Saturday, November 28, 2009

ARGENTINE CINEMA: AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD—Lisandro Alonso On Liverpool (2008)

Seattle-based journalist Jay Kuehner introduced the screening of Liverpool. "I was told to keep it to five words," he quipped, "so: distant, remote, vodka….?" Kuehner opined that Liverpool consolidates one of the most thematically strong trilogies seen from the cinema in quite some time, especially from such a fairly young director. Many claims have been made both for and against Alonso's cinema: that his are exercises in style and that his films reflect more on him than on his subjects and that—to his credit—he is pioneering a new film language (which, Kuehner suggested, might very well be true).

Earlier in the afternoon at the Masters Workshop, Kuehner wrote down Alonso's statement that he pays attention and thinks about everything: the way that a man eats, goes to the bathroom, and—in the case of Liverpool—the way that he drinks. By paying attention to small moments, Alonso has created a drama in the ongoing moment and, with that, the possibility that a lifetime of regrets can be uncovered in a single moment, or in a tiny object, as Liverpool bears out in its ending.

With Liverpool, Alonso shifted his attention away from uneducated rural laborers to an educated and well-traveled sailor who, nonetheless, is unable to communicate with his family and others. Farrel (Juan Fernández) cannot change the way he is. Even though he is experienced, he cannot change his tendency to observe others at a distance or the way he feels towards his family. After reconnecting with them, he leaves them behind ("I'm off") even though they want him to stay, hoping he can help out. This basic drama was enough for Alonso to shape his film.

Admittedly inspired by Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, Liverpool is purposely sad and isolated. Alonso wanted to balance aesthetic pleasures with the feelings of his characters. It was filmed in the southernmost part of Argentina in the snowy port town of
Ushuaia (nicknamed "the southernmost city in the world"). The film is purposely short on dialogue, adhering to Alonso's mistrust of words. His goal was to tell his story through the images.

In many ways films are like paintings for Alonso, in the sense that there's no way to explain why an artist chooses to use the color blue here and the color red there. He tries to make films for everybody but not everybody wants his films. It's not that he creates films just for film festivals, but it's the film festivals who show his films, not the local cinemas. What should he do? Compromise and make a film that will be played in the local cinema? Or what he wants to do?

By contrast to the way that Alonso found Misael and Vargas and transformed them into the characters of his first two films, Alonso had already imagined the character of Liverpool's mariner Farrel before casting Juan Fernández in the role. True to technique, Alonso knew he wanted to make a film in this part of the world and that he wanted to film within a cargo ship. He had seen a magazine published by United Colors of Benetton that included some photographs of Ushuaia and the people who lived there and it intrigued his curiosity. The only place in Argentina where he could find a harbor that accommodated cargo ships in the snow—and he really wanted to shoot in snow—was Ushuaia. So the magazine sold him on the people and convinced him he could find a film in that place.

The following week he drove 3,500 kilometers over a few days until he arrived in Ushuaia. He stayed there three to four days to organize his ideas, watching the people and how they lived. One of them—the cook who owns the restaurant and operates the short wave radio who appears in Liverpool—was staring out the window (just as he does in the film) and Alonso asked him what he was looking at? He had already walked around enough to know there was not much to look at. The cook answered that he was waiting to see if any brown rabbits would appear. Alonso didn't know how long the cook had entertained this habit of looking out the window for rabbits, but it awakened him to the possibility of creating a film that would show this community and how they lived. He didn't know if Ushuaia's inhabitants were running away from something or why they were a people who preferred not to have much contact with outsiders.

As Alonso detailed in
my interview with him in Toronto, Alonso found Juan Fernández in Ushuaia. Fernández operated a snow plow caterpillar that kept the roads clear. In fact, the scene where Farrel waits with card-playing locals for a lift from a truck driving into the interior is the place where Fernández actually works.

Kuehner asked Alonso to explore the theme of how location forms character and character forms location. Alonso specified that he works at the same level with space and character. In Liverpool he tried to use frozen nature to explain the character of Farrel. Others would ask what he was doing filming in such an empty place; but, for Alonso such empty places talk about many things that are happening inside Farrel. This intuitive trust in the articulative potential of empty spaces conforms to Alonso's penchant to leave his camera lingering in empty rooms after characters have left the scene, as if more is said by their absence than their presence. Alonso's camera is infatuated with the white shadow.

Before he started the film, Alonso created a history for the character of Farrel. Though he didn't know what it was that Farrel did in the first place to make him run away for so many years, Alonso suspected it must have been something wrong—maybe it had something to do with Analia?—but, whatever it was, Farrel took off on the cargo ship and didn't return. When the ship eventually returned to Ushuaia, after however many years, Farrel felt guilty about the fact that he had stayed away from "home" for so long. So he asked for shore leave to see if his mother was still alive. He finds her fragile with an addled memory. And though his remaining family members don't ask it outright, they want his help and hope he'll stay; but, he refuses and leaves. That's what Alonso felt from his film anyway, though he acknowledges others may not have the same reaction. The information has been organized in the film and it's up to the audience to decide how they want to take it, what they think it means, and create a narrative or non-narrative history for the character.

Alonso likes to query his audiences about where they think Farrel is going when he walks off towards the woods in the film's longest shot. One person responded that Farrel was going to get the black bag he stashed away when he first got off the cargo ship. But Alonso is not so sure. If his intention was to return to the cargo ship, why did Farrel remove all his belongings from the cabin? Then why did he take only what he could carry in his red bag, leaving the rest in the black bag? Perhaps he never intended to return? Perhaps he intended to disappear? That's Alonso's interpretation; but, if the audience has a different interpretation and wants to believe that Farrel catches a truck that takes him back to his cargo ship in time to sail off, that's fine; but Alonso is not so sure.

