The Secret in their Eyes

22 11 2009

I knew I would be underwhelmed by this film — the most important Argentine release of the year — and indeed I was. You could say I was predisposed to be underwhelmed: I have never enjoyed a film by Juan Jose Campanella. Son of the Bride is an inconsequential mix of romantic comedy and disease-of-the-week. It shouldn’t be, because Campanella is toiling in personal and autobiographical territory, but the result of his earnestness is dispiriting and unenthusiastic. It’s just like other movies of its type, but with splashes of local color and the otherness of subtitles for a curious international audience. Moon of Avellaneda is worse, a very stupid battle-of-ideologies between the nostalgic heroes who want to preserve the titular family-friendly memory-stirring athletics establishment and the dastardly unfeeling monsters who would turn the place into a casino. There’s an attempt at impartiality, as well as an obvious desire to fill the small-scale confrontation with the reverberations of nation-wide concerns: the figurehead for practical business-sense, and so, the main proponent of the casino, is allowed vestiges of goodness and he even gets to explain his position. None of this, however, allows him to escape from the ice-cold hole where the narrative has placed him in order to clearly highlight his undesirability in the eternal lottery of our sympathies. There is nothing wrong with taking a stance, but the film is so soft and sweet, so conventional, that it doesn’t work as polemic or criticism, especially when the film we’re watching is as commercial as the casino it’s ostensibly decrying. Instead, Moon of Avellaneda suffers from cake-and-eat-it-too disease. It wants to be clear-headed and afford both sides of the issue equal ground, while still finding space to contrast the harsh facial features of practical-man with the warm blue-eyed mushiness of nostalgic-man, thus taking a stance, but not doing so with too much force, so that we’re left with: “Both sides have their points, but I kind of agree more with the latter, and besides, they’re prettier and more tear-jerking.” There’s no ferocity, no vitality, no toughness, not even the obsessive fixation on nostalgic tear-jerking that we get in Cinema Paradiso, which is just as soft and sweet, but is so insistent on chipping away at the theme of ‘what has passed by’ — be it people, cinemas, lost loves, or whatever — that the damn thing turns into a near-masterpiece of eye-watering melancholy. Moon of Avellaneda is yearning for the same effect, but it gets sidetracked with a sociopolitical debate that lacks punch.

We finally arrive at The Secret in their Eyes. This is a good film, automatically making it the best thing Campanella has ever done — barring perhaps his lauded television work, which I have not seen. Argentine critics are calling it a masterpiece. I cannot join in their excited clapping, though I will support a theoretical Oscar-time bid for Best Foreign Film, provided there’s a nomination. Secret is one of those political thrillers that emphasizes the thrills and inserts the politics into the subtext, save for a few wounding punctures of overt political outcry. An aging middle-aged man, played by Argentina’s favorite aging middle-aged man Ricardo Darin, retires from his federal justice duties and decides to write a novel about a particularly traumatic case he dealt with back in the seventies: the brutal rape and murder of a very pretty young girl. It’s love at first sight for our now-in-flashback protagonist — who doesn’t look even close to twenty-five years younger, but in some movies a few white hairs and strategic wrinkles are all anyone ever ages across the expanse of irreconcilable decades — uncomfortably staring at the sexiest rape and murder victim you will ever see, draped attractively on the floor with her perky breasts showing up even during close-ups of her appropriately mangled face. There’s even some arousing pubic hair, if you’re paying attention. Sometimes I think directors take the opportunity given by homicide victims to gratuitously display nudity in the name of harsh unflinching grit. To be fair, this movie does sport a full-on shot of dick-and-balls.

At any rate, our protagonist is distraught by the pretty young girl’s fate and endeavors to find her killer. He eventually does, after plenty of satisfyingly-paced if conjecture-reliant detective work, and puts the man in jail. Soon thereafter, this being the seventies in Argentina, the convicted rapist and murderer is co-opted by right-wing strike forces — probably the Triple A (or Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) — because, after all, psychotic criminals are good soldiers to pit against the leftist terrorists. This endangers our protagonist, since the crazy man he persecuted is now himself something of an authority on persecuting. There is a lot more to describe, if I wished to describe it. The plot-boiling machine functions harmoniously, with tangents, secondary characters, interweaving storylines, and even a well-attached love story or two.

But what is inside the machine? A concept? An idea? The brunt of the storytelling is visualized through our immersion into the protagonist’s novel. As he writes, we watch the tale unfold. There is good reason to expect Atonement-style unreliable narrator hi-jinks, especially when the fallibility of memory, the accuracy of written records and spoken discourse, and the understandability of the past are all questioned with so much consistency. It’s even in the title! Yes, our protagonist finds his killer by noticing the latter’s suggestive glances towards his future victim in several family photographs. That’s it, right? The killer’s eyes hide the secret of an upcoming rape. Or maybe there’s more. In Spanish, the title is open-ended. El Secreto de sus Ojos more or less translates into The Secret of Their Eyes, not in Their Eyes. That’s not the important part. In Spanish, the pronoun “sus” is undefined: it could be “his” eyes, “her” eyes, “its” eyes, or “their” eyes, anything except “my” or “our” eyes. There is no equivalent in English, making proper translation impossible. What this means is that in English the title is most definitely referring to many individuals, while in Spanish it goes many ways, referring alternatively to the pretty young girl’s tragic beautiful eyes, her killer’s foreboding stare, the protagonist’s searching blue orbs, etc. This was the purpose behind the more strictly plural English rendition: to get us to consider everyone’s eyes. A pretty savvy translation, given the circumstances. Still, the decreased flexibility of the English title is relevant, I think, because the title is very much pinpointing one of the film’s central themes, the eye-of-the-beholder subjectivity that makes all historical re-evaluation incredibly contentious, and the maneuverability of the Spanish title means we can choose which eyes hold the secret, as opposed to the all-inclusive English version.

My problem, at least after seeing the film only once, is that this whole business about unreliable narrators, half-truths, and half-lies is largely rhetorical, contained within the folds of the script and its well-crafted conversations, but pitifully missing from the aesthetic. I don’t think the camera creates a surface that allows for our investigation. Everything looks earnest and clear. There are sporadic likenesses to Lucrecia Martel’s shallow focuses and wandering frames, hinting at subjectivity. We also get noirish canted angles. It’s not enough, though. We don’t sense the authorial hand building the universe like we do in the shape-shifting artifice of Atonement and Time Regained. There is too much straight-faced directness. We have no visible reason to doubt the surface.

