Is ‘Wild Tales’ what Argentine cinema should aspire to?

12 03 2017

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This is a slightly edited version of the article published in Popoptiq in February 2015. 

Wild Tales fulfills an Argentine need for release and catharsis. It’s engineered to reflect the zeitgeist or, at least, its own interpretation of the national mood. It stages a multi-directional offensive against marriage, city and national governments, illogical bureaucracy, class and ethnic resentment, and even parenthood. Damián Szifrón, its director and writer, locates six unconnected narratives in clearly Argentine contexts, but mostly avoids specifics: they happen in the present day, are symptomatic of ongoing social and political tensions, but also occur during an unspecified time, as likely today as yesterday and tomorrow, and no people, groups, or parties are explicitly singled out for criticism. No one and everyone is to blame for our spiteful and violent collective moment.

This is no subtle analysis of reasons and origins, only a spectacular, sensational snapshot, or rather an hilarious, infinitely-watchable, and ultimately adolescent cry. The film’s rebellious spirit is immediately likeable, but its obvious calculation and polish soften its rough edges and boost its market value. It’s no surprise that it has become the most commercially successful Argentine movie since records have been kept. This kind of expensive, start-studded, ambitious fare hardly exists in Argentina, and its novelty combined with its shrewd topicality created a perfect storm at the box-office.

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Szifrón sidesteps the usual pitfalls of most omnibus films through a disarmingly simple, even musical, solution. He has every episode run longer than its preceding number, culminating in the final, most elaborate, and delirious tale. This gives the whole a unifying rhythm. The storylines never connect, except at the thematic level, yet the experience is never fragmented, since each part operates like another version of a repeatable, progressively more complicated plot.

Yet the limits of cinematic running time are Szifrón’s partial undoing. Each story has a limited number of minutes to trace a character’s descent into madness, as well as his or her revenge against the responsible individuals or institutions. There’s simply too little space for too many restatements of the same journey. Admittedly, in some cases, this parabola to disaster happens off-screen. In the first tale, a man tricks everyone who has ever wronged him into sharing a plane, which he then pilots into the home of his most hated oppressors, his parents. We never see the man nor his meltdown, only meet his victims minutes before the crash. Yet most of the remaining tales track well-adjusted individuals as they lose their minds. Their reasons are often understandable, sometimes less so, but all evoke Michael Douglas in Falling Down, time and again, buckling under the weight of one final indignation. Szifrón is often forced to compress narrative development and settle into simple action-and-reaction logic, transforming the mental labyrinths of his protagonists into linear graphs of colliding objects.

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For Argentines, Wild Tales is a menagerie of recognizable acting talent, which means the film will play quite differently for audiences abroad, who are probably only familiar with Ricardo Darín, the experienced con man from Nine Queens and the honest judiciary employee from The Secret in their Eyes. Here, he plays a family man – and a demolitions expert – whose car is unjustly towed away, and whose battle against the bureaucratic powers that be reaches operatic – and explosive – heights. But, among local viewers, his fellow cast members are no less renowned. Darío Grandinetti, who starred in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, is in the opening airplane episode. Leonardo Sbaraglia, a versatile and intense actor, shows up as a casually racist driver, who butts heads – and many other body parts – with a poorer, equally temperamental man who blocks him on the highway. Oscar Martínez, whose lengthy career stretches back to 1974’s La Tregua, Argentina’s first Academy Award nominee, is a proud, rich father who tries to cover up his son’s murderous dawn of drunken driving. And, as a woman who discovers, on her wedding night, that her new husband has already cheated on her, is Érica Rivas, the most electrifying of the bunch, known in Argentina for her supporting part in the Argentine version of Married… With Children. She has to deal with a wafer-thin character, whose sole defining trait is her becoming unhinged. Yet she’s such a monstrous force, such an expanding explosion of invective and fury, that Wild Tales’ most compelling claim to the transcendent and sublime is her own doing.

Non-Argentines are likely unaware of the debates surrounding Wild Tales in Argentina. There is an ongoing national conversation about the need for such industrial film-making. Local movies can be roughly divided into either art house pics or straightforward commercial entertainment, although there is also a burgeoning “genre movement,” built on the strength of usually cheaply-produced, but increasingly more refined exponents of science fiction, horror, and police procedurals. But what isn’t as common in Argentine cinema is what has been historically prized by the Academy Awards: middle-brow fare that remains commercial while trying (if not necessarily succeeding) to plumb depths of serious meaning. The question, of course, is whether or not Argentina needs to focus on this area, and if Wild Tales is an example to follow. As with so many things, this debate would be much simpler, and more quickly resolved, if there were more money to go around to satisfy all demands. Because there is not, every aesthetic detour seems decisive, and thus an above-average collection of short stories finds itself at the eye of the cinephilic hurricane.

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Wild Tales made back its budget, and then some. This has compelled certain analysts to point out that, while Szifrón’s dark comedy drew in millions of audience members, hundreds of obscure documentaries and smaller-scale movies, principally funded by Argentina’s National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, have never earned a dime. The implication being that the latter are worthless or a waste of money, while the former is the money-making model to emulate. Yet part of the reason for the commercial failure of many unsung Argentine films – usually those not featuring well-known actors – is a flawed distribution model: how can any production recoup its costs when it’s shown in one or two screens, nationwide, for as many weeks? More crucially, film is not just an industry, it’s also culture. Government finance is crucial for cinema to exist at all in some countries, Argentina included. One might debate where the funding goes, to whom, and why. But its support of non-commercial projects is not an argument against it. Indeed, that’s its raison d’être. It would certainly be healthy, for the local context, if there were more productions like Wild Tales. But that should not be to the detriment of other kinds of film art.

Szifrón’s angst-ridden movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. The cards were stacked against it, with tough competition from Russia’s Leviathan and Poland’s Ida (which eventually took the prize). But in 2010, The Secret in their Eyes pulled an upset against Haneke’s The White Ribbon, so anything seemed possible. Many viewers back home supported Wild Tales like they would the national soccer team at the World Cup. Others suggested it does not represent Argentina so much as it reveals the influence of Hollywood. For many, in a country that struggles to achieve symbolic power and presence in world media, these were – and are – important matters. (And for others, of course, they aren’t at all. Argentines, if nothing else, can only agree to disagree.) It seems to me that a nation of immigrants – from neighboring South American countries, from Europe, from Asia, from Africa – cannot honestly produce anything other than endless hybridization, and that includes, obviously, films that behave like American products but sound distinctively Argentine. The problem, perhaps, is that this particular brand of hybrid is the one that receives most of the attention and all of the Oscars.





The inner monster: Alien and It! The Terror from Beyond Space

6 01 2017

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Originally published on PopOptiq.

Otherness is the inevitable theme of films dealing with extraterrestrials. They are the ultimate foreigners, organisms who inhabit planets unlike our own. The problem for artists who tackle such stories is how to portray this Otherness. A common recourse is to humanize it, as in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Wars. Another solution, however, is to accept what Fredric Jameson terms the “unknowability thesis,” which he ascribes to Stanislaw Lem (1). As the latter wrote in his novel Solaris: “Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.” The truly alien, then, recedes into the shadows or the margins. It can hardly be portrayed if it cannot be grasped by the imagination, so it becomes a vague intangible presence, as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or a sheer force of malignancy and death, as in the two examples we will be covering, 1979’s Alien and the little-known 1958 B-movie that likely served as inspiration for Ridley Scott’s classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, by Edward L. Cahn. The unknowable, which is impossible to penetrate, becomes a mirror. The animal threats in Alien and Beyond Space, one a so-called Xenomorph and the other a Martian, reflect how humans react when faced with the inexplicable. Failing to find anything human in the monster, some humans might discover a monster in themselves.

The protagonists of Beyond Space, like those in Alien, are trapped inside a spaceship with an extraterrestrial killer. When the story begins, a rescue operation has just taken off from Mars and turned back to Earth after extracting the only survivor of an earlier mission, whom the rescuers believe is guilty of murdering his colleagues in a battle for dwindling rations and oxygen. The survivor, Edward Carruthers, blames a horrifying creature, but Col. Van Heusen, the lead rescuer, will admit to the existence of only one creature – and its very human selfishness and depravity.

Of course, Carruthers is right. When the voracious Martian sneaks into the rescue ship, the once-maligned survivor heads the charge against the intruder. Having initially embodied the figure of the monster, Carruthers manages to free himself of such associations. Indeed, the monstrous becomes an external threat, somewhere and something else. But viewers never shake off that initial impression: that the real monster might be only too human. In Alien, the monster within the human becomes a literal image: the Xenomorph begins its life as an embryo inside a human host, eventually bursting out and growing into a full-fledged assassin.

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If Carruthers can temporarily be considered monstrous, what makes the Martian so inhuman? And if the Xenomorph is anything but human, how can it spring out of a man? These extraterrestrials call into question the meaning of being human – as well as the function of environments made for and by humans. While the Xenomorph slinks around a maze-like cargo ship named the Nostromo, the Martian in Beyond Space finds its movements more limited in the narrow, vertical interiors of a rocket, whose crew ascends from one level to the next, closing airlocks behind it. The Martian breaks through each airlock, as the humans retreat to the ship’s nose, the final level, from which there is no escape. In Alien’s gargantuan Nostromo, the protagonists do not know where the Xenomorph is hiding, and the movie’s horror arises from their ignorance. In Beyond Space, meanwhile, the astronauts are perfectly aware of the Martian’s whereabouts, yet cannot do anything against its inexorable advance.

