Reading Review: Farmworker’s Daughter (Growing Up Mexican in America) by Rose Castillo Guilbault

I don’t read very many memoirs. I think the last one that I read that made a strong impression on me was Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, by Dorothy Allison, required reading for my “Prose by Women Writers” class in undergrad, and I’m not even sure that counts as a memoir (I seem to recall a class discussion in which it was mentioned that the veracity of the work was in doubt). But my mother gave me an autographed copy of Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America in 2010, and it has waited patiently on my shelf since then for its turn in the spotlight. So let’s give credit where credit is due.

It’s fitting that Farmworker’s Daughter should have been a gift from a mother to a daughter, because the most constant thread weaving together the childhood and adolescent memories of Guilbault is her mother’s love and understanding. This love and understanding is rarely a focus for one of the book’s chapters, but it gets mentioned at several key points in the memoir as a sustaining force for Guilbault. In both Mexico and California, Guilbault portrays herself as calling out from the social margin, and without her mother, one gets the sense that Guilbault would not have had any place in the world at all. Life in this margin is painful for her time and again, as she is misunderstood, minimized, and feels pressure to conform to social norms she has no say in. And yet Farmworker’s Daughter is also a story of agency, particularly feminine agency.

Vocabulary

Many of the key lines of dialogue in Farmworker’s Daughter make use of Spanish – presumably Mexican Spanish, I do remember from my high school classes in the language that there is a difference. While I appreciated the choice to not translate terms into English in order to strive for authenticity of experience and culture, I did get frustrated a few times because I didn’t have a Spanish/English dictionary on hand, wasn’t near a computer terminal and don’t like making use of that type of application on our mobile phone. I ended up making use of context clues several times because my Spanish vocabulary from those high school classes is pidgin at this point. Imagine my forehead-smacking surprise when I got to the end of the book and found a glossary of every Spanish term that had been used! It would have been nice if the editors had either included a prominent note at the front of the book advertising the existence of the glossary, or gone more academic with the formatting and included some footnotes or endnotes like I did for my thesis. By the time I was aware of the glossary’s existence, it was pretty much useless for me. Next time I read a book that is similar in format to Farmworker’s Daughter, I will make sure to check for a glossary right at the get-go.

Descriptions

But sitting in her class the first day of school, I found it difficult to imagine the diminutive woman as the terror of San Lorenzo Elementary School. She must have been in her late fifties. Short and plump, she wore her gray-streaked hair in a coiled braid around her head, adorned with Spanish combs, her one pretension. Her wardrobe consisted of pleated skirts topped with long, colorful vests. The look was decidedly ethnic at a time when ethnic was not chic. (Guilbault 85)

Guilbault’s background in journalism is very evident in her writing style, particularly in her use of visual description, her balance of diegesis vs. memesis. She knows that the reader craves the “showing”, the vivid details that paint pictures in the imagination, but she also recognizes that there are many pieces of information relevant to her life story that will only come across in the “telling.” So she balances the two principles expertly, giving frequent visual descriptions of characters and scenes that bring her memories to life, but avoiding fiction’s trap of floridity and effusiveness – she never goes on for a full paragraph about a woman’s hat, for example (as I once heard a fantasy/sci-fi reader who had been burnt by the novelist Robert Jordan claim that author was wont to do). Guilbault chooses her details effectively and like any good journalist she loves words because of their power to convey information, not for their own sake. I enjoyed her style very much, but I don’t know if it would have worked well for me with a longer work (Farmworker’s Daughter clocks in at 189 pages, including the glossary). For books that go on for more than 200 pages, I prefer a more literary style that mixes the prosaic with the poetic.