What will be the future of those Farrel has left behind? What will happen to the girl Analia? All she has to remind her of her father is a keychain that reads "Liverpool." Can she even read? Alonso doesn't know. Can she imagine what Liverpool means? To her it might just be a key chain that's red and blue. Developmentally disabled as she is, Alonso's not even sure she can distinguish between red and blue. Ironically, this keychain that has so much meaning for Farrel—that represents his life as a sailor traveling around the world, abstracted into a single memento—possibly means nothing to Analia, his daughter.

Alonso believes cinema needs smart critics to help keep his kind of independent filmmaking alive. In Argentina he recommends Quintin who he finds argumentative. Quintin is far from diplomatic in his writing, prefers to fight over films, something Alonso respects. As Alonso puts it, cinema needs "main critics who separate water from oil" and "publish in a main forum, not just one website."

Alonso refuses to shoot digitally because of the medium's destruction of 35mm culture. Part of digital filmmaking is the practice of shooting alone. By contrast, Alonso believes a true film requires a group of collaborators to help shape the film. It's an entirely different process than shooting alone, even though he knows it can be done. James Benning does it. Pedro Costa. But they are exceptional.

Filming anywhere other than Argentina is problematic for Alonso. He is familiar with his Argentine subjects; he understands them fully—"what they eat, how they walk, their sex, etc."—but he wouldn't have the same familiarity with non-Argentine actors, nor the same connection with the land.

Alonso saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and thought it was just fine; but, the real cinematic experience for him was watching the audience's reactions: how they talked, where they laughed, what excited them. Alonso realized the audience for Inglorious Basterds was simply not his audience and never would be. That's just the way it is.

As for what's coming up, every morning Alonso wakes up thinking about an idea he has for his next film but it is not strong enough to support a film and he's not ready to start the process again of writing, securing funding, shooting, editing, promoting. He feels lucky to have made the four films he's made. Alonso has decided to take a break from filmmaking for the next few years. Now that he's been out of the family business for the last 10 years, he wants to return to the ranch and see what his brothers are doing.

His decision has something to do as well with the fact that as a filmmaker he is trying to find new questions for his cinema language so that he doesn't keep repeating himself. He wants to do more than just make films about one man on a horse in the desert, "riding lonesome" as James Quandt puts it in his recently-republished
Artforum essay.

In all frankness, Alonso admits that he is not very positive about the future of filmmaking in general and his own in particular, though he will keep trying to make films. He enjoys the entertainment of genre films but it troubles him that their popularity is diminishing the diversity of cinema language. He wants to see new faces, films from Africa for example, because there is so much he does not know about Africans.

Cross-published on

Friday, November 27, 2009

ARGENTINE CINEMA: AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD—Lisandro Alonso On Fantasma (2006)

As Jay Kuehner assesses for Parallax View: "Fantasma, per its title, coyly and spectrally endeavors to bring together the principal 'non-actors' of his previous films to Buenos Aires, to the fabled Teatro San Martín, for—what else?—a retrospective of Alonso's films. The setup is an ingenious way to bring nature to the city, actors to their affect, and audiences to their subjective screens." The program capsule for the Harvard Film Archives notes the offbeat delight in watching Argentino Vargas wandering the labyrinthine corridors of the Teatro San Martín "in search of the film's premiere."

Fantasma was Alonso's way of saying thank you to the lead actors in his first two films: Misael Saavedra (La Libertad) and Argentino Vargas (Los Muertos). He wanted to thank them because they had both helped him change a certain portion of his life when he became his kind of filmmaker. Fantasma is an inbetween film in many respects. First of all, he was not able to secure the budget he needed to make the film he initially planned to make and, instead, elected to shoot a featurette.

All of Fantasma's scenes were shot in the Teatro San Martín, the cinematheque where Alonso grew up watching films. Teatro San Martín is part of a five-theater cooperative (the Complejo Teatral de Buenos Aires) where the films of modern filmmakers such as Bresson, Fassbinder, and Kurosawa have been screened. For many years it was the only place he could see serious film, especially in his later student years when he spent much time there, often among audiences that numbered no more than three or four people, which was admittedly wonderful in a certain way. Sitting alone in a cinema, or sharing a film with only a few people, Alonso could enjoy a film undistracted by voices around him. He wonders if that solitude isn't what made him feel so strongly about film? Without question, Teatro San Martín's physicality left a lasting impression. Further, where tickets were $10 at other venues, at the Teatro San Martín they were only a few. Though he often focuses on people outside of Buenos Aires who don't even know what cinema is and often have never seen a movie themselves, even within Buenos Aires most people don't have the dispensible income to go to movies that are questionably marginal, and rarely discussed in the public sector. If they can't talk about a film with their friends, they tend not to go. Which is to say that choice as much as access determines what filmgoers in Buenos Aires support.

Having visited Misrael in the Pampas and Vargas in Corrientes, Alonso felt it was time to invite them to Buenos Aires for the theatrical opening of Los Muertos. Admittedly, the film is limited and "a strange film, maybe." If you don't know who Misrael and Vargas are, Fantasma makes no sense. As an "inbetween film" requiring the first two, Fantasma continues to pursue Alonso's questions and critiques of Argentine filmic identity. "It seems there's two different kinds of Argentina," he mused. "One is Buenos Aires and one is outside Buenos Aires." When people talk about Argentina, they're usually referencing Buenos Aires, its main city. Similarly, when Argentines talk about culture and what there is to enjoy in Argentina, it's presumed this must be within the city. Alonso invited Misael and Vargas to Buenos Aires because he wanted to shoot how they fit into the cinematheque, which is a building that—though it means little to anyone else—means a lot to the people of Buenos Aires, and especially to him. As it was under reconstruction, the building was empty and Alonso took advantage of this opportunity to shoot his film. If they had said no to his request to film there, Fantasma would never have been made; the building was that important to the concept. As James Quandt specifies: "Fantasma is no less a film of landscape than the previous two. Like the pampas of La Libertad and the jungle of Los Muertos, the labyrinthine San Martín becomes Fantasma's second character: As much as the camera may linger on a now gaunter Vargas, in from the wild and uneasier than ever, Fantasma makes setting its preoccupation."

