all the characters, often present somewhere within the frame, are the oil wells that like capital itself know no nationality. The oil wells, "pumping up money... money," that are the imperturbable, mechanical, inhuman backdrop to this tale of jealousy and prejudice, corruption and carnage, cross-border desire derailed.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Herbie Goes Bananas

Herbie poster"I love your country," says Harvey Korman as Captain Blythe at one point in this automotive caper. "It's very colourful, and the children have such expressive faces."

And Disney seems to have needed no more excuse than this to set its third (and until this year's revival, Herbie: Fully Loaded, also final) sequel to The Love Bug in what becomes an increasingly dislocated Latin America.

Herbie Goes Bananas is loaded down with colour and cliché, from Inca gold to a bizarre car-as-toreador bullfight. Its leading character is the Mexican child pickpocket, Paco, whose face mostly expresses first fear as he is pursued by his various victims seeking revenge or restitution, and then joy as he is repeatedly rescued by his friend Herbie, the VW Bug with a mind of its own. And the Latin America that this road/cruise movie traverses is dislocated as any sense of geography disappears in a puff of the VW's exhaust.

But let's try to trace the film's route nonetheless. It opens in Puerto Vallarta, to which our notional heroes, DJ and Pete, have travelled by bus to pick up the old racing car, Herbie. Here Paco steals their wallet, as well as that of one of the criminal combo who are looking to unearth Inca gold. Inadvertently, Paco transfers the negatives that are somehow key to the Inca gold discovery to DJ and Pete's possession. So the bad guys are also on his trail as he stows away on a cruise ship headed down to Rio, where Herbie is to race in the Brazilian grand prix.

At sea, the car is tossed overboard for various misdemeanours committed on deck, and DJ and Pete (along with newfound companions PhD student Melissa and her lascivious Aunt Louise) are told to leave the ship when it docks en route at Panama. Herbie (whom, incidentally, Paco calls "Ocho") has meanwhile managed to swim his way to Panama also, where the various characters, including now the stranded captain Blythe, take to the road again.

Here's where the geography goes to pot. Unremarked, the Beetle and its pursuers would seem to traverse the Darien Gap by road, somehow achieving the feat despite the fact that this is where the Panamerican Highway peters out. Paco tells Blythe shortly before the bullfight scene that "Panama's long gone, capitán." Which, as they are heading south, places them already in Colombia. Not long thereafter, from the middle of the jungle, the captain tries to get a message to his ship to wait for him in Tobago, while the bad guys are busy digging up an enormous gold disk of Inca gold, and DJ informs the assembled company that they are only twelve miles from an airport in Chiclayo--which would put them in the Peruvian coastal desert. A little later, as the party are presumably drawing towards Tobago (i.e. in northeastern Venezuela), we're told that they have driven (only!) 700 miles with their car blanketed in bananas. Oh, and Herbie's powers are ascribed to (Haitian) vodú.

OK, so verisimilitude is hardly a high priority for a film whose star is a car that can think, communicate, and act on its own.

What we have is an imaginary geography that pretty much respects the map from Mexico to Panama, but that consists in an extraordinary contraction once south of the canal. In South America itself, the South Pacific, Amazonia, and the Caribbean are all essentially contiguous territories. Remains of Inca civilization can be found right next to banana plantations, the nation state and the inconvenient obstacles of border posts disappear, as also do "customs" in the sense of localizing cultural traits.

"Why are we going in circles?" asks one of the criminal gang as they try vainly to escape in a light plane. Because, well because this is a topography of affective intensity (colour and childlike expressivity) rather than geometric extension. Unlike most road movies, whose aim is to chart a territory, to mark out its boundaries and investigate the spatial coordination of its customs and cultures, Herbie Goes Bananas describes endless circles to give a dizzying sensation of "south of the border disorder."

But there's no necessary value to be attached to affective intensity. And frankly, in this instance the car should have been left at the bottom of the ocean.

Herbie on the plank

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Saturday, October 08, 2005


Hayworth pin-upRita Hayworth had a good war, and was wrapped up in it "in a way no other movie icon was".

She was a favourite pin-up girl for US servicemen: One particular image, taken for the magazine Life, in which Hayworth kneels but also rises up from satin sheets, expectantly looking off camera, was second only to a bathing-suit picture of Betty Grable as GIs' choice to accompany them into battle. But where Grable was the girl next door, cheeky and charming, Hayworth radiated sensuality and a somewhat disturbing aura of power.

It was Hayworth's picture that adorned the first atomic bomb to be dropped on Bikini Atoll, a bomb nicknamed "Gilda."

Gilda posterGilda is the role with which Hayworth is most associated: a sassy, seductive femme fatale in the noirish thriller that takes her name for its title.

But Gilda herself hardly seems to have had such a good war as Hayworth: the film locates her, her husband the casino proprietor Ballin Mundson, and her ex-lover Mundson's right-hand man Johnny Farrell, all in Buenos Aires as the war ends.

Farrell appears first, taking money off US sailors by gambling with loaded dice. Mundson is in league with Nazis who (much as in Notorious) are using South America as their base for a sinister plot to take over the world. And Gilda? We know almost nothing about her past or what she is doing here so far from home.

The Buenos Aires that Gilda presents is a true noir landscape of smoke-filled, somewhat disreputable interior locations while outside is perpetual night and frequent rain. The film is set mostly in the illegal casino owned by Mundson and run by Farrell, its associated restaurant and dancefloor, or Mundsen's nearby mansion. The vitality and possibilities enshrined in these seedy but opulent locales appear at first as a welcome respite from the dangers lurking elsewhere: in the opening scenes Mundson rescues Farrell from a hold-up down at the docks, and gives him a pass to this new lifestyle of money, smart dressing, power, and responsibility.

But it becomes clear that the casino is at best a gilded cage, not least for Gilda who is trapped first by Mundsen and then (when Mundsen disappears and she takes back her old flame to be a second--third? fourth?--husband) by Farrell. In voiceover, Johnny tells us "She didn't know then what was happening to her. She didn't know then that what she heard was the door closing on her own cage."

Gilda's only recourse is to take advantage of and subvert the men's gaze and its constricting surveillance, by performing their fear and fantasy of female power as provocatively and outrageously as she can.

Gilda striptease
Gilda displays and flaunts female sexuality, most famously in the "Put the Blame on Mame, Boys" scene in which Hayworth performs a "clothed striptease": in fact all she removes is one glove, but then a striptease is never about revelation, about surface and depth, or rather never about the revelation of femininity. What's revealed, instead, is the desire of the men watching, who rush up in response to the classic line that ends the routine: "I'm not very good at zippers, but maybe if I had some help."

Here Johnny intervenes, takes Gilda off the dancefloor, and slaps her at precisely the point where she might otherwise reveal something of her history, the reasons that have led her to Argentina: "Now they all know what I am, and that should make you happy, Johnny. It's no use just you knowing it, Johnny. Now they all know that the mighty Johnny Farrell got taken, and that he married a..."

Through Gilda, the film consistently incites but also questions Johnny's power, and the power of the heterosexual male gaze. It suggests that Gilda's crime is to have broken up Johnny and Ballin's homosocial, perhaps even homosexual, relationship, which had been cemented around their mutual "friendship" for the phallic cane-cum-dagger that is Mundsen's signature prop, and around an agreement that women ("funny little creatures," Mundsen calls them) and gambling don't mix.

In the end, the sophisticated surveillance and insulation devices on which both Farrell and Mundsen depend are shown to fail. Both believe in setting up boundaries that they think they can make permeable or impermeable at will: their casino control room is an isolated eyrie in which business can be discussed, but also rigged with a series of electronic listening devices and shuttered windows through which they can observe what goes on around them. Mundsen believes in shutting the outside out at whim: "See how easily one can shut away excitement? Just by closing a window." But both characters are blinded by their gaze, deafened by their hearing.

Is this not because they remain fundamentally out of place? These American men believe that they can impose their own topography of power on Buenos Aires. But it's the two Argentine characters, who are constantly in the background, who permeate and belong to that background, who finally demonstrate that only they are fully aware of events. The lowly, philosophical bathroom attendant, Uncle Pio, hears all the casino gossip. It is Pio who kills Mundsen, the man who would rule the world, with his own best "friend," the blade emerging from its cane sheath. And ultimately the nondescript policeman, Detective Obregón, both gets his man and determines the fate of the other characters.

end of movie
Gilda turns away: she can no longer bear to see or be seen. Her final words, the film's final words, are a plea to return to a more familiar world, a world in which she can become anonymous once again, can stop performing: "Johnny, let's go home. Let's go home."

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Saludos Amigos

Saludos Amigos posterSaludos Amigos, sponsored by Nelson Rockefeller's Office of Inter-American Affairs, presents us with a "good-will tour" of Latin America, undertaken by Walt Disney and his animators. As the accompanying documentary, South of the Border with Disney, puts it, "the visit resulted in a better understanding of the art, music, folklore and humor of our Latin American friends and a wealth of material for future cartoon subjects."

And indeed, the film features the debut of the Brazilian parrot character Joe Carioca, who would reappear in The Three Caballeros and go on to star in many, very profitable, Disney cartoons and strips made specifically for the Latin American market.

But it's not immediately clear what exactly Disney and co. may have given to their Latin friends in return, beyond innumerable sketches of Pluto (a particular favourite in Chile, we are told) and a rather disturbing regard for Gertulio Vargas's ability to choreograph massed ranks of singing children in Brazilian football stadia.

Patriotic Brazilian children
Meanwhile, the movie itself is a hybrid that combines travelogue, as the Disney party searches for "picture ideas" in the cultures and civilizations of Latin America, and four animated sequences, results of their search: Donald Duck as tourist in the Andes; a tale of Pedro the little Chilean mail plane; Goofy as Argentine gaucho; and Donald (again) meeting up with Carioca to explore Rio's sights and sounds.

In keeping with its documentary ethos, many of the film's drawings and images have a pseudo-scientific air; one is reminded of figures such as Humboldt and so eighteenth and nineteenth-century scientific illustrations of the new and strange flora and fauna encountered in voyages of discovery and exploration. Orchids, lilies, tapirs, Patagonian rabbits, and so on are presented and recorded in all their strange difference.

Donald and Joe CariocaBut this exoticism is tamed and made familiar as it is animated and integrated into Disney's own pre-existing narratives and cast of cartoon characters. For the wildlife are, equally, discussed as though they were candidates in a Hollywood screen test: Disney is searching for characters who can dance, play, sing, and interact with his established (and trademark) stars of Pluto, Donald, and so on.

Disney goes Latin (as Donald takes up an Andean pipe or plies a balsawood craft on Lake Titicaca) only to the extent that, and on the condition that, Latins (a llama or a Brazilian parrot) can go Disney. Here's the exchange implicit in good neighbourliness: Latin America is to open itself up as a market for US cultural exports, and in return, well, in return the North will give legitimacy to some of the region's less savoury regimes.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005


Famously, Alfred Hitchcock adopted the term "MacGuffin" to describe a cinematic device that motivates a film's plot, but whose actual content is irrelevant or arbitrary. In Hitchcock's own words, a MacGuffin is:
the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.
Where content matters to the characters, to the director (and the audience) it is form that's really at issue.

Notorious posterIn Notorious, the MacGuffin is uranium-soaked sand hidden in red wine bottles. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of the movie's plot, in which "notorious" good-time girl Alicia Huberman is recruited by the CIA to marry the Nazi Alex Sebastian, involves identifying and locating this secret that lies at the heart of Sebastian's shadowy relationship with other Nazi plotters. But the fact that at an early stage of the film's production diamonds rather than uranium were to have been hidden in Sebastian's cellar demonstrates again that the MacGuffin's content is beside the point.

Our real interest in Notorious, then, is elsewhere: in the complex relationship between Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) and her CIA handler T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and the extent to which each gives up on their desire for the other in order to satisfy the demands of patriotism, employment, or clearing a stained reputation. In the end (just), both sets of requirements are met: the uranium is discovered, the Nazi conspiracy is revealed, and yet Huberman and Devlin are also re-united, but only after Alicia has almost died, slowly poisoned at the hands of Sebastian and his controlling mother.

The backdrop for all this action is Rio de Janeiro. But "backdrop" is the appropriate word: neither Bergman nor Grant nor any of the other cast members ever had to go to Brazil to make the film. Rather, back projection is repeatedly used to frame the action with picture-postcard scenes of Sugarloaf Mountain or the beach.

Grand and Bergman on balcony
Latin America therefore undergoes a double projection: within the film, which will be projected so we can see it at the cinema, Rio de Janeiro is already projected, as backdrop for the on-again off-again romance between Alicia and Devlin. We're at two removes from the film's supposed setting. It's perhaps no surprise that we hardly meet any Brazilians (the only exceptions being a couple of un-named officials); even in a café scene, filmed with Rio street-life back projected behind, a waiter comes to take our couple's order but only his hand intrudes into the frame itself.

Grant and Bergman in cafe
Is Latin America therefore something like a MacGuffin in this film? An element that's just out of reach, important perhaps to the characters, but of no real consequence to the viewer. Rather, a convenient plot device: the sinister Nazis hiding out in South America are a type we will see again and again, not least in The Boys from Brazil. Is Rio here just another stock scenario, like the stock devices of elusive papers or hidden uranium?

Perhaps, though the fact of the back projection itself emphasizes one of Notorious's most important themes: Alicia may be surrounded by the population of a buzzing metropolis--at the café, at the races--but in the end she is always alone, subject to the scrutiny and gaze of just two men, her two lovers, Sebastian and Devlin. Rio can't be "real" here, because that would imply all the myriad connections and possibilities that might give Bergman's character pause for thought and the chance of escape from her deadly double-bind. After all, in the film's brief opening scenes in Miami she had had the chance to take off with a party guest on a yacht bound for Havana.

But on choosing to go down to Brazil with Devlin, Alicia chooses to forgo all the real-world encounters that had given her such a notorious reputation. She condemns herself to a scenario in which she can only act out other people's fantasies, in a world where everything around her is but the projection of ambition, power, and desire.

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