Armados!

by zunguzungu

I’ve been watching Men With Guns, really Los Hombres Armados, by John Sayles and liked it almost without reservation. Sayles writes himself into some pretty tough positions and is pretty good at writing his way out of them; the ending to Lone Star, for example, is (maybe like Do the Right Thing) one of the rare movies that asks serious questions but ends without resolving the things that absolutely can’t be resolved. Spike’s solution, for example, is to end the movie with a face-off between his two main actors, and both the conflict and the connection between them is absolutely palpable. There’s no easy answers, no solution or salvation, but there’s also a sense that the story is still continuing, still working itself out. Sounds like life to me. I won’t talk about Lone Star, because if you haven’t seen it, you should, and you really can’t talk about the ending with totally ruining it.

As for what not to do in a movie ending, I saw Hud a few weeks ago, and it really serves as a cautionary tale. I dig Westerns, because while they’re all about modernization and the idea of the past confronting the future, they’re also about how myths like “the modern” fall apart when you look at them too closely. So the Westerns I like the most (like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but many, many others) are the ones where the idea of the West is falling apart before your eyes, and all you can see is people. Hud starts out promising (lots of images of the longhorn ranches giving way to transistor radios, cadillacs, and trains) and develops a really good tension between the modern, cynical son and the old-ways father, but at a certain point it all falls apart. The movie ends by demonizing Paul Newman’s character (by out of absolutely nowhere identifying him as a draft dodger) and acting like that solves the problems the first half of the movie poses is the classic bad screenwriter fake-out: ask an interesting question, then give a non-sequitor answer with enough gusto that the audience doesn’t realize that you’ve cheated them. It’s sort of like if Paradise Lost ended with Adam and Eve realizing that the Devil was really a nasty guy and God telling them kindly that, since they’ve learned their lesson, they can just come back to Eden. Doesn’t work like that, and Milton knew that better than Larry McMurtry did; you can’t go home again is the first rule of writing Westerns, or should be. Though Larry McMurtry apparently realized that Hud sucked; he supposedly said that the problem with the movie was that they were too faithful to his novel.

But Los Hombres Armados is more ambitious. The main character is a doctor in (unnamed Central American country that is clearly Guatemala) who doesn’t realize the death-squad style adventurism the military is engaged on outside the capital city (brought to you courtesy of the war on communism!) and, as he learns more and more, he goes farther and farther into the jungle and becomes less and less sure of anything. There’s a defrocked priest who’s lost his faith and our main character is sort of like him as well: he sees schools turned into torture chambers using the surgical tools his own medical students had with them, and he realizes how meaningless all of his training and ideals have been. The throwaway line in Nacho Libre that “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science” is funny because it trades on the pathos in movies like this one. And there’s no solution to this movie’s dilemma. How do you make a movie about a violent counter-insurgency that involved many, many whole villages being burned to the ground and uncountable numbers of people “disappeared?” There’s no ray of sunshine in that story, so if you end the movie happily, you do violence to history, and if you end it violently (the old “can’t think of an ending, so lets just blow something up” approach, which is just as stupid as the lesser used, but still pernicious, “drop a plague of frogs on Los Angeles” ending), you cheat just as much. So the movie ends the way it has to, sadly, but with the realization that the story is still going on, that life goes on not because that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but just because it does.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about (I love saying that in blog entries; shows you how round about I am in my thinking). My one reservation with the film was the fact that although it was filmed in Mexico and is based on a Francisco Goldman story about Guatemala, it can still take place in an “unnamed central American country.” Why does this happen so much? I can’t count the number of movies that have used the idea of an “African type” movie for their movie about Africa, in ways that you’d never see a movie set in “unnamed Western type country.” We’d notice the difference of course; we’d notice that such and such a thing is Italian, French, Estadosunidensianos, and so on. But we also don’t generally think about “the West” as having a general type. We know that most Westerners are very different from each other, that whatever they might have in common, they also have just as many or more things not in common. We tend not to realize this about Africans, and even a smart director like Sayles finds it easy to generalize the “latin American banana republic” syndrome.

Now, is this a big deal? Probably not, or at least not in the usual sense. Sure, its ignorant and slightly dismissive of the people we’re ignorant of, but that’s certainly not an uncommon thing, and, to look at it from another angle, its awfully hard to find a movie made by an Estadounidenso that’s more respectful to its Latin American subject. Sayles actually speaks Spanish, for crying out loud. But what bothers me about the “type country” approach is that it locates the problem in a sort of ahistorical framework: the problem is men with guns, in general. Not the Reagan administration’s support for death squads that worked hand in glove with big American corporations to engineer coup after coup and assassinate a generation of union organizers, liberation theologians, and pro-democracy folks. Not the specific and historical relationship between my country and the people of Guatemala, a shameful history. I think about this mainly with regard to Africa, as may be clear; I don’t know that much about the specifics of Reagan support for the contras in Nicaragua (though I knew even less when my parents took me to protest it at the age of five), for example, but I know enough to know that there is a history, that a movie like this isn’t just a story set in a mythical place but is talking about real people, a real place, and real guns, guns that were bought with your (or your parents’) very real tax dollars.

But still a good flick.