Fantasma was also Alonso's attempt at comedy, though unfortunately no one laughed. Or more, it was that he "wanted to enjoy some jokes in the film" and to also comment on the kinds of film he wants to see; films which are vanishing and disappearing from distribution. Shortly before he made Fantasma, he had seen Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn and—though Fantasma comes nowhere near Goodbye, Dragon Inn—it was evidently influenced by that film. Several critics have noted the resemblance. Quandt offers a separate comparison: "But, oddly, it is Tati who most comes to mind in surveying the San Martín's modernist horror of malfunctioning elevators, confounding staircases, and harshly lit hallways, rooms too ample or cramped, humanity subjugated to decor, architecture, mazes, and machinery. Like Tati, Alonso sees in this surrounding a kind of elegant inutility, a vast contraption in which people stumble, turn back, retrace their steps, push buttons that don't work, tentatively position themselves in spaces not designed for their being, much less comfort."

For Alonso, the pleasure of shooting Fantasma involved such things as realizing that Vargas had never in his life walked on a staircase, which Alonso could detect when Vargas walked down them. That told him a lot about Vargas in different spaces. You felt no awkward discomfort watching Vargas walk in his natural habitat the jungle. In fact, when they walked together in the jungle, Vargas laughed at how Alonso walked. "This was how I took my revenge," Alonso grinned, "though it wasn't easy." He had to work at convincing the reluctant Vargas to come to Buenos Aires. It wasn't about the money. But Alonso eventually convinced him to come enjoy the process and Vargas subsequently returned to Buenos Aires when Fantasma was released at the cinematheque, which was something like playing with mirrors because the film was made and shown in the same place. It was a multi-layered experience, especially after the film when the audience exited the auditorium into the spaces depicted in the film.

In some ways the film closed a cycle with Misael and Vargas. Perhaps in the future they will do another film together? Or maybe he can find new people to replace them? He cast his ex-girlfriend Rosa Martinez as the employee of the cinema. One of the other actors worked in the cinematheque itself. He tries to work with people who enjoy the particular experience of acting in one film.

Before making Fantasma, Alonso was impressed with Gus van Sant's Last Days because it made him question what cinema is today. He realized he doesn't know what cinema is nowadays. Last Days reminded him that cinema is "simply" image and sound. So he tried to create a strange feeling about the cinematheque but with sounds from the cinematheque, like telephones and elevators. With his camera crew he captured environmental sounds such as street traffic.

Fantasma served as a bridge (or as Quandt describes it, "a pendant") between Los Muertos and Liverpool. Alonso already knew he would be shooting several interiors with artificial lighting in Liverpool. Fantasma gave him the chance to practice, since he had mainly done exterior shots until then. He made many mistakes and perhaps even repeated some of those mistakes in Liverpool.

Cross-published on

Thursday, November 26, 2009

ARGENTINE CINEMA: AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD—Lisandro Alonso On Los Muertos (2004)

Introducing Los Muertos, Northwest Film Forum Program Director Adam Sekuler offered that Lisandro Alonso's characters are most often playing themselves and—while the trajectory of his films don't always follow a traditional plot—they do follow the trajectory of what all of us go through in any given day. In the selfsame way that Alonso's films might be unfamiliar cinematically, they are very familiar physically. Alonso followed with a brief, hurried introduction as he was desperate to secure a ticket to the Pixies concert at the Paramount. He said that—if he went back home and his friends found out he could have seen the Pixies and didn't—they would never forgive him. Fortunately, he was able to secure his Pixies ticket and returned after the film for a brief Q&A before rushing off again to attend the concert.

Alonso shot Los Muertos three years after La Libertad. He wanted to make the film because in some ways he felt that La Libertad had happened by sheer luck. He wanted to prove to himself that he could make a second feature; but, this time around, he definitely wanted a producer. Los Muertos was shot in four weeks at a budget of $29,000 with the same crew from La Libertad. He shot the first scene as a one-off reel to secure financing to complete the film (that scene was later edited down but the original is offered as an extra on the DVD). It took nearly nine months before they could finally begin shooting in Corrientes. In Alonso's mind, Los Muertos was a commercial film. Thus, he has been disappointed that—as wonderful as it is that audiences want to see his films—it's not so wonderful that no one wants to buy and distribute them.

Los Muertos won several awards on the festival circuit, including the FIPRESCI prize at the 2004 Viennale ("for its hypnotic fascination with the real"). In 2004, it likewise won the Critics Award at the Lima Latin American Film Festival. The following year it won an Independent Camera award at Karlovy Vary and a Special Jury Prize at Yerevan.

For Alonso, the opening sequence is about dreaming, nightmares and memory and—as
James Quandt states it—"employs the tropes of revelation and occlusion in classic horror-film fashion." At that time, Alonso admits he was under the influence of Gaspar Noé's rape scene in Irreversible (2002). That scene made Alonso want to kill the rapist; a reaction he was not comfortable with. His impulse to kill expressed itself in Los Muertos. The opening sequence also conjured the title for the film, which replaced the film's original title Sangre.

