It has been a long time since a Mexican film became an international critics' darling or audience favorite (since, probably, Like Water for Chocolate). The success of first-time director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated, Cannes-awarded Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)–currently playing on more than 150 screens in the United States alone and just past the $1 million mark in no-subtitles America–thus gives every appearance of the miraculous, a virgin birth devoid of precedent.
The plethora of coverage in the mainstream press, itself unusual for a Mexican film, has by now acquainted the moviegoing public with some of the details of the phenomenon. In a three-part structure of stories connected by a singular car crash, González Iñárritu sketches wildly different characters, classes and neighborhoods linked by crime and fate. The film eschews linear narrativity to jump-start its story from a central hub, circling events as though they were traffic roundabouts through which our attention can be endlessly but fruitfully redirected.
In the first, a Cain and Abel pair of brothers do battle in a downtrodden Mexico City barrio, while a woman, a dog and a considerable stash of cash hang in the balance; in the end, many bloody dogfight gambles later, betrayal trumps betrayal and a desperate race for help results in the fateful crash. In the second story, which climbs the social ladder, a smoothly upper-class Mexico City businessman leaves his family to shack up with a model. The car crash leaves his girlfriend injured and homebound, focused on the hole in the living-room floor and their dog, which disappeared into it. The third story joins the worlds of the first two in the character of a professor turned revolutionary turned hit man, hired to kidnap and kill a business partner who turns out to be his client's own brother. The prizefighting dog reappears, this time with a different mission. And the theme of family, imprisoning in the first and abandoned in the second, returns for a third time to signify refuge and rebirth.
Amores Perros has become a hit, not by virtue of its story but rather its style of storytelling. Raw and energetic, propelling the narrative forward with a musical score drawn from the ranks of Mexico's rock en español movement–note, here, that González Iñárritu spent years as a disc jockey before making commercials and finally turning to film–it's well suited to current international tastes. González Iñárritu has modernized Mexican cinema by shooting and editing in a relentlessly urban, fast-paced and hip fashion, packed with sex and violence and raring to go. It's a breath of fresh air in an industry more accustomed to older narrative and pictorial styles.
Too bad that freshness doesn't extend to gender or class relations, as the film reinscribes all the worst portrayals that Mexican cinema has formularized, from the treacherous underclass family that eats its young to the debased women who, in a universe in which everyone is doomed, always somehow suffer more–and always at the level of the body. It's too bad that González Iñárritu didn't retrofit his characters as thoroughly as his style. With one exception: The central figure of the film, the mysterious old revolutionary, who carries out hits at the bidding of a corrupt cop but really yearns to rejoin his family, smells like a sendup of Subcomandante Marcos. Perhaps González Iñárritu is more cynical than he is modern, after all.
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Amores Perros is bound to be a banner film, one of which the new generation of Mexicans, who speak English fluently, wear international clothing and follow the latest cinematic trends (I had an argument with a colleague's teenage son, on my last trip, over the merits of Tarantino), can be proud. And the Tarantino connection is hardly incidental. Amores Perros is claiming a place for Mexico at the table of international cinema, seated right up there with Pulp Fiction, Go and Run Lola Run, thanks to their shared narrative strategies. The similarity serves it well, since US critics tend to be oblivious to the particularities of Mexican cinema.
Indeed, the only name to show up regularly in reviews is that of Luis Buñuel, the brilliant Spanish director who set up shop in Mexico City when Franco came to power and who stamped Mexican cinema forever with the images of Los Olvidados. Of course, however, the low-life setting mined by González Iñárritu in Amores Perros was virtually invented by Arturo Ripstein, Buñuel's artistic heir, who has fashioned an entire career out of the underclass for three decades, replete with squalid living conditions, depraved behavior, doomed characters and violent mises en scènes. As ahistorical as it is ever-present, this style has become cinematic shorthand for hecho en México and a school of filmmaking to which González Iñárritu clearly owes a debt.
