Thursday, April 23, 2009


Fitzcarraldo (1982) portrays a European man impassioned to the verge of madness with the goal of building an opera house deep in the Amazon Basin. The opera house never becomes more than a gleam in his eye but the film is centered on a spectacle of even greater proportions. Director Werner Herzog drew his inspiration for Fitzcarraldo from an event the life of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a nineteenth century rubber tycoon, in which he had his approximately thirty-ton boat disassembled and transported over a Peruvian isthmus in the search for new rubber exportation routes.

Herzog aggrandized this event for his film, envisioning a promethean undertaking that would illustrate the maximum of the human capacity to surmount barriers when driven by a passionate idea. The result is an astounding scene in which Fitzcarraldo mobilizes an indigenous tribe to drag his steamboat over a mountain, a feat Herzog directed entirely without special effects. In Fitzcarraldo, as is apparent in the documentary Burden of Dreams, Herzog expresses his ambivalent relationship with Latin America through his protagonist. Like Herzog, Fitzcarraldo is spiritually moved when he experiences the landscape as sublime but at the same time repelled by perceiving it as vicious and base.

The film begins with a “civilization versus nature” motif that is ongoing. The first scene pans over the Amazon Basin, which appears prehistoric, then cuts to a grandiose theater in Manaus, Brazil. Fitzcarraldo (played by Klaus Kinski) arrives with his lover Molly via a rowboat, and the flustered pair stumbles into the theatre for the final scene of an opera starring Caruso. Fitzcarraldo catches the idea of building an opera house to bring Caruso to his town of Iquitos like one catches a fever. He becomes agitated and reckless, screaming from the bell-tower that Iquitos must have an opera house and drunkenly insisting that his contemporaries share his rapturous appreciation for opera. A sympathetic Don Aquilino shows him a regional map where there is an unexploited tract of rubber trees on the side of an isthmus that is inaccessible due to treacherous rapids.

Fitzcarraldo eagerly purchases the tract of land and a steamboat, signing a contract with the Peruvian government to productively use the land within nine months. The voyage southward is initially leisurely and filled with surreal elements, such as the partially blind captain who warns that the jungle impedes the ability to discern between reality and illusion. However, as the steamboat enters the territory of an allegedly headhunting tribe, a sinister mood intensifies to the point that most of the crew abandons ship. Tribesmen board the ship soon afterward, but do not harm the crew because they believe that gods in a white vessel will bring them salvation. Though they do not consider the crew to be gods, Fitzcarraldo intends to use their fixation with the ship unscrupulously to his advantage.

The steamboat finally reaches the isthmus. Fitzcarraldo plans have it pulled overland, used to exploit the rubber trees, pulled back and returned to Iquitos until he has sold enough rubber to finance the opera house. In the following months the indigenous people toil until the steamboat is dragged over the blasted and deforested mountain by a series of pulleys. However, the night after it reaches the opposite bank the tribesmen cut it loose, sending it northward towards the deathly rapids. The ship is heavily battered but survives, as does its crew of four men. Fitzcarraldo learns that the indigenous people toiled for their own ends, believing that delivering the sacred vessel would quell the rapids. Because Fitzcarraldo is now destitute Don Aquilino repurchases the steamboat. With this cash, Fitzcarraldo converts it temporarily into a theatre stage to carry an Italian opera production past the shores of Iquitos, thereby realizing a smaller-scale and fleeting version of his original dream.

Compared to their temperate environment, colonial Europeans cast the tropical environment of Latin America as both awe-inspiring for its beauty and grandeur and loathsome for its chaotic, promiscuous and pestilent growth. This conflicting projection is present in Fitzcarraldo, as is the typically colonial concept of nature as something to be conquered by technology and refined by culture. Fitzcarraldo is constantly antagonized by nature and he fights back with dynamite and opera. Interestingly, such attitudes do not only belong to the nineteenth-century characters but to the director himself, as is clear in Burden of Dreams. Herzog’s own feelings of desperation, wretchedness and struggle seem to permeate the film.

The native people of the Amazon have no notable roles or dialogue. We learn very little about their culture, but Herzog does subtly satirize European misrepresentations them as shrunken head collectors and the objects of civilizing projects. Fitzcarraldo simultaneously romanticizes the native people, by likening their belief system to a type of opera, and abuses them by working them to the bone. However, Fitzcarraldo is more akin to them in their indomitable spirit that is capable of moving mountains for an abstract belief than to his social class of rubber barons and railway tycoons, whose only aim and skill lies in finding the easiest way to make the most money.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Magnificent Seven

Magnificent Seven posterThe Magnificent Seven (1960) is a Western modeled on Japanese director Akira Kurusawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), about seven gunmen hired to liberate a Mexican village from routine pillaging by bandits.

The Magnificent Seven opens with bandits, led by a scoundrel named Calvera (played by Eli Wallach), raiding a humble Mexican village while its inhabitants stand frozen and helpless. At their wits end, they consult their elder and he insists on confronting the enemy, sending them to the border to buy guns. The meek farmers are doubtful, but they go anyway. In an American town, the farmers witness two gunslingers called Chris (played by Yul Brynner) and Vin (played by Steve McQueen) displaying their valor by driving a hearse containing a dead Native American to the cemetery despite the ire of prejudiced locals. They appeal to Chris to work for them and he agrees to bring together some good gunmen, even though the farmers offer them a pittance in exchange. Aside from Vin, Chris succeeds in hiring a fortune-hunter named Harry, a tough Irish-Mexican named Bernardo O’Reilly, a reserved knife-thrower named Britt, and an outlaw named Lee. The six of them head down south and are trailed by an impetuous young Mexican named Chico, who Chris eventually accepts as a member of the group.

The villagers are too frightened to greet the foreigners and during the fiesta the next day the Americans merely watch and wait. They kill three of Calvera’s spies so that their presence remains secret. The following scenes depict the Americans working alongside the Mexicans to assemble traps and barricades, and to instruct them on how to operate guns. The Americans are portrayed as determined, patient and earnest teachers and the Mexicans as willing, but not always able students. Their first battle is a great success, due to catching Calvera and his men off-guard within the newly-fortified village, and they send the survivors high-tailing out. The victory fills the farmers with a newfound sense of bravado, but it is quickly dampened when they consider that Calvera may return. Cracks begin to appear in the rough-and-ready attitude of the seven. Vin yearns after the things he has sacrificed as a hired gunman: a home, a wife and a family. Lee has terrible nightmares and lives in fear of the final shootout when he will loose. Both the Mexicans and Americans argue amongst themselves whether to risk fighting Calvera again or reinstate the status quo. Chris and three Mexicans speak ardently to the others about the need to carry on.

When the seven return to the village one night, they are ambushed by Calvera and his gang, who humiliates them by demanding that they remove their gun belts and leave for good. With a surprising lack of foresight, Calvera only seized their guns to show the villagers who was boss, and returns their guns once the seven are outside the village. All but the wealth-driven Harry have become attached to the village, either for sentimental reasons or personal honour, and they return the next day for an intense shootout. They are outnumbered and casualties are high. Harry, who has a change of heart, is shot dead upon arrival, followed by Lee, Britt and O’Reilly. The farmers fight valiantly with nothing but chairs and spades, but Chris is the one to finally kill Calvera. In the final scene, three of the remaining seven are thanked by the village elder, and as Chris and Vin ride away, Chico turns back to remain with a Mexican girl whose infatuation draws him uneasily away from the footloose lifestyle of the older men.

