A fast two days in Mexico City before the 11th Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia was not intended to include any movie-going, but by happenstance my Mexico City hosts and executive producer Max St. Romain invite me to a delightful private screening of “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” about the poet and seminal independent filmmaker. It’s in an interesting little avant-garde black box screening room with steep serried ranks of hard wooden benches, happily softened by cushions.
The screening room is right next to a new restaurant, Yuban, that features Oaxacan cooking, and a prix-fixe meal has been arranged for the attendees that includes a number of delicious starters and a choice of grilled turkey covered in red mole or stewed beef in a broth enriched in yellow mole, my fortunate choice. I happen to sit next to a food writer who lived in Morelia for a half-dozen years, who gives me a couple of welcome restaurant tips, and a less-welcome reason for why she left Morelia: shootings that were meant for government or police officials that took out a few innocent bystanders. I promise her that I will avoid government offices and police stations for the duration of my stay.
Early the next morning I take a Festival shuttle bus from Mexico City to Morelia. My fellow van riders are largely young Mexican filmmakers, many of them graduates of the Centro de Capitacion Cinematographica film school, en route to show their films in the many competitive short film programs in Morelia. I happen to sit with David Pablos, a wordly and prolific director, who has been at Morelia twice before, once with an award-winning short film, “La cancion de los ninos muertos,” and later with a documentary about families greeting each other at the Mexican/U.S. border, “Una frontera, todas las fronteras.” His first feature, “La vida despues” (“The Life After”) is playing in Morelia, after recently premiering in Venice.
We fall into the kind of obsessive conversation familiar to cinephiles all over the world, which makes short work of the 3 1/2 hour ride. I’m dismayed to hear that his colleagues at the film school of Columbia University, which he attended for two years, found many actors and movies of the Hollywood golden age — he cites James Dean in “East of Eden” and the films of David Lean — cringe-inducing, old-fashioned, and unwatchable. Kids today!
On arrival in Morelia, which began the day before yesterday with a red-carpet screening of “Gravity” (“Gravidad”) with Alfonso Cuaron, and a full program yesterday, I’m itchy to grab a catalogue and a program and get to a MOVIE! and hot-foot it over to the Cinepolis multiplex whose five screens are in use from 11 a.m. to midnight daily. I choose Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” over a Mexican short-films program, John Huston’s “The Unforgiven” (part of a Burt-Lancaster-in-Mexico program), and Richard Curtis’ “About Time.” My last-minute entry means that all the seats are filled, and I perch on steps in the aisle — fortunately there seem to be no pesky fire-laws — until a nice fellow-film-goer fetches me a folding chair. So I watch the rather deadly 130-minute epic about the kung-fu masters Ip Man and Gong Er in relative comfort, except that “The Grandmaster” turns out to be one of the movies shown in its original language with only Spanish subtitles. Luckily there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, and the subtitles help me out, anyway.
I’d been warned, but having just seen another biographical film about Ip Man at the Four Star in San Francisco, and having seen every other one of Wong Kar-wai’s movies, I can’t resist. I’m reminded of what John Grierson (rather insufferably!) wrote about Joseph von Sternberg: “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer.” The story-telling is flat, the martial-arts sequences blur into each other, and the film seems set in a epoch much earlier than in reality. I’m only occasionally distracted by a few lush period settings and costumes, and the relentless beauty of Zhang Ziyi. Tony Leung seems unengaged. Ip Man is partially famous because he taught Bruce Lee, but Lee only appears in a quote at the end of the film.
In line afterwards, I run into John Powers of “Vogue,” his novelist wife Sandi Tan, programmer Lucy Virgen from Guadalajara, filmmaker Nicolas Philibert, Alissa Simon of Variety and the Palm Springs Festival, and a number of other festival regulars, all of whom seem to be going to “A los ojos,” (“Through the eyes”) a grim-sounding Mexican feature about a mother searching to find corneas illegally for her son.
I’m almost tempted to change my plans, in that random film festival way, but luckily I stick to the idea of seeing a strange-sounding 1952 documentary about flamenco, “Duende e mystery de flamenco,” by an unknown-to-me filmmaker, Edgar Neville. Within minutes of the film starting, I am transported to that place of bliss where one is seeing something beautiful, strange, and entirely original. The film features extraordinary performances of singing and dance, shot all over Spain in picturesque locations, in intense, heightened, almost painful colors. I am enraptured. I want to own this movie. It’s an amazing document that reminds me that there are still many wonderful discoveries to be made. Thank you, Morelia!
Afterwards I am torn between “Con le pata quebrada,” (“Barefoot in the Kitchen”), a documentary about the portrayal of women in Spanish cinema, which seems like pure pleasure, and Nicolas Philibert’s “La maison de la radio,” about 24 hours in the life of Radio France, which also seems like pure pleasure. I choose the later, and am incredibly moved in a way I do not expect by the prtrayal of the diverse characters who produce the radio programming. As Philibert says during the q-and-a afterwards, it’s the human comedy.
I could see Bruno Dumont’s “Camille Claudel 1915” right after, but I decide to stop pushing my luck on the five hours’ sleep I had the night before (plus factoring in the law of diminishing returns with Dumont’s work), and instead decide to try one of the restaurant recommendations, San Miguelito. Lucy Virgen and I hope into a cab — Mr. Toad’s wild ride — only to discover the restaurant is closed. We return to the center, chastened, and have a hotel dinner that is also chastening.
But we do have the imminent arrival of Quentin Tarantino to look forward to. His visit to Morelia was not announced before the festival opening, and no one that I talk to in the press office today seems to know what he’ll be presenting. Ensconced in my hotel room, kept awake by music from the nightclub above and gunshots from the outdoor screening of “Vera Cruz” in the square below, I’m finally reading the 250-page catalogue (which apparently no one in the press office has gotten around to doing). I find that he’ll be presenting three of his favorite 60s and 70s cult films: “Blue,” (1968) by Silvio Narrizano, starring Terence Stamp and Joanna Pettet; “Shark!,” 1969, by Samuel Fuller, starring Burt Reynolds; and “Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary,” (1975), by Juan Lopez Moctezuma, starring Cristina Ferrare. I plan to be in attendance at all three. Happy dreams!