Friday, December 16, 2005


[A service announcement...]

What with one thing and another, mostly travel, I won't be updating this blog over the rest of December. So it will enter hiatus for the next few weeks. Normal service will resume in January.

Feel free to browse the archives, now handily indexed.

In the meantime, and courtesy of the Chiapas media project, here is the gaze returned...

woman with camera
[Here ends the service announcement.]


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Creature from the Haunted Sea

It's been argued that the proliferation of "monster movies" and B-movie science fiction in the 1950s is a symptom of Cold War anxieties. The Thing, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman... grotesquerie ruled the roost in the drive-in movie market during the period, inciting and reflecting fears of an unknown, often semi (but not quite) human other. See, for instance, Keith Booker's Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War.

Creature from the Haunted Sea posterCreature from the Haunted Sea places its semi-alien creature directly in a Cold War context, with its tale of post-revolutionary Cuba and a vaguely anthropoid sea monster, but without much in the way of discernable anxiety. The film is, rather, a spoof of such paranoia, albeit with the message that paranoids have to be telling the truth at least some of the time, even inadvertently.

In the end, however, the movie's as much about mass tourism and the end of narratives of heroic individualism as it is about East versus West, capitalism confronting communism.

The plot, such as it is, of this frankly absurd comedy concerns a gang of US freebooters who agree to smuggle out gold from the Cuban treasury for a group of anti-Castro military men, including a General Tostada and a General Cabeza Grande. The gang plans, however, to double-cross the Cubans and take off with the gold themselves. To this end, once they are all at sea their leader, Renzo Capetto, invents a story of a dangerous monster on whom he blames his men's murder of one of the Cuban recruits accompanying the cargo. Little does he know, however, that there is indeed a monster out there, who also seems set on picking off the crew.

In addition to the Cubans, this crew includes Capetto's moll, Mary-belle Monahan, along with her brother, Happy Jack Monahan, plus Capetto's side-kick, Peter Peterson Jr. In addition, a US agent, Sparks Moran, who is also the film's narrator, has somehow added himself to the company.

Fleeing the monster and playing into Capetto's hands, the entire party head to a small, deserted island just of Puerto Rico, where Capetto sinks the boat on a reef, and consigns the box of gold to the bottom of a shallow bay, planning to come back and dive for it later.

Here's where the plot really gets out of hand. It so happens that the Cubans are in fact expert frogmen, and therefore can't be put off so easily. Everyone goes diving, and the freebooters and the monster combine to take them out one by one. On the beach, it turns out that the island is not so deserted: Pete Peterson finds himself a mate who shares his own bizarre skill in imitating animal noises; Happy Jack also brings a woman onto the scene, but she is more interested in Sparks (who in turn is rather more interested in Mary-belle), so Peterson's paramour introduces him to her daughter Mango. To cut an over-long story short, in the end almost everyone gets eaten by the monster, who is left happily playing on the box of gold.

What's most interesting--and also most absurd--is the way in which this desert island on which the last half of the movie is set proves to be far from a pristine paradise. Sparks heads off for a walk and soon comes across a phone built into a cliff-face. He calls a fellow-agent back in Havana, but is unable to say much as shortly someone else (in fact, director Roger Corman in a cameo) is hanging around waiting for his own turn on the phone. Walking away, Sparks then bumps into a gentleman in full business suit tramping around the rockpools as though he were strolling up Wall Street.

Meanwhile, Mango, coerced to hook up with the abandoned Happy Jack, complains (in Spanish, while Happy Jack looks on adoringly and uncomprehendingly) that she is always being forced to do this: "You are very sweet, if a trifle stupid," she tells him. "My mother is always making me take up with weird strangers. It's like a come-on for tourists. She likes for me to heat them up--so she can sell them coconut hats and sandals."

So though the monster appropriates the Cuban renegades' captured loot, an indigenous capitalism is alive and well already in this beach-fringed jungle.

