Taos lecture: 'From Atomic Ants to Texas Cannibals'

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What do giant radioactive ants have in common with inbred feral cannibals? How has our post-atomic Southwestern culture shaped the horror movie genre? And is it really aliens taking away our cattle, or could there be more sinister economic agents at work?

These questions and more will be addressed in a lively presentation by University of New Mexico-Albuquerque professor Dr. Jesse Alemán on Sunday (May 31), 2 p.m. at the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.

The event is titled “From Atomic Ants to Texas Cannibals: The Social Significance of Southwestern Horror in Film,” and is being offered free of charge by Oklahoma State University’s Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos.

The Doel Reed Center came about through the generosity of late Taos icon Martha Reed, whose famed broomstick skirts have adorned fashionable dancers from Taos to the White House.

“Martha was an alumna of Oklahoma State, and her father Doel taught art there,” said center director Dr. Edward Walkiewicz. “When she passed in 2010, she left us her property, including her father’s old art studio, with the stipulation that it be used for arts and humanities.”

Alemán will discuss “the way specific events that take place in the Southwest show up in horror films — environmental and economic disasters generating forms of horror.” He gives the example of “Them,” a 1954 release considered one of the pioneers of the “nuclear monster” genre. “Them” is set in Alamagordo, New Mexico, site of the first atomic bomb test — an environmental nightmare that, in the film, spawns an army of giant mutant ants.

As well as atomic events, Alemán will cover the economic horror story of the demise of cattle culture. He posits a direct line of cinematic influence, from the 1963 cattle-industry drama “Hud,” to 1970s horror classics such as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” where the cannibal antagonists have been left in social and economic isolation by the decline of the cattle economy.

This rich vein of material ties in with another field of expertise for Alemán: Chicano folklore, especially as it is translated into the medium of film. “We could look at low-brow horror movies as just campy or simplistic, but this genre of subaltern forms has a long history of articulating complex social messages.”

He gives the example of the many “chupacabra films” that have been made in Mexico and the U.S. over the years, and points to a metaphorical subtext of “blood-sucking labor practices and exploitation of workers” underlying the chupacabra’s vampirism.

La Llorona, “The Weeping Woman,” has also been a favorite horror-genre theme, with Mexican Llorona films dating back to the 1930s. Alemán spoke of the differences between the character of La Llorona as she has traditionally been passed down in stories from elders to children, and the way that the character has been portrayed cinematically.

“I love the fact that she’s in film and doesn’t have to be the same as she is in folklore. Many of the Mexican movies add the element of La Llorona possessing the body of someone, often a white woman. This never happens in the folklore stories, it was completely made up for cinema. With this added element of ‘possession,’ you wonder, what’s up with that, what does that mean? Who is possessing and owning whom, and why? There are profound metaphors here for the possession of land, the possession of culture and power and property.”

“There is also a tradition of zombies in horror films representing ‘racial others’ who will suck life from the dominant culture,” Alemán continued, citing the 1996 cult film “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

“That film captured those tensions in its very structure. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film until the Tarantino character dies, and then we get Robert Rodriguez’ perspective and it’s a different point of view on the genre. This was set in a trucker bar, and made at the very beginning of NAFTA. Who are the real vampires— the Mexicans in the film, or the corporate entities about to come swarming in?”

Alemán grew up in a small town in rural California, and says his upbringing there, in a region he describes as “98 percent raza,” helps him feel at home teaching in Albuquerque. “The work I’m doing now is a synthesis of all the cultural impressions I took in as a kid, filtered through rigorous academic mentoring and training in thinking analytically.”

While in Taos, Alemán will also be interacting with OSU professor Martin Wallen’s intensive two-week course on the subject of “The Nuclear Bomb and the Land of Enchantment.” Wallen says the class will be visiting Los Alamos, “along with the sites of peaceful artistic engagement, such as the Fechin House and the Greater World Earthships.”

“This is the third summer that we’re hosting a visiting scholar,” said Walkiewicz. “We do a nationwide search for the person with the best credentials who can also contribute to a class. Jesse Alemán already has a great body of work in Southwestern culture and contemporary film, and in how that ties in to social and economic issues.”

Later this year, the Center will be taking part in the Pressing Through Time exhibition. This celebration of printmaking in Taos will encompass 150 years of work, including that of Doel Reed himself. “We are always trying to participate in the artistic and intellectual life of the community, and to bring in more than we take out,” Walkiewicz said.

For Sunday’s event, Alemán assures attendees that they won’t be subjected to a typical dry lecture. He’ll be showing clips from the films as he speaks about them, and then will invite the audience to join in what he hopes will be a spirited discussion. “It’s about the power of folklore. Some may view it as mythology. For us, it is articulating how we live all the time.”

For more, call the museum at (575) 758-2690.

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