Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Emperor's New Groove

Emperor's New Groove posterThe Emperor's New Groove is not the first Disney film to feature animated llamas: in an extended sequence in Saludos Amigos Donald Duck attempts to ride a llama, with predictably chaotic results. But the differences between the two llamas, and the two films, are salutory, and demonstrate perhaps the changing nature of Disney's relationship with its audience in recent years.

Saludos Amigos, as I have discussed before, presents itself as a quasi-educational, semi-anthropological exploration of the distinct and unfamiliar cultures found south of the border.

It is true that, as I have quoted Jean Franco saying of The Three Caballeros, in animating difference Disney also constructed a world that was distinctively Hollywood, more simulacrum than representation. But still it worked with and on found material to which it purported to maintain some kind of fidelity. So though Donald's llama is given anthropomorphic qualities, it is still recognizeably a llama, whose anthropomorphic animation brings it closer to the film's audience without eliminating altogether a sense of wonder at real world cultural difference.

By contrast, the llama in The Emperor's New Groove is no longer an animated animal, but rather the cartoon incarnation of what is already in the first place a cartoon character, an Inca ruler by the name of Kuzco who has been transformed into the beast by his wicked renegade advisor, Yzma. And Yzma herself is more a new incarnation of Cruella de Vil than a figure whose referents are to be sought outside the pre-existing universe of Disney tradition.

In other words, any claim to external referentiality has been definitively abandoned. Here, as in the movie's tagline, self-referentiality is everything: "It's all about me."

It would be pointless--and here more than ever, missing the point--to detail all the inaccuracies purveyed by this film. Suffice it to say, for instance, that though the civilization depicted is clearly based largely on the Inca empire, the opening title song states that we are in Mesoamerica, and at one point we see some children playing the typical Mexican party game of trying to break open a piñata.

So the culture purveyed is at best the image of some kind of generic pre-Columbian society, leavened (much like, say, The Flintstones) with aspects that are clearly only very slightly distanced versions of twentieth-century Americana, here most obviously the fast food restaurant to which Kuzco and his unlikely buddy, the peasant Pacha, repair for lunch.

But the film knows that its only referents are drawn from film itself, and indeed revels in the fact. It opens with Kuzco's voiceover commenting about the filmic process, and attempting to direct audience sympathy his way; early on, one of the characters is introduced as "theme tune guy"); and later, Kuzco also stops the film action in order to refocus our attention from a figure that he sees as peripheral to himself as protagonist. At one point Yzma's sidekick and love interest, Kronk, exclaims of one particular plot twist: "By all accounts, it doesn't make sense!"

In short, a double displacement is at work: first, from the US to Latin America in terms of the movie's ostensible content; but second, from external referentiality to internal self-referentiality, or perhaps better filmic self-consciousness and intertextuality.

This is not an "animated feature" in which a pre-existing story or history is transformed into caricatured form; it is a cartoon that pertains only to the world of cartoons. (Roger Ebert also notes the difference between animation and cartoon.) In this, it is closer to the Warner Brothers "loony tunes" than to Disney's traditional fare. Indeed, it is only the second Disney animation to present an original storyline, rather than an adaptation of a book, fairy tale, or the like. (And the first was The Lion King, which has serious epic or melodramatic ambitions wholly lacking in this light-hearted romp.) Meanwhile, the DVD commentary claims that this is the first feature-length animation to employ the trope common to shorter cartoons, of portraying characters stuck in a dark space by simply rendering their eyeballs.

(NB the film wasn't always going to be this way: its production history was troubled indeed, and what we have here is a much reworked version of a film originally to be called Kingdom of the Sun. See "The Long Story Behind the Emperor's New Groove" and "a precise and enlightening story of how Kingdom of the Sun became The Emperor's New Groove...")

As a cartoon, then, doubly displaced to its own alternative universe, the film is almost as abstract as a Mondrian painting, or perhaps a piece of classical music--better, the incidental film music that, in this movie as many others, works almost imperceptibly to build and fill in affective states. For The Emperor's New Groove concentrates on portraying affective and moral essences: Yzma, for instance, as a woman who is "scary beyond reason"; or Pacha as the epitome of goodness. In the film's own terminology, it portrays characters and their "grooves."

