Tuesday, October 30, 2007

El patrullero

El Patrullero posterAlex Cox is another director (and another European) who, like Werner Herzog and Mika Kaurismäki, is obsessed by Latin America. He made Walker, perhaps the best and most inventive take on the Central American revolutions; Straight to Hell, a one of a kind spaghetti Western; Death and the Compass, an adaptation of a Borges short story; and with El patrullero (Highway Patrolman) he takes the decidedly unusual stop of seeking to direct what is effectively a Mexican movie.

The film's cast and crew are all Mexican (barring a brief cameo that features Cox himself as a gringo in a bar), the dialogue is in Spanish, and the film's concerns are recognizably Mexican. Its tale of a public official who slides slowly but inevitably from naïve idealism to increasing corruption mirrors for example La Ley de Herodes, in which Cox also had a small part. The two films also have a rather similar visual aesthetic. But similar concerns can also be found in the otherwise very different Argentine film El bonaerense, a rather grittier account of a policeman's journey from cadet to cynical veteran of a corrupt and corrupting system. Cox (or rather his cinematographer Miguel Garzón) employs languid but unobtrusive long shots rather than frantic camera movement and sharp editing, so his is a more detached and understated version of realism. And perhaps this detachment is an indication that the film-maker is ultimately an outsider to the environment he's depicting. Even so, we never lose sympathy for the protagonist, Pedro Rojas, whose worst crime is to have unrealizable good intentions.

And the theme of frustrated good intentions is also key to the film's allegorical reading. For Cox and screenwriter Lorenzo O'Brien are burnt by their experience making Walker, a film they thought could intervene politically into the debate about US intervention in Central America, but which they found ignored or reviled by the industry establishment and he media alike. So El patrullero is as much an indictment of the cinema, or rather a bittersweet reflection on the medium's possibilities and disappointments, as it is a story about the Mexican highway police. At one point in the movie Rojas returns home late at night to find his father-in-law snoozing in front of the television. The film that's shown on the set is Robocop 2, a film Cox was once asked to direct, though he turned it down. The point is both that Pedro Rojas is no Robocop, and also that even blockbuster movies ultimately have little effect if in the end the audience close their eyes.

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Article Link: David Laderman, "The Road Movie Rediscovers Mexico: Alex Cox's 'Highway Patrolman.'" Cinema Journal 39.2 (Winter 2000): 74-99.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

Certain directors have a particular fascination with Latin America, at times verging on obsession. Orson Welles, for instance, continually returns to the region: in It's All True, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. European directors are especially prone to a Latin obsession, or perhaps it's just that whereas Latin Americanism is already programmed into the structure of Hollywood and the US cinematic imagination, for a European to make a film about the region he or she has to be unusually motivated. Werner Herzog is an obvious example, but also Ken Loach as well as the Finn Mika Kaurismäki.

Kaurismäki is the brother of better-known Aki, director of Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Man Without a Past. His focus is on the Amazon and on Brazil, where he eventually settled and founded a music club, "Mika's Bar." And his Latin films include Amazon, Moro No Brasil, and Brasileirinho.

Tigrero posterTigrero: A Film That Was Never Made is a movie about film-making and directorial obsession. It also ends with the fantasy of a director who come to Brazil and stays, who literally goes native. The director is Jim Jarmusch, and he's one of three who are involved in the movie: Kaurismäki who's making this odd quasi-documentary; Sam Fuller, who's returning to the indigenous Amazonian village where he shot footage for a projected film project that never got made; and Jarmusch, who's apparently just along for the ride, but spends the time chatting to Fuller when he's not shooting his own video footage before he's finally seen with his face and arms painted in traditional patterns while Fuller sets off home in a small boat.

The original 1954 film Tigrero would have been a big-budget Hollywood production starring John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power. But what Fuller shot when he came to Brazil in the 1950s was scene-setting imagery of the Amazon river and the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. And it is this gaze of the curious independent film-maker that has survived the demise of the studio system and is taken up by a subsequent generation of young directors, both the indie icon Jarmusch (here almost never without his black jeans and Ramones t-shirt) and the peripherally-located Kaurismäki.

Tigrero the three directorsThe film's conceit is to confront the Karajá Indians with the recordings of their former lives and former selves, as though they constituted a time vault by which to measure their culture's continuities or changes. Equally, of course, these three representatives of technological modernity are themselves confronted with both the ways in which film-making has changed and with the distorting mirror that the indigenous hold up to their gaze.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment involves two male dancers performing for a rather bemused Sam Fuller, chomping on his ever-present cigar. They approach and then retreat, circle and move away, chanting over and over again something that sounds suspiciously like "Hollywood! Hollywood!" And neither Fuller nor (on the DVD commentary track) Kaurismäki or Jarmusch are ever quite sure if it's their own imagination that is projecting this mishearing onto the native ritual, or whether in fact this is indeed some kind of ironic commentary on the part of those who have been cast as authentic objects of the camera's gaze.

And it's this slippage between Western projection and native response, revolving around an intractable opacity, an inevitable miscommunication, that lies at the heart of all directorial adventures in Latin America. It ensures that every film set in the region is always as much unmade as made, is inescapably incomplete.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Show of Force

Though Latin America is often cast as the "other" to the US, and indeed the very concept of "Latin" America was originally designed to mark a difference from "Anglo" America, in practice the division is hardly so clear. Large parts of the USA, such as Southern California, Texas, and New Mexico, were once part of the Spanish Empire, and migration in the twentieth century has meant that not only the Southwest but also much of Florida and all the country's large conurbations (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) have significant Latino populations. Moreover, there is increasing hybridization and transculturation, not least thanks to the vibrancy of Latin popular culture and the general fascination for all things Latin that Hollywood continually reproduces and reinforces.

