Learn to Read, Güero

Last night we saw a movie with friends and then went out to share a meal and chat. Normal sounding stuff but really a bit sideways to normal.

We went to Güeros, a Spanish language film. As I don’t know Spanish I was happy it was subtitled so my eyes could see what my ears were hearing (a difficulty with comprehension is only natural as I’ll try to explain below). The movie was not shown in a theater, but in a university classroom, though it was projected and the sound was good. Snacks were laid out on a table and you could pay what you deemed appropriate. So we can’t call it a normal “movie-going experience.” This was an event put on by The Ryder, a Magazine and Film Series in town. Also something sideways to our commercial normalcies. Here is the Facebook description:

An Independent Look at Cinema in Bloomington
For more than a quarter century, The Ryder Film Series has presented the best in foreign-language, independent and classic American films in Bloomington, Indiana. In collaboration with The Ryder Magazine, the Ryder Film Series presents films that ordinarily do not play at the multiplex. If you appreciate independent, foreign and classic movies, check out to The Ryder Film Series.

Perhaps you can think of it as something akin to an Ed Chigliak project. Be aware that I mean that as high praise.

So, we went to a movie with friends. And we went to experience a cultural product in a building which ostensibly exists as a locus of considering cultural products of all kinds.

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The movie, Güeros, was strange, and aggressively disorienting. As one tall movie-goer noted–it seemed to be trying too hard, at least initially. I don’t quite know how I can explain the movie, but I can try to explain one aspect of the viewing experience. I also want to be sure you know I found it very interesting and really became involved in the story even as the visual experience was unsettling (well, that’s also intentional). I liked the three central characters immensely, even though one was primarily a kind of sketch of Sancho Panza. Perhaps that is apt. It was a kind of ludicrous quest adventure at once both dangerously real and fantastical. But perhaps the movie description from Rotten Tomatoes can serve.

Ever since the National University strike broke out, Sombra and Santos have been living in angst-ridden limbo. Education-less, motionless, purposeless, and unsure of what the strike will bring, they begin to look for strange ways to kill time. But their idiosyncratic routine is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Tomas, Sombra’s kid brother. Unable to fit in amongst these older slackers, Tomas discovers that unsung Mexican folk-rock hero Epigmenio Cruz has been hospitalized somewhere in the city. Tomas convinces Sombra and Santos they must track him down in order to pay their final respects on his deathbed. But what they thought would be a simple trip to find their childhood idol, soon becomes a voyage of self-discovery across Mexico City’s invisible frontiers.

There is in the above a hint of children set adrift without caregivers (and I assume that’s where the loss of the university environment as in loco parentisbecomes a necessary backdrop)–a father exists only in the cassette tape of the “idol” mentioned above, and the mother has washed her hands of the boys, though she does send along cash. Their lives are lived in squalor and the search for Epigmenio Cruz injects purpose into these lives lost to an even larger social purposelessness. This movie thrusts that question in front of the decadent film-goer: From where have you purchased your life’s meaning? There (the world in the film) institutional structures have failed in replacing traditional, local structures of purposeful existence. How far away from this state are we in the U.S.? And briefly the film shows us there is still decadence in Mexico City and it still exists above the millions floundering in the grayness below. I have no idea if any of this is true. It is true in the movie.

But what attracts me to the movie in reflection, is the difficulty I had as a foreign-language viewer in actually being able to absorb what was going on. So much of it is filmed where much of the frame is out of focus but for the character you (the viewer) are meant to be “inhabiting” at the time. For example, “you” are with Sombra in the passenger seat of a car, behind you is a dangerous gang member talking continuously with always a kind of threat in the words. Sombra/you cannot see him as he speaks, but the frame shows the viewer (also you) Sombra’s panicked face (about a third of it) in focus with the gang member behind him out of focus. If you as viewer are seeing the world as Sombra, you could not see the gang member as he speaks. But the choice of framing by the director shows you both what Sombra can’t see, AND Sombra’s panic, and the blurred face behind him, along with the tight focus on Sombra creates a very interesting emotional “sharing” in the viewer. It is seeing the machinery of art without being taken out of the “reality” that has been magically constructed. This happens throughout.

Now, the problem with this for one reading subtitles is that much of this intentional WORK of the film NEEDS to be seen and I was desperately trying to see it at the same time I was desperately trying to see the words underneath the action. So many of the visuals are “partial,” because they are tight shots that elide a larger whole, that the viewer must “read” these sights as a kind of symbolism, and at the same time literally read the movie. While this was no easy task, it actually made me more determined to be a perceptive reader of as much as I could.

I should not want to forget to convey the charm of Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), who is both vulnerable and strong. He really does embody lost hope and potential, seemingly lost greatness (without the viewer having any understanding of why one would think he would be great), and he embodies our hope (like that of his brother’s) that he be found along the path to Epigmenio Cruz, to rediscover life lived fruitfully.

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After the film, food and talk about the film. At one point our friends mentioned they are teaching classes with low enrollment and we lament the decline of the humanities (and what we mean is of course the decline of the support for the humanities–but also the ways students are not encouraged to engage in the humanities).

This is a familiar story–made familiar, like all of this country’s failures, in the light of policies stemming from the backlash to the social upheavals of the 60s, from Civil Rights to gender equality. We have been and continue to be operating under the iron hand of that backlash served up to us in the guise of a politics/economics of Business (“The business of America is business” is no recent chestnut). Education fell under this same rubric in the 80s as well and we have now thoroughly reaped this whirlwind.

What Business requires is a narrow view. It requires faith in the God, Lucre (I think this is really where “Lucifer” comes from etymologically) to the exclusion of all other considerations.

I’ve told this story a few times but I never tire of repeating it.

In 1953 Morse Peckham developed a literature program for emerging executives at Bell Labs (Bell was very involved and interested). Peckham’s thinking was that the For Profit Corporation was the most powerful force in the country (on the planet?) as it was the single way most of us were organized for most of the hours of our day. He felt to train these “leaders” in the empathy-building study of the humanities was to help them enter into an extended relationship with “others.” These leaders would surely become ethical in their practices when they understood better that the world had meaning outside of the single corporate motive of profit and market share. Bell sent top managerial prospects to take this intensive literature course where they read things like Joyce’s Ulysses. Bell imagined that their trainees would become so good at reading the landscape of business competition that they would be at an advantage in negotiations. Their execs would just simply know more about the world and so do a better job controlling the exigencies of that world in order to serve the Corporate Interest.

The program failed. Or, the program succeeded. These young executives all discovered that to be a corporate executive would be very narrow, very corrupting, and very constraining to their own experiences as humans after learning how to read great literature! They all became too interested in the victims (i.e., the people affected greatly and adversely by corporate success) of their corporate intentions to succeed at running companies. It disgusted them to be agents of suffering no matter how abstractly it could be construed.

That is the power of reading and talking and reflecting. Business does not like this. Business discovered that a humanities education produces people with respect for the rights and needs of other people, so much so that they will not steal from their neighbor even if it their “fiduciary” duty. So, let’s be rid of it.

How? Promote and fund all science education, especially that attached to technological application. Restrict and limit all arts and language funding. Take a look at University mission statements these days. In fact, just read anything IU President Michael McRobbie says. It will tell you all you need to know about how much Peckham’s discoveries in the 50s have been understood by our Business Overlords.

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