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Y Tu Existentialism Tambien?
   Is an existential renaissance in the works?
   by Timothy Dugdale

"And your mother too" -- so comes the final salvo of macho brinksmanship between two Mexican teenagers tippling immodestly at a cantina on a Oaxacan beach. Each has confessed to shagging the other's girlfriend. Now, their friendship in ruins, the gloves are really off. Fueled by mescal and machismo, they try to outdo one another with boasts of sexual mischief and toasts to those boasts. Looking on (and egging them on) is Luisa, the Spanish-born erstwhile wife of one of the boy's cousins, a vainglorious upper-middle class pantywaist addicted to cheating on her and then whining about it.

What is about to happen in the film's final fifteen minutes speaks loudly for the potential of an "existential" renaissance in contemporary Western society. The existential works of Camus and Sartre were forged in the flames of the Second World War. Surely the diabolical conflicts of McWorld vs. Jihad as they are manifest in the national histories of developing countries invite existentialism’s considerable if daunting charms.

Y Tu Mama Tambien begins as one might expect -- with sex. Two teenagers are having at it in a comfortable looking bedroom under a poster for the film, Harold and Maude. In between thrusts, the boy demands to know if the girl, leaving for a summer on the Continent, promises not to get it on with a variety of cliches torn from a European youth hostel -- the french fag, the gringo backpacker and of course, the smelly Mexican selling bracelets in the street. Seemingly used to this kind of talk, she provides cheeky additions to his litany as she moves on top. The ante has been raised. A half-hearted promise of fidelity is made. As the camera pulls away from the lovers, an unseen narrator divulges that while the girl's mother, a French divorcee, doesn't mind her daughter sleeping with her boyfriend, Tenoch, his friend Julio has less luck. His girlfriend has a pediatrician and a Lacanian analyst for parents. The camera moves to their living room, a joyless sterile place where the father nervously feigns reading the newspaper as the wife hovers behind the sofa where Julio sips a juice. The narrator tells us the parents are split on Julio -- the mother sees their relationship as innocent, the father disapproves. Upstairs, Cici can't find her passport. With the mother's blessing, Julio is dispatched. By now Cici has found her passport and lost her trackpants as she demands Julio shut the door and give her a sweet going-away present. Their coupling is a self-parody. The mother appears at the door. Cici throws Julio off the bed but he comes up smiling, passport in hand.

We move to the airport where the boys and girls are saying farewell. Tenoch confesses to Julio that he "can't stand this goodbye bullshit. Why don't they just go?" Meanwhile, the girls express their own desire to get to Europe already, albeit with more finesse. Ana's father appears. The narrator confides that he is a journalist who has begun dabbling in politics with Mexico's main opposition party. The father likes Tenoch but calls him the "preppie" when his daughter isn't around. As we hear this, we see the father take a call on his cell phone.

The boys are now left to their own devices. They drive around in Tenoch's sedan, provided by his father under the condition that he take economics at university. We join them as Tenoch's luxurious house for a joint and a few laughs with their stoner guru/dealer/partner-in-crime, Saba. The narrator reveals that Tenoch's father is some sort of bigwig in the ruling party. Overcome with patriotic fervor at the birth of his son, Tenoch was named after an Aztec emperor. Tenoch's mother arrives home, beautifully coiffed and resplendent in a flowing pantsuit. She has the air of a new age devotee, a suspicion confirmed in an aside from the narrator. After chiding the boys for smoking, she invites Julio to a family wedding that will allegedly be attended by the president of the country. Tellingly, she cautions Julio that he must be very well-dressed for the occasion.

It is at the wedding we meet the film's other crucial character. The boys quickly get loaded on clandestine cuba libres and start counting contemptuously the ridiculous number of bodyguards all the guests have brought with them. While Tenoch's father launches into a purple, self-serving toast to the president, the boys set their sights on a beautiful woman enjoying a quiet wine. Their mission is delayed by Tenoch's cousin, Jano, who tries to caution Tenoch about the burden of becoming a writer. Quickly tiring of his pretentious bullshit, the boys conspire to send him packing. Julo knocks a glass of wine on the bore’s suit. Jano is led away by a fawning aunt. The boys move in for the kill. They chat up Luisa, telling her about a glorious beach called Boca de Cielo, Heaven’s Mouth that they are planning to visit. Does she want to come along?