Alonso asserts the film's protagonist Argentino Vargas is a wonderful man and the father of 24 children. "He is a good father to all of them." Alonso discovered Vargas through his usual manner of scouting for locations for his next film even before he'd written any form of script. He traveled around with a sleeping bag and tent, visiting locations, meeting locals. When he met Vargas and sensed he could be the actor in his film, he asked if he could hang around and camp out for a couple of days. Vargas wanted to know what for? Alonso answered he didn't know but that he liked the place. Vargas gave him permission and Alonso stayed there. They talked from time to time and got to know each other a little better. When he decided to return to Buenos Aires, he mentioned to Vargas that maybe he would return with a camera crew to make a movie; but, he didn't dwell on it much because he doesn't like to talk about these things with someone like Vargas who has no TV and lives in a poor house made of mud. His children drink water from the river. Vargas has never had the opportunity to understand the power of the cinematic image. Yet, unmediated experience is what draws Alonso to such people. It makes it easy for him in a way and is more interesting. When he returned with his camera crew, he told Vargas simply to not look into the camera and to just do what he always does, to be normal.

When his son turned 18, Vargas gave him a gun. His son killed a man from Bolivia with the gun and was imprisoned in the selfsame jail Alonso filmed in Los Muertos. Vargas's son likewise appeared in the movie in the scene where Vargas arrives at the rancho of Maria and he and Maria's brother talk about fishing. The man who played Maria's brother was Vargas's son. Alonso appreciates working with "these people" who he describes as uneducated people that often don't know how to talk to themselves and understand their own experiences. They represent a sharp contrast to educated people in Buenos Aires who have increased options. When asked whether "these people" were happier than others and smiled more, Alonso responded that they could smile all they want but it would do little to reverse their lack of opportunity. It's not a question of a romantic notion of primitive mystique, as if they have access to some direct source of happiness. They lead difficult lives and—even if they are aware of how impoverished their lives are—there's little they can do to change it. That's why they keep to themselves and have little interest in traveling elsewhere. They defend themselves and the little they have. Because they are uneducated, wherever they go they are taken advantage of and exploited. Vargas has 24 children, with not even one aspirin to his name, so how could they be fantasized as "happy" people? Notwithstanding, whatever they have, they will offer to you because—despite their situation—they are wonderful human beings. Perhaps what audiences find mesmerizing about Alonso's characters is precisely their lack of self-consciousness? Even though they are allegedly "acting" for Alonso's camera, there is more authenticity and less encumberment by what Robert Beavers recently termed the "shadow of performance."

Asked if the woman who played the prostitute was a real prostitute, Alonso responded affirmatively. That seemed to agitate his audience a bit. That brusque sex scene, Quandt writes, "reminds one that Los Muertos appeared not long after Carlos Reygadas's Japón (2002), another Latin American movie in which a grizzled, existentially unmoored man travels into backcountry in search of decease. But the explicit sex of Japón, like the long takes of elemental landscape that film also shares with Los Muertos, strains for the transformative, even the transcendental, while Alonso aims for the opposite."

The killing of the goat is a visceral shock of recognition. What was important for Alonso to reveal—and thereby remember—was Vargas's skill with a machete, and the gutting of the goat proved it. Even after 25 years in prison, he could wield his blade masterfully. But there is something to be said about the fact that—after 25 years—Vargas has retained skills and remained very much the man he used to be. Returning to his home village further reveals that nothing has changed in his absence. As hungry as he and his brothers were before he was imprisoned, his grandchildren are still hungry and abandoned. These Argentines—unlike those in the cities—are uneducated and have little chance, little choice, and turn to alcohol, which makes it easy to use a knife. Quandt had mentioned in passing that Vargas murdered his brothers because they were starving. When I queried him on this, Alonso said that he came up with that answer because so many journalists were asking him about Vargas's motivations; but, he doesn't necessarily know why Vargas killed his brothers.

The goat, Alonso admitted, was bought and brought on location for that scene. Within the narrative, Vargas in essence "stole" the goat, though it could be argued that—since no one seemed to want it and it was wandering alone on the riverside—that it was a gift to him. What interested Alonso was how Vargas slaughtered the goat: that he leaned it over the edge of the boat to cut its throat so it would bleed into the boat. Alonso asked Vargas why he did that? If I am stealing a goat, Vargas said, I wouldn't want to leave blood on the ground because someone would suspect foul play. By spilling the blood in the boat, he covered his tracks and could clean up afterwards. This is a great example of the authenticity—and, to a certain extent, the particular self-consciousness—of Vargas's "acting"; a self-consciousness that insists upon authenticity. The scene was not in the original script. Again, the point was to demonstrate that he was still skillful with a knife, as well as handling a boat; that he retained a certain indigenous knowledge, one might even say a practical wisdom.

Which made me recall something James Hillman wrote in The Soul's Code (1996:206): "Wisdom in Greek was sophia, as in our word 'philosophy,' love of wisdom. Sophia had a most practical meaning, referring originally to the crafts of handling things, especially to the helmsman who steers the boat. The wise one steers well; the wisdom of the helmsman shows in the art of making minor adjustments in accord with accidents of water, wind and weight. The daimon teaches this wisdom by constant appraisals of events that seems not to fit in. Sometimes this attention to the singular event is called by philosophers 'saving the phenomenon' from the metaphysical trajectories of theories." (Emphasis added.) For me, Hillman's statement applies to Alonso's cinema: his attention to singular events saves phenomenon from too much theory.