Themes

The theme that comes up time and again in Farmworker’s Daughter is the question of conforming to norms and expectations. The norms of Guilbault’s extended Mexican family do not conform to the norms of her nuclear Mexican American family, and neither of those sets of norms mesh well with the norms adhered to by Guilbault’s Anglo schoolmates. Guilbault feels isolated, set apart and different from the people she cares about in every context. The stepfather that she adores as a child when her mother works at Aunt Rafaela’s restaurant and bar, Guilbault eventually loses respect for; the girls that she want to befriend inevitably disappoint her, let her down or flat-out disappear. While Guilbault’s love for her mother remains constant, it is a quiet background force in the book, which makes sense because Guilbault’s mother was far more isolated than Guilbault herself for most of the length of the book (Guilbault’s mother never learns English, or how to drive a vehicle, and spends most of her time several miles out of town at the family farmhouse, whereas Guilbault gets to attend school). It is clear from the “About the Author” page at the end of the book that Guilbault achieved many things in her life after the years she recounts in this book as her ‘growing up’ time. Another word that I have heard used for these years in a person’s life is “formative”. What would she have achieved, I wondered as a reader, if she had felt like she truly belonged somewhere during this time in her life? Guilbault never speculates about this.

Rose Castillo Guilbault: Not just another pretty face.
Rose Castillo Guilbault: Not just another pretty face.

I recommend Farmworker’s Daughter to anyone who enjoys memoirs, nonfiction feminist writing, or journalism that deals with diversity and immigration. I would not recommend it to people who do not enjoy realism in their readings, or who require heightened drama in order for a work to hold their attention. Guilbault’s story of social tensions in 20th century California demonstrates that a well-written account that documents real life can trump a poorly-written flight of fancy any day of the week. I especially enjoyed the chapter that contained her and her mother’s subtle support of the work of Cesar Chavez.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.

Film Review: Dead Presidents

We watched Dead Presidents as a somber commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (or as I’m starting to call it, “MLKJR”), to acknowledge how young black lives were ripped apart by the Vietnam War in the years following King’s assassination. A lot of people in this country seem a bit myopic in their understanding of King’s life, unaware of how he was waning in popularity late in his career as an activist because he spoke out vociferously against the Vietnam “police action” and in favor of structural changes to the US economy as the only realistic way to end poverty. When he was assassinated, King was radicalizing, out of frustration. If he had not been martyred, he would not have a legacy so akin to sainthood today. The story of Dead Presidents reminds the viewer of just how far from King’s legacy the US strayed, squandering his wisdom.

Dead Presidents is a movie with a heist in it, but it is not a heist movie. Interestingly enough, it is also a movie with a war in it, yet not really a war movie. At its heart, Dead Presidents is a character-driven drama much in the same vein as House of Sand and Fog, a story of how our lives are gripped by social forces and trends that are much bigger than us and of which most people only understand small facets. In the case of Anthony Curtis, the protagonist of Dead Presidents, the overriding forces that shape his life are racial prejudice (and the economic consequence of becoming a de facto second-class citizen) and gender roles. Curtis feels compelled to join the Marines, rather than attend college, primarily because his father has told him that time in the Marines during the Korean War made him a man. The accusation that turns Curtis against his love interest, Juanita, is that he is not living up to a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. This need to be a man traps Curtis against the hard wall of racism, and PTSD treated only through self-medication with alcohol ensures that Curtis remains caught in this crossfire, even when there are no literal bullets flying.

Soundtrack/Score

Initially, I really enjoyed the music accompanying Dead Presidents. The theme that drives the opening credits is compelling and tense, and I was sorry that it didn’t get much play again until the heist scenes (which don’t show up until the film is about 7/8ths done, giving Dead Presidents the slowest “build” of any film I’ve watched in years, certainly of all the films I have reviewed so far for this blog). Period music gets used very effectively to cement the story in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and to make clear the subculture to which these Bronx residents belong. Unfortunately, this good use of score and soundtrack did not remain consistent. Several of the music cues present in interactions between Curtis and Juanita made me wince, and the score for the Vietnam sequences was entirely forgettable.

Use of Color

No one wants to post pictures of the blood in this movie online.  Perhaps because the movie is cool and the blood is hokey.
No one wants to post pictures of the blood in this movie online. Perhaps because the movie is cool and the blood is hokey.

The simulated blood in Dead Presidents is all wrong. It’s way too bright of a red. The simulation was obvious and it reminded me of paint. It discordantly clashed with the predominant earth tones and natural greens. Mind you, other bright, artificial colors were present, but unlike the blood, I didn’t mind the lurid red, orange, or yellow clothing and decorations because it meshed well with other examples I have seen of period fashion and decor. The costuming and set pieces looked realistic; the flesh special effects did not (with the exception of a certain hideous “good luck charm”, which was appallingly well-done).

