Thursday, November 29, 2007


Ariel posterAki Kaurismäki is a cinematic poet of what Giorgio Agamben terms "bare life". The characters in his films are almost always devoid of everything except the most basic vitality that makes them (barely) human. In Ariel, for instance, at one point the protagonist, unemployed miner Taisto Kasurinen, is imprisoned and has to answer a series of questions to which his answers are unremittingly negative: "Address?" "None." "Closest family members?" "None." "Previous convictions?" "None." Kasurinen lacks any distinguishing characteristics, except perhaps for the white Cadillac convertible in which he has driven down from the frozen North.

Taisto's grossly impracticable automobile is inherited from a colleague (perhaps his father) who undramatically shoots himself when the mine in which the two of them work is shut down. But nothing in Kaurismäki's universe is dramatic. Ariel is chock full of action, from muggings to marriage, prison breakouts to bank heists, but each event is treated with the same deadpan lack of intensity that drains it of all drama. Shit happens. And that's it. Characters take the worst of calamities in their stride. Which is not to say that they are simply resigned or despairing. Rather, they get up, brush themselves down, if necessary pull a dead man's coat out of the garbage to keep themselves warm, and move on. Kaurismäki shows us that even at this abject depth of subalternity, the will to live remains strong. Taisto's conatus, his insistence on his own power's of existence, remains undiminished whatever happens to him.

So though this film lacks emotion, it is steeped in affect. This is indeed what Deleuze terms "a life," life in all its generality and abstraction, immanent to pure affect.

Trapped in prison with his equally uncommunicative and undemonstrative cellmate Mikkonen, Kasurinen declares (as always, undramatically and unemotionally) that he is going to escape. They discuss the possibilities. And Mikkonen, an old hand and unregenerate serial offender, goes through the various possibilities. Getting out of jail itself is no big deal, but all too soon they will be found and brought back. They need to skip the country: get new passports, slip onto a cargo vessel, and flee somewhere far away. Italy, perhaps. Or Mexico, Brazil.

Ariel still
And so Mikkonen and Kasurinen, with the help of the latter's girlfriend and her young son, make the necessary preparations, jump the wall, find themselves new clothes, and arrange for new passports and passage on a ship called the Ariel. Their plans go somewhat awry when the pair are double-crossed by the people who are forging the documents for them, and Mikkonen is fatally wounded. Laid in the back of his friend's Cadillac, the dying man asks what a particular button in the car door does. He presses it and with agonizing slowness the convertible's roof slowly raises, finally giving shelter to the dying man. Kasurinen and his girlfriend look on, impassive as always, but we feel that if only they had found the key to at least minimal shelter at an earlier stage, perhaps things might have worked out differently. But perhaps not. There's not much room for hope in Kaurismäki's bleak universe.

And it's in this context of endless striving without the luxury of hope that the film's final scene acquires its full irony. Ariel is, of course, the figure for Latin America: the New World spirit of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the guiding metaphor for José Enrique Rodó's classic manifesto affirming the region's singularity and future potential. As the minimal community comprising Kasurinen, his (now) wife Irmeli, and his (equally stoic) young stepson Riku trace a slow line of flight across the waters of Helsinki harbor towards the container ship whose name "Ariel" is lit up like a beacon, on the soundtrack we hear the incongruous rendition of "Over the Rainbow." In Finnish.

Taisto, Irmeli, and Riku are headed to Mexico. They have no great expectations of what's to be found over the rainbow. It can't be any worse than what they've found in Finland. And if it's no better, well, they've survived so far. And at least they have each other, not in any romantic sense of personal fulfillment, but in the sense that the three of them together have more power to affect and be affected than any one of them alone.

YouTube Link: the film's magnificent finale.

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Monday, November 12, 2007


Lima in 1944, as envisaged by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs:

Via Cinencuentro.

Here's part two and part three.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Aguirre, Wrath of God

Aguirre posterThere's a mystery at the heart of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God, though as far as I'm aware it's elicited little if any comment. The story recounts the titular Lope de Aguirre's revolt on a Spanish expedition sent by Gonzalo Pizarro from Peru towards the Amazon in search of El Dorado. Pizarro puts nobleman Don Pedro de Ursúa in charge, but it is when he proposes giving up on the enterprise that Aguirre revolts, taking Ursúa prisoner and installing a puppet leader, gluttonous Fernando de Guzmán, as Emperor of the lands still to be conquered. The mystery, however, concerns Ursúa. From the moment of the mutiny onwards, during the long days and weeks, perhaps even months, in which he is kept captive until he is eventually executed following Guzmán's own demise, the deposed chief refuses to say a single word either in his own defense or in accusation against Aguirre's treachery. Moreover, he clings tightly to something in his fist, which the force of three men is unable to open. So what, then, is Ursúa holding?

