‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ is a strange, fantastic reflection of immigrant experience

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Ana Lily Amirpour, director of the hypnotic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was born in England, of Iranian parents; grew up in Bakersfield, of all places; and studied film at UCLA. Her film is like a cinematic echo of such wanderings, a repository of all kinds of worldly influences, cinematic and musical and literary: the dialogue is in Persian, but the setting looks like small-town America; the solitary, dusty imagery belongs in a Western, but the protagonist is a vampiress who wears her chador like a superhero cape; and, to conclude the genre salad, the story of young lovers, everlasting nights, and drug dealers is electrifying, modern noir.

Bad City, the imaginary location where the action takes place, is both nowhere and everywhere. It conveys a sense of being in two (or more) places at once, and (thus) in no place at all. It’s not “Iran Iran,” says Amirpour in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, but “a fairytale Iranian town, like how Gotham is a New York of the mind.” Of course, the actual film was shot far from Iran, in Taft, “one of those shitty little oil towns in the California desert,” as she calls it, or “California redneck mall country,” as she describes neighboring Bakersfield in another interview, with The Hairpin.

This geographic ambivalence is typical of the immigrant experience, or at least of my own. Amirpour’s life, and all its twisty international perambulations, weirdly resembles mine, as I was born in Spain, of Argentine parents; grew up in Bakersfield, of all places; and studied English at UCLA. Immigration has always ruled my days, ever since I moved from Madrid to Buenos Aires, at age three, and then again, first to Los Angeles and finally to Bakersfield. (Many years later, I would retrace my steps, back to Argentina.)

During my stay in California, my home country became an imaginary place. I could no longer see it evolve firsthand, or evolve my own perception of it and confirm its real-ness. I was someplace else, far away, and all I had left of Argentina were brief anecdotes heard at dinner parties, my own childhood memories, and short mentions on the news. With the years, Argentina became a fantasy to me, populated by ghosts and mirages, that served mostly as skeptical commentary on my dissatisfied Californian sojourn, intensifying moments of loneliness with a promise of escape, if only I could return.

As in Amirpour’s collision of Iran and Taft, I superimposed my Buenos Aires of the mind over the Bakersfield or Los Angeles in front of me. And, with other Argentine emigrés, I reconstructed my country out of wishful thinking and scattered recollections, most of which were locked in time. Because once you leave a place, you freeze it, like a portrait, and store it as a static recollection. The place itself continues to change, but you only know it as it was. And with other people who’ve left the same place, you make a quilt out of all the little pieces of what used to be.

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Amirpour never lived in Iran, as I did in Buenos Aires. She isn’t remembering her earliest youth, since she spent it in England or Miami. But her dislocated Persian vampire in Kern County is a powerful, evocative concept. The tone of the film is poetic, not parodic. The geographic playfulness is not meant to be ironic, but strange, eerie, oneiric. Bad City can only exist in the movies. Or in dreams, because dreams do exactly this: recombine disparate elements, bring them together; populate locations from the past with acquaintances from the present; allow characters from fiction to hang out with family and friends. The meaning of place is blurred. Our trust in it disappears, since any place can be all places.

Genre cinema, by its nature, tends towards travel and displacement: tropes endure across centuries and continents, both mutating and remaining the same, connecting this indie film with Sheridan Le Fanu’s original 19th-century vampiress, Carmilla. In truth, all cinema regurgitates ideas and clichés from older traditions, because there is no other way to create art. The difference is that what we understand as “genre cinema” is more explicit about its lineage, because it adheres, perhaps, to a narrower, more visible set of rules and conventions. And these rules can travel the distance: they reappear, in various shapes and inflections, all over the world. When we encounter them, we might feel we’re in an airport, surrounded by familiar architecture, representative of no place, erected in any place, a cushion that softens our landing into strange lands because it so closely resembles its ilk.

But many of the best genre movies add something toxic, something that rattles, something out of place. They continue to recall airports: we are still anywhere and nowhere, except now the architecture doesn’t resemble anything else. The familiar trappings have been twisted, distorted; perhaps, as it often happens, due to local flourishes breaking into the globetrotting genre rules. In some of the most exceptional cases, such as this one, the generic traits are diluted into a complex network that, in fact, is a synthesis of eclectic ideas, moods, heritages. Much like the minds of those who have had to migrate once, twice, thrice. Minds converted into airports of the imagination, where all influences converge into a personal universe that fits nowhere and anywhere. Now that I’m back in Argentina, I’ve come to realize I’m as much a foreigner here as I was in California. Persian vampires in Kern County suggest this to me: a nomadic life means you have to take everything with you, because you’re your only home.

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