14 October, 2016
I’ve been looking forward to this one -- and dreading it -- for some time. Both for the same reasons. It’s the same reaction I had when beginning Tyrone Power’s Witness For The Prosecution (1957); another big one. ‘Cause this is Janet Leigh in arguably her best performance. This is Charlton Heston (whose name, yes, always sounds like he’s speaking as Moses). This is Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and everything that’s been said about that. This is Marlene Dietrich (again)! And Russell Metty and Henry Mancini! This is the film with the famous three-and-a-half-minute opening shot. This is the film that was rebuilt in ‘98 from a 58-page memo. And, yes, this is the first film in these Top 5s from -- Starring & Written by & Directed by -- Orson Welles.
No, this one isn’t going to be easy. But, like all the rest, it sure is going to be fun.
I say this often, but there’s a lot out there written about x and y that you don’t need me regurgitating. Well, that’s not been more true -- certainly in these Top 5s -- than this film and its Writer-Director. If you want to read more about Mr. Welles and his Movies, go straight to the top: Peter Bogdanovich’s Interview Book (Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum) This Is Orson Welles (1992) and Simon Callow’s three -- rumored four -- volume Orson Welles (1995, 2006 & 2015). These two gentlemen are the best archivists we have; and not just archivists, for Welles & Bogdanovich were indeed friends (at one point living together).
For today, we’ll talk Touch Of Evil as best I can; with, hopefully, a few new insights. To start? How about at the beginning, from Mr. Welles himself:
"I had just acted in the Jeff Chandler Western for Universal [Man In The Shadow (1957)] and they sent me another script -- a very bad one that took place in San Diego, with a crooked detective in it. And they said, 'Do you want to play it?' I said, 'Maybe,' and I was still wondering whether I could afford not to make it when they called up Chuck Heston and said, 'Here’s a script -- we’d like you to read it. We have Welles.' And he misunderstood them and said, 'Well, any picture that Welles directs, I’ll make.' So they got back on the phone quick and said to me, 'Do you want to direct it?' And I said, 'Yes, if I can rewrite it.' Well, they said they’d let me do that if I wouldn’t get paid as a director or a writer -- just my original salary as an actor. So I had about three and a half weeks to go before it began, and I locked myself up with four secretaries and wrote an entirely new story and script."
Touch Of Evil (1958)
w Orson Welles
based on the Novel Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson
d Orson Welles
To begin, let’s talk briefly about the ’98 Recut. Because, if nothing else, I hope these Top 5s entice you to visit or revisit these films. Ready for this one? Please be sure it’s that Recut, as close to Welles’ vision as we can infer. Like Criterion’s impressive Mr. Arkadin from 2006, the Touch Of Evil Blu Ray includes three versions of the film: the Pre-Release, Theatrical Release and ’98 Recut (supervised by legend-in-his-own-time Walter Murch). Is it exactly as Welles intended? I don’t know I’d say that if Welles himself supervised [and there’s an argument to be made for and against the Blu Ray’s Aspect Ratio of 1.78 -- intended 1.85 in 1958? -- versus Welles’ preferred 1.33 ... but I’ll leave that for another day]. I believe Murch & Co’s work indeed represents Welles’ intent and is the best version we should be watching.
For no other reason than the famous opening shot which strips the titles and rebuilds the music as we travel with the car / meet The Vargases. Stripping the titles was an easy choice. We know Welles never intended for opening titles, but why? This is 1958, remember. Titles open movies. Well, they weren’t, per se, paid attention to; at least not what was happening behind them. “Titles are on? Okay, it’s time to get settled. Titles have finished? Okay, I should start paying attention.” Not so with our film today where the whole world is setup in those three-and-a-half minutes. Not to mention -- like Mr. Hitchcock’s famous “bomb under the tea table” analogy -- not having titles here focuses us on that world. And the music? Instead of the (admittedly appropriate) Jazz, we’re now given some cinéma vérité: the car radio, music coming out of clubs as we pass, even silence; all specifically punctuating the picture: the bomb, the car, the couple in the car, The Vargases as they walk with it, around it, stopping at the border gate, the crowd there. Without titles and without typical Score, we’re immersed in those three-and-a-half minutes. Waiting for the bomb to blow.
Ideally not even thinking it’s one single shot (and more on that later).
