By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood October 28, 2011 at 8:20AM
Next year I want to go to Mexico's Morelia International Film Festival. Check out Meredith Brody's final report:
It’s my last full day in Morelia, alas (it’s always hard for me to leave a festival while it’s still going on, and Morelia is at its half-way point), so I want to get a lot in. I haven’t even explored the town, beyond taking a different route to the main complex every day. The well-preserved colonial town is so picturesque – unpromising doorways reveal deep courtyards, with unexpected gardens and fountains -- that I’ve had to put a new card in my camera.
I start with a documentary, Ríos de hombres (Rivers of Men), about a war over the privatization of water in Cochombamba, Bolivia. The local people, enraged by a 300% -- 400% increase in fees, including taxes charged on the rainwater they collect themselves, mobilize to fight the multi-national corporation brought in to privatize the water supply, which shall be nameless (hint: Bechtel, headquartered in my hometown, San Francisco). Director Tin Dindamal won the audience award at Sundance with his first film, De nadie, about a Central American’s immigration to the U.S. He spent seven years shooting his second film, focusing on a few stories, including a mother who lost her 17-year-old son in the protests, and a military man who led the troops who were charged with quelling them.
It’s only 76 minutes long, but I have to leave a few minutes before it ends. It’s especially painful because it happens to be just when one’s expectations are being upended; Dindamal is questioning the reasons behind the water wars, exposing them as myths and rumors. I find my sympathies shifting; it’s always fun when you realize you’ve cleverly been led down the garden path.
I’m eager to see Naná, since all the other movies I’ve seen in the “French Literature in American Cinema” series have been fabulous examples of woman-centered melodrama. It’s being shown in Spanish without English subtitles, but, as I’ve read the Zola novel and seen several movie versions – including the Renoir silent, the 1934 Hollywood effort with Anna Sten in the title role, and a 1955 French version starring Martine Carol – I figure I can follow along. I’m joined by, among others, Criterion’s Peter Becker and Kim Hendrickson, equally intrigued by what proved to be star Lupe Vélez’s last role before her Hollywood Babylon-featured suicide.
The story proves easy enough to follow. I’m constantly diverted by the fabulous costumes, not to mention the delightful historical inaccuracy – did you know that Nana invented the striptease in 1870, in a turn that reminded me of Irene Dunne’s mimed act in The Awful Truth, in which she pretends that her outer garments are “gone with the wind”?! The lavish clothes and jewels go in and out of the period, too: there are several necklaces that are pure Joseff of Hollywood. And Vélez’s slender neck threatens to snap under the weight of increasingly-baroque and towering wigs, some of which threaten to engulf and devour her. Vélez’s lively performance doesn’t stray far from her Mexican Spitfire persona, and she sure photographs well. There’s a poignant ending which reminds me of Nightmare Alley, in which Vélez becomes the very thing she feared.
I thought I was going to fit in another screening, but I’m captured by one of the many Festival staff who are charged with making our experience flawless and led to the Hospitality Suite, which turns out to be a re-purposed glamorous night spot, up a flight of stairs, with rooms centered around an open courtyard draped with linen panels and featuring, yes, a gently plashing fountain. There’s a lavish buffet and a bar with wine and cerveza. Yikes.
I take my overflowing plate to a corner table anchored by Becker, Hendrickson, Tom Luddy, and the articulate Harvard-and-Oxford-educated Alejandro Ramirez, who discusses Mexican revolution history and film festival lore with equal ease. I love the story about Festival artistic director Daniela Michel attempting to silence the Cathedral’s constant bells because guest Werner Herzog mentioned that they woke him up!
(They wake us all up, ringing as they do every fifteen minutes, and for an inexplicable number of times. There’s something to be said for my 17-th century thick-walled windowless room, despite its intermittent WiFi – the bells are somewhat muffled. I pity the poor fools with a picturesque view overlooking the beautiful central squares.)