If Mexican cinema is actually a rich terrain, like Mexico itself, and so very close to Hollywood, why so little attention? Too often, critical myopia about Mexican film is facilitated by a political myopia about Mexican immigrants, Chicano citizens and the diverse Latino communities that increasingly inhabit a parallel universe within this country. Hollywood, are you listening? Probably not. Hollywood, a cloistered guild disguised as a major industry, never answers back. Its position in Southern California and its reliance on Mexican service labor has generally failed to translate into onscreen presences, except when a pioneer like Gregory Nava offers a reminder. (See, for example, the instructive scene in Selena, Nava's breakthrough feature about the late singer–played by Jennifer Lopez–as she shops for a Grammy dress in a mall where she's patronized by the saleswomen until a mob of workers far humbler in status comes to pay their respects.)
A handful of Latino-accented films on screens recently show a decidedly mixed picture of where Hollywood is coming from and where it thinks it's going. Traffic! Spy Kids! The Mexican! Price of Glory! If the bad news is that old stereotypes are still in full swing, the good news is that hip style (handheld camera, fast editing, nonlinear narratives) and hip humor (parody, satire, self-awareness) make them go down easier.
And, occasionally, even a mainstream film wins points for uplifting the raza. The border has long been a favorite Hollywood theme, rendered most memorably by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, a film that anticipated today's boomlet with its spin on sleaze and corruption redeemed by a twist of formula: The American sheriff (played by Welles himself) was the bad guy, and the Mexican cop (uh, improbably, Charlton Heston) was the good guy.
Following badly in its footsteps, this season, is The Mexican. It apes Welles's formula of moral inversion, but this time around the tragedy is rendered as farce. And not a particularly compelling one at that, what with Julia Roberts acting all manic and ditzy, Brad Pitt impersonating an errand boy for the mob who can't shoot straight and James Gandolfini providing the only relief in his Soprano-transgressive role as a gay hit man. (Why is he gay? Cuz he's Julia's best friend.) The Mexican of the title is actually a gun, not a person, which seems as instructive as any other detail of what might be wrong with not only this film but with the whole Hollywood project.
The Mexican's few redeeming moments occur when it trades in slapstick for satire and uses parody to poke fun at gringos, both for their clueless monolingo habits and for their transparently stereotypical expectations of Mexico and Mexicans. In one such scene, Pitt lands at the airport en route to Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí (nice location, dude). When he demands an alternative to the proffered Chrysler because it's not Mexican enough, his Mexican rental-car agent takes him at his word, so to speak, and switches from English to Spanish. "Do you speak Spanish, sir? Only what you learned from Speedy Gonzalez, I bet." In a smart sendup of Mexican modernity undermined by Anglo cliché, the script awards him a lowrider classic pulled off a back lot clearly reserved for American tourists who want to ride like the cholos back home.
Still, such parodic moments cannot rescue the film from the undertow of the racist imaginary that drives its characterizations and plot devices–from the fiesta celebration in a small town filled with drunken revelers shooting guns into the air to the honorable landed family whose quest for the legendary pistola is all about dignity, not money. The fact that their story is told in sepia-toned flashbacks only reinforces the antique quality of the stereotype and the fixed, unchanging view of Mexico that pervades the film. It's as if Hollywood has an old-fashioned code of honor itself. Punch in the location, get the message: Mexicans are ruled by honor if the setting is a family, by corruption if it's a police scene and by violence if it's a tavern or small town. In the end, "good" Mexicans are basically those who are governed by the sanctity of tradition because they've inherited enough money that they don't have to hit up gringos for more. (This is the Mexico of very, very old movies.) What's most astonishing about The Mexican, though, is its arrival at such an old place, in the end, after its plot has treated the country more like a modern computer game, in which Pitt can just hop into a car and drive around, have adventures and return home safe and sound. On a Mexicana plane, no less.
Traffic is a far superior product, as Oscars and Ten-Best lists have amply testified, and its formulas are correspondingly more nuanced. But while it is a brilliant film–astonishingly bold in its aesthetic strategies, pumped up by cinematography and editing that do to vision and cognition what steroids do to muscles, and so finely tuned in its narrative structures that it holds attention without even a second of The Mexican's slackness–it too is chock-full of woeful stereotypes and wishful thinking. Mexico, while not the main focus of Traffic's concerns, is a necessary ingredient in its cautionary tale of what drugs can do to a wholesome American family. (So's the African-American drug dealer, another stereotype pulled out from under a rock to re-enter prime time.)