The Magnificent Seven could not more clearly be an allegory for U.S. interventionism. Following cultural studies theorist Stanley Corkin, the film references a liberal interventionist model, one that seeks to improve social justice and material conditions abroad, and was produced when U.S. interventionism was viewed positively after the Korean War (1950-1953). At the outset of the film, the protagonist is shown risking his personal safety to ensure that the body of a Native American is treated with equal dignity. The task is apparently taken as a dare, but its moral undertones are clear. The personal motivation behind this act is not explained, nor is the fact that he organizes six other men to fight bandits in Mexico for a dismal wage. Moments before death, Calvera asks Chris incredulously: “You came back, to a place like this, why? A man like you, why?” The villain cannot recognize that Chris simply wanted to extend the liberties enjoyed in America to the Mexicans. These liberties include being free from persecution and also being free to accumulate wealth; it is emphasized that the village is poor because Cavera takes all of their surplus crops. This benign intervention has a cost, as is seen by the graves of the dead Americans. However, the final scenes show their success in leaving the village more peaceful, stable and productive.

The relationship between the Americans and Mexicans in The Magnificent Seven is incredibly paternalistic. The Mexicans passively accept being downtrodden by Calvera until the Americans bolster their courage, and they lack the gunmanship and strategy for counter-attack until given them by the Americans. This relationship of student/follower/recipient versus teacher/leader/provider is even expressed in the physical and verbal interactions of the two groups. The Mexicans are often seated when the Americans are standing, or in other formations that give the Americans greater stature. Often one American will address a group of Mexicans, and they will pipe up one after the other in a childlike fashion. The film does attempt to garner some respect for the Mexicans by suggesting that their bravery exceeds that of the Americans, having chosen the responsibilities of family and farming rather than being roaming mercenaries. At the same time, America emerges as a superior entity in The Magnificent Seven for its commitment to and capacity for delivering freedom to the oppressed.

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Commando posterCommando (1985) is a typical 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick, complete with rippling muscles, rocket launchers, and cheesy comebacks. This particular version of the film formula has Schwarzenegger as retired Special Forces commando John Matrix, who has left the testosterone-filled world of guns and violence in the U.S. Army for some quality time with his daughter, Jenny. Slightly unsettling scenes of the massive, tanned and muscular John feeding deer in the woods with Jenny, going fishing with her, and chucking her effortlessly around in a swimming pool attest to the happiness he has found without his old action-filled life. However, his former life has not yet let him go. It begins to catch up with him in the murders of all of his former commando team members, despite their new hidden identities. General Franklin Kirby, John's former leader in the Army, arrives by helicopter to John's secluded house in the Californian mountains to inform him of these events, and to drop off a few men to protect him. The minute Kirby's helicopter flies away, John smells something on the breeze and drops to the ground on top of Jenny - just in time - as a number of men begin shooting at the house from the forest. The guards John was given are killed, and as John runs to his tool shed to get some weapons, Jenny is kidnapped by the mystery attackers who speed away in two cars. John is not ready to give up, however, and chases the kidnappers down with his Bronco, which he crashes. The men proceed to kidnap John as well and take Jenny and him to an unknown location, where the motive behind the kidnapping becomes clear. Exiled president of the fictional Latin American country of Valverde, Presidente Arius, promises to return John's daughter to him if John goes down to Valverde and assassinates the country's new president. Arius' henchmen, all Valverdians, are led by a former member of John's Special Forces Unit, Bennett, who has a grudge against John for having kicked him out of the unit. John reluctantly agrees to the demands.

John is taken to the San Diego airport with Jackson and Sully, two of Bennett's brutes, who will ensure he gets on the next flight to Valverde. Jackson and John get on the airplane while Sully watches from the airport until the plane takes off. As soon as they get to their seats in the airplane, John inconspicuously breaks Jackson's neck and covers him with a blanket and pillow to make him look like he is sleeping. He then makes his way to the cargo section of the plane and drops down to the tarmac via the landing gear. Sully doesn't see this. John has only 11 hours, the duration of the flight, to find Jenny, because when Arius' men in Valverde see that John has not arrived, Jenny will be killed. John finds Sully in the airport and follows him to the parking lot, where Sully is harassing a young flight attendant who is getting into her car. Sully is rebuffed and goes to his car while John sneaks up behind the young woman and commands her to follow Sully, jumping into her car with her. Terrified, she does as she is told. They follow Sully to a shopping mall, where he goes into a restaurant to do a deal with a mystery man. John tells Cindy, the flight attendant, to get Sully's attention and bring him to corner where John will wait for him. Cindy doesn't follow John's instructions and instead notifies the mall security guards that she is being abducted by John. The guards try to apprehend John, but he easily kicks their butts; however, in the process he attracts Sully's attention. Sully tries to shoot John, runs to his car, and drives away. John runs to Cindy's car and is about to speed away to chase Sully alone, but Cindy gets in the car and insists that she be part of the action. They chase Sully up into some secluded roads, flip his car, and John drops Sully off of a cliff. Before killing him, John gets a hotel room key from Sully's pocket. Taking Sully's car, John and Cindy, who is now sympathetic to John's cause and wants to help, they drive to the hotel, where they search for clues. They find a receipt from an airplane fuel service, which Cindy recognizes. As they are about to leave, another of Arius' henchmen arrives and a scuffle between John and him ensues, in which Cindy screams helplessly from the corner. John kills the henchman by impaling him on a bedpost. John and Cindy drive to "Surplus City", a closed department store, and break in using a nearby bulldozer. John steals dozens of weapons, from grenades to assault rifles to machine guns to a rocket launcher...all available at the neighborhood "Surplus City". The police show up and arrest John, alerted by all the bulldozing action. Cindy manages to sneak away with all the weapons. As John is driven away in a police van, Cindy follows in the car. She takes out the rocket launcher, and after accidentally firing backwards (it is her first time using a rocket launcher, after all), blows up the police van. John miraculously escapes unscathed, jumps into the car, and they are on their way.

John and Cindy drive to the address they find on the fuel receipt, which is a warehouse on the water. There they find maps indicating the location of a mystery island two hours north of San Diego along the coast. They also conveniently find a seaplane on the wharf, which Cindy, who is getting her pilot's license, can fly. Just as armed guards begin shooting at them, they fly away with the destination of the mystery island where Jenny is being held. Two hours later, they arrive. John tells Cindy to try to radio General Kirby for backup while paddling to shore in a speedo, all his body-builder's splendour exposed. When he reaches shore, he straps an impossible amount of weapons to his body, paints himself dark green, and sneaks up to a complex of army barracks filled with Latin American (presumably Valverdian) soldiers. In a matter of minutes he takes on at least fifty soldiers, mowing them all down with a machine gun after politely asking, "Como esta?". He also manages to blow up the five buildings of the complex and run into the woods to find Jenny's location. At this moment, the airplane John was supposed to be on arrives in Valverde, and Arius' men find the body of his seatmate. They call Arius, who authorizes the murder of Jenny, unaware that John has just arrived to his extravagant villa armed to the teeth. As Bennett enters the room where Jenny was held with a knife to kill her, he realizes that the clever little Jenny has escaped. Bennett begins to chase Jenny around the house. John, after having a marvelously successful shootout with the dozens of guards that surround the house and killing Arius, finds Bennett and Jenny in the operations room. Bennett catches Jenny and threatens to kill her, but John manages to convince Bennett that the fight is between the two men and that Jenny must be left out of it. The usual ten-minute action sequence in which the two huge enemies exhibit their massive strength and fighting skills follows, culminating in Bennett's being impaled by a steam pipe. Panting, John remarks, "Let off some steam". He picks up Jenny and they walk to the shore. General Kirby has just arrived with his soldiers, but John tells him all that is left on the island is bodies. Kirby asks John to come back to the Special Forces, but John refuses, smiling down at Jenny. Cindy awaits with the seaplane and the strange new little family climbs aboard and flies away.

