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Cabeza de Vaca (1990)
Powerful meditation about Mexico's birth
This is a really interesting 1991 Mexican drama concerning the eight-year long journey (1528 - 1536) of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked in Florida and enslaved by Indians, but who found a career as an itinerant Indian shaman, and eventually, after an endless journey through swamp and desert, ultimately found his way back to Spanish civilization. Cabeza de Vaca's few traveling companions, most notably the Moor Estebanico, helped fuel rumors of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, which led directly to the 1540 Coronado expedition and the first Spanish encounters with the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca's story is one the greatest personal survival tales in world history, and it made him one of the very, very few people who could fully appreciate the tragedy of Spain's conquest of the peoples of the Americas. The movie is in Spanish with English subtitles, but there is actually little Spanish at all, since Cabeza de Vaca is often alone or isolated, with no one to speak to. He is just as lost as the audience, in a world of Indian dialects.
The director Nicolás Echevarría greatly simplified, even over-simplified, Cabeza de Vaca's journey. The movie suggests the shipwreck was in Florida, but that was actually the journey's first bloody stopping point. The final shipwreck occurred somewhere west of the Mississippi Delta, and Cabeza de Vaca's enslavement likely occurred somewhere near Galveston, Texas. Why leave that part out? Well, it's complicated, and ultimately for director Nicolás Echevarría may have been unimportant. Echevarría had something else in mind. The important part was that Cabeza de Vaca was thrown into a hallucinatory world of abasement and privation. Cabeza de Vaca carried a Christian cross, and his initial captors decided he should be sent to a shaman who also wore a cross, and be put to work tending the needs of a spoiled armless gnome. What a horrible existence! The hallucinatory quality is reminiscent of the magical realism pioneered by author Gabriel García Márquez and subsequently used by directors like Mel Gibson in "Apocalypto". Cabeza de Vaca's real existence may have been as a turtle-egg collector on the Texas beach, but instead the movie shows him apprenticing the shaman craft with his captors. Cabeza de Vaca's vision-laden emergence as a successful healer is the movie's best moment.
The transition from swamp to desert is very abrupt, indicating that Echevarría wasn't much bothered by notions of continuity. Indeed, he had only two Mexican filming locations: the desert (in Coahuila) and the swamp (in Nayarit). As far as I could tell, the Indians were less like the real Indians of the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, and more like the Indians of Mexico. Then I remembered my history of Mexico ("Mexico" by Michael D. Coe, third edition, p. 146):
"Into this uneasy political situation stepped the last barbaric tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs, the 'people whose face nobody knows'. They said that they came from a place called 'Aztlan' in the west of Mexico, believed by some authorities to be the state of Nayarit, and had wandered about guided by the image of their tribal god, Huitzilopochtli ('Hummingbird-on-the left'), who was borne on the shoulders of four priests. .... We next see the Aztecs following a hand-to-mouth existence in the marshes of the great lake, or 'Lake of the Moon'. On they wandered, loved by none, until they reached some swampy, unoccupied islands, covered by rushes, near the western shore; it was claimed that there the tribal prophecy, to build a city where an eagle was sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its mouth, was fulfilled.
The director suggests discreetly, by his choice of filming location in the Nayarit swamps, through simplification and also perhaps by conflation of the Texas Indians with Aztecs, and by using a dash of magical realism, that Cabeza de Vaca's real story is about the tragedy of Mexico's conquest by Spain. And Cabeza de Vaca's story is about that, partly at any rate. The film is a meditation about Mexico's tortured birth as a Spanish colony. A powerful film and well-worth watching!
Ballets Russes (2005)
Quite to everyone's surprise, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, the filmmakers who made the documentary film, showed up and hosted a Question-and-Answer session following the movie showing I attended in San Francisco.
I was curious what had initiated this project. Goldfine described an event put together by ballet fans in New Orleans in the late 90's (whose own ballet company had just expired), to bring together the veterans of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, some of whom hadn't seen each other in nearly forty years. A colleague named Mark Hawk alerted Geller and Goldfine that this was going to be a unique event, and that someone with their film-making talents HAD to be there to film it. Starting there, with all the revived personal contacts and refreshed memories, the project began moving forward, but there was still the time element to consider, since many of the dancers were already in their eighties and nineties.
