Mexico at the Multiplex
If Mexican cinema is actually a rich terrain, like Mexico itself, and so very close to Hollywood, why so little attention? Too often, critical myopia about Mexican film is facilitated by a political myopia about Mexican immigrants, Chicano citizens and the diverse Latino communities that increasingly inhabit a parallel universe within this country. Hollywood, are you listening? Probably not. Hollywood, a cloistered guild disguised as a major industry, never answers back. Its position in Southern California and its reliance on Mexican service labor has generally failed to translate into onscreen presences, except when a pioneer like Gregory Nava offers a reminder. (See, for example, the instructive scene in Selena, Nava's breakthrough feature about the late singer--played by Jennifer Lopez--as she shops for a Grammy dress in a mall where she's patronized by the saleswomen until a mob of workers far humbler in status comes to pay their respects.)
A handful of Latino-accented films on screens recently show a decidedly mixed picture of where Hollywood is coming from and where it thinks it's going. Traffic! Spy Kids! The Mexican! Price of Glory! If the bad news is that old stereotypes are still in full swing, the good news is that hip style (handheld camera, fast editing, nonlinear narratives) and hip humor (parody, satire, self-awareness) make them go down easier.
And, occasionally, even a mainstream film wins points for uplifting the raza. The border has long been a favorite Hollywood theme, rendered most memorably by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, a film that anticipated today's boomlet with its spin on sleaze and corruption redeemed by a twist of formula: The American sheriff (played by Welles himself) was the bad guy, and the Mexican cop (uh, improbably, Charlton Heston) was the good guy.
Following badly in its footsteps, this season, is The Mexican. It apes Welles's formula of moral inversion, but this time around the tragedy is rendered as farce. And not a particularly compelling one at that, what with Julia Roberts acting all manic and ditzy, Brad Pitt impersonating an errand boy for the mob who can't shoot straight and James Gandolfini providing the only relief in his Soprano-transgressive role as a gay hit man. (Why is he gay? Cuz he's Julia's best friend.) The Mexican of the title is actually a gun, not a person, which seems as instructive as any other detail of what might be wrong with not only this film but with the whole Hollywood project.
The Mexican's few redeeming moments occur when it trades in slapstick for satire and uses parody to poke fun at gringos, both for their clueless monolingo habits and for their transparently stereotypical expectations of Mexico and Mexicans. In one such scene, Pitt lands at the airport en route to Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí (nice location, dude). When he demands an alternative to the proffered Chrysler because it's not Mexican enough, his Mexican rental-car agent takes him at his word, so to speak, and switches from English to Spanish. "Do you speak Spanish, sir? Only what you learned from Speedy Gonzalez, I bet." In a smart sendup of Mexican modernity undermined by Anglo cliché, the script awards him a lowrider classic pulled off a back lot clearly reserved for American tourists who want to ride like the cholos back home.
Still, such parodic moments cannot rescue the film from the undertow of the racist imaginary that drives its characterizations and plot devices--from the fiesta celebration in a small town filled with drunken revelers shooting guns into the air to the honorable landed family whose quest for the legendary pistola is all about dignity, not money. The fact that their story is told in sepia-toned flashbacks only reinforces the antique quality of the stereotype and the fixed, unchanging view of Mexico that pervades the film. It's as if Hollywood has an old-fashioned code of honor itself. Punch in the location, get the message: Mexicans are ruled by honor if the setting is a family, by corruption if it's a police scene and by violence if it's a tavern or small town. In the end, "good" Mexicans are basically those who are governed by the sanctity of tradition because they've inherited enough money that they don't have to hit up gringos for more. (This is the Mexico of very, very old movies.) What's most astonishing about The Mexican, though, is its arrival at such an old place, in the end, after its plot has treated the country more like a modern computer game, in which Pitt can just hop into a car and drive around, have adventures and return home safe and sound. On a Mexicana plane, no less.
Traffic is a far superior product, as Oscars and Ten-Best lists have amply testified, and its formulas are correspondingly more nuanced. But while it is a brilliant film--astonishingly bold in its aesthetic strategies, pumped up by cinematography and editing that do to vision and cognition what steroids do to muscles, and so finely tuned in its narrative structures that it holds attention without even a second of The Mexican's slackness--it too is chock-full of woeful stereotypes and wishful thinking. Mexico, while not the main focus of Traffic's concerns, is a necessary ingredient in its cautionary tale of what drugs can do to a wholesome American family. (So's the African-American drug dealer, another stereotype pulled out from under a rock to re-enter prime time.)