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“I prefer to bask in the legend of people I’ve only heard about,” Lana Del Rey writes in a memo given out at the premiere of her short film, Tropico, in December 2013. “To me – they are as real as the people sitting in this theater.” She cites Charles F. Haanel, the American businessman who espoused New Thought – the philosophy that spirit is all – in his 1912 bestseller, The Master Key System, as an influence on her own “experimentations with imagination.”

The 27-minute film was then released on Vevo, and later as a digital EP, including three featured songs from Paradise – ‘Body Electric’, ‘Gods and Monsters’, and ‘Bel Air’. Given that Lana’s breakthrough track was ‘Video Games’, Tropico’s title may be an ironic nod to the computer game of the same name, in which the player acts as president of a Caribbean island during the Cold War era, from the 1950s onwards. (A subsequent edition was entitled Tropico: Paradise Island.)

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Lana first announced her plans for Tropico in 2012, with a brief description of the narrative: “I lost my reputation, I forgot my truth. But I have my beauty and I have my youth.” Written by Lana and directed by Anthony Mandler (‘National Anthem’, ‘Ride’), with a score by Dan Heath, Tropico was filmed in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley during the summer of 2013. Lana described it as a “tale of redemption” and a “farewell project,” which led to media speculation that she was about to retire. In reality, Tropico is a postscript to Born to Die, and more specifically, Paradise.

In Tropico, Lana plays a triple role: herself, the biblical Eve, and Mary, mother of Christ. Mary’s Latina appearance harks back to a photo shoot for L’Officiel magazine, published in April 2013, in which Lana explores Catholic iconography. In a brief prelude, a weeping Mary whispers repeatedly, “Dear John, forgive us our sins…”

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Jesus also appears in the opening scene, along with three secular icons: John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. The setting is the biblical Garden of Eden, and the celebrities represent Lana’s nostalgia for “the America that used to be.” They are played by professional lookalikes, rendered in soft-focus.

The John Wayne represented here is not the svelte cowboy of his youth, but the bloated figure of later years, known as much for his right-wing politics as his screen roles. He assumes leadership of the group, including Lana and her boyfriend (played by model Shaun Ross), welcoming them to “this campsite.” He promises “I’m gonna teach you to be cowboys,” warning, “If you wanna be tough cowboys, I don’t wanna hear you crying, I don’t want to hear you bellyaching.”

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“You’ve got to get on your horse and ride,” John explains. “Wear your boots up high, your pants low…” Then Marilyn (Jodi Fleisher) twirls in her white dress from The Seven Year Itch, saying “Sex is part of nature. I go along with nature” (a famous – and genuine – quote from 1955.) Moments later, she sings, “But I must have you or no-one,” a lyric from ‘I’m Through Love,’ as performed by Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959.)

While Marilyn embodies eternal love and compassion, Wayne remains stern, unyielding: “Don’t complain, never say you’re sorry, because sorry is a sign of weakness. And I don’t want you to go back to your mama, because I’ll run you back out.” Jesus, by contrast, is a marginal figure, praying “And lead us not into temptation,” while Elvis – wearing his white jumpsuit from a late tour – sings ‘Love Me’, a sentimental track from 1956.

 

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Lana – dressed like the biblical Eve, in a bikini of roses – begins singing ‘Body Electric’, while dancing with her lover. The second verse is sung by Mary, shown in a series of mirror images. Then Eve allows a white serpent to writhe on her body (recalling Britney Spears’ performance of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ at the MTV Awards in 2001. Lana was 14 at the time, and has since cited Spears as one of her favourite artists.)

Lightning strikes as Eve takes a bite of the forbidden apple, and falls to the ground. John shakes his head in dismay, saying “Man, you gotta be crazy.” The camera cuts to a strip club, where Lana is dancing around a pole in a gauzy red bikini. Her expression is blank, amid the debauched scene. Other strippers and male customers are seen in close-up, focusing on body parts rather than individuals.

