Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Agony of Ecstasy--Two Nights With Carlos Reygadas: Japon

Thursday and Saturday evenings I had the welcome opportunity to attend a program entitled "The Agony of Ecstasy: Two Nights With Carlos Reygadas" wherein his two films—Japón and Battle in Heaven—were screened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The program, co-sponsored by San Francisco's Mexican Museum and the Galería de la Raza, featured Reygadas in person to discuss his work. "Some people kill themselves and some people live in ecstasy," Reygadas asserts, "and the world is exactly the same."

My comments are not for the spoiler-wary, so please beware!

First, Carlos Reygadas reminds me there is life after law. He says he gave up a successful legal career to do something "more physical." I find that completely inspiring having just left behind the world of litigation and the judiciary myself.

His first film Japón concerns a man obsessed with suicidal ideation who travels from Mexico City to the rim of the Sierra Tarahumara canyon to end his life. The Man (Alejandro Ferretis), who remains nameless, commences his existential pursuit by catching a ride into the canyon with a truck full of hunters (Reygadas appears in a Hitchcockian cameo). The hunters drop him off in a small village where he seeks out temporary lodging in the barn of a viejita named Ascen (short for Ascención, not Assunción), "performed" to saintly perfection by Magdalena Flores.

Reygadas frames images of sublime horror. A decapitated bird's head gasps one or two last breaths as it forgets all flight. Pig blood is spilled on sun-baked dirt. A stallion mounts a mare much to the amusement of the local children. A black beetle flees a sudden rainfall. Funereal white flowers bloom beside dark railroad tracks. The viscerality is hypnotic. The heat that hazes the canyon and bleaches all color is hypnotic.

It's extremely difficult not to project symbolism into Japón and to allow it to exist on its own terms, but, I will venture out on a limb to say, that in my mind, The Man's instincts were twice identified with a horse. First, as a disembowled animal on a canyon's ledge; secondly, as a rutting stud. Were these emotional cues to The Man's state of mind? First he is a man who wants to end his life but seems unable to muster the courage, ineffectual at the abyss, and then he is a man who is somehow restored to life by the animality of the countryside. Reygadas is not here to say. He has created a universe and we watch it, no more, no less, sometimes enlightened, frequently amused, often unsure. Sometimes it is enough not to know what is going on and simply to watch his scenes in sequence, like the xylophone parade of children, the smallest first, up to the oldest smoking their cigarettes as an approximation of adulthood.

The narrative eye of Reygadas' camera shifts as in the best of Latino literature; similar to the narrative calisthenics of Julio Cortazar. (Coincidentally, I was reading Cortazar's short story "Axolotl" on my way to the Center for the Arts for the Reygadas screening; it alerted me to the shifts.) In Japón, Reygadas persuades you to look out the eye of the camera as if you are in the body of The Man meeting the village mayor and exchanging IDs. Then it shifts and you are walking uphill as the mayor announces the arrival of Ascen so that you think you are looking through the eyes of Ascen approaching the mayor. But then the camera pans to watch Ascen come up the trail. There was something so confusingly beautiful in this narrative shifting or what Reverse Shot's Nick Pinkerton describes as "the drifting symbiotic camera . . . looking for a host body." You are pulled into the cinematic moment and implicated as witness, much like Caravaggio does with his paintings.

Which leads me to another impression. Just as Caravaggio implicates the viewer into his paintings, and Reygadas does the same with his roving camera in search of a host, Reygadas also shows how inanimate objects draw our attentions into them, pulling us into their "orbit" as described by poet Mark Doty. Particularly pictures on a wall. He accomplishes this in both films. In short, images pull us into their orbit. With that in mind, I loved that one of the cues to The Man's character is that he was a painter and that Ascen, when given a chance to choose her favorite from a book of paintings, settles on Mondrian. At any rate, I'm assuming it's a Mondrian she points to. I meant to confirm this with Reygadas but forgot to.

He said he returned with Japón to the canyon village where it was filmed and it was projected onto a large outdoor screen. The locals didn't much care for the story but were greatly amused by any scene where there was cruelty to animals—the slaughtering of the pig, for example—because this is what was close to them, what they knew. What was, Reygadas explained, natural for them; something everyday.

Invariably the first question anyone asks Reygadas of his first feature is, "Why the title—Japón?" One possible explanation might be, Reygadas himself suggests, that this canyon village—a couple hundred kilometers from Mexico City—might just as well be on the other side of the earth.

One fellow criticized Reygadas for making too much of an Andrei Tarkovsky movie instead of his own. Reygadas objected. Without question he paid homage to Tarkovsky, particularly in one of the final scenes where Ascen rides atop a tractor through the valley. The camera films over her shoulder as she takes in the scenery in a sequence of disjointed clips. Pure, intentional Tarkovsky. And Tarkovsky's influence could certainly be seen where The Man is shown walking through the fields at dawn, the camera pans across piled logs, and then suddenly it is midday. Reygadas didn't intend that scene to be a Tarkovsky moment but it ended up as one. Otherwise, the film is his. Any other semblances to Tarkovsky are being projected into the film.

The scene Reygadas mentions—the shift from dawn to midday as the camera pans over a pile of logs—registered on my skin. I could feel the environment. I could feel the temperature shift from cool dawn to midday heat. Temporally, yes, that temperature shift was like one of the timeleaps of Solyaris, admittedly the only Tarkovsky movie I've seen.

