Latino action heroes, strippers, and non-hegemonic miscegenation: family apocalypse in Robert Rodriguez's planet terror.
In this article, I discuss why Planet Terror can arouse such extreme feelings among its viewers, how it fits into the zombie genre in its gender, ethnic, and political dimensions, and why it is an important work for a Latino filmmaker who has constantly defied both the cinematic establishment and the generalizations about Latino ethnic cinema, while being financially successful. I argue that the film's contribution to the zombie genre is in that it portrays the collapse and rebirth of the American family as occurring through racial miscegenation outside traditional middle class social structures, an idea suggested in other zombie films but never explicitly visualized for the screen. First, drawing on Michel Focault's History of Sexuality, I explain how zombie genre films tend to be constructed with melodramatic devices that question the role of family as a mediator of sexuality, which is key to understanding Rodriguez's disruptive use of a US Latino character and a stripper as the main heroes of the film. I then draw on some postcolonial debates about the role of miscegenation in defying Eurocentric/colonial authority in order to argue that as a socio-theoretical construction, miscegenation has been embraced by and promoted in Mexican / Latino culture. I demonstrate how it is presented in Planet Terror with the irony and wit that makes Robert Rodriguez a special filmmaker.
EXPLOITING THE WORLD: RODRIGUEZ'S ETHNIC ACTION HEROES AND STEREOTYPING
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are friends and part of a group of filmmakers (such as Kevin Smith and Rob Zombie), who, under the guiding hand of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, have already made several neo-exploitation films within what I call their "Grindhouse new wave." Some examples are Rodriguez's Sin City (co-directed with Frank Miller, and with contributions from Quentin Tarantino, 2005) and his Mariachi trilogy, as well as practically all of Tarantino's cinematic oeuvre. This type of film is always debatable in terms of political correctness due to the ambiguities of postmodern irony and how images are presented by the filmmakers and interpreted by the audience. In Rodriguez's case, most of his R-rated films abound in Latino stereotypes that used to appear in mainstream Hollywood and American culture in general, such as the "bandito," "the half-breed Harlot," and the "dark lady," which prominent Latino scholar Charles Ramirez Berg singled out as some of the main problematic Hispanic constructions in the American media. Interestingly, Ramirez Berg himself presents Rodriguez in a positive manner in his book Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance because the director's El Mariachi "calls into question dominant notions of masculinity, heroism, the U.S.- Mexico border, and finally cinema" (239). In his chapter about Rodriguez, Ramirez Berg specifically points out that beneath the action movie and genre archetypes found in the film, there is a social narrative that criticizes the drug trade and the American exploitation of the Mexican bordertowns (237), while also creating an atypical action hero, whose behavior is outside both American and Mexican parameters of masculinity/machismo (236). In addition, Ramirez Berg points out that the low-budget style of the film in itself is transgressive because it shows an aesthetic outside of the "system" that does rely on big-budget spending (238). Still, Planet Terror was made at a different stage in Rodriguez's career, which later included higher budgets (but low for the typical Hollywood action film), and an association with Hollywood moguls such as Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood actors such as Bruce Willis.
Ramirez Berg's writing, which analyzes Rodriguez's El Mariachi as an ethnic narrative that defies hegemonic productions, can be linked to how some Blaxploitation films in the 1960s and 1970s are currently perceived. While driven by simplistic plots abounding in fantasies and stereotypes about African American society, these films were important in countering white "bourgeois" hegemony, and in providing visibility for a minority group that was suffering from a lack of representation and empowerment in the American national media. Rodriguez's films can be very divisive because he continues to rely on stereotypes. However, the content of his films can also be interpreted as rebellious because he creates Latino heroes that are disseminated into the American mainstream. Just the fact that his characters are well-liked and admired is a triumph for a Latino ethnic culture that historically has been held back in Hollywood. In Planet Terror, the Latino/Hispanic hero El Wray is a sensitive yet "badass" action hero that can be admired by anyone from around the world.
Rodriguez has directed exploitative films, but he has also done positive mainstream representations, such as the Spy Kids series, where Hispanic characters are intelligent, have access to technology, and also are accessible to American mainstream audiences. When I was teaching Planet Terror, many of my students who had issues with the film were surprised that Rodriguez had directed the Spy Kids series, because they had consumed these works as safe diverse family entertainment that they did not find offensive in any way. Spy Kids offers a "safe" version of ethnic representation, in which the system does not change, and the assimilation of ethnic minority into the mainstream is easier to digest as a concept.
One of the reasons Planet Terror may be perceived as a shallow esthetic exercise is related to how the Grindhouse project was and still is sold to audiences. In many of their interviews, Tarantino and Rodriguez emphasize their aesthetic homage to exploitation films. The filmmakers claim they wanted to recreate the cheap and imperfect visuals that were the result of the low budgets of the features they enjoyed in their youth and continue to consume. Both tend to overexplain aesthetic choices such as the parody of B-movie acting, the music, the lesbian overtones, the artificial problematic frame rate, the jumpy editing, and the fictional missing reels that make Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof resemble Grindhouse features. In Grindhouse's official tie-in promotional book, Grindhouse: The Sleaze-filled Saga of an Exploitation Double Feature, both directors talk at length about how they are visually reproducing the cinematic past. However, they never mention the fact that they are also updating these features in terms of gender, race, and other controversial issues. Rodriguez's commentary in the home video release mostly focuses on how he filmed the movie, but does not provide too many details about the meaning of the film. In fact, he gives the impression that the film was improvised, and that the screenplay took shape according to how much he liked certain actors. Still, I believe that the film reproduces the visual absurdity of past exploitation films but has a political irony that should be the main focus of analysis, and that makes it one of Rodriguez's best works.
In the following segment I will explore the construction of minority heroes in two earlier and very influential zombie films, Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. In these two films, the heroes are perceived as an "other" because of visible racial features, and not necessarily because of distinct ethnic belonging, like Rodriguez's hero of Latino descent. My goal in this segment is to explain how the earlier characters' limited otherness was used for political purposes, and how Rodriguez in turn relies on the already established representational framework to make a political film that updates issues of ethnic representation, and tackles concerns related to post-9/11 American society.
ZOMBIE FILMS, THE COLLAPSE OF THE FAMILY STRUCTURE, AND MINORITY ACTION HEROES
One of the most important contributions of the zombie genre is that it introduced two charismatic and popular minority action heroes that are still relevant in contemporary popular culture because of their social significance. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) featured the character of Ben Huss, an African American hero who is the leading man in the picture, as well as the most attractive and sympathetic character. This was specifically groundbreaking in the 1960s, as this film was released at the height of the Civil Rights struggle and close to the date when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. More recently, British director Danny Boyle's zombie apocalypse, 28 Days Later (2002), included the character of Selena who was also an interesting black action heroine. Her importance lies in the fact that she was a sympathetic minority character defiant of the system in a post-9/11 British society, and a key figure in representing a new multicultural British family unit, an idea that is very relevant for European audiences at this time. Both characters were essential in their function as counterpoints to the dissolution of the white family structure in both the American and British zombie apocalypses that mirrored troubled times respectively in different decades.
Throughout the 20th century, the family structure has been a controversial subject among progressive thinkers because it represents the basic social unit of the dominant economic and national culture. These social debates led to the creation of films such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Giant (1956), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which visualized and criticized traditional family structures. A number of film scholars, such as John Mercer and Martin Shingler, have studied this phenomenon, and consider these themes the essential narrative frame for what is currently known in Film Studies as melodrama. As a result, various studies have been undertaken of the oeuvre of directors such as Douglas Sirk, Reiner Maria Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, and other filmmakers who are known for focusing on the dysfunctional idea of the traditional family. However, the cinematic family struggles that define the modern idea of melodrama, have also found their way to bizarre genres such as mainstream zombie narratives, ever since films such as Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932), Jacques Torneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which established the use of ghoulish metaphors to represent the collapse of civilization and the hegemonic family structure in obviously different contexts.
Night of the Living Dead has an interesting depiction of the collapse of the American family, as it portrays Ben as an attractive character due to his non-belonging to the "white" family nucleus, which allows him to survive the night until ironically he is killed by policemen and rednecks who mistake him for a zombie. The other white families are portrayed as "unprepared" for the zombie apocalypse, in that their loyalty to their relatives only leads to their destruction at the hands of the infected attackers. The character of Barbra is upset throughout the entire film because she does not know the fate of her bully of a brother. She is eventually killed by him and other zombies in the final segment of the film. The young couple, Tom and Judy, die in an explosion that occurs while they are trying to refuel a truck (and Judy is partially to blame for the failure of this task), and the older married couple of Harry and Helen are murdered and eaten by their zombie daughter Karen. By not belonging to the white family institution, Ben is the only one to survive the final zombie attack. At the end, the irony is that what destroys Ben is not the white family institution, but rather the white authority system or government which is what oppresses him as a member of a minority ethnic group.