Valverde is the typical anarchic Latin American state, victim to constant regime changes, sporadic violence, and external political manipulations. Arius has been deposed as president of the nation and must for some reason coerce an American Special Forces commando to get him back in power, seemingly unable to do so himself. It seems presidents come and go in Valverde, without any role for its people. The only scene that takes place in Valverde shows a street filled with vendors, and has a decisively Mexican flavour. The two gangsters sent to pick up John Matrix walk past a cement wall that is plastered with large prints of Arius crossed off with red ink, signalling a place of political unrest and instability. Arius himself is a darkly tanned, scowling man with a thick gold chain nestled among his dark chest hair. He is ruthless, power-hungry, and manipulative. If Arius is to be president of Valverde, Valverde is lost. It is surprising that Arius is unable to re-take Valverde's presidency, given the huge amount of Valverdian soldiers that surround him; hundreds of green-clad dark-skinned army men with mustaches swarm around him, yelling at each other in Spanish. They are very evil; they are overheard gleefully anticipating the torture of young Jenny, and boasting that "cutting the skin of a young girl is like cutting butter with a hot knife". They are also utterly useless, evidently, as John kills every single one of them without so much as a scratch.

This film follows the theme of namelessness and anonymity of Latin American countries. Valverde is a fictional country with a generic Spanish-sounding name. No details about its culture or geography are given, because these have little importance. Neither is the political situation well-explained, as this is not importance either. Latin America is just a place, a featureless setting. What is really important is that Valverde has produced a bad guy that threatens John Matrix' life, and he must be destroyed.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Day Without a Mexican

A Day Without a Mexican (2004) is a mockumentary that imagines what would happen were all the Mexicans to disappear from California. The movie stresses the role of the media, and so it begins with an emergency news broadcast announcing that “the Mexicans are all gone.” Next the scene shifts to a few days before the disappearance and shows a montage of Mexicans working at various jobs, to show how Mexicans are an integral part of California life. But it remains to be seen of how much their contributions are appreciated, as an interview with the California State Senator Stephen Abercrombie (John Getz) reveals that he has to defend himself against his wife hiring illegal immigrants to paint their living room. Next the images move to an anti-immigration protest on the Mexico-California border where activists complain that Mexicans are taking jobs from Americans, eating up the economy’s welfare, and bringing drugs into the country. Budding news reporter Lila Rod (Yareli Arizmendi) is then shown auditioning for employment at the local news station. A man from the station tells her not to Americanize her Spanish seeing as many Latinos have no career without their accents. A contrast of immigration views is then presented between a father and son; the father whose best friend is a Mexican working on his farm, and the son who suffers from the prejudice paranoia that the Mexican workers will hurt his child or his father’s business.

Then, rather abruptly, all the Mexicans begin disappearing. The only explanation is a strange fog that is surrounding California, cutting off all communication to the rest of the world. The effects of such a loss begin to reveal themselves: farmers lose their entire crops because they don’t have any labourers; no garbage clean-up; no maids or nannies; no celebrity latinos; no workers employed at minimum wage jobs. The problems begin to multiply; not to mention the confusion as Latinos disappear while driving, causing their cars to veer wildly in the streets, one of which hits Lila Rod while she is driving in her car. Senator Abercrombie (who is now acting governor because his superiors are also Latinos gone missing), declares a state of emergency. Is it terrorism? Is the military kidnapping unsuspecting people? Others believe that the apocalypse is upon them and is taking the most faithful first. As the days trudge along, the Caucasian population falls to pieces as they have to perform the menial tasks that the Mexicans had previously taken care of. Restaurants close due to no servers, cooks, dishwashers, or fresh food. The drug trade becomes secondary to the thriving ‘fresh fruit and vegetable’ trade. The border patrol attempts to clean up their image which projects them as racist nationalists, an image not unfounded by the characters.

Eventually it is discovered that Lila Rod (or Rodriguez) is the only Mexican left untouched by the ‘disappearance epidemic’. She is at first worshipped as a sign of hope in these dark days as she donates her body to science in an attempt to discover why she is ‘the missing link’. But her popularity soon turns sour as the remaining racist Californians begin to celebrate the disappearance. Lila soon realizes that the government’s primary objective is to safeguard the rest of the population against disappearing (with a vaccine made from Lila’s blood), and secondary is to find the missing Mexicans. When the scientists express that they want to ‘flatline’ Lila to see if she can go to a parallel world to discover where all the Mexicans are, her Aunt Gigi confesses that Lila is actually Armenian and her Mexican ‘parents’ had kindly taken her in as their own daughter. Lila breaks down and wails that “love is thicker than blood” and that her heart is Mexican. With that, she disappears, despite being Armenian.

At this point there are 13 million people missing. As all the main characters sadly reminisce about their absent loved ones, a small drop of water falls from above each of them; an act somewhat similar to christening. They have completely transformed their views of Mexican immigrants and have realized how essential each person is to California and the people there within. The fog then magically clears up and the Mexicans all reappear, just as they were, with no memory of the event. They are welcomed back with appreciation, love, and public displays of affection. Perhaps the most comical reception is when the entire border patrol descends on two unsuspecting Mexicans trying to cross the border. The officers can’t believe their eyes and ask them, “¿Son Mexicanos ustedes?” (Are you Mexican?); and an affirmative reply results in an eruption of cheers as the border patrol hug the two illegal immigrants and carry them around on their shoulders. The two Mexicans look at one another and agree that, “Damn, these Americans are fucking cool!”

The film is interspersed with details of the Mexicans vital role in California’s society, such as:

*Thanks to the Mexicans, California is the world’s fifth largest economy.
*20% of all K-12 California students are Hispanic.
*Mexicans comprise a third of all Californian consumers.
*Eight of the L.A. Dodgers are Latinos.
*60% of California’s construction workers are Mexican.
*Mexicans contribute to the economy far more than they take from it in social services.

The reality of American ignorance regarding Mexican identity also goes on display when Abercrombie comments that he doesn’t want illegal Mexicans from Guatemala or Honduras working for him; or when a meter maid comments that they’re all Mexicans south of the border, prompting a message on the screen which states that there are in fact 40 countries south of the US-Mexico border. The devastation in the aftermath of the disappearance questions previous prejudices, such as the Mexicans stealing employment opportunities; whereas afterwards, the remaining Americans are forced into the hard-labour jobs which they loathe. The social message presented becomes an issue of humanity, not race. A colleague comments to Lila that California now needs the Mexicans, and she replies, “I wish they could have heard that before.” This film blatantly states the obvious: For a state which is dependent upon Mexicans for its survival, the non-Hispanic population certainly does not view the societal role of Chicanos, as well as those seeking citizenship, as vital.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Million to Juan

A Million to Juan (1994) is a rags-to-riches Chicano comedy which overtly illustrates the disparity between rich, white Americans and broke, struggling Chicanos. Ten-year-old Alejandro Lopez (Jonathan Hernandez) introduces a collection of characters, starting with his father Juan (Paul Rodriguez), who has an affinity for being penniless even though he is the master of odd jobs. Alejandro gets babysat regularly by the neighbours, Mrs. Gonzales and her daughter Patricia, and he lives with his father (his mother died 3 years earlier) and two uncles: Jorge and Alvaro, who cry during their beloved Spanish soap-operas. Their place of residence is a run-down apartment in East L.A. owned by Mr. Jenkins, a crabby landlord who lets only Mexican immigrants live in the building so that he can report them to immigration services if they complain. One afternoon, Mrs. Gonzalez performs a small spiritual ritual on Juan, complete with candles and air freshener, which is specifically designed to ask the saints to bestow wealth upon Juan. That night, Juan discusses job opportunities with his brothers and he realizes that he will have to work for Hector Delgado by selling oranges on street corners; a job which he swore he’d never do.

After Juan’s trampy girlfriend Anita starts to date Hector and Juan doesn’t think his life can get any worse, a white limo pulls up to the street corner where he’s selling oranges. The back window cracks open a few inches and an anonymous hand presents Juan with an envelope. In the envelope is a cheque for one million dollars addressed to Juan Lopez and a note that states the terms of the ‘experiment’: If Juan returns the cheque in 30 days to the same limo, he will receive a gift. Everyone is dubious of the cheque’s authenticity, but Olivia (Polly Draper), Juan’s kind and beautiful immigration officer, suggests that Juan verify the cheque at the bank, just to be sure; especially when Juan has been rejected for a green card and may be deported to Mexico within the week. The cheque turns out to be authentic and Juan is immediately treated with respect wherever goes. He and his brothers head out on a shopping spree in Beverly Hills, buy a Mercedes, and Juan even gets invited to the bank manager’s cocktail party. He gets credit at stores which had refused him earlier and restaurants bring him drinks which he hasn’t ordered; all he has to do is flash the cheque. While out with his son at a Mexican restaurant, Juan bumps into Olivia, who can’t believe that the cheque was real. They make a dinner date in order to discuss plans of Juan opening a small business; while Olivia’s boyfriend Jeff grumpily leaves the restaurant due to his great dislike of everything Mexican.