But Puerto Rico is a special case. Neither fully part of the United States nor fully independent, its status as "Free Associated State" or unincorporated Commonwealth leaves it in something of a juridical and cultural limbo. Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and have the right to vote if and when they live on the mainland, Puerto Rico is not formally represented within the US constitution in the same way that, say, states such as New York or Hawaii are.

A Show of Force posterA Show of Force addresses precisely this issue of the island's peculiar and ambivalent status, by means of a depiction of the notorious "Cerro Maravilla" case. In July, 1978, two young pro-independence activists were killed as they attempted to sabotage a television tower on a mountain outside of San Juan. It turned out that they were murdered in cold blood by the Puerto Rican police, who had set a trap aided by an informer within the independentista. And it took more than a decade of investigation and legal proceedings to get even near the bottom of the subsequent cover-up.

The film's fictionalized account focuses on the character of Kate Meléndez, a television reporter who is first on the scene of the murders and who later devotes herself to bringing the truth to light. Kate's a useful character for the movie's dissection of Puerto Rican identity. She's a light-skinned and fair-haired daughter of a military father and non-Puerto Rican mother, who sent her back to the US to study.

A Show of Force stillBut she is also the widow of a noted pro-independence lawyer, and this alliance by marriage gives her access to and sympathy with those who are struggling against the US yoke. When her blond daughter reports that schoolfriends have told her she is American rather than Puerto Rican, Meléndez insists that all Puerto Ricans are American, too. And yet she tells her mother "You're so American; you're such an optimist," suggesting there's a distinct sensibility on the island that means that Puerto Ricans are different in some important ways.

One of the film's characters, a sinister police chief, insists that there can have been no judicial executions, no cover-ups, because "This isn't Chile, this isn't Cuba. We're Americans!" Yet the Cerro Maravilla case, and the subsequent political and legal hearings, are often termed "Puerto Rico's Watergate", ironically suggesting that the scandal ties the island closer than ever to mainland political patterns in the 1970s. Perhaps that's another reason why the film-makers chose to focus on a campaigning journalist as their protagonist.

It's as though only the role of the media, however much they may be associated with the opposition and pro-independence groups, can provide some guarantee that this is a specifically Anglo form of corruption, rather than the Latin political violence that they anxiously fear it otherwise so closely resembles. But the constant presence of the cameras makes us aware of the play of representation, of the ways in which cultural identity itself is also a frame-up.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cat Chaser

Cat Chaser posterLike so many others in its genre, which could be described as the US intervention movie, Cat Chaser opens with historical footage. As in Salvador, for instance, this is grainy black and white imagery of street combat. Then the black and white fades into high-definition color. This is going to be a flashback movie, too. We move from the Dominican Republic in 1965 to Florida in the 1980s.

Flashback movies are also trauma movies, and so even in the opening sequence the scene is set for a plot that casts US intervention in Latin America as significant above all for the traumatic effects it has on the invaders. And though the film's protagonist, a character named George Moran who went by the nickname "Cat Chaser" during his days as a marine, seems laid back enough running his no-star hotel on the beach, a flash of his "Halls of Montezuma" tattoo is sufficient to tell the initiated that he's still marked by his military experiences.

In Moran's case, his particular trauma revolves around an incident in which he became the chased rather than the chaser. Fighting in the streets of Santo Domingo during the Johnson-sponsored invasion, in a war that the initial voiceover notes "you probably don't remember," Moran was first taunted, then captured, but finally reprieved by a young woman sniper who ends up asking him about Western mass culture, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When we meet George, twenty years later, he's on the point of returning to the island to track her down again.

Cat Chaser stillWhat the ex-marine might do should he succeed in locating his tormentor and saviour is unclear. For once again the chaser becomes the chased. Almost no sooner is he back on the island than he runs into another blast from his past: a sultry blonde named Mary DeBoya, who comes from the same MidWest town as he does.

Mary happens now to be married to a former Dominican general and notorious torturer, one Andres DeBoya. George and Mary also have a history, though unlike the war story this is never shown, and she has come to find him. Soon enough, and doubtless with no little thanks to her endlessly skimpy outfits, they find themselves in bed together.

Moran's escapade with the general's wife instigates a series of displacements: soon the search for one Dominican adversary is forgotten, as he has a new one to tackle. Andres DeBoya is back in Florida, to which the action now likewise returns, and hardly in a mood to forgive his wife, let alone allow her to divorce him enriched by the two-million dollar alimony stipulated by their pre-nuptial agreement.

As the trauma plot fades away (late on in the movie we see that the woman he first sought out has written to him, but this is a very unsatisfactory attempt to tie up loose ends), the film gradually loses coherence. A series of shady characters and twists, double-crosses, and betrayals introduce a neo-noir ambience, and although dark secrets from the past are equally a feature of noir, in this case the two plots never quite form a convincing unity.

