Hans J. Wulff, October 2007

A Letter on “Calexico Next Exit”

Some films appear out of thin air, like figures emerging from the fog. Discovery without advance notice. Film Festival Osnabrück, Saturday evening. The film is over, the one whose title we knew but nothing else. After the film: A certain element of surprise still lingers, as it sometimes does with films you know nothing about. “Not a band film!”, the young woman who moderated the screening warned. And then it starts, with one of the lightest and most carefree of film beginnings seen in years. The band begins slowly, searching and a bit hesitant. Both filmmakers use the song’s initial calm to introduce the central characters. Rhythmically confident in gesture and movement, it is an indication of the film’s allure and that of its figures. Then the music sets in – a cut to the road passing by. It is a never-ending, gliding movement, a rhythm that is sustained right up to the last minute on screen.

Movement; this is also one of the deeper themes surrounding the film. The tour manager was first included into the concept during editing; she talks about the strain of organizing tours or concerts and the desire that goes along with it. About the continuous movement of life on tour. About how friendly the people are that she meets while traveling (and about television’s perfidious tendency to only talk about the negative qualities of human behavior). It is, however, not a road movie.
It is also not about “Calexico”, the German American band named after the Mexican border town and, in turn, namesake of the film. Few concert clips but an entire array of cut images in quick succession that show the band setting up the stage in different cities. Then another radical departure of visual tempo: Flowing phrases lend an ethereal sound to some of the slower pieces, as if the wind is driving the music apart. And to go along with it are pictures of vacant, often desolate street scenes instead of images of the band. The music’s mournful, yearning cadence takes hold of the pictures. These intermediate, transitional scenes are much more pivotal than they first seem to be – the more often one sees them, the more they appear to become an allegorical center of narrative and to signalize a force behind these empty, vacant images that extends beyond everyday life. A force self-sufficient and blind, one that wants nothing, neither wealth nor eternal life.

The fans appear to be familiar with this energy and idiosyncratically direct it towards the group making the music. It is not just any type of music but rather a certain sound, a certain rhythm, a certain affective attitude (the film does not delve into the deeper, emotional layers the music addresses but instead respects these as something private and protected). The bond between fans and band is paradoxical and melancholic, which actually gives the film a romantic edge. That the name is redolent of Tex-Mex, adventure and Tequila, of heat and of passion, is of little importance.

“What do a bank employee from Izhevsk in the Ural, an IKEA delivery driver from Berlin, a housewife and a Karstadt maintenance engineer from Lörrach, and a university lecturer from China have in common?”, the film makers ask. They tell about the four fans they contacted through the internet and their own surprise at the band’s global popularity. The Russian who owns 192 live recordings, the German that collects band t-shirts, the Chinese who has never ventured out of his own country, the middle-aged couple who faithfully road-trip to every concert on the German tour and photograph water towers on the side. An unheard-of subjective meaning is evoked by the music, one that takes tangible form through the band itself. The band gives a face and name to a subjective energy that otherwise may remain inarticulated.

The film should not suggest a one-dimensional story but instead should resemble a kaleidoscope, a floating among an array of themes that brush up against you if you follow the fans as closely as you follow the film. The Russian works on obtaining visa documents, the German couple goes on vacation, with the other German philosophizing on signals and their meaning within pop culture while speaking about his t-shirts. The band gives a benefit concert for those caught trying to enter the USA illegally; important and not-so-important subjects, those that pertain to the individual and those that pertain to the widespread and sweeping, like pearls strung on a chain. It is also this that gives the film a remarkable modernity. The “big story” fails to appear; there is no beginning and no end but there is a world of yearning and desirous energy that is not directed towards the material. To direct an own desirous energy at a faraway band, to make the effort to find that band and meet them personally – this is the film’s second paradox that deals with the people that revolve around an imaginary center and, because of this, seem to possess an extraordinary self-awareness.

“Freaks!” one could sneer and talk about loss of reality or the irrelevance of music. Or of a desirous energy that one could more concretely desire. And of a drastic alienation among the film’s protagonists. But the film tells of a bond with a long prehistory – a bond that, when regarded within the long history of the world’s fascination with art, emerged with the Romantic. Scattered, at times unworldly figures who were stirred to consciousness when singing the praises of art – vestiges of Heine’s drunken young man who stood in front of the wardrobe to bespeak the yellow lederhosen as the moon can be traced when listening to the Russian tell of his attempts to get to one of the band’s concerts, his eyes glistening with the memory. The significant focus of his tale is actually the trip and not the music. Each one’s efforts to get to the band is the attempt to create a small but subjective, extremely profuse horizon of the senses. They are minimal acts of outburst, of emancipation, of the negation of everyday life. The connection to the band makes the fans distinguishable from all others, different in each country and, where possible, different according to each circumstance. They are members of a worldwide secret society brought together and joined by the net. This private form of globalization also distinguishes them from the others.

Only sagacious films can entice the viewer to delve into its inner substance. This one is worth it.

P.S. By the way, “Calexico Next Exit” is a highway exit sign in southern California

[Translation: Dayna Sadow]