Alejandro el Sicario

John Parker August 13: Sicario (2015)

This film, aptly titled in Spanish, follows previous War on Drugs films that Michelle Brown talks about in “Mapping discursive closings in the war on drugs.” Through righteous FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a rising star in the enterprise, we learn of the War on Drugs as a series of covert operations involving the CIA, local and federal authorities, the army, even foreign governments. Brown asserts that the war has become a combining of “large structural forces of sovereignty, inequality and criminality.” Sovereignty means that the country, namely the United States, is under attack, hence the name of the Harrison Ford film that she mentions, A Clear and Present Danger. Macer must confront a new concept of criminality where the supposed good side is prone to breaking the law when it has to, as does Harrison Ford’s character in A Clear and Present Danger. These two naïve characters must come to terms with a new Michelle Brown corrupt society where the lines between victim and perpetrator are strained.

The character that challenges Macer the most is Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro. He is the hit man, the victim, the mercenary, the Soldier (the title of Sicario 2 being released next year). Interestingly, Del Toro plays a Mexican policeman/informant in Traffic, another anti War on Drugs film analyzed by Brown, who calls the border between the United States and Mexico “permeable” and the characters wrought with “moral ambiguity.” The result of corruption at various levels of society results in “cultural demonization.” Everybody is bad. Macer and Harrison Ford’s understanding of their quickly evolving situations are impeded by the social relations that the new society imposes on them. Military metaphors and rhetoric dominate the discussion and restrict any complete understanding about the War on Drugs. “You’re either with us, or against us,” to quote a 2000-era American president. The other main character of Sicario, Matt played by Josh Brolin, is the CIA/military easy-to-understand manipulator who Macer eventually figures out. His use of language is a good example of the military slogans that simplify the modern era of drug cartels that battle one another for territory in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico and the southern United States.

So what about Sicario’s portrayal of south of the border? In read somewhere that the mayor of Juarez was concerned about the film’s portrayal of his city. Who wouldn’t be? Mutilated bodies hanging from bridges. Gunfire, including small rockets, lighting up the night sky. Carloads of well armed baddies. “This won’t even make the papers here” response to Macer’s questioning of the team’s neutralizing the tattooed badidos near the border. I think I prefer Elvis and his mariachi buddies singing about siestas.

Crazy Walker

John Parker August 7: Walker (1987)

I enjoyed the film tremendously for both its cinematographic and literary merit. I thought the acting was excellent, as were the music and décor. In fact, as I learned later, Alex Cox filmed this in Nicaragua and during a time of civil strife with Sandinistas battling Contras and Ronald Reagan pleading for America to help the “brave Freedom Fighters.” Yaz mentions that this is an American-help-goes-bad story and calls Walker a “cruel dictator” who believes that because of God’s design, “victory is with us.” My interest in the film, however, is really more for its literary reference, as I will try to convince later on. I may be going out on a limb here, but not too far I hope. I’d love to develop this into my final project for Jon.

I see this film as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The helicopter that arrives with American soldiers emphasizes a connection to the film Apocalypse Now (1979). The modern magazines and cars that we see previously prepare us for this highly dramatic and over-the-top incursion near the end. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, an English ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz wreaks havoc with the local population in the jungles of British colonial Africa. Conrad’s denunciation of colonialism is replayed later when Marlon Brandon plays Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now dealing with the Vietnam War. One of his most famous lines is “the horror, the horror,” right out of Conrad. Aex Cox’s William Walker is yet another mercenary with flexible ideals who Nayid says “takes power by force and changes the rules of engagement.” Walker and his men, in an attempt to create a “more civilized nation,” re-establish slavery and are overtly contempt of the local Indigenous population.