We open on the bomb. It’s the first shot, close up, can’t miss it. That’s significant not just because it starts “a fun opening scene” but because everything to follow is a bomb waiting to blow. The town, the motel, their characters, every person, every thing, it’s all a lit fuse; yes, even The Vargases, but particularly Quinlan who, at the center, is both Protagonist and Antagonist. He doesn’t place the bomb (or want it to have gone off), nor is he the one we’re rooting for, but he’s key to almost everything that happens; pushing the plot as well as being pushed by it.
Which is interesting because we’re dealing with two stories. The first is The Vargases being on their honeymoon where he’s -- and therefore she’s -- the target of The Grandi Crime Family. When they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, the second story -- the murder of the couple in the car (and I’m not getting into plot much more than this) -- explodes in front of them. Enter Quinlan who, only focused on the second, can’t help but be pulled into the first -- because of Mike Vargas and then, sensing an aid in his plight, Grandi -- and we find ourselves in the midst of some truly glorious Melodrama; too often overlooked in this “Noir” (and more on that later too).
There’s the old adage in writing that you must build to a suprising and satisfying conclusion. Not or, and. (And do you know how hard that is?) Well, Touch Of Evil does it better than most. At this point in what’s left of his life, Quinlan is a man obsessed with winning and losing. That’s it. He isn’t obsessed with booze or candy bars or even Tana’s chili; all triggers -- even crutches -- sure, but no longer obsessions. (Even his surface racism is only that, an attack on Vargas the opponent, not Vargas the Mexican ... but that’s for a much longer article.) All Quinlan has left now is the game which he must win or he loses a little more of himself. Once a good cop, probably a great one, he’s now what’s left of the job when all its humanity is gone. So with our world waiting to blow, who ultimately lights the fuse? Menzies. Why? Because it must affect Quinlan as personally as possible. [I love the shot of Quinlan rising in Tana’s and there’s the bull on the wall with its banderillas; a bit on the nose -- that’s Quinlan now, only he doesn’t know it yet (or won’t accept it yet) -- but what a great image.] Menzies’ turn of conscience -- turning on his partner, his only friend -- is both surprising and satisfying. The fuse lit from our very first image has run its course straight into … well, some kind of man.
Let’s stay with the opening of the movie for a bit as we introduce our leading lady. I don’t think I’m overselling it at all when I say Janet Leigh as Suzie Vargas is some of her best work. It should come as no surprise that a lead character is our avatar in the movie; that is, we the audience, by proxy, live the adventure with them. And we’re very much Suzie Vargas here. When we meet her she’s a literal tourist, so as we look in on this world, we see it through its only outsider. Of all the characters in this Melodrama, she’s the only one that doesn’t belong. She isn’t naïve or better-than -- she has a great spark to her -- but she’s nonetheless different from this town, its characters. The personification of “outside looking in.”
What makes Suzie Vargas standout? For me, it’s Janet Leigh’s transcending what could easily be just a “damsel in distress” role: how she handles the explosion right in front of her; significantly how she handles her husband leaving her to deal with it, including having to cross back across the border on her own to wait for him. For how long? She doesn’t know and goes anyway; is fine going anyway. And, sure, a lot’s been said about how he treats her thoughout: “Why the hell would he keep abandoning her?” Well -- for me -- the answer is in how Leigh plays her. I don’t think she feels abandoned. She’s perfectly okay by herself. And when Grandi first confronts her -- I think this is a character defining moment -- she’s not pushed-over at all but quips that great, defiant “Yeah” right back at him. As much as Suzie Vargas may be regulated to a “damsel” role, Janet Leigh regularly fights her way well passed it.
Before we move on from the opening, a few asides. Re the explosion and its aftermath, why is the fountain on fire? I mean aside from looking great. Okay, moving on from that. Did you notice the Mercury Theatre Regulars popping up? Ray Collins as The District Attorney and Joseph Cotten as The Coroner. And then Akim Tamiroff (Grandi here) would later do The Trial (1962). And -- not a Mercury Regular but -- there’s Zsa Zsa Gabor as The Strip Club Owner (with her sister Eva as One Of The Strippers). And there’s been a long-standing rumor that none other than Errol Flynn lurks in the background of a shot. True? I’ve never spotted him, though we know he and Welles were friends; the yacht in The Lady From Shanghai was Flynn’s own Zaca. And the fictional Mexican town of Los Robles? All the exteriors were shot in Los Angeles’ own Venice (with a lot of great 1957 footage of the famous beach town).
Staying on our leading lady for a bit, let’s move to The Mirador where it’s tough not to notice Miss Leigh’s bad luck with motels (see, I almost mentioned The Shower Movie again). And here’s where we the audience take a detour as well. This is an odd section of the picture mostly because of how much time Welles spends on it. When you take into account how little time Welles had to write the Script -- less than a month, remember -- it’s a great way to kill fifteen minutes (and, plot-wise, justifiably). But I think it goes to the Texture of the thing. ‘Cause if there’s one thing this movie exudes it’s that: texture of Plot, texture of Character, of Camera Movement, of Lighting (and those last two indeed different). And everything at the motel drips it (including the almost over-the-top Dennis Weaver but he does it so well).
And look at everything Miss Leigh does here. Again, I don’t think Suzie Vargas feels abandoned, or in very much danger. She really does just want to get some sleep. She’s tired and annoyed and getting angry at it all but still never a damsel. In fact it takes a Rape to overpower her. And not just from Pancho (Valentin deVargas) -- she’d already bettered him back in town -- but a Gang. It’s horrific, no question -- especially with Mercedes McCambridge’s cold “I wanna watch” -- but it also cements Leigh’s incredibly strong portrayal: what it takes to bring her down. And then she wakes up in the hotel back in town to Grandi’s eyes and rushes onto the fire escape; not an escape at all given she’s still in that town, eventually crumbling in the jail cell on the trumped-up charge. Still she comes out fighting. There’s the shot of her in the car at the end and we know she’ll be okay. And I don’t think it’s “a Hollywood ending.” For my money, when she finally gets a good night’s sleep, her husband and that upcoming trial are the least of Grandi’s problems …
Welles and Bogdonavich talk about shooting in The Motel in This Is Orson Welles --
"Bogdonavich: How was Janet Leigh?
"Welles: Wonderful. And I gave her a very rough time, because she had to change her hairdo back and forth all the time, not knowing why. We were shooting forty and fifty setups a day, and she never knew where she was in the plot. I just said, 'The hair down. The hair up. Go to the window.' -- you know -- and she was right there with me. Really wonderful. Because we made it very quickly.
"Bogdonavich: You were shooting it out of sequence.
"Welles: Not just that -- of course, you have to -- but --
"Bogdonavich: You shoot for the way the lighting is.
"Welles: Have to."
Touch Of Evil is widely considered one of the greatest Noirs ever made, except that it isn’t. Isn’t great? No, it’s decidedly that; in fact, this is a movie I actually think improves the more you see it. But Noir? Sorry, I can’t call it that. Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, I’ll say the Noir is Out Of The Past (1947). And for a Neo Noir? Blade Runner (and I’ll let you deduce what you want from both of those). But our film today? Plot, Character, Lighting, it’s all close, but I don’t believe it fits the term. The easiest, quickest “out” is there isn’t a Femme Fatale, but there’s other stuff too (and if we continue we’ll only get deeper down the rabbit hole). So what would I call it? What I have been; what Welles himself called it: Melodrama. (And I use that term with the respect it deserves: like a Rom Com, only bad versions of Genre deserve the negativity of its colloquial.)
Walter Murch wrote of his ’98 Recut, “Forty years ago, in the spring of 1958, Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil was released by Universal as a B Picture, the second half of a double bill. (The A Picture was Female Animal, a now-forgotten vehicle for Hedy Lamarr.) Neither picture attracted much attention, although some reviewers were intrigued by Welles’ first studio work in ten years. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a commercial and critical disappointment, and Welles -- only 43 at the time -- returned to Europe and never made another feature for Hollywood. Thus a chapter in Welles’ life that had opened in 1941 with perhaps the biggest bang in cinema history, Citizen Kane, ended nearly twenty years later with Marlene Dietrich’s whispered ‘Adios,’ the final word in Touch of Evil.”
And, no, not the worst end in the world.
For our end today, I’ll try something of a bookend. We opened with what everyone talks about when talking about this picture: the opening shot. But there’s another in the film that’s even more impressive: also a single take, and two minutes longer. Yes, the scene in the apartment that introduces Sanchez and the planting of the evidence. It’s five-and-a-half minutes. And note the number of people in it. The amount of dialogue. And that they move throughout the apartment, the camera moving with them; the lighting involved, both technically and creatively, with kudos indeed to Russell Metty [who’d also shot Welles’ The Stranger (1946)]. I hope you appreciate this scene. For me -- for story, performance, the technical achievement, all of it -- it’s really the scene of the picture.