When asked about what happened to Vargas's daughter, the mother of the children at film's end, Alonso admitted he didn't know. He felt that Vargas returned to his home village only as an excuse to see the place again. Clearly, his daughter is gone but it's unsure for how long. It's not clear if she has fled from his arrival or abandoned her children. If they are abandoned, then it suggests that little has changed since his own abandonment as a child. Even though Vargas may have come to some kind of understanding within himself after his 25 years imprisonment, the possibility is that nothing has changed and may have even become worse. It's possible that life is no different for people in jail than for those outside of it. "I'm interested in the world of prisoners," Alonso has stated. When he was filming in the actual jail, which housed rapists and murderers, he asked them what the difference was between being in jail and outside. Some of them said that the only difference was that outside they could drink whatever they wanted to drink.

The characterization of Vargas as a serial killer to rationalize the film's abiding menace was a notion Quintin and Kent Jones initiated, and which has been explored by such writers as James Quandt; but, Alonso states adamantly this was never on his mind and that—as Quandt reports—"any violence portended in his ellipses is imagined, merely a sign … of Vargas's primitive existence." Quandt detects "an undercurrent of imminent violence" when Vargas sucks on a honeycomb and that, as "an obvious counterpart to the armadillo kill in La Libertad, the slaying and evisceration of the goat, the fierce shove and suck of its organs as Vargas rips them out and mops the gaping cavity, seem less like Misael's natural act of sustenance than an expression of bloodlust." At
Parallax View, Jay Kuehner notes that these "small rituals of violence and survival" have now become signatures of Alonso's oeuvre.

As for the film's cryptic ending and why Alonso chose to end the film where he did, Alonso said he always knew the film was going to end that way. He didn't shoot any further footage within the tent that was later taken out in editing. He took a long take of the toy in the dirt with the freckled shadows and held onto his intuition during the editing to create "this strange moment about living reality like normal movement." Alonso has often explained: "If you shoot a glass of water for two seconds, it's just a glass of water. But if you shoot it for a minute and a half, you—as an audience—start to think many things and it's no longer just a glass of water." Alonso extends what critics argue should be short films into long features precisely to explore this aesthetic. For Jay Kuehner at Parallax View the scene lasted just long enough for "the devastation of a life misspent" to sink in.

Cross-published on

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


"Film must provide audiences the opportunity to discover questions."—Lisandro Alonso.

La Libertad (Freedom, 2001) screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the
2001 Cannes Film Festival, and scored nominations and wins on the film festival circuit, including the FIPRESCI prize. The son of a cattle rancher and disinclined to carry on with the family business, Alonso was a 25-year-old recent graduate of the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires when he made La Libertad; "outside of Buenos Aires but within Argentina." Alonso met the film's protagonist Misael Saavedra on his father's ranch. Misael, logger by trade, epitomized non-urban youth for Alonso; his reaction to the then-popular trend in Argentine cinema to revel in urban narratives. Perhaps it was Alonso's rural background that granted him familiarity with Misael's incommunication?

Alonso spent eight months in the Argentine Pampas with Misael. It was a difficult cohabitation because they had little in common to talk about; but, slowly, they developed a trust. Once he gained Misael's trust, Alonso proposed making the film. Fueled by his anger that his film proposals were not being considered by the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, Alonso took on La Libertad independently. The shoot consisted of 10 days with a 12-person crew. The film remained "in the box" for eight months because neither friends nor family liked it. He was frustrated. But then—unexpectedly—La Libertad became a festival darling.

Alonso's method of filming consists of long takes (usually four minutes) which he restructures in the editing room, making minor manipulations to create—as he puts it—"strange expressions of natural everyday things." The result is—as the
Harvard Film Archive program capsule describes—"a poetic meditation on labor and landscape."

James Quandt observed in his insightful essay
"Ride Lonesome": "So matter-of-fact and uninflected is the film's recording of Misael's daily routines (faithfully re-created from weeks of Alonso's close observation of the man's actual life and edited so that several sequences seem to adhere as real-time) that La Libertad has been hailed as the apotheosis of Bazinian realism."

Quandt further tracked that at Cannes "the film elicited inevitable claims that the boundary between fiction and documentary had been blurred, collapsed, or straddled." Alonso, however, argues that La Libertad is not a documentary, though he grants audiences the sovereignty to think however they want about the film. He stresses his concern is more with the point of view of the audience than his own.

The issue of labor chafes against the film's title. "La Libertad subtly questions the 'freedom' and identity alternately gained and lost by the daily burden of hard labor," the Harvard program capsule concludes. At Slant, Ed Gonzalez notes that "the film's long takes and the cyclical, labored nature of the man's daily grind force the spectator to question the nature of freedom." At Parallax View, Jay Kuehner comments: "Clearly, here was a director who had denuded his cinema down to its sheerest essentials, and what remained was a nominally minimal but ultimately voluptuous portrait of a beautifully forlorn landscape inhabited rather efficiently by a man and his work. Nature, and civilization. The banal, and the mythic. The story was not new—who hasn't worked an arduous day's labor at some time? But the grammar with which it was told was. Radically so." At Elusive Lucidity, Zach Campbell wonders whether the title is ironic: "Is the protagonist, Misael, free in the nature of his labor and solitude, or is he burdened by its necessity?" "The irony," Robert Koehler concludes at Film Journey, "is that there's nothing absolutely Argentine about La libertad. Its freedom is a freedom from nationality, time-space, narrative laws, camera laws and the expectations that audiences instinctively impose on themselves. But pay attention to the actual translation of the Spanish title: 'Liberty'—a harder, more profound word than 'freedom,' a word pointing to a greater leap, a commitment to an ideal, an identifier for an equation that even describes its opposition—oppression. Liberty is harder-won. Liberty is that thing that the films that really matter aspire to. This one just has the balls to take it as its own name."

In the film's final "quietly confrontational" sequence, Misael munches on roasted armadillo and then stares directly at the audience "as if"—Ed Gonzalez suggests at Slant—"daring us to question or challenge the integrity of his way of life", or what
Sean Axmaker describes as "the integrity of the quotidian." "As if" becomes a convenient way to extrapolate Alonso's otherwise notoriously withheld motivations. Alonso admits that by encouraging Misael to look directly into the camera, he deconstructed documentary expectations and created a direct relationship with the audience. Alonso simply told Misael to "act" as if were looking at someone who was eating across a table from him.

The film's original ending had Misael laughing outloud while looking into the camera—achieved by Alonso unexpectedly dropping his pants; but—persuaded by the Cannes Festival to (as Quandt puts it) "remove this Brechtian breach"—Alonso settled for the somber, more atmospheric ending.

Many critics of the film have suggested it would have sufficed better as a short; but, aware that no one recovers costs on a short film, Alonso chose to make a feature in hopes he might recover some of his family's investment. His father was the film's producer.

When La Libertad premiered at Cannes, one of the critics from Cahiers du Cinema complained that Alonso treated his non-actor Misael like he was a monkey. "I'm sorry to tell you, but he's wrong about how I direct my actors," Alonso asserted defensively. "I'm not trying to make any money from the films. I'm not trying to use them." He knows he's working with non-actors and has to develop specific approaches with them. He can't ask them to behave like professional actors. Nonetheless the question of Alonso's artistic sincerity clouded the film's Cannes reception. As Jay Kuehner summarized at
Parallax View: "The question persisted whether Alonso's film was, to reduce the argument, an act of abstract humanism. Was it possible that esteemed auteurs held a kind of deep faith in their wounded protagonists yet had little regard in reality for their more immediate brethren?"

Cross-published on

ARGENTINE CINEMA: AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD—A Few Evening Class Questions For Lisandro Alonso

Adam Sekuler, Program Director for Seattle's Northwest Film Forum (NWFF), organized the retrospective "At the Edge of the World: the Cinema of Lisandro Alonso", which ran this past week November 11-19, 2009. All four of Alonso's films—La Libertad (2001), Los Muertos (2004), Fantasma (2006) and Liverpool (2008)—received their Seattle premieres and Alonso was present to introduce the films and conduct Q&As afterwards. He likewise led an intimate afternoon "master class."

In his write-up for The Stranger, Sean Axmaker emphasized: "In addition to putting together this Seattle series, Northwest Film Forum has taken up the mantle of distributor for Liverpool in the United States." At Parallax View, Axmaker elaborated: "Liverpool was heralded at both Cannes and Toronto from 2008, proclaimed 'one of the best undistributed films' by both indieWIRE and Film Comment, and 'Best Film of 2008' by Cinema Scope, yet no distribution was forthcoming. So Adam Sekuler and NWFF stepped in to arrange a fifteen-city tour of the film, essentially taking the distribution of the film as a not-for-profit undertaking and expanding the concept of nonprofit film organization." Along with Axmaker, I say, "Kudos to the Northwest Film Forum!"

Lisandro Alonso and I first met at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival where
I interviewed him in connection with TIFF's screening of his fourth feature Liverpool. He reminded me of a wily but friendly fox and his long, dark hair recalled me to my own as a young man. Our exchange was pleasant but Alonso chided me gently at the end of our conversation for not speaking to him in Spanish. I took this criticism to heart and have worked on my Spanish since then. Alonso and I reconnected this past week in the lobby of the Northwest Film Forum where he recognized me from Toronto and came up to shake my hand. I had the chance to practice my Spanish with him, and he was visibly pleased.

Alonso was equally pleased when I told him that—since catching Liverpool at Toronto—I've been wanting to see his first three films but could only find Los Muertos on DVD. Further, though I rented Los Muertos from Netflix, I kept it sitting on my coffee table for nearly six months, conflicted over wanting to watch it but not wanting to watch it on DVD, but not wanting to return it without watching it. Netflix loves conflicted cinephiles like me all the way to the bank! But the moment I confirmed my flight to Seattle, I returned Los Muertos to Netflix; conflict resolved.

I am most appreciative to Glenn Fox for alerting me to the retrospective and to Adam Sekuler, Dave Hanagan and Ryan Davis of NWFF for encouraging me to attend and for being so accommodating once I arrived. Adam was particularly affable; I never once saw a smile leave his face nor mirth desert his eyes. A cursory review of recent and upcoming events at the Northwest Film Forum confirms that he has done fantastic and important work for the organization.

One particularly exciting aspect of Alonso's NWFF residency is that—per their one-shot film commission series—Alonso agreed to participate and make a short film for the Forum. He was, in fact, scouting for locations just outside of Seattle the day I arrived. He had wanted to make a film about a Northwest hunter but couldn't find a hunter willing to cooperate so, instead, Alonso noticed some horses and decided he wanted to make a film about horses. The morning they were scheduled to shoot, it began to rain; but, for Alonso the rain was a perfect combination with the horses. He and his camera man got the horses positioned just as they wanted them and then the film jammed in the camera. In the process of going back to the car to reload the camera, the cinematographer accidentally left the gate open, which brought the rancher yelling out of her house, kicking them off her land; but, not before Alonso negotiated his one-shot. I wonder where and when this film will show up? It's something to anticipate, given Alonso's frequent statements throughout the retrospective that he is planning to take a break from making films. I'm grateful he and I had numerous opportunities to talk throughout his stay in Seattle, albeit in bursts and spurts. This "conversation" is cobbled together from an ongoing one over the course of several days.

When I asked Alonso what he thought about his movies being more popular internationally than at home, he smiled: "I've often felt that I dance with more beautiful women outside of Argentina than within."

