Monday, January 18, 2010

Landscape-blackout-landscape: Lake Tahoe

A landscape, a blackout, then another landscape. And then, in the next blackout, the crunch of collision. Juan (Diego Cataño) has banged his red Tsuru into a telephone pole. He’s okay, and the damage to the car seems minimal, but he can’t the damned thing going. He’s on a country road, so he needs to walk into town for help. He’s got about $12 in pesos.

The landscape-blackout-landscape pattern continues, and a fair bit of
Lake Tahoe (2008), now on DVD from Film Movement, will play out this way, keeping considerable distance from its characters, often implying more emotional content through these landscapes and blackouts than through the faces and bodies and interactions onscreen. Especially since Juan’s private turmoil is buried, albeit shallowly, and it will be some time before we come to understand the reasons behind it. The first half of the movie is task-oriented, with Juan’s attempts to get his car fixed repeatedly thwarted. Those he encounters en route to repair include a Shaolin enthusiast and ostensible mechanic more eager to make friends, play video games and take in a screening of Enter the Dragon (73), than to deliver the desired distributor harness; a young single mother who minds the counter of an auto parts shop and who nurtures ambitions to be a singer—and to seduce Juan; and an old guy who loses his beloved dog and enlists Juan’s help in the search.

In a nod to the movie’s debt to neorealism, the old man’s dog—a boxer, who delivers my favourite performance in the movie—is named Sica, after the director of
Umberto D. (52), a movie about an old man who loses his dog. But Lake Tahoe, the second feature from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke and his co-scenarist Paula Markovitch, who previously collaborated on Duck Season (04), owes much more to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch, and, to a lesser degree, the leading lights of the current wave of Latin American low-budget, observational formalism. (In what’s surely a coincidence, the relationship between the enigmatic, place-based title and the final scenes of Lake Tahoe is mirrored with remarkable fidelity in Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (08).)

I’ve no idea whether this was a conscious thing for Eimbcke, but there actually seems to be a strong overall influence of American art traditions on
Lake Tahoe. Filmed entirely in Progreso, a fairly sleepy seaside town just a short drive from Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, the movie ’s fixated on bland, flat, anonymous architecture, which it surveys in persistently square compositions that distinctly recall the work of numerous American photographers of the mid-20th century, artists who helped to forge a modern visual vocabulary of urban space as seen through the windows of a car.

Which brings us back to Jarmusch and his trademark dry humour that, in early works like
Stranger Than Paradise (84) especially, blossoms from entire scenes that unfold through extended medium shots. There are moments in Lake Tahoe that echo this strategy fruitfully, buoyed on warm humour and a nice feeling for the virtues of community. But there are an awful lot of other moments that feel pretty flat, protracted without apparent purpose, too loosely edited for the humour or internal rhythm to fully come through, too miserly with its actors to capitalize on their individual nuance, and generally overburdened by a sense of formal rigour that simply hasn’t been pushed far enough to make much of an impact. Its heart seems to be in the right place, but basically there’s a lack of frisson here between form and content. Granted, I’m probably a little harder on Lake Tahoe because it’s exactly the kind of movie I’m supposed to like…

For other reasons I might say the same of
Cairo Time (09), out on DVD from Mongrel this week, a slow burning almost-romance between mature characters. Patricia Clarkson’s magazine editor, killing time in Cairo while her husband is endlessly delayed by his UN mission in Gaza, and Alexander Siddig’s unmarried local café owner, who has nothing but time, are a warm, welcome presence onscreen together, especially in scenes where they do almost nothing—as David Berry noted in his review when the film briefly hit theatres last October, the richest scene in the movie is the one where Clarkson and Siddig silently enjoy a train ride home together from a wedding. But that scene lasts about a minute, maybe, and is bracketed by a whole bunch of other scenes that are quiet and calm and verging on pulseless.

Cairo Time largely suffers the opposite problem of Lake Tahoe. Where Eimbcke keeps his camerawork to a stifling minimum, erring on the side of allusion, writer/director Ruba Nadda seems dependent on way too much coverage. Her scenes are cluttered with too many angles, too much needless lingering, too many indicators, too many limpid phone call scenes, too many redundancies overall—the tone seems subtle, but the storytelling isn’t subtle at all. Still, you might want to give it a whirl anyway. There are moments here—a hesitant kiss that results in an adorable “Oh!” from Clarkson before she escapes into an elevator—that hold some genuine immediacy and truth.

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