In yet another masterful programming coup, Joel Shepard scores one for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with—not only the Bay Area premiere of Lucrecia Martel's latest film The Headless Woman—but a retrospective of her earlier films La Ciénaga and Holy Girl with Martel present at both La Ciénaga (in conversation with her audience) and The Headless Woman (in conversation with B. Ruby Rich). Both evenings of her on-stage appearances sold out in advance and—judging by last night's enthused audience for La Ciénaga—her Bay Area appearance marks a singularly-anticipated event for a veritable who's who of San Franciscan cinephiles. This is one of those in-cinema experiences buttressed by its social texture in which I am delighted to have taken part.
After confessing he has seen La Ciénaga four times and aware that Martel based the story on memories of her own family, Joel Shepard kicked off the questioning by enquiring what Martel's family thought of her highly personal debut feature?
"There are several versions," Martel quipped. Before the film was finished, Martel showed her brothers a VHS version. They reacted that no one would understand the film because it was more like a home video of their family. Her great uncle—on whom she based the character of Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), husband to Mecha (Graciela Borges)—claimed not to understand anything in the film, to which his wife objected, "What do you mean you don't understand anything? You're just like Gregorio." Although the character was based on her great uncle—who Adjemián never met—her great uncle's wife recognized her husband in the actor's performance. As for her mother, she thinks Martel is the best director in the world.
Noting that each of her films contain complex—sometimes overwhelming—sound designs, Shepard wondered if Martel thought of the visuals and the sound separately when developing a film?
With La Ciénaga, Martel wasn't quite sure what her system would be since she'd not had much experience making cinema. Having never attended film school, she had no awareness of a working method. Martel qualified that she did achieve some schooling but wasn't able to carry through due to problems Argentina was facing at the time. That being said, when she conceives a film, sound precedes image. She based her dialogue on the oral sounds of family life; overheard phrases that are second nature to her. The sound design is thus already composed by the time she goes to the set to shoot the film. Although she doesn't know exactly how she's going to film things, the sound is already set.
Shepard suggested that repeated viewings of La Ciénaga have revealed its frequent comedy: Mecha is such a bizarre personality while Gregorio's personality is defined by how he dyes his hair. Tali (Mercedes Morán) becomes humorously obsessed with traveling to Bolivia. Not sure whether he was reading comedy into the film, he asked if Martel intended it?
Her family laughs a great deal when they watch the film, Martel replied, but she suspects the film's humor is provincial, and not necessarily funny to everyone.
Shepard shared some reviews he found of La Ciénaga that amused him for being obtuse. Entertainment Weekly claimed La Ciénaga "had too much integrity for its own good" and, elsewhere, one critic complained that Martel was asking way too much of her audience. Which led him to consider the larger issue of Martel's relationship to her audiences and if she thought about them while making her films?
Audiences are the only reason a filmmaker makes cinema, Martel insisted. However, you are born alone and you die alone in your own body. Love, conversation, language, sex: they're all attempts in some way to overcome so much loneliness. Cinema is a great opportunity—a possibility—for the viewer to immerse himself into the loneliness of the filmmaker's body in order to share it. Of course, it often happens that a viewer leaves a film without that happening; but, the intention is to have that happen. When that connection does happen, it's incredibly glorious. Sometimes that experience is a matter of seconds, and not the whole time of a film, which Martel has discovered through the comments made by her audiences where the point of relation is not inherent in the film itself, but the way the film reminds them of experiences they have had in their own lives.
As for the comment that she asks way too much of the viewer, Martel can accept the criticism, even as she understands that the viewer is sometimes prepared, sometimes not prepared for a demanding cinematic experience. Whether or not a viewer connects with her film has nothing to do with whether the film claims too much importance, or whether one viewer is more intelligent than another, or more interested in the film. The cinematic experience—favorable or disfavorable—is composed of mere moments.
Asked whether it was difficult to get La Ciénaga financed and produced, Martel admitted to extreme luck because Argentine producer Lita Stantic advised her to send the film to Sundance, which she did, and where she won the prize for best screenplay. This helped secure funding to complete the project. What was strange about Sundance was that they encouraged her to change the ending of her screenplay because—from the point of view of the jury—they saw the film as being about alcoholics and alcoholism. They suggested that the accident Mecha had at the very beginning should be at the end. Martel countered, "Well, maybe. But since the film is not about alcoholism, that's just the way it is."
Initially in 1997 she tried to finance the film with money from within Salta, the northwestern province of Argentina where she's from. She spent a lot of time in the city of Salta, capital of the province, trying to make arrangements with the bank and convincing investors to finance the film. In the meantime, she was also trying to do some casting in a garage that was close to her house. She interviewed people of all ages from 9:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night. She taped these interviews. As it turned out, the experience was extraordinary for her. The people she cast from those interviews in 1997 then took part when the film was shot in 1999. That's why she offered them thanks for their patience in the film's closing credits.
Respectful that Martel's script for La Ciénaga won the prize at Sundance, one fellow wondered how closely that script matched the final film? Especially with regard to the seemingly improvised performances of the children? On a related note, he wondered how Martel cast the children and how she worked with them to achieve such natural performances?
Martel assured the young man that the film looks a lot like the screenplay except for a few scenes that she had to cut out for budgetary reasons and length. As for her system with working with actors, Martel doesn't have one, claiming every actor is different. She can't have a single system to talk to such different people. But when working with actors, and especially children, she tries not to change the written lines. She leaves them alone and avoids improvisation because the writing itself is a complex process and a difficult balancing act so—to begin improvising on the script—would change the film too much. However, because some child actors are truly monsters, she doesn't show them the written lines. She tells them what to say. If she shows them the written lines, some child actors try too hard to memorize them and lose the natural quality in their acting. She talks to them about things that look and sound like the written words but avoids showing them the literal script.
