Still Breathing: magical realism for white people

The two San Antonio films we have spotlighted so far (Rolling Thunder and Race with the Devil) have been grimy, sensationalist cult classics. Still Breathing is quite different.  It’s sincere and understated — no devils are worshipped and no one gets shot in the groin with a shotgun. Still Breathing stars the dude from all the Mummy movies, the “Encino Man” himself, Brendan Fraser.  In an unexpected role, Fraser plays a San Antonio puppeteer/rock installation folk artist waiting for true love. 

Before you say “not another San Antonio puppeteer/rock installation folk artist movie,” consider that when Still Breathing came out in 1997 the independent film scene hadn’t completely stagnated and been taken over by studio-manchild rom-coms.  Being ironic, hip, or even slapstick was probably the last agenda bullet for Still Breathing. Director James Robinson was trying to make a sincere film about true love and the simplicity of San Antonio life while taking an elegant piss on the city of Los Angeles.  Working in the acidic Hollywood environment must have made Robinson appreciate San Antonio even more. I saw it when it first came out but wasn’t sold on it. After a recent viewing, I’ve come around.

 The premise: while hanging out in his San Antonio front yard and tending to his rock installations (again, just roll with it), Fraser has a vision of a woman in distress … somewhere. Background: Everyone in Fraser’s family has visions of their soul mate before meeting them. Think magical realism, but for white people. Vision by vision, Fraser has been creating a collage of her on his wall. He ends up accidentally finding her in Los Angeles and this begins their unlikely romance. Of course, there is conflict: she’s a con artist from LA trying to take him for the money she thinks he has, while he’s a sincere folk artist from San Antonio trying to win her heart.

 The film has an old soul that transcends contemporary cinema. In some ways it’s a throwback to the offbeat romance films from the 1930s. The best comparison I can think of is either Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, but I realize that’s a stretch because this film isn’t quite in their league. Whereas those directors made fast-paced screwball comedies, Still Breathing unravels very slowly, correctly capturing the pulse of San Antonio life. 

 Here’s what important: it’s the dude from The Mummy. They talk about hanging out on the Southside. There are puppets involved. Lou Rawls plays a street performer named Tree who pushes a tree around downtown in between playing the tenor sax for tourists. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band has a cameo. Much more importantly, the film received some strong critical praise when it first came out. It’s out of print for the moment, but if you’re curious, do a Google search for “James Robinson, vimeo, and Still Breathing” and you can watch it online. The fact this film about San Antonio ever got made is a testament to the director, and for that he should be praised. •

Still Breathing
Dir. James F. Robinson, feat. Brendan Fraser, Lou Rawls, Joanna Going, Ann Magnuson (PG-13)

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