As I return to the complex to see Festival guest Emir Kusturica’s choice, the 1935 Vamenos con Pancho Villa!, I spy fest jurors Mark Cousins and François Dupeyron in line. “I looked up the title of the Michael Lindsay-Hogg book,” I tell Dupeyron. “No wonder I couldn’t remember it, it stinks! It’s Luck and Circumstance -- it should have been I’m Orson Welles’ Son, it would have flown off the shelves!”
I follow Mark to his choice of seats – in the second row, quite a bit closer than I’d like to sit. It turns out that he’s a fellow obsessive, easily distracted by the vagaries of theater audiences. And, in a country where texting during a film, and also speaking in what I consider outside voices, ahem, is apparently culturally acceptable, he figures the second row will minimize exposure to such interference. We fall into an orgy of can-you-top-this neurotic stories. I figure I’ll win with the “if someone next to me is constantly jiggling or swinging a white-shoed foot within my peripheral vision, I move” confession, but he’s been there, too. As recently as the day before. Ah, my people!
Vamenos con Pancho Villa! is lively and features an intricate and interesting narrative based on loyalty and death – a long scene set in a cantina and revolving around an inexplicable version of Russian roulette, amped up by misplaced machismo, is especially interesting – but the catalogue’s description of it as “considered the best Mexican film of all time” falls wide of the mark. Based on my film viewing of just these few days, it’s not even the best Mexican film of the thirties.
Afterwards Mark and I head off to a bar under the Colonial arcades, where we sip white wine and watch the world stroll by. The producers of History in the Eyes happen to pass, with director José Ramon Mikelajáuregui. I’m pleased to be able not only to compliment him, but also show him a few pictures I took of the delightful open-air screening, including shots featuring the surroundings: the stunning pink-stoned Cathedral, the festive sweets-sellers, with the big screen looming over all.
Mark is a scintillating conversationalist – maybe a little too scintillating, because when he references Horace and Montaigne, I find it a little hard to keep up. I tell him about the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus and Charlie Brown are gazing up at clouds and seeing things in them. After Linus mentions a Biblical scene, British Honduras, and Thomas Eakins, Charlie Brown says “I was going to say a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”
Mark immediately turns on a dime and asks me about my favorite Broadway musicals. After the usual rapturous Sondheim disquisition on my part, with a few regrettable lapses into song, it turns out that he’s a big fan of The Pajama Game. So am I. It turns out that he’s never read either 7 ½ Cents, the novel it’s based on, or Say, Darling, the hilarious roman-a-clef about its Broadway production, both written by Richard Bissell. I promise to send him a copy of the long-out-of-print Say, Darling, a book I buy whenever I see a cheap copy and press upon unsuspecting friends.
We head off to my final festival dinner, upstairs in the Hotel Los Juaninos, in a private room with tables arranged in a huge square. Conversation is lively, and loving toasts are made. After Luddy gracefully lifts a glass in honor of Volker Schlondorff, I yearn to toast the amazing Daniela Michel, who has managed to master the essential film festival director trick of being in several places at once, but I feel if I wait a few minutes, somebody more appropriate will make it. And indeed Schlondorff charmingly lifts his glass in her praise, begging her not to allow the Morelia Festival to grow too much: “Keep it a Festivalito!”
I understand his point. But I remember watching Toronto’s catalogues (and press attendance) double and then triple. And though I rue the day that Sundance was invaded by agents, cell phones, and gift suites, I understand how its changes meant good things for filmmakers and independent film.
And, since I’ve barely managed to scratch the riches covered in the Morelia International Film Festival’s 228-page catalogue in the five days I was here – it pains me to leave before Bela Tarr arrives, for example, or seeing the flawless prints of Jean Vigo’s oeuvre supplied by Criterion, not to mention the many new films on offer – I won’t be surprised if Morelia will have grown if I’m lucky enough to return for next year’s festival. After all, it will be the festival’s tenth anniversary.