These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
The latest statistical yearbook of film in the UK is now available for free download (or online access) from the BFI website. The 2012 yearbook has all the details of film in the UK in 2011 – a particularly good year for the UK industry.
I’m already on record as arguing that this was a pointless production, so I wasn’t an impartial observer on my cinema visit to see this film. However, I felt I had to see it and having done so I must slightly revise my original condemnation. In preparation for watching the Scott Rudin/Steve Zaillian/David Fincher film, I first looked at the DVD of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. When I first saw that film in the cinema, I don’t think I really appreciated it because I was still wrapped up in the novel trilogy (see comments on this posting). I then, on the same day, watched the Fincher film and consequently went back to the novel. There is so much plot in the novel that I couldn’t keep all of it in my head and I realised that I’d forgotten a lot of what I first read in 2008/9.
My first surprise was that I really enjoyed watching the Swedish version again. I was very angry at the rather dismissive tone of many critics towards Oplev in both the promotion of the Fincher version and the reviews of that film. Oplev is treated as if he were almost an amateur. In fact, the Swedish film is a highly competent piece of filmmaking and works very well. I also found myself quite emotionally involved with Mikael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace as the principals. The Oplev film runs to 152 mins. The Fincher film is only 5 mins longer but it includes quite a lot more plot as well as an extended title sequence. I was surprised to discover that the Zaillian script for Fincher is actually more ‘faithful’ to the book – although it can’t, of course, include everything in the very densely plotted 500+ pages. One odd point is that despite what I read in some interviews about Zallian/Fincher not wanting to watch the Oplev film, they seem to have taken certain scenes from the first film rather than from the book. (One example is the scene in which Lisbeth Salander’s computer is trashed on the Stockholm rapid transit system.) We seem to be in the same territory here as with the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake. The big Hollywood production attempts to distance itself from the original film by claiming fidelity only to the book. All this posturing seems quite silly to me.
The Zaillian/Fincher film is highly competent. It looks good and moves along at a fair lick over 157 minutes. I wasn’t impressed by the music or the stylised credit sequence that everyone seems to be raving about – but that’s probably just a matter of taste. (The squirming black oiled objects in the title sequence made me think about Nazi paraphernalia – not sure if this was the intention.) The music in the Oplev film is not memorable – but it isn’t obtrusive either. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara perform their roles as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander very well. But that’s what they are – performances. I didn’t feel for the characters as I did with Nykvist and Rapace. I was quite taken with Robin Wright though – she was much closer to my idea of Erika Berger. In the end the Fincher film kept my attention but I didn’t really feel engaged. It was just another Hollywood crime thriller. Despite the Swedish locations it didn’t feel like a Swedish story. I’m aware that this is dangerous territory for a critic and I’m sure that there are Swedish audiences who prefer the Hollywood film with its stars (see audience figures below). Mikael Nykvist is something of a Swedish everyman appearing in many films – he doesn’t look or act like an action star. This means that Swedish audiences might be bored with him, but he is ‘fresh’ to overseas audiences. Daniel Craig has to ‘act’ as if he isn’t a big star and I think the shtick with his spectacles, stubble and bewildered look sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous.
The major issue for me is that this Hollywood film doesn’t seem to know what to include/what to leave out of the story. Symptomatic of this quandary is the way in which some actors use an accented English ‘suggesting’ Swedish and others don’t and how certain documents appear in Swedish and others in English. Nobody uses Mikael’s nickname ‘Micke’. But perhaps the best example is the depictions of the Nazi past in the Vanger family. Where the book and the Swedish film refer to the ‘Winter War’ (between the USSR and Finland/Germany in 1939/40), since this wouldn’t mean anything to the multiplex audience in North America, it’s left out of the Hollywood version. In one interview Fincher states quite clearly:
“The mystery of this movie wasn’t that interesting to me. You know, Nazis, serial killers, and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools wasn’t the thing that . . . the thing that was first and foremost was this. I hadn’t seen this partnership before. I hadn’t seen these two people working before to do anything. So I liked the thriller and I liked the vessel of that, but I was really more interested in the people front and center.
. . . I had read a lot of stuff in The New York Times and in different magazines about the Steig Larsson story. But I think that the actual sort of political leanings of the material are probably not the reasons why the book was optioned or the reason why everybody waiting for a plane at La Guardia are reading this book. It has less to do with everyone’s fear of the ultra-right in Scandinavia. So no I didn’t . . . like I said, my interest was that it had a ballistic envelope and it had aerodynamics to it. Obviously, 60 million people thought it was a ripping yarn. I thought that part was a ripping yarn. But the thing that interested me most was these two people. (From the interview here.)