As gregarious a talker as he was, it was tough, believe it or not, to get Welles to talk about his own work. Questions abound; perhaps the biggest is, still, “What was lost from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)?” Even Bogdonavich had to prod him, and they were indeed friends. Most of the time Welles stood by his mantra of Art explaining the life of a Man, never the contrary. Still we ask, as we must. So today we’ll end as we began, from the man himself; this again from This Is Orson Welles --
"Bogdonavich [talking about The Lady From Shanghai]: Probably the slowest dolly shot I’ve ever seen takes place when Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane are sitting in a corridor before the trial. I had to look at the edges of the screen to see if it was really moving.
"Welles: That doesn’t speak well for the film, when you start studying the edges of the screen.
"Bogdonavich: People sometimes look at your films and say, 'God what an insane great shot.' But when I’ve expressed something like that to you, your blank look shows me that clearly to you the shot was normal -- or, rather, not unusual -- simply the way you saw it.
"Welles: I like it when you answer your own questions."
16 September, 2016
Do you love old movies? Of course you do, that’s probably why you’re reading this. Well, do I have a Saturday morning for you.
But first …
Movies are best as a shared experience. We’ve all watched something by ourselves -- and what with being able to watch on the likes of our phones, the ease of that is getting better or worse (depending on your point of view) -- but nothing matches sitting with someone as the lights dim. Friend, family, lover, doesn’t matter; movies are made for an audience. Jokes want a laugh, scares want a gasp, tears want to be handed a handkerchief. And not solo, we as a crowd thrive on the camaraderie. [I’m proof myself. When my wife Diana and I went to see Double Indemnity (1944) at The New Beverly last month -- a movie we’ve both seen many times before -- I was consciously reminded how funny it is simply because of everyone laughing around us. I knew the jokes were coming and I knew they were funny but hearing people laugh … didn’t improve the movie but … freshened it all over again.] Nope, a phone can’t give you that. (In fact, I can personally example this yet again: When Diana and I fly somewhere, we often split the audio jack on the same iPad so we can watch this or that together. ‘Cause it is more fun that way; laughing, gasping … she hands me the handkerchief. And we bring the iPad so we can bring our titles; titles from the 30s, 40s and 50s. But I digress.)
Movies are best when they’re shared.
Movies are best when they’re shared.
Well, few people have elevated this to the level it deserves like Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers. For the past thirty-five years, Wise and seven friends have met twice a month on Saturday mornings to watch movies. And let me say that again if I need to: twice a month, for thirty-five years. They meet at Wise’s home, where he has a small theatre (look at that beauty below, complete with three-sheets!). They have coffee and bagels and sandwiches and talk about life and movies and their lives with movies and then they sneak off to those theatre seats -- each of the eight Cliffhangers have their regular own -- to watch that Saturday’s lineup: usually a Double Feature, often with a Cartoon, always with a Cliffhanger (hence their club name; one of their club names but more on that in a bit). What’s a Cliffhanger? A Saturday afternoon Serial from the 30s and 40s; 12 or 15 Chaptered Adventures where at the end of each the hero is inescapably trapped … until the next episode. Glorious staples for the theatre going kids in those golden years (and as-glorious to kids of all ages today).
Well, Cinematographer-Editor-Director Inda Reid [The Making Of The Nutcracker (2009)] found Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers so charming that she made the 2014 Documentary The Brotherhood Of The Popcorn, an almost-hour-and-a-half look at the eight gentlemen and their Saturdays (and there’s their other club name I was talking about): The Brotherhood Of The Popcorn (named – like Lauren Bacall’s Rat Pack – by Wise’s wife Sandy). To call Ms. Reid’s Documentary charming doesn’t do it justice though Wise and friends are just that, from meeting them individually to getting to spend some time at those special Saturdays, both around the kitchen table and in the theatre. And they’re quite the individuals including a Truck Driver, House Painter, Teacher, two Animators, a Rockabilly Crooner and an Irishman (that’s how he’s tagged) in the mix. The youngster in the group? 68 this year. Not that age seems to matter. All past is indeed prologue to friends getting together to watch movies.
