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In the eye of the zeitgeist

Ancient, modern, desperate, dynamic. No wonder directors are intrigued.

June 06, 2004|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — In a shady plaza on a tranquil Sunday morning, Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear are having a quiet chat about murder. Framed by a high stone wall, their surroundings are postcard-picturesque: the mustard-colored, 17th century Santa Catarina Church, antique wooden balconies garnished with potted geraniums, stands of graceful trees. Nearby, strolling vendors show off hand-woven rugs to worshipers en route to morning Mass.

It could all be pure Hollywood artifice, a quaint illusion for the benefit of the rolling cameras. But apart from the two movie stars, a dozen cafe tables and a handful of extras, the setting is pure Mexico City, an authentic sliver of the artsy-genteel Coyoacan district on this far-flung capital's south side.

Wait -- what's wrong with this picture? This is Mexico City, right? The most desperate and treacherous metropolis in Latin America outside Bogota? The city that, as Vanity Fair magazine once gushed, possesses an "exciting air of lawlessness"? A kidnapper's Shangri-La, the Detroit of the 19th parallel, urban modernity run amok -- you know, that Mexico City?

Make no mistake, it's still here. Both in reality and in movies like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Amores Perros" (2000) and Tony Scott's current "Man on Fire," this restless mega-city of 20 million people has a well-earned reputation as a place where you'd best watch your back. Ever since the great Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel shocked Mexicans with his bleak vision of their capital in "Los Olvidados" (1950), numerous auteurs have mined Mexico City's grittier aspects, with visually harrowing results.

But other images of Mexico City also have begun seeping into pop-culture consciousness, as makers of low-budget independent Mexican films and a handful of Hollywood directors attempt to convey a sense of the city's rich, contradictory texture, its precarious balance between ancient and modern, grinding poverty and cosmopolitan elegance, beauty and brutality.

"This city is so unique-looking," says director Richard Shepard, who has been here since March directing a cast that includes Brosnan, Kinnear and Hope Davis in "The Matador," a black-comedy thriller that he also wrote. "There's so much old architecture and so much new architecture. New York and L.A. and Prague and a lot of the cities people shoot in are a little overused. Here it was more like, 'How do we narrow our choice [of locations] down?' The city is a character in the movie, there's no doubt."

Great cities go in and out of vogue for reasons that don't always please tourism officials. In the pop culture of the 1960s, Rome epitomized the jet-setting hedonism of la dolce vita. In the 1970s and '80s, New York was depicted as an open sewer of moral entropy and social pathology in the movies of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, the novels of Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney and the apocalyptic hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash. Practically since pop culture began, L.A. has signified wretched excess, a distinction later claimed by Las Vegas.

Today, New York has been Giuliani-fied and gentrified, L.A.-as-postmodern-wasteland is a tired cliche, and even the dialectical cool of the "new" Berlin is sooo Wim Wenders. Instead, it is Mexico City that may become the first emblematic metropolis of the 21st century. From marquee movies like "Man on Fire" to lesser-seen films like Gerardo Tort's "De la Calle" ("Streeters"), an intimate saga of street children, and Julian Hernandez's improbably titled "A Thousand Clouds of Peace Fence the Sky, Love, Your Being Love Will Never End," a mytho-poetic odyssey of homoerotic longing, Mexico City is being promoted and popularized as a hyper-intense, high-contrast landscape where fear and desire, the global and the provincial, profound alienation and tender human connection all mash together.

Above all, the new visual iconography of Mexico City tends to focus on its reputation as a massive car wreck of a town, where danger can erupt into violence at any minute and intimations of mortality may cast a shadow anywhere -- even in a beautiful church square on a serene Sunday morning.

Authentic Mexico

It was this violent and unpredictable image of the Mexican capital that many cast and crew members of "The Matador" were bracing themselves for when they arrived here to begin shooting several weeks ago. The film, co-produced by Brosnan's Irish DreamTime company, stars the actor best known as British Agent 007 as a jaded, spiritually bankrupt hit man named Julian Noble. During a business trip to Mexico City, Julian has a breakdown and soon after meets Danny Wright (Kinnear), a recently downsized, down-on-his-luck Denver businessman, at a bar. Gradually the men form an unlikely friendship that leads them vicariously into the nitty-gritty of each other's lives: Julian's lonely but seemingly glamorous globe trotting, and Danny's conventional but troubled suburban existence with his beautiful wife (Davis). The film is scheduled for release in 2005.

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