Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Movies Don't Matter Anymore

The title of this post is an exaggeration, of course. Movies can still entertain, elucidate, educate. Independent flicks, documentaries, and a few serious movies move my butt into the theater, although the rising ticket prices require the draw to be topnotch. In fact, there are several "must-see" showings at the upcoming (November 3-14) Denver Film Festival - and that's what we expect from a major festival in its thirty-third year with more than 200 films scheduled, including a healthy dose of cine Mexicano. But "just killin' an afternoon" at el mono doesn't cut it. Most of the time, I'd rather watch TV.

That thought is not original with me. Here are the lead sentences of a segment of an NPR show broadcast on October 16:

Critics have been decrying the creative decline of Hollywood pretty much since D.W. Griffith left the scene. But today's Hollywood is plenty creative, author Edward Jay Epstein says. It's just that the most sophisticated stuff is showing up on TV screens. "We've had a role reversal," Epstein tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Now, people go to television, especially pay television and premiere cable television, to watch programs like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and Damages. And they go to movies to see comic books: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Avatar."

Epstein wrote The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies (Melville House Publishing, 2010).

I couldn't agree more. I dig comic books, don't get me wrong, so more power to the directors willing to take on the next superhero melodrama (although, that run has to be about over, no? Oh wait - here comes The Green Lantern.)

But I switch on what used to be called the "boob tube" to check in with dynamite dramas like Breaking Bad, Rubicon, Mad Men, Terriers, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, or the sorely-missed The Wire; or off-the-wall comedies such as Bored to Death or Weeds. Can't say that there's a particular Latino show that holds my attention, but then, how many really good Latino movies have there been lately?

There were a few panels at the recent Latino Book & Family Festival that discussed the sorry plight of Latinos in Hollywood, and more than one author complained about the lack of interest by the movie-makers in producing high quality flicks based on Latino source material. Some of that was sour grapes, but a good portion of the talk and analysis exhibited frustrated push-back at a system that has always been slow to recognize Latinos for anything more than the stereotypes. The theme of the panels stayed with me and when I heard the NPR segment I put two and two together: Forget the movies. Why aren't there more TV shows based on Latino material?

The embarrassing (for Hollywood) example is Rudy Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. I've heard that there have been a few attempts at turning the classic into a screenplay, with no apparent success. And I've seen an excellent play based on portions of the novel that ran several weeks in a Su Teatro production. But isn't it obvious that the story of Antonio and Ultima battling various negative forces in the llano of 1945 New Mexico would make a perfect miniseries? Think of the possible episodes: Antonio's rocky and violent transition from child to adolescent; family struggles because of the conflict between the urge to range free and the need to establish roots; supernatural battles with brujas and brujos; all against a backdrop of the changing national political scene as the US enters the nuclear age, disillusioned soldiers return from war, and old established traditions, including racism, are challenged by the modern age. The miniseries would have an abundance of detail from the era: clothes, music, slang, and attitudes. We would marvel at the ingenuity and precociousness of Antonio or the power and sensitivity of Ultima. The Land of Enchantment would enchant a worldwide audience. The colors, smells, traditions and serenity of northern New Mexico would overwhelm. The show would be called "one of the most beautiful television series ever produced." Raza would watch and say, "I remember my grandmother told me the same story."

Okay, maybe you want something a little more current? We have plenty to choose from, and I don't mean just the golden gems that deserve attention like the works of Rolando Hinojosa, Oscar Acosta, Américo Paredes, or Tomás Rivera. How about the novels of Luis Urrea, Reyna Grande, Alfredo Véa? Denise Chávez, Yxta Maya Murray, Kathleen Alcalá? Or if PBS wants good crime drama, there's no need to limit the offerings to rebroadcasts of something from England (but I admit that Prime Suspect was excellent.) We have the homegrown mysteries of writers like Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava, or Max Martínez waiting for the Masterpiece Theater treatment. I'm just throwing out names of writers whose books are particularly visual, but you fill in the blanks. The point is, we have the writers, the stories, and the books. There's no excuse for the disrespect.

But there is good news, and there may be a change in the air. Victor Villaseñor has announced that HBO will produce a seven-part miniseries based on Rain of Gold, Wild Steps of Heaven and Thirteen Senses. Filming starts in 2011 and the show should be on the air by 2012.

Let's hope it's done right, and that it works, not just for us, but for the segment of the general HBO audience that should be attracted to adult, quality drama with a universal story set against the cultural kaleidoscope of Mexicanos in the United States. And that this is only the beginning. All I can say is, "Ya es tiempo. About time."



Rebel Girl said...

Just FYI: I believe "Bless Me, Ultima" is in production now - and the son of an old friend of mine from high school has been cast in it.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thanks for the update, Rebel Girl - Be great to see Rudolfo Anaya at the movie's premiere.

msedano said...

great updated news, rebel girl! ultima, the movie.

green lantern? i used to recite his magic spell when i was a kid. they didn't work for me. nor did "poof poof piffles" give me rat size. but that's what movies and teevee shows are for, to give carne to the imagined world.

cast ultima, who should be whom? antonio played by... how 'bout ultima? hayek? longoria? betty white?

Manuel Ramos said...

There's a grandson, Jaden, the perfect Antonio. Ultima - Yolanda Ortega did a great job as Ultima in the Su Teatro play. It'd be a stretch for Betty White.

Corina Carrasco said...

Ya es mas que tiempo.

Any Latino story that is made is a long time coming. It has been quite a while since we have seen anything like Stand And Deliver, La Bamba, Selena, Mi Familia, etc. There are plenty of Latino actors. There are lots of stories out there; many of them already written.

And there are "un monton" of us waiting to see these stories on the big screen.