On the two very different yet not necessarily dissimilar visions of Americans in Mexico in the same film.
As I wrote in this post on Edouard Glissant and the idea of creolization, the United States has a lot more in common with the Caribbean and the rest of the Western Hemisphere than we often acknowledge. Moreover, as I spent an entire week’s worth of posts trying to illustrate, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is even more interconnected. Yet despite those parallel and interconnected histories and identities, and notwithstanding the basic fact of geographical proximity between the two nations, there’s no question of course that Mexico is its own place, a fundamentally different nation than the US—and thus that we can and must analyze how Americans travel to and engage with Mexico (in reality and in cultural representations) just as we would with any other place.
One of the most complex and interesting such cultural representations, of the last couple decades and of any moment, has to be John Sayles’ Men with Guns (1997). Sayles’ film was shot entirely on location in Mexico, using an all-Mexican cast who speak Mexican Spanish (with English subtitles) throughout the film, which makes the few scenes when two overtly American, English-speaking turistas show up that much more striking and significant. The two tourists, played to exaggerated perfection by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, are as clichéd and stereotypical as (I would argue) the rest of the film’s characters are multi-layered and complex; but while that leads their scenes to have a certain heavy-handedness, it’s also clearly Sayles’ point in these moments. These minor characters are not only outsiders and intruders in the film’s setting and world—they have no ability to understand this place and no interest in doing so, and their cultural tourism is, in the context of the film’s dark and powerful main stories and themes, both utterly ridiculous and deeply insulting. That might not describe all Americans’ attitudes toward or relationships to our hemispheric neighbors, but it’s certainly (both Sayles and I would argue) a far too prevalent perspective.
Sayles’ film would seem to be precisely the opposite: a thoughtful, nuanced, culturally immersive engagement with Mexican culture and community and history and issues. I love Sayles and am a fan of the film (although it’s not at the top of my list of his works), so I would agree with that description. Yet on the other hand, can’t we also see Sayles here as a kind of intellectual and artistic version of the tourist couple? A cultural tourist who comes down to Mexico for a while, engages with the place while he’s there, and then returns to the United States, to tell his stories of what he found? The film is, after all, not entirely unlike a tourist’s slideshow; “What John Did on His Mexican Vacation.” At the very least, I think we have to acknowledge that both Sayles and the tourists exist on the same spectrum, of American experiences in and with Mexico—and while of course it would be far too reductive to argue that all points on that spectrum are identical, it would be just as wrong-headed to claim that they don’t have anything in common. Only by acknowledging that we’re all cultural tourists, after all, can we perhaps start to analyze our own perspective and figure out how we can at times get beyond it.
Next Americans abroad tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses or suggestions of works about Americans abroad?
8/9 Memory Day nominee: Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the Franco American engineer and architect who fought in the Revolution and created the plan for Washington, DC—just another compelling reason to thank the French!
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