Monthly Archives: March 2013

Zoot Suit (1981)

Edward James Olmos

Edward James Olmos

In 1978 Luis Valdez’ musical Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. The production opened a door on a chapter of Los Angeles history that many had forgotten. During the early forties, as the US was fighting WWII, the city was rocked for months by racial violence, sparked by the death of a young man that may have been the result of a gang rumble. Though there was no proof that it was a homicide, hundreds of Latinos were detained in connection with the case, seventeen were tried as a group for the “crime”, and twelve were sent to prison. The trial, which was a sham, inflamed racial tensions in LA, and led to a series of violent clashes between Latinos and servicemen that went on for months. The conflict peaked with an incident in which thousands of white servicemen and civilians descended on East LA, assaulting the people who lived there at random.

Who the hell would have the nerve to take this gritty slice of LA history and turn it into a musical? But that’s exactly what writer/director Luis Valdez does, and he pulls it off with sharp wit and smooth grace. Valdez changes the names and condenses the action, reduces the defendants from seventeen to four and focusses on a semi-fictional character named Hank Reyna. We see the story unfold through Hank’s eyes, experiencing his struggle with a world where the deck is stacked against him. More importantly, we are privy to his inner struggle to figure out who he is. Throughout the play Hank is visited by El Pachuco, a mythic figure dressed in high style, who keeps pressing the same question. Is Hank going to live by somebody else’s rules and let society define him? Or is he going to define his own identity? But this slick hipster in the broad-brimmed hat and baggy pants doesn’t just play the part of Hank’s conscience. He sings, he dances, and he serves as a cross between narrator and ringmaster. Clearly Valdez is not interested in realism. This is not a historical reenactmant. “But relax,” El Pachuco purrs to us as the play opens. “Weigh the facts, and enjoy the pretense.” And then he adds, “Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization.” Valdez doesn’t see artifice as just a convention necessary to staging a musical. It’s central to what Zoot Suit is about. The brash style and broad gestures come from the lives of the people being portrayed. In making the film, Valdez uses the musical as it was staged, but takes advantage of the language of cinema. Though there are a few instances where I had problems with this approach, for the most part it works well. The artifice of the theatre is completely in keeping with Valdez’ “fantasy”.

The story begins the day before Hank is set to join the Navy. He’s anxious to go off and fight in the war, but first he’s just going to have one last night out. Hank gets dressed up in his “zoot suit”, much to the chagrin of his father, a hardworking Mexican immigrant who gets even more upset when his kids refer to themselves as Chicanos. But dad calms down, and Hank goes off with his brother and sister to party at a local nightspot. A run in at the club leads to a rumble in the Sleepy Lagoon. Hank is arrested and thrown in jail. We see him quickly stripped of everything he has, his freedom, his family, his girlfriend, his pride. The trial is also a piece of theatre, in which the prosecution and the judge insist on defining the defendants on their own terms. Hank and his friends are not convicted of committing murder. They’re convicted of being pachucos.

Racism is a major issue in Zoot Suit, but Valdez doesn’t allow his story to fall into a simple us-versus-them dynamic. He knows that things are more complex than that. One of the young men sentenced to jail is an anglo kid who has grown up in Hank’s neighborhood and accepts the local culture as his own. He dresses the way his friends dress, talks the way his friends talk, and when his friends are sent to prison by a racist legal system, he suffers along with them. Is he Mexican? Is he American? Does it matter? And when Hank accuses Alice, who’s been fighting to get him released, of exploiting the case for political purposes, he learns that as a woman and a Jew she’s subjected to discrimination just as he is.

This all sounds pretty downbeat, and certainly the play deals with some ugly realities. But there’s also a lot of joy in Zoot Suit. The action is punctuated by a series of lively, raucous musical numbers that sometimes serve as a mocking counterpoint to the drama, and at other times show the vibrant joy that people can feel even in the worst of times. Valdez obviously loves the music of the forties. He revels in the chance to conjure up the spirit of Latin American swing and resurrect a number of choice songs from the era. Zoot Suit is a lament, but it’s also a celebration.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor

Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor

This is a movie made by guys about guys. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play two gearheads whose lives revolve around their car. We never get to know their names, and the credits just list them as The Driver and The Mechanic. Warren Oates is an amiable eccentric who picks up hitchhikers in his yellow GTO. The three meet on the road and bet their pink slips on a cross-country race. For the rest of the film we follow them as they travel down country highways, stopping at diners or garages, racing to make a few bucks when they need to.