Although Juan is now able to live a rich lifestyle, he doesn’t ever forget his responsibilities or lose his kind demeanor. At the dinner date, Olivia advises Juan to open a restaurant on account of his excellent cooking skills. They both become more interested in one another as the night progresses and then, seeing as Olivia has already been invited to the bank manager’s cocktail party through Jeff, they decide to meet one another there to act as moral support against the snobbery of the other guests. Juan arrives at the party only to be immediately labeled as a valet by those who don’t know him (due to his Hispanic descent), or complimented profusely by those who know about his new-found wealth. He soon escapes to the balcony where a man in a white suit approaches him and asks him questions about his employment. Juan lies at first, but then, as if forced by the man’s gaze, he admits that although he almost completely broke (apart from the cheque), he still yearns to start his own business. The bank manager suddenly appears and when Juan asks for a loan, the man in the white suit vouches for Juan as a man of integrity and vision, allowing Juan to obtain the loan. Later on that night, Jeff storms out of the party when Olivia and Juan begin to ‘fraternize with the help’, allowing Juan and Olivia to leave the party and go celebrate Juan’s loan on the rooftop of his apartment building, where they begin to slow dance and finally progress to kissing.

The next day, Juan is ready to propose to Olivia, but before he is able to, she announces that they should keep their relationship strictly professional. To add to the grim situation, Patricia Gonzalez dies of pneumonia due to a broken heater and faulty window in the apartment. Mrs. Gonzalez takes all her religious knick-knacks down as she loses her faith and Mr. Jenkins attempts to evict her from the apartment. When Juan tries to stop the eviction and set the record straight: that the defective building had caused Patricia’s death; Jenkins frames Juan to make it look like he was going to attack him with a knife. Juan is taken to jail, but Olivia is able to get him out; only to tell him that everything he had gotten on credit was repossessed and that she has quit her job and is moving to Seattle with Jeff. Juan is dumbfounded and exclaims that he loves her now more than Jeff will ever be able to love her. Olivia knows that Juan is right, but is caught between the two men as Juan goes back to selling oranges. Suddenly, the white limo appears again. Juan passes the cheque back through the window and a hand, along with the voice of the man in the white suit, gives Juan an address to go to in order to receive his gift. Juan becomes angry at how this man is playing with his life and throws away the address as the limo departs. Just then Olivia drives up and proclaims her love for him. Alejandro, in the back seat, then notices a billboard bizarrely graffitied with a note to Juan containing the address on the piece of paper he had thrown away. The three of them drive to the location, a run-down and abandoned building, and find a certificate naming Juan as the proprietor. Juan immediately sets to work and everyone in his life chips-in to help restore the building into The Angel Café. Juan and Olivia marry and move into a beautiful mansion, living with all their loved ones and preparing for the arrival of a new family member, Esperanza. The tale of Juan’s amazing good luck ends with the man in the white suit gazing through a window to check-up on the family before slowly walking away and disappearing into a flash of white light.

There is constant banter about the Chicano’s living situation in L.A., particularly in comparison to Mexico. Jorge comments that a job is difficult to find in the US; especially when so many other immigrants can exploit their struggles and beg for money. He then continues to say that he should have never left beautiful Mexico. Even though his brother, Alvaro, mentions that the increased cost of living in America is well-worth not having to carry cement bags for a wage of $3 an hour in Mexico; Jorge still insists that Mexico is heaven on Earth compared to the hell of the US. Caucasians are constantly depicted as ignorant, such as the woman who hands a pop can to Juan, instead of money, saying, “You people recycle these, don’t you?” As she drives away, Juan crossly crushes the can into the ground with the heel of his boot. Many Mexicans have learnt how to work the system with sob stories and lies; but Juan, who is the most sincere and reliable Chicano in the film, cannot find it in himself to stoop to that level, even if it means that him and Alejandro might be sent back to Mexico (even though Juan has lived in the US for almost his entire life). Yet, however dire this situation may be for Chicanos, A Million to Juan still sheds hope on their social condition and encourages honesty and responsibility among Chicanos in order to attain their dreams while in America. While many, such as Jorge, may wish to return to Mexico, the film stresses that happiness can still be found in a foreign land.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Duck, You Sucker!

Duck, You Sucker posterDuck, You Sucker! (1971) is the work of Sergio Leone, director of the famous Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Despite having attracted little recognition in its day, it is one of the most interesting examples of how Leone splices political commentary into his movies alongside the locomotive explosions and wild shootouts.

Duck, You Sucker! tells the story of how a troubled ex-IRA explosives expert and a Mexican bandit become caught up in the Mexican Revolution. The movie begins with an abridged Mao Tse-Tung quote on how “revolution is an act of violence,” followed by the metaphor-laden image of a stream of piss drowning an ant colony. It is clear that Duck, You Sucker! will be no ordinary Western. The urine comes from Juan Miranda, a grubby and crude Mexican who catches a ride from a coach driver who wants to play a joke on his ostentatious passengers. Throughout the journey, Juan passively receives the demeaning insults hurled at him by the rich Europeans and Americans, but when the coach pulls into town and is seized his family of shotgun-wielding bandits, the tables are suddenly turned. Juan has all of them, the men stripped naked, dumped into an animal pen. Juan and his boys, fathered with an unknown number of women, take to the road and before long encounter John Mallory. Juan instantly tries to enlist him to rob the legendary Banco Nacional de Mesa Verde. John, aside from fleeing the British Secret Service for his terrorist activities, is escaping his painful past, which we periodically see in gauzy, dialogue-free flashbacks.

After Juan carelessly detonates a church that John has rigged, killing Mexican military personnel and a German mine owner, the two men proceed to Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is in the grip of a tyrannical governor who conducts public executions. The pair descend into a dingy basement where revolutionaries, lead by a Dr. Villega, are planning a coordinated attack with Villa and Zapata. John is already in league with them and they tell the confused Juan to go ahead with his planned bank robbery. On the day of the attack, John detonates the bank entrance and Juan and his boys fight through the federal soldiers inside. After blowing the locks off the store rooms, Juan finds no cash but becomes an unwitting revolutionary hero; the bank was recently converted into a political prison and held 150 men, who now pour out into the streets. Later, in an encampment outside Mesa Verde, Juan expresses his resentment at being tricked into participating in the revolution. He assails John with a cynical rant about how a revolution involves “the people who read the books” discussing ideas around the dinner table and inciting “the people who don’t read the books” to loose their lives fighting.

This rant piques John’s conscience, leading him and Juan to attack a federal army contingent by machine gun then detonate the bridge underneath them. Meanwhile, there is a massacre at the encampment, including Juan’s six young boys. John solemnly observes while Juan grieves. When Juan is captured by the federal army, John goes into town and witnesses the revolutionary ringleaders being shot, noting that the ringleaders were betrayed by Dr. Villega. The next day, John rescues Juan on motorbike and they stow away on a train carrying the governor. Before long, the train is held up by revolutionaries and Juan shoots the escaping governor in vengeance for his children, elevating yet again his revolutionary status. Revolutionary leaders tell the duo that a military train loaded with over a thousand soldiers and heavy weapons is coming straight towards them, and they can expect no reinforcement. When night falls, John loads the locomotive with explosives and takes Dr. Villega on a kamikaze charge into the oncoming train; he finds that he ultimately cannot judge Dr. Villega for he regrets killing his Irish friend who too was an informer. The trains crash, with John jumping out just in time, and the revolutionaries finish off the survivors. John is shot the back; in the moments before death he returns the cross that Juan cast away after the massacre, then drifts off into happy memories of Ireland. As Juan frantically leaves to get help, John blows himself up in a death fitting to an explosives expert.

