Friday, December 14, 2007


Commentary on the recent Venezuelan referendum, particularly among foreign observers, has turned into a rather tiresome to and fro between self-satisfied opponents of Chávez, who like to think that the Bolivarian revolution has been stopped in its tracks, and equally self-satisfied supporters, who think they have refuted the claims of Chávez's dictatorial tendencies.

The referendum has also been interpreted as a weathervane for the region's Left Turns as a whole. With the Bolivian constitutional process also stymied, Lula quiescent, Bachelet unpopular, and the Kirchners apparently reinstating Peronist husband-and-wife politics as usual, have we reached the high water mark for Latin America's renascent left movements?

But in all this discussion, the central point has been lost: that the process of setting constitutions registers a balance of forces between constituent and constituted power.

In fact, the referendum's obvious winner was Chávez, as the President himself observed when he termed the wafer-thin margin a "Pyrrhic victory" for the opposition. The escuálidos would have been much happier had the poll gone the other way: they were apparently already handing out t-shirts that declared the result was a "fraud," and even now a week later they continue to propagate conspiracy theories, fuelled for instance by pillars of social democracy such as Jorge Castañeda, alleging that the military had to persuade a reluctant premier to accept the will of the people. Denied the outrage they had counted on, they have had to manufacture it for themselves. As always, the anti-chavistas are such a pitiful sight that, were I Venezuelan, they would almost inspire me to go out and sign up for a PSUV party card out of spite.

In fact, Chávez's dignified response to defeat enabled him to appear statesmanlike (not an adjective usually applied to a mercurial figure who won recent headlines for trying the King of Spain's patience) and, more importantly, sovereign, as Stephanie Blankenburg observes in one of the few decent articles to have appeared in the past few weeks.

For constitutions are all about defining and upholding sovereignty. Any alteration to the constitution is also potentially a threat to constituted power: in the passage between constitutions, the state is temporarily ungrounded. Everything is up for grabs, however briefly. There's no better example of that than the crisis currently affecting Bolivia, where even a hundred-year grievance over the site of the national capital has been thrown into the mix.

Meanwhile, the ongoing deadlock in Belgium, let alone the slow-motion catastrophe that is the process of European integration, both demonstrate that threats to constituted power abound as much in the North as in the South. We're living in an era of global reconstitution.

And so the defeat of Venezuela's proposed constitutional changes could be read as an affirmation of the country's current (hardly any less chavista) constitution and current head of state. Indeed, that's precisely how Chávez's defenders have portrayed the situation: as an endorsement of the institutional mechanisms cemented in place by the 1999 constitution, from the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE) to the clauses that regulate constitutional amendment itself.

In other words, at least at first sight, the rejection of the referendum is a victory for constituted power, and a defeat for constituent power.

Chávez concedes, constitution in hand.

But the situation is rather more complicated. For the proposed constitutional reforms were very clearly generated within the state apparatus, rather than from outside and against it. Heinz Dietrich blames an entire "New Political Class" that he argues has sprung up and accreted to an increasingly sclerotic Bolivarian revolution. More revealing still are the complaints from Chávez supporters that the electoral defeat resulted from a failure to explain the proposals clearly and persuasively enough to the movement's base. Not only is this an unrepentant admission that the process was conceived as a top-down campaign to court consent. It also shows that what is at stake is a project for hegemony. And the mass abstention that led to electoral downfall is a sign that Chávez's hegemonic project is seriously frayed around the edges.

That the same result should be a victory for constituted power and at the same time a demonstration of the failure of hegemony should be no surprise. Constituted power has never depended upon hegemony.

What then of constituent power? Perhaps the fact that some three million people failed to vote shows a new development in Venezuela: an Exodus from the mechanisms designed to consolidate the Bolivarian state. Chávez's relationship with this subaltern excess has always been precarious and contingent, as he himself is fully aware. Hence the President is always in campaign mode, endlessly trying to reconstruct the political by insisting on the classical distinction between "friend" and "enemy." If the force of this interpellation is now fading, if people are happy not to vote or to vote "no" even when the choice in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, then chavistas have reason to worry.

But it's the anti-Chávez camp that has most to lose. For if the current president is no longer to keep the forces of constituent power in check, then who can?

Cross-posted to Left Turns? and Long Sunday.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Sin compasion posterHalfway through Francisco Lombardi's Sin compasión, one Alejandro Velaochaga drops in unexpectedly on the protagonist, a student by the name of Ramón Romano. Velaochaga is a rather sinister character, and he's made his may into the room while Romano is still asleep. Romano, troubled enough by the notion that he is being persecuted on all sides, wakes up to his visitor's presence with a shock. Part of Velaochaga's creepiness, however, is that he is quite suave and unruffled, in total contrast to his unwilling host.

In response to the question as to how he got in, Velaochaga continues cleaning his pipe, shrugs his shoulders slightly, and responds "Through the door." Leaning in slightly in a gesture of familiarity he add, "My advice would be that you get yourself a bolt. They're not expensive." The irony of Velaochaga's apparent concern for Romano's security and peace of mind is that he represents the greatest danger both to the young man and to his even more defenseless girlfriend. For this sophisticated gentleman in his immaculately tailored suit turns out to be both a lecher and a blackmailer. And it is he who is the first to unearth the guilty secret that has Ramona so on edge: that Ramón has brutally murdered his landlady and her husband.

Leaving Ramona's quarters, Velaochaga extends his hand to the young man, who rather reluctantly shakes it. "It's been a pleasure to meet you," the old man says. "You're quite a character. Really." Then, looking around at his surroundings before finally taking his leave, he adds "And you have a very interesting place. It has the feel of a neorealist film."

Indeed, Sin compasión has more than a touch of neorealism. It's an adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, with Romano for Romanovich Raskolnikov, set in the curiously timeless center of Lima. There is little here of either the city's many barrios and suburbs, or the hustle and bustle that most strikes a visitor to the city. This is a strangely stripped down version of Lima. The color palette is muted browns and creams, full of shadows and crevices. Interiors include some of the city's oldest bars (such as the magnificent Quierolo, in which Romano meets the prostitute Sonia's drunken father), which carry an air of dowdy resistance to time's encroachment, and exteriors are almost all confined to the narrow streets and lanes around the Plaza de Armas. And almost at the end of the film, Velaochaga goes to the Plaza itself to sit on the Cathedral steps, where after a contemplative cigarette he commits suicide. But the square is deserted, and so nobody is there to witness his inglorious end.

Lombardi therefore achieves a sort of universality that gives weight and depth to this Peruvian adaptation of the classic Russian novel. Lima becomes archetype of urbanity in general, and the continuities of the urban experience between nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There will always be a measure of poverty, squalor, prostitution, drunkenness, injustice, debt, violence, guilt, and so on. No matter if the city in question is Dostoyevky's St Petersburg or Dickens's London, De Sica's Rome or Lombardi's Peru.

Sin compasion stillAnd in the end there will always be a disparity between the law and compassion. Indeed, the film's title is oddly inaccurate. Romano's problem is not that he lacks compassion--the notion that he believes that only the intellectual and moral elite can forge their own laws is mentioned but scarcely developed. In fact, he kills the landlady out of compassion, having seen the way in which they treat their tenants. Romano refuses to accede to any transcendent moral code, so that although the entire story is told in flashback, framed as a conversation with a prison priest, he adamantly denies that he is in fact confessing. He has nothing to confess, only a story to tell. And it's as he expounds that story that it becomes clear that neither the legal code nor organized religion can fully comprehend for his actions.

Romano needs not to confess, but to narrate, and by narrating to understand and allow us too to understand how the most cold-blooded murder can be motivated by the most compassionate of intentions.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I mentioned this paper some time ago, but I realize that I never uploaded it. Here goes...

