The film Lake Tahoe acts as a very good lesson in no-budget filmmaking, but it also demonstrates that if your cinematic style does not jibe with your subject matter, it doesn’t matter how frugally you make the film, it simply won’t work.
The film begins with Juan (Diego Catano), a Mexican teenager accidentally running his car into a street post. After this, he can’t get the car started so he embarks on a slow, and I mean slow visit to every auto parts shop in the nearby area. This journey is filmed in very long takes with NO camera movement (except for a handful of shots, presumably filmed on the day the filmmakers either borrowed or rented a dolly). The set-ups are maddeningly repetitious. We will usually have a long shot of a garage or auto shop from across the street. Juan will walk into the frame (usually from the right to the left) and he will either stop at the store and ask about spare parts or he will just continue through the frame and out of sight. At this point, we will usually cut to black and this black will either be a silent or it will contain some sound effect like a car crash or a dog barking, but mostly, the black frames are silent.
Now, this happens again and again in Lake Tahoe and while I tried to empty my mind of ordinary film technique, I couldn’t help asking myself if these cuts to black were an attempt to compress time or were a way to show that our hero has walked a long distance. Certainly, if the director didn’t cut to black between shots and had simply continued with the long shots of Juan walking cut together in continuity, I would have gotten a sense of space and location, but by depriving us of this continuity of locale and not being clear about time compression, I was left wondering just what the hell was I watching.
Ultimately, we learn that Juan’s father has died, presumably very recently and that he, along with his mother and younger brother are trying to deal with their grief, but they don’t seem to be doing it very well. Mom simply sits in the bathtub chain smoking and crying. Little brother hides in his tent in the front yard or in the closet in the room he shares with his brother. Meanwhile, Juan keeps looking for a distributor harness so he can get his car repaired, but considering he makes several visits during the course of the day to his house, he must not have crashed very far away in the first place, but then again, without any indication of time or locale, I don’t know this for sure.
The rest of the film follows Juan as he deals with a variety of eccentric local people, but presumably, these people are his neighbors so I am at a loss to explain why he doesn’t know them. Juan meets an old man at a garage who asks him to walk his dog, named Sica, which the boy promptly loses. He meets a girl in a spare parts store who asks him to baby sit for her while she goes to a concert. He also meets another teenager named David (Juan Carlos Lara), about the same age as Juan who is a mechanical whiz and he manages to get the Juan’s car started again. David also invites Juan to see the film Enter The Dragon later that night when it plays in a local movie house. The upshot of the whole movie comes when Juan finally gets his damaged car home and he peels off a bumper sticker that say LAKE TAHOE on it which he was apparently given as a gift from his deceased father. Cut to the credits.
Now, all of these long shots and black outs are deliberate choices made by director Fernando Eimbcke and I haven’t the faintest idea what he is trying to say about grief by using this technique. Now, other directors have used long static shots followed by blackouts, most notably Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, but here the style is just plain annoying and pretentiously quirky.
If you are going to eschew conventional filmmaking techniques, that is perfectly fine, but have a point for doing it. What is the director trying to communicate on a formal level with this heavy, deadpan style that could not be communicated with regular style? This doesn’t make Lake Tahoe stand out, it just makes it tedious.
Furthermore, it seems like the actors were all told to deliberately tone down anything like emotion in their performances. The only character who comes to anything resembling life is David, the boy mechanical genius and that’s because he happens to love the martial arts and is forever practicing his high kicks when he gets a chance. It’s not much to build a character on, but Juan Carlos Lara is the only person in this film with a personality.
By the end of the film, I was even more perplexed than I was at the start and I am still wondering what the actual Lake Tahoe has to do with anything. As a film lover, I know that Lake Tahoe was where Michael Corleone had his brother Fredo executed in The Godfather Part II and that the entire story for the great thriller The Deep End took place there, but what this fresh water lake in Nevada has to do with anything else in this film is too obscure for me to comprehend.
A better title for this film would be The Long, Long, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Poor Fernando Eimbcke, the sophomore curse has struck again.