A novel-concluding weepy train-station farewell is called out as cliche and contrived by a first-draft reader (who happens to be the weeping woman in the weepy train-station farewell, twenty-five years later). She doesn’t think it happened that way, the author thinks it did, she says that if it had he would have acted differently, and the metaphoric cat leaps onto his tongue. Alright, fair enough, but the weepy train-station farewell looks like any other weepy train-station farewell, neither overdone nor underdone. There is no deconstruction of the convention within the image. It’s after-the-fact self-consciousness pointing out that, yeah, that weepy train-station farewell sure was weepy. We had seen the scene before, in the more appropriately hazy mind-image that opens the film. This prior version of the scene worked better as a subjective universe, though its casting as the murky prologue of an amateur writer’s first-page inklings means that the second less-hazy version does not seem like a twisted version of reality so much as an improved version of the opening scene. Indeed, precious little in this film looks twisted by subjective memory, despite script-fed lines about how memory is distorted by time and self-doubt, leading to memories of memories and then nothing at all. That’s powerful stuff delivered powerfully. It’s good dialogue. But the camera isn’t following along. We’re watching the novel as it is written by a man who is diving into his nervous past, trying to put the various pieces into their appropriate places. We hear about how memory is distorted. We notice that the title talks about eyes and secrets, so we have to assume that the protagonist’s eyes might also hold secrets, even from himself, which is crucial when the narrative’s unfolding depends on the protagonist’s observance. We listen to first-draft readers as they courteously disapprove of certain licenses the novel has taken — that scene did not play out that way, some facts are missing and need to be fleshed out, etc. We even watch two flashbacks that are then immediately either invalidated or questioned. The theme is there, but it’s not shown. Outside a gleefully complicated bravura combination of special-effects and hand-held camera work that has been justifiably celebrated for its never-ending “single-take” odyssey through a soccer stadium, the film is only visually acceptable and never notably suggestive. The camera is the cinematic equivalent of the narrator, the eye showing off the story, and if we’re supposed to distrust the narrator then the camera should at least imply the fragility of its depicted “truth.”

Ignoring the meta-narrative, we have, like I said before, a good film. It is enjoyable. I like, for instance, how the historical context is never dropped onto the audience via festering-hot gobbles of exposition. It is always in the background, playing with the plot’s points, emerging in radio chatter, in a short comment, in news footage, appearing suddenly as a key piece of the drama, then vanishing, yet leaving behind a painful residue. As in Larrain’s Tony Manero, the historical context revolves around and outside the main conflict, imbuing the conflict with its grander meaning without incorporating it entirely. Campanella is repeating the Moon of Avellaneda trick of talking about nation-wide concerns through a small-scale confrontation. He does it a lot better here, making the trick obvious without compromising the solidity of the hill of beans he has chosen to concentrate on.

There is one loose end I have not resolved, and that is the possibility that Campanella is deceivingly pushing for one strict interpretation of the events — complete with that annoying I-have-solved-the-puzzle flashback-collage of phrases and images — despite it being absolutely erroneous. Could it be that the killer is not who we think? We solely hear a confession of having slept with the victim, the confessor grabbing his dick to publicize his masculinity in front of our deviously manipulative interrogator-heroine — there is nothing about murder, though that’s the assumption. It’s a great scene, full of those gray-areas that Campanella failed to portray in Moon of Avellaneda. We’re supposed to go: “Even the heroes are basically torturing a man they only assume to be guilty. Just like the right-wingers!” Our heroes are corrupt in other areas as well, although I suspect that Campanella uses their mild corruption more for comic relief and out-with-bureaucracy spunk than serious penetrative analysis. It sometimes reeks of that Hollywood tendency to have perfectly heroic heroes forcefully inserted into a gray miasma with a quick scene of Important Moral Choice and Sudden Human Frailty. It’s closely related to that other Hollywood tendency of undercutting perfectly one-dimensional villainous foreign groups with Token Anecdotes About American Atrocities. Instead of just having complex characters exist on the screen with all their flaws and qualities commingling simultaneously — as in a movie by Jean Renoir — we get specific scenes or specific moments that establish the characters as complex, ultimately coming across as a game of “now you’re good, now you’re bad,” as if the filmmakers were hoping the accumulation of intermittent good and bad scenes would gestate into a middle-of-the-road final impression. Campanella mostly avoids this pitfall, if not entirely. There are still echoes of shifting gears: unbridled heroism and integrity, then darkness creeping up. For the most part, though, there is a mix of the good and bad throughout, little misdeeds here, bigger misdeeds there, largely good intentions, finally coalescing into that most identifiable of creatures: the flawed hero! None of this has anything to do with the purpose of this paragraph, however, which is to jot down my lingering doubts regarding the killer’s actual identity and whether or not the culprit might have been the pretty young girl’s husband, led by blind jealousy into slaughtering his wife. I do not really buy into this reading, as it would weaken many of the character-motivations animating the story’s cogs. It would be interesting, at least, from a meta-narrative standpoint, in that the novel has bluntly led the viewer towards a pro-husband camp, since the writer of the novel idolizes the husband’s love for the pretty young girl, making him bound to overlook anything that could incriminate the husband and thus destroy the angelic romance of his widowed passion. That final misfortune does occur to an extent, but the epiphany that instigates the destruction is wholly different from that discussed in this digressive paragraph. Also, this epiphany has the particularity of having been partly evoked by the novel’s information as it is remembered by its author, so that it’s not about the distortion of fiction, but about how fiction (or, well, non-fiction, in this case) helps the character ‘figure it all out.’ Maybe that’s the real theme here, how art leads to clarity and wisdom: our protagonist solves the riddles of his life by writing about them. If only the camera had been as probing as the protagonist!




18 responses

29 11 2009
Chazz Lyons

Hi I’m the editor of a multi-writer, indpendent & foreign film review and essay blog called Gone Cinema Poaching (linked from my name) and we’re looking for film critics. Any interest? Email me at and we can discuss details.

