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.

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