"Groove" isn't a bad way of thinking about affect. It captures the idea of a particular consistency, a particular capacity to affect and be affected, but also a certain proximity to habit: it takes of a shock to the system to jolt somebody out of their groove. We tend towards specific grooves, specific ways of grooving, in the absence of dramatic change. Here, the Emperor undergoes a series of disruptions (transformation into a llama, abandonment by his former confidantes, physical suffering) finally to change his groove, to habituate himself to a new affective state, to become generous rather than uncaring.

The film works to express, as only cartoons can, the purity of given characters' grooves, and to chart the inertia that prevents any easy deviations. (This is a constant theme in cartoons, where a change of state is always somehow delayed, always lags behind, archetypically when a character runs off a cliff and then hangs in mid-air before gravity suddenly, and belatedly, takes hold.) And it's in this displaced, cartoon version of pre-Columbian Latin America, with its vibrant colours and exaggerated imagery (green palm fronds, parrots, endless staircases, complex architectural patterns) that it can both express a groove and also imagine ways in which a groove can be changed.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Born in East L. A.

Born in East LA posterCheech Marin's Born in East L. A. is a Chicano take on "Latin America on Screen." Marin takes the questions of border permeability, national security, and identity's performativity, ironizes them, and attempts to milk what comedy results.

Marin plays Rudy, a fairly thoroughly deracinated Los Angelino (who speaks no Spanish and is completely ignorant of Latino music, for instance), who by one of those strange mix-ups finds himself taken to be an illegal and deported to Mexico. He then spends most of the film attempting to cross back over the border, hustling for money with which to pay a coyote, and falling in love with a beautiful young Salvadoran woman, Dolores.

The romantic subplot, though at first sight (like, frankly, much else in this rather incoherent movie) incidental to the main narrative, is in fact significant. For the film shows the process by which Rudy's desires and habits are re-engineered as he learns to become Mexican--or perhaps assume his own mexicanidad. At the outset he trawls round Silverlake and environs in pursuit of a leggy redhead with a French accent. Indeed, the whole community's desire seems to be concertedly fixated on this vision in a skimpy green dress: whenever he stops to ask passers-by if they have seen a redheaded woman recently, as one they turn and point in the direction she has gone; they have been tracking her movements, but she has also been synchronizing their gaze.

Once in Tijuana, however, Rudy learns to appreciate the perhaps more homely virtues of the latina woman, as he also accepts that as far as US immigration is concerned, he himself for all his protestations of US citizenship is as shifty and untrustworthy as the next wetback seeking work north of the Rio Grande. (Of course, it hardly hurts Dolores's case that, though she lives in a trailer and cooks Rudy arroz con pollo, she does so in an immaculate white strapless cocktail dress.)

So by the end, far from asserting his difference from his brown brethren by insisting on his rights as a citizen, Rudy not only gives up his place in a coyote's truck to a more deserving border-crosser, but also like some Chicano Moses leads a flood of Mexican humanity across the frontier, overwhelming the border police's attempt to stem the tide, all to a soundtrack of Neil Diamond's "America".

For sure, this is the film's ideological blindspot: the United States remains very much the Promised Land; while Mexico is dirty, corrupt, and dangerous, paradigmatically experienced in and as prison. Still, there are wrinkles even here to this binary dichotomization. For instance, an apparently harmless and helpless middle aged gringo couple in their winnebago turn out to be up to their necks in smuggling.

Above all, Chicano identity (at least) is revealed as a set of discrete and transferable gestures and vocalizations. Rudy teaches a group of Asian (Chinese or Korean) immigrants how to pass in East LA: a bandana properly tied and cocked; one hand thrust into a jeans pocket, the other lazily waved behind; and the all-purpose exclamation "Waas Sappening." So if the film evidences some ambivalence as to whether Rudy learns to become Mexican, or rediscovers his forgotten heritage, ethnicity in the United States is seen to be thoroughly constructed.

Waas Sappening
And just as Rudy plays a German folk song (picked up as a GI in Europe) to seduce appreciative European tourists to part with their money, so he teaches a band of Mexican buskers to play rock and roll. Though Mexico may still (just) be a cradle of authenticity, it can also be a site for the experimentation in multiple identities and identifications, preparing the intrepid for the risky step of crossing the border and claiming all the same rights and benefits as those actually "born in East LA."

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Sunday, July 02, 2006


Snuff poster1971 saw the release of Slaughter, a low-budget exploitation flick, filmed in Argentina and set in Argentina and Uruguay.

