Ugly Disemboweled Americans

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Atomic

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.

My favorite of his many masterpieces? I’ll go with the somber, soulful Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a flop on its release in 1971: the tale of a romantic but hapless frontier businessman (Warren Beatty) forced to take a stand against a rapacious corporation (with a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs). This might be the best acting Beatty ever did, although Altman said at BAM seven years ago that Beatty hates the film. “Warren’s an asshole,” he explained.

Altman could be a bit of an asshole himself—and he was particularly hostile if you dared to pose some pointy-headed question about the Meaning of his work. I made the mistake of asking, in front of an audience, whether the end of McCabe—the death of the individualist hero, the salvation of the town through a communal effort—represented his last spasm of hope for the dying counterculture, and he looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. (He did warm up later, after he’d slipped out and smoked a joint.) After his epic Nashville—America as seen through the prism of the reactionary country-and-western music world—Altman’s work turned sour. But he found his way back: through theater and his film of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; the semi-improvised, shot-on-video campaign satire Tanner ’88 (a collaboration with Garry Trudeau), which was highly influential; and the brusque yet lyrical portrait of an artist in spiritual exile, Vincent & Theo.

It was a happy irony that The Player, in which Altman thumbed his nose at Hollywood, would prove to be his Hollywood comeback. In the marvelous phase that followed, Gosford Park was the supreme achievement: Who knew he could bring off a drawing-room whodunit with a cast of tony Brits, keeping his chattering upper and lower classes in constant motion while teasing us with indirection? In the last year, he finally got his Oscar (honorary) and a buoyant reception for his lovely collaboration with Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion—a comedy redolent of death.

On the Internet last week, I read that Altman had changed American cinema, but I’ve always been saddened by how little influence his work actually had in an era of wall-to-wall storyboarding and computer-generated imagery. The consolation was that I could always anticipate the next Altman film. I’m already missing it, and the one after that.

Come back, you bastard.

Brazil isn’t thrilled with the Turistas trailer, which flashes the lines, “In a country where anything goes … anything can happen.” Says Miguel Jerónimo of New York’s Brazilian tourism office, “It’s not whatever goes in our country!” This isn’t the first time Brazil has taken issue with its portrayal. In 2002, a Simpsons episode showed Brazil as filled with bisexual men and mad monkeys. After a tourism agency threatened to sue, the producers issued this statement: “We apologize to the lovely city and people of Rio de Janeiro, and if that doesn’t settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the president of Brazil on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing.”

Directed by John Stockwell. Fox Atomic. R.


Ugly Disemboweled Americans