The Guardian of Memory: the film sheds light on the anything but sunny underpinnings of a Mexican drug cartel.
Before going to work, Carlos Spector, one of the central figures in writer-director Marcela Arteaga’s The Guardian of Memory, feeds the gathering of birds that every morning congregates outside his door. He calls it his way of influencing “the universe according to his needs.” As well as providing nourishment through his makeshift bird sanctuary, the immigration lawyer uses his opening analogy to scatter seeds of discernment — an indication of the work that remains to be done. If he’s in the mood for a brawl, rather than spreading the feed around, Spector stacks the grain in a neat pile for the birds to fight over. The fat fowl symbolize the gringos, while the smaller poultry, the ones with less power, represent the Mexicans.
Spector has been active in the pro-immigration movement in the U.S. for over 30 years. His mother was a child of Chihuahua, his father a Russian Jew. Of all the movies to choose from, Spector credits The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for bringing his parents together. Dad was so taken by the picture that he decided to move to Mexico to seek his fortune panning for gold. To Spector’s classmates, the Jewish-Mexican hybrid presented a constant source of ridicule; they seized whatever opportunity they could to pull down his pants and get a glimpse of a “Jew’s penis.”
Before organized crime turned it into Mexico’s deadliest stretch of land, the Juarez Valley was known for cotton fields said to match Egypt’s. One of the film’s several interview subjects recalls how the hustle and bustle of his childhood added an extra layer of security. The peaceable exhilaration changed the day cocaine factories turned out to be more profitable than cotton mills. Today, the valley is known for having the highest murder rate on earth. It’s Carlos Spector’s duty to help those caught in the crossfire of a government-waged war on crime to seek political asylum.
What’s the opposite of a talking heads documentary? For much of the time, Arteaga keeps her camera in flight, an “eye in the sky” constantly assessing the wreckage. Beauty is seldom uglier than when it’s used to make a sardonic point. (Remember Billy Wilder’s crafty incorporation of “Isn’t it Romantic?” to underscore the aerial shots of a bombed out Berlin that open A Foreign Affair?) Camera drones have replaced the zoom lens as the latest tool for lazybones filmmakers, but not Arteaga and cinematographer Axel Pedraza. Inspiration from the slow, steady lateral pans of Bertolucci, mixed with the sparse surrealism of Jodorowsky and Leone’s fondness for light-gutted barns and train depots, helps form a personal style.
Arteaga’s dire chronicle resorts to static closeups only when the deponent’s deportment is such that no image of impoverished surroundings, no matter how artistically lit and penetratingly composed, is sufficient. Nothing can equal the raw emotion found in a human face of a mother who, after losing both her sons, refuses to buckle under the weight of poignancy. The film screens virtually at the Digital Gym Cinema. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
2 Hearts — Long before fake news became the rage, the promises of fake press releases defined Hollywood hype. The deception lives on with the following heartless pledge: “For two couples, the future unfolds in different decades and different places, but a hidden connection will bring them together in a way no one could have predicted.” Wanna bet? Of the two male leads, sickly rum heir Jorge (Adan Canto) wasn’t supposed to live past 20 while charming jock Chris (budding teen heartthrob Jacob Elordi) is hale, hearty, and as gawky as can be, Single Jorge stalks flight attendant Leslie (Radha Mitchell), while Chris, working double-duty as the film’s god-awful narrator, is banking on a romantic future with Sam (Tiera Skovbye). Hogtied, blindfolded, and seated in another theatre, you’d still have “the secret” figured out in 10 minutes. Nothing about Lance Hool’s (Steel Dawn) direction distinguishes this from the dozens of prefabricated tales of doomed romance otherwise known as the Hallmark Channel. How about something other than straight cuts to move us between time frames? It purports to be based on a true story. If that’s really the case, God has clearly seen too many bad movies. 2020 —S.M. ●
The Last Exorcist — It starts on a note of what appears to be reverent satire — vomiting pea soup, a cry of “the power of God compels me” — and quickly delivers what is quite simply one of the most inept horror films since we lost Ed Wood. What drew me to this Red Box refugee? Danny Trejo, that’s who. I am sad to report that for the first time in his career, Trejo is an active contributor to the awfulness. It’s as though “writer-director” Robin Bain handed the venerable character actor his lines two minutes prior to calling “Action!” Still, he’s Olivier compared to Rachele Brooke Smith and Terri Ivens, the two “actresses” hired to play sisters tormented by evil spirits from the past. (Smith’s transformation scenes are particularly rewarding in their putrescence.) There’s but one thing keeping me from heartily endorsing this mess. As if a rape scene weren’t bad enough, Bain uses the resulting pregnancy as a means to give the film its final snicker. Get past that, and you’ll be laughing about this film for weeks to come. 2020. —S.M. ●
Panic at Parq — The last few days before the San Diego Film Awards find all of the legitimate acts scheduled to appear snowbound and unavailable. (I love the implication that the canceled acts are somehow “legitimate,” while their San Diego counterparts are a bastard group of slothful, largely unemployed performers with free time to spare.) It’s up to the snotty production staff to dig up replacement acts before their vainglorious boss catches wind of their bumbling. (Calls for help are generally answered by testy types who don’t like to be put upon.) Lest you think I’m being characteristically rude, this 17 minute, somewhat mean-spirited, and always self-deprecating parody, produced by Heartland Films, honors the work of Jodi Cilley, founder of the San Diego Film Consortium. It began earlier this year over lemon bars at Milton’s Deli. A call went out for actors and technicians, and the locals tuned out in force, 50 of them, many of whom made the final cut. The short, directed by Sue Vicory and David S. Dawson, will hold its world premiere on KOCT TV — the voice of North County — on October 21 at 6:30 pm, with repeat viewings to follow. 2020. —S.M.