Friday, September 9, 2011

The Unusual Influence of American Me

Ever had a friend say that they went to a movie and it was a disaster? Well, many years ago, a brother of mine told me what happened when he saw American Me, an LA gang movie directed by Edward James Olmos. His thoughts about the movie and the evening had a huge impact on me, though I've never seen it. Have you been influenced by a close friend's opinion like that?

Today, I'm writing about a rarely-discussed aspect of movies: the reliable review from a friend that scares you away. If you've been in the same position, grab your socks and hold on; I may just blow them right off your feet.

American Me is about Mexican gangs in California, from the 40s/50s and on. The movie describes how a young kid starts a gang, then find that gang life dominates his life. How? Well, he gets busted for BS, then murders the guy who rapes him on his first night in juvie. This act of revenge earns him a prison sentence, so he goes into the system at 16 and leaves at 34. In that time, he starts a powerful and successful new gang, yet lived only an awful, cruel mockery of a real life.

I try not to tell other people's stories because they tend to leave out details. And/or not be very good or fair to the people who actually experienced them. Just like The Cinderella Man featured a boxer who brags about killing a recent opponent; in real life, the son of that boxer sued the producers, because his pop was shamed by the death and could barely box again. So.. yeah, there's that to consider.

So someone that's not me went to the film with his close friend, his then-gf, and his friend's date. I remember most clearly two parts of my brother's commentary: there were many rape scenes in the pic, and that the women in the audience wept often, some leaving the theater in tears. Now, sadly, this part of the pic I can relate to, as Boys Don't Cry famously did the same to someone I was in love with at the time.

The other big part that stuck with me was the bare-bones plot description: a 16 y/o gets involved in gang life, then sent to jail under "you might've been busted for this legitimately, but you went to hell for this technicality." Also, that there's so much rape, it goes beyond being messed up or cruel, it goes straight into the realm of Greek/Shakespearean Tragedy.

Why? The lead character, Montoya Santana, goes into prison as a dumb kid, then gets raped on his first night; this is the first of several in a picture that first shows what life is like in prison, then shows what life is like after you get out of prison. Did this really make a big impression? After all, there's Oz and The Wire (barely seen either), and there's The Shawshank Redemption for catching the latter, right?

Yes it did have an effect on me, and no, those shows don't deal with the concept that stuck with me most. See, the real sticking point here was that when Montoya finally got out of prison - at 34! - he met a girl and romanced her and got to bed with her. Then, he basically rapes her because the only knowledge that he had of sex was of one person being victimized by another.

I don't have to care about 2001 or A Clockwork Orange or even American Beauty. The idea that some standard kid in the 20th Century US would have no concept of two people enjoying each other's bodies or making love to each other - or even of just getting pleasure from one another - is pretty much a "hell on earth" scenario. How the hell could the cards turn so badly for someone that their only idea of sex is that one person brutalizes the other, even though the other has encouraged and consented to sex itself?

It basically states that (a) some people are totally screwed over by circumstance and bad luck to the point where they become an emotional Typhoid Mary. Also, (b) that person 1 would force sex onto person 2, who was totally willing, because person 1 didn't even know that sex could be about not hurting the hell out of the other person.

American Me has been on-air at times when I had nothing better to do. I've had opportunities to watch it, but have abstained because, since my experiences with Breaking the Waves and BDC, I make sure not to see really depressing films by myself. And who can I possibly ask to watch AM with me?

It's also not surprising, as the experience apparently ruined the friend's date's night on a level that couldn't be improved or repaired. It was apparently so bad that you basically never plan to call, much less see, the other person again. What a catastrophe (for unprepared viewers)!

And, since I've mentioned it, what a catastrophe for people in the real world. Someone might be a person who filmed a movie in the theater, then found themselves horribly assaulted in prison. Or maybe they went to a jail for something they didn't do. Or maybe the first 3 boyfriends that someone had were evil, vile scumbags, and so a good-enough person has no other idea of "romance" than "hurt, use, and abuse."

It may sound ridiculous or over-sensitive or (god forbid) "bleeding heart," but it's the sort of thing that I think should make a smart person question their whole worldview. After all, if your mom punched you to sleep between the ages of 9 and 15, wouldn't you grow up thinking that intimate violence was normal? Wouldn't you grow up thinking that treating people like trash was the same as you might do to a mugger?

I won't pretend like I know, but damn, I'd act like a killer in that room.
The shocking part of all this grotesque experience is that Olmos (to his great credit) was working from a solid message and social purpose: defining, describing, and building on the sort of life that leads underprivileged people into a life of inescapable, damaged, professional crime. If you ever thought that Carlito's Way made a great statement about the whole "they keep pulling me back IN" thing, try watching this.

The two pictures deal with similar themes, but EJO makes a statement about society and crime and how things can go wrong for potentially-decent people. Carlito's Way, on the other hand, is a gritty, if glamorized, version of the same idea. But it doesn't really care to make a statement about the real world; it just tells a narrative about a charming and cool character.

The worst prison is your mind.
At least AM doesn't have Pacino's awful, awful attempt at a Latino accent. God, you'd think he'd've gotten better at it since Scarface. When people ask why I don't like Carlito's so much, I just say that I hate the protagonist running into trouble because of something sort of random; also, I always remind them that Al Pacino actually says, "A-di-OZ, Preemo." It's not the way that anyone but an Anglo would pronounce those Spanish words.

Yes, just from reading the wiki plot description, it's clear that AM does a great job of portraying what leads someone into a life of crime from which they cannot escape, psychologically or physically. The whole concept (and its execution) is horrifying and depressing, not glamorous, as countless idiots and rappers have taken Scarface to be. Olmos' intent is obviously philosophical, and I hope it made some possible-felons consider the consequences of their possible future crimes. EJO deserves a lot of credit for making such a socially-important venture, and not being afraid to make it realistically ugly..

I doubt I will have enough stomach or enough reason for celebration to watch this respectable-sounding effort. My brother's comments on it really drove me away, even if it is supposed to be a good and thoughtful picture.

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