Reid herself wrote, “For over thirty-five years, Woody and The Cliffhangers have met to watch a double-feature (with a break between for a cliffhanger serial and lunch). They talk about everything under the sun: movies, stars, family, their kids, their pets, their surgeries, lives and loves. And although the rules state that one cannot talk about religion or politics, they end up talking about that too. Their unique personalities and individual life stories are just as interesting as the movies they watch. We hope you will join us in the support of this special film that celebrates tradition, friendship, nostalgia and films the good ol’ fashioned way, with some good ol’ fashioned gentlemen. They definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to!” (And how easy it is to see how warmly she means the men and their movies.)
And what movies! Look at the lineups for their last three get-togethers --
And what movies! Look at the lineups for their last three get-togethers --
The Falcon In Hollywood
Chapter 8 of King Of The Texas Rangers
The Front Page (1974)
Saps At Sea
Chapter 7 of King Of The Texas Rangers
My Darling Clementine
Charlie Chan At The Olympics
Chapter 6 of King Of The Texas Rangers
Sorry, I’m having so much fun typing these, here are two more --
Murder, My Sweet
Horse Feathers (1932)
Sylvester & Tweety in Canary Row
Chapter 5 of King Of The Texas Rangers
The Thin Man (1934)
Tom & Jerry in Texas Tom
Chapter 4 of King Of The Texas Rangers
I don’t know about you, but I’m jealous; I want to sit in that theatre on a Saturday morning and watch those Cartoons and Cliffhangers and Double Features! I’m a big Falcon fan (particularly the Tom Conways), plus you have a quintessential Noir, Murder, My Sweet, and a quintessential Ford, My Darling Clementine (not to mention my wife Diana is a big Buster Keaton fan and you have his final Silent, Spite Marriage). Plus Billy Wilder? And Sylvester & Tweety and Tom & Jerry? I thank you. [I might pass on Chicago but “Nobody’s perfect.” That said I do like that it’s not just the 30s, 40s & 50s in there, and a quick glance at other Saturdays (Wise posts each lineup on the Brotherhood Of The Popcorn Facebook Page) shows a healthy dose of James Bond (always a treat).]
Speaking of their Facebook Page, that’s how I first came across this Documentary and, believe it or not, Wise himself. [I say believe it or not here because Wise has been involved with The Lone Pine Film Festival for twenty years and I didn’t know it until this year (I write embarrassingly).] The Brotherhood Facebook Page was suggested to me in my feed; probably because most of the pages I like circle Movies, Theatres, Los Angeles and Conservancy: Nostalgia (including, yes, the great-if-you’re-a-fan Character Actors In Classic Films). I “liked” Brotherhood on Facebook and started to see the Saturday lineups: all these great titles scrolling by. And I learned about The Documentary and wanted to get to a screening -- it’s been awarded at many Festivals -- but kept missing it. Well, then there was a post on the Lone Pine Film Festival’s Facebook Page that Rawhide (1951) would be screening this year. I’d done a write-up on that for my TyronePower Top 5, so I commented with a link. And who should write back that he enjoyed it? Mr. Woody Wise … who has been running films at The Festival for twenty years. Woody and I started chatting and he was very kind to send me The Documentary on Blu Ray.
If you read my Blog regularly at all -- and I thank you -- you know I’m not one to particularly critique anything. I’m continuing my Top 5s with Janet Leigh because I like them and want to share. That’s it. [Dad did the same with his Lone Ranger book (From Out Of The Past: A Pictorial History Of The Lone Ranger), Lone Pine book (On Location In Lone Pine) and – particularly – two Lone Pine videos (On Location In Lone Pine, Vols 1 & 2). I don’t think he disparages anything in any of them. And what’s wrong with simply sharing?] Well, if there’s a critique to be made at all with Brotherhood Of The Popcorn, it’s that I wish a little more time was spent at a given Saturday; especially in the theatre. Hearing more of their chatting. More of their favorite Stars, Genres, Serials. Those wonderful “arguments” that come out of days like these. Their sitting in the theatre right after a screening and hearing them talk about those Films, that Serial. As charming as the gentlemen are -- those Saturdays are -- I just wanted more there. And maybe I’m being picky. Maybe I am just jealous I don’t get to sit there too. To listen … and talk with … and learn.
