Daniel Graham’s Opus Zero also had its world premiere at the festival. Paul (Dafoe again) is an American composer looking into the origins of a musician whose work he’s hoping to resurrect, leading to riffs on legacy, reality, and copying that are perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the concerns of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. That’s a lot of thematic meat for a first-time filmmaker to chew on, and Graham isn’t up to it, as Opus Zero twists itself in repetitive and baffling circles, though Dafoe grounds the film with his charisma and confidence. It’s notably appealing how Paul, an American in Mexico, owns up to his ignorance of the culture around him, embracing correction and education with a respect for his surroundings. With a different actor, this humility might’ve been overemphasized to the point of ironic smugness, but Dafoe’s ghostly, erotic dignity rhymes with the barren beauty of deserts and antique buildings—sights that aren’t dissimilar to the desert vistas that accompanied my drive into Cabo San Lucas from the airport.
Speaking of Dafoe, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was also playing here, and though I could easily see the film in America, I was curious to discern a pattern among all the Dafoe films playing at the Los Cabos International Film Festival. And Dafoe grounds The Florida Project, as he does Opus Zero, with his seeming casualness of being—with his understanding of his presence as a kind of found object. Dafoe has played deeply strange men for so long that his normalcy, when evoked, carries a tang of hard-won grace. In The Florida Project, Dafoe’s Bobby, a manager of a slum motel outside of Disney World, is so transcendently decent that one understands this empathy as having arisen from decades of pain. Bobby is a quiet counterpoint to the chaos of the motel, which is defined by the lives of the poverty-stricken who’re driven to desperate, occasionally joyous measures. Dafoe’s delivery of the narration in Mountain offers a similar element of contrast, evoking the ageless splendor of mountains, while evincing languid rage at their exploitation.
One of Dafoe’s most important collaborators, Paul Schrader, was at the Los Cabos International Film Festival this year, giving a press conference in conjunction with a tribute that included screenings of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and First Reformed. The conference was set at The Resort at Pedregal, which suggests a spacy and depopulated fantasy realm nestled within—and gated off from—the heavy tourism of Cabo San Lucas at large. Reached via a tunnel going through the surrounding cliffs and mountains, Pedregal features one of the most stunning beachside vistas that I’ve ever seen—so stunning, in fact, that it was good enough for Nicole Kidman, who arrived for a surprise press conference two days after Schrader, so as to receive a lifetime achievement award from the festival.
Schrader and Kidman’s respective press conferences offer a lesson on the privileges and perils of fame. For this critic, Schrader is a legend, but he sells far less tickets than Kidman, a significant artist in her own right, as well as one of the most famous and heavily photographed people in the world. The Schrader conference was comfortable, laidback, and featured actual questions about the filmmaker’s art. Schrader riffed on the “epochal” changes currently affecting society, from what he understandably sees as a hopelessly apocalyptic climate change to the sex scandals rocking Hollywood to the way that instantly accessible media has changed filmmaking. These days, Schrader said, it’s easier to make a “slow film” because slowness is so acutely felt by citizens of a fast culture. I asked him if the outrageous Dog Eat Dog was a veteran’s attempt to keep up with this modern speed-freak tempo, and he said that he wanted to make something that “rocked” with Nicolas Cage after Dying of the Light was taken out of his hands.
Kidman’s conference was stuffed with journalists, a few of whom were allowed to ask questions that appeared to have been approved beforehand and were puffy even by the standards of puff questions. Kidman was asked to disclose her favorite thing about Mexican culture—seemingly several times—and about the differences between working on TV and in cinema. The actress was courteous, but she appeared to yearn for more art-centric questions—the sort that Schrader received, even if he was afforded less attention. Near the end of her conference, Kidman interjected a reference to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog as a way of politely refuting the easy TV/cinema binary that the interviewer was determined to establish.
The final gala of the festival was kicked off with an awards ceremony—I only saw one of the winners, Yesterday Wonder I Was, a beautifully filmed yet laborious riff on mutable identities in a monochromatic Mexican city—and concluded with a screening of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film, currently playing in America, is an astute choice as a closer for this fest, as its obsessions with cultural ghosts and personal secrets parallels the concerns of many of the films that I saw during my stay. The jokiness and hard genre violence of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also offered a contrast from the plaintive poetry of the films I saw, reveling in primordial obscenity and splatter that’re connected haphazardly to a self-justifying notion of revenge begetting more revenge.
The narrative makes little sense scene by scene, with wild tonal contortions and character 180s, yet this incoherence is the source of the film’s intoxicating energy, which is harnessed by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in what’re among the finest and most daring performances of their respective careers. Film festivals allow films to blur in the mind, fostering cross-associations that would never arise in a more isolated context. McDonagh’s disreputable bloodshed physicalized the atrocities that loomed, undefined, over the atmospheres of many of the other films, ending the sixth Los Cabos International Film Festival on a note of operatic anguish.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 8—12.