Left: Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 66 minutes. Gerard Malanga. Right: Andy Warhol, Screen Test #2, 1965, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 67 minutes. Mario Montez. Both images © 2009 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
DRAMA, AS WE ALL KNOW, IS CONFLICT. Ask any aspiring screenwriter. Conflict between characters, conflict within characters, conflict between characters and external circumstances. Among the many subversions and perversions that shape the film oeuvre of Andy Warhol, the treatment of conflict is paramount. In the films of the silent period, which by and large are portraits—the four-and-a-half minute Screen Tests and the longer single-subject movies such as Eat (1964) or Henry Geldzahler (1964)—conflict resides within the person on the screen and usually involves the ambivalent emotions and impulses that arise when one finds oneself on camera with no specific instructions on how to fill time. This conflict may also apply to the viewer, who may feel similarly ambivalent about sitting through (enduring) a movie in which time and drama are so relentlessly split apart. “Should I stay or should I go?”—the apropos lyric for the audience, especially when faced with a movie, no matter its visual pleasures, where the subject is unconscious (Sleep ) or inanimate (Empire ).
It’s not surprising, then, that when Warhol began to avail himself of the sync-sound capability of the Auricon camera (largely used in the 1960s for news gathering), all hell broke loose. The Warhol talkies are defined by the extraordinary level of verbal abuse hurled by the actors at one another. And yet for all the arguing, sniping, and fighting, the talkies are hardly any more dramatic than the silents, since the arguments themselves have no resolution and effect no change. Inertia prevails.
The Anthology Film Archives series “Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol” includes ten of the talkies on which Warhol collaborated with Tavel, the playwright who coined the name the Theatre of the Ridiculous. (Tavel’s program note for the first Theatre of the Ridiculous stage production, the 1965 double bill of his one-act plays Shower and The Life of Juanita Castro, succinctly states: “We have passed beyond the absurd: Our position is absolutely preposterous.”) According to Callie Angell, Warhol scholar and author of the catalogue raisonné on the Warhol films, the difference between the Warhol-Tavel collaborations and Warhol’s other talkies is that Tavel’s screenplays had an explicit agenda that Warhol, the director, tried to subvert or foil. Drama, therefore, was built into the film object through this calculated conflict between the vision of the writer and that of the director, rather than being implicit in narrative or performance.
Andy Warhol, Vinyl, 1965. (Excerpt)
For example, Vinyl (1965), Tavel’s reimagining of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, was written for an all-male cast. Sixty-six minutes long, it was shot from a single fixed-camera position, and the deep-space Renaissance perspectival composition is among Warhol’s richest and most elegant. The action in the foreground involves the “re-education” of a self-described “JD” (Gerard Malanga), who is chained, whipped, and tortured by various supposed agents of the police state. The actors read their lines from a script, and their rough-trade posing is unconvincing even as parody. In the shadowy recesses of the image, however, another man is being stripped and beaten, and although it is difficult to make out exactly what is transpiring, something about the brutality seems disturbingly real. At the last minute, Warhol threw a cog into the dialectic of Tavel’s exclusively homoerotic s/m machine by giving Edie Sedgwick, his newly discovered Park Avenue superstar, a nonspeaking role. Sedgwick is positioned in the extreme right foreground, her bare arms and platinum-hair-topped visage dazzlingly white—literally and figuratively, she’s overexposed. Chain-smoking, occasionally laughing at nothing in particular while attempting to ignore the meaning of the fictitious spectacle occurring next to her and the actuality of a man being tortured, perhaps not unpleasurably, behind her, she is, in Hollywood lingo, the fish out of water and, in the complete otherness of her gender and class, the most perversely fascinating object on the screen.
