Thursday, October 1, 2009

Overlooked Movies: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

In this series, I'd like to shine a light on some fine pieces of work that, for whatever reason, never got the recognition they deserved.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints-Dito Montiel (2006)
I'm so upset with Dito Montiel. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, his debut, feels like bottled lightning, like some perverse combination of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. It feels like something daring, original, and completely unique. That this was only his first movie only further solidified my high expectations for him as a new voice in the Hollywood pantheon.
And then he went and made Fighting.
Regardless of his post-Saints career, his first film stands as a raw, searing portrait of love and loyalty. Montiel's film jumps nimbly through time, following a teenage Dito (yes, the film is autobiographical) in 1980s Queens, as well as Dito's return to the area fifteen years later. The present-day sequences revolve around Dito's prodigal-son return to the area, combined with his reluctance to face his past. The past sequences slowly reveal the chain of events, involving an overly protective and emotionally scarred friend, Antonio, and a Scottish immigrant, Mike, that sent Dito running.
The first thing that strikes me about this film is its distinctive look. Consider the color palette that Montiel uses; his 80s sections are all bright reds, yellows, and oranges that scream off of the screen. Like his characters, the look is all about right here, right now, and to hell with the morning. Consider next his modern sequences. Everything has become mottled: we see blues, dark greens, and musty browns. The characters appear to be treading water in algae-covered pools. Only briefly, when past lovers flirt, does the more unrestrained palette take brief precedence again. I love this movie's tactile power: few films appeal to the sense of touch, but Saints looks like it's oozing off the screen.
I mentioned earlier that Dito Montiel seemed like the lovechild of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, and I'll stand by that. Saints feels an awfully lot like Mean Streets, Scorsese's debut film, in its relentless pacing and high energy. Scorsese's influence can also be felt in Montiel's successful employment of music. Like Scorsese's films, Saints rarely employs traditional film scoring. Instead, he uses popular songs, most notably "Trouble," by Cat Stevens, and KISS' "New York Groove." Watching the scenes in which the songs are used, I notice that the majority of each scene's power is derived from its music. String music is nice, but it can't capture the headlong joy of "New York Groove" or the bittersweet melancholy of "Trouble."
Speaking of "Trouble"...The montage in which that song is used is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It's a perfect exercise in minimalism. Each character gets one sentence, but it defines who they are. (I tried to embed this scene here, but, God help me, I'm not very tech-savvy, so here's the link instead: Few filmmakers are capable of such restraint, but Montiel stays the course, and the result is great film-making.
Montiel also shows shades of Altman: specifically, in his use of overlapping dialogue. Robert Altman is famous for debunking the idea that only one character can speak at once, and Montiel takes this idea and runs with it. This is especially evident in the family scenes in Dito's apartment. And why shouldn't it be this way? In reality, Dito's family is loud, opinionated, and overly gregarious. Any scene showing them should play as such. A lesser director would have attempted to shoehorn these characters into acceptable script format, but Montiel has the courage to let everyone talk at once.
Speaking of fun directorial touches, there is one scene that challenges me, and I'd love to see if y'all agree with my interpretation. The scene I'm referring to takes place on the subway; Antonio misses the train, Dito gets on anyway, and meets Mike at the end of the train. Notice how impressionistic this scene is. What gets me in particular is the voice-over: in the voice-over, Dito and Mike sound quieter, gentler, and the things they say run a little deeper than breaking the ice. Then, directly after the voice-over, the actual conversation happens, and they're both loud, and crass, and awkward. Here's my theory: the voice-over is how each character wants the conversation to sound, and the regular audio is how it actually happens. Note, however, that when Mike is showing Dito the dot on the window that he watches ("Put your eye here, right next to it", that the audio cuts out and the voice-over matches the lips of the actors. Perhaps this is when the encounter softens, and the two characters begin to be themselves.

...Which brings me to another theory. I've mentioned this before and gotten interesting reactions, so I'd love to see what you think.

I think there's a definite homoerotic subtext between Dito, Antonio, and Mike. A love triangle, to be exact. The subway scene above is a perfect example: it's shot in the style of a period romance, as far as lighting and camerawork is concerned, and notice that Mike and Dito's eyes linger on each other longer than they ought. Then, pay attention again during the only scene in which all characters are present: the night on the rooftop. How Antonio keeps shooting glances at Mike and Dito, Dito's body language in relation to Mike, and how the end result plays. Consider Antonio's actions right after Dito is beaten on the street. Watch his hands. I'm not saying that it's anything explicit: I'm just saying that there's something there--Montiel, perhaps, is acknowledging the basic undertones of male affection that seem so taboo in today's society.

At any rate, this is a fantastic movie. Flawed? Perhaps. But certainly not worthy of the $5 bargain bin at Wal Mart. Find it if you can. If you already have, spread the love. This movie deserves more!

And I know I'm not the only one with opinions here. Am I reading into these relationships too much? Is Montiel's use of music distracting and inappropriate? Does it deserve to be condemned to the bargain bin? Sound off!


  1. Joe! (this is Charles) After reading this earlier today, I went to Wal Mart to buy the movie, but I could not find it. We will have to watch it someday.

    In general music is distracting to me in movies though I thought it worked well in the youtube scene. If there is going to be background music, it should be quieter than the dialogue and subtle (i.e. not marching band esque).

  2. First off, Chuck, you're awesome. I own the movie--next time we're in the same state, we'll check it out! Yeah, actually finding it is pretty tough. We had to special-order it from Borders. But I agree with your music assessment-too much is distracting (unless, of course, one is looking for a marching band). That's what Scorsese (and, by proxy, Montiel) is know for, however: deploying music effectively without drawing too much attention to itself.

  3. I really need to watch this movie again. I'm actually not a big fan of watching things on Youtube, but I may for the sake of saving money. This movie was absolutely gorgeous, and in fact made better (I think) for all the weird editing things. The scene on the bus with Mike and Dito is, to me, one of the most memorable scenes I've ever watched. I will make a more interesting comment, once I'm watched this one again and have the whole thing fresh in my mind.