Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Amazing Zorro

The Amazing Zorro DVD coverZorro's reinventions continue apace. The Amazing Zorro is a cartoon feature made for TV: "as seen on Nickelodeon," trumpets the DVD case. The same disc also contains a version of Treasure Island. Zorro is now quite definitely in the same category as Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure tale. Moreover, its durability is surely likewise thanks in part to its untimely anachronism.

The Nickelodeon Zorro (in a film made in fact by a company called DiC Enterprises) very much stays within traditional parameters, much more so than other versions of the tale. The setting is Spanish California in the 1810s, and Don Diego de la Vega is a young aristocrat who (for reasons never fully explained) takes on the Zorro disguise in order to combat injustice. He is aided by his faithful manservant, a mute named Bernardo.

In the movie's opening vignette, Zorro intervenes to save a pair of helpless peasants who are being terrorized by the colonial governor's troops. But thereafter his focus is more often on the local aristocracy, whose lands are subject to state confiscation. So his role is less that of a Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and more that of defending the old order and landowner privileges.

Among these landowners who have fallen on hard times thanks to the governor's depredations is one Don Carlos Pulido. Stripped of all his property except, that is, for one small hacienda in Southern California, Don Carlos takes all his family down to Los Angeles. His daughter, Luisa, soon becomes the film's love interest, an object of attraction for both Diego/Zorro and the local bad guy among the governor's troops, Captain Ramón.

In the film's final confrontation, Ramón and his men burn down Don Carlos's hacienda, but Alejandro de la Vega, Don Diego's father, comes to his fellow aristocrat's defence, joined by Zorro who eventually reveals his true identity to his father in the heat of battle, to encourage him to continue fighting. Ramón is defeated in a dramatic one-on-one swordfight in the local mission, to which Luisa and the rest of the womenfolk has retreated. And the previously louche and lazy scions of the local landed class rouse themselves to usurp power from the governor and place it firmly in the hands... not of the people, but of the benevolent patriarch, Alejandro.

Zorro has always been something of a cartoon figure: the first comic book of the masked crusader came out from Dell comics in 1949; and both Warner Brothers and Italy's Mondo have released animated versions. The Amazing Zorro stands out not only for its faithfulness to the original story but also for its simplicity: everything here is bold swipes and primary colors; this is Zorro in a nutshell, the kernel of the traditional tale passed down to younger viewers via cable TV.

So one innovation in an otherwise not very innovative film is that these young Nickelodeon viewers are given a character of their own with whom to identify: their position is represented within the movie itself in the person of Luisa's younger brother Nico. Nico is rather keener on the story's adventurous and violent aspects than on the romance between Zorro and his sister. And Nico even gets in on the act himself when, in a low pitch of humiliation for the colonial forces, the young kid out-maneuvers Captain Ramón and his men so ensuring Zorro's escape from his pursuers.

Even more striking is another new character: an attractive and feisty young Latina (or perhaps Native American) by the name of Siva who proves to be a mean hand with an axe and turns out to be Don Carlos's family servant. Siva even proves to be a subsidiary love interest, as she and Diego's servant Bernardo quickly hit it off. As well as including its ostensible target audience in the narrative, is Nickelodeon also thinking of the innumerable maids who are forced to watch TV along with the young charges in the Southern Californian mansions of today's idle rich?

YouTube Link: a dubbed version of the battle to defend Don Carlos's hacienda.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008


An index to the Zorro movies analyzed on this blog:

The Amazing Zorro (2002)
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981)
Zorro (1975)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)
Zorro Rides Again (1937)
Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)
The Mark of Zorro (1920)


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Zorro Rides Again

Zorro Rides Again posterAs early as 1937, it seems, Zorro already needed some updating. But no problem: the story proves to be almost infinitely flexible. Zorro Rides Again, another twelve-episode Republic serial, promises its viewers "a New Zorro... More dashing... More courageous... More romantic than his famous ancestor." This is in short "the modern Zorro."