More significantly, perhaps, if the film's original plaint is that the US's Dominican adventure has faded from popular consciousness--Moran comments that "Now it's all El Salvador or Nicaragua," and he finds a special kinship with another former soldier who was likewise involved in Operation Power Pack--in the end Cat Chaser repeats the sin of historical amnesia. Andres DeBoya, the Dominican who dominates the second half of the movie, is just yet another generic Latin torturer who finds his eventual comeuppance as the snakes he once fed bite back. And the theme of the trauma of intervention gets utterly lost. It remains no more than an affective trace, a dreamlike hallucination, a mark on the body but not the mind. Perhaps indeed, in the context of another round of US intervention, this time in Central America, the film can only stop short of any real examination of the trauma that such foreign adventures provoke.

YouTube Link: twelve seconds in a Dominican Republic bar.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai posterThe leading lady's from Shanghai, and the film's dramatic climax takes us to San Francisco's Chinatown and then a crazy hall of mirrors in which all can be seen are the characters' multiple images. But the plot is sealed and the trap is set over the course of a long cruise across the Caribbean, through the Panama canal, and up the West coast of Mexico. And The Lady from Shanghai's guiding metaphor comes from a story told on a Mexican beach about a fishing expedition off the coast of Brazil. Once again, Orson Welles takes us south of the border, returning indeed to the truths revealed off Brazilian shores and in Mexican resorts.

The film's protagonist, "Black Irish" Mike O'Hara, addresses the film's femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, her husband, criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister, and his equally sinister partner George Grisby:
Do you know, once off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black, and the sun fadin' away over the lip of the sky. We put in at Fortaleza. A few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishin'. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was, and then there was another, and another shark again, till all about the sea was made of sharks, and more sharks still, and the water tall. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleedin' his life away, drove the rest of 'em mad. Then the beasts took to eatin' each other; in their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust and murder like a wind stingin' your eyes. And you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.
O'Hara fears he is being drawn into this fierce world of bloodthirsty, murderous and mutually destructive sharks. He is certainly sharkbait, set up to be prosecuted for a murder that may or may not even happen. As Grisby explains when they put in at their next port of call, Acapulco, he wants this Irish sailor with a shady past to kill for money, or at least to confess to having killed so that Grisby himself can get away with the money to some remote island in the South Pacific.

Little is as it seems in this convoluted film noir, and even by the end the plot remains murky. O'Hara does indeed pretend to kill Grisby, then is told that Arthur is the real victim, but on racing across the bay to prevent the deed discovers that Grisby has indeed died, at the hand of person or persons unknown, and that the faked confession in his pocket makes Mike the prime suspect, surely destined for the gas chamber. A farcical trial results, and we never even hear the verdict as O'Hara causes a commotion and slips out to a Chinese theatre where he meets up with Elsa, accuses her of being the true assassin, but is dragged off by her Chinese accomplices to the abandoned funfair in which Elsa and her husband trade shots, destroying the many-layered images that surround them until both collapse mortally wounded. Unhooking himself at last, O'Hara returns to the image that haunts him from his Brazilian escapade: "Like the sharks, mad with their own blood. Chewing away at their own selves."

All this had been foreshadowed not only in Brazil, but also in Mexico. It is in Acapulco that the seaminess of the world comes to the surface. For all its surface attractions, the tourist hotspot quickly reveals people's true natures: we glimpse a Mexican leading his gringa catch away and telling her that "Darling, of course you pay me!" Likewise, in response to Grisby's question as to how he likes the place, O'Hara responds that "There's a fair face to the land, surely, but you can't hide the hunger and guilt. It's a bright, guilty world." As such, then, Latin America functions here as the bright reflection that reveals the truth of the chiaroscuro depths to be found in New York or San Francisco. The guilt here is on the surface. In the north, the twisted contortions of the protagonists' inner natures are only revealed with extreme violence, in the crazy shootout and fractured glass of the funhouse shootout. Even then, other truths remain obscure to the end. What exactly did Arthur have on his wife, for instance? We never find out. But in Mexico we're on the point of discovering everything, even if its bright truths open up the abyss of the real that is as dangerous and clear-cut as the cliffs on the Acapulco coast.

The Lady from Shanghai still
YouTube Link: the famous final mirror scene.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Border Radio

Radio knows no borders. So the thing about "border radio" is the way in which radio's transmissions bleed over borders: snippets of Spanish-language stations are picked up in Southern California, while US programming likewise fades in and out of the airwaves in Northern Mexico. The border becomes an indeterminate zone in which diverse cultural influences mix and hybridize.

Border Radio posterSo in Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss's Border Radio, the border itself never appears, though characters slip over and back from time to time while the soundtrack features LA Punk and Mexican pop, as well as mixed genre bands such as the Chicano rock/Tex-Mex stalwarts Los Lobos. So although the movie is very much a document of a particular time and place--the LA punk scene of the early 1980s--it's also characterized by constant slippage and indeterminacy. One of its intertitles reads "2 or 6 months later," as though the possible four-month difference were of little import. The film constantly shifts between genres: it's part noir, part road movie, part documentary, part Western. And the narrative is set up as its lead character slips over the border to Mexico, abandons his car in the middle of nowhere, and sets up in a trailer park to brood over his life, his wife, his friends, and the direction of his career.

Jeff Bailey is a musician, but his name is taken from the Private Eye played by Robert Mitchum in the noir classic Out of the Past and indeed the film opens with a plot of crime and cross-border escape: Bailey is driven south when three heavies turn up at his apartment looking for money and some mysterious books that he's allegedly stolen from a nightclub that he feels owes him. But later the whole issue of the books turns out to be some kind of mistake, and we discover that he's patched up his differences with the club's owner.

Border Radio stillStill he stays in Mexico, hanging out with other ex-pat refugees as well as gnarled locals, playing songs to a china Elvis and a clay devil on top of an abandoned car, burning his guitar on the beach, and generally taking some time out from his day to day existence back home.

