Under the Don's thumb
by David Lamble
Since contemporary Spanish filmmakers seldom dip back into the bad old days under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, if you want a taste of life under Fascism, along with a glimpse of master filmmaker Luis Bunuel working at the top of his craft, the newly restored Tristana must not be missed during its limited Landmark Theatres run, starting Friday.
Set in provincial Toledo, Tristana focuses on the collision between feudal and modern values as a young woman (startlingly young Catherine Deneuve, working at the top of her game for a director for whom she was not a first choice), still grieving her dead mother, is placed under the unorthodox "guardianship" of an eccentric nobleman (Fernando Rey) who boldly asserts that he will be both father and husband. This arrangement leads to trouble, although not always in ways our post-feminist minds would think. Don Lope (a nuanced turn from Rey, arguably Bunuel's favorite male actor) is pushing the envelope, but he's still well within the values of his decidedly male chauvinist society.
Tristana is ambivalent about the arrangement at first, but gradually she tires of the garrulous Don Lope. Through one of Bunuel's prized coincidences, Tristana meets a young artist (Django Unchained 's Franco Nero). Tristana moves in with the young painter until tragedy strikes. A tumor whose growth requires the amputation of her right leg brings Tristana back under the Don's domain, whereupon the story takes a truly dark turn.
With a rich plot flavored by wonderful takes on Spanish cuisine, Bunuel allows us to luxuriate in a Dark Ages battle of the sexes with two deeply flawed protagonists. Rey portrays a man who denounces the church and powerful people who take advantage of the weak, while taking what appear to be outrageous liberties with his ward. Later, Don Lope recants his ferocious anti-clerical views and literally snuggles up to some hot-chocolate-loving priests. Deneuve's Tristana goes from bizarrely submissive to surprisingly modern in her liaison with Nero's painter, then to violently puritanical when crippled.
Bunuel injects his usual surreal touches, such as an ongoing nightmare where Tristana imagines the dismembered head of Don Lope as a church bell-clapper. There's also a touch of naughty eroticism as Tristana bares her breasts to a lustful deaf-mute boy. See Tristana for a return to the days when foreign language art-films were more than just trendy brand-name products.
Tchoupitoulas "I need my beauty rest." The pint-sized teen William Zanders, and older brothers Bryan and Kentrell, become our guides to some uniquely New Orleans sights and sounds in the Ross Brothers' (Bill and Turner) nocturnal doc crawl through a funky but pleasurable Gulf Coast fairyland (opens at the Roxie). Giving us a post-Katrina Big Easy sunset to sunrise, the camera-wielding brothers follow the teen bros from the Algiers ferry through a dreamlike journey, with stops in virtually every down-and-dirty dive in the French Quarter.
As sublime as the camerawork is, it's almost topped by the flute-playing William as he opines on what it would be like if Michael Jackson were still alive and dancing his ass off, his desire to stay forever young, and the injustice of being perpetually surrounded by taller folks. The lads seem largely unfazed by their parting glances at adult carnal pleasures. The Ross Bros., zipping backstage to show us more than the Zanders see, are still discreet enough to make the survey a soft R by my standards. The Zanders create drama by missing the last ferry home and trespassing through an abandoned ship. A sumptuous tour through America's oldest, hippest city, Tchoupitoulas is also a tantalizing African American coming-of-age story.
The Ross Bros.' production notes hint at an even edgier backstory. "We drank too much, slept too little, and broke the law. It got weird. We disrobed at a gay karaoke bar to Duran Duran so that we could get permission to film there. We shot under the pier with a homeless man. The next day, while watching dailies, we listened on the lavalier mic as he plotted with his buddy to kill us."
Last Night at the Bridge It took an hour thanks to Muni's obnoxious imposition of Saturday schedules, but I made it on Dec. 27 for possibly the last film program at San Francisco's historic pre-WWII Art Deco movie palace, the Bridge. Wolfing down a box of Peanut M&Ms, I relished every queer-empowering beat of The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a young crowd, mostly loyal parishioners of Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass shows.
Following a trip to the tiniest Men's Room in North America, I joined Midnight movie fans reminiscing about drag shows. The Bridge was doomed because its classically designed interior – 400 seats, with that 1950s standby, the smoking lodge – was unsuited for twinning. Possibly the best Bridge anecdote appears in Tristana director Luis Bunuel's chatty memoir My Last Sigh. Bunuel recalls That Obscure Object of Desire's distinctly surreal San Francisco reception.
"Ironically, a bomb exploded on October 16, 1977, in the Bridge Theatre; and during the confusion that followed, four reels were stolen and the walls covered with graffiti like, 'This time you've gone too far!' There was some evidence to suggest that the attack was engineered by a group of homosexuals, and although those of this persuasion didn't much like the film, I've never been able to figure out why."