I’ll return to Fincher’s interest in the couple a little later but here’s another example of missing the point – the Millennium offices in Fincher’s film are opulent and styled to the nth degree. In the book and the Swedish film they more accurately reflect the parlous financial state of the magazine. I wonder why the Hollywood production spent so much money on beautiful photography on location in Sweden which doesn’t seem to capture the feel of Sweden as presented by Larsson and Oplev? And when it isn’t beautiful, the photography and editing tend towards the tricksy. The Swedish film leaves out large chunks of the novel’s plot and possibly distorts the narrative but it still feels ‘right’ as a representation – perhaps because the small details are authentic. The Swedish adaptation also exists as a two-part mini-series for Swedish TV running at 180 mins (in 2 x 90 mins parts). I’m not sure what is in the extra 38 mins, but the cinema film seems coherent to me.
Now that I’m re-reading (skimming really) through the first Larsson book again, I’m beginning to recognise the overall structure of the trilogy much more clearly and the way in which everything points towards ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ – the literal translation of the Swedish title of the first part of the trilogy. Zaillian’s script includes more plot than Oplev’s film but doesn’t seem to know what to make of it – and Fincher clearly isn’t interested in the politics. Overall, I think that I prefer the Swedish version but having seen the Danish TV series, The Killing, I think that the best format for the Larsson adaptations would have been as weekly serials on television in 1 hour episodes. Then we could have seen everything, including the magazine business issues which are largely ignored in both adaptations, but especially in the Swedish film.
Will Sony/MGM make films of the other two books? The Fincher film has taken $140 million worldwide so far with major markets like France still to open. It did very well in Sweden and Norway and in the UK. However the budget was $90 million (Box Office Mojo) so it is still some way from even covering costs (only around 30%-40% gets back to the producers). Fincher says he wants to make the other two films back to back in Sweden but there must be some doubts about whether Sony will stump up the cash. Book 2 is action-orientated and would veer even more towards a Hollywood thriller with more focus on Lisbeth but Book 3 is essentially a courtroom drama/legal investigation. If Fincher can transform it into a mainstream $90 million movie, he’s even cleverer than his reputation suggests. But since he’s not interested in the politics perhaps he will just focus on Mikael and Lisbeth. Hmm!
Remakes are irresistible as study texts because they allow us to ‘compare and contrast’ and to demonstrate that there are specific choices that casting directors, production designers, directors, cinematographers etc. all make. The two adaptations discussed here would be very interesting to compare, though the sheer length of the films would probably put off many classroom teachers. However, if students could be persuaded to watch the films in their own time, several interesting explorations are possible. One would be to question what is ‘political’ about the films. Larsson himself was clearly a political animal but do either of the films really carry through his exposure of the decay of Swedish society? Possibly only the novels themselves do this. My guess is that most students could be more interested in the creation of Lisbeth Salander as a certain kind of young female character – who finds herself in a world dominated by evil men who need to be ‘brought down’. In turn this poses the question, how does Lisbeth relate to Mikael as a potential partner in her principal objective – and in an intimate relationship? (OK, the project is mainly his, though Lisbeth has two very personal projects to bring down the men who have oppressed her.) This relationship is what Fincher has identified as his main interest.
I’ve seen reviews that claim Fincher shows us much more of the Mikael – Lisbeth relationship developing than in the Swedish film. I don’t accept this. There is more overt sexual activity in Fincher’s film (and even more in the book) but less about the joint investigation of the Vanger family in which we see the two edging towards each other. My focus, however, would be on the sequence towards the end of the film when Lisbeth has to decide to whether to save the villain or let him die and how Mikael accepts or questions her decision. Again, I think that the Swedish version offers the better presentation of this narrative development. I would also consider the difference between the two films in the use of flashbacks. The Swedish version uses flashbacks to show us various aspects of the story but especially how/why Lisbeth has been placed with a guardian because of what she did to her father. Fincher leaves this out (I think – I’m already getting confused as to what I’ve seen!). I think work on these scenes could prove highly productive for film and media students.
Also useful for students is this posting on Nick Lacey’s website (with all the comments).
It’s good to see that one of the most useful innovations of the UK Film Council, the free downloadable Statistical Yearbook for UK Film, has been taken over by the BFI – at least for now. The latest version, which deals with last year’s activity, is now available to download here.
I’ve long maintained that this is the best free resource for film and media teachers and students and the new issue fulfils that promise. Perhaps the most interesting change this time is that mindful of the downward trend of budgets for British films, the BFI have decided to take notice of ‘micro-budget’ films under £500,000. Previously these were ignored by UKFC but now they are a significant element in British filmmaking. In 2010 there were 147 films made in the UK with budgets under £500,000 – in fact half of these films had budgets under £100,000. This compares with only 79 ‘domestic’ features made on budgets over £500,000. Using these new definitions, UK filmmaking looks a lot healthier in terms of production numbers with over 200 ‘domestic’ features, not counting Hollywood films made in the UK (the bulk of the production spend of course).
The statistical guide is a must read. Download yours now!