Having some time to spare in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, highland Peru, I climbed the pyramid that looms over the small town. Vilcashuamán (also known simply as Vilcas) was once a significant Inca cultural and administrative center, occupying a strategic location at the crossroads of the various trade routes that crisscrossed the Inca empire: it was the point at which the road from Cuzco to the Pacific met the Empire’s main North-South highway. Moreover, according to Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León’s reports of native accounts, the town was at the geographical midpoint of the Tawantisuyu, the Inca Empire: “for they state that it is the same distance from Quito to Vilcas as from Vilcas to Chile, the limits of their empire” (126). But Vilcas is now a town full of ruins--though one might also say that the place is a set of ruins that enclose a town, as it can be hard to say where the ruins end and the town starts, and vice versa. Houses and shops nestle up against or are perched upon Inca walls and stones, and are themselves made of this same recycled material. As a result, the site is, in Gasparini and Margolies’s words, in an “advanced state of destruction and deformation” (112). It remains, however, undeniably impressive, in part because here you are everywhere up against and on top of the ruins, like it or not. There is no measured distance between contemporary life and sacrosanct historical artifact: no ropes, no fences marking off the museal from the everyday. The ruins of Vilcashuamán are fully if sparsely inhabited; they show no signs of their exceptionality. In John Hemming’s words, conjuring up a scene of desolation, “Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks, and surrounded by rolling, hilly country with few trees and little population” (Monuments of the Incas 187). History seems to have passed it by, to have set it free from whatever stories it once inspired. Certainly, when I had been taken to Vilcas for the day, with a group of anthropologists and aid workers, I had had no idea I would end up climbing a pyramid.

Indeed, these are in no way the most famous ruins in Peru, and are far from being the most visited, meriting at best a couple of lines in the guidebooks. Rather, that honor goes to Machu Picchu, now perhaps South America’s foremost tourist attraction, which attracts around 450,000 visitors a year, up to 2,000 a day. Machu Picchu stands synecdochically for Peru, and often enough for Latin America as a whole. Arguably, Machu Picchu is a more “modern” set of ruins, being “discovered” (better, invented) only in the early twentieth century, with Hiram Bingham’s Yale-sponsored expedition of 1911. Bingham was fêted for having discovered the “lost city of the Incas.” That claim, however, rings rather hollow when it is realized not only that it was a local tavern proprietor and landlord, Melchor Arteaga, who led him to the site “with the promise of a whole silver dollar,” but also that Bingham himself noted graffiti on the stones: “the name, ‘Lizarraga,’ and the year, ‘1902’” (Alfred Bingham 6, 13). Bingham gave this Lizarraga credit for the “discoveries” in his first book about the expedition, Inca Land; yet by the time of his later account, Lost City of the Incas, Lizarraga’s name disappears (Alfred Bingham 26). Meanwhile, Bingham’s opinion of indigenous knowledge can be inferred from his own comment that “readers of Inca Land will remember that Professor Harry W. Foote and I had often been obliged to add, when discussing reports of ‘noteworthy and important ruins’--‘but he may have been lying’” (Hiram Bingham 10). He observes that the local campesinos do not mark the ruins in any particular way: “Presumably, to him and his kind, Inca ruins of temples and palaces built by their remote kindred are not in themselves interesting but merely evidence that the latter found the land worth occupying and cultivating” (10). In this sense, Bingham’s achievement was to put Machu Picchu into discourse: to articulate its stones, to make them speak in the recognizably modern idiom of ruination.

This, then, is where Vilcashuamán is different. For the ruins of Vilcas have, without entering the narratives of international tourism, and despite not being excavated until the 1980s, a much longer history of being repeatedly articulated and rearticulated to competing stories about Peruvian modernity, from almost the very moment of Spanish conquest and so their initial fall into ruin. We might therefore say that Vilcas is more eloquent about Peru’s modernity than Machu Picchu, especially now that the latter has assumed the status of a brand, a signifier almost without content--like the Nike swoosh or McDonalds’ golden arches. Machu Picchu says “Peru,” or says “Latin America,” but says almost nothing about these places. By contrast, in the to and fro of the conflicting versions of what Vilcas’s ruins might be made to say, a whole series of narratives have been advanced about historicity and hegemony, modernity and, more to the point, the (still essentially modern) lament that Peru has failed to become modern. Mario Vargas Llosa notoriously opens his monumental novel Conversation in the Cathedral with the question “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” (3). We might not know when; but it would not be far-fetched to argue that Vilcashuamán is a contender for a precise place where Peru fucked itself up. It is a place marked by the series of interruptions that, for a writer such as Vargas Llosa, indicate the fuck-ups that have (he would claim) stalled progress towards modernity. Interruptions, symbolized or, better, materialized in the strewn stones of the former Inca edifices, that have served as fissures within which variously confident, wistful, and messianic narratives have sought firm footing, like weeds in the dirt. Yet these interruptions have also, in almost the same moment, brought these stories to their own ruination, their disarticulation.

Read more... (.pdf file)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The current renaissance in Peruvian cinema is unexpected to say the least. It was just a couple of years ago that Sarah Barrow observed that this was “a national cinema in crisis,” pointing to a drastic decline in what was already a pretty minimal level of state funding for film-making, as well as to a dearth of production. As she notes, “between 1993 and 1997, just four films were made and released in Peru” (56), two of which were directed by the country’s one cineaste of international repute, Francisco Lombardi, and that only thanks to the aid of transnational co-production and foreign capital. Not a single Peruvian film was released in 1997. And the turn of the century hardly heralded much improvement: “between 1997 and 2001 just 10 Peruvian feature films [were] produced” (43). At the best of times Peru’s cinematic fortunes had been precarious; now it seemed that the country’s truncated filmic tradition was finally coming to an unheroic end. Even the transplanted B-Movie director, Luis Llosa, appeared to be in the doldrums: he had not made a movie since 1997’s underwhelming disaster flick Anaconda, and had turned instead to TV, producing series with titles such as Cazando a un millonario (“Hunting a Millionaire”) and the soap operas Latin Lover and La mujer de Lorenzo (“Lorenzo’s Woman”). In Peru, it was almost impossible to track down Peruvian movies; video chains were full of Hollywood blockbusters and martial arts or action films. In 2004 Lima’s grubby Filmoteca, housed in a corner of the venerable national Art Museum, in a theater with poor sound and worse sightlines, closed its doors after sixteen years of operation.

Today, however, more films than ever are being produced in Peru. 2006, for instance, saw a dozen or more features made. The Filmoteca’s collection transferred to the smart, modern building of the Catholic University’s Cultural Center. Blockbuster Video closed down, but its disappearance has been more than compensated by a flourishing black market trade: in the “Polvos Azules” market in central Lima, for instance, dozens of small stalls offer Peruvian and international art house cinema (as well, of course, as Hollywood hits and US television series) for less than $2 per DVD. Indeed, more generally the cinematic resurgence of the past few years has been propelled by new technology and its informal networks. Blogs buzz with discussion about national cinema. Trailers and even entire films are uploaded to YouTube. And most importantly, the arrival of high-quality digital videography and editing facilities at relatively affordable prices has spread the means of cinematic production further than ever before. The San Marcos University’s Cultural Center recently (November 2007) organized a “First National Festival of Independent Cinema” that showcased features from across the country: regions represented ranged from Puno in the South to Cajamarca in the North. And while the quality of these films is variable (to say the least), they have generated significant excitement, especially in the provinces where they were made, and are inspiring others to try their hands at film-making in turn.

