Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

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The Sugarland Express (US, 1974)

'What do I do now?'

‘What do I do now?’

During the early 1970s the Hollywood studios, for the only time in their existence, were interested in art-cinema. After the success of Easy Rider (1969), at a time when audiences were in decline, directors got to ‘call the shots’. The Godfather‘s (1971) success gave hope that the mass audience would appreciate the auteur-driven films but most, by directors such as Robert Altman, Alan J Pakula, Bob Rafelson and Martiin Scorsese, were not successful enough to stop producers taking control again after the summer blockbuster success of Jaws (1975). Ironically Steven Spielberg contributed The Sugarland Express to art-cinema Hollywood (it was produced through Universal) the year before Jaws ‘ate the movies’.

Spielberg had learned his craft directing three TV movies, including the celebrated Duel (1971), before making Sugarland, his first feature. Duel was broadcast on ABC where Barry Diller and Michael Eisner had developed the TV movie as a way of creating cheap programming. They realised that small screen movies had to be easy to market as they wouldn’t be pre-sold by cinema exhibition and so developed the High Concept. This allows films to be summarised in a sentence and so are easily understood by audiences; Duel, for instance: ‘A duel is about to begin between a man, a truck, and an open road. Where a simple battle of wits is now a matter of life and death.’

Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who like fellow Hungarian Laszlo Kovacs had a great influence on the look of New Hollywood films, The Sugarland Express is based on a true story: Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) breaks her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of an open prison to get their son back. It’s a road movie that descends into farce as they kidnap a policeman and are then tailed by a phalanx of police cars as they make their way to Sugarland and their son. The film features three American obsessions: cars, families and guns and if Spielberg over-emphasises the car smashes he does leave room for character development and the eccentricities of American life. Like many cinematic outlaws before them, such as those in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the ‘people’ are on their side and shower them with gifts. Hawn (who frighteningly looks the same as she does now) is an entirely dumb blonde but you could argue that Clovis’ (Atherton) inability to oppose her situates him in the same intellectual bracket. An interesting review in Jump Cut points out the film’s misogyny as well as Spielberg’s inability (like much of American cinema) to deal with social class.

Ben Johnson’s casting as the sympathetic police captain gives us a clue to the film’s despair at contemporary America (still embroiled in the Vietnam war at the time). His associations (usually as a good guy) with Westerns, and the fact he sports a ten-gallon hat, harks back to the ‘old days’ when you could tell what was right from wrong. The America of this film, like the one now unfortunately, is full of trigger-happy men and you know, like most of New Hollywood films, it is going to end badly. Which, of course, is why audiences didn’t flock to the films as they are more interested in the ‘cinema of reassurance’, where narratives end ‘happily ever after’.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Aus-US, 2015)

What's cookin'?

What’s cookin’?

‘It’s a long time since I enjoyed a Hollywood summer movie,’ says the jaded fifty-plus blogger who’s seen too many samey films. Mad Max is samey; the originals were made 35 plus years ago and I vaguely remember them. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is different because it’s a fabulous, unironic two hours of action with dashes of character development and a hugely welcome dose of sexual politics that sees women on top (at least some of the time). Charlize Theron’s fantastically named Imperator Furiosa harks back to Ripley of the alien series with her haircut (from Alien3) and her indomitable refusal to let men get in her way.

The original Mad Max creator, George Miller, returns and uses Warner’s millions to get it right spending the dosh on old skool stunts, though there are obviously also lashings of CGI. It takes a lot to get me excited in action cinema, but Miller pulls it off by ensuring we are always clear who is where and doing what to whom. My only quibble is the 3D – though that’s my fault for choosing the format – as it made all objects and characters look flat in a three-dimensional narrative world. It was no better than the way Georges Melies created the waves 110 years ago.

It’s not just positive about women, we can see Furiosa’s disability in the picture above, old age gets a welcome action cinema re-write too. These differences, alongside great stunts (those poles are fantastic), make Mad Max: Fury Road a go-to movie for anyone who likes chase movies.

Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976)

Would be superman

Would be superman

Rüdiger Vogler, who also featured in Alice in the Cities, plays an itinerant repairman, Bruno Winter, who journeys through Germany fixing film projectors. He meets up with Robert Landler (Hanns Zischler), who crashes his iconic German Volkswagen into the Elbe (the border between East and West Germany). Landler’s upset due to his wife leaving him and Winter clearly struggles to communicate with others. The overall feel of the film is one of ‘alienation’ however this is seen as natural condition of the time. Director Wim Wenders, with his location shooting, 11 weeks on the road mostly along the East-West border, offers a lament for the small town cinemas that are being forced to close or were reduced to screening ‘sex films’ . The overall tone, however, is often light as the friendship between the two men develops.

The film is a long (nearly three hours) investigation of issues of German identity, men’s relationship with women and the decline of cinemas. The love-hate relationship that Wenders obviously had with American culture is summarised by Winter’s comment that, ‘America has colonised our unconscious.’

Incidentally, the film also includes a peculiar scene were we witness Winter excreting.

 

Into the Wild (US, 2007)

Lost in the wilderness


Add a ‘coming of age’ (or not, in this case) movie to a western and road movie with an arthouse aesthetic where the beauty of the image has portentous echoes, then you might get Into the Wild. It’s true story of Chris McCandless who rejects his family, and their bourgeois aspirations, to do the American thing: find yourself in the wilderness. There’s terrific direction from Penn where the portentous imagery (extreme slow motion in a rigged up outside shower) allows audience to see beauty in the everyday – something that cinema is very good at – and so reflects McCandless’ attempts to find a role in his life.

Even if McCandless was rejecting bourgeois values, the family is rooted at the heart of the film. Not just McCandless’ family, but the ruptured families he encounters, most movingly in Hal Holbrooke’s ‘lonely old man’.

I reckon Penn is a ‘must-see’ whether he’s in front or behind the camera; I rate this film as good as The Assassination of Billy the Kid…, hitherto my favourite film of 2007.