Empowered bastards

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Michael Caylo-Baradi analyses how Los bastardos by Mexican director Amat Escalante reverses the power dynamic for California’s undocumented labourers

 

 

Image courtesy of Kino International

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Los bastardos
Amat Escalante
2008, Mantarraya/Tres Tunas/No Dream/Foprocine/Le Pacte/Ticoman
90 minutes (English and Spanish)

LATAMROB rating: ****

AMAT ESCALANTE’S Los Bastardos is a film about two undocumented, migrant workers, from Mexico named Jesús and Fausto, played by non-professional Mexican actors Jesús Moises Rodriguez and Rubén Sosa, and traces their life as day-labourers within a 24-hour period through a narrative set in the vast collage of cities and suburbs of Los Angeles County. [1]

The film opens with the two workers walking on a dry and wide river canal on their way to join other labourers waiting at a street corner for work. Together with four others, somebody hires them for a construction project. Then, after a full-day’s work, they get paid, go “home” to a section of a public park, and try to rest.

But their need for night-time diversion takes them to a quiet neighbourhood near the park where they follow their instincts. Something, after sundown, tells them they must rob a house.

Director Amat Escalante does not show us how they choose which house to rob; we just see them enter through a window. When the homeowner, Karen – played by professional actress Nina Zavarin – sees Jesús holding a shotgun, she screams. But she is able to control her panic and, shortly, she feeds them dinner, spends time at the pool with them, has sex with Jesús, then gets high with them before Fausto accidentally blows her head off.

When the homeowner’s son arrives home, he kills Jesús using their shotgun. Fortunately, since it was the last bullet, Fausto’s life is saved – he runs from the neighbourhood as fast as he can.

Now alone, Fausto finds employment picking strawberries and, as he does so, the camera zooms in on his face, slowly letting it dominate the screen. In this final shot, Escalante tries to capture or construct a quiet collision of chaos, alienation, and memories of violence from his life in southern California as Fausto scans something in the field not framed on-screen.

In 2008, Los Bastardos was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard award. [2] Escalante’s first film, Sangre, had also been entered for the award in 2005. [3]

Since its Cannes premiere, Escalante’s second film continues to gain critical attention that often stresses its quiet visual-texture and unexpected, violent ending. In many ways, its unapologetic use of violence stimulates perceptions about its Mexican director’s political views. Certainly, US-Mexico border relations, immigration and race are elements that can all be readily implicated in the film’s uneasy ending.

There are many instances of Jesús’ and Fausto’s marginal status in southern California that can be explored. Indeed, their determination to survive in that savage world reveal the strength of their characters. But that strength must deal with their sense of cultural dislocation and alienation. The development of this ineluctable collision weakens these characters, impacts the moral dimension of their behavior, and contributes to or empowers Jesús’ and Fausto’s reckless disregard for the world around them.

And so, Escalante succeeds in calling his protagonists bastards, thus aptly giving his film its title: Los Bastardos.

Californios

Escalante’s initial image of southern California is a steady shot of a wide river canal, part of a drainage system that often saves the region’s vast assemblage of suburban areas from catastrophic hydraulic asphyxiations during the rainy season.

This shot is held for so long that, for a while, we suspect the two slow-moving objects in the middle of the screen are animals heading towards the camera. Eventually though, we recognise an older adult male, in his thirties, and another who appears stuck in the twilight of adolescence and adulthood: Jesús and Fausto, respectively.

Showing the small-ness of these two moving objects before we recognise they are people de-emphasises the humanity of the workers, and underlines the dominance of the concrete structure they are walking on – a vast structure built on the complex and calculated union of technology, ideas, manpower, politics, and funds.

Jesús and Fausto seem to disappear in this structure, immersed in its vastness, swallowed by the obviousness of its spaciousness – cold, inert, waiting, brutal. Certainly, this same calculated union provides a synonymous foundation for the kind of social and cultural milieu these two workers are about to penetrate: the civilisation of glamour, fame, and the good life beneath the Hollywood sign – Los Angeles.

But our initial image of their entrance into these spaces is striking because it is as if they had been washed out on that river canal much earlier, before the film began – (perhaps) in the unwritten imagination of and outside the script – and now, they emerge in the script, still breathing, ready to conquer what can still be had in their power, because, indeed, they are survivors.