Precisely because of the regional focus of this new cinema, however, the concept of “Peruvian” cinema has to be revised. Of the twelve movies on show at the San Marcos festival, only two were made in Lima. And so Lima, in this context, becomes simply another Peruvian province: the capital can no longer stand in for the country as a whole. “Peruvian” cinema is now a combination of this new, regional cinema plus the continued, if scarcer, work of directors such as Lombardi who fund larger projects via international co-production. In this sense, Barrow’s prediction has come true: Peruvian cinema has disappeared; it has been replaced by subnational and transnational cinemas that challenge the very notion of a “national” cinema. National cinema has been usurped by a non-national or even anti-national cinema that undoes claims to national hegemony. And this non-national, non-Peruvian cinema is subaltern par excellence. It is subaltern because it comprises a betrayal or flight from the idea of a nation that has never come into its own.

Read more... (.pdf file)

Monday, December 10, 2007


It's Peruvian (proto)punk. From 1964, would you believe? "Los Saicos" (pronounced "Psychos") and "Demolición" ("Demolition")...

The lyrics:
Echemos abajo la estación del tren / demoler, demoler, demoler, demoler / Nos gusta volar estaciones de tren / Ye ye ye ye ye ye ye.

Let's bring down the train station / Demolish, demolish, demolish, demolish / We like blowing up train stations / Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.
To hear how that might sound today, here's a cover version.

Los Saicos are featured, along with other Peruvian groups of the sixties such as "Traffic Sound" and the "Shains," in an exhibition "Arte nuevo y el fulgor de la vanguardia" (El Comercio's note here) that has just opened in Miraflores, curated by Emilio Tarazona and Miguel López. Go see it if you can.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Polvo enamorado coverLuis Barrios's Polvo enamorado is a melodrama set in a small fishing town on the Peruvian coast. The central figure is Natalia, a young woman who was once a nun but then left the convent to marry elderly widower, and town mayor, Matías. But the condition that the obsessively religious Natalia imposed on the marriage was that her virginity should be respected: she would remain chaste and consecrated to Christ. Matías agreed, promising to be more doting father than desirous husband.

Life is placid enough on the surface: Natalia spends most of her days either at mass or in prayer; Matías is ensuring she gets her very own grotto for her upcoming birthday, but pours out his frustrations to the elderly local priest. And the priest in turn tries to convince his most devoted congregant that sex within marriage is really hardly a sin. But nothing seems likely to change in the near future. The only cloud on the horizon is an ongoing dispute between local fishermen and a large corporate enterprise that insists on fishing in their waters.

Under the surface, however, all is not well. Over time Matías, understandably frustrated at his wife's strictures, has started to take matters into his own hands by periodically doping her bedtime drinks with some kind of sleeping powder, then extracting his conjugal "rights" from her dormant form. And as perhaps a symptom of other repressions, Natalia's friend Ofelia complains of recurrent stomach-aches for which the doctor can find no physical cause.

Suddenly, all change: one day Natalia wanders into the church and discovers a new priest has arrived in town. Literally smitten, she promptly faints at the sight of the handsome young man in his fetching clerical garb. The priest himself turns out to be more one of the boys than pious defender of the old order. He goes out drinking in bars, takes a leading role in the fishermen's protest movement, cancels mass for the sake of communal work projects, and sees little reason to take part in the community's traditional annual pilgrimage to local shrine. Until, that is, Natalia persuades him that it might be a good idea. And so it is while they are camped out in the countryside that the two find themselves in a passionate embrace, and then some. The holy father has usurped the husband's place.

Polvo enamorado still
To continue the Oedipal theme, it turns out that Matías's son also has the hots for his young stepmother. And it is he who first suspects the illicit affair, and spills the beans to his dad. The old man reacts with outrage and anger, throwing his son out of the house, but then heads towards the priest's house to find out for himself what's going on. It seems that the young lovers have forgotten a golden rule of priest-parishioner sex: keep the front door locked at all times. For the mayor easily wanders in and finds the pair in flagrante. But rather than taking out his anger and disappointment on either his rival or his unfaithful wife, instead he begs Natalia to shoot him with his own pistol. Which she duly does, without too much compunction, loyal at least to one of her spouse's desires.

However much they are stricken by guilt and shame, neither Natalia nor her lover are in any rush to confess their crime: they burn the body and bury it in a shallow grave, subsequently participating in a mass organized to pray for the disappeared mayor's safe return. And when the corpse is eventually discovered, just about everybody and anybody except the guilty pair are arrested: a couple of security guards for the fishing company first, and then Matías's son, whom the local policeman had spied arguing with his father on the fatal night in question.

But the son squeals on the priest, if not on his stepmother. And when finally Natalia decides to turn herself in, her confession is ignored: rather, she's declared a saint for seeking to take the rap for the imprisoned holy man.

As is evident from this plot description, the film presents a cavalcade of ever more unlikely situations and events. It's as though the movie, though shot in a style that is in turns soap opera melodrama and stylized art movie (complete with absolutely redundant 360-degree pans, for instance), in fact aspired to be an instance of cinematic magic realism. Why not, in short, accept that the story and characters are already unreal and unlikely enough, and so play up the fantastic to give it some kind of allegorical weight?

But, no. For some reason, we're supposed to take everything on faith. It's possible that we're even expected to believe the notion that the doomed lovers really are modern-day saints. The film shows no flicker of irony, so one can only assume that it really takes itself as seriously as it seems. Personally, I'd rather a real soap opera than this pretend one: kitsch, like fantasy, should be presented knowingly and self-consciously, not treated as though it were real human drama.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


In "The Failure of Political Theology", a review essay for Mute of Forrest Hylton's Evil Hour in Colombia and Achille Mbembe's On the Postcolony, Angela Mitropoulos (aka s0metim3s of the archive) skewers the assumptions of "failed state" theory.

She points out, on the one hand, that the notion of "failed states" presupposes the norm of the "successful" state as a more or less harmonious instance of the social contract at work. This is a presupposition shared by liberalism and by Gramscian hegemony theory alike. And obviously enough I thoroughly agree with her assessment of hegemony theory as no more than "a variant of social contract theory with Marxian pretensions." Indeed, as Mitropoulos's reading of Hylton's book shows, if anything so-called progressives are more wedded to the social contract (and so to the repression of the state's founding and ongoing violences) than are liberals. The (populist) demand to refound the state by means of an organic representation of subaltern classes is a ruse of the state's feigned self-cancellation.

And on the other hand, I also appreciate her critique of Mbembe's book, in which she argues first that he falls into replicating the line drawn between European normativity and Third World (in this case, African) exceptionality. We are all postcolonial, and perhaps always have been: the subaltern excess and territorial failure so evident in the South can equally be found everywhere in the North. Second, Mitropoulos also insists that such failure should be taken less as a cause for lament than as a whole new set of possibilities for thinking a new (suitably posthegemonic) politics, no longer tied to the nation, to representation, or to the contract.

It's also worth pointing out that the maps of "failed states" that accompanies the article are in turns laughable and bizarre, demonstrating the manifest bankruptcy of the concept. Or perhaps, the tension (as well as the collusion) between its two variants: the military and geopolitical definition that measures strength in terms of robustness, versus the social democratic definition that demands legitimacy through representability, responsiveness, and welfare.

map of failed states
After all, Colombia (Hylton's focus) is by no means a failed state in terms of the first definition: a couple of years ago it overtook Venezuela as the South American country with the longest unbroken democratic tradition. If anything, the supposed weakness of the Colombian state is a function of its dispersion: in some ways it comes very close to the Gramscian ideal of a fully organic state formation. The state is both everywhere and (so, apparently) nowhere, its functions dispersed through a complex network of para-state organizations both formal and informal.

