Avant Ghosts of Mexico

by Jeremy Rigsby

Travelogues are films made by tourists. They are defined by their creators’ decision to remain on unfamiliar terms with unfamiliar surroundings. These are not documentaries, which presume or strive for some unmediated relation to their subjects. Unless they can demonstrate that they are provisional and selective, documentaries are prone to be mistaken for the truth. Unless they can demonstrate that they are art, travelogues are largely the product of hobbyists who can afford vacations. Travelogues may affirm their artfulness by appealing to an aesthetic derived from the lyrical avant-garde, or, more frequently, by adopting the discursive strategies of fiction films. Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion  takes the latter route, all the way to a Mexican crossroads of the Real and the Imaginary.

The fictive convention relied upon by Somewhere Between establishes an artificial contiguity between the film’s two discrete components: intertitles alternating with images (of Mexico, mostly). This convention is associative editing, a neat version of the so-called Kuleshov effect, whereby details noted in the intertitles are presumed to refer to the images they immediately follow or anticipate by the simple virtue of proximity. The dead youth is nowhere seen or implied in any of the footage. The titles state that Hoffman “put the camera down.” But the cop car that sped by his corpse must be the very one just seen passing the Coke billboard. Likewise the beggar girl who was conceded a peso is identified as the beggar girl who then appears. And the girl with the big eyes awaiting her dead brother? There she is, her imputed lingering iterated by symbolic association with a concrete snail. Much of the film’s remaining footage is neutral and irrelevant to the text, but marshaled to support a funereal aura through melancholy slow motion or sepulchral, greenish-black tints.

That the film’s apparent coherence of text and image is a construction of cinematic artifice should be obvious, but the film condescends to underline the point. The soundtrack, a plaintive sax solo, twice jars incongruously with footage of musicians playing visibly different tunes, prompting suspicion of any facile congruence between events and their remains in the picture world. And in a sequence quite exceeding the credulity that associative editing might sustain, a funeral procession plods down conspicuously non-Mexican (i.e. Toronto’s) streets, a near-parodic intrusion that must be rationalized as a metaphorical digression on the universality of death, or some such thing. All these contrivances and retractions cumulate in a film whose reliability as documentation is severely undermined by its imperative to simulate fiction. Somewhere Between thus exploits a special tension inherent to the travelogue as a genre. Conventions that would affirm the continuity of narrative films, or the veracity of documentaries, are here destabilized, indeterminate, somewhere between… where, exactly?

Clearly not the poles of a debate concerning the film’s ethics, which it suffered when it was first exhibited in 1984. Its supporters regarded the omission of the child’s death as a noble refusal of spectacular and exploitative documentary practices. Its detractors, conventional ‘journalistic’ documentarians, considered the film irredeemably deprived of the potential impact conferred by such a powerful image.

Both these arguments assume the film’s images support the text, signifying only the conclusive absence it describes. But the latter position does implicitly contain a more incisive interpretation: footage of the accident or its aftermath would confirm that it actually happened. This shopworn raison d’etre of the journalistic documentary finds application here; an appeal to evidence validates the skepticism this film seems designed to provoke. Its issues aren’t ethical but ontological. Did the dead youth exist, or did Hoffman invent him? Given the film’s lack of positive evidence, coupled with its protracted insistence that it be acknowledged as a synthetic construction, the question remains. There are two plausible answers. In the first instance, Hoffman sifts through a large amount of Mexican vacation footage to find a few shots that, by chance, contain imagery similar to details he recalled of the accident and to the text he wrote to describe it. Or he returned from Mexico with a relatively small amount of attractive but disparate, mismatched footage which he united into coherent form by fabricating the accident as a kind of plot device.

Occam’s razor might suggest the second option, but that’s not the rub. As film critic Rita Gonzàlez writes “…international filmmakers have been drawn to the notion of Mexico as a transgressive or mythic space, an eidolon that they have done their part to perpetuate.” [1] As the avant-garde film canon attests, south-of-the border has been a popular destination for filmmaking tourists, the special condition of their alienation in Mexico circumscribed by this imperative to solicit visionary experience. The roster of sojourners include Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Richard Myers and Chick Strand, who made most of her career around Guadalajara and once confidently decared “Mexico is surrealism.” The Mexican travelogue is almost always their projected phantasmata. The ‘reality’ of the death in Somewhere Between is akin to the ‘reality’ of, say, the quintessentially Mexican peyote hallucinations in Larry Jordan’s Triptych In Four Parts: that is, as real as permitted by illusory circumstances. The virtue of Somewhere Between is to be conscious of its complicity in this tradition of cultural mystification. It inspires and permits doubt. It doubts the authenticity of the particular experience it describes, the authenticity of Mexico as an experience of the ‘mythic,’ perhaps ultimately even the authenticity of experience in general. Typical of the traveler’s tale is a tendency to embellish. Rarely is it so evocative, or so obliging, of the tendency to disbelieve its teller.


  1. In ‘The MexperimentalCinema,” catalogue essay published by the Guggenheim Museum, 1999.