Duck, You Sucker! can be read as Leone’s protest against filmmakers who romanticize and sanitize revolution by avoiding the depiction of brutality and creating impossibly pure heroes. At the same time, he creates monsters of the Mexican governors and military colonels and the foreign capitalists, creating uniformly evil villains. These characters are thoroughly despicable, from the pretentious Europeans and Americans who have the manner and appetite of pigs, to the Nazi-like Mexican federal forces who drive in armored tanks and execute peasants en mass. Though Leone makes his political allegiance with the peasant class very clear, unlike many revolution-themed movies the heroes are selfish and fallible. This is true of John, who is haunted by having murdered his friend for a cause, and especially of Juan, who is considered a revolutionary hero because he freed the political prisoners and killed the governor, but he was first motivated by bank robbery then by personal revenge. In Duck, You Sucker! the Mexican Revolution provides a context in which to denounce the glorification of war, where killers can become heroes and friends turned into enemies. Interestingly, Duck, You Sucker! has a complicated release history in which scenes of violence at profanity have been edited out and later restored. It seems that when the movie was released in 1971, right in the middle of the Vietnam War (1959-1975), American audiences did not have a pallet for depictions of massacres and morally troubled heroes.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

A Date with Judy

A Date with Judy posterA voice-over begins A Date with Judy (1948) by commenting on the characteristic features of the ordinary town of Santa Barbara, California. The voice mainly focuses on two men: Mr. Pringle, a successful tycoon who has very little time for family life; and Mr. Foster, who may not have as nice a house as Mr. Pringle, but who always finds time for his family. The scene then shifts to a performance rehearsal where Judy Foster (Jane Powel) is practicing a song to sing at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Her boyfriend Ogden Pringle (Scotty Becket) is leading the orchestra and staring adoringly at Judy, until his sister Carol (a stunning, young Elizabeth Taylor), who is also Judy’s best friend, interrupts to say that Judy is singing the song a little too joyfully and should be more seductive. Judy agrees, as Carol is her idol, but Ogden thinks the song is good as is, innocence and all. Judy then heads home to get ready for the high school prom that night. Carol’s power over Judy is again illustrated when Judy changes from her new blue dress to an old pink one upon Carol’s insistence (seeing as Carol was already wearing a blue dress). Carol then privately tells Ogden (or ‘Oogie’ for short) that he should play hard-to-get with Judy by sending another friend to collect her for the dance. Judy is devastated when Oogie doesn’t show. She decides to phone him to give her a piece of her mind, but must do it from the local soda shop because her younger brother is occupying the phone at the house. After telling Oogie off, Judy sits dejectedly on a stool until the owner of the soda shop, Pop Scully, offers to have his handsome nephew, Stephen Andrews (Robert Stack) take her, as he is just starting his shift at the shop. Judy is elated and attempts to act as mature as possible (but to no avail) because Andrew is considerably older than herself. At the dance, Stephen is embarrassed to be among high school kids until he spies Carol in the corner while Judy is on stage singing a song. The two are then introduced by Judy, who is immediately ushered away by Carol to go greet the guest performer Xavier Cugat (played by himself). Xavier hits it off with Judy’s parents, who are also at the dance, and takes her mother on the dance floor to rumba when her father good-naturedly refuses. Carol and Stephen also begin to dance as Judy and Oogie have a spat over why Oogie did not pick Judy up himself. Judy is determined to stick with Stephen through the night, even if he’s not interested in her, if only to spite Oogie. When Stephen walks her to her door after the dance, she unabashedly kisses him; much to Oogie’s disappointment, who was watching from the bushes. Oogie tells this news to Carol, who promises to take care of everything for Oogie, if only to get Stephen for herself. The brother and sister then sadly remember their deceased mother and pine for a father like Judy’s who is there for the family, instead of their own Mr. Pringle.

The next morning, both girls are swooning over Stephen and go to the soda shop to see him. Carol tells Judy that she has landed her a radio program at her father’s station and asks her to go see her father about sponsorship. When Judy leaves hurriedly, Carol invites Stephen to dinner at her house; which he accepts. Stephen thinks that Carol is beautiful, but also sees that she is spoiled and egotistical. Meanwhile, at Mr. Foster’s work, he has enlisted the help of Rosita Cochellas (Carmen Miranda) to teach him the rumba so he can surprise his wife at their wedding anniversary; however, when Judy arrives to speak to him, he must hide Rosita in a closet to keep the dance lessons secret. The dancing is rather sensual for Mr. Foster, but he perseveres. That night, at the dinner Carol has planned, Stephen shows up with Judy, in hopes to get her back together with Ogden. When Ogden shows up, Stephen requests that they do a performance together, to which Judy reluctantly complies. Oogie and Judy prove sensational as a duo and they plan to do the radio show together, but only as business partners, as Judy stresses. Oogie then reveals to Judy that he would like to marry her one day, to which she replies that she is far too mature to consider marrying him; while Stephen tells Carol that she tries too hard to impress him which makes her furious. Carol later tells Judy to never trust men because, like her father, they will one day forget about you. Judy is still swooning over Stephen later that evening and tells her father that she wants to marry him, to which Mr. Foster quickly replies that he will sponsor her radio program, if only to keep her from eloping (even though he doesn’t realize that Stephen isn’t interested in marriage).

Carol wakes up early the next day to tell her father about Stephen, but he barely listens between phone calls. The butler later tells him about the love situation his daughter is in, and Mr. Pringle immediately enlists the butler to investigate Stephen. Meanwhile, Judy and Oogie go to get Mr. Foster to sign a contract for the radio program, and happen to arrive during the dance lesson. Rosita quickly hides, but Judy spies her dress in the closet door, leading her to suspect that her father is having an affair. At the radio rehearsal, Judy is despondent and then reveals to Carol the ‘tragedy’ that she had ‘witnessed’. Carol accidentally reveals that she’s in love with Stephen, to which Judy replies that she’d be very angry if she wasn’t already through with men. Judy decides to make her home as pleasing as possible for her father, but when Mr. Foster hints to his family that he has a surprise for them at the anniversary party the next night, Judy fears the worst.

Carol’s butler attempts to covertly interview Stephen but is immediately exposed as an investigator, causing Stephen to storm into Mr. Pringle’s office and berate him for being a terrible father. Mr. Pringle takes this to heart and immediately attempts to reconcile a history of neglect between him and his children. Oogie then goes to serenade a miserable Judy, but is rejected. And so Oogie turns the tables by declaring that he is too old for her games and promptly leaving. The next day, Rosita gives Mr. Foster his last lesson before the two of them go to the hotel in preparation for the night; unknowingly being watched by Carol and Judy who agree that they can’t say anything of the affair until after the celebration. But when Rosita sings a song that night with Cugat’s band and focuses her attention on Mr. Foster, Judy is outraged. She confronts Rosita afterwards and demands to know why she is fooling around with a married man who has children. Rosita herself becomes furious as she confuses the allegations with her fiancé, Xavier Cugat, whom she pulls from the stage to answer questions as to why Judy is claiming he is married with children. The dance lessons are finally revealed and apologies are made once Mr. Foster takes the dance floor with Mrs. Foster to show off his rumba moves. After much arguing, Judy finally forgives Oogie and Stephen arrives with Mr. Pringle to tell Carol that he wants to be with her. A happy ending is finally achieved as the guests at the party all join in a sing-along to celebrate Mr. and Mrs. Foster’s happy marriage.

