Beyond the Multiplex

A Mexican teen comedy of sexual awakening is the richest film of 2006. Plus: Don DeLillo's first film and an unsavory JT Leroy.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 9, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

Here's one way of thinking about the surprise victory of "Crash" at the Oscars: Academy voters thought they were voting for a plucky outsider picture, in which big stars worked cheap, a director did it his own way and Momentous Issues Were Confronted. So that's a good sign, right? And my opinion, along with that of many other oh-so-jaded critics -- roughly, that despite good acting and fine intentions, "Crash" was a head-splittingly obvious exercise in Angeleno self-regard -- did not matter (and should not have mattered) to those genuinely moved by the film.

Frankly, if "Crash" started conversations in real American households about race and racism, I suppose it fulfilled its community-service function whether or not it was anything more than a crude remake of "Grand Canyon" (the line comes from reader Vicki Broach -- thanks, Vicki!). And yes, I too was touched when writer-producer-director Paul Haggis, instead of reciting the usual laundry list of lawyers, accountants, string-pullers and personal assistants, thanked "the people out there who stand up for peace and justice."

Now, I'm hopelessly conflicted on this issue, since I'm married to someone who works for an organization with those words in its name. But Paul, baby -- or should I call you Mr. "Diff'rent Strokes," Mr. "Walker, Texas Ranger" or Mr. "EZ Streets"? -- one could argue that words like that come cheap on the stage of the Kodak Theatre. You've got a platform now, Mr. "Family Law," not to mention deep pockets and a lot of leverage. It's what you do from here on out that counts.

"Tsotsi" was a splendid choice for the foreign-language Oscar -- catch it, if you haven't -- and "March of the Penguins" was, I guess, as inexorable as the icy trek it documents. Onward, through time and space! I'm off to the capital of the Lone Star State as you read this, and Beyond the Multiplex will break free of its weekly straitjacket to report from the South by Southwest Film Festival over the next few days.

Stay tuned: I'll be checking in from several world premieres, including Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" (a tongue-in-cheek, behind-the-scenes fictional film about the venerable radio show); the new documentary "Al Franken: God Spoke"; "loudQUIETloud," a rockumentary on last year's Pixies reunion tour, and countless other delights. As at any festival, the greatest stuff is always unexpected; I don't know if that's going to mean the movie about full-contact medieval-warfare re-enactors or the one entirely about a guy who runs the register at the Wendy's franchise on the University of Texas campus.

Speaking of unexpected delights, let's move on to an unassuming Mexican movie in black-and-white that might be the new year's sleeper foreign-language hit. And I haven't forgotten your nominations for greatest art-house theater in an unlikely spot. This week's clear winner: the Little Art Theater, a struggling, 200-seat house in pretty much the middle of nowhere (in other words, Yellow Springs, Ohio, now known to those who've seen "Dave Chappelle's Block Party"). Essay question, Ohioans and others: What can be done to save the Little Art from the deadly scourge of high-quality home theater systems?

"Duck Season": Jim Jarmusch and John Hughes, stuck in a Mexico City blackout
Fernando Eimbcke, the boyish 35-year-old director of the charming, startling new movie "Duck Season," insists that there is no new wave of Mexican film -- it's just that the rest of the world is finally paying attention. "There are always a lot of filmmakers coming out of Mexico," he tells me, at the end of an exhausting day of interviews in his hotel during a recent visit to New York. "But things are changing as the world is globalizing, and there are at least a few good things about that. There's not a new generation in Mexico, but there may be a new way of seeing films."

From my gringo perspective, this is both true and not true. On one level, Eimbcke is just being politic. The generation that has produced him, along with his friend and producer Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Carlos Reygadas, owes a huge debt to the pioneers of Mexican independent cinema, directors like Alfonso Arau and Arturo Ripstein who remain little known north of the border. (Not to mention Luis Buñuel, who, although not Mexican, transformed the nation's film community in his years there.)

But in the wake of international hits like González Iñárritu's "Amores Perros" and Cuarón's "Y Tu Mamá También," the global film market's eye has clearly settled on Mexico. Reygadas, director of "Japón" and the deliberately challenging new film "Battle in Heaven," is destined to be the object of a tiny but devoted cult. Eimbcke's formally severe but emotionally rich "Duck Season" is something quite different, capable of gratifying film snobs and regular viewers alike. It's a teen comedy of sexual awakening, but one shot in black-and-white, sharply constricted in time and space, and with minimal plot. I think it's the richest film I've seen so far in 2006.

Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Cataño) are best friends, stuck in that awkward mid-teen phase between kidhood and pseudo-grown-up. (They're 14, but as we're all painfully aware, that phase can kick in anywhere from 12 up to 16 or so.) They're doing what they always do on Sunday afternoon, hanging out in Flama's parents' apartment -- in a faceless lower-middle high-rise in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City -- playing video games, drinking Coke, ordering pizza. Nearly all the elements here are universal fragments of global culture; Eimbcke says the only thing distinctively Mexican about "Duck Season" is the slang Flama and Moko use in their half-improvised dialogue.

On one level, not much happens. A cute neighbor girl named Rita (Danny Perea) rings the doorbell; her oven's on the fritz and she needs to bake something. Flama and Moko ignore her, at first, but she never seems to get finished. The nerdy pizza guy, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), arrives 11 seconds late, according to Flama's stopwatch -- and Telepizza ("your friendly pizza") promises a free pie if your order takes more than half an hour! Flama and Moko won't pay him, and Ulises won't leave without his money.

But the electricity's cutting in and out, ruining Flama and Moko's video-game tournament and forcing these four, however grudgingly, to interact. Brownies are eventually baked and eaten, and some of Rita's hidden agenda is revealed. Ulises discusses his life's lost opportunities and his secret parakeet-breeding scheme. The mystical qualities of colored, M&M-like candies are explored. All become fascinated with an anodyne painting of ducks in a marsh over which Flama's divorcing parents are fighting, and which seems to become more and more realistic the longer they gaze into it. (Rita's brownies are possibly implicated.)

Eimbcke says his influences include John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" and Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," and that about sums up the irresistible combination of "Duck Season." As I say, not much happens, but also everything does. With Rita's help, Moko begins to explore his own sexual identity, a subject he seems to have been avoiding. Flama faces the fact that the family he has known all his life is imploding. Ulises reaches a crucial turning point in his life, through the portal of that duck painting, and Rita turns out to have a more specific grievance on this particular day than any of them.

"I was sure that even when nothing is happening, always something happens," says Eimbcke. (He has a translator along, but only relies on her for the occasional word or turn of phrase.) "I felt that it was a challenge to work on a story where nothing happens. That was the beginning idea behind this film."

He wanted to work with "a specific kind of emptiness," the kind found in teenage lives where the days seem simultaneously longer and more eventful than they do for adults. Or at least they do when the electricity goes out. "When the blackout happens, special things can happen," he observes. "If that blackout doesn't happen, then nothing special will happen. Special things could happen in the video game -- a big score or something. That's about it."

Eimbcke says he was always sure that this particular story had to be told in black-and-white. "Because it's very simple, it happens in one place and the conflicts of the characters are so subtle. I thought that black-and-white would help. It won't distract you from what's happening on the screen. I was also thinking of the film in terms of visual narrative and geometry. With black-and-white, in one apartment, we had the opportunity to play with volume and geometric forms. It gave a visual rhythm to the film, and I think it could be really boring in color."

Occasionally, the film does break out of the Tlatelolco apartment -- first for Ulises' troubled odyssey from the pizzeria (notice his name, please) and subsequently for a handful of increasingly surreal fantasy and memory sequences, which I won't spoil. "Duck Season" raises many questions about the identities and destinies of its characters, but don't expect the events of a single Sunday afternoon to answer many of those. Some viewers have seen the film's central subject as Moko's burgeoning (if largely hypothetical) sexuality, but that's just one question among many.

"This is a teenage boy who has both experiences," Eimbcke says -- that is, with a girl and with a boy -- "and questions himself about what he is feeling. The film is about questions, not answers. That's what a film must be, to me. Who am I to give an answer? A lot of people ask me, 'What happens with Moko? Is he gay?' And I tell them, 'I don't know. What do you think?'"

When he screened the film for an audience of Mexican teenagers, Eimbcke reports, some felt that Moko was definitely gay, but one brave girl got up to insist, "No! It's normal at that age to ask that question." Everybody laughed, he says, but no one contradicted her. "The point of this film, maybe, is everybody has their own questions, and their own answers."

"Duck Season" opens March 10 in New York and Los Angeles, with many other cities to follow.

Fast forward: Don DeLillo's appealing "Game 6," plus a misbegotten footnote to the JT Leroy pseudo-scandal
Michael Hoffman's "Game 6" has been kicking around the indie-film scene for a couple of years now, never quite finding a way into the marketplace. Given its fine cast and the fact that it was written by Don DeLillo, the revered novelist who has never previously scribbled a screenplay (or at least had one produced), you had to figure that meant it stank. Well, guess again. This fable about a middle-aged playwright facing a life crisis, a hostile critic, a series of abortive taxi rides and the infamous -- for Red Sox fans -- sixth game of the 1986 World Series is a modest but agreeable, and often very funny, movie.

It's true that DeLillo's hyper-literate prose doesn't always translate well into dialogue, and an early diner conversation between playwright Nicky Rogan (Michael Keaton) and his half-estranged daughter, Laurel (Ari Graynor), feels so dense I thought we were in for a long evening. But Nicky is a winning character -- like all Red Sox fans, a little misanthropic and fatalistic, but with some tragic sweetness at his core -- and Keaton gives one of his finest performances. "Game 6" also offers nice supporting roles for Griffin Dunne (as Nicky's even more defeated best friend) and the irrepressible Robert Downey Jr., as the Buddhist ninja critic feared and loathed by all New York playwrights.

Perhaps non-baseball lovers simply won't be interested in Nicky's internal dramas as the deadly Game Six and, secondarily, his most personal play's opening night approach on the same October day. But even if you know all too well what happened in that game between the Red Sox and the New York Mets, DeLillo and Hoffman make it seem both dramatic and momentous. I'm not wowed by the spoofy "Taxi Driver" resolution, but for fans of DeLillo, Keaton and/or either team in that classic Series, this curious little picture is worth tracking down.

Opens March 10 in New York and other major cities.

I feel somewhat less compassion for Asia Argento, director and star of "The Heart Is Deceitful in All Things," an ill-starred adaptation of the novel by hipster icon JT Leroy (recently revealed to be a 40-year-old San Francisco woman named Laura Albert, rather than a semi-transgendered Appalachian truck-stop hustler). But that's not to say I don't feel any. The movie is terrible, but made with verve and sincerity, all of it pointed in the wrong direction.

The film's distributors are understandably trying to spin this Gothic opus of bad sex, bad drugs and bad rock 'n' roll as some kind of meta-commentary on, or at least an interesting secondary artifact of, the literary scandal. But they can't succeed, goodness knows. All we've got here is a stereotype of hyper-Christian, hyper-hypocritical and hyper-violent America more false, more cartoonish and more flat-out stupid than anything the genuine darkness of violent, hypocritical Christian America could produce. That, and further evidence that hip celebrities by the wagonload -- Winona Ryder, Michael Pitt, Marilyn Manson, Lydia Lunch and Peter Fonda all appear here, in minor roles -- were seduced by the lure of Leroy's supposedly true chronicles of degeneracy.

Would it matter much if Leroy's books were good? And are they, in fact? Well, it would matter less, but the entire point of the Leroy persona was that this person had survived hideous ordeals at the hands of our most benighted fellow Amurrcans, and had risen to craft lambent, Rimbaud-like prose penetrating our collective heart of darkness. I don't know Laura Albert, but it seems her own story may have been almost as interesting, if less conveniently packaged, than JT Leroy's. While her writing is powerful in patches (and deliriously overcooked in others), the truth it supposedly illuminates about life in these United States mostly preys on its target audience's worst prejudices and superstitions. Given the ample horrors this land indeed can offer, that's inexcusable, and the bicoastal scenester clowns duped by her don't feel half as ashamed as they should.

I guess Argento's hallucinatory film may have some value as a document of delusion, as well as an assemblage of every drug-montage and rape-montage cliché ever staged. Argento herself plays the feckless hooker mama of Jeremiah (played mostly by twin brothers Dylan and Cole Sprouse), fictional stand-in for the fictional Leroy; the only way I can describe her performance is to suggest that if Paris Hilton impersonated Courtney Love, this is roughly what you'd get. The Bible is quoted extensively. There's a CGI sequence involving lumps of talking coal. Winona Ryder plays a shrink who mimes one puppet anally raping another. That's all I can remember, mercifully.

Opens March 10 in New York and Los Angeles, March 17 in Chicago, March 24 in Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco, April 7 in Seattle, April 14 in Washington and April 17 in Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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