Reviews: "Black Snake Moan"; "Cinemachismo"

Michael Guillen February 27, 2007

“Black Snake Moan’s diamond-rough seduction

Vulgar, lascivious, masochistic: Craig Brewster’s “Black Snake Moan” is a rank blast of fire-and-brimstone which risks ridiculousness in the name of chasing down unpolished redemption. A moral play set to Memphis heat and boogie, Brewster casts his story with a manic parallel narrative, zipping between nymphomaniac Rae (Christina Ricci) and spurned bluesman Sam (Samuel L. Jackson). Each screams towards self-destruction: for Rae, opening her legs, and for Sam, breaking beer bottles and cracking chords on his guitar. Rae’s been left behind by her anxious, Iraq-bound boyfriend (a perfectly cast Justin Timberlake) and Sam’s lost his wife to his brother: which is to say, they got the blues. Brewster throws all politeness and psychology to the wind in aestheticizing these characters’ demons. If they seem like caricatures, the stuff of blues lyrics (a girl who’s got the “itch”; a man who’s been done wrong), then Brewster’s doing his job, for “Black Snake Moan” is no realistic southern drama but rather an inside-out exploration of a vernacular which is as American as it is fantastic.

Rae and Sam are coarse enough on their own to bring things to a boil, but it’s when their paths finally cross that Brewster is most bluntly courting outrage. After a particularly bruising evening of unintelligible sex and OxyContin, Rae’s left to rot on the side of the road — a panty-clad corpse, like a piece of overripe fruit — when Sam comes upon her. He attends to the wounds, but that’s not all folks: Sam’s got some redeeming to do, and if that means chaining Rae to his radiator to protect her from her own wickedness, then so be it. Laura Dern in “Inland Empire” doesn’t have anything on Rae as far as being a woman in trouble. Reverse-slavery’s a bitch, ain’t it? “Black Snake Moan” is certainly exploitative, but it’s almost never cheap and surprisingly uncynical. The love and marriage which resolve the plot feels earned and is accordingly exhilarating — like Preston Sturges before him, Brewster has wrestled something genuine and tender from America at its most down-low. A good portion of the credit is due to his leading lady; the film is frequently cruel to Rae, but Ricci fights back every step of the way with a diamond-rough performance that’s both seductive and terrifying.

“Black Snake Moan” opens at Bay Area theaters beginning Friday.

“Cinemachismo” book crosses gender and national borders

Sergio de la Mora, Assistant Professor in the Chicano/a Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, has published Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film (2006, University of Texas Press), a thoroughly captivating study, and essential reading for anyone interested in Mexican film, gender studies, and theories of queer spectatorship.

In a preface, intro, four erudite chapters, and an epilogue, de la Mora accomplishes some major work, offering in his first chapter a survey of major developments in the discussion of prostitution and transgressive sexualities that engages feminist insights on the role of women in nation-building. In the next chapter, he considers the multivalent masculine role models embodied by Pedro Infante in his buddy movies. Provocatively, de la Mora applies a queer reading of Infante’s films and appropriates Infante as a screen idol for an alternative queer film legacy. De la Mora explores in his third chapter how representations of heterosexual macho in popular Mexican films from the 1970s are riddled with ambiguity and anxiety elicited by the presence of gay men, imaged as flamboyant queens (namely Arturo Ripstein’s memorable portrait of La Manuela in “El luga sin limites”/“Hell Has No Limits”). Finally, de la Mora extends his analysis by moving the gendered national discourse into the contemporary period, examining the renewed attention awarded revolutionary melodramas and the global popularity of the new Mexican cinema.

Thorough, accessible and admirably specific to Mexican cinema, Cinemachismo is also relevant to many other national cinemas.