by James Killough
There is nothing inherently wrong with A Better Life, the new film by writer-director Chris Weitz, also known in some industry circles as the Man Who Killed New Line Cinema, although I suspect he just delivered the coup de grace with his underperforming Golden Compass. He got right back in the Hollywood crap saddle with New Moon, which I don’t think I’ve seen, or maybe I have but I was thirty-five thousand feet over Greenland in a Xanax cloud, and my attention was derailed by why I am more attracted to Kristen Stewart than I am to Taylor Lautner.
If my shrink were playing a game of association with me and said, “Taylor Lautner,” I would instantly reply “guinea pig.” I think it’s his nose.
A Better Life isn’t just about immigrants from Central America, both Salvadorans and Mexicans, it’s about Los Angeles, the real city, not the West Side/Hollywood bubble that is most often portrayed in film and on TV. It’s the Los Angeles of crime shows like The Shield slicked up and framed well for a feature film that is deceptively simple, but clearly as well produced as anything Hollywood can make.
All reviews make note of the similarities between ABL and Vittorio De Sica’s classic, seminal Bicycle Thieves. The premise is similar: rather than having to find a stolen bike, which is the fractured, impoverished family’s livelihood and life savings, father and son have to navigate the underbelly of LA to find a stolen truck and gardening equipment.
The film itself is fine, adequate to the job at hand. The performances are good, more understated than the script, but there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to see this in the theater unless you’re dating an emo Latino you’re keen to impress with your sensitive side, but even then there are other Latin immigration dramas available on DVD or download, like El Norte, which would better serve your purpose, and you can stay at home and use the ticket and popcorn money for medicinal marijuana, or something. A good bottle of tequila. I dunno. Anything else.
The more interesting aspects of the film are the glimpses of LA life that the camera catches through the point of view of the protagonists as they journey from one end of the city to the other, and back, and forth. Indeed, LA is as fascinating, as architecturally challenging, as diverse as New York is, but without the crappy climate. It is as suddenly ugly at times as it is astoundingly beautiful more often. And all of that is laid out quietly as the landscape against which A Better Life is shot.
As my friend Alan Linn said a few months back while we were driving around LA looking at new locations for a branch of his club, Norwood, “I don’t know why people shit all over LA. I think it’s because they’re jealous.” I don’t know if it’s jealousy. More like resentment, an adolescent need to put down the prom queen because she is the most beautiful, popular girl in school and you need to feel better about yourself. And like a beautiful, popular girl, LA really doesn’t give a shit what the uglier geeks think.
As a native New Yorker, I’m not impressed with home. A typical NY cabbie from back in the day, when they had thick Brooklyn accents and drove checker cabs, said to me as we were bouncing and crashing through potholes up Park Avenue, “Look at this place. It’s ritzy, but it’s still a fuckin’ slum.” Yeah, so they’ve cleaned it up some since then, and it’s safer. Now it’s a cleaner, safer fuckin’ slum.
There is a definite divide between the Mexican community in LA and the Rest. If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s a hard divide to bridge. I am allowed an indefinite tourist visa to that world because I speak Spanish fluidly via the Italian I learned growing up. It’s not an accomplishment of any kind: by circumstance I happen to have been raised from a small child with the capacity for more consonant groupings and vowel sounds than mono-linguists, and then I lived in Puerto Rico for a while as an adult with a boyfriend who only spoke Spanish, and who spoke constantly. As friend observed of Willy, “He’s one shriekin’ Rican.” But a hell of a lot of fun.
I first moved to LA with Willy in 1998, after hurricane Georges struck Puerto Rico. I lost the office job I had in San Juan, so I took the plunge once more back into the film business, which I had abandoned five years earlier. Willy and I lived completely amidst Latino LA, with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Peruvians, Venezuelans, lots of Argentinians with their funny slushy accents and quirky formalities, but no Mexicans.
Mexican LA is a shadow world, a parallel city. It pays to remember that the State of California was originally Alta “Upper” California, a state of Mexico. As you drive further south towards Baja “Lower” California, which is still part of that country, the realization that you are very much contiguous with Mexico becomes more pronounced. Cities like San Francisco are much more Northern European and have almost no Mexican influence.
I personally keep the fact this is really Mexico in mind all the time. And it makes me feel awkward about the way we treat Mexican immigrants. I understand their resentment and feel it is justified. They were here first, their culture pervades everything right down to the names of most places. They have the right to move back and forth without fear of “La Migra,” as Homeland Security is known colloquially here. Canadians just drive across the border as they please. Oh, but they’re white and speak English. Right.
My general attitude about immigration is this: all animals have the right to migrate freely in search of food and water. Countries are a human construct, and a huge pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned; if they had any real value, borders wouldn’t have kept changing throughout history. They’re more trouble than they’re worth in the long run.
Same with languages. I may speak five really well, and it’s cool for about three minutes when you’re trying to impress an emo Latino whose family has been here so long you speak Spanish way better than he does, but I would give them all up in a heartbeat if the world just spoke one. English, of course.
A far more impressive film than A Better Life is a fashion short by Mariano Vivanco for Mugler, which is me being a dick because it is much easier to make a fashion film set to music than to pull off even a bad feature film, much less a decent one. It’s like I’ve just compared cooking scrambled eggs to creating an eight-course French Cordon Bleu meal to satisfy millions of picky Michelin critics.
The fashion short is for Nicola Formichetti’s first collection at Mugler. Formichetti is best known as Lady Gaga’s stylist, the man behind the look, without whom she’d just be another Madonna cover act. The video features the sublimely tattooed Canadian model Rico, aka Zombie Boy. I don’t care what you think about tattooing, this young man is a walking work of art, beautifully executed (click on the image below to get to the video):
I used to hang out with Thierry Mugler back in the 80s, a bit, before he lost his mind and became Manfred, pre-geriatric steroid and plastic surgery abuser. He is his own Dr. Frankenstein and Monster rolled into one now. He was always a man of few words, little outward emotion, so I can’t say I feel sad that he sort of died and was resurrected as this creature. He kind of made a comeback a couple of years ago designing costumes for Beyoncé’s tour. Now Nicola Formichetti has taken over, or I’m not sure what a creative director at a fashion house does; the clothes still look very much like Thierry’s. Having licensed his name out years ago to some of the most successful men’s and women’s fragrances in the world, those French cakes-in-a-bottle Amen and Angel and their spin-offs, I’m sure Thierry is more than comfortable living on the royalties that rakes in.
I ran into Manfred/Thierry in a gay club a couple of years back. We hadn’t seen each other since at least the early 90s. I have changed considerably myself; to begin with, I no longer have hair, and I have a beard, which wasn’t there when he knew me. He had his shirt off, and with all the steroids and plastic surgery, he reminded me of a minotaur. I was alone at that moment, so I stood stock still, stared at my drink, and hoped he wouldn’t see me, or recognize me if he did. I didn’t want to speak to this creature. I was embarrassed for him.
No such luck. He stood a few feet away from me and glared. My eyes remained fixed in my glass, ashamed; this man was a genius, once, probably still has immense talent. I felt him snort like a bull, so I looked up and saw him move off into the crowd.
I did the right thing. We never had much to say to each other, anyway. What was I supposed to say? “Thierry, dude! You look great!”?