The outlaw gang is completely oblivious to the fact that capital has well and truly preceded their own not-so-triumphant arrival. Indeed, obliviousness and stupidity are the watchwords for all they do. Sparks is wholly incompetent as a secret agent, however much his narrative tells us otherwise. The era of plucky individuals as the advance guard for enterprise is finally what's sent up most comprehensively in this movie. For all their supposed ingenuity (using kitchen plungers as murder weapons, sausages for radio components), the Cubans, Paretto and his gang, and Sparks alike are ultimately half-wits caught between the natives' seduction and the sea creature's predations.

And heck, if this cookie monster creature with table tennis balls for eyes can get the best of you, then you hardly deserve to survive anyhow...


Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Zorro, the Gay Blade

Zorro the Gay Blade posterZorro's back... and now he is two.

In Zorro, the Gay Blade, when Zorro dies his two sons are called upon to take on his mantle of swashbuckling for justice, and challenging the corrupt alcalde. One, Don Diego, is the cheeky womanizer of yore; his brother Ramón, however, has changed his name to Bunny Wigglesworth and joined the English navy in line with his rather camper sensibility and alternative sexuality.

So whereas Diego takes up the black suit and hat, Bunny chooses a rather more colorful set of outfits, from plum to lime-green to avocado. He prefers the whip to the sword. And he tells the downtrodden "Remember, my people: there is no shame in being poor, only in dressing poorly!" He is, after all, the gay blade.

Zorro in plum
Zorro, the Gay Blade is a spoof, but a very affectionate one. It opens with footage from the classic 1940 Mark of Zorro, and a dedication to that film's director, Rouben Mamoulian. We are definitely encouraged to laugh with the Zorro franchise, rather than at it.

For Zorro has always been part-clown as well as part-superhero, even in his very first screen incarnation, in Douglas Fairbanks's The Mark of Zorro. And, as I have noted before, the films derive their comedy from the antics of Don Diego as fop, whose bumbling ridiculousness is counterpointed with Zorro's debonair and effortless agility.

It is just that in this movie, these two aspects have been both separated out and collapsed: the two characters, Bunny and Diego, are distinguished; but Zorro becomes an amalgam of both. Zorro here is the fop, or the fop is Zorro.

Oddly enough, though, this is one of the most overtly politicized Zorros. Perhaps it's only by exaggerrating the theme's cartoonish elements to their most ludicrous extent that some small space is won for something like political commentary. For Diego's love interest here, in one of the movie's few material departures from the standard script, is not the young daughter of an oppressed but noble California family, but rather a Yankee interloper, an apostle for the political freedoms won by the thirteen colonies over on the US East Coast.

(It goes almost without saying, unfortunately, that Bunny has no love interest: his sexuality is all a matter of fashion and innuendo, rather than desire or sex itself.)

So Zorro, the Gay Blade outlines multiple axes of difference: between rich and poor, gay and straight, but also significantly between Latino and Anglo, or what would today be framed as chicano and "white."

In his perceptive essay "The Face of Zorro", Luis Valdez (La Bamba's director) points out that the Zorro legend has always to be set in that brief and now mythical time of late Spanish or Mexican rule in California:
The fictitious Zorro cannot comfortably survive beyond an 1848-50 story time line without provoking embarrassing questions. By the time California is part of the United States, his foppish usefulness as a critic and foe of corrupt Mexican and Spanish ways is irrevocably gone. There is no place for a Hispanic masked avenger in the new American context.
But The Gay Blade flirts with contemporaneity, and perhaps that is indeed what makes it the most embarrassing of the Zorro series. Not because it is funny. Not because it is a spoof. Nor even, really, because of its caricatured presentation of homosexuality. No: these elements were always, at least implicitly, in place. Rather, what's most uncomfortable about this movie compared to its predecessors is the way in which it invokes contemporary Anglo-Hispanic race relations.

George Hamilton, playing Diego/Zorro, throughout adopts a thick Hispanic accent. He declares himself, for instance, champion of the "peepuls" and early on Don Diego and his love interest, the WASPy Charlotte Taylor Wilson (played by Lauren Hutton) have a long exchange that revolves around the mispronunciation of "sheep." "Forgive me, but you have a very pronounced accent," she says.

