PUERTO RICAN HUSTLE
by Jan Galligan and Lillian Mulero
The Cine OCD Project
Lillian and I watch at least one film per day, sometimes two, and on obsessive days it could be three. Given the ubiquity of online resources to immediately stream movies to a computer, smart phone, iPad or a Kindle, I can understand if your reaction is: – “So?” But at least consider that this means we've watched over 12,000 films in the 35 years we've been together.
Source: The Couch Potatoes Guide to the Total Number of Movies in the World.
It also means to date we've watched only about 5% of the feature films listed on the Internet Movie Database. I should point out that 20 of those past 35 years were spent watching movies in the analog era, before IMDB, YouTube, iTunes, or any form of video streaming.
We met in Albany, NY, where Lillian had finished graduate studies in painting and I was an artist working for biomedical science. We discovered a small shop in our neighborhood, run by an aging cinephile, and this store was filled with movie posters, film stills and other memorabilia, along with a substantial library of 16mm movies which you could rent for one or two dollars per day. I bought a 16mm film projector and within a year we had watched nearly his entire catalog. Imagine carrying home Citizen Kane, five giant reels of film in heavy metal canisters.
Over the years we became preferred customers at the Blockbuster and Hollywood video rental stores, and whenever, and wherever we traveled, we always made a point of seeing as many films as possible during our visits. In this way we learned about watching movies in their V.O. (version original) and developed an ability to sit through a long afternoon of triple features. We were also very fortunate to have an art film repertory cinema in Albany, which while we lived there, grew from one screen, to what is now the Spectrum Eight Theaters. Then, as now, we were convinced that the best way to watch movies is in the theater, on the big screen. Movies are a social medium and always best experienced inthe company of other people. The energy of the audience, especially in a crowded theater on opening night, is palpable, and definitely affects your experience of the film. The impact of the movie is inversely proportional to the size of the screen. The image of the protagonist looming as a 30-foot face has a much greater impact than the same face on your home video screen, computer, or iPhone. Larger-than-life is always more effective than same-size or smaller.
An Island in the Sun
Preparing for our move to the remote barrio of Santa Olaya, in the summer of 2010, we were lucky to find a going-out-of-business sale at our favorite Hollywood video store in Albany and purchased a large stack of DVDs for one or two dollars each which we brought with us to the island. Fortunately when we arrived, we discovered Hollywood and Blockbuster were still doing business on the island. Even better we found a small, but well stocked, video bodega in Sabana, the barrio next to Santa Olaya, run by a young and enthusiastic cinéaste who added at least a dozen new films to his collection each month. Before long we had worked our way through the catalogs of all three rental stores, and not long after that they went out of business, one after the other: Hollywood, Blockbuster, and finally Sabana's Video Zone. Such is the power of Netflix and Redbox. We did manage to add another stack of DVDs to our collection during their respective going-out-of-business sales. In our many years of annual visits to Lillian's family, we learned to love three cinema gems here on the island: Cine Fine Arts, before it moved into the jewel-like atrium of the Banco Popular Center, Cine Fine Arts Miramar, even before its very handsome recent renovation, and the venerable Cine Metro in Santurce. We could always count on fulfilling our movie quota at one or all of these theaters.
(Weren't we here already?)
Our first introduction to art and culture on the island was the 2010 Festival de Cine Internacional de San Juan, where on opening night – Lillian being who she is – we ended up sitting next to a handsome film director from Columbia whose film eventually, after we had spent the better part of the week jangueando con el, won the festival. It was a productive time for us, and with an invitation from Maria Cristina, we ended up publishing four articles, two overviews and two profiles, in Claridad's cultural supplement, En Rojo. In the articles we confessed, publicly and for the first time, that we are a couple who tend to talk through movies while we watch. Here's an excerpt from our first article, published in November, 2010: “I'm having deja vu,” Lillian whispers in my right ear, the good one. I am a little deaf in the other, so she always sits on my right side. Otherwise we would be a disturbance in the movies. We're a couple who like to talk about movies, at least during the good moments – or sometimes, the bad. “What do you mean?” I ask her. “You know what I mean. Deja vu,” she says. “I think we've seen this film before. Definitely we've watched this story before.” “I don't know,” I mumble, “I'm not feeling it.”
Postcards from the Edge, aka “Recuerdos de Hollywood”
In the summer of 2012 we learned that the movie Runner, Runner would use Puerto Rico to play the part of Costa Rica. Directed by Brad Furman, of Lincoln Lawyer fame, it would feature Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake and Gemma Atterton. We emailed headshots to the casting office and to our surprise, I got an invitation to audition for the role of TOWEL, a brief scene where I would play a politician being bribed by the Ben Affleck character. The scene was set in a steam room and my one line would include the word blowjob. I spent the day walking around the house wearing a towel and muttering my line with various inflections. Finally, Lillian demanded, “Put some clothes on, for Pete's sake!” As I was getting dressed, an email arrived from the casting office telling me to forget the TOWEL part. Instead they wanted me to read for the SHOOTER, as they described him – “an obnoxious casino gambler from New York. We'll send you the sides.” (note: sides refers that fraction of the script containing the character's lines for which you will be auditioning.) “You know the type,” they said.