In 28 Days Later, the character of Selena is portrayed at the beginning in a similar way to Ben in Night. Unlike the characters of Jim and Hannah who have attachments to their white parents and are almost destroyed by them, Selena is detached from any type of family. The film makes this point by having her suddenly kill her initial white partner Mark when he is bitten by an infected man, which shocks Jim as well as the audience. The difference between Night and 28 Days is that in Boyle's film, the authority figures (represented by a rogue British Soldier squad) are also a threat to the Caucasian characters, a topical concept in post-9/11 society. In Night, the white family members, the African American hero, and the zombies all die, but the traditional American authorities remain in power, which represented a fatalist view of the struggle in 1968. 28 Days has a more positive ending because Selena, Jim, and Hanna survive, defeat the soldiers/authority (ironically, with the help of a black zombie), and a new interracial British family is born at the end of the film that is devoid of any biological connections. (2)
What is interesting about Ben and Selena is that their outsider status or otherness is visible in terms of physical features and racial makeup, but not because the actors perform in any way an African American or Afro-British ethnic behavior. According to critic Ben Hervey, Ben's character (42) is clean-cut, does not have the stereotypical African American speech pattern often portrayed in films, and his race is not addressed at any point of the movie. No background is provided about the character in the film, including elements such as social class, education, or profession. In fact, the character could have been played by a Caucasian actor and the plot would have remained the same. However, Ben's race remains key to avoiding any empathy with the foolish white characters, and to defying the authority of Harry, the older Caucasian character, who is trying to impose his will onto the others in the film. I think the irony of the ending of the film would have been also shocking if Ben would have been played by a white actor, however, linking his death visually to the representation of a lynching made the movie more political and not just good B-movie entertainment.
The character of Selena in 28 Days is portrayed as violent at the beginning of the film, and one wonders if her blackness was key in making the audience accept a female character who would dispatch people in such a violent and detached manner. As the story progresses, Selena softens up as a character, and at some point she reveals that she was a chemist, therefore implying attributes of education and middle-class status. She does not speak with an accent or have ethnic markers from Jamaica or Africa, which is very similar to Ben's original portrayal. Still, having had a profession makes her more attractive for inclusion into the new multicultural British family that the film promotes.
In Rodriguez's Planet Terror, the ethnic hero is the mysterious El Wray, whose background remains unclear throughout the entire film. As opposed to Ben and Selena, who are perceived as "others" because of race and not because of ethnic culture, El Wray is constructed mostly as an outcast or youth rebel through his costume, leather jacket, and tough guy persona. His links to his Latino ethnic background are more obscured than other Rodriguez heroes of Hispanic descent, however, there are a few hints that the audience has to recognize. First, his name (El Wray) appears to be an Anglophone name but phonetically it sounds like el rey, which translates to "the king" in English. The phrase el rey has been used several times by Rodriguez in his other work, including the name of the Mexican town where the vampires are located in From Dusk Till Dawn. It is also the name of Rodriguez's recently launched TV network. Furthermore, the character of El Wray constantly refers to his love interest Cherry Darling as Palomita (Little Dove), one of the few Spanish words he uses throughout the film but a definitive ethnic marker. Third, he is constantly harassed by local sheriff Hague, which may represent the southern border police persecution of Latino people. Fourth, his improvised plan to save the survivors is to emigrate to Mexico, and "put their backs to the ocean." This goal is achieved by the survivors at the end, as they settle next to one of the Mexican pre-Columbian pyramids in order to survive the American Apocalypse. Last and most importantly, El Wray is played by Freddie Rodriguez, an actor of Puerto Rican descent and no relation to the director. He is known for playing Latino characters, specifically as the Puerto Rican mortician in the HBO series Six Feet Under, but racially he can pass as a dark-haired white American who can also play Greek or Italian roles. These cultural constructions may be enough to define him as a Latino character, yet every time I teach the film I have to explain to the students that El Wray is of Hispanic descent, because the character never self-identifies as Latino/Hispanic in the film.
Planet Terror was produced at a very controversial time, when some of the 9/11 jingoism had begun to be dismissed in the face of the economic meltdown and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The main antagonists in the film are the military squad under the command of Lt. Muldoon (played by Bruce Willis) who have unleashed the zombie virus plague on American soil with the intention of finding a cure. Contrary to the mad British soldiers in 28 Days who want to rebuild British society, these American soldiers have fallen from grace after getting infected with a virus while trying to kill Osama bin Laden. They are evil antagonists but also victims with tragic overtones, therefore providing a rare nuance that rarely appears in the genre (including Night and 28 Days) where authority is simply dismissed as destructive.
There are several elements in Planet Terror that also make it different to Night and 28 Days in relation to their minority heroes' relationship with the system. First, El Wray has a different relationship with state and federal authorities. He is constantly harassed by the sheriff, representing local state authority, but he is admired by the antagonist soldier Lt. Muldoon whose army represents the whole nation. Muldoon is the most powerful villain in the film, and his platoon stands for American military might. In the final part of the film, it is revealed that El Wray is some type of American super soldier, which transforms him from an ethnic outcast to a national hero fighting the degeneration of the United States into a monstrous society. Sheriff Hague acknowledges this toward the middle of the film when he tells El Wray: "If only I knew who you were." This particular ability to be perceived as both the fringe of society and part of the system makes him a different type of hero to the ones previously discussed. Along with the Middle Eastern scientist Abby, he kills Bruce Willis's corrupted character and former hero Lt. Muldoon, but not before thanking him and recognizing his duty for supposedly killing American nemesis Osama bin Laden. (3) This particular scene shows that he is patriotic even though he is eliminating one of his own. He does not have an issue with the state, but rather with its corruption.
Another aspect in which El Wray differs from previous ethnic heroes is in that he sees himself as part of a Texan community rather than as belonging to the Mexican-American ethnic group. Contrary to Ben, who is not able to work well with the Caucasian survivors in Night, and Selena who only becomes a team player toward the end in 28 Days, El Wray unites the different social classes in Texas to form a survivor group that will resist the excesses of the American military. In his group he has Caucasian outcasts like stripper Cherry Darling, barbecue master JD Hague (brother of Sheriff Hague), lesbian and battered-wife doctor Dakota Block, her deputy father, and others that represent a Texas collective rather than the plight of an ethnic group. This bonding is visualized particularly well with something irreverent such as El Wray's enjoyment of JD Hague's secret Texas barbecue recipe. (4) Still, to me the main difference with other ethnic characters is in how El Wray and Cherry's miscegenation produce a new reality, which, compared to the melodramatic relationship of the white Block family, is neither limited by race, nor by law, or the territorial space of nation-states and their societal structures.
PLANET TERROR'S CLASS MELODRAMA, FOUCAULT'S DEPLOYMENT OF SEXUALITY, AND RODRIGUEZ'S STRIPPERS
Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality Vol. 1 is an important philosophical work that analyzes the role of sexuality in the modern world. The reason his work was fascinating to intellectuals was its argument that our perception of sexuality had been constructed by a social system that, contrary to popular belief, was not looking to eradicate but rather to support and use sexuality for its own purposes. Foucault writes:
The family, in its contemporary form, must not be understood as a social, economic, and political structure of alliance that excludes or at least restrains sexuality, that diminishes it as much as possible, preserving only its useful functions. On the contrary, its role is to anchor sexuality and provide it with a permanent support. ("Chapter 3: Domain," N. pag.)
Foucault further expands his discussion about how the bourgeoisie originally submitted itself to this social reality and the deployment of sexuality. He also discusses how the proletariat or working force was eventually assimilated into this commodification of sexuality. (5) This is important to understand because Planet Terror's melodrama involves two couples from different social classes whose sexuality is depicted in a similar yet distinct fashion.
The first, traditional, couple is represented by the Block family, which consists of doctors William and Dakota Block, and their son Tony. Dakota (Marley Shelton) is one of the heroines of the film and her introduction is a gloomy one, not because of a zombie attack, but rather because of her domestic situation. She has to take care of her young son, work a nightshift at the hospital with her unappealing husband (played by Josh Brolin), and keep silent about her lesbian affair. On paper, they are the perfect middleclass family, yet, while Dakota has good social status, she is unhappy with her middle class achievements. (6) On the other hand, the working class love story is represented by El Wray and Cherry Darling's romance. El Wray works as a tow truck driver, and he is perceived as someone outside of the system, while Cherry Darling is a stripper who initially wanted to be a doctor and now dreams of being a stand-up comedian. It is gradually revealed that after a seemingly very passionate relationship, Cherry abandoned El Wray because he would not commit to marriage. Both characters have thus avoided entering what Foucault dubs the "bourgeois deployment of sexuality."
However, based on Foucault's writing, one could argue that Cherry's sexuality is, at least at the beginning of the film, also part of the system because she is using it to acquire capital and to perform for customers in a line of work that channels the customers' / workers' sexual desires. This is well represented in one of the earlier scenes of the movie. Cherry's strip club manager yells at two strippers who are kissing each other in private, since they need to do it in front of paying customers, and it is the manager's job to redirect their sexuality by channeling it towards the accumulation of wealth. After this scene, Cherry defies her boss by quitting her job to supposedly become a comedian, thus acquiring some sort of agency against the economic social machinery that has limited her to a sexualized object.
Although I find fascinating the role of Cherry Darling, I am aware that the use of strippers in Robert Rodriguez's films can be very controversial. Rodriguez's stripper characters defy the logic of modern political correctness about the depiction of the female body and walk a thin line between misogynist fantasy and parody of the institutionalization of sexual desire. The initial credits of Planet Terror can be uncomfortable to a mainstream audience because the director practically shows Rose McGowan's Cherry Darling performing a full go-go dance sequence. This presents to the audience the stripper as an object of sexual desire, and makes viewers participate in the enjoyment of her body. Still, while through the film Cherry transforms from commercial sexual fetish to female action heroine who destroys the corrupted American masculinity, her highly visible sexuality never vanishes, even after the zombie apocalypse.
