Monday, November 28, 2005


Traffic posterSteven Soderbergh's Traffic concerns the interlinked drug trade and drug war as they ebb and flow across the US/Mexico border.

The film plays up cinema's basic hybridity. It bridges the worlds of Hollywood and independent cinema (of popular and "legitimate" culture): it has a Hollywood budget ($49 million) and mainstream stars, but is shot with self-conscious idiosyncrasy (above all in the use of coloured filters and extremely grainy film) and stylistic nods to avant-garde and nouvelle vague directors (Richard Lester, Jean-Luc Godard).

Further, it straddles the linguistic border between Spanish and English: the dialogue is more or less evenly divided between the two languages. Traffic is itself almost a bicultural product; or at least it shows off Hollywood's powers of simulation and performativity, at the same time as it warns of the dangers of such smooth chameleon-like characteristics. Above all, the movie points to, and to some extent inhabits, a cultural and political space traversed by unstable and inconstant (but inevitable) transnational flows of commodities, discourses, and power.

The film's plot--or rather, three interlinked plots--points to the difficulty of distinguishing between latinidad and Americanism. The flow of drugs makes a mockery of border controls and class insularity: newly appointed US drug czar Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas) soon finds that what he has regarded as a Mexican problem of supply and a lower class, black problem of consumption threatens to blow apart his own, comfortably well-heeled, family. As his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) descends into addiction, Wakefield traces the network that joins Tijuana, Mexico, to downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, and the privileged suburbs.

Meanwhile, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta Jones) discovers that her all-American lifestyle in Southern California is bankrolled by drug money and Mexican contacts; to maintain the round of picnics and parties, and to keep her family intact, she too has to follow the drugs trail back south of the border. In initiating a new form of drugs transportation, using dolls made out of moulded cocaine, Helena signals a shift whereby this illegal traffic is no longer hidden within other commodities: rather, the flow of drugs now permeates the very fabric of mass culture.

In tracing Helena's crossing from a California rendered in idealised Technicolor to a Mexico portrayed cinematographically through a tobacco-coloured filter, Traffic reveals that what makes Mexico apparently distant in its Latin American exoticism and corruption is, precisely, a filter in the viewer's (camera) eye, rather than an essential difference between "Anglo" and "Latino." "No one gets away clean," as the film's advance publicity had it, however much the First World may wish to insulate itself from the Third. Traffic highlights simultaneously the way in which we see things differently according to our own context and presuppositions, and also the invisible but all too evident threads that form ever-shifting networks traversing national or local contexts.

These new networks undermine one set of differences only to construct new and more unstable hierarchies of power; above all, here, the power to determine characters' life and death is exercised in almost random and unpredictable ways.

Traffic can stand still (or be jammed), but its essence is motion and the drive to circumvent obstacles. Negotiating traffic successfully requires an awareness of its changing direction and its rhythms. This film neither celebrates this unpredictable flow, whose immanent transactions and logics pass mostly under the radar of state hierarchies, but nor does it condemn it. Indeed, it demonstrates the futility of the kinds of condemnation parrotted by the "war on drugs" (and now the war on terror).

As Wakefield notes, giving up on his cliché-ridden speech and walking out of his White House press conference at the end of the film, the other is no longer external, "out there." It resides at the very heart of mainstream US society.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dancing Pirate

As noted at The American Widescreen Museum, very many early Technicolor movies had a Hispanic flavour, "perhaps inspired by the bright colors of the costumes" associated with Latin America. After two-strip (limited colour) efforts such as Rio Rita, the very first live-action full colour Technicolor movie, for instance, was the short La Cucaracha.

Dancing Pirate posterAnd then, in 1936, along came Dancing Pirate, set, like the Zorro movies, in the Spanish California of the early nineteenth century.

Like Rio Rita and La Cucaracha, this too is a musical comedy. The dancing pirate of the title is no pirate, though he is mistakenly identified as one. Rather, he is a dance master from Boston named Jonathan Pride who sometime in 1820, while en route to his aunt's house for the weekend, is forced to join the crew of a buccaneer headed for the West Coast.

Once there, Pride slips away from his pirate companions, still clutching his overnight case and the umbrella he had intended to return to his long-suffering aunt. He makes his way to the village of Las Palomas, where the townspeople, under the bumbling leadership of alcalde Don Emilio José María Salazar y Perena, are readied to resist the expected pirate onslaught. Capturing the errant dance master, who is taken to be a pirate ringleader, the mayor declares glorious victory over the barbarian hordes, and prepares to hang his prize in the morning.

On the scaffold, however, Pride is asked to dance at the suggestion of the mayor's beautiful daughter, Serafina, who has an inkling that this pirate may not be all he seems. So dance he does.

What's more, Pride lets out that he has dedicated rather more of his life to teaching young women the waltz than to roaming the high seas. At the news that she could learn how to waltz from him, Serafina begs her father for a reprieve. And so the dancing pirate gains a stay of execution while he gives lessons in this daring dance--daring because it involves the man putting his arm around the woman's waist. Naturally enough, and as if to confirm the fears of the scandalized mayor, Serafina and Jonathan fall in love over the course of their lessons.

As if being on death row were not enough, more trouble is brewing in Las Palomas. A contingent of soldiers garrison themselves in the town, rather outstaying the hospitality shown them as they commandeer even the mayor's bath tub and hot water. It soon emerges, moreover, that their captain, Don Balthazar, has designs on both Serafina and the Perena's well-apportioned estate. As the captain threatens to have the dancing pirate killed, the mayor's daughter agrees to marry him on condition that he save her true lover. (Have we heard this story before, I wonder?)

Through all these travails, from impressment to the verge of execution, Pride remains curiously impassive, barely protesting his fate except in the most cautious expressions of polite umbrage. Though the waltz that he teaches instills a daring sensuality (it is, he reminds us, "an intimate dance"), the teacher himself is strangely affectless, detached from his situation. The villagers, though gradually won over to his charms, express increasing frustration at his lack of resolve. "It's too bad you haven't got any Spanish blood in you," an exasperated friendly innkeeper tells him, "You would die fighting for your woman." Even the ineffectual alcalde, giving his daughter away, rather hopes that her defeated suitor might hit the army captain over the head with his ever-present umbrella.

