Mar 22, 2007

Three Amigos to the Rescue

I was recently asked to write an article in the Mexican newspaper Reforma about the phenomenon of the Three Amigos and their multiple Oscar nominations and the impact this may or may not have in Mexican filmmaking.
A lot of people, when they hear I'm Mexican and we're talking movies, say "Oooh, Mexican film is so hot right now!" To which I need to append a correction: Mexican film is not hot, Mexican filmmakers who work in Hollywood are. And the reason why they work in Hollywood is that despite the healthy amount of homegrown talent and the existence of a solid infrastructure for film production in Mexico, Mexican film has not been able to get off the ground as a thriving industry. So talent finds a home elsewhere.
There are many reasons for this, but probably the most important is that there is no investment, or incentives for producers to invest in film production. The competition from Hollywood is unfair and ruthless. The distribution and exhibition system favors big Hollywood blockbusters instead of small local movies, for which theaters actually charge more of the box office take (!). There is unbridled piracy. There is an outfit, for instance, called Video Metro Chilpancingo, where they have every pirated movie you'd ever wish to see. My film buff friend Mauricio reports you can get movies on DVD that haven't even been made yet. Such is the efficiency of Mexican piracy.
And for the most part, the quality of the films themselves leaves much to be desired. I ascribe it to the fact that the scripts are mostly awful. And I have always wondered why it is that we have a great tradition of genius cinematographers (many of whom are working for Hollywood today), and an equally big tradition of bad screenwriting. My guess is that in general that the Mexican temperament is not one naturally suited to the terseness and synthesis that a script requires. We like florid, wordy stuff. We are experts in "rollo"; literally a scroll, an endless, interminable scroll of blabla. Such is most of our literature: very wordy, not much action, and thus such are most of our screenplays.
So when there is no incentive to produce, when people get paid bubkes for their work, when there is no healthy creative competition, the standards are set low. And except for a few notable exceptions (which have landed our fabled trio where they are today), Mexican film has been unable to rise from its limitations.
Producers have been pushing for new legislation that will help finance more films in Mexico and the government, in its typical inefficient, Kafkian way, has tried to accommodate them with a cumbersome new law. Enter the Three Amigos. Hopefully, with their shiny, glitzy aura of fame and success, they will be able to persuade President Calderón (a big fan of business) and the Mexican lawmakers (good luck with them) to help the Mexican film industry.
I applaud them, one because if somebody can hope to give a push to film in Mexico it would be them and two, because it never fails that there is always some envious Mexican who claims that they are doing nothing for their own country, which is simply untrue. At least in the case of Del Toro and Cuarón, imdb lists a couple of their productions set to happen in Mexico in the near future.
So I'm glad the Three Amigos are riding into town and trying to do some good.
We'll see what happens.

Mar 12, 2007

Minimal film

There are 5 videos by Abbas Kiarostami at the Media section in MoMa as part of the retrospective of his films. The videos, called Five, are basically a fixed camera looking steadily at different landscapes. There is a boardwalk by the sea, where people walk, there is the seashore, where a piece of driftwood is pushed and pulled by the waves, there is more seashore, where a bunch of ducks walk back and forth, or four dogs sit by the waves, there is the moon reflected on the water, as you hear the sounds of nature at night. They are long and still and somehow very moving and eye-opening.
Mr. Kiarostami has explained, in Ten by Ten, his master class on cinema, how he wants to make films with the minimum intrusion and the minimum of artifice. He has dispensed with everything: the crew, the actors, the huge camera and the contraptions to move it around. Now he likes to make films with a small video camera, the kind tourists take on vacations.
Ten, for instance, is a film about a woman who drives a car in Tehran. She talks to her rebellious ten year old son, she picks up female passengers, she speaks to her sister, to a whore she picks up, to a little old lady who is going to the Mosque, to her son again. The camera is fixed inside the dashboard. The image quality is poor; so is the sound. Sometimes you see only her, sometimes you see only her passengers, sometimes the camera cuts back and forth once in a while. Ten doesn't have the dramatic structure that we are trained to expect from most films. There are no three acts, no turning points, no climax, nothing but people talking about themselves. And what we learn is still incredibly dramatic.
It turns out that the woman is divorced. She speaks about her frustrations with her ex-husband. About her frustrations with being a woman in Iran. Her son is devastated by the divorce, and he speaks to her with contempt. He's a smart little bugger, but he talks down to his own mother, partly because he is hurting and I bet partly because he's heard other men talk to women like that.
Ten is a quietly, intensely subversive film. Mr. Kiarostami, who is the most famous Iranian filmmaker of all time, cannot screen his movies in Iran. They are never political pamphlets, they are a subtle example of how the personal is political.
But Kiarostami's concept of cinema is also subversive in terms of cinema. He will not play by the rules of huge productions and contrived stories. He will tell a different kind of story. Five is a wonderful case in point. Kiarostami can find drama in a piece of driftwood floating in the waves. The fact that he has made the choice to park his camera to record nature in time, is already a form of story and a form of drama. The viewer's imagination is immediately engaged, because one may think that nothing is happening, but the videos make clear a lot is happening. The viewer fills in the story of the driftwood, where did it come from? where is it going? how did it get there? You personalize the little piece of wood. Then another piece arrives and it almost seems staged. There is a story there.
When I saw it, two teenagers were responding to it as if it was a video game, waiting to see if the waves would push it further, or the foam would touch it. Then there is the video of a bunch of ducks walking on the shore. They walk in single file. This is immediately funny. They walk, some traipse, some run, some saunter, all seem to be going somewhere with great purpose. All of a sudden, one of the ducks turns around and they all start heading in the opposite direction, not in single file anymore, but in hordes. It is amusing and puzzling and comic.
Then he shoots people on a boardwalk, and he makes you really look. As you sit there you start seeing more and more details. There is a ramp that goes down to the beach; you only notice it when a man takes his dog for a run in the sand. People come and go and then nobody shows up for a while, but then you notice some birds in the sky. Kiarostami forces you to look closely and attentively and patiently and see the drama that unfolds every second.
The last video, a long shot of the moon reflected in the water has a stillness that reminds one of Japanese meditation. The moon is distorted by ripples, there is drama in the night though we can only hear it.
He has taught me to think about movies in simple terms. To think about choices that are essential. To tell the difference between artifice and artistry.
And he was finally given a visa to come here and was interrogated for two hours by customs at JFK.

Mar 11, 2007

Maxed Out: Scariest Movie of the Year

It's not Zodiac or The Hills Have Eyes VII. It's a documentary called Maxed Out about the debt disaster in the US of A and it is one of the most frightening things I've seen in a long time.
It's also, as all good examples of the genre, very entertaining and effective in generating outrage, so I strongly, emphatically recommend it. Run to your nearest art cinema and check it out.
I have often wondered why I don't get that many invitations from credit card companies. I ignore the few I get, but I think the reason is that I always pay my bills in full and I'm never delinquent. So they are not interested in people like me. They are interested in leeching off the poor, the desperate, the already debt ridden, the people who cannot keep up with their payments. That's where most of their profits come from.
Now, when I arrived in this country almost 15 years ago, I was shocked by the fact that people here think that spending money they don't have is as natural as breathing. Not only that, but they do it with reckless abandon, with nary a thought for consequences or implications.
Me, I have a biological aversion to owing anything to anybody and my Flintstonian philosophy of finance boils down to the following tenet: I DON'T BUY WHAT I CAN'T AFFORD. If I don't have the money to pay for it myself, I just don't buy it.
Is this too complicated to understand?
You want the house with the yard and the white picket fence? You don't have the moolah? Then you don't get the house with the white picket fence. Simple.
But here everything is designed to make you spend, and to make you feel that you are somehow inferior if you don't have a house or a car or the latest Marc Jacobs retard bowling bag or whatever.
People here have not been educated to think that there's anything wrong with paying for things with other people's money. They are not educated to think about the consequences of borrowing, namely maleficent interest and other nightmares.
Meanwhile, I honestly fail to understand why I have to pay interest on anything. So I don't. Am I nuts?
Now, the banks in this country are absolutely predatory, immoral and irresponsible in their quest for and their creation of debtors. Their interest rates are criminal; it is in their best interest that people continue to be saddled by debt to the end of their days.
This is a capitalistic society, I know, but I guess I have been incredibly naive about the other part of America, the part that is supposed to temper the unbridled capitalist, predatory greed with notions of equality and justice for all and yadda yadda yadda. This has simply become a travesty. It is pure spin in this day and age. Nobody gives a rat's ass for nobody else's wellbeing, equality, or opportunity.
And in the Bush catastrophe, it is made worse by the nth degree.
As Maxed Out points out, for instance, the second biggest campaign contributor for Bush is MBNA. They were the ones that wrote the recent bankruptcy bill that now makes it even harder for people to get out of debt. Louis Freeh, remember him? Wasn't he some incompetent schmuck at the FBI or something? Well, now he works for MBNA. Better: Who did Bush appoint as his business ethics czar? A guy who used to work for Providian, an utterly fraudulent and corrupt credit card company. OK?
That's how it works, folks. This is not the rule of the people, but the rule of the companies. And the government works for the companies*.
When you look at things this way it is suddenly crystal clear why certain things happen the way they do: why we have no universal healthcare, why our soldiers are being mistreated and abused by their own employers, why this is the nastiest, most corrupt, most brutally callous administration in history. Because we have a president who likes to get fucked in the ass by business. High rent call boy.
*I know you knew that, but just in case you forgot, because the rhetoric to the contrary is so pervasive, you may end up believing it.

