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.

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