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Ugly Disemboweled Americans

What the horror-show Turistas has in common with Babel. Plus: Remembering Robert Altman.

The awful, offal-ridden Turistas—textbook torture-porn—would be too disgusting to discuss were it not for its efficiency at exploiting the fear that haunts our post-Iraq American dreams, and that can be discerned in works as various as the Oscar-bait ensemble drama Babel and the cringe comedy Borat: how our combination of arrogance and ignorance has left us hideously vulnerable in a world that hates our guts.

Turistas, directed by John Stockwell from a script by Michael Arlen Ross, opens with a tease of what’s to come: a young woman pleading for her life on an operating table, the image of her surgeon reflected in her eyeball—plus a lot of squishy sounds. Then comes the foreplay, as we flash back to our three American protagonists (Josh Duhamel, Olivia Wilde, Beau Garrett), who pass up the plane for a rickety bus through the mountains of Brazil, with every smiling Brazilian child a potential defiler. Hovering in the air is the joke that if you speak two languages you’re bilingual, three you’re trilingual, and one you’re American: Who the hell knows what these alien others are thinking?

It is, of course, a familiar hack-’em-up premise: nubile Americans far from home (or, in the case of backwoods Americana chainsaw movies, from the city), at the mercy of savages who want to punish them for—what? Their freedom, as our president would have it? Possibly their sexual freedom. As usual, there’s a streak of murderous puritanism in the carnage: You know the leggy blonde with the big boobs will get the chop because she says things like “Would you guys mind if I went topless?” We’d be livid.

But in this case it’s more like the freedom to exploit the rest of the world. In the angry, probing Three Kings, an Iraqi soldier lectures an American on the real motives of Desert Storm while pouring oil down his throat. Turistas gives you the sleazy gutbucket variation: a Brazilian doctor who lectures an American woman on all that the U.S. has taken from his country—land, sugar, gold, sexual innocence—while removing her organs one by one, in close-up. He adds he’d take everything if he could, including “the skin from your ugly white asses.”

There’s only one surgery scene, but it’s the heart (and kidneys) of Turistas. The rest—especially the incoherent action—falls well below the mark set by the last Americans Abroad torture-porn picture, Hostel. During the murky underwater climax, I was saddened to see the nominal hero meet his untimely end—only to discover it was actually a bad guy who’d been skewered. Ineptitude spoils payback: how American.

I stumbled out thinking of Babel, Turistas’ art-house correlative, in which an American couple travels through Morocco in an air-conditioned tour bus, distracted by petty little marital problems: She takes a bullet to the chest while, back in affluent San Diego, their pale little moppets are whisked across the border by their (illegal) nanny and surrounded by tequila-swilling, gun-firing Mexicans. In my fantasy, they bump into Borat, who pretends to investigate the secret of America’s greatness while demonstrating America’s cluelessness. And so the Third World bleeds closer, ever closer, into our own.

Robert Altman allegedly said he’d direct movies until his last breath, and that note of orneriness was his leitmotif: No one was going to tell him what he could or couldn’t do. Sometimes he joked that he didn’t do much of anything anyway—a lie with a half-kernel of truth. Altman certainly didn’t direct the way others did. He assembled ecosystems (platoons of gifted actors with vast histrionic reserves), set them in motion, and pointed a camera (often two cameras) and a microphone (actually, many microphones) at them. He would sift through hours of vocal tracks for the words he wanted you to register—Bob Balaban, his collaborator on Gosford Park, marveled that Altman made choices in seconds that would have taken someone else months. He was a Zen director. His camera stood coolly back from the exhibitionists—sometimes contemptuously (if the characters were right-wingers or hypocrites or snobs), more often with wonder.

Altman started in TV, but the style we know him by—ensemble casts and overlapping, lickety-split dialogue—dates from M*A*S*H, that Vietnam-era military comedy that brought a hip new counterculture sensibility to cinema. What drew him to the subject was the notion of rogue (and roguish) individualists creating their own moral universe, one that transcended brainless military protocol and sham piety. It was also one that attracted free spirits—actors who wanted to be part of his communal experiments, audiences who wanted movies with less formula and more texture.

The great critic and painter Manny Farber once wrote of the “dispersed frame” of movies of the early seventies, with directors like Altman striving to capture “the freshness and energy of a real world.” That hubbub, the actors seeming to have been caught on the fly, can make you laugh out loud. It isn’t chaos, though: Altman had the tightest loose frame in the business.