There is a glint in Victor Pearson’s eye, a boyish one but also a devilish one, as all glints tend to be at some point, mischievous, smarmy. It’s why filmmaking cohorts Monster Jimenez and Mario Cornejo invoke the same catch-all caveat about the subject of their documentary Kano: An American And His Harem. “You have to meet him.”, they tell me on separate occasions. I sense a slither of faint awe under the revulsion and I get it. Pearson is the expatriate American who maintained his own private harem of wives, and who languishes now in a country jail under the weight of 80 counts of alleged rape, all of which he vehemently denies. If it doesn’t exactly plumb the same depths of malevolence as, say, Charles Manson, what he does exude is a similarly dangerous ambivalence: charismatic and diabolical in equal measure. And it leaks into the movie, irradiating it almost. The part where he sings Love Potion #9 smacks of both the quaint and the sinister, and not merely out of how creepy the subtext of the song gets, no. One second he’s your boisterous uncle with one too many drinks in him hogging the family videoke, the next he’s Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet. He is, in many ways, the quintessential pervert. He is also the perfect documentary subject.
Monster, who directed, and Mario, who produced, amassed a nosebleed of interview footage to sift through: interviews with the plaintiffs, with the parents of the plaintiffs who insist the plaintiffs were lying, with the women who stayed loyal to this day, with Pearson’s estranged sister, rumors of deviant activities that threw political figures into the mix, which videotapes that have since gone missing allegedly bear out, of tiny conspiracies between the cracks. In the time it took for the film to reveal its shape, as documentaries are wont to do with this one taking five years, a tremendous amount of sides to the story emerged. Monster and Mario simply felt it would be unfair not to show all. Trouble is, Pearson seems to demand nothing smaller than a burst of indignation, his right to a fair shake long since waived. You go soft on someone as notorious and you’re at best an apologist , at worst a conspirator. Two women have gone so far as letting Monster know they wanted to throttle her after watching the film, for allegedly casting Pearson in a sympathetic light. It does no such thing, of course.
Kano is more than just watchable, though. It can be, and often is, terribly and compulsively entertaining, and it’s not from making light of matters but from how funny some of the people in it can be, it’s that levity with which we confront everything, endemic to us, peculiar to others. But at no point does the film slavishly demonize Pearson, at no point does it need to either. That’s the bone to pick for many. Only its gut-punch, both as film and as argument, really gets its brunt from resisting the urge to editorialize, leveling everything past the point of being about one man’s guilt to being more about an entire nation’s cultural psyche. How deep our resident subservience to the white man runs. How every moral choice tends to boil down to money changing hands. How money is our enabler, our prosthetic, our elixir, our atonement. And more than that, how the beloved infidel may well be our prevailing icon of machismo. Pearson doesn’t faze us too much, perhaps, because he is, in many ways, nothing new. He is every domestic action star who ever played a real-life philandering family man slash cop hero and spread the gospel of the other woman as a badge of manliness. And that he’s a war hero, too, makes the embodiment even more perverse. Those two women have every right to their shock and vitriol, of course, and to its ferocity. It’s worth noting, though, that they’re both foreigners. Obviously they’ve never seen a Bong Revilla film.