So the setting has moved to the (then) present day. This is a Zorro of planes, trains, and automobiles. Above all, however, of trains. One Manuel Vega and his US partners Joyce and Philip Andrews are building a railroad from California to the Yucatán, that will therefore unite the United States and Mexico for the good of the Mexican people. Unfortunately, these good capitalists are confronted with bad capitalists and their "money-mad plottings." The evil corporate mastermind is one J. A. Marsden, who from his office on the tenth floor of an urban skyscraper directs a band of thugs led by "El Lobo" to sabotage the enterprise in a bid to ensure that Vega and the Andrews sell him their company.

Vega is the great-nephew of the revered folk hero Zorro. So when Manuel dies in episode on and his own nephew James Vega arrives from the city to take over his interest, the newcomer happens to be Zorro's great-grandson. And like a fish to water, young James takes over his great-grandfather's disguise: mild-mannered, bookish, and ineffectual for the most part, he becomes a dashing hero and tireless avenger when he puts on the dark uniform and mask of Zorro.

James also, as part of the same transformation, becomes Mexican. His fluent US accent (presumably picked up at school or university north of the border, though logic is hardly this film's forte) is replaced by a guttural Hispanic pidgin in which he comes out with lines such as "I hav some beesneess wiv El Lobo" and "Did dey say at what time the train would get dere?" So it is not just the train line that will unite north and south: as anglicized James becomes Mexican Zorro and back again, he plays the part of a character who has no clear national allegiance.

But there's a paradox here. Presumably the benefit of the railroad to the Mexican people is that it will bring them modernity. (Though this argument is only ever implicit: apart from Manuel's brief presence prior to his untimely demise, and Zorro's ever faithful manservant and sidekick Renaldo, the only Mexicans we see are confined to the local cantina; everyone working on the railroad itself is American, as are the hired ruffians whose leader El Lobo actually turns out to be named Brad Dace.) Yet modernity can only be assured through a decidedly nostalgic resurrection of the long-dead folk hero. "The spirit of Zorro will never die," we're told, but the film depicts a transition from the Wild West of horses and gunplay in which Zorro once thrived to a new world of machines (including machine guns) in which he will surely become obsolete.

Zorro Rides Again still
As if to deal head-on with this tension, one of the serial's episodes sees Zorro fly to New York. Here he engages in firefights on the roof of one of Gotham City's office buildings, cunningly using his whip in much the same way as Spider-man would many years later use his webbing: to swing through the concrete canyons. He also shows the weaknesses of modern technology, listening in to the radio transmissions by which Marsden transmits his orders to his Mexico-based heavies. More generally, it's as though the film wanted to differentiate not only between capitalists but also between a good modernity that is constructive and still respects tradition versus a bad modernity that seeks only destruction and profit.

But the line between good and bad modernity is as hazy as the line between Mexico and the US, breached in the person of James/Zorro himself. The contradictions of modernization are displaced south of the border because it is taken for granted that a train line has to be of benefit to the Mexican people. But once there, the invocation of tradition to defend capitalist progress simply introduces further complications, rather than the imagined resolution that incarnating in the same person both Mexico and the US, past and present, as first sight seems to offer.

YouTube Link: serial trailer.

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Friday, February 22, 2008


Blow poster"Either one of you guys speak Spanish?" asks Johnny Depp's character, George Jung, near the beginning of Ted Demme's Blow. He and his friends have started up a smallscale drug-dealing operation, and they realize it's time to step up a gear, and so also go to the source. Which is necessarily to go to Latin America. So the next scene sees them South of the Border, in Puerto Vallarta, asking around all the bars and shops: "¿A cómo el marijuana?" "¿Dónde está pot?" "¿El weed?" To deal drugs efficiently and effectively, you have to become at least a little bit Latin.

And such is Jung's trajectory: at first his language skills are abysmal, and he is clearly a fish out of water when trying to negotiate with the locals. But drug runners soon learn how to blend in: how else do they make their way past customs and airport security barriers? A stand-out sequence shows Jung walking through a baggage hall in what is almost a trance, trying to keep calm by fixing his mind on other things: "a fun party, a moment of triumph, a sexual encounter." But there's always some revealing detail that indicates that the mule is not any other ordinary passenger; here, the fact that Jung has gone down to Colombia just for the day, and that his hollow-bottomed suitcase contains a random assortment of clothes, including a pair of women's underwear.

