Arts & Entertainment

Latinos are ready for their Kodak moments

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As an exercise in pre-Oscar schmoozing, the event was not so unusual: the heaping sushi platters, the sweaty crush of deal-makers and their glammed-up significant others, the occasional bona-fide celebrity pretending to be inconspicuous (Hello, Ian McShane).

But as an exercise in inter-studio cooperation, the party this month at the Sofitel was no garden-variety fiesta. For one thing, it's rare during the cutthroat frenzy of Oscar season for three distributors (Paramount, Universal and Picturehouse, in this case) to band together to celebrate and promote their artists.

Even more notable was the party's subtext: the emergence of Mexican and Latin American filmmaking talent as one of the most potent new forces in Hollywood. (The bash likely was the first ever held for multiple Oscar nominees to feature a live mariachi band.)

This phenomenon goes beyond last year's striking achievements of the Mexican directors being toasted at the Sofitel — Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel"), Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") and Alfonso Cuarón ("Children of Men") — whose movies have been collecting awards by the bushel. The soiree was a tacit acknowledgment of the dynamic new Latino film colony that's blossoming on once-inhospitable Hollywood back lots.

"It's still very much in its infancy, but clearly you see indications that it's being developed," says Manny Gonzalez, vice president and managing director of Hill Holliday Hispanic/abece, a Miami-based ad agency that specializes in the Latino market.

Hollywood's new Latino enclave not only testifies to the amount of talent coming from Mexico and other Latin countries, Gonzalez says, but to the creative freedom and the resources that U.S. pop culture can offer, which "just simply don't exist in Mexico."

Besides Iñárritu and Del Toro, both of whom have been living and working in Hollywood for years, the growing Spanish-speaking/bilingual community centered in Los Angeles includes director Sergio Arau ("A Day Without a Mexican"), the Mexican actresses Ana Claudia Talancón (HBO's "Whitney"), Ana de la Reguera ("Nacho Libre") and Sandra Echeverría (star of the telenovela "Marina"), and the Oscar-nominated Mexican American director of photography Rodrigo Prieto ("Brokeback Mountain," "Babel").

At tonight's Oscars, Latinos will be represented by a group of nominees that includes Spanish actress Penélope Cruz ("Volver"), Mexican actress Adriana Barraza ("Babel"), Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("Babel"), sound mixer Fernando Cámara (part of the trio that did "Apocalypto"), Mexican cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki ("Children of Men") and Guillermo Navarro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), and Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, up for best original score for "Babel."

Whether they are Southern California residents or just frequent visitors for film projects, the members of this cluster all are playing a role in acculturating non-Latino audiences to the concerns, sensibilities and musical palette of the Spanish-speaking world.

Of course, in some respects it's misleading to lump these disparate talents under the monolithic "Latino" rubric. As has been duly noted in recent weeks, modern movie-making, and especially modern movie financing, is a complex, globalized enterprise that makes it difficult to say anymore with certainty that a given project belongs to this or that country, or expresses a distinct national worldview.

That's particularly true of a film such as "Babel," whose plot encompasses four countries and uses six languages (Spanish, English, Japanese, Arabic, Berber and sign language).

Even so, many of this year's Latino Oscar nominees repeatedly have asserted that their movies reflect certain aesthetic tendencies and/or thematic preoccupations that they think of as being recognizably Latin or Latin American. What's changing is that, more and more, other parts of the world are beginning to see their own experiences mirrored in the alluring, shifting surfaces of Latin life.

Screenwriter Arriaga says he thinks of "Babel" as an even more Mexican film than "21 Grams," his previous collaboration with Iñárritu and part of the "trilogy" that began with the duo's "Amores Perros" in 2000. As a Mexican screenwriter (and novelist) working on a vast global canvas, Arriaga says he feels "like I am a soccer player who goes and plays in another league."

He has been offered movie deals in China, India, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil and Argentina, he says, but chooses to live and work principally in his native Mexico City because he believes it energizes his writing.

At the same time, he recognizes that too-narrow definitions of exactly what constitutes "Mexican" (or any Latin country's) national cinema can be restrictive. "Movies made in Mexico with Mexican budgets have not been able to go and vie for the Oscar," he says. "And they say, 'Well, Guillermo del Toro, we love him but "Pan's Labyrinth" is a Spanish film, and it's representing Mexico [as the country's official best foreign-language film nominee].' That's what is hurting, more than anything."

Perhaps what's most vexing about the Hollywood establishment's recent embrace of Mexican and Latino filmmaking talent from abroad is that the industry continues to undervalue the creative efforts of native-born and second- and third-generation Mexican Americans and Latino Americans as well as the art they make and inspire.

Last year's modest but excellent "Quinceañera," written and directed by non-Latinos Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, was one of the most perceptive and authentic-feeling movies about the aspirations and struggles of Mexican American immigrants.

Such movies are still all too rare in Hollywood, and L.A. photographer, director and performance artist Harry Gamboa Jr. may have offered a partial explanation when he spoke last year on filmmaking at the Mexico City Book Fair.

Hollywood, like many Americans, Gamboa suggested, tends to be more accepting of Mexicans and Latinos if they're seen as temporary visitors rather than permanent residents. "The proximity of the Hollywood sign to East L.A. is mutually blinding," Gamboa says.

And Latino film artists still must battle ancient stereotypes. "The other day a reporter asked me if the rise of Oscar-nominated Mexicans would cause even more illegal immigration," says cinematographer Navarro.

Hollywood has seen this phenomenon of brilliant outsiders before. At the start of the sound era, dozens of well spoken, theatrically trained Brits migrated to the West Coast to show the Yanks how to do the classics (or imitate an Old Dixie accent in "Gone With the Wind"). The influence of these transatlantic interlopers continues to this day, as will be apparent at the Kodak Theatre tonight.

A few years later, artistic refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe practically reinvented Hollywood, fashioning entire new genres such as film noir by fusing American pulp-fiction conventions with Expressionist mise-en-scène.

And in the 1970s, a young generation of Italian American directors and tough-guy actors (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino) reimagined the nation's immigrant experience and transposed it onto shattering allegories of capitalist excess and urban alienation.

Something comparable seems to be happening with Latinos in Hollywood, who increasingly are feeling free to explore whatever subject compels them, yet without letting go of their own cultures. And the U.S. entertainment and marketing juggernaut is recognizing and responding to that expanded idea of what Latino identity is.

"The richness and depth of what it means to be a Latino in this country has always been there, it just hasn't been getting the attention it deserves," says Gonzalez, who long ago worked with Cuarón on a Miller beer TV commercial when the director was still an emerging talent. "What these three film makers are now forcing them to do is to grasp the concept that marketing to Hispanics in the U.S. is now multidimensional."

Put in less dollar-centric terms, Latinos are showing their ability to deliver what every successive wave of U.S. immigrants has brought with them from their homelands: the capacity to dream, and to dream big. No wonder the Hollywood Dream Machine is finally starting to pay attention.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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