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Pasatiempo - Man's search for meaning -- in Taos

Jesse is a country crooner who's come up against a wall halfway through a solo tour in director Cheryl Nichols' relationship drama Cortez. When Jesse's tour is canceled for lack of interest, he seeks out Anne, an old flame living in New Mexico, in the hopes of starting over. But Cortez is less about second chances and more about the search for meaning and acceptance. We meet Jesse, whose big ego masks a life of pain and hurt, at a moment when his present situation has run its course -- and yet he isn't quite ready to move forward.

Nichols, who plays the character Anne, wrote the screenplay for Cortez with actor Arron Shiver. Shiver's character Jesse's sudden appearance back in Anne's life, many years after their relationship veered off course, causes a disruption for her family. Cortez hinges on a drawn-out, uncomfortable dinner scene in which Jesse, accompanied by his best friend Eric (Drago Sumonja), can't keep himself from acting rash, in part as a response to the presence of Anne's son Ben, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jesse. "There's always a lot of talk about the likability of the Jesse character and there are varying degrees in the way that people react to him," Nichols said. "Some people have really bad reactions and hate him. But I'm always curious about how people feel about him, because I think it says a lot about how we see ourselves."

The character of Jesse is indeed at times unlikable, if not oblivious to Anne's obvious discomfort, which, in scene after scene, goes unmentioned but is written all over her face. He is not at a point where he's willing to admit he's made a mistake by returning. But the character is not unrelatable. In the dinner scene, he goes out of his way, it seems, to embarrass her with stories not suitable for her son's ears. "In a way, he can't stop himself from punishing her because he feels hurt," she said. "So he has to hurt the person that hurt him, which is something kids do and they have to be taught not to do."

Cortez, which was filmed almost entirely in Taos, feels honest in its depiction of this soured relationship, and every performance, including that of Jackson Shiver, Shiver's real-life son, who plays Ben, is authentic. In part, perhaps, that authenticity comes from the fact that Nichols and Shiver have an off-screen relationship, one that developed during the writing of the script. When asked about the challenge of being in a relationship that is far different from what's depicted onscreen, Nichols said, "You?ve got be very careful and protective of it. We're both actors and we study acting and we didn't want to take it lightly and we didn't want to phone it in. We talked a lot about it, and we had a support group around us. You have resentments, negative feelings, and fears you can pull from, but in a healthy relationship, we try to talk about those things and air them. Jesse and Anne don't have a healthy relationship."

Northern New Mexico became a filming location out of a serendipitous coincidence between Shiver and Nichols. "Before I met Aaron, I used to go to Taos, where he's from," she said. "I felt the draw to the place and loved being there. Then when I met Aaron and I found out he was from Taos, I told him I used to go there. He said, 'Well, what would you do when you were there?' I said I went to this place called Joseph's Table, and it turns out that he used to work there. In another coincidence, one of my friends who I've known for 10 years, before I met Aaron, turned out to be Jackson's godfather. When we decided to set it in Taos, it played into this whole idea of coincidence and chance. It allowed us to have a setting where it felt like some kind of weird magic happened. It wasn't the most efficient place to film, because Taos is kind of off the beaten path, but it was really important to us to film there."

The name Cortez alludes to the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and the search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. For Jesse, Anne and Ben represent, if not something unobtainable, something he isn't ready for: the responsibilities of adulthood. In some ways, he's still a child himself, looking to regain past glories. His personal quest for gold remains elusive, but he does learn a thing or two along the way. "It's an unsuccessful attempt to find this thing you think exists out there that isn't really there. Drago Sumonja, who plays Eric, wrote this movie called Lucky that just came out with with Harry Dean Stanton. We were all working on these two movies at the same time. And there's this whole scene in Lucky where Harry Dean gives his worldview, which is like, 'You are nothing,' like the self doesn?t exist. And I remember us talking a lot about that during Cortez, because people kept asking us, 'Why'd you name it Cortez?' It's this masculine ego search for the self. Maybe nailing the theme to the movie or making it that clear isn't that smart, but I think people absorb it in their own way. I think that's kind of the point of the metaphor."

CORTEZ, drama, not rated, 99 minutes, 4 chiles

Jean Cocteau Cinema, 6:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21. Nichols and Shiver take part in the Independent Filmmaker Panel at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Santa Fe Playhouse.

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