“Flor de Muertos”: A love letter to the Sonoran Desert where life, death and cultures collide, with Calexico!

By on August 26, 2016

The 2011 musically-rich documentary Flor de Muertos (Flower of the Dead) is a remarkable film but difficult to properly categorize, starting out originally as a live concert performance by the beloved Tucson band Calexico before it evolved to include a contemplative look at the way different cultures deal with borders and death while also encompassing thought-provoking commentaries on our current U.S. administration’s failed immigration policies.

You can decide for yourself what Flor de Muertos means to you by checking it out over on Night Flight Plus.

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The film was originally conceived as a concert film by Tucson native Danny Vinik — who had previously directed feature documentaries such as TV Party (about the punk rock cable access TV show in the 80s, which we told you about here), and Valley Fever: Green on Red Live at the Rialto (which our contributor Pat Thomas told us about here) — but the band Calexico (frontman Joey Burns, John Convertino and another half-dozen excellent musicians) didn’t want their concert at the Rialto Theatre, following the 2009 All Souls Procession, to be, in Burns own words, “just another concert film.”

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Some 20,000 locals turn out in skull face makeup to remember, honor, and dance with the dead at this yearly event, which culminates in a spectacular finale by Flam Chen, the world-renowned pyrotechnics troupe known for death-defying aerial feats led by artistic director Nadia Hagan.

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Calexico’s performances after the processional at the Rialto — a historic but dilapidated 1920 former vaudeville theater — are also looked forward to, and looked fondly upon by the local Tucsonians as a part of the evening’s closing festivities.

Vinik — a writer, film director, film producer, nightclub promoter, film distributor, web developer and the President and Founder of BrinkMedia — partnered with producer Doug Biggers, the Executive Director and Founder of the Rialto Theatre Foundation and editor Jim Rundel, among others, to expand the multi-facted film to included documentary footage about the Mexican Day of the Dead.

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Biggers — an entrepreneur, newspaper publisher, book publisher, major event organizer, founder and CEO of a major nonprofit organization, historic property re-developer, and film producer — formed Sonication Films, LLC, and raised the capital for production and post-production costs, oversaw the business management of the production, and developed marketing and distribution strategies.

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Instead of simply filming the concert itself, Vinik spent a week — on a budget of just $145,000 — and talked with local Tucson writers Charles Bowden and Margaret Regan, who offered up their observations about a great number of topics.

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Longtime Tucson-based news reporter, author and desert rat Bowden, in particular, speaks freely and concisely about the area’s “border problem,” and offers up somewhat controversial personal opinions about drug cartels (“There are no cartels. That is a lie of the US government.”) and says he would rather be writing about plants and animals, but he ends up writing about the drug industry, which, he says, produces an estimated $30-50 billion for the Mexican economy each year.

The film interweaves scenes of Calexico playing at the Rialto (wearing skeleton costumes) with footage you might not expect to see, such as a “sound sculpturist” named Glenn Weyant who makes his own type of music by playing the border fence itself.

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In his review of the film for the Arizona Daily Star, writer Dan Sorenson says:

” On a map, the border fence is as much of a barrier as death: You’re either in the United States or you’re in Mexico. You’re either alive or you’re dead. In reality, at least in the Sonoran Desert and Mexican and Mexican-American culture of that land, Flor de Muertos shows us, both are blurred.”

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The Sonoran desert is shown — Calexico also provide the incidental music for these beautiful images of lightning-lit landscapes dotted with saguaros, shot by photographer Jeff Smith — as well as the rich borderlands communities between Tucson, Arizona and the towns of Nogales, Arizona and Mexico, where a clash of cultures along the border results in a lot of death resulting in some townspeople seeking solace and comfort in the resurgent Santa Muerte religion.

There’s a common unifying image throughout of Aztec marigolds, Tagetes erecta, (also called the Mexican marigold), and their aroma is almost something you can smell coming off the screen as we see them growing in expansive screen-filling fields.

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The flower itself — the cempasúchil — is also called the flor de muertos (“flower of the dead”) in Mexico and is used in the Día de los Muertos celebration on November 2nd each year. The word “cempasuchitl” comes from the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word zempoalxochitl which means twenty-flower: zempoal, meaning “twenty” and xochitl, “flower.”

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We’re told that the pungent floral scent of marigolds forms a path the souls of the dead can follow back to the living on the annual Day of the Dead, across a different type of border from one realm into another.

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Watch Flor de Muertos — the poster for it features the tagline: “A love letter to the Sonoran Desert where life, death and cultures collide” — streaming now at Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.