In both cases, the Other reconfigures the spaceship’s role. The winding passages and dank storerooms of the Nostromo become, through the Xenomorph, the underworld caves of a demon. The alien uncovers the inhumanity at the heart of the vessel: built to haul mineral ore, it is not principally meant for human comfort and habitation, and this fact turns against the crew. By contrast, the rocket in Beyond Space operates on a far more human scale, since its purpose is mainly to carry astronauts. Its interiors are optimized for daily life and what cargo it carries serves to protect the characters: an unlikely arsenal of handguns and grenades. Compared to the sublime labyrinthine rat race of Alien, Beyond Space presents a neater situation, easy to diagram along the y-axis: the extraterrestrial is on one level and the humans are on another. What complicates the protagonists, instead, is a lack of time: the Martian, eventually and inevitably, will reach the rocket’s topmost flight. It’s the inverse of the Nostromo’s predicament: the spaceship is not too unwieldy and massive, but too small, too rational, too efficient, too human. It’s as large as it needs to be for living, so there’s nowhere to hide. The Other redefines manmade structures, reveals their unsuspected essence, so that the rocket becomes an execution chamber and the Nostromo morphs into a coiling catacomb. The ensuing struggle in these reconfigured landscapes, however, is an attempt to define humanity’s destiny.

Alien (1979)  Sigourney Weaver Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

Fredric Jameson, in an essay on science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, describes what he defines as the “two alien narrative” (2). Fans of Alien will find it strikingly familiar (indeed, van Vogt sued for plagiarism when the 1979 movie came out): “One living and terrifying monster (is) superimposed upon the traces and archaeological remains of what we can only supposed to have been very different monsters.” That is, an “evil alien form (…) is juxtaposed alongside a good alien form in which the lineaments of an alternate social organization become visible.” In Alien, the “good alien form” is obviously the pilot of the derelict spacecraft, which the crew of the Nostromo finds on planetoid LV-426, while the “evil alien form” is the Xenomorph, likely responsible for the tragedy that befell the dead extraterrestrial pilot, which in turn foreshadows what will later happen to the protagonists, who unwittingly carry the monster back with them to the Nostromo.

Two different Others, then, serve as contrasts to the protagonists’ civilization. The dead pilot in Alien represents technological advancement fallen to another’s wrath, to a horrible fiend, which stands for everything deadly and nightmarish about the universe. They trace different directions for mankind – either progress or primal darkness – and neither are encouraging. One path, for all its development, signals ruin and death, perhaps through hubris or overconfidence. The other, ruthlessly alive, is nevertheless a return to the basest animal mentality. Both are potential destinies. Among the main themes throughout the Alien franchise is how human short-sightedness attempts to use the Xenomorphs as biological weapons, with disastrous results. No military industrial complex can control the monsters incubated within us. The alien emerges from the human to consume everything its parents have built, finally replacing its progenitors.

Beyond Space narrates a similar process, but its “two alien narrative” is odd in that there is only a single alien, the Martian. Yet the astronauts hypothesize about an earlier and prosperous Martian society, which devolved into the individual monster that now hunts them in the rocket. As a Cold War parable, the point is obvious: humanity can follow the same fate if it insists on armed (and nuclear) conflict. Significantly, the astronauts cannot hurt the Martian with weapons. They will have to experiment with more creative – and less explosive – methods. The two extraterrestrials of Alien, then, are in Beyond Space combined into one Martian, a vicious representative of an advanced society undone by the awakening of its latent savagery. The result of this historical drama, in both films, endangers the protagonists in two ways: as a physical threat, in the shape of a monster, and as a harbinger of forces out to crush humanity.

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In its efforts to explain the Martian downfall, Beyond Space reminds us of Carruthers and his earlier, presumed guilt. Or more specifically, it reminds us of the human capacity for monstrosity, still a relevant theme despite Carruthers’s innocence. His eventual heroism cannot promise that human civilization will not someday be destroyed by the animal within – as the Martians were.

It is worth remembering, though, that we never see the remnants of that earlier and prosperous Martian society. We only hear human speculation about it. The unknowable Other is given meaning by humans, who use it to debate their own future. The extraterrestrial might be incomprehensible and unknowable, yet its impenetrable surface can adopt an oracular role. As French philosopher Clément Rosset puts it, “In the face of this Other (…) it will not be difficult to recognize the always strange and familiar traits of the Double” (3). This can occur because the Other reveals itself as surprisingly human, or because humans suspect that they themselves might be harrowingly Other. The fear, at the heart of Alien and Beyond Space, is that humans could one day be unrecognizable, that what we interpret as human could be erased even as we reproduce and evolve. Instead of cataclysmic extinction, we could endure a transformation so complete that it amounts to the same fate.

