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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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