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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Coming soon: Alex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus

Posted By on 12.13.11 at 03:02 PM

Last_Circus.jpg
The December screening I’m most eagerly anticipating is the double bill of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989) and Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (2010) scheduled for Saturday night at the Portage Theater and presented (from 35-millimeter, bless them) by a new organization called Chicago Cinema Society. I missed Last Circus when it played at the EU Film Festival in March, and while I’ve since caught up with it on DVD, the movie does so many interesting things with height and depth that I suspect I won’t truly appreciate it until I see it on a big screen.

I’ve felt similarly about all of de la Iglesia’s features, though I’ve never had a chance to test my hypothesis. The last time any of his work screened theatrically in Chicago was when the Film Center hosted a retrospective in August 2005, just before I moved here. And neither before nor since the limited stateside release of El Crimen Perfecto (also in 2005) has a major US distributor gotten behind de la Iglesia, even though he’s been a critical and commercial success in Europe since the mid-1990s.

Maybe the problem (from an American commercial standpoint) is that de la Iglesia’s an unabashed genre director who nonetheless loves perverting genre-film expectations. His movies tend to start as light comedies and end as bloody suspense films, and they often make detours into melodrama and pure fantasy. That might suggest flagrant messes or Naked Gun-style spoofs, but de la Iglesia rarely sacrifices characterization for effect. No matter how weird his movies get, they’re always entirely sincere, which, in turn, makes them feel even weirder.

It’s an ingratiating sensibility, revealing a man so confident in his imagination that he’s willing to follow it wherever it goes. This is evident as early as his 1993 feature debut, Acción Mutante (literally, Mutant Action, which would make a good title for any of his films). That movie begins as a black comedy about mutant terrorists who kidnap beautiful people for ransom—but when the group takes a recent hostage onto their spaceship (it’s set in the future) the film turns into a tight, nasty riff on Alien, with the gang fighting to the death over their loot. The final act takes place on a barren asteroid, and de la Iglesia shot it in the same mountainous region where a lot of spaghetti westerns had been made in the 60s and 70s. Never one to waste a genre reference, he concludes the film as a tribute to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73.

Accion Mutante (1993)
  • Accion Mutante (1993)
Spaghetti westerns play an even greater role in his later 800 Bullets (2002), which follows a group of former western stuntmen reduced to performing for tourists on abandoned movie sets. De la Iglesia sets it up like a family movie, with the head stuntman faced with the unexpected responsibility of caring for his estranged young grandson—unexpectedly,the gang happily initiates the boy into their routines of drinking, gambling, and whoring. And instead of having the men redeem themselves, as they would in an American comedy, the gang take up arms when a new investor tries to kick them off their old movie set. The film’s climax is as bloody and as melancholy as that of The Wild Bunch.

Like Quentin Tarantino or Takashi Miike, de la Iglesia embodies a form of cinephilia that could have arisen only in the age of home video. His collisions of movie archetypes, pulled freely from different periods and genres, suggest film history as a fort made from discarded VHS boxes. And like Tarantino and Miike, de la Iglesia demonstrates obvious care in his choice and manipulation of references: there’s too much control in his Hitchcockian tracking shots and narrative-propelling editing to suggest anything less. What he dramatizes, ultimately, are the personalized relationships one forms with movies once they take up half his living room.

800 Bullets(2002)
  • 800 Bullets(2002)
De la Iglesia dramatizes another, more important relationship: the close-knit groups formed by social outcasts. For all his outré ideas and deliberate bad taste, de la Iglesia displays consistent affection for his freaks, mutants, and lower-middle-class obsessives. Compare the terrorists of Acción Mutante, the washed-up stuntmen of 800 Bullets, the oddball tenants of Common Wealth (2000), and the traveling performers of The Last Circus. These characters are united in a front against normal life and all the boredom that goes with it (just like de la Iglesia and his regular collaborators, presumably). Even the uncharacteristically suave hero of El Crimen Perfecto—an assistant manager at a department store who rules the women’s section like a small-time sheik—shares with the others a need to transform the world to his own ends.

If you're new to the world of de la Iglesia, Perfecto (2004) may be the best place to start. It’s his least violent, most elaborately plotted film, with his wild shifts in tone giving way to a more intricate narrative in which people are constantly deceived by each other and by fate. A major plot development involves the manager forced to marry a demented coworker who represents everything he hates: she’s plain, uncharismatic, and in love with “normal” crap like miniature collections and reality television. De la Iglesia’s depiction of the woman’s family is one of the best jokes of his career, an assault on mainstream values that John Waters probably loves.

Alex de la Iglesia
  • Alex de la Iglesia
The Last Circus rests on the director’s most provocative joke yet: it’s a lurid story about dueling, mass-murdering clowns set during the final days of the Franco regime. Fascism, of course, takes the idea of normal life to its most destructive conclusion, and as bad taste goes, it surpasses any of de la Iglesia’s warped fantasies. Set against the memory of fascism, de la Iglesia’s art seems more purposeful than before. In fact, the movie can be regarded as a personal breakthrough along the lines of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, another deliberately reckless film about sensitive historical subject matter. (Tarantino seems to think so: he presided over the jury that awarded Circus best director and best screenplay at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.) But words like “breakthrough” and “purposeful” make it sound like a respectable movie—and as de la Iglesia has proven, movies can accomplish a lot more when they throw respectability to the wind.

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