So the recent spat between Uribe and Chávez is little more than sibling rivalry, as of course is fitting for two neighboring heads of state of countries that in many ways (geographic, demographic, and even historical) are peas in a pod. No wonder that the dispute should have centered around protocol rather than ideology, the chain of command rather than command itself. To describe the differences between the two in terms of "left" and "right," however much this is what the discourse of "left turns" implies, is to miss the fact that sovereigns are inevitably on the same side when it comes to safeguarding the image of a social contract and thus the fact of constituted power.

Cross-posted to Long Sunday and Left Turns?.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Manana te cuento posterIf you come to Eduardo Mendoza's Mañana te cuento expecting a Peruvian version of American Pie or some other bad-taste Hollywood cocktail of sex, comedy, and adolescence (and all the film's publicity encourages such expectation), then you'll find yourself disappointed, or of course pleasantly surprised depending on your taste.

The film does indeed start as a teen romp. The opening sequence switches rapidly between three upper-class young boys with their girlfriends, making out or having sex. At the center of the montage is a fourth boy, Manuel, whose only sexual pleasures are vicarious. It is clear that the film will be about his initiation into the club of the kids who have "gone all the way."

Later we see the four friends meet up and head out to have some fun: they banter and joke, mess around with other people (competing to hit golfballs at car windscreens; interrupting couples at some lovers' lane), and boast, exaggerating wildly, about their sexual exploits. Fairly standard comic effect is gained by cutting from the boys' conversation to the parallel and contrasting exchange of confidences on the part of the three girlfriends. But the funniest and edgiest scene comes as the guys are pulled over by a cop, only for one of them to take advantage of his class status and superior education by pretending to be the Canadian ambassador's son, who knows no Spanish. The police catch on, however, and extort a bribe from the now rather more subdued gang of would-be hellraisers. Their evening seems to be at an end.

This is when they concoct a plan to take advantage of the fact that one of their houses is empty, the parents away for the night, and hire some high-class call-girls so as to put their braggart discourse into action, as well as to introduce young Manuel into the adult world of sin and sex.

Manana te cuento still
The comedy continues for a while, not least in the way in which the boys constantly reveal their awkwardness and uncertainty when the girls finally arrive, and in the mixture of disdain and curiosity with which the prostitutes view their excitable high-school clients. Moreover, the boys have only been able to afford the services of three women, which leaves the one who draws the short straw ("el Gordo" or "fatty"; he has no other name) to spend the rest of the movie playing video games and generally mooching around the house while his three friends entertain or are entertained by the sex workers.

But slowly and undramatically the tone of the movie starts to shift. It becomes darker and much subtler as over the course of the night the boys do come to learn something about adulthood, Manuel above all, if not in the ways that they quite expected. It's as though they, too, had thought they were in a Farelly Brothers movie only to realize too late that in fact the film they star in is closer to some poignant Swedish art-house flick. Well, I exaggerate somewhat, but undoubtedly there are aspects of the final half hour that are both touching and powerful, and like the characters themselves you are never quite sure what will happen next. The girls start to unsettle the boys' objectifying gaze and their sense of who they are or what they really want. The plot is forever balanced precariously on a knife edge, perhaps above all when a handgun without warning appears in the mise en scène. Will it be used? If when, how and by whom?

And the film leaves these questions, and others, open. Not merely because it will shortly be the first Peruvian movie to merit a sequel. More importantly, because the boys come to see that life is difficult and messy, and fun and oblivion can't simply be bought with your rich parents' pocket money. Moreover (and pace the film's title: "I'll tell you tomorrow"), it's not exactly obvious what exactly they'll have to say for themselves the morning after. Their conversations now are less likely to be the same scatter-gun braggadoccio that we saw at the outset. The film has humanized them, just as it humanizes the working girls, but without forgiving them for who they are or for who they think they are. And they're left unsure as to whether they can ever forgive themselves.

YouTube Link: the boys out and about.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Asia el culo del mundo posterJuan Carlos Torrico's rather strange film Asia, el culo del mundo is not, despite its title ("Asia, Asshole of the World"), some kind of Orientalist diatribe. Rather it's more of a Peruvian version of Paris, Texas. For it turns out that somewhere in the dusty desert about 100km south of Lima is a Godforsaken place that rejoices in the name of "Asia."

And it's in Asia that the movie's protagonists end up when their car breaks down in the midst of an ill-advised short cut. The motley retinue of maroons comprises: Manuel, a young ne'er-do-well who is fleeing south to escape some unspecified trouble in Lima that has left him with a bullet wound in his arm; his (step)father Fortunato, a retired soldier who still sees and describes the world through military terminology and outdated nationalist rhetoric; and Beatriz, a young woman along for the ride who has dreamed of a place called Asia where there might be ancient ruins and a staircase to heaven.

Asia el culo del mundo stillSo Beatriz at least is content enough with the trio's plight, as she has found literally herself in the place of her dreams. She soon embarks on the construction of a giant geometrical design in the desert ground, something like a set of Nazca lines to attract passing deities. Fortunato falls in with the plan, happy to have some kind of mission. And Manuel perks up from his initial gloom and frustration as he's gradually attracted to the sole occupant of this desolate waste, a young woman by the name of Dora who has a penchant for transparent blouses and mudbaths in a nearby lake.

Trouble is brewing, however, as it turns out that Dora does not live here alone: her partner Santiago is due back at any moment, and Manuel recognizes from a discarded uniform that the master of the house must be a cop or an ex-cop. But it's worse than Manuel can imagine. For Santiago proves to be a somewhat crazed individual, prone to violent rages, loud harangues, cutting the tails off goats and covering himself in their blood. He's brought his beloved here to Asia in order to keep her safe from prying eyes or potential competitors. Alas, Manuel's intervention has therefore spoilt his vision of rural tranquility, and in recompense Santiago covers his torso with dark black mud, ties his rival to a tree in the middle of nowhere, starts inflicting on him something like a death from a thousand cuts, while all the time lecturing him on fatherhood and the perils of military service.

For in some strange way, this is actually a film about the Sendero war, and war in general. Santiago is in fact an ex-Sinchi, a member of one of the feared battalions who were on the front line of the war against the Maoist insurgency. However, he was accused (he tells Manuel) of violations of human rights, even though all he ever did was for the fatherland and against terrorism, and was left out to dry by the service. This (alongside, it should be added, various other misfortunes such as the loss of his father and the fact that he's unable to have children) is what seems to have turned his mind.

But in his crazed manner, Santiago is also a good sport. It's all part of the code of machismo that he's busy teaching his Limeñan adversary, whom he constantly calls "gringo." So not only does he untie Manuel, he also passes him his knife, daring him to use it. Which the young man duly does, and so that's the end of Santiago.

Meanwhile, no deities see fit to drop in on Beatriz's ancient-style landing strip, though right at the end Fortunato comes to believe that the group are under attack, orders a military reveille, and then falls down dead in mid-charge against his imaginary adversaries. He's then buried in the precincts of some nearby ruins. But the ending is happy in any case: we discover that the entire film has been narrated by Fortunato himself from his new position as sentinel guarding the gateway between life and death. And Manuel is left with two women to himself, one of whom he has managed successfully to impregnate.

It really would be hard to understate the strangeness of this movie, but its import is clear enough. Ravaged by war, Peru is now a desert in which only madmen and nostalgics thrive. The drive to recover ancient traditions may not bring back the powers of old, but it seems to be a step in the right direction towards accommodating oneself to life in this barren and deceptive outpost in the South. Whether we should really take heart in this message, I'm not so sure. Still less as to how much we should applaud this grandiose but ultimate failed attempt to lodge avant-garde theatrics within a national cinematic tradition whose forte has been either social realism or urban comedy. But oddly I find myself glad that they tried.

YouTube Link: brief cellphone footage from contemporary Asia, Peru. Mildly diverting for its final dialogue.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Doble juego posterAlberto Durant's Doble juego is something of a cross between Chicha tu madre and Ojos que no ven. Like the former, it deals with the everyday negotiations and double-dealings that constitute the warp and woof of contemporary Peru. Everyone's trying to get by, everyone's in debt to someone else, and everyone's up for a hustle here, or a hustle there. In this case, however, the hustlers are quite comprehensively out-hustled by a Spanish conman who all too easily ties them up into knots, hoist by their own petards of fortune-seeking and get-rich-quick dreams.

And like Ojos que no ven, the film is set in the dying days of the Fujimori regime, with revelations of vladivideos and official corruption constantly on the TV or radio in the background. But unlike in Lombardi's film, here nobody's really paying attention. They are so caught up in their deals and dreams that they fail to draw the larger lessons. Theirs really are "unseeing eyes," belonging to people who have yet to learn that if a proposition sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. A combination of necessity and greed (and in Durant's depiction, necessity seems to breed greed) cauterizes vision.

Those ensnared in this "double game" are therefore on the whole singularly unattractive. And they range the gamut from a lower-class doorman to a range of more or less high class (or "pituco") figures who have fallen on hard times: the son of a factory owner who's trying to make his way as a film-maker; an interior designer who has a problem with alcohol; a recently divorced estate agent. They, along with an unemployed accountant working as a taxi driver, his daughter who is a would-be student getting by as a hotel receptionist (and petty thief), plus sundry other minor figures, become ensnared in a net woven by a likeable Spaniard who goes by the name of Salvador and who claims to be working for the Spanish telecommunications giant, Telefónica.

Like any good conman, Salvador gives the appearance that he is spending far more money than is coming his way. He gives out promissory notes like confetti: he has something to offer everyone. And he arrives on the horizon of these people's lives as a literal saviour: the doorman will be able to pay off his pregnant girlfriend; the factory owner's son will be able to pay off his debts and also buy his girlfriend a piano; the interior designer will have her big break; and so on and so forth.

Of course, Salvador saves no-one. But he does gather a community around him. The film shows the way in which corruption can function as a social glue: it's a power of connection that crosses ethnic and class barriers, even as it depends upon the anxious desires for survival and ascent that social hierarchies instill. But corruption is an equal opportunity failing. There's something both deterritorializing and affirmative about corruption. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to distinguish between other forms of community formation, such as the ways in which groups form around local services: here, the hairdresser who is everybody's friend and confidant.

Doble juego still
To put this another way: Salvador is endlessly joining the dots, filling in the blanks. By making himself at home in other people's lives, he's continually performing the role of host as well as parasite, introducing one character to another, always the intermediary trying to find his way around obstacles and blockages, to make things happen. Perhaps that's why in the end the conman is probably the film's most sympathetic character: he provides the grease that makes the social machinery run, as well as the shock that causes it to break down again. Stop and start, stop and start, through his shape-shifting performances and so his indeterminacy he becomes immanent to the multitudinous mechanisms that constitute contemporary Lima.

Video Link: the film's trailer.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Ojos que no ven posterOjos que no ven is doubtless Francisco Lombardi's most ambitious film to date, but it is also perhaps his least successful. With its numerous intersecting stories, the movie is reminiscent of Altman's Short Cuts or Soderbergh's Traffic (and expands upon Lombardi's own Caídos del cielo), but ultimately the film gets away from the director, becoming more of a sprawling mess than an interwoven tapestry.

The background for all the stories told is the crisis that engulfed Peru in late 2000, when a video emerged showing President Alberto Fujimori's Chief of Security and all-round right-hand man and eminence grise, Vladimior Montesinos, apparently bribing an opposition congressman to switch allegiance to the President's camp. It soon became clear that this was far from an isolated case, and that Montesinos had systematically bribed not only congressmen and women, but also surpreme court justices and media moguls. What's more, he had also secretly videoed all these exchanges. As hundreds of these so-called vladivideos came to light, to be played nightly on the television news, the murky world of official corruption became a spectacle, a sort of soap opera that glued Peruvians to their television screens. Nobody knew who would be implicated next.

So what links the various characters and scenes in Ojos que no ven are the ever-present TV sets, transmitting bit by bit the slow agony of the developing scandal as the extent of the corruption becomes apparent, Montesinos flees the country, Fujimori also runs for cover, and a new President is sworn in.

The other common denominator is the crumbling public hospital through which most of the characters pass at one point or another, as though to remind them of both the stubborn persistence and the dilapidation of another vision of the state, as a fount of common security and benefit for all.

Lombardi's hardly afraid of a metaphor. One of the stories depicted involves a news anchorman whose visit to the hospital is prompted by the appearance and rapid spread of a mole that stubbornly remains visible however much his make-up assistant (who, in another plot, is the girlfriend of one of Montesinos's hired thugs) applies layers of concealer. It turns out that the mole is a fast-spreading melanoma: a cancer that, like the corruption breaking to the surface of the national polity, threatens more than simply the finely-honed visage of free-market yuppie success.

But what's odd, then, is why the film should be entitled "Ojos que no ven" or "Unseeing eyes." For what it depicts is a regime of utmost visibility, in which images speak for themselves and quickly bring down the entire house of cards that constitute the Fujimori-Montesinos edifice. And if there were unseeing eyes before the scandal erupted, then it was mostly for the rather banal reason that everything remained hidden. Indeed, the more interesting aspect of the vladivideos is that suddenly ordinary Peruvians saw the world as Montesinos saw it: a landscape of the utmost transparency, in which everything had to be on view, recorded to be replayed if necessary at a later date. For a few brief months, at least, a central node of the surveillance society was itself exposed to the penetrating glare of the media and public view.

But apart from one or two touches--the television presenter's mole, but also a forensic archaeologist bringing the skulls of death squad victims to the surface, for instance--the question of visibility and the role of the camera itself is barely thematized in Lombardi's movie. He's rather missing a trick here, as there should surely have been some self-reflexivity about the similarity between Montesinos's perspective and that of the film's own camera eye that glides smoothly between the distinct stories that compose the film's multiple plots, making connections where before there were none, or none visible.

Ojos que no ven still
After all, and beyond the soap-opera segments that constitute far too much of this film (two old men arguing politics in neighbouring hospital beds; a nerdy young clerk with film-fuelled fantasies that he can play the suave leading man for his landlady's bratty daughter), isn't the real point that Montesinos proved himself the greatest director that Peru has yet seen, putting the likes of Lombardi himself in the shade. If there were any eyes that didn't see, they belonged to this socially committed film-maker, who had given himself the task of subjecting society to the x-ray vision of the camera lens, only to be upstaged by the neoliberal state itself.

YouTube Link: "Eye Spy - Peru", a nice little documentary about the fall of Fujimori and Peru's regime of visibility.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I suspect that this will be the place for all your Venezuela referendum news: Radio Venezuela en vivo. They promise full coverage in multiple languages.

Otherwise, the best source for Venezuela analysis remains

And I'm looking forward to reading Greg Wilpert's Change Venezuela by Taking Power, not least for its implied polemic with John Holloway's How to Change the World without Taking Power. Anyone serious about the issues raised by Zizek's "Resistance is Surrender" should probably read these two books. Sadly, too much of the hoo-ha around Zizek's article has been far from serious.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Tinta roja posterLombardi's Tinta roja ("Red Ink") is a glimpse of Peruvian society from the perspective of a tabloid newspaper's crime beat. The crimes themselves are almost always tawdry and all too predictable: a lover's suicide in the cemetery; a street vendor run over by a bus; a jealous wife killing her husband found in flagrante with another woman. The skill, indeed the art, of the tabloid journalist is to write these stories up with an eye for human (melo)drama.

