The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos (1969)

1 07 2011

Lost on the opposite shore of Argentine cinema history, on the far side of the military dictatorship of 1976, this film continues to turn fervently upon its axis, stirring tremors all around it and yet heroically alone, the sole exponent of a cinematic “new wave” that never was. Alberto Fischerman was part of the Group of Five, a quintet of film directors with a background in advertisement who determined, during the late sixties, to trace a new path for the national film industry, hoping to combine commercial success with a different and more independent method of distribution, along with an ostensibly fresh and unique point-of-view culled from the worldwide avant-garde and art-house developments that had gestated during the ongoing decade. David Oubiña charts their history in his book Silence and its Edges, which dedicates an entire chapter to The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos. According to Oubiña, the Group of Five essentially failed: they achieved no great commercial success and introduced no real aesthetic innovation, they were a sterile pseudo-movement that fizzled out after each member of the quintet released their debut. Only one film, which entitles this essay, gained any notoriety and respect, because it was the only one which was actually iconoclastic and different, and which met the supposed promise of the Group of Five.

I haven’t seen enough to counter Oubiña’s historical interpretation. Tiro de Gracia by Ricardo Becher is the only other film I’ve watched from the Group, and outside of capturing a moment in time — the youthful, bohemian atmosphere of late sixties Buenos Aires — it’s dull and out-of-tune, never finding its proper rhythm, drifting across characters and situations through choppy editing that yearns to be jazzy. Although it does not mean to be either, it’s interesting to compare Tiro de Gracia with Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, other works about twenty-to-forty-something bohemian circles, and discover how the latter pair are far more evocative and profound, how the loose rhythms give way to slower passages, how atmosphere is allowed to flow and settle, how time stalls and starts and runs up against the characters, and how Paris, with its jail of streets, is alive like a watchful gaoler. Buenos Aires, in the Becher film, is distant and anonymous, a background faze that never comes into focus.

The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos, however, is truly great, far more experimental in nature and worthier of our fascination. It is deeply self-referential, at once filmed theater, a film about theater, and a film about film, it chronicles the rivalry between a cast of actors, the Players, who shuffle tragicomically around a film set, and a shadier band of outcasts, the Ángeles Caídos or fallen angels, who stare at the actors with envy and indignation from the shadowy crevices of the sound-stage. This confrontation escalates until it explodes in an all-out brawl near the end, which bares some resemblance to the frequent gang battles in A Clockwork Orange.

Yet this plot is barely felt during the film’s running time. Fischerman, here, is not interested in traditional storytelling clad in unexpected garbs, but is after more destructive and jarring objectives. Many self-referential films, even the great ones, naturalize and include the self-reference into the narrative, erasing the fissures. The film within a film is co-opted by the overall arc — the “story of the artist,” for example — and is therefore no longer unsettling. Fosse’s All That Jazz, Saura’s Tango, and Fellini’s are all, to different degrees, filmed diaries of how they were made, but they insert this mirror-effect into the storytelling and thus mend the fracture produced by self-consciousness. Split into halves, into the “film in the film” and the “film that contains the film in the film,” the ravine between each is then bridged when the former no longer questions the existence of the latter but merely becomes a fact of it.

In many ways, the same happens with The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos, but Fischerman has his actors criticize the man behind the camera for erasing the fissures and mending the fractures, building a basically coherent story out of the disjointed improvisation unleashed by the performers; as Oubiña would argue, there is a tension between the freedom sought by the actors and the control imposed by the director. When the film closes, the words “Make up your Games” flash gigantically on the screen, a Cortazaresque exhortation in favor of creativity and imagination. But this amounts to a command, and its appearance rings wholly ironic coming after a lengthy monologue by one of the fallen angels, who chastises the director for not providing anything like the freedom he promised.

This tension expands into metaphysical drama. Like in Hugo Santiago’s Invasión, the characters here are trapped inside their fiction. Although they are able to move childishly about the screen, without a care for causality or psychology, interacting for the pure pleasure of interaction, they cannot escape the confines of the film set. Life occurs inside tiny boundaries; the Players cannot move away and the fallen angels yearn to move in. And as the latter sulk in the darkened suburbs of the sound-stage, it would seem as if the lighted perimeter where the Players sing and dance is the only space where characters can be said to exist, while the fallen angels, banished to the outskirts of the spotlight, barely feature as protagonists.

The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos turns into itself like a Moebius strip, every single narrative and conceptual path leads back to the tumultuous center, a bellicose heart where the binary conflicts that drive the film intersect: director vs. actor, players vs. fallen angels, experimentation vs. convention, and so on. Not only is this film about its making, but it also questions its making and its right to exist. The actors often behave irrationally or playfully, in the hopes of breaking through the celluloid and escaping the linearity of the story by introducing tangents that lead nowhere: three actors exchange roles as victim and victimizer in a silly scene out of the Marx Brothers, one actor is painted as a clown for no apparent reason, and another wakes up as it were the proverbial morning, yawning at the start of the film and stretching on the floor for so long, that his habit attains a sort of epic weight, as if it were all humanity waking up to greet the light of the projector.

But even with so much liberty and looseness, the characters are trapped, since their dynamic movements can only happen on a prescribed arena. Even the film itself is trapped: forced to select, place, and arrange its separate pieces into a whole, the film cannot be truly free, since then it would be incomprehensible. Whatever its experimentation, every shot here almost invariably leads to the next, and even when this rule is transgressed, directorial control is only further established, as with the perfectly choreographed jump-cuts, timed for comic effect, and the post-synched singing, edited with precision so that a man sounds like a woman and vice-versa.

Neither the characters nor the film finds the freedom they wanted, but their efforts towards this ideal are captured by the camera. Although it cannot run away from its need to be coherent, the film contains within itself its own attempts at disobedience, so that, regardless of their ultimate success, these attempts are already successful in that they comprise the film. If nothing else, The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos chronicles the path of its disobedience, and this path is a triumph, even if there is no destination, because it is a new path and the film is both its storefront and critic, providing within itself a whole discussion on the nature of rebellion.

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