Vinyl and The Chelsea Girls (1966), for which Tavel scripted two sequences, are the most familiar films in the series. Among the other must-sees: Kitchen (1965), one of the funniest of the Sedgwick vehicles; Space (1965), which gives the lie to the myth that Warhol never moved the camera; and Hedy (1966), Screen Test #2 (1965), and Harlot (1964), all of which star Mario Montez, the most intense and moving of the drag queens adored by the cameras of both Warhol and Jack Smith. Montez, who lives in Florida and performed publicly for the first time in decades at a recent Smith conference in Berlin, may be present at some of the screenings on December 13 and 14. Angell will introduce Screen Test #1 and Screen Test #2 tonight (December 10). Tavel, sadly, died suddenly this past March at age seventy-two. His website, ronaldtavel.com lives on, and there you will find, in addition to most of his plays and screenplays, his brilliant reflections on Warhol, Smith, and the still resistant, still resonant underground movie and theater scene of the ’60s, in which he played no small part.
“Beyond the Absurd: Ronald Tavel & Andy Warhol,” runs December 10–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Warhol scholar Callie Angell introduces Screen Test #1 on Thursday, December 10. For more details, click here.
IT’S ODD, AND SLIGHTLY UNSETTLING, when a great director assumes the style of another great director, but that’s what seems to have happened in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a surreal psychodrama loosely based on the bizarre matricide committed by talented student actor and basketball player Mark Yavorsky in 1979 San Diego. Written by Herzog and longtime associate Herbert Golder, a classics professor at Boston University, the film was executive-produced by David Lynch—and it shows.
Renamed Brad McCullum for the movie, the Yavorsky character is played with bewildered intensity by Michael Shannon, who, guided by Herzog’s sensitive direction, delivers a moving portrait of a well-meaning but clearly unraveling personality who ultimately kills his own mother with an antique sword at a neighbor’s house. In Yavorsky’s mind, the murder was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Orestes, whom he’d been rehearsing to play as a graduate student in drama at UC San Diego at the time of his psychotic break. A subject of classic tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Orestes murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, for having killed his father, Agamemnon, years earlier. While the script takes great liberties with the Yavorsky story, these details remain intact.
The rest is pure Lynch. The blank, ingenuous cops (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) who arrive at the murder scene are borrowed from the beginnings of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Brad Dourif (McCullum’s ostrich-farming redneck uncle) from Blue Velvet (1986), and the always disturbing Grace Zabriskie (McCullum’s mother) from Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990–91), and Inland Empire (2006). There are pink flamingos, the aforementioned ostriches, black Jell-O, God as the Quaker Oats man, a coffee mug inscribed with the phrase RAZZLE DAZZLE, and Udo Kier (an honorary Lynch character actor if ever there was one). The combination of dark thoughts and behavior with San Diego’s oppressively bright sunlight also seems typically Lynchian, even if dictated by the location of the source story.
If you like Lynch’s best work (I do), this isn’t fatal, but viewers may feel the same anxiety-of-influence uneasiness one feels when watching Brian De Palma’s earlier thrillers (Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, etc.). At the time, De Palma so wanted to be Hitchcock that these films teeter on the edge of pastiche, but his cinematic talent and obvious love for the medium make them compelling nonetheless. Such is the case with My Son, where core elements seem drawn from Herzog’s characteristic obsessions—beleaguered visionaries, extreme situations—but are operating in a world designed by Lynch. Indeed, the film is something of a science experiment in the field of auteur theory. Because My Son has all the surrealist trappings of a Lynch project but lacks the tone of creeping ambient dread that he has refined and trademarked, one could say the film proves Andrew Sarris right—directors do leave a distinct personal stamp on their work, even in an otherwise highly collaborative medium.
Most, if not all, of Herzog’s plagiaristic excesses in My Son are atoned for by his prominent use of a song by the haunting dolceola-playing prewar gospel singer Washington Phillips, who, though long dead, deserves a wider audience.
Tom Ford, A Single Man, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Production still. Jim and George (Matthew Goode and Colin Firth). Photo: Eduard Grau/The Weinstein Company.
PHILADELPHIA FOR THE ART-HOUSE CROWD (with crossover appeal to readers of Allure and fans of Mad Men), A Single Man is a gay film designed for the tolerant admiration of straight audiences. For his directorial debut, Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, has adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel (the author’s personal favorite of his books) about a day in the life of George, a fifty-eight-year-old gay Englishman who teaches literature at a small college in Los Angeles; memories of his longtime partner, Jim, who died eight months prior in a car crash, frequently interrupt George’s interior monologue.
In his take on Isherwood’s text—praised by Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay