Monday, August 31, 2009

TIFF09—A History of Israeli Cinema / Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli

Raphaël Nadjari’s A History of Israeli Cinema / Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli, Pts. 1 & 2, played at the Berlin Film Forum, then screened at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), where Janis Plotkin wrote in her program capsule: “Israel as a nation is far younger than motion pictures; in fact, its modern identity has been formed in parallel with the medium of film. Israeli films, when seen unfolding over time as they do in this engrossing retrospective documentary, reveal a cinematic national identity that encapsulates the emotional reality of a country often torn by ethnic, religious and political conflicts.”

A methodical albeit sprawling three and a half-hour inventory, I was at first put off by this documentary’s somewhat nationalistic intensity, though—upon a second viewing—I could more easily digest its voluminous information, and came to appreciate—as Plotin has contextualized—how the history of Israel and the history of cinema have, in effect, grown up alongside each other. That being said, however, an appetite is required for this feast. This is one of the few instances where I will admit that watching a film on screener proved advantageous, allowing me the opportunity to take a break now and then when oversatiated. As an in-cinema experience, I’m not quite sure how comfortably this will play (which is not to say that a film’s efficacy should be determined by its comfort). At
Variety, Alissa Simon found it “fascinating and frustrating” and complained the film was “structured using a dialectical method that denies a satisfying synthesis of ideas.” At the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dennis Harvey compliments that the “hazy” narrative of how the Israeli cinema industry got to where it is today “clears up quite a bit after three and a half hours.” “Its epic length,” Thom Powers writes succinctly in his TIFF capsule, “is earned by having a lot to say.” As Powers further attests: “The documentary's two halves are as distinct from each other as the historical periods they represent. Each part can be viewed independently, but a taste of one will surely give you the appetite for the other.” If I had to play Solomon, however, I’d probably recommend the second portion over the first, simply because the profiled films are more current if not relevant and reflect my own vested participation in SFJFF’s programming of the last decade.

I’m definitely glad I caught A History of Israeli Cinema at SFJFF because—in solidarity with John Greyson’s boycott of TIFF’s CTC (City to City) program—I doubt I would have caught it in Toronto. In fact, were it not for the boycott and schedule conflicts, I would have likewise been interested in Assi Dayan’s Life According to Agfa (1992), highlighted in the documentary. Hopefully, along with several of the other referenced films, these will become available through revival screenings here and there in less contentious atmospheres. Cameron Bailey’s official response to John Greyson’s open letter of protest suggests that—by Greyson’s reasoning—“no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained.” Greyson had complained: “Why are only Jewish Israeli filmmakers included? Why are there no voices from the refugee camps and Gaza (or Toronto for that matter), where Tel Aviv's displaced Palestinians now live?”

Bailey has made a respectable effort to defuse Greyson’s insinuation that exclusion of the Palestinian perspective implicates TIFF in Israeli propaganda. He points to other programs at TIFF that feature Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers; but, again, these are not the programs to which Greyson objects. As the programmer of CTC, Bailey defends his focus on Tel Aviv: “I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives. Furthermore, the City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumors or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.”

Despite Bailey’s assertion of the independent conception and curation of TIFF’s Spotlight on Tel Aviv, he does not substantively address Greyson’s concern that Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin openly expressed in an interview with the Canadian Jewish News that TIFF’s Spotlight is the culmination of his year-long Brand Israel campaign, which has included bus/radio/TV ads and an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum. Gissen said Toronto was chosen as a test-city for Brand Israel by Israel's Foreign Ministry, and thanked Astral, MIJO and Canwest for donating the million-dollar budget. Greyson reminded that Astral is a long-time TIFF sponsor, and Canwest owners' Asper Foundation donated $500,000 to TIFF. Gissin boasted in the Canadian Jewish News article: "We've got a real product to sell to Canadians... The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide launch of Brand Israel in the coming years.”

“[M]any questions remain for me about its origins, its funding, its programming, its sponsors,” Greyson stated to the TIFF heads of programming. “You say it was initiated in November 2008 ... but then why would Gissen seem to be claiming it as part of his campaign four months earlier? You've told me that TIFF isn't officially a part of Brand Israel—okay—but why haven't you clarified this publicly? …Why is TIFF accepting and/or encouraging the support of the Israeli government and consulate, a direct flaunting of the boycott, with filmmaker plane tickets, receptions, parties and evidently the Mayor of Tel Aviv opening the spotlight? Why does this feel like a propaganda campaign?”

As cogent as Greyson’s critcisms might be, in all fairness to the CTC program and A History of Israeli Cinema specifically, its second volume poignantly references Palestinian concerns as inflected through cinema. In fact, I would say the documentary accurately informs how these concerns have been ongoing and evolving for some time, often with films guiding government policy and public opinion. Cultural boycotts within the cinematic community itself might merely be a next stage.

Equally, though not specifically referenced in A History of Israeli Cinema, Eytan Fox’s The Bubble—which has been included in the CTC lineup—recontextualizes the naïve “Romeo & Juliet” (i.e., Jewish & Arab) romances popular in Israel during the ‘80s by queering the conflict as a “Romeo & Romeo” romance. Interestingly enough, when The Bubble screened in San Francisco at our 2007 Frameline Festival, I asked director Eytan Fox his thoughts regarding the protests staged against Frameline's acceptance of financial contributions from the Israeli Consulate to secure his attendance at the festival. He answered at that time: “I can understand why people got upset that it was sponsored by the Israeli consulate. I see that happening again and again with people who are upset with Israel, with its policies. They don't like the fact that it's a formal thing, that Israel the country, the state, whatever, is supporting [the film]. It's usually Palestinians or people connected to Palestinian causes or just people who are critical of Israel's policies. I understand where these people are coming from; but, in this case, in a film like The Bubble, they should read what the film is about, and realize it can support their cause.”

Israeli filmmaker
Udi Aloni—who supports the Canadian protest and is calling on Israeli artists to take the same steps—addressed a letter to Eytan Fox and Bubble co-creator Gal Uchovsky, asking: “Are Israeli artists [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman’s new foreign service cadets?” At Haaretz, Tahel Frosh reports: “According to Aloni, Israeli artists need to rethink their participation in the festival. ‘Wherever they appear they must decide if they are representatives of the Foreign Ministry or of an uncompromising opposition to occupation and racism in Israel,’ he said. ‘Israeli directors don’t have to be defensive and ask “Why are they attacking us?” but say to the Canadian directors: “We're with you on this. We don’t represent Lieberman; we represent the opposition.” There are only two options. It’s no longer possible to shoot and cry.’ ”

Eytan Fox’s hope that audiences will focus on the content of his film tracks with Bailey’s defense that—despite the absence of a Palestinian filmmaker in the CTC program—content and form do matter to the TIFF programmers. He encouraged audiences to see the films before passing judgment; to not denounce the series before seeing the films. Timing, however, seems to be trumping content in this particular instance. Bemoaning the fate of the films with their festival audiences does not sufficiently distract from what feels like ill-conceived and mistimed programming. The films will survive and be seen elsewhere but—at the 2009 Toronto International—they might have to weather diluted enthusiasm.

Cross-published on


There are 56 definitions offered for the word “cover” in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, 1993), with the 13th definition applied to journalism (where a journalist is assigned to “cover” a story) and the 51st definition applied to music (where a musician is said to “cover” another’s song). Immediately following the musical definition, is one for mathematics wherein a “cover” refers to “a collection of sets having the property that a given set is contained in the union of the sets in the collection.” That 52nd definition—along with its journalistic and musical variants—could equally apply to John Greyson’s experimental short Covered, which is at once intricately journalistic, musical and mathematic.