(1) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), 107-118.

(2) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 314-327.

(3) Clément Rosset, Propos sur le cinéma, trans. Ariel Dilon (Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2010), 67-73.





‘The Eternaut’ brings a Latin American classic to English readers

4 12 2016

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Originally published in Popoptiq. 

Four neighbors play cards in a suburban attic. It’s nighttime and the city outside rustles with distant noises. A news bulletin on the radio warns that a radioactive cloud, the product of continued American nuclear tests in the Pacific, is moving southwest. We’re in Argentina, during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. The players resume their game, until they’re startled by a crash or a scream, followed by a blackout. They walk to the nearest window and, past the glass, discover a desolate street scene of totalled cars, dead bodies, and – most eerily of all – phosphorescent snow. The protagonists assume the freak event is related to the radioactive cloud and make sure all the windows in the house are closed. Yet one of them fears for his wife and children, who can’t be reached on the phone, and recklessly sprints outside. The “snowflakes” touch his skin and enter his lungs; he doubles up and dies. As his friends soon learn, this is not a common storm nor a radioactive cloud, but the first phase of an extraterrestrial invasion. So begins one of the most celebrated, most cherished comics in Latin America, The Eternaut.

It was written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, illustrated by Francisco Solano López, and released as a serial between 1957 and 1959 in the weekly Argentine magazine Hora Cero. “It’s the best adventure story this country has produced and the most enduring myth that Argentine narrative has conceived in the second half of the twentieth century,” said author and essayist Juan Sasturain. In the same vein, writer and journalist Fernando Ariel García called it “an aspect of our national identity.”

The Eternaut has been published in Portuguese, French, Italian, and Greek – but never, until now, in English. Translator Erica Mena and Fantagraphics Books have at long last corrected this with a gorgeous deluxe edition. The critical response has been glowing. National Public Radio considered it a “masterwork.” The Guardian wrote it’s a “brilliant comic.” Paste waxed lyrical about its political undertones. The Beat tagged it as the “most interesting graphic novel of the season.” It would seem that, after more than half a century, the Argentine classic has finally made its splash on the Northern Hemisphere.

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But why did it take so long? “I’m not really sure,” says Erica Mena. “Usually when texts aren’t translated it’s for one of three reasons: lack of publisher interest in the target language, complications with the rights to the text, or lack of interested translators. I can’t speculate on what the reasons were for The Eternaut, though, because I really don’t know.” One possibility, perhaps, is that such comics are simply logistically challenging to import. “It’s an enormous and wordy graphic novel,” says Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics. “So the difficulties related to producing a translated book are compounded by the sheer immensity of it – the translation itself, the production work involved, the rights to the work which, because it involves heirs, can be hairy, and the amount of physical production work necessary.”

Argentine readers – even those (or especially those) who haven’t read it yet – approach The Eternaut with reverence and a little bit of caution, as one does any canonical masterpiece. English-speakers, however, will tackle it without such baggage. (It’s telling, for example, that Shea Hennum, at Paste, writes that Oesterheld is “one of the best kept secrets in comics,” a claim that, while accurate in a North American context, sounds utterly ludicrous to my Argentine ears.) What might they find, then, in this old but still relevant comic?

“So much! Everything, really,” says Mena. “The art, while at first glance may seem a little dated, is just gorgeous: the hyper-realistic detail and expression is entrancing. The story and the characters are pretty different from what English-language readers might expect from an action sci-fi story, too. There’s a nuance, and a communal mentality, that is substantially different from the loner-hero exceptionalism of many English-language action comics.” We mostly follow Juan Salvo, one of the card players and (later) the titular time-travelling eternaut, yet his comrades are equally worthy of our attention. “There’s no single protagonist. There are many secondary characters who are just as important,” says Laura Fernández, author of the book Comics and Resistance: Art and Politics in Oesterheld (1968-1978).

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What’s fascinating about The Eternaut is how, even as it resembles American science fiction of the era, it subtly subverts the genre’s conventions, often redefining them in South American terms. “Up until its release, science fiction stories consumed in Buenos Aires, both in literature and in comics, weren’t actually set there,” says Fernández. “It was transgressive to do science fiction, with aliens, and have it all happen in Buenos Aires, in recognizable places.”

