“Experimental films” rarely make it beyond film festivals, or college cinema societies, but “My Mexican Bretzel” gained enough notoriety in that world to achieve DVD and streaming release.
It’s an exercise in social commentary and memory, embracing the nostalgia of watching soundless old home movies with friends and family, and the modern improv comedy gimmick of inventing a story to fit the images.
If one of the cardinal rules of cinema is that the story can be approached and understood simply by what we see on the screen, writer-director Nuria Giménez fails utterly. The project makes little sense without reading up on its back story, even if it makes obvious points about our narcissistic need to film where we are and what we’re doing and the fact that this predates the cell-phone selfie era.
Giménez uses home movies shot on 16mm by her filmmaker-grandfather (Frank A. Lorang) to tell the tragic, privileged, Forrest-Gumpish story of Leon and Vivian Barrett, a Swiss couple whose lives are tracked from the 1940s into the late 1960s.
The people “playing” that couple are Giménez’s Mexican grandparents, Isle G. Ringier and Lorang.
Using a little black and white Swiss Air Force footage from the ’40s, “Bretzel” establishes that Leon was a pilot who lost his hearing in a crash. But their upper middle class lives and fortunes are secured when he’s brought in on a sweetheart pharmaceutical deal, a “miracle drug” called Lovedyn.
In glorious time-capsule color footage, we experience (with an occasional sound effect) their extensive travels — Paris to New York, Barcelona in the ’50s, a Grand Tour of France and the Med, Mallorca, train travel, motor yachting the lakes of Switzerland, crossings on the Queen Mary, airline flights from the propeller driven ’40s to the jet age ’60s.
They show off an auto show concourse’s array of the great coupes and roadsters of the era, visit the Italian Mille Miglia road rally and attend the infamous 1955 24 Hours of LeMans, where a crash killed over 80 spectators.
And most of this is experienced in silence, with scattered sound effects and British newsreel commentary on the LeMans disaster.
Vivian “narrates” the story of a fading marriage, dalliances, depression and the many sayings of her favorite pre-Beatles writer-guru, Paravadin Kanvar Kharjappali.
The narration is delivered in subtitles, not voice-over. And that “writer,” the one who serves up “Lies are just another way of telling the truth” and “life is a mixture of play and prison?” Also fictional.
The footage is fascinating in and of itself, and kudos to Lorang for shooting it and Giménez for rescuing it.
The rich hues of the past captured in that footage is the main appeal of “My Mexican Bretzel,” but Vivian’s narrated observations on our need to film ourselves and what we’re doing — constantly — are the heart of the film.
“I don’t know whether we film what we do, or do we do the things we do to film them.” Sounds like a Salon.com essay on selfiedom and social media humbragging in the making. Vivian comes to resent the boat, the lifestyle and the constant filming, declaring decades before vacations became the victim of iPhone obsession that “Leon is only looking at me through the lens.”
Experimental films aren’t for everyone, and I found this one’s silent narration — subtitles only — a serious drawback. How would it have hurt the film to hear a “Vivian” tell her story and make her musings, in English and/or Spanish? Not in the least. It’s an unnecessary extra obstacle to the film being approachable.
As with many films in this broad category of cinema (It’s not really a genre.), once you “get” the gimmick, there’s a little struggle with what comes after — the “Yeah, and?” conundrum.
“My Mexican Bretzel” is minimalist enough that the viewer takes from it some of what she or he brings to it. But like the inane natterings of a philosopher whose gift is stating the obvious in the most obscure way he or she can think of, Giménez’s musings layered on top of her grandparents’ story have the whiff of “emperor’s new clothes” about them.
MPA Rating: unrated, smoking
Cast: Ilse G. Ringier and Frank A. Lorang
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nuria Giménez. An Indiepix release
Running time: 1:13