Chazz Lyons

26 02 2010
The Secret of their eyes « Vikram

[…] means we can choose which eyes hold the secret, as opposed to the all-inclusive English version” I found this part an incredibly powerful piece of analysis and thank the author for this great […]

2 03 2010

You can’t, nor will ever really apreciate a film by Campanella, simply because you’re used to Hollywood pointless, emotionless movies made only to show how much cash you invest in them. Argentinean cinema is nothing like that. The Secret in Their Eyes isn’t a movie made for critics, it’s a movie made for people. Real people who know the long history of corruption we’ve been suffering for ages. It’s a film you will never enjoy if you’re the kind of person who likes watching Rambo or Rocky, this is something deep and serious and overwhelming in the best way. Brilliant characters played by brilliant actors, a plot that convines drama, romance, comedy and acid social critic, not stupidily brought together as a mixt of everything, but perfectly convined to make the viewer cry, smile, laugh and even feel the same anger and frustration produced by those horrible times that we lived for real.

Again, you have to know the real Argentina to enjoy this film, to understand the characters, to “see the secret behind their eyes”. Whoever wrote this review clearly has no information at all about the context of the movie. One thing is to know that somewhere far away 30 years ago there were 30000 people who “disappeared” (aka were kidnapped and murdered because they had different opinions than the officials), and another very different thing is to live it, to feel it in your skin and bones. Therefore, you will never have the same feeling when watching this movie. It’s perfectly clear in stupid comments such as “the sexiest rape and murder victim you will ever see, draped attractively on the floor with her perky breasts showing up even during close-ups of her appropriately mangled face. There’s even some arousing pubic hair, if you’re paying attention.” This just shows what kind of things you’re paying attention to in the movie. I guess this review was written by a 14 years old teenager, someone mentally mature wouldn’t be distracted by a naked body in a scene which clearly shows an ugly situation, not a sexy rape. A rape will always be a rape, if you find it sexy maybe you’re the one who has some kind of pervertion. This is just an example to show the kind of review that this is, conecentrated only in the surface of a movie. I understand that Hollywood is full of shallow movies made for shallow reviews. This is not a Hollywood movie. Keep it in mind next time.

2 03 2010

Actually, Lulu, The Secret in their Eyes is very much Hollywood. There is nothing challenging or difficult about it. Campanella made a pretty conventional thriller with political subtext. You may like it or you may not like it, but I don’t think we can call it anti-Hollywood. Just because it’s Argentine doesn’t make it non-commercial.

As for the rape scene, I was sarcastically pointing out that I found it to be inappropriately sexualized. I make my intentions obvious during the rest of the passage, which you didn’t quote: “Sometimes I think directors take the opportunity given by homicide victims to gratuitously display nudity in the name of harsh unflinching grit.” I understand sarcasm doesn’t always translate well into text, but my tone was pretty clear in this case. I believe that there are more tasteful ways of displaying a dead woman than awkwardly focusing on her nude body. And if the attempt was to deal with the disturbing psycho-sexual impression caused by her corpse*, then the film doesn’t really develop this theme — her husband’s obsessive love notwithstanding — so I’m left wondering why the nudity had to be there in the first place. Not a horrible flaw, but I did find it irksome.

You’ll say that it wasn’t really the film that sexualized the scene so much as my mind. Yet I didn’t order that close-up. It happened all by itself. You’ll also say that the nudity was there to provide realism, in which case I would say: “So what?” The film is not really working in a realistic mode anyways, what with the conventional dramatics and big-name actors. Now, I have no problem with conventional dramatics and big-name actors, but it doesn’t bode well for the film’s claim to gritty realism when the only thing gritty and realistic about it is a naked woman. Leonera had nudity too, but that film was consistently realistic and physical — the nudity was part of its general aesthetic. I don’t get that sense here.

As for the rest of your comment, it’s riddled with assumptions about me. Since all your assumptions are wrong, there’s not really a lot to discuss. Maybe reading my other posts in this blog would have helped?

* In retrospect, maybe there is something to be said for the psycho-sexual theme, since the protagonist, the killer, and the husband all seem dangerously obsessed with her. You might say the protagonist’s obsession is partly or even largely altruistic and noble. You might say the same of the husband, and that his love is ethereal and beautiful and in no way sickly, though he’s a stranger fellow open to various interpretations. The killer, on the other hand, is most definitely obsessed with her in a way that combines death and sex. But I’m not convinced, as of right now, that the film is dealing with this subject matter in any compelling or consistent manner, so I can only return to my previous complaints regarding the rape scene at the moment.

4 03 2010

I apologize for prejudging you, since you say that you’re born in Spain and live in California but you’re actually Argentine, which make me see you probably do know our story. On the other hand, I don’t know how much time you lived in Argentina, could be 20 years, maybe more, but still your review sounds like a critic coming from someone who is only concentrating in the esthetic of the movie and not on the story or the topics. In that sense is that I say this isn’t a Hollywood movie. Esthetically it may look very Hollywood, but not as a story to tell, unless you compare it with films by Clint Eastwood, for example, who has a similar style when it comes to stories. Now, if you asked me, I would tell you that Clint Eastwood isn’t Hollywood either, it’s a completely superior thing. Back to El Secreto…, even when the film does have the image quality of a Hollywood movie (probably the reason why it made it to the Oscars and not other previous Argentine films) I think that isn’t the strongest point of the movie, but the emotion contained in it, which is something tipical in our films. Since we don’t count with millions of dolars to make huge movies with special effects, we try to balance it with good plots, and I think that El Secreto did that, but also counted with better technology and that made the difference.

Now, about the rape scene. Again I apologize for assuming things about you, but you have to admit that your argument sounded, at least, weak. I still don’t think the director used nudity in a provocative way, but in a realistic way. Not because the film isn’t 100% in a realistic mode the director is forced to give a soft and careful touch to every scene. Plus, I don’t think you’ve considered something. It would be very weird if the criminal respectfully covered his victim in a blanket after such a violation of her persona, it wouldn’t make sense. The only option would be to show her lying on her stomach, so we wouldn’t see her breast, but it should be done in a way that we still can see her face, cause if you remember that scene, Darin is shocked by the image, and I think that’s not only because of her naked body but mainly because of her face. The whole movie works with close ups on the characters faces, and one of the first scenes shows the girl the morning of the murderer looking through the window with an angelic look, so I guess that the idea of her face bleeding is the contrast. So, summarizing, it could have been done in another way, but I don’t think that the effect to the viewer had been the same, and I’m not talking in a sexual way but in that contrast between her happyness a few hours before the crime and how the murdered destroyed that image. I think the nudity just goes with the effect of a life ripped apart.

I still think this isn’t a movie to be analized only from the esthethic point of view, cause that esthethic is working behind a leading plot in order to complete it, not to compete with it.

6 03 2010

Lulu, I don’t know what to tell you. I am not sure you understand what I am talking about when I talk about the aesthetic, and moreover, since the entire review is about the story and the topics, I am baffled that you claim that I ignore these things. I might not have focused on what you would have focused had you written the review, but that’s because we’re not the same person.

What I am most confused about is what you mean by aesthetic. You seem to imply that, because I focus on the aesthetic, I treated this film like a Hollywood film. That’s strange, Lulu, because Hollywood films are not very interesting aesthetically. If I were to treat a film like a Hollywood film, the one thing I would not pay attention to is the aesthetic. Hollywood films are about spectacle and visual impression, but that is not a very interesting visual language. Even a master Hollywood-style director, like James Cameron, is not necessarily using his aesthetic to convey ideas and themes, but rather geography and rhythm. Spielberg uses aesthetic to convey ideas and themes, but there’s not many directors like Spielberg, who can be aesthetically interesting and still work within the Hollywood mold.

My point is that, when I talk about aesthetic in this review, I am not talking about aesthetic the way Hollywood treats aesthetic. In fact, Hollywood barely cares about aesthetic. The problem here, I believe, is that you’re thinking aesthetic as ‘superficial imagery,’ and what is more superficial than Hollywood? But that is not how I think aesthetic. To me, if we’re going to discuss aesthetic, we are talking about the camera, the framing, the composition, the colors, the rhythm, the editing, the characters and their movements, in short, the way that the film uses its imagery to convey psychological, spiritual, emotional, and thematic information. When I talk about aesthetic, I am talking about how the film conveys its view of the world, its philosophy about life, its way of looking. This goes far beyond anything you might see in a conventional Hollywood film, outside of an inspired Spielberg, like in Schindler’s List or A.I. And that is what I talk about when I talk about aesthetic in El Secreto de sus Ojos: how the aesthetic relates to themes and ideas about written documents, remembering history, twisting history, trying to understand history, etc. I talk insistently about this.

You close your comment by saying that the aesthetic wants to complete the film, not compete against it. But is not the entire point of my review that the aesthetic fails to complete the film? That the ideas of the film are left in the script and in the writing, but don’t make a transition to the aesthetic? That the aesthetic unfortunately ends up competing, even though it wants to complete? You might not mind the fact that the ideas are kept in the script, but I do, because I’m watching a film, and film works differently from literature and the written word and has the capacity to communicate with the viewer in different ways that are no less profound. I read plenty of books, constantly so, and thus have no desire to watch films that only work as written scripts, because in that case, I’d much rather just read the script. That is why I criticize the fact that, visually, the film fails to complete the package. I don’t ask for so much. Bielinsky was very good at visual language, even though he was also working in a commercial mainstream mode. I don’t think Campanella is as good a commercial mainstream director as Bielinsky.

I still said El Secreto de sus Ojos was good. I understand it’s the kind of film that, because of its mounting reputation, you’re supposed to love, not just quietly enjoy. But that’s what I did, I quietly enjoyed it. Obviously the actors do a wonderful job, but it’s Darin and Francella. What are they going to do? Act badly? They do everything well. It doesn’t matter. That’s why I didn’t even mention it: it goes without saying and it’s not a very interesting discussion. Every other reviewer already talks about the acting in every other review. Why should I add one more blog-spot to the obvious and the over-said? It’s like mentioning that Sebastian Veron is great at long volleys or that Piazzola was amazing with the bandoneon. Well, yeah: everyone knows that already. What you should talk about are the complexities of the former’s tactical movements and the meaning of the latter’s music. That’s interesting and more analytical.

I say a lot of different things in my review. I talk about the historical context and how it lingers in the background, adding meaning, but not imposing itself into the plot until near the end, and even then remaining a sinister background tremor. I talk about the ambiguities of the characters and whether or not they truly exist consistently as ambiguous individuals. I talk about the story’s themes concerning memory and storytelling. I talk about the meaning of the title and how it concerns the narrative, even diving into issues of translation. I even discuss the characters and how different interpretations of the plot can change our view of them as individuals. You have given me no credit at all for talking about all of this, even though it’s what occupies the larger part of my review: the story and the topics I am supposedly ignoring. I don’t know what you want me to do. I think you saw that I said something about imagery and assumed that I was just blabbering about pretty postcards.

As for the rape scene, you pose an interesting argument, although you are not necessarily disagreeing with me, since what is important remains her face, her expression, and not her nudity. However, the juxtaposition between her happier former self and her destroyed lifeless body is interesting, and I hadn’t thought about that, so I thank you for pointing it out. I can only go by my personal impression of a scene when writing a review, and my impression that the scene in question was unduly sexualized remains, but I welcome any explanation regarding the scene’s objective. Of course, the fact that there’s a certain amount of shock value intended in that scene — to mirror the protagonist’s disgusted shock — is something I mention in the review, when I say that it is all in the name of “harsh, unflinching grit,” which I don’t find terribly compelling. That’s just me, though.

I don’t mean to sound harsh at any point in this reply, but I do feel that you’re reading my review with too many preconceptions, even though you already apologized about them. Nevertheless, it colors your reading of it and makes our conversation difficult. You came in here with the mindset that, because I was not too impressed with El Secreto de Sus Ojos, that I must therefore only like Hollywood. I find that odd, because El Secreto de sus Ojos does not move too far from Hollywood convention, unless we’re only considering films like Fantastic Four. Obviously, compared to a dumb super-hero movie — except for, maybe, super-hero movies with aspirations to zeitgeist-capturing artistry, like The Dark Knight or WatchmenEl Secreto de Sus Ojos seems to belong to a different universe. But Campanella is still a mainstream, accessible director: we have a likable hero; satisfying character-development; a certain amount of ambiguity, but never to the point that the characters are unlikable; a big ‘reveal’ at the end, with a dramatic conclusion; exposition; a ‘weak friend’ who doubles as comic relief, although Francella humanizes him beyond the stereotype; a romantic interest, although well-written; etc. I have no problem with any of these things, but I am uncomfortable claiming that El Secreto de sus Ojos is the kind of film that people who only like Hollywood would hate, since it is not so far removed from a serious Hollywood movie, or at least, a mainstream American film. That was my argument in my previous post, that Campanella is not the sort of guy you choose as an example of someone outside Hollywood convention. I don’t mean to say that nothing good can come from Hollywood convention. Many good things have come from it. But Campanella does not go against Hollywood convention the way that, say, Lucrecia Martel does, or Mariano Llinas, or Leonardo Favio, or “Pino” Solanas, or Hugo Santiago, back in the day, though Invasion is something Hollywood might have made during the sixties and fifties, unlike his more difficult and flawed Sidewalks of Saturn. That was what I was trying to say, I think.

Anyhow, sorry for the long post. I hope this doesn’t read too much like an angry post. I only want to make myself clear.

6 03 2010

Sorry, I pressed the wrong button and my reply was posted above yours. It’s up there if you want to read it.

6 03 2010

Lulu, again, the problem here is that you wish I would have written the review you would have written, and I can’t do that, because I am not you. When I sit down to write a review, I ask myself what I found interesting about the film. I can’t focus on everything, because then I would have to write a book. If I do not focus on dialogue and character, it is because I did not find either of these two things interesting enough to talk about. I am trying to reach at the essence of my experience, not to tackle issues I found boring. If I watch a film and find the characters and the dialogue to be interesting, then I deal with them. The characters and the dialogue can be good or bad, I will talk about them as long as they’re interestingly good or interestingly bad. I am only interested in interesting things. Talking about the fact that this or that actor put in a good performance, if there’s nothing interesting to say about that performance other than the fact that it was good, is boring. I have no reason to write it and you have no reason to read it. It’s merely clutter and a waste of time. If the reader wants to find out what the film is about and whether or not he or she should see it, then the reader should consult Wikipedia. What I want to do is provide an interesting perspective and hopefully give the reader something new to digest. I don’t tread ground that I don’t think is conductive to such an end.

With this review, what I wanted to do was tackle one of the film’s central themes, which is the malleability of history and memory, and how this theme is developed. I found it interesting that there seemed to be a disconnect between the film’s central theme and the film’s aesthetic. Therefore, I focused on this issue. With another film, I might focus on the dialogue and the characters, but not with this film, because I found the dialogue and the characters well-written but typical. I still talk about the dialogue and the characters, but obviously within the context of my central concern.

I don’t really divide film into cinematic aspects and literary aspects. Ideally, a film should be a whole. My problem here was that the film did not become such a whole, and I explored the reasons why this was. If I had focused on something else, it would have been a different essay. I like my writings to have a certain amount of coherence. I cannot write about every portion of a film, only about certain portions. There is simply too much to talk about. Nevertheless, I do certainly comment on the story, rather than just describe it. I talk about what it is saying and how it is saying it and where it is flawed. I went beyond plot synopsis, I would like to think. Obviously, I talk a lot of about the ‘how’ and not the ‘what,’ but that’s because the essay was about how the ‘how’ failed to portray the ‘what.’ In so doing, however, I certainly talk about the ‘what’ as well.

I would have no problem talking to you in Spanish in the future. I only write in English because my readership speaks English so it would be disconcerting for them — if they were to read the comments from such an old entry — to stumble upon blocks of Spanish text. If you would prefer, however, we can always switch to Spanish. I can write in either language.

7 03 2010

oh damn, I’ve posted the comment in the wrong place twice! what’s wrong with me? Anyway, my reply is below the comment I made yesterday.

7 03 2010

Lulu, I feel that we have plenty to discuss.

I am opposed to the kind of ‘whole’ review that you propose. I find such reviews meaningless and worthless. I have no interest in reading them and even less interest in writing them. I agree that a review should be ‘whole.’ It should be complete in and of itself. It should deal with an argument or an idea. It should search for answers and it should allow readers to participate in that search. A review needs to be ‘whole’ within itself. The ‘wholeness’ of a review has nothing to do with how much of the film it covers. I find that ridiculous. A review or an essay should strive to provide something useful. If I do not have anything useful to say about this or that part of a film, then I do not say anything about that part. I do not want to waste your time.

When writing reviews, I will almost always restrict my writing to only those topics that I think I can discuss fully and successfully. I think it is silly to focus on topics that I am not willing or able to explore with any depth, due to lack of interest or whatever other reason. I also think it is silly to feel obligated to talk about the same topics with every film, which is what you are proposing. You have to talk about the characters! You have to talk about the plot! You have to mention this! You have to mention that! No, I do not. My only requirement is to write interestingly. What I choose to write interestingly about is something I decide anew with each film I review.

I hate reading reviews filled with clutter, with nonsense about good or bad acting, good or bad dialogue, good or bad costuming, good or bad this or that, meaningless clutter that says nothing of any import whatsoever. It matters not a whit what I think of the acting or the dialogue or the costuming. If I have nothing interesting to say, I say nothing. If in order for my reviews to “be reviews” I have to write meaningless clutter, then I suppose I will never write reviews, all the better for me and my readers.

I did not prejudge the film. I predicted, based on my past with the director’s other films, that I would be underwhelmed. This is different from purposely disliking a film. I did not try to be underwhelmed. I simply was. That I could foresee being underwhelmed, given the director’s previous work, does not mean that I made a conscious attempt towards disappointment. We either like an artist or we do not. When we do not, we can expect disagreements. We can hope to be surprised, we can make ourselves open to reappraisals, but we can still expect disagreements. This does not mean that we have to disagree with the artist. It only means that we expect to, but are willing to agree if the artist surprises us. I don’t think this is the same thing as prejudging a film.

