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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Pho to by Alan Pog u e IN A RECENT article, Louis Malle is quoted as praising Ry Cooder’s score for Alamo Bay with the coy acknowledgment, “Ry, you’ve made a John Ford out of me.” Cooder’s music, full of haunting slide guitar out of the piney woods, is the best thing about Malle’s new film, but it would take a good deal more than a brooding score to make it into The Searchers. It is clear from the first moments that Malle at least half-wanted to make a movie of Western Archetypes and Big American Myths, under the assumption, I guess, that anything set in Texas should be topheavy from the git-go. Unfortunately, Malle and his collaborators seem also to have half-wanted to make a social documentary derived from current dramatic events the sort of material with “made-for-TV” written all over it. The result is honorable to a degree, but tendentious and predictable, bristling with correct opinions but unlikely to convince anyone of anything but that its makers are suffering from a worrisome case of post-Vietnam Liberal Guilt Syndrome. Alamo Bay is a fictionalized rendering of the recent conflict between Texas fishermen and the immigrant Vietnamese who have taken up residence, and shrimping, along Galveston Bay. It focuses on three characters in a neverquite-acknowledged triangle: Dinh \(Ho employer in her father’s wholesale fish American fisherman and Glory’s married lover. The success of the Vietnamese fishermen generally and of Dinh particularly outrages the Vietnam veteran Shang, who is losing his own boat \(the portentously named “American much seething and glaring at the camera poor Ed Harris, after this film and his mad mercenary role in Under Fire, might want to try some simple domestic Michael King lives in Austin and looks at matters cultural for the Observer. comedy Shang, though too independent to be a member, leads the local Klansmen in direct and violent action against the Vietnamese, who with Glory’s help defend themselves and provide a shoot-em-up climax for Malle’s contemporary Western. ALAMO BAY Written by Alice Arlen Directed by Louis Malle Klan Boat Patrol, Keniah, 1982. The filmmakers have seen a range war lurking in the material, with native Texans as unyielding and old-fashioned cattlemen and Vietnamese as impudent and clannish sheepherders, and have tried to make an archetypal western of stark oppositions, personified by Dinh and Shang, whose symbolic prize is the affection, if not the actual body, of “Glory.” \(The film both flirts with, and then denies, the sexual subtext of the battle between Dinh and Shang, sustaining it as a visual metaphor and then dismissing it as Shang’s racist paranoia. This is only one of the script’s many the implicit final triumph of the immigrants as something akin to the fencing of the range, as inevitable as barbed wire and tract homes. In this reading, the Klan is only an anachronistic association of outmoded independents, unable to submit to progress. Yet the film believes so thoroughly in its own cinematic myth that Dinh slowly assumes the discredited heroic persona, donning boots, hat, pistol and indomitability until finally anointed by Glory in the climactic line: “You must be one of the last damn cowboys in Texas.” From there it’s only a few feet of sound effects to the gunfight at hokey corral. It’s hard to take seriously a film which telegraphs its punchlines so thoroughly and persistently, yet one of the script’s major problems is that it wants so badly to be taken seriously on American culture, American history, American racial relations. Even the title of Alamo Bay hints at a dark re-examination of the American past; yet in this context the filmmakers might have been a little wary of the implications of a memory of heroic Texans surrounded and slaughtered by a foreign army. But the title’s sole purpose is to remind us we’re in Mythic Territory, where men are men and pickups are horses. The film’s memory of recent history isn’t any better; its lame gestures at the Vietnam context are basically Shang’s maniacal veteran \(no actual flashbacks, thank god, but they clearly play behind Harris’s only “beautiful women and great drugs,” and Dinh’s tear-jerking story of the slaughter of his village by “the Communists.” The latter is particularly grating in this year of smarmy and selfjustifying “reconsiderations” of Vietnam in the mainstream press, in which LBJ once again becomes a tragic figure and the war itself a well-intentioned “mistake.” In like manner, the immigrant Vietnamese Catholics of Alamo Bay are never seen as the defeated fugitives in a complex civil war, but simply anonymous innocents who work hard, want to get rich like all of us, and sometimes forget the marine laws. Dinh himself in the opening moments apparently drops into East Texas, waving an American flag, from nowhere: it’s news to him he’s in Texas, although he’s already learned to say, “Have a nice day.” I guess we’re supposed to figure he hitchhiked across the Atlantic, due West. Adrift in Mythic Territory By Michael King THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19