Conrad, through the narrator of Heart of Darkness, attacks colonialism and its supposed civilizing plan. He even equates civilized people with the savages, the city of London with the isolated wilds of Africa, the intentions of colonialism with the destruction of people native to the land. Mr. Kurtz says: “Exterminate all the brutes.” He leaves traces of desolation everywhere he has been and eventually becomes an embarrassing problem to the powers that be; they eventually abandon him and even want him dead. Crazy Walker, hungry for power, abuses the locals and is constantly reviewing his political and moral agendas. Like Fred Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he goes crazy in an exotic land that abounds with riches for his taking. He eventually loses everything. He is abandoned by the society he tried to establish and by those who initially sponsored his mission that became his quest for self-aggrandizement. Like “Wrath of God,” as Don Lope de Aguirre called himself, like Mr. Kurtz and later Colonel Kurtz, he cannot contain the havoc that he has caused.

Fun in Acapulco

John Parker July 26

Fun in Acapulco (1963). I agree with Gaby totally about this corniness of the obsession with “siesta” and “fiesta;” as well, I too am having a hard time determining the point of this film. Did they really have to call the lifeguard-diving champion “Moreno?” Is Tequila really the cultural icon they make it out to be? Nevertheless, I accept this film for what it is: an Elvis sixties movie meant to purely entertain, not enlighten. So I will try to mention some likeable elements of the film in my post this evening when I’m done with the bad. I grew up in the sixties, as Jon likes to point out, when everyone was crazy about Elvis. His Las Vegas act and career eventually imploded (exploded?) and the excitement died down. He recorded some of the classics of Rock N Roll, as well as hundreds, maybe thousands, of less memorable tunes, like those of this film. His singing here really was awful and his dancing worse. He did manage to do the famous hip moving that he was notorious for, but the bull-fighting-pseudo-flamenco moves were pathetic. The lyrics of the songs were pure corn and made no sense. But, for an early sixties audience that loved him, there was a tremendous market for this kind of film. As well as singing, Elvis, lifeguards, dives, dances, romances, befriends poor Raoul, drinks tequila properly to impress the female bullfighter, eats Vichyssoise with poor manners, even speaks a bit of Spanish, albeit poorly.

James Bond sixties and seventies movies were iconic for having racy Bond Girls, more for their dress than for their spying ability. Ursula Andress arrives out of the pool for Elvis in the same bathing suit and sore stomach muscles that came out of the ocean for Sean Connery. Then there’s the diving so that Elvis can get over his phobia of heights and re-join the family business back in Florida. Luckily for him, and the hotel guests, he doesn’t have to do much as a lifeguard; thanks again siesta. He has time to practice diving on the low board so he can save the day at the end of the film by doing a perfect dive from the dangerous cliffs. I’d believe it if I were an Elvis fan!

The film was entertaining, with musical interludes featuring Elvis and the hilarious-to-watch backup musicians. They did seem to catch Mexican rhythms and folklore; lots of mariachi singing, including “Guadalajara!!” and guitars and maracas. Tourist-resort local culture has to be taken for what it is. The music you hear on Margarita night (pun intended) is, of course, not what the locals listen to. The nightclub entertainment is just that, entertainment. The movie as a whole was fun to watch and gives us an interesting impression of the American perception of Mexico in the early 1960s. For the patrons of the nightclubs, Elvis was the “North American singing sensation;” Sleepy Mexico is not the United States or even part of the same continent.

