One of Frías de la Parra’s masterstrokes is to highlight the similar ways in which Monterrey and New York (otherwise such radically distinct cities) are brimming with diagonal lines: in Monterrey due to its topography, lying as it is on the mountainous countryside of northern Mexico; while in New York because of its architectural verticality, the dense crowding of buildings of all sizes, where the up and the down are connected by an infinity of stairs and ladders, internal and external. Laban diagonals are ideal for understanding the cunning visual ways Frías de la Parra deploys Ulises’s story.
* * *
As its title indicates, Ya No Estoy Aquí (I Am No Longer Here) is a film about motion in space. Indeed, writer/director Fernando Frías de la Parra has been widely praised for his insightful forays into two very different kinds of movement.
One kind is the movement of migration, of traveling far away, of crossing borders, of leaving life in one place for a different life in a different place. The journey undertaken by Ulises (Juan Daniel García Teviño), the film’s protagonist (get it? Ulysses… journey…), from his home in Monterrey, Mexico, to New York City and back again, is the paradigm through which the film explores, in a series of patient, sure-handed set pieces, the realities of life for undocumented immigrants in the United States, but also, more universally, the challenges and frustrations inherent in being a stranger in a strange land. The Netflix-backed production accomplishes, says one admirer, “an authentic portrait of a boy adrift from home.”1 “Ulises,” explains another, “tries to assimilate to his new geography” until “he begins to question his place in a country where he doesn’t fit, and yearns to return home.”2
The second kind of movement is dancing, specifically, dancing to the cumbia music imported from Colombia, but transformed by the Monterrey “cholombiano” culture into a sound and a lifestyle – “Kolombia” – all its own. Gone is the hip-swiveling sexiness of the best-known varieties of cumbia. Kolombia dancing involves rapid, repetitive stepping or kicking, accompanied by exaggerated hip or knee jerks, while mostly staying in one spot, or in a tight circle around a fixed center. It’s not a waltz or a merengue, which reward traveling about the dance floor. Kolombia says stay put, show your stuff right here right now, surrounded by your people, one or two of which will soon enough take your place as the center of attention.
Ulises’ great joy and his great talent are dancing to his favorite cumbias rebajadas – slowed-down versions of classic songs, so that, he says, “they’ll last longer.”3 He is a master on the floor, knees bent low, sneakers flailing at warp speed, looking (not by chance) like a shaman performing a sacred ritual around the campfire. For Ulises and his clique, the Terkos, and the umbrella gang, the Star, to which they and their friendly rivals all belong, Kolombia cumbia is more than fun, more than art, more than culture, it is the meaning of life itself, the only thing that makes sense in their shantytown lives, ever drowning in drugs, gang violence, and hopelessness. Ya No Estoy Aquí, comments yet another approving critic, offers a “deeply intimate glimpse” into how “cumbia helps to hold a small community together even as it expresses an indescribable longing.”4
Much has been written about the themes, the politics, the anthropological acuity exhibited in this fascinating, heartbreaking text. Here I will for the most part sidestep them in order to focus on a key artistic aspect of the film’s construction: the way Frías de la Parra emphasizes motion itself – the process of changing physical location, the coming and the going of characters and objects – to tell his story.
Consider a seemingly throwaway moment early on. Ulises is standing by a payphone in New York (the film jumps back and forth chronologically, between its hero’s life in Monterrey and his travails north of the border), calling in to his favorite radio station back in Monterrey. The host, who knows Ulises and his crew, takes the call and asks some questions – “Where are you calling from?” “The other side,” responds Ulises. “Do you want to send a shout-out?” – but is suddenly interrupted. An official government announcement is to be broadcast across the airwaves. For the radio host this means a moment of respite. Unexpectedly on break, he hangs up on Ulises. The scene could end here, but instead the camera lingers. The host stands up from his chair, walks to the end of his desk, then around it (toward the viewer), then across in the other direction and out of the frame.
Three directions: horizontal, then vertical, then horizontal.