As Jung climbs the narcotraffic hierarchy, his Spanish improves and he even takes on a Latina wife. He becomes increasingly estranged from his all-American Massachusetts upbringing, and not merely because of the massive amounts of cash that he suddenly has to spend. This is a story about the distance that opens up between parents and children: the breach that separates George from his mother and father has much to do with his social and geographic mobility. (Ironically, by contrast he subsequently loses touch with his own daughter thanks to his own later immobility, as federal inmate number 19225004 doing time as a consequence of his border-breaching career.) At the same time, he also becomes increasingly flamboyant. What's the point of pulling in millions of ill-gotten dollars if you don't get a bigger house, a new car, loud clothes? This is the paradox of the drug trade: it's about both blending in and standing out.

The drug trade is in some ways capitalism at its purest: flows of an eminently disposable commodity criss-cross with tidal waves of cash, in both directions in defiance of any attempts at bureaucratic regulation or taxation. Indeed, the film opens with a depiction of the near-seamless chain of production, distribution, and consumption from coca harvest in Colombia to trans-Caribbean plane flight to guys doing a line in Miami. Latin America has the comparative advantage of millennia cultivating the raw product; North America has an almost limitless market for the finished goods. The laws of supply and demand dictate that nothing will get in the way of the transnational trade.

Blow still
But the film also portrays the cultural effects of these hemispheric exchanges. Jung claims essentially to have introduced the cocaine habit to the United States, implanting it first in California among the Hollywood set, from which it then spread irresistibly Eastwards. "It exploded on the American culture like an atomic bomb," we're told. The movie neglects to show the victims of this bomb. Indeed, practically the only victim is George himself, it seems, a smart businessman and loving father who is caught only with his final delivery, whose profits are destined to giving his child a better life. But it emphasizes the massive cultural changes that affect the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, transformations irredeemably connected to the fact that the country is awash with Latin stimulants and narcotics.

In the course of the United States' drug-driven metamorphosis, this movie suggests, it also becomes more cosmopolitan and more colourful, if not necessarily any happier. Blow ends with an image of painful nostalgia, of Jung the prisoner imagining that his now grown-up daughter might visit him in prison. But she doesn't and she won't. With the war on drugs, new enclosures have sprung up as the USA becomes the one of the world's most incarcerated societies. But again, the emphasis is on the barriers between generations: national cultural differences disappear, Americans become Latin which Latins are infused with the American spirit of pioneer capitalism, but implicitly the price to be paid is an unbridgeable chasm between past and present, old and young.

YouTube Link: movie trailer.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Adventurers

The Adventurers posterThe Adventurers is a sprawling (and frankly turgid) three-hour epic detailing the life and times of one "Dax Xenos." We meet young Dax as a young child playing with a dog in idyllic countryside that, we are informed, is the country of "Corteguay, South America" in 1945. The next we know, however, a bullet comes whistling from a nearby hill, the dog has been shot dead, and Dax is running for his life back to the hacienda. So much for childhood innocence.

Corteguay, you see, is caught up in a revolutionary insurrection supported by Dax's father, an otherwise peacable lawyer. But the forces of officialdom, in the person of a Colonel Gutiérrez, are busy conducting reprisals, which involve killing most of Dax's family, having raped the womenfolk, before Dax's wide eyes. The child is infused with the spirit of revenge, as well a certain cynicism towards sexual relations. He eagerly takes the chance to machine-gun some of Gutiérrez's men responsible for the outrage. And later a brief juvenile romance with the revolutionary leader's daughter is somewhat dowsed in cold water when the two watch surreptitiously as two adults cavort naked in the countryside and, in response to the girl's question "What are they doing?" the boy replies "I suppose he's raping her." "Raping?" "He rapes her and she rapes him." "Let's do it," suggests his playmate. "No," Dax sternly replies. "You are too young. And I think I have to kill you afterwards."

For all that the movie may have set out to offer a critique of such cynicism, in fact it never really shakes off the impression that first bad things happen, and then later they happen again. That's just the South American way.

