Dark Fate

Dark Fate

The camera lens as a black hole

Issue Seven (56.2): Event Horizon, Art and Australia



The latest iteration of the Terminator franchise, Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), is captivating for the sheer amount of Mexican bodies liquidated on screen. Set in Mexico City and Texas, the film showcases a Rev-9 Terminator (played by Mexican-American actor Gabriel Luna) that arrives from the future to persecute Mexican protagonist Daniella Ramos, across the USA and Mexico. Unlike earlier films, in which Sarah Connor is under threat for birth- ing the future leader of the resistance, John Connor, Dani Ramos is herself to become the head of a future rebellion against the machines. This revision of the reductive Madonna archetype (where Connor’s only purpose is to deliver the Messiah) in tandem with diverse casting, proves the film is aggressively seeking to appeal to a progressive zeitgeist of inclusiveness. Yet, abysmal contradictions quickly tear this textual space, as if mimicking the portals that fracture space and time to bring the Terminator’s slaughter in the film. This is because the Terminator eradicates myriad Mexicans with pornographic recurrence in its quest to dispatch its target.

Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019

A totalising fiction is suctioning these hollow Mexican stereotypes (sexualised, family ori- ented and musically inclined) until they become ethnic debris. This is because Dark Fate codes Mexicans narrowly as either labourers (Ramos is a factory worker) or as undocumented, as shown in a prominent scene in which Ramos crosses the US with ease (even though it is an excruciating journey) and Border Patrol captures her (proving the might of the US). Casting a Mexican-American as the Rev-9 Terminator is reminiscent of the imperial nuisance described by Roland Barthes in Mythologies, in which he analyses a magazine cover showing a soldier of African descent saluting the French flag—signifying that France brought a great empire to those gratefully colonised.[1] Dark Fate offers a similar myth by positioning a Mexican-American as the Terminator that demolishes its ‘own kind’ to save the US from a future rebellion led by a Mexican labourer, as the former is superior to the latter.

Since the Terminator arrives in the present from the future through an inexplicable portal, the idea of an opening in time and space curses this film. The Terminator is a harbinger of dystopia, carrying an urgent message about border anxiety, like an accelerated postcard from the future. Its main purpose is to terminate insurgents, and, in the process, it fulfils a second function, which is to extinguish Mexicans while asserting the future’s dominance. The film is like early 20th-century postcards shot during the Mexican Revolution, which depict American soldiers alongside Mexican corpses for entertainment. Like Dark Fate, this served the purpose of dehumanising Mexicans and keeping control of the border in the public imagination.

Ken Gonzales-Day Disguised Bandit, Unknown Victim, c. 1915 [detail] 2006 From the Erased Lynching Series Chromogenic print 177.8 x 101.6 cm Courtesy of the artist

Ken Gonzales-Day Disguised Bandit, Unknown Victim, c. 1915 [detail] 2006 From the Erased Lynching Series Chromogenic print 177.8 x 101.6 cm Courtesy of the artist

Ken Gonzales-Day explores this photographic genre in his work Erased Lynchings (2002–17), appropriating late 19th- and early 20th-century postcards showing Mexican lynchings in the US. In this body of work, the artist erases corpses and leaves behind only ‘purposeless’ mobs gathered around trees. Erased Lynchings brings to the fore what arguably lies in the background of the latest Terminator film: a repressed desire to make Mexicans disappear. The play with elimination and absence makes Erased Lynchings a profitable space to explore the notion of an ethnic singularity in photography—an opening in time and space where subjects are typecast.

Gonzales-Day looks at this singularity by appropriating photographs of lynchings and seamlessly erasing the corpses, bringing attention to the white crowds that surround the murderous scenes. The outcome is an image that shows a mob mysteriously gathered around a tree, allowing us to focus on their body language and to interpret their stance towards this moment (which generally seems to fill them with pride). The evaporation of the victim speaks to the disappearance of these images from the collective imagination, where historical hangings of Latinxs in the US are often overlooked. It also foregrounds the desire to eliminate these people from the American population, framing lynching as an act of ethnic cleansing. However, a stranger effect occurs when one approaches erasure as a consequence of the original image—where the subject is already experiencing physical extinction (the killing) and semiotic vanishing (the anonymous typecasting). According to this premise, it would appear that Gonzales-Day is simply showing us what happens in the event horizon of the American frame: Mexican bodies disappear.

Gonzales-Day makes a large-scale reproduction of one of these postcards in his Erased Lynching Series, allowing for a greater appreciation of minute details by facilitating a more spectacular viewing. In Disguised Bandit, Unknown Victim, c. 1915 (2006), we encounter seven armed American soldiers joyfully staring at the camera in an arid landscape where a lone tree stands. Three of them are pulling at an invisible rope (the most explicit trace of the hanging in the original image) while the rest are posing candidly to express victory for the camera. The postcard bears a caption at the bottom, which reads ‘DISGUISED BANDIT’, with handwritten letters typical of the style found in autographic cameras of the era (such as the Kodak 3a, a popular camera designed to allow amateurs to mass produce their own cards). The picture is characteristic of the times, in which necro-mementos from the Mexican Revolution circulated as triumphant postcards. The dead ‘bandit’ is in fact a popular trope, as it reinforces America’s perceived success over the Mexican Revolution and dehumanises Mexicans in the battleground.

While the untouched version of this artwork doesn’t seem to be readily available, there is a plethora of postcards from the same year that also feature bandits. These reveal the victims are also invisible in the originals, as they are represented with butcherous anonymity. Indeed, these Mexican corpses are in a process of liquidation, where the reductive typecast of the ‘bandit’ is erasing their identities. For instance, in Las Norias Bandit Raid: Dead Bandits held in the Robert Runyon Photograph Collection in Austin, Texas, we see four copses lying in a barren landscape, with a caption that reads ‘DEAD MEXICAN BANDITS’. They are lying on their backs with their faces positioned away from the camera to make their features unrecognisable, and their attire has been mangled beyond recognition; the bodies simply look like abandoned bundles. (It is as if these Mexicans were never alive.) This stands in sharp contrast to how US Americans are represented in the same collection, or in Ken Gonzales-Day’s image, in which the soldiers’ faces are legible and their rank easily identified.

These cadavers are embedded in a similar system of representation to the latest Terminator film, in which the dark fate of many Mexicans is termination. While postcards and cinema may seem a disparate union today, they share an intimate history. William Nericcio proposes, in his Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucination of the ‘Mexican’ in America, that postcards precede the Latinx stereotypes found in early Hollywood, as they were reference material for greaser films such as The Mexican’s Revenge (1902), Chiquita the Dancer (1912) and Cowboy’s Baby (1910).[2] He uses the first episode of the popular cartoon ‘Speedy Gonzales’ as a case study, analysing key scenes to show how they resemble postcards shot by American soldiers stationed in Veracruz during the Mex- ican Revolution.[3] Thus, the foundations of the stereotyped Mexican we often find in cinema are informed by a history of conflict and a desire for military obliteration—the latter of which becomes manifest in some examples of contemporary film, such as Terminator: Dark Fate.

To step into this filmic universe seems akin to stepping into an event horizon, where the Latinx subject is quickly engrossed in a stereotype designed for dissipation. To be seen is to disappear in this vacuum of mis-representation, a state of non-presence in the wake of total eradication.

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘Myth Today’, Mythologies, Paladin Books, London, 1973, p. 125.
[2] William Anthony Nericcio, Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucination of the ‘Mexican’ in America, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007, pp. 25–27.
[3] Nericcio, pp. 126–28.