But Pride does have a plan up his sleeve. Exiled from Las Palomas, he recruits a group of indigenous warriors to fight for his cause. Unfortunately, they are rather too pacific, and still have to master a war dance. So the dancing pirate steps in, and teaches them a dance that will whip them up to martial frenzy, so that soon they are headed back to the village to take on the Spanish army. Then, with the footsoldiers (literally) tied up, Pride takes on Don Balthazar, and what he doesn't know about fencing he more than makes up for with his balletic twists and turns. Finally, even the umbrella comes in handy as a foil for the captain's blade. With Balthazar defeated and sent packing, once again the wedding arranged by and for the dastardly usurper is transformed into the occasion to unite Anglo and Latina in a happy celebration of bicultural resolution.

bride and groom
Moreover, through the dance master's stay in the village, the melding of West Coast Latin and East Coast WASP (and, one should add, indigenous remnant) has effected also an affective modulation. Serafina has learned to revel in the fashionable intimacy that is the modern European waltz. Jonathan has leaned to live up to his surname and take hot-blooded Latin pride in himself and so master his fate. (And the Indians have been roused from their domesticated slumber, to be converted into effective fighters for American self-determination.)

In short, it is as though the ideal affective subject had to break from stifling tradition (habit) without losing fiery authenticity. That subjectivity can only be achieved through a combination of Anglo modernization and Latin spirit. On their own, each is ineffectual, and prey to tyranny: the first because it degenerates into lifeless courtesy; the second because it is all enthusiastic bluster without rational direction.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Rio Rita

Rio Rita poster?Nothing better illustrates the fact that Hollywood's Latin movies can't be restricted to a single genre than Rio Rita.

This movie is a rather bizarre hybrid on many levels. It's the film version of an immensely successful stage show, that had racked up almost 500 performances on Broadway. Though mostly black and white, the last half hour is a rare example of early Technicolor. And, generically, it combines musical (a very early example of the genre), western, and comedy, with two parallel (scarcely overlapping) plots both set just south of the Rio Grande.

The main plot concerns the search for outlaw "Kinkajou" who is terrorizing both sides of the US/Mexican border. (The film claims that "kinkajou is Mexican for wild cat," but in fact these little "honey bears" are closer to raccoons, which is not to say they can't be dangerous.) On his trail is the Texas Ranger Captain Jim Stewart, who has crossed the border incognito to find his man. Suspicion soon falls on a shady-looking character, one Roberto Ferguson, but things become complicated as Jim falls for Roberto's sister, the eponymous Rita. Meanwhile, a Russian aristocrat named General Ravinoff, his presence in these parts unexplained, is also after Rita's affections. Ravinoff captures Ferguson and tries to kill Stewart, and so to save both brother and lover Rita agrees to marry the dastardly general.

At the same time, we also see the story of small-time bootlegger and man-about-town Chick Bean, his lawyer Ned Lovett, and his two wives, Katie Bean and Dolly Bean. Lovett had fixed for Bean to get a Mexican divorce from his first wife, Katie, only to discover belatedly that Mexican divorces aren't legal in the USA. So Bean is an inadvertent bigamist, a fact he tries to keep from new wife Dolly. Meanwhile, when Katie turns up from New York and announces that she has just inherited $3 million, Lovett does his very best to make her his. Somewhat predictable hilarity ensues, in which Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (playing Bean and Lovett) revive their vaudeville success, and with Dorothy Lee (Dolly) lay the basis for what would be a rather successful cinematic career as a comedy trio.

Both plots are interrupted not only by set-piece musical numbers, but also by elaborate choreographed dance sequences, some of which are reminiscent of Busby Berkeley numbers, complete with an innovative overhead shot of dancing girls geometrically arranged.

The film's climax is a sumptuous reception on a pirate barge (!) moored in the Rio Grande, just on the Mexican side of the border that runs through the river. It is here that the various Beans play out their comedic excess with Lovett. And it is here that Ravinoff plans to wed Rita. His plans are thwarted, however, by Jim's reappearance: the Ranger cuts the tether holding the barge to the Mexican bank, allowing it to drift over to US territory where he arrests the Russian, now revealed to be the elusive bandit. Rita's brother Roberto, therefore, is found to be not the Kinkajou as originally feared, but also an agent of law enforcement, working undercover with the Mexican secret service. And so a wedding takes place, but it is the American who weds the fiery young Rita, not the Russian.

So what's interesting is the way in which the film portrays the fluidity and permeability of the US/Mexican border as ultimately something to be celebrated. If it weren't for the current that sweeps the barge northwards, the Rangers wouldn't have caught the bandit. And the film's most significant romance is that between the straight-laced US lawman and the Latina temptress, who is rather more unbuttoned (especially in her opening scene). Jim disguises himself by throwing a serape over his shoulder. But his investment in latinidad proves to be outcome of a long-standing fascination. "But you've never seen me before," says Rita to Jim. "Oh yes, I have," he replies. "From down there across the Rio Grande I've watched you."

Jim and Rita
Finally, then, though Rio Rita flirts with the notion of a threat from south of the border, instead its emphasis is on the border as mirror. For far from being the criminal other, Roberto proves to be the Texas Ranger's counterpart and opposite number, similarly disguised, similarly motivated, and similarly attached to "Rio Rita." The exchange of women between the two men cements their relationship, as also the partnership between South and North, at the same time that they successfully expel the foreign interloper, the displaced European who brings Bolshevik resonances to his aristocratic demeanour. It is by handing Ravinoff over to the Mexicans that Jim wins the right to wed Roberto's sister.

This is the Monroe doctrine as happy synthesis: (literally) the marriage of two equal partners, each determined to rid themselves of European influence in favour of a fluid pan-Americanism, lubricated by desire, and by song.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Men with Guns

The virtues of a road movie are that it can easily combine both realism and fantasy. On the one hand, as in a classic nineteenth-century novel, the episodic nature of road movies effortlessly shows us all the different estates and occupations that constitute society as a whole. On the other hand, few cinematic journeys are ever fully innocent: they soon acquire the character of a fable or mythical quest.