This is a film all about silence and the unknown. There are many long scenes with scarcely a word of dialogue, such as the famous opening shots of Pizarro's men descending a precipitous Andean slope along with their hundreds of Indian slaves and all the cumbersome machinery of early modern battle: cannons, horses, heavy body armor. And silence inevitably presages danger. As one character comments of another, he "panicked because of the silence which always comes just before someone gets killed." So there are various points at which Aguirre furiously insists upon noise, of any kind: whether it be volleys of cannon fire or indigenous pipe music. And so Ursúa's silence is hardly neutral. It's a brooding judgement on the mutiny's future, on the way in which Aguirre's limitless ambition is ensuring that the entire party is drifting ever more surely to their deaths.

Meanwhile, the unknown lies all around. The Spaniards have less and less idea of the location of the famed indigenous city of gold, and indeed increasingly they are merely drifting ever more aimlessly. They sense the presence of invisible enemies, hostile Indians hidden by the foliage on the river banks, from which occasionally deadly arrows or darts strike down the helpless adventurers. More to the point, as time passes and they descend into some kind of collective madness in which their ever-present fantasies finally overcome their senses, they become uncertain about what is illusion and what is real. They pass a boat stranded high in a tree and no longer trust their eyes. "That ship is in your imagination. No floodwaters could rise this high. We all have the fever." Shortly afterwards, the character to whom this reassurance is addressed mutters to himself "That is no ship. That is no forest. That is no arrow. We just imagine the arrows because we fear them." But then Aguirre, who is at once the most deluded and the most grounded of them all, shouts out "These arrows are real, take cover!" Not everything in their delusion is error.

So what, if anything, is Ursúa clutching so insistently? The men assume "he must have something in it," but neither they nor we ever fathom the secret. It's as though the hard kernel of an unknowable real lies at the centre of the enterprise, as well as on its borders and banks. It is not just the subaltern who is mute and inscrutable, but also the site of (now deposed) power itself. Aguirre and his fellow renegades chart a perilous course through the imagination, between these two Reals: the Real of imperial power and the Real of the native other. They construct a parodic version of Empire that also takes the imperial project beyond its own bounds, taking its deterritorializing impulses at its word. But in the end power is never about the word, never about the language of command. Is this perhaps their big mistake, to have taken over-literally the stories fed to them; to have taken the discourse of hegemony at face value rather than to have attended to the silence around which Ursúa's fist is folded.

Aguirre still
YouTube Link: the fantastic final scene.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García

Alfredo Garcia posterIn a crucial scene towards the end of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García, the movie's protagonist Bennie has finally got hold of the eponymous head of Alfredo García, but is stopped in his tracks by the family of the deceased. Somewhere in the middle of Mexico, in front of a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped peaks, Bennie and the Garcías have an armed stand-off, and the former reluctantly gives up his precious cargo. Then all of a sudden, there is an interruption: a tour bus is for some reason traveling along this lonely country road. It can't get by the two cars that are blocking the way, so a member of the García family jumps into their impossibly battered car to move it off the roadway. As the bus then slowly negotiates its way past, those inside wave to the locals outside. And the combatants briefly lower their weapons and doff their caps in order to wave back, the family matriarch clutching her chest the bag that holds Alfredo's now rotting head.

This is an instance of the grisly black humor that characterizes much of the film. Shortly thereafter most of the García clan are gunned down in a bloody shootout and Bennie recovers the battered body part, and is therefore able to resume his part in this off-kilter buddy movie: by this time he has nobody to talk to, and certainly nobody he can trust, beyond the disembodied noggin rolling around his passenger seat and foot-well. But the tourist bus scene also encapsulates one of the movie's most significant themes: the missed encounters and misrecognitions that plague foreigners south of the border.

For Bennie is a gringo, and while when we first meet him he seems to have found his niche in Mexico City, the rest of the movie charts his dramatic decline and fall, although this descent into something like madness (as he starts talking to Alfredo's head) is also of course the achievement of a kind of knowledge.

But the film starts off by playing with audience expectations and images of Latin America. It opens in some unknown Latin American country with a shot of an idyllic scene by a duckpond, but the mood then quickly turns to menace and violence: a young girl is pregnant and her father demands to know the name of the man who has knocked her up. To do so, he's quite prepared to have her knocked about, and makes his henchmen break one of her fingers so that she gasps the name "Alfredo García." Having first dramatically shifted tone from rural tranquility to callous violence, in a second shift we suddenly realize that this is no historical drama, but a parable shot decisively in the present day. As the jefe's men fan out from the hacienda to seek the head of García and so earn a promised $1,000,000 reward, they drive off in sports cars and stationwagons and jump on to planes to land in swank international hotels.

Bennie, meanwhile, is piano man in a fairly seedy bar, but he's well connected (the first person even to have heard of García) and his glass is full of greenback tips. He also has a girlfriend, a singer and prostitute who dreams that they could have a better life together. But the search for Alfredo García, driven by the money he's promised in reward, leads him ever downward such that it's not only his white suit that becomes besmirched, and not only his car that becomes progressively more battered. He loses his woman, who is also his translator (his own Spanish is almost comically bad), and practically loses whatever soul he ever had: desecrating graves, shooting at almost anything that moves.

In the end Peckinpah portrays Mexico as a place in which nineteenth-century codes of honor and shame plus twentieth-century expectations of cash and social mobility together conspire to ensure that the country's heart is rotten, decadent, and corrupt. But Mexico is far from alone in its degradation. In a Mexico City hotel, an impeccably-besuited hired hand is reading a copy of Time with Nixon's impeachment prominently displayed on the cover. Peckinpah's playing out a sense of US decline, the notion that the nation's values come down now to raw power and the profit motive, by means of this dislocated allegory of nihilistic despair. US tourists take bus rides to see the picturesque Mexican villagers, but these images are merely a distraction from the violent money-grubbing that lurks behind every façade. Just before the credits roll, the film's last image is of a smoking gun. And it's pointed right at us.

Everything in the world that this movie depicts is inescapably tainted, grubby, and dirty. The only way out is a kind of suicidal apocalypse, which in turn no doubt only kickstarts once more the cycle of violence.

Alfredo Garcia still
YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Swarm

The Swarm posterThere's some dispute as to how to refer to the bees that feature in the hideously bad disaster flick The Swarm. Though they're generally described as "the Africans," one scientist insists that it's more accurate to call them "Brazilians." For they arrive in the United States by way of South America, and fly to Texas by crossing the Caribbean.

In some ways these killer bees' precise origin doesn't matter: what counts is that they're foreign. The film goes to some lengths to distinguish them from native honey bees. Indeed, the reason why lead scientist Brad Crane (played by Michael Caine) refuses the military's suggestion to drop industrial supplies of pesticide upon the swarm is that the vital US bees would suffer unwanted collateral damage. He screams at the general: "The honey bee is vital to the environment. Every year in America they pollinate six billion dollars' worth of crops. If you kill the bee you're going to kill the crop. And if you kill the plant you kill the people. No! No, general!" And lest we miss the point (for Caine does a remarkable amount of shouting in this movie) and leave the cinema fearing bees of all kinds, the movie's final credit drives the point home:
So the film makes it clear that these foreign bees pose a double threat: to the population at large, but especially perhaps to the industrious American worker.

The potential allegory is patent enough. A brown mass is poised just south of the border, and invades first the Southwest to overcome local residents by sheer force or numbers as well as their lethal but invisible venom, driving out hard-working citizens and installing themselves in their place. The threat first strikes the small-town life of a place such as the film's Marysville, with its hick ways, flower festivals, and touching love triangles between elderly bachelor and spinster schoolteacher. Even the old-fashioned virtues of summer picnics are at risk, because they're everywhere, faceless swarms with their unintelligible murmurs and crafty but unfathomable ways. Next the danger travels to the larger cities, such as Houston. By this time they're unstoppable: they're in the elevators and hallways, almost everywhere you turn.

Latin America is full of dangerous critters: anacondas, piranhas, even creatures from the haunted sea. But The Swarm suggests that the most pressing danger comes from the migrant hordes who slip across the border and infiltrate themselves into our everyday lives.

In the end Crane, side by side with his (rather unbelievable) lover interest Capt. Helena Anderson, hold off the tide at least for the time being. But the movie ends with the definite sense that there will be continued attempts to breach the southern border, and that if anything the next time it will only be worse. Because in fact they're already here, and they've been quietly reproducing: "The invasion didn't just now begin. They have been here for some time, breeding, increasing."

