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Thursday, March 26, 2002

And Your Subcultural Identity Politics Too!

By Kevin John

"The big trigger was the inclusion of a narrator who doesn't narrate but instead gives the context," explains director Alfonso Cuaron about his use of a third-person narrator in the new "Y Tu Mamá También." Context! Finally! Lack of context has been the unmaking of way too many films for the last 30 years or so, ever since subcultural identity politics moved into the realm of the visible. Since I'm gay, I feel especially cheated by "The Broken Hearts Club" and the recent "Kissing Jessica Stein" and the dozens of similarly smug, self-absorbed queer films I pick on incessantly. Sure, I want representation, but not in a historical and probably even moral vacuum, which is how, say, the depressingly unimaginative "But I'm a Cheerleader" presents it.

Unless you think the USA is the center of the universe, "Y Tu Mamá También" hardly qualifies as a film that concerns subcultural identity politics. It's another one of those "Summer of '42" coming-of-age films — spoiled rich brat Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his lower-class buddy Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) fart, fuck and party on the cusp of adulthood in Mexico. They meet an older married woman Luisa (Maribel Verdu) who joins the teens for a road trip after she discovers her husband's infidelity.

Tenoch and Julio have a goofy code of ethics they share with Luisa, the major tenet of which is something about how truth is beautiful but unattainable. But it appears that they had only been paying cannabis-soaked lip service to the idea. Their friendship starts to dissolve as they realize how true their take of truth is.

But Cuaron knows the spongy relativity of truth all along the way. Every time that narrator cuts in, the diegetic sound cuts off and he uncovers all sorts of truths about each scene: what the characters leave unsaid; what happened on this road 10 years ago; how many demonstrations are happening right now in Mexico City; what will happen to the characters later on. A posse of escaped pigs shit all over the protagonists' beach camp and, as they are shooed down the shore, we're informed of the pigs' fate: 14 will be slaughtered; several are responsible for a future outbreak of trichinosis.

The camera frequently veers away from the story to investigate the surrounding space, marveling at trinkets, staring into mirrors, out windows. For every bit of information conveyed about the torrid trio, Cuaron turns his head in order to provide some kind of frame. Sometimes we notice; other times, the story snaps us out of our distraction.

Eventually, all three wind up in bed together and the latent sexual feelings Tenoch and Julio have for one another gush to the surface. It's intense enough to cause one of them to retch the next morning (yes, OK, with the help of many shots of alcohol the night before). In fact, their friendship ends here, with their inability to speak of the act. Again, hardly the stuff of subcultural identity politics.

But what Cuaron's obsessive attention to context reveals is that various truths compete for perceptual priority. Our bombarded sensoriums can only handle so much information, and "Y Tu Mamá También" shows how it's often subcultural behavior that gets placed on the wayside, that's left unspoken. Now it's time to go the other way — we need a subcultural identity politics film that makes strange the status quo, shows up its relativity. Speaking the formerly unspeakable is crucial. But speaking nothing else beyond it will ensure a low-priority status on the chain of perceptual truths.

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