One woman asked how, as a director, Reygadas persuaded Magdalena Flores to have sex on screen with a stranger? Reygadas objected. By the time it came to filming this scene the actors had been working on the movie for a couple of months. The ensemble had become a family; they were no longer strangers. Magdalena, who has maybe only seen 10 movies in her life, believed in Reygadas' filmic intent. When an actor believes in what a director is trying to do, he or she is more willing to do something that they wouldn't do in and of themselves.

Reygadas seems to be on a one-man crusade to break the cinematic hold beauty has on sex scenes. The bodies in his sex scenes startle, shock or revolt precisely because they are not the expected gym bodies usually attached to such scenes. "So accustomed are we to seeing only one body type in movies," Kristi Mitsuda writes for Reverse Shot, "that any other represented provides a startling amount of texture." Reygadas reminds us sex—such a common event between people—happens to all people regardless of their body types. It's just that we are not accustomed cinematically to seeing sex between truly ordinary bodies. I noticed this especially with Japón where The Man eventually beds Ascen, a woman who looks like my grandmother!! I was dreading the event! And yet, as it happened, as it becomes clear how Ascen gives herself to The Man to help him return to life, something I would have not expected out of such an experience, I couldn't help considering how many reasons there are for individuals to have sex with each other, the least of which is to satisfy our prurience as American audiences. Reygadas lambasts this particular hypocrisy. In Mexico audiences didn't make a big deal out of The Man's sex with Ascen in Japón, nor did they get all bent out of shape because of the sex depicted in Battle In Heaven between the chauffeur and his employer's daughter and the chauffeur and his obese wife. For Reygadas, the scandalized critical response to the blowjobs in Battle in Heaven feels ingenuine. That particular critique seems to be an Anglo-Saxon liability. How can such criticisms be taken seriously when Americans, one might remember, have the highest production of porno in the world?

One person repeated an accusation that Reygadas is anti-Mexican. Reygadas scoffed the notion. How could he be anti-Mexican? He loves Mexico. He loves it and he hates it, just like most people really do with anything they care about. If they didn't, it would be sloughed off indifferently.

Reygadas criticizes how music "decorates" film. He wants music in his films to be part of the film's cinematic language. For example, in the final scene he could have presented the accident literally as it happened so that the audience would have a head-on grasp of the event. But instead, he allowed the circling music to become the feeling of the film and the circling camera work to evidence the accident. In that final scene the camera uses the music to circle the devastation much like hawks rise on thermal columns. I asked him how he accomplished this shot and he explained that a revolving camera was set up on a cart on the railroad tracks. He did not film this shot himself but directed the cameraman to where the camera should go next, so that it would see this first, then that, a body here, a wristwatch there, another body, sometimes slower, sometimes faster. Suddenly sweeping down the rails until it hovers over the dead Ascen. The circling camerawork rode the shoulders of the music and evoked what it must be like for a soul to leave a body.

This final scene recalled me to the writings of Eduardo Galeaño who, in an essay on automobiles, suggested that the term "accident" is inappropriate and that "consequence" would be more accurate. My roommate, Gustavo Hernandez, agitated that notion when he suggested that the devastation of the final scene was not an accident at all, that Ascen had shot the men, having put on The Man's jacket, wherein his gun rested. This haunted me. Had The Man inspired Ascen to take vengeance? Had he provided her the means to kill these men who had robbed her and then, afterwards, herself? I couldn't believe that would be the case, especially in light of Ascen's earlier comment that she was not a greedy person, and that even though her arms were arthritic, she would not cut them off. But how to ask this of Reygadas without coming off the fool?

Hazarding the fool, I phrased my question: was The Man's gun in the jacket Ascen wore on the tractor ride through the valley? Yes, Reygadas smiled, as if he were pleased that I was puzzling the mystery. I leapt: "Was it really an accident then? Did she shoot them and then herself?" No, Reygadas assured me, it was an accident on the tracks. Maybe I was not clear enough, he grimaced, but she took the gun to keep The Man from hurting himself. This made me love and respect Ascen all the more. And underscored how resigned she was to her fate. Even when her nephew dismantled her home with his sledgehammer, she was never as frightened as The Man.

I praised Reygadas for the borracho's canto—the most direct example of Lorca's duende that I have ever seen in a film—where the drunken singer's voice cracks, and something ancient and timeless breaks through. Reygadas admits if he had his way, however, the song would have been shorter. The man sang longer than Reygadas thought he should but Reygadas decided to leave it as is in the film. This kind of serendipitous inclusion into the film aligns with notions Reygadas has about art and artifice. He allows the proscenium to be broken in the scene with the workers when they arrive to remove the stones from Ascen's barn. A comment is made by one of the workers that the makers of the film give them nothing; a sentence that Reygadas' audio engineer advised him could be easily removed. But Reygadas liked it, liked its reality, how it was more true than the reality he was creating, and allowed it to remain in the film. Reygadas suffers no artificial dichotomies. Truth and Reality are not necessarily the same thing, which borrows some credence from the adage that some things are more beautiful than true, though in his case some things are more true than real. Fellow film aficionado Michael Hawley complained that this was exactly what made him break with Japón. He was with the film up until the breaking of the illusion. But Reygadas doesn't want an illusion. He doesn't want actors performing roles. He doesn't want representation. He wants people appropriate for the story. Casting is everything, as he himself admits. Without proper casting, all is lost.

One woman noted how the passion between The Man and Ascen is downplayed and that the true passion is invested in the environment, the landscape. Reygadas confirmed this intention. He prefers downplayed performances because he believes they linger longer in the mind than the "hot" performances in such films as Clint Eastwood's Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby, which—while compelling during performance—evaporate as soon as one leaves the theater.