In the early days of the New Queer Cinema, bourgeoning gay filmmakers began to openly chart their sexuality under their own terms. There was something intoxicating and liberating in seeing a gay couple swapping saliva or locked in a passioned embrace, as if the world was about to crumble under the weight of their forbidden love. For gay audiences, not only were these images new but very necessary. This was progress. But in some instances, the desire for representation clouded objectivity. Because images of gay sex and depictions of same-sex love are more acceptable (or at least more common) today, some of these trailblazing films are beginning to look their age. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20 and now the good films are easy to separate from the ones that were simply, well, necessary.
In A Thousand Clouds of Peace, a Mexican gay boy breaks up with his boyfriend and subsequently walks into a neo-realist Bergman film. Every object (billiard balls, LPs, loose leaf paper), every moment (a random hookup, a crotch-grabbing goodbye) feels the emotional weight of this disconnect. So do we, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. In the film, the past and the present exist hand-in-hand and frequently interact as if to imply that Gerardo’s pain is so expansive that it has penetrated a certain space-time continuum. A heart-broken Gerardo (Juan Carlos Ortuno) visits an old haunt and director Julián Hernández’s camera pans right, giving the actor just enough time to change clothes and plop back into frame in order to reenact a past emotional horror with the man who apparently loved him and left him.
Shot in primitive Erasurehead black and white, the film looks as if it has been recently unearthed from some dormant hiding place (maybe the same desert burial ground Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising allegedly sleeps). The film’s best moments are ones that attempt to offer Gerardo’s torment a cultural context, namely a scene where Gerardo’s mother expresses disappointment over her son having abandoned his schooling. But you never get a real grip on what motivates Gerardo to wander the streets aimlessly, and for a Mexican film about a gay man grappling with a lost boyfriend, A Thousand Clouds of Peace doesn’t so much speak to our cultural consciousness as it bombasts adolescent fears of abandonment.
Despite the ludicrous KY Jelly-less power-fuck that closes the film, and its diseased implications (it’s no coincidence a girl screams “Protection?” when Gerardo wraps a coat around her), Hernandez uses the city of Ciudad Azteca to hauntingly suggest that Bruno (Juan Carlos Torres) may have left Gerardo in a different way. The allegory is seductive but strenuous nonetheless. I don’t know if Hernandez thinks Mexico’s gays are going the way of the country’s aborigines or if he’s using a specious, last-minute (read: last-ditch) allusion to AIDS as a mere contrivance to reunite departed lovers. A Thousand Clouds of Peace is a film about breaking up but it’s told as if it were a dirge. That’s fine, except it lacks moral clarity and its hubristic aesthetic is suffocating when it should be breathless or nurturing. Love in the Time of Cholera this ain’t.
For some, the endless string of arty butt shots and existential depictions of masturbation may seem daring (Gerardo doesn’t pull, tug or milk his penis—he merely glides his hand over it), but to me these images feel impossibly self-involved. Because Hernandez’s aesthetic is so calculated (is Gerardo conflicted or is he merely posing for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog?), it’s difficult to connect emotionally with the main character. That’s not to say that A Thousand Clouds of Peace is dishonest, it’s just that Hernandez strains to lay on the poetic gravitas like a heart-broken film student holding a copy of Marquez in one hand and a 16mm camera in the other. For anyone nursing the kind of emotional upset where every love song on the radio could be a version of U2’s “With or Without You,” this film is for you. For those who aren’t, you may want to tell Hernandez and his main character to get over themselves.