It’s that simple. This movie discards all the conventions we expect from commercial films. It’s not played for suspense or for laughs. There’s no love story. We just follow these guys as they drive across the country. The lone woman in the film is a hitchhiker who joins the group early on. Played by Laurie Bird, the character is only identified as The Girl, and like the other three she seems to be drifting aimlessly.

Two-Lane Blacktop is a road movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Monte Hellman decided to shoot the movie on location and in sequence, and so the crew spent weeks travelling across the US, shooting on country back roads and in small towns. Though the film plays out against the backdrop of the vast American landscape, it’s actually very intimate. It’s a portrait of three guys, and in spite of their obvious differences, they’re all united in their obsessive urge to keep moving. Through car windows we see lush forests and grassy fields sliding past. We ride through endless, dusty plains, under blue skies filled with tiny cloud tufts trailing off to the horizon. The small towns that appear now and again seem to be nothing more than a few buildings gathered along a stretch of road. Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson give us a detailed panorama of rural America. They capture the cities and the towns and the forests and the hills, but just as important, they also capture the spaces in between.

The film also takes advantage of another kind of space, and that’s the “silence” between lines of dialogue. I put the word in quotes, because it’s not really silence that we’re hearing. Actually, we’re listening to the sounds that most movies push into the background. The clatter of dishes in a coffee shop. The murmur of conversation in a bar. The drizzle of rain falling in a tiny rural town.

The film seems to catch life as it’s happening. The performances are so natural and unforced that they appear to be improvised, though the director says he followed Rudy Wurlitzer’s script closely. According to Hellman, there are only two scenes that stray from what was written. The Driver and The Mechanic speak very little to each other, and when they do it’s almost all about cars. How the engine is running, how the car is handling, where they can make repairs. At the opposite end of the scale is GTO, who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. None of the three, though, says much about what they’re feeling. A crucial exception is the brief scene when GTO seems to open up and start talking about how his family is falling apart. The Driver quickly shuts him down. No need to hear about each others’ problems. There may be a world of pain inside each one of these guys, but it’s better not to talk about it. Just keep driving.


I went out of my way to see Two-Lane Blacktop at the Aero in Santa Monica. I had seen it once before years ago at the New Beverly, and wanted to watch it again on the big screen. Monte Hellman was there and after the screening he talked about the movie. It was interesting to hear his comments on the making of the film, and it was also interesting to hear him talk about this particular screening.

The credits list the authors of the screenplay as Will Corry and Rudy Wurlitzer. According to Hellman, he gave Corry’s original script to Wurlitzer, who said he couldn’t get through more than a few pages. Hellman says he then told Wurlitzer to go ahead and write what he wanted, and that all they used from Corry’s version is the concept of two guys in a car.

Hellman went on to say that the film bombed at the box office, which he blames on lack of support from Universal. Apparently Lew Wasserman, who ran the studio back then, saw the movie and hated it. So while Two-Lane Blacktop was shown at theatres nationwide, Universal did nothing to promote it. Aside from a rave review in Esquire, the critics were not enthusiastic. But over the years it has gained a sizable audience.

One of the audience members said he had last seen the film at a drive-in when it first came out. Hellman at first responded enthusiastically, and said that’s the way it should be seen, on a huge screen. But then he talked about the print we had just watched and said that the colors were not as rich as they had been in the original dye transfer prints. I was kind of stunned when he went on to say that these days he preferred to watch the film on Blu-ray, because the image was crisper and the sound was richer.

But I’m still glad I saw it on the big screen.

Mecánica nacional [National Mechanics] (1972)

Mourning the dead in Mecánica nacional.

Mourning the dead in Mecánica nacional.

You could say that these days Mexico is going through a period of tumultuous change. But really, Mexico has been in a state of constant change for the past century. Upheaval has become a way of life, and all the citizens can do is try to ride out the latest chaotic wave without getting pulled under.

