Screens & Culture
'Pretty Vacant': the Sex Pistols and Esteban Jordan meet in a SA film classic.
Published: January 30, 2013
It's hard to hold a DVD of Pretty Vacant, the short film by Jim Mendiola — it burns your hands.
The film, which won Best Narrative Short competition at South by Southwest that year, is a warm, sweet, funny, and edgy jewel that only gets better with the passage of time. It involves rocker La Molly (a magnificent Marina Vásquez), editor of a zine (Ex-Voto), who is convinced the Sex Pistols will perform an Esteban Jordan song at Randy's.
It's a crazy idea that worked because Mendiola is great at execution, no matter how small the budget is.
"[Jordan's] attitude and approach to music was very punk rock," he said. "It just made sense to imagine what the Sex Pistols would have done if they had heard his music."
In pre-Kickstarter style, to raise money for the film he sent letters to everyone he knew asking for $25 — in less than two weeks he had about $1,000.
"Among the many generous contributors was Sandra Cisneros," said Mendiola. "That was very badass."
Shot in 16mm (with character P.O.V. in Super 8), the intentionally grainy film was powerful enough to win an important SXSW award and be shown during a special program at the Havana International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, festivals in Mexico City and alternative media spaces across the U.S. It also got Mendiola into Sundance Filmmaker's Lab in 2000, which allowed him to finish his second film, Come and Take it Day, shown nationally on PBS in 2002.
"DIY punk sensibility? Just another word for the rasquache aesthetic as far as I was concerned," said Mendiola.
But the movie's backbone is the natural performance by Vásquez, who made the wise decision to become Molly, instead of just merely "acting." Mendiola met her while they were both working at the teatro program at the Guadalupe.
"I had Mariana in mind when inventing my main character," said Mendiola. "She is an amazing talent, and I'd love to write something for her again."
Though the film's look is obviously inspired by Luis Valdez's I Am Joaquín, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, and Kevin Smith's Clerks, Mendiola's biggest influence was Robert Frank's Pull my Daisy.
"I knew I had no money for sync sound, so we shot it all silent with the idea we'd add a voiceover later, just like Frank did in his 1958 film with the Jack Kerouac narration," said Mendiola. "Only mine would have more Spanglish than his."
That, and a dynamite soundtrack where the Sex Pistols and the Clash coexist with Esteban Jordan, Café Tacuba, Mano Negra and ever present images of Che Guevara.
"One of the ideas was to show Molly's eventual embracing of Mexican culture but on her terms," said Mendiola. "I wanted to show that she has the ability to pick and choose what Mexican culture she wants to appropriate. Given her nature, she'd be inclined to like Mexican rock and not Trio Los Panchos-type stuff."
David Gonzales (who still works at the Guadalupe) as Molly's father, and Adam Rocha (director of the SA Film Festival) as Kinko's manager are two of the SA staples used in the movie.
"I wanted to make the movie as San Antonio-specific as possible," said Mendiola. "I wanted to capture the particular third- or fourth-generation young Mexican American experience.
"For me, it's easy to trace my interests in this film to my work with Girl in a Coma," said Mendiola, who made several music videos for the band, and directed their documentary, Jammin'. "Pretty Vacant was my first film, and probably still my favorite."
Tex Pop presents a screening of Pretty Vacant, with an introduction and Q&A with writer/director Jim Mendiola and actress Mariana Vásquez.
$5 suggested donation
6:30pm Fri, Feb 1
South Texas Popular Culture Center
1017 E Mulberry
> Email Enrique Lopetegui