Monday, July 30, 2007


Assassins posterFor its tense and bloody finale, the Wachowskis’ Assassins takes us to Puerto Rico. Or rather, it takes us back: the film’s first few minutes, in grainy black and white, also take place in the Caribbean. And so the climax is at the same time a repetition: a return to history that is both the return of the repressed and an attempt to put an end to history.

As with all repetitions, however, what comes back is never exactly the same. In the interval, hired gun Robert Rath (played by Sylvester Stallone) has morphed from hitman to target or “mark”; taking his place fifteen years later at the other end of a telescopic sight is young buck Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), who wants to prove that he is now number one in the world of assassins and that Rath is, as Bain puts it, “anticuado.”

Moreover, the final twist in the tale is the reappearance of the “mark” that Rath thought he had eliminated a decade and a half ago. But by killing him now, Rath can finally expunge the stain of (as he had thought) betraying his friend. For Rath is apparently a man of principles in this brutal world of contract murder, though these are suitably old-fashioned: he hesitates over killing women, children, and fellow chess-players.

The Spanish Caribbean is handy for a showdown for a number of reasons. First, the night before the final face-off can be the celebration of the Day of the Dead: the ceremony at the cemetery is a both picturesque and symbolic locale for yet another shoot-out. Second, the tropic heat provokes even the iciest of killers to lose his cool: Bain is bathed in sweat as he waits for the chance to take Rath out, and eventually storms into the bank where his target is taking his air-conditioned time. But third and most importantly, Puerto Rico is itself the site of history and the place to witness history’s effects. In this colonial city, the old endures, but it also shows its age.

So the first shot we’re shown of the island is of the crumbling but still imposing fortifications of Old San Juan, which mark a dramatic contrast from the Seattle Space Needle and monorail that had been the setting for much of the action hitherto. Then we find that the hotel in which Rath had stayed for the original hit is now a decayed ruin, an almost hollow shell home only to pigeons and dust. A taxi driver explains that it had been destroyed by fire, but nobody had the money to pull it down or build it back up.

In the mainland United States, all that is solid melts into air: targets are eliminated without too much rancor or regret; what counts is the contract, a mercantile exchange in which lives are reduced to mere numbers.

But Latin America’s colonial and neocolonial ruins hold the key to some other economy, some other relationship with temporality. Here, memory, shame, and honor are what matters. And it is only here that our protagonist has the chance to replay history, if only finally to eliminate the mark, and so the historical repressed, all the more effectively, and now in full color.

Stallone and Banderas in Assassins
YouTube link: the whole movie in under four minutes.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Bird of Paradise

King Vidor's Bird of Paradise is not a film about Latin America, though it presents an exoticizing narrative that is familiar from films set in the Caribbean or the Amazon.

Here, we are somewhere in the South Seas, on an island paradise visited by a US yacht that, in the opening scene, only barely scrapes across the coral reef that guards its shores. This physical barrier is also, of course, a cultural barrier, and soon enough eager natives are paddling and swimming up to greet the interloping vessel, and they prove themselves only too eager to be pleased by the trinkets that the crew have to offer them.

Suddenly, danger appears, in the form of a shark that appears to threaten the peaceful islanders. But in the end it is an American who gets into trouble: Johnny, who falls overboard trapped in the fishing line that the shark is rapidly dragging out to sea; but help is at hand as an indigenous maiden cuts the line and saves his life.

Soon enough, Johnny falls in love with this enchanting creature, who turns out to be a princess by the name of Luana. He teaches her how to kiss and be kissed, but for his pains the tribe turns on the two of them, who have to exile themselves on a neighbouring island, where they enjoy domestic bliss and discuss the merits or otherwise of civilization.

This tropical reverie cannot last, however, and the tribe come looking for Luana in order to throw her into the local volcano so as to appease a disgruntled deity. Johnny finds himself at risk too, but is rescued along with Luana by his returning crewmates. But in the end, facing the choice between savagery or civilization, extinction in a smoking crater or everyday life in California, Luana chooses to sacrifice herself but save her tribe. Loyalty among indigenes trumps cultural rescue, so avoiding the inconvenience of permanent inter-racial coupling.

Bird of Paradise is mostly notable for a bit of pre-Hayes code titillation: it features a poetic underwater courtship scene in which are treated to the sight of Joel McCrea (who plays Johnny) in a rather figure-hugging pair of underpants, and in which we may be seeing Dolores del Rio nude.

Is that Dolores del Rio's bottom?
For del Rio plays Luana, and this reveals what I think is a revealing tension within Hollywood portrayals of race. On the one hand, as with the narrative that this film presents, what’s emphasized are the barriers between races and cultures: “they” are fundamentally different from “us,” and although this difference can generate desire, in the end cross-cultural liaisons are doomed. But on the other hand, in the casting process, cinematic conceptions of race are quite labile, especially around latinidad. Whites can play Latinos (say, Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, Latinos can play whites (Rita Hayworth), Greeks can play Latinos (West Side Story), and as here, Latinos can also play South Sea islanders.

It’s true that some racial barriers prove more impermeable than others to casting agents, above all the separation between black and white. But the pragmatics of Latino casting, even of major stars, is often in tension with the exoticising narrative strategies of the films in which they are playing. And precisely because these are stars, the contradiction is palpable. The racial ambiguity exacerbates the characteristic tension between star and character. Latino stars can not only play out of character; they can also play out of race.

Indeed some, notably Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn, made a career out of it.

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