Meanwhile, playing Bunny/Zorro, Hamilton (for it is again he) acts out a fable of Anglo assimilation, whereby racial distinction is blurred, as young Ramón de la Vega adopts an over the top English accent (and as Diego comments to him, "you have a very pronounced accent"), but the mark of difference is preserved, now translated into camp homosexuality.

In short, Zorro "the gay blade" is the first manifestly chicano incarnation of this character: but now, and no doubt as a consequence, no longer as suave superhero, but as laughing stock.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 12, 2005


Bananas posterDespite its title, this is a film with barely a banana in sight: indeed, Woody Allen's Bananas is concerned above all with way in which representations are so dislocated from referents that they are now effectively autonomous.

Opening and closing with scenes in which TV commentators incongruously narrate first death and then sex, Allen's film is a series of comments on commentary. Its absurd comedy derives mostly from a disconnect between what is said and what is done.

Little else unites the otherwise fragmented and episodic plot, which takes Allen's character Fielding Mellish from his job as bumbling consumer products tester to vigilante to political activist to (briefly) stand-in surgeon, analysand (and Christ figure), and then on to guerrilla, tin-pot president, treason defendant, and finally over-scrutinized groom.

Early on, for instance, we hear a salesman from the company for which Mellish works extolling the virtues of the "Execuzisor," a contraption designed to provide exercise for sedentary executives, while in the background we see Mellish demonstrating (despite himself) the worthlessness of the invention. Later, Mellish's best efforts to conceal his purchase of a pornographic magazine are undone by a shop assistant blithely calling out to a colleague "Orgasm, this man wants to buy a copy. How much is it?" Walking down the street, Mellish's apparent helpfulness in guiding a driver seeking to parallel park leads him, unconcerned, to engineer the car's collision into another parked car. And of course the sex-obsessed Fielding's rapid politicization is driven by no real concern for the downtrodden of the Third World, but by his desire to bed the young "women's libber" Nancy.

Latin America is the focus for the middle third of the film. Nancy has stopped by Mellish's apartment with a petition calling on the US government to break relations with the dictatorship of San Marcos, and upon breaking up with her Mellish goes down there to prove himself. But this Latin America is very far from being any index of the real. This Latin America is a mediatized creation of clichés exaggerated into absurdities.

So, for instance, the notion that "power corrupts" is presented in terms of the newly-installed guerrilla president declaring that San Marcos's official language will henceforth be Swedish, and that its citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour--and to sport their underwear over their other clothing so that obedience to this edict can be monitored.

Mellish with beardAnd when Mellish is in turn drafted in as leader, he is provided, or provides himself, with an outlandishly fake Castro-ite beard and moustache. Greeted on his state visit to the US by an official on the airport tarmac, an attendant interpreter "translates" the ensuing conversation by simply repeating everything that is said word for word.

And indeed the point here is that such mediations are at best comical nonsense, at worst disturbingly callous trivializations. What's lost in all these (inevitably) failed representations is any sense of the affect proper to experience. That affect is either ignored or sanitized or packaged into conventionalized sentiment. That goes as much for the left-wing activist's thoughtless romanticization of what Nancy takes to be a guerrilla revolutionary as it does for the News at Six's turning foreign affairs into another sensationalized banality, interspersed with priests advertising "New Testament" cigarettes.

But there's no outside in Allen's film. Bananas is, in this sense, properly postmodern according to Fredric Jameson's definition of postmodernity as the definitive colonization of nature by culture, such that the two are now absolutely indiscernible. There's also, then, little in the way of political critique: simply a shotgun assault on representation from within what is just another, self-consciously grotesque, instance of precisely the same representational strategies that are under fire.

San Marcos is, in Woody Allen's vision, the only Latin America we have left. The only alternative to (mis)representation is to take its distortions to their (un)natural limit. To show how the media now ventriloquize the corpse of what was once the Third World.

