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Stand back, I’m going to use my cultural studies education, kind of

I don’t usually do this because of how tiresome I find others’ opinions on film, and do as to others etc., but I was recently struck by a couple movies that understand that film is a visual medium, which apparently is rare enough to make me sit up and take notice.

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Nacho Libre is what Hollywood’s most Mennonite-sounding writers, Jared and Jerusha Hess, did with their lives after Napoleon Dynamite left them to go ice skating with Will Ferrel (and, following that, to slowly fade from public consciousness).

Nacho is a lovable loser who cares for orphans but dreams of being a luchador (masked Mexican wrestler). His Mexican accent is mostly terrible, his facial expressions are clownish, and the plot elements are sometimes so improbable as to invoke magic realism. It’s basically a vehicle for Jack Black to act as ridiculously as possible for 90 minutes, and it serves this purpose admirably.

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I could forgive you for reading irony into that last statement, but make no mistake:  Jack Black’s comic genius carries the day.  The minute artistry of his every move on screen raises Nacho Libre above a standard teen comedy, and the photography, pacing, and composition prove that the Hesses understand and embrace the farcical nature of the story they’re so deftly crafting.  You just can’t make a movie about Luchadores in which everyone speaks English in Mexican accents and take yourself seriously. Also, apparently they let Jack Black extemporize the song pictured at right, which worked out about as well as you might think.

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Cashback is a British film about a young man who imagines he can (actually can?) stop time. I was attracted by the poster at left, a remarkable pairing of hip indie awards and the promise of female nudity; I wasn’t disappointed in either regard.  Featuring long, balletic shots of the frozen worlds captured with innovate camera techniques and set to soft piano music, this is a classic “art” film that somehow also crosses genres into romantic comedy and coming-of-age journey. It sometimes suffers from a feeling of amateurishness, a sort of we-just-got-out-of-film-school pretension where I get the feeling that each scene is meant affect me much more than it actually is, but on the whole it’s a delightful marriage of superb cinematography and romantic story telling.

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It’s also a stand-out illustration of the differences between American and English culture, which I and most Americans, when we think of them at all, tend to minimize or trivialize. But it turns out, although we share a language and a love for fried food, they’re on a totally different island over there They’ve got their own thing going. The ways they conceive of to tell a story (what is meant to be touching, funny, poignant, etc) is subtly but profoundly different from ours. I found it hard to forget that I was watching a film, to immerse myself in the experience as I can sometimes do, because the entire affair was so ineffably British. I can’t discount the possibility that the fetishization of the Other accounts for some part of my enjoyment of the movie.

What I found so remarkable about both films, what linked them in my fevered brain, was their use of imagery, rather than dialogue, to deliver an emotional charge. The spectacle of Jack Black fighting huge, business-suited but still masked Mexican wrestlers stands on its own merits, as does the boy hero of Cashback undressing every female shopper in a grocery store like so many mannequins. These scenes sustain themselves without punchlines, without any significant dialogue. The film makers understood the power of their medium. It’s an incredibly rare gift.

Posted in Musings.


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