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The narrative is provided by Lana herself, reading from Walt Whitman’s ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ “I do enjoy reading, I read the same things over and over again,” she told STV Entertainment in 2012. “I really like certain passages out of Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ and Ginsberg has a poem called ‘Howl’, and both of those writers are like my first and last inspirations, the first people I saw that made their words really electric and come alive off the page, really visual writers.”

Born in 1819, Whitman trained as a printer’s apprentice in his teens. He later became a teacher and political radical. He began writing his first collection of poetry in 1850. Five years later, he published it himself. Leaves of Grass was championed by the intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, though others denounced it as obscene.

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I Sing the Body Electric’ was originally published without a title. During the later 19th century, electrical engineering was gathering pace. Nonetheless, ‘electric’ was still a little-used word.

“I sing the body electric,” Lana begins. “The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them; They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them.” Tropico briefly returns to the Garden of Eden, where Adam also bites the apple, and collapses. Lana then finishes Whitman’s opening verse: “And discorrupt them, and charge them fully with the charge of the Soul.”

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A loud buzz disturbs the drama, and we see Adam behind the counter of a dusty convenience store. His expression is impassive. Like Eve, he is now working a dead-end job – the flipside of the American Dream.

“Womanhood, and all that is a woman – and the man that comes from woman,” Lana recites, as Eve stands in the aisle, licking ice-cream. We then find out who hit the buzzer so hard, as a gang of young men enter the store and snort cocaine off the counter.  Outside, the lovers share a cigarette.

Whitman’s sensuous imagery is rendered joyless in the context of the strip club. Thus Lana will intone “Poise on the hips” as Eve slips a dollar bill through her panties. “Feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body” accompanies a shot of a male customer squeezing a dancer’s buttocks.

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Only the daylight, off-duty scenes seem to reach Whitman’s ecstatic vision, albeit via random acts of hedonism and aggression.  “The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out,” Lana says, as Eve shares a ‘blow-back’ with another girl. Back in the grocery store, Adam aims a toilet plunger, gun-like, at the youths as they leave.

Another line from Whitman, “The thin red jellies within you, or within me,” punctuates a clip of the lovers playfully blowing bubbles. Then, back in the club, Lana ends the poem on a curiously spiritual note: “The bones, and the marrow of the bones…these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the Soul…”

The second song, ‘Gods and Monsters’, signifies the strip club as a “garden of evil.” Eve lies on the floor, with dollar bills floating down onto her exposed body, while Lana sings of “innocence lost.” Eve wears a teardrop tattoo under her eye, which can symbolise both crime and imprisonment. She sticks out her tongue before a mirror, a reminder of the snake’s temptation. Scenes depicting Eve’s life outside work show her at home with Adam, frying eggs and folding clothes. The lovers cling to each other listlessly.

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The couple attend a Day of the Dead party in painted masks. Later, Eve and the ‘Summertime Girls’ (a nod to her hit single, ‘Summertime Sadness’) braid each other’s hair, while the boys play with guns and cars. Her lower belly is tattooed with the legend, “Trust no bitch.” Adam has joined the gang (‘the Tweekers’), who seem to be rehearsing a heist.

Lana was criticised on gossip blog Jezebel for appropriating ‘chola’, or Hispanic gang culture. But without their influence, Tropico would only capture a homogenised ideal which has marginalised so many Americans in the past.

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In a rare spoken line, Adam tells Eve, “Do you know it’s not always going to be this great?” Eve nods, while Marilyn and John reappear. The following segment is set at a businessman’s birthday party, with Eve and the strippers hired “so Jack can jack off.”

Lana begins reading Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem, ‘Howl’, which he once described as “a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths.” ’Howl’ was the subject of an obscenity trial, regarding its drug references and allusions to illicit sexuality. Ginsberg, himself homosexual, was involved in the Beat movement that flourished during the 1950s.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” Lana reads as the orgy begins. “Starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning …”

The action cuts to footage of the gang standing on top of a hill, looking down on Los Angeles as the light begins to fade into a hazy, golden twilight. Young men shoot their guns while their girlfriends gaze up at the sky, and Lana recites, “who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities…”

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Once again, we return to the businessmen’s party, with its simulated frenzy. As Lana mourns for Ginsberg’s lost souls, Adam leads his gang into the room, where they rob the businessmen at gunpoint. If the strippers knew of their plan, it is not clear – they seem terrified.

Lana now leaves Whitman and Ginsberg behind and delivers her own speech, mingling Old Testament references with imagery from her songs to craft a personal creed. “And so from being created in his likeness we were banished for wanting to be too like him,” she says. “And the Garden of Eden transformed into the garden of evil. Los Angeles, the city of angels.  A land of gods and monsters. The inbetween realm where only the choices made from your free will will decide your soul’s final fate. Some poets called it the entrance to the underworld, but on some summer nights it could feel like paradise. Paradise lost.”

Mother Mary weeps, and prays. John Wayne returns, reciting a poem, ‘America! Why I Love her.’ It is the title track of Wayne’s patriotic spoken-word album released in 1973, and was written by John Mitchum (brother of another tough-guy actor, Robert Mitchum.) “Have you see a Kansas sunset or an Arizona rain?” John Wayne asks. “Have you drifted on a bayou down Louisiana way?”

These words, though perhaps a little corny, represent a call to nature, and America’s much-heralded liberty. “Do you hail to the Columbia as she rushes to the sea, or bow your head at Gettysburg at our struggle to be free?” At last John answers his own question. “You ask me why I love her? I’ve a million reasons why: my beautiful America, beneath God’s wide, wide sky.”

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Bathed in sunlight, Adam and Eve drive away from the city, into the wild heart of the San Fernando Valley. Adam throws out his gang scarf, while Eve discards her pearl rosary and black lingerie. In a dream sequence, Eve is submerged in baptismal water.

They stop by a tree and get out of the car, both now dressed in pure, angelic white.  The final song, ‘Bel Air’, begins, with blossom falling like snow. Eve beckons to the camera, and as she sings, the couple renew their vows. Spiritual rebirth is equated with romantic love, and Mary sings along. Finally the lovers ascend to heaven, and the golden wash of colour darkens to sepia, then a grainy monochrome. As Elvis sings ‘You Were Always On My Mind’, Tropico fades to black.

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This redemption is ambiguous, of course: do Adam and Eve’s earthly sufferings justify a purging act of violence towards their persecutors? And does their salvation come from God’s forgiveness, or is it just an illusion? Can America ever truly redeem its bloody past, or is it a vicious cycle?

In a review for Fader, Duncan Cooper quotes an essay about Whitman: “Only as poetry, the poet of “Lilacs” realizes, can that violence be represented as creative. Outside of the poem, outside of metaphors, there is simply no way to redeem or to justify the carnage.”

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“We’re essentially retelling the creation of the universe, but by starting with the pop icons of the ’50s and ’60s, that will recalibrate any sense of the norm,” director Anthony Mandler told Fast Company. “What we were trying to get to was that Adam and Eve are abolished from the Garden and kind of catapulted into this hell on earth, where nobody really does anything,” he explained. “It’s kind of like this ultimate purgatory, and the thing is, there’s not a deeper sense of faith: You don’t feel like there’s this great moral compass – everybody’s just kind of living for the moment, and it’s paper-thin. To me, that’s a fascinating examination of the result of putting pop culture icons as your pantheon of gods.”

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Tropico extends the music video format into a short film with epic themes. Some will dismiss it as high-gloss pretension, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown into the mix. But maybe that’s too cynical. Lana wears her influences on her sleeve – not many have the chutzpah to blend Allen Ginsberg with John Wayne – and unlike most of her contemporaries, she isn’t afraid to experiment.

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