Of course, when we tend to disagree with an artist, we approach his or her work with some pause. “You could say I was predisposed to be underwhelmed.” I say this so that the reader may know it. It does not mean that I did not give the film a chance or that I did not keep an open mind. It simply means: the past affects what we think of the present. Not exactly a revolutionary statement. I am admitting that my previous experiences with Campanella may have affected my opinion of his new film. That is what I say in the first paragraph. I am not saying that I will never like anything by Campanella. I am not saying that my previous experiences with Campanella definitely affected my opinion. I am only saying that these experiences may have affected my opinion — perhaps, possibly, maybe — and that since they may have affected my opinion, the reader should know about these previous experiences. I can only do my best to “keep an open mind.” That is all we can ever do. Previous experiences will always exert their influence. I still think I gave El Secreto de sus Ojos a fair chance. I certainly thought about it. I cannot be accused of dismissing it. And I liked it!

I did not focus on the stuff I liked because I had nothing to say about it that would have been of any worth to anyone. I did not really focus on the negative stuff. I focused on the stuff that I thought would be worthwhile to discuss. In this case, the stuff I thought would be worthwhile to discuss happened to be largely negative, but that was not my intention.

7 03 2010

“I did not focus on the stuff I liked because I had nothing to say about it that would have been of any worth to anyone.” How can you possibly know it? Unless you write reviews for your friends, you can’t know what people will find or not find interesting in your review. Again, maybe you think that commenting “Good dialogues”, for example, is ridiculous. But maybe for your readers it’s helpful to know that they’re going to find that in the movie. If you’re writing your opinions or reviews exclusively for yourself, then I totally accept your argument about writing only about the things you find interesting for you. Now, from the moment you post a review on the internet for someone else to read it, you have to know that people will want to know about this and that, and maybe it’s much more or maybe it’s less than the things you focuse on. There’s a clear difference between writing for yourself and writing for others. If you decide to write for others, then you should know that you’ll have to deal with a lot of people like me who will maybe find your review unstable, exceeded in some things, short in some others, and totally forgetting some others. It is going to happen cause not everybody will have the same point of view towards the movie.

Now, in all this long argument I have considered all the things you said and respected them, but I have to say I do not buy at all your explanation on why you didn’t prejudge the movie. Of course, previous experience is going to affect your view, but as a critic you have to fight against that, cause unconsciously it’s going to affect your work as well and blind you. And I’m not just talking in a negative way. If you loved all Campanella’s work and you watched El Secreto prepared to see the best film of your life, that would affect your review too, and it wouldn’t help either. You can like or not like Campanella, but at the moment you sit and watch the movie I believe you have to forget who directed it and just open your eyes and your mind to see if you accept or not the film’s proposition. Obviously, if you watch a Tim Burton’s movie, for example, you will expect a certain style, but if you watch the movie with that preconception you may miss some new stuff. Sticking to the idea you have of an artist doesn’t allow you to have an expanded vision of him. I do think you prejudged the film. When you say “I did not prejudge the film. I predicted, based on my past with the director’s other films, that I would be underwhelmed.” you’re only saying the same thing with different words. Predicting you’re going to be underwhelmed is prejudging that the film won’t have the hability to make you feel overwhelmed. “This is different from purposely disliking a film. I did not try to be underwhelmed.” Of course you didn’t, I think that a smart critic as you seem to be wouldn’t try to have a certain preconception on purpose, that would only result in a horrible work in every review. But even if you didn’t try to, you did, and that’s something I think you should work on a little more, cause it won’t help you in the future. You, me, we all as human beings should try to work on it, cause it’s a human condition, but one that makes everything worse.

7 03 2010

“When you say ‘I did not prejudge the film. I predicted, based on my past with the director’s other films, that I would be underwhelmed.’ you’re only saying the same thing with different words.” This is not only incorrect, it is also unfair to me.

Prejudging a film means: “I did not like the director’s previous work, so I will not like this one.” What I said was: “I did not like the director’s previous work, so there is a good chance I will not like this one, but let’s give it a try anyways.” How am I prejudging the film? And also, why should I forget the director’s previous work? We should always keep a director’s previous work in mind, because it deepens the experience of watching film. We notice echoes and connections across the director’s oeuvre. It’s very interesting. We should do this whether we like the director or not. It does not mean that we have to have the same opinion about every film we watch from the director. It only means that we view each film as part of a larger body of work.

“But even if you didn’t try to, you did, and that’s something I think you should work on a little more, cause it won’t help you in the future.” How do you know I prejudged the film? Because you say so? You misunderstand me. I tried to keep an open mind, to fight against preconceptions, as you would have had me do. I mentioned that I had bad experiences with Campanella so that the reader might understand where I was coming from. I tried not to let those bad experiences influence my opinion, but I mention them in order to be honest, so that the reader knows that I have not agreed with the director in the past. You simplify this to: “You see, you prejudged the film!” No, Lulu. Please understand me. When I disagree with an artist, I am disagreeing with that artist’s obsessions and ideas. The artist values different things from those that I value. It is not very strange, then, that I might be underwhelmed by his new film, not because I prejudge it, but because it is likely to contain what I already disliked in previous works. This does not mean that I am not open to “new stuff.” It is simply the natural relationship that a viewer has with an artist. It is part of the dialogue that we all hold with an artist. I see nothing wrong with this. We can keep a director’s previous works in mind without prejudging the director’s new work. It takes practice, but it is worth the endeavor, since we can then view the artist’s work as a whole and see how the artist has or has not developed. There are, of course, dangers to this, which is why I mentioned my past with Campanella.

I write for others. At the same time, however, I cannot know what others are going to find interesting, as you say yourself. The only thing I can do is write and hope that readers find my writing interesting. If they do not, then that is very sad. I cannot do anything about it. “You have to know that people will want to know about this and that, and maybe it’s much more or maybe it’s less than the things you focus on.” What do you want me to do about that? I cannot do anything. I think it is quite horrible to deal with ten topics in a shallow manner. I would rather deal with one topic in a thorough manner. If readers find that their topic of interest is missing, then I am sorry. “If you decide to write for others, then you should know that you’ll have to deal with a lot of people like me who will maybe find your review unstable, exceeded in some things, short in some others, and totally forgetting some others.” That is unfortunate, Lulu. I am powerless to do anything about it. I have my perspective and I try to explain it and deepen it. If readers do not like it, then they are welcome to read another critic. Everyone will be obsessed with a different topic, so the only way to please everyone would be to deal with many topics in a superficial manner. And even then, someone would still be displeased. In fact, everyone would be displeased, because I would have said nothing interesting about any topic since I tried to deal with all of them.