Although undocumented workers, Jesús and Fausto appear to be long-time residents in southern California’s boiling cauldron of ethnic and cultural diversity; but there are hints in their body language and facial expressions that suggest they are only visitors to the US.

In appearance, they look homeless, penniless, and wear clothing that, we assume, has not been changed or washed for weeks. On the other hand, they also appear to exude a wealth of pride and dignity about who they are and where they are from, in the character of their faces and the way they carry their bodies through space and time.

Their image offers reminders of layered historical narratives about California field-workers who used to come from China, the Philippines or Mexico in the early part of the twentieth century, a time when the US began asserting its status as a rising global empire.

However, at the dawn of the 21st century, especially after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a large number of Californian rural workers came not from across the Pacific but from south of the border.

Escalante clarifies that Jesús and Fausto are from Mexico, as they join other day-labourers from the country at a street corner across from the large hardware store Home Depot. The labourers are hanging out, waiting for probable employers to hire them.

On that street corner, Escalante takes us into the tones, textures, and rhythms of day-labourer conversations and chit-chat, down-time in which they share experiences from previous jobs, especially those not easily classifiable as regular employment. One of the laborers even suggests that some interested parties who pick them up use labourers for sexual satisfaction.

Now, besides being viewed as “waiting stations” for employment, many street corners in southern California have become signature locations for labourers to assemble at, usually at busy intersections, or near strip-malls, where a large hardware store is a popular destination for residents, contractors or construction managers who might need hired hands.

On these corners, a sense of community develops rapidly before the labourers deploy themselves into the unknowns of a culture they may not be familiar with and are, therefore, exposed to abuse and injustice. The feeling of belonging they derive from that assembly renews their energies and can be seen as a temporary home away from home.

There is a moment after Jesús, Fausto and their co-workers are paid, when Fausto notices their gringo employer wearing the same black Nike Cortez sneakers he is wearing. Escalante’s inclusion of this shoe in the script underlines his insider knowledge of Los Angeles street culture, and finds a way to give that prop some subtle relevance. A pop-culture icon, the Nike Cortez’s street-cred has strong affiliations with the gritty turfs of Los Angeles, where clothing determines gang affiliation and street survival. [4]

But apart from the shoe itself, the term “Cortez” has strong ties with LA, because of its large Mexican American and Chicano population. Use of the term Cortez evokes Hernán Cortés, the first European “conqueror” of Tenochtitlan, the raped Aztec city where Mexico City now stands. Through Nike Cortez, history becomes brand, a commodity with high pop-culture consumer value. The Nike Cortez unites the consumer tastes of Fausto and his employer, and somehow blurs not only the economic boundary that separates employer and employee, but also their cultural and racial differences. Here, commodity becomes negotiator and mediator of cultural difference.

But labour, too, is a commodity, although a commodity that, in the film, does not blur boundaries of difference between employer and employee but rather emphasises difference through economic inequality.

Jesús and Fausto will take almost any job offered to them because the process of getting that job (often) does not involve the hassle of paperwork. This undocumented employment saves employers money and time by not having to deal with government regulations that attempt to protect the prime instrument used in employment: the worker.

That is why California is a haven for many illegal immigrants seeking employment, because many companies in the state depend on the highly affordable commodity of undocumented labour. The US astronaut Jose Hernandez – who as a child used to harvest crops with his family in California – understood the value of undocumented labour when he expressed opinions on Mexican television about legalising the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, because “the American economy needs them.” [5]

But then commodities have a shelf life – after a while, they can be discarded. Here, Hernandez’s remarks become controversial, because legalising undocumented immigrant workers qualifies them for retirement compensation and benefits, which certainly honours their employment in California; naturally, legalisation is not appealing to many policymakers because of the cost.

In the film, an example of how labour as commodity can easily be discarded happens after Jesús and Fausto’s employer pays them: even though he promises to drive his workers back to the street corner where he had picked them up, he tries to break his promise and tells them to take the bus. The workers are mad and cannot control themselves from hurling “Damn Gringo!” phrases in the air after their employer is forced to comply with his promise and drops them back. This reaction indicates that these labourers or bodies of labor are commodities that breathe: human beings. The workers are insulted that their employer just wants to discard them after working for him.

