Monday, February 18, 2019

center screen

When I saw The Station Agent, I remember imagining an alternate-universe version of the movie focused on the relationship between Michelle Williams’ and Bobby Cannavale’s characters instead of on Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson. I.e., on the young, traditionally sexy couple instead of the man with dwarfism and the older woman. Of course, that alternate universe is usually this universe, and I felt so happy and grateful to visit a world where the “supporting” characters were central.

Realizing that in 2003 Patricia Clarkson was probably like five years older than I am now.
I had the same experience last night when AK and I saw Roma at the Egyptian Theatre. If it had been a movie about a middle-class Mexican woman (Marina de Tavira) struggling through a divorce while her indigenous maid (Yalitza Aparicio) deals with an unplanned pregnancy, it might still have been a good story. But writer-director Alfonso Cuarón made the same simple/radical choice that Tom McCarthy made with The Station Agent, and told the whole story from the point of view of Cleo, the housekeeper and nanny to Mrs. Sofi’s four children.

The storytelling itself is traditional in the loveliest sense. Black-and-white, slow-moving, hauntingly poetic. But the lingering shots include many of the messes Cleo is tasked with cleaning up: dirty dishes, dog shit, piles of laundry, cigarette butts (it takes place in the seventies, so of course cigarette butts).

This movie will make you crave soft-boiled eggs.
There’s a scene where the family is watching TV. Cleo hangs out for a bit and watches with them. Two of the four kids fight over who gets to cuddle with her. The father (who, like most of the grown men in the movie, turns out to be utterly fucking useless) asks her for a tea. She gets up, clears plates, gets tea. The truth of her simultaneous status as family member and Other is apparent in every shot.

And in this particular shot, I felt a surge of recognition—not because I’m a housekeeper, obviously—but because as a mom who tries to keep things tidy, every chill domestic scene is threaded with an undercurrent of cleanup. I know what it means to always be moving, and seeing it on screen was validating.

This face will make you crave more movies starring Yalitza Aparicio.
The bigger, more obvious validation, of course, was the joy of studying Aparicio’s face—to see someone with dark skin and almond-shaped eyes get the same treatment that rubios have been getting for a century. She looks like the face I see across from me at the dinner table every day (well, metaphorically—we’re actually pretty terrible at the family-dinner thing), and like the kids who fill the tables at 826LA. Needless to say, I can only imagine how heartening it would be for someone who actually goes through the world with that face to see themselves reflected. AK confirmed.

When we visited Mexico City in 2017, I remember being slightly surprised by the number of white people. In the posh neighborhood where we stayed, I did not stand out at all. No one expected me not to speak Spanish. Seeing Roma, I was reminded again that what many Americans think of as generically “Mexican” (because racism, ignorance, and actual immigration patterns) is more often than not indigenous-Mexican. People who are doing fine economically are less likely to leave. White Mexicans are more likely to be doing fine economically.

Every man in this movie: "Um, I have to go over here for a minute." [Leaves forever.]
After the movie, there was a Q&A with the two main actresses. I think I overdosed on Q&A’s in my twenties, so I tend to avoid them. I’d rather just savor the dream-world of the movie itself. De Tavira and Aparicio were gracious and funny, but the interviewer was insufferable. In addition to asking the most predictable questions, he seemed intent on mansplaining his movie-nerd facts and revealing his ignorance about everything outside those facts. When de Tavira said something about “during the six months or so when we were shooting—” he interjected to say “108 days!” He doled out some pandering flattery (“the camera loves you”; although he was not wrong) to Aparicio, but almost all of his questions to her were about being a first-time actor; it seemed like he wanted her to share a story about how she thought the camera would steal her soul or something. Instead she told a hilarious story about working with the dog in the movie (“He was also a first-time actor”).

At one point, the interviewer said, “Mexico City has a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty—it’s an unusual city in that way.”

Someone in the audience shouted, “Like L.A.” I mumbled, “That’s not ‘unusual.’”

We took our cue and fled to get food at a little Oaxacan place up the street, and to try to return to the dream of the movie. Among the many things I loved about Roma was the reminder that life is precarious—men leave, the government steals your land, earthquakes shake the ground you stand on, fires break out at your freewheeling 1970s New Year’s Eve party—but human beings are scrappy. And when the sound of the crashing waves gets so loud you can hardly hear anything else, you cling to each other.