Wednesday, November 02, 2011

DOC NYC ’11: Perdida

Movie-making was the Calderón family business. They are responsible for some of World cinema’s most iconic images, but for years they could not get any respect in their native Mexico, despite their prodigious output. For filmmaker and grand-niece Viviana García Besné, the Calderón story was not just a forgotten cultural phenomenon, it was lost family history, rediscovered in all its Roger Cormanesque glory in Perdida (trailer here), which screens this Sunday as part of the 2011 DOC NYC.

At one point, the Calderóns were the leading exhibitors of Mexican films on either side of the border, with a chain of grand movie palaces that stretched up to El Paso. Unfortunately, they were forced to sell their theaters to a sketchy consortium under circumstances that remain murky. They still had their production arm though.

The Calderóns produced a wide array of films, including prestige pictures starring Ricardo Montalban, who had a very complicated relationship with the family. However, these always lost money. This was not the case with the “ficheras” for which their production house became notorious. Always set in nightclubs so they could feature plenty of naked dancing girls and groovy music, the fincheras were genuine exploitation films that look only slightly awesome based on the clips shrewdly sampled in Perdida.

Yet, their biggest hits were probably the early films starring Santo the wrestler, who would popularize Lucha Libre wrestling around the world. As if that were not cool enough, they were also responsible for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the MST3K staple co-starring a young Pia Zadora. If this does not constitute major cinema history, than nothing does.

Obviously, any documentary featuring Santa throwing down against Dropo, the Martian village idiot, has considerable entertainment value. However, Besné’s attempts to come to grips with her family’s legacy are also quite engaging. Indeed, there is even a mysterious film vault that will eventually be opened.

Stylishly integrating distinctive graphics, suitably dramatic film clips, an evocative score by Anahit Simonian, and some insightful first person reminiscences (including Montalban’s final on-camera interview), Perdida is a thoroughly satisfying documentary. While it clearly appeals to fans of Corman’s World and American Grindhouse, it is sweeter and gentler, despite the thematic similarities (and not infrequent nudity) of the films documented. A lovely and loony film, Perdida is one of the highlights of this year’s DOC NYC. Affectionately recommended, it screens this coming Sunday (11/6) at the IFC Center.