This geographical shift is not merely cosmetic. As the opening scene already suggests, with the news bulletin about the radioactive cloud, the characters are always discussing the real or potential stratagems of distant world powers. When the invasion grows more apocalyptic, they come to wonder if the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union still exist. (Communications are either down or sporadic, so the situation outside of Buenos Aires is unknown.) One of the main themes of The Eternaut is this point-of-view from the presumed sidelines, the sense that such desperate fights for the future of humanity are not supposed to happen – and yet are happening – at the bottom of the world, all the way down in Argentina. “It’s about being marginal, being at the periphery,” says Fernández.

How will this aspect of the comic register with North American or European readers, many of whom have never set foot in Buenos Aires and have no hope of recognizing pivotal landmarks like Plaza Italia, Estadio Monumental, Barrancas de Belgrano, and Plaza del Congreso? “I expect that most readers will accept the foreign landscape much as they might accept an imagined landscape, and the action of the story will carry them through it,” says Mena. “In other words, they will notice, but not in the way that Argentine readers do. And that is part of the violence of translation. A translation dismembers the text from its cultural body; in this case the most apparent missing link is that of the city-scape. For an Argentine reader to see and imagine their city so transformed would be a vastly different experience than for them to see and imagine, say, New York City, transformed by alien invasion. But how much of contemporary sci-fi is set in cities that English-language readers resonate with in that way? Isn’t it good for English readers to recognize their own foreignness, sometimes? I think it is.”

Beyond language and cultural competence, however, another matter to consider is the book format itself. As described before, The Eternaut was released in instalments over a period of two years. Yet modern readers, from any country, including Argentina, will invariably tackle it as a graphic novel. This transforms how the narrative structure is experienced. “I think reading it as a novel makes reception easier both for English and Spanish readers, and really doesn’t work against the initial intent of the work, which is to tell a single, overarching, and unified story. That it moves so easily from serial to novel form is another testament to the brilliance of Oesterheld’s script,” says Mena.

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Indeed, although the episodic, stop-start nature of The Eternaut is hard to miss, it’s impressive how well it flows. Much of the story happens in the span of a few days, as the survivors of the invasion slowly creep their way across the ravaged terrain of Buenos Aires. Those familiar with the city’s layout can easily trace their path on a map. That this patient and smooth movement of bodies and plot points was actually orchestrated in short fragments, over months and months, is astonishing. “There’s an almost musical quality to character growth and storytelling rhythm,” says Fernández. “You lose sight of that in its original serialized form.”

Nevertheless, despite its narrative prowess, there’s no telling how The Eternaut will fare with English audiences. After all, its reception in Argentina has hardly been linear and predictable. Released shortly after a coup ousted president Juan Domingo Perón in 1955, it was savored by teenage readers and interpreted as nothing more than a rollicking adventure story. Yet, in the ensuing years, the political temperature in Argentina only continued to rise, as pseudo-democratic governments were succeeded by increasingly sanguine military regimes. This overheated context would affect The Eternaut. “When it was reprinted in the 1970s, it came with a prologue that positioned the comic politically,” says Fernández. “Oesterheld was in a very political moment in his life. So he gave his work new meaning.” Shortly afterwards, he would also release an unambiguously belligerent sequel, still unavailable in English. By that time, Oesterheld had become linked with the radical group Montoneros, eventually decimated – along with tens of thousands of victims – by the bloodiest of all dictatorships in Argentina, the so-called Process of National Reorganization (1976-1983). The author, along with his four daughters, entered the ranks of the “disappeared.”

After the return to democracy, in the 1980s and 90s, The Eternaut cultivated a new readership, with some leftist activists adopting it as an “anti-capitalist narrative, set against the imperialist system,” continues Fernández. But its admirers were found only within certain circles: “Comic fans, intellectuals, militants all read it. But it wasn’t that popular on the streets.” Yet, following Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, the venerable classic was reborn. It was reprinted in 2004 by the Clarín media group, as the fifth entry into its Comics Library series. Street artists began referencing it in their politically-charged works. And, most famously, the figure of Juan Salvo in his homemade diving suit, built to protect him from the deadly “snowflakes,” was appropriated as a symbol by the followers of former president Néstor Kirchner. Now ubiquitous in modern Argentina, the comic has moved to foreign markets. Fernández recalls how surprised she was, for instance, when it was recently embraced by Brazilian readers, unaccustomed to Oesterheld’s brand of “serious science fiction, in black and white, with a pessimistic and very local outlook.”

What’s next in the checkered, topsy-turvy history of The Eternaut? Whatever the answer, the important thing is that, yes, the revered Argentine alien invasion tale is finally out in English. And that’s no small feat. “One of the points of good art is to open our eyes to perspectives and ways of seeing the world that we could not envision ourselves, and publishing work by foreign cartoonists simply gives us the opportunity to introduce American or English language readers to a wider range of such perspectives,” argues Groth, of Fantagraphics. And for Erica Mena, beyond all its history and canonical importance, The Eternaut is simply a great book. “Upon a first reading, in English, I hope that it is still an evident masterpiece, a work that both defines and exceeds its genre, a work that after decades is still important in its message and in its story.”