Originally slated in TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada program and billed as “an inspired experimental documentary on the violent closing of the first
Queer Sarajevo Festival”, Greyson has pulled Covered from the official selection at TIFF in protest against their inaugural City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv and in solidarity with the Palestinian call for a boycott against the Israeli government. Greyson has, instead, made Covered available online at Vimeo for the duration of the festival (until September 19th, 2009). Greyson likewise pulled his film Fig Trees from this year’s Tel Aviv GLBT Festival.
Greyson’s principled protest has been laid out in his letter to festival heads Piers Handling, Noah Cowan and Cameron Bailey. His concern that TIFF’s cooperation with the Brand Israel campaign (launched in Toronto) ignores such socio-political realities as “the devastating Gaza massacre of eight months ago, resulting in over 1000 civilian deaths; the election of a Prime Minister accused of war crimes; the aggressive extension of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands; the accelerated destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards; the viral growth of the totalitarian security wall, and the further enshrining of the check-point system” leads to his criticism that “this isn't the right year to celebrate Brand Israel, or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region, or to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel.” Greyson questions whether “such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now [isn’t] akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?”; boycott campaigns that “were specific and strategic to their historic moments, and certainly complex.”

Covered itself is a complex intertext that combines split screen imagery and multiple visual and aural registers to examine the brutal homophobic violence levied against the first Queer Sarajevo Festival. Greyson situates his examination through avian folklore, covers of popular songs that feature bird imagery, and his own “cover” of Susan Sontag’s cultural criticism. This last element—excerpts from an essay by Susan Sontag about cultural responses to war, entitled “Covered: the Sound of Solidarity”—is perhaps the film’s most intriguing critique and edges the film towards an alterity that nears sheer poetry. Greyson’s self-reflexive and appropriative homage to Sontag is encapsulated perfectly in his poised quote: “Covers must walk a line between tribute and treachery, paying heartfelt homage even as they betray the author with a musical kiss.”

Though it’s unfortunate that I’m not able to see Covered on a large screen, and though I appreciate being able to view the film on Vimeo, I respect Greyson’s commitment to use a cultural boycott to address his protest against cultural propaganda. If—as has been suggested in Raphaël Nadjari’s A History of Israeli Cinema—cinema anticipates (or should anticipate) awareness of the need for socio-political change, then current controversies such as Greyson’s withdrawl of Covered from TIFF09, and the recent uproar over Rachel at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, belie changes anxious to unfold.

Michael Sicinski's review of Covered can be found here (scroll to the bottom). “Using split-screen and juxtaposing taxidermy exhibits with amateur YouTube performances of favorite songs, Greyson enacts a dialectic between official, institutional culture and the way actual individuals make things matter on a visceral level. ...Greyson demonstrates the awkward power of amateur cover-versions of these songs, since they both pay homage to fame and shadow it with rank normalcy.”

Cross-published on

Sunday, August 30, 2009


My thanks to Chuck Stephens for alerting me to this hilarious mash-up.

Bugs Bunny in "Glen or Glenda"


With the calendar for the San Francisco Cinematheque Fall program officially announced, I’m reminded of the great job Executive Director Jonathan Marlow has done in breathing life into the institution and how he has singlehandedly trained my focus towards experimental cinema. I’ll get back from the Toronto International just in time to catch the San Francisco Cinematheque’s season opener: José Antonio Sistiaga’s rarely-screened ere erera baleibu icik subua aruaren. In the months following, I look forward to programs on Tom Chomont, Robert Beavers, Chick Strand, and the Kuchar Brothers. Anticipating same has likewise reminded me of my favorite event of San Francisco Cinematheque’s last season: Nathaniel Dorsky speaking on his most recent films Song & Solitude, Sarabande and Winter.

On the Toxicity of Cinema

Film is such a wonderful way to directly relate with an audience. Its use as a vehicle for transmitting wisdom is so strong and so unused, and sort of deeply toxic as a whole. If you think of how toxic cinema is, then—like anything that has great potential for purity—it has an equal potential for poison. It’s our responsibility to use it wisely.

On Editing

I try to make the films work. I’m not being facetious. I collect footage over a period of maybe half a year. I assume that—because I’ve collected it—that there’s some kind of unifying factor. Then I just begin. I say, “This is where I’m beginning” and then I let the film echo out on its own. I let the film echo its own reality. On Winter, I edited for probably a month; but, that’s not a fair way to [state] it because, while I’m shooting, I’m eliminating stuff I don’t like. So in a way it’s maybe a year process; but, then the actual editing might take a month to six weeks.

On Having Opinions About Films

You know how we’re all socialized? Where you have to be most socialized is with film opinions. There’s no way to lose a friend more easily. I’m serious. When someone takes something from a film and you don’t have their experience, they wonder if you can be their friend. So normally if someone asks me if I’ve seen a film, I’ve learned to say, “I hear it’s good.” That’s the safest thing to do because you never know. But then I thought, “If I write a book [Devotional Cinema], I can actually say what I really feel.”

On Winter in San Francisco

I’ve shown Winter about nine times this Autumn and I always have to explain what a San Francisco winter is like. Here, winter has nothing to do with sleigh riding. It’s a whole other thing. I thought, “Nobody’s really made a film about our winter.” It’s a slow dissolve from Autumn into Spring. The first year that I saw the sycamore trees holding onto their brown leaves at the same time that the plum blossoms were coming out in the first week of February, I thought, “What is this mess?” It took me 20 years to like it.

On Not Knowing When A Film Will Work

In my apartment where I live in the Richmond there are two boys above me who are in the San Francisco ballet. I would see them on stage and, you know, everyone’s envious of people in ballet; I am. I’d see them in those great outfits under those powerful spotlights. Then an hour later, I’d see them down by the garbage cans taking out their garbage. I asked one of them, “How does that feel to dance?” He said, “Well, frankly, when I dance well it feels great. When I haven’t danced well, it feels terrible.” It’s the same kind of feeling making films. It’s wonderful to share them with an audience when they’re well-projected. It’s the same thing with putting on a CD. When you put on a CD or a record and it’s a good night, the music really works that night. It’s the same thing with film. If you have a program, you never know which films will be magical that night.

On Shooting in B&W vs. Color

When I first started, the first few 16mm films I made when I was 17 or 18 or 19 were black and white. At 18, I made a film in B&W and got an honorable mention in the Kodak teenage movie contest and the generous present from Eastman Kodak was two rolls of 8mm Kodachrome. Can you believe it? But there are many films I make where there are black and white images in them. Winter has one black and white image. All the films you’re seeing tonight were shot in Kodachrome, which no longer exists. I just finished my last roll of Kodachrome shooting for this next film I’m making. This is a very particular experience of seeing Kodachrome made through internegative and I got very fascinated—I know the film seems quite dark—with the darker end of Kodachrome. Every film has a scale. From the middle on down is where I felt the soul was in Kodachrome. I’m fascinated with this lower end of Kodachrome; the spirit of it. If I only had any kind of funding, I’d have a chance to make something that comes from a color negative, which would be a whole other palette. I’m always changing mediums. It’s a response to a whole other area of the visual world. I’m looking forward to that. Kodachrome doesn’t represent things well. You have to turn it into something. A color negative has greater representationality.

On Shooting Outdoors

Eighty percent of my films are shot within walking distance of my front door. I love freedom deeply and to me freedom is being able to walk out your front door, not get in an automobile, and just walk. It sounds so simple but it means a great deal to me. It’s kind of like when you bring a dog to the beach and you unclip it and it goes wild. That’s how I feel. I’m unclipped. I can just wander. The simplicity of freedom is wonderful.