As a reader, though, I have no idea why I would want a critic to talk about everything or even most things in a movie. I want a critic to analyze a film, explore it, deal with it, tackle it, etc, and if that means focusing on some details at the expense of others, then so be it. I do not like critics who treat criticism like a buyer’s guide, going down a checklist of cinematic attributes, combining each attribute with an empty adjective. That is not what I want to do, so why would I do it?

Another point, which is important. “Dialogue is good” is not interesting. A reader might have found the dialogue in the film interesting, but reading “dialogue is good” is not interesting. That was what I meant to say in my previous post. You claim I am not writing for others, but that is exactly what I am doing. Like I said, I do not want to waste your time, and “dialogue is good” is a waste of time. A reader might want to read about the dialogue, but if I have nothing interesting to say about the dialogue, then I will unfortunately have to disappoint such a reader. I do not think a reader should want to read “dialogue is good,” or even, “dialogue is good and heightens our relationship to the characters.” So what? I have probably written such sentences before, but I am not proud of them. Please understand. A reader can be interested in the dialogue. I don’t think a reader should be interested in an empty sentence like “dialogue is good and heightens our relationship to the characters.” That sentence says nothing important. It is empty. You might disagree, but since I believe it is empty, I will not subject readers to such sentences, since I do not want to waste their time. I have probably subjected readers to such sentences many times in the past, but I always try to talk about at least one topic with seriousness, and not make the entire review a succession of empty sentences.

8 03 2010

For the last time, since the third one is the last one, my reply ended up somewhere up there. Aparently if I don’t press the reply button and directly write in “leave a comment” the message isn’t posted after yours, I don’t know why.

8 03 2010

I’ll keep it short, because apparently that was your last post. I explained myself twice about prejudging the film. You are right. When I wrote “You could say I was predisposed to be underwhelmed,” I meant that I could have prejudged the film. I could have, not that I definitely did. I said this twice, Lulu. I went to great lengths to explain why I wrote what I wrote in my previous posts. “I tried not to let those bad experiences influence my opinion, but I mention them in order to be honest, so that the reader knows that I have not agreed with the director in the past.” Also: “I am only saying that these experiences may have affected my opinion — perhaps, possibly, maybe — and that since they may have affected my opinion, the reader should know about these previous experiences. I can only do my best to ‘keep an open mind.'” All of this seems pretty reasonable, Lulu. I don’t know what you were expecting. I do not say “Yes, I prejudged the film!” because I don’t think that I did. But I certainly admit that I may have, despite my best efforts otherwise. What else did you want? Apparently I’m being impossible in this conversation. Okay.

I have also been arguing that, when you dislike a director’s work, you dislike certain ideas and aesthetic principles that the director is working with, and so a new film by this director is likely to underwhelm simply because it also has those ideas and principles that you never liked to begin with. That is also what I meant by “predisposed.” I am not exactly the director’s intended audience.

I think I have been pretty civil towards you, Lulu. Unless the only way to be civil in conversation is to not argue against what you disagree with. That seems odd, though. I think I have patiently explained my position without insulting you. You say this: “If a review is whole as the film pretends to be, you should try to cover the main aspects, and some of those aspects may not interest you, but they are still part of the film, and you should at least mention them to say ‘I found this boring,’ or cliché, or whatever.” I disagreed, so I posed a counterargument. I am not reading your comments in order to disprove them. I simply disagree, so I explain my position. I say a lot more than “this is what I do, and if you don’t like it, read another critic.” I explain what I want to achieve in my writing and how what I want to do is at odds with what you proposed. I don’t know what you expected from this discussion. I engaged with what you said. I disagreed and told you why. Apparently this means I’m being thick-headed and that I only want to contradict you. Okay.

6 03 2010

It’s ok, we just have very different points of view. That was a very long comment you made so I’ll try to make mine a little shorter.

True, the conception of aesthetic that I was talking about wasn’t the one you defined. Maybe I didn’t myself clear, which is probable since my english isn’t perfect and therefore sometimes I use the wrong word to explain myself. To summarize, when I talk about aesthetic I talk about image. Every visual element that makes a movie a movie. In that sense, every film has an aesthetic, Hollywood films included. The point is that Hollywood has a particular style, mostly based in great visual effects and technology which, as you said, doesn’t necesarilly make it interesting but it’s still an aesthetic. In my opinion, El Secreto persues this kind of Hollywood aesthetic, the details in the costumes and make ups and places, the “cool” camera effects… That’s what made it interesting to the local viewers, to think that we can make a movie which looks “as good as a Hollywood movie”.

Now, about your review in your story. You clearly talked about the story, but making a description OF the story isn’t commenting ON the story. I can say “this movie is about this and this and that, but totally failled in this scene and that scene”, but that’s not giving any information about my thoughts towards the characters (which includes not only if they look their age or not, but what they have to offer from a psychological point of view), or the situations, or the connections between them. You do make a big critic to the situations that you think that esthetically failled or couldn’t be treated from another angle, like the scene of Retiro (I will agree with you about the cliché in there), but you don’t give your opinion about that plot you’re describing. That’s what I meant when I said you’re only focusing in the aesthetic part, you’re totally puting aside things which are extremely important (dialogues!). But after reading your last post I guess that’s because you’re separating the movie from the script. I don’t. Maybe it will make it easier for you to understand my point if I explain you that I’m basically a writer, so I’m totally captivated by the messages in every kind of art. In songs, I pay a lot of atenttion to lyrics, for example, when many people rather listen to a good tune with crappy lyrics. In movies, it’s the same. The script is what interests me the most, the characters, what goes on in their heads, how do they change along the story, how do they relate with each other. Now I think that maybe I’m out of place, and this review was extrectely pointing at the movie as a movie, and I’m focusing in other stuff that doesn’t have to do purely with the film but with the story. That’s why my argument about the rape scene was much more convincing to you than anything else I said, because I’m not good at analyzing the visual part of the movie itself, but I’m better when it comes to connect the visual metaphores or the effect of the scene with the situation and the story behind.