When I asked him why that is, he offered that Argentines are, perhaps, accustomed to the images of labor he depicts on screen. They tend to focus more on his films' structures and his cinema language. In Europe and the U.S., however, the labor has become somewhat exoticized and, thereby, perfect for the film festival circuit where vanishing modes of labor are a popular thematic concern.

The achievement of Los Muertos, what constitutes its stern beauty, is the aesthetic tension between Alonso's calm, observational camera, its sinuous and fluid movement, and a perceived sense of menace throughout the film, a withheld violence. I asked him if he intended this tension or if I was reading too much into the film? Certainly, Alonso responded, he and his camera man sought a rhythm to the film. Perhaps they achieved it? Yet, most of the time Alonso needs his audience's help to make the movie better. "It's better for all of us," he asserted. "If you use my film and work with your own ideas and your own imagination, that's what cinema is about." I complimented him for creating that space for us as an audience.

I asked how he kept his camera so steady moving through the foliage and down the waterways? He said they built a platform over two boats and floated down the river after Vargas who had an assured mastery over his boat.

I asked him to speak about his films' sound designs and music scores. Alonso replied that the sound designer for all his films has been
Catriel Vildosola. Flormaleva is Vildosola's band. Vildosola has been entirely involved in each of Alonso's projects from their onset through post-production. From the moment Alonso begins talking about an idea, and then seeks the financing, and then goes to shoot the film, Vildosola is involved. He listens to Alonso's ideas (or sometimes not). For a while, before he began making films, Alonso was a member of Flormaleva, playing maracas (which he admitted added little to the act).

After he finished filming Fantasma, Alonso asked Flormaleva if they could create music for the film? They asked him what kind of music he wanted but he answered, "I don't know." But because they were thoroughly familiar with Alonso's ideas, having entertained them from the very beginning, they were able to create the music.

Sometimes Alonso had ideas about what kind of music should or should not be used. For example, he had seen a documentary on Stanley Kubrick about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey and been impressed with the 10-minute musical introduction to the film. Though he could hardly compare Fantasma to 2001, why not? He tried to do something similar. He tried to replicate in the audience the same "What's happening? Why is this happening?" through the music.

Though I had wanted to take Alonso out for manhattans at the Grey Gallery & Lounge—and he expressed his willingness to do so—the opportunity never arose because he was so embraced by his audiences. To complicate timing, I had to race off after each evening's screening to catch the bus to my host's home.

One social gathering that I much enjoyed, however, was dinner with Adam Sekuler, Dave Hanagan, Jonathan Marlow, Glenn Fox and Jay Kuehner (whose
Parallax View entry cross-published at Hot Splice is quite commendable). Adam had already expressed to me that—contrary to my opinion—he didn't consider James Quandt's "Ride Lonesome" essay on Alonso the best out there. [Decide for yourself: Quandt's essay is now available in a condensed edit at the Cinematheque Ontario website as introduction to the cinematheque's own upcoming retrospective "Ride Lonesome: The Films of Lisandro Alonso", running November 27 through December 1.] Jay Kuehner began pursuing the notion that Alonso's protagonists were comparable to the anti-heroes of Hollywood westerns but Adam stopped him short, stating firmly that the only comparison between western anti-heroes in the Old West and Alonso's characters was their placement in wilderness, nothing more, and hardly enough to warrant such an equation. I found the difference of opinion fruitful. How wonderful that such lean cinema should produce such diverse commentary!

In preparation for the retrospective, Adam compiled an expert primer on Alonso for the Northwest Film Forum's blogsite
Hot Splice, expanding upon Harry Tuttle's invaluable efforts at Unspoken Cinema.

Cross-published on

NINJA ASSASSIN—Peter Galvin's Review

James McTeigue's Ninja Assassin opens with its most successful sequence. In a non-descript hideout in Japan, a group of Yakuza gangsters laugh aloud in the manner of mad scientists as an old-timer warns them to be careful of—he cannot bring himself to utter the word out loud—ninjas! Suddenly, the men are attacked from the shadows by an invisible accurate force, swords and sharp-edged metal stars sever body parts left and right. The action is rapid-fire and plenty-cartoonish—it favors gouts of CGI blood over the more traditional exploding squibs—but it's successful because at its essence it is suitable to its genre.

Unfortunately, the opening scene is the only comfort food served up in Ninja Assassin, a film that might well be as confused as it is confusing.

Thrust into a series of flashbacks, we gather that a boy named Raizo was taken at a young age and trained as an assassin in a secret training castle high in the mountains. Breaking up the flashbacks, in the present day we meet a pair of Europol agents who think they've discovered a pattern to every high-profile assassination in the past hundred years: the very same ancient clan of ninjas. IMDb trivia tells me that writer J. Michael Straczynski was hired to rework a less-than-satisfactory script, pulling off a rewrite in 53 hours, and without doubt it shows. The dueling timelines feel like a storytelling crutch. Perhaps if the story were told in a more straightforward manner, it would hold more impact.

Still, I can suffer any number of contrivances and silly character decision-making if an action film delivers the thrills. I'll be the first to trumpet a successful visceral experience. Too bad the action scenes onscreen are up-close and in the dark—that's right, ninjas hide in the shadows—and much of the time it's difficult to decipher who's fighting who. Where I could make out the stunts, the ninja acrobatics of Korean pop-star Rain were impressive enough, and didn't appear to rely too heavily on wire work.

On the subject of Rain, his transformation from singer to actor seems to be a subject of contention in some circles. Although Rain isn't an especially emotive actor, his performance in Speed Racer held a certain amount of charisma, though I confess I found none of that charm exhibited here. However, if perpetual shirtlessness can be a skill, he is skilled indeed.

Maybe I like my ninjas old-fashioned, but I didn't care much for the clash of genres that takes place in Ninja Assassin. Pairing a traditional tale of revenge and redemption with a contemporary government conspiracy thriller was a conflicting choice, and I hope we can all agree from now on that guns have no place in ninja movies. If McTeigue's film marks the beginning of a ninja comeback, then I'm all for Ninja Assassin as a means to an end, paving the way towards exposing the genre to a new generation of audiences, but let's hope better and brighter entries lie ahead.

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.

RED CLIFF—Peter Galvin's Review

Everyone loves an underdog story. From The Bad News Bears to perhaps a more suitable comparison, Braveheart, people love seeing the little guy pull through against all odds. At its heart, John Woo's Red Cliff is an underdog story set in the war theatre of ancient China, and it delivers all the fist-pumping you would hope for a film of the genre. For Woo—a director known for delivering action experiences like Hard Boiled and The KillerRed Cliff is a delightful change of pace, and it is made perfectly clear Woo is very much at home trading guns for swords.

Loosely based on the 600 year-old text Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is set in 208 AD China. Cunning prime minister Cao Cao has convinced malleable Emperor Han that the best approach to uniting China is to ferret out those in the south who would oppose his rule, and a formidable force of 700,000 soldiers journeys south to defeat the peaceful tribes. But the heads of the southern territories refuse to surrender their lands, and instead unite their meager forces against Cao Cao's daunting army.

In China, the story unfolds across two separate film releases, but the US version is condensed into one film and the approach is immediately apparent. A narrator breaks down the set-up—his "Moviefone guy" voice sounding out of place—and the main characters are introduced quickly, almost in passing on the way to battle. I understand why the film was condensed—interest in "The Three Kingdoms" might not be the immense draw it is in China—and I expected some confusion knowing that hours of footage were cut. But my initial displacement disappeared quickly, and I was caught up by the first real battle. I don't know what's missing from the US version, but I understood what was happening and—after all—western audiences are mainly there for the battle scenes, right?

The battle scenes are impressive. Woo knows how to film an action scene, guns or otherwise. Working on such a grand scale, the director keeps the battles in perspective by following the major players and, in a pleasant turn, scenes are not filmed in the frenetic, up-close style that has become all the rage following Paul Greengrass' Bourne films. Rather the action is often slowed down, sometimes to slow-mo, to punctuate the impossible wire-fu feats that some of these warriors employ. The film's second half is a symphony of war-related delights and the detail in the set-design is fantastic to see before it's blown up. And yes, there are doves! Plenty of doves!

If the battle scenes are not impetus enough for your viewing, you might come away disappointed in Red Cliff. Moments off the battlefield are posed as a grand game of Risk, the two sides planning their attacks, consulting subtle changes of the wind and expounding on the philosophies of a good cup of tea. For war enthusiasts the concentration on strategy might be captivating, but focusing on the intricacies of tactical maneuvers leaves little time for character development, and many motivations rely on the machinations of archetype over true sentiment. In stunting its emotional territory, Red Cliff feels mostly familiar despite introducing Western audiences to a classic Chinese story.

Nonetheless, I was never bored, and for a 2½ hour war movie, I think that's enough of a recommendation.

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.

THE ROAD—Peter Galvin's Review

There are many breathtaking, enduring images in The Road. I suppose that's largely what the film is: a succession of breathtaking images. Director John Hillcoat has created an utterly convincing presentation of what the world would look like after a major, earth-crippling disaster—the trees are burnt black, the buildings vacant and ominous and no one is around for miles. Everything feels chilly and desolate, and the tone of the movie is grim. I'm not sure this is one for the Thanksgiving crowds.

We're never told what ended the world. Viggo Mortensen wakes one night to screams and flames outside his window, and he just knows. He fills the sink and bathtub with water, preparing his family for the long wait for help but no help comes. Years later, people have begun to starve and die out, and those left must be either very smart or very cruel. It is in such a world that the man and his son, born after the apocalypse and who knows no other world, struggle to make it to the coast seeking warmth. The story follows their contacts with other survivors as they cross the countryside, attempting to avoid the dangers of the road.

Life in the post-apocalyptic world is bleak, and the terrors that the pair encounter are unique to a world dismantled. Confronting thieves and cannibals, Hillcoat's camerawork is open and lingering, but his refusal to shy away from the horrors of the road never feels like exploitation for shock, instead it gives the film room to breathe and creates a rhythmic pacing. Those looking for an explosive action film ought to look elsewhere, there is no bombast in these encounters. Facing death is just another day on the road.

All the memorable scenes from Cormac McCarthy's book are intact, so fans of the book who cried foul at some deviating images in the trailer can stop sharpening their knives. There are a few extended moments with the boy's mother—possibly to give more screen time to Charlize Theron—but, they are short and add nicely to the narrative. Viggo Mortensen impressively throws himself into his roles and his performance in The Road is no exception. His body is frail and filthy and he has no movie-star qualms about appearing ugly in front of the camera. Aside from the man himself, the wonderful cast of supporting players includes Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Garrett Dillahunt and Michael K. Williams, some of whom are truly unrecognizable under their makeup and the filth that covers everything in the film.

The Road is meandering and depressing, no arguments there, but so was Cormac McCarthy's book. What father and son will find when the reach the coast they don't know, but can anything really change in a world like this? What matters is a father's love for his son and the lengths he is willing to go to make sure his son lives a life of purpose. The son once mumbles under his breath that he wishes he were dead. Aghast, his father tells the boy he must never say that; there is always hope. Will audiences find the hope in The Road underneath all its grime?

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.