Sunday, November 7, 2010

AFI: Hearts & Minds, 1900s Edition

AMIGO, directed by John Sayles, 2010
Starring Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper, Lucas Neff and DJ Qualls [Although the main characters are actually the Filipino actors who probably won't get any billing on the poster, if this ever gets theatrical release]

In some ways, the story of how Amigo came about is the most interesting part of it. John Sayles has apparently been working on a screenplay about the 1900s for a while, during which he researched the Spanish-American and Filipino-American War.  He eventually realized that his screenplay was way too ambitious to ever get produced, so he decided to change it into a novel. While he was doing some additional research in the Philippines with Joel Torre, who is a famed actor in the Philippines,  he realized he could shoot at least the portion of the story set in the Philippines for a relatively small budget. So with the help of a Filipino poet, he translated portions of it into an obscure dialect of Tagalog while having his Cantonese actors translate the dialogue themselves, hoping they would tell him if the messed up a line. As of now, it has no distribution, so he's hoping that the Filipino community will help build some word-of-mouth.

Now, I don't want to sell Amigo short. It's just that what I just wrote up there sums up, in miniature, the problems of making movies today and the ways that directors are trying to get around those obstacles, such as filming in cheap locations and aiming at niche markets. And yet, it's also an echo of the relationship that Roger Corman (one of Sayles' mentors) had with Filipino director Eddie Romero in the 1960s.

However, I can see why this film currently lacks distribution. It's not a bad film but... well, I'll get to that in a minute.

Because Amigo's actual story is also pretty fascinating. Brief refresher, for people who aren't history buffs: at the end of the 19th century, America declared war on Spain over what are now thought to be dubious causes (such as the sinking of the USS Maine). The US conquered Cuba very quickly and the Spanish surrendered. The Philippines decided that they would revolt, so they would be democratic like Cuba, and the Spanish handed the Philippines over to the Americans, who found themselves in the awkward position of squashing a pro-democracy revolution. The fight between the Americans and the insurrectos dragged on long after the cessation of hostilities in Cuba, and sparked a major debate about American imperialism that included such luminaries as Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and Rudyard Kipling.

Of course, Sayles' treatment of the subject only requires you to know that the US is in the Philippines, it's a sideshow to the war in Cuba, and no one quite knows how to handle the natives now that the Spanish have left. When a small unit of American soldiers led by Lieutenant Compton (Dillahunt) set up camp in a rural Filipino village, the village headman Rafael (Joel Torre) has to strike a balance between his village's welfare and the risk of being seen as a collaborator by the insurrectos, whose number includes his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) and his son. All of this, of course, complicated by the communication gap and the long-festering envy and hatred present in any community, no matter how small.

To Sayles' credit, the movie mostly unfolds from Rafael's point-of-view. The American soldiers are definitely the outsiders, an alien element that disrupts a well-established way of life for almost inscrutable reasons. Nor is he romanticizing that way of life. He makes perfectly clear that there were tensions and problems in the community before the Americans came. However, they don't have anywhere near the knowledge or understanding to identify, let alone fix, those problems.

And the movie certainly plays to Sayles' strengths. Both the script and the direction are focused on developing the life of the village, so that, for example, when the soldiers kill the village's water-buffalo, the audience understands the tragic ramifications of this act. The long sequences devoted to the building of a house or the planting of a field help us better understand this world and what is being disrupted (or what could be built).

While Sayles sometimes hits the allegorical elements a little hard (there are more than a few lines about winning hearts and minds or how such-and-such an act isn't "torture"), he does a good job of dramatizing the plight of the village without turning either the guerillas or the American soldiers into mustache-twirling villains. There's one particularly well-edited sequence cutting between Dillahunt's reading of an order and a guerilla proclamation being delivered that drives home the utter impossibility of remaining "neutral" in a conflict where even neutrality is seen as treason. And there are a few clever scenes of Americans giving orders that are translated into cynical asides by their main translator, a disillusioned Spanish priest.

However, the movie has several major flaws. The film is filled with way too many characters, and while we see hints that the actors have done their homework and are inhabiting fully-developed characters, we are rarely privy to anything that proves this. Most of the soldiers are stock war movie cliches, who can be identified as Soldier with a Thing for a Native Girl, The Drunk, The Intellectual, the One With the Clap, the Dutiful Sergeant, and etc. Dillahunt is given a little more to go on, as a man trying his best to be both moral and professional in a situation where neither is possible. And Chris Cooper does manage to give his savage Army colonel a specificity that grounds his cruelty in the real world. Even the villagers, save for Rafael, function more as plot devices or local color than people facing moral dilemnas.

On top of that, Amigo struggles to move out of the idle hangout mode even when a different energy is called for.  When Rafael's two worlds meet for an open shooting war, the movie still maintains a leisurely "let's stay for a while and just watch" quality. The languid feel of the film sometimes works to its advantage, but other times it just makes a two hour film feel much longer.

There are other minor problems as well, such as Sayles' ending, which thematically makes sense but is executed in such a way as to make the viewer feel like Sayles is hammering the point into their head.

So, a noble experiment, but a failed experiment. I hope this signals a new, daring stage in Sayles' career and not a last desperate stab at relevance. Because Amigo inhabits a no-man's-land between the two extremes.
Eight Men Out (20th Anniversary Edition)
Return of the Secaucus 7