Editor’s note: See Jim Finn in NYFF 52.
If you start anywhere, start with la ardilla. The low-grade video of the titular squirrel asks for your patience before the romance begins. Jim Finn appears onscreen, lip-syncing the rodent a cancion, poising an almond between his lips in hopes of a kiss ala Lady and the Tramp. Animals factor prominently in Lotería, Mexico’s famous game of chance, but Love is the guiding virtue, and sometimes a substitute for Fate.
Mexican Lotería crosses Bingo and The Tarot for a public game of probabilities—the images on the fifty-four Lotería cards are full of implications: “Umbrella? It could rain!” “El moro? I will meet a dark stranger!” The Lotería series by Jim Finn is comprised of sixteen films semi-literally based on cards five, eleven, twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty-six, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, sixteen, forty-eight and fifty-two. Built from either home movies or the publicly available audiovisuals we sometimes call “media trash,” the shorts are never longer than four minutes and always feature songs to amplify their images. As the “Mexican Sinatra” sings “I don’t have a castle or a queen or someone who understands me…” Finn inserts a picture of a dotty G.W.Bush …”but I’m the king.” (la corona). You can laugh because you’re left-leaning or chide because it’s snarking a solemn subject, but if you’re willing to let the movie be a joke and/or a statement, you could really have some fun.
Finn is fascinated with utopia and political poles (capitalism and communism in particular) and this jibes well with the old adage that there’s truth is what makes you laugh. Even humorless artifacts, like postage stamps of politicians, are used in service of something tongue-in-cheek. The way we experience truthiness in these movies feels like the way we might manage suspension of disbelief in a Lotería game—somehow, believing in the image’s truth is a way of embracing its lies too. We’re less likely to be disappointed if we laugh first and hope later. Finn’s features have a similar orientation: The Juche Idea put artists in competition to work in a Stalinist camp (as if!) while his Interkosmos giggles its way through fake cosmonaut training. How were totally true circumstances, like those lampooned in Interkosmos, not seen as absurd energy expenditures? Is the truth full of holes or do pictures just make it look that way?
I should mention I have no evidence there is a squirrel in the Lotería deck. In most decks card thirty-nine is a cactus. Decks might vary but…does it matter?
Finn’s work isn’t comfortable with the idea images stand on their own—everything is supported with context, subtext, politics and history, so the most honest thing we can do is make reference. Maybe this is why a lot of people call Finn’s films “mockumentaries.” It’s an uneasy categorization but so is “experimental.”
Made with the help of the Chicago Underground Film Fund, some of these Lotería films are absolutely transcendent, if in the silliest way, (OMG el azteca); while others are perplexing visual gags. I can’t watch la palmera (“the palm tree”) and believe the director’s lip-syncing to Juan Gabriel for a reason beyond wooing women. He’s lip-syncing at a car wash. And it’s not the only time he’s made love to the camera while wet. Check with, la cobra (“the cobra”) in which he’s “singing” in a bathtub with a little snake draped around his shirtless shoulders.
The silly romances throw the political messages into relief. Finn’s both intrigued and perplexed by the far left, perhaps the only political tradition known for installing heroes/celebrities as representatives of their ideologies. It works well with Hollywood, which also loves celebrities and liberal ideas. Finn’s el moro is lousy with images of Che and Castro while a hypno-goofy Leonard Nimoy sings “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” (Quick math: How much liberal subtext do you get when you multiply Gene Roddenberry and J.R.R. Tolkien then divide by Cuba?) The la estrella short lays out images of political thinkers like a photo essay of martyrs and icons. Between the postage stamps, busts, photos and paintings you lose track of the historical figures and their associated parties—whatever charisma they wielded to rouse the politically active populace is history now…until someone gets resurrected or cloned, and that’s only happened a few times. Finn’s el azteca is entirely about whatever faux magnetism Ricardo Montalban wielded as Khan in “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode recently rebooted with Benedict Cumberbatch. (The movies Jim Finn could make about that cultural clusterf*ck boggle the mind, but whatever, Montalban is smoking!)
The stuff that’s more like “culture jamming” uses clips from film, TV and news to riff on the Lotería themes. As a title, el valiente refers to James Bond (Roger Moore era) but the short is about Bond’s romantic tragedies; the ladies who slept with him and had to die the next day while the song says “I never knew loneliness before I knew you.” I could read all sorts of Roman Catholic morality into this, and I wouldn’t be the first, but we’d be wrong not to connect the dots on this one. Bond kills more women than VD and with the same weaponry.
Once we’ve exhausted the ardor of romance and the blinding passion of political fanaticism…what’s left? Though no Lotería cards directly represent sports (unless you want to read something into number forty-eight: The Canoe) there’s a powerful cultural association between sports and the passions that unite love and government. Finn’s el corazon is supposedly about a man who loves his team and his girl but the girl is a less prominent fixture than his team. Finn sets el pajaro (“the bird”) at an unspecified baseball game (Cardinals?) with ravenous fans, a trembling camera and the funniest Soviet anthem ever. I’m sure the guy on camera just scarfed a loaded dog and nachos as we hear “Arise ye starvelings from your slumber.” And while la calavera (“the skull”) is technically positing something really disturbing about the proximity of nuclear annihilation to the videogames people play, the subtext is less concerned with winning than gaming. Even el paraguas (“the umbrella”), which shows reports of Rumsfeld’s 1985 meetings with Saddam Hussein, implies we’re watching the winning team in charge, and we know it won’t do us any good.
There are exceptions to the norm, and the eclecticism of the Lotería accommodates for them. The short la mano (“the hand”) is the one that made the least sense to me because I never got into the TV show The OC, so I feel immune to the show’s otherwise ritualistic excess and abs show. I wasn’t compelled to interrogate my confusion as I was with la rosa (“the rose”), which takes from a silent era fantasy film. The Yellow Rose of Texas plays as a violent Asian emperor swears he’ll marry a reluctant princess. As ethnically offensive as Ming the Merciless, the snakelike despot rides his magic carpet, lifts a kingdom off its mountaintop and in a puff is gone. We didn’t believe in him when he was in front of us (another untrustworthy image of an untrustworthy man) but we knew he couldn’t win the lady’s hand. The opposite of ardor, I presume, is strategy, and that‘s anathema to Lotería, there’s just not enough secular god in it to work on the game board.