Funny, mournful, weird, Carlos Reygadas’s Japón is the new Mexican cinema’s wiggiest manifestation to date. The 31-year-old filmmaker’s first feature is minimal yet unpredictable—a movie in which every interaction is at once elemental and enigmatic.
Japón is a notably confident and achieved debut, amazingly shot in 16mm Cinemascope. The film’s deliberate pace and considered pantheism, as well as its intimations of Christian sacrifice, show the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky. But more eccentric than overweening, less cosmic than intractable, Japón‘s allegorical aspect is almost always subsumed in a material sense of the film as object. This movie feels arduously made and newly exhumed, having the aspect ratio and warm, bleached tinge of a vintage spaghetti western.
Japón‘s saturnine, nameless protagonist (Alejandro Ferretis, a nonprofessional actor, like everyone else in the movie) leaves Mexico City in a series of subjective road shots to wind up at the rim of the vast Sierra Tarahumara canyon. It is a spot where his family vacationed when he was a child and it is where he has decided to commit suicide. Reygadas’s antihero has a craggy profile and an arthritic limp. He makes his way to the bottom of the canyon—the other side of the world, hence, perhaps, the film’s title—and hobbles on his cane into a Dogpatch pueblo out of Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes.
The self-condemned man finds accommodations in a moldering stone barn belonging to the widow Ascen (Magdalena Flores), a mild and obliging old lady with a visage as corroded as the canyon and a demeanor as humble as a saint’s. There he spends his last day. He listens to Bach on his Walkman. He goes outside to paint. He takes a walk down the road and meets a local who calls him a “nosy bastard.” He smokes marijuana (politely offering a toke to his landlady). He lies on his narrow bed and masturbates. He dreams of the sea. He fondles his gun but doesn’t shoot himself. He goes out under the sky but still can’t pull the trigger. Then he goes into town and gets obnoxiously drunk.
Artfully haphazard, Japón is a movie of longish takes, in the midst of which Reygadas’s camera is apt to simply meander off. There’s a certain pleasure derived from never quite knowing where these slow dollies or languid pans are going—although such exercises usually make retrospective sense. Reygadas occasionally loses focus, but he never surrenders the wide screen’s fecund emptiness. Although dialogue is sparse, the soundtrack is rich with stray animal sounds. In its way, Japón is pure, if perverse, Nature Channel. There’s a sensationally rugged landscape and a backbeat of animal kingdom cruelty—the screaming of a slaughtered pig, a mega-close-up of a beetle trapped in a sudden rain shower. Raw existence abounds: A man with two withered arms casually eats an apple from a stick held between his toes. Kids play soccer, horses mate, the hero propositions Ascen. She takes this request in stride (as she does everything else), goes to church, looks at Jesus, and smiles.
The protag’s “to be or not to be” dilemma aside, Japón does have a dramatic situation. Ascen’s nephew plans to demolish her barn for the stones. This mindless act begins while the acquiescent old lady and her boarder are in bed together. Outside, a drunken deconstruction crew stares at the camera, making references to “the people from the film [who] don’t give us much.” Having turned the movie into documentary, they further up the entertainment ante by encouraging the most cretinously intoxicated member of their company to croak out a song while torturing a handy dog as a form of background yelping.
At this point, Japón seems poised to fall apart, as surely as Ascen’s barn. But the apocalypse that follows allows a complicated tracking shot that pivots and prowls over the remains of the day. The jaw-dropping capper to a panoramic movie, filled with unexpected maneuvers, this final shot could itself be considered among the wonders of creation.
Bill Morrison’s Decasia is that rare thing: a movie with avant-garde and universal appeal, occasioning two separate features so far in The New York Times. Morrison is not the first artist to take decomposing film stock as his raw material, but he plunges into this dark nitrate of the soul with contagious abandon. Few movies are so much fun to describe. Heralded by a spinning dervish, Decasia‘s first movement seems culled from century-old actualités: Kimono-clad women emerge from a veil of spotty mold, a caravan of camels is silhouetted against the warped desert horizon, a Greek dancer disintegrates into a blotch barrage, the cars for an ancient Luna Park ride repeatedly materialize out of seething chaos.
Decasia is founded on the tension between the hard fact of film’s stained, eroded, unstable surface and the fragile nature of that which was once photographically represented. Michael Snow contrived something similar in the chemical conflagration of his 1991 To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror—in which he purposefully distressed new footage. But Morrison is far more expressionistic. A second opposition arises between the lushly deteriorated images and composer Michael Gordon’s no less textured, increasingly ominous drone. (Unlike Philip Glass’s scores, Gordon’s never overpowers the visual accompaniment—even when it escalates to wall of sound.) A third opposition might be termed ideological.
On one hand, Decasia—like Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut’s less abstract, more literal Lyrical Nitrate—can be taken as a cautionary advertisement for film preservation. Indeed, Anthology is showing Decasia with Morrison’s 1996 short The Film of Her, an imaginary romance about the preservation of paper prints in the Library of Congress, celebrating what the archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai calls the “monumental necropolis of precious documents.” On the other hand, Decasia is founded on a deep aesthetic appreciation for decay. (“Cinema is the art of destroying moving images,” per the gnomic Cherchi Uchai.) The solarization, the morphing, the lysergic strobe effects on which the movie thrives, are as natural as the photographic image itself.
As Decasia continues, the calligraphy of decay grows increasingly hallucinatory and catastrophic. The sea buckles. Flesh melts. A boxer struggles against the disintegration of the image. Wall Street is half consumed in flames. A dozen little parachutes dot the cracked sky. A group of nuns traverse a courtyard that frames an Italian landscape in severe perspective, evoking a Renaissance vision of the Last Judgment. Japón has been termed Buddhist in its contemplative acceptance of change; Decasia seems more Hindu in its awesome spectacle of violent flux. The film is a fierce dance of destruction. Its flame-like, roiling black-and-white inspires trembling and gratitude.