The Swarm still
YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

End of the Spear

When I was little I had a number of Spire Christian comics. I remember several of them, true-life stories of suffering or heroism in the face of great danger and classics of evangelical inspiration: God's Smuggler was perhaps my favorite, an account of "Brother Andrew"'s exploits taking bibles across the Iron Curtain; The Hiding Place described Corrie Ten Boom's activities hiding European Jews during the Holocaust; The Cross and the Switchblade, about David Wilkerson's experiences on the streets of New York; In the Presence of Mine Enemies depicted Howard Rutledge's experience as prisoner of war in Vietnam's "Hanoi Hilton." Each was vivid and exciting; I read them over and over. Evangelical Christianity confronted Communism, Nazism, and even contemporary Capitalism, and in each case performed miracles by changing stubborn hearts and minds.

Through Gates of Splendor coverAnd then there was Through Gates of Splendor. This tale was much more traditional, and if it weren't for the key role played by a little yellow aeroplane, it could have come straight out of the nineteenth century. For this was sacrifice and redemption at the colonial frontier: a hitherto uncontacted tribe, renowned for its savagery, massacres a group of protestant missionaries; in time, however, and with the perseverance of the murdered men's relatives who continue in the field, the killers are both forgiven and saved.

The aptly named Nate Saint and his companions become martyrs, witnesses whose deaths are no longer in vain. And the Waodani tribe, deep in Amazonian Ecuador, are effectively desubalternized.

End of the Spear posterEnd of the Spear tells this story with verve and remarkable technical facility. The jungle cinematography is luscious and accomplished, especially the numerous aerial shots during the first half hour, dedicated to following Saint's role as missionary pilot. The film also shows awareness that a simple conversion narrative is no longer sufficient justification for such disruption of native cultures, so it presents the motivation for Western incursion in terms of reducing Waodani self-harm. Violence internal to the group, we are told, was so endemic that "more than half of all the Waodani died from the spears of other Waodani." In a reverse of, well, of the entire history of colonial contact in the Americas, here the indigenous face extinction precisely because they have not so far been subjected to Western hegemony. The state of nature they live in is unsustainable. And so they have to be persuaded to put their old ways behind them by means of an act of cultural translation, whereby Christian doctrine is posed in the language of native mythology: "Waengongi doesn't want anyone to kill. . . . Waengongi marked his trail with carvings. . . . Waengongi has a Son: He was speared but he didn't apear back. " This is transculturation at work.

Indeed, in a neat coda that runs the risk of being patronizing but just falls short, we see clips from the same director's documentary feature, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, in which Saint's son recounts the estrangement of Western practices (drive-throughs, moving walkways, supermarkets, credit cards) as seen through the eyes of a Waodani tribesman.

So what remains intact and untouched by the film's fascination with transculturation is not then so much the West per se, but its vision of the 1950s. This is the brief moment before contact in which refreshment came from hand-made cordials in glass bottles, in which healthy young men could dance chastely with their wives and girlfriends somewhere in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, in which fathers lovingly crafted toy aeroplanes for their adoring sons. Far then from the notion of a mutual redemption, in which the Waodani learn from the indefatigable missionaries who in turn gain a new family and community among the now civilized savages, the film is laced with a profound nostalgia for the brief years between wartime hardship and contemporary overabundance.

To put this another way, and in the terms of the movie's opening line, there's a certain wistfulness for a time when the world really did seem to be one of "irreconcilable differences." For all the desubalternization and the dream of hegemonization, neither are really shown or developed in great detail. The story's drama depends upon a fundamental clash between the West and its other, not upon the homogenization that reduces the other to mere subordinate (however comically critical) of Western excesses. No wonder the camera lingers so lovingly on forest, native, and missionary alike in this brief moment of bliss that can be sustained only during the first reel. There's an awareness that hegemony doesn't fill a lack; it creates one.

End of the Spear still
YouTube Link: movie trailer. (NB there is lots of footage on YouTube about this movie, including much information about how it was made.)

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Viva Knievel!

Viva Knievel! poster"Buenas tardes," says Frank Gifford, playing himself as an announcer. "That means 'good afternoon.'" And welcome to Viva Knievel!, a film to which subtlety and understatement are completely foreign. Indeed, the tone is set in the very first scene, in which motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel is introduced as a strange combination of Santa Claus and Mother Teresa. He creeps into an orphanage at dead of night to hand out scale action figures of himself to the institution's unlucky residents, not to mention to make the lame walk: "You're the reason I'm walking, Evel!" exclaims one little critter, throwing his crutches away. "You're the reason!" Our hero has even thought to bring some fudge for the nun who oversees the unfortunate, so calming her ire at his unannounced arrival. And when she bids him farewell by calling him "Brother Evel," it ain't no nod to African American homeboy slang. There's a saint among us, and he also looks awful spiffy in his red, white, and blue leather jumpsuit.