Howard Cosell and corpse

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Sigmund Freud's 1899 paper on "Screen Memories" is one of his first treatises on memory and repression, appearing a year before the landmark The Interpretation of Dreams. The centerpiece of this paper is a self-analysis (lightly veiled) in which Freud describes one of his own childhood memories. His memory has a dreamlike quality, but it is also decidedly cinematic. In this sense, we can consider the "screen" here as analogous to the silver screen on which the cinematic apparatus projects its idealized fictions of the past, substituting (as we will see) for a real, traumatic memory that the projected sequence invokes but forecloses. Here is Freud's screen memory:
I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown; in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers -- evidently common dandelions. At the top end of the meadow there is a cottage, and in front of the cottage door [. . .] a peasant woman with a handkerchief on her head and a children's nurse. Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the two others are my boy cousin [. . .] and his sister [. . .]. We are picking the yellow flowers and each of us is holding a bunch of flowers we have already picked. The little girl has the best bunch; and as though by mutual agreement, we--the two boys--fall on her and snatch away her flowers. She runs up the meadow in tears and as a consolation the peasant-woman gives her a big piece of black bread. Hardly have we seen this than we throw the flowers away, hurry to the cottage, and ask to be given some bread too. [. . .] the peasant-woman cuts the loaf with a long knife. In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious--and at that point the scene breaks off.
Freud terms this a "scene," and it can immediately be imagined as a film sequence: the establishing shot of the meadow, a thick green spotted with vibrant yellow; the medium shot of the children playing; perhaps a close up of the young girl's bunch of flowers; the sudden attack by the two boys and then perhaps a pan as the girl runs up the meadow to the cottage; cut to the boys throwing away their flowers and following the girl; maybe another medium shot of the peasant woman cutting the bread; a close-up of the boy's face as he bites into the food; and then the final dissolve.

Viewed as a film scene, two aspects of this "clip" are striking. First, that there is no sound: this is a silent movie in which the action is played out visually, melodramatically. Indeed, unlike much of Freud's later analysis of dreamwork, the emphasis here is not on the linguistic, on signification or even symbolism. Rather, and this is the second striking aspect of the scene, Freud focuses on taste (the bread that "tastes quite delicious") and on color. This is a memory in primary Technicolor. It is a sequence realized in vivid hues--the green of the meadow, the yellow flowers, and then finally the black bread--and these colors are key to the memory's interpretation.

The memory, Freud concludes, is a false one, a fictional recollection. Its meaning, moreover, is to be found not in Freud's infantile past, but in events that took place some fifteen years later than the date to which the memory ostensibly refers. The protective screen (in the sense now of guard or overlay) is not interposed between the person remembering and the true trauma that inspires it, but projected back, to a remote past, apparently interrupting the infantile amnesia that characterizes our first few years. In short, the desires that the memory encodes are doubly displaced, temporally (from the near past to the distant past) as well as psychically (from one object to another). Here is part of Freud's reconstruction of the semantic web that has led to, or rather, been both occluded and invoked by, his duplicitous memory:
When I was seventeen and at my secondary school, I returned for the first time to my birthplace for the holidays, to stay with a family who had been our friends ever since that remote date. ... I was seventeen, and in the family where I was staying there was a daughter of fifteen, with whom I immediately fell in love. It was my first calf-love, and sufficiently intense, but I kept it completely secret. After a few days the girl went off to her school (from which she too was home for the holidays) and it was this separation after such a short acquaintance that brought my longings to a really high pitch. I passed many hours in solitary walks through the lovely woods that I had found once more and spent my time building castles in the air. These, strangely enough, were not concerned with the future but sought to improve the past. If only the smash had not occurred! If only I had stopped at home and grown up as the young men in the house, the brothers of my love! [. . .] A strange thing. For when I see her now from time to time--she happens to have married someone here--she is quite exceptionally indifferent to me. Yet I can remember quite well for what a long time afterwards I was affected by the yellow color of the dress she was wearing when we first met, whenever I saw the same color anywhere else.
So it is the color yellow that marks the continuity between Freud's adolescent infatuation and his later reconstructed memory of an infantile color scene. The yellow marks the libidinal intensity of Freud's "calf-love" and also provokes an attempt to recreate the past: its displacement onto a primordial screen memory marks Freud's "building castles in the air" whereby it is not a utopian future that is imagined, but an alternative past. Rewriting a possible history, Freud's imagination infuses his false memory with the intensity of an affective hue borrowed from a more recent trauma.

The screen memory, for Freud, is untrue: invented, fictional. But like all fictions, it indicates a larger truth, and that truth is revealed not through symbolism but in the resonance established in the saturated intensity of yellow upon green, then dispersed by the election instead to discard the seductive yellow and seek nourishment in the deep black of the peasant bread. Encoded in this scene is also, therefore, the rejection of the fantasy that it conjures up. The memory emplots its own counter-narrative or critique, whereby Freud (to anticipate concepts that he will only develop later) chooses the earthy black and white of the reality principle over the seductive pleasure principle of the screened vignette. And indeed, this screen memory also anticipates the direction of the theory of psychoanalysis itself, in which Freud gradually drops the concept of the cinematic screen memory, with both its immersion in a reconstructed affective past and its link to a real trauma, in favor of an increasingly linguistic paradigm keyed into universal archetypes. The concept of the "screen memory" appears only in the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, and is dropped in the second. And when the first volume of Freud's collected essays are published in 1906, the "Screen Memories" paper is omitted. It is as though Freud himself wanted to forget, to feign ignorance of, this early stage of his theorization.

But it seems worth resurrecting or recollecting this early Freud, both in itself for what it offers screen studies, broadly conceived, and as a revealing symptom of the repressions and blindspots of what psychoanalysis would later become. This is a Freud of affective resonances, immanence, and psychic materialism, rather than the Freud that Lacan would summon up for film studies, the Freud of distanciation, spectatorship, and the rigid demarcation between symbolic, imaginary, and real.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Naked Jungle

The Naked Jungle posterIn Italy, apparently, the Charlton Heston / Eleanor Parker vehicle The Naked Jungle goes under the title "Furia Bianca," or "White Rage." The discrepancy between the two titles--one of which highlights the main characters and their affect; the other of which points to the environment in which they are set--indicates the tension that lies at the heart of this movie. There is the story of "man against nature," which was the focus of the Carl Stephenson short story "Leiningen vs the Ants," on which this movie is based; and then there is the melodramatic confrontation between the sexes, played out in the face of natural adversity.

Of course, the point is in part that the main characters--pioneer settler Christopher Leiningen, played by Heston, and his mail-order bride Joanna, played by Parker--are themselves forces of nature. The movie suggests that the circumstances of their relative isolation from "civilized" norms, which have to be imposed upon an unforgiving Amazon terrain, reveal a basic difference between man and woman. But it also implies that at the limit, as the reclaimed land upon which Leiningen's cocoa plantation sits is sacrificed back to the river, a more fundamental synergy can be achieved: in the end, gender difference between husband and wife is subordinate to their common humanity when their greatest struggle is simply to stay alive.

The jungle, then, is the great leveller.

And The Naked Jungle is something like a melodramatic Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the movie recalls Conrad's book in its opening scenes, in which we follow Joanna up the river as she comes closer to meeting her husband for the first time. We are led to believe that Leiningen is fearsome and somehow unknowable. Even his best friend, the Brazilian government official who had played the part of Joanna in the ceremony formalizing their proxy marriage, indicates that finally this proudly independent foreigner is a mystery to him. Leiningen has claimed the jungle, but the jungle has also claimed him as one of its own; it is up to the white woman to come and claim him back for humanity.

