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

12 03 2017

wildtales

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 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!





Comedy? Argentine-Style?

7 12 2008

un novio para mi mujer

I wonder how cultural identification works. By this I mean, what do we find funny? Why do we find it funny? How much does background play into our opinions? It’s all rather messy. I both enjoy and hate the comedic styles of my home country. On the former end of the spectrum, that is, on the enjoyable side of things, there is a penchant for honestly and for wonderful expressivity. On the latter end, however, there is also a penchant to let this expressivity get out of control. All sorts of annoying hand-movements and loud hollers may ensue, drowning out whatever humor the scene in question ever hoped to communicate.

Perhaps it’s a question of volume. Some comedies are more subdued, others are more extreme. It all depends on the comedians and on the directors. It also depends on the medium. Film comedies tend to lean towards the calm and measured while television comedies are stuck in a grotesque wasteland. I can barely watch them. This bleeds into dramatic genre-pieces as well. We note the same personality split, the same divergence between melodramatic grandiosity and quiet observation. In short, we get the sappy Luna de Avellaneda and the subtly tragic La Niña Santa. This division is somewhat true around the world, but it seems that in Argentina both styles are specific to the culture. Both feel very Argentine.

I don’t know where Taratuto’s Un Novio Para Mi Mujer stands. I think it’s a middle ground. It is occasionally overdone and mostly unhurried. Some scenes step over the line and other scenes hold back. The actors are allowed to work with their characters and give them movement and life. Yet, they sporadically dive into the arena of hyperbole and caricature. I think it is a case study. This movie hosts, within itself, the two pronged nature of Argentine comedy.








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