MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

With luck, 'Quinceañera' could prove to be a coming-of-age story for Hispanic audiences

August 4, 2006
Would it have killed the editors of the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section to give Kevin Thomas’ review of “Quinceañera” a more prominent place in Friday’s paper than the lower right-hand corner of Page 4?
What were they thinking? It’s difficult to imagine that a veteran critic would be asked to contribute seven inches of commentary – not counting the absurdly generic headline and information-free cast box that were tacked onto it – on a Sundance sensation set and shot within a 10-minute drive of Times’ office and starring several fine young actors from the city’s Hispanic community. Moreover, the paper had already published two feature-length profiles on the writer-directors, and how their personal story mirrored that of their characters.
The subject matter, too, would seem to have been of particular interest to Times readers. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland describe what can happen to an established inner-city neighborhood when it gets “discovered” by imperialistic yuppies (gay ones, at that), and introduce audiences to a half-dozen characters not cut from the usual Hollywood mold. As such, “Quinceañera” can be appreciated both as a work of social realism – in the mold of British kitchen-sink dramas from the early ’60s – or as a bittersweet coming-of-age story peculiar to almost any immigrant community.
For years, Thomas was the Times’ go-to guy both for low-budget indies and movies with gay and lesbian content. Deemed expendable last winter, after Tribune Co. ordered the Times to conduct another one of its periodic purges, the workhorse critic’s byline still appears with great regularity in Calendar (so much for cost-cutting), alongside those of a growing number of critics from other Tribune properties and the occasional AP review. Thomas’ review of “Quinceañera” was quite positive, so he probably was hard-pressed to fit his commentary into such a short space.
As of Friday night, 11 of the 12 reviews of “Quinceañera” made accessible on were flat-out raves. The authors of those pieces included Ella Taylor, for the LA Weekly and Village Voice; Peter Rainer, for the Christian Science Monitor; Stephen Holden, of the New Times; and those representing Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Holden’s piece was at least three times longer than Thomas’. (Say what you will about the NYT’s sometimes misguided and naive coverage of the entertainment industry, it too often makes the hometown paper look amateurish and lazy by comparison.)
Instead, the Calendar brain trust elected to lead the section with Kenneth Turan’s begrudgingly positive review of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” That critique was paired with a sidebar on the film’s use of contrarian product placement, and Carina Chocano’s takedown of “Barnyard: The Original Party Animals.” The positioning of the “Talladega Nights” review could be justified, one supposes, by the amount of hype accorded stars Will Farrell and John C. Reilly, and the media’s current obsession with NASCAR culture, which boils down to a pair of five-word phrases: “C’mon, show us your tits” and “Is there any more beer?”
No amount of praise or ridicule in the Los Angeles Times — or any other newspaper north or west of Little Rock, for that matter — could possibly influence ticket sales for this most critic-proof of comedies. The same probably could be said about an animated film about anthropomorphic cows, pigs, chickens and mules … except, maybe, in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Did anyone at Times even consider putting “Quinceañera” out front, and sticking “Barnyard” in the nether regions of the section, where it belonged? We’ll never know.
The knee-jerk positioning of reviews of big-budget studio products on the Calendar front is nothing new (remember, too, the Page 1, Section 1, treatment accorded “The Da Vinci Code”). Hard not to see it as being another sop – along with the paper’s over-heated coverage of the Oscars — to an industry that’s recently threatened to cut back on its print advertising.
If so, it will be even more interesting to see how the addition of ads on section fronts, including Calendar, will affect decision-making by editors there. When, for instance, an editor is made aware that Turan is about to unleash the same kind of rant he directed at “Titanic” — this time, though, on a movie being plugged in a quarter-page ad on Page 1 — will the review be relegated to a space deeper inside Calendar? Or, worse, will the studio be warned in advance of the critic’s opinion, and be given an opportunity to re-position or pull its ad, as is customarily done with display ads for airlines after a deadly plane crash?