The film's plot centers around Alfonso, a young student who comes to work as an intern at the newspaper El Clamor along with his on-again off-again girlfriend Nadia. Alfonso dreams of being a novelist, and idolizes Mario Vargas Llosa. At the crime desk, to which he is reluctantly sent as Nadia nabs the only vacancy in the cultural section, he is soon nicknamed "Varguitas" but his new boss, the cynical old hack Faúndez. But despite his initial shock and upset--confronting his first corpse, seeing how his colleagues manipulate and deceive the people they are writing about--Alfonso gradually learns to fit in with his new surroundings. He rather likes, for instance, the fact that he has to throw out all he has learned in journalism school about objectivity and neutrality. After all, the job of a journalist is to write a sort of fiction.

Moreover, the tabloid hacks share a certain grim solidarity with the people they're writing about: the hard-luck cases, widows, and bereft mothers of Lima's shantytowns. They offer these people their fifteen minutes of fame. In the words of "Van Gogh," the driver of the minivan that takes them from one bloody crime scene to another, "the crime pages are like the social gazette for the poor. They are famous if only for a day. We treat them like stars." Though nobody's quite as eager to get into the paper as the cops on the beat who serve as the journos' informants, ensuring they get their anxiously desired scoops on their media rivals.

The notion that the crime pages offer a vision of Lima from below is a promising one. But the film falls down when, ironically, it adopts the strategy that Faúndez teaches young Alfonso: when it imposes a melodramatic plot on proceedings, concentrating more on family ties than on social tapestry.

After long meandering without too much purpose, except to show how Alfonso gradually becomes as hard-bitten and cynical as his mentor, suddenly the plot becomes a story of (biological) fathers and children, a morality tale to teach us that blood is thicker than water. Faúndez's own son, a young man with learning difficulties, is found tragically dead, and Alfonso reports on the incident with the usual lurid dispassion, exposing his boss's life to the scandal-hungry gaze of the paper's readership.

Tinta roja stillThe old pro flees from the limelight, and only returns when the next story involves Alfonso's own long estranged father, who turns out to be a crooked doctor covering up suspicious fatalities by providing false death certificates. Faúndez intervenes to prevent Alfonso from turning his now merciless muckraking spotlight on his own flesh and blood: "There are good headlines every day," he says, justifying the fact that he has spiked his young apprentice's scoop. "But however shitty they are, you only have one father."

And it is when a new intern shows up at the paper, that Alfonso realizes he has become boss of the crime section, and moreover has become even more heartless than Faúndez, in less than half the time. He has tarnished what relationship he might have had with Nadia, adopting the most machista of attitudes, and he has forgotten entirely about his dreams of becoming a novelist, even though the manuscript he submitted to a literary prize won him a scholarship to Europe.

So in the end he walks out. The tabloid press are condemned for being utterly soul-destroying and heartless. But who now is to write about the everyday misfortunes and dramas of the urban poor?

YouTube Link: the film's trailer (along with the trailers for Paloma de papel and Días de Santiago).

Saturday, December 01, 2007


The Saturday photo, part III: the cathedral in Santiago de Chile gears up for Christmas.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Mujer de mi hermano posterThe title of Ricardo de Montreuil's La mujer de mi hermano translates as "My Brother's Woman," and really that's all you need to know about this souped-up but stylish telenovela. You can imagine the plot for yourself: two brothers, like chalk and cheese, one a successful but boring businessman in suit and tie, the other a dashing young artist in leather jacket and stubble. Businessman brother's wife is tiring of her literally sterile life in a designer-label cocoon in which they have sex only once a week. One day while hubby is off on a business trip, she falls into bed with artist brother. Sparks and moral dilemmas fly. Childhood trauma and repressed identities come to the surface. But, in this case at least, they all live happily ever after.

The film is actually about homosexuality, unsurprising perhaps given that it is based on the novel and scripted by Jaime Bayly, author also of the far superior No se lo digas a nadie. We have the bitchy gay male friend who is wife Zoë's confidante, reveling in the steamy details of his friend's infidelity; the obsessively tidy and metrosexual husband Ignacio turns out to be a closet gay, oh and a youthful paedophile to boot; and of course the love triangle itself, with the two men sharing a single woman, is all about homosocial desire.

All this takes place in an ambience of pristine upper-class sophistication, in a palette of muted earth tones drenched in soft late-season sunlight. Zoë and Ignacio live in a designer house that is a glass and concrete box, whose major feature is a swimming pool that traverses inside and outside. And however much Ignacio obsessively cleans the pool of autumn leaves or stranded insects (he's rich but not rich enough for a pool boy?), each major character feels compelled at some point to throw something into the water: Ignacio chucks his brother's painting; Zoë dumps her mobile phone; and artist brother Gonzalo pisses into it. Now there's a statement. It's the closest this film comes to depth.

Beyond these markers of privilege and style, tainted by the introduction of human bodily fluids, this ethereal film is curiously ungrounded. It's a pan-Latin American effort, made by a Peruvian director, set in Mexico, filmed in Chile, with stars from Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, and Colombia. We get little sense of the world beyond these characters' self-focussed lives: when Ignacio goes on his business trip, the hotel from which he phones home (little knowing his brother is in the house with her as he speaks) is another anonymous construction of glass and concrete that could be almost anywhere. This is a Latin version of Eurotrash: the flotsam and jetsam of a regional bourgeoisie at home everywhere and nowhere.

Mujer de mi hermana still
In the end, the film is as superficial as the world it portrays: all surfaces and bleached, unsaturated veneers; a cold borderless neoliberalism in which brief titillation artfully shot replaces passion or human interest. We're as far from, say, Chicha tu madre as could be imagined. And of the two versions of deterritorialized Latin Americanism, I know which one I'd choose.

YouTube Link: the film's first ten minutes.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


La ciudad y los perros posterFrancisco Lombardi's La ciudad y los perros is an adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa's first book. The title translates as "The City and the Dogs" (though for some reason the book was translated into English as The Time of the Hero). But the film shows much less of the city and much more of the dogs than does Vargas Llosa's novel, whose first edition came complete with a map of Lima. Lombardi keeps us mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the military academy in which the "dogs," the army cadets, have forged a rough and tumble community whose hierarchies, values, and abuses both challenge and mirror those of the army, and by extension the nation, itself.

Lombardi also narrows his focus among the group of cadets. The book is notable for employed a narrative style that switches constantly between narrators and perspectives, creating the overall effect of portraying the "dogs" as a kind of multiform, collective subjectivity. Moreover, Vargas Llosa's novel hides a huge twist in its tail, as on what is practically the book's final page we suddenly take stock of a dramatic breach between interior monologue and external appearance. Sadly but perhaps inevitably the film excises these properly literary effects, to concentrate on the figure of one Alberto Fernández, nicknamed "the poet," who functions mostly as an observer through whom we in turn apprehend other characters and the actions they undertake.

The cohort's top dogs are a group of four cadets known as "the circle," led by a striking young touch nicknamed the "Jaguar," who run a thriving black market trade in cigarettes, liquor, pornography, and stolen exam papers for the other inmates of this military boarding school. The film's plot kicks off as the theft of a Chemistry exam is discovered by the academy's authorities, and as a result the four cadets who were on guard at the time of the theft have all their weekend leave cancelled. One of the four is a boy who inhabits the very lowest rung of the savage hierarchy that the cadets have established, as is indicated by the nickname they've given him: Ricard Arana is better known as the "Slave." The Slave has managed to pass three years in the institution without making a single friend, except perhaps the Poet himself, to whom he pours out his troubles. The Slave is particularly agonized by the fact of his confinement, as it means he's unable to meet up with the neighborhood girl, Teresa, to whom he's shyly taken a fancy. Little does he know that in fact his only friend, the Poet, has started up a relationship with Teresa himself.

