Sunday, July 29, 2007

Twenty two years and counting

Summary: This Sunday's New York Times carried a story about director Leon Ichaso in its Arts & Leisure section. Though far from being a household name, Ichaso may gain increased recognition when his new movie, "El Cantante," opens Friday. Even so, the promise filmmakers such as Ichaso once represented remains largely unfulfilled. Blame Hollywood.

"El Cantante" stars Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez in a music-filled dramatization of the short, ruined life of singer Hector Lavoe. The Puerto Rican-born Lavoe died in 1993, a victim of AIDS contracted through the needles he used to feed a massive drug habit. Anthony plays Lavoe, and Lopez portrays his wife, Puchi.

Despite its obvious star power, I'd be surprised if "El Cantante," which got some play at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, causes much of a stir. A tired conceit frames the story: A documentary crew interviews Puchi for a film about her late husband. The movie's mixture of overheated drama and hot music may not be enough to propel it to the upper registers of box-office performance.

But that's not where I'm going with this. The Times' story caught my eye because of a small, on-set photograph of Ichaso looking into a camera. Thicker of girth and considerably more leonine than I remembered, Ichaso now has something of the air of an old warrior about him -- or so it seemed to me. I first encountered Ichaso in 1985 when his brash new movie, "Crossover Dreams," emerged as one of the hottest films in that year's New Directors/New Films Series from Lincoln Center. He's now 58.

In '85, Ichaso traveled to Denver, where I live, to talk about his movie. I remember him as a lean, energized guy who dreamed of opening the movies to new voices. Specifically, he talked about wanting to make a movie out of "Carlito's Way," a gritty novel by Edwin Torres, who at the time was a judge in New York. (A decade later, "Carlito's Way" hit the screen, only directed by Brian DePalma and starring Al Pacino.)

Fittingly, "Crossover Dreams" dealt with rising and dashed hopes: It told the story of a salsa singer played by Panamanian star Reuben Blades, who at the time was not a high-profile singer/actor in the U.S. Blades established himself as a big-screen personality playing Rudy Veloz in Icahso's film, which was set in Spanish Harlem.

Since then, the Times' story pointed out, the Cuban-born Ichaso has worked a bunch (TV and movies) and been married twice. He also has hung onto the hope that something might break big for him, although he's been through enough to know that such expectations easily can be reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes.

I don't think I would have recognized Ichaso had I run into him on the street. More than 20 years have passed since I met him, and if his promise has not entirely been fulfilled, neither has the promise that movies would learn to accommodate new voices, bringing the creative energy of true diversity to Hollywood.

It's not that there's been no movement; it's that there hasn't been nearly enough. The moment still remains ripe for Hollywood to do the right thing -- and, in so doing, breathe a little life into its withering limbs.

If Anthony and Lopez, who'll be touring together beginning in September, don't set the world on fire with this film, I can't say I really care. I do, however, hope that 22 years from now, some journalist doesn't see a picture made by some hot new Hispanic director and wonder whether he or she will be able to blow open industry doors that too often seem to be made of lead.

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