Social Class, Confidence & Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”

During the November midterm elections, much was made regarding a “migrant caravan”.  Numerous local, state, and national politicians (including our president) made much ado about the how these men, women, and children from Central America would bring a variety of societal ills to our country.  Conservative commentators raised fear and worry by claiming these individuals only mean to break the law and cause harm to innocent Americans.  A full month after the elections, the chaos and anarchy dreamed up by nationalist figures has yet to occur along our border. The president’s call for military presence was largely aimed to boost egos and win political races at the expense of service men and women. Today, the United States being seen as a beacon of hope and prosperity continues to be eroded. Tucker Carlson even eluded in his most recent rant that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer”.  Central in all these debates is knowledge that Latina/o/x communities are the recipients of stereotypes, discrimination, hatred, fear, and blame.

Yet, for all these discussions on Latina/o/x immigrants, much of American society takes advantage of these individuals in our economic and social environments. In the comfortable surroundings of my middle-class neighborhood, I see how my neighbors depend on a mostly Latina/o labor force to care for lawns, housekeeping, and handiwork. Some would believe that Latina/o/x immigrants come into our country expecting a free ride or taking away benefits from others.  I do not see this when I look out my window to see these individuals working morning, noon, and night. Work is respected and earned.  The narrative that Latina/o/x immigrants bring harm, drugs, and gangs is, to use a favorite phrase since 2016, “fake news”.

Knowing how I feel about immigrant rights and trying to understand the root of how immigrants are perceived and treated are a few reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was on my must-see list of holiday movies.  Cleo, the central focus of the movie, is one of the most emotionally realized characters put on film.  From what I read, Cuaron intentionally sought an actress with indigenous features to portray Cleo, who is modeled after the director’s beloved caretaker and nanny, Libo, who is mentioned at the very end of the film. Yalitza Aparicio, who was a pre-school teacher prior to acting in her first film, captures all the emotions beautifully her character Cleo faces.  The one fascinating aspect of Ms. Aparicio’s role is how she develops Cleo into a confident, proud, and respected figure during the course of one year, 1971.

Cleo is the epitome of many things that make us believe in true form of humanity, in my opinion.  Without giving away too much of the movie’s story, in the course of one year, she faces challenges and situations which would make normal individuals question their faith, trust in others, pride, society, and even nature itself.  Yet, Cleo remarkably overcomes each of these challenges with one thing she realizes come the end of that tumultuous year in Mexico – her confidence.

[A few minor spoilers ahead!] One of the things I love about Alfonso Cuaron’s movies is his use of subtle symbolism and visuals.  “Roma” is filled with these cues, which makes me want to watch the film one, two, three more times.  One interesting visual that caught my attention is the frequent appearance of an airplane in flight.  I took this visual as Cuaron’s way of letting us know Cleo’s mindset at that moment.  Is the plane landing?  Is the plane leaving?  In some scenes, especially the beautiful opening when a precise shot of the plane is reflected off a puddle of water, the plane foretells a significant event in Cleo’s life.  After viewing, I interpreted the plane as Cleo’s life path that maybe she’s considering.  Maybe she wants to leave the life of a live-in servant to a middle-class family to escape to another place.  Maybe she could see a peaceful (yet dusty and blurry) future with someone who doesn’t really love her back.  In the end, I loved how Cuaron uses this subtle visual to add to Cleo’s story. 

Cuaron again uses a baby to help his characters and the viewers understand the delicacy of humankind.  Again, new life in the world as viewed by Cuaron is tested in ways that is gut-wretching, yet hopeful.  As in this powerful scene from his dystopian vision of the future in Great Britain, “Children of Men”:

New life in the world is tested on day one.  In “Roma”, Cleo emerges from this challenge with a mixture of doubt and sadness on how fate questions her connection to humanity.  Yalitza Aparacio deserves an Oscar nomination just for the facial expressions she was able to produce in this portion of the movie.  Some actresses grandstand their pivotal scenes with shouts and emotional overkill.  Here, Yalitza (Cleo) connects with the viewer with what she doesn’t say and what she finds difficult to express.  It is a powerhouse of a performance. 

