Friday, February 20, 2009

2009 SAN DIEGO LATINO FILM FESTIVAL—Sergio de la Mora pays tribute to Julián Hernández

The 16th edition of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which runs from March 12-22, is hosting the U.S. premiere of noted queer auteur Julián Hernández's third feature film Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo (Raging Sun, Raging Sky, 2009). Hernández will be in attendance.

Julián Hernández (born Mexico City, 1972) is a writer and director who possesses one of the most unique and uncompromising visions in contemporary cinema, a reputation he consolidated with his second feature film,
El cielo dividido (Broken Sky, 2006), as well as a score of short and medium length films made since 1993. His highly anticipated new magnum opus Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo (Raging Sun, Raging Sky, 2009), with a running time of approximately three hours, is confirming his reputation. Rabioso sol is already reaping prizes at prestigious film festivals, winning the Teddy Award for queer cinema at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, where its world premiere was celebrated February 11 of this year. In 2003, Hernández's debut feature, Mil nubes de paz cercan el cielo, amor, jamás acabarás de ser amor (A Thousand Clouds of Peace Fence the Sky, Love; Your Being Love Will Never End, 2003), was also awarded a Teddy. Since I have not yet seen Rabioso cielo, we will see if bigger is better, which certainly is debatable with the nearly two and a half hour El cielo dividido.

Made in collaboration with the film collective Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos, his body of work expands and challenges the limits of film language and genres. Hernández founded the Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos while studying at the Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos of the Universidad Autónoma de México, 1989-1994. In addition to Hernández, the core members of the film collective are producer Roberto Fiesco, who is also an exceptional director; sound designer Aurora Ojeda; and cinematographer Diego Arizmendi, who left the collective after the completion of Mil nubes de paz, and was replaced by the equally talented Alejandro Cantú. The Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos has made over 25 fiction films in less than 20 years. Their continuity is unusual in Mexican film history, not only for their longevity as a collective, but also for the quality of their films and the consistent level of narrative and formal experimentation.

Hernández's feature films tend to incite sharp polemics, usually torn equally between those spectators who appreciate his highly aestheticized, hopelessly romantic and often meandering love stories, and those who find his work pretentious, narcissistic and boring. I fall into the first category, having followed the work of the Cooperativa Cinematográfica Morelos since the mid-1990s when I saw the sexy and disturbing Actos impuros (Roberto Fiesco, 1993), loosely based on the life of the notorious 1942 Mexico City serial killer Gregorio Cárdenas, nicknamed in the press "el estrangulador de Tacuba" (the strangler of the Tacuba district). Hernández's films are not for everybody. They are not narrative driven but rather are mood pieces that capture the textures of affective states and urban spaces, notably Mexico City's ancient Centro Histórico.

Hernández's full-length films contribute to a recent trend in world cinema of films that are contemplative, slowly paced and often focused on the quotidian, almost causing one to drift to sleep. San Francisco Bay Guardian critic Johnny Ray Huston calls these types of films "somnambucinema" and argues "there should be no shame in shifting states of consciousness and drifting into dreams during this panic-stricken age." In Huston's intriguing category we would also find the films of radically different auteurs such as Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Taiwans's Tsai Ming-liang, Portugal's João Pedro Rodrigues and Argentina's Lisandro Alonso. Indeed, the languorous rhythm of somnambucinema is a welcome departure from our frantic lifestyles and the fast paced, music video-like language of so much of contemporary cinema.

Hernández's films are visual poems that continually explore cinematic language. They narrate simple stories—sometimes bordering on the banal—through carefully composed and startling beautiful images that are characterized by long takes of between four to five minutes, alternating between distance (long shots) and proximity (close-ups) that—to paraphrase Hernández—eliminate medium shots and thus encourage viewer identification. [See Catlett, Juan Mora. 2004. "Julián Hernández: 'un plano es una elección ética'." Estudios Cinematográficos 9.25 (March-July): 17-18.] The camera is expressively used both stationary and moving, frequently in 180 or 360 degree circles. He makes use of lyrical voice-over narration and minimal amounts of dialogue, or sometimes none at all, as is the case with the groundbreaking short porno Bramadero (2007) and—from what I've read and heard—most remarkably in Rabioso sol. Hernández's interest in telling stories primarily through images is clearly evident in his early work, notably the medium length film, Hubo un tiempo en que los sueños dieron paso a largas noches de insomnio: 17 apuntes para una película (1998). Another of his stylistic markers is the choreography of camera and actors as if they were partners in a dance, evident not only in the puppy love story El cielo dividido but also in shorts such as Vivir (2003), an homage to Claire Denis's sublime homoerotic military drama Beau travail (1999), and the melancholic Vago rumor de mares en zozobra (2008), a love song about a young working-class married woman's unfulfilled longing and the promise of romance that makes great use of the now classic contemporary cumbia by Los Ángeles Azules, "Cómo te voy a olvidar." Also a theater and opera director, Hernández's choice of music plays as important a role as the image. He obsessively uses a single leit-motif: a young man's search for a male partner who will complement and make him whole again. This somewhat romantic notion of incompleteness leads his doomed young men through ecstatic and tortuous encounters and missed encounters.

Until Hernández, no filmmakers since Sergei Eisenstein and Emilio Fernández had photographed mestizo male bodies with such palpable sensuality. Hernández and the cinematographers Diego Arizmendi and Alejandro Cantú, do for the brown bodies of Mexican men what Robert Mapplethorpe's photography did for the African American male nude, but without the problematic racial fetishism of the later. Suffused with homoeroticism, his films break from a long tradition in Mexican cinema of stereotyping gay males as comic relief and as tragic cross-dressers, as in the 1960s comedies starring Maurico Garcés and fichera sexploitation movies from the 1970s, or the grotesque gay characters in Arturo Ripstein's films, including El lugar sin límites (Hell Has No Limits, 1977).

Hernández contributes in very significant ways to queer Mexican cinema with films that are complex and often not politically correct. Most of his films are not uplifting nor do they follow a linear narrative of progress and triumph over homophobia; in fact, they often end with the tragic death of a gay man. Bramadero ends with a murder while Mil nubes de paz closes with the death of the lead character. Anchored in the familiar gay male trope of the sad young man, Hernández elevates the wounded and brokenhearted to luminescent, heavenly heights. In what could be interpreted as a director's statement, Hernández notes, "I have a slightly romantic idea of cinema. I've always believed that film enables me to communicate with other kindred spirits with whom I can share my sorrow and happiness. Yet, what's most melodramatic is that I make films because I've always felt incapable of telling the people who have shared their lives with me how much I've loved them. In a nutshell, I want my films to move audiences and make them cry. That has always been my objective. Even today, that is what I strive for in my work." [Catlett, 2004:17.]

Sergio de la Mora is Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film (University of Texas Press, 2006). He recently published a chapter titled, "Sus leyes me las paso por los huevos: Isela Vega and Mexican Dirty Movies" in Latsploitation, Latin America, and Exploitation Cinema (Victoria Ruétalo & Dolores Tierney, editors. London & New York: Routledge, 2009).

Cross-published on the
San Diego Latino Film Festival website and Twitch. Of related interest, take a look at Luis Bernardo Jaime Vázquez's essay "Hernández and the prison of desire."

1 comment:

Michael Hawley said...

A very nice overview of Hernandez' work, Sergio. I sure hope his new feature makes it into Frameline this year.

And what an amazing line-up of films at the San Diego Latino Film Festival this year! It really puts the SF (and for that matter, the LA) Latino Film Festival(s) to shame.