Jesús and Fausto internalise this insult; Escalante uses this to elevate their sense of being excluded, marginalised, and alienated in southern California, emotions that help propel the plot.

Ciudadanos de la frontera

After work, Jesús and Fausto take their usual route to a public park, into the bushes and trees of a section where they can spend the night. Their peaceful walk goes through inviting landscaping, but the bucolic surroundings are shattered when Jesús and Fausto pass a group of young people having fun by a park bench. One of them throws an uncooked burger that hits Fausto’s back. He attempts to retaliate, but Jesús holds his friend back and insists they continue walking. Fausto is enraged, insulted, disrespected. That is why, while both are trying to rest, Escalante uses Fausto to reveal the contents of the bag Jesús cannot seem to put down. Fausto takes out a shotgun then aims at something ahead, as though practising and imagining he is blowing away the head of the guy who had harassed him earlier.

Does Fausto see death in that aim? The inevitabilities in his future? His freedom?

While Fausto is playing with the gun, Jesús flips through the pages of glossy Lowrider magazine, a car periodical devoted to lowriders, classic North American cars or trucks with modified suspension systems. Mexican-American car enthusiasts in Los Angeles originated the concept and street-cool sensibilities implied in the car’s lowered body.

But Jesús is not as interested in the 1958 Impala on the page he is looking at but rather a picture of a beautiful, long-legged model wearing a two-piece bathing suit standing beside it. He looks horny, but Escalante is not interested in letting us see Jesús masturbate on the picture. At this point in the movie, Escalante is already aware about trivial questions viewers might be asking: what about dinner, and a bathroom to wash up?

The director will eventually deal with these concerns. But for now, we are given a picture of day-labourers who appear to have nothing in their minds, not even plans for the future or maybe for a night of drinking at a bar.

We would like to assume Jesús and Fausto are not stereotypical labourers who, in this movie, take refuge in the trees and bushes of a public park after work. But Escalante, through convincing documentary texture and style in this film, appears to assume or even convince us that day-labourers, in general, are like Jesús and Fausto. Yes, the pair have used creative energies to survive their long, hard journey from Mexico to Los Angeles; and that journey can, no doubt, be viewed as a journey with layered dimensions, physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

Thus, their arrival in LA is already a form of achievement. But being in Los Angeles is not enough; they must journey into the city, into the dense and restrictive mentality of being in its culture, through assimilation.

Here, Jesús’ and Fausto’s road into southern Californian culture is language: fluency in English, the ability to understand and use it the way they are fluent in Spanish in Mexico.

While both can understand some English, the film does not allow them to express themselves through that language. Its quiet texture can be viewed as an approximation of the silence of English in the imagination of Jesús and Fausto. Unable to speak English, they lack valuable access to steady and better jobs that can offer them some financial stability, including money to send to relatives in Mexico. However, the silence is not an exclusive silence of English – it is also an approximate silence of Spanish as a public language which they do not use, in the context of the film, to improve their lives.

In Los Angeles, Spanish competes with English as an official language used in business and cultural transactions; Jesús and Fausto’s undocumented status hinders them from being involved in programmes and services that cater to the city’s Spanish-speaking population.

These two forms of silences collide in their lives and give them a sense of identity anchored in the cultural borders of Mexico and North America. This identity is channelled into their body language, one that has not yet assimilated into the cultural landscape of southern California.

Escalante highlights their unassimilated immigrant bodies when Fausto is harassed. As Jesús and Fausto walk away from their tormentors, someone in the group shouts: “You’re on the wrong side of the border mother-fuckers.” The harasser appears to say, on behalf of the US, that Jesús and Fausto belong somewhere else, despite the fact that the group is ethnically mixed.

These overlapping silences of English and Spanish produce a space of alienation in the imagination of Jesús and Fausto, a vacuum which Escalante bursts when the workers invade a household that roughly represents middle-class North America.

Conquistadores

Escalante’s dominant and convenient image of middle-class North America is the inability of mother and son to have a decent dinner conversation. The son does not stay longer than five minutes to eat with his mother then leaves. Escalante appears to offer us an image of a Californian single-parent family. Caught by feelings of loneliness, the mother, Karen, smokes her own pot pipe, stashed in one of her kitchen cabinets. She is already high when she sees the intruders and their gun.

Jesús’ and Fausto’s invasion of Karen’s house is creepy because of the casual way the intruders make themselves at home. The casualness of their physical presence makes them look harmless and friendly, even though they are burglars and have a loaded weapon. They watch television with her as though they have always been part of her life.

When Jesús performs cunnilingus on Karen, Escalante mutes any hint of violence and rape in the act, which is why Karen does not feel like she has to push Jesús away. In fact, the sex act can also be interpreted as something that saves her from boredom and loneliness that night because, to use a popular phrase: Jesus saves.

Furthermore, Jesús and Fausto’s casual physical movements in the house underlines the totality of their power there, not nervous but self-assured power, as though it knows what it wants to do with that house because it owns it. Their instant ownership of and power over this space are acts of injecting their bodies specifically into a North American household – a place where its Californian native (Karen) was born and raised.

Jesús and Fausto’s invasion of that home, therefore, is what can be called forced physical presence as cultural assimilation and imposition, the way acts of colonialism are achieved in which foreign bodies and power, trying to dominate a place, use strength of physical presence to absorb the culture of it while simultaneously imposing a new culture upon it.

After being told by gringos in the park that they are not welcome in the United States, Jesus and Fausto welcome themselves to the United States in Karen’s household. By doing things with her in her home, they officially and instantly become assimilated North Americans.

After Fausto accidentally fires the shotgun and blows Karen’s head off, the pair do not try to escape quickly from the crime scene. Instead, we see them wash themselves in the bathroom and even look reluctant to leave the house. Indeed, the film can also be assessed as a story about two really stupid criminals, truly bastards, and its quiet texture is that of the bastard imagination of Jesús and Fausto: dreamy, cold, and brutal, where moral concerns have become anaemic, or dead.

But the film does present some irony when it comes to women: the mutilated female subject is used to heighten the movie’s value as cultural product, as a portrait of southern Californian nihilism and anomie. On the other hand, Escalante also uses women as sacred beings, messengers of the divine. Here, divinity is not associated with female bodies and sexuality, but rather with religious figures. Before Jesús and Fausto find work, Jesús phones his Aunt Lidia in Mexico, because he has not talked to her for three months. After their conversation, Jesús says: “Aren’t you going to give me God’s blessing?”

His moral conscience seems intact and healthy in that request; however, Escalante’s calculated erosion of that conscience is final.

Interviewed in Dailymotion, Amat Escalante mentions the image of day-labourers in southern California as victims – a powerless group that is exploited and pushed around. [6] Escalante wants to empower that image and attempts to assign a menacing identity to undocumented migrant workers, turning them into victimisers, agents of death and destruction. However, the kind of power he gives his undocumented workers is meant to be limited; their brutality easily makes them agents of criminal behaviour but, if tracked down by agents of law and order, future residents of a prison system.

But then the alienating cultural landscape of southern California already feels like a space of incarceration to them, and within those walls of alienation they are free to do whatever they want to divert themselves from being crushed. Their resistance to alienation empowers them and, for a while, makes them feel like they are in absolute control.

There is a more specific act of resistance still that is celebrated in the imagination of Jesús and Fausto on the night they invade Karen’s house. While walking towards it, Jesús reminds Fausto that it is the eve of El Grito de Independencia, Mexico’s Independence Day [7].

Consciously or accidentally, Escalante’s script strategically makes this celebration coincide with the night the undocumented workers are on their way to Karen’s house, to somehow align Jesús and Fausto’s restless, intense bodies with the excited, intense bodies of Mexicans celebrating El Grito in Mexico that night.

By making the workers remember their homeland’s most important national celebration, Escalante reunites them with Mexico through the spectre of national affiliation, in their memory – reminding them who they are and where they are from.

Notes:
1 Los bastardos at IMDB
2 Cannes Film Festival link
3 Short article about director on Cannes Film Festival website
4 History of Nike Cortez
5 LA Times article on this
6 Dailymotion.com interview
7 About El Grito

Michael Caylo-Baradi read English at UC-Berkeley, and is currently employed at an information centre in Los Angeles

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