Themes

Dead Presidents‘ title misleads the audience. Its obvious slang reference to the art adorning US currency would lead the viewer deciding whether or not to view the film to believe that it is about the hustle, the need to make money by any means necessary. This drive does push Curtis to the depths of his desperation. But Curtis’ ill-fated heist takes up so little of the runtime, and enters into the plot so abruptly, that it almost feels like it was pasted in from a different movie. In fact, there’s no real build up to it with rising action or very much foreshadowing. One minute Curtis is attending his first rally for the “Nat Turner Cadre” (why not use the term Black Panthers? It has more cultural cache), giving the reader every reason to think his character is finally going to develop a political consciousness instead of continuing to internalize failure… and this really is what the film has been leading up to; the next minute, Curtis and his friends are seriously diagramming an assault on an armored truck that had barely been discussed previously. It’s as if the story’s dramatic arc forms not a curve of rising action up to a climax, but rather trails along a bumpy downward path before making a direct vertical leap up to an unexpected plateau. If I hadn’t been taking sober pleasure in the downward path’s depiction of Curtis’ economic truth, I might have almost felt that my artistic sensibilities had been insulted by the script writer’s assumption that I would need the promise of a heist to get into my theater seat.

Lots of people have gotten this movie's logo tattooed on a body part.  Google it.  It's a thing.
Lots of people have gotten this movie’s logo tattooed on a body part. Google it. It’s a thing.

This review probably comes across as an indictment, but the truth is that I really liked Dead Presidents. I liked it much more upon this viewing than I did after watching it previously, approximately ten years ago. I had forgotten many, many details in that time, and misremembered others (for example, somehow in my mind the armored truck target became a much more conventional bank robbery). But I liked it despite the realization that its quality is best described as uneven. Its pace can get gruelingly slow at times, and its characters are painted in rather broad strokes. But it does a good job of bringing the struggle of Anthony Curtis and the rest of his Bronx to life, and makes it easy for even a white Midwestern woman to understand how a black East Coast man can feel like a victim of circumstance. This is a good film for anyone who cares about social justice.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.

Television Series Review: Azumanga Daioh

Lu, la lu, la –

Azumanga Daioh serves very well as an introduction to anime for those who are unfamiliar with the genre.

My husband really enjoys anime, and much of our courtship revolved around him sharing some of his treasures with me; the first series that he showed me, Darker Than Black, I had a hard time following and did not really get. 3 years and several anime series later, I think I would fare much better if I watched it again. I am more familiar with the pacing strategies, the narrative techniques, and, for lack of a better word, the conventions. But Azumanga Daioh, the second series we watched together, I was able to pick up without a problem.

Call it “Anime Lite”, perhaps?

Lu, la lu, la –

A couple of weeks ago I had a desire to watch it again. (I had actually been hoping to watch a couple of episodes on New Years Eve, but my guests weren’t really the anime type, so Super Troopers it was!) I can’t really put my finger on where that desire came from – there’s nothing going on in my life right now that particularly connects to the stories of six fun-loving Japanese school girls, and rewatching the show didn’t trigger any cathartic revelations in me. But, to quote Giles Goat-Boy, “Not every day can be Graduation Day.” Sometimes you don’t want to put on black velvet and eye liner and eat roast dragon for supper; sometimes you want to wear blue jeans and serve up microwaved leftovers. For times like that, there’s Azumanga Daoih, and its silliness won’t serve you wrong.

Lu, la lu, la –

The theme song starts with catchy nonsense syllables and doesn’t even try to pass them off as legit lyrics (to Strong Bad’s delight, I’m sure – wow that reference just dated me). The lines that follow, while they are actual Japanese words, don’t really make much more sense than “lu la lu la” and they go something like:

piano wa sekai no yumesaku nohara ni melody
Kowareta tokei wo shinjite jikan wa dare no mikata?

Translated to English:

“The piano is a melody in the world’s field of blooming dreams
Believe in the broken clock and who’s side will time be on?”