No she doesn’t. At least not until she takes a call from her husband who is at some academic conference. He tearfully confesses his infidelity. Unable to endure his confession, she hangs up. The next day she rings Tenoch, asking if the trip is still a go. Taken by surprise, the boy bullshits her. Sure, we’ll pick you up. Tenoch rings Julio. They secure use of a beat up station wagon from Julio’s sister (who was intending to take humanitarian aid to the rebels of Chapas) , make a quick trip to a mega-supermarket to stock up on provisions (including, of course, condoms) and fetch Luisa.

If I have been overly descriptive, it is to point out the highly schematic structure of the film's "identity" politics. The boys are happy idiots, obsessed with performing for themselves and girls. In existential terms, they are pups frolicking in a well-padded incommensurability. Parents are either zombified bourgeoisie, invisible or in the case of Ana's father, sell-outs. And the narrator, in all his Godardian (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) glory, directs the viewer to facile, left-leaning observations, intended to add resonance to the action.

Indeed, the narrator with his detached tone and omniscience seems at first blush to be the voice of good faith -- revealing truths that the characters refuse to acknowledge or simply cannot know. He is a surrogate, to paraphrase Camus, of “the absurd that may strike a man in the face at any street corner.” The characters are locked in their little dramas; the narrator locates them in the larger, unforgiving context of the absurd. Moreover, the narrator is the director’s agent of discontent, the voice of a man at the edge of middle age looking back at the portal of adulthood with mixed emotions. “I wish I had known… but to what cause?”

The great British anthropologist Victor Turner spent much of his career studying social dramas. Turner was particularly interested in the relationship between the social dramas of the "real" and those of the "theatrical". All culture is, in essence, a construction, an interconnected series of ongoing dramatizations of elemental conflicts, desires, needs and aspirations. Each society creates rites, rituals and ritualized performances to think about itself, for good or for ill. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, on the surface, appears to be a joyful five-day bacchanal in which everything is up for grabs -- man becomes woman, the poor live like millionaires, black becomes white, the pious turns blasphemer, the prude a sybarite. All is allowed, all is forgiven. For Turner, the existential double bind of such festival is that while revelers experience a brief ecstasy in the conditional tense -- the "what if" -- that very same conditional state forces them confront what they hide or mask in quotidian life. Structure is undermined by the anti-structure of the ritual for a brief period, long enough to glimpse the faults of the structure. Moreover, Carnival is a boundary situation in which the individual confronts his or her particular groundlessness. Life has no inherent meaning and the symbolic constructs of a society very often are meant to buffer this unhappy truth. Thus, liminality is as existentially dangerous as it is powerful. Julio and Tenoch are on the cusp of adulthood in Mexico, a country on the cusp of adulthood. The boys are on a journey with their country.

So as much as this film is a coming-of-age tale, it is also a road movie. The existential crisis of the characters and the larger existential crisis of national “development” in a globalized economy are best articulated on the road between Mexico City and the Oaxacan beach.

Once removed from the city, the boys move from the first stage of liminality, separation, into the second, crisis. One morning early in the trip, Tenoch enters Luisa’s room to borrow some shampoo. She’s crying but perhaps thankful for his presence, she asks him to remove his towel. Is she seducing him or taunting him? He willingly rises to her challenge but in his haste to ravish her, he comes quickly. Meanwhile, Julio broods in the motel’s pool. The narrator announces that the last time Julio felt like this was when he witnessed his godfather making out with his mother. To battle back against his pal’s good fortune, Julio tells Tenoch that he had an encounter with Tenoch’s girl. The game is on. That night, the boys stage an inquisition, with Tenoch demanding every sordid detail from his pal and Julio, as the narrator reveals, keeps talking until the truth disappears. Or rather the possibility of truth disappears. After Julio has his own disastrous encounter in the backseat of the station wagon with Luisa, who seems to be trying to recalibrate the boy’s friendship, Tenoch confesses to an indiscretion with Julio’s moll.

