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Robert Young, RIP

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Before too much time passes here, I want to mention the death of the great filmmaker Robert Young. He was not that widely known, though a far more interesting and talented and useful director than, oh say Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton or Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood. Young brought documentary style filmmaking to a wide variety of fictional genres from the 50s into the 90s. He did in fact direct several documentaries, including on the southern civil rights sit-in movement and the Angolan war of independence against Portugal. But for me, it was his fictional films that amaze. Short Eyes is an adaptation of Miguel Piñero’s play that is a super challenging film about a new prisoner imprisoned for child rape, who almost all other inmates turn on viciously. Among the prisoners in the film are characters played by a very young Luis Guzman, Curtis Mayfield, and Freddy Fender. Wasted days and wasted nights, indeed.

But then there is Alambrista, which might be the best film about immigration to the U.S. ever made. It was shot on a shoestring, but follows a migrant who leaves his home and family in Michoacán to cross into the U.S. He learns the ropes, sees his friends die, runs from the INS, meets a white woman who he starts a relationship with, and generally just tries to survive. This was a great example of how to use documentary filmmaking styles in a fictional film and it is really brilliant work. This was almost lost. It resurfaced thanks to the University of New Mexico Press, who did a book of essays on the film and managed to create a DVD it stuck at the back of the book so anyone would see it. That was in 2003, when I was at UNM and aware of what was going on here. Since then, Criterion gave it its legendary treatment. And then last year, it was inducted into the National Film Registry. If you haven’t seen it, fix that problem. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, which is another film about the border, also has been inducted into the NFR.

Incidentally, both Short Eyes and Alambrista were released in 1977, a good year for the great Robert Young.

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