A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson as Maker of Stealth Games

19 01 2016

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A Man Escaped has often been called Robert Bresson’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that claim. Lancelot du Lac is formally richer; Au Hasard Balthazar is more moving. But the director’s breakthrough prison escape film is, if nothing else, a perfect experience. Every shot counts, every composition works. The pace is flawless. Bresson uses off-screen space in ways that have since been extensively copied. Even unique modern masterpieces owe their debt to him, such as Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, about a housewife who might or might not have run over a child with her car, and who spends much of the running time walking in a daze, feeling guilty about the victim she might or might not have left behind on the road, terrified by the noises and figures at the borders of her (and our) perception.

In A Man Escaped, there are many things our protagonist cannot see, and we don’t see them either. This is a powerful narrative mechanic. Bresson insisted, in his writings, on the need for cinema to remove the corset of theatrical tradition, and his productive use of off-screen space (among other techniques) allows him to do that. The camera captures just a small fragment of a larger world.

Now, in theater, there is always an unseen narrative universe beyond the limits of the stage. But, as critic André Bazin argued, that kind of spatial limitation is to be expected in theater. We’re not, however, used to such limitations in cinema, and when they’re imposed on the medium, the effect is more claustrophobic, more impactful. Even if the protagonists are stuck somewhere, the movie can always – and very easily – cut to a new camera angle, so that we can be rescued from the architectural prison. When this doesn’t happen, we grow restless and terribly aware of our entrapment. Bresson knows this only too well. He never rescues us. He forces us to share the prisoner’s perspective, his limited vantage point, his ignorance about what surrounds him and what’s beyond his cell. It’s this that makes A Man Escaped so persuasive and why we identify so much with the protagonist.

Like many art house classics, it can now remind us of a videogame. As much as interactive entertainment tries to resemble Hollywood blockbusters, its real kinship is with this kind of austere, slow-moving fare. Which is what the latest so-called art games and walking simulators, like Gone Home and especially Dear Esther, have understood, and what earlier masterpieces, like the Thief games, had grasped. According to videogame historian Jimmy Maher, back in the 80s, Steve Meretzky, the man responsible for the epochal text-adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, once sat down to breakfast and had the following epiphany: “Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer?” Scrap typical character development and three-act structures. Let’s do setting. Let’s focus on space, on exploration, on movement. On observation.

Bresson did something similar, but in cinematic terms. There’s little psychology in A Man Escaped. Yes, there’s a constant voiceover. But the protagonist’s thoughts are pragmatic: what he sees, what he needs to do, what items he has, how he will get past the Nazi security guards. Interactions with other characters always serve immediate needs. What’s most important, for the protagonist, is mastering his surroundings. Only after doing so might he deliver himself from the encroaching walls. The plot, or what can be called that, is structured around his growing familiarity with the prison’s layout. Transcendence needs physicality, needs a tangible, “realistic” environment. (Paul Schrader, in his study of the director, points out how Bresson highlights the surface of “everyday reality” precisely to undermine it, to make us doubt it. Just like our hero, in this film, wishes to undermine the very defenses he so restlessly studies with such zeal.) We need to feel the material world in our bones before we can imagine anyone’s emancipation from it.





Unfriended, or Two or Three Things I Know About Her Facebook Profile

8 01 2016

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The cluttered frame of this movie-on-a-laptop-screen can’t quite hide the fact that our Skyping and Facebooking protagonists, persecuted on the Internet by a vengeful spirit, will – if they die – die alone. Most horror films, in one way or the other, are about loneliness. Even those about groups of youngsters, like many slashers, are really about the whittling down of their numbers. Near the end of such movies, only one or two usually remain. The real horror is being left alone. But in this case, our heroes are alone from the outset, each inside his or her own room, and all it takes is a bad connection to sever what binds them together. They can’t come to each other’s aid, since they’re too far away. In fact, they can’t even move: if they leave their rooms, says the spirit, they die, so they have to remain seated while yet another Skype window winds down.

Nevertheless, this is not (only) another technophobic dystopia about how, in the era of interconnectedness, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been. It is cautious and pessimistic, sure, but it expresses that caution through uninhibited immersion into what it’s cautious about. That is, through deep familiarity with the subject. The filmmakers don’t wish to turn back the clock and do away with our technological toys. If that were to happen, there would be no movie and, more importantly, no audience to watch it.