The Slave then commits the worst sin imaginable among the boys: he betrays the group by turning stool pigeon in order to have his exit privileges reinstated. As a result, the exam thief, Cava, a member of the circle, is humiliatingly thrown out of the academy and his compadres vow revenge.

La ciudad y los perros stillDuring live ammunition exercises in the countryside, the Slave is shot and mortally wounded. The authorities, hushing up the scandal, declare that young Ricardo accidentally killed himself with his own rifle. But the Poet suspects a more likely narrative: that the Jaguar took rough justice into his own hands, gunning down the weakling who had dared to question his group's authority.

And so the Poet himself, agonized by his own betrayal of the dead boy, in turn decides to inform on the circle and incriminate the Jaguar. He convinces one Lieutenant Gamboa of the truth of his account: that the cadets are essentially beyond the control of the institution, and that their leaders feel they can even get away with murder. Gamboa, portrayed as a decent man who's prepared to risk his career in the name of what is right, forces the issue through to his superiors. But little justice is done: the cover-up continues, Gamboa is transferred out to a remote posting in the Andes, and the only (albeit perhaps the most devastating) punishment that the Jaguar receives is to be overthrown by those who were previously his loyal henchmen.

In the end, though the film presents itself as an incisive critique of the corruption and machismo that dominate both the cadet cohort and the army as a whole, it's unclear what if any values it upholds. It's difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Jaguar, who so stubbornly upholds his own code of honour that he refuses to clear at least some part of his disrepute by squealing in turn on the Poet's act of treason. Indeed, in some senses the Jaguar is the only figure who avoids the taint of treason: even Gamboa, given a final chance to prove the truth of what has taken places, rips up the evidence before heading out of the school gates and on to his lonely highland exile. The Jaguar believes in his strict moral doctrine because he has nothing else to believe in. But it is this rigidity that leads to the Slave's demise. It's the demand for absolute solidarity that drives a merciless scapegoating.

YouTube Link: Cava's expulsion.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Further to my earlier Arguediana, here's a lovely little cinematic version of the "Sueño del pongo" ("Pongo's Dream"), a traditional Quechua story collected and elaborated by Arguedas. The film was made in Cuba in 1970, adapted by Roberto Fernández Retamar. It's shot using atmospheric black and white still photographs.

See also the text of the story in Spanish and in English. It begins...

"A little man headed to his master's mansion. As one of the serfs on the lord's estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.

The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion's corridors...."

Monday, November 26, 2007


El canibal es el Otro coverOf the three texts studied in Victor Vich's El caníbal es el Otro, there's no doubt that the first is the most interesting. What more need be said, after all, about Mario Vargas Llosa's Lituma en los Andes? The elite discourse of letrado stupefaction and condescension towards the indigenous is hardly a topic that has gone unexplored. And the other text, a testimonio of state-sponsored brutality, is likewise sadly all too familiar. Even Vich himself wonders if his account adds anything: "I ask myself therefore if there's any sense continuing to comment on this testimonio" (55).

But the text with which Vich begins his analysis of "violence and culture in contemporary Peru" is both fascinating and challenging. It's a Senderista text, and frankly the guerrilleros' discourse remains as stubbornly opaque now as ever, despite the reams of interpretation to which it has been subjected. But perhaps that's precisely the problem. Perhaps the point of Senderismo is the way in which it resists interpretation. Indeed, I suggest that nothing shows this better than the text that Vich chooses to examine.

Rosa Murinache's Tiempos de Guerra ("Time of War" or, more loosely and with other resonances, "Life During Wartime") is, as Vich explains,
a clandestine book of poetry that circulated during the harshest years of Peru's dirty war. It comprises a set of poems whose particular aim is to expound the necessity for armed struggle and for a radically revolutionary change in the structure of the country. The curious thing is that Rosa is the author of the book but not of the poems, which are rather the product of an "editing" operation performed on the political discourse of [Sendero leader] Abimael Guzmán. (13-14)
Indeed, as Vich underlines, Murinache goes to some pains to point out that she has neither added nor subtracted a single word from Guzmán's work. "All" she has done is to rearrange it on the page, introducing line breaks, indentations, and stanza divisions. So we get verses such as the following:
is worth nothing
The mass
is everything.
If we are to be anything
it will be
as part
of the mass. (28-29)
Murinache's intervention, then, is purely formal: she has changed the form of Guzmán's speeches and exhortations from prose to poetry.

Vich is clearly fascinated by what this (presumably) pseudonymous editor has done, and rightly so, and he asks about the subjectivity that the poems reveal, or rather the way in which the subjectivity of the Senderista cadre presents itself as almost completely in sync with the subjectivity of the movement's leader and grand ideologue. But there are times when Vich also appears somewhat frustrated by this coincidence or confluence between the two subjects. For the challenge of Murinache's over-respectful editing is its apparent superfluousness. Finally, Vich concludes, what we have here is "a gesture at best, a simple movement, the useless attempt to arrange the words (of the Other) in some other way" (35; emphasis added).

But this "useless[ness]" deserves further examination. Indeed, it's rather surprising that a literary critic such as Vich should have such little use for form. (Camilo Fernández Cozman makes a similar observation.) For what Murinache has done is to draw out the formal properties of Guzmán's political discourse. She challenges us to read Senderista ideology as form rather than as content; indeed as a mode of aesthetics or (posthegemonic) affect rather than as politics or (hegemonizing) ideology.

In short, by recasting Guzmán as poet, surely Murinache is warning us against precisely the kinds of political interpretation, engrossed with content and signification, that has dominated and also perplexed all readings of Sendero, Vich's included. She suggests that Guzmán's followers were less interested in what their leader meant than in the ways in which Senderista ideology allowed them to find form, to construct their own forms (habits, if you like) from the affective building blocks supplied by a discourse of blood and revolution, reorganization and (literally) reformation.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Having castigated Dick Cheney for confusing Venezuela with Peru, Hugo Chávez with Alan García, it's only fair to point out that he's not alone in his sophomoric errors.

BBC screengrab
For the BBC, judging by this story, appear unable to distinguish between 1) a large South American country and 2) a private university on New York's upper west side.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Dick CheneyI've been surprised that in Peru they haven't made more of Dick Cheney's recent gaffe. The US Vice-President apparently confused Peru with Venezuela, suggesting that Hugo Chávez was President of the former rather than the latter. But Peruvian friends I've talked to weren't even aware of the incident.

Typically enough, Chávez himself has capitalized on the confusion. "Those who govern the United States are a bunch of ignorant fools," he declared. "They don't know where Venezuela is, nor do they know where Peru is." (Via LANR.)

The story can be read as a simple slip of the tongue, or perhaps as typical of the myopia of an administration run by a man who famously had never left the USA before he became President, and who as presidential candidate was unable to name the leader of Pakistan.

More interestingly, however, the mistake may reveal just how little attention the US is currently paying to Latin America. After all, if Cheney had any reason to have the region on his mind, one would have thought that Chávez's belligerent rhetoric should have put Venezuela on the Vice-President's mental map.