John Parker Touch of Evil

John Parker, July 23

Touch of Evil (1958). Orson Welles’ film noir about a border town was well cast and well set. I’m fine with Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas with a bad accent and little knowledge of Mexican culture; he is a respected narcotics investigator who is treated with great esteem when he arrives to help the local officials at the crime scene. This is heightened when a Grandi family member tries to throw acid on him. He’s not your typical Mexican, not like real Mexican actors in the film, anyway, but in my mind he doesn’t have to be. His pairing with the (yet another) blond American that gives him yet more prestige, perhaps an important feature that Welles is playing on here. Is Welles saying that “Mexicans are just like us?” The other actors are all convincing in their roles as Mexicans, including Marlene Dietrich. The Americans who live on the border, such as Welles’ Hank Quinlan and his sidekick best friend, have family, friends, business associates, drinking buddies, brothel connections. The girl Nayid mentioned thought she heard ticking in her head was a sex trade worker hooked up with an American businessman. Both will be killed at the beginning of the film on the American side of the border, thus diminishing somewhat the threat of an international incidence. The bomb, of course, was planted in the convertible on the Mexican side. The brothel Madame, Sza Sza Gabor, and several Mexican gang members, were definitely not Latino, but again, saying their minimal lines, they didn’t need to be for the casting to be convincing.

I loved the setting. An imaginary border town, “Los Robles,” perhaps a neutral name to appease Americans, kind of like “Álamo,” like boring street names in Vancouver. Here, two cultures interact daily and exist harmoniously. Americans will pursue cheap labour south of the border and Mexicans will seek employment opportunities in the United States. The border town has brothels and sleazy hotels, drug addicts and dealers, crime families. Welles’ Hank Quinlan is in his niche. He is a loser and, as we discover, evil. He knows the ins and outs of the town so well that he is able to rely on hunches to ease his workload. He therefore plants evidence in support of his hunches; this continues his slippery slope in lawlessness that includes kidnapping and murder. He tries to use Mexicans as accomplices in his scheme to discredit Vargas and it is obvious he despises them. He is a parasite; he exploits Mexicans and is ultimately part of the legal structure discriminating against them. This is Welles’ ultimate aim.

Down Argentine Way

John Parker July 17

Down Argentine Way really promotes Argentina as a fun land of love and Latin rhythms. I once had a teacher from Mexico who emphasized, derogatorily, that “amor” is a huge component in Latin American popular culture: “If you’re romantic, Señor, then you will surely adore, Agentina.” Distinct Latin rhythms again permeate the festive scenes, especially when Carmen Miranda is featured. Carmen, who I think is Mexican, sings in Spanish and Portuguese, and dances subtly but distinctly in the syncopated style that we saw in Flying Down to Rio. Guitars serenade, a frenzied conga dance overwhelms, maracas clatter. The two Negro dancers, perhaps less Latin in their tap dancing, are sensational. Of course, a dance cabaret is featured so we see Latin dance and hear South American rhythms at their finest. The chauffeur, Anastacio, is in constant siesta mode, although Argentina does not have the sun reputation of its exotic counterparts further to the north. Our dashing protagonist, as usual, is very rich and maintains strong family values. Also as usual, meaning as in Flying Down to Rio, our Latin protagonist falls for an over-the-top-blond-coloured American. It was fun to see Don Ameche in one of his earlier movies. He was in Trading Places and Cocoon (in which he break dances and for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) in the 1980s. Interestingly, he was born Dominic Amici in the United States. I wonder if the name change to Spanish corresponds with the Friendly Neighbour period of the 1930s and 1940s. “Don,” of course, carries certain connotations: rich, dapper, smooth talking, moustache. Looking him up on Wikipedia, I see that he often played roles similar to the one in Down Argentine Way.

I’m particularly curious about the portrayal of Gaucho culture in the film. We are in the pampas region of Argentina, where sheep and cattle ranching dominated during centuries previous. The ranch hands all wear Gaucho clothing, and Gaucho formal clothing is worn for the fiesta at the end. There is a village fiesta with rustic dancing and singing, and Gaucho serenaders with guitars at Don Ameche’s ranch. Formal racetrack British style horse racing and jumping is well outside the realm of the Gauchos. I’m hoping someone who knows the culture will comment with his or her impression of the film’s portrayal. Films that try to present aspects of culture are probably bound to a few clichés and not able to go in depth, and I understand that. This potentially leads, as we’ve discussed already, to over simplification that plays into stereotypes.

