The End of Cinema: La última película


By Phil Coldiron

What comes at the end of cinema?

Not what comes after cinema—a good question for marketing gurus like Spielberg and Lucas and Cameron to lock themselves in a room and argue over until they expire, choking on their own hot air—but right there at the end, in death tranquil or terrifying or both, as the movies take stock of a lifetime of failures (and, okay, more than a few successes). As a moment, it’s the end of both the particular (the last movie) and the universal (the cinema): the world-as-projector clicking senselessly onward, the projectionist long gone (or maybe never around to begin with), and the cinema-as-film caught in the stasis of perpetual motion, run through, ass-end slapping ceaselessly toward disintegration against its one true companion. When that delivery finally comes in the form of a complete formal breakdown—the comfortable order of the classical style churned into a maelstrom of frames and pixels (cf. Film socialisme [2010])—will the unifying force of Bazin’s trusty old ontology hold? “Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were.” If one accepts that the cinema will come to an end before the world does (i.e., as long as there’s still duration; figuring what comes after duration is the real question of what comes after cinema), then there’s no reason to think otherwise—even a radically decentred cinema, one whose tatters are sent flying off in infinite directions, both analogue and digital, would still hold together around this core of mummified change. It might finally be a real big bang for the movies, which is to say that as long as there’s a world, what comes at the end of cinema isn’t an end at all: it’s cinema.

This though still leaves questions about the particular. How will we know when we’ve come to the last movie? Will the last movie know it’s the last movie? What will the view of cinema be from this vantage point at its end? The last movie, as both an expectation and an object, is necessarily subjunctive, a tense that Spanish handles with far more grace than English, so it’s with good reason that Raya Martin and Mark Peranson have returned to The Last Movie (1971) as La última película.

Not so much a remake as an act of salvage—Hopper’s film is just one among many sources scrapped and taken for parts, whether jokes or narrative beats or soundtrack choices or shot compositions—La última película shifts the location from the earlier film’s Peru to Mexico, where Hopper first intended to make it, at another moment in which an end is not an end: the culmination of the Mayan long-count calendar, the event widely referred to in the media as The Mayan Apocalypse. Of course humanity did not come to an end on December 21, 2012, and it remains to be seen whether the New Age reading of the event as a shift between fields of consciousness in fact occurred, but regardless, one could hardly ask for a more apt site at which to situate the last movie, an object which is apocalyptic in the sense that it is, to borrow Jonathan Rosenbaum’s description of The Last Movie, “simultaneously about many things…and nothing at all”—which could stand to be extended from “many things” to “everything” since what, after all, is the Apocalypse if not the sudden conflation of everything and nothing?

There is at least one apocalypse here that does come to pass, as Martin and Peranson retain Hopper’s hazy arc of a white man drifting toward personal ruin in the Global South. (Given the fact that the film also retains The Last Movie’s staunch commitment to shooting on location, it’s an alignment of production and narrative that inevitably recalls everything from Conrad to Tabu [1931] to another Hopper project directly referenced, Apocalypse Now [1979].) The white man here is a filmmaker played by Alex Ross Perry, who, as in The Color Wheel (2011), proves terribly committed to plumbing the depths of his own ego. He is the full embodiment of the interested Western liberal, and as such, fundamentally insufferable—an asshole, as the Sancho to his Quixote, local guide Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez), bluntly puts it during one early bit of ranting about the archeological authenticity of a wall and some trash in comparison to the nearby Mayan ruins.

