Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Dark Wind (Starring Lou Diamond Phillips)

The field of cultural consumption is normally one of autonomy. You watch a film, there’s a film, there it is, unravelling before your eyes, stealing sight and blinding at one moment, the same moment, holding the gaze till a time when the light yields to black, the DVD comes slowly to a halt or the projector wheezes to a standstill. The film, watched and finished, becomes a memory, a fragment in the head, left to be pondered and dissected and filed for later reference; but in the real it is no more. The flickering images are past, slipped from time’s present, now mere background glimmer in the distance, hard to see, impossible to make out, drowned out in a wash of new films, new shows, new albums, new this, new that, left hermetic and standing alone.

On occasion this autonomy is ripped apart. A trace bridges the gap between one object and another, creating linkage where none would have seemed evident. Usually this trace accompanies certain figures, those radiant masters of the audiovisual arts, icons such as Jeff Fahey or Henry Bowers from IT: they take from one film and transplant to another – they are the surgeons of cinema.

I found an unexpected instance of this earlier today. Having spent a relaxing afternoon watching The Dark Wind, a film where Lou Diamond Phillips is a Navajo cop investigating dirty drug-homicide happenings on a Native American reservation, I thought I would unwind even more by following that up with a dose of Colbert. So on I threw last Thursday’s Colbert Report, ready for the laughs to tumble out the mouth. Was it not the case that Colbert dedicated an entire segment to the news that Native Americans are being pandered to by the presidential candidates? And did he not go so far as to actually interview a Native American activist on the issue?

Scream coincidence you might, I accept that, for coincidence is a wonderful thing, infinitely more magical than the workings of Fate or God – its arbitrariness makes it a sublime art. Yet this is not coincidence: this is the trace of Lou Diamond Phillips free from The Dark Wind and overflowing into the arena of The Colbert Report. The latter acts as an afterimage of what Lou Diamond Goodness packed the former, the slimy residue secreted by his screen presence and ability to squint at the camera. It would not have surprised me had I seen a flying Lou Diamond Phillips replace the eagle in Colbert’s opening sequence.

But it was not quite that explicit. Lou Diamond moves in subtle ways, always keen to push his minions to consider his actions deeply. He leads by example: examples wrought from Hollywood’s sparkling kiln, dressed up in swathes of enchantment, set to satiate the hungry cinema fiend with nutritious installments of Lou Diamond Drama.

The Dark Wind (1991) is one such example. Lou Diamond is Jim Chee, a member of the Navajo Police – no, not a gimmicky tribute band, but an actual band of badass cops intent on maintaining justice on a reservation shared by Navajo and Hopi tribes. When a man is found dead, young Chee becomes drawn into a series of events that include a robbery, drug smuggling and a plane crash. Events become more convoluted as Chee progresses, requiring him to use every clue-sniffing trick he has in fully mapping the conspiracy facing him and the community. Exasperated, he uses his skills of gentle rumination to claw away the layers of ambiguity and solve the case.

He is an action hero whose pen outdoes his sword. Every step is a word written in celluloid, etched in filmic ink. No impetuous assaults on possible culprits, no Lou Diamond Fists enacting violent reprisal. His mien is calm and considered, a bastion of tranquillity. Watch as he slowly picks apart the case granule by granule, questioning locals and whispering to shrubs, discovering footprints and coughing up the sound of pan-pipes.

Ah, but the meticulous pace at which he works benefits us, the humble viewers. For we all know that no one would solve such a mystery more quickly and more easily than Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s his great, buzzing selflessness that has him proceed slowly and methodically, stretching out the running time to almost two hours, all so he can draw us into the matrix of events, stroking our curiosity glands with his nimble fingers.

According to the film, the dark wind is a force that causes people to do bad things. Gusty iniquity is rife in Lou Diamond’s terrain and he must combat its carriers. Lou Diamond fights the man, the feds, the big power structures that piss all over the human race everyday, striking a Foucauldian blow straight to the balls of the social-symbolic edifice, all without once giving up his search for the truth.

The Dark Wind proves to be an exercise in Brechtian aesthetics, a trait I had not expected. As the narrative unfolds and cryptic events lead Lou Diamond around the desert, an odd visitor penetrates the screen at regular intervals: the boom mic. Lest we forget Lou Diamond’s Lou Diamond Perfection, allow me to speculate that this intrusion was intentional insofar as Lou Diamond allowed the mic to be drawn to him and his Brechtian impulses. It’s his rich desire to rattle the mind of the passive spectator that motivates such an occurrence; perfect is the smack of boom mic that juts out from Lou Diamond’s sense of artifice.

In the end, the film is a fun jaunt through the noir desert on the back of Lou Diamond Phillips, his narration acting as the warm wind against the face, cheeks flush with the burn of heartfelt caresses dealt by his palms. Sure, you can see where director Errol Morris (yes, he of acclaimed documentary-fame) would have liked to mix up the visuals a little, and perhaps he would have done so had artistic differences between him and producer Robert Redford not ousted him; but that notwithstanding, watching Lou Diamond Phillips run detective sprints within the walls of the 4:3 make this an above-average piece of cinema.


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