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Water & Power- The Mythology of Barrio Lyricism

by Carlos Aguilar
May 2, 2014 7:00 PM
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Emilio River in "Water & Power"

Under the same searing California sun that washes over Los Angeles almost every day of the year, one can find extravagant wealth and the picture of the Hollywood dreams where people are gorgeously tanned, almost too perfect to be mortal. Simultaneously, in the obscure neighborhoods that rarely appear on screens, the struggles are much more primal. There, on the East side, the goal is to survive, to make a living by any means necessary, to find a way to dignify the hardworking man who has been ridden of its value. Everyday the two realms coexist but rarely touch. Like parallel existences sharing the same land but governed by distinctly different moral codes.

Those on the wealthy side live within the parameters designated by the system. The rest, are a subculture hidden in plain sight - present but not acknowledged. Born as a product of this concoction of hope and despair, Mexican-America brothers Water (Enrique Murciano) and Power (Nicholas Gonzalez), are the eponymous protagonists in Richard Montoya’s film adaption of his own play.

Water & Power

Raised with a heavy dose of tough love by a single father, the brothers became figures that exist in a gray area between legality and self-righteous conviction. Sometimes the laws of the real world surpass those written on paper. Water is a senator, his wish to serve his underrepresented community is idealistic. Power is a cop full of bravado and untamed fury; he is to valiant for his own good. One wants to plant a million trees along the river, while the other interprets justice to his irrational convenience. Utilizing this premise, Montoya’s story takes place over the course of one night. One of those rare nights when it rains L.A, one of those defining nights that leave a trail of chaos behind by the time sunrise comes.

There is corruption, a murder, a central conflict that divides the brothers between what’s honorable and what it takes to stay alive. However, these elements are mere structure. The real artistry is in the peculiar folklore and the intricate social mechanics at play. The film is narrated using unpretentious prose by veteran, wheelchair bound gangster Norte/Sur (Emilio Rivera ), a nickname that implies his loyalties are varied. Like an ancient storyteller who knows the city and its dangers from first hand experience, he verbalizes the stories of those swallowed by the unforgiving streets. True to his text and the characters he crafted, Montoya has dissected and reinterpret reality in order to capture an idiosyncratic version of Los Angeles in which the Eastside culture is paramount.

Far beyond being a conceptual piece on ethnic identity, it is a unique poetic expression from a perspective often relegated from the mainstream. Being a fusion between experimental Neo Noir and darkly humorous crime saga, Water & Power plays with language in a cheeky and tonally perfect manner. Rapid-fire dialogue with a hundred local references per second and endless puns that allude to the brothers’ nicknames, all blend together to enhance the already strong sense of urban mysticism in the film.

Montoya elevates the barrio lifestyle to a sacred battleground in which brotherhood is the sole alliance allowed - redemption could only be obtained via sacrifice. The mythology surrounding this picture of the city is gritty, violent, hyper-masculine, and answers only to itself and its participants. Only underground legends and unsung heroes are created here.

Stylistically the film inevitably channels the conventions of staples like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, but adorned with an indelible “raza” flavor. The mere idea of a film like this is intriguing, yet, Water & Power is admittedly a bit theatrical, a tad strange, heavily lyrical, and raw. But it’s the unfathomable interaction of all its imperfections that make it such a particular pleasure. The director knew how to choose his actors and how to carry them through his fictional City of Angels strongly colored in brown. Lost souls roaming around between the ephemeral virtues of power and the unstoppable fluidity of destiny. As one learns from the film, nothing is concrete in L.A except the river. In a town reigned by duality, everyone needs at least one unshakable thing.

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