Saturday, January 20, 2007

ROMÁNTICO—The Evening Class Interview With Director Mark Becker, Pt. 2

Guillén: I'm Chicano myself and another aspect I much admired in Romántico is its poignant depiction of compadrismo.

Becker: I'm not sure of that word.

Guillén: That he and Arturo were compadres, that they were almost like brothers.

Becker: I see.

Guillén: The scenes where Carmelo remained loyal to Arturo despite Arturo's problems with alcoholism were touchingly effective and a shining testament of Carmelo as an individual.

Becker: Arturo is like family, no doubt. But there's also this element that it's very male. Arturo's wife tried to articulate her situation with Arturo, the degree to which she had to force him to go to rehab, and how he was a danger to himself. But Carmelo is like a guy who is a guy friend who's going to be much more forgiving to his guy friend than anybody would necessarily be to their spouse. They were compadres, yeah. You could look at it both ways: Carmelo is faithful to his male friend in a way that is typical of men and maybe a little bit blind to how one needs to combat problems like alcoholism.

Guillén: I would beg to differ. I think Carmelo was much more conscious than you're giving him credit for. By downplaying the problem Arturo was having with his alcoholism, by not judging or scolding Arturo when so many others were on his case about his drinking problem, that's how Carmelo offers his true friendship in helping Arturo recover. Carmelo's non-judgmental friendship becomes a space where Arturo can recover. I know this dynamic personally. Because—despite what you are saying—male friends frequently desert each other in moments of crisis like this, just because they're male friends doesn't mean they're loyal, but Carmelo doesn't desert Arturo. He remains loyal. He chooses to help Arturo out in his own way.

Becker: I think you're right in the sense that that's what makes them like brothers in a way. There's nothing Arturo could have done to lose Carmelo's faith in him.

Guillén: Because the compadre system is a system based upon mutual indebtedness. It is a leaning into each other. I felt your portrayal of that through Carmelo's character was fantastic and spot-on.

Becker: It's always about trying to approach the feeling I had during production. I don't even necessarily know if I can exactly psychoanalyze any particular character perfectly—and I'm sure I can't—but I do feel like I can try to approach when I'm re-imagining it during the editing process—that feeling I had when somebody told me that or explained to me that. How can I put this together so that you feel those same chills I felt during production?

Guillén: I imagine that you do that by filming what's there. You don't film hate. You don't film love. You film what's in front of you.

Becker: Right. And you don't impose your own prejudices onto the film.

Guillén: Which was one of the reasons I enjoyed your documentary. I felt I was being given the opportunity to look into Carmelo's life.

Becker: And be able to maybe, hopefully, feel like you're putting the pieces together yourself. I like the idea of putting the viewer in an active mindset where they don't feel like they're being dragged from point A to point B.

Guillén: You've written about preferring an "unbuttoned structure" to documentaries. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Becker: By the way, I say a lot of things. [Laughs.]

Guillén: And they sound good at the time, don't they? [Laughs.]

Becker: I can explain to you what I mean by that but I'm not like a person who is able, actually, to put precise words to my feelings. Sometimes I end up going towards the more poetic.

Guillén: I find the poetic completely valid when expressing oneself.

Becker: So I'm sure what I mean by that is that I like the feeling as a viewer—when I say "unbuttoned structures"—I like the feeling as a viewer that there's a little bit of a sense of the randomness of life. When you're watching it, you don't necessarily feel like from scene to scene to scene that the filmmaker is taking you up a plot ladder where it's transparent exactly what they're doing to you as the viewer, how they're manipulating you. Even though there's a certain amount of precision and work in editing to actually take you through a plot or a narrative, I don't like the feeling that the viewer feels it happening to them. That's what I mean. I like to preserve a lot of that feeling of [being] privileged to witness all this stuff, and you are feeling a narrative flow, but you're not feeling the acts and the work of the filmmaker; you're just feeling [the film] in a pure way and not in a way where you're thinking about how the filmmaker's leading you through this procession of scenes.

Guillén: In other words, it's not like you're scripting a conflict, the conflict is naturally arising in the material situations? One of the more interesting conflicts in Romántico was when Arturo said, "If Carmelo really wanted to return to the United States, he'd be back there by now." That made me question why Carmelo hadn't returned? Why didn't he really want to return?

