BAFICI: Mark Peranson On Making a Movie Set During the Mayan Apocalypse

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This interview is part of our ongoing coverage from the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente (BAFICI).

The rain is coming down hard but the day is still clingingly warm as I arrive to find Mark Peranson waiting at the entrance to the Recoleta cinema. Director, producer, actor, programmer, critic and film magazine publisher, the Canadian is the embodiment of what locals would call a cineasta. With his wiry frame, his unkempt hair and his square-framed spectacles, he certainly looks the part.

Mark is in town for BAFICI in two main capacities. The first of these is for the same reason he attends the festival each year. As head of programming at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, he is responsible for deciding which films are shown there, so he’s here to check out the Argentinean section. He’s also here to promote his new film, La Última Película, which he co-directed with Filipino director Raya Martín, and which features in BAFICI’s Vanguard & Genre section.

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Made on a low budget in the Yucatan region of Mexico, La Última Película blurs the lines between fiction, documentary and improvisation in a provocatively challenging and downright surreal examination of the end of cinema. It follows American director Alex Ross Perry as he heads to Mexico to begin production on a new picture.

Once sat down in a nearby café, I ask Mark about his new film, whose Spanish title remains unchanged for the English-language market. “It’s about a filmmaker who goes to the Yucatán in December 2012, the time of the Mayan apocalypse,” he tells me. “It’s a meta film (genre in which film production forms the narrative) about his adventures there, relating to history and the end of cinema. It’s saying something about where we are today as a society, as a culture of image consumers and producers.”

Filmed across a mere seven days, La Última Película uses the backdrop of the Mayan apocalypse to draw a parallel with cinema’s own demise, as production and technology developments render certain formats obsolete.  This concept of the end of cinema, the cinematic apocalypse if you will, is a key component of the film.

“The idea of the end of the world is kind of absurd,” says Mark. “I mean, the world’s not going to end on December 21st, 2012. Nobody actually thought that. And cinema’s probably never going to end, but 35mm filmmaking and projecting and the way people go to see a film has pretty much changed for good. The film is kind of ironic but for us it’s very much a statement about the world of cinema today.”

In the same way that it was highly improbable the world would end on the Mayan’s specified date, it is almost impossible to envisage a world without films. As long as there is civilization there will be cinema. But, as with the Mayans, all civilizations eventually collapse.

The original idea to create an analogous narrative between cinema and the Mayans came from Martin, after he and Mark had been asked to collaborate by a Danish film festival which supports projects uniting directors from different global regions. “They give you a very small amount of money and they let you do whatever you want,” says Mark. “Raya had a script he was working on that he’d already pitched a few times. So, he said, ‘Why don’t we make something in Mexico, this Mayan documentary thing?’ We had to get it together in a very short time and I think there’s a freedom which is reflected in the final film.”

The film’s psychedelic tones see Alex and his guide-cum-counselor, played by Mexican actor Gabino Rodriguez, visit Mayan ruins on the apocalypse. The two roam the ruins spewing antipathy for the chanting, robe-clad hippies and new-age believers who have descended on the area. Their ire may be somewhat merited, but it seems somewhat rich coming from Alex, who, in his cowboy hat, boots and neck scarf, seemingly misses the irony in him poking fun at these middle-aged cosmic children. With his heightened sense of self-importance, Alex is someone you probably wouldn’t bother to pull from a burning building.

I put it to Mark that Alex´s character is difficult to like, something he actually agrees with. “He’s a very unsympathetic person,” says the director. “We were also playing with this idea of imperfection. We didn’t want a film that people could easily like. Even if you do like it, there’s probably still something in there that might annoy you.” Resistance to cinematic convention and an antagonistic central figure should see the film achieve this aim.

Much of the development of the figure of Alex and the movie itself, right down to the title, references Dennis Hopper’s 1971 ‘wasteland of cinematic wreckage’ (TM Roger Ebert) The Last Movie. Filmed in Peru, Hopper made the film as a follow-up to Easy Rider.

I confess to Mark that I’ve never seen The Last Movie. “I don’t think it’s essential [to have seen the film in order to understand La Última Película]. Hopper gives these monologues on his ranch in Mexico. He looks like Charles Manson, he’s sitting in a field shooting off guns and with women everywhere. Alex watched the movie a few times and then we shot him for three or four hours. He was drinking tequila throughout the scene so he’s getting drunker and drunker, which is exactly what Hopper was doing.”

“The fascination of these scenes for me is that Hopper was so drunk and stoned that he said so many stupid things and ended up suppressing the film but was still credited as a co-writer. When you watch it, you think ‘this is a bit strange,’ these scenes where he’s talking and he’ll turn his head and the camera suddenly cuts to 50 meters away. At some point you realize that, with filmmaking, what you’re watching isn’t necessarily real. The slippage between fiction and documentary was something that we explicitly wanted to play with for the entire time. I think some of the most interesting films being made today deal with this as well.”

Even in a festival notable for the variation and boundary-pushing of its content, La Última Película stands out as something different, a throwback to art-house filmmaking’s druggy era, merged with the spontaneous aesthetic seen in more contemporary styles. You may not entirely get it, you may not even like it, but it’s unlikely to be a film you’ll forget in a hurry.