GUADALAJARA: SEARCHING FOR A FESTIVAL
By Robert Koehler
So…. the idea with attending the Guadalajara film festival is to survey what’s popping up on the Mexican cinema horizon. The 23-year-old mission here has been to serve as a Mexico showcase, and it still is. Now, there are added layers, creating a slightly unwieldy superstructure of Latin American films–some of which are going places (or have already been) and some that will go nowhere.
Here’s the catch: I can’t blog about the films I’m reviewing here for Variety (and variety.com), so that means no Mexican films. Except Sergio Tovar Velarde’s negligible Aurora Borealis, notable only since it was inventively shot in low-end digital video by the great Mexican director Ricardo (Noticias lejanas) Benet, and Fernando Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe, which just premiered in Berlin (and scored the Fipresci prize of international film critics).
Forget Aurora Borealis, but Lake Tahoe is something to hold onto, and keep close. Eimbcke, when we saw him last, made his sublime Duck Season, introducing the concept of deadpan comedy into the Mexican lexicon. (He told me at the time that he had to explain what “deadpan” was to the actors, the crew, everybody. He adores Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch, so it couldn’t be otherwise.) Jarmusch is all over Lake Tahoe‘s early sections, but that turns out to be a misdirection or a subtle trick, since the film isn’t a Jarmuschian comedy. It’s a tragedy that gradually shifts mood from deadpan/absurd to somber and a wee bit nostalgic.
What happens when Juan (Diego Catano) dashes out of his family’s home and drives his Nissan into a light post, and then tries to find the right part to fix his engine? Well, for starters, Juan walks a lot, down empty streets in a sleepy coastal Yucatan town. (Eimbcke barely indicates it’s the Yucatan–there’s a distant sign, and there’s a lot of sand around the sidewalks.) He walks, and he walks. And walks. In and out of one auto repair place after another, each one with giant painted signs that look like they’ve been there for eons. The first joke: Tons of auto shops, but no cars driving around. Second joke: A shop’s door is open, but the unseen owner inside says he’s closed. Eimbcke appears at first to resort to Jarmusch imitation. Head-on shots, minimalist compositions and blackouts abound, exquisitely paced and timed. But it’s best to say that he’s stealing, and stealing extremely well. (Steal only from the best.)
He’s even better than Jarmusch at creating something from almost nothing. By the time Juan gets his part, and his repair, he has had to deal with a giant Mastiff, its fat auto shop owner whose business is so screwed up that he doesn’t even realize that his phone is unplugged, a lazy girl behind the counter of another shop who has a slow-moving crush on Juan (and a baby) and a repair guy who likes to do martial arts moves when everyone else least expects it. But the growing annoyance with the car repair is just cover for a greater weight growing inside his home: Juan’s mom won’t come out of her bathtub and his little brother sits in a tent in their front yard. Something’s going on. Eimbcke hangs out the mystery out, but he doesn’t indulge it, as Juan is able to put the pieces together to realize that his father is dead. The title refers to a Lake Tahoe bumper sticker that Juan’s aunt brought back from her trip there, which doesn’t seem at first to have anything to do with anything in particular, except that his dad had placed it on the car, and had always wanted to take the family there. And now,in the final shot, as the boys have removed the sticker, we know he never will.
It may be early, but everyone watching the films here is convinced that there’s no possible way that any film in the Mexican competition has a prayer against Lake Tahoe. I’ve heard this before, and then when least expected, something comes along. But this time, the guess may be right.
Guadalajara had become an old, doddering event that few outside of Mexico and Latin American film business reps paid much attention to; it just wasn’t a destination. Now, it is, partly because Latin American cinema has expanded, diversified, and shown that it’s sustainable, and partly because the festival has become more interesting. Cinephilia–which was more the kind of thing that FICCO, the Mexico City festival just ended, has cared about–has even appeared: A solid survey of recent Argentine films, which starts for me with Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad, the film that actually launched a whole new way of making post-narrative films. My Cinema Scope colleague Mark Peranson (who wrote possibly the first English-language text on La libertad after it premiered at BAFICI in 2001–that magic, terrible year) has noted that La libertad was also one of the first films of its era to break down the division between documentary and fiction. This, more than any other single thing, is what distinguishes the new world cinema, whether it’s by Raya Martin, Jim Finn, Pedro Costa or Albert Serra (and others). Alonso didn’t start what gets commonly called “New Argentine Cinema” (there were at least two previous “new” periods), but he radicalized it, and offered a new way.
As far as I know–and I might be wrong, so anybody out there in the blogosphere, correct me if I am–La libertad has never screened in Los Angeles. Not a surprise perhaps (it took a while before Alonso’s next, Los muertos, made it to Los Angeles). But this means that the most seminal film of the most important film movement of the past seven years hasn’t played in the would-be film capital of the world. But its context in Guadalajara is even more important, since La libertad is placed alongside other key films like Martel’s La cienaga and Carri’s Los rubios as a way of defining what a national film movement actually looks like. The irony is that there’s nothing absolutely Argentine about La libertad. Its freedom is a freedom from nationality, time-space, narrative laws, camera laws and the expectations that audiences instinctively impose on themselves. But pay attention to the actual translation of the Spanish title: “Liberty”–a harder, more profound word than “freedom,” a word pointing to a greater leap, a commitment to an ideal, an identifier for an equation that even describes its opposition–oppression. Liberty is harder-won. Liberty is that thing that the films that really matter aspire to. This one just has the balls to take it as its own name.
A film about Misael, who cuts trees and shapes them into logs for sale. A film, really, about what Misael does–searching for his trees, wandering, taking a shit, finding, chopping, shaving, napping, stacking, moving them to a distribution point, returning to his base camp labeled “Los errantes,” finding an armadillo for dinner, killing it, cutting it up, building a fire for the grill, grilling it, stacking the loose brush from his woodcutting, burning the brush, finishing the grilling, eating the armadillo (the hard shell forms a dish, as the dead tail wags back and forth), looking into the camera as lightning approaches. Active progressive verbs for an active progressive film that moves forward at every moment, considers every moment precious and immediate and the one thing right now–right. now.—that matters and nothing else. There are few films that encompass a world, a state of existence so purely and totally. Many have noted that Alonso’s film is one of those ultimate affirmations of Andre Bazin’s ideal cinema, the emphatic assertion of the real on screen. It allows the eye to pay absolute attention to what Misael is doing, because what he’s doing not only is what counts, but what defines him. So in that sense, you have the essence of character. But there’s the matching factor that almost nothing is even close to being “acted.” Certainly not “written.” La libertad is arranged and choreographed, an attentive contemplation on a human in nature. The big lie, by the way, is that this is ”minimalism.” (The same way we hear Apichatpong Weerasethakul described as ”minimalist.”) No–this is maximalism, a cinema containing everything needed for its own value and purpose, and that has the effect of growing in the mind, either as the viewer recalls it, or sees it again. (As you can on DVD, from the Collection Malba in Buenos Aires.)