Sides for the role of SHOOTER
Actually I didn't, but I figured I'd give it a shot. Knowing nothing about acting or casino gambling, let alone having never auditioned for anything, the first thing I did, after reading through the part about a dozen times, was buy a new tropical weight black suit. Hopefully I could look the part. Then Lillian and I set out for El San Juan Resort & Casino in Isla Verde to learn how to play the craps table.
A few hours and $200 dollars later, we had a better idea of how the game was played, but I had not mastered an air of obnoxious self-confidence. I was having a lot of trouble with the word greaseball.
Runner, Runner's script was written by Brian Koppleman and David Levien, who also wrote Rounders and Ocean's Thirteen. I figured they knew something about gambling, but based on this dialogue, might not know a lot about Costa Rica or Caribbean culture. To be honest, I didn't know what a jammer was, so I looked it up online, where I learned more about jamming slot machines or cell phones than someone who could “cool your roll.” I tried the online Urban Dictionary for a better understanding of greaseball and learned that this originally refers to Italians, “but generally it can be anyone who does not wash his or her hair.” I got Lillian to put a lot of gel in her hair and spent the day before my audition walking around the house in my new suit demanding that she, “Pay the bet, greaseball!” Generally, I was met with her dismissive, hostile looks. I did not get the part
Our rehearsals paid off when we were offered the chance to work as extras in a scene being filmed at a mansion on the island's north shore, near Dorado – two sixteen-hour nights starting at 3 p.m. and ending at 7 a.m. We were to play a sophisticated couple at an extravagant outdoor casino gambling poolside party. Lillian immediately bought a new dress. When we arrived at the base camp, Lillian spent the next three hours in makeup and being fitted for a gold lame evening gown from the wardrobe department. Once we were on the set, we wandered around the mansion for about three hours until shooting started. By then we knew the layout of the place quite well. We were put into position by the background wrangler and given directions for a choreographed walk through the party. The scene was fairly long, lasting over three minutes. The main action involved Justin Timberlake arriving at the party, walking through the mansion and out the back door, followed by a line of young women carrying trays of champagne topped with glowing sparklers and wearing very skimpy, tight, gold lame body suits, which Lillian felt would compete with her dress. We walked through the scene as directed, while Timberlake met up with Affleck and together they made their way to a craps table, where the SHOOTER character was getting ready to call the STICKMAN a greaseball. I convinced Lillian that she should find a way to get to the craps table and end up next to the SHOOTER. She did, and became an integral part of that scene for the next eight hours, as they filmed it from four different angles. I managed to walk by while SHOOTER was delivering his tirade.
Which brings us to the 2014 Academy Awards. Runner, Runner is not on the list of nominees. This is because rottontomatoes.com scored the film at 9% out of a possible 100%, based on a compilation and assessment of all reviews for that film. Her scored 94% and Gravity, 97% . All of the films nominated for Best Picture scored over 90% except The Wolf of Wall Street, which was rated 76%. Rolling Stone magazine called Runner, Runner a film where “the actors hit the jackpot, but only in terms of their paychecks, while the audience gets a tension-free, tight-assed, Casino ripoff leaving them thoroughly fleeced.”
Normally, Lillian and I do not have much interest in the Oscars. In the past, we were unlikely to have seen more than a couple of the nominated films, as our interests run more toward foreign language imports, independent films, and art-house cinema, few of which ever make the list. Generally we end up reading about the Oscars in the following day's newspaper. This year is different. Witnessing the movie making process from the other side of the screen has given us new insight into what's involved and how it happens. We've felt like the character in the Coke commercial which was recently shown at the Cine Fine Arts theaters, before the main attraction --the one where a young guy goes from watching movies while drinking Coke, to playing a daredevil scene in an action movie then drinking a Coke, to walking the runway at the Oscars while being watched by other young movie-lovers, also drinking Cokes. Seeing yourself on the big screen, even for a fleeting moment, is definitely a thrill.
Over the past couple of months we have managed to see all of the films in contention for this year's Best Picture award. One thing we noticed – of the nine nominated films, all but three – Gravity, Her and Nebraska – are based on true stories. Granted, the truth has been massaged, stretched and twisted to fit the silver screen, still, this leaves us with the impression that the premises of reality television now dominate the world of cinematic fiction, in a manner similar to how those same principles dominate night time dramas and sitcoms on broadcast or cable TV. A caveat is in order: We should note that we do not have cable or broadcast television here in our remote jungle outpost. We have watched very little television during the past 35 years, but we do read many cultural journals and magazines, and have been able to keep abreast of the trends. Ripped from the headlines seems to be the predominate point of departure. Too often however, working in this mode, the train never leaves the station.
May I have the envelope, please?
What might the film Runner, Runner have been with a more sensitive, finely-tuned script, and a freer hand for Brad Furman to exercise directorial control? One example is Ridley Scott's The Counselor, based on a story by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Cormak McCarthy, who also wrote the script, his screenwriting debut. Starring Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt, this is a complicated story, rooted in the grim reality of Mexico's drug cartels. Eschewing the headlines, it weaves a story of drugs, money, influence peddling, deception, and duplicity, with a surprise twist ending – all elements that Runner, Runner contained, but could not pull together. The Counselor also has a terrific, high-energy musical soundtrack performed by a number of urban contemporary Mexican groups, including Mexican Institute of Sound and Choquibtown. Ironically, Runner, Runner, purportedly set in Caribbean Latin America, has a soundtrack that also features mostly Mexican urban contemporary music, including Choquibtown. Talk about having a deaf ear.
My choice for the Academy Award for Best Picture is American Hustle, another example of what Runner, Runner could have been. Starting with its disclaimer that “Some of this actually happened,” this film is a study in character, and is filled with characters who make that study fascinating. These are people you might like to spend time with, even if you'd hesitate to invite them into your home. Desperate, despicable and irascible at the same time, the two principals, played by Amy Adams and Christian Bale, spend the entire movie outwitting themselves, each other, and everyone around them. Who's conning whom is the constantly repeated question. Set in New Jersey, at the time of the infamous Abscam scandal, ambitious, and duplicitous politicians sell their souls and their constituencies for a chance at a bigger prize, offered to them in a scam organized by Adams and Bale. This story is timely in a weird way, given the problems of the current governor of New Jersey and attempts by his administration to embarrass the mayor of Ft. Lee, NJ by creating a tapon enorme on the New Jersey side of the George Washington bridge – which sounds like a case of life imitating art imitating life.
She nearly lost it, at that movie
Lillian's choice for Best Picture is Gravity, directed by Mexican, Alfonso Cuarón, creator of the wonderful Y Tu Mamá También. The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a scientific engineer and an astronaut working together in the near future, to repair a malfunctioning module in the Hubble Space Telescope. When their space shuttle explodes leaving Clooney and Bullock floating, tethered together with only their space suits protecting them from certain death, they devise a desperate escape maneuver that ultimately defies credibility. As Clooney says, “Our only hope for rescue is to use my jet-pack to travel to the space station,” which is seen as a glowing light over the horizon. “It’s a long hike, but we can make it,” says Clooney.
New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye, who normally writes cogent, readable reports on high energy physics and cosmology, watched Gravity in the company of NASA astronaut Michael J. Massimino and together they discovered a fatal flaw. Overbye writes: “As we recall from bitter memory, the Hubble and the space station are in vastly different orbits. Getting from one to the other requires so much energy that not even space shuttles have enough fuel to do it. The telescope is 353 miles high, in an orbit that keeps it near the Equator; the space station is about 100 miles lower, in an orbit that takes it far north, over Russia. To have the movie astronauts (Clooney) and (Bullock) zip over to the space station would be like having a pirate tossed overboard in the Caribbean swim to London.”
The entire premise for this film is scientifically impossible. “I don't care,” says Lillian. “I can suspend my disbelief in this instance. It makes for a thrilling story. I almost had a coronary waiting to see what would happen to this couple drifting alone, together somewhere in outer space. George Clooney is the same chatty, but highly articulate and funny story teller he played in O Brother Where Art Thou. Besides, the movie screen seemed to me the perfect medium for displaying a world with no up and no down. The space images are as gorgeous as Clooney made them out to be. Consider, here's a couple, not obviously romantically engaged, brought together by circumstances beyond their control, floating hand-in-hand toward an outcome neither can predict or imagine. To reach their goal, they must separate, each going their own way. She makes it, and then, as if in a dream, he appears, at the right place at exactly the right time, to help her solve an impossible technical problem, and afterward – he disappears, again. The perfect man, for a perfect movie.”
Initially, I thought Lillian had a secret crush on George Clooney. That changed when we went to see his most recent project Monuments Men, which Clooney co-wrote, directed, and in which he plays the lead role. This film received a rating of 34% from rottentomatoes, and for good reason. A movie that the Los Angeles Times calls, “Earnest and well-intentioned but ultimately inert,” it caught our interest because it presents an adventure story about art and art's place in society. Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban, with help from Cate Blanchett and a few others, struggle to save the art history of the western world from thieving Nazi hoarders. None of them are able to save this film from Clooney's clunky script and clumsy directing. At the end of the movie, president Harry Turman asks the Clooney character if art is worth dying for. Should you watch this film, you can be the judge.
Jan Galligan and Lillian Mulero
Santa Olaya, PR
Santa Olaya, PR
After years living and working in Albany, artist Lillian Mulero - whose work deals with issues of gender, faith, and politics, and is never predictable, and photographer Jan Galligan - known for years as "one of upstate's best kept art secrets" relocated to Santa Olaya, where they currently write about art and film for En Rojo, the cultural supplement of Claridad, the island's weekly newspaper.
LILLIAN MULERO, ART WEBSITE:
GUIDE TO ART AND CULTURE AROUND SAN JUAN, published online in London, UK: