Pop Culture

Down Mexico Way

The borders between nations are psychic wounds. The FX detective series The Bridge, which wrapped up its first season on last Wednesday, reifies that idea. The show depicts the US-Mexican border as a cruel bisector that carves up bodies and makes manifest the sins of the past, as a dividing line in which national conscience and personal guilt are impossibly entangled. Here, the icy gray of the Swedish/Danish original gives way in the American/Mexican remake to sun-drenched sandscapes, in which even looking upon them transmits a sense of heat exhaustion. In these borderlands, we find murdered immigrants and murderous survivalists; we see the trafficking of drugs and guns and people and sins. One wonders what the series would be like if it took place on the Michigan-Ontario border as originally intended. Would Detroit, instead of Juárez, be the apocalyptic hive of gruesome murder and failed-state corruption?

This portrayal of Mexico steps away from the facts on the ground, and Robert Andrew Powell’s astute dissection of the show excavates the impulse lying behind this version of Juárez (filmed, of course, in Van Nuys, CA) and levels a charge of dereliction against the show: “The people behind The Bridge have reduced Juárez, and all of Mexico, to an ‘other.’ The city in the show isn’t a real place. Not like, say, Cleveland. And the people who live here, those Mexicans, they’re not quite as human as the rest of us.” And of course, The Bridge is a crime drama, a thriller that trades on psychoanalytic packages of its characters neatly tied with bloodied bows.

But even something arguably more levelheaded and authentic, like Rodrigo Reye’s poignant essay-documentary Purgatorio, travels to la frontera and finds resonance in scrubland vistas, heaps of twisted junk metal, and dying dogs. Reyes susses out American illusions and exploitations, along with Mexican longings and hardships, as they manifest in the liminal space of the borderlands. He trades less in sensationalism than sensation itself, in how our national imagination translates into images. Likewise, in The Bridge’s falsity there’s truth—not in what a place is actually like, but how people imagine it through the lens of nation and border.

Bridge

Benedict Anderson writes of the nation as an “imagined community” forged in the dying light of gods and kings whose power emanated from a single fixed point and radiated outward. When we think of a nation-state, we think of lines etched on the surface of the world, lines which contain and circumscribe the nation. Those lines are justified by seemingly more tangible things like land and language and blood. Think of the distance between idealized personifications of the national spirit and images of some of its most concrete executors: soldiers in wartime encrusted with the dirt of both foreign territory and homeland. Yet Anderson also argues that a nation always imagines itself finite; it is never universal. Beyond its borders, there is always some other place.

And what, exactly, is out there?

In The Shawshank Redemption (both Frank Darabont’s film and the Stephen King source novella), the story ends with a trajectory to some other place. After decades of incarceration, the rehabilitated Red makes his way out of the walls of the titular prison, out of the unfamiliar and alienating American landscape; he makes “a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain,” and he tells us, “I hope Andy is down there. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Shawshank

Down there, specifically, is Zihuatanejo, on the Mexican coast. It is a resonant idea that Andy and Red can cling to, not because of any particularities of the place, but because of its distance, both physically and psychically. It’s embedded into the very syllables of the name as it rolls off the tongue. In that linguistic separation lies a projected dream that in leaving one’s nation behind, one also clings to the possibility that another life is yet to be lived. It’s telling that the visualization of that hope, the final moments of the film in Zihuatanejo, which critic Mark Kermode calls a “picture-postcard depiction of a place that should remain both invisible and unimaginable,” is defined by empty space. The difference is not between being inside walls and being outside them; after all, we are reminded by Red’s attempts to synchronize with the quotidian rhythms of American life that he carries those walls wherever he goes, and he can only break them down by taking a journey. His destination, as captured by the film’s sweeping denouement, consists of endless stretches of sand, sea, and sky.

That place is just as unreal as the charnel house that lies on the other side of The Bridge’s dividing line, perhaps mystifyingly so, because of the cinematic image’s indexical power to point to the world and give it concrete form. Yes, we could go to that place we see on screen and plunge our hands into that beach and feel the sand rolling around in our fingers. But that’s not Zihuatanejo, and not just because the scene was filmed in the Virgin Islands. What’s important is the concept that binds the place together in Red’s mind, and it’s the concept that’s unreal.

That unreality can even be seen in the final years of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Like Red and like The Bridge, he was a bloody-handed import from the north whose journey traced a path across borders, leaving one nation behind to perhaps redefine himself in the context of another. There is a poetic quality to Trotsky’s exile and 1940 assassination, and not merely in the penumbra that clings to a fallen leader or in the extinguishing of a set of national possibilities. He posed a symbolic contrast to the monstrosity of Stalin, tempered by the fact that Trotsky fell on the wrong side of history, and as his hands slipped from the levers of power, so did the possibility for him to be anywhere near as monstrous. And so, exile and the ice axe to the head in Coyoacán.

Trotsky

When I was younger and read in a history book that he was killed with an ice pick, it conjured for me images of Caesar in the Senate; it was only later that I learned the deed was done with a heftier weapon, nothing dagger-like but something with which you’d use the verbs “hacked” or “cleaved.” But regardless, there always seemed to me an incongruity of act and setting. In this chapter of his life, Trotsky was on the margins, both politically and, literally, geographically. He was a Russian in Mexico, far from home and in some other place; an ocean lay between him and the site of his old conflicts. Because of that, his assassination carries the undertones of a shattered idyll, a quality reinforced by some of Trotsky’s last writings, which carry the same ethereal idealism and sensitivity as Red’s monologue:

Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.

Of course, to imagine Mexico as a place outside of space and time is to flatten it. Its own explosive revolution predated the Russian one by nearly a decade, and even in 1940, Mexico was caught up in its own set of political struggles and intrigues. But that’s the thing about national problems: as they cross borders their contexts and meanings begin to dissolve, and we on the outside struggle to fill in the gaps. Trotsky may have been in Mexico, but he was also very much outside of it. And in that sense, it was as if his death happened in empty space.

This conception of empty space—as in the space of the murders in The Bridge—is an attempt to make sense of something happening in some other place that nevertheless pulses with relevance. The borderlands are charged with meaning, a meaning that we struggle to unpack in an image or a film or an entire television series. The charges of inaccuracy leveled against The Bridge are right inasmuch as the show might not depict the reality on the ground. But the show is all the more interesting for that. The Bridge is not The Wire. It is a mirror, and in its reflection we see how the nation next to ours, through our own ignorance and absorption, still seems like so much terra incognita.

Oscar Moralde is a writer and critic whose work has been published by Slant Magazine and the Criterion Collection. He studies film at UCLA.