Saturday, March 5, 2011

Les Blank's Chulas Fronteras (1976)

"Chulas Fronteras is absolutely the best Chicano documentary film that I have seen to-date...It is our history, rescued without excuses and without romanticism but with vitality” - Prof. Juan Rodriguez (University of California, San Diego)

“Blank’s most emotionally complex film. His camera weaves in and around lives documenting odd bits of vérité.” – J. Hoberman

“A joyous, angry, complicated film—a multi-leveled document fully worthy of the people and music that gives it life.” – Michael Goodwin, Take One

“Filmed with the excitement of discovery.” – Dave Kehr

I stumbled upon this film since I was interested in Narciso Martinez and because I was a huge fan of Les Blank's Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe and Burden of Dreams. I learned that the film was shot in Texas in a variety of places that included Austin, San Antonio, Eagle Pass, and our neck of the woods here in the Rio Grande Valley. Chris Strachwitz, a great producer who is fascinated by regional music, got the inspiration and funded the project with Les Blank on board as the director. I was barely starting to discover the musical artists that are legends in South Texas, so seeing Les Blank's unique take on this from the 1970s was something that I was enthusiastic about.

But as interested as I was in this film, I didn't expect I was going to find something this special, this rewarding and this touching. Incredible soundtrack, one of the best, if not the best soundtrack I've ever heard for a documentary film. A panoply of musical greatness from Lydia Mendoza, Narciso Martinez, Los Alegres de Teran, Rumel Fuentes, Don Santiago Jimenez, Los Pinguinos del Norte, Ramiro Cavazos, and most memorably Flaco Jimenez! At several points in the film, we see small glimpses of the Valley like the Del Valle Record pressing plant, several cantinas in San Benito and McAllen, and a bodega de cebolla in McAllen. One of the coolest moments was seeing the Tex-Mex conjunto pioneer, the Reynosa-born but RGV bred Narciso Martinez working at the Glady's Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX.

This is a wonderful, free flowing documentary that covers the lifestyle - the BBQ's, the tamales, the racism towards Mexican-Americans, la salsa, the dancing halls, la familia, migrant farm workers, las bodas, the social life, the police brutality, las cantinas, hard working conditions, the passion, and even the peleas de gallos! So poetic, it covers all this effortlessly while having the delightful pleasure of listening to some of the best music of this culture. Also included in the Chulas Fronteras DVD was Del Mero Corazon, another charming and excellent work by the same crew that is highlighted by Maria Antonia Contreras' wonderful voice over work. One sequence in this film is even shot in the infamous Boys' Town of Reynosa, which Strachwitz accurately describes as a place where "you can buy anything you want". Recently, I've expressed some rather unenthusiastic words about modern documentaries, about how a lot of them feel rather generic and empty. Now in contrast, these two documentaries are the type of documentaries I treasure! I can't thank Chris Strachwitz and Les Blank enough for what they created with these two brilliant films. So full of passion, excitement, and energy, it makes me want to make some tamales, hang out with my parents and get down listening to some Flaco Jimenez and Narciso Martinez!  

The Library of Congress selected this wonderful documentary to the National Film Registry in 1993.

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