The Foyle Film Festival held in Derry in November, the most westerly city in the UK, is a relatively small festival with a big welcome, a lively atmosphere and a wide range of interesting activities. For filmmakers, the specific attraction is that Foyle is one of the festivals which is ‘officially sanctioned’ by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – in other words, being in competition at the Foyle Film Festival means that your film is eligible for nomination for an Oscar. The competitive strand at the festival comprises ‘International Short’, ‘Irish Short’, ‘Animation’ and ‘Documentary’. The ‘long list’ of ten titles for the 2011 ‘International Live Action Short Oscar’ includes four titles that were screened in Derry in 2009/2010.
The full Foyle programme includes international features and documentaries and 2010’s theme was ‘The Magic of the Past’, with screenings of Citizen Kane, the newly restored Metropolis and associated documentaries. Alongside the high profile international films, the Foyle Festival’s strengths derive from its history and its location. Derry has strong cultural links with the Irish Republic (the border is only a few miles away and Derry serves the North of Donegal as well as County Londonderry) and attracts Irish filmmakers. Animation and music are also strengths because of the festival’s home in the Nerve Centre, Derry’s unique moving image and music centre which now comprises two small cinemas and a performance space alongside the production workshops which have helped to train a generation of local filmmakers. In 1998 Dance Lexie, Dance, a Raw Nerve Production was nominated for the Short Film Oscar. Run from the Nerve Centre, the festival uses the two Nerve Centre cinemas, the 100 seat traditional Orchard Hall Cinema and, for the more mainstream films, the Omniplex commercial cinema.
The Foyle Festival also runs an extensive education programme and that’s why I was invited this year. I hadn’t been to the festival for more than ten years and it was good to see the development of the Nerve Centre and of much of Derry City Centre, especially within the old walled city. Derry has been awarded the status of the first UK Capital of Culture for 2013 and that promises a build-up of arts events over the next two years in which the Foyle Film Festival will certainly figure.
I gave a presentation to students on Moving Image Arts courses exploring the film language used by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Roman Polanski (materials to follow) and then watched the showcase of student productions from 2009/10. Moving Image Arts is an A Level and GCSE qualification that offers something new in a UK context – a focus on film as art with 50% production work in animation or live action. I was very impressed with the quality of work produced by students and I hope to report in detail on the still relatively new qualification offered by CCEA – the Northern Ireland Awards Body – with the Nerve Centre playing a leading role in developing moving image work in schools and colleges registering for the qualification. The work is also fully supported by Northern Ireland Screen which was well represented at the Foyle Film Festival screenings through Bernard McCloskey, Head of Education. See the Press Release from Ingrid Arthurs, Subject Officer for Moving Image Arts at CCEA.
Thanks to Nerve Centre Director Martin Melarkey and everyone else associated with the centre, without whom none of these developments would have been possible. More on Moving Image Arts later this term.
Studying Tsotsi, Judith Gunn, Auteur Publishing 2010, 120pp, ISBN: 978-1-906733-08-7
Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2010) is one of the most popular films discussed on this website and it is widely studied in a UK context. Not surprisingly then, we were very interested in what this latest study guide from Auteur had to offer.
These study guides have now switched to a ‘pocket size’ – (162 x 117 mm), so in 120 pages there are perhaps 28,000 words in which to explore the film. I think that this is similar to the York Film Notes which tried a similar trick at the start of the decade.
The author’s blurb tells us that Judith Gunn is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Cirencester College and that she has worked in BBC radio as researcher, writer, producer and broadcaster. In Chapter 5 on Audience and Institution, Gunn reveals that she was a child in Africa and remembers going to the cinema in Tanzania to see a Hollywood/British film. She draws on both this experience and her BBC work in interesting ways and she refers to a number of interesting and useful books and articles that I will certainly investigate. For someone looking for material to help contextualise a reading of Tsotsi in relation to a set of media studies course objectives, there is certainly food for thought here. However, I’m less convinced that the guide will be helpful for film studies students and there are some real problems with the overall approach.
I couldn’t find anywhere in the book a statement about who the expected readership might be or what level of academic course is being addressed. Tsotsi is mentioned directly on the syllabus of the WJEC GCSE (i.e 14-17 year-olds in the main) in Film Studies, but this is a new course with relatively small (but growing) numbers of students. I would expect Auteur to be targeting the far larger group of A Level teachers and students on both media and film studies courses. The problem is that without a clear focus Gunn struggles to find a consistent level in terms of pitching to readers both theoretical ideas and cultural references. There is a range of theoretical references which on the one hand are inappropriate for GCSE students and on the other are sometimes presented in a potentially patronising way for A Level students – and sometimes the attempt to introduce ideas quickly makes them confusing. Getting the pitch right is very difficult and I suspect that here it is the guide’s structure that is problematic.
There are six chapters in all – History and Context, Narrative, The Image of Tsotsi, Representation: Stereotypes, Audiences and Institutions and finally ‘Themes’. The problematic chapters are those offering textual analysis and discussion of the film in the context of South African Cinema more generally. An early indication that things are not quite right is the assumption that this is a ‘Hollywood film’ in some way. There is some useful discussion in the guide of possible Hollywood elements in the film and Gavin Hood did indeed train in the US and has gone on to make Hollywood films, but Tsotsi is a UK/South Africa co-production which Miramax picked up after production. The prime mover behind the production was UK producer Peter Fudakowski.
