Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mixed Blood (1984)

In Paul Morrissey’s film Mixed Blood there is a scene set inside a store called Menuditis.    Apparently, it’s a store devoted entirely to merchandise for the boy group Menudo.  Now, when that name is mentioned, I would imagine most peoples’ reaction is either to squeal with spiteful glee or to roll their eyes in consternation.  In all fairness, Menudo’s brand of bland, sanitized pop is neither any more nor any less offensive than that of any other purveyors of same, then or now.  Hell, for a while there I was a Michael Jackson fan (I was glued to the Thriller short/music video whenever it would come on).  What strikes me as funny is that there is a store dealing only in Menudo goods.  I have seen stores revolving around a specific line of items like Buildabear or Old Navy, but I cannot recall one other shop catering solely to one personality/property/band quite like this.  I have never seen a Christopher Walken boutique or a Black Sabbath outlet (to be sure, I wouldn’t be overly surprised to discover they exist either).  While these things are just as identifiable to the public (I would argue they are even more so), this level of property branding of Menudo stands out because of how uncommon it is.  Maybe in their native Puerto Rico this is something you see all over the place.  Having never visited there, I honestly couldn’t say.  But in America it’s odd (or at least it’s odd to me; I don’t know, maybe I’m the odd one).  Yet, it does make for an interesting location for a scene; you’ll get no argument from me on that.

On the mean streets of New York’s Alphabet City (a section on Manhattan’s Lower East Side), a gang of Brazilians called Los Maceteros lead by godmother Rita La Punta (Marilia Pera) squares off against the bloodthirsty Master Dancers, a Puerto Rican (I think they’re Puerto Rican; I don’t remember them actually mentioning anything in the film) gang lead by Juan the Bullet (Angel David), for control of the territory and its lucrative drug trade.  Watching this all play out are Hank (Ulrich Berr), often referred to as the German, and his fellow drug lords.  The German’s friend Carol (Linda Kerridge) takes an interest in Rita’s son Thiago (Richard Ulacia), and things get complicated.

When most folks hear the name Paul Morrissey, I would bet dollars to donuts the first films they think of are the ones to which Andy Warhol’s name was attached (Flesh For Frankenstein, Blood For Dracula, Trash, et cetera).  I cannot earnestly say that I like or dislike this one any more than those, but Mixed Blood is most assuredly a mixed bag.  The story is fairly standard in its basics, but it has enough sleazy, oddball moments and gory, violent outbursts to maintain interest and keep a sufficiently smooth sense of pacing.  The acting is amateurish almost across the board, but I would suggest this is actually one of its assets.  There is a feeling of authenticity that comes from the ham-handed way these people deliver lines, acting with their heads only.  But it’s not their thespian skills that deliver the verisimilitude; it’s their appearances.  You completely believe that Ulacia or Rodney Harvey grew up around the Alphabet (or if not there, somewhere equally as destitute during this era of New York’s history).  While we’re on the subject, I would highly recommend watching this film with subtitles handy.  There are a slew of accents going on at any given moment, and even at their clearest, it still took me a moment or two to decipher almost every line of dialogue spoken in the movie (and there are some I just gave up on completely).  None of this is aided by the fact that non-actors like the aforementioned Ulacia deliver their lines in either mumbles or screams.  But again, I feel this adds to the film’s flavor in a bizarre way; so for me, it’s part of the charm.

The New York City of the Seventies and Eighties is an amazing thing to me.  If you didn’t know any better, you would honestly think that sections had been leveled during the Blitz.  Yet people lived there, and even though I don’t think I, personally, would have liked to, there are those who actually liked living there.  Then again, there are also people who had no choice, but they bore up under this yoke of desolation and persevered in spite of it.  Rita understands this.  She keeps her gang with her, all living in one apartment, sleeping together like they are in an army barracks.  She maintains rules for them; primary among them is no one under her can use drugs.  She makes sure they bathe on a semi-regular basis.  By that same token, she has no compunction about selling drugs to the junkies in the community.  She doesn’t blink at the thought of prostitution as a means of making money (and the selling of infants is even discussed at one point, though not by Rita).  She does what needs doing to survive and protect her family, but she is especially protective (in fact, over-protective) of Thiago.  She doesn’t allow him to leave Alphabet City.  He obeys every word she says.  He and Rita even sleep in the same bed.  The idea is floated that Thiago may be somewhat dimwitted, and I have to say that Ulacia’s performance does little to dispel this notion.  Either way, his relationship with his mother is unhealthy.  What is interesting is that Rita can’t fully protect Thiago in or out of the Alphabet, and Carol, instead of being a freeing force for Thiago, turns out to be just as poisonous.  The two women in Thiago’s life vie for his affections regardless of what Thiago thinks (not that we’re given any indication that he does much of that at all), so naturally none of this can turn out well, right?
The title Mixed Blood refers principally to the idea of Carol insinuating herself into Thiago’s life, tainting Thiago’s Brazilian blood (and by extension Los Maceteros) with her Caucasian blood.  But it also refers to the idea of America as a melting pot.  Everyone in the film dislikes people from outside their own race.  Epithets are thrown around freely (and I can only think of a few I didn’t hear in the movie), and no one ever bats an eye when they are (even characters belonging to the disparaged ethnicity).  The melting pot here is actually a cesspool, divided by race rather than merging them together.  And everyone will do whatever it takes to be king (or queen) of the literal heap.  For all of its faults, though, Morrissey and company do a commendable job compelling you to watch this struggle to the top.  But was it all worth it?
MVT:  I love the setting of the film.  I’m one of those people who simply can’t get enough of pre-gentrification New York City on film.  The mere sight can conjure textures of glass and rusting metal grating under your feet and grimy air filling your lungs.  Maybe it’s just me.  But I doubt it.
Make Or Break:  The Make is the scene where cigarette butts are repeatedly put out on a character’s torso.  If this scene was done via special effects, it is impressive.  If it wasn’t, it is creepy.  Either way, it made me cringe.
Score:  6.5/10   

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