“Truth exists” wrote Kierkegaard ”only as the individual himself produces it in action.” The lies that Julio and Tenoch tell each other about shagging the other’s girlfriend are devastating to their friendship. Sartre’s maxim that “hell is other people” is even more piquant amongst friends; if your friend is ultimately unknowable, at least friendship offers a tacit agreement of non-aggression and empathy. Without fraternity, hedonism puts you in the spotlight of existential isolation and keeps you there. No doubt Marxists delight at the moment when Tenoch and Julio exchange epithets - preppie, white thrash – that invoke both national and international class warfare. How can these guys be true buddies if history won’t let them? But then again, fraternity may be the last refuge of psychic autonomy against the “divide and conquer” strategies of global capitalism as it plunders and commodifies national youth cultures. Fraternity is refusal. To Marx. To McDonald’s.

The boys’ very shaky postures of machismo prevent them from seeing that they’ve been had by their own fantasies. To say that Luisa is some sort of femme fatale is wrong. We know she’s wise to all their moves from the very beginning, the way she invites their outrageous come-ons and then parries with salacious questions that force them to reveal their sexual callowness. When they gleefully recite their “astral cowboy manifesto”-- a sort of Ten Commandments for teenage Mexican guys who love drugs, soccer and chicks -- she feigns surprise and interest. It’s a ploy of good faith though. She’s trying to keep her tour guides amused as she searches for her answers to the “groundlessness” that’s been thrust upon her. The world she had constructed for herself has revealed its lack of foundation. Like Mersault in Camus’ “The Stranger”, she is making an eleventh-hour fight for freedom. Her life has been spent in the service of others. Unlike Mersault, she has lived a moral life, a moral life achieved through good works. Now she must live for herself.

The parched Mexican countryside is much more than a metaphor for the existential distress of the characters. Antonioni was a master of using the emptiness of city spaces and architecture to articulate the isolation of the individual and the capitulation of the individual into the ennui that the open spaces invited. And who can forget the final shot of The Passenger when the desert hotel where Jack Nicholson’s doppelganger meets his demise in the blazing midday soon is shown in quiet repose at twilight. Alfonso Cuaron uses the Mexican landscape with equal aplomb. Oaxaca is, in fact, the inconvenient Mexico that sits between the boys’ pampered niche in the city and the bourgeois fantasy of the virgin beach. The countryside is all too real. At one point, the camera offers a point-of-view shot as the car drives through some dreary small town, the streets lined with cantinas and auto-junkyards. A woozy melancholic Brian Eno song plays on the soundtrack. Then the radio stammers and dies. Culture is being sapped of its comforting energies by the forces of nature. The music that the boys have used to keep their jocularity on track is suddenly gone. Moments later, we see Tenoch making the unhappy connection between his own life and the fleeting glimpse of a sign marking the town from which his nanny came to tend to his every whim. Suddenly, he is in the moment, in the landscape, in the history of the country. Then, the car breaks down.

Bye Bye Brazil (1981), a film by Carlos Diegues, used the same road movie premise to discuss the impact of television on rural communities in northern Brazil and the displacement and provisional re-integration of older communication technologies and practices under the cathode ray tube regime. As a ragtag vaudeville troupe crosses the Amazon forest in search of an audience untouched by television, they realize the battle is lost. No place is safe from the glowing beast; the troupe breaks up and scatters. At one point in Tambien, Luisa places a call from a payphone in a dusty roadside bar. The camera cuts to her well-kept apartment where her message fills the empty rooms. She is saying goodbye to her husband but she is also saying goodbye to the false promise of communication technology -– that human connections are inevitable and stable regardless of distance. They are not and the further the characters in this film move into the Mexican landscape, the less they can rely on communication technologies to “solve” the absurd. No music can drown out their isolation. No device can plug them into a world revealed to be a fraud.

Diegues infuses his film with a documentarian’s curiosity about life and work going around the main characters and events. Small town life is shown to be full of community spirit and folk wisdom that resists and then integrates the forces of progress to its own end. Cuaron offers the same sort of glimpses. As the boys joust with Luisa in a small town restaurant, the camera leaves them to follow an old woman walking into the kitchen. She stops in an adjacent nook, downs a jigger of firewater and does an impromptu soft shoe number to a ranchero playing on the jukebox. Then onward to the kitchen itself where a group of women are joyously cooking. Earlier, at the society wedding, the camera tracks with waiters and maids as they deliver food to bodyguards minding the limos idling out in the parking lot.