Men with Guns posterIn Men with Guns, then, John Sayles takes on the road movie genre to show us a cross-section of an un-named contemporary Latin American country and to spin a fable of fantasies both utopian and touristic.

Physical geography reveals also human variation. As the film moves from the capital to the countryside, from the plains to the highlands, we also move from a world of bourgeois civility to campesinos eking out an increasingly precarious existence from salt-selling, cane-cutting, or coffee-picking.

The movie's protagonist is Dr Humberto Fuentes, a recently-widowed doctor and medical professor from the capital who is searching for his former students, whom he had sent out three years earlier on a health program to work with the country's indigenous peoples.

En route, he is joined by an orphaned campesino boy, an army deserter, a defrocked priest, and a young woman struck mute since her horrendous rape at the hands of the military.

For everywhere Fuentes goes he finds that the "men with guns" have been there before him. From the army officer in his well-appointed surgery at the film's outset, to the company of soldiers guarding a "model village" of displaced people in the highlands, to the guerrillas in the cloud forest, their influence is all-pervasive.

The quest, then, becomes the search for a place where there will be no more violence, a utopian space "where men with guns don't go" represented by the semi-mythical village "Cerca del Cielo" ("Close to Heaven") that people describe as somewhere "más adelante," "further on," and almost magically hidden from both the army and the guerrillas.

But the words that Fuentes uses to invoke Cerca del Cielo (as he convinces the young mute not to take her own life, not to give up on the quest) are taken straight from a tourist brochure advertising a resort somewhere near Bali: it's a place "where the air is like a caress, where gentle waters flow, where wings of peace lift the burdens from your shoulders."

For this utopian quest comes to overlap with the travels and travails of a pair of US tourists who are out searching for archaeological sites. The two journeys, the search for political refuge and the backpackers' trail, constantly intertwine: early on Fuentes meets the US couple in a roadside restaurant, where (still ignorant about his country) he tells them that accounts of army atrocities are fabrications of the foreign press; later we discover that the tourists are obsessed by a conception of a Latin American culture blood-soaked from an epoch of pre-Columbian sacrifice.

While both natives and foreigners are in some senses looking to turn back time, the tourists are overly fascinated with death, but Fuentes is trying to move past the violence that he's inadvertently uncovering to reach the oasis of peace that, ironically, the Western tourist industry has given him the language to describe.

Finally, this complex and perhaps almost unique film (made by a US director but mostly in Spanish and indigenous languages) maintains a delicate balance between the opposed conceptions of Latin America as utopia and as heart of darkness, between indigenous authenticity and globalized hybridity.

It ends ambivalently and uncertainly: Fuentes fails to find his students, but he does encounter both death and repose; Cerca del Cielo exists, but is no paradise, rather a place of what Sayles himself terms "quiet desperation." It's "where rumors go to die." Still, in its final shot, the film holds out the possibility of yet another más adelante, a continued dream of something better further on.

final scene

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

The In-Laws

Banana republics and tin-pot dictators: if there is a most stereotypical stereotype of Latin America, it is undoubtedly this. And though I'm interested in, by contrast, the diversity of the ways in which Latin America figures on screen, there's no point denying that this particular image does crop up with some regularity.

But the image of the banana republic is less a comment on Latin America, than it is a symptom of the fact that so many movies that are concerned with governance (in whatever form) find a Latin American detour to be a useful, perhaps necessary, device. Latin America serves as a frame within which to consider issues of corruption, bureaucracy, and power that are general, rather than specific to any one country--or that, if they are specific, are if anything more specifically identified with the United States.

The In-Laws posterTake the Peter Falk / Alan Arkin comedy vehicle The In-Laws. This is, in essence, a comedy that revolves around the difficulty of interpretation: Arkin's character Sheldon Kornpett (a straight-laced New York dentist) is never sure quite whether or not to believe the tall tales told by his future father-in-law, Falk's Vince Ricardo a shady... well, a shady what? Businessman, mobster, madman, CIA agent?

The first indication that Vince may be either unhinged or dishonest--and surely not what he appears to be--comes in his account of his time working in Guatemala.

Over dinner he describes, in all apparent seriousness, a tale of tse-tse flies the size of eagles carrying off native children: "The enormous flies flapping slowly away into the sunset, small brown babies clutched in their beaks." Kornpett's response is incredulity and amazement: "Beaks? Flies with beaks?" "The size of them," comes the deadpan reply. "I was stunned. Appalled."

Convinced by his wife and daughter to give Vince a little more slack, Sheldon soon finds himself en route to the Latin American republic of Tijada, which we are told is a tiny island just south of Honduras, there to meet a General García and hand him US Treasury plates with which to print high-denomination dollar bills and so destabilize the world economic system.

García proves to be the most caricatured extreme of a crazed dictator: he talks to (and waters) his make-up embellished hand, and proudly shows off his art collection of kitsch black-silk nature paintings, as well as the flag that he has had designed for the Republic, on which is emblazoned a portrait of himself with a local prostitute. But García is also distinguished by his scar: a "Z" scratched on his cheek. Inscribed with the mark of Zorro, then, he's also firmly placed within Hollywood's own versions of Latin misrule.

General Garcia
But if García incarnates a state form that has gone wild, then he does so spectacularly, hypervisibly. Vince tells Sheldon that he shouldn't comment on what he sees: "Don't say anything about his scar . . . You'll see it but don't say it, you follow my drift? The other thing, be sure to compliment his art collection." But when they are face to face, the sight is too overwhelming for the impressionable dentist, whose first words on seeing the general's cheek are: "A Zee? A Zee?"

On the other hand, this hypervisibility is merely the obverse of the invisible, almost indiscernible way in which the US state has also gone wild. For Vince is indeed, it turns out, in the pay of the CIA, going about his business for Uncle Sam. His craziness is all the more disturbing because it is so hard to interpret. It isn't "in your face" in the way that it (literally) is with García. Even the straight-laced US official based in Tijada is not what he seems: he spins Sheldon a line, which we don't know whether or not we can or should take at face value.