As the plot unfolds, it turns out to involve unscrupulous businessman who arrange for Knievel to attempt one of his death-defying stunts in Mexico with the plan of sabotaging his bike and so ensuring the jump is terminal. Then the subsequent coffin-laden caravan can pass unmolested across the border on its return to the USA, so enabling our devilish masterminds to smuggle 3,000 packets of cocaine in a the false panels of a duplicate version of Knievel's outsize trailer. No doubt about it, these are bad, bad men. Thank goodness Evel is around to ensure that their plot is foiled, and while he's at it to unite his mechanic and friend with a long-estranged son as well as to soften the heart of a hard-bitten feminist reporter. Everyone in this film is putty in Evel's tough but tender hands.

Presumably the Mexicans are also enthralled by the presence of their illustrious visitor. A state governor lays on a welcome party and gives him the run of a hacienda. "I've always heard you were the warmest of neighbors, governor, and I appreciate it" Knievel replies. Forthwith, a lovely señorita throws the man a single rose from a nearby balcony. But we never see her again, and indeed on the whole the Mexicans provide no more than such passing decoration. For instance, at the stadium in which Evel is to show off his courage and motorcycling skill, we see a Spanish-language announcer perched in the commentary box next to Gifford, as well as the stands packed with cheering fans, including at least one complete mariachi band, plus a phalanx of Aztec warriors flank the pit of flames that Knievel's bike is to jump. Then at the movie's climax, Evel leads his pursuers a merry dance by riding at speed through a local village ironically called "Verde" (in a petrol-obsessed movie in which otherwise only the grass and the Mexican flag show even hints of green). Chickens, goats, and villagers go flying as the dusty streets become an obstacle course for our man to show off his impromptu driving skills. Otherwise, everyone in this movie, hero and villain alike, is as red, white, and blue as Knievel's jumpsuit, helmet, bike, trailer, and other assorted accoutrements. Even the hospital to which our man's sidekick is taken (in a sneaky attempt to prevent him from revealing the bad guys' dastardly secrets) is run for and by US citizens alone.

So why the Latin touches to Knievel's über-patriotic antics? Why viva Kneivel? Well, the drugs come from Mexico, of course, even if this film suggests that the locals are apparently not crafty enough to organize their own supply lines. But Mexico's also both a seduction and a promise. A seduction in that it's a source of addiction: not only the cocaine to which Evel's protégé falls prey, but also the tequila that is his mentor's not so secret vice. This is a manifestly moral film: Knievel warns against the dangers of drugs at every opportunity. Borders therefore need to be enforced, their and our weaknesses rectified. On the other hand, the porousness of the frontier between North and South offers the promise of universality. Knievel has to be as raucously welcomed in Jalapa as in Long Beach. For sainthood knows no territorial boundaries: Evel's goodness has to rise above its national origins, just as the petty criminal from Butte, Montana managed to transcend his provincial origins to become every young boy's hero and (if this film is to believed) every woman's dream date.

Viva Knievel! stillAnd strangely, it's only in Mexico that he manages to avoid crashing the damn bike.

YouTube Link: documentary footage of the crash that made Knievel's name.

Bonus Link: an impressive collection of Knievel comedy, courtesy of Evel Incarnate.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Under Fire

Under Fire posterPhotography's a strange business. It's second only to cinema itself in its capacity both to document and to distort the real. But unlike the moving pictures, a photographic still stops time dead. It presents a frozen moment, a snap or slice time that, precisely because of its dead immutability, also gains a kind of eternal life. It establishes a series of parallel worlds in which we remain as young as ever, with the same old seventies haircuts or eighties fashion mistakes. And while a movie can also act as a time capsule in this way, a photograph's particular combination of instantaneity and permanence blurs the boundary between death and life more profoundly and more disturbingly.

Just such an almost indecipherable photography lies at the heart of Under Fire. This is a movie that, like Salvador presents the Central American revolutions through a photographer's lens. Indeed, Spottiswoode's film drives the point home even more emphatically than does Stone's: here the protagonist, Russell Price, is a full-time photographer rather than a writer who also wields a lens, and moreover we are continually seeing through his eyes as the moving image on screen stops dead and leaves us, however briefly, with the still that lingers like an afterimage burned on a cinematic retina.