More confusing still is the discussion of the ‘look’ of the film. I couldn’t find anything to warn readers that the UK DVD from Momentum actually uses the wrong aspect ratio, presenting the film in 16:9 or 1:1.78 instead of the ‘Scope ratio 1:2.35 used for the cinema version. All those students in the UK have probably studied the film unable to see the careful compositions. (As far as I can see the Miramax Region 1 disc has the correct ratio). Judith Gunn’s overall strategy involves comparing the shooting and editing style for Tsotsi with television soap opera and also with a series like The Wire, which seems odd to me. This just one example of an approach which might work for media studies but which more or less ignores the specific formal questions of film studies. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer made some quite careful decisions about the look of the film – none of which are directly related to television aesthetics. The best resource on this is an article in American Cinematographer which is still online and well worth reading. As Gewer states:
“Gavin’s intention was to make an intensely emotional and engaging psychological thriller set in a world of contrasts — love and hate, wealth and poverty, revenge and forgiveness, anger and compassion — and widescreen was the only way we could visually tell that story. We needed to get a sense of the characters in the space and the broadness of that space; it’s a world vulnerable people inhabit.”
Here is why, ideally, students need to see the CinemaScope print. The rest of the article explains very well why decisions were made. Unfortunately, I think some of Judith Gunn’s commentary on this area is not particularly helpful. I’m also puzzled why, after referencing authoritative sources on South African Cinema in terms of 1930s-60s films she then decides to discuss more recent South African films only in terms of the Hollywood and UK productions based there, rather than investigate some of the more recent independents. It isn’t easy to access these films, I know, but students should be aware of the structure of South African Cinema – which is still largely segregated in terms of catering for largely white middle-class audiences in multiplexes and for much poorer Black audiences in what I assume are less salubrious halls in the townships (assuming that they still exist and haven’t closed with the spread of DVDs). Tsotsi is unique in coming out of a sector of the South African industry still mainly white but at least with a grasp of working-class South African culture.
In short, this guide will give media students access to some useful material, but film students will need to supplement it with some of the books mentioned in its Bibliography.
itpworld’s blog entry on Tsotsi is here.
. . . and another entry on itpworld including a report on a new venture in South Africa, ‘Sollywood’
(These notes were first published in 2004)
Y tu mamá también is an accessible and enjoyable film from Mexico (providing that viewers have no problems with the graphic presentation of the sex lives of the characters).
On one level, the film is a mix of familiar genres – ‘road movie’, ‘coming of age’/youth movie and melodrama. But on another level it is a social commentary on Mexican culture. Never didactic, the filmmakers manage to subtly introduce this commentary via the development of a set of very specific aesthetic devices.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Carlos Cuarón and starring Gael García Bernal (as Julio), Diego Luna (as Tenoch) and Maribel Verdú (as Luisa).
(These notes assume familiarity with the narrative, so there are SPOILERS embedded.)
Julio and Tenoch are young men in Mexico City who are about to see off their girlfriends who are travelling in Europe. Stuck for something to do for the Summer, they decide on a road trip to find the mythical ‘magic beach’ known as ‘Heaven’s Mouth”. At a family wedding they meet Luisa an older woman from Spain who is married to Tenoch’s cousin – and seemingly unhappy with her lot. To their great surprise, she agrees to accompany them on their trip. The boys compete to seduce Luisa, who is far more experienced than either of them. After a series of adventures, they arrive at the coast and become friendly with a local fisherman and his family. There is a twist at the the end of the tale and an epilogue when the boys meet again after the first year of their degree courses.
‘Latin American cinema’ has a long history featuring periods of both commercial and artistic success. Compared to other parts of the world outside Europe and North America, Latin American culture is influenced by three distinctive factors:
- the close proximity of the US to Mexico and the American assumption that all of Central and South America is a ‘US sphere of influence’;
- Spanish as a common language (apart from Portuguese in Brazil and other languages in the Caribbean islands) and the lasting influence of Spanish cultural achievements;
- independence from European colonial powers in the 19th century, but issues about the persecution/assimilation of ‘Native Americans’, still sometimes referred to as ‘Indians’ or in Mexico as Amerindians.
The three largest countries, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, have had the biggest presence in film production (although Cuba ‘punches above its weight’ and Bolivia has produced at least one major filmmaker).
Mexico had a major industry in the 1940s, producing genre films such as family melodramas, musicals and action pictures. At the time of the Hollywood studio system, Mexico produced stars who appeared in both Mexican and Hollywood films – Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz – and others who were big stars within Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexico was recognised internationally, because of the artistic success of the exiled Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Up until the last ten years, only a handful of other Mexican directors have been granted limited distribution in art cinemas in the UK.
Much of the commercial energy and the attention of the popular audience in Mexico has been diverted towards television since the late 1950s. Mexico is a big producer of telenovelas – popular television serials, similar to US/UK soap operas, but with stronger genre links to romance and melodrama. These programmes attract very large and enthusiastic audiences. They are also exported (along with similar series made in Brazil and Columbia), not only to other parts of Latin America, but also to Africa and the Middle East. This is a clear indication of the potential of Mexican production. In cinema, however, Mexican audiences have largely turned to American films which, as in most countries, take 80% or more of local box office.
The recent resurgence of Mexican cinema as ‘global cinema’ – i.e. significant circulation of a film in different markets across the world – centres on the work of three youngish directors, Guillermo del Torro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and American films such as Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (Mex 2000), 21 Grams (US 2003)) and the director of Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Caurón (who also directed the third Harry Potter film). All three now live in the US. Nevertheless, they claim (supported by critics) to have made the most definitively ‘Mexican’ films of recent years. In other words, they make films that are not pale genre copies of Hollywood films, but instead offer representations of life in a Mexico that its inhabitants recognise.
The Spanish connection has been important to Mexico. Spanish has long overtaken French as a major world language (alongside Arabic, Mandarin and English) and this increases the market potential of Spanish language culture. There is the possibility of Spanish co-productions and also the exchange of actors and production crews.
The political context for filmmaking is also important in Mexico. In 2000 the Mexican electorate finally voted to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power since 1929. The new president, Vincente Fox, represented a new beginning. Fox may have turned out to be something other than what the voters first thought, but his election couldn’t help but change the outlook of most of the population.
In fact, Fox is a conservative, akin to the Republican Party in the US. He has opened up Mexico to both the US and global capital. A truly radical political force does still exist in Mexico in the form of the Zapatistas, the rebels in the Chiapas region of Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. Naming themselves after Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the 1911 Revolution, the rebels have proved themselves to be adept at low-key but effective organisation and action in resisting the ‘neo-liberalism’ of the multinational corporations.
Genre and Y tu mamá también
One of the ways in which the film works is to set up expectations based on generic conventions, only to confound and surprise the audience in the final act of the narrative.
The road movie
The basic narrative structure of Y tu mamá también is that of the road movie, one of the prime cinematic genres – i.e. a genre developed within the context of cinema, not borrowed from another media form.
A road movie is based around a journey – in its classical form, a journey by motor vehicle across the continent. The journey will require stopovers in strange, usually small town, communities before ending with an arrival at some kind of defining location. The journey is akin to a form of ‘quest’, with the heroes acting as ‘knights of the road’. The thematic of the road movie tends to be ambiguous in that characters are either running away or searching for something new – often at the same time. The journey means that they will have new experiences and meet new people and both of these will set challenges for the heroes. The new situations will also test the relationship between two characters who might think that they know each other very well. At some point in the journey, the characters will find out something about themselves.
In terms of iconography and style, road movies are characterised by certain restrictions on camerawork – either the camera shows relatively close framings of the characters in the car or it shows long shots of the car travelling across the landscape.
Shots of the road are inevitably accompanied by music. Easy Rider (US 1969) was one of the first successful ‘modern’ road movies. The box office success of this low budget film encouraged producers to produce similar films and also to look for music tie-ins. Easy Rider was one of the first Hollywood films to come with a soundtrack album of rock songs, most of which were not written with the film in mind. Ever since, road trips, especially for younger characters, have been accompanied by ‘driving’ music, often guitar-based with lyrics celebrating the ‘freedom of the open road’.
The youth/‘coming of age’ movie
The emergence of the ‘teenager’ as a new marketing concept in the US in the early 1950s coincided with the decline in Hollywood’s traditional family audience. Young people were the new audience and films were made to target them directly – hence the ‘youth movie’ (often shown in the new drive-in cinemas).
Youth pictures are not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Youth culture is central to the export of American consumerist culture and encompasses music and fashion as well as cinema and videogames, the internet etc. The ‘youth picture’ could be argued as a generic category, but it is a broad category within which there are several distinct groupings. One is the so-called ‘coming of age’ film in which a boy or girl goes through a form of, usually sexual, initiation into adulthood. The road trip provides the perfect opportunity for the staging of this narrative – freedom from parental control and the restrictions of school and the excitement of new places to see, new people to meet etc. There is also a time limit on the story – the trip must end in time for the youths to go on to university – and this provides some of the narrative tension.
Another sub-group of the youth movie is the ‘teen comedy’. In the female variant of this narrative, the comedy is ‘romantic’ and centres on the obstacles in the path of true love in the romantic comedy. In the male variant the focus is much more likely to be whether or not the lead characters can find the way to lose their virginity. The young men of Y tu mamá también are certainly not virgins (although they are in some ways still ‘innocent’). However, the narrative they inhabit does at first glance appear to have been plucked from the pages of a lad’s mag – the fantasy of an ‘older woman’ on the road trip and the possibility that she might sleep with one or other, or both, of the youths. The comedy comes from the fact that although the youths can fantasise, they have little idea about how to deal with the reality of the narrative events and inevitably make mistakes in their social behaviour.