So this is why this movie is so scary:
1. There is nothing anybody can really do about it. Against the money and the lobbying force of major banks, forget it.
2. As you watch this film, and witness the terrifying, heartbreaking stories of people haunted, some literally murdered, by debt, you realize that at one point this charade of endless borrowing will collapse. And then what? Then, the calamitous fall of the American Empire. When it happens, which given Bush's track record, may be sooner than you think, it won't be pretty. It already isn't pretty.
There are scenes of Katrina in this film, and they are not only a perfect metaphor, but an alarming symptom, a sign, that the fall has begun to happen.
Katrina's true devastation was man made. FEMA approved. The hurricane in a way was circumstantial. It just laid bare what should be plain for us to see.
We are getting royally screwed and it's going to be way too late when we wake up.

Mar 7, 2007

Metro Goldywn Mahler

This title I didn't make up myself. I think it was concocted by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the late Cuban writer, and it serves a double purpose in this post.

1. Carnegie Hall. Yesterday. The fantastic Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the astounding baton of Riccardo Chailly, played Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which is a crazy, cinematic work. Every Hollywood composer worth his salt has borrowed from Mahler, who was writing movie music long before the movies happened. Hence the title of this post.

2. Bruce Willis was in attendance at yesterday's concert. He sat across the aisle from me in the second row. He was accompanied by several conspicuous people, such as a malnourished, morose blonde, a guy with extremely long hair and another couple. Bruce looked very dapper in a beautiful, extremely expensive suit. His pate shone like the pate of a movie star. His presence created a stir, even in the temple of high art that is Carnegie Hall. However, this being New York, people just gaped as opposed to swarming and pestering. Still, in the intermission, two young members of the orchestra came down to ask Mr. Willis for autographs and pictures and he obliged. I wanted to tell him he should be asking them for an autograph, but I pretended not to care, like a good citizen of this jaded town.

There is no escaping celebrity. There is no escaping the weird aura of fame. (How I have managed to escape it all these years remains a mystery). I have to say, the presence of Willis at the concert was distracting. I berated myself for looking like a nerd from the Midwest instead of wearing New York black. In the powder room I fixed my hair and applied extra special lipstick. I happened to walk by Mr. Willis a couple of times and felt like asking him "wasn't that great"? "Aime vous Mahler"? But I didn't. I'm way too cool for school, despite my unfortunate choice of outfit.

Bruce seemed to enjoy the concert and stood up for the thunderous ovation at the end. One of his companions, a male, chewed gum for the duration of the proceedings. The Fifth is 75 minutes long.

Now, Mahler rocks. He is insane. He can also be devastatingly beautiful, as anybody who has ever heard the Adagietto (the music of Death in Venice) knows. I had never sat in the second row before at Carnegie Hall and it was a completely different experience from the nosebleed section where I'm usually perched. I could see the expresions in the musicians' faces and you can spend the entire concert fixating on how they react as they play. Also Maestro Chailly is warm and expressive and it was amazing to see how he communicated with the orchestra. But the sound is also very different from up close. I could hear the different sections, particularly the strings, very distinctly. And the percussion, which in this symphony is huge, was super loud, unbelievable.

Mar 6, 2007

Zodiac: The movie by the director of Seven

So in order to cleanse myself from so much high art, I went to see David Fincher's Zodiac today, a movie that has gotten unfairly great reviews. It is not a bad movie. It is not a good movie. It is a waste of millions of dollars and hundreds of minutes. I enjoyed it but it left me wondering why I had spent so much time looking at a yellow movie. I enjoyed watching Jake Gyllenhall because I love his eyes the size of flying saucers. He should capitalize more on his funny bone. He has one great scene where he is late for a date with ice queen Chloe Sevigny and he is very funny. I wish he had added a bit more complexity to his character, a bit more darkness, a bit more neurosis. Eagle Boy Scouts are just not interesting enough. Bring back Donnie Darko. I love Jake, and no matter how incomplete his acting I will defend him to the death because he is a cutie.
The most enjoyable thing in the movie is, as always, Robert Downey Jr, who is fast becoming Dustin Hoffmann Jr, with heaping amounts of hammy shtick, but shtick that works. He is alive, and mercurial and funny and he nails his lines with gleeful ferocity, and he is a joy to watch. He plays a drug addicted journalist fearlessly and shamelessly, unrepentantly, like he knows what it's like to be one. God bless him.
I enjoyed watching the outstandingly watchable Mark Ruffalo, who listens so actively, and intelligently, and sentiently, you want to take him home and have him listen to you all the time, with those big eyes and that tender face of his.
I enjoyed watching Anthony Edwards, another solid, reliable actor, and particularly, the great, unsung John Carroll Lynch (Frances McDormand's husband in Fargo), doing a subtle campy turn (indeed it is possible) as the major suspect in the chase.
Then there is the gravelly voiced Phillip Baker Hall as a graphologist and the always over the top but great Brian Cox, playing flamboyant lawyer Melvin Belli. He also brings much needed life to the proceedings. So by my estimation, Zodiac counts as a chick flick, because there are so many great guys to watch (there is more: Elias Koteas, whom je adore because he was great as Gary Gilmore and the long forgotten James LeGros and Donal Logue, a cast of thousands, as you can see).
David Fincher is quite competent and the movie is well staged, but so what? What is the point of this exercise in jaundice? Are we to congratulate Hollywood because they dared make a film that has no ending? Is that what the praise is about?

Mar 5, 2007

Satantango: The Seven Hour Movie

As penance for having watched the Oscars last week, our resident philosopher in the movie club suggested we all go atone by watching Satantango, a 7-hour black and white movie by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, at the Anthology Film Archives (them of the uncomfortable seats). As you can imagine, dear readers, I had absolutely no faith in this endeavor, because it sounded like the kind of films I try to avoid: pretentious, inexplicable, artsy-fartsy, humorless, self-important dreck. So my friend Marta and I had concocted an escape plan in case we hated it. We'd come to the first two hours and a half at 2 pm, and if it was too much torture, we'd leave at the first intermission and never look back.
Well, I am happy to report that we stayed for the entire megillah and emerged at 10:30 pm, disoriented, dizzy, hungry, overstimulated and exhausted but deeply and strangely rewarded.
I will not even try to explain to you what this film is about because I'm still trying to figure it out myself. But it is, in my mind, a huge, long, metaphor of Eastern Europe, one of the most misanthropic movies I have ever seen, brutal and poetic and darkly funny in spurts and absolutely mesmerizing. Also, it has extremely long, slow takes that defy you to stay awake. Most of us fell asleep after the first intervmission during a looooong sequence of a fat, drunk doctor who sits by his window, drinks and spies on people, shot in real time, and excruciatingly slow, but not without fascination. My friend Begonia, who is a painter, was the only one who didn't snooze, and I can see why, because the frames had the quality of painting.
Satantango is technically brilliant, with gorgeous, endless traveling shots and a photography in black and white that seems to have been made with far more darkness than light. This isn't black and white, this is all gray, dreary, relentlessly dark and oppressive, but beautiful in its unstinting depiction of ugliness, and fascinating to watch. Still, my fantasy is to get my hands on the negative and start snipping away and make a more palatable version, of say 3 hours, for the general public. This would make the story way snappier, but it would also take away part of the most arresting (no pun intended) visual art committed to film.
I have been watching art video lately. Except for a few exceptions like the ethereal videos of Michal Rovner, some of Bill Viola's, Warhol's screen tests, and a recent work by Francis Alys, I find art video unbearable. A case in point is The Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman. I had already seen her 89 seconds at Alcazar, her recreation of Las Meninas by Velazquez at MoMa and my main question was: why? Why take probably the most astounding painting in Western art and make it into a video? It doesn't give you the feeling of entering a different dimension in space and time that the original does. It feels like a gimmick, as well done as it is. But at least it's only 89 seconds.
Now her new film is sort of a retelling of this classical myth that has been depicted in Western art by different painters. It is 80 minutes and I fell asleep for big chunks of it. It is beautifully shot and composed but it leaves me cold. It looks like a fashion show. It, as far as I can surmise, doesn't mean much. Except perhaps that savagery is not far from the polished surface of civilization, but I think this point can be made with less self-regard, ponderousness and preciousness. And I also wonder if the main reason for my exasperation is that there is no narrative. I don't expect narrative from works that don't pretend to narrate, like the Warhol Film Stills or the Rovner videos, but when something is based on a story, your brain is wired for it and expects it.
What surprised me about Satantango was that it has a huge story, and you have to grasp its thread from the vast, dense pool of time in which it tells it. But the story is the reason why you glue yourself to your seat and you wait to see what happens. And you can discuss the meanings until the cows come home to roost. And the images, their narrative implications, their poetic power disturb your mind long after you've left the theater.