With an agile mix of situational farce, political cabaret, and various cinematic forms (including the animated cartoon and the black-and-white silent), Ela Troyano’s Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst Is Your Waffen amiably tests just how many disparate styles a half-hour film can accommodate—and without breaking into a formal sweat. This daffy, at times deliriously funny film—second only to Cheryl Dunye’s far more ambitious and complex The Watermelon Woman (1997) at the apex of American lesbian comedy—is, for all its brevity, a whole piece, not an orphaned fragment, in part because of its sustained tone of jocundity, and also in part because of Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering work in making sheer passion and personal commitment a unifying force in works that, despite their brilliances, would otherwise fall apart. But this is not to say that Carmelita Tropicana lacks a consistent theme. Indeed, its theme is urgent: in a multicultural society, the need for mutual tolerance—and a sense of humor!
Carmelita, the main character, is a triple ‘minority’: a Latina (1 ethnic + 1 gender minority = 2 minorities, although the latter constitutes a political rather than a mathematical minority) and a lesbian (minority #3). She is (both in the film and in reality) a performance artist—a means of defense against political disappointment and social intolerance, and for the heck of it. By day, Carmelita Tropicana ‘sunlights’ not as a prostitute, like Belle de Jour, but as the put-upon superintendent of the Lower East Side New York apartment building where she lives in tiny, poster-filled quarters. (One encounter of hers with a basement rat—I am referring to the animal, not to a tenant—is uproarious.) Carmelita is active also in a radical-feminist organization that today is countering right-wing protests at an abortion clinic. As a result, she ends up in a city jail cell along with two of her ‘sisters.’ One of these is, in fact, her biological sister, who, looking for work, has discovered that her thoroughly professional appearance violates every ‘rule’ of ‘acceptability’ applied to Latina applicants! Carmelita’s other cell-mate is her ‘sister’ in the organization. But occupying the same cell is a fourth young woman who turns out also to be a ‘sister,’ although (wouldn’t you know?) she is the very person who mugged Carmelita in the street the night before. The political system works overtime to keep us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters; but this little film of Troyano’s gets to the heart of the matter.
From pointed insert to flashback, to fantasy musical number, Troyano’s film exhilarates with a wealth of comic versatility and invention reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s sublime silent work. Its whole air is like manna. Brought patiently to fruition, one typically beautiful gag involves Carmelita’s father’s telephoned news that Carmelita has an eight-year-old brother whom she knew nothing about. Carmelita, in her cell, shares the rattling revelation with her sister. Finally, in a one-year-later coda, we see the adorable child, now a part of his sisters’ protective domain. Under a baseball cap is a face that completes the gag; I won’t spill the beans except to say that this final revelation is as explosively funny as it’s good-natured—and, like nearly all the film’s gags, rather than being extraneous or gratuitous, it encapsulates the film’s heartfelt theme.
Carmelita Tropicana lends Troyano her clear, bright stage persona. Their collaboration is perfect. I love most about their film its pure love of film—and of people. This political film, rare for being without rancor and so rich in humor, won the Best Short Film prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
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