Similar patterns have been observed in the representation of modern action heroines in general. In his book Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishim and Popular Culture, scholar Jeffrey Brown asks:
When women are portrayed as tough in contemporary film, are they being allowed to a position of empowerment, or are they merely further fetishized as dangerous sex objects? Even within feminist film theory the modern action heroine has emerged as an extremely fruitful but difficult character to interpret. On the one hand, she represents a potentially transgressive figure capable of expanding the popular perception of women's roles and abilities; on the other, she runs the risk of reinscribing strict gender binaries and of being nothing more than sexist window dressing for the predominantly male audience. (43)
These are issues pertinent to all of Rodriguez's films, as many of his heroines are powerful but highly sexualized women, for instance, Rosario Dawson's Gail in Sin City (2005) and Michelle Rodriguez's Luz/She in Machete (2010).
As far back as his first joint collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Rodriguez used the Mexican vampire stripper Santanico Pandemonium played by Salma Hayek to threaten both a dysfunctional middle-class American family and the outcast bandits Gecko brothers. The role is short but the stripping scene is filmed in such a sensationalist and hypersexual manner that it helped to cement Hayek's Hollywood status of "sexy Latina." Even though Pandemonium's character may at first be perceived as a Hispanic harlot stereotype, the subversive aspect of her dance is how she dismpts different aspects of sexuality embedded in the different American characters she teases with her dance. These American figures include representations of criminal psychopaths, a religious man, an American ethnic minority, and a traditional Anglophone young woman. In his chapter "Power, Revenge, and the Stripper Movies," Jeffrey Brown indicates that films such as From Dusk Till Dawn play on castration fantasies through the metaphor of vampirism as "the female vamps literally suck the energy and the life our of their enraptured willing male victims--victims who initially thought they were in control because they were the bearers of the look" (133). From this perspective, Rodriguez is practically mocking American fantasies about their economic control of South of the Border sexuality.
One of the controversial aspects of Planet Terror is that it features a lot of violence against both the affluent doctor Dakota and the working class stripper Cherry, which is why viewers (including my students) sometimes assume the film is misogynist. Cherry in particular is harassed by all types of masculine figures throughout the film. She is yelled at by her manager, almost run over by soldier trucks, her leg is eaten by male zombies, and she is almost raped by a couple of infected soldiers at the end of the film. Dakota has a different experience but it is equally violent: her lesbian lover is devoured by the zombies, her husband attacks her physically with her own anesthetic syringes, she breaks her hand, she sees her son die, and she is also almost raped by the soldiers at the end of the film. All of this violence and sexuality in the film is homage to Grindhouse movies, specifically to what the documentary American Grindhouse (Elijah Drenner, 2010) describes as a subgenre called "the roughies." The documentary implies that because of the censorship against showing sex on the screen, sometimes these B-movies would emphasize violence against women as a substitute for sexuality. However, Rodriguez's violence against women serves a purpose because it is used to establish how they are not in control of their bodies and how the American apocalypse serves as a way of collapsing the social structures that encourage but control their sexuality.
Some of the scenes that may be seen as controversial are related to El Wray's harsh physical treatment of Cherry after one of her legs is eaten by a zombie. These parts of the movie can be uncomfortable for the audience (El Wray's rough love would not be well received in today's cinema). For example, he rushes to save Cherry from the hospital but when she complains that she cannot walk, he violently sticks a piece of wood into her wound to create a stump that will allow her to move. He does not help her to get inside his truck, and she has to run alongside comically until she is able to jump into it. As the film continues, and she has a very erotic sex scene with El Wray, she becomes a stronger physical figure, and one of the bravest characters in the film. Finally, El Wray attaches a machine gun to her leg wound that transforms her into a lethal weapon. As they escape the army base in the last segment of the film, El Wray tells her, "Cherry Darling, it's all you." She then proceeds to wipe out the soldiers in a transcendental scene that finalizes her transformation from victim to warrior. Outside of generic B-movie conventions and history, however, one may also argue that the masculine objectification of the female body in Planet Terror, including its sexualization and weapon fetishes is more than just a reflection of male fantasies. (7)
Cherry also transforms herself by becoming a warrior instead of a stripper, by using her dance moves to fight as a heroine against the system while destroying the physically and ideologically corrupted American soldiers, rather than to cater to paying customers. She finds true love with El Wray but Rodriguez disposes of him (like he does Dakota's lesbian lover) before their relationship could become entangled in the power hierarchies associated with the family structure. Cherry and El Wray's love is pure because it cannot be corrupted by marital status. Both Cherry's and Dakota's emotional and physical suffering throughout the film then becomes empowering because it is obvious that it is the product of an androcentric society that will collapse with the advance of the zombie apocalypse. The new society that will rise will empower women, men, and workers, and will be made different by the working class miscegenation promoted by Rodriguez in the film.