One of the most remarkable scenes in “Roma” is the re-enactment of the Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre.  Viewed from the window of a furniture store, the chaos and terror is capture in one unexpected moment of violence.  Again, Cuaron digs into his memory of this sad part of Mexican history which likely impacted his life.  Researching this event in the movie, I found the following explaining the chaos visualized in the film and the connection Cleo personally has to this horrific event:

https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Mexico-Marks-1971-Halconazo-Student-Massacre-with-Protest-20160610-0027.html

What “Roma” captures with Cleo is her development into someone who always had tremendous confidence and strength, even among all the personal and natural disasters that came her way.  Which is the reason I loved this movie.  Without giving to much away, the director beautifully symbolizes her rise in respect and honor among the family members she cares for in Mexico City (plane visual included). After viewing, I equated this confidence with reasons why fear and distrust is placed among today’s immigrant population.  Those who see immigrants as making the United States “dirtier” are far from the truth.  For those we label as immigrants – or shall we say humans – they truly are beautiful, and they realize that.  People like Cleo and her best friend are part of one strong community others do not fully understand (or choose not to).  They support each other and when all hell breaks loose, they are resolute in their recovery.  Respect and honor is not something that is given, it is earned through tireless effort and diligence.   Individuals in Cleo’s world are treated with innocence, understanding, and most importantly love.  When not reciprocated, the idea that deep down people are still good keeps life going. All of these qualities and more make those individuals who lack this in their daily lives jealous. For them, gone is compassion, instead replaced by hatred. A life of privilege is a life that is unfulfilled. Unlike Cleo, you do not face challenges that test you.  Avoiding these on your own choosing makes you vulnerable to the stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that creates an easy, yet desolate, path of living life.  In the end, Cleo continues living life on her own terms, with the knowledge that she will only get stronger at each passing year.

“Roma” for me will be a movie that I can say impacted me for years to come. Film is art that I cherish and while some movies I view are lovingly called “Ric Flicks”, they embody what I want cinema to create – emotional reaction, character connection, and visual immersion. “Roma” had all of these and more.  Yes, you can say I give this film 5 stars (out of four)!   It does not have scenes that end in 1-minute, it is purposely slow paced, and interestingly does not have a musical soundtrack, just natural noise from the surroundings.  If you want a movie that will make you believe in the true beauty of understanding who you are in this chaotic world, I urge you to see “Roma”.

Onward.  

“He is.”

Paul Thomas Anderson & The Thrill of the Unexpected

While waiting in line to buy my ticket to see “Phantom Thread”, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, I could not avoid eavesdropping on the conversation of two well-dressed women who were waiting to buy tickets for the same movie.  One was very eager to see the movie.  The other interestingly was more focused on talking about the Catholic Mass they just came from.   The one excited about the film was worried that they would be late for the show since we had about 10 minutes to get tickets before showtime.  When someone asked what movie they were going to see, the excited woman said “Phantom Thread, the movie about dresses and a dressmaker!”

I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the movie mentioned above.  I purposely did not read too much about the movie Phantom Thread since I wanted to go in to be surprised and ready for the unexpected. Fans of the director PT Anderson know that his films easily divide audiences.  The main reason for these divisions is that his films tend to go into unexpected and sometimes outrageous directions. 

While his last movies have been historic drama pieces, they all have gone into storylines and plots that throw viewers off balance, scratching their heads to say “WTF!?”  The thrill of his movies is not necessarily the complex stories and meticulous set pieces, its the surprises that he throws at viewers to challenge them on re-thinking what cinema is and isn’t.

Before you read further, I will add a spoiler note in that I will describe some of my favorite “WTF!” moments of PT Anderson’s movies.  If you want to stay surprised and enjoy the unexpected, then I advise you stop reading this blog right now!  If you already have seen the director’s repertoire, then you will not be surprised.  If you are curious, then by all means read on!

My fascination with this director started when I viewed the movie “Boogie Nights.”  The audacity to make a 2.5 hour film about the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s obviously would challenge anyone who entered the theater.  For me, the refreshing surprise was that the film wasn’t about the industry, but rather it was a film about lonely individuals looking for family and how family can be define for those whose real families fail to love, support, or care for others.  In viewing the film, the unexpected moment comes in a shocking and graphic suicide of character Little Bill, played by William H. Macy.

Little Bill was the cameraman of porn director Jack Horner. Little Bill was the tortured soul in the “family” created by Jack Horner.  While being oblivious to the acts he filmed, he couldn’t shake off the same acts that was used by his wife to belittle him.  PT Anderson challenged the viewer to react to how Little Bill faced his “family” problem.  The director brilliantly followed Little Bill through the house as he reacted to the demons impacting him. While the house party was welcoming the new decade of the 1980s, Little Bill, after performing an act of violence that is implied, goes into a living room while others are partying and laughing at him.  Here, he smiles directly at the camera and pulls out a gun and shoots himself where immediately, “80s” flashes on the screen.  Due to the graphic nature of the scene, I will not share it in this space, but do a YouTube search on “Boogie Nights Little Bill”, the scene will likely show up.  It’s a stunner.

One of my favorite movies to this day is “Punch-Drunk Love”,  a strange and sweet love story about a man with anger issues and a plan to fly anywhere in the world courtesy of a pudding promotion.  If you never seen this movie, you are likely saying “what?”  This movie is full of PT Anderson’s tricks, leading viewers on a strange trip through one man’s quest to find love.  One can dissect the opening scene alone for ages to find out its meaning. In this film, the unexpected moment for me was when love is reached for the character Barry.  Once it is, the director stages one of the most beautifully filmed first kiss scenes in cinema.

One of favorite movies of all time is “Magnolia”.  Much has been written about the movie’s infamous “it’s raining frogs” scene.  This alone would create the biggest “WTF!” moment.  However for me, PT Anderson’s best unexpected twist is actually constructing a film where plots and characters are all connected by Aimee Mann songs.

I had the terrific opportunity to attend an Aimee Mann concert recently and I was beyond thrilled that she sang three songs from the Magnolia soundtrack.  The movie was widely discussed on how audiences felt about two pivotal scenes.  First, the raining frogs and second, the characters who sing Ms. Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  When I first viewed the movie (I saw it 3 times at the theater), audiences walked out mostly on the Aimee Mann scene.  Again, PT Anderson threw an expected twist on the movie experience, once again challenging what we expect when we see a drama.  For me, it’s one of the most beautiful depictions of lonely people who are, in fact, not alone.

So, it was no surprise that today’s viewing of “Phantom Thread” did not disappoint…at least for me.  I will not give away any scenes other than the movie, like all PT Anderson movies, takes viewers on an interesting ride which if audiences pay attention, will provide a turn that will likely make a few go “WTF!”

Back to my friends who were excited to see the movie.  When I was leaving the theater I walked past them.  While they were still planted in their seats, I did overhear the one most excited telling her friend, “What was that?”  I just laughed when I heard that comment.  In my head, I said “A PT Anderson picture.”   We were all taken for a ride.  Yes, it was about dresses.  Yes, it was about a dress maker.  And yes, it was about……well, you just have to go see it yourself.

Onward.

Harvey, you can leave now.

Picture taken 12:30am Saturday during first day of heavy rain. Captured during a flash of lightning. Clear Lake received 20+ inches that evening.

As I write this, yet another band of heavy rain is hitting the Clear Lake City area of Houston.  Harvey has been a storm of historic portions.  It will likely go down in the history books as one of the costliest and most damaging storms ever recorded.  Knowing that I lived through it along with millions of other Houstonians is both sobering and fascinating.  Sobering in knowing that just 3-4 miles north of where I live, families are still being rescued via boats from houses with feet, not inches, of water inside of them.  Fascinating in that the boats are largely owned by everyday citizens who came to help their neighbors.

In my previous post, I wrote about the “human goodness” that shows when disasters strike.  I made the argument why does it only have to show up during catastrophic events like Harvey?  I do hope that the goodness continues.  Houstonians and Texans step up to help their fellow Texans.  I would say this is very true.  Today, there was an nice short story about a huge earth mover truck being used to load people from one flooded neighborhood.  The news showed the truck just as it was about to unload.  Once it did, you saw families who were diverse.  Those helping unload the truck were officers from another area than the one the rescue was occurring.  When the reporter asked if the driver would  be interested in being interviewed, one of the responders said that he  didn’t speak English.  This image to me was a microcosm of Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

We will have days, weeks, months, and dare I say, years to recover.  Houston has a lot to fix, but we will bounce back.  As awful as the past few days have been, Houstonians have shared experience that no one has experienced.  On top of this, the experience was mostly shared on social media.  If you were in the middle of the storm like I was during the first night, text messages and things like Facebook was your connection to know what was happening and for others to make sure all was okay (or not).  For those outside of Houston, you share our pain.  You cried when you saw senior citizens and young children emerge from the floodwaters.  You even got the “feels” when you saw examples of humans helping humans (my favorite was the person who shared her large porch to individuals being unloaded from rescue boats, which soon became a mini-community center that included cookies and coffee!).  Houston, I hope, will be remembered for what a large urban city can be – a diverse, helpful, caring community of neighbors.

Our new sense of shared community will be tested once this is over.  Hurricane Ike in 2008 gave a preview of this idea.  Years after, I believe that some positive impact was made on Houston. Living here after, I feel that I know my neighbors better and as Harvey showed, we stepped up to the plate quickly when someone said, “please help”.  Positive change was seen and I personally think those that remembered and lived through Ike knew that it was time to take care of this great place we call Houston.

If you read to the end of this post, I would like you to consider donating to the fundraising effort by Houston Texan player J.J. Watt.  I’m a big fan of J.J. , not just for his awesome gift to take down a quarterback, but for his genuine love for the city of Houston.  If you are not from the area, you likely do not know all the extra community service he does off-season.  He’s a good guy with a big heart.  You can read about his fundraiser by going to YouCaring.com/JJWatt 

Goodness needs to keep going.  Again, as I type this more rain is falling.  We don’t need more rain.  As one of my college friends stated earlier today, “I used to like the sound of falling rain.”

I agree.  Falling rain will forever make millions of Houstonians sad, scared, and wondering what will be next.

Only answer I can think of is onward.

Now more than ever.