It's a curious thing, Martel added, when you're trying to work with actors to film a scene and it doesn't come off natural. She realized that—if you're really paying attention to the graphic pauses in the text and how it relates to what's happening in the scene—the graphic pauses reproduce almost identically. So it's the use of the air in these pauses, the use of the space, that will achieve a natural effect. Actors are often not trained, however, to do that. It's especially difficult with children.
When she sought to cast the children, she tried different things to help them concentrate. There is a serious problem that develops between the time you write a script and when you go to cast it and then when you finally go to film it. The boy she cast for the role of the little boy had grown into a big boy by the time she got to filming. The secret to working with children and non-actors is to have a good relationship from the time you're casting. Casting, first of all, is not to try to find out talent—which many directors think is the case; they believe the actor has to do something—but rather, casting is more an opportunity to find out what you dare ask of somebody and what you're really trying to accomplish. Casting determines your own limitations as a director, whether you are prudish or courageous in what you ask of your actors.
As for images of children in film, Martel stressed that the word that ruins the image of a child is the whole idea of "innocence." Innocence doesn't mean anything. The idea of a child's innocence is an invention by adults to withstand the fact that a child has his own life, and often his own sexuality. Whenever Martel writes, she thinks about the fact that there is a mystery or a secret that she's not aware of. That's why in her films you only see fragments. She doesn't attempt to create psychological characters because then viewers start getting caught up in those ideas of innocence and purity.
Martel was asked if she performed her own cinematography? She replied that, of course, she framed the shots but the actual camera work was done by the extraordinary director of photography Hugo Colace.
The narrative traction of La Ciénaga is unique for not depending upon standard resolution. Notwithstanding its irresolute aesthetic, the movie compellingly moves forward. One young man wanted to know how Martel accomplished that?
La Ciénaga, Martel explained, as well as her other two films are based on a traditional oral structure. Conversation is a perfect example and, specifically, a conversation with her mother. After 40 minutes of talking on the phone—in which she and her mother discuss everything—Martel still doesn't know what her mother is trying to tell her. But when the conversation is over and Martel asks herself what it was about, she comes to a gradual understanding of how all that has been said ties together. Though she loves this way of working, it is—of course—problematic when it comes to marketing a film because audiences like to have tidy resolutions to their films. Then they would be able to recommend the film to their friends. Often, she has had viewers admit after seeing one of her films that they didn't really like it only to have them advise a few weeks later that—after sitting with the film—they really liked it; but, by then, the film is out of the theaters so they can't recommend it to their friends. The structure of oral narrative is something we are all trained to do by the nature of sustaining a conversation. We all know how to keep each other talking in conversations that don't have a beginning, middle or end.
Curious about the presiding meaning of La Ciénaga, one fellow wondered if it had to do with Martel's previous statement about being born alone and dying alone and that existential wrestle with life? He wondered what world view she was trying to get across?
Martel explained that, for her, La Ciénaga is a film about abandonment; a human being abandoned by divinity, by God if you will. She conceded this was wholly a personal point of view. A lot of people who have seen the film think it is about decadence; whereas for Martel, decadence is what gives her the most hope in this world. Anyway, the happiest parts of the film are about decadence.
Questioned about the sensual relationships between José (Juan Cruz Bordeu) and his cousins, and whether this denotes an ease in Argentine familial relations where siblings are more relaxed with each others' nudity, Martel joked that, unfortunately, when we think about Latinos, we think about Jennifer Lopez and reggaeton. That's the fantasy of the Latin body that satisfies gringo desire. As far as Martel is concerned, desire within a family is something that circulates, rather than being concentrated or personified in any single individual, object or action. Martel qualified that—with concern to this topic—she prefers not to say everything she thinks because she knows that a lot of people have lived through heartbreaking situations in such environments. Yet it seems to her that desire always overflows and goes beyond the norm. In other environments we have words to articulate concepts of desire; but, it's complicated within the family environment.
Intrigued by Martel's earlier statement that she approaches her filmmaking as if there is a mystery or a secret that she's unaware of, I ventured that the image of the steer stuck in the film's titular swamp likewise holds some kind of profound secret for me, especially because the children are obsessed with tormenting it in its misery. If, as she stated earlier, La Ciénaga is about the abandonment of divinity, I wondered if she was saying that—absent that divine impulse—humans are more susceptible to inherited notions of classism, racism and sexism, which the film observes unflinchingly? Do we get stuck in a place where—without inner wisdom—we rely on received and faulty knowledge?
Martel graciously offered that—when she writes—she tries to stay as far away from deliberate metaphors and symbols as possible; but, she understands that the need to create metaphors and symbols is a human way of amusing ourselves. She honestly—at least not consciously—didn't conceive of the steer stuck in the swamp as a metaphor for stagnation. With regard to abandonment by the divine, La Ciénaga ends before it becomes explicit that the only means of salvation is within and among ourselves. She understands that the viewer can relate this to the animal stuck in the swamp, but this was nothing she endeavored consciously or intentionally.
As for her next project, Martel has been writing an adaptation of a famous Argentine comic book regarding an alien invasion; but—since she doesn't know what's going to happen with that project—she's gone back to another topic, related to The Headless Woman, also within the fantastic genre. It's likewise about an alien invasion but the aliens are unknown relatives who invasively visit.
Cross-published on Twitch.