The least likely generic reference would seem to be ‘political film’ – but this is precisely what the critical consensus on Y tu mamá también suggests. This is partly down to the director Alfonso Cuarón himself, who has spoken about his own experiences as a teenager in Mexico City in the 1970s (he was born in 1961). Cuarón recalls seeing the films of Jean-Luc Godard in ciné clubs and suggests that this is where the idea of the voiceover commentary comes from. He makes specific reference to Masculin féminin and Bande à part. Godard, one of the most important directors associated with the ‘French New Wave’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s made films that were avant-garde in terms of both aesthetics (how they used sound and image) and, increasingly in the 1960s, revolutionary politics.
The voiceovers in Y tu mamá también, as Edward Lawrenson suggests, tend to give an air of melancholy to the film, often commenting on death – something unconsidered by the teenagers, but an important element of the narrative. But it is another aspect of the voiceovers and the general aesthetic of the film that reveals its political sub-text. Cuarón takes care with his camera to reveal to the audience the ‘other Mexico’ through which the boys travel and which most of the time, they fail to properly see.
Tenoch and Julio are both, by Mexican standards very well off. Mexico has a large population (over 100 million), most of whom live in urban areas. This means that in many parts of what is a large country the rural population is sparse – and poor. The per capita income in Mexico is something like a quarter of that in the UK and Canada and perhaps one fifth of that in the US – one of the reasons why the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) with the US and Canada is such a contentious issue. (Economists debate what the effects might be, but clearly these are not ‘equal’ trading partners.) Mexico is characterised by a small wealthy middle class and a large working class, many of whom have moved to Mexico City to look for work. This is the subject of the ‘commentary’ about the worker who is killed crossing the road in order to save time getting to work.
The division by social class is mirrored by the ethnic divisions in the country. The largest ethnic group in Mexico (around 60%) is classified as mestizo or ‘mixed’. These are people who are the descendants of intermarriage between Europeans (predominantly Spanish) and the local Amerindian peoples of Central America. The Amerindians themselves make up some 30% of the Mexican population. ‘Europeans’ make up 9%, leaving 1% to cover all other groups. The 9% of Europeans make up the Mexican middle class. On this basis, the decision by his parents to name ‘Tenoch’ after an Aztec chieftain who founded what is now Mexico City is a calculated attempt to assert ‘Mexican-ness’. The Aztecs were from North Mexico and they dominated the Southern Maya people before the arrival of the Spanish. A name like ‘Tenoch’ could be provocative for the people of Southern Mexico (especially in Chiapas, the state that is home to the Zapatistas).
Julio and Tenoch are themselves separated by a class division. Julio lives with his mother and sister who both work. Tenoch has a father who is an important politician and he lives in a grand house with a maid (who was also Tenoch’s nanny). This rift between the boys is central to the narrative.
The journey undertaken by the boys is from cosmopolitan Mexico City, south west towards the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. This is a movement from urban to rural, from sophisticated to ‘simple’, from rich to poor and from European to Amerindian. The film shows the two boys to be almost oblivious to the changing environment, but the camera and the voiceovers mean that the audience is constantly invited to notice the discrepancy between the rich boys’ internal world and the realities outside.
David Heuser (see website reference) offers a fascinating analysis of the film which he reads as a commentary on the impossibility of Mexico getting the kind of government that he thinks it deserves. In this analysis, Tenoch and Julio are representative of the two main political forces in Mexico (the upper class and the lower middle class – the ‘bourgeoisie’). Their obsession with selfish (sexual) demands prevents them from recognising what they could achieve through co-operation. For Heuser, the car represents Mexico and Luisa represents the possibilities of European-style government. Once she takes over, the goal of the journey, ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, becomes real, not a myth – just as the political goals of the country could become achievable. However, when the boys leave their tent, the pigs (i.e. the peasants) run amok, ‘proving’ to the boys that the peasantry can’t be trusted. When they wake up in bed together, the boys are horrified – they can’t face the prospect of being together. When Luisa dies the experiment has come to an end. This is a detailed and quite convincing reading.
In an interview on the DVD, director Cuarón says the film is about ‘identity’, for Luisa, for the boys and for the country. He says Mexico is a teenage country that still needs to find its identity. He also confirms that the names of the characters refer directly to Mexican history. Luisa is a ‘Cortés’ – the name of the original Spanish conqueror (‘conquistador’) of Mexico. Tenoch is an ‘Iturbide’ – the name of one of the early political leaders of revolutionary Mexico who wanted to become President. Julio is named Zapata – the name of the great revolutionary fighter (from whom the contemporary ‘Zapatistas’ take their name).
The voiceovers in the narrative structure
The narrator’s voice appears roughly twenty times during the film (more frequently in the first half). The function of the voiceover is to do three things. First, it tells us the important information about the backgrounds of Julio and Tenoch, their families and their girlfriends. This enables us to make a ‘reading’ of the characters and place them accurately in the Mexican class structure. Cuarón argues that giving this kind of detail in his Hollywood films proved impossible, but here it adds a great deal to our understanding.