A Date with Judy
is another one of the many Hollywood films which showcase America’s fascination with Carmen Miranda. Her ticket into these pictures has always been her passionate way of song and dance, but the comparison between her Brazilian rhythm and the plain, childlike ways of Judy in this film present a stark contrast between American and Latin styles of performance. Mr. Foster comments that the rumba appears to be a vulgar dance; that is, until he learns it and begins dancing around the house and wearing colorful new ties, demonstrating exactly how Americans want to be caught up in the Latin craze, but are at most times too conservative to try.

In the film, Rosita is engaged to Cuban Xavier Cugat, but the interesting aspect of this couple is that Carmen Miranda plays the unknown singer while Xavier is celebrated in the film as a celebrity band leader. Rather than this being seen as a machismo view of Latino male performers, it should be noted that at the time of the film’s release, the casting of Carmen Miranda as an unheard of entertainer would only be considered an act of irony, as the Brazilian star could be recognized in any role due to her swaying hips, flashy attire, and brilliant smile. During one song, she sings “I’m the zootiest chick this side of Brazil”, a line which strangely emphasizes her immigrant status during the time of the notorious Zoot Suit Riots. It must be suggested that perhaps such a statement was meant to bring a sense of class and prestige back to a term which had recently taken on a somewhat threatening connotation in the United States.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Mi Vida Loca

Mi Vida Loca posterMi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life, 1994) shows a series of events from the different perspectives of several Chicano teenagers belonging to the gangs in the Echo Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. This compilation is split into three chapters: "Sad Girls Y-Que," "Don't Let No One Get You Down," and "Sauvecito."

Sad Girls Y-Que

Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) begins by describing the Echo Park barrio as a place that has slowly evolved into a from English to a Hispanic neighbourhood and has everything you need. The residents live in a karma-like environment where they know that ‘what goes around, comes around’ and you just have to take the good with the bad. This explains the shocking scenes of teenage mothers having profane catfights; oblivious to how this is affecting their young children witnessing the scene from nearby strollers. Sad Girl and Mousie (Seidy Lopez) have been best friends since they could remember. They even joined the ‘homegirl’ gang the Locas (and thus the bizarre pseudonyms). Mousie soon becomes interested in Ernesto, aka Bullet (Jacob Vargas), who is part of Echo Park’s male counterpart gang, the Locos. Things soon get serious between the adolescents resulting in Mousie becoming pregnant and then giving birth to a son. As Mousie becomes reclusive with her child, Ernesto begins to take an interest in Sad Girl and their affair results in more offspring for Ernesto and an insurmountable barrier of hatred between Mousie and Sad Girl. Mousie then continues the story explaining how after being thrown out by her father, she had moved from house to house with her son until one day she has a confrontation in the park with Sad Girl (displaying their utter immaturity in spite of their attempts to be ‘bad ass’), which results in a plan for the two to settle their differences in the hills later that evening. The plot then turns to Ernesto who has turned to drug dealing in order to make enough money to support his progeny and to buy a new truck, Sauvecito, which he keeps secret from both Sad Girl and Mousie. But the truck is no secret to El Duran, the playboy leader of the River Valley gang, who stalks the Echo Park neighbourhood in his 1950s collectible cruisers, searching for the Sauvecito because he claims it should be his. Ernesto has pledged to both Sad Girl and Mousie that he will keep them safe the night of the fight, but as the girls hesitate while facing each other down, they are startled by two gun shots, echoing through the valley. It turns out that Ernesto had been dealing to a ‘white chick’ with his new female associate Whisper, a member of the Locas, when all of a sudden the client had pulled a gun, killing Ernesto and injuring Whisper in the leg. Mousie and Sad Girl turn despondent after the death, but are then drawn closer as they find strength through the similarity of their new situation which finds them without the father of their children.

Don’t Let No One Get You Down

Whisper then tells about when the Locas took a road trip to the nearby women’s prison to collect Giggles, an older generation Loca who was sent to jail for a crime that her deceased husband had committed. Giggles tells the group about Sauvecito, which she learned about from Big Sleepy, a veteran Loco who had down some work on the truck. The news causes the Locas to consider selling Sauvecito to make money for the families Ernesto had left behind. Mousie and Sad Girl take a covert peak at the truck, which is under the watchful eye of Ernesto’s younger brother Shadow; but he refuses to give the girls the truck because the River Valley gang is after it. The Locas at first look-up to Giggles because she was the first Loca to go to prison, but they soon change their minds when Giggles talks about getting a jobs with computers and starting a future where they don’t need men to take care of them. Giggles then tries to connect with her neighbourhood friends such as Big Sleepy. The two end up spending the night together which is when Big Sleepy offers for Giggles and her daughter to live with him, but Giggles refuses his kind offer on the grounds that she wants to be independent.


A side-story then introduced about Sad Girl’s sister, Alicia La Blue Eyes, which tells of the bizarre love affair that Blue Eyes has with a prison inmate named Juan Temido, whom she has only met through his poetry in a magazine and then weekly letters. The two end up pledging their love to one another, but then much to Blue Eyes’ disappointment, the correspondence stops. Next is El Duran’s perspective which describes the gang conflict between the Locos and River Valley which has been present for more than 60 years; as such, the issue of attaining Sauvecito is more a matter of honour for El Duran than his actual desire for the truck. Back in Echo Park, one of the Locas reveals that Juan Temido is actually the real name of El Duran and the group brings the heart-broken and naïve Blue Eyes to a River Valley party where she will unknowingly meet El Duran. Meanwhile, Shadow discovers that Sauvecito has been stolen and the Locos go on a blood mission to kill El Duran, who they assume is the culprit. At the party, Blue Eyes is captivated by El Duran’s way with women and the two begin dancing, but she is soon mortified when it is announced that El Duran and Juan are one and the same, causing Blue Eyes to flee from the building and into the comforting embrace of her sister. Suddenly the Locos arrive and immediately shoot El Duran, no questions asked, before escaping into the night. The next day it is revealed that a younger Loco had actually stolen and crashed the truck and that El Duran had been murdered without cause. But the killing continues as a group of River Valley girls attempt to shoot a Loco while outside a local store, but end up accidentally shooting Big Sleepy’s young daughter who was caught in the cross-fire. The film ends at the girl’s funeral, with Giggles slowly walking away from the grave with Big Sleepy and the Locas also walking away together, but on a separate path.

The ending of Mi Vida Loca displays the madness which saturates the lives of these Chicanos, but it also shows the wisdom which develops from living through such experiences. The veteran gang members observe the dead-end lives that result from the constant drug-dealing, fighting, and promiscuity. In this sense, the plot is similar to that of American Me, which also depicts a community of Chicanos stuck in the vicious cycle of younger generations picking up habits inspired by the older generations; even though the veterans of the ‘crazy life’ realize how illogical such a path is in attempting to find happiness.

Although Ernesto often criticizes his white, junkie clients as a class of ‘weak’ humans who get greedy when faced with the ‘stress’ of their perfect lives; the issue of gender in this film appears to take precedence over any concern about race. Even though the women still take on the role of care-givers to the children, they also identify with the machismo attitude of pride and the bond which develops from their inclusion in the gangs; so much so that some members tattoo their aliases onto their knuckles. These girls worry about being killed in gang fights, but still fuss over daily chores such as doing the laundry and getting groceries. Their lives suggest a new perspective on the Chicano community, one where the citizens accept their plight of life in American society and even acknowledge it by naming their gangs the 'Locos' and the 'Locas' (meaning ‘crazy’). Giggles remarks that “women need skills because their men are in prison, disabled, or killed by the time they are twenty-one.” These Chicanas have taken the matter of raising the next generation into their own hands, where they use weapons out of love instead of to prove a point. In the final scene, Giggles embodies the notion of moving away from the ‘gang life’ to start over as she walks away with Big Sleepy; but the cycle continues as the rest of the Locas choose a different path to walk with their children.

