I’m just going to jump straight into it this week. I’ll start with a solid down-home tale based on the work of a Chicago alumnus, then finish off with a slightly obscure, well reviewed, well liked, yet hopelessly pointless heap of a movie. In Español!
A River Runs Through It (1992)
No one wants to live in Montana. What would barely buy you a tiny condo on Michigan Avenue will buy you a mansion and 30 acres in Montana. Your nearest neighbor is probably several miles away, and the largest city, Billings, barely qualifies as a “large” city in most states. It’s a cold, desolate place. And the second largest city is called Missoula. Seriously, say that once or twice and imagine yourself living there. Then imagine yourself telling people you’re from Missoula and having them not stifle a giggle.
So why is A River Runs Through It worth a review or even a watch? Because as ridiculous as it sounds, there is a serene nobility about a place like Montana. I won’t even attempt to do it justice; just read this passage from the book A River Runs Through It:
“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.”
There are places all over the world where “all existence fades” and you simply feel a part of the natural wild around you. It’s difficult to recreate that feeling, especially in a place as urban as Chicago. But A River Runs Through It comes about as close as you can get.
The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, and I know the question is already being raised, “Why would I watch the movie when I could just read the book?” The truth is, the book is amazing and lyrical in a way that the movie barely even approaches. Indeed, the best parts of the movie are the parts where quotes from the book are narrated over the action.
Well, first, the novella is a rather long 170 pages and filled with all sorts of big words. And movies are filled with so many more interesting noises as well as bright flashing lights and shiny objects.
Second, there are things a movie can do that other media simply cannot. I’m not, by any stretch, saying that a book cannot be breathtaking in its descriptions, but it’s one thing to describe a mountain range and the rhythm of the river; it’s another thing entirely to show it. I’m not rehashing the old “movies are better because they can have pictures and dialogue; they’re like a painting and a book, right?” argument. It’s simply not true. What I am saying is that each art form has its own virtues and strengths. A River Runs Through It relies so heavily on its environment, on the “Big Blackfoot River” and the “Arctic half-light of the canyon” that it’s worth watching it in movie form just to get a different taste of that world where “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
I really hate foreign films. Not because they’re inherently bad or possess some quality that consistently irks me. It’s because, for some reason, everyone seems to give them the benefit of the doubt. Somehow, because it’s in a foreign language, it must be deep, right?
That’s what I feel happened, to a certain extent, with Y Tu Mamá También. You throw in a couple of teenagers (including the sexy and talented Gael Garcia Bernal), a “coming of age story,” a sexy older woman, homoerotic tension (it’s edgy!), token photos of poor Mexicans, a little Español, and voila, you have a pile of random and totally disconnected events and stories that everyone will think is awesome.
I feel like if this movie were produced in America, here would be the pitch: Y Tu Mamá También is a teen movie from Mexico that tells the story of two totally bodacious dudes as they take an awesome road trip through impoverished Mexico. Along the way, tension ensues as they hook up with hot girlfriends, hot older women, and each other’s moms?!?! WHOA! Get ready for a wild ride!
Like that, except with more jokes about genitalia getting stuck in unfortunate places.
I’ll admit, the first time I watched it, I thought that Y Tu Mamá También was actually good. I must have spent too much time staring at Bernal’s elusive no-stache, I guess. The movie does have a kind of hip rhythm to it, and some of the scenes are genuinely touching. But it always feels a little forced, as if the director got tired of showing breasts and making jokes about masturbation (not kidding) and suddenly decided to toss some emotion into this already confused mess of a movie. If you’re going to see some stock teen drama, get Y Tu Mamá También instead. It’ll be better, but not by much.