Wednesday 28 December 2011

Hell Dorado

One of the more unpleasant items on the TV menu over Christmas was an animated feature film from Dreamworks called 'The Road to El Dorado'. Excuse me if you were unlucky enough to have seen it over a decade ago when it first came out but this week was my first sighting of the beast. Two 'loveable rogues' find themselves stowed away on a conquistadors' boat headed for El Dorado in search of gold. In the company of a clever horse (it is an animation) they find their way to a pre-Columban kingdom. Here they hope to get gold and get out. After a set of adventures involving high priests, a cunning woman, an animated stone jaguar and holy whirlpool, they do get out but without the gold.

As is often the case with such films, the overt morality carried by the two loveable rogues is a kind of jack-the-lad, spirit of enterprise, buddy spirit. The only threat to this comes from a native woman who is shown to be wily, sexy but interested in sex in order to get something else - her escape from her native land. Meanwhile, the native land itself is inhabited by a mix of thugs, crooks, megalomaniacs and idiots. The text book on such crap was written by Edward Said many years ago ('Orientalism') other than that he was writing primarily about the representation of  the inhabitants of the Middle East. Interesting that all that has to be done in US cinema is morph the paradigm, take out Arab, slot in Inca.

Ultimately the purpose of all this kind of entertainment is to sustain hierarchy (either race or class or sex or  combinations of all three, as with this film) which in turn sustains domination.

You can spot an alibi in the presentation of the film in that the chief conquistador 'Cortez' is represented as cruel and greedy but interestingly the desire for gold, the need for gold, the right of people from Europe to go to this place and get it is not questioned.

Quite what an outfit like Dreamworks with nominally liberal intentions was doing peddling this stuff in the year 2000 isn't immediately clear to me. Perhaps in the cultural flotsam brought to the surface by the Iraq War, the makers of films found themselves playing with ghosts, shadows and spectres culled partly from reality, partly from old novels, historical narratives, old movies - and moved them around in ways much influenced by the political discourse and political events unravelling around them. The two jack-the-lad characters are classic 'picaresque' fellows who filled popular European literature between say about 1600 and 1800. At that time, they served a mildly subversive function, more often than not, getting the upper hand in their conflicts with the aristocracy and  the new middle classes though ultimately such rogues might well find themselves marrying a high-born lady. Of course.

In this film, for a moment this old picaresque role looks like being re-run with their relationship with Cortez the Conquistador, but this mild subversion is lost when the unquestioned stuff about native idiots, thugs and megalomaniacs sitting on gold that Europeans are entitled to, kicks in.

Perhaps least acceptable though - and this is where I guess the liberalism crept in - Cortez is defeated! Hooray! Those big bad Spaniards are kept at bay by a cunning plan of pulling down half of El Dorado's carved cliff-face. Hooray! But of course this is a bit of post-hoc false hope,dangled in front of a liberal audience,  rather as if, say, a film-maker wrote a comedy where the slave-trade didn't happen and the silly, sexy, wily, ignorant, megalomaniac natives could carry on as before. Or something.

Dreamworks? Screamworks.