Moreover, the particular confusion is also revealing. Rather than confusing Chávez with any of the other Latin American leftists who have won office in recent years--Bolivia's Evo Morales or Brazil's Lula, for instance--Cheney seems to find it difficult to distinguish him even from Alan García, a president who came to office by fending off a challenge from the Left. Indeed, during the Peruvian campaign Chávez actively (and controversially) voiced his support for the candidacy of García's rival, Ollanta Humala.

Cheney's faux pas, then, seems to indicate not only that the much-heralded distinction between "social democratic" and "populist" lefts has hardly made much impact inside the Beltway. It also suggests that when it comes to Latin America, the Bush Administration doesn't even concern itself overly with the distinction between Left and Right. It's all, as they would say down here, la misma mierda.

One is tempted to feel slightly sorry for poor Hugo. For all the man's best efforts, he still seems unable to attract much attention from Cheney et. al. Though on the other hand, the lesson he might draw is that he really can do what he wants: the US simply won't notice.

Crossposted to Left Turns?.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Bajo la piel posterBajo la piel is a strange film, and also a distinctly creepy one. It opens with a scene of a man in a hammock declaring that life is good, that he has discovered that happiness really exists, although he learned the lesson only lately, and closes with the same scene of Edenic bliss. What's shown in the interim, however, is a dark take on a Peruvian society in which primitive violence lurks "under the skin" of even the most respectable façade. And it's the disconnect between the apocalyptic vision and the contented declaration that gives this film its sinister edge. Comparisons with Hitchcock are not altogether out of line.

The happy hammock-swinger turns out to be a provincial police chief by the name of Percy Corso. At the story's outset, he's faced with the fact that a serial killer is on the loose, who has so far killed four young men, decapitating them and removing their eyes. The town is up in arms, and the mayor in particular is putting pressure on Corso to solve the case quickly, so that upcoming festivities can take place without this shadow of fear. But our man Percy, normally a solitary and rational type who once had dreams of being a lawyer and now spends his spare time playing solitaire chess, finds himself distracted with a new arrival: Marina, a fiery young Spaniard, who has taken up the post of local pathologist.

Bajo la piel stillMarina's over-sexed proclivities extend, it seems, to demanding of Percy impulsive sex when the two are exploring the local ruins, in the past site of bloody sacrifice. Whatever turns you on. But Marina has a problem with commitment, and is soon also found screwing the town gigolo, a young man who happens also to be the mayor's reprobate son.

The policeman is soon rather more preoccupied with the sexual adventures of his would-be lover, but in the meantime he does manage to solve the serial killer case. All the evidence leads to the fact that the perpetrator is a bespectacled archaeologist who shows unusual scholastic interest in the savage ways of pre-Columbian civilizations. Only he had access to the golden but gruesome Moche instrument of decapitation that turns out to have been the murder weapon. But banged up in police cells, Professor Pinto shows no great willingness to talk, and in the face of the man's stubborn silence Percy returns to fretting about Marina.

Things quickly get out of hand when Corso decides to take the mayor's son out drinking, torturing himself by listening to the young man's bravado descriptions of his bohemian lifestyle. Percy snaps, killing and decapitating his rival in copycat style, taking advantage of the original murder's suicide to fake a prison break and then burying both bodies out in the desert. And one stage we think (fear?) that the cop will be rumbled for this crime, but eventually as we've seen all turns out happily ever after. In the film's final scene the camera shifts from Corso in his hammock to Marina in the background, apparently barefoot and pregnant, now fully beholden to the alpha male.

So the movie is disturbing not only for its depiction of a millennial savagery that runs from pre-historic times to the present, but also and above all for its reluctance to take any moral stance. We may increasingly find it hard to identify with its policeman protagonist, especially as he passes the line from law-enforcer to law-breaker, but still less sympathy is shown for his victim or indeed almost anyone else around and about. The movie is singularly detached from the violence it portrays. Or perhaps on the contrary: it's as though it were too close to the bone for the director to be able to take some inevitably hypocritical moral stance.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Flor de Retama posterIt's striking how many differences there are within the current upsurge of Peruvian regional cinema. Indeed, in may ways you'd be hard-pressed to find a more disparate group of films in terms of their genre, subject matter, and style. Sangre y tradición, for instance, is a monster movie that plays on and supports regional mythology, and it has the air of a home movie made by a student drama group on their weekends off, albeit with considerable technical accomplishment. El huerfanito is both grittier and grainier, a study of child poverty with strong social realist overtones. While Flor de Retama (2004), by contrast, employs a number of professional actors and a style strongly reminiscent of telenovelas to portray a love story in the midst of the war on terror.

Flor de Retama's production company call the film a "historical drama," and it indeed very much has the feel of a period piece. Its plot could almost be lifted out of a nineteenth-century English novel. It features an absentee landlord, a widower with a young daughter who is just emerging into sexual maturity and whose mother died in childbirth. He returns to his estate after an extended period of absence to discover that it has slowly gone to seed, but that the old faithful retainers have been long awaiting his return. One of the young yeomen takes a shine to the daughter, and she likewise to him, despite the disapproval on both sides of this cross-class liaison. The entire populace gets to work on restoring the lands to their former glory, but disaster threatens, in the course of which the long-suffering servants have to prove their true loyalty to the landowner, the daughter and the beau demonstrate their fitness for each other, and the lord of the manor decisively rejects his temptation to sell up and abandon the ancestral pile at the first sign of trouble. Finally, the daughter completes a task first initiated by her long-dead mother, whom her father can only now truly grieve, and the inheritance seems ensured for the foreseeable future. The aristocracy are once again wedded to the land. The peasants and tenant farmer have recommitted to the old order. And tradition is reinforced.

All that is lacking indeed, is a false suitor (flash and seductive but ultimately detrimental to the furtherance of landed authority) against whom the worthy suitor (plain and undemonstrative at first sight, but loyal to the bone) can eventually win out, obviously after a number of tragicomic mis-steps on the part of our heroine.

The big thing separating Flor de Retama from Austen or Hardy then is that the disaster affecting the hacienda is caused by rifle-toting Maoists. For the landowner's return coincides with a Sendero revival. But this is where the film's temporality is peculiar. For despite the production company's label, in fact the bulk of the action has to be set in the present: if the flashbacks to the point at which the mother dies and the father leaves (by helicopter) to retreat to the city with his newborn child are all set in 1985, then the return to the Andes must take place around 2000. Or even, if Nova Imágenes Producciones are to be trusted, in 2005 if twenty years have passed.

So this is both a curiously displaced Sendero drama, in which the terrorist threat is presented as being as real in 2005 as it had been twenty years later. And yet it's also a fake historical drama, in that it presents action that must be taking place in the present as though it were part of some semi-mythic feudal order. There's a double sleight of hand here: Sendero has to be reactivated in order to set the present back into the past, relegitimating willing campesino subservience to the landowner returning to their property abandoned during the war. The insurgent provide the excuse for a test of loyalty and love: will the landowner's work supervisor, a gun thrust in his hand by the embittered Senderista, go through with the assassination of his boss or (as in fact happens) turn the weapon on the guerrilla. A blood pact is forged in which all concerned can return to the pre-war status quo... as if nothing had really happened. Hence the daughter completes the painting her mother had begun two decades earlier. A hunky local has been brought into the family, but the girl has shown that she's the one with the balls, as she has rescued him from under the noses of the rebels, hitting one of them over the head with a block of wood for good measure.

So finally here's the point of contact between the three regional films: each is incredibly conservative, no matter the genre they choose to convey their remarkably unsubtle messages. Sangre y tradición is a plea to maintain rural traditions and customs. El huerfanito proposes to reinstate the patriarchal family. And Flor de Retama justifies the return of the seigneur to his rightful place in the Andean hierarchy.

Honestly. And people had problems with Madeinusa's politics?!

YouTube Link: the movie's trailer.