And back in LA, in another slippage that shows the porousness of personal identity, Bailey's wife has taken up with his best friend and band's roadie, a guy called Chris who has clearly long wanted to takes Jeff's place. Chris gets his chance now that Jeff himself has vacated his professional and familial roles, choosing rather to enter the border zone.

So Mexico is again a place of escape, but here it is not a site of refuge or even reinvention, but rather a place to lose oneself, to lose the self. It's both an extension of and a reaction against the LA underground: an extension in that it's yet another alternative to the mainstream, a reaction in that it's a resistance to the commodification and fixity even of that subcultural alternative now plagued by the demands of record promotion, commercial remixes, and increasingly dubious assertions of authenticity. It's not that there's anything particularly authentic about Mexico, or rather about the border zone in which Mexico and the US overlap and contaminate each other. By contrast, it's the very bleeding across borders, the way in which radio transmissions fade in and out, that resists and undoes authenticity and fixity alike.

In the film's final chapter ("2 or 6 months later), we catch up on the characters' fates some time after Bailey has returned to the US. He and his wife have separated: she's writing a book. The best friend has been to Europe. And Jeff himself is strumming his guitar while sitting at the base of the famous Hollywood sign, but it's not so much that he's sold out as that we see, up close, the graffiti scrawled on the sign and its precarious perch in the Southern California scrub. Mass culture, too, has its lines of flight, its indeterminate border zones that are neither here nor there, neither American nor Mexican. For all the payola and prestige needed to get a song on the radio, you can never quite control where it goes from there.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Melody Time

Melody Time posterWatching Melody Time is a reminder of how very, and rather surprisingly, odd Disney can be. Nowadays Disney is so fully woven into popular culture and everyday life that it has lost much power to shock. Moreover, Disney has changed over the years. But in the 1940s the strangeness of animated cartoons must still have been apparent; although in other ways the films of what Michael Flint terms Disney's "weird years" were very much of their time.

The very notion of animation, putting a voice or feelings to an inanimate object, is uncanny from the start. The famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence from 1940's Fantasia is an allegory of the possibly sinister consequences of this power to give apparent life to things. Even the somewhat more benign gesture of anthropomorphizing animals (a mouse, a duck, a dog) can be perturbing: even as it makes them more like us, the sense of a difference between human and animal never quite disappears. And the entire Disney enterprise is certainly a break from realism, which could be regarded either as a return to some archaic notion of the magical or as an investment in more modern conceptions of the surreal, of the fears that plague our cultural unconscious.

Over time, Disney and Disneyfication has become more familiar, both in the ways in which it is received and in the ways it portrays itself. But Melody Time is a good example of the ways in which, at least earlier during the last century, the corporation was torn between a homely version of mass culture on the one hand, and a rather more experimental adventure into the avant garde on the other. And there is little attempt to unify these tendencies or make them cohere by means of some over-arching narrative: Melody Time gives us seven short, unconnected sequences that never quite come together.

The homely is represented here by the first sequence, a Winter scene of two lovers skating on a lake and then, with the help of some animal friends, avoiding near disaster. Also, in more ideological vein, we're presented with a sequence that provides a romanticized vision of the American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, complete with Indians dancing in harmony with white settlers in celebration of the apple harvest. But another sequence, featuring a jazzed-up version of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" is very different. The bumble bee in question is half-terrorized by an increasingly abstract set of animations: nightmarish flowers, a prison-like stave, and falling piano keys, all to a combination of Russian classicism and American boogie woogie.

In short, the film problematizes Peter Berger's famous account of modernism as constituted by a sharp scission between mass culture and avant garde. Disney's modernism combines aspects of both. And while we have become accustomed to Mickey and friends permeating mass culture, the vanguardism returns with a shock when we watch a film such as Melody Time.

Perhaps it is by realizing Disney's complex and comprehensive modernism that we gain new insight into the corporation's Latin Americanism. For there's a resonance with the modernist impulses that seemed to course through a country such as Brazil at the time, visually represented by the famous patterns woven into Rio's sidewalks that feature prominently in the Latin sequence here, "Blame it on the Samba." And there's also an equally modernist fascination with the primitive, here the various African-influenced rhythmic instruments of Brazilian music.

Melody Time still"Blame it on the Samba" is a surreal portrayal of Donald Duck and his two avian compañeros Joe Carioca and the Mexican Panchito (first introduced in The Three Caballeros). Donald and Joe are feeling and (literally) looking blue. Panchito is a waiter at a restaurant "composed" of a musical score. To rejuvenate their spirits he mixes up a potent cocktail of Brazilian music: "You take a small cabassa (chi-chi-chi-chi-chi), One pandeiro (cha-cha-cha-cha-cha), Take the cuíca (boom-boom-boom-boom), You’ve got the fascinating rhythm of the samba." He then dunks his two guests in an enormous snifter, before diving in himself. Deep in the drink's murky depths is organist Ethel Smith, almost as extravagantly behatted as Carmen Miranda herself, who appears in live action combination with the antics of the suitably enlivened caballeros.

Melody Time stillThings get really odd when Panchito takes a stick of dynamite to this underwater (undercocktail?) musical scene. The organ explodes, though Ethel continues playing none-the-less. It's as though she hasn't noticed that Disney has turned everything upside-down; that especially with its explosive Latin cocktails (one part mass culture, another part avant garde experimentation, a third part primitivism), Disney undoes any sense of familiar continuities. But the band plays on regardless.