“Quinceañera” is exactly the kind of movie that ought to be given front-page consideration, if only in the Times, Daily News and other local rags. Fans of arthouse titles actually do read newspapers, and carefully consider the opinions of their favorite critics while weighing their entertainment options. Giving equal weight to low-budget products not only is the fair thing to do, but it also tells readers to open their minds to more offbeat fare.
Like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Quinceañera” will be given time to find an audience, or for an audience to find it. The positive notices are already in print and publicists probably have plucked blurbs from the reviews of respected critics (as opposed to those from junket whores) for ads in next week’s papers. The arthouse crowd and gay community almost certainly will turn out on opening weekend, and, if they dig it, spread the word. When the film platforms out, the foundation for success already will have been laid.
Reaching the potentially huge Hispanic audience, especially those teens and young adults who already haunt the multiplexes and malls, may prove more problematical. Even though this segment of the marketplace would be the one most likely to appreciate the dilemma faced by two of the key characters, it may also be among the most difficult to reach. East L.A. is notoriously underscreened and the critics who’ve raved about the film carry little weight in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. Otherwise, a terrific little movie like “Real Women Have Curves” might have grossed more than $5.8 million and, at its peak, run on 163 screens.
Like “Quinceañera,” Patricia Cardoso’s dramedy came away from Sundance with an Audience Award for its director and a Special Jury Prize.
The primary protagonists of “Quinceañera” are teen cousins Magdalena and Carlos, both of whom have been forced to leave home because of their fathers’ intolerance for sexual precociousness. Maria becomes pregnant in the most improbable of ways, while borderline-cholo, Carlos, is caught surfing the Net for gay websites. Both find shelter and solace in the small, cozy home of their beloved great-uncle, Tomas.
Echo Park has changed a great deal in the 13 years since writer-director Allison Anders moved there to research her gang-girl drama, “Mi Vida Loca.” The new owners of the pair of houses on the property, Gary and James, are an affluent gay couple who see in the working-class neighborhood – tucked between Silver Lake and Elysian Park, home to Dodger Stadium – a way to gain a foothold in an area ripe for gentrification. They’re not bad guys, really, just tremendously opportunistic … in their choice of investments and boy toys.
As was the case with Glatzer and Westmoreland, who live on the same block as the one shown in their film, Gary and James found their neighbors to be friendly, helpful and tolerant of their lifestyle. Things get complicated, however, when Carlos gives into his instincts and curiosity, and allows himself to be seduced by the couple.
Magdalena, the bright and cheerful daughter of a storefront preacher, is looking forward to her quinceañera. The quasi-religious ceremonies celebrate a girl’s passage into womanhood, at 15, and can be as extravagant as any Beverly Hills bat mitzvah party. Before getting pregnant, the girl’s biggest concern is her father’s refusal to splurge on a Hummer limousine, like that accorded her cousin. The gravity of that problem, however, is negated by Magdalena’s inability to convince her father that, despite her pregnancy, she remains a virgin. Stranger things have happened, but not in the last 2,000 years.
Gary and James show their true colors by delivering the inevitable eviction notice to Tomas, but not before humiliating the rough trade next-door. The rest of the film bears few of the usual Hollywood trademarks, and that’s a very good thing.
In real life, Glatzer and Westmoreland – who shared the same credits on “The Fluffer” — would make convincing spokesmen for the positive elements of gentrification. Otherwise, their Echo Park neighbors wouldn’t have opened their doors to cast and crew, allowing the filmmakers to bring “Quinceañera” in for under $400,000.
Echo Park may not survive gentrification – newly built condo units already border the couple’s property – but it won’t be because a cabal of gay and lesbian developers conspired to turn the community into a WeHo/East for couples looking for something a bit less noisy and expensive. In L.A., developers are an equal-opportunity demolisher of dreams, and it would have occurred in due course, anyway. Blame it on the hipsters and artists who arrived first.
