South of the cinematic border: Guillermo del Toro’s Mexico Bizarro

29/04/2011 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Guillermo del Toro

MEXICAN director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) is equally at ease with Hollywood and the arthouse, with popular culture and high art, and he’s an unabashed devotee of cinema, an eloquent advocate for the films he loves. His passions, not surprisingly, are as unpredictable and wide-ranging as his movies. When he was invited to curate a program for the forthcoming La Mirada Film Festival, which focuses on Spanish-language cinema, he decided to choose ”strange, unconventional films” that have particular significance for him – three Mexican movies that represent, in very different ways, a kind of cinematic audacity.
Two are films he saw as a child: an elegant vampire picture and an insanely illogical creature-feature that flaunts one of the most clunky-looking monsters ever to appear on screen. The third comes from the early 1990s, and it’s a movie that del Toro worked on, a poetic epic based on a memoir written by a 16th-century conquistador.
The Vampire (1957), directed by Fernando Mendez, is a handsome black-and-white movie that looks both forward and backward. Stylistically, he points out, it’s a throwback to the 1930s, with its expressionist angles and lighting. But it was also groundbreaking, he adds: ”In my appreciation of the genre, it’s the first appearance of a sensual vampire.” German Robles, who plays a debonair, mysterious count with a taste for blood ”is a very strong actor, of Spanish descent, with a very elegant accent and a suave presence”. Del Toro, who grew up watching Robles, hoped that he would play a cameo in his feature debut, Cronos (1993), but, he says ruefully, ”I was never able to get to him, they wouldn’t put me through to him, because I was a first-time director and they wouldn’t take me seriously.”
Alongside the stylish count, there are several strong female characters who play significant roles in the drama. One is played by Ariadna Welter (whose sister, Linda Christian, went to the US, married Tyrone Power, and had a Hollywood screen career). She appeared in a Bunuel film, The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo de la Cruz, but became best known in Mexico as a ”scream queen”.
The film’s producer, Abel Salazar, also plays the role of a doctor who’s been summoned to deal with a mysterious illness and discovers more than he has bargained for. Salazar was a powerful actor-producer in Mexican cinema, although his influence waned in later years, as his filmmaking formula started to fall out of favour and he was unable to change with the times. In Brainiac (1962), directed by Chano Urueta, he plays the villain, a victim of the Inquisition who returns, 300 years later, to destroy the descendants of the men who tortured and burnt him at the stake. When he kills, he morphs into an absurdly improbable monster, whose deadly tongue is a particular triumph of incongruity. Brainiac is one of his children’s favourite movies, del Toro says, and he has very fond memories of watching it at San Sebastian Film Festival, bringing a few beers to share with the audience.
”It’s one of the most delightful screenings I have attended. It’s fantastic to watch inebriated.”
What he appreciates about Brainiac, del Toro says, is something he thinks is characteristic of classic Mexican horror. ”It has a very particular flavour, an almost shameless quality in the way it mixes horror, historical drama and sci-fi with a sort of free association, almost a stream of consciousness.” As European and American cinema generally went to great pains to suggest rather than emphasise the presence of a monster, del Toro says, Brainiac is the complete opposite. ”I found in Mexican films, and it affected me very deeply that the monster was always there, shown again and again and again and again. Crappy as it was – and a lot of them were – as a child I found it very satisfying that you could always feast your eyes on the monster.”
He describes the movie as an example of ”a form of almost hapless storytelling”.
”But at the same time these kinds of films create a sense of grace. They have been a great influence on me; if you watch Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, you can see the madness that allows me to combine fantasy, melodrama, historical film in a very free-flowing, almost shameless way – I have no sense of how crazy it is to tell a story about a labyrinth, a faun and a civil war.”
His third choice, Cabeza de Vaca, is a 1991 feature by Nicolas Echevarria. Del Toro, who started out in movies doing make-up and special effects, worked on the film with his wife and his business partner, and a budget of about $5000. Echevarria’s previous films had been ethnographic documentaries: Cabeza de Vaca is based on the memoir of a Spanish soldier who threw in his lot with Native Americans, becoming a healer and a shaman as his fellow-countrymen set out to conquer and enslave.
Del Toro deeply admires the film; its lyricism, its intensity and its visual storytelling, which dispenses with dialogue for long stretches of time. He remembers not only the demands of working with a tiny budget and finding inventive ways to get 300 extras made up in a hurry – getting them to stand in two rows and apply body paint to each other – but also exhausting night shoots, being sunburnt, stung by a poisonous jellyfish and shot at by snipers intent on stealing some of the film’s supplies. ”People were bitten by scorpions, they got fever, stomach flu, and yet everybody loved making that movie.”
It has been an influential work, del Toro says. He’s been told, for example, that Terrence Malick’s The New World used it as a reference point. And the final scene, a striking, poetic vision, ”represents the entire conquest, and to me it’s one of the most indelible images created in Mexican cinema”. As he prepares for his next projects – a Hollywood monster-movie blockbuster called Pacific Rim, and a Spanish picture, a personal work called Saturn And The End Of Days, about the end of the world seen through the eyes of a child, he likes to think that his approach to filmmaking shares some of the ”crazy gonzo spirit” that he sees in the works he has chosen for La Mirada.

Source: Philippa Hawker

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