Yet Leiningen has also established a simulacrum of Enlightenment order in his remote terrain. His sumptuously-outfitted mansion includes a grand piano just waiting for someone to play it; and he prides himself on his humane treatment of his native workers. His is a civilizing mission. Left to their own devices, he claims, the locals would return to their head-hunting ways. But he is not, in the end, so different from his neighbour and rival, the German, Gruber, who whips his charges into submission: Leiningen, too, secures order through force rather than consent, as is indicated when he burns the workers' boats to ensure that they do not flee the plantation when they discover it's in the path of a column of voracious soldier ants, who will destroy everything they come across.

antThere's no doubt that there's a political allegory here, as DeeDee Halleck implies: the menacing ants are "red" soldier ants, anthropomorphized when Leiningen captures one and holds it up to inspection, and enemies of private property, capitalist enterprise, and individual liberty. What's at stake is the one against the many. But it is not as though capitalism really wins the day.

For in the end, Leiningen is forced to burn his furniture and floods his own fields. In the end it is not capital that survives but the human couple, reduced close to what Giorgio Agamben would term "bare life." Their poverty is absolute.

And it is not the state or the modern biopolitical machine that reduces Leiningen and his wife to bare life. The state here is hardly present, incarnated only in the roving Commissioner who advocates only resignation in the face of the "Marabunta," the ant onslaught, who can at best inform his superiors down-river of what's going on in the heartland. Bare life, here, results at the interface of savage capitalism--accumulation at its most primitive, which is also its most immediately colonial, civilizing--and a natural multitude that springs from nothing and is headed no-one knows where.

The Amazon is imagined as the setting for this grand encounter. But also the setting, simultaneously, for humanity's discovery of its most basic affect: love. A love that dispenses with purity, that accepts that it is use, rather than exchange, that determines value.

In this sense, and no doubt against its intentions, conscious or otherwise, there is something strangely revolutionary about The Naked Jungle.

[Update: Or perhaps not so unintentionally, as I learn that blacklisted writer Ben Maddow was involved with the script. Via Dan Webster's Movies & More.]

Labels: ,

Monday, December 05, 2005

La Cucaracha

Though less than 21 minutes long, La Cucaracha is full to bursting: with song, music, dance, passion, hot food, hot women, drugs, love, jealousy, anger, conflict, and above all colour. Deep, saturated colour.

colourThe first live-action film in three-strip Technicolor, La Cucaracha shows off the range and intensity of the hues that it reproduces. Both women and men are dressed in gaily-coloured clothing: reds, greens, and bright blues. Choleric with anger, a character visibly becomes red in the face. Overcome with rage, the lead characters are lit in vivid scarlet and green.

(Technicolor's official site includes a history of the company and the process, and also a Quicktime clip from La Cucaracha, which they describe as a "dumb" movie.)

The film's plot concerns the revenge of Chatita, a singer spurned by her dancer boyfriend Pancho because he is too busy wowing a Mexico City impresario who has come to the bar he works scouting for talent. Pancho angrily denounces Chatita as a cucaracha, cockroach. To sabotage his prospects, Chatita therefore ensures that the impresario's salad is laced with lashings of burning Tabasco sauce. And she shows herself too hot to handle by engaging in a musical duel, drowning out Pancho's tune with her own rendition of a song entitled "La Cucaracha" and then dancing out her aggression in a feisty pas à  deux.

Pancho is outraged, but it turns out (of course) that this intensity is precisely what the impresario wants. On the spot, he books the both of them for his capital-city nightclub.

And intensity is clearly what Hollywood is seeking with this film. The Latin context and setting provide it in spades. Now in full colour, cinema demonstrates how rapidly it is becoming a highly efficient mechanism for the production and distribution--expression--of the affects. This is also expression in the sense that its affect is transmitted by first being subjected to intense pressure, to be then squeezed or forced out from the film's pressure cooker furnace.

With the addition of colour, cinema can now become a fully equipped expressive machine. But it is in Latin America that it finds the raw materials on which it works its modulation and intensification: upping the heat, heightening the tension, saturating with colour.

No real surprise that the Cucaracha's song should be about drugs: a cockroach needing marijuana. Though the image it supplies is of lethargy, affectlessness, lack:
La cucaracha, la cucaracha
ya no quiere caminar;
porque le falta, porque no tiene
marijuana que fumar.
By contrast, everything else here in this film is in surplus: too much colour, too much tabasco, too much emotion, all threatening to carry the characters away.