If the melody weren’t so cheerful, the bad-poetry quality of these lyrics might lead you to think that you were about to watch something very melodramatic, perhaps emo – after all, when the manga of the same name that Azumanga Daioh draws from was published, 1999-2002, there were still some people willing to identify as emo out there, I’m pretty sure. But no. This theme song doesn’t lead you to think anywhere. Which is a good thing, because the point of Azumanga Daoih isn’t to think. Smile, bob your head, pretend you know Japanese well enough to sing along, and feel good. Now you’re getting the point…

So here are some things you might want to know about Azumanga Daioh if you’re trying to figure out whether or not to watch it:

    • Characters
From left to right, back row: Yomi, Tomo, Kagura, Osaka, Sakaki.  Chiyo is down front.
From left to right, back row: Yomi, Tomo, Kagura, “Osaka”, Sakaki. Chiyo’s down front.

Azumanga Daioh

      somehow manages to function both as a story with an ensemble cast of six very likable Japanese high school girls, and also very much as the story of one of these girls in particular: Chiyo Mihama, “Chiyo-chan”, who gets the green light to go to high school at the age of ten because she is a prodigy. I noticed this balance between ensemble and star the first time I watched the show, and even after the second time through I’m still not quite sure how the writers pulled it off. It’s rare.

Just so you understand the elements in play, I’ll give you a rundown of the ensemble: Chiyo, the Prodigy, is always optimistic and cheerful but understandably prone to anxiety, and she thrives off the well-deserved approval of her pseudo-peers. Tomo is the Wildcat: ten pounds of energy in a five-pound sack, and unfortunately that energy is not paired with any other talent. Kagura is the Athlete. She’s competitive. I don’t have much to say about her other than that it’s a shame she doesn’t like cats much, because if she did she might have more to talk about with her chosen rival, Sakaki, the Shy Cool Animal Lover (Sakaki, incidentally, while a runner-up to Chiyo in terms of screen time, is my favorite character in the show). “Osaka” (a transfer student from Osaka whose real name is forgettable) is the Space Cadet. And rounding out the leads of the show is Yomi, the Pragmatist, who keeps Tomo as (tenuously) grounded as she can be.

Azumanga Daioh also has some secondary characters that are worth noting. Foremost among these is Kaorin, a Lesbian who appears to lack self awareness, or at least a political consciousness. She has a huge crush on Sakaki but remains isolated throughout the series. The other secondary characters are three of the school’s teachers: Yukari, the Grown Up Wildcat… Nyamo, the Grown Up Pragmatist… and Kimurin, the Creepy Inappropriate Adult, the man who wants to save the school’s pool water after the girls swim in it.

Azumanga Daioh is very much a sitcom in that once the characters are set up, they go through their paces extremely predictably. The same points of tension surface again and again: Yukari spends money and drives impulsively. Everyone assumes Sakaki is aloof when internally she’s pining for someone to reach out to her. Tomo teases Yomi about her weight, playing on her insecurity, and Yomi tells Tomo to live in the real world. In this respect, the first episode is the last episode. And yet… just as there is a balance between ensemble and protagonist, there are elements of change to balance the characters’ stasis. Most dramatic of these elements is Sakaki’s triumphant reward of Mayaa, the iriomote cat who loves her. The return of Mayaa is of course my favorite episode; it reminds me of a certain tiger-striped cat I once knew.

    • Plot
Who needs plot in a chibi world?
Who needs plot in a chibi world?
      OK, maybe I didn’t make this clear enough the first time, I’ll restate it here:

The point of Azumanga Daioh is not to think.

      There’s no complicated story here. There are some moments when the silliness reaches a fever pitch and takes some unexpected turns, like when a sleepy “Osaka” thinks a butcher knife is a frying pan and accidentally scares Yukari into a gibbering mess, but I don’t think that really counts as a plot twist. (I guess Mayaa showing up on the mainland might count as a plot twist, but the fact that such a feat is ridiculous on its face prevents me from giving the writers much credit for that one.) The plot is that these girls are confronted with the events of three cycles of the Japanese school year, and they get to react in idiosyncratic ways without taking anything very seriously. No brain teasing and no enigmas, other than the question of what Chiyo-chan’s father

really

      looks like. The lack of plot opens up space in the narrative that gets filled with a lot of repeated moments and dialogue; for example, when Tomo hits Yomi over the head during a dream sequence and asks her a question that translates to

“Why the heck?”

      , she doesn’t ask that question just once; she fills at least a minute with repetitions of the question. This was probably the most egregious moment of repetition in the series, but it was far from the only one, and this is probably

Azumanga Daioh

      ‘s biggest weak point for me. Repetition can be a crucial element of comedic timing, I get that, but I think this series overdoes it a little.

    • Themes
Yomi is not the only one insecure about her body.
Yomi is not the only one insecure about her body.
      I found it very interesting that all of these girls managed to make it through high school not only without having boyfriends, but, as far as I could tell, without even referring to a male classmate by name. It’s as if they all have an unspoken agreement that none of them is ready for romance so therefore none of them are going to risk making any of the other ones uncomfortable by even thinking about the possibility of it. In fact, while the girls are happy to talk about their own and each others’ chests ad nauseam, the question of male sexuality is present only as a looming shadow in the figure of Kimurin, the mouth-breather who somehow manages to keep his job for three years when his overt ogling of the teens makes everyone uncomfortable, including his teaching peers. Boys, as peers, are present mostly as stick figures and outlines in the world of these girls. This is very different from what I remember of high school, and is also different from other portrayals of Japanese high school that I have been exposed to in the past 3 years (such as the

Persona

    video games). I end up wondering how much of this gender segregation is a cultural feature of Japan, versus to what degree it is an unconscious peccadillo of the series’ creators, versus to what degree it is an intentional artistic choice on the part of the artists, meant to reflect something unusual about the characters.

Azumanga Daioh would be pretty much my top recommendation to anyone who expressed an interest in Anime Lite to me. For serious aficionados of the medium, one or two episodes will probably suffice, before you get the hankering for something more gritty and turn to Speed Grapher instead. But Speed Grapher is not everyone’s speed. This comedy is gentle, mostly harmless, and if you like bizarre antics, it’ll make you laugh. Enjoy.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.

Film Review: The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies

There came a turning point in my life, as someone who appreciates and engages in artistic endeavors, at which I decided to consciously change my attitude toward filmed adaptations of fiction writing.

It had become an easy trap for me to assume that the book that had been published first was nigh-automatically a better work of art than the film that followed. I had already figured out that it was the process of adaptation that bothered me artistically, not an inherent preference for written narrative, because when I read written adaptations that followed original films, my preference was nigh-automatically for the film as well. There was an elitist part of me that assumed that art suffers in adaptation, that it becomes less creative. Derivative. Nigh-automatically worse.

I consciously turned away from this attitude, but I was only able to do so by telling myself that written narrative and filmed narrative, because they are produced in different media, need to be judged on their own artistic merits, and even when the narrative that is being expressed is meant to be the same, they will always be different experiences and should not be compared. If I want the experience of reading the book, I have said many times since making the choice to change my attitude, I can always read the book. In other words, the only way I could prevent myself from judging an adapted work pejoratively was to quit comparing it with the original.

This worked quite well for me when I watched Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was able to view those artistic creations with wonder and awe, even though I knew the storyline quite well. The reassignment of Glorfindel’s role to Arwen Evenstar, who is given barely a mention in Tolkien’s books, gave me a slight twinge, but as a feminist I didn’t mind that particular piece of revision.

It did not work so well for me when I watched Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit. I watched all three of those films in the theater because I knew they would suffer on the small screen, and in all three cases, I felt I had wasted my money.

You must understand, while I read the Lord of the Rings books as a young girl, The Hobbit, more than any other book and certainly more than anything I learned in a classroom, taught me the magic of the written word. I read The Hobbit when I was young enough that eating paper still seemed like a good idea, and if you track down my father’s acid-yellowed copy of it you will see evidence of that in the missing corners of several pages. I was five years old. It took me nine months to finish it, but I loved that book like nothing before or since. It wasn’t long after I finished The Hobbit that I gave up my career aspirations of being an “Indian princess” or paleontologist and settled into the decision to write until they pried the pencil from my cold, dead fingers. I’ve never regretted that decision, even though it has come at the price of far more lucrative and reliable possibilities, and I am sure that The Hobbit and its sheer magic played no small part in it.

So despite my conscious aspirations to avoid judging Jackson’s efforts pejoratively out of hand, in my case the deck was stacked from the start, and throughout all three films, choice after artistic choice on Jackson’s part disappointed me consistently. It turns out that when it came to the story of lovable Bilbo, cryptic Gandalf, goblins, elves, Mirkwood spiders and the dragon with a weak spot more memorable than Achilles’ heel, I did want the experience of the book. I didn’t want Jackson to interject his vision, creating links to the Lord of the Rings trilogy that SIMPLY WERE NOT THERE IN TOLKIEN’S BOOK!!!, giving the orcs a leader with a name that might as well have been Captain Hook, and the dwarves and elves a pair of star-crossed lovers that might as well have been Romeo and Juliet. For me, these elements took The Hobbit films out of the realm of adaptation, and into the realm of puerile fan fiction. And even though I desperately wanted to give Jackson more credit because he had demonstrated what he was capable of, lamentable fan fiction is where they stayed.

I thought that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies might have some additional emotional juice in it, for me at least, because (as I have already noted in a previous entry) I like a good war movie, and (as Seven Samurai demonstrates), modern technology is not required to make a good war movie. But it turned out The Battle of the Five Armies didn’t have the requisite moral complexity to be a good war movie. It had only the moral complexity of an old school Dungeons & Dragons game. You know, the sort of world in which nobody thinks twice about skinning another sentient being and wearing the skin as armor as long as the sentient being is from a different species (and players don’t even bother to call them species, they call them “races”… which I guess makes sense because a human can breed with an elf to make a half-elf… do I really want to go down this ethical rabbit-hole any further?). Many, many fantasy books and films and games have swallowed this proposition hook, line and sinker, and I guess to some extent we have Tolkien to thank for that, as he propagated so many of the genre’s conventions. Personally, I’m repelled by it.

At this point in this review-turned-essay I would really like to say something good about The Battle of the Five Armies to provide some sort of counterpoint. Um, the visuals were rich and lovely? Lots of pretty colors and epic panoramas? Nice cinematography? Just like in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson did a good job of making the film look like how Tolkien’s writing feels? That’s about all I’ve got in the plus column. My bitter disappointment with the trite illogic of what was done to the narrative unfortunately swamps this testimony. Exhibit A: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE EARTH-EATERS? They made the strongest visual entrance of any element of the story and then fifteen seconds later they disappeared from the battlefield. They couldn’t have gone back in their holes because the orcs all came pouring out from those holes, if the Earth-Eaters had retreated they would have crushed the orcs. They certainly didn’t make any additional holes by plunging back in the earth as no such holes are visible in later shots. WHERE DID THE EARTH-EATERS GO? The answer, of course, is back into Peter Jackson’s magical bag of tricks, next to the stereotypical rabbit nestled in the stereotypical black hat. Jackson couldn’t keep them on the battlefield because THEY WERE NEVER IN TOLKIEN and while his awry artistic sensibilities as an auteur demanded that he create them, his slavering fanboy sensibilities prevented him from authentically dealing with the impact they would have had on Tolkien’s narrative had they actually been present. It made me want to puke.

So go see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies if you’ve never read a word of Tolkien. If you’re a fan with even an ounce of taste, stay home and watch the 1977 Rankin Bass cartoon instead.

It may be hokey but at least this version is only 77 minutes long.
It may be hokey but at least this version is only 77 minutes long.

Consider getting wasted as you mourn Peter Jackson putting a dagger in the heart of your childhood. Turns out there’s no such thing as magic anymore.

Overall Rating: 1.5 out 5.0.

Film Review: Super Troopers

To celebrate New Year’s Eve 2015, I had a small gathering at our place, and we decided to watch a movie. Low on cash and with no Netflix setup in the room that could most comfortably hold everyone, we popped in an old standby: Super Troopers, the breakthrough release from the Broken Lizard comedy troupe. Everyone present had seen it before, so there was plenty of chatter, and it was almost more interesting for me to see what moments provoked reactions from my guests (one of whom had worked as a campus police officer for years) than to pay direct attention to those moments.

But really, Super Troopers has aged remarkably well. The only set of references that really felt dated this time through was the Johnny Chimp-o “Afghanistanimation” content. You can really tell that the script was cooked up pre-9/11 (release date in February 2002) because for most US moviegoers the question of the Great Satan of Western culture and remaining true to the Taliban warlords has not been a laughing matter since then. Very little hinges on use of technology in this movie, so the changes in information technology over the past 14 years don’t really have much impact. A gun is still a gun, a cop is still a cop, and people still like to speed on interstate highways, so the set-up still works.

Let’s explore some features of Super Troopers that ensure Broken Lizard “shows you the funny!”

Casting

Brian Cox shines as always.
Brian Cox shines as always.

Everyone in Super Troopers plays their role to the hilt and role assignment was done extremely well. I’ve watched another Broken Lizard creation (2004’s Club Dread) and it fell flat for me because on the basis of Super Troopers I had neatly typecast the troupe’s members – Jay Chandrasekhar as the mischievous but earnest hero, Erik Stolhanske as the twice-as-earnest virgin, Kevin Heffernan as the clueless boneheaded loser with the short fuse, etc. When they switched up character types in Club Dread, which was completely their prerogative and possibly their artistic duty as a troupe, I felt disappointed and more than a little cheated. I didn’t want something different; I wanted Super Troopers 2. And since I don’t really go in for sequels very often, that’s a testament to the fact that the comedic alchemy of characters in Super Troopers successfully transmutes the psychic lead of interacting with a police officer on the job into comedy gold.

Also, it is simply not possible to evaluate Super Troopers without putting in a plug for Brian Cox, whose work has really impressed me in four other films I have seen from him: L.I.E., 25th Hour, Adaptation and Match Point. All films that I loved, definitely enhanced by the talent he brings to his parts. The dude knows how to act, and if you check out his curriculum vitae, it’s quite obvious he received a lot of work in the years that have passed since Super Troopers came out. I look forward to seeing his professional touch get added to the announced release of an actual Super Troopers 2.

Originality/Vision

According to directors commentary, thats real syrup.
According to director’s commentary, that’s real syrup.

I don’t have much finesse for comedy. I don’t spend a lot of time on trying to be funny. Keep that in mind when I say that, even though I have viewed Super Troopers several times, I am still blown away by the fact that Broken Lizard came up with so much material related to highway patrolling. I mean, I know cops have been the butt of filmed comedy before (Police Academy, anyone?) so it’s not an impossible leap or off-limits subject, but I would never have attempted a project like this one. The gut reaction of most people to police presence is either straight-up fear, or an additional layer of anger that veils that fear. But Captain O’Hagan’s highway patrolmen end up more lovable than anything else. Their “shenanigans” really do come across as “cheeky and fun”. I don’t think that’s easy to script or play out.

So what marks Super Troopers as a film? What does it get across that couldn’t come out in another form of narrative?

Mise en scène

If you were reading Super Troopers the short story, would you picture this stoners expression half as effectively as the image conveys?
If you were reading Super Troopers the short story, would you picture this stoner’s expression half as effectively as the image conveys?

At first blush, the mise-en-scène of Super Troopers is really nothing to write home about. It’s entirely mimetic, with no visual trickery used in any attempt to convey diegetic truths. But I’m glad Super Troopers was created as a movie rather than short story or novella (there’s not enough plot here to sustain something novel length). All of the actors know what they’re doing, and they convey their emotions expressively and naturally. I doubt that my imagination would successfully add the detail of, say, Farva’s furiously furrowed brows and snarling teeth when he wants Thorny to say “Car Ramrod” over the police radio if this were a short story; would the hypothetical author have thought to mention that detail to bring it to my attention? I’m dubious. I guess what I’m saying is that Super Troopers really drives home the artistic principle that a picture is worth a thousand words (Harlan Ellison’s dispute of this principle, as discussed in Angry Candy, being thoroughly noted).

I guess I really only have one serious criticism I want to lodge against Super Troopers: last night was not the first time I wanted to share it at a social gathering, only to receive the complaint of, “I’ve already seen it.” I’m not really sure why I have less of a problem with watching this one again… and again… without getting impatient with it than it would appear my friends do. They see it once, they move on (this is my oblique way of saying you might do the same). I can watch the college stoners, dirty Germans, and Lynda Carter go through these antics a hundred times and still get my laughs in. I’m glad to have this one on my shelf.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.