Why I go to the movies, with Lillian
Reflections of an American at the 2011 Festival de Cine Internacional de San Juan
“You remember the gala de apertura at last year’s Festival,” says Lillian, “we didn’t know anybody at that red-carpet event.” It’s true. We had just moved to the island and the festival was our first experience of the San Juan cinema and art scene. “Have you seen anyone we know this time?” asks Lillian. We’re early and a crowd has just started forming in the lobby of Cine Metro in Santurce. “Not yet,” I tell her, although I notice a few people pointing at us and one person raising a camera to take our photograph.
Then I look down and realize we’re standing on the red carpet in the area reserved for actors, directors, and other invited guests. “We’d better move,” I tell Lillian. We make our way to the table where tapas and wine are being served. As an artist, Lillian has a very intuitive understanding of movies. As an artist who worked many years for science, I take a more analytical approach. To try to make sense of the many films we’ve seen during this festival, I created a spreadsheet of the movie titles and countries, matching them to a set of what we think are some universal themes or subjects: food, clothing, shelter, money, music, art, love, hate, sex, fear, pregnancy, birth, death, travel, and multiculturalism. We also created a scoring system on a scale of 0 to 100, which we used to rank each film. Our average score for all the films we’ve seen is 83. We gave the Chinese film The Piano in a Factory the highest score of 95, while the lowest we ranked a film was 51. The most common subjects across films and countries are sex and food, followed by money, music, fear, love and hate. There has been so much food in these movies that we find ourselves constantly running off between films to nearby restaurants. A couple of the films treated fear so realistically that we’ve had some sleepless nights. The same for money and sex.
Our friend Bob Buckeye of Vermont asked us to write, giving him our impressions of this year’s film festival…
Dear Bob: We have learned from your example over the years that festivales de cine internacional provide a way to experience the culture and the mores of countries we might never have the opportunity to visit. Rumania, Turquía or even Barbados, for example. But we do not have your stamina to attempt to see all films from all places at one festival. We find that after viewing eight or more movies, they start to blend together, so that we remember a Chinese film featuring tango and people dressed in flamenco costumes, or a Norwegian film with a group of young Caucasians standing in the snow singing black American southern gospel music in English. We end up with film titles like Once Upon Dos Veces Under My Piano With Karen in Puerto Rico. The cinema banquet for us becomes an unrecognizable sancocho.
An American in Puerto Rico a film by José Sepúlveda. 2011. Puerto Rico. Duration, 73 minutes. Photography, Cliff Traiman. Music, Conjunto Alegre y Latin. Rhythm Boys. Genre, Comedy.
One indicator of a good movie is when the story is so compelling, you find yourself drawn into the action, and suddenly find yourself inside the film. That happened to us with the film An American in Puerto Rico. Written and directed by Puerto Rican José Sepúlveda, it tells the story of John, a young midwestern American, assigned by his architectural office to work in San Juan on a new hotel project planned for a beachfront location in Loíza. His business partner in Puerto Rico, José, played by José Sepúlveda, introduces John to his cousin María who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Puerto Rico as an adult. She is very machista, and while a fervent defender of her Puerto Rican culture, retains traces of her American life and her Spanish is stilted and kind of formalized. John has some problems adapting to the country and his new situation: weather, traffic, food, noise, language and local customs.
The language problems are especially funny as one of his Puerto Rican coworkers, Pablo, is constantly teaching him palabras malas without telling him the true meaning of the words. For instance, Pablo teaches John to call María hija de lechero as a compliment, and to use the phrase arroz con culo when ordering lunch. You can imagine the results. John’s constant miscues and misunderstandings create problems with María, threatening their newly developing relationship. Hilarity ensues when María brings John home to Guaynabo to meet her parents. Following Pablo’s instructions, when John is introduced to María’s mother he says “¿Qué pasa mai? Estoy pidiendo cacao.” And when he meets her father, he tells him “¡Estás tenso, Papi! Estoy esta bien tarantala.” Mishap follows misstep and, by the end of the movie, John has returned to his parents’ home in the states and María is trying to find a new boyfriend. In his sadness and frustration at having lost María, John has a sudden inspiration. He returns to Puerto Rico and organizes a parranda, surprising María at home in the middle of the night with song and dance. It works. They are reconciled and as far as we can tell, live happily ever after, taking trips around the island to visit El Parque de Bomberos in Ponce, the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Observatory in Arecibo, the Mayaguez Zoo, Vieques, Culebra and Los Croabas in Fajardo.
By the end of the movie, Lillian and I have completely morphed into María and John, ready to take up their adventures as we leave Cine Metro in Santurce for our drive back to Santa Olaya. “What did you think of the movie?” I ask her. “¿Qué?” she replies, “Pensando en pajaritos preñao.” I try another question. “Would you like to go out to get some food?” She replies, “No te hagas el sángano, Papi.” Now, I’m not sure what she wants to do. “Estás como la gatita de Dorita, si se lo sacan llora y si se lo meten grita, broki,” she tells me. I think she wants some Doritos.