The second purpose is to reveal to the audience things that Julio and Tenoch do not know about each other and also to show aspects of Luisa’s behaviour that the boys don’t notice. A good example of this is when the car breaks down and Luisa buys a doll from a local woman because it has her name. The voiceover tells us that she is thinking about the doll when she passes a funeral procession for a child. This links to later scenes by the beach when she plays with the fisherman’s children. Finally the voiceover tells us that she left the doll to the fisherman’s daughter. Throughout the film Luisa is much more aware of the lives of people around her – in contrast to the boys who are interested only in themselves. Another good example is when the car is stopped by a group from a small village and the boys are asked for money for the village queen. Only Luisa looks at the young woman. (Yet a little while earlier they have passed the village where Tenoch’s nanny was born.)
The third purpose of the voiceover is to tell us about characters who are either peripheral to the story (like Chuy, the fisherman) or completely outside the boys’ story. These are comments on the lives of Mexico’s rural/migrant poor. Further examples include the migrant worker killed crossing the street and the road accident which is marked by a roadside shrine. As well as these incidents, the voiceover reminds us of the political changes in Mexico. This stealthy political comment is also taken up in the cinematography and mise en scène.
Camera and mise en scène
The camerawork is an integral part of the overall ‘feel’ of the film. It is fluid but not overly expressive. Much of the time, scenes are shown in relative long shot, e.g. in the two scenes when Luisa seduces the boys. The central three characters are in the frame together inside the car for long periods. Organising this when they are driving in the car is quite difficult and sometimes requires a distorting wide angle lens. If it is not peering into the car, the camera is often showing the car in long shot, from in front or behind on the road itself or at an angle from the road. Alternatively, the camera looks out of the car windows at the countryside passing by. It is the shifting balance between these kinds of shots which slowly begins to show the audience more about the conditions of the local people.
In the early part of the journey, the camera is mostly focusing on the trio, but there are several instances, often in conjunction with the voiceover, when it manages to capture what is happening at the edges of the frame, or just out of the frame in which the boys are appearing. The best example of this is in the scene when the trio arrive for their first overnight stay in a country hotel. As they are about to order food, the camera leaves the party and follows one of the family in the hotel into a back room and then on into the kitchen where the family are eating and getting on with their busy lives.
A second example comes a little later when a discussion about sex in the car is undercut when the camera peers out of the car window to notice a pick-up truck carrying two armed police overtaking. Further on down the road the camera again peers out of the car, ignoring the trio who are too engrossed to notice a shot of the armed police who seem to be arresting a group of farmers selling their produce at the roadside. There are several other examples of the repression carried out by police at roadblocks etc., all passed without a sideways glance by the boys in the car.
The political commentary in the film is not recognised by every audience (in fact, it is probably recognised by a small minority in audiences outside Mexico). Some critics have lambasted the film because it panders to American teen culture. It has been described as mirroring American Pie or Dude, Where’s My Car? Although there are some obvious similarities with these films, both the tone and the look of the Mexican film are quite different.
The interaction with American culture is also more complicated than simple acceptance of the dominance of American forms. Xan Brooks quotes Paul Julian Smith on the way that the language used by the boys – ‘chilango’ a kind of ‘Mexican youth speak’ – is quite distinctive. As is the music, much of which is a form of ‘Mexican style’ Anglo-American music – made either by Mexican bands or Hispanic bands in the US. Other tracks are European rock or more traditional Mexican music. (A complete soundtrack listing is available on the Internet Movie Database entry for the film.)
An example of how music ‘codes’ the changing world through which the car travels comes at the point where the portable tape player runs down because the batteries are fading. The boys have been playing American or Mexican rock, but now as the political struggles in the world outside the car become more apparent, the music on the soundtrack becomes more ‘local’ or more ‘roots’ as it must be derived from local radio stations. As the soundtrack switches to this rootsier music of accordions, the world outside becomes more alien – the boys’ car is hemmed in by cattle and they react angrily. Later they have to be towed to a garage behind an ox cart.
The success of the film is partly down to its young stars, especially Gael García Bernal. Bernal (born 1978) had already shot Amores Perros when he began work on Y tu mamá también. He was a child actor in a soap on Mexican TV and came to London to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Since Y tu mamá también, he has appeared in other Mexican and Spanish films, but 2004 has seen two major releases which have confirmed his status as perhaps the hottest young star in World Cinema. Bad Education (directed by Pedro Almodóvar) and The Motorcycle Diaries in which Bernal plays a young Che Guevera both offer interesting comparisons to Y tu mamá también, especially Motorcycle Diaries as it is another Latin American road movie with a political sub-text. Screen International (9/9/04) recognised Bernal as one of the few stars who can expect to be successful in Hollywood and in both Spanish and Mexican films (the large and growing Spanish speaking population inside the United States will also help. Diego Luna (born 1979) has a similar background, again starting as a child star on Mexican television. He has also appeared in several Hollywood films, notably in the lead for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) and Goal, (2005).
Rudo y cursi (2008) directed by Carlos Cuarón and starring Bernal and Luna is a kind of companion piece to Y tu mamá.
Questions for discussion
1. Find some examples in the film of the youths acting in ways similar to those found in American ‘teen movies’ – how are these scenes ‘undercut’ by local, Mexican cultural differences?
2. Find examples of the ‘voiceover’ technique in the film – including each of the three types discussed in these notes. For each example, analyse what is being shown by the camera and mise en scène during the voiceover. How do sound and image work together?
3. How do the representations of the two boys differ in the film? Is it purely a difference in social class?
4. How do you read Luisa’s role in the narrative? How much is the ending of the film similar to the ‘twist’ in Hollywood films?
Jose Arroyo (2002) Review of Y tu mamá también in Sight and Sound, April
A. G. Basoli (2002) ‘Sexual Awakenings and Stark Social Realities: Interview with Alfonso Cuarón on Y tu mamá también’ in Cineaste Vol XXVII No3, June
Xan Brooks (2002) on http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4463899,00.html, accessed 8/8/04
David Heuser on http://music.utsa.edu/electron/YTuMama.htm, accessed 8/8/04
Edward Lawrenson (2002) Interview with Alfonso Cuarón, in Sight and Sound, April
Paul Julian Smith (2002) ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ in Sight and Sound, April
All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images from Y tu mamá también © Icon
This film is very much a companion piece to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). Carlos Cuarón wrote the earlier film which is brother Alfonso directed. This time Carlos both writes and directs and Alfonso produces (alongside the two other amigos, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarittu). The same two actors, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna again play the leads and the film is a co-production involving Luna and Bernal’s Canana, the tres amigos Cha Cha Chá and the Hollywood studio Universal/Focus Features.
The earlier film saw Luna and Bernal as middle-class sophisticated Mexico City adolescents on a road trip to a kind of maturity in the Pacific seaboard province of Guerrero. The new film reverses the narrative so Tato (Cursi/Bernal) and Beto (Rudo/Luna) are ‘country hicks’ spotted by a talent scout who stumbles across their performances in a local football team. With the two plunged into Mexico City life as unlikely stars of top teams, a sharp satire of football and Mexican society ensues. If you are a football fan you’ll quickly work out all the likely scenarios, though the ending might throw you a little.
Like many aspects of the film, the ending seems almost devised to alienate an American audience. I presume that most of what happens to the pair as footballers also happens to basketball, baseball and American football players as well, but American audiences may not be familiar with the references that Latin American and European audiences will pick up on. There are also a couple of specific points that I noted thanks to posters on IMDB. The Mexican film poster above shows Diego Luna clutching his genitals – a reference to an incident in the film, but also an iconic image of footballers protecting themselves on the pitch. In the American film poster (look on the IMDB page for the film) Luna’s hand has moved to a pointing finger. The talent scout in the film speaks Argentinian Spanish and the subtitles reflect this by giving him British English words like ‘wanker’ and ‘bugger’ – quite a clever idea, I think, but puzzling for some audiences.
I’m sure that there is a lot of the film that I don’t get. Like Y tu mamá también, I suspect the film offers a discourse on Mexican politics and social issues, though not as directly or as pointedly as the earlier film. Once again, there is a voice-over that comments on events, although this time it is one of the characters in the narrative rather than an anonymous observer. The film seems ‘realist’ rather than escapist (another ‘anti-Hollywood’ trait?). I don’t want to spoil any narrative enjoyment, so I’ll just point out that the inevitable often happens to characters and though the film is clearly a comedy for the most part, it isn’t starry-eyed or overly-optimistic. That was a slight problem for me in that I didn’t laugh all that much because I knew what was coming (i.e. as a football fan). However, I did enjoy the film overall and the twin performances of Luna and Bernal are excellent and worth the price of admission alone.
I recommend the Bulletin Board discussions on IMDB. One board in particular carries a detailed discussion about the ethnic mix in Mexican society and the rights and wrongs of having ‘white’ European Mexicans playing Rudo and Cursi. Unlike the all-to-common slanging matches on IMDB boards, this is an interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Slightly less revealing are the attempts to translate the nicknames ‘Rudo’ and ‘Cursi’ given to the two country hicks by the Mexico City tabloids. I like the ‘rough’ and ‘mushy’ translation best, although ‘corny’ is possibly more correct for Cursi. Like many sporting nicknames, these are both derogatory and affectionate – there is a lovely scene in the film when Cursi meets fans who state their intention to tear him limb from limb if the team doesn’t win and then beg for his autograph.
For Gael García Bernal fans (I know that there are plenty out there), I should also mention that Tato’s dream is not really to play football (which he is very good at) but to sing (which Tato certainly isn’t good at – but Bernal may be, for all that I know). Still you do get to watch him in a nice Western suit and hat combination.