The film told the story of a cult led by a Mansonesque figure rejoicing in the name of Satán or Satahn. The young women who follow Satán, all hippie types with flowing hair and a predeliction for removing their blouses, are kept in servitude by a sort of sadomasochistic desire: transgressions are punished by ritual torture that is experienced as erotic pleasure and observed with voyeuristic glee.

They are therefore easily enough persuaded to kill for Satán, and spend most of the film doing just this: random strangers are murdered in airport bathrooms; knifings take place under the cover of Carnival; a corner store hold-up becomes a massacre; and so on. In a bloody climax there is the eponymous "slaughter" itself, as the group kills a Uruguayan playboy, his friend, his friend's girlfriend, his pregnant actress lover, and his German arms dealer father who, in the film's final scene, is rather inexplicably discovered in bed with his son's lover.

Slaughter was hardly a success, showing briefly in a few theatres before disappearing, apparently without trace.

Five years later, however, the film was re-released, under the new title of Snuff, and now with an extra five minutes' footage tacked on to the end.

(Albert Walker has watched and summarized the whole film, so that you don't have to, at the agony booth.)

Snuff final sceneThis new ending cuts back from the actress in bed with her lover's father, to the set on which the action is (supposedly) being filmed. Mirroring the theme (taken from what is now a film within a film) of the erotics of both violence and voyeurism, a member of the crew asks a woman, who may be either another crew member or an actress, whether she was turned on by the scene they've just shot.

Soon the two are making out on another bed conveniently located within the set, while the film's cameramen have turned to record this snippet of what is ostensibly cinema verité.

Suddenly things turn serious, as in the face of the woman's panicked protests, the male crew member gets out a knife and, while others hold his victim down, proceeds first to slice off her hand and then to disembowel her. In the movie's final shot he brandishes her entrails, before the screen goes white and briefly sprocket holes are seen as the camera runs out of film. On the soundtrack we hear the film reel come to an end and the whispered conversation of the crew: "Shit, we've run out of film! Shit!" "Did you get it? Did you get it all?" "Mmm, yeah, we got it all. Now let's get out of here."

It would seem that we have just witnessed a real murder taking place on screen.

Snuff final scene
Or such at least is the legend and mystique of Snuff. For this is the original "snuff" film (though the term had been coined to describe putative films shot by the Manson family themselves): a movie in which an actress actually dies, for the voyeuristic delight and horror of a bloodthirsty audience immune now to special effects, desiring the Real.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth of Snuff. The added footage quite patently bears little relation to the film whose making it apparently documents. The only continuity is that this final murder is as unconvincing and schlocky as any of the killings we have seen in the preceeding 75 minutes: it is hamfistedly shot, with obviously crude and unrealistic special effects, and enough signs of post-production and editing to reveal that it is as much a piece of fiction as what has gone before.

And yet the controversy that the film provoked upon its release, first initiated by the producer who, for instance, paid protestors to picket the cinema in which it was playing, but later picked up and amplified by both the police and the press, and that fact that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, most people simply assume that snuff films really exist, demonstrate that somehow we want to believe.

Somehow Snuff enabled this belief to become firmly instilled in popular consciousness. And surely its success, the now permanent incrustation of what was a cheap marketing trick to sell a failed horror movie, owes something also to the context of the film's production and re-release, as summarized in the movie's tagline: "A film that could only be made in South America, where life is CHEAP!"

For both Snuff the film and "snuff" the subject of rumour and gossip allude to the twin notions of a general lawlessness south of the border, and the then current political violence in the Southern Cone, as Argentina limped towards its May 1976 coup d'etat, while Uruguay and Chile were already under military regimes.

Slaughter had hardly done much with its Latin American setting: we see the actress victim arrive on a Lan Chile flight via Santiago, then phone her lover in Punta del Este encouraging him to take his motorboat across the Rio de la Plata to the San Isidro yacht club, but for instance the fact that this journey involves an international border crossing remains unaddressed. But on being re-released as Snuff in 1976, the film's violence now carries a double reference: not only to the late 1960s decay of flower power and hippiedom with the nightmare of the Mansons, but also to the political violence that would grip the Americas in the 1970s.

Snuff, in short, becomes a film about the dictatorships, and an allegory of a violence that is in plain sight, paraded before voyeuristic eyes, a violence that is real but pretends to be theatrical, mirroring the film's own violence that is so theatrical as it pretends to be real.

[Update: "The Idea of Cinema", a much longer essay on Snuff, and on snuff.]

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