April 5, 2006


Call it a trend, a motif, a cluster, call it what you like, but David D'Arcy's found one at the New Directors/New Films series, which wrapped on Sunday. To read his interview with Twelve and Holding (and L.I.E.) director Michael Cuesta, click right here.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros Trend-spotting almost always determines what gets written about film festivals. All you need to identify a trend is one example of something that seems to be new (to you, at least), although two examples can make a judgment appear more valid, three examples even more so. Four examples, and then you're the trend.

Let's leave it to others to discern which trends were pivotal (that seems to be the word these days) at New Directors/New Films, a series organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Still, if certain subjects are visited again and again by young filmmakers, maybe we ought to pay attention. One of those subjects is childhood, as seen not just in Michael Cuesta's perceptive look at suburban kids, Twelve and Holding, but also in films set in the gentrifying barrio of Los Angeles, among gangs in the slums of Manila, and with immigrant vendors on the streets of Manhattan.

All of the kids in Cuesta's drama are 12-years-old. So is the overtly effeminate protagonist of The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, a first film by Auraeus Soito. Maxi is a kid who dresses in girl's clothes, an eccentricity that his thug father and brothers seem to have accepted long before the story of the film begins. Many, but not all in the claustrophobic alleys filmed by Auraeus Soito have reached the same level of tolerance.

When a wholesome rookie cop appears just in time to save Maxi from a beating by local toughs, we get a sense of what's coming - a showdown with the idealistic cop determined to rid the neighborhood of crime on one side, and the neighborhood criminals, Maxi's family, on the other. We enter an old story - allegiance to a new friend/father who represents the law versus loyalty to one's family. Shot in apartments and cramped alleys, the film sometimes looks like a guerilla documentary - all the better in linking the characters to their circumstances.

This isn't a Filipino Los Olvidados, in which all children born in slums get sucked down a sewer of squalor, although we can assume that most of the children in The Blossoming do. It isn't a romantic comedy, either, although I'll leave those details for you to discover from the film. "Blossoming" may be the crucial word here. "Education" or "apprenticeship" might be the term other cultures would prefer for the kind of learning experiences that bring a character closer to maturity - and Maxi is still far away from it in this film. The rosy music and flowery pastels of the end credits give another clue. Sentimentality and kitsch are part of the film palette here as much as they are part of Maxi's creation of himself, and the film is a celebration of his survival, given what else is in his environment.

Quinceanera Quinceañera, which heaped up the praise at Sundance and at the Berlinale, is another twist on the coming of age story. Here Magdalena, a stern minister's daughter in the gentrifying barrio of LA, is scheming to get a Hummer limo for her 15th birthday coming out party, when she learns that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, whose mother does not want her son's future hurt by premature fatherhood. Things are even worse for Carlos, Magdalena's brother, a tough guy who happens to be gay, which gets him thrown out of the house, but who catches the eye of a couple gentrifying the neighborhood. Even worse is the fate of their uncle, who is evicted from a cabin owned by the homesteading gringo gay couple. I'm sure the film was made as a salute to the folk traditions of Mexican-Americans in LA. You can see that on PBS. Its real strength is its unsentimental depiction of the pressures facing these families, whether it's teenagers trying to fit in or old people thrown onto the street. Think of Quinceañera when politicians talk about immigrants getting a "free ride."

Man Push Cart Another chilling survival story is Man Push Cart, set mostly on the streets of lower Manhattan. Never mind that the main character, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) is a Pakistani Muslim encased in a food wagon (his own private tank?) not far from where the World Trade Center used to be. Once a star singer in Pakistan, Ahmad is now broke, his wife has died from causes that are never made clear, and her angry parents are keeping Ahmad from seeing his son. The visual Sisyphean image of pushing the cart through fierce traffic before dawn reminds you, among other things, of where your coffee and bagels come from. Someone's always toiling for your convenience, a crucial thing to remember as our politicians debate ways to make immigrants pay for the privilege to work in the United States.

In a telling moment in Man Push Cart, a friend who has been crushed by he city tells Ahmed of another Pakistani who has finally escaped to a dream job, the manager of a Dunkin Donuts outlet in Albany. To make matters worse, Ahmad is also sacrificing to buy a cart, which means dealing with Pakistani con-men who are vying to exploit him. Just as bad are Pakistani yuppies in New York with their Rolexes and condos, offering see-through "friendships" to the food vendor who was famous back home. Director Ramin Bahrani (an Iranian who grew up in North Carolina) conveys the grim weight of that experience, where people and things rush through the frame horizontally as Ahmad's life - leveraged on the cart, odd jobs and credit from "friends" - seems to stand still, and then cracks.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 5, 2006 2:17 PM