Becker: At that point Arturo serves a strong purpose, which is that you don't necessarily want that statement at the beginning of the film, or the middle of the film, but it is nice once in a while when one of the characters helps crystallize a potential notion about your main character. I felt like Arturo there hit the nail on the head and I chose to leave it towards the end. Carmelo is, indeed, completely ambivalent about [returning to the States] and truly fosters a certain amount of healthy denial. He wants to be the person that he was when he was 54 or whatever and risked everything to help his family, and it feels like falling short if he just eliminates that from his vocabulary. If he at any point admits that he's never going back, then he's letting down his own sense of what he should be doing for his family. He needs to maintain—"an illusion" is maybe too harsh—but he needs to maintain a little bit of a hope that he can indeed go back and do what he feels is the only way that he can help his family in the manner that he wants to. The reality is: his health, less his age and more his health, and the political situation with the border becoming more and more difficult to cross, means that he could never come back as an undocumented worker. There's that scene in the bakery with the "embassy consultant" who makes it clear Carmelo is never going to come back legally either.

Guillén: Now it's my understanding that you actually shot on film? What prompted that choice?

Becker: I'm particularly inspired by documentaries that don't forget that it's a medium of visual storytelling and when I was making Romántico, I had that very much in mind. I wanted to make a film that spoke to audiences through not just what happens, but through composition, through the visual dynamic between the character and his space, his environment, and the idea that it could show in theaters was always [foremost in my mind]. When [the idea] started to turn into a feature, I couldn't help but envision someday being able to show it to a theater movie-going audience. If 10,000 people rent Romántico on Netflix, it will never make me as happy as [an audience screening]. I just had a screening in L.A. and we had a Q&A afterwards, and [I loved] feeling the reaction of an audience in a movie theater.

Guillén: It's palpable, isn't it? I absolutely agree. What with the new forms of cinematic distribution these days—direct to video, on demand, microcinema—nothing still beats sitting in a movie theater in the dark with an audience watching a movie projected on a large screen.

Becker: The collective experience.

Guillén: Has Carmelo seen the finished product?

Becker: Yeah. That may have been the highlight of the filmmaking process, even during production, being there at this festival in Morelia, which is in the north of Michoacan and an hour south of Salvetierra, [where] they had an outdoor free screening with a couple hundred people in attendance, sitting, standing on the sides, watching the movie projected huge. Carmelo showed up about a minute before the screening—it drove me crazy—I thought he was maybe nervous, pacing the streets, but it turned out he was just getting a taco or something; he was hungry. [Laughs.] He watched the film and, I'm sure, that must have been the most odd experience to watch—in a way like home movies—in this public setting. I know he watched the film with his hand over his mouth. I don't know his exact feelings. But I do know that, after the screening, I had a Q&A and I invited Carmelo up and he was greeted with the kind of reverence that I think anybody would like but especially a musician who likes being the center of attention. They stood up [cheering his name] in crazy reverence. He's a funny guy, I find, because he has this mixture of the humility that sometimes comes with tough economic circumstances but he also has this real pride.

Guillén: I see pride and shame (or humility) as two sides of the same coin.

Becker: Interesting. He started off as the humble Carmelo for a little while but soon thereafter he was quoting himself from the movie. [Laughs.] He was very poetic [in front of his audience] and he said something to the effect of, "I say in the movie that—ever since I was a boy—I wanted to be somebody. I feel like I've become somebody because I've told my story." It might sound crazy my repeating that to you. But you couldn't want anything more as a filmmaker than the subject [saying that]. You don't want to do some sort of whitewash of your subject where the film just makes them feel good about themselves; but, this is a film that shows some of his darker side as well and he seemed to feel that there was a certain amount of honesty in the film, which he could only be happy about. The fact is that he felt like he had accomplished this dream of his to tell his story. I felt, "I didn't fuck it up." The most important thing to me in production and editing was, okay, this guy was giving me the gift of his story and I wanted to be faithful to it and I wanted to rise—not to the challenge of it—but to what he's giving me in terms of his story. I wanted to be able to capture it in the filming in cinematic language.

Guillén: Well, in a way—and that's why I brought up the comment about the compadres—you and Carmelo shared something of that compadrismo and were mutually indebted to each other through this project.