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The Lawless Frontier

The Lawless Frontier posterThe Lawless Frontier (1934) tells the story of John Tobin, played by John Wayne, as he brings a crafty outlaw named Pedro Zanti to justice for killing his family and threatening the lives of frontier settlers. In some ways The Lawless Frontier seems like a straightforward Western of the white hat versus black hat variety (whereby the moral make-up of characters is denoted by their hat colour), but the fact that the villain is an ethnic mish-mash gives this story a strange twist. Zanti is half white and half Native American, but he disguises himself as a Mexican and speaks Spanish (unconvincingly).

The film begins with John Tobin discovering his dead parents after a raid led by Pedro Zanti, an outlaw wanted for cattle rustling and murder. Subsequently, Zanti is shown surveying a ranch for a future raid; he rides down to talk to its owner, an old man named Dusty, and Dusty introduces him to his attractive daughter Ruby. Zanti, decked out in a flamboyant costume and appraising Ruby with bulging eyes, is meant to be a sinister and lecherous character, but comes off as comical to the modern viewer. When Zanti reconvenes with his posse he states his plans to raid the ranch and seize Ruby as his prize; little does he know that Ruby overhears this and immediately warns her father. Dusty attempts to smuggle Ruby off the ranch, wrapped in heavy cloth and slung over a horse, but the horse falters at a river crossing. Luckily for the fast drowning Ruby, Tobin is present and dives off the river bank to save her. Zanti watches this, infuriated that the pair tried to trick him, and sends his gang to pursue them on horseback. They escape after a desert chase scene, thanks to Tobin diverting the gang and loosing them when he takes a spectacular plunge, still on horseback, from a cliff into the river.

When Tobin discovers that Zanti was the pursuer, the hunt for him becomes personal. Tobin returns with Dusty to his house, followed by the dubious sheriff who is obstinate that Tobin and Zanti are in league. Tobin succeeds in isolating Zanti from his gang, and a second desert chase scene ensues which ends in Tobin socking Zanti into an unconscious heap with one theatrical swing. Back at the ranch, the sheriff handcuffs Zanti to a bed, but within minutes Dusty crashes to the floor with a knife lodged in his back. Tobin and the sheriff investigate, but upon finding Tobin’s initials on the knife, the sheriff triumphantly handcuffs the dismayed hero alongside Zanti. Zanti squirms loose from his shackles, kills the guard, and is about to shoot Tobin when Dusty miraculously appears and shoots Zanti. In the Old West back-stabbings apparently count as minor flesh wounds. Zanti rides off with Tobin in hot pursuit, initiating the third desert chase scene. This one however involves Tobin luging down a man-made river, then pursuing a hobbling Zanti on foot until he collapses to drink from a poisoned watering-hole, then dies with terrible grimaces. In the penultimate scene, Zanti’s gang attempts to enter Dusty’s house via an obsolete mine-shaft, but Tobin detonates one end, trapping them inside so that they can be delivered into the hands of the law. In the end, heroism is duly rewarded as Ruby becomes Mrs. Tobin and Tobin becomes the new sheriff.

The Lawless Frontier does not take place in any precise geographical location, but on the imagined fringes of a nation where the rule of law is weak and decent folk must defend themselves from a myriad of enemies. However, exactly what constitutes the enemy is surprisingly uncertain for an otherwise straightforward movie. The archetypal good characters have nothing ambiguous about them: the damsel in distress, her devoted and jovial father, the brave and dashing cowboy. On the other hand, the bad characters of the sheriff and Zanti are more problematic. The sheriff is by no means evil, nor does he ever break the law. However, he has upheld a position of authority despite being inept at enforcing the law, a poor decision-maker and over-eager to exercise his power. The fault seems to lie not in this mediocre individual but the institution that bestows authority upon him. Even more intriguing is the character Zanti, who could just as well been a Mexican bandit, but the filmmaker stresses multiple times that Zanti is not Mexican. This film was produced in the years when Hollywood, committed to the Good Neighbour Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was cleaning up its projections of Mexico. In The Lawless Frontier the imagery of the Mexican bandit is still employed to denote threat, but it is only superficial.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Undefeated

The Undefeated posterThe Undefeated (1969) tells the story of ex-Union Colonel John Henry Thomas (played by John Wayne) and ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon (played by Rock Hudson) as they cross paths in Mexico and become caught up in the Franco-Mexican War (1862-1867).

The Civil War (1861-1865) stripped many wealthy Southerners of their estates, including ex-Confederate Colonel James Langdon and his community of about four dozen men, women and children. With nothing to loose in the United States, Langdon accepts an offer from Emperor Maximilian to lead his people over one thousand miles to the Mexican state of Durango, where an escort will await to take them to Mexico City. Meanwhile, Colonel John Henry Thomas is resigning from the United States Army, taking ten loyal men with him. Thomas plans to take the men to capture wild horses to sell to the army, which will enable them to restart their post-war lives. After an impressive round-up of three thousand horses, Thomas meets with United States Army purchasers who make him a poor offer. Thomas smells a scam and sells the horses instead to representatives of Maximilian, who promise to make payment upon their delivery on the Durango plains. Both Langdon’s wagon convoy and Thomas’s herders cross the border into Mexico.

The parties become aware of each other when Blue Boy, Thomas’s adopted Cherokee son, spots the tracks left by the Confederates as well as a group pursuing them. They approach the Confederate camp and despite highly-strung Civil War tensions stay the night. Surely enough, they are ambushed they next day by Mexican bandits demanding that they surrender their supplies and women. The Americans dispel their attackers with the Confederates shooting from within a tight circle of wagons and the Yankees delivering a surprise attack on the flanks. The battle results in an incipient brotherhood between Americans divided by Civil War allegiances, a theme developed to a greater extent in the Fourth of July party that follows, and a secretive crush begins between Blue Boy and Langdon’s teenage daughter Charlotte. However, the mood turns ominous as the French cavalry escort to the Confederates is found dead, murdered by Juaristas, and Blue Boy is beaten up by a bigoted Confederate captain.

Matters worsen when the Confederates are received in a Durango town with great fanfare, but once trapped inside a court yard find themselves the victims of an elaborate Juarista ambush. General Rojas singles out an astounded Colonel Langdon to explain that the Maximilian-affiliated Confederates are considered Juarista enemies. He explains that because Maximilian could not acquire any more European soldiers to support his reign, he is bringing down Confederates after the Civil War. Rojas demands that Langdon go to Thomas, who is awaiting payment for the herd nearby, and tell him that he bring the horses or the Confederates will be shot. Though Langdon is loathe to ask anything of a Yankee, he duly meets with Thomas. Though Thomas’s men will lose their payoff, their Christian mercy and American brotherhood lead to a decision to help the Confederates. As Langdon’s men are being selected for execution, Thomas and his men rally the herd into motion with guns blazing and break through a line of French cavalry that attempt to impede them. Horses pour into the plaza just in time and Rojas halts the firing squad. In an unconventional conclusion to an armed hostage situation, the three men drink together, each toasting to his political affiliation: Mexico, the United States, and the Confederacy.

The Undefeated offers a good piece of advice for any traveler: know the political climate of the country you are about to visit. John is savvy about the dangers of Mexico from the beginning. When his men ask if he is expecting trouble, John replies sardonically, “We got Maximilian on one hand and Juarez on the other, and bandits in between. On top of that, we’re Americans in Mexico taking a cavy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?” Langdon, on the other hand, did not realize his role in this geopolitical mire until held at gunpoint. Many Western movies portray American cowboys blundering into Mexican wars and coming to the aid of the morally righteous underdog; in The Undefeated, Thomas surrenders the horses badly needed by the Juaristas, but he had to be coerced into doing so as he was closing the deal with Maximilian. Even though the Americans to not extend their moral responsibility to the Mexicans, nor do they change the course of foreign political affairs unless made to do so, the Juaristas are nobly portrayed. It is notable that despite having ambushed the Americans, General Rojas is portrayed as dignified and not cruel; he is visibly relieved to call off the execution.

