Down below, there be spoilers. Go watch the movie!
Written and directed by Chucho E. Quintero
Don McKellar’s pre-apocalyptic sci-fi film, Dernière nuit (Canada/France, 1998), ends with two characters, strangers before they knew the world would end at midnight, deciding not to shoot each other in the head, but rather to go out with a kiss. Then the film-frame, and the world along with it, dissolves to white. They choose a few seconds of life — micromomentary but still precious chances for affection, comfort and connection — even though life has turned away from them.
The reasons for the end of McKellar’s Earth are never explained, so the sci-fi premise provides space and opportunity for the characters to figure out what’s important to them and to tie up loose ends. One character decides to satisfy his unfulfilled sexual fantasies: with a high school teacher, who shows up calm and curious, and also with his best friend, lead character Patrick. That last wish goes unrequited, however.
Another minor character (played by David Cronenberg!) who works for the gas company decides to spend his last day reminding customers on the phone, in the most neutral voice imaginable, that the gas will keep flowing, right up to the very end. Patrick, at the beginning of the film, after reluctantly agreeing to a last supper with his quiescent and slightly neurotic family, decides to go out into the dark on his own — until he meets Sandra, whose Pacer gets overturned and wrecked by a mob. She’d been shopping for wine and cheese to share with her boyfriend for a last romantic repast. She never makes it.
Director Chucho E. Quintero’s Velociraptor also takes place on the last day of Earth’s existence and also dissolves to white in its final frame. The kisses, however, and also the blowjob, the handjobs, and the fucking, were over by the time that particular world ended. Quintero’s central couple parts and they make a point of not saying goodbye, not knowing, as McKellar’s characters did, the exact moment of their being washed out of existence. Yet the two characters, separated except in memory — and that memory encompasses a steadfastness about their friendship — face their ends in peace.
The end is the perfect moment to show our true nature.
Quintero told me he hasn’t seen McKellar’s seminal film, but Velociraptor reminded me so strongly of Dernière nuit, not just in the premise but also in the presence of radio announcer voiceovers, guiding listeners through their last days, and in the overall focus on human connections, that I found myself musing back to Patrick and Sandra while watching Alex and Diego, and then re-watched both films back-to-back.
With their similar premises and a shared humanism, they make a great double feature. When Quintero accepted the Jury Prize for Best Feature for Velociraptor at the Miami LGBT Film Festival in 2015 a presenter mentioned his film’s similarity to Dernière nuit.
More important than the similarities, which include a great deal of region-specific cultural comedy (with significant tonal differences and emphases), are the departures and the expansions in Velociraptor, both formal and stylistic. Both films focus on relationships and how those relationships constitute themselves before the apocalypse. Contrast this with post-apocalypse films like The Last Man On Earth and I, Legend, to name just two, which are as much about imagining the liberation of the individual from human social ties as they are about the horrors of what comes after that not-so-sublimated wish is fulfilled.
Both Dernière nuit and Velociraptor implicitly suggest that we could, if we only would — here, now, not in a movie — make those connections and take those personal risks that the characters do, facilitated only after confronting their own dooms.
Quintero calls his apocalyptic framing device a gimmick, a trick to put his characters in an unusual situation in order to prompt unexpected responses. But I think he’s short-changing himself. For me, it’s a form employed to pose questions about how relationships function and constitute themselves in the real world. That’s made clear by the film’s structure: a present depicting two best friends, Alex and Diego, one gay, one straight, hanging out in Mexico City wondering when the world is going to end, cut with a series of digressions within the film, all shot in distinctive styles.
Dernière nuit‘s cross-cutting is conventional, and characters’ scenes happen concurrently or consecutively, with no flashbacks. Most of Velociraptor's digressions show events in the past before the friends knew the end was coming and have nothing whatever to do with the sci-fi premise. In a conventional sci-fi film, we’d expect exposition about the origin of the apocalypse, but we only discover the cause a few minutes before the end of the film and it’s casually mentioned. Instead, the film focuses on confidences shared and stories told between the characters, things the other didn’t know, and so strengthening their friendship.
Before I talk about the digressions that interrupt Velociraptor’s progress toward the abyss, it’s important to make clear the film’s main narrative line. Alex, the young gay man played with quietude and dignity by Pablo Mezz, does have an agenda of his own that drives everything: He’s never been fucked in the ass, or more precisely, he’s never felt comfortable enough to allow another man inside him. He hopes his straight best friend, Diego, played by a charming and resourceful Carlos Hendrick Huber, can help him out, because, you know, the end of the world is nigh, and if you don’t ask…
Diego starts out angry and resistant to this but eventually starts to, if not warm up to the idea, at least consider it seriously. What follows is a long and often very funny combination of a seduction with a kind of grooming, on Alex’s part. For Diego, it’s a chance to rediscover the roots of their friendship, make a confession or two, and also to realize that there are depths and details to his friend he hadn’t paid attention to before.
At one point, trying to preview for Diego what he’s in for, the two watch a gay porn video together. It’s Diego’s first time, and actor Huber’s first time, too — his squeamishness is hilarious, but so is his curiosity. The cum shot grosses him out though.