To tell its tale, Traffic needs its trafficker, the narcotraficante, who of course comes in two flavors: Mexican and Colombian. In Traffic's case, NAFTA camaraderie and the kind of script requirements that mandate no long flights, please, just a short hop across the border, dictate that its traffickers be Mexican. Once again, hip style trumps hip content. This time, no inversion of types à la Welles. Not even a trace of The Mexican's parodic voice. We are back in the land of corrupt cops once again, without relief. (Sure, Benicio del Toro is a hero, but not only is he the exception, the actor is actually Puerto Rican! The subtlety is lost on Anglo audiences, for sure, but not on Spanish-speaking viewers, who've been known to guffaw or fume at his accent.)
While the film does well at imagining a world cut loose from moral quadrants, where right and wrong are not clear choices and all decisions seem tainted by compromise, its imagination is confined to a US model. In Mexico, it ignores the very stereotype that The Mexican embraces: that Mexicans care about family, are bound to tradition and are more honorable than Americans even when it comes to crime. In Traffic, Mexico is no longer bound by such rules. We are supposed to take for granted the criminality of daily life in Mexico, especially where the police force is concerned (pace del Toro).
For a different riff on Latino life and how it could be, there is a new film by a Chicano director intent on exploring different, er, motifs, entirely. Robert Rodriguez, a third-generation Tejano, who shot to fame at 23 with El Mariachi and has now returned to fame and fortune with America's No. 1 movie (at this writing), Spy Kids. Of course, its trailers and posters don't lead anyone to expect a Latino film, but that's just what we get.
Rodriguez knows what he's doing and why: Consider right upfront that the name of the Antonio Banderas character is Gregorio Cortez. Huh? The founding film of the Chicano dramatic feature movement, made by the non-Chicano Robert M. Young, was The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring the young Edward James Olmos as the title character. A legendary Robin Hood, Gregorio Cortez was an honorable man forced into crime by a cruel and unjust posse. His fame has endured because of a corrido composed and sung in his honor. (The corrido, or border ballad, is a narrative song that passes on the news and opinions of important events and people, making them legend.)
In many ways, Spy Kids is a Chicano movie writ large, a sort of Trojan horse that smuggles the goods (ethnic pride, family values) into the multiplex disguised as entertainment (spy story, children's movie and supersonically cool paraphernalia, no doubt coming soon to a mall or McDonald's near you). Shot in his own town by a Tejano who's made it big, Spy Kids is no doubt the very film that Rodriguez wishes he could have seen as a kid and that he's now determined to give his own children. In an early scene, the boy Juni complains to Daddy about being bullied at school. "Remember!" admonishes Banderas. "You are a Cortez!" Humph, thinks the kid. "What's so special about being a Cortez?" (Maybe Juni could consult the website that New Line threw up last year for Carlos Avila's mainstream movie Price of Glory, which traces the name back to its Spanish roots–and, more interesting, addresses the curious web surfer as "you" in a tacit recognition of Latinos as the legitimate moviegoing audience and web-page viewers.)
The film is replete with references, and for every one that quotes a spy movie, there's also one that refers to Chicano culture. Carmen and Juni are average kids who turn into superheroes, once their parents are revealed to be famous spies in need of their assistance. Who tells them? Uncle Felix, of course–played by Cheech Marin, Chicano cinema's archangel. With enemies in hot pursuit, they land in "San Diablo," where an errant snapshot leads them, by fairy-tale logic, to their dad's long-lost brother Isidore, code name "Machete," a sci-fi gunrunner with a shop in a seedy part of town. He's got the weathered face and laid-back habits of that staple of Chicano culture, the cholo. And just when the script lands the whole family in trouble, Uncle Izzy saves the day.
Spy Kids is the mirror image of the worlds espoused by the other films, in fact. It shows a Latino family held together by shared moral values, uncorrupted by drugs or even television, united across gender lines and unfettered by underclass woes. (Their house is cool and the kitchen muy mexicano, with tiles and everything, and the women don't even have to stay in it.) A commercial blockbuster that will write Rodriguez's future in any language, Spy Kids still manages to stay true to its own language–as when spy kid Carmen needs to open secret locked doors and has only to pronounce her own full, multiword Spanish name as password. "But I don't use it," she complains. Use it or else, says the script. Uplifting the race doesn't get any clearer. If the film's other message is that such a pretty picture can only take place in a fairy-tale future, far from cops and robbers, limited distribution and injurious stereotypes, well, perhaps its box-office success will prompt a long-overdue change.