“We set out to shoot the entire film within a mile-radius of our room, and we almost succeeded,” said Westmoreland, during an interview conducted in the convincingly boho-themed Downbeat.Cafe, a few steps north of Echo Park landmarks Burrito King, Pizza Buono and the Car Wash on Sunset. “The idea was to make the movie cheap and fast – three weeks to write and three more to shoot – and this was made possible by the incredible way the Latino community turned out to support us. People let us into our homes, turned up to be extras, lent quinceañera dresses to us, cooked food and let us know when we were on target and when we weren’t.
“Our aim wasn’t to make a movie that was anti-gentrification. The important thing is to honor traditions and not wear blinders after moving into the neighborhood.”
The idea to use a pair of quinceañeras as the centerpiece events came after attending one such ceremony in the same storefront church used in the film. The same photographs that hang on the walls of houses in the movie can be found on the walls of their neighbors’ residences.
Tio Tomas, who makes a meager living as a vendor of the the sweet beverage champurrado, is the most fully fictionalized character in “Quinceañera.” He, too, though, was inspired by an actual person: Westmoreland’s own great-uncle, a kindly Yorkshireman who took him in as a boy, and was supportive of his lifestyle choices. As portrayed Chalo Gonzalez, a veteran of several Sam Peckinpah westerns, Tomas is a bridge between old and new cultures and generations of Angelenos.
The occurrence of unplanned pregnancies certainly isn’t new or unusual in movies about young Latinas, in Echo Park or anywhere else. The introduction of a character who is macho, gay and reasonably comfortable with his sexuality, on the other hand, most assuredly is.
“We’ve been told that Latinos might have an extremely negative reaction to Carlos,” Glatzer said. “But, we know there are gay cholos out there, and we’ve been told they’re very happy about the film. So far, the test screenings have gone very well.”
Adds Westmoreland, “Intolerance and homophobia aren’t unique to Latinos. Growing up in the north of England, I was surrounded by it.”
A more conclusive answer to that question won’t come until “Quinceañera” platforms out to areas closer to the core demographic, and, then, into an America that suddenly has forgotten its own immigrant roots. Currently, it’s playing on three screens in Manhattan and four upscale theaters in Los Angeles.
It’s already opened in France, and, next month, will expand its reach to England and the rest of Europe. Even though it was a big hit at Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics didn’t pick the film up until it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, as part of a children’s sidebar lineup. (Ironically, the MPAA forced Sony to accept a R-rating for the same “Quinceañera” that was deemed appropriate for 12-year-olds in Switzerland.)
If “Quinceañera” takes off, it might encourage theater chains to increase their footprint in Hispanic neighborhoods. As yet, no barrio equivalent to the Magic Johnson Theaters exists. Historically, exhibitors have written off this audience segment as being too poor, too uneducated, too mono-lingual and too devoted to their telenovellas to add much to their companies’ bottom lines.
This spring, however, tens of thousands of young Hispanics made their presence felt at a series of rallies and marches staged to protest politically charged legislation designed to punish those men, women and children who braved hostile desert environments and heavily armed rednecks to work menial jobs for substandard pay and benefits. It took Congress all of about 10 minutes to recognize the potential clout of this growing constituency and tone down the rhetoric.
Any business that continues to base its decisions on discredited stereotypes and prejudices now does so at its own financial peril. – G.D.

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One Response to “With luck, 'Quinceañera' could prove to be a coming-of-age story for Hispanic audiences”

  1. Chucky in Jersey says:

    The problem isn’t so much theater location as lack of research by distributors.
    New Brunswick NJ has a thriving Mexican community, yet the two local megaplexes never played “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” or even “El crimen del Padre Amaro”. Given the product flow this month I doubt if those theaters will pick up “Quinceañera”.
    It doesn’t help that Sony Classics is skittish about putting its pictures into mainstream venues.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon