Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cannes '96, Expert Witness #2: John Alba Cutler

Some of the friends I've interviewed about films that showed in Cannes 1996, like yesterday's guest Hélène Zylberait, have a pretty broad exposure to festival-circuit auteurs and their long bodies of work. Others are eager and regular moviegoers, but I was especially motivated to approach them because of contexts they could bring to a particular title.  Among this second group is my good pal John Alba Cutler, an award-winning scholar and teacher of U.S. Latino/a literature and contemporary U.S. poetry who works with me in Northwestern's English Department.  John's book Ends of Assimilation is among the best academic studies I've read in several years, in part because you don't have to be a scholar, much less one who is previously versed in the traditions of U.S. Latino/a fiction or poetry, to follow and appreciate it.  In an extremely accessible, wide-ranging, and often politically pointed way, John unfolds a substantial archive of novels, poems, journals, and other writings by Latino/a authors and uses that material, in part, to pose a complex and timely challenge to the languages and values attached to "assimilation" in U.S. public culture.  Not only does he question the pressures, internal and external, that Latinos face to assimilate (or not to assimilate) into what is perceived as "mainstream" anglophone U.S. culture but he voices considerable skepticism about what "assimilation" even means, and showcases the many ways in which novelists and poets have productively complicated these ideas.  If you don't believe me about how artistically illuminating, politically nuanced, and generally amazing this book is, maybe you'll trust this absolutely glowing review from the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can also read more about John's work here, starting on p.22.

I knew that John's scholarly interests and teaching areas made John Sayles's Lone Star a favorite of his, but we'd never had a full, proper conversation about this enduring yet somewhat under-heralded American classic (also the subject of this recent and interesting essay on Fandor).  In what follows, John is typically thoughtful and provocative about Lone Star but also extremely helpful in sketching out a whole literary tradition of Latino/a, Chicano/a, and border-related narratives that Lone Star fans should explore.  This is especially valuable given the continued failures of U.S. publishers as well as U.S. university English departments to make Latino/a cultural production central and visible in their catalogs and courses.  Lastly, having taken in several wide-ranging movies in theaters with John over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I was also curious for his thoughts about a few other films that played the Croisette twenty years ago.

ND: I know you teach Lone Star sometimes, but in which classes, and with what curricular or intellectual goals?

JAC: I’ve taught Lone Star in several different classes, including classes on border literature, interracial dynamics in American culture, and a course on the long cultural history of Manifest Destiny. I generally want students to come away understanding that Mexican Americans have a long history within the United States (i.e., that we’re not just recent immigrants), that Mexican American communities are not monolithic, and that the history of the US-Mexico border demonstrates how inextricable Mexican and American culture are from one another.

Are there particular subplots that seem to resonate most for your students? Or any that tend to confound them? (Spoilers ahead here, including That One.)

Among the pleasures of teaching Lone Star are students’ reactions to the revelation that Sam and Pilar are half-siblings. Reactions generally range from nervous tittering to outright revulsion, but what the narrative so deftly points out is the thin line between animosity and desire subtending racial politics. Also, Elizabeth Peña is luminous, QDEP. I find that being shaken out of neutral helps students begin to interrogate difficult ideas, and Lone Star does nothing if not shake.

Are there ideas in Ends of Assimilation that you think Lone Star echoes in its own way—as a border story or an American story?

Yes! I point out repeatedly in my book the strange way that we (scholars and non-scholars alike) tend to erase gender and sexuality from conversations about assimilation, as if our experiences of culture and encounters between cultures weren’t thoroughly bound up with gender and sex. Lone Star is really smart about this. It invites us to reconsider what aspects of our cultural attachments are about race, what aspects are about being appropriately masculine or feminine, and what aspects are really about desire.

Reviews at the time repeatedly called Lone Star and its pleasures "novelistic," and its sole Oscar nomination was for its screenplay. As an expert in Latino/a literature, are there novels you would especially recommend to folks who enjoy Lone Star and appreciate its narratives and themes?

Too many. Américo Paredes’s novel George Washington Gómez and Rolando Hinojosa’s multivolume Klail City Death Trip are must-reads for people interested in the themes and in the specific, south Texas locale of Lone Star. Also Sandra Cisneros’s short story collection Woman Hollering Creek. People interested in the film’s provocative interracial dynamics—triangulating the relationships among whiteness, Mexicanness, and blackness—should look at Helena María Viramontes’s novel Their Dogs Came with Them and, in a slightly different vein, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. A few more: Arturo Islas’s The Rain God, Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex, and Denise Chávez’s Face of an Angel.

Two last questions: the Coen brothers' Fargo, Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves were the three huge hits and prizewinners of Cannes 1996.  Is any of these an especial favorite of yours?

I love Fargo. That scene where Grimsrud chases down the two passersby on the highway in the snow after he kills the state trooper? Up there with the most existentially haunting images I can think of in any film.

Lastly, I love asking people about movies I know they love, but also being surprised.  Scanning over the festival titles, do any others stand out as favorites or personal touchstones for any reason?

I don’t know about “personal touchstone,” but I love Altman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and even knowing objectively that Kansas City isn’t at the top their respective filmographies, I have a soft spot for it.

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