Flying Down to Rio

John Parker July 12

Flying Down To Rio (1933). Jon suggests that this perspective of Latin America is different than that in the two previous films, and he’s right. Mariachi bands and dancing in the Acapulco sun give way to Latin rhythms in supper clubs that feature professional dance orchestras that were prevalent in the era leading up to World War 2. Distinct Latin rhythms prevail, meaning syncopated-African-originated Brazilian sambas and tangos. Camilo and Jon’s “conservative honour society” that we saw in Zorro is not constantly on the defensive but more fun pursuing in their tropical paradise. The female lead, herself a dark and very rich Brazilian, is so much fun that she needs to be chaperoned day and night by French-speaking relatives. Luckily for us she does get a few break-away scenes that include a dance, a silly ride in an airplane that incudes an even sillier being stranded on a deserted island, and a skin revealing beach outfit that might have been racy for the 1930s. Other Brazilians dance the Karioka in the supper club or on primitive airplanes and sing Brazilian love/folk songs without microphones. My favourite is the Brazilian band that knows this music so well that it is in full siesta mode right up until the moment it performs.

Rio, with its many famous sunny beaches and fun institutions, like soccer and Mardi Gras, even Portuguese language, is the perfect backdrop for Fred Astair’s and Ginger Rogers’ hapless band that plays when it can considering its success is constantly hampered by its leader’s short attention span. Fred and Ginger get ample dance time and adapt quite well to the new rhythms and surroundings. They eventually participate in the cause to save the lead’s father’s new hotel from floundering due to “Latin” shady business practices. Mayors and bankers all fall under the influence of corruption from the competition, giving a real “south of the border feel.” The lead’s wealthy father prevails thanks to the help of Fred Astaire and the band and, of course, the airborne dancers who do some truly amazing stunts for a 1930s film, albeit very little actual flying was involved. The lead has fallen for the ridiculous band leader, blond hair, youthfulness and all; they are married high in the sky as the original fiancée, well-mannered, bold and certainly more deserving after leading the airplane dance corps to help rescue dad’s hotel, parachutes back to earth. I’d change the title to Flying Dancers Over Rio.


The Man from Acapulco

John Parker, July 5

The Man from Acapulco (Le Magnifique) 1973. This French Bond farce featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset sets the stage nicely for the films that follow, particularly with respect to the social mores of the films’ eras. It has “fiesta’ written all over it: Mexico is sun, dancing, tight pants, over-sized sombreros, and mariachi singing. Bandidos are shot out of trees and are seemingly unorganized as they attack the protagonists in large numbers. This film is so 70s, clothing and hairstyles, and roles, particularly of women. The writer, as poor and slovenly as he is, has an uneducated maid who checks in on him daily; she even encourages his written output of pure crap and sympathizes with his predicament of loneliness and outright rudeness, and speaks with an accent in French, like the electrician and plumbers, that suits her station. She is a 70s cliché in her gender role, along with much of the film’s setting. I lived in France for several years and taught French for 30, so I understand the use of language and accent in the film, and expect accent, an exaggerated accent in particular, to be an important feature of the films to come. When Belmondo says “merde” (shit) to sound like “maid,” she answers “yes.” I’m anticipating broken English sprinkled with “sí, señor” and “ay ay ay.”

The typical 70s Bond films featured British actor Roger Moore jumping into cars in exotic tropical surroundings that included swimming pools, hungry sharks, scuba divers, diabolical kingpins. As a British agent Bisset speaks French with a thick English accent, inconsistently, as does Belmondo, at certain times, when he really plays the part. The Albanian language-accent ploy is laughable but common as a cinematic/theatrical device to bring out the “them,” who is unorganized and inefficient, the bandidos, the unconvincing seduction of Bisset by the author’s editor/kingpin, mariachis standard tunes (my dad’s favourite, didn’t hear it, is “Guadalajara”). When Jon mentioned the “south of the border anything goes” mental framework in Americans last night I couldn’t help but think of the “south” in American literature, especially William Faulkner, or more recently Cormac McCarthy, where south is backward and “outside the conventions of civilization,” making south of the border even further south, even further “free” of civilization, even more Beverley Hillbillies-like, John Steinbeck’s Oakies-like. Nobody notices the telephone booth hoisted into the air by the helicopter; the music keeps playing, the dancers dancing, the sun shining.

Guinot: 2022-La Guerra del Gallo

La guerra es absurda y la misión de Masi aún más absurda, ridícula, patética. Todo esto porque es un ser inestable y debido a su infancia obsesiva de la Guerra de las Malvinas. Las muertes de varios miembros de su familia, como sus abuelos en el accidente automovilístico, su tía favorita, su padre por infarto. Pasa su tiempo pensando en su querido Exocet (su gallito domesticado) y como escaparse del asilo. La victoria del fin, menos de lo que se esperaba, es el resultado de mucha esfuerza, éxitos y pérdidas, que representa la novela. Quiero concentrarme en unas páginas de la primera mitad que tratan de emisiones por onda corta por Radio Nacional dirigidas a los soldados británicos. La idea, hacer que quieran volver a casa en Inglaterra, es un fracaso por varios razones explicadas en la novela, razones que siguen la absurdidad de la guerra y, en particular, los esfuerzos del gobierno militar que comenzó la guerra. Como dice Nayid, la propaganda del Junta Militar es una inspiración importante de la novela. La absurdidad de las emisiones por la radio es un ejemplo más de la desesperación y locura de esta Guerra de la Malvinas.

Las emisiones contaban con una voz de mujer para tratar de convencer “a los soldados británicos a regresar a su tierra” (49). Se dice que la locutora leía de manera tan ridícula que provocaba risa en vez de llanto, y que toda esta técnica de guerra psicológica es invención del lado del ejército británico. Se tomaron todos los recaudos necesarios para diluir el mensaje como parte de su sistema defensivo. Sin embargo, este episodio de la guerra inspira a Masi de gritar “Cipayo go home” (49) al presunto espía que llevaba la camiseta del grupo de música popular Kiss. El comportamiento de Masi resulta en desastre por su causa; recibe “una golpiza memorable” (50) por la cara: “Eso fui el último de los operativos.” (50). Luego los padres de Masi lo llevan a ver a un psiquiatra que les anuncia que Masi no pasa bastante tiempo en el espacio real; las ideas fantásticas de Masi tienen que ser controladas, con conexión a la tierra. El estado mental de Masi se empora hasta la muerte de su padre, después de lo cual está comprometido con el asilo de manera indefinida, mostrando la severidad de su inestabilidad mental. Es víctima de su inhabilidad de participar en la venganza contra la Gran Bretaña. Otra vez repito lo que dice Nayid, es no combatiente demente.

Patricia Ratto: Trasfondo

Estoy obsesionado con los acontecimientos helicópteros; hablé de eso en mi post sobre Los pichiciegos, entonces voy a hablar del ataque de los helicópteros y sus cargas de profundidad en Trasfondo. Como dije del episodio de los helicópteros en Los pichiciegos, otra vez, en Trasfondo, tenemos un microcosmos de la novela entera. Como mencionaron otros en los posts, los marineros no tienen muchas opciones, ni durante tiempo normal, ni durante ataques enemigos: “Esperar es la sola maldita cosa que podemos hacer” (85). Los marineros argentinos lanzan un torpedo a un barco británico que divulga su presencia. Se oyen hélices de helicópteros y momentos después: “Splash de torpedo en el agua” (76) anuncia la llegada de un torpedo: “Máxima profundidad, ordena el comandante, y se inician maniobras evasivas” (76). Cada marinero tiene su propia responsabilidad durante el ataque y cada uno reacciona de su manera. Linares, por ejemplo, reza con su rosario pero “mueve los labios en silencio” (78). El zumbido del hélice del motor resuena para todos en el submarino, “cada vez con mayor intensidad” (78); el miedo debe de ser enorme y la capacidad de controlar la situación limitada.

