Jesse Lerner's Aesthetic and Cultural Hybrids

By James Van Maanen

Jesse Lerner

Anthology Film Archives continues its programming of fascinating, though lesser-known, films and filmmakers with a weekend marathon of movies by documentarian Jesse Lerner (his first name is pronounced with two syllables, as in Jesse James). The Lerner retrospective, entitled Delineating Borders: The Films of Jesse Lerner, began on Friday and runs through Sunday, July  27, with screenings nightly at 7:30 pm - and the filmmaker present to host each program. I was able to see three of the five works included in the retrospective and found each odd and interesting - in approximately equal proportions.

The program's begun with one of Lerner's earlier works, Frontierland (made in 1995 and co-directed by Rubén Ortiz Torre), the title of which refers less to any real or specific location as to those "spaces" - sights, sounds, ideas - where the cultures of Mexico and the United States intermingle. This is a rich mix of interviews with dashes of occasional mockumentary, popular songs from various periods, bizarre performance art, a fake TV host knocking NAFTA, death metal Aztec music and even some special effects (a Mexican morphing into a chicken, and that TV host into a cockroach).  Among many thoughtful and pointed moments, one of my favorites comes as the narrator points out that in pre-Colombian times land was owned by those who conquered and occupied it.  Might still makes right, of course, though America is mostly loathe to admit this, and our idea of what constitutes "indigenous" has changed. There is also a delightful history of the "Mission Style" of architecture in Southern California: its origins and continuing revival-cum-add-ons. Half the dialogue here is in English, with the other half in Spanish with subtitles. Lerner is said to be a kind of "collage" documentarian.

American EgyptThe American Egypt, from 2001, deals with the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and the period during which the harvesting of henequen - a plant that produces extremely strong fiber used in rope and for other industrial products - became the peninsula's most lucrative product.  Lerner's style here is eclectic - and then some.  He occasionally stages a scene or two using actors, and often he has interestingly-accented speakers read the words of writers of the day, who describe the goings-on with wit and a keen eye. The filmmaker also gathers material from old films and newsreels - whatever applies to his platform.  The result can be a heady mix that does not remind me much of anyone else's work, except at times of Guy Maddin's (and then, just barely).  The film closes with the story of (and a kind of paean to) Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the progressive, socialist Governor of Yucatán from 1922-24.

On the same program with The American Eqypt are the six-minute short T.S.H. (from 2004, unseen by me and based on a poem by the Estridentista artist, Luis Quintanilla) and one of Lerner's more recent works, Magnavoz.  This 25-minute short, made in 2006, adds visuals - again, from disparate sources - to the words of Xavier Icaza, a Mexican writer from nearly a century ago.  Strange, immediate and full of contradiction, this movie manages to rivet for most of its running time and leaves you feeling sad and less hopeful about the state (literal and symbolic) of present-day Mexico.

RuinsLerner's 1995 film Ruins (not to be confused with the schlocky, Mexican-set horror film, The Ruins, coincidentally released last week on DVD!) deals with the practice and implications of counterfeiting - from "faking" a simple object to the kind of "facsimile" history that can help appropriate a foreign culture (in this case Mexican).

After watching any or all of Lerner's films, you are likely to have a bundle of questions stockpiled in your freshly zapped brain, so it's a fine thing that the filmmaker will be present for all three of the AFA programs. To start the ball rolling, I came up with a dozen questions for Mr. Lerner, which he graciously and very intelligently answered below.


What's your (apparently rather deep) connection with Mexico?  That country seems to engender a real passion in you, which in turn produces something weird, bracing and educational for the viewer of your work.  This viewer, anyway…

Well, each project emerges from the previous one.  You finish a film and you've answered certain questions, yet others remain, and these in turn often lead to the next film.  So in my case, when I was in film school, I made a film called Natives (with Scott Sterling) about the anti-immigration movement in San Diego, the precursors to today's "Minutemen."  The film is a kind of a monologue, in that all the people that appear in it share the same xenophobic position.  Now of course the border is about the coming together of two or more cultures, languages, etc., so for my next film shooting in both Mexico and the US seemed like a logical next step.  That film, Frontierland (my first feature) is about cultural hybrids: the Mexican version of US culture, the gringo version of Mexican culture, the Mexican version of the US version of Mexican culture.  And that film in turn raised many of the ideas at the heart of Ruins.  So I suppose this answer to your question suggests my film work in Mexico was not the result of some larger plan, but rather a reflection of a more spontaneous evolution of my interests and my filmmaking.  That said, I should also mention that as an undergraduate I majored in Latin American history, so this is a long-standing interest of mine.

Do you prefer black and white or color - and why?

FrontierlandI do prefer black and white, and there a number of reasons why. In the case of my latest film, there's a historical reference, the 1926 text that serves as the narration.  Now it's clearly not a film from 1926, but it did seem important to evoke that era's aesthetic.  In the case of Frontierland, we wanted to have a hybrid filmic style that reflected the hybridity of the cultural expressions we were documenting.  So we shot part in 16mm black and white, part in 16mm color, part in video and part in Super 8.  Similarly we mixed different sorts of film languages, quoting music videos, art films, home movies, community video and so on.  Finally, there's a more pragmatic, banal justification - it's cheaper.  And when working with archival color materials, they've often faded past the point where you can reproduce the original range of tones, and turning everything into black and white is an easy solution to this problem.

The AFA press release refers to your films as collage-like. (I suppose we all must have labels.)  Would you agree with this?

Absolutely.  I think the collage aesthetic, with the rough edges still showing, encourages us as viewers to engage critically with the material we're watching, rather than simply letting the visual or narrative pleasures wash us away.  It's a bit like what Brecht called the "alienation effect."


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