What Inda Reid set out to document -- and she accomplishes it beautifully -- is herself share the charm of it all; and, yes, there’s that word again. I don’t know what else to call it but charming. As Leonard Maltin himself wrote, it’s “An affectionate portrait of friends from a wide range of backgrounds whose common interest is a love of old movies. Brotherhood Of The Popcorn is disarming and enjoyable, especially if you happen to share that love.” Disarming? Perhaps in how enjoyable you find a seemingly simple subject as this to be for the almost-hour-and-a-half. This is not groundbreaking cinema, nor should it be. Where Reid & Co excel is in appreciating the material, knowing their audience, and writing a love letter to both at the same time.
That we get to be Reid’s audience and therefore – even if just by proxy – get to sit with Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers?
That’s a happy Saturday morning indeed.
12 August, 2016
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire has been better documented by more learned scholars than me; suffice to say it was the significant event in the colonization of The Americas. In 1521, Hernán Cortés took control of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec kingdom became the colony of New Spain. On its rubble, Mexico City was born. “Social historians like to focus on the fact that Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlan,” says Historian Felix D. Almaraz, “but what they conveniently overlook is that out of the rubble Cortés created Mexico City [which] became the political, religious and cultural center of New Spain.”
Floods of Missionaries poured in, evangelizing the native Indians. More than just a religion, The Church permeated Mexican society. Long accustomed to the powerful priests of the Aztecs, the Indians readily adapted to the icons and rituals of The Roman Catholic Church. Even the fundamental belief -- Christ’s sacrifice on The Cross -- was easily meshed with the Indians’ ancient belief in the power of blood sacrifice. Several Indian Gods were Christianized, taking on the identity of The Catholic Saint. Most significantly, the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin was resanctified as The Virgin of Guadalupe, an Indian incarnation of The Virgin Mary. “There’s no question,” says Historian Raquel Aubio-Goldsmith, “that The Virgin of Guadalupe is connected to the indigenous past because of where she appeared, on a hill where there had been a temple to Tonantzin. The person who sees her was an Indian, Juan Diego [this is now 1531], and her appearance opened the possibility of bringing people into Christianity.”
By the end of The 16th Century there was a wide network of shrines to The Virgin of Guadalupe throughout Mexico, and Her appearance to Juan Diego was documented by Miquel Sánchez in 1648. The devotion continued to grow, especially when She was credited with ending a deadly epidemic that ravaged Mexico City in 1736. In 1737 She was proclaimed Patroness of Mexico City, and in 1746 her patronage was accepted by all the territories of New Spain (which by then included part of present-day California as well as regions in Guatemala and El Salvador).
But The Virgin of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religion, as She played an important role in Mexican Nationalism. In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo named Her the Patroness of his Spanish revolt; their battle cry, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.” During a religious revival in the late 19th century, preachers declared that She not only freed Her people from idolatry but reconciled the Spanish and indigenous peoples in a common devotion. In 1914, Emiliano Zapata carried Her banner when he entered Mexico City. And in The Mexican Civil War (1926-1929), the rebels again championed her image.
She is more than just Mexico’s Patroness. She is the country’s mother.
What does this mean to the enchanting tale of a young lady dreaming of something more in present day Los Angeles? For Citlalli, the lead character in today’s story -- as well as Diana Kongkasem, its Writer-Director -- I imagine a great deal.
But we’ll get to that.
Citlalli’s Prayer, an eleven-minute Short from Kongkasem’s 2002 New York University Film Program, is the story of a young girl who is bullied at her new school and looks to a certain magical mother as her safeguard and safe-haven. It is a simple story but that’s part of its strength. I’ve already called it enchanting, and it’s easily that, but -- as a fairy tale, a parable -- I’ll also call it magical indeed because -- while the audience is left impressed by the artistry (crucial to all entertainment, even magic) -- Kongkasem wisely leaves us wondering what has happened. More significantly, she lets us decide what it means.
It may seem trite to say the story is told from Citlalli’s point of view, but that’s not quite accurate. Instead, it feels as if Kongkasem -- clearly comfortable in a child’s world -- has made us Citlalli’s invisible friend and we’re going through Citlalli’s life directly beside her. To wit, when we see her Mother, we never quite see her face, as if we never raise our child’s head that far; alas, I wish this was the same for The School Teacher. (It’s also worth pointing out that even when we see the embodiment of our magical mother, we never quite see Her face either. But more on Her in a moment.) Whenever we interact with the world, being right next to our child heroine, it’s always from that level. When we do experience another, the change is pointedly personified by … well, faith.
Shot on 16MM in 1.33 (that wonderful square of old) by Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope) in a beautifully tinged palette, we find ourselves immersed in Citlalli’s world. We could easily turn off the Color and find ourselves immersed in Jean-Pierre Jeunet shot by Gabriel Figueroa. And that feels deliberate; not decreed by monetary restrictions. Kongkasem doesn’t take our hand and lead us into her film but instead drops us -- full deep end -- into her painting. Set-in and shot-in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, there are no -- and consider the subject matter -- postcard pics of The City Of Angels; no Hollywood sign or Beach or even Downtown … and that’s a good thing. This is a story that belongs in Citlalli’s bubble. Not at all claustrophobic (the opening shot is clouds against a bright blue sky) but -- whether inside or out -- there’s little room to breathe … again a good thing. We feel Citlalli’s yearning to break free right along with her.
And that painting? When the palette is truly vibrant, it’s with the splashes of how Citlalli sees the world; all its beauty in what she finds beautiful: the Papel Picado hanging like stars in her bedroom, the painting of The Virgin of Guadalupe on the street wall as she walks to school, the flowers in her school’s courtyard. Even when the bullies are bullying -- a heartbreaking beat in any context (and Kongkasem applaudingly sidesteps cliché) -- we’re not stricken for our hero because we know she’s better than they are. (Admittedly, “better” is a tough word. Not just at her Arts & Crafts but smarter, wiser; wholly purer.) All wonderful brushstrokes against the canvas. In fact, so sure are the brushstrokes that Citlalli’s Prayer could be a Silent -- again a good thing -- the nuance of story well balanced by Kongkasem’s hand and in the face of our child hero, portrayed by newcomer Emily Suzuki. It’s tough not to root for a young lady being bullied, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Suzuki carrying the film; and us along with her.
Kongkasem’s mother is Mexican, by whom she’s wonderfully influenced, so it’s no surprise this thesis should showcase that heritage. But what’s interesting about today’s story is instead of using Mexicans as characters -- and I don’t even mean caricatures -- or religion as pepper to make the plot something “more” -- darker, brighter, sexier, more poignant; any of the clichés for which it’s too often used -- Kongkasem simply tells her story in that world. In fact, it isn’t “showcased” at all but portrayed as everyday reality; likely because that’s simply who Kongkasem is (was at that age). It’s not difficult to infer Citlalli is a young Kongkasem in the same way Richard Dreyfuss was Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (that film of theirs specifically because of the intangible wonders they -- Dreyfuss the character and Spielberg the storyteller -- face). Kongkasem uses a very real scenario, untampered by a single drop of “type,” to showcase what’s really important here: the fantasy; in my mind, the parable.
Which brings us round to our history lesson; that brief reminder of who The Virgin of Guadalupe is, how she came to be, what that means. Brenda Canela (whose resume ranges from CSI to Little Miss Sunshine to Call Of Duty: Ghosts) portrays Her embodiment but, really, The Virgin of Guadalupe is in every scene; just as much as Citlalli. And Her presence is felt just as much in today’s “institutions:” instead of New Spain, it’s an urban school; instead of the conquering of an indigenous tribe, we face school bullies. And just as much as The Virgin of Guadalupe lifted Her people above the rubble of a newborn country, so does She lift Citlalli above the mediocrity imprisoning her. And again -- I must stress this -- none of this is in caricature. Or by type. Or told melodramatically. Rather, culture and religion are, here, as part of everyday life as oxygen.
And that makes it even more breathtaking.
I wonder if another great Mexican filmmaker saw today’s film and was as impressed. His Pan’s Labyrinth -- made six years after Citlalli’s Prayer -- is also an enchanting fairy tale about a young lady yearning to break free from her world. And Kongkasem certainly foreshadows Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece in its magical quality -- its take on magic -- including our introduction by a haunting lullaby. Both raise the question, “Is the fantasy real?” While Kongkasem’s Citlalli escapes into the arms of The Virgin of Guadalupe, we then see her walk back into the school; and while Del Toro’s Ofelia lays bleeding, we then see her find her parents. Do both child heroes find enough peace in the fantasy to accept reality? Is that the magic?
And is that enough?
It’s too often quipped, “Great art should make us think.” I don’t believe that. But it should make us feel. It doesn’t always happen (or to each their own), so when it does with something as simple as an eleven-minute Short Film from fourteen years ago, yes, I’m enchanted. So, in that, Citlalli’s prayer has whole-heartedly been answered.