The online environment of social media might be banal and commonplace to us, but it becomes alien and strange in this film, which uses the language of this environment, the loading screens and message alerts, the stuttering videos and pixelated cam feeds, to fulfil the requirements of the genre, for suspense and dread. Actions we perform every day are appropriated by the plot and milked for dramatic effect. Suddenly, these actions no longer seem purely utilitarian but hide more sinister possibilities. The movie-on-a-laptop-screen isn’t new: earlier examples include critical, experimental shorts like Transformers: The Premake. What’s more novel is how the online environment is resignified through horror genre tropes and expanded as a surface of expressive possibility.

Significantly, the vengeful spirit roams the online wilds because that is where she was shamed and bullied in the public forum of social media, which led her to commit suicide. What the film says, then, is not that we’re disconnected in the era of interconnectedness, but that, maybe, we’re too connected, not just to each other but to everything all of us ever do, to our pasts, accumulating in the endless, stupid, unfiltered archive of the Internet. As the bodies pile up and friendships are nipped in the bud, the real bogeyman becomes not the vengeful spirit but the endless exposure of our virtual selves, the collection of videos and photos and text messages that roam undeleted from one browser window to the next, waiting for another Google search. Our protagonists become not just strangers to their friends, but to themselves: they can hardly control their unruly online reflections, which outlive them in the form of a digital afterlife. Phrases like “In Real Life” no longer make any sense. What happens online doesn’t stay online and is very much real life. It’s so important, even, that it must be filmed, somehow. It cannot be ignored by cinema, because this new environment is, also, a new home for cinema itself and for the traffic of images.





The Assassin, or movies we’re not meant to follow

22 12 2015

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Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s latest is complicated. It’s so complicated someone went ahead and created an infographic outlining the characters’ relationships. Still, I enjoyed the movie, and I think the reason I did is that, with cinema, it’s not always necessary to understand what’s going on.

This has to do with the nature of the medium, especially in a theatrical setting, where viewers can’t rewind or pause the screening. Overwhelming amounts of visual and aural information are always flitting past them, so it’s expected that they won’t grasp everything. And they truly can’t when the images are as breathtaking as they are in The Assassin. How can they simultaneously keep track of such gorgeous compositions, layered period detail, and dense webs of spoken exposition? Well, the answer is: they can’t. Or: they should consult the infographic. Or perhaps: they should stop worrying and love the Hou. Or maybe: they’re not supposed to keep track of it all, because that failure is part of the meaning, part of what the film has to say about the prickly brambles of politics, legacy, and heritage, in which every action in the present is an equal but opposite reaction to innumerable factors stretching into the past.

Now, unlike movies, novels often include family trees, maps, and other paratextual elements so that readers can, indeed, keep track of it all. With literature, as tangled as a story might get, the unwritten assumption is that readers can handle it because they have all the time in the world to wrap their noggins around it. They can flip back pages, look up information, scribble notes on the margins. The story isn’t going anywhere until they force it to. Even if the author hoped to instil a sense of disorientation, readers will still try to assimilate the whole unwieldy edifice.

This might explain why so many readers become frustrated with, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, an extreme example of  confounding art. Since it’s a book, total understanding seems to be simply a matter of perseverance. And if total understanding never comes, well, that’s a problem. Jorge Luis Borges, in his famous pan of the book, mentioned his “total bewilderment” and admitted to only stealing “useless and partial glances” at the Irishman’s “verbal labyrinth.” Had it been a movie, I suspect some might have more readily accepted it as a brilliant mind-fuck and rolled a joint. (As it happens, there is indeed a movie version, an acceptable one made in the 60s by Mary Ellen Bute, but it’s considerably more coherent and sedate than the original text. Bute’s own experimental shorts from the 20s, with their dreamy abstraction, are probably closer to Joyce’s vision.) Or maybe not: early responses to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as many will recall, were similarly baffled. As a culture obsessed with rationality, perhaps we’re terrified when an artwork exceeds our capacity to comprehend it.

That’s not to say books or movies should never make sense. Sometimes their stories or themes call for sense to be made. But other times, that’s obviously not the point. Joyce was doing a novel about the night, like Ulysses had been about the day. Kubrick was imagining bedrooms beyond the known universe. And Olivier Assayas, in his brilliant Demonlover (roundly criticised for being as infographic-worthy as The Assassin), was studying the endless twining and interweaving of corporate intrigue, even flirting with satyrical absurdity. (As we discover, the company all the protagonists work for is entirely and comically comprised of double agents from other, competing companies). When judging their merits, we should not ask how much sense they make, because they don’t always make that much of it, but how well they keep our attention despite the “total bewilderment” they sink us into. The best mind-fucks are those we’re forever close to figuring out, but can’t. Or rather, we can’t while in the process of watching them, because the pieces often do fall into place after post-credits reflection – or reading an infographic.

