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Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: Dos Estaciones, Meet Me in the Bathroom

Still from Dos EstacionesDos Estaciones (Photo: Gerardo Guerra)

In the opening sequence of Juan Pablo González’s second feature, Dos Estaciones, DP Gerardo Guerra’s Steadicam roves a tequila farm’s fields as workers chop down agave plants; when they pause for lunch, the camera pans equally slowly, seemingly without planning, to bring whoever’s speaking into frame. In these opening moments, Dos Estaciones could be any one of a number of post-Lisandro Alonso films composed of tracking shots, slow pans and nonprofessional performances by Latin American laborers, differentiated only by the skill and specifics of their execution. A static shot then introduces farm owner, Maria Garcia (Teresa Sánchez), trying and failing to start her car; she gives up and walks to the house trailed by Steadicam. This, too, is a familiar, Gerry-era gesture, and the decision to branch off from the field to follow her doesn’t necessarily definitively announce Maria as the main protagonist. But she indeed is, as Dos Estaciones soon expands its rhythms and possibilities to an unexpected goal: tautly formally controlled and unabashedly tightly plotted melodrama, successfully adducing slow cinema’s shot compositions to more recognizable dramaturgical ends.

A regular in Nicolás Pereda’s films, Sánchez’s stonefaced, initially almost anti-charismatic performance propels Dos Estaciones. She glowers but doesn’t explode, a tense boss whose character provides no fun actorly opportunities for showboating. But Maria’s seeming imperiousness—manifested primarily in the unsmiling (but not necessarily rude) way she demands, rather than asks for, things from farm and house staff—may merely belie the antisocial blinders necessary to stay focused in the face of financial difficulties: She’s understaffed, her employees are on garnished wages til she makes good and debts are piling up. The script (co-written by González with Ana Isabel Fernández and Ilana Coleman) does an excellent job of inconspicuously planting important plot details in a logical, evenly spaced fashion that steadily increases tension without seeming overdetermined or resorting to the sort of dire exposition where characters repeat things to each other they’d already know, and the narrative noose tightens almost imperceptibly.

González’s family’s real-life tequila farm provides an affordable and fascinatingly specific location; large-scale buildings with purpose-built ovens are explored and Estaciones derives maximal production value from their novelty and size. The film adapts its visual language to the needs of each moment, so this doesn’t mean just well-framed giganticist shots of Maria and her employees walking in and around grandiose structures. At one point during a sequence traveling from beginning to end of the tequila production line, the camera switches from that mode and hops onto the conveyer belt; at journey’s end, as the agave falls into a receptacle, the perspective switches to an overhead shot from the reverse angle that continues smoothly further down the line. The sequence is as elegant as its setting is unfamiliar, and the shot combination—picking up from a series of static establishing shots of previous parts of the production process—is a good example of the general assuredness with which the film moves in and out of motion. (A shoutout here to the superior modernist score by Carmina Escobar, whose website describes her as, among other things, an “extreme improviser.”)

In his shorts and first feature, Caballerango, González displayed a fine command of the standard elements of slow cinema, gaining his degree of appreciable difference from both the occasional shot that integrated unplannable actions by animals and people and, more pertinently, grounding in his family’s landscape. Non-professional performers from his past work appear here, giving the film continuity and context for a (very small) group of viewers. But the confidence and knowledge with which this space is delineated, including the stratifications between landowners and those below them on a variety of economic micro-tiers, should be palpable without knowledge of that past work—everyone on-screen seems to inhabit their life, whether through their actual experience or via impeccably invisible acting. The narrative will occasionally branch out to explore the daily lives and side pursuits of Maria’s employees and neighbors, then come back to her without feeling the need to flesh out these side-stories into full resolved sub-plots that artificially mirror the main action—the results are both enjoyably curious and convincingly faux-spontaneous in sketching out a variety of social strata while continually returning to rising tension. As Maria grows increasingly desperate, making poor decisions and acting with more impulsiveness than her impassive expression lets on, I thought, “This really needs a big movie ending to not feel deflating.” I essentially got what I wanted, with minor reservations that are impossible to write out without spoilers and not terribly important, delivering on the tracing of a melodrama on top of the impeccable illusion of realism.

