Monday, December 27, 2010

SCN: José Luis Guerín's delightful, thought-ful new kind of travel documentary, GUEST

The title character in José Luis Guerín's new documentary GUEST, it seems to me, is Señor Guerín himself. And what a fine, kind, smart and caring guest the director proves to be. In town (and in country) at various film fests across the world to plug his popular 2007 movie In the City of Sylvia (you can view TrustMovies' take on that interesting film here), the filmmaker uses his free time to seek out each city's most basic citizens: the poor, the downtrodden, the outsiders, the elderly, those people you find on the street. While his film begins with a couple of very attractive models -- maybe actresses -- who sing a snatch or two from The Young Girls of Rochefort (soon after we hear a bit of Nino Rota via a talented accordionist), we're then tossed amidst the hoi-polloi -- and probably much the better for it.

Guerín, pictured at left, has shot his entire film in black-and-white, and this, too, proves a blessing for those of us who still appreciate the way blacks can enfold, whites glisten and greys do all sorts of wonderful things. I am not certain why, but black-and-white film also seems to bring out faces in a manner than makes us pay better attention to their features and composition. The very unreality of black-and-white seems conversely to make certain things more real. In any case, the filmmaker's series of "home movies" shot on the road proves, thanks to his well-chosen subjects, unusually energizing and full of raw life. Because Guest was my fourth film to be viewed in a single day, one immediately after the other, the first beginning at 2pm and this one ending around 11, I was wondering if I would make it through with my eyes still open. Thanks to Guerín and his many "hosts," I left the Walter Reade Theater as alert and enthused as I'd been when I first walked in.

I rather wish that, with each new location the filmmaker visited, he had elected to post the name of the city upfront.  Instead, he gives us the date -- which seems to me to be much less important, except that this helps us realize how he is flipping back and forth, all over the globe, occasionally with very little time between cities. If we listen carefully, we can usually determine where we are, yet a simple title card would have helped.

As we move along we get all sorts of interesting visuals and talk, from a young couple in Chile (she's pregnant) simply devouring ice cream to Colombia, where it's all about politics and social unrest; in Macao, where a very old photographer (shown below) shows us his ancient photographs and talks of history and life; in Cuba, we meet a homosexual who is HIV-positive but asymptomatic, who seems happy as a clam at the health care and other help he's receiving from his country. There are a few down times (even in his brief appearance, Jonas Mekas begins to bore us to death) -- and the amount of time given to Jesus-freak street preachers strikes me an pretty unconscionable. Is Guerín religious (which I doubt)? Or is he trying to show how religion holds the population down?  Either way, some stern editing here would have helped. We can appreciate how the streets of Latin American cities are filled with preaching, but -- really -- we don't have to spend such an inordinate amount of time with each preacher.

As we turn the corner to 2008 (the movie begins mid-2007), we're in the Philippines, where the economy is bust and the government is doing nothing to help. One interview here accomplishes infinitely more than the entire length of a movie such as Lukas Moodysson's crappy Mammoth. We meet a 110-year-old women in Mexico; in Peru, we sees the sights and sounds of the Shining Path devastation; and finally, in Jerusalem (below) the kids want to know when what Guerín is filming will be on TV, but due to the language barrier, he can't explain to them what his filming is for.

There is so much that is so vital and appealing here, that I must ask: What's with the lousy and often unreadable white-on-white subtitles? If Guerín is any kind of a moviegoer (unless he speaks five languages fluently), he must know how despicable is this kind of subtitle. How much more expensive could it have been to have the white lettering surrounded by black or appear in yellow, so as to be always legible, as most foreign-language films nowadays do? Still, as angry as I occasionally grew -- due to my inability to read what people were saying -- this remains a quibble. Guest is full of life and thought, sadness and delight, and the thrill of seeing and hearing real people who have something to say. With all the talk these days of how so many films blur the line between narrative and documentary, here's one that's truly and absolutely a doc. And all the better for it.

Shown only once during the recent FSLC Spanish Cinema Now series, Guest, I hope, will reach theaters, DVD, streaming, or whatever -- very soon.

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