At the end of the film a new family structure emerges as Cherry gives birth to El Wray's daughter. In the next segment I will explore how miscegenation plays a role in the rebirth of Rodriguez's new society, and why it is important for a Latino filmmaker even if the ending of the film has some ironic overtones.
WORKING CLASS MISCEGENATION/MESTIZAJE AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF MASCULINITY WILL SAVE THE WORLD?
Since colonial times, miscegenation has been perceived as the end of Eurocentric imperial civilization. French colonialist Arthur de Gobineau, one of the main proponents of racial demography, saw miscegenation as an apocalyptic concept: "If mixtures of blood are, to a certain extent, beneficial to the mass of mankind, if they raise and ennoble it, this is merely at the expense of mankind itself, which is stunted, abased, enervated, and humiliated in the persons of its noblest sons"(210). However, in regions such as Latin America, nationalist discourse has promoted the idea of interracial coupling as a way of providing an alternative that unifies a nation-state of multi-plural voices and allows it to form its own identity away from Eurocentric powers. In fact, many of the great Latin American essayists have promoted the concept in their written works, including luminaries such as Cuban Fernando Ortiz, Uruguayan Angel Rama, Argentinean Garria Canclini, Mexican Jose Vasconcelos's, and others. Many of these writers positioned themselves in favor of cultural hybridity as a means of understanding Latin American culture, and were vehemently opposed to 20th-century social perceptions that embraced the idea of racial homogeneity as a key element in the formation of productive and civilized nation-states. In Mexican culture, the best known example of scholarly writing about miscegenation is Jose Vasconcelos' conceptualization of the raza cosmica which glorifies Latin American miscegenation/mestizaje/hybridity in opposition to the racial homogeneity found in the United States at the time (the 1920s). Many of the precepts he developed were promoted in Mexico after the Mexican revolution, and the concept of the raza cosmica has become a significant part of the state's nationalist ideology.
While many of these ideas of hybridity have been incorporated into Latin American nation-state projects, they have been challenged by modern scholars both in postcolonial theory and Latin American Studies. In the United States, postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak have criticized or questioned the limited role of the subaltern in the construction of postcolonial nationalism. In her article, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak specifically examines the ways in which local elites, under the guise of anti-imperial nationalism, still maintain the imperial power structures in order to control the masses, and how they fail to provide a voice for the under represented. These views are reflected in the work of certain Latin American thinkers who write about the integration of the ethnic other into the nationalist Latin American discourse and its perception by the Hispanic elites. For example, British scholar John Kraniauskas writes in his important article "Hybridity in a Transnational Frame: Latin Americanist and Postcolonialist Perspectives on Cultural Studies" that "the key to Latin American modernity contained in Garcia Canclini's outline of its modernisms is not to be found only in such transculturation, but rather in the ways it feeds into 'the way in which elites take charge of the intersections of different historical realities"' (751). Another important scholar, Peruvian Antonio Cornejo Polar, although appreciative of Garcia Canclini's writing, also criticizes the latter's ideas about hybridity as too celebratory because of its focus on specific strata of Latin American societies (761).
A unique take on the debate is offered by writer/performer/academic Gloria Anzaldua who positions herself outside of traditional masculine and nationalist discourse. In her landmark book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, she writes:
As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. (2214)
Anzaldua specifically quotes Vasconcelos's cosmic race as a point of inspiration (2211) but calls to attention the fact that she belongs to a racial and gender subaltern from both a Mexican and an American perspective. She urges the reader to avoid the binaries created by the nation-states of Mexico and the United States, and to create a new culture that will take advantage of crossculturalism. It is interesting that she supports Vasconcelos's vision but does not see Mexican nationalist culture as a good representation of the beauty of the idea.
In 1950s US, American blockbuster films like Giant, and TV shows like I Love Lucy attempted to provide audiences with a positive portrayal of the mixture of races in order to show that American culture could improve through miscegenation. However, these narratives were still limited to bourgeois ideals of marriage that somehow fit the system. In Giant, the miscegenation in the Benedict family gives Mexican Americans access to American culture, yet class and economic structures remain unchanged. In I Love Lucy, Lucy's son, Ricky, is portrayed as better than his parents because of his bi-ethnic heritage which allows him to function in both Cuba and the United States. Still, Lucy herself never improves as a woman and remains a housewife during the entire series. More importantly, successful miscegenation is linked to an upper-middle class status that would allow the interracial spouses to function well within the established economic system.
