Film review: The Day Began Yesterday

Any movie from Mexican auteur Julián Hernández should be met with celebration and gratitude. But The Day Began Yesterday is exceptionally good.

El día comenzó ayer
The Day Began Yesterday
Directed by Julián Hernández
31 min, México, 2020

Films that mention HIV/AIDS, or that feature characters with the virus, seem as a rare as progressives in the U.S. Democratic Party leadership.

Maybe these absences tell us something: in the first case, about a lack of representation, an avoidance of lived realities, a suppression of memories. (These omissions also prevent us from assessing the root causes of the current pandemic crisis. But those are ellisions no one’s attempted to bridge.) Similar lacks are exposed whenever the Dems try to win elections, or pass off schlerotic corporatists as the new FDR.

According to HIV.gov, around 828,000 gay and bisexual men were living with HIV in 2018. You wouldn’t know this from watching movies made by and for gay & bisexual men, at least in estadounidense film culture. We’ve forgotten how to tell stories about these men — about ourselves — or we no longer want to. Maybe we don’t want to see these stories, either. Maybe we’re afraid.

People still die from complications due to HIV infection, even in the United States, if not even close to the numbers I saw in the 80s and 90s. The number of new infections, also far lower, has nevertheless remained steady during the period from 2014-2018.

Gay men still get infected and still have to live with that consequence. That real-life condition should still be portrayed in films about ourselves, like any other pre-existing condition. Because it still matters; it’s still one of the many factors that constitute our lives.

[Watching HBO’s essential documentary about Larry Kramer, In Love and Anger [Amazon], I was reminded that it took a puissant, asshole prophet like Kramer to wake anyone up at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I’m not sure our culture produces people like him anymore. Our current educational system, and that includes its social networks, will likely produce more adept marketers and self-promoters than rabble rousers, truth-tellers, or community-builders. But maybe that’s always been true.]

Mexican auteur Julián Hernández’s latest short reminds us that poz gay men exist, that they still worry about HIV infection, that they still need support from their communities, their doctors, their friends and lovers. But also that they live, love, get laid, work out, and make connections, all while being positive.

In a WhatsApp conversation with me, director Chucho E. Quintero summed up a lot of what I find refreshing and valuable about El día comenzó ayer and frustrating about its singularity:

I think it’s so stupid that a 40-something-year-old filmmaker is the one making love stories between poz kids and talking ab being undetectable and fear of the stigma and all that shit with a joyful, colorful, faggy, sex positive short, and young queer directors are silent and boring

Chucho E. Quintero

Why else is this film so exciting to me? Primarily because its gorgeous gay men live free of self-pity or the need to justify their existence. From its first orgasmic moments during a foot-worship scenario through a free-wheeling seduction to its final shot in which a new gay couple forms and supports each other at an HIV/AIDS symposium — with their bodies in public and with knowledge received in public — the film repudiates shame, entropy, blame, anger, and resentment. It does so, not from a soap box, a la Larry Kramer, but from within the lives of these shame-free characters. Why should that feel so fresh in 2020?

Just as fresh are cinematographic auteur Alejandro Cantú’s compositions, setups, and camera movements. I’ve already mentioned the sex scenes. One of them opens the film with a 40-second reaction shot, a medium close-up, planimetrically framed directly over of the head of main character and serio-ambivalent Saúl as he gets… something stimulated. For the full duration of the shot, we’re left to speculate what and by whom. Considering Saúl’s intense, wide-eyed responses, we might think of Warhol’s Blow Job. Or if we think the young man is masturbating, we might think of any number of GTMs.

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Can you think of any masturbation scenes, shot from overhead? I couldn't name any specific ones when I was writing this. Help me out!x

Red sheets and a green pillow frame Saúl’s head and then there’s a cut to a white bedspread toned yellow by lighting; a shirtless hunk kneels at the end of the bed, front-lit and sucking Saúl’s toes. The angle flips horizontally 180° for this shot and 90° for the next money-shot, in which Saúl comes handsfree. He later confesses that although he liked it a lot: “I prefer a nice dick, to be honest.” Nevertheless, I can’t think of another movie in which an actor’s writhing and wriggling feet, toes, and legs express as much as his mouth and eyes.

The first time Saúl and Orlando, Saúl’s new HIV-positive, gymnast lover, have sex, the scene becomes a dance, interrupted only by a quick grab for a condom. The scene sustains its sexual and visual energy throughout. Though their bodies lie prone, again shot overhead from a stationary camera, planimetrically framed, the camera shows their bodies full-length and lit high-contrast. That framing and the lighting accentuates and stylizes their movements and musculature. The scene lasts an ebullient 1 minute, 50 seconds. (For reference, modern cinema’s average shot-length is 2.5 seconds.) These stationary overhead shots are by now de rigueur for sex scenes in gay movies but this one makes the shot look brand-new.

One of my favorite camera movements in the film encompasses Saúl’s blood test for HIV. It’s a slow dolly-in that proceeds wide from an establishing shot of the examination room with Saúl on a chair with his arm extended while the nurse prepares the needle. As the camera slows to a stop, the final framing occludes the nurse and the blood-draw; we’re only shown Saúl’s face in profile, as he looks down at the needle about to pierce his skin and then, looks away.

Despite its simple narrative, the poetry of this film finds its forms all over the frame: the flirtatious pauses between responses during conversations between lovers and soon-to-be-lovers, showing each young man’s concentration and focus on the other; the same conversations’ alternating rhythms, speeds and delivery; one shoe getting kicked off the bed at the beginning of first-sex; Saúl biting his thumbnail as he watches a movie about HIV from the 90s; Orlando folding a pillow over his face in delight as Saúl bites his ass cheeks; and finally, in an easily overlooked moment, the name of the film taken from the title of Orlando’s Facebook photo album as Saúl cyberstalks him.

Recalling these instances and writing about them made me think that maybe we shouldn’t look for masterpieces in whole movies or in high concepts but in the small, revealing moments or in the microseconds between those moments — in the spaces, colors, gestures, fears, and fucks that make up our filmed gay lives, and make them worth remembering and retelling.

They’re all true and valuable; we shouldn’t leave anything out.

Watch The Day Began Yesterday on Amazon [affiliate link] or get information about renting it at The Open Reel.

Written with StackEdit.

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