WINSTON SCOTT AND ME

I met Lorenzo at the International Students Center at UCLA and we became fast friends. He’s a Peruvian who grew up in Lima and Mexico City, where he was educated at the “American School.” This was around 1977, 1978. We were still young pups. And one day Lorenzo asked me, “Do you know about Tlatelolco?” I did not. Lorenzo proceeded to tell me an amazing story, about a massacre of hundreds of protesters, most of them students, in Mexico City on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games.

This surprised me, because I’d never heard a thing about it. I’d been thoroughly aware of the Olmpic Games that year: another pointless sports spectacle inflicted on a populace already saturated in the stuff. But a massacre? Of hundreds of students? I knew nothing about it. “Probably because the international press never reported it,” Lorenzo observed. “They knew about it, but they didn’t want to spoil the Olympic Games.”

When we shot El Patrullero, people were talking openly about the massacre. Jorge Fons had made a film about Tlatelolco, titled Rojo Amanecer – directed it in secret, in a warehouse far from the studios, without any state or studio funds. Fons was a bold, resourceful, inspired director (he died last week aged 83). His film doesn’t show the Plaza where the killings took place: he focuses entirely on a family who witness it all from their apartment. Inevitably, the massacre intrudes. (Rojo Amanecer is a remarkable film, finely acted, and hard to find.)

One day, in the cutting room in Mexico City, Carlos the editor told me another amazing story about Tlatelolco. Servando Gonzales, another filmmaker, had just revealed that he had been employed by the Mexican Government to film the mass killings (Gonzales was already under contract to shoot the Olympics). He said he used eight Arriflex 35mm cameras with 400mm lenses, situated on the 15th and 17th floors of a tower which also housed the ministry of foreign relations. Gonzales claimed he processed the negative at Churubusco, and handed it over to the military. He assumed a copy went to the President, Diaz Ordaz.

In 2008, the American writer Jefferson Morley released his book Our Man In Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. There’s lots of fascinating stuff in here, about a fanatical anti-communist called Win Scott, an ex-FBI agent who bumbled his way into becoming CIA station chief in London,was befriended by Kim Philby – the infamous Soviet spy – and got shifted to Mexico, where, improbably but inevitably, he became the most powerful man in the country.

Scott did this, simply, by putting everybody on the payroll, and having them spy on each other. By everybody, I mean, of course, the highest and most influential policemen, generals, journalists, and politicians in the land. Diaz Ordaz received a monthly stipend and was code-named Litempo 2. A future president, Luis Echeverria, was Litempo 8. And an up-and-coming DFS policeman, Fernando Gutierrez Barios, was Litempo 4. Scott’s wife died in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and when he remarried, the CIA man invited several presidents to the wedding. They all attended, of course. But this was highly irregular. Scott, as station chief, was supposed to remain under diplomatic cover, in the shadows. Instead the US ambassadors, who came and went every four years, were the shadowy ones, subsisting off crumbs from Scott’s table.

Can you imagine my surprise when, three or four years back, I was invited to Mexico to play Scott in a series called Un Estraño Enemigo / the Unknown Enemy? Usually I am cast as disreputable characters: bums, maniac scientists, Fred C. Dobbs-like opportunists like the Gringo in La Ley de Herodes. Whereas Winston Scott is never without a suit and tie. He doesn’t take his jacket off. He’s usually seated, with a folder or a menu or a slim envelope full of money in his hands. And he has a lot to say.

Cox, season 1 cinematographer Jaime Reynoso, Daniel Jiménez Cacho

The original Scott spoke Spanish, but not particularly well. The Mexicans liked the big Alabama football boy, because at least he tried, and paid well. But Scott in the series is a true Machiavel, extremely well spoken (the very literate script is by the director, Gabriel Ripstein, and several collaborators), and has a lot of information to convey. Most of the time Scott seems to be playing the other significant characters off against each other: they all want to be President, and he promises them all support. In return, he wants to get the US military and intelligence agencies further imbedded, and constantly winding his colleagues up about the danger of student communism. The Olympics – a huge waste of money at a time of severe social hardships – is a perfect opportunity for Scott to up the ante. IIf he doesn’t order the Tlatelolco Massacre, he certainly creates the circumstances for it to happen.

Since then we’ve seen the model – snipers fire from a tall building into crowds at a large protest, killing both police and demonstrators – used in Managua, in Caracas, and in Ukraine. The intention is part of a strategy of tension: to force a change in government, or to force a hard-line government to become still more hard-line. The victims are numerous, the snipers are anonymous. And the beneficiary is always the same.

There’s a longer trailer for the first season of Un Estraño Enemigo here. The principal character – played by the fantastic Daniel Jiménez Cacho – is loosely based on Gutierrez Barios – Litempo 4. Having ended the first season in disastrous disarray, in the second season – which has just begun and can also be found online – Captain Barrientos climbs to higher echelons of power, and Win Scott finds a whole new line of work for him.