Becker: I don't know. You have to be honest. You're making a portrait film. I would never be interested in making the film if Carmelo was just some sort of pure hero, a man who's doing wonderful things for the world, that's not my interest. My interest is in being faithful to the complexity of people, which isn't all [about] heroic acts. For example, his relationship with his wife, when he talks about her menopause as being a hardship because he can't enjoy a good meal without her bothering him, that's what I wanted to show because that's who Carmelo is. He's honest to a fault. He's completely faithful to the task of taking care of his children who belies any type of macho Mexican stereotype but who also has a first grade education, who's both incredibly reflective but old-fashioned in other ways, who goes to church to pray to the Virgin at times, but doesn't buy that you should have as many children as God is willing to give you, who has all these dualities. I wanted to bring that complexity to the film.

Guillén: Your instincts as a documentarian are sound, Mark. I suspect that—why documentaries have become so attractive to audiences—is precisely because there is a cultural zeitgeist that is exhausted with aggrandized heroic representations. Audiences identify more with simpler, more human heroics, conflicted and complex as you say, "normal" individuals who perform—as I was saying—their everyday tasks so that their humanity comes through, their compassion comes through.

Becker: Sometimes I feel that even documentaries try a little too hard to show you how wonderful people are.

Guillén: Granted. But Romántico is more of a window into one human being's life rather than any idealized portrait. To wrap things up, you've expressed that you've achieved what you wanted to do for Carmelo—which I agree you have done for him—but what are your hopes for Romántico now that it's finally opening up in theaters? Other than paying your bills?

Becker: [Laughs.] There's a few things that I want. In some ways I feel like—given the distribution market—Romántico is probably maximizing its potential. I would love the idea of reaching the masses with this movie because, of course, I make films and I work in film because I want to tell stories that people see. Of course I would love if the whole nation saw Romántico; but, that's unrealistic. It's like most documentaries in which the audience is going to be those that are inclined to go see a documentary. [Romántico will screen] in cities where it's probably going to reach the art house audience that is inclined to see this kind of film. What I'm happy about is that this film could have easily not been showing in the Lumiere and Shattuck cinemas. It could have easily shown on the festival circuit, showed to an even more rarified festival audience, and never seen the light of day of movie theaters. In 2008 it's going to be seen on The Sundance Channel. It's going to have a real dvd release through my distributor Kino. So on the one hand one could get greedy and want more and more but, ultimately, I do feel this was a labor of love and the fact that it's going to achieve its audience is something I'm really happy about. It's probably not going to make anyone any money. It's not going to make my distributor any money. It's not going to make me any money. [Hopefully,] Carmelo will make a little money out of it once we hit profit. I just cannot wait to call Carmelo to tell him we need to set up a bank account for him where I can wire a little money to him.

Guillén: That'd be cool. So what's next for you? Are you working on your next feature?

Becker: I'm working on researching my next feature and I'm working as an editor again trying to dig myself out of debt from this movie.

Guillén: Any hints on what the future doc is about?

Becker: It's a portrait about the ramifications of a colorful life.

Guillén: Oh, you've been reading my mail, eh?

Becker: [Laughs.] There's this fondness that people have, sometimes for family members who have had six, seven, wives and children from different families and this is a portrait of a man who's had that colorful life and it's about the ramifications of that. He's a larger-than-life character who has a certain amount of charm. It's in English and I actually look forward to working in my native tongue. [Chuckles.]

Guillén: Sounds intriguing and something to look forward to. Congratulations, again, on Romántico. It's a wonderful documentary and—if you're worried about your audience—you shouldn't be because I think it's an audience that's only going to grow as word gets out about this documentary. It's a beautiful slice-of-life from San Francisco's Mission District as well as an exploration into Carmelo's life in Mexico. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today and I wish you luck in your future project.

Becker: Thank you so much; I appreciate it.

Cross-published on Twitch.

02/03/07 UPDATE: Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily has gathered together several write-ups on Romántico, including Sara Schieron's interview for the Greencine site, Dennis Harvey's for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Robert Avila's at SF360.


Anonymous said...


I found this film greatly touching. "Dignity" is definitely the word I left with after watching this film. I appreciated the interspersing of scenes of the two walking slower than natural, putting me on the proper page of pace for the film. Made me feel disrespectful for eating popcorn at the beginning. Thanks for doing the interview and adding to the experience of this film.


Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for stopping by to comment, Adam. I'm glad to know you appreciated the film as much as I did.