A little later, Ulises and the men he’s working with (his contact found him a construction job in New York) are getting out of the subway. Again the camera stays put in order to show the group perform the quick dance around physical barriers – in this case the train walls. Right they go, then up (away from the viewer), then left. Then again, later still, Ulises is looking through the window inside an electronics store. He decides to go in, moves right toward the door, then up to walk through the door, then left toward the counter inside the shop.
One such moment wouldn’t mean much, just people moving in pursuit of their goals, but the repetition of the pattern, and the insistence of the camera in recording the repetition, is not trivial, and certainly not accidental. Frías de la Parra has a plan here, a plan to train his audience to notice not only where his characters are and where they go, but how they move from the one to the other, the vectors they create, the lines they traverse, the obstacles they must maneuver around. In the process of telling his story, the director guides the viewer’s attention toward the picture’s “kinesphere,” within which he is fashioning his own vision of “choreutics.”
* * *
Choreutics is the study of harmony in space, originated by the Austro-Hungarian-German-British dancer-choreographer-theorist Rudolf (von) Laban, one of the pioneers of movement analysis. Indeed, he was a pioneer in many fields related to modern dance, and is considered a towering figure in 20th-century art, revered and studied to this day despite his very public association with the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s.5
For decades in his later life, Laban labored to understand the movement within what he termed the “kinesphere,” which is the space around a person within reaching distance of any part of the body. Consider the position you are in right now – sitting, standing, lying down. Now consider all the spots you could reach by moving your outstretched arms: legs, your head, any part of your body. That is your kinsephere at this moment. Once you change location – by walking, crawling, hopping on your chair, rolling over – your kinesphere has changed, but at all times you exist within your own kinesphere.
A film shot of moving pictures has its own kinesphere – clearly demarcated limits for the reach of anything within the frame, beyond which the viewer cannot apprehend what is happening. Even more so than in the three-dimensional real world, the borders of a movie shot’s kinesphere are inviolable. I want to suggest that while you might argue that all film artists do this, Ya No Estoy Aquí displays a particular fixation with movement within the frame, within a particular shot’s kinesphere, and that this, again, is deliberate on the part of Frías de la Parra, who, in a film about movement, is intent on deploying his own powers to fashion evocative and unexpected forms of motion.
For my purposes here, Laban’s key insight is his concept of “deflecting diagonals” or “deflecting inclinations.” Laban, as Jeffrey Longstaff explains, noted that neither “pure dimensional movements” – lateral (left/right), vertical (up/down), sagittal (fore/deep) – nor “pure diagonals” occur often in the world “in their pure form.” Movement, rather, most commonly manifests as “inclinations,” that is, “rough approximations of dimensions and diagonals.” Most diagonals in the real world are “modified,” they are “striving to be a diagonal,” but are limited by physical conditions, the realities of body and place, and therefore “diverge toward one of the dimensions, creating an inclination.”6
The number of possible inclinations is theoretically infinite. A “diagonal” street could be inclined at countless different angles. For practical purposes, Laban developed a relatively simple taxonomy of twenty-four inclinations (where the first, capitalized term is the dimension toward which the diagonal inclines the most):
|Flat (lateral)||Steep (vertical)||Suspended (saggital)|
By virtue of their inclination, of their asymmetry, deflecting diagonals have the potential to transmit, alternatively, a sense of stability or one of mobility, and this can be used for effect in dance choreography. “Since every movement,” says Laban, “is a composite of stabilising and mobilising tendencies, and since neither pure stability nor pure mobility exist, it will be the deflected or mixed inclinations which are the more apt to reflect trace-forms of living matter.”7
I cannot say with any confidence that Fernando Frías de la Parra has ever heard of Rudolph Laban, but I contend that the visual language of Ya No Estoy Aquí is employing this very principle. The shots, the movement of characters and vehicles within specific frames, are designed to emphasize diagonal movement, specifically inclined diagonal movement. Film critic Robert Abele intuits this when he comments on the film’s tendency to “highlight vectors – a wall, a road, a fire escape ladder – to keep us thinking of directions and pathways.”8 But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
One of Frías de la Parra’s masterstrokes is to highlight the similar ways in which Monterrey and New York (otherwise such radically distinct cities) are brimming with diagonal lines: in Monterrey due to its topography, lying as it is on the mountainous countryside of northern Mexico; while in New York because of its architectural verticality, the dense crowding of buildings of all sizes, where the up and the down are connected by an infinity of stairs and ladders, internal and external. Laban diagonals are ideal for understanding the cunning visual ways Frías de la Parra deploys Ulises’s story. More generally, I hope this analysis encourages critics and film scholars to pay more attention to the geometry and the physical movement filmmakers employ in their texts. “Laban Movement Analysis,” according to the music scholar Lynn Matluck, “has done for the field of movement what music theory has done for the field of music.” Indeed, his insights “can be applied to the entire field of movement, not only to its art form – dance.”9
* * *
Monterrey sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. A teeming metropolis of over one million people, the city reaches the bases of the elevations and keeps going, climbing up the mountainsides like a parasitic vine. Up in the highlands, however, the city stops and the shantytowns begin. The higher, the more steeply inclined the terrain, the more likely to house the impoverished, the forgotten.