As a 36-year-old white guy who’s been in New York since 2004 and who needs zero time to identify the Moldy Peaches (still!) in both video and audio form, I’m in the precise demographic crosshairs targeted by Meet Me in the Bathroom—aging indie-rock types, now with increased purchasing power and willing, like all dedicated music fans, to put up with a lot of filler in return for rare/previously unseen footage. That, plus the original audio of interviews Lizzy Goodman conducted for her “New York rock was back—and then it wasn’t” oral history published in 2017, are the primary draws of this documentary. So it’s all the weirder when this film’s first music track doesn’t immediately pander to its audience—instead, there’s “driving into the city” VHS footage paired with, all of things, Ed Begley reciting Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Silent Splendid Sun” over a generic orchestral score that sounds like temp music for the rough cut of a trailer. This decision is both conceptually clear—Whitman sings the city’s infinite possibilities as the film prepares to argue that what you’re about to see is less “rare footage for the fans” and more the story of an epochal creative flashpoint—and completely baffling: no one likely to watch this need to be convinced of its larger significance (which, even as a huge fan of all this stuff, is very dubious).

Bizarrely, this opening is essentially repeated at film’s end, with the same narration now rushing back through the footage we’ve just seen. But, bookending portentousness aside, Bathroom delivers the not-on-YouTube early footage fans want: the Strokes in 2000, early Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol shows later that year and so on. To the extent that Bathroom got me pumped and and looking up Nancy Whang singles after watching, that’s pretty much exactly what you want from a music doc. Like the book, an alternating-band-storylines history focuses mainly on the aforementioned bands plus LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture, while a smattering of other musicians are mentioned in passing. (To seemingly diversify this extremely white grouping, TV On the Radio are introduced earlier than is chronologically logical; a killer early version of “Ambulance” is shown, and then they’re never mentioned again.) Per its subtitle, the book covers 2001-2011; to better appeal to nostalgia, the movie narrows its chronological scope still further by ending roughly around 2005, omitting any suggestion of decline and fall and imagining an eternal present where the Strokes had yet to record a third album and Carlos D was still in Interpol.

Watching the Strokes straggle through take after take of “12:51”—Julian Casablancas gripping his mic in a rolling office-chair, everyone tensely huddled in grinding-through-it studio mode—is exactly the kind of bait fans will wait for. Among the many credited sources of other footage are previously unseen rushes of the Strokes, YYYs et al. backstage and shooting music videos—not precisely revelatory, but still fun, with a snarling Casablancas chain-smoking his way on the set of “12:51”’s video proper while waiting for the lighting to set up. The points of emphasis, however, are weird, with the usual music doc itchiness about letting footage roll uninterrupted, cutting voiceover over instrumental bridges lest anyone get bored. The most uninterrupted time is, perversely, given to rushes from the “Maps” video, which look pretty much identical to that much-seen (at a certain point anyway) clip without adding anything new minus conspicuously visible sprocket holes at the frame’s left side.

Extramusically, a weird little goodie that’ll get lodged in my head is footage of Interpol’s Paul Banks wandering the ash-covered sidewalks of immediately post-9/11 Manhattan, creating the very odd sensation that he’s wandered into a outtake from a bizarro version of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—who thought, in the immediate chaotic aftermath, “We must film Paul. Someday he might be famous”? Goodman’s book is mostly good irresponsible anecdotal fun, as any pop culture oral history should be, but it does insist a little too heavily on 9/11 to underscore these bands as having the power to heal NYC (or, more accurately, their own crowd) with a celebratory show the next year, giving them an outsized gravitas I’m not quite sure any of them deserve. In Goodman’s telling, there’s an insistence that the reason everyone in the scene was partying heavily in the months after was as a way of processing/denying trauma—which may be true in some sense, but it’s pretty obvious a bunch of 20something rock kids were always going to break out the cocaine and 40s one way or another. That’s a serious blip in a mostly fun book; what’s strange about this cinematic expansion is how heavy it is, how repeatedly insistent it is on the importance of what we’re seeing. An inadvertently funny/telling juxtaposition in the archival source credits sums it up, with “The George W. Bush Presidential Library” cited opposite “The Strokes interview courtesy of WFMU.”

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