Moreover, those who serve the US state are no less corrupt than the functionaries of Tijada's Banana Republic: Ricardo and Kornpett walk away from their escapade with a cool $5 million each, some of which, true to stereotypical Latin form, they immediately pass on to their nearest and dearest. But this nepotism is hidden, underhand, a far cry from García's delight in having bridges named after him for no other reason than he can.

Of course, The In-Laws has few pretensions to seriousness: it's a light-hearted odd-couple comedy. But it's revealing that the means by which the evil despot is to take over the world should be though currency crisis and hyperinflation. In 1979, the various oil-price shocks (and their third-world origins) were hardly a distant memory.

Carter inflation cartoonIndeed, the late 1970s were a time when Western states were particularly fragile, object of considerable suspicion. Voters would soon turn to stronger, more visible and more forceful, leaders than Carter and Callaghan. The era of Reagan and Thatcher, and so also of monetarism and fiscal responsibility, was just around the corner. At least with Ronnie and Maggie (and very much unlike Vince), you knew what you were getting into from the start.

It's as though, ironically, a General García might seem more attractive than a Vince Ricardo, however much there is "something loveable" about such smooth-talkers on the surface.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005


It's an oft-heard reproach that Americans (that is, people from the United States) don't know or don't care enough about the rest of the world. Frequently, indeed, this is a self-reproach, as with Morgan Meis's "Monday Musing" over at the fine blog 3 Quarks Daily.

But surely the very frequency and ease of this (self-)critique should induce some second thoughts.

Hollywood particularly is lambasted for its role in a "cultural imperialism" that Americanizes the world without reciprocally taking sufficient notice of otherness. But this critique of the film industry ignores the vast number of movies that place otherness, and the problem of otherness, squarely centre-screen.

It also passes over the way in which cinema itself has been dedicated, since its inception, to the exploration and inhabitation of difference--albeit, it is true, from the safety of our more or less plush movie house seats, and nowadays our more or less plush armchairs and sofas from which we watch our DVD rentals.

There's no need to turn to "independent" or non-mainstream cinema to search for images of Latin America, for instance. As this blog is dedicated to showing, Latin America has figured at the heart of the movie industry since, well, at least since Edison sent his cameras to Cuba and Puerto Rico to document the 1898 war against Spain.

And from 1898 to the present, there's hardly a major director (from D W Griffith to Orson Welles to Hitchcock to Peckinpah to Soderbergh) who hasn't shot at least one film, often many more, in or about Latin America.

One might object that this isn't the "real" Latin America, but it's worth saying once again that to lament the distance between stereotype and reality is to miss the point entirely.

We are left then with the rather interesting observation that Hollywood's obsession with Latin America functions in such a way that it can leave its audience with the impression that still, somehow, they have learned nothing about what is presented to them. Which is a much stranger and more intriguing fact to be explained than the (counter-factual) assumption that somehow difference was never there in the first place.

Does Latin America on Screen then function somewhat like Poe's famous purloined letter? So clearly before our eyes that we cannot really see it at all.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

It's All True

It's All True coverA surprisingly high proportion of Orson Welles's few films deal with Latin America: Touch of Evil, of course, but also for instance The Lady from Shanghai and Mr Arkadin.

But it is It's All True that would have been Welles's most significant exercise in cinematic latinidad. Urged on by Nelson Rockefeller, Co-ordinator of "Inter-American Affairs," in 1942 Welles went down to Rio to make a film that would help undergird the US's "good neighbour" policy towards Latin America.

A plan emerged that the film would consist of three relatively independent sections: one, "My Friend Bonito," set in Mexico and about a child's relationship with his donkey; another, this time in colour, about the Rio Carnival; and a third, now back in black and white, about the epic 1600-mile sea voyage of four fisherman from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro.

But the film was never completed: the Brazilian government of Getúlio Vargas became skittish about Welles's increasingly politicized representation of Carnaval; one of the four fishermen was drowned in the bay off Rio; and RKO pulled the plug.

An incomplete episodic film about Latin America by one of cinema's great directors... the comparisons with Eisenstein's ¡Que Viva México! abound. And they don't stop there.

The one more or less complete section of It's All True that remains is "Four Men on a Raft," the story of the jangadeiros' epic trip to demand their inclusion within the nation. The raw footage was found only in the 1980s, and was edited together after Welles's death. But it's not simply the editing that gives the impression that this 20-minute short is a homage to (or even pastiche of) Eisenstein's Mexican film.

The theme might have been lifted straight from the Russian director's notebooks: we see rural peasants who respond to tragedy and oppression by aspiring to become historical agents, legitimate members of the national community. (Ironically, here Welles is more populist than the populist leader Vargas: the risk of populist politics is that it is always liable to be outflanked by other populisms.)

The camerawork is also pure Eisenstein: composition and mise en scène are paramount. Those who regard classic Welles cinematography to be the long takes and complex camera movements of Touch of Evil are in for a surprise. Here the camera hardly ever moves. Rather, it takes up a fixed position (usually from a low angle, sometime from above, hardly ever at eye level) and allows the characters to enter and leave the frame, emerging from and returning to the landscape. There are very few (if any) interior shots, and often we have human figures shot from below silhouetted against a cloud-strewn sky that takes up at least two thirds of the frame.

People, Crosses, Sky
Moreover, relatively little of the film is in medium shot: we either have long shots (of landscape or masses, often both) or tight close ups on faces. The few medium shots, such as of preparations on the beach or sailing on the boat, are crowded with human forms and activity that bursts out of the frame.

And as for the close ups... In Herbie Goes Bananas we heard the character Captain Blythe declare "I love your country. It's very colourful, and the children have such expressive faces." Ironically, the children of whom he's speaking have almost completely blank, inexpressive faces, and the camera spends very little time examining them. But his comment is wonderfully apt as a description of the cinematography of Eisenstein and (above all) Welles.

In It's All True it's the "Carnaval" section that would have been a study in colour. (In ¡Que Viva México it's the "Fiesta" section, though there texture has to stand in for colour in what's a purely black and white movie.) But much of "Four Men on a Raft" (like much of Eisenstein's film) is a study in the expressivity of the human face.

Expressive Faces
And what's at issue here is indeed expression rather than signification. It's not that these faces signify determination or despair, fear or joy, tenderness or concern (to name just some of the affects that pervade this film). Rather, they are to express something of the affective essence of the characters and individuals portrayed. Welles's close ups are studies in incorporated expression.

We're not meant particularly to wonder what (if anything) might be behind the expressions: these faces are monuments rather than windows. When they change, their motility is a change of state, the expression of a distinct essence, rather than a new aspect of the same subjective identity.

But is this not true more generally: that when Hollywood goes Latin, it reveals itself to be a cinema of expression, to be engaged affectively, rather than a cinema of signification, to be decoded linguistically.

See also Lawrence Russell on It's All True at Film Court. And Wellesnet for "discussion of all things Orson Welles."

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Saturday, November 12, 2005


Salvador posterAs he is dragged off a Greyhound bus while his Salvadoran girlfriend and her children are taken away by the US Immigration Service, the last we hear from lead character Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone's Salvador is him screaming:
If you send her back they will kill her, they will rape her, and they will mutilate her [. . .] You don't know what it's like in El Salvador! You have no idea what it's like there. You have no idea! . . . Maria!
Then, as the final credits start to roll, this movie whose tagline is simply "Based on a true story" breaks the sense of cinematic illusion, emphasizing rather its documentary claims, by informing us that "Maria and her children survived and were last rumored to be in a refugee camp in Guatemala" and that Richard Boyle is still looking for them.

At the same time, however, we are also told of Boyle's fellow photojournalist, who we have just seen portrayed as he dies taking a picture of a aeroplane strafing the streets of a rebel-held town, that "John Cassady's photos were published."

Hoagland's last framesYet, unlike Boyle, Cassady is not a real person. Rather, he is a character somewhat loosely based on the life of John Hoagland--a US photographer in Salvador who did indeed most likely document his own death with the last six photos he shot, but not at all in the circumstances depicted in Stone's film. (If anything, what's so horrifying about his death scene is how banal it is: a lonely stretch of road and two soldiers on foot.)

Such, of course, are the risks run by any film "based on a true story," above all a film that, as in Salvador's case, also wants to raise political consciousness and galvanize action.

Are we to take the stories of the fictional characters that humanize and mediate political realities at the same level as those realities themselves? If we have reason to doubt what we are told about "John Cassady," don't we also have just as much reason to doubt the final credit's assertion that "To date [as of 1986] the murderers of Archbishop Romero have not been found and the same military leaders continue in power"?

We might find it somewhat unlikely that one person--here, Boyle--should be present both when the Salvadoran archbishop is killed (and just feet away from his assassin) and also in the country's second largest town, Santa Ana, when it's taken by the rebels during the "final offensive" of January 1981; that he should not only happen to be friends with the US lay worker killed with the Maryknoll nuns in December 1980, but also should have been with her the night before her death; that he should know both the US Ambassador to the country and a prominent army colonel.

And if this narrative device of placing the film's lead character at the centre of every twist and turn of Salvador's early 1980s history is unconvincing, might we not also doubt other aspects of the way in which these events are depicted? And what then are we to think of the film's overt political message, that the FMLN's guerrilla uprising was basically justified and that the US military were in league with government death squads?

Oliver Stone's films--and this is arguably the first "proper" Stone film, after a couple of squibs including The Hand--are particularly subject to this tension. Stone characteristically combines melodramatic bombast with his desire to document and proselytize. But the same contradiction afflicts any docudrama, and indeed just about any project of political film-making.

Indeed, more generally, we see here cinema's constitutive split between (to borrow a phrase) the "magical" and the "real." The seventh art is both the most realistic of forms (combining image, sound, and movement) and also, for the same reasons, the most powerfully illusionistic (able to deploy the most special of "special effects"). From its very outset, in the distinction between the Lumière brothers' documentary impulses and George Méliès's preference for magic, these have been the twin, indissociable poles of cinematic representation.

Stone, perhaps more than anyone, wants to combine these two aspects of film both to convince and to shock his audience, to reveal and to dazzle.

Salvador was intended as an intervention into the geopolitics of the late Cold War era. Made at the height of national debate over US policy in Central America, the film aimed both at the minds and the solar plexus of its American audience. Stone himself saw El Salvador as a potential re-run of Vietnam (and would almost immediately go on to film Platoon). But then so did the Reagan Hawks whom he so despised.

Not that this is the only similarity between Stone and those he criticises. More importantly still, the question is whether his own politics of spectacular critique merely mirror, or perhaps play into, a dominant political mode in which image is all, affect trumps persuasion, and "shock and awe" are enshrined as foreign policy and strategy.

Stone is aware of this danger (what else is Natural Born Killers about if not the ambivalent power of the media?), but he wants us to believe him because his is the voice of suffering, and so the real. He has suffered personally (in Vietnam) and for his art (in the numerous obstacles he had to overcome to make Salvador above all). No wonder that the controlling voice of this film should be that of the gonzo journalist Boyle, who repeatedly finds himself beaten up, able to save himself only by his gift of the gab.

James Woods as Richard Boyle
But the problem is that this gonzo affect that is meant to ground Stone's message is, of course, simply another cinematic effect, another of the tall tales that endlessly contribute to Stone's (and Hollywood's) own mystique and mystification.

[Update: on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of the Maryknoll nuns, an article "In His Sister's Name", from Via Tim's El Salvador blog.]

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Friday, November 11, 2005


10 posterAt the heart (such as it is) of Blake Edwards's "10" is the mismatch between Bo Derek's effortless beauty on the one hand and Dudley Moore's comic pratfalls on the other.

Bo Derek plays Jenny Hanley, a young bride with a flawless body and ridiculous hair, who is called upon to do little in this film except lie smoulderingly on the beach, run up and down said beach with boobs perkily bouncing, flash us these same boobs back in her hotel room, and extol the virtues of fucking to Ravel's Bolero.

Moore plays George Webber, a composer of "elevator music" who has somehow made it to 42 and a life of Beverley Hills mansions and Rolls Royce convertibles despite his incompetence in almost every area of life's practicalities. Now, entering some kind of midlife crisis, he falls for the image of perfection that the sight of Jenny offers.

But George is comically unsuited to charming seduction. Distracted upon first catching sight of Jenny, he crashes the Rolls into a police car; shortly thereafter he falls into his mansion's swimming pool while ripping his phone from its socket having hit himself with his own telescope and already fallen through the garden hedge. His appearance is disfigured by a bee sting on his nose and by the bloated effects of having six cavities filled by Jenny's dentist father. Much is made of his stature (unprepossessing) and his character ("unnaturally belligerent and exhaustingly childish").

Julie Andrews's character, George's off-again, on-again girlfriend Samantha Taylor, remarks that she and he are "the original odd couple." But it's George and Jenny who are more obviously unsuited.

And it's to compound Dudley Moore's ability to play embarrassment and awkwardness, as well as to remove Bo Derek from too much demanding everyday interaction (or acting), that the film takes them and us to Mexico for the bulk of the movie's central section.

Webber arrives at his beachside resort drunk, sweaty, and exhausted after a harrowing plane trip and wild taxi ride. He proves even more unsuited to life in the tropics than he is to surviving Los Angeles. The hotel goes to every effort to put him at his ease, with a pineapple drink at reception and even a helping lift down to the sea so he doesn't burn his feet on the hot sand. But these very luxuries are simply further indignities.

on the beach
In other words, it's as much because of as despite the fact that George is so carefully insulated from any Mexico other than the resort's simulacrum (and even then he's not insulated enough, as when he's woken by a Mariachi band outside his window) that he's so glaringly out of place.

Jenny seems instinctively, naturally to belong. Her bathing costume, tanned skin, and the sand all blur one into another, and wrapped up in her corn-row braids are beads and feathers as though she's incorporated some part of the physical environment. Perhaps it's for that reason that she's so featureless and characterless: the few lines she's given provide only the barest caricature of a free-loving hippy chick.

But in the end "10" validates as well as mocks George's sense of displacement and discomfort. He finally refuses Jenny's seduction not just because he can't coolly sleep with someone else's honeymoon bride, but also because he won't.

And with that, George is back to the US, to reconcile with Samantha, but also to reconcile himself to his failure to be reconciled.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Border

The Border posterIt's no surprise to learn that Bruce Springsteen is a fan of Tony Richardson's The Border. This film's emotional tone is very much the understated disgust and despair characteristic of Springsteen songs such as "The Line" or "State Trooper"; indeed, "The Line" is said to have been inspired by the movie.

For Richardson as much as for Springsteen, the border between the US and Mexico points up a series of divisions that are in fact internal to the USA. And all of these borders provoke anxiety because they are so permeable and unfixed.

There is the US's institutional hypocrisy: the state throws resources at keeping Latin American immigrants out, and yet the economy of the South West would collapse were it not for this cheap labour willing to take on work that white Americans regard as beneath them. Caught in this contradiction, the corruption that this movie portrays as endemic to the border patrol is inevitable. The patrolmen know better than anyone that their task is both counter-productive and impossible, as they continually send the same people back again and again, only postponing their successful crossing, so drawing out their suffering in the meantime.

Then there is the fact that these migrants are simply taking the American Dream at its word. The Border hardly has a sanguine view of the pursuit of happiness through consumer goods or social distinction. But it shows that white Americans who want no more (and no less) than a new condo, with pool in the garden and waterbed in the bedroom, have little solid ground from which to criticize Latin Americans who come north similarly seeking material benefit. (Charles Taylor's "The Broken Promised Land" focusses on this aspect of the film.)

Keitel and NicholsonFinally, there is the line that border agent Charlie Smith (magnificently played by Jack Nicholson) literally draws in the sand: his is an attempt to stake out a limit, a personal code of ethics in the midst of the contradictions and corruption that surrounds him. His limit is a refusal to condone his patrol buddy's extrajudicial killings. "You see this line?" shouts Charlie. "That's as far as I go! No murders!" "Okay," replies Cat (Harvey Keitel), "I can respect that."

But on the border the law no longer makes sense, and the film shows both that Cat can provide some rationale for killing drug-runners but letting other immigrants through for a profit, and that Charlie too eventually takes life and death into his hands in an effort to enforce his own code of honour.

The border is a zone of exception in which the law is suspended, and what Giorgio Agamben terms force-of-law takes its place: in the absence of any coherent or consistent legal framework, the border patrol's actions have the force of law without its rationalizing justification.

Perhaps the greatest irony comes when the border police chief tries to explain to the boss of the coyote people-smuggling operation why a truck full of migrants has been stopped: it's been chased down by a couple of honest border guards and "Goddamit, I ain't got no control over that! That's just gonna happen sometimes."

Meanwhile, Charlie's doubts and moral uncertainty are played out over and around the figures of three Guatemalan refugees: a brother and sister, plus the sister's little baby, who leave their village after an earthquake in the movie's opening scene. Charlie sees the sister from across the Rio Grande while the brother is on the US side, stealing his car's hubcaps. From that point on he gradually becomes obsessed by the trio's fate, saving the brother from the wheels of a freight train, and trying to save the sister from prostitution in a seedy strip joint in the Mexican border town. When the child is stolen (to be sold for adoption to a rich white family), Charlie makes it his mission to recover and return him to his mother.

To all intents and purposes, this young woman is essentially mute: she speaks no English and is given only a few lines of (untranslated) dialogue in Spanish. She's a near perfect subaltern. (Interestingly, the same actress, Elpidia Carrillo, plays a very similar part in Oliver Stone's Salvador.)

And when Charlie tries to explain why he has become so obsessed with her salvation, the best he can come up with is that "I wanna feel good about something sometime."

But Charlie fails to get this group over to the US. He fails even to ensure that they all survive through to the film's final frame. The best he can manage is a kind of second-order compensatory restitution, effected in the middle of the Rio Grande, in the shadow of the transborder bridge and US flag in the background.

Rio Grande
In the end, this physical frontier, no more than a dirty stream, is the least substantial of any of the borders featured in Richardson's film. The Border can only gesture towards larger, systemic issues, in the face of which it suggests revenge is feeble and reconciliation fleeting.

And perhaps this is the film's grandeur: that it is an "issue" movie without even pretending to offer resolution.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings posterLet it never be said that Latin Americans have a monopoly on machismo. If Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings has no other point, it is to project an image of sturdy US masculinity, shielded from emotion or weakness by the rituals of camaraderie.

Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, a no-nonsense "man's man" who's running an airline in the South American banana port of Barranca. His job is to ensure mail delivery over the Andes, but his planes can only just clear the lowest pass, at 14,000 feet.

What's more, the cordillera is frequently clouded in, while down at sea level the airstrip is often affected by fog as well as by near interminable rain. The young fliers who work for Carter have to take death in their stride. Early on, one of them is killed as he crash lands in the fog. He's consigned to instant oblivion by his comrades: "Who's Joe?" they say of their absent (former) friend.

Beyond the aerial stunts, brief shots of a mountain lookout from which "Tex" reports back to base on conditions at the pass, and an opening sequence on the wharf and in the bars of the town, the film's action takes place almost exclusively in the hotel and bar run by John "Dutchy" Van Reiter. Dutchy's bankrolling the airmail operation, and if he can fulfill his pledge to deliver the mail on time for one more week he's guaranteed a government contract and subsidy--with which he could buy more powerful planes that could soar more easily over rather than through the mountain range.

For the time being, though, Carter, Dutchy, and the young American fliers remain hemmed in, between ocean and cordillera, in a country whose culture and language none of them know (nor seem interested to learn), stuck in the bar when they're not up in the air, while outside all is rain, fog, cloud, and dark. They are forced to be independent, self-reliant, and affect indifference to the world around them, as though in revenge for the fact that that world seems to offer them little comfort or respite.

Cary Grant and Jean ArthurInto this charmless circle wanders Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a speciality chorus girl en route from Valparaiso to Panama whose boat stops in Barranca for a brief few hours. Long enough, however, for her to be captivated by this outpost of endangered fraternity, while also shocked by its callous disregard for sentiment.

She chooses to stay on, at least until the next boat passes at the end of the week, and so witnesses a second feminine intrusion into the aviators' cramped environment: Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth's first major role) is Carter's former love interest, now married to an airman shunned by his colleagues for having broken their code of conduct, baling out of a stricken plane and allowing his mechanic to die.

Both women threaten but also affirm many of the airmen's values: Bonnie introduces some domestication (making a pot of coffee, which is initially denounced as "cooking," but later welcomed) as well as pressing Carter on his past, but she eventually takes up the refrain of "Who's Joe?" and ends the movie on the point of suppressing her own emotions by moving on, taking the next boat rather than staying in town. Judy, too, promises to be a disruptive influence, reminding Carter of all he has left behind, only to take on his tough-minded code of loyalty by learning to stick even with her disgraced husband.

In the end, some kind of compromise is achieved. Bonnie effectively takes the place of Carter's buddy, the older pilot ironically nicknamed "Kid," who dies manfully and alone but not before admitting his love for the man he calls "Poppa." Carter finally, but indirectly, asks Bonnie to stay with him, after shedding a reluctant tear or two for Kid's death.

And Judy commits herself to protect her wounded man. Not that he is alone: for these are all suffering bodies that we see on the screen. When Carter is accidentally shot in the shoulder, he's greeted with the observation "You've joined the rest of us cripples." These men are debilitated by their physical, emotional, and psychic injuries, but feel that their masculinity is demonstrated only by carrying on regardless.

Latin America has often been portrayed as a suitably rugged environment in which to test and prove masculinity: this is a theme that unites an entire tradition of movie-making from (at least) The Lost World onwards. Only Angels Have Wings does briefly offer an alternative, when at the very outset Bonnie peers into a bar in which the locals are dancing and singing, and finds herself carried away by the music and rhythm. But she soon rejects the possibility of immersion in local culture, and is delighted to meet fellow Americans: "Sure sounds good to hear something that doesn't sound like pig Latin."

As a result, however, she enters the caged world of paranoid masculinity constructed by these wounded Americans abroad.

Bonnie in bar

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Though the bulk of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark is set in Egypt, in its opening shot the trademark Paramount logo fades into the silhouette of an Andean mountain that bears more than a passing resemblance to Huayna Picchu, the peak that towers over the Peruvian archaeological site of Machu Picchu. And in the vignette that establishes Indiana Jones's character and role (and so the three-film series that is to follow), we are firmly in Latin America.

Andean peak
This opening sequence, like the similar openings to Bond films, is at best peripherally related to the film's main plot. The derring-do archaeologist Jones is in search of a golden idol hidden within what appear (judging by the characteristic stonework) to be Inca ruins. He faces innumerable dangers: hostile Indians, the "Hovitos," who seem to have emerged from the Amazon basin along with their blowpipes and poison-tipped darts; a series of arcane booby traps left presumably by the Incas themselves; and finally, a hostile competitor, the Frenchman René Belloq, who later (in the pay of the Nazis) reappears once again as Jones's would-be nemesis, a "shadowy mirror image" of Jones himself.

The film thus sets up a series of mythic archetypes. There is the archaeologist as adventure hero, combining scientific discovery with an unorthodox policing of the past and its legacy. There is Inca civilization itself as a trap-filled labyrinth of almost unrivalled ingenuity, employing its knowledge and expertise to protect itself in the future even long after its own cultural extinction. There is Latin America as an anything-goes playground in the "great game" of inter-war imperial rivalry. And then there is an image of the 1930s as haven of family-friendly boys-own action narratives, providing cartoon escapades as a relief from the tedium of modernity and standardization.

As in Tintin's jaunts through Third World danger zones, the "Indiana Jones" series displaces the conflicts between the great powers of the 1930s onto a periphery (Lima, Katmandu, Cairo) of flying boats and headhunters, mummies and submarines. Technology meets prehistory, the two combining to create the romance and mystique of early twentieth-century modernity.

Somewhat ironically, however, as Cal Meacham notes at some length, the model for this episode in Raiders of the Lost Ark would appear to be neither Tintin nor, say, Flash Gordon, but the rather less than heroic adventures of Donald Duck, as drawn by Carl Barks. Specifically, the referent here consists of two 1950s strips: "The Seven Cities of Cibola" and "The Prize of Pizarro," in which Uncle Scrooge, Donald, and the young Duck nephews search for gold relics and dodge multiple obstacles, including a giant stone ball.