I only want to add one more thing, and that is that I don’t think it’s pointless to comment on the actors and the interpretations. You say that Darin and Francella wouldn’t act badly, but my expectations on Francella, for example, were very low, and he proved me wrong, and that happened to a lot of people. Francella has done plenty of bad movies (comedies), so it wouldn’t have been weird if he failled as Sandoval. But even if everyone thought the same about the actors (which will never happen), that doesn’t mean that you can’t add something different, or make a critic about something you didn’t like in their interpretations. I think Darin did a great job, but the scene where he founds Sandoval dead didn’t convince me. So there you go, not everything is said.

Anyway, maybe this is my last reply (maybe not, depending). Again, I have admited and I admit again I did prejudge your review in many aspects, and I apologize for that. I don’t know you, as you don’t know me either, but in order to have a conversation I have to build an image of who I’m talking to (basic semiology, I can’t escape from it), and I’ve tried to understand you along your replies. I probably failled and didn’t totally get your point of view, as you probably didn’t totally get mine, I’m not pretending you to do it either. But it’s nice just to be able to speak one’s mind even if others don’t agree.

7 03 2010

I agree that the film should be a whole, but I think a review should be a whole too. Of course you’re not going to write the same review I would cause we are different persons, it would be crazy to criticize your review for something like that, that wasn’t the reason I started this argument. My main problem with your review was, and is, that (in spite of saying that you don’t divide the film into cinematic aspects and literary aspects), you did focuse in what you wanted to talk about (in your words, what you found interesting to talk about) and not in the whole movie, in the movie as whole. If a review is whole as the film pretends to be, you should try to cover the main aspects, and some of those aspects may not interest you, but they are still part of the film, and you should at least mention them to say “I found this boring”, or cliché, or whatever. If you don’t, then this isn’t a review, it’s simply you saying the reasons why you barely liked, or just liked, the movie, focusing on all the mistakes and not talking about the few good stuff you may have found (cause if you said that you did like El Secreto at least a little, then Campanella must have done one or two things right, if not you would have totally hated it).

Remember I prejudge you? Well, you prejudge the movie first. I’ll quote your first lines: “I knew I would be underwhelmed by this film — the most important Argentine release of the year — and indeed I was. You could say I was predisposed to be underwhelmed: I have never enjoyed a film by Juan Jose Campanella.”. Maybe this is why your review only points the bad things in the movie, cause you watched it with a pre conception, and that always makes someone see the mistakes as bigger and the virtues smaller. It’s been difficult for me to read your review with an open mind about you, when in the beginning you clearly say you didn’t watch the film with an open mind yourself.

I wouldn’t mind switching to spanish, but honestly I don’t think there’s too much we can discuss, cause the simple thing here is that I enjoyed the movie very much and found it pretty wonderful, and you didn’t. Nothing we can say to each other will change that, and that’s great, cause everyone should keep their opinion. I do respect your work, it’s not that I don’t, cause you gave a very extended speech of why the movie failled and that’s respectable. But I would recommend you for the next time to try to keep some sort of balance in your words, because when all you do is remark the bad stuff and forget the good stuff what you’re doing is to show the readers that you have labelled the movie or the director (I don’t like Campanella, I’ll never write something good about a campanella film) and that you have a closed mind, and you can’t aproach any form of art (a film, a painting, whatever) if you don’t keep your mind open.

7 03 2010

Again, it seems I keep pressing the wrong reply button. My reply is behind the comment I wrote yesterday, sorry.

8 03 2010

Well, beaucine, honestly I think it’s pointless for me to keep replying. I feel that I keep trying to understand you but instead you keep reading what I write only thinking in a way to defend yourself, when you shouldn’t. And that’s exactly what I meant when I said that there will be people who won’t like it. Do you really think I would tell you to do something about it? Of course not, it’s obvious we can’t help what other people think about our opinions, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. What I said is that it is going to happen, so you have to accept it and not take it so serious. Accepting doesn’t mean you have to say “oh, ok, I agree, I don’t like what I wrote either”. But if you stand like “this is me, this is what I do, if someone doesn’t like it he can go read another critic” it’s very difficult to finish a conversation in good terms. An argument is supposed to end with both sides learning something and I’ve learnt a lot about your point of view, but I really don’t think you’re interested in learning anything about mine, cause all you do when you reply is saying “you’re assuming this, you’re assuming that”. I’m not just assuming. Read your own comments with an honest heart instead of deceiving yourself only to justify your review. You did prejudge the film, and it’s not me the one who is saying it, it’s you in your own words. It’s another obvious thing that you won’t openly say “I prejudge the film”. But ask a hundred people with many different opinions if the words “You could say I was predisposed to be underwhelmed: I have never enjoyed a film by Juan Jose Campanella” isn’t a sort of prejudge.

I’m very sorry that this conversation has to end like this, but again, I can’t keep talking with someone who is only talking and not listening, or better said, listening and at the same time thinking a way of prove me wrong. Just think that if I wanted to keep defending the movie, I could write a thousand words about El Secreto winning an Oscar yesterday, but I really don’t want to do it cause I’m not interesting in proving to you that the film is good. I was in the beginning, then I got caught in a conversation which seemed very interesting about critics, but now it’s no longer positive cause all I keep receiving from you is how you can’t help anything you do and therefore there’s no point in trying to learn or change anything. I know what you’re going to say: “I never said that, you’re assuming things”. Yes, I’m assuming things, but based on facts, in everything you’ve said since the start. I really don’t think you’ve tried to keep an open mind, not in your review, not in our conversation. I apologized for prejudging you, I gave you credit on many things you said, and I gave you my point of view. Now it’s up to you to see if any of the things I said is helpful in any way, but I’m not going to spend 20 minutes every day trying to convince you about it. After all it’s always your choice to consider other opinions or not.

Since this is my last post, I wish you luck in your work. I think you are extremely smart to do some great things, but unfortunately I also think, as I said before, that you need to work more on keeping an open mind when you exchange opinions, cause that’s your weakest point. I don’t mean to be agressive in any way here, I’m just being honest.

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