On Developing the Skill
to Translate Reality Onto Film

The skill you develop as a filmmaker is translated onto the screen. So how do you make the screen something as vital as the world that you see? Many many filmmakers in the mediocre realm take pictures of things that they see but their films are reductive of reality. So the thing is how can you take the screen and ignite it and have it have the same kind of original sense of what you’re filming? As a filmmaker, you start to understand things that are translatable, especially about film stock. Kodachrome has a terrible regular blue sky and it has terrible whites and other things like that. So you move away from that towards what it can do. Your skill as a maker is that you begin to know what is translatable. Sometimes I see something and I approach it with my camera and I don’t push the button because I realize I can’t translate it.

On Shooting At the Twilight Hour

Even the most traditional Hollywood filmmakers, someone like John Ford for example, would shoot early in the morning and in the afternoon and would take three or fours off during the middle of the day for obvious reasons, especially as he was a great outdoor photographer and shadows were important for him. It’s not so much the time of day as the kind of day. I have a very bad reaction to days with a high white sky. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t even like to go outside. I don’t like to shoot when the sky is white.

On the Difference Between Painting, Photography and Filmmaking

A painter can re-examine the same thing 10 times and can even hang his paintings in the same room. Somehow it works. Somehow you have the freedom. Film doesn’t quite work the same. Maybe I’m being overly defensive. I’m more inspired by painters than photographers. Still photography is almost more different from filmmaking than painting. Painting is closer to filmmaking than still photography.

On What Advice He Can Offer

Advice? Enjoy yourself! The great experimental filmmaker George Kuchar said to me once, “Look, if you’re going to spend your own money to make your own films, you might as well have a great time.” Honestly, what I find—being a stubborn kind of individualist—is that when people have the freedom to make anything they can make, when they have the funding, they make something so socialized. There seems to be a great fear in this day and age of touching your own originality. Maybe it’s the obsession with schooling where everything is based on third or fourth generation instead of someone touching on their original sense of presence. I would encourage that: trust your original sense of presence.

On the Importance of Finishing Films

What I find is that any idea that I have doesn’t help me. I’m not bright enough in a certain way to think out a film. Also, I don’t like school. I’m not a school type person. The idea of thinking up a film and then filling it in is like going to school. Instead of getting a B+, I’ll get all these Cs. It’s like filling in a coloring book. I’d rather not. It doesn’t help me to think. I try to, believe me. I’ll go, “What would be a great idea for the next film? What would be a title?” I’m endlessly like this. It doesn’t do any good. For the next film all I can do is begin. I used to try to think out, “Okay, what is this going to be? It’s got to be different; everybody’s sick of what I’m doing.” But what I realized is that—every time you begin—it’s like Heraclitus: you’re not who you were. You’re always beginning from a new place. Especially if you finish the film. You want advice? Finish what you do. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. Every time you finish something, you go through a small rite of passage and you’re really different, every time. Don’t not finish something because it’s not perfect. Finish it. I had a lot of trouble finishing films when I was young because I would keep changing them. There was one film that took me 10-12 years to finish.

On What Makes An Artist Who They Are

If you’ve seen my early films, you’d probably think I haven’t evolved at all. It’s kind of embarrassing. Isn’t it odd how we all are who we are? You go to a museum and you say, “There’s a Corot. There’s a Cezanne.” Why? Why is everyone who they are? It’s such an odd thing.

On Making the Screen Become Alive

Because my films don’t have characters, and because the screen isn’t a stage and my films are not in the third person where people have problems that they resolve or not, the screen itself is the character. In a sense, my films are really for the audience. You’re the center of the film. You’ve probably noticed that? The films are for you. They’re about you. Therefore, you have to become fully present. I was taught very early that it’s important that the whole screen itself become alive. The plasticity of the screen. The screen isn’t just a dead window or a dead hole into a view. The screen itself can blossom. An alive screen is probably the most wonderful thing. Have you even seen the black and white films of Antonioni? Just look at those films!

On Projecting Footage During the Work Process

I project all the time. One thing I can’t share with an audience—which is frustrating—is what it’s like to see this stuff in its original Kodachrome projected in my home before I cut it down. I cannot make an editing decision on any of my films without projecting it on a screen.

On Silence and Sound in Film

The first three films I made when I was 20-21 were sound films and at the time (1963-64) being in the American avant-garde was a wonderful period of time. Avant-garde films were never shown in universities. They were sometimes shown in museums, though you’d probably have to go to a midnight show. There were several avant-garde filmmakers who were working without sound and I fell in love with it. At first I didn’t like it. It was difficult. It was like having sugar in your coffee and then not having sugar. But then I grew to like it because there’s something profound about using one sense. Using two senses is good for theatre. Obviously, I love sound films with characters—though silent films also have characters—but, it seems sound is best for character films where the screen is a stage. But my own take is that—though there are some films within the avant-garde canon that are sound films and are some of my favorites—on a whole, sound doesn’t work in avant-garde films. First of all, 16mm sound is terrible—seriously, the quality of it—and, I don’t know, there’s just something about the simplicity of the silence. It allows you to articulate. Everyone’s making sound films so they don’t need any more. I make my living as an editor so I work with sound films all the time and I’ve worked on some very nice sound films so I know how to work with sound.

On His Next Project

All I can say is that I had the privilege of teaching on the East Coast all Autumn, so I shot. I hadn’t shot a film on the East Coast since my early twenties. I have a film now that may be one in two sections: the East Coast and the West Coast. It just happened because I shot in both places but the vibration is so different that I thought, “I don’t want to mix them. It’s so intriguing how different they are.” It may not turn out that way but it’s some kind of film in two sections. I need a title. My friend Diane tells me she has a whole box of titles, which for a small fee….

Cross-published on

Saturday, August 29, 2009

ARGENTINE CINEMA: THE HEADLESS WOMAN—Onstage Conversation Between Lucrecia Martel and B. Ruby Rich

As a companion piece to my Q&A transcript of the La Ciénaga screening at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts earlier this summer, I offer the subsequent evening’s conversation regarding La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) between filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and cultural critic B. Ruby Rich. This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.

* * *

By way of introduction to The Headless Woman, B. Ruby Rich took a count of how many people in the audience had seen Martel’s previous films and—discovering most of us had—she congratulated us and said she would reassure Martel that we were “worthy.”

Ruby first met Lucrecia in 2001 at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. She had the pleasure of writing a big piece on her for Arts & Leisure in the Sunday New York Times that she had hoped would be a helpful breakthrough for Lucrecia and her film. Ruby’s article had the perfect mid-September position in the paper; but, it turned out that the Sunday after 9/11 was not the perfect time for forming or launching a career, or opening a film in New York. The film was jinxed. Thus, for Ruby it’s been fantastic to see Lucrecia’s latest film The Headless Woman having the opposite kind of luck.

“As you know since you know her work,” Ruby reminded us, “you need to surrender yourself to the experience; you need to surrender yourself to her vision of what life is like and how we perceive it. If you do that, you’ll be fine.”

Preparing her research for the evening, Ruby was amused by a YouTube clip she found of the opening introduction for the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival. Lisa Schwarzbaum introduced the film, talked about how wonderful it was, and brought Lucrecia Martel up to the stage—who, Ruby added as an aside, was wearing “a fabulous dress”—and Lucrecia, in turn, brought up the Almodóvar Brothers. Pedro Almodóvar stepped up to speak and spoke for so long that they finally gave him the hook. Lucrecia never got to say a word. Thus, Ruby felt the perfect introduction to The Headless Woman was to repeat what Almodóvar recommended to the audience at Lincoln Center: “Be patient. Try to digest it. It’s the kind of movie that stays in your mind. And when you are dreaming tonight, the movie will stay with you like a partner who will snuggle up to you and hold you and whose hugs and kisses will lead to a lot of questions and, perhaps, anxieties.”

* * *

After the film, Ruby asked Martel to talk about the film’s title—which has been translated as The Headless Woman, but which actually means something more like The Woman Who Lost Her Head—and asked if it mattered to Lucrecia that there were two potentially different titles? Did she have the title in mind when she started the film? In general, does she come up with her titles first or do they come to her while making the film?

Though never paying much attention to the titles of her films, Martel admitted some concern that they sound too much like lurid B-movies: The Swamp, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman. Ruby suggested that maybe Martel should market her movies with pulpy paperback versions?

Ruby observed that—in almost every Q&A where Martel’s interacted with her audience, or in interviews she’s read—Martel is always asked how much of a role improvisation plays in her films. Yet, Rich is aware that Martel does not improvise while filming and that her films follow their scripts closely. So she wondered why Martel is always asked this question? What it is in her films that gives her audiences the impression that the scripts are improvised and that the actors are making it up as they go along?

“I don’t know,” Martel smiled, “I thought you had an answer.” She looks for good actors and likes it when the actor’s tone is natural, and perhaps audiences get that impression as well because she doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, which makes their performances more casual and informal.

Ruby asked Martel to talk about her distinct usage of audio and visual focus. Martel replied: “As a matter of fact, what I have already very clearly set out is the soundtrack. I already know what the soundtrack is going to be right off the bat. That allows me to save a lot of money because I do very few takes of a scene. A lot of scenes are unnecessary. You save a lot because a lot of the images become sound. Even though I don’t really think about the frames before the film starts, I do think about the focus. I’m talking about focus in terms of the images. That allows me to build a scene in depth. I do have to think about it quite a bit. The system that I use for making films is a layered system. When I build the script, there is this mixture of the sound, which comes together with the focus. This system that I use is very similar to the sound mix.”

Ruby then queried after the songs Martel used in the film, especially when the main character Verónica (María Onetto) is in the car before and after the accident. Ruby wondered what these songs meant to Martel personally and to the Argentine people generally?

Martel admitted to The Headless Woman’s anachronisms. This phenomenon of not wanting to know, not wanting to find out, was part of Argentina during the dictatorship between the mid-‘70s and the ‘80s. This device of not wanting to know and not wanting to find out, this denial among the middle class of what was happening to others, to people who were really having a bad time, was a mechanism of denial that, Martel asserted, is still very much in existence in Argentine society, in any society. She identified this as the film’s aesthetic anachronism: the songs that you hear in the film are the songs you would have heard on the radio in the late ‘70s.

Noting the production credits of the Almodóvar Brothers on The Holy Girl and, now, The Headless Woman, Ruby couldn’t stop imagining the difference between The Headless Woman and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Though the films couldn’t be more different, Verónica is suffering a nervous breakdown in her own way, though less externalized and comic than Women on the Verge. Ruby admired that Martel was trying to depict this “bourgeoise amnesia and the way in which it works politically.” Known more for her acting ensembles, Ruby asked at what point Martel decided to focus on one character’s experience of a seemingly simple occurrence?

Martel answered: “I’ve always been terrified of being responsible for somebody’s death.” She recounted a dream she’d had about an actor who helped her a great deal making a short feature film. In the dream, she was saying good-bye to this actor. As he was leaving her house, she was thinking about how nice he had been, how much he had helped her, when all of a sudden this stick by the television set let out a loud pinging noise. It disoriented her. Then the dream cut to a change of scene where a very weird thing happened. A body came apart and there was a detached head that she didn’t know what to do with. She put the head away in a cabinet in her house and went off to the university worrying that her father might find the head in the cabinet. When she was going to the university her father frequently flew in from Salta, which was quite far away, and they would meet until he left on an afternoon flight. In the dream she thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to come to the apartment and find that head.” Rather than being comic, this prospect was horrifying. Then the dream cut again, she returned from the university, and her apartment was impeccable, though there was a note on the table where her father had written: “I’ve straightened out the kitchen cabinet. I hope that you’re all right. We’ll see each other soon.” She immediately went to the cabinet. Her father—who was a skillful handyman—had created a false backing to the cabinet, hiding the head by eliminating the cabinet’s depth and making it impossible to put much away. She woke up anxious and crying, worrying that no one was ever going to talk to her about this and that she would have to carry this heavy load by herself always.

Martel admitted this is something that worries her—not so much any element from the dream—but, the idea that years of education, years of investment both private and public, aimed to make us better people and more sensitive to other people’s pain, doesn’t accomplish its objective. As educated people, we’re aware of our failure to take any action that truly changes the suffering of others. This is especially noticeable in the provinces where the separation, the exclusion, between social classes is most evident.

Ruby asked her if—when she woke up from this nightmare—she cut and dyed her hair blonde? No, Martel laughed, but she did comb her hair. As for Verónica cutting and dyeing her hair blonde, that was Martel’s conscious homage to Kim Novak. One of Verónica’s hair-dos was specifically inspired by Kim Novak in Vertigo and, Martel added, it felt good to be able to admit this in San Francisco.

Ruby observed that it seemed there were many levels operating simultaneously in The Headless Woman. On the one hand, the film focuses on one person’s reaction to something terrible that has happened or that might have happened, and the consequent guilt. On the other hand, the film is about a cover-up. It’s about a social class that expresses affection for its members in a problematic way. “In all of your films there are these simultaneous levels,” Rich opined, “of things that are very personal and—at the same time—wedded to the social complexity of the class.” Rich wondered how much of her films are viewed by Argentine audiences in terms of the characters and how much in terms of these larger criticisms of social class? She wondered how Martel’s films were interpreted by Argentines?

Some Argentines have observed the links and made a connection between the film’s story and Argentina’s recent dictatorship. Some of the ways the men are dressed remind them of events during the dictatorship when people “disappeared.” But there’s a problem in such opinions and how they promote the film as a metaphor for the dictatorship. Her intention was to spend the time of the film within Verónica’s head gauging her perception of events. Ruby agreed that the film succeeded in keeping audiences inside Verónica’s head, but also in her ears. She ventured that Martel’s facility for allowing an intimacy between a character and the audience is frequently achieved through sound. It seemed to Ruby that Martel asked her audience to participate and make sense of Verónica’s experience. Aware that Martel has a great love for genre, horror movies and thrillers—the very grade-B movies she referenced earlier—Ruby offered that she considered The Headless Woman as a kind of thriller and horror movie, both of which rely on their soundtracks. They rely on music that puts the audience within the frame. Ruby asked if Martel was cognizant of these similarities?

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do love the horror genre,” Martel agreed. “They do use sound sometimes for pure effect and they pay attention to the construction of sound spaces. Sound is very important for me. When you’re learning about filmmaking, the approach usually is about image, how to build the image with the eye of the camera, etc. But the truth is that it’s sound that goes straight through to the viewer. Sound is the only thing the viewer cannot prevent from entering his consciousness. Eyelids can help you block out images and—though hearing can block out high frequencies—it cannot stop perception, precisely because of this particular trait of sound: it touches the body of the viewer. Not just hearing but the entire body is touched by sound. This particular quality in which the viewer is immersed becomes like an addictive fluid. Cinema, for me, is a great deal like a swimming pool. The viewer is immersed in sound and air so—of all the elements a filmmaker has to build a film—sound surrounds the viewer. Images can be suggestive but their power relies on what’s not shown in its entirety.”

Respectful of Martel’s love for horror films, Rich admitted she has never been able to watch them due to a childhood trauma she didn’t have time to get into. But suffice it to say that she didn’t begin watching horror films until they came out on video and DVD. It was only then she could lower the volume and watch the visuals, aware that—yes—sound had everything to do with the experience of the genre.

Picking up on the comment that Martel thinks of cinema as a swimming pool, Rich asked her what was up with the swimming pools? “There are certain things that recur—swimming pools, we could ask you also about hospitals, about girls with impossible crushes—but, to start with, what about swimming pools?”

From a sensory point of view, Martel replied, she is fascinated with water, like everybody else; but, she is particularly irritated—especially in a city like her’s that has problems with water shortages—when during the summer some neighborhoods have no water because other neighborhoods need the water to fill up their swimming pools. The whole idea of building a private paradise with water, which we all know is scarce and precious, is akin to what used to happen in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was considered quite natural for Dutch families to own a Black slave. Two hundred years later, of course, we think of slavery as barbaric; but, by the same token, two hundred years from now, or less, the thought of using gallons and gallons of water to fill up a swimming pool for the luxury of a family will be accurately seen as quite selfish. That’s why, Martel furthered, she is in favor of public pools, even though personally she never goes into swimming pools. She admitted to being put off by finding hair in the water and sun tan lotion floating on the surface and couldn’t stop imagining all the dead skin cells in the water. The clearer, the bluer, the more transparent the water is, the more she suspects it, preferring to swim in lakes or rivers.

At this juncture B. Ruby Rich opened the conversation up to the audience and I mentioned how fascinating I found the character of Verónica because, in gist, I didn’t really like her, though I wanted to like her. I was repulsed by her sense of denial, but was hopeful for her when she started to question herself. But I was most intrigued at the point where she began resisting the cover-up engineered by her husband and cousin. She seemed intent on recovering and making public the clues to her own crime. For me, she seemed to have lost her identity at that point. I asked Martel what she intended by having Verónica resist the cover-up?

Martel answered that the phenomena that arises when a person is unwilling to be accountable is that they’re forced into forgetfulness and oblivion. “Fortunately, when you try to forget something that has happened in your life, you don’t have selective memory to do away with just one event; you forget everything that surrounds it and everything that is associated with it in time. So it seems to me that a woman who’s trying to transform a period or a series of moments in her life to move them into oblivion, what’s happening is that she’s actually moving herself into forgetfulness. Such a woman, without articulation, will fall apart. She’s going to end up being in worse shape than she is.”

One fellow was struck with how naturally Martel depicted the seamless interaction between classes, how the upper classes took no notice of their servants who were simply understood as competent and organized, while they themselves were confused and self-obsessed. Without drawing attention to it, he was impressed with how Martel showed an upper class rendering their servants invisible and he wondered if this was truly reflective of Argentine life? If so, would Argentines recognize it? Would they identify with it?

“It’s like everywhere,” Martel responded. “Some people do and some people don’t.” She conjectured that probably this is why her films are not popular in Argentina. It’s not that her films are complex; it’s that fewer people choose to identify with them. Every time she makes a movie, she thinks it’s going to be a big success and it’s not. Some Argentines are not used to seeing her kind of cinema so they’re not going to be attracted to her films; but, others who are familiar with this kind of cinema and are in the habit of watching such films, they will be attracted to and identify with her films.

“If I could just add to that,” Ruby interjected, “I think we’re used much more to a Masterpiece Theatre Upstairs Downstairs model. But The Headless Woman is not Upstairs Downstairs. These worlds are right next to each other on parallel tracks.” What’s even more fascinating than the upper classes rendering their servants invisible, Ruby added, is that Martel allows the audience to see a little bit of their world and to hear some of the things they’re saying. The audience listens to them in a way their employers are not listening to them and what becomes evident is that, yes, indeed, they are the ones who are competent and make everything work. They cover for these out-of-control members of the bourgeoisie. “The critique is much more subtle than we’re used to seeing and yet it’s right before our eyes; we have to be willing to see it or not; to hear it or not.”

Asked what the biggest challenge was making The Headless Woman, Martel replied it was having a main character. In her other films, different characters play the protagonist. She didn’t know if she was going to get bored shooting one person. That’s why it was important to cast the perfect actress in the role and, concomitantly, why it was difficult to find her. In tandem with her homage to Kim Novak, Martel wanted a woman who stood out from others—not just because she was tall and white, with blonde hair that looked good on her—but whose body stood out in relation to the people around her in a town where the population was primarily indigenous; a body whose actions couldn’t be hidden.

This description reminded YBCA programmer Joel Shepard of Gena Rowlands, which motivated Martel to discuss John Cassavetes: “He’s an extraordinary director, as far as I’m concerned. I’m really surprised that a lot of people in the American film industry don’t know Cassavetes. In fact, I was amazed (but I won’t name names). Love Streams moves me deeply because it feels like it has something to do with my family; it’s that intimate.”

One woman felt all the kissing and touching in the film was suffocating. She thought that Verónica’s clandestine affair with her cousin was going to somehow impact her situation more. Martel commented: “The idea is that she doesn’t really know exactly because she’s in that detached state. It’s not that she has amnesia; it’s something different. For example, after an accident—at least it’s been in my experience—you forget the relationship to other people. You forget some of those things. It’s a self-forgetfulness. You know who these people are but you forget your relationship to them. I wanted to put the character in that particular state; but, in terms of developing it further, it did not come up when I was writing the script that her relationship with her cousin would have any bearing.”

Ruby suggested such “permeable boundaries” could be seen in all of Martel’s films. People have relationships—whether incestuous or promiscuous—without any seeming boundaries to prevent them. Desire is unrestricted and fluid. “Bodies cannot be managed by words,” Martel responded and added that she finds it extremely funny when social classes close in onto themselves. Her grandmother was married to her cousin and Martel suspected that was where the idea originally came from. These things just happen in these status areas that are closed off in the provinces.

One fellow recognized how difficult the role of Verónica must have been for María Onetto. He saw Verónica as empty, “a social position without much back story.” He was curious how Martel directed Onetto to create a specificity to Verónica’s character even though the script doesn’t grant her much agency? “If you met the actress,” Martel said, “you would discover her potential. She couldn’t express a lot. The actress herself is mysterious. She has a surprising way as far as I’m concerned of conveying [her concerns]. What she was doing was special.”

A young woman was curious if the character of the Great Aunt with her dementia was another conscious allusion to forgetfulness? Why did Martel include that character? “Our perception is educated,” Martel argued. “Sometimes extreme events disorient the body so that you perceive something different. For instance, infidelity is a kind of trauma that destroys and distorts the perception you had hitherto of the world. As a phenomenon, infidelity is much more philosophical than it’s given credit. The same thing occurs with the nearness of death and illness. In the feverish state of illness, for example, you can perceive things differently. It just so happens that a lot of members of my family are insane. [Laughs.] Nonetheless, there are sparks of lucidity that allow me to get close to them.”

* * *

The Headless Woman will be screening as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Kabuki Screen on September 18-24, 2009.

09/03/09 UPDATE: Of related interest, Amy Taubin’s Film Comment interview with Martel.

Cross-published on


Known for his bisexual chic just before the AIDS pandemic broke up the party, cabaret singer and recording artist Peter Allen managed to record duets with some of the most popular lesbians of his time: Dusty Springfield backed him up on “Back Doors Crying”, Lesley Gore on “She Loves to Hear the Music”, and Frances Faye on “Just A Gigolo.” Though I was familiar with Dusty and Lesley, Frances Faye came as a revelation. Her sassy, upbeat, comic delivery scored this side of sophisticated. Recently, I was watching Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (2001) and was pleased to see his tribute to Frances Faye, if not startled to discover she played the madam in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978).