Goldfine described a worry she had at the start of the project regarding whether the dance veterans would be able to carry the burden of the documentary. Sure, in their heyday, the dancers had been major stars, but today, they were in advanced age. Would the dancers prove to be too - uninteresting? Fortunately, this worry proved to be completely unfounded. They might be octogenarians, sure, but the dancers of the Ballet Russe were some of the most dramatic, self-possessed, fierce performers the world had ever seen, and that fire still burned.
Reading some initial reviews of the film, I had formed the erroneous impression that the narrative thrust of the film would be something like: 'plucky group of Russian expatriates in Paris get ambitious, and conquer the world'. That approach couldn't work, though, because there were so many different dancers, who joined in different places and at different times, sometimes under radically-different circumstances. Also, most of the dancers didn't join as principals or directors: instead, they were chosen at a young age. The dancers were swept up in a grand adventure: like joining the circus that arrived in town.
Editing the film proved a major headache. They had twenty, or so, major characters who could not be ignored: the voluble Frederic Franklin, the amiable Mark Platt, the strong-willed Mia Slavenska, the unapproachable Dame Alicia Markova, the alert Nini Theilade, etc., etc. It was almost impossible to weave a workable storyline for use in a film with such a large number of interesting personalities, particularly when there was also a complicated story; a story that starts with the de Basil/Blum partnership in 1931, the big split, the best of Massine's work, the war years in North and South Americas, the return of Balanchine, the temptations of Hollywood, and the agony and penury of the late 1950's and early 60's.
The approach Goldfine and Geller settled on was to place the burden of the complicated narrative onto a female narrator, who told the story almost as a fairytale. The dancers then told their individual stories within that framework. In that way, when a complicated event had to be explained, the narrator could do it, with maps and other visual aids, just as efficiently as possible.
I took my very first dance classes with Ballet Russe dancer George Zoritch in 1982. Even as a neophyte, under his good-humored tutelage, you came immediately to love dance, and to respect dance tradition. I knew that Zoritch must have some very interesting stories, as also must his fellow dancers. We must all be deeply grateful that Goldfine and Geller, and their colleagues, also saw the possibilities here.
I was very, very pleased with the film! See it, and by all means, support the theaters who take a risk on it! Goldfine and Geller said that the DVD of the documentary will be coming out around September/October 2006, and will feature much unused footage.
See Arnold Run (2005)
Exposed Flash on the Beach
I was curious about the film, to see if any reference was made to the other gubernatorial candidates (I was among the others who ran for the office: placed 41st out of 135). No references, of course: it was all Arnold worship, all the time. I was most surprised how little mention was made of Tom McClintock and Cruz Bustamante (but, of course, both remain in state government, and I'm sure out of prudence, the filmmakers kept references to these important figures to a bare minimum).
One scene caught my eye, though. The (uncredited) photographer taking pictures of Bodybuilder Arnold with three lovelies on the beach sure looked like David Hume Kennerly, a photojournalist who helped start a Web Site called Candidate Camera. Gateway, Inc., passed out digital cameras to the candidates and encouraged them to take photos of their individual campaigns. A handful of the images are still on-line at: http://www.kennerly.com/editorial/gallery.php?page=_03recall04
Love Actually (2003)
What an incredibly dumb and stupid movie this is! Hugh Grant was OK - there is a nice moment when he, as the British Prime Minister, basically tells the American President to go to hell - but the movie's concept is so idiotic that nothing can save it.
Apparently the screenwriter had noticed how pleasant the scene is at London's Heathrow Airport, when long-separated people see each other again, and hug and kiss. That's OK, for a 15-second movie. Then introduce lots of first and second-rate British actors, many of them gorgeous but vapid, and link all these people we don't care about with many, many, various inane love stories, and have "I Love You" romantic moments, over and over and over again, like an endless Heathrow Airport receiving line gone haywire, or a Paul McCartney inspired "All You Need Is Love" computer virus (or its sister virus "Silly Love Songs") replicating itself in a Darwinian frenzy across the Internet, for 2 1/2 excruciating hours. Awful doesn't even begin to describe the experience.
It didn't help that we had come into the theater halfway through the movie. At the movie's end, I thought it was the worst movie I had ever seen in my life, but then we stayed to see the beginning of the movie, and I saw that Hugh Grant had actually had some nice moments. So, among the worst ever, probably better than "Last House on the Left", or various Wes Craven nightmares, but not much better.
Computers and romance - a bad combination!
DO 10 I=1, 5000000000
WRITE(6,*, ERR9)"I LOVE YOU!"
GO TO 1000
999 WRITE(6,*)"YOU JERK!"
There, don't you now feel ever so much more loved?