Frías de la Parra shows this in an early tracking shot. It’s night. The city lights overwhelm the darkness, as the camera, perched on a high lookout spot, observes from above. Slowly, the frame follows the contour of the city, moving, from the viewer’s perspective, in a right-deep-back direction. Then, as the city ends at the base of the hills, the camera changes course and begins gliding deep-fore-right.
Music is now perceptible in the background, and an MC’s voice is speaking into a microphone. Gradually the volume rises, as the camera is leisurely passing over the slums, always diagonally, until it changes direction again, now moving high-back-right. Until it finds the crowd, the people of the Star, in the midst of a dance party, huddled in separate groups, each forming a circle within which one or two people show their stuff, spinning, stepping, skipping in place.
The camera stops to focus on the Terkos. The static line is horizontal. Horizontality means stability. It means tranquility. It means nobody will be forced to move. They move only because they choose to. Ulises dances, as do his friends, Chaparra, Isai, Jeremy. The shot lingers, the camera remains unmoving. This is where, for better or worse, these people are joyous, truly alive. This is where they belong. To make the point indelible, Frías de la Parra has presented the city, and the Terkos’ place in it, with his own kind of dance, his own form of beautiful, harmonious motion within the kinesphere of the picture.
The camera’s dance of the diagonals has several purposes. One is to parallel, to mimic, the characters’ dance. Throughout the film the shot skips and jumps like Ulises’s feet between directions, between deflected diagonals. Another purpose is to encourage the same sense of dislocation the poor in Monterrey, everywhere really, feel daily, not knowing where the next meal will come from, nor whether a loved one will survive a face-off with gangs, with the police. A number of scenes in Ya No Estoy Aquí take place around long lines of people waiting for basic necessities to be handed out to them – by political hopefuls, by drug cartels. They are but a glimpse into the awful reality of poverty, the impotence, the insecurity. As I write this, in the summer of 2022, Monterrey, Mexico, is experiencing its worst drought in decades, the highland residents completely dependent on government water trucks for survival.10 Most scenes featuring the Terkos emphasize precarious, perilous diagonality, so that when they gather in their favorite hangout, a half-built abandoned building, the horizontality, the stability, is all the more strongly felt.
Similarly, the dance of diagonals gives visual reality to Ulises’s dislocation in New York City. He is continuously walking up and down steps – to apartments, to subway stations, to rooftops – in diagonals of varying steepness. The very streets of New York are shot at inclines, so that characters seem to be laboring for any progress forward.
Just arrived in the city, Ulises is on his first construction job. He exits a row house and walks toward the viewer, to a pickup truck full of materials – fore-right-deep. The man on the truck chastises Ulises for trying to carry too much and for not wearing his work boots (Ulises will not part from his beloved sneakers). “No seas terco,” the man tells him, “Don’t be stubborn.” Ulises walks away, toward the house – back-left-deep, then back-right-deep. The changing of directions, the alternating diagonals, signifies Ulises’s displacement, his inability to find horizontality, and it also brings to mind the dancing that is his only place of escape.