His filmmaker spends much of the movie spouting off similar pronouncements about his own work, the cinema, and the world in general, all of which are self-serious to the point of delusion, modelled in part after Hopper’s similar pronouncements in The American Dreamer, the 1971 “documentary” made on Hopper’s Taos ranch while he was editing The Last Movie. There’s an inability to reconcile his rigid sense of superiority—e.g., for him the Mayan pyramids are nothing more than the best movie set that anyone could ask for—with the messy reality of this place the cinema has drawn him to, which, in an almost cosmic manner, marks him for brutal, sacrificial death. If La última película only concerned itself with this rending asunder of the myth of the white explorer-filmmaker illuminating dark worlds, it would at least be commendable as a corrective to a trope that remains alarmingly popular, but Martin and Peranson continually discover new avenues of thought down each of the film’s many ruptures—fissures which occur both internally via its heterogeneous approach to form (the film makes use of nine different cameras and seven different shooting formats, including 16mm, Super 8mm, and a variety of standard- and high-definition digital cameras, and will ideally be presented theatrically on an eighth, 35mm) and deployment of perspective or genre (it makes use of tropes from documentary, the essay film, the historical epic, both the structural and lyrical avant-garde, melodrama, and science fiction, among others), and externally, as it calls into question many of the axioms at the heart of contemporary world cinema.

Chief among these is its injunction against the performance of culture as an essential function of the global economy, an intervention that hangs over the film from its opening images, in which a man done up in full Mayan body paint for the benefit of the tourists descending on the region stares into the camera before finally cracking a small, exhausted smile and admitting that he’s tired. World cinema today finds itself in much the same place: films must dress up their culture of origin in the ways that will most appeal to the cultural elite who make up film festival selection committees and audiences, a situation which has hardened into a set of rules that are every bit as dogmatic as those kept in place to ensure that Hollywood blockbusters turn appropriate profits on their nine-figure investments. We have reached a point where the whole of world cinema seems exhausted by these demands to continue trotting out the worst aspects of their countries (drug problems, histories of intolerance, authoritarian rule, etc.), as if the only way to get a Western audience to notice their existence is by confirming that audience’s fears about a place, and giving them the opportunity to feel suitably horrified—the catharsis of guilt standing in comfortably for any action. Mexico sits at the top of this list, its most lauded films showing the country as nothing but an amoral husk in the wake of the terror of its ongoing drug war. Certainly there is nothing wrong with these filmmakers attempting to expose injustice to the world, but one should be weary of a system of financing and exhibition that promotes the perpetuation of such narratives at the expense of any further engagement with the culture.

Martin and Peranson, a Filipino and a Canadian, make no bones about their status as outsiders, using this position as an opportunity to explore the contradictory, or even paradoxical, position of the tourist. On one end, there is Perry’s filmmaker, the cynical tourist who claims to know a place better than the locals, and on the other, there are new age pilgrims who have flocked to Chichen Itza for the Apocalypse, naïve individuals convinced that the earnest endeavour of an all-inclusive resort stay complete with daily meditation sessions near the pyramids confirms them as enlightened citizens of the world. For both the cynical and the naïve tourist, the reality of the situation is one of exploitation: whether finding a film set or finding spiritual purity, the culture of the Other exists only to fulfill a specific need for these bourgeois travellers that isn’t fundamentally any different from, say, buying organic kale at Whole Foods. When these two groups finally come into contact in the second half of the film, as Perry and Rodríguez wander the pyramids amongst groups of revellers, loudly mocking the event, Martin and Peranson most clearly open up the space that they have been working the entire time: the film is able to both side with Perry, the cynical tourist who is at least aware of his position as tourist, over these naïve tourists whose exploitation is even more insidious for its lack of awareness, while still undercutting Perry’s authority as a commentator with his own well-established inability to view this place as anything other than his for the taking. This double movement of critique leaves only Rodríguez, the native, in a position of clarity, and indeed, if La última película is anyone’s movie, it’s his.

This centrality is confirmed by his involvement with the film’s emotional core, a match of sound and image that is, in its absolute simplicity, one of the most beautiful and moving sequences that the cinema has produced. In an early scene, while driving Perry out of town for a location scout, Rodríguez attributes his affection for the region to a set of photos of his parents in this place many years before, pictures that show them deeply in love. In the moment it seems an offhand remark, small talk between strangers to fill the time. The duo continue on their adventures until Perry finds himself thrown in jail for trespassing and the film breaks abruptly from its building narrative momentum to present these photos in a Markeresque slideshow, accompanied on the soundtrack by John Buck Wilkin’s “My God & I,” rescued from the background of a scene in The Last Movie and returned to a place of suitable prominence. These sounds and images are the sudden swelling of an unchecked emotional force, one that obliterates both irony and sentimentality; the entire film flows out from this single rupture. The effect is not simply to permeate the whole with a deep sense of love, but to recontextualize its reflexive and disjunctive strategies as an experiment in something like radical empathy.

Among the instruments of this experiment, we might mention the presentation of serial takes as looped segments, a conceptual movement which, as in Rivette, collapses the distance between rehearsal and performance (i.e., the film is brought back up to the plane of the fleshy, messy everyday); various instances of filming the production itself, each of which serves to intensify the sense of historical awareness that pulses through the film (it would be hard to imagine a more concise expression of the project’s simultaneous engagement with the past, present, and future than the brief shot of an assistant scrubbing fake blood off of the stone steps of a public monument site in the heart of Mérida following a staged sacrifice); and the play of formats off one another in a search not just for their unique affective qualities, but an exploration which the movie extends as an inquiry into their epistemological capacity: by playing up the fundamental inability of these many formats to capture light in a consistent fashion, Martin and Peranson underscore the ideological function of aesthetic choices. When Rodríguez sacrifices Perry in the aforementioned sequence, the moments shot on 16mm film radiate with a sort of budget magnificence built of soupy light and exaggerated reds which confirms the triumph against the northern imperialist crusader; when the same scene is shown in the flat clarity of digital, it becomes almost silly, the expressiveness of artifice now playing as jarring because of the fact that its textures will be intimately familiar to anyone who has owned a camera in the last decade, the time in which digital photography has quickened its march toward a baseline situated at the full erasure of aesthetic distance. This is not an argument for one format over the other—here I’d like to note that the claims for celluloid made on indexical grounds represent little more than the betrayal of a preference for chemistry over math—but an acknowledgement that even, or perhaps especially, the most banal of budgetary decisions must be examined as ideological concerns.

Seeing these tactics through the reverberations of this originary love, its constant infolding becomes not an acknowledgment of artifice or relativity, but an attempt at turning cinema back against the impulses, the clichés, and the dogmas that might stand in the way of a true image capable of forcing us to confront all that is other in all its complexity. It’s in this confrontation that we might reasonably say that everything and nothing finally collapse into one another. Its strongest images—the world seen floating upside down, a rain of meteors on a rear-projected sky, the bustle of a street or a strip club during Christmas time, two old women perched on a pyramid in the evening sun—are both about everything that is outside of each of us, and about nothing, in the sense that they are free of discursive distance.

Or at least nearly free, since this attempt must always come up short: the cut, of which every movie must have at least two, cannot avoid introducing a perspective which is the very limit between cinema and the world, though Martin and Peranson, in their dogged commitment to chipping away any trace of bullshit from their cinema—an act undertaken in the name of love, which we might also call truth—have come as close as anyone before them, a heritage that includes Griffith and Bresson, Warhol and Costa, the Straubs and Rossellini, Hellman and Fuller, Frampton and Vertov. These are all makers of last movies, directors committed to pushing the forms of cinema toward the point where they begin to disintegrate, revealing not their artifice, but their capacity for expressing the truth of a situation. In the end, Perry’s filmmaker—his fate already sealed, speaking perhaps from the afterlife, moments before embarking on a final journey into the pure intensity of red light (an ending which recalls another great last movie: Dillinger Is Dead [1969])—finds his way to something like clarity: “One dot could serve as the punctuation for all that has come before, and the opening salvo for all that will come after.” This explosive rejection of the perpetual stasis of the neoliberal end of history in favour of an infinitely open, historically informed future—this is the logic of the last movie. Coldiron Phil