Yes, there's also a love triangle in which Price wins the heart of a fellow journalist at the expense of her former partner. But the most interesting and most important aspect of its film is it examination of the Western gaze and the ways in which we can or should relate to an event such as the Sandinista uprising in late 1970s Nicaragua. A still camera (perhaps even more than a movie camera) offers the promise of detached objectivity. But just as Price chooses to take a picture of his lover's naked back shortly after they first sleep together, lingering over and fixing the image and texture of her skin, so still photography (again perhaps even more than moving film) is all about choosing which moments to record, and which to leave to history's natural fate of evanescence and oblivion. So here Price observes two assassinations, but photographs one but not the other. Both snaps are likely to have an impact on how the revolution is perceived abroad, and the combination would suggest that the rebels are as quick to indulge in impromptu executions as are the government. So Price lets the second moment go, allowing the outrage to come down squarely on the Somocistas.

But the film's central image is not of a death. It's of a man who's already dead, photographed as though he were alive. Price has been seeking to capture the image of the mysterious guerrilla leader, Rafael, but his chance comes only when the rebels ask him to produce what's blatantly a propaganda image, taking advantage of the photographic ambivalence between life and death. The picture he takes of the comandante's corpse brings the guerrillero back to life, and resuscitates a revolution that's on the verge of flagging. It's an intervention designed to short-circuit other interventions: the possibility that the US might send down further resources to bolster a revived dictatorial regime.

Under Fire stillSo beyond the otherwise banal point that any documentation is also inevitably an intervention, Under Fire reveals a fascination with the technology of documentation itself, and the ways in which certain statements or images can be framed or staged in particular ways to gain particular impact. The film happily reveals its own biases, and those of just about every other movie of this genre, by having a Nicaraguan point out that the life of one US citizen is worth more on the international stage than the 50,000 deaths that the struggle has cost. "Maybe we should have killed an American journalist fifty years ago," she comments.

And the movie indulges the notion that a single photographer can also bring the war to an end. On being told that his picture of Rafael would make him famous, Price declares "I've won enough prizes." "But you haven't won a war," comes the response. And this is the fantasy, which in some ways is not so far from the mark: that the photojournalist has the key to a technology that can decide between victory and defeat, life and death, precisely because it makes the difference between the two ultimately undecideable.

YouTube link: the movie trailer.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Emerald Forest

The Emerald Forest posterJohn Boorman's The Emerald Forest sets out to make the invisible visible, all the time aware of the dangers and perhaps the unethical inconsideration involved in precisely such an ambition. This contradiction is of a piece with the paradox of making a film, especially a film that purports to venture deep into the rainforest, that claims to protest the way in which technology denudes the natural world. It's one of the first eco-adventure movies with an environmentalist and subalternist heart, but it remains uneasy with the tensions that this very genre entails.

The "invisible people" are an Amazonian tribe that have so far evaded contact with Western civilization. But all around them they sense that their world, the world as they put it, is rapidly growing smaller. And this contraction is thanks in no small part to the efforts of people such as Bill Markham, a US engineer down in Brazil to clear the land and dam the river. But one day, as though in righteous vengeance, the invisible people snatch Markham's son Tommy as he and his family are sitting down for a picnic at the site of the future degradation. So Tommy too becomes invisible, and remains so for the subsequent decade that Markham and his wife anxiously comb the forest for any sign of him or his kidnappers.

Markham decides to take one more trip upriver, armed with the feathered arrow that was all the Indians left behind, an obnoxious German reporter by the name of Uwe, and rather foolishly as it turns out also with an M-16 carbine. He and the reporter fall into the hands of another tribe, the so-called "fierce people" who understandably live up to their name when provoked by Markham's semi-automatic. Uwe dies a grisly and unmourned death, while Markham sets of running, pursued by savages. Fortunately it's at this point that he finally runs into Tommy, who now goes by the sobriquet Tomme and is a fully-fledged member of the invisible peoples' tribe.

Emerald Forest stillSo where the father had thought to save the child, it turns out that it is Tomme who rescues the man he now calls Dad-dee to distinguish him from his adoptive indigenous father, the tribal chief Wanadi. And Wanadi in turn, sage and sensitive in line with his close empathy with nature, cures Markham of the wounds sustained in his escape from the fierce people. Unfortunately, however, the interloping Westerner has caused more damage than the few scrape he suffered. Along the way he dropped his gun, which the invisible people's enemies are keen and quick to learn to use against them.

Tomme has no interest in returning to his former life in the city, so Bill leaves the forest empty-handed. But when the invisible people come under attack from their M-16-weilding neighbors, who take their womenfolk and send them on into prostitution, not even the old man Wanadi's curative powers can save the day. So Tomme has to leave the forest in search of his biological father who alone can help the tribe rescue their women now dramatically on display for drunken Portuguese-speaking Brazilians in a decrepit brothel at the frontier between the two worlds.

The rescue accomplished, Markham once again tries to convince his (former) son that he should emerge from the jungle, pointing out that the nearly-finished dam that he himself has designed means that further encroachment on their territory is inevitable. And once again Tomme refuses. But both in their own way are now determined that the dam has to be destroyed, so that the Indians can fade back out of sight. The indigenous resolve to employ magic, conjuring up frogs to call down torrential rain; Markham takes a few sticks of dynamite for the same purpose.

And in the end it is not technology that saves the day. The frogs do their stuff while Bill's detonator fails to go off. Yet this is a somewhat limited view of technology, of course: the frogs, too, and the hallucinogenic drugs that the indigenous take to call them forth, not to mention the green stones they employ for their (rather fetching) face and body paint are all technologies in their own way. Presumably Boorman would argue that film can be such a liberating technology, in opposition to the destructive machines that are tearing down the Amazon's trees and threatening indigenous livelihood. But even guns have their uses, as the brothel shootout showed. So the movie displays more an anxiety about its own mechanisms, as well as a certain seduction for the emerald aesthetic of the forest and its peoples, rather than any real sense of how that anxiety could be soothed.

Emerald Forest still
YouTube Link: frolics in the water (French subtitles).

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Friday, November 02, 2007


Posse posterMario Van Peebles's Posse sets out to re-envision the making of the US West, and so also a central aspect of the country's mythological history. The film's claim is that African Americans were central to the movement west: that up to a third of cowboys were black, and for instance also that Los Angeles was a majority black town at its foundation. Moreover, with its street-smart beat and stars such as Isaac Hayes and Big Daddy Kane, the movie wants to draw a direct lineage between the posses of the wild west and the posses of the contemporary urban metropolis.

But the film starts in the Cuban-American war of 1898. Here we meet the movie's protagonist, Jesse Lee (played by Van Peebles himself), and its antagonist, Colonel Graham (Billy Zane). Graham commands Lee and a rag-tag of other mostly black soldiers to undertake a secret mission, in civvies, to intercept a Spanish supply convoy and grab whatever arms and ammunition may be available. But the real object of the raid is gold, and Graham's aim is to frame the men for desertion and then to disappear with the loot. A shoot-out ensues, in which Lee shoots Graham's eye out, and those that survive of Lee's troop become mutineers for real, scarpering off to the mainland to become the film's eponymous posse. Soon they find, however, that the Colonel has raised a posse of his own, and is set on tracking them down, to demand his bullion back, and to seek an eye (or more) for an eye.

This plot overlaps with and is in some tension with another, in which Jesse melts down some of his gold into bullets, for it is only with such precious armament that he can put an end to the demons that haunt him from his past. He sets out West, to the site of a utopian black community founded by his father on peaceful, non-violent lines, but which the elder Lee never got to see as he was brought down and killed by vengeful white vigilantes. One by one these tormentors from the past are dispatched by Jesse's deadly sharp-shooting, and in the process he persuades the community of Freemanville that sometimes it's no crime to stand up for your rights with a show of force. In the middle of the final gun-battle, one character is seen asking "Why can't be just get along?" in an ironic echo of Rodney King's plaint in the context of contemporary white vigilantism. But the entire film is designed to show the myriad reasons why such liberalism is a dead-end for the cause of African American justice.

The film's major contradiction is that it is, well, just a film, and as such its politics consists in the liberal gesture of representation and revisionism. Its charge is that Hollywood has whitened the image of the West, erasing the African American presence from the frontier. In so far as Posse aims to put black faces back in the frame, and for all its representational shock tactics (easily absorbed by the MTV generation, however), it's no more, if no less, than an extension of Black History month.

Posse stillThe film's narrative contradiction, on the other hand, concerns the uneasy interplay between its two plots: the Cuban-American "Buffalo Soldiers" on the one hand, and the lone avenger of the father's shattered dream, on the other. A sign of this tension is the fact that Lee is repeatedly separated from his posse. For his gang is in fact an inter-racial assemblage, forged in the realization that foreign wars such as the intervention on Cuban soil have less to do with liberty than with plunder and the continued exploitation of the US color line. The posse itself, in short, has more to do with class; it is Lee's personal battle with his truncated inheritance that revolves around race.

There's an attempt to bring the two plotlines together: first when the posse rallies round to defend Freemanville, and it is the group's white character who becomes the sacrificial victim for Anglo rage; and second when it turns out that the community's black mayor cares more about money than about solidarity, and is prepared to sell the communal land when the railroad nears and raises property prices. Accordingly he, too, has to die, albeit at white hands rather than black, leaving Jesse racially pure if still uncertain about class.

But the final encounter is with the Colonel, and the principle that the last battle is the most significant suggests that it's the Cuban-American trauma rather than the collapse of frontier utopianism that most marks Jesse's fate. Perhaps Van Peebles is never quite idealistic enough to believe that the failure of non-violent communalism is such a disaster. Still, the fact that he casts his own father in the film, as well as a host of stars from the past, not least the veteran black actor Woody Stode who relates the entire tale as though in flashback, suggests that the director himself can't quite make up his mind about this inheritance of attempts to work within rather than without the system.

YouTube Link: Intelligent Hoodlum, "The Posse (Shoot 'Em Up)".

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Carry On Columbus

Carry On Columbus posterSo was Carry on Columbus Britain's contribution to the cinematic celebrations of 1992's five-hundred year anniversary of Columbus's first voyage? If so, it's a pretty pathetic offering.

The "Carry On" films were never really very funny, certainly not compared to, say, the Ealing Comedies. But they were of their time and illustrated a certain English low-brow kitsch of the 1950s and 1960s. They were the cinematic equivalent of naughty postcards bought in rundown seaside resorts. But that age was well and truly over by the time the series limped to a halt after almost thirty titles, with what are universally agreed to be the dampest of squibs in Carry on England (1976) and Carry on Emannuelle (1978).

The "Comic Strip" gang of alternative comedians that burst on to the scene in the 1980s seemed funny at first. But the novelty soon faded; and in any case, were Alexei Sayle or Rik Mayall (say) actually ever all that amusing?

In any case, Carry on Columbus is fruit of a misguided attempt to update the "Carry On" formula by breathing into it the fresh spirit of the Comic Strip. Unfortunately, what results is a pale imitation of the original, too respectful by half and too happy to rely on the lamest of double entendres and the shallowest of verbal jesting. Any film in which a line such as "Did you give it to her?" is meant to be amusing deserves to fail, and to fail badly. Had the film been a parody of the "Carry On" spirit, rather than its attempted reincarnation, and perhaps therefore traded more on the critical detachment that Julian Clary (the one half-bright spark here) gives to his role, that the film might have been rescued. But alas, no.

The strange thing also is that the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s gained fame initially for its dismantling of existing shibboleths, its political verve, and its cavalier disrespect for much beloved English cultural sensibilities. "Five Go Mad in Dorset", for instance, skewered Enid Blyton almost perfectly, catching the mood of a disenchanted country in the early 1980s, secure only when examining its own insecurities. One would have thought that the history of European imperialism might have merited similar treatment, simultaneously cavalier and thoughtful. But again, alas, no. The weak jokes about the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, are simply a leaf taken out of Sellars and Yeatman's philosophy that "history is all you can remember," without any of the potential political analysis of power, repression, and xenophobia that could have enabled some connection to the present, as exhibited by the best moments of, say, "Blackadder Goes Forth".

Perhaps the one imaginative aspect of this film is the portrayal of American Indians as street-smart wisecrackers who remark to themselves in broad New York accents about how primitive are the gold-grubbing Europeans who have landed on their shores. But this comes only after an hour of tired costume drama that revels only in cleavage and homophobia. Moreover, the portrayal is inconsistent, as the indigenous have to be kitted out with an obligatory shaman, as well as propositions to bed the visiting countess. They do have the last laugh, as they send Columbus and crew packing with what is literally fool's gold. But as with the rest of the film, it's not really much of a laugh in the end.

Carry on Columbus stillThis movie is all about the decline of (one strand at least of) English mass culture, its descent into toothlessly inadvertent self-parody, lacking any other pretensions, political, cinematic, or even humorous. It's a misfiring piece of nostalgia for an England that should have been safely consigned to the past.

The Whippet Inn claims that this film did better at the box office than either Christopher Columbus: The Discovery or Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Whatever the demerits of these other movies... Ugh!

YouTube Link: the film's opening credits.

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