YouTube Link: the entire "Blame it on the Samba" sequence. (Hat-tip: Latin Baby.)

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Monday, October 15, 2007

The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Royal Hunt of the Sun posterThe Royal Hunt of the Sun is adapted from a play by Peter Shaffer (who also wrote Equus and Amadeus), first produced in 1964, and its theatrical origins remain evident even in the cinematic adaptation. For all the potentially epic scope of its theme, Francisco Pizarro's expedition to Peru and the conquest of the Inca Empire, the film's action is mainly confined indoors and the atmosphere is closed and even claustrophobic.

The movie's focus is very much on Pizarro, but not Pizarro the warrior, despite the fact that we're repeatedly reminded that he is above all a man of war: illiterate, of peasant stock, unskilled in statecraft. The question posed is what happens when such a man comes face to face with a king: first the King of Spain, and then the Lord Inca Atahualpa who, what is more, is regarded as a living God, son of the Sun itself.

In the first encounter, with King Carlos, Pizarro boldly and brashly presses his suit by criticizing the men who throng the court for the fact that they do nothing, that they don't even dream, let along act.

Royal Hunt of the Sun stillBut face to face with the Inca, and in part precisely because of his distance from the Spanish aristocracy and its raison d'etat, Pizarro is increasingly seduced by Atahualpa's dignity and disconcerting self-confidence. He sees an echo of himself in the Lord Inca, not least because both are bastards. But as another character comments, "It seems they have more in common than their lowly birth." Both are illiterate, for instance, and so in thrall to but also somewhat disparaging of the culture of the book. Neither have much time for the Catholic church, and its insistence on a divinity that nobody can see, on a faith that can call on precious few concrete signs. And each therefore prefers to trust a man's character rather than a society's ideology.

And so whereas the Spaniard's advisors, representing both church and state, along with the rabble he leads, are all clamoring for the indigenous leader's head, Pizarro would rather honor the contract he has made with Atahualpa: that once he has provided the Spaniards with their roomful of gold, he should be set free and return to his people. And when the Spanish general has to give in to his men's desires, he insists that the Inca convert to Christianity above all so that he should be strangled rather than burnt, that his body remain intact for a future resurrection. Pizarro is then portrayed as more disappointed than anyone when Atahualpa remains resolutely dead, when the God he thought he might have hunted turns out to be human just like himself.

Royal Hunt of the Sun stillThe character of the Inca is never really fleshed out: Christopher Plummer (who had played Pizarro in the Broadway production) portrays him as a sort of idiot savant, one third Gollum, one third spoiled child, one third mystic, with the strangest of accents that sounds half German, half Mexican, not to mention a bizarre repertoire of hisses, squeals, squeaks, and grunts.

And Pizarro becomes perhaps the archetypal 1960s figure: a man who has lost faith in his own society but is looking, more in hope than in expectation, for some kind of redemption from another. He is a military man who no longer trusts the cause for which he allegedly fights. The parallels with Vietnam, when the film was made in 1969, are obvious enough. And in the play's recent revival at the National Theatre, as The Independent's review notes, the parallels with Iraq are clear, albeit left implicit.

Shaffer gives us a post-ideological world, although interestingly he does so by suggesting that there never was any ideology in the first place. Neither Pizarro nor the men of state really believe in the civilizing mission; the only difference is that Pizarro is prepared to say so, while the others hide behind ideology as ruse of imperial reason. The only believer in all this is the young page Martin. And in the play the whole story is narrated by the same Martin, now older and wiser. By contrast the film perhaps still holds out the hope that Martin will retain some of his idealism, even as he sees Pizarro's desperate will to believe cruelly negated by Spaniard and Inca alike.

YouTube link: the Inca's arrival at Cajamarca.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Wrong Guy

The Wrong Guy posterThe Wrong Guy is a Canadian movie, filmed entirely in Canada but set fully in the USA. Its plot begins in Cleveland and heads southward but never actually gets to cross the Mexican border. It also constantly aims at humor, but likewise falls desperately short.

In brief, Dave Foley plays Nelson Hibbert, a nerdy executive who believes he is next in line to be company president. To get this far he has got himself engaged to his boss's daughter; but he discovers that he has chosen the wrong daughter and a rival who is to marry his boss's favorite daughter pips him to the post. Hibbert is dragged from the company meeting, screaming and threatening bloody vengeance. Returning to confront his future father-in-law one on one, he finds the old man dead with a blade embedded in his skull. Panicking, Hibbert grabs the knife and covers himself in blood before running from the building, convinced he is now the prime suspect. Little does he know that the murder was caught on tape, and that in fact he is never under suspicion.

So where can an innocent man find refuge from imaginary pursuers? Mexico, of course. And there's no better place for the guilty, too. So the rest of the film follows Hibbert and the real murderer in their intertwining journeys south. They take buses, steal cars, jump on trains, and hitch-hike, all the while more or less followed by a remarkably ineffective and lazy police chief and his men. Still, somehow the assassin is tracked down, surrounded by marksmen after he's taken Hibbert and a companion hostage. And justice is done when the murderer is captured, his attempts to negotiate transport across the border foiled, and the inadvertent fall guy realizes he is free.

