Saturday, August 10, 2013

David Greven - Making Love While the Bullets Fly: Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), Representation, and Queer Masculinity

Making Love While the Bullets Fly: Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), Representation, and Queer Masculinity
by David Greven
Bright Lights Film Journal

Marcelo Piñeyro's Plata Quemada (2000) (the title in English is Burnt Money) is an Argentine film that won the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film in 2001 and several other awards. Based on the 1997 "dirty-realism" novel of the same name by Ricardo Piglia (given the English title Money to Burn), Piñeyro's film is a fascinating, hypnotic work that demands attention on its own stylized cinematic terms. Plata Quemada is especially interesting for several reasons. First, made on the "other" American continent for an expressly Argentine audience and yet managing to become an international art-house hit, the film offers an uncanny mirror image of the possibilities and potentialities, or lack thereof, available to U.S. filmmakers as well as audiences.1 These possibilities and potentialities relate specifically to the gay/queer themes foregrounded in this film. Based on a real-life historical event, Plata Quemada, about two gay bank robbers and set in the mid-1960s, is a languorous male-male version of Arthur Penn's seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). One question immediately arises: is this a queer version of that film as well as a same-gender one? (Penn's film itself has queer valences: Clyde Barrow [Warren Beatty] reassures Bonnie Parker [Faye Dunaway], "I don't like boys," after his failed initial attempt to make love to her. Part of his character arc is his eventual success in having sexual intercourse with her.) Argentina's homophobic history seems to be addressed and also pacified in this film that, at once, evokes with extraordinary erotic intensity the brooding, premonitory atmosphere of sexual desire between men but never shows actual sex between men.

Plata Quemada intersects provocatively with the major themes of post-millennial Hollywood films. This period of Hollywood history has been dominated by the new "body genres" of torture-porn horror (exemplified by Eli Roth's Hostel [2005]) and the Beta Male comedies popularized by Judd Apatow. What crucially links these seemingly antithetical genres is their shared fascination with not only exposing but ravaging the male body, marked as straight, white, and heterosexual. In many ways, Piñeyro's film offers its own version of this representational project.2 While the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, are usually identified as the defining "cause" for the tortured representations of masculinity in post-millennial Hollywood, Plata Quemada, like other films of its moment, illuminates the broader issues at work in these representations. Its fascination with the exposed and suffering male body cannot be explained by 9/11, but the film is also representative of those being made in its own period and in the years to follow in terms of its depiction of both masculinity and male bodies. The further question, surprisingly even for this film with explicitly queer content, is, to what extent is the representation of the male body a queer act or event? Because so many overlaps exist between Plata Quemada and Pedro Almodovar's film Law of Desire (1987), I will conclude with a comparative reading of both works.

Plata Quemada recreates the events of a famous bank robbery in Buenos Aires in 1965. El Nene (played by the Argentine Leonardo Sbaraglia) — an aspiring doctor who did not complete his medical training, the black sheep of his prosperous family, and a petty thief who has served time in prison — and Angel (played by the Spaniard Eduardo Noriega), a drifter, become known as "The Twins," recalling the famous Kray brothers of English crime lore. (Peter Medak made a 1990 film called The Krays about these titular criminals. Twin brothers, one gay, one straight, they presided over London's criminal underworld in the 1960s.) But Nene and Angel are not biologically related but, rather, lovers who initially meet in the bathroom of a Buenos Aires subway station and form an unbreakable, if shattering, bond after this first sexual encounter. The queer theorist Leo Bersani has argued for the "self-shattering" qualities of gay sex, but Plata Quemada foregrounds gay desire as a mutually shattering event. The film's romantic nihilism is at the heart of both its appeal and its essentially troubling nature.

The lovers join a group of well-established gangsters who plan to hold up an armored truck. Fontana (Ricardo Bartis), the boss of the group, and the elderly lawyer Nando (Carlos Roffé), preside over a motley crew that includes the Twins as well as the young, dark-haired Cuervo (Pablo Echarri), who recalls the sensual male crooners of the 1950s but with palpable sexual intensity. His girlfriend is an equally sexually palpable presence, a lascivious 16-year-old teenager named Vivi (Dolores Fonzi). During the bank robbery, the armed guards unexpectedly retaliate, and Angel is wounded during the exchange of gunfire, which leads an enraged Nene to massacre all of the guards as well as the police. As David William Foster points out, Nene's behavior here violates all of the codes of such heists, in which any participant who happens to be injured is either left behind or executed on the spot by the other heist members to avoid any interrogation by the police (Foster 146). The Buenos Aires police, enflamed by the loss of some of their own, make finding the heist team a top priority on a national scale. The gang first hole up in Vivi's apartment, but then escape to Montevideo. The police extend their hunt for the gang to Uruguay. As the gang waits for new passports, the film explores the related narrative arcs of Nene's conflicted sexual identity — his need to prove that he is, if not heterosexual, at least capable of being so — and Angel's psychic disintegration. (Angel hears voices in his head and is also obsessed with his own Catholicism. The film strongly suggests that he is suffering from some form of schizophrenia.) At the same time, the real drama seems to be the lack of intimate contact, emotional and sexual, between Nene and Angel, a hiatus that began with their escape. Indeed, it is unclear whether or not Nene's own odyssey of sexual confusion primarily stems from some deep conflict within himself or from his deprivation as Angel withholds intimacy with him — on many levels, of which the physical is the most obvious.

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