* * *
“Space,” says Laban, “is a hidden feature of movement and movement is a visible aspect of space.”11 It is here that the subtle genius of Ya No Estoy Aquí is to be found: in the using of movement to comprehend space, and of space to give meaning to movement.
Ulises sits at home, some ten minutes into the film, listening to his favorite radio station. His mother calls him. “Turn down the radio! You’ll wake the baby.” Ulises does as he’s told, but the baby wakes up crying anyway. “Go!,” yells his mother. “Go somewhere else.” Ulises does, he stands up, walks to the door to leave – left-high-back.
A cut and now the camera’s outside, watching Ulises emerge from his house, and begin the supple, complex dance of entering the outside world. Downhill he walks – left-deep-fore – then more starkly forward, toward the viewer – left-deep-fore – then turns – fore-deep-left – again – left-deep-back – and again – back-left-deep – and again – fore-left-deep – and again – fore-right-deep. He walks in this last diagonal, walks, for what feels like forever. He runs into a beggar on the street. “You got something?” “Nah, I’m broke, man.” Rather than complain, the man sings to Ulises. He knows Ulises. Everyone knows him – “I thought I saw you dancing cumbia…” Down Ulises walks – fore-right-deep – and only now, in tall letters behind him, does the film’s title appear: “I Am No Longer Here.”
What is “here”? Not the city. Not the house. Not even the abandoned-building where he hangs out with the Terkos. “Here” is this walk, these lines, this movement through, and toward, life.
Here is this choreography, this dance. Note the changing vectors, note how each sends Ulises a different way, each within the frame’s kinesphere. Note also, thanks to Laban, how they tie to each other, how, in their variety, they compose their own kind of harmony.
The emotional effect of the diagonals is profound even as it’s hidden. Consider the catalytic moment in the film, right at its center: the drive-by shooting Ulises witnesses by pure, tragic coincidence, which in turn leads to his exile north of the border. The frame shows a small stone structure with a dilapidated façade. Before it lounge four young men wearing dark clothes, shaved heads, conspicuous bling. They are, the film has established earlier, the most dangerous members of the gang that “protects” the Terkos and the other tribelets of the Star. They are ruthlessly violent, though they spend most of their time here, immobile, like lizards warming their blood in the sun. From the camera’s vantage point, two roads descend diagonally, one on each side of the structure, forming a V whose vertex is right between the camera and the gangbangers.
On the top-left of the frame appears Ulises, walking downwards toward them, fore-left-deep. An instant later, on the right, two motorcycles appear, speeding downward also, but fore-right-deep. Simultaneously, Ulises turns and walks, fore-right-deep, as the motorcycles turn and ride, fore-left-deep. From the bikes emerge the sound of automatic gunfire. The gangbangers, Ulises’s protectors, fall to the ground, all but one shot in the head. Ulises crouches, huddles behind a wall. The bikes are gone. Ulises hasn’t moved. The camera hasn’t either. It lingers, lingers on the bodies of the dead, and on Ulises, still as a gargoyle, paralyzed by terror. Until, slowly, the camera is in motion, moving toward the crime, toward the dead, toward Ulises, back-left-high. The direction of the camera sharply contrasts with the dance we’ve just witnessed, the face to face, defaced by the camera’s stabbing, countervailing motion.
This is what this moment has done to Ulises, stabbed his life, ended it for all purposes. Within hours, Ulises will be in a car, driving away from the city. Up the hill the car drives – back-right-high – then downhill, invisible to the camera, then uphill again – back-right-high again.
Is it any surprise that, at the very end of the story, once Ulises has realized that there’s nothing for him on the other side, that he must return home to face his fate, and to dance on the soil where his dance was born, Frías de la Parra shows us a car driving the opposite way on those same hills – fore-right-deep, fore-right-deep.