TED CRUZ’S EXCELLENT HOLLYWOOD IDEA

My Republican friends do not like Ted Cruz. They say he is a devious and unpleasant character unpopular within his own party. My Democrat friends do not like Ted Cruz: he is a Republican. Yet the Texas Senator has come up with a proposal which seems eminently sensible. In April he introduced legislation which he called the Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity and Protecting Talkies Act – SCRIPTA – which would free Hollywood studios from having to submit to multiple forms of state censorship.

Rejoice, Hollywood! For surely this is good news. In theory, of course, the studios don’t have to submit to any kind of censorship – not since Roger Corman and AIP broke the back of the Production Code some six decades ago. But in practice, the reader will be shocked to learn, over the last few years Hollywood has been subject to censorship from not just one, but two, powerful sources.

The first is the Pentagon. For, in order to gain access to a smorgasbord of military goodies – tanks, planes, uniforms, permission to shoot at Camp Pendleton – the studios must submit their scripts, and make changes. Let us assume that the scripts are the usual war-mongering, platidudinous balderdash that Hollywood invariably offers up. No matter! The military brass can always identify some problems: too much swearing, perhaps. Or not enough diversity to satisfy current recruitment aspirations. Or no hand sanitizers in the CIA torture chamber. So there will be changes made.

Fair enough. Hollywood isn’t going to make an anti-war movie any time soon so it probably doesn’t matter if TOP BUN 2 puts on a few extra pounds of patriotism. And the rewards are great! Free stuff for the studios! Well, not free, really, as we the taxpayers pay for it. But hey, that’s not what Ted Cruz is complaining about.

Cruz’s SCRIPTA bill points out that, after receiving US taxpayer largesse from the Army or the CIA, the studios shoot part of the picture in China, with Chinese producing partners, and/or distribute the finished film there. And in order to do this, they – you’ve guessed it! – have to submit the script to Chinese state censors. Not just the script – the finished film itself has to be screened for the Chinese censors, and, if required, further changes must be made. An example given in Variety is from TOP BUN 2, co-financed by China’s Tencent Pictures, where the wardrobe department had sewn the flags of Taiwan and Japan on the back of Tom Cruise’s flight jacket. A complaint from China, and they were digitally removed.

The same thing happened on the remake of RED DAWN, where the Chinese invaders had to be digitally converted into North Koreans. Ted Cruz is tired of this stuff, and the way it impacts our “talkies”. His legislation proposes that any film which submits to Pentagon censorship cannot submit to Chinese censorship as well.

Let the bells of freedom ring! Strangely, Variety is less than enthusiastic, reporting that “the Script Act asks American companies to give Congress a list of all titles submitted to Chinese authorities for approval in the past decade for review — “Good luck with that,” laughs one top film executive with deep ties to China — but more troubling is its prohibiting studios engaged in co-productions with Chinese companies from accessing government assets.

“Chinese regulations require that there is only one version of a finished Chinese film, meaning that the version of a co-produced movie released in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere should be the same as the one censored for Chinese audiences.”

It’s worth reading that last sentence a second time, since it appears that the Hollywood studios, in order to gain access to a very large market and make more money — have agreed to submit all co-produced films to worldwide Chinese censorship. So if you make a “talkie” for Disney, and Disney make a coproduction deal with Tencent, Disney must submit your script to the Chinese government for prior approval, and the version that Beijing approves is the one that you must shoot, and the only one which can be screened anywhere.

Possibly, it could be said that Cruz isn’t sincere. That his attempt to save our talkies will go nowhere, and is just part of a bi-partisan campaign of China-bashing. This may be so. Yet it seems to me that Cruz’s proposal is useful, throwing light on a very serious problem: a covert, internationalized film censorship regime. The official journal of our industry doesn’t seem to have a problem with multiple censorship regimes and their impact on the quality of the art, yet only offers up anonymous responses:

“What are they going to do, demand copies of each draft of each movie script? Gimme a break!” laughs one veteran exec.”

But why not? The studios provide the Pentagon with copies of each draft of every script. They provide the Chinese censor with a similar package, and a screening of the finished film. They can deliver the same materials to Cruz’s office. And if this whole deal is just a storm in a teacup, political grandstanding, why can’t Variety find an American producer who’s willing to go on the record, to talk about it?

[Next week I’m going to write about plans for reopening film production during the pandemic. But first I must do more research…]

Oh… if you would like to support independent cinema and watch a couple of my old flicks, the Texas Theatre in Dallas is streaming a double bill of EL PATRULLERO and STRAIGHT TO HELL. Kino Lorber, the distributor, is splitting the gate with them, so as with the IFS and Loft online screenings, your support keeps independent theaters (and distributors) alive! Thank you.