As Bob Downe writes at YouTube: “Frances Faye (1912-1991) was one of the world's most loved and enduring nightclub entertainers, with a career spanning the late 1920s to 1980. She hit her stride on New York's 52nd Street in the '30s, becoming known as the ‘Zazou-zaz’ gal as she thumped the piano and belted out her funny, racy blues and jazz songs.”

Here's rare footage of Frances from 1942, singing and playing her own hit composition, “Well All Right!”, which became a hit for the Andrew Sisters.

Do you think brandy is fattening? Here Frances teams up with Martha Raye and Bing Crosby for a hot scat session.

Frances Faye rarely appeared on TV. One amazing exception was her 1956 NBC duet with Mel Torme singing from Porgy and Bess.

In 1960 she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show where she sang a medley of “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” As Bob Downe notes at YouTube, Frances Faye was riding high in 1960. She had shattered Peggy Lee's record at New York's Basin Street East and had released perhaps the greatest Live album ever made:
Caught In the Act, recorded at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas.

Also in 1960, she appeared on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy’s Penthouse, singing "The Man I Love", "Just In Time", "Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." This performance is a perfect example of Faye's famous double entendres and references to homosexuality and lesbianism. An admitted bisexual herself, involved with lifelong partner Teri Shepherd, Faye frequently hinted at this frequently in her act. On national television, she would often playfully alter pronouns in love songs or weave her girlfriend's name into the lyrics of song. For instance, in this performance she's inserted "it's a Teri, Teri day" into "The Man I Love" and in her Ed Sullivan performance she sang "why do all the boys treat Teri so right" in "Shimmy Like My Sister Kate."

In yet another rare 1968 live broadcast of her act at the Lido in Melbourne, Australia, Faye sang “The Man I Love”, “What Now My Love”, “Darktown Strutter’s Ball”, and a grooved up, boogaloo version of her signature tune, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”. She excels at mining humor from truncated lyrics.

Is it true that when you're pretty it doesn't matter how you wear your hair?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

ARGENTINE CINEMA: LIVERPOOLThe Evening Class Interview With Lisandro Alonso

I was so impressed with Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool when it screened at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival that—not only did I write it up right away for Twitch and The Evening Class—but I actively pursued and scored an interview. Since writing up Liverpool nearly a year ago, I’ve read commentary here and there that has deepened my appreciation of the film. Most noteworthy is James Quandt’s ArtForum essay “Ride Lonesome” (available at Highbeam Research Library). “Ride Lonesome” is an especially impressive piece of criticism, tackling all of Alonso’s films, while specifically noting: “Liverpool seems designed for auteurial legibility.” Praising Alonso’s “dilatory style”, Quandt adds that Liverpool “keeps to [Alonso’s] antidramatic ways, attenuating narrative through empty time and withheld information.” Of related interest: Violeta Kovacsics and Adam Nayman’s interview for Cinema Scope; Darren Hughes interview for Senses of Cinema; and R. Emmett Sweeney’s interview for The Rumpus.

San Franciscan audiences will have a chance to experience the film themselves when Yerba Buena Center for the Arts mounts Liverpool’s Bay Area premiere on September 17, 19 and 20, 2009 as part of the film’s U.S. tour, organized by Adam Sekular of Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum who are likewise hosting “At The Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” come November 11–19, 2009. Further, Alonso’s short film S/T will be featured in the fourth Wavelengths program for this year’s Toronto International. As Andréa Picard has written in her program notes: “Setting up an intense reciprocal gaze, Lisandro Alonso—whose work consistently explores the personal quests of men navigating natural settings—creates a face-to-face encounter with the wild in the beguiling and enigmatic S/T, a moment observed in a seemingly floating abyss.” This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I loved your movie!

Lisandro Alonso: Thank you very much.

Guillén: And—I’ll be honest—I was drawn to Liverpool by way of Kent Jones’ Film Comment essay, wherein he waxed eloquent appreciating your aesthetic. He wrote: “Alonso is a fascinating figure who probably thinks more about form than any other narrative filmmaker his age. His attempts at overall unity are impressive if not fearsome, even when he miscalculates. At his finest, Alonso settles on journeys that accumulate observation (of landscapes and ways of life) that expand along the way into collectively internalized visions of existence and their horizon lines.” Do you think it’s true you think more about form than any other narrative filmmaker your age?

Alonso: What can I say? I don’t know. Maybe. There are a lot of filmmakers who are better at form than I am.

Guillén: Let’s back up a bit. How did you come to filmmaking?

Alonso: I studied in the Film Institute for three years but, before that, my favorite movie was Dirty Harry. [Chuckles.] After I studied a little bit, I discovered older filmmakers. I understood that, maybe, if I was lucky, I could make a film and express myself to other people through the film.

Guillén: Well, you’ve certainly caught critical attention. One of the critiques I’ve read most consistently is that your films achieve the non-dramatic by frustrating narrative expectation. For me, your films seem created by accretion, by the accumulation of many observed moments, that link together into a semblance of narrative.

Alonso: I think I understand what you’re trying to say. My films aren’t narratives. I observe people, different moments, and I put them all together in the film. The audience has to imagine or create something sitting in the chair.

Guillén: You give your audiences plenty of space to make associations. Spatiality, in fact, is a major aesthetic of your work. You use a lot of different kinds of space—not only inscapes, but landscapes—and specific locations like the lumber mill in southern Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, that create multiple environments, different spatial scenarios, for your characters to journey through or temporarily repose. And they always seem to be longing in their movement, or longing to be moving, and that longing is often registered as their looking within themselves as they journey, or looking out at the landscape they’re journeying through: overwhelming snow-capped mountains and bright indifferent skies. I especially noticed your aesthetic of spatiality when you placed Farrel (Juan Fernandez) in the restaurant at a table next to an autumnal mural of a white birch grove. Inside and outdoors, domestic and wild spaces, the autumn and winter seasons, were intriguingly counterpointed.

Alonso: I agree with what you say. I don’t know why, but using many spaces is interesting. I can’t explain why it seems interesting for me. I feel it and then I film it; but, I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s intuition, probably. I didn’t think much about what I should be shooting or not, I just knew I wanted to shoot the film in nature. I really wanted to shoot a movie in the snow and on the cargo ship; but, whatever connection those two spaces have is just a coincidence.

Guillén: But surely you intend the contrast to be visceral? I mean, you feel the confined quarters of the ship cabin empty out into the relief of these immense landscapes. You feel it by way of contrast. In fact, one might say your earlier films looked out towards nature more while Liverpool explores confined domestic spaces: the ship cabin, Farrel’s mother’s home, the restaurant.

Alonso: For me it’s new to film in interiors. As you say, my previous films have a lot of nature, a lot of trees and land; but—during the process of making films—I discovered I wanted to film in interiors to see what would happen.

Guillén: Are you pleased with the result? Have you enjoyed yourself?

Alonso: Yeah! I like it. Making a film in nature is easier for me. If I shoot something in a realistic way in nature, then with sound and editing I can make it not as realistic. For example, if I film this phone for two seconds, it’s just a phone; but, if I film it for a minute and a half, it’s more than a phone. Of course, it’s still a phone; but, the audience is thinking, “Why is this a minute-and-a-half phone?” I don’t know if I’m saying this right.

Guillén: I get it. It’s like Hitchcock with his glass of milk that the audience knows has a drop of poison in it. But where I felt it in your movie was the scene where Farrel is passed out drunk on a bottle of Stolishnaya and wakes up near the empty bottle stuck in the snow. That empty bottle is fraught with implications. It’s also just beautiful somehow and I don’t know why.