Quintero says the scene plays as shot, unscripted, edited as a series of jump cuts — he put the two actors in front of the laptop, played the video, and the camera captured their reactions. The scene works so well because of the two actors’ spontaneity, contrasting personalities, and evident rapport. In fact, Mezz and Huber are good friends in real life, and Mezz is gay while Huber is straight, and evidently not narrow. Most of the digressive sequences blend formal modes and diegetic origins like this, with the tones ranging from wacky to somber.
But to come to the place that the film arrives at, a tender and provisional anti-climax to the task at hand, the film digresses quite a bit, telling stories from the perspective of each character, and at one point, visualizing one of Alex’s written short stories. These digressions are structured as storytelling, with elements of theater and performance, not as conventional flashbacks.
Preceding one of these, when Alex receives a few texts from dates and fuck buddies, Diego wants to know who they are. In a dreamy digression, presented as a series of gauzy, motion-blurred still frames, Alex describes a failed series of dates with a boy he likes but somehow could never really connect with, alternately attracted and bored by his interest in art, and confused by the mixed signals he’s getting.
Responding to Alex’s assertion that straight guys treat sexual hook-ups like a sport, and that he’ll never understand why giving up his ass is such a big deal for Alex, one of Diego’s digressive sequences takes off in a self-reflexive direction. Over a close-up of him looking directly at the camera, the scene is presaged with “Roll sound? Roll camera? Rolling. 38-7, take 3.”
Jumping in through a car window on an obvious set, lit like a stage, Diego relates his first sexual experience with a girl. She was 21; he was 16 or 17. Animated and full of crude, boyish energy, Diego continues to directly address the camera, with the POV bouncing back and forth. He’s alternately boastful and self-effacing: “I froze like a popsicle!” he says, when the experienced girl’s demands overwhelm him. This is one of my favorite scenes in the film, just one instance of Quintero’s playful use of form, and coming out of nowhere stylistically. Huber owns it. Not bad considering he learned the lines only a short time before the scene was shot, Quintero told me.
In another digression, while the pair are in Alex’s flat, Diego says he has something to say, now that they’re being honest; that it’s not a big deal, but it is something he’s never told Alex before. Alex takes a nervous swig from his cerveza as Diego tells a story about how he spent time with a deaf young man who works in a comic book shop, and how he came to buy issue #32 of Velociraptor as a gift, which he knew Alex didn’t have, but for some reason never gave to him.
This tale took place when Alex was in the hospital. The reason for that stay is never explained. Diego narrates the scene from within its telling, directly addressing the camera, and thus both Alex and the audience, and also in voiceover. (Look for director Quintero in the first shot of the sequence.)
Diego learns sign language from the cute cashier and also gets comic-book recommendations, but he wonders to Alex why he kept coming back, other than to keep himself occupied, and why every time he did, he wore a nice shirt. The story ends with a rhyming shot of Diego taking a nervous swig from his beer, and looking aside sheepishly, just as Alex did earlier. He comes very close to confessing that he had a crush on the deaf cashier, but does make it clear that the cashier was a substitute for Alex.
If there’s one strong impression given in Quintero’s movies it’s the primacy of friendships, and their essentially intimate nature, that is, if they’re for real. It’s the most important thing in his first, Pack de six, and by all appearances in his upcoming Cabaña / Cabin. It’s like the air — necessary, sustaining, and everywhere; or a like a joint, passed around the circle until everyone is high.
Quintero’s films also show friendships between gay men and straight men and the fraught but sometimes rewarding ways they relate to one another. That’s something I’m interested in, too, and as I wrote in ce poste, there’s not much good writing, or any writing, about these relationships. They exist, but few films show that they do and how they do.
It’s remarkable the small miracles Quintero accomplishes in the interactions between his characters. As nimble, mischievous, even joyful, as he seems as a director experimenting with form and style, like someone making movies in the 90s when queer cinema could be sexy and fun and still intelligent, he’s an even better writer. It’s not surprising that Velociraptor won Best Gay Romance from TLA voters. If you’ve ever had a straight friend admit that his feelings for you were romantic if not exactly sexual, then you know what we mean.
This emphasis on connection and intimacy strikes me as very Latino (and very CEQ), in contrast to the typical gringo passive-aggressiveness, self-centeredness, or hyper-hipster self-consciousness (and the occasional but reliable bursts of misanthropy) we find to varying degrees in works as disparate as Lena Dunham’s Girls, or Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, just to name two off the top of my head that aren’t science fiction.
Establishment-cinephiles sometimes refer to these traits as “complex” or “realistic”, leaving the assumptions unexamined about why these sorts of characterizations feel real to us, why they are given such a privileged weight when we evaluate film art, and ignoring any cultural biases we might have to face should we start paying attention to any of those questions.
All those aspects can be found in Dernière nuit, too, if to a lesser degree. On the Earth in McKellar’s film, much of humanity is on the streets nihilistically and ironically celebrating the End of the World. Most of the remainder seem to be stoically facing it by repeating mundane rituals, or indulging in nostalgia. Sandra and Patrick are the only ones who seem to “make it out alive.”
In contrast, the characters in Velociraptor don’t surrender to despair, or to the boundaries of the past; they stay human and try something new. Even if they fail, their final acts in life — the theft and minutes-long preservation of a photograph, an impulsive kiss, a gentle fuck — were made with compassion.