So the revolutionary leader General Rojo naturally enough becomes as tyrannical, or perhaps more so, than the leader he has overthrown. He is more concerned to build opulent palaces than to feed the poor, and he callously sacrifices his former friends on the altar of his own in ambition. In turn he therefore ultimately faces a guerrilla uprising, in which the now adult Dax participates. Almost at the end of the movie, the new young Turk invades the country's radio station and broadcasts to the nation the news that "Corteguay belongs to the Revolution." At which General Rojo, listening to this message in his now ruined throne-room, mutters to himself that "Corteguay will always belong to the Revolution."

In between these opening and closing vignettes of recurrent and inevitable violence, we follow Dax as he grows up far from his native land, in opulent Italy. Here he cavorts with the aristocracy, beds a succession of beautiful rich young women (including for a while as a paid gigolo), and hones his sullen, inexpressive persona. "He just does not feel," as another character says of our unlikeable hero. This, however, is not quite true: Dax is hot on feelings of revenge and (quite possibly also self-)hatred. He's simply less adept at the tenderer side of life.

Europe is little better than Latin America in the movie's cynical portrayal: admittedly, there is are rather fewer massacres or political assassinations, but all the luxury and wealth in the world hardly conceals the coldness of ritual debauchery in which people are either objects for brief sensual gratification or pawns for ambition's advancement. The only likeable character throughout is the Xenos family's faithful old retainer, a buffoon-like figure with the ironic nickname "Fat Cat." He's fat, but not from the profits of aristocratic hauteur, commercial double-dealing, or absolute power. He's the endless second fiddle, the closest thing that Dax has to a conscience.

Perhaps, as the 1960s came to an end, the world really did look as miserable as this film (released in 1970) makes it out to be: superannuated decadence in Europe, superficial gaiety in the USA, and permanent unrest in the periphery. "Dax" may sound like a brand of soap powder, but through him we see only the grubby underbelly of global so-called civilization, and no sense that anything is about to change. Disillusion is all.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Zorro's Fighting Legion

Zorro's Fighting Legion posterZorro's Fighting Legion, a popular and critically well-regarded twelve-part serial from 1939, takes our masked crusader away from his native California, placing him at the heart of newly-independent Mexico. The young republic is still struggling to find its feet, and the opening seen anachronistically portrays Benito Juárez urging the local councilors of a place called San Mendolito to come to their country's aid. Their region contains Mexico's most important gold mine, whose product is needed to establish foreign credit, buy arms, and shore up the fledgling democracy. Unfortunately someone or something in San Mendolito has altogether other ambitions.

The local Yaqui Indians have been visited by their mythical golden god, one Don-del-Oro, who is stirring them up to rebellion in the name of vengeance against the white man and the deity's own dreams of overthrowing the Republic and installing himself as Emperor. The Indians, with the help of various local thugs, are to divert both gold and munitions to this treacherous plot. Moreover, the rebels have friends in high places, as half the councilmembers seem to be on their side. Can it be, indeed, that Don-del-Oro is no god but rather a local notable dressed up in clumsy fancy dress?

Here comes Zorro (and his legion of well-wishers and similarly masked helpers) to uphold the rule of law and figure out the mystery. It takes him the whole of the twelve episodes, but yes indeed Don-del-Oro proves to be (wait for it) the local Chief Justice. Hence in a curious symmetry, our hero, with his double life as both foppish dandy Don Diego black-clad avenger Zorro, is faced with an enemy who is similarly doubled: a respectable councilmember who takes on the guise of fiendish pagan idol. What's more, it is only when disguised that each reveals his true nature: Zorro's as the dashing and virile hero; Chief Justice Pablo's as faithless enemy of the nation. And the final irony is that it is the bandit who most ferociously upholds the rule of law, while it is the judge who does everything in his power to circumvent or abolish it.

Of course, our sympathies are steadfastly with Zorro: Don-del-Oro is by turns comically robotic and a sinister rabble-rouser. But if we stop and think about it, old metalhead has a point when he denounces the injustice of the white man taking away indigenous gold. Indeed, for most of the serial's twelve episodes Zorro's patriotic zeal is such that the rather forgets to stand by the downtrodden, and happily shoots at indigenous people if and when they stand in his righteous way. It is only at the very end that he figures out that the best way to avoid a subaltern insurgency is to establish some kind of rapprochement between indigenous and white: by saving the tribal chief's life and showing him that the people's god is just a guy in a yellow suit, Zorro presents himself as friend of the Yaqui and blood brother to main man Kala.