Above all, the core theme of The Undefeated is unity. The toast given at the end between Rojas, Langdon and Thomas is symbolic of pan-American unity, a favourite theme in United States history since the Monroe Doctrine which called for the U.S. to be vigilant for European incursions into “its” hemisphere. If Mexicans and Americans can unite against the French, so too can the Confederates and Unionists unite against the Mexicans. The extended scene of the Fourth of July party during a hiatus from attacks from Mexican bandits and Juaristas shows how a body politic can be brought together despite its diversity both by symbolic national events and a common enemy threat. Also, Blue Boy and Charlotte make their mutual affection public, and this is well-received by both of their fathers. This union between Native American and white Southern youths seems to celebrate diversity and the coexistence of cultures, however in the final scene we see that Blue Boy has cut his traditionally long hair to the shortness of a typical Anglo-American boy, turning him from a symbol of positive inter-racial relationships to the power of white American cultural hegemony.

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American Me

American Me posterEdward James Olmos directs and acts in the film American Me (1992), which is inspired by true events and examines the life of a Chicano mobster as he comes to understand how his life choices have affected those closest to him. First we are introduced to the poetic reminiscence of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos), who is in prison sifting through a box of old photographs. His musings take the plot back to the Los Angeles in the year June 1943, when his parents, Pedro and Esperanza, two proud ‘zoot suitors’ had first started to date. Their love for one another is strong, but it is overshadowed by the racial tension between Latinos and US sailors which leads to a night of sickening chaos as the couple is caught up in one of the famous Zoot Suit Riots. Sailors beat Pedro to a pulp and rape Esperanza with absolutely no remorse. Montoya then shifts to the year 1959, when he was 16 years old and starting a Latino neighbourhood gang called La Primera. The gang allows Montoya (nicknamed Santana) a reprieve from his father’s chronic anger. Members are initiated via a small tattooed symbol on the back of their hand at the bottom of their thumb. The group consists of Santana; his best friend JD (William Forsythe), who is Caucasian but walks and talks like a Latino; and the newly-initiated Mundo. The group decides to take a shortcut one night after Mundo’s initiation which brings them through the Hazard gang’s territory, provoking a chase. La Primera breaks into a shop and manages to lose their pursuers, only to encounter an enraged storeowner who shoots JD and almost kills him. The breaking-and-entering gets Mundo and Santana time in Juvenile Hall. His first night there, Santana is raped by a fellow juvenile, but then refuses further submission and stabs his rapist in the throat. That killing earned Santana a jail sentence once out of Juvenile Hall, but also the respect of every adolescent in his surroundings. Santana knows that a clica is built upon respect and so he begins to assemble a Latino gang by the name of La Ema (for the Mexican Mafia) which unconditionally welcomes JD once he is out of the hospital and also serving his sentence.

The film progresses to Folsom State Prison where the original gang has grown and the choices they have made to survive have earned them 10-25 years; but the power that they now possess by way of extortion, gambling, prostitution, drugs sales, and even charging rent to inmates, has made them the ultimate force in the prison hierarchy, with the only other gangs in the yard being the Black Gorilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood. Santana still receives visits from his mother and much younger brother, Paulito. Other visitors secretly supply La Ema with drugs through a method of hiding the package in a series of body cavities. A riot is almost imminent between the Black Guerilla Family and La Ema when a black inmate contaminates some of the cocaine and is then set on fire and killed by Latinos as punishment; but the excitement is set back to just a solemn threat from the African American gang to Santana once the guards begin to arrive. This event causes Santana to be sent to the Hole for solitary confinement; which he only laughs at because he can still run his business from such an isolated location. But the business is beginning to fail as the prison system attempts to break-up La Ema by sending its members to different prisons. Soon Folsom sees new Latino gangs surfacing, such as Nuestra Familia headed by El Chucko. To halt this threat, Santana enlists La Ema’s newest and youngest member, Little Puppet, to kill El Chucko and restore power to La Ema. Life for Santana then begins to change as he receives news of his mother’s death and soon after JD is released. Then, after an astonishing 18 years of prison time and many years to think about his actions and their effects, Santana is finally released into a world that he has difficulty adjusting to. He is welcomed by his friends and family, all except his father, at an intimate celebration and begins to take a liking to Julie (Evelina Fernández), Little Puppet’s cousin. Julie attempts to make light of his struggle in the outside world; but Santana is unable to react as he can’t seem to think with his heart instead of his head.

It doesn’t take long for Santana and JD to get back into business by first confronting the Italian Mafia boss with their proposal of running the drug business in East L.A. and all trades with Mexico in exchange for the safety of the son of the Italian boss, who incidentally was just sent to Folsom. The boss laughs at their offer, until he hears the news that his son was raped and killed on account of La Ema. Meanwhile, Santana opens up to Julie as they get to know each other and she shows him many things for the first time such as driving, going to the beach, and making love, which Santana fails to adjust to as he flips Julie over and attempts to have anal sex with her before she runs away from him screaming. Perhaps things would have eventually worked out between them if it hadn’t been for the Italian boss’ retaliation of sending pure, uncut cocaine into the Mexican barrios and immediately causing upwards of 50 deaths, including Julie’s younger brother, Nito. After this, Santana and his father finally bond as they sit by Esperanza’s grave. It is here that Pedro tells his son about his mother’s rape and how he could never truly love Santana because he always knew that it was an indiscriminate sailor who had fathered him, and not Pedro.

The drug business begins becoming a dangerous place as the Black Gorilla Family stays true to its previous threat and kills several young Latinos by making them deeply breathe-in the pure cocaine which they are cutting for Santana. In an attempt at normalcy, Santana acts as best man at the wedding of the recently-released Little Puppet. Santana is able to talk to Julie outside of the reception and he explains that he is simply working with this reality of drugs, but Julie is repulsed and says she once cared about him, but she doesn’t know this monster who he is now. Suddenly, two police officers appear and start interrogating the two as to why they are on the street talking. After searching ‘Santana’s’ jacket (which is actually Little Puppet’s) the officers find Little Puppet’s drug stash and Santana is then sent back to Folsom. JD goes through with a plan to enlist the Aryan Brotherhood to send a message to the Black Gorilla Family, which ends up being utter bloodshed with racial overtones that Santana disapproves of. La Ema begins to quietly talk about Santana’s new weakness while they solicit Puppet (Little Puppet’s older brother) to kill Little Puppet for accidentally putting Santana back in prison. The film ends in a spirit of utter madness as Puppet reluctantly kills his younger brother, imploring him not to look him in the eyes as he does it; Santana voluntarily concedes to his murder by La Ema as they stab him with the same brutality as any other; and on the outside, Paulito follows in Santana’s footsteps as he initiates younger kids into the gang and then gives them a gun to shoot at the other neighbourhoods in the name of La Primera. But which innocent bystander should the new recruits shoot? It doesn’t matter.

Even the title of American Me taps into the identity crisis existing for Chicanos living in America. Santana says that his parents were proud pachucos, but this didn’t stamp out the Zoot Suit Riots in their era which were ignited by racism and fuelled by media coverage which hailed the sailors for ‘purifying’ America during a time of nationalistic frenzy. This prejudice continues when Santana is a teenager, especially in Juvenile Hall where the gangs are no longer segregated by neighbourhood locations, as in the Chicano barrios, but instead by race. The power hierarchy runs on machismo pride and because of its connection to survival, no ethnic groups are excluded. Near the end of the film, it is revealed that both Julie and Pedro have the Mexican gang tattoo on their hands, which Julie tries to hide with make-up and Pedro looks at with disdain. This symbolism drills home the fact that even those people in the Mexican community who don’t approve of the drug trade are still affected by it due to their connections of family and race. Julie condemns Santana’s actions by saying, “There’s no fucking hope for our kids, for our barrios, with people like you around.” And this cycle doesn’t end with Santana’s death. The message is clear: the Chicanos in this community will never be rid of the crime and drugs that pervade their streets. Malleable adolescent minds look up to the drug lords and see only the attractive shell of power which surrounds these ordinary men of flesh and blood. Everything: the racism, the clicas, the death, the drugs; will continue because the thirst for supremacy is now in that blood.

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