Donald Duck strip
Is more evidence needed that the "ark" that Hollywood repeatedly raids is less the resource that realism could offer than its own pop culture archive of protean, self-generating myth?

As Geoffrey Blum puts it in "Wind from a Dead Galleon":
Raiders was a foregone conclusion the minute Lucas and Spielberg saw Barks' emerald idol--the one false bit of archaeology in an otherwise superbly researched story. For them it didn't matter. That statue crystallized all the thrills of pulp fiction into one shining image which eventually gave birth to three Indiana Jones epics.
Again, then, we see the power of that particular mythic formulation that is Hollywood's Latin America. Though to describe it as mythic is hardly to downplay its potential to induce real effects--as Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart's How to Read Donald Duck would be among the first to remind us.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Burden of Dreams

Burden of Dreams poster
Do not listen to the analysts. Do not listen to the Freudians or any of those bozos. I am a person who does not dream. (Herzog, in Dreams and Burdens)
The Criterion DVD edition of Burden of Dreams comes with a wealth of material that collectively combine as a kind of supplementary monument to Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, but also as a series of supplements to that supplement: there is the documentary itself, filmed by Les Blank. There is a dual commentary track, by Blank and his sound recordist Maureen Gosling as well as by Herzog himself.

Then there is also an extended interview with Herzog, Dreams and Burdens, recorded in 2005. There are deleted scenes, even an additional documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Finally, as though this cinematic material were not enough, there's a written essay, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," by Paul Arthur, and an eighty-page book with excerpts from the diaries of both Blank and Gosling.

Supplements upon supplements. As Herzog notes, he feels somewhat strange commenting on what is itself a comment upon his own film. What is it about Fitzcarraldo that demands so much further information, discussion, unpacking, and interpretation? Is all this not overkill for a film that, Herzog asserts, requires no analysis?

Yet in some ways, it is not enough. Herzog, Blank, and Gosling all point out how much is missing: the makers of Burden of Dreams were only in Peru, where Fitzcarraldo was shot, for two brief visits. They weren’t there, for instance, for the first five weeks of filming, when Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were still involved with the project. They weren’t there, either, at the end, when Herzog finally accomplished what their documentary shows him repeatedly failing to achieve: to drag his steamship over a mountain.

Even when Blank and Gosling were around, there were many times, Herzog repeatedly tells us, that Blank somehow missed important episodes. He overslept, he was looking the other way, he missed his chances. Blank himself reports that at one crucial point, as the steamship ricocheted down the “Pongo de la Muerte” rapids, he was clasping his camera to his chest rather than getting a shot of the impact in which Herzog’s cinematographer cut his hand open.

And of the footage that remains, Gosling reminds us that much was cut; so many sequences had to be discarded. Notably omitted is what for Herzog was clearly a major part of the experience shooting Fitzcarraldo: Klaus Kinski’s rages, including a sequence Blank shot which Herzog includes in My Best Fiend, relegated here to one of the “supplements,” a deleted scene excluded from the main story.

DVD supplements menu
The suggestion is that Blank fails to portray the "real" of Fitzcarraldo, that Burden of Dreams can only be parasitic, secondary to the main event. But, as Paul Arthur's perceptive essay suggests, also at stake is a disagreement as to what constitutes that main event.

For Herzog, the story has always to be the heroic narrative of the individual battling his environment. It's in this sense that he as a director identifies so fully with the character Fitzcarraldo. Both struggle to impose their mastery on a jungle regarded as horrific, obscene, full of "fornication," "misery," and death.

For Blank, on the other hand, that construction of the jungle is too clearly a projection of Herzog's unconscious desires, of an unconscious almost fully externalized and mapped on to the what is around him. Herzog needs no introspection (he claims hardly to look into a mirror, and not to know even the colour of his own eyes) precisely because he has projected his psyche onto the world. That is Herzog's madness: to see all around only a test of his desire, his will, and his "guts." Everything (even, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, his leather loafers) can be claimed and digested precisely because it is all only a figure for his own imagination, his own dreams.

As Arthur observes, however, although Blank allows Herzog to present his rather ponderous and melodramatic pronouncements on the Amazon jungle as irredeemably other, he demonstrates how this otherness is Herzog's own construction by "calmly cut[ting] away to images of picturesque flora and fauna, a clear contradiction of Herzog's nihilism."

Which is not to say that for Blank, Latin America is any the less "other." But whereas for Herzog, the Amazon is a threatening cancellation of his own identity, a figuration of the unconscious forces against which he must perpetually struggle, for Blank the rainforest has its own logics, both human and inhuman, that remain at best blithely indifferent to the film-maker's efforts.

While Herzog poses heroically in the foreground, behind his back other processes unfold of which he will remain forever ignorant.

Herzog in front of boat and Indians
Herzog envisages a cosmic psychomachia of man against environment. Blank presents singularities that form contingent associations (as the indigenous peoples temporarily put in their lot with the Western film-makers) but retain their own priorities, their own agendas set according to their own timescales and desires.

Indeed, for Burden of Dreams there is perhaps no main event: rather, a brief coincidence of Western and Latin American logics that engenders multiple events, each of which will take on greater or lesser significance depending upon the perspective from which they are viewed.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

¡Three Amigos!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005


What, if anything, unites Hollywood movies that portray Latin America? Is there some shared element beyond the contingent commonality of theme? Hollywood's Latin movies don't constitute a genre--they follow many different generic conventions. But perhaps they make up a mood, a style?

DeeDee Halleck suggests that there is one over-riding narrative to these stories set south of the border. By contrast, what's most striking is the variety of excuses or reasons for invoking latinidad. Latins can play (or be played as) sexy lovers, tragic heroes, ridiculous clowns, noble savages... their "expressive faces" are multivalent.

Is this one possible key: that there is some resonance between Latin America and the movie industry. Both are defined by the self-reflexivity and variability of their performative affect. It is in its (re)production of the Latin that Hollywood sees its chance to incarnate, make real, the other; to think through an other's body.

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