But if the story is a warning against the dangers of populism, much like The Wizard of Oz (which came out the same year), the danger of placing the action in a real country rather than in a magical land is that it's harder to elide the real force of populist demands. Fortunately for the film's logic, these Yaqui Indians are invested with all the humanity of Oz's munchkins. But then that merely makes the final turn to seal a peace treaty with these credulous and barely clothed savages all the more curious. Zorro evades the problem by heading back to California as soon as the action is over: mission accomplished; he's won the war south of the border, so why should he stick around to deal with the complex problems of daily governance?

What drives the serial is the tension of the end-of-episode cliffhanger. Eleven times in a row, Zorro has to extricate himself from the diciest of predicaments (a severed rope bridge, a plunging mine elevator, a rampaging flood, an incredible shrinking room). Each time we are left briefly to wonder "What happens next? Will our hero ever survive?" But it is his final extrication, from the perils of peace and the fragility of liberal hegemony, that should give us most pause for thought.

Now how will he get out of this one?

YouTube Link: the final confrontation with Don-del-Oro.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008


This is the one hundredth post on this most intermittent of blogs. Not bad. More to come.


Monday, February 18, 2008


Octopussy posterAlmost every Bond movie (Dr No being a significant exception) starts with a pre-credit sequence in which 007 is seen in a brief episode of high-octane derring-do. Though often only tangentially connected to the films that follow, these brief teasers are often very memorable in themselves: The Spy Who Loved Me opens with a famous stunt in which the British agent skis off a cliff only for the canopy of a Union Jack parachute to open over him, while the recent version of Casino Royale features a lengthy parkour-style chase with Sebastien Foucan.

For Octopussy, the thirteenth film in the official franchise, the pre-credit sequence takes place somewhere in Latin America. It's not entirely clear where, in part because here this episode is even more starkly removed from the rest of the action then usual: in what follows, a merry romp that takes Bond from London to India and Germany (both East and West), no mention is ever made of an earlier trip to the Americas.

Perhaps we're in Cuba: that would seem to be the reference intended by the numerous bearded army types in olive-green uniforms. Or it might be Argentina: that's what's suggested by the horsey atmosphere of the show-jumping event at which Bond makes his appearance. But as always with Bond, and especially in this movie, it doesn't really pay to ask too many questions. Why after all is the show-jumping taking place right next to what's apparently a military airfield in which some kind of top-secret weapon is being installed into the nosecones of fighter planes? Who knows or really cares: the stunt's the thing.

And so the Commander's horsebox is soon shown to contain a dummy equine that in turn conceals a miniature jetplane with folded wings. Bond takes to the sky and engages in a cat and mouse chase (he being the mouse) with an incoming heat-seeking missile that he cunningly manages to divert so that it blows up the aircraft hangar that seems to have been his intended target in the first place. Only then does he realize that he'd forgotten to fill up with gas that morning, so he lands on a roadway and rolls up to a gas station, asking the bemused attendant to "Fill her up, please."

Octopussy still
The pre-credit sequence is both diversion and invitation, teasing delay and full-throttle initiation into the world of Bond, James Bond. It's a Bond movie without even the pretence of a plot: winging it (quite literally) on formula alone, from sultry maiden to nifty gadget, exotic locale and tongue-in-cheek humor. It's a sketch for a movie that might have been, a reminder that what follows is but one chapter in the fast life and times of Britain's number one special agent.

And Latin America, in this movie at least, is also a mid-point: it's where authoritarian regime meets tropical colour, where East meets West, and we meet Bond. It's neither as staid as London, as grim as East Germany, or as over the top as Delhi. It's peripheral and excessive, but in this film in which excess is everything (subplot upon subplot, two villains, two Fabergé eggs, even two Bond girls) it's also the axis around which everything turns. For we'll return to an airforce base at the film's climax, but this time Bond's task will be to defuse a bomb, to prevent a (nuclear) explosion rather than to set one off. So the Cuban/Argentine scene at the start is equally a foretaste and comic double of the (supposedly) serious threat that lies at the heart of the movie's ragged plot. It's a seven-minute obverse of the film as a whole.

YouTube Link: the pre-credit sequence.

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