VIFF 2013: La última película

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

This blog takes its name from a game my coworkers Mike and Ryland and I used to play during deathly slow Thursday afternoons at the now defunct Metro Cinemas. We used to imagine what it would be like to have our own theatre, and what movies we’d play there. Usually this took the form of the double feature game, wherein you pick the weirdest pair of movies you can, films which might unexepctedly have a lot to say in conversation with each other (an echo of this survives in the format of the podcast that same Mike and I now do, The George Sanders Show). But one day we tried to think of what we’d call this fantasy movie theatre of ours. I picked, playing off the famous final title in Jean-Luc Godard’s adieu to all that, Week-End, “The End Of”, which combined with a generic specifier, would become “The End Of Cinema”. It had nothing at all to do with what not long thereafterwards bubbled over into the hot thinkpiece subject for awhile, the end of celluloid as the dominant medium of motion pictures and its replacement by digital filmmaking and projecting.

That is the The End apparently referred to in the title of my favorite film of 2013, La última película, directed by the veteran/first-timer team of filmmaker Raya Martin and critic Mark Peranson. A kind of remake of Dennis Hopper’s notorious Easy Rider follow-up The Last Movie (the more literal translation of the title), Alex Ross Perry plays a director named Alex who travels to Mexico on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse in December of 2012 in order to make the last movie at the end of the world. To this end, he’s gathered all the remaining celluloid film and is going to use it all up. But that’s merely the starting point for a film less concerned with narrative (or rather with a single narrative) than a mishmash of ideas and theories and jokes and experiments with the technology of filmmaking. It’s a celebration not merely of film as a medium, but of talking about film, of the rabbit holes and circles and odd resonances and meanings we find when we truly dive into the movies. Goodbye cinema, hello cinephilia.

When we meet Alex, he’s filming in a wooded area talking with his guide, played by Mexican actor Gabino Rodríguez. Alex is asking about a stone wall he sees, if it is one of the ruins he’s come to use as the backdrop for his film. Gabino, nonplussed, tells him “No, man. That’s just a fence.” (All quotes herein are approximate, I’m going off my aged and inadequate memory.) They appear to have a relationship somewhat like that of William Blake and Nobody in Dead Man, with Alex in the role of the “stupid fucking white man”. Alex continues to question Gabino about the garbage he finds around him, a bottle, a TV set (“Do people just dump their old TV sets outside, on their own land here?” “Yeah man, it’s shitty.”), but this line of inquiry becomes more resonant shortly thereafter, when the two go to a museum and discuss the film Alex wants to make in relation to the things they find in the museum. He wants to make something that lasts, that stands the test of time. Yet what they find in the museum is that most of the stuff that survives is the junk that gets thrown out: old pots, cheap jewelry. It lasts long enough and it becomes history, it becomes art. Of course, 1000 years from now, none of the images we have today stored on film will exist in their present media, it decays too quickly. That’s one of the fatal flaws of film (and digital storage at present is even worse, though one hopes for technological advance in this area), but that ephemerality also makes it special, precious.

The flaws of filmmaking technology, and the specific beauties that result from them is the apparent subject of many of the interstitial sections of the movie. Martin and Peranson shot using a vast assortment of equipment, including Super 8, 16mm, a few kinds of digital camera, an iPhone, everything but 35mm in fact (which, in a neat twist, was the format the movie played on at Vancouver, one of only two film screenings at the entire festival). We revel in the fuzzy hypercolors of 16mm, recognize the hairs and scratches in the silent 8mm footage¹ (effects so warm and nostalgic that they form the basis of Instagram’s business model), dazzle at an underwater GoPro shot (apparently contributed by Leviathan director Verena Paravel², yes, the Sensory Ethnography Lab makes its presence felt here as well), and marvel at a long traveling shot of an inverted world achieved by simply holding the iPhone upside down and walking around³. That this digital technology is celebrated alongside the archaic photographic forms as well I think is important. Far from a maudlin lament about The Death of Cinema, as so many of those, heartfelt I’m sure, op-ed’s from a few years ago were, La última película looks as much to the future as it does the past. As Alex speculates at one point: time isn’t necessarily linear, it can be cyclical. Cinema ends, cinema is reborn. While there are certain effects, certain grains and textures we lose in the transition, there are things to gain as well. The end of film is not the end of cinema.

The funniest section of the film, and the part most apparently concerned with the non-cinematic world, is a central section wherein Alex and Gabino wander around the crowd gathered at some Mayan pyramids⁴ in anticipation of The End. It’s a hilarious, “Look at these fucking people” bit as Alex skewers the absurd white hippies gathered around, acting like clowns. It’s their presumption that they understand Mayan culture, Mayan philosophy that appalls him. Their eclectic blend of New Age sophistry gives them no real connection to the ruins, to the land. “They don’t understand what it would be like to stand in this empty field and want to build something. The hard labor of building these magnificent structures.” Perhaps this is about film after all, a complaint about those who don’t understand what it takes to make a movie? I doubt it, I find that complaint about critics being nothing but failed filmmakers, wannabe artists who have neither the talent nor the work ethic to actually create art, to be pretty ridiculous, but here at least is a critic in Mark Peranson who has made a film, for whatever that’s worth⁵. More to the point, I think, is the issue of appropriation. Cultural appropriation in this specific instance as a bunch of white people revel in the otherness of trendy Mayanness, but also in a larger sense. La última película itself is a remake, an appropriation of Hoper’s original film. And all criticism is appropriation in one form or another, it’s the taking of one thing and making something else out of it. The problem with these stupid white people then isn’t so much their borrowing, but rather the superficial nature of it. They’ve adopting bits and pieces, the trappings of an alien philosophy and integrated it into their own, rather lame, ideologies. If they better understood the Mayans, what it meant to be Mayan, what these pyramids, what this Apocalypse, is really about, they wouldn’t be so ridiculous. It’s their shallowness that is so offensive. As he discussed in the museum, Alex wants his film to be able to survive outside the context of its creation, he wants to make something that lasts, that will still be meaningful long after he and his world is gone. But seeing the crowds gathered at the remains of another past civilization, he has to wonder if that is impossible. If his film, which he’s poured so much into, is destined, at best, to be appropriated by the silly weirdos of the future.

As Alex’s film shoot progresses, his film becomes about a director who runs afoul of the local authorities, it becomes about himself as the stupid white man violating an ancient culture. At first, he merely spends an innocuous night in jail (we see him go into a bar, followed by a “Scene Missing” title card ala Grindhouse)⁶. But later, as we learn through a helpful child’s drawing (yet another image medium)⁷, one of the crewmembers is accidentally killed and the director (Alex, playing himself) is sacrificed on a pyramid to the gods. We see this as “making of” style footage, with shots of the actors at work on a “ruin” that appears to be in the middle of a traffic circle with the crew and directors lining up the shot, working out the choreography of the movements and special effect and even lining up the clapboard. In this final third of the film, its folding in on itself becomes so tangled even the actors themselves have trouble understanding what’s going on. In a scene reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ La commune (Paris 1871), Alex and Gabino sit by a fire and discuss the film Alex is making. Then the actors Alex and Gabino begin talking about the film Raya and Mark are making, and how they don’t understand any of it. Apparently each had assumed the other knew what was going on. It’s not entirely clear that anyone does, and that seems to be the point: I don’t think the film is about any particular idea or set of ideas so much as it is about how much fun it is to think and talk about the ideas that films inspire within us. When you really get into a movie, talking about it with friends or just sitting and pondering, watching and rewatching it, it lights a fire, sends off sparks in all directions. Dead ends and curlicues and swirls of meaning that sometimes, usually, lead nowhere but every once in awhile change the way you think about, the way you see the world. La última película is a film as much in love with the love of movies as it is with the physical, tangible properties of the many forms film takes.

There are two extended song sequences in the film. The first shows an apocalypse⁸, the meteor that crashed into the Yucatan and destroyed the dinosaurs millennia ago, depicted in a beautiful practical effect (none of the film was digitally altered, according to Peranson at the Vancouver Q & A), a double exposure of a man on a beach watching a giant rock crash into the sea⁹. The second plays a version of “Me and Bobby McGee” as the world turns an incandescent red and Alex burns the final shreds of celluloid film and slowly fades into blackness. Alex gives a long speech in this section, which sounds like it may have come from Hopper’s film (I haven’t seen it yet, intentionally so. I want to figure out my reaction to this film before and after knowing Hopper’s. For some reason I feel this is important.)¹⁰ Alex, sitting by a blood red lake, talks about the film he wants to make, about how it won’t be like any other film. He wants to lay bare the machinery of cinema, to show all the takes of a single action for example, to show the audience the process of filmmaking. To demonstrate what it means to make a movie, to make choices. Art isn’t made simply by pointing the camera at something interesting. It has a form, an intelligence goes into it, it requires work and it means something.

Update: Mark Peranson helpfully sent along a few corrections on some of my mistakes and misremembrances and some explanations for some of the things I was unclear on. These are noted below.

1. The hairs and scratches are in 16mm
2. She didn’t shoot that, she shot the scene with the live shrimp in the restaurant, though you are certainly welcome to draw a connection there to Leviathan.
3. That one is on GoPro, not iPhone.
4. It’s Chichen Itza.
5. Well, I made another.
6. The “Scene Missing” card is an exact replica of the one used in The Last Movie — both are, and they occur at roughly the same points in both films.
7. It’s an ex voto, a drawing typically made by the Catholic Church, especially in Mexico, to commemorate miracles.
8. Well, it begins over a slide montage of Gabino’s parents’ Yucatan vacation.
9. It’s both Raya and myself on the beach, first him, then me. The song by the way is “My God and I” which also appears in The Last Movie, by John Buck Wilkin, who sings the version of “Bobby McGee” at the end as well.
10. The speeches he gives are somewhat influenced by the speeches in American Dreamer, but are not verbatim, except for two lines, when he’s shooting the guns and talks about Welles.

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