Back to Published

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

A Tale of Two Cities Offers Pointed Fun

A briskly paced documentary comparing San Diego and Tijuana does a number on conventional wisdom.

By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL, Times Staff Writer

Honey, let's sell the house, let's chuck this sterile, soulless, gated-community life of ours, let's leave the metaphysical angst and the manicured lawns behind and move to Tijuana.

Yeah, TJ, metropolis of striped donkeys and perpetual dust, of drunken sailors and feral spring-breakers, of coyotes and narcos and maquiladoras.

Forgive the frivolity.

But L.A. filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez's half-hour documentary about two neighboring cities--San Diego and Tijuana--is a lot of transnational fun, with a point. It airs at 8:30 p.m. tonight on KCET.

The film, "Mixed Feelings: San Diego/Tijuana," does a number on conventional wisdom, i.e., the notion that San Diego, with its broad swaths of green, its white-sand beaches and its ever-swelling columns of tile-roofed expanses, is somehow a superior place to live than its southern doppelganger. ("America's Finest City," they used to boast, prompting a rejoinder: "America's Smuggest City.")
Let's be frank: The film traffics in an ingrained gringo-bashing ethic, a politically correct preference for chaos over order, for the spontaneous over the master-planned. Our principal interlocutors are a couple of terzo mondo-loving architects who can't seem to forgive themselves for actually living in San Diego.

No matter. Alan Rosenblum argues that San Diego has become a kind of artificial "Truman Show," with shopping its most exalted rite. Sound familiar?
Yes, we're firmly in the realm of the stereotype, even condescension. San Diego has its barrios, and Tijuana its upscale reaches. Most anyone living in a landslide-threatened hillside colonia without running water or a proper loo would gladly take the San Diego condo and the pool, never mind the sterility, thank you.

But, if you can read alienation, even desperation, into those ever-multiplying suburban boxes, you might also see relief in the embrace of messy urban-ness--even beyond the borderlands. Tijuana, like Los Angeles, is largely an agglomeration of struggling migrants, whose efforts at improving their lot radiate a certain nobility, however cluttered their physical and emotional surroundings.

Thankfully, ambiguity creeps in. Toward the end, we see a planned community, San Diego-style--except it's going up in Tijuana. An aghast tercer mundista expert likens it to a mausoleum, but then asks: Can he blame folks for wanting the comfort of the sort he enjoys on the affluent side of the jagged fence?

The film features lots of talking heads, but it never drags one down in the torturous manner, say, of those lugubrious docs from the brothers Burns. The quick cutting, unconventional camera angles, hip nortec score and aerial shots impart an MTV edge that can be distracting, but it all keeps the pace brisk.
Check it out. You may not want to pick up stakes for the nearest colonia or favela, but you might re-think facile assumptions about life in differing environments. The human condition, alas, is fraught with a certain inherent disarray, despite our efforts to impose order.

  Back to top