* * *
Of the many cumbias featured in Ya No Estoy Aquí, the one that most captures its spirit is “Lejanía” by Lisandro Meza (“lejanía” means “distance” but not exactly, more like “far-away-ness”). “What sadness it brings me,” it goes, “to be so far away from my land.” And the only cure for sadness? “A cumbia,” sings Meza, “that flowered in my heart/like a tear escaping/A cumbia of the soul.” The song is played multiple times during the film, in its original version and in its Kolombia, rabajada version. It is also sung a cappella by Sudadera (Yahir Alday), the newest member of the Terkos. They sit up high in their hideout, sit on a horizontal ledge, looking down on their city. Yet “Lejanía” speaks of their far-away-ness too, not physically from their land, but from security, from the life that they sense they deserve but is refused them. Colombia is so far away, the well-to-do living below, within the true confines of the city, are so far away, the future is so far away.
Ya No Estoy Aquí tells of distance, of far-away-ness, in its many choreographies. Ulises, lost and alone, walking the streets of New York at night. The Terkos, full of life, stealing a political banner to remake into their flag. Ulises being picked up by the police and taken to a migrant holding facility. The traveler returning home, stopping at each corner, each house that signifies his former life. Each one of these moments is a dance of deflected diagonals, a self-contained tour de force of mobility and stability.
“Existence is movement,” says Laban, “Action is movement.” Rudolf von Laban The Language of Movement: A Guide to Choreutics, Play Inc., 1974, p. 4.12 In most films, movement is secondary to existence and to action, but in Ya No Estoy Aquí, sometimes at least, the opposite seems to be the case. It urges viewers to focus on movement itself, to penetrate more deeply into the experience of being in the world, but also to go forth, once the film is over, and explore movement in other films, in other worlds.
* * *
Note: All images are screenshots from the film or trailers.
- Natalia Winkelman “‘I’m No Longer Here’ Review: A Boy Adrift,” New York Times, 5/27/2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/movies/im-no-longer-here-review.html [↩]
- “Cuarentena por coronavirus: Ya no estoy aquí, un drama con ritmo de cumbia,” Clarín, 6/23/2020 https://www.clarin.com/espectaculos/cine/cuarentena-coronavirus-drama-ritmo-cumbia_0_-1L29B0AW.html. (My translation of the Spanish original). [↩]
- See Ana Ivette, “Las canciones de ‘Ya no estoy aqui’ que te llevarán a un viaje interior,” Cultura Colectiva, 2/1/2022 https://culturacolectiva.com/musica/ya-no-estoy-aqui-las-mejores-canciones-del-soundtrack-de-la-pelicula-de-netflix/ [↩]
- Bilge Ebiri “Netflix’s I’m No Longer Here Is a Lovely Tale of Music, Migration, and Loss,” Vulture, 5/29/2020. https://www.vulture.com/article/im-no-longer-here-movie-review-ya-no-estoy-aqu.html [↩]
- Kew, Carole. “From Weimar movement choir to Nazi community dance: The rise and fall of Rudolf Laban’s Festkultur.” Dance Research 17.2, 1999, pp. 73-96. [↩]
- Jeffrey S. Longstaff, “Rudolf Laban’s Dream: Re-envisioning and Re-scoring Ballet, Choreutics, and Simple Functional Movements with Vector Signs for Deflecting Diagonal Inclinations,” in Journal of Movement Arts Literacy, 4:1, 2018, https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/jmal/vol4/iss1/2/, p. 6. [↩]
- Quoted in Longstaff, p. 7. [↩]
- Robert Abele “Review: Mexico’s ‘I’m No Longer Here’ spans the gap between alienation and connection,” Los Angeles Times, 2/26/2021. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-02-26/review-mexico-im-no-longer-here [↩]
- Matluck Brooks, Lynn “Harmony in Space: A Perspective on the Works of Rudolph Laban,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 27:2, 1993, pp. 29-41, https://hugoribeiro.com.br/biblioteca-digital/Brooks-Harmony_in_space-Rudolf_Laban.pdf, p. 31. [↩]
- Abi-Habib Maria and Brian Avelar “Mexico’s Cruel Drought: ‘Here You Have to Chase the Water’,” The New York Times, 8/3/2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/03/world/americas/mexico-drought-monterrey-water.html [↩]
- Rudolf von Laban The Language of Movement: A Guide to Choreutics, Play Inc., 1974, p. 4. [↩]
- Laban, p. 2. [↩]