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 Hate U Give (US, 2018)

An apartheid state of mind

Hollywood and overt politics (‘overt’ because it’s directly engaging with the political) are unlikely bedfellows hence film buffs tend to celebrate anything subversive to come out of that commercial – hence conservative – institution because it ‘gives it to the man!’. This adaptation of a YA novel, written by Angie Thomas and adapted by Audrey Wells, is entirely political as it portrays racial discrimination in America in a gripping and highly intelligent fashion.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter (referencing Beyoncé who she name-checks?) a teenager from the ghetto whose protective parents enrol her in a suburban, ‘white school’. At the start of the film her dad is giving her ‘the talk’ but it’s not about sex, it’s about what to do if the police pull you over when you are in a car. Immediately the different world people of colour have to live in is made clear and the film filters Starr’s coming of age through the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist of America.

It can be difficult to make political statements when working in mainstream institutions (the film was distributed by Fox 2000) but the film’s brilliance is it manages to effectively convey the political message through the conventions of the ‘teen pic. So, for example, Starr’s ‘girlfriend’ problems, from her white friends at school, manifest themselves as incomprehension of what it is like to a person of colour. Starr realises that she isn’t seen as black because she is like her middle class peers at school; she hides her ‘ghetto persona’ as a survival mechanism. Her relationship with her boyfriend (a miscast KJ Apa who looks too old) is also subtly done as he’s sent to the margins at the climax; there’s no danger, in this film, of having ‘white saviours of black folk’.

The film reminded me of the great Boyz n the Hood (1991) which also dealt with ghetto life and had a keynote speech, delivered by Laurence Fishburn, where he explained that drugs in the ghettos were not an accident but a form of repression. The Hate U Give has at least three such speeches but they never feel like they are being delivered via a soapbox, they are fully integrated into the narrative and are crucial lessons for both POC and whites.

In a chilling scene Starr runs through a scenario, with her black cop uncle, about the different ways a white man in a suit would be treated compared to a person of colour if pulled over. The uncle’s response reveals the racist core of America (and any society tainted by racism – it was revealed last week that, in the UK, not one person on the 240-strong parole board is ‘minority ethnic’). With the bellicose Trump in charge that isn’t going to change soon but, after last week’s mid-term elections, there is a sense that the ‘times are a changin” – let’s hope so.

25 Watts (Uruguay, 2001) – LIFF6

Stereotypical teen lads everywhere and Uruguay

I like to watch films having as little idea about them as possible, something that is pretty easy to do at a film festival where I’ve heard of hardly any of them. I chose this on the basis it is Uruguayan; I’ve never seen a film from that country. At first I thought it was from the 1970s, the black and white mise en scene suggested as such but then I noticed the Walkman (or equivalent), Kurt Cobain poster and DVDs. Whether the film has a retro look I have no idea as my knowledge of Uruguay is as limited as its film industry which produces very few films a year.

The subject matter and look of the film recall Clerks (US, 1994) with the slackers doing little during the day (it’s part of the Time Frames thread) but hanging around, trying to get a girl, watching porn, drinking and ‘doing’ drugs. However co-directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, bring a playful visual style that engages throughout. In one virtuoso shot an extreme close-up of a glass of water has a character behind it and, as he gets blown off in his attempt at a chat up, the soundtrack adds bubbles as if he’s drowning. Another shot is from beneath a bed as a (soon to be ex) girlfriend gets dressed having engaged in breakup sex.

There are lovely cameos of eccentric characters; particularly the ex Royal guard who describes the boredom of standing up all day without talking. He’s clearly lost his grip on reality as a result.

Of course such a film will tell me little of the social and political context of Uruguay at the time but it wasn’t intending to.

 

 

Lady Bird (US, 2017)

Teen conventions

I’m getting slightly worried about my mental health as once again I’m finding my judgement on a film in the first few shots to be correct. Could it be that I’m allowing my first impressions to dominate the rest of the film? If my response is negative in the first 60 seconds should I leave the screening and ask for my money back? Lady Bird was trailing plaudits and promised a female perspective, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, so I was anticipating a good experience but…

I don’t believe Lady Bird is a bad film, unlike Phantom Thread, but it struggled to engage me in its modest 90 minute length. I’m struggling to understand why: it’s not the performances; the 22-year-old Saoirse Ronan is a convincing teenager. Gerwig’s direction is fine as is the script. Maybe it’s the autobiographical element; I just didn’t find the life portrayed as interesting. It’s not the female perspective that’s off-putting as I enjoyed The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

On the plus side it’s good to see Gerwig reaping success both in terms of awards and box office. It is the type of small film, budgeted at $10m, that struggles to get a hearing amongst the behemoths of Hollywood that absorb most budgets and screens. Parlaying $10m into $68m and counting worldwide is decent business and hopefully will encourage independent producers and audiences for small films.

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, 2015)

Empowering the twisted sister

FilmFour, in the UK, are to be congratulated for putting on a season of female-directed films to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of (limited) votes for women. Marielle Heller directed and adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel; she’d previously adapted it for stage and appeared in the titular role played in the film by British actor, Bel Powley.

This is an excellent test case study to investigate what a female perspective can bring because the narrative shows a 15-year-old seducing her mum’s boyfriend; in the wrong hands this would not get beyond ‘creepy’. Whilst there’s plenty of female nudity it is motivated by the narrative and Minnie’s issues with her body; the female direction means it doesn’t feel exploitative. (This is not to say that a female director cannot make a misogynist film or necessarily has to deal with ‘female’ issues). However, by ensuring the film is Minnie’s narrative, she gives us a commentary on her feeling via tape recordings and in dialogue with animated characters who appear from her imagination, we can feel confident that this is a female perspective.

Although set over 40 years ago in 1976, the issues of female anxiety about being validated only through being attractive haven’t changed. Heller captures the post-hippy, pre punk ambience very well reminding us it was a time of potential revolution. There had seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the better in the post-Vietnam era. Reagan’s election at the end of the decade nailed that particular coffin.

Kristin Wiig plays Minnie’s mixed-up mother: she tells her daughter to get a boyfriend and then states that’s not a ‘feminist thing to say’. The portrayal of her is quite reactionary in that she is something of a hypocritical wastrel: the ‘hippies as hypocrites’ trope, most notoriously seen in Forrest Gump (1994), has some mileage but too often is used simply to dis counter culture. However, I guess the novel is autobiographical and Phoebe’s mum was just like that.

Satisfyingly Minnie becomes increasingly empowered through her experiences whilst the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is shown for what he is. Gratifyingly Heller hasn’t had to wait too long for her second feature: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, starring Melissa McCarthy, is due later this year.

Girlhood (Bande de filles, France, 2014)

Group therapy

Whilst youth is hardly overlooked in cinema, female protagonists are a minority and if the colour of their skin fails to be white, then western cinema seems barely interested. Hence Girlhood is already a necessary watch given its focus on this double-minority. It’s also important, such is the burden of representation on films that focus on diversity, that they do not misrepresent. Given the writer-director is Céline Sciamma, who’s white and not from the banlieue setting, there might have been a question of authenticity. However, her first feature Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007), was also a (minority-gay) girls’ coming of age tale; her next film Tomboy (France, 2011) – which I haven’t seen – similarly focused on teenagers. The fact the film is more about being poor (financially and in education) and female than about ethnicity is appropriate as class and gender, as categories, can be at least as important than race .

That said, I’m not sure why the film didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It’s superbly done with convincing performances but maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Newcomer Karidja Touré, as Marieme, is particularly engaging as she forges her own identity through friendship under the shadow of patriarchy and an uncaring system. I found it difficult to shake La Haine (France, 1995) out of my head – a very different film from the same milieu – which is unfair to Girlhood as it wasn’t trying to be a ‘female’ version of the earlier classic.

Certainly a film worth seeing.

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!, Sweden, 2013)

They are!

They are!

Swede Moodysson’s last two films, Container (2005) and Mammoth (2009), both passed me by but I was mightily impressed by three of his first for directorial efforts. I was out of synch with most critics’ reaction to Together (2000), but loved his debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Amal, 1998). His next films explored sex trafficking Lila 4-Ever (2002) and pornography, A Hole in My Heart (2004); both were suitably gruelling. He’s back on his debut’s territory with We Are the Best!, showing what a brilliant director of children he is, in this ‘coming of age’ pic about young girls in the early ’80s.

I’m struggling to think of the last film where I felt I was smiling for much of the running time. It’s not a comedy but the portrayal of the three friends is so affecting, and the characters’ rebellion so attractive, that there’s is just loads to like. The three debutants excel in their misfit roles and the narrative meanders nicely through several months when they attempt to form a punk band. They do this to annoy annoying lads and, of course, they cannot play any instruments (at least until the third, Hedvig, joins them).

The  ‘meandering’ of the narrative is perfect for it allows the gentle portrayal to unfold at a perfect pace. Even the narrative drive, to form a band, is fairly inconsequential. It is a snapshot of these girls lives in 1982 and is based on Coco Moodysson’s (wife of Lukas) graphic novel and this is no doubt where the film’s authenticity lies.

The film’s opening weekend box office was disappointing in the UK. Why?! Treat yourself to something different, and rewarding, before it disappears.