But Hibbert has had some contact with Mexico, or some version thereof. He carries in his wallet a photo of himself in technicolor tourist poncho and oversized comedy hat. So it's as though, beneath his eminently bland, grey-suited exterior, or in some off-kilter part of his nerdy sensibility, there's some cartoon image of mexicanidad that this executive under threat is seeking to rediscover. The film's running gag is that Hibbert is not what he appears: the police continually mistake him for a woman; ordinary members of the public confuse him with the actual suspect; and the real killer believes he's some kind of elite super-cop. But it's as though he himself believes that he could become some kind of wacky Pancho Villa figure. If only he could get to Mexico.

The Wrong Guy still
But Hibbert never makes it. Just as the film itself never quite comes together. Perhaps Mexico is a border too far for a Canadian movie. Just as the film's various imitations of classic Hollywood film (from its Bond movie credits to an entire subplot based on It's a Wonderful Life) never quite attain either parody or homage. They simply remind us how much less impressive this film is than its models.

YouTube link: Hibbert fails to jump a train.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Marathon Man

The thriller is an international genre par excellence: it weaves people and plots together in networks that criss-cross national boundaries. Thrillers expose and take advantage of the soft belly of globalization. They take place on the street, in airports, in basements and parking garages, always in the interstices of modern life.

Marathon Man posterIn thrillers, motion is everything. Transport features prominently: cars, planes, boats, and in Marathon Man also running. Characters are always chasing or being chased, sometimes being chased when they think they're chasing or being led back into one trap when they believe they're escaping another.

Marathon Man is about a realignment of movements. It's no surprise that the opening scene should feature a car that gets stuck on the street. There's a blockage in the network, just as later when the film's anti-hero, a man named Doc, arrives in Paris he finds the taxi taking him from the airport is slowed in a tunnel by a posse of bicyclists protesting the effects of city traffic. They're trying to redefine the ways in which we circulate. Meanwhile, the film's hero, Doc's brother Babe, endlessly circles the Central Park reservoir, preparing himself for a marathon that will take him who knows where. In the film's finale, however, it's the water that we see recirculate: no longer a static reservoir, it now falls in sheets as backdrop to the climactic confrontation between Babe and the criminal mastermind, Dr. Christian Szell, who has inter alia earlier stopped Doc short by stabbing him in front of a fountain. And the scene ends as Szell plunges uncontrollably down a spiral metal staircase, into the waters below.

Indeed water features prominently in this movie. We first meet Szell in his riverside hideout, down in Uruguay. For the doctor is a Nazi war criminal, who is sheltering from justice where else but South America? He earned his liberty and his fortune by extorting first gold and then diamonds from Jewish inmates of wartime concentration camps by offering them the promise of escape from their confinement. But he finds both himself and his booty confined: he in this jungle retreat; the diamonds in a New York safety deposit box. And when the money can no longer circulate safely, because his brother dies in a car accident (another blockage in the road), he has to move on out, to face the risk of movement.

For movement is always double-edged. It can promise liberation, as when Babe runs from the chamber in which Szell tortures Babe with a dentist's drill. But this can be a false promise, a merely circular return to the same, as when one of Szell's henchman dramatically saves Babe only as a ruse to see if he'll confess to knowledge of the deposit box. And it is always unpredictable, subject to delay and disappointment as in the baggage handler's strike that greets Szell's own arrival in the big city. There are always enemies who wait for you on the road. This indeed is Szell's big fear: he wants to know that the way is clear, that the route is secure. "Is it safe?" he insistently asks of Babe. And his victim doesn't know what "it" is. But he should: it is movement itself.

So the film's plot is driven by a series of blockages and risky maneuvers, one of the most significant being Szell's river-borne departure from his Latin American safehouse. There are no jungles in Uruguay, which is a land of open plains rather than Amazonian creeks, but it's important for the film's kinetic logic that we see the former Nazi confront destiny by stepping out into the watery flow that will eventually lead him to the crowded streets of what is here a New York in which Jewish refugees are on every street corner. Some of them will remember Szell from the old days. And in the end he'll take a tumble into the drink, where his body gently floats as the water level slowly rises.

Marathon Man still
NB this is also yet another instance of the "dentist in Latin America" theme.

YouTube link: the movie trailer.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre posterNacho Libre is director Jared Hess's second film. His first was Napoleon Dynamite, and what the two have in common is a certain absurdist humor found in the quirks of settings that are just off the beaten path, and so slightly behind the times. In Napoleon Dynamite, that setting is Preston, Idaho; in Nacho Libre, it is Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hess's comedy is sufficiently understated that it's not even completely clear whether or not Nacho Libre is meant to be a period piece. It is suffused with the aura of the 1970s, not least in lead character Nacho's choice of what he terms "recreation clothes": a thin pastel blue sweater plus cream slacks. Nacho is a rather unsuccessful monk with dreams of becoming a lucha libre fighter so he can afford better ingredients for the dinners her serves up to the monastery's orphans. On the side, he also has more than a passing fancy for the new nun in town, Encarnación. So he eagerly casts off old habits and enters the world of spectacle that is Mexican wrestling: a world of masked avengers and dreadful sartorial taste. But again, it's not certain whether his penchant for "stretchy pants" and frilly blouses (in a scene at the local wrestling promoter's elaborately decorated residence) is a function of period or location. Either way, the film seems to reverse L P Hartley's famous observation that "the past is another country; they do things differently there." Here there do things differently in Mexico because it has the aura of the past.

Nacho Libre still
But this a past that is treated with delight and nostalgia. Nacho Libre is a strangely quaint and understated movie. And that's true even with Jack Black playing Nacho's role, and despite the fact that so much of the comedy is slapstick: fart jokes, turd jokes, midget wrestler jokes, and all. For the pacing is slow, at times even stately. Scenes often begin with what is almost a still image, foregrounding characters against countryside or architecture in a style almost reminiscent of Eisenstein's ¡Que Viva Mexico!, were it not for the notable use also of vibrant, saturated color. Then after a gag, Hess's editing almost always holds the shot for an extra beat, a pause in which nothing really happens except that we both register the joke and also the fact that it has no real consequence. In the Mexico that the film depicts, what seems comic to us is merely everyday reality.

So the paradoxical result of the movie is that despite, for instance, Jack Black's relentless deployment of a comic faux-Mexican accent, or co-star Héctor Jímenez's initial portrayal as a semi-feral beast scratching for nacho chips in a dirty back alley, or even the ambience of the wrestling world itself, with its high camp and low blows, the Oaxaca that the film presents is homely rather than ludicrous, sentimental rather than savage. It's as though Mexico incarnated all our yesterdays, or perhaps (like small-town Idaho) a place we might inhabit, and might even still want to inhabit, if it weren't that fate had led us elsewhere.

YouTube Link: the film trailer.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

the idea of cinema

Cinema’s central paradox is that film is both the most realistic of media and the most fantastic. On the one hand, the moving image possesses unrivalled documentary capabilities: it records a vision of reality more accurately and more objectively than any other medium; its inscription is both machinic and indexical, constituting what is by now an immense historical archive of the past hundred years or so, ensuring that this past cinematographic century is by far the most documented, and the most realistically documented, of all the centuries of human civilization. On the other hand, film is also the perfect vehicle through which we can act out or inhabit other-worldly fantasies: special effects and now computer generated imagery mean that not even the sky is the limit; the cinema can and does take us out into space or beyond the realms of human exploration; it gives us monsters and wonders; it transports both far into the future and back to the past, re-imagining history and even pre-history for a counter-factual glance at what might have been. Film is both firmly anchored in the real and set loose in fantasy. This is its great power, but also its great danger: the cinema can bring the real fantastically close, as well as bring fantasy close to reality. In this paper I explore how the genre of the “snuff film” promises to suture this cinematic paradox, reconciling reality with fantasy, and also how it fails to make good on that promise. Snuff, I claim, is the absent center at the heart of cinematic production. Snuff is literally a utopian genre: a non-place in which all differences would be reconciled. But I show also that this utopia has a very material location, in a Latin American setting that constitutes the essential supplement for the very idea of cinema.

the history of an idea

The dichotomy between realism and fantasy, and the hopes and anxieties to which it gives rise, have structured the cinematic medium from its very outset. Consider cinema’s double birth with the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. The former incarnated film’s documentary ambitions, with shorts such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory or Baby’s Meal. What could be more mundane or more fully rooted in everyday life? The Lumières advanced the notion of film as a work of mechanical reproduction, that enables its viewers to relive a reality that already exists, to step into someone else’s well-worn shoes. Méliès, by contrast, showed the possibilities of film as a canvas for increasingly extravagant and spectacular production and innovation. He both took us on A Trip to the Moon and gave us a peek into The House of Devil. What could be more exciting or more of a distraction from everyday drudgery? And ever since, in the decades of film history that have intervened from the era of the Lumières and Méliès to the present, narrative and spectacle, a cinema vérité and a cinema of attractions, have been in constant tension and competition. Today to some extent this same tension spreads across the entire audiovisual spectrum: to entice us to the big screen, mainstream cinema gives us ever more convincing special effects, while Reality TV or the blurry video provided by camera phones or CCTV suggest that no area of ordinary life goes unrecorded. At the same time, even in this ever wider division of cinematic labor, spectacular fantasy shows that it cannot quite do without prosaic narrative, however bare-boned: in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, legions of Orcs and Elves are summoned on screen by the need to find a lost piece of jewelry. And equally, the panopticon of mundane surveillance throws up images that play into our deepest fears and fantasies: the shopping-center security camera shot of James Bulger’s child killers, for example, quickly became engrained in Great Britain’s anxious imagination.

For there is also always a slippage between the two poles of the cinematic antithesis pitting reality against fantasy, and this has also haunted film history and reception. Ever since the Lumières screened Arrival of a Train at a Station, causing so the story goes its audience to run out of building in panic, it has been obvious that film can seem so over-poweringly real that it overpowers the real itself. Cinema’s power resides in the fact that it can decisively impress in us the truth of what it represents. But this same power deceitfully leads us to take the image of reality for reality itself, to mistake a moving picture for a train. Hence cinema’s stupendous reality effect is also its great danger: it threatens to conjure up a world of simulations in which we can no longer distinguish reality from representation, in which we doubt even ourselves as we are no longer ever truly able to believe our own eyes. Cinema makes believers of us all, but by the same token it also makes us cynics. We are too used to being duped. Accustomed as we are to the way in which cinema can pull the wool over our eyes, we endlessly see wool even where there is none. Hence the attraction of conspiracy theories, even or perhaps especially around some of the most well-documented of events. September 11, 2001, for instance: we have all seen the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers and their subsequent collapse; many millions saw them fall live and in real time on television. But still the rumor spreads, fostered often by close analysis of the video record itself, that this was just the most spectacular of special effects. Cinema has bred a generation of eagle-eyed critics, who ironically base their suspicion of the stories it weaves on the tell-tale discrepancies they claim to see in its visual narrative.

More... (.pdf document)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim posterAt the end of The Pilgrim, Charlie Chaplin makes a series of brief forays across the border separating the US and Mexico. At first, his international travel is purely accidental. For the border is nothing but a signpost in the middle of a scrubby area of open space. Chaplin's character, the eponymous pilgrim, leans upon the post until suddenly realizing he has mistakenly strayed into Mexico. So he hurriedly returns to the US and leans on the same post from the other side. How easy it is to slip across the frontier, even without knowing what you have done!

The Pilgrim still
But the pilgrim has been brought here for a purpose. The bulk of the film has shown how he broke out of jail and headed for Texas disguised in parson's clothes. Arriving at a small Texas town, and taken to be the local church's long-expected new man of the cloth, he mugs his way through a sermon on David and Goliath and is then taken to his new digs, with a family of suitably respectable church-goers. An old prison buddy sees the pilgrim, however, and tags along thinking that a heist is in operation. And even though, in priestly garb, it is the reformed ex-con hero who foils his former cellmate's attempt to steal the family's money, nonetheless his past catches up with him. And so the sheriff takes him away. But the man of the law has obviously a soft spot for this reluctant criminal, which is why he has taken him to the Mexican border.

Realizing that Charlie is now steadfastly law-abiding, and is not about to run off south on his own accord, the sheriff has to devise some stratagem to get the pilgrim off his back. He asks him to pick him a bunch of wild flowers, first from just over the border post and then from much further out into the Mexican scrub. With Charlie sent on this wild-goose chase, the lawman then spurs his horse and heads away. . . only to discover his bedraggled convict chasing him up the trail, waving a bunch of blooms over his head.

In the face of the pilgrim's stubborn refusal to take a hint, the sheriff gets of his horse and physically kicks him into Mexico. Which is when Charlie realizes what's going on, and in the middle of the desert starts thinking of the future. "Mexico: a new life. Peace at last!" But no sooner is this thought vocalized than up from the bushes rise a couple of bandidos engaged in a fearsome firefight. Spooked, the pilgrim races back to the frontier, before realizing that he can't go back to the USA, either. So the film ends with Charlie waddling off into the distance, straddling the boundary line and with one out-turned foot facing Mexico, the other the USA.

Again, then, this is a movie that undoes the notion of a Latin utopia safe from either crime or the law. But every time that this fantasy is revealed as baseless, its ubiquity and force are also underlined. The dream of some Latin "outside" is so prevalent that Hollywood endlessly has to reinvent it, if only then to dash it to pieces, to show us that the best a character can do is to straddle the line between inside and out, hoping that neither side notices.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Something New

Something New stillNell Shipman's Something New opens with a woman writer searching for a topic. For some unknown reason (presumably she doesn't have "a room of her own and five hundred a year") she has set up her typewriter outside, under a tree. There, however, she sees "the old--and the new," a man on a horse and a man in one of those new-fangled motor cars, disputing which is better. And so a story comes to her...

But to dramatize the clash between tradition and modernity, where better to set the plot than "beyond the border in that land of Rogues and Romance, Mystery and Murder. . . Mexico!" And so the scene shifts to the US/Mexican border, where a "lady writer" arrives to visit a gnarled old friend of the family Sid, who happens to be disputing the merits of horse and motor car with a dashing young gallant named Bill.

We are told that the lady writer is down south looking for "ATMOSPHERE, real, red, and RAW." And as she comments not longer after, "I wanted 'atmospher' and I'll say I'm getting it." For Sid has aken her to the Blue Lotus Mine, where he works, only for it to be set upon by Mexican bandits who tie the old man up, leaving him to perish in the heat, and snatch the young woman off to their lair, aptly named "Hell's Kitchen."

Naturally enough, on hearing the news Bill rides to the rescue. But the real "heroine" of the piece is the car in which he rides. For the movie turns into one long demonstration of the ancient banger's off-road capabilities as Bill drives first though the "rock-ribbed sea of sand and sage" to reach the mine and then further into the "trackless waste" to Hell's Kitchen so as to rescue the damsel in distress. Then the two of them return home across "the country God forgot" to return to civilization and so safety, signified by a distant glimpse of the US flag.

Something New stillAnd indeed to see this old sedan made by the Maxwell Motor Company (a forerunner of Chrysler) bounce over rocks and through streams and ditches, covering terrain that would give a modern 4X4 driver pause for thought, is surely "something new."

For the ride home, moreover, the lady writer and her rescuer (and his dog) are chased by the gang of mounted bandits, and the lady herself has to do much of the driving as Bill collapses with exhuastion just as the car is hurtling towards a precipitous cliff face. All this in the dark, apparently without lights. In the words of the lady writer's always dramatic prose, the young couple go "on and on through the hellish night, plunging and pounding, slipping and sliding" (yes, this is vehicular transport rather than sexual congress she's describing), "all nature arrayed against them."

Suffice it to say, however, that modernity and the internal combustion engine triumph over both horse-powered Mexican banditry and stubborn nature. And in the climactic sequence, the little car shows it has another trick up its sleeve, too: our heroine repeatedly backs the automobile up against a precariously poised boulder until it tumbles down a canyon and gives the bad guys "a Tomb of the Ages."

In the end, our writer heroine and indeed the film itself cross the border seeking "atmopshere," but they also bring plenty along thesmeselves from the industrial north. The Mexican scrub turns out to be a test track on which to demonstrate the power and excitement of motor transport, as well as the ways in which an otherwise rather mundane narrative can be spiced up when adorned with the trappings of Latin barbarism.

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