Miscegenation in Planet Terror is transgressive since the fusion of races in the film occurs between working-class characters (a Latino tow truck driver and a Caucasian stripper) that eventually become the main authority figures among the survivors in the face of the Apocalypse. The concept of miscegenation is clearly established in the film between El Wray and Cherry, and it is important especially because it is established in direct opposition to Dakota's all-white family. Dakota's son (ironically portrayed by Rodriguez's son) has to die in the film because he represents the unhappy and traditional family structure that had shackled her sexuality. Even though the boy's death in the film is tragic, and Dakota mourns him, it is clear since the beginning that he supports his father rather than his mother (he consistently doubts his mother's integrity). In addition, he is uncooperative throughout the entire film, to the point that his accidental death is a relief to the audience. At the end, Dakota acquires a genuine (her own) purpose once she has shed the roles of mother, wife, and professional. In contrast, El Wray and Cherry's daughter is conceived not through marriage and the law but rather through outlaw passion in the midst of societal apocalypse, which situates the child outside of the framework of society.
Planet Terror is a film about the collapse of the American institution, but also about the collapse of masculinity, an interesting statement by Rodriguez, who has created a great Latino hero (El Wray), but has also empowered the female body, including both heterosexual (Cherry) and queer (Dakota) heroines. The positive masculine figures in the film, El Wray and Earl McGraw, function as male mentors for Cherry and Dakota respectively. They teach the women how to survive in a men's world, however, they are unfit for the gynocentric utopia presented at the end of the film. Although the group that evacuated to Mexico includes male survivors, it is visually suggested that the women are in power, as they hold weapons and lead the others. Some could argue that this ending is a male fantasy or that it represents a harem ideal of sexualized women, but the fact remains that it presents the bicultural death of traditional masculinity in relation to an apocalypse brought about by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, this resolution has a certain social relevance, as today's most destructive structures of power are androcentric.
The film's relevance in terms of ethnic culture stems from the fact that El Wray, as a member of an ethnic minority, does not limit himself to the vanishing nation-state where he resides. He knows there is an alternative in Mexico, which distinguishes him from John and Selena in Night and 28 Days Later. John's and Selena's roles as ethinic figures are not linked to a space outside of the nation-state in which they reside, and thus there is no alternative to the characters' respective oppressive home nation-states. In Planet Terror, however, the survivors eventually move to Mexico, next to a pre-Columbian pyramid. In his essay "Intertextploitation and Post-Post-Latinidad in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror" Christopher Gonzalez characterizes the pyramids as "a place of refuge for Planet Terror's "immigrant" characters, [...] a symbolic return to the Mesoamerican roots of many Latinos in the U.S." I would like to specify, however, that, while this ending could be interpreted as Mexican-American nostalgia for the glories of a pre-Columbian indigenous past, it in fact provides an ironic separation of the characters from the equally corrupt Mexican nation-state that has been spoiled by colonialism and capitalism. That is why the women in the film are able to create a new utopia after the collapse of the American empire that can transcend the Mexican vs. American binaries mentioned by Anzaldua.
In this article, I analyzed Rodriguez's Planet Terror as a film that offers much more than simply a recreation of the aesthetic pleasures of Grindhouse cinema. I linked its politics to the transgressive aspects of the zombie genre, and explained how Rodriguez's employment of female sexuality not only exploits the female body, but also parodies many of the precepts that Foucault criticized about sexuality under the grasp of modern capitalist society. I further explained how Rodriguez's zombie apocalypse leads to a utopia by means of miscegenation, and by collapsing the structures of society that oppress the different members of the Texan community, including but not limited to the Latino hero of the film. I find Planet Terror Rodriguez's most interesting film, because, through a zombie metaphor, the filmmaker is able to deconstruct both Latino and American masculinity. In the end, the fall of civilization in his film brings a new utopia outside of traditional gender, ethnic, and nation-state parameters that can be situated in its historical context as a reaction to the events of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This article was originally written for and will appear in Critical Approaches to the Films of Robert Rodriguez, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, to be published by the University of Texas Press in 2015. The article appears here by special permission of the University of Texas Press.
Caption: Ben Huss (Duane Jones) survives the night as the protagonist of Night of the Living Dead.
Caption: Naomie Harris as Selena in 28 Days Later.
Caption: El Wray (Freddie Rodriguez, front left), prepares to do battle in Planet Terror.
Caption: El Wray sees himself as part of a Texan community rather than part of an ethnic group.
Caption: Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) performs a seductive dance in the film's opening.
Caption: Cherry Darling becomes a warrior with El Wray.
Anzaldua, Gloria. "Chapter 7: La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness." Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 2211-2222. Print.
Brown, Jeffrey. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. Jackson: U of Mississippi UP, 2011. Print.
Cornejo Polar, Antonio. "Mestizaje and Hybridity: The Risks of Metaphors." The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader. Eds. del Sarto, Ana, Rios, Alicia, and Abril Trigo. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 760-764. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. 1.  Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. N. pag. Kindle file.
Gobineau, Arthur de. The Inequality of Human Races. Trans. Adrian Collins. London: William Heinemann, 1915. pdf file.
Gonzalez, Christopher. "Intertextploitation and Post Post-Latinidad in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror." Forthcoming in Frederick Aldama, ed. Robert Rodriguez and the Cinema of Possibilities. U of Texas P, 2015. Print.
Hervey, Benjamin A. Night of the Living Dead. London: British Film Institute, 2008. Print.
Kraniauskas, John. "Hybridity in a Transnational Frame: Latin Americanist and Postcolonialist Perspectives on Cultural Studies." The Latin American Cultural Studies Reader. Eds. Ana del Sarto, Alicia Rios, and Abril Trigo. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 736-759. Print.
Mercer, John, and Martin Shingler. Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility. London and New York: Wallflower, 2004. Print.
Ramirez Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.
Rodriguez, Robert. "Commentary." Planet Terror , Dir. Robert Rodriguez. Perf. Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin. Weinstein Company, 2008. Blu-ray.
Rose, James. "28 Days Later." Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema Since 1970. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2009. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 2197-2207. Print.
Tarantino, Quentin and Robert Rodriguez. Grindhouse: The Sleaze-filled Saga of an Exploitation Double Feature. New York: Weinstein Books, 2007. Print.
Vasconcelos, Jose. The Cosmic Race: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Didier T. Jaen Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.
28 Days Later . Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Megan Burns. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.
American Grindhouse. Dir. Elijah Drenner. Lux Digital Pictures, 2009. HD iTunes file.
Giant . Dir. George Stevens. Perf. Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. Warner, 2005. DVD.
I Walked with a Zombie . Dir. Jacques Tourneur. DVD. Turner, 2005.
Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Image Ten, Laurel Group, and Market Square Productions, 1968. HD iTunes file.
Planet Terror . Dir. Robert Rodriguez. Perf. Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Josh Brolin. Weinstein Company, 2008. Blu-ray.
"The Ricardos Visit Cuba" . 7 Love Lucy: The Complete Sixth Season. Paramount, 2006. DVD.
Wltite Zombie . Dir. Victor Halperin. USA. RKO, 1932. Blu-ray. Kino Lorber, 2013.
(1) Planet Terror was released in 2007, along Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, as part of a double feature bill called Grindhouse. This experiment, sponsored by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein under the Weinstein Company studio, had good critical reception, and was embraced by film aficionados, however, it was a complete failure at the American box office. It made 25 million dollars in the United States out of a budget of 53 million, and the project recouped its budget only after the two films were split for their international and home video release. Grindhouse is still beloved in certain film circles who appreciate the filmmakers' homage to exploitation movies from the 1960s and 1970s, even though a traditional audience may find the final product too extravagant, self-reflexive, or brash for its taste.
(2) This particular representation of family in 28 Days is explained in more detail by James Rose in his chapter about the film in his book Beyond Hammer.
(3) This was particularly ironic when the film was released because Osama bin Laden had not yet been captured. In the film it plays as a joke on American jingoism.
(4) One of the main subplots of the film is that JD does not trust his Sheriff brother with the recipe (providing melodramatic tension), which is why he only gives it to him when his brother stops being a member of state authority, and sacrifices his life so that the group of survivors can escape.
(5) Foucault writes: "we must say that there is a bourgeois sexuality, and that there are class sexualities. Or rather, that sexuality is originally, historically bourgeois, and that, in its successive shifts, and transpositions, it induces specific class effects." ("Chapter 4: Periodization," N.pag.)
(6) Dakota Block, the other female protagonist in the film, is liberated in several forms. Although her lesbian lover is murdered, Dakota's lesbian sexual desire does not subside in the face of Apocalypse, as depicted in the scene in which she is holding onto Cherry Darling's waist while they are riding a bike together, and the audience is aware that she is taking the opportunity to grope Cherry. Throughout the film, she also loses her son (who accidentally shoots himself), and her husband, who is killed by Dakota's father. She is also freed from her profession and, instead of using anesthesia for medical purposes, she uses her syringes to transform into a cool warrior.
(7) When discussing the stripper films, Jeffrey Brown posits that stripper heroine "are a device for combining the two fetishized ideals of women- passive and active- thus revealing how the apparent passivity is also the source of activity, the source, and the threat of power male fantasy plays into. These are obviously fetishized women, and by extension, are also phallic women, but unlike other genres that highlight avenging women, stripper movies ascribe the women's true power as the very quality that at first glance seems to disempower them. In other words, their seductive desirability is the real weapon, the phallic symbolism of the guns is just an external marker of the "activity" that can result from their inherent power. The real threat to male observers is not that these women take on qualities of masculinity in defense of themselves and as a result of their objectification, it is the castrating power they wield as seductive objects.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
|Previous Article:||Two of a kind--Robert Rodriguez's and Quentin Tarantino's culturally intertextual comment on film history: the Grindhouse project.|
|Next Article:||Latino/a hero-making in Robert Rodriguez's films: identity and ideology.|