Alonso: Has that ever happened to you?

Guillén: Passing out drunk? Of course! [Laughs.]

Alonso: Ah! That’s why you like that scene and think it’s beautiful.

Guillén: Well, if you’re talking about images I relate to, there’s another in Liverpool that comes more to mind. My father abandoned me when I was two years old. I never knew him really; but, one of my few memories of him is when he came to visit when I was about four years old. We spent time together on the front porch of my grandparent’s home—no longer, in fact, than Farrel spent with Analía (Giselle Irrazabal), maybe 20 minutes max—but it was such an intense memory because he had come out of nowhere, unexpected, having won a lot of money gambling in Nevada. My dad was a gambler and a drinker and he had come “home” drunk to boast his spoils. He said, “Hijo, hold out your hands.” And so I did, cupping both small hands. He filled them overbrimming with shiny new pennies. To this day, whenever I see a penny on the street, I pick it up, thank Mystery, and remember my Father. When Farrel gave Analía the keychain—seemingly the only way he could express any kinship, any affection, any legacy—it moved me to the marrow.

Alonso: That’s a wonderful story.

Guillén: With regard to that scene where the gift is exchanged, I have a question: why did she put it in her pocket to hide it from her grandmother?

Alonso: Maybe she just forgot about it? I don’t know. I wish I knew. She’s a little bit retarded and maybe—even though she has the keychain—she isn’t really aware of it? But I know what you’re saying, that little things like pennies or keychains can become meaningful treasures. Maybe. I’m not sure about that. It’s open. I’m asking. Maybe she’s just trying to understand it? What it is? Maybe she’s asking, “Why does it have ‘Liverpool’ on it? What does that word mean in this situation? It’s red. It’s a city. It’s a port. It’s a gift from my father. Is he my father? Who is he? What is this? I don’t know. It’s very cold out here. I’m going to go inside.”

Guillén: In other words, you prefer to keep these moments open-ended?

Alonso: Yes, for me. People think when you are a director that you know everything. I don’t. What I’m trying to say is that I prefer many questions to answers. I don’t have any answers.

Guillén: Since you admit you provide no answers to the questions Liverpool raises, and perhaps because its narrative doesn’t reach resolution, the film captures an emotional authenticity.

Alonso: What do you mean by “narrative”? How I’m telling the story?

Guillén: Usually when I refer to a narrative film, I think of a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, like an O’Henry short story. A dramatic conflict that resolves itself. But filmmakers are free to tackle new kinds of narratives by subverting linearity, thwarting resolution, and telling the story in unexpected ways.

Alonso: But I tell a story. I think I tell a very sad story about this sailor who’s a father, and this girl who’s his daughter. I didn’t tell the story in a commonplace way, but I think there’s a story there. [I start to protest.] I know what you’re going to say. If you say to me, it’s narrative in terms of making people go into the cinema, that’s another question.

Guillén: A popular narrative; popular probably because it’s accessible.

Alonso: In the beginning, you cry a little bit. Now you laugh a little bit. Now the music swells. No, that’s not my show.

Guillén: So when you’re filming….

Alonso: I don’t know what’s happening.

Guillén: You don’t know what’s happening? [Chuckles.] You just see things you want to shoot and aim your camera?

Alonso: I talk with the people. I talk with the crew. I talk with the actors. I tell them, “We want to shoot this”—I don’t write much; 15 pages is enough for me—but I tell them, “This is what I’ve written.” They say, “What is it? It’s bullshit.” I say, “Maybe it’s a little bit bullshit but, okay, do it.” And we do it like that.

Guillén: But there are images that are so strong in the movie that it’s hard for me to accept they’re accidental or made up on the spot. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe I’m reading too much into your films?

Alonso: No, no, no. For me, too, the images are strong.

Guillén: For example, I loved the image of the Jesus on the back of the door.

Alonso: I added that because the art director was sleeping off an all-nighter at the bar. [Laughs.]

Guillén: And I love when Farrel is sitting at the battered red table against the green wall. The table’s length, the line it creates through the frame, abstracts the composition. There are many lines and angles in your compositions. Surely, you set up these compositions?

Alonso: I give that a little bit of thought, yes. [Grins.] I like to shoot night imagery and I have to look through the camera and make sure it’s in focus.

Guillén: And what I’m especially happy about is that you keep your camera still so your compositions can be appreciated. Your camera stays put and watches intensely. Your camera is composed as it’s composing. As in that final scene when Farrel is walking off towards the woods. The duration of that scene plunges the audience into a quizzical contemplation.

Alonso: Where do you think he’s going in that scene? Do you think he’s going back to the ship?

Guillén: Yeah. He knew he had to be back by a certain time and had to start making his way there.

Alonso: Walking?

Guillén: He’ll find a way back. He’ll flag down a logging truck and hitch a ride or something.

Alonso: You’re positive? I’m more negative.

Guillén: You don’t think he’ll make it back to the ship?

Alonso: You know why I think that? There’s a little detail that I couldn’t get quite right when I filmed it. When Analía asks her father for money, I noticed—and not everybody noticed—that Farrel takes a moment, looks into his wallet and then hands over all the money in the wallet. Without money, he won’t be able to buy passage. I filmed that scene badly. If I had filmed it better, everyone would have known he wasn’t going to be able to make it back to the ship on time.

For me, he went back home to see his mother and she was already senile so now—having done all he could do—he could rest his mind and drink without conscience, drink better. Also his daughter didn’t recognize him so—after giving her all his money—he feels free. Until he returns to the ship. Maybe I’m just talking about me in 40 years? But I see him at a point where he can leave family behind and just go. He can go with the memory of having done something good. He thinks: “Now I can walk through the snow until something happens.”

Guillén: As someone who has travelled a lot, perhaps I am more hopeful about his returning to the ship because I’ve been in situations where I’ve been stranded with only a dollar in my pocket for days. I’ve learned from experience that if you really want to get from here to there, you can.

Liverpool is a movie longing to move. First, Farrel petitions for shore leave so he can get his land legs back, and then—once he’s been traveling around on the land for a while—he wants to return to sea, or—as you’re insinuating—wherever he ends up wanting to be. There’s a restlessness that impels the film forward. It reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “You want to keep moving and you want to stay still; but, lost in the moment some longing gets filled.”

This kind of links back to what I was saying before. He’s a character who gauges his own movement by what he sees around him. He has to see the land. He has to see his mother. He has to see his daughter. And one of my favorite scenes was when he woke up hungover and was trying to see.

Alonso: [Laughs.] He sleeps everywhere.

Guillén: He slept outside and nearly froze to death! One curious omission in all of this is his mother Trujillo (Nieves Cabrera).

Alonso: What about her?

Guillén: That’s what I was going to ask: what about her?

Alonso: I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Okay, I get my questions are annoying, but these are the kinds of things I wonder about watching a film.

Alonso: The only thing I can say is that when I “discovered” this grandmother, I asked her, “Nieves, can you act? Do you know that we are trying to make a movie? And that we want you to be in the movie? We’re going to pay this amount of money; do you want to be in the movie?” Then I asked her kids, “Does your mother want to be in this movie?” “Yes,” they said, “She wants to be in the movie.” I asked, “Can she work?” “Yeah,” they said, “she can work.” So I went to her and I said, “Ola, quieres caminar? [Are you ready to go?]” and she said no.

After about a month, I returned to the location, which was now covered in snow. When some of the people from the crew saw Nieves, they couldn’t believe their eyes and they thought bad of me because I wanted her to walk in the snow. Everyone on the crew was looking at me like, “You motherfucker, what are you doing?” I was so nervous, I started to laugh, and then I jumped out the window into the snow. I didn’t return for about two hours.

Nieves was lying in her bed for two days. It’s funny but it’s not funny. She’d eat and go to the bathroom whenever she wanted. I would say, “Now we are shooting” and she would go, “What?” I realized you can’t do this with a professional actor because this little retarded girl and this old woman make an effect, but the fact that they’re real people and not actors has an affect on the crew also. When Farrel asks his mother, “Do you know who I am?”, the truth is Nieves didn’t really know anything about what we were doing there and so she reacted to Farrel’s questions quite naturally. What I’m trying is to say that—whatever the old woman was feeling—the whole crew was feeling, behind the camera as well.

Guillén: So you’re catching a real moment and placing it in your story?

Alonso: That scene was totally for real. I’m not the guy with a professional actor. It was the same with the girl Analía. She made the crew nervous when we were shooting but how else could I capture that? I can’t do it with a professional actor.

Guillén: Several directors whose work I favor refuse to work with professional actors for fear of losing a strived-for authenticity.

Alonso: When I was young, I took some acting lessons. But on the day I had to recite something, I was totally drunk. I decided that would be my last lesson and that—if I wanted to be drunk—I didn’t need to be in acting class; I needed a bar. What I’m trying to say is that I really respect actors; but, I don’t want an actor coming up to me and whispering, “Lisandro, what do you think of my performance? What’s my motivation?” I don’t care for that.

Guillén: Is your filmmaking an attempt to make the image complete in and of itself?

Alonso: There’s no Shakespeare in my movies. I just work from scene to scene, smoke cigarettes, say this, say that.

Guillén: Let me ask you this then: before you make your movie, I understand you explore where you think you might want to film, and then you just hang out there for a while? You watch and listen to the people who live there and you decide once and for all if that’s where you want to make your movie. In this case, you noticed the old grandmother and you noticed the mentally challenged girl and you decided you wanted to put them in your movie because they would have—as you’ve indicated—a particular effect. Despite all your efforts to make the filmmaking as naturalistic as possible, does the making of the movie influence the place and the people? Do they change because you have arrived with a camera to film them? Have they even seen the finished film?

Alonso: No, not this film. My other films, yes. I made a film called Fantasma, which is about the lead actor in Los Muertos going back to Buenos Aires to see the release of his own film. For me Fantasma is very special. But to answer your question, no, I don’t think the making of the movie influences the place or the people. We create an environment of happy moments between the people who live there and the people who have come to film them. We dance together. We eat. We drink. We enjoy the day together and that’s all I want to do.

Guillén: You’re reminding me of Carlos Reygadas and his film Japón where he cast an old woman named Magdalena Flores, for much the same reasons you cast Nieves Cabrera in Liverpool. Magdalena was perfectly wonderful in Japón. No professional actor could have delivered her performance. And then—because Reygadas enjoyed meeting her and working with her so much—he used her in his next movie, much to his regret. He told me that it was one of the biggest errors in casting he ever made when he sought to use her twice because—when she made her appearance in the second movie—everybody knew her, everyone had an association of her with the previous film. Reygadas didn’t realize that was going to happen, but it happened and it impacted the authenticity of her scene. Did you have any problems like that when you were reusing the actor in Fantasma?

Alonso: No, I don’t think so. Actually, I’m not working with some of the first actors in my films and am trying to discover some new people; but, I enjoy working again with people that I know.

Guillén: How did you find Juan Fernandez?

Alonso: I was looking for the location and he was working as a caterpillar operator removing snow off rooftops. I saw him and waved to him and he ran away.

Guillén: I would run away too. “Oh no! It’s Lisandro Alonso!!

Alonso: [Laughs.] But the good thing is that nobody knows me. So I would keep saying hello and he would keep looking at me like, “I don’t want anything to do with you people.” But after three or four hours of speaking with some of his co-workers, taking photos of the interiors, he finally was fucking freezing outside and came in to the restaurant. I asked him who he was and if I could take his picture? He finally said okay. After two or three coffees more, he had to go. The next day I called him and asked him if he would like to be in my movie? He said, “Okay, but I will have to ask permission from my family.”

Guillén: I hope this is not a stupid question or a disrespectful question, but are these people you meet in these remote locations even aware of movies?

Alonso: No. Absolutely not. Juan Fernandez, maybe.

Guillén: Because he was a natural, as they say and the camera loved him. He has a beautiful face and a noble nose. So what was it that you saw in him that you felt made him eligible to be the lead actor in your next movie?

Alonso: I don’t know. But once he agreed to be in the film, I told him he couldn’t back out or ask for more money or run away. He promised he wouldn’t. I told him he could drink whatever he wanted to drink but he had to wake up in the morning and come to work. He said, “Okay, I will do it.”

Guillén: That’s reminding me of a Malaysian filmmaker Deepak Kumaran Menon who brought his film The Gravel Road to the San Francisco International. Early in the film he had a little boy cast as a member of the family and I seemed to be the only one who noticed that halfway through the film the little boy disappeared without explanation and never showed up again, so I asked him during the Q&A what had happened to the boy. “I was hoping nobody would ask me that,” he answered. [Laughter.] Apparently, the boy decided he simply didn’t want to be in the movie anymore and the filmmaker didn’t have the means to reshoot his scenes. So it’s interesting how you lay down the law with your non-actors.

Alonso: From the moment we begin shooting the film, I know the people who I met from a month previously. I know all of them who live there and I know I can trust them.

Guillén: Do you know Pedro Costa?

Alonso: Yes.

Guillén: I’ve been much impressed with how he lives with the people he films in an effort to more accurately capture their situations, so much so that at this point he allows them to provide input into how the film shapes itself.

Alonso: He’s a good fellow, Pedro. I do understand why he changed his way of filmmaking and why he scaled down from 35mm to video. I understand why he wanted to film on his own and not with a crew of 100 people.

Guillén: Costa told me—and I was wondering if your experience is at all comparable—that he switched from the large moviemaking equipment and extensive crews to smaller cameras that he could handle himself or with one or two other people because coming into these people’s lives with all that equipment and commotion was, in essence, a death eye that killed what he was trying to record.

Alonso: I can understand that. Maybe he can’t raise the money to afford 35mm filmmaking so he has to change in order to survive as a filmmaker? I appreciate that. Maybe I’m wrong and I’m just a stupid kid, but my understanding is that for the movies he wanted to make, he couldn’t get the money so he had to use different equipment and shoot in a different way. I might be wrong but I think one of the main reasons he changed his style was because he couldn’t get the funding.

Guillén: He’s admitted to me that funding is an uphill battle. As for yourself within Argentina, as one of the key players in the so-called New Argentine Movement, do you consider yourself that way?

Alonso: The New Argentine Movement? I don’t know. New blood? Ten years ago there was new blood making films but now they’ve become old blood trying to make new films while new people keep making old films. What I do trust about this New Argentine Wave, or whatever you want to call it, is that they were basically people shooting on the weekends, sharing sandwiches, nobody was paid, and they were all just trying to make honest films. Nowadays, that spirit has disappeared because they now have families and production companies, they go to film festivals, they’ve met Viggo Mortensen…. [Laughs.]

Guillén: To wrap up, I simply want to say that I thoroughly enjoy the films you are making. I’ve come somewhat late to your work and am now looking forward to going back and appreciating your first three films, which people have been recommending to me for ages. I wish you the best of luck in the future in what you want to do and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Alonso: Thank you for your time, man.

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