In the end this film is about an audition: and one audition (Pancho's) turns out to be two (Pancho's and Chatita's). But the represented audition is again doubled by the mode of representation that is tried out in front of a new audience. The film itself is an audition. Hollywood and Technicolor want to convince us of the uses to which this new colour process can be put: they're looking to create a need for their machinic expression, to create a sense of lack within the audience, an addiction that only Technicolor can satisfy.

From affective surplus and excess, to habitual desire premised on lack: finally, this is the process achieved through Hollywood's expressivity, tested and refined here as so often in a Latin American context.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Moon Over Parador

I've mentioned before that a detour through Latin America is often a means to approach the question of governance. I've also discussed the way in which performativity seems to be at the core of Hollywood's Latin America.

Moon over Parador posterMoon Over Parador combines these two concerns: it depicts a US actor, Jack Noah (played by Richard Dreyfuss), who finds himself playing the role of his life standing in as dictator of a Latin American banana republic.

Naturally enough, Noah's act turns out to be more convincing than that of the real dictator whose place he takes. Equally predictably, Noah also comes to take his role increasingly seriously, coming up with policies that will materially improve the plight of his oppressed people.

Not that the notion of an actor as president is so very novel: within Hollywood, it can be dated at least as far back as The Magnificent Fraud (which this movie essentially remakes); similar substitutions occur in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, or, more recently, Ivan Reitman's Dave. Outside of Hollywood, and in 1988 when Moon Over Parador came out, there was of course Ronald Reagan.

The film even nods towards Reagan when Noah employs the Gipper's characteristic trick of pretending not to hear press queries by gesturing that their questions are drowned out by the roar of a helicopter's rotors. It also alludes to Reagan's then-current policy towards Latin America in its portrayal of a CIA agent, Ralph, whose mission is to ensure that the Republic of Parador is not engulfed by encroaching Communist guerrillas.

Meanwhile, Sonia Braga's role as the dictator's somewhat disreputable mistress, Madonna, is more than a little reminiscent of Evita Perón. And indeed Noah, as he gets into his role and apparently subverts it by tempering autocracy with liberalism, in fact increasingly comes to resemble a populist leader such as Juan Perón or Getulio Vargas.

This layering of references (and there are others, deliberate or otherwise, such as the echoes of Casablanca and the citations from Man of La Mancha) establish that power is performed effectively only by its imitation of other instances of power. Noah learns to rule not by learning anything about the political or social situation of Parador, but by following models drawn from previous representations of power. It's significant that the dictator's name is "Simms": dictatorship is shown here to consist in the art of (dis)simulation.

SimmsThere is no original. Convincing Noah that he must play the dictator's part, chief of police Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia) points out that "Noah," too, is no more than an act, a performance: "Isn't your real name Noah Blumberg? And haven't you assumed a totally new identity?"

What's more, the previous dictator, whose place Noah assumes, wore a wig and make-up, and is described as "Parador's greatest actor." Power is an act, a sham, a matter of smoke and mirrors, that is parasitic on previous shamshows that stretch back to infinity.

But the only thing, the movie suggests, that can overturn power's performativity is yet another simulation. Though the guerrillas might otherwise be imagined to be the "real" against which this imaginary dictatorship is posed, in the end it is only Hollywood that can rescue Noah from his predicament as an actor whose acting is unrecognized, taken to be real. For the special effects guy from a visiting film crew arranges the dictator's fake assassination, so that Noah can smuggle himself away, out of the country and back to his former life as jobbing Broadway thespian.

And retelling his story in New York, Noah finds that his fellow actors find his tale simply too unlikely. The problem with power, Moon Over Parador suggests, is that it provokes only either credulousness or incredulity. We should be prepared, rather, to take its unseriousness seriously. Which is also a pretty good rule of thumb with which to approach light-hearted comedies such as this one.

Labels: ,