Apenas es el torpedo evitado que las cargas de profundidad caen del cielo de los helicópteros. El submarino tiene que evitar una docena de cargas que explotan por todos lados alrededor durante su fuga silenciosa de la zona: “parece que están barriendo la zona” (82). Los marineros continúan sus tareas y esperan con ansiedad. El narrador sigue lo que pasa de su posición cerca del comandante y de la sala de control, y comenta del peligro omnipresente y de ciertos detalles que indican la intensidad de la situación. La presión sobre los marineros es enorme; no ven nada y no saben dónde o cuando explotará la próxima carga. Pero saben muy bien que si una carga toca el submarino, “no habrá tiempo para nada” (78). Me hace pensar en la película alemana “Das Boot” de Wolfgang Petersen (1981) en la cual los marineros esperan en silencio durante el ataque de cargas; no pueden hablar ni hacer ruido ninguno mientras “los de afuera nos buscan” (85).

Digo que este episodio representa gran parte de la novela porque muestra el aspecto humano de los marineros en peligro y, quizás más importante, la vulnerabilidad del submarino que es la realidad continua de este tipo de misión. Los marineros de los submarinos tienen piel gruesa y mentes solidos por participar en esta clase de combate.


Fogwill: Los pichiciegos

Me encanta la parte del libro que se trata de presencia de los helicópteros, las páginas 160-163, porque representa muchas ideas del libro entero. Fogwill inserta este relato pequeño para dar énfasis en la exageración que reina la situación desesperada de pichis, una banda de desertores del ejército argentino. Este nombre viene de un animal local en Argentina que se esconde en túneles subterráneos. Los pichis aquí se encuentran aislados en las Malvinas durante la corta guerra contra Inglaterra y toda su existencia, todas sus actividades, es una lucha para sobrevivir contra los elementos, sobretodo el frío, la enfermedad, el aburrimiento, la búsqueda de comida, el bombardeo del ejército inglés. La presencia de los helicópteros entonces intensifica la vulnerabilidad de los pichis; la muerte nunca está lejos y las defensas de los pichis es algo precario.

La llegada de los helicópteros provoca pánico, y la cantidad de los helicópteros es indefinida, aun exagerada. Los pichis quedan impresionados por el viento de las hélices y el olor de sus motores; es una distracción del frío, algo distinto de la existencia monótona. Los soldados británicos “asoman por una puerta grande […] y tiran su cintita que cae como una serpentina” (161). Los pichis imaginan que estos soldados son “escots o wels” con caras bien afeitadas y alegres. Las ventanas de los helicópteros están tan limpias que “parecen apoyarle cubitos de hielo” en una fiesta. Los británicos son atléticos, llevan ropa limpia y de calidad, y ganan sueldos “más que un general argentino” (162) por su trabajo de tirar las espantosas filas de balas por todos lados. Todo es al contrario de la existencia lastimosa de los pichis.

Los motores de los helicópteros asustan a los pichis, y no vale la pena salir corriendo porque hay minas y obstáculos peligrosos por los campos: “los helicópteros—el ruido, el olor y los hombres […] asustaban más que los Harrier solitarios que sin embargo mataban más gente” (163). Otro aspecto importante de los helicópteros, según los Magos que dirigen la banda, es que señalan el fin de la misión de los pichis. La posible bajada de helicópteros provoca miedo y locura. La radio que siempre escuchan los pichis los dicen que la Argentina “había ganado la guerra” (163). Vemos entonces, en estas páginas breves, un resumen de la existencia horrible de los pichis. Muchos de ellos tienen el deseo de regresar a Argentina; otros saben que nada les esperan. Su vida diaria, lamentable, sin futuro, el presente, es todo lo que tienen, todo lo que conocen.