Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct.5, 2017
George Bunyan Interviews the filmmaker Ludwig Carnival on the health of Mexican film.*
GB: From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of very good films everywhere that don’t make it to the big screen. Is there anything we citizens can do about that?
LC: Yes. Stop watching mindless television. Demand art and thoughtful content.
GB: Isn’t that the argument of the artistic elite?
LC: It certainly isn’t the argument of the commercial elite. For them money, not art, is what is important.
GB: But without money, your films won’t reach the public.
LC: It depends on what you mean by public. People huddled in the flickering, blue light of their televisions, alone, hypnotized, without any questions forming in their brains as to what things mean. It’s a kind of self-selected numbing, distraction, excitement without insight, where you don’t remember what you’ve seen.
I recently went to a small movie house in Dahlem, an area in Berlin. I wanted to see whether it was still there fifty years after I had been a student there. My wife and I were the only people sitting in the theater. The movie was about raising salmon in desert in a Middle East country. That was the gimmick. That’s why it got picked up and distributed.
The movie house had endured because a series of owners loved film. There was nothing elite about the place or its activities. The billboard indicated that thoughtful films were the large part of the offering. In particular: The Thirty-Nine Steps, directed by Hitchcock. The Grande Illusion, with Erik von Stroheim. The Bicycle Thief. And the Mexican film Heli, by Amat Escalante. Criticized in some places for its violence.
GB: Violence sells, so does sex, so does white.
LC: That’s the sad part. The whiteness. So many films without cultural diversity, but revealing the racial assumptions that give cohesion to the dominant ethnicity. That is what characterizes blockbusters. Violence as the manifestation of strength and, usually, of male dominance, as in constant war and sex, as in the enticing postures of women that show thighs and breast, as if that were mainly what they are about.
I grew up in a whiteness, just south of Boston. My adolescent friends and I heard about the film Bitter Rice being played in a nearby seaport. We didn’t tell our parents what we were about to do, the three of us stealing away like plotting murderers , and hitchhiked to the town, praying the ticket booth would let us in, although we were years under-age. The crime we got to commit? We got to see nineteen-year old movie actress Silvana Mangano’s thighs and breasts. And violence. I remember thinking there must be something dirty about the whole thing because it was also Italian, and Italians, I knew, ate innocent people alive in East Boston. So many prejudices already growing like permanent cultural fungus in my young soul. At least it was international. But it had made it to the big American screen because of breasts and thighs. And probably also because of its dirtiness. Some critics called it Marxist because it dealt with labor issues.
GB: What about violence in Mexican films? Take the film Heli that you mentioned.
LC: I’ve seen the film. There is violence. But it’s not gratuitous violence. It shows unspeakable cruelty and torture, but it’s there for a reason. That is what goes on in a country with a long history of the absence of the rule of law; where educational and job-training opportunities tend to be out of the range of humble people; where the elite gather wealth and power, in their own way stealing from the rest of us with their monopolies. Anyone can join the drug cartels and become the cannon fodder for the incredibly bloody wars to control shipping and markets. The violence shows the depravity of a part of a desperate society where the only protection is neighbors looking our for neighbors. Escalante rubs your face in it. Not to titillate and entertain, but to make you incensed that the powers at the top have allowed such a society to evolve. A society that we all in some ways help perpetuate every day. And in that way it is about Everyman and Every Country.
GB: What are you working on now?
LC: I’m writing a screen play about a corrupt federal policeman in Tampico in 1938, who looks for his angry, missing son in a city wracked by petroleum workers’ strikes. Where brutal counter measures produce limbless bodies floating in the Pánuco River, chewed on by oversized crocodiles and bumped against at night by submerged German U-boats, inching upstream. Where everything points to the coming slaughters of the Second World War, some of which is already beginning in that oil port.
GB: So the same old problems continue?
LC: The same problems exist. What sells is youth, young sexuality, young thighs and breasts, bulging muscles, guns, killing bad guys, winning the usually white beauties as if they were circus prizes.
What’s missing are the small joys, the small courtesies, I want to say, sweetness that strangers share, the fragility of unusual love. What sells is war, weapons, feats of unreal courage, blowing up things, car chases, high-tech crime fighting. A hip hollowness. Heroes wrapped in invincibility. The abundance of clichés.
Heli, the film by Amat Escalante, is slow, unrelenting. At one point, if I remember correctly, an Army pickup drives right up to the door of an innocent protagonist’s modest house, with its mounted, manned, heavy machine gun pointed right at the protagonist, what seems like centimeters away. It is a scene about menace. About the power of the State to threaten or run amok with impunity. A metaphor for what good people are up against in this country of ours. It is but one of countless brilliant scenes. Escalante’s films should be supported by patrons of the arts everywhere. As should those of countless other young filmmakers in this old and noble country.
GB: Thank you for your time.
LC: You’re very welcome.
*A reminder that this was a fictitious interview.