AUTOMOVIL GRIS, EL (Enrique Rosas, 1919, Mexico, 111m, BW)
Automóvil gris, El (1919)
aka Banda del automóvil gris, La (1919)
aka Grey Automobile, The (2003)
aka Automóvil gris, El (1919)
Directed by Enrique Rosas
Produced by Enrique Rosas
Written by José Manuel Ramos, Enrique Rosas, Miguel Necoechea
Starring María Tereza Montoya
Juan Canals de Homs
Juan Manuel Cabrera
Azteca Films – Rosas y Cía
December 11, 1919
The plot of the Gang in the Grey Automobile is more than just a cops and robbers shootout. It is based on the actual exploits and legends of a real gang that terrorized Mexico City until they were finally tracked down by the police. But the most amazing part of the film is at the end where thousands of people in their Sunday best, top hats, parasols, hoop skirts, etc. are seen gathering across from a long wall that is obviously part of a prison. The whole mood is that of a festive Sunday event, that has attracted the most proper elements of society. Then the gang members are brought out and tied to posts just in front of the wall.
A little-known 1919 Mexican silent film ... and already your attention is drifting, right? You've been meaning to catch up on the Mexican silent cinema, but somehow the time is never right. Now the time has come. "The Grey Automobile" provides the inspiration for an astonishing theatrical experience, in a special presentation arriving at the Goodman Theatre's Latino Theater Festival this weekend.
By the Marx Brothers out of Gilbert & Sullivan and incorporating an early Japanese film tradition, the event devised by director Claudio Valdes-Kuri is slapstick, surrealist, charming and light-hearted, especially considering that an actual automobile gang is literally executed during the course of the film. A Japanese benshi, a Mexican actor and an English "interpreter" join the film on the stage, as a pianist supplies the score.
To begin with benshis. During the silent film era, Japanese exhibitors supplied a benshi, or interpreting actor, to stand next to the screen and explain films. The benshis might or might not understand the Western stories and characters any more than the audience did, but that didn't matter, because benshis evolved a performance tradition of their own--not only explaining, but praising, criticizing, sympathizing and applauding, in parallel with the film. Benshis became so popular that their names were billed above the stars, they had theaters of their own, and silent films survived in Japan for almost a decade after the introduction of sound--because audiences could not do without their beloved benshis.
Claudio Valdes-Kuri, an avant-garde theatrical director from Mexico City, discovered the benshi tradition during a visit to Japan, where benshis still flourish, many of them trained in a line going back to the original artists. Back home in Mexico, he decided to adopt the tradition for "The Grey Automobile," said to be Mexico's finest silent film, which is about the real-life Grey Automobile Gang.
This film, originally a serial, has existed in many forms over the years, but it is safe to say that no one associated with it could have imagined the 90-minute version now presented by Valdes-Kuri and his Certain Inhabitants Theatre. The film stars Juan Manuel Cabrera, the actual detective who apprehended the gang, playing himself. The real gang members also appear, briefly to be sure, in an startling scene where they are (really) executed. Other scenes are fiction.
It is impossible to say, on the basis of this presentation, whether "The Grey Automobile" is a good film or not--my four-star rating refers to the entire theatrical experience. As the performance opens, Irene Akiko Iida, a Japanese-Mexican actress dressed in a traditional kimono, joins the pianist Ernesto Gomez Santana by the side of the screen and provides a traditional benshi commentary, in Japanese. Then she is joined by Enrique Arreola, who begins a Spanish commentary. Then they are joined by Thomasi McDonald, who supplies commentary and translation in English.
But that sounds straightforward, and the performance quickly jumps the rails into sublime zaniness. Other languages--German, French and Russian--creep into the commentary. The film seems to have no subtitles, but suddenly generates them, and then the titles leave the bottom of the screen and begin to emerge from the mouths of the movie actors, in a variety of type faces; the words coil around the screen and take on lives of their own. Then the actors begin to interpret the onscreen dialogue so freely that at times they have the characters barking at one another. At one point the action stops for a little song-and-dance number, and at another Ms. Iida performs a tap-dance.
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