The examples I just mentioned often deceive us. They seem to straddle the line between sense and nonsense, the shadow and the light. Finnegans Wake seems written in an alien language, but… is that an actual English word? Are those repeated names or initials? Is that the faint outline of a discernible narrative structure? 2001, inversely, is so glacially slow and its images are so transparently beautiful and clear, that it seems impossible to be flummoxed by anything in it. And then, suddenly, there’s a white room with a black monolith – and is that a space-faring baby? In the same vein, Demonlover and The Assassin include reams of exposition. Characters talk and talk, they name names. Viewers suspect that, if they keep listening, their burning questions will finally be resolved. Except they’re not. These masterpieces of confusion know that confusion isn’t fun unless we feel we’re perpetually close to an epiphany that might never come.





It’s a Wonderful Life, but not for old maids

31 08 2015

What I admire about Frank Kapra, based on what little I have seen, is that he descends into depths of despair few filmmakers are willing to explore, and he does it in such a way that many viewers are unaware of how far down the rabbit hole they’ve come. Or rather, they don’t realize that, despite a happy ending, or what appears to be a happy ending, they’re still down there, deep inside the rabbit hole. Happy endings, in Kapra, are meant to reassure audiences, yet the slightest analysis reveals a more disquieting picture: the protagonist might have achieved a temporary moment of respite, or been saved from hell, or realized his worth as a human being, but what he has not done is solve the problems of the world, which he hoped to amend and which have brought him to his knees. Kapra shrouds the despair without nullifying it. What’s troubling in Kapra never disappears. It gets pushed to the background, but it remains there, waiting to burst forth.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a particularly obvious example (and to explain why, I am obviously going to have to spoil the ending, so avert your eyes, those who do not want to know or do not yet know): corruption wins. Smith’s famous filibuster, in which he attempts to clear his name and expose a graft scheme carried out by his unscrupulous fellow senators, is a disaster. The movie’s iconic shot, of James Stewart (i.e. Smith) standing next to a pile of letters, represents his final defeat. Those involved in the graft scheme have forged hundreds of messages, purportedly from citizens of Smith’s unnamed state, asking the protagonist to step down from his senatorial seat. The only reason we get an apparently happy ending is because one of the “villains,” Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), has a crisis of conscience, right there in Congress, and reveals all after a botched suicide attempt. There are two interpretations to make of this: either innate human goodness saves the day, in which case evil cannot win, because empathy and guilt eventually have their way; or rather, democracy is in the hands of the corrupt, who are the only deus ex machina capable of counteracting their own corruption. No one can sabotage their designs, except themselves. We depend upon the corrupt to regulate their own sins. The system cannot do it for us. It has failed, it has broken down. Idealists like Smith are powerless and their heroism is without consequence. Happy ending, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is not much different (and to explain why, again, spoilers). George Bailey runs a savings and loans firm with a social conscience, lending to poor citizens who dream of owning a house. Mr. Potter, the most powerful man in Bedford Falls, wants his bank to be the sole financial institution around, and Bailey’s shenanigans prevent this from happening. Following a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Potter successfully and unscrupulously pins a case of bank fraud on George, which threatens to dismantle his firm and ruin his finances, and consequently, George contemplates suicide on the edge of a bridge, hoping his family can cash in on his life insurance policy.

Which is when, famously, his guardian angel descends from heaven and offers him a tour of a world in which George was never born, a dystopian Bedford Falls renamed Pottersville, a case of unchecked capitalism gone wild, as the town, now owned by Mr. Potter, has been overrun by the crassest of commercial interests, the charm of traditional Rockwellian America consumed by the expanding tumor of casinos and nightclubs. An unintentional moment of hilarity, which inspired the title of this brief post, is when George, having just learned that his brother has died in this alternate reality – because George was never around to save him from an accident, and thus more than a hundred American GIs died during the war, because they were meant to be rescued by George’s brother – having just learned such harrowing details, he then asks his guardian angel about his former wife, and so the angel recoils and tells him that, oh, he won’t like this, this is going to be really terrible for him. It turns out she’s an old maid! She never married! Apparently, in 1939, having your brother die was pretty bad, but being a middle-aged woman who had chosen to remain single – now that was tragedy.

Anyhow, the point is that George finally returns to Bedford Falls, realizing, after the angel’s tour, how crucial he is to his community, a lesson driven home when, upon returning to his family, he finds that all his friends and associates, seemingly the entire population of Bedford Falls, have agreed to pitch in and raise money for George to avoid legal trouble. So, happy ending? Not quite: George receives enough to stay afloat, but the years ahead, since he is the sole obstacle halting Mr. Potter’s domination of Bedford Falls, as revealed by the nightmare of Pottersville, will be years of struggle. The uphill battle against the amoral banker continues.








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