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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hands of Fate... or Hands of Poor Life Choices?

Normally I don't do broad, overarching movie reviews--I tend to focus more on particular scenes or themes within a movie--but I thought I would kick off my month long celebration of the spooky, strange, and uncanny with one of the most incredible films of the last few years: Manos. Of course, everyone and their grandmother has been praising the film since July, but I want to take a look at some of the deeper character interactions and decisions.

The first thing worth noting is the way the film takes advantage of the immigration debate. I'll be picking out the particular scenes where this theme emerges, but the most obvious place is the title--"Manos": "the hands". It's no accident that the title is Spanish, just as it is no accident that the action takes place somewhere in the American southwest.

It's also no accident that the majority of the initial character building takes place on the road, distant from the house where the action takes place. This is more a suspense than a horror film, in that respect. It takes the time to lavish attention on each character--from the weak and vapidly religious Margaret, to the arrogant, hypermasculine Michael, to the spacy and disconnected child Debbie. The scene where Michael asks for directions, in particular, tells us a lot about his wild west attitude and macho persona (and of his antipathy toward the migrant workers they run into), which Margaret simply quietly accepts.

The strangeness of the house itself is very subtly done, and reminds me a little of similar techniques used in the much lower budget Marble Hornets. Torgo's fateful, bizarre mantra of "It'll be dark soon; there's no way out of here" is visually demonstrated by the seeming single shot out the car window of Michael driving away from the house only to arrive back at the same spot while Margaret becomes more and more panicked.

And then, of course, you have Torgo himself.

Ah, Torgo. What can we say about Torgo?

This is probably the most interesting role that Ledger has done since The Joker, and, in some ways, it works quite well as a reprise. He's again playing a psychologically disturbed character that he imbibes with incredible depth and complexity through extremely minor cues of posture and intonation. The difference is that while previously Ledger was playing a genius improviser that constantly tried to stay on top, here he plays a stuttering, emotionally broken hybrid between man and beast.1  It's worth noting that Ledger's skin here is darkened and tanned so that he begins to resemble the other migrant worker characters. Again, the movie is playing on Michael's--and the audience's--fears here.

This helps explain some of the more overtly unsettling sexual elements of the film. Consider, for example, the unconscious Brides. Or blank-eyed Debbie lounging in a disturbingly provocative way with the massive black dogs. Or the hands that grope both Margarette and Michael in the night.

The key to all of this is the fact that the real menace comes from the pale white Master, played magnificently by an almost unrecognizeable Orlando Bloom. The whole movie has set itself up as a masterpiece of xenophobia, after all, so when the Master finally awakens and turns out to be a well-spoken, white, aristocratic American lad, the audience's perception of the film totally reverses. The latter third of the film is a complete deconstruction of the beginning two thirds, with Torgo attempting (and, of course, failing) to act as Margarette's savior2 and, of course, the Rescue scene, where the seeds Michael sewed at the beginning of the film come to harvest. As Michael staggers through the desert, he sees a light of a truck. It is the Mexican truck from earlier in the film. We get that one shot of the cop and the migrant worker talking, they notice Michael, and, with a look of condemnation, they simply shut off the headlights. And Michael is lost in the noneuclidean desert once more.

What do we learn from all this, then? Well, the movie was clearly marketed to middle class white Americans, and I think the undertones of racial fear and tension are pretty clear. The deconstructive ending suggests quite strongly to me that the filmmakers intended us to see Michael and company as proxies for our own fears, and when they are punished for their bigotry, their arrogance, and their inability to see past the immediate to the powerful people that pull the strings, we are punished as well. This is a film that doesn't want to make friends with its audience. This is the second meaning of the title: "Manos" is not just the worker's description of The Master, or Torgo's dark, schizophrenic faith, or even, as the promotional material suggests, the hands that pull the strings of each of the characters. The hands pull our strings as well, and like puppets we dance to the tune of this brilliantly manipulative film.

1Incidentally, he's been compared to a faun, but that seems like a rather odd anachronism given the tightly composed nature of the film. I would note, rather, the way he looks kind of like a hairless, faintly scaly rat, and note the way he grasps and stutters and licks his lips with that long tongue, and suggest that perhaps he is meant to be a Chubacabra.

2The image of Torgo, burning and melting, his face a rictus of fury, and the blackened hand marks on The Master's neck, strike me as some of the best film images from the past few years... 

I feel that it is fitting, somehow, that I am beginning this spooky month with a ghost film. And, of course, with an exercise in mindbending confusion. If you're curious about the real "Manos" The Hands of Fate I highly recommend watching the classic MST3K version. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. Oh, and I'm looking for guest entries this month, so if you have something interesting to say about things that generally fit the theme, send them my way.


  1. Wow. You know, when you said Heath Ledger played Torgo, I ACTUALLY checked imdb. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

  2. I just can't wait until the movie comes out in Belgium. I really liked Ledger in the Dark Knight and judging by the (far too short)trailers his performance in Manos looks excellent as well.
    You might want to consider spoiler warning for things like this in the future though.


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