by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Vitagraph/American Cinematheque
The word "pretentious" gets tossed around quite a bit in relation to art and foreign film, usually by people who don't see a great deal of either, but also by a certain subset of those "in the know" as a marker of some kind of boundary between what's acceptable and what's not. I've thrown the word around a tad myself (most recently in relation to Gaspar Noé's Irredeemaversible), and have had the label stuck right back at me, and movies that I love, a fair amount as well. Webster definitions of "pretentious" revolve around "excessive claims of value" or "importance" and connote a kind of negativity that gets used to separate the cinematic wheat from the chaff for viewers at all points on the spectrum. I imagine one could perform a series of screenings cross-country of various films, create a "pretentious survey," and use the results of its administration to come up with a fairly reliable index forecasting how well a particular film will be tolerated in a given area. It would be tempting to attribute the probably predictable results to the audience, but I think it's rather more a function of critics (and the exhibitors who pay attention) doing a tremendous job of continually letting their readers know what's art and what's not, breaking films down into categories to make it all the easier for the reader to avoid straying from their designated category of spectatorship and maybe onto something new and exciting. These workings hurt films labeled "art" across the board and help keep audiences away from movies like Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's debut feature Japón, perhaps the most "pretentious" film I've seen in quite some time.
Though our friend Webster intimates negativity around the word "pretentious," if we go back to its root word, "pretension," suddenly things look different. "A claim or an effort to establish a claim" and "an aspiration or intention that may not reach fulfillment" sound a far cry from the bombast implied in defining its offspring. Resuscitating the positive in the term seems the only real way to get at Japón-any mention of its strengths only leads right into awareness of its faults, and for every truth Reygadas manages to get his hands on, whole universes of comprehension seem just out of reach. Without pretension to help us out, we're left with the tale of an unnamed Mexican intellectual (Alejandro Ferretis) who heads for the country bent on suicide but finds salvation and the will to live in the arms of an ancient peasant woman (Magdalena Flores) and at the hooves of a dead horse. Its score is classical, its title nonsensical (Reygadas chose Japón for its "evocative" qualities), its pace only slightly quicker than glacial, and given all these strikes, it's probably not going to be playing at a theater near you. Too bad, Japón is perhaps the most original and striking debut feature I've seen in the last half-decade or so. It has the feel of a first film that came out exactly how its director wanted it to, even though it may not fully tie together anywhere outside of its creator's mind. Its dabbling in the "big themes" of life, death, and nature mark it as full of pretension, but it has an earnest earthiness born of a youthful exuberance and love of cinema that keeps it far from being rarified and negatively pretentious.
Perhaps what excites me most about Japón is how it has left critics scrambling for some sort of ground on which to handle it. For the first time I can remember, the establishment seems a bit at a loss for words, most seem to like the film, but descriptives like "weird," "strange," and "odd" keep popping up in reviews which leads me to believe that their writers are a little unsure of themselves before this enigmatic mini-masterpiece. Honesty is certainly not a hallmark of our critical community, so this truthful admission of uncertainty (however slight) is to be savored until we turn back to our regular stone-tablet-passed-down-from-God critical programming. I'm completely fascinated by Japón, but I'll easily admit that this is a fascination wrought by confusion. I've seen it twice, and I'm still not sure I know exactly what Reygadas wants his audience to take from the experience. I have a suspicion "everything" might be his answer, and this generosity and ambition is admirable. There are so many films, existing only for themselves (or their creators) that leave me empty-handed, that I find it impossible to ignore a film like Japón, no matter how flawed it may be.
I'd liken it to the first features of David Gordon Green (George Washington) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher). Like them, Reygadas is a premiere visualist, excited by the possibilities of the image and trusting enough of his own instincts to believe that if he finds something worth lingering over for awhile, his viewers will agree. Image makers, yes, but all three of them fall a bit short when it comes to stuffing their beautiful pictures into albums and telling a story. Critics have been exhuming Tarkovsky left and right to get a handle on young Reygadas, but German loony Werner Herzog might be more appropriate (especially in Aguirre and Where the Green Ants Dream). Reygadas and Herzog form more direct, visceral relationships with their locales than Tarkovsky, who often seemed a curious outsider observing from a detached, rootless vantage point (a sense literalized in his ex-pat meditation Nostalghia). Japón lives or dies on its sense of place. Come to think of it, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout isn't a terrible frame of reference either. Also like Herzog, there's a certain daring, heroic quality to the filmmaking; every frame left me holding my breath to see if Reygadas was going to be able to pull it off, get the shot, or fall from the tightrope and break the mood. He succeeds beautifully, and any questions raised about his control of the form by some sporadic awkwardness get smashed to bits by his epic, elegiac closing shot, which makes Gaspar Noé's camera-dick antics in Irreversible seem even more facile than the film itself does.
One would think the recent success of films from Mexico like Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, and El Crimen de Padre Amaro could have been parlayed into some small notoriety for their fellow countryman. Unfortunately Japón is a pretentious "Art"-with a capital A-film, and, as such, probably wasn't even brought to the attention of the Mexican audiences who helped keep the others in theaters long enough for the rest of us to catch up. (If this is true, certain unpleasant assumptions about race and audience underlie the choice.) If it is these films, and not Japón, that are indicative of the New Wave of Mexican filmmaking that seems on the verge of crashing onto our screens, expect more designer nihilism (Amores Perros), frat-boy fantasies pawned off as whimsy (Y tu mamá también), and outright sponging of Hollywood convention (Padre Amaro—if it was 1930, I'd wonder where the simultaneously made English-language version was hiding), rather than Reygadas's more munificent gifts. All of these films hail from Mexico, but Japón's sense of place, and singular detached relationship to its northern NAFTA neighbor mark it as the only one that might rightly be called a Mexican film. In a better world, it coulda been a contender, but as a mere blip on the New York radar, it probably won't even register elsewhere. If it does, seek it out, get confused, have fun with it. When was the last time you left a film bewildered, but in a good way?