Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Love and Loneliness Along the Border By JUSTIN DeFREITAS

Friday February 24, 2006

At 20 paces Ivan Thompson is a dead ringer for the late Hunter S. Thompson—a lean figure in jeans and 10-gallon hat, mysterious and rugged with eyes concealed by large dark sunglasses. However, Ivan—the self-styled “Cowboy Cupid” of director Michèle Ohayon’s documentary Cowboy del Amor, opening today at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley—has none of the gonzo journalist’s mumbled, eccentric rapid-fire cadences. Instead he is a plain-spoken, down-to-earth southwesterner with the twangy, no-nonsense voice of a man who has spent his life on ranches, working hard and scraping by amid the tumbleweeds and dust. 

Yet his business has a certain gonzo flair: Thompson makes his living finding Mexican brides for lonely American men, placing ads in Mexican newspapers and shuttling his clients across the border to interview prospective mates. It’s as if Doonesbury’s opportunistic Uncle Duke has come to life, mining human frailty and geopolitical realities for mercenary gain. 

The film walks a moral borderline as well as a literal one, and consequently provokes mixed emotions. On the one hand, the people are sympathetic—it is easy to understand their pain, their loneliness, their need to find something new and their willingness to resort to such means to get it. On the other hand, the inherent misogyny of the operation is unsettling. The men, it seems, are looking for docile Mexican dolls to sit by their sides, to comfort them and prop them up, to come live in their homes and to generally behave themselves, while the women are looking for respect, love, security, equality and, perhaps most importantly, a shot at the American Dream.  

Doubtless there are success stories—Thompson has apparently made several dozen matches over the years—but it’s difficult to see how these conflicting desires could mesh for very long. The women are looking for a means to an end; their path is an upward trajectory, and marriage is just a first step. The men, however, are generally headed downward; their goal is simply to find someone to share their final years with, or perhaps to help slow the descent and level it off.  

Thompson himself is something of a harbinger of what’s in store for these couples. Already once divorced, he met and married a young Mexican beauty only to learn later that she had four children from a previous marriage. He managed to absorb that shock, but the second shock was insurmountable: Chayo wanted to learn to speak English. This was too much for Thompson; his wife was becoming “too American.” The conflict is a fundamental one: Chayo’s desire to reach her potential and fully engage with the American world in which she was living clashed with her husband’s desire to keep her as merely a part of his own private world.  

But Thompson doesn’t seem to fully grasp the significance of his experience and is all too eager to share the fruits of his mixed results with others. And there are plenty of takers. 

What kind of man is tempted by a billboard to hand over $3,000 to a broker to find him a Mexican bride? Well, pretty much just the kind of man you’d guess: middle-aged, perhaps older, with either a history of failure with women or no history with women at all; a man no longer ambitious, but rather resigned and disconsolate, desperate to gain some measure of control over his life and environment. These are lonely, broken men, “men without women,” as Hemingway called them, and the minimalism of the phrase aptly reflects the men it describes: dull, uninspired, uncertain and insecure. They are for the most part simple men, men who speak simply with simple words, if they speak at all. If there are fires burning in their bellies, they’ve long since learned to tamp them down and just get along. 

The women, on the other hand, are quite complex. They come from all walks of life; they are housewives, doctors, lawyers, secretaries. During the interviews they walk a delicate line, attempting to appear feminine and desirable while trying to subtly communicate their needs and backgrounds in non-threatening ways. It is only when Ohayon’s camera catches them alone that we begin to glimpse their real personalities. 

If you didn’t know going in that the film was directed by a woman, you’d soon deduce it from the scenes that follow. The women, away from the awkward casting-couch interview process, suddenly open up in private conversations in a way they didn’t and couldn’t before the scrutinizing eyes of Thompson and his clients. The cautiousness disappears, the flirtatiousness subsides, and we see these women relaxed, honest and contemplative, dropping the pretense and talking, woman to woman. And here we see their complexity and their pain—the pain of broken marriages and family tragedies, the longing for a better life, or at least another life, and the strained loyalties as they prepare to move away from the only homes and families they’ve ever known. 

Despite the charisma, kindness and humor of Ivan Thompson, the film is permeated with a certain sadness—the sadness that comes with the acknowledgment that life is not a story with a fairly-tale ending, but a series of compromises, of people making do with what they have. And the sadness is compounded by the realization that for these women, their only path to independence is through dependence on a man; and that these men, being American, believe that they can simply buy the happiness they’ve thus far been unable to find.  

There is at least one happy ending among the match-ups depicted in the film, yet that does not go very far in masking the film’s essential tragedy: wounded women trying to become Something after rising from Nothing, only to find themselves in the arms of men with a deep-seated need to keep them there.  

Though they may find consolation in having found a partner, in having someone to walk hand in hand with through that dusty, desolate landscape, we are left with the feeling that these couples are destined to always walk with an inviolable border between them.