Change is a central theme in Luis Alcoriza’s Mecánica nacional. Ostensibly the film is about a family that goes to the countryside for an overnight party that coincides with the finish of a cross-country race. In reality, it’s about a country that is evolving so rapidly that it’s not even sure of its identity any more. This is a portrait of Mexico in the seventies. The roads are jammed with cars, but all the cars are from America. The youth movement is going strong, and it’s clear these kids don’t share their parents’ values. Once the party starts, we hear the easygoing rhythms of traditional Mexican music clashing with the jacked up rhythms of rock n’ roll. Popular vocalist Lucha Villa is featured in a key role, but by the time she starts singing her character is so wasted that the song comes out as a tuneless groan. There’s a brief but fascinating exchange when a young Anglo woman, holding her camera ready, surveys the crowd looking for something to shoot. Her expression is perplexed, and after a few moments she says, “But there’s nothing Mexican here.” One of the partiers comes up behind her and says with a smile, “We are.” This is still Mexico, just not the Mexico she was expecting.

The movie opens at a large auto garage where family and friends are preparing for the picnic. One of the first things we see is a sign that says in bold letters “SOLO DAMOS SERVICIO A CLIENTES MUY MACHOS” (“WE ONLY SERVE CUSTOMERS WHO ARE REAL MEN”). In Mecánica nacional Alcoriza takes a long, hard look at his male characters, who try so hard to act like real men and end up coming off like foolish children. A few minutes into the film the garage owner and a truck driver are ready to fight each other over an almost meaningless verbal exchange. A gun is flashed, one guy stands down, and nothing happens. But the scene is important. These men spend a lot of their time trying to live up to a “macho” ideal that their culture has created. They just accept that you’re supposed to fight, drink and chase women. They don’t question it. That’s just the way it is.

Or that’s the way it used to be. Eufemio, the boss at the garage, is an ordinary guy trying to cling to the life he knows, but his world is falling apart. He heads off to the countryside with his wife, his mother and his two daughters, looking forward to a weekend filled with booze and cars. But in the course of a single night, he comes to suspect that his wife is unfaithful, he finds his daughter making out with her boyfriend, and his mother dies. Obviously, this would be a lot for anybody to bear, but Eufemio’s meltdown is mostly the result of his absurd notions about how things should be. The seething rage he directs at his wife and daughter seems insanely hypocritical since we’ve just seen him sneaking off in hopes of having sex with a hot-looking babe who’s been flirting with him. And while he’s awash in weepy sentimentality after his mother dies, we recall that this “saint” he’s mourning was a crotchety, obnoxious old lady who kicked the bucket after binging on food and booze.

Alcoriza has a real gift for handling actors. The film is overflowing with characters, and they’re all lively and entertaining. Mecánica nacional has a wonderful, chaotic spontaneity. The camera roams through the crowd allowing us to watch these people dance, drink, fight and flirt. As Eufemio, Manuel Fábregas may be pushy, lecherous, ridiculous, but he’s always human. As his wife, Lucha Villa swings from happy complacency to outraged hysteria and makes it all completely believable. Casting Sara García as the grandmother is a beautiful satiric joke. After years of playing saintly older women, García turns her film persona on its head by making the grandmother cranky, petulant and foolish. When the old lady dies and the family gathers round to say a rosary, their tearful devotion turns to anxious impatience as they realize they’re going to miss the cars crossing the finish line. After they’ve all run off, one by one, to watch the end of the race, we see the dead grandmother lying alone on the ground. The image is a blunt metaphor for a society that is ready to abandon tradition in favor of fast cars and color TV.

In a way Mecánica nacional seems like a Mexican version of Weekend. Aside from the obvious parallels, endless traffic jams and frustrated people getting into violent confrontations, both films are about societies coming apart at the seams. But unlike Weekend, the characters in Mecánica nacional don’t pick up guns to start a revolution. By the end of movie they’re so exhausted it seems that have no energy left for anything but to slide back into the routine of their lives. Like most of us, they really don’t want to confront the change they see in the world and try to deal with it. They’d rather go home and watch TV.

Released by Laguna Films. In Spanish. NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES.