×

Palm Springs Review: ‘Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire’

A dynamic Mexican-American painter's life and legacy are appraised 30 years after his death in this energetic documentary tribute.

Director:
Elsa Flores Almaraz, Richard J. Montoya
With:
Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos, Shepard Fairey, Dolores Huerta, Castulo de la Rocha, MIchael Govan, Howard Fox, Dan Guerrero, Joan Agajanian Quinn, Craig Krull, Jan Turner, Elsa Flores Almaraz, Frank Romero, Nancy Romero, John Valadez, Luis Valdez.

1 hour 23 minutes

Though he passed away three decades ago, Carlos Almaraz’s reputation as a major American painter — which was just getting started when he died of AIDS in 1989 — promises to continue to gain traction with the years. Documentary tribute “Playing With Fire” by his fellow-artist widow Elsa Flores and Richard Montoya mostly transcends standard artist-appreciation terrain by virtue of a diverse, colorful and energetic package that amplifies the subject’s own aesthetic. The film would seem a natural fit for artscasters and other programmers, particularly those in search of Latino cultural relevance. Input from surviving admirers and friends like Edward James Olmos and Cheech Marin lend a certain marquee value.

After a somewhat conventional introduction, the movie gears up to present Almaraz’s life story in terms that are as busy, antic and assimilative as his art. Born in 1941 in Mexico City, he moved with his family as a child to the industrial midwest, then to Los Angeles. That compound identity as Mexican native, “melting pot” emigre and newcomer in the “fortress” of East L.A. Latino culture would prove primary to his work, even if early on, his greatest love was animation (and its king, Walt Disney).

Arriving as a young man in the wildly exciting New York City art landscape of the mid-’60s, he both fed on and felt at odds with the then-dominating vogue of minimalism, his instincts being more passionate and personal. After a couple of breakdowns exacerbated by alcohol abuse (which nearly killed him), he landed back in Southern California just as the Chicano Power Movement was gathering force. His work immediately became more overtly political and ethnically specific, lending itself to the agitprop needs of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta (both interviewed here, the former in archival footage). His newly embraced Communist ideals led to the formation of a collective with three other leading Chicano male artists. “Los Four” attracted considerable attention, including the first Latino exhibit at a major U.S. museum (LACMA), but their clashing aims and egos made for a short-lived experiment.

In any case, Almaraz was at this point ready to express himself in more idiosyncratic terms than any political or artistic movement could allow. Insanely prolific, his skills now greatly honed, he “arrived” in commercial gallery terms with a series of violent yet oddly playful car-crash paintings that riffed on his L.A. environs as well as on a general sense of American excess. Like so many of his images, they made a jolting first impression underlaid with prankish humor and complex layers of meaning, as well as a ravishingly vivid color sense.

Various observers here compare him at times to the impressionists, Chagall, Diego Rivera and others, a sprawling assortment that nonetheless could duly be detected in his uniting of lyrical, political and pop elements. Though he’d tried his best (and failed) in New York to paint like a trendy abstract-minimalist, his voluminous mature work was emotional, passionate, often both rhapsodic and disquieting, not at all cold or theoretical.

Though note is made of darker periods and appetites, the film emphasizes Almaraz as a sunny dynamo who found his life balance at last upon marrying significantly younger artist Flores and fathering a daughter. At times one wonders how much this is an “authorized” view preferred by his widow, particularly as “Playing With Fire” seems a bit politely dismissive of his apparent primarily gay orientation earlier on, as if homosexuality or bisexuality were adverse conditions he eventually recovered from. Despite its title, the documentary presents the artist not as a self-destructive figure but a life force snuffed out far too soon, short of age 50.

Whether this is a definitive, balanced portrayal or not, it’s nonetheless an appealing one. Almaraz certainly seems happy in vintage footage, notably a 1980 video where he explains his artistic ethos while standing in front of a 12-foot canvas depicting a local burrito stand.

Fellow artists, activists, curators and others offer the requisite appreciations. But most of the film’s potency comes from the sheer force of its subject’s imagery, which sometimes come to life in flip-book form, at other times (and to more variable effect) via actual animation of drawings and paintings. Montoya (of the veteran performance trio Culture Clash) and Flores also interpolate a cleverly selected range of archival ephemera, including news clips, vintage ads and a wide-ranging soundtrack of pre-existing cuts. (Los Lobos’ Louie Perez contributes the original score.) As Almaraz absorbed and utilized elements in his environment for art’s sake, so does the film create a kind of careening collage-effect to capture his sensibility.

Popular on Variety

Palm Springs Review: 'Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire'

Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (True Stories), Jan. 11, 2019. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: (Docu) A Bunny Boy production in association with AltaMed. (International sales: Batt Law, Beverly Hills.) Producer: Mark Roberts. Executive producers: Elsa Almaraz, Castulo de la Rocha, Thom Beers. Co-producers: Max Velez, Maximilian Frauchiger, Aaron Douglas Estrada.

Crew: Directors: Elsa Flores Almaraz, Richard J. Montoya. Writer: Montoya. Camera (color, HD): Angelo Costa. Editor: Richard Alarcon. Music: Louie Perez.

With: Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos, Shepard Fairey, Dolores Huerta, Castulo de la Rocha, MIchael Govan, Howard Fox, Dan Guerrero, Joan Agajanian Quinn, Craig Krull, Jan Turner, Elsa Flores Almaraz, Frank Romero, Nancy Romero, John Valadez, Luis Valdez.

More Film

  • Cara Delevingne'Carnival Row' TV show premiere,

    Cara Delevingne Talks Immigration, Taylor Swift's Battle With Scooter Braun

    Cara Delevingne, whose faerie character in “Carnival Row” finds herself washed ashore as a refugee in a foreign land, said she was immediately drawn by the show’s fantastical take on issues of immigration and assimilation. “It’s a cause that I have been involved in for a long time,” Delevingne told Variety at the premiere of [...]

  • John Travolta, Fred Durst. John Travolta,

    John Travolta Recalls Fans Breaking Into His House: 'I Was Scared the First Time'

    Nobody can accuse John Travolta of not being gracious to his fans, whether it’s an autograph, a selfie or, you know, a home invasion or two. “I’ve only had two people that actually invaded my house,” Travolta told Variety at the premiere of “The Fanatic” at the Egyptian Theater on Thursday night. “They were just [...]

  • Romulus TV Show Italy

    Behind the Italian Scenes on Upcoming TV Blockbuster 'Romulus'

    On a hilly patch of greenery outside Rome, a group of extras is milling about in a meticulously reconstructed eighth century B.C. village wearing leather sandals, coarse red tunics and baseball caps. It’s scorching. The set is on a vast backlot on the grounds of the Cinecittà World theme park where during a period of [...]

  • James Wan's Horror Pic Adds George

    James Wan Finds Male Lead for His Next Horror Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

    British actor George Young has landed the male lead role opposite Annabelle Wallis in James Wan’s top secret horror pic, sources tell Variety. Wan is tackling the movie, tentatively titled “Silvercup,” this fall before beginning preparations for DC’s “Aquaman” sequel with Jason Momoa at the top of 2020. Plot details are currently being kept under [...]

  • Catch-22 Cinecitta BTS

    Rome's Cinecitta Makes Major Upgrades to Soundstages, Backlot

    Italy has always been attractive as a location, and now that increased global TV and film production is filling up soundstages around Europe, Rome’s Cinecittà is gunning to regain its global status as a top studio. The fabled facility, located on 99 acres of public land, had lost some of the luster of its 1950s [...]

  • Francis Ford Coppola Apocalypse Now BTS

    Why Everything About 'Apocalypse Now's' Production Was Unorthodox

    Lionsgate and American Zoetrope are releasing “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” the third version of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic, to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. While multiple versions of any mainstream movie are unusual, everything about this movie was unorthodox. On Oct. 14, 1969, Variety reported that Warner Bros. bought the script by John Milius, [...]

  • Russell Crowe in 'Unhinged': First Look

    Russell Crowe Stars as an Angry Driver in First Look at 'Unhinged'

    Cut off Russell Crowe in traffic at your own peril! That’s the takeaway from the first look at “Unhinged,” an upcoming thriller that stars the Oscar-winning “Gladiator” actor as a man who takes road rage to frightening new levels. Crowe appears in the Solstice Studios release alongside Caren Pistorius, who portrays Rachel, a mother who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content