This film was made shortly before the 9/11 tragedy, a moment that put paid to “The End of History” as it was pronounced by various neo-con/neo-liberal theorists at the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade before. The much ballyhoo-ed Clinton/Blair “third way” of government -– driven by policies that were socially liberal, fiscally conservative -– proved wanting. The film constantly makes mocking reference to the sclerotic ruling party of Mexico, the PRI, a symbol of everything the third way was meant to obliterate -– cronyism, social inequality and that particular supercilious sense of noblesse oblige that middling bureaucrats exude when they gain use of a chauffeured limousine. And yet, the current government of Vincente Fox has stumbled and the PRI are still a force to be reckoned with in Mexican politics.

As is often the case, the fantasies of a faster, more mobile AKA better world are no match for the realities of the world in its present tense. People are so busy marching forward that they can’t smell the dirt on their shoes. The Oaxacan countryside is not only chronically underdeveloped; it resists development. The police are everywhere, hassling campesinos while the boys blithely worry about getting caught with their stash. The countryside confounds the fetish of progress, so crucial to the globalization project. Luisa feels a deep kinship with Dona Lucia, an old woman she meets at a roadside flea market precisely because the old woman has happily stayed put. The small stuffed animal we see hanging from the station wagon’s rear mirror, the narrator remarks, once belonged to the old woman’s granddaughter who died trying to cross illegally into the United States. The mirage is not worth it.

Nor it would seem is the beach. Exhausted after duking it out with Tenoch while convincing Luisa not to abandon the journey, Julio turns down a dirt road and promptly mires the car in a sand divot. The next morning, Luisa awakes and discovers that they have arrived at a beach as deserted as it is beautiful. She walks in a knowing daze towards the water and wades in, lost to the ecstasy of the moment.

One might expect Julio and Tenoch to mend fences. Luisa is now off limits. She has also debased them of the notion that their girlfriends are being faithful to them. But they keep their distance from one another, even when a local fisherman offers to take them on his fishing boat to an idyllic beach miraculously called Heaven’s Mouth.

The narrator tells us the Chuy, the jovial fisherman, will lose his boat to a tourism consortium from Acapulco and in two years he will be forced to work as a janitor in a resort hotel. The noble savage will be in chains and his idyll overrun with refugees from the city. The boys are the first conquerors of this paradise, even if that conquest was a bullshit improvisation. Hundreds of beaches around the world have been colonized by intrepid libidos and then further colonized by larger interests. The leisure industries of the global economy need the beach desperately. It functions as a psychic escape hatch, promising a primal connection with nature mitigated by the creature comforts of consumer culture. Tambien clearly delights in Barthes’ idea that the history is often naturalized, unhappily so; to know about the fate of Chuy diminishes our pleasure watching the boys and Luisa enjoying sun and surf. Their lack of sense of privilege and their self-involvement are elemental to a larger political problem of the global leisure industries.

Turner’s third and final stage of social drama concerns integration. After crisis has set in and done its damage, can there be a return to the mundane? Tambien cuts against the clichés of the “coming of age” genre to suggest that the characters are not only changed by their experience, they are ruined by it. Many psychoanalytic screeds are sure to be written about the final night that Julio and Tenoch spend with Luisa in a beach cantina, throwing back beers and egging each other on to more and more outlandish confessions of sexual transgression, including Julio’s shag of Tenoch’s new age socialite mother. The trio retire to a cabana where a heavy threesome ensues. The next morning the boys wake up almost in each other’s arms. Julio and Tenoch gingerly prepare to return home. Luisa is going to stay behind to tour more of the beaches with Chuy and his family. She wins? They lose?

An epilogue follows. Almost a year later, Tenoch and Julio meet by chance on the street. The narrator intimates that they have retreated into their own worlds, circumscribed by class and material resources. One is at university, the other at community college. Each are dating girls from their neighborhoods. Over a very awkward cup of coffee, Tenoch reveals what the director has hinted at throughout the film – Luisa was dying and expired a month after the trip, that glorious body they so desired riddled with cancer. Clearly Tenoch and Julio have no idea what to do with this information. Its voodoo qualities are overpowering. Death is out there, circling in the water beyond the safety net of adolescence. The film ends with Tenoch excusing himself to meet his new girlfriend. Julio, left alone in a massive sunblasted diner, chokes on his words as he asks for the check. The ground has finally fallen out from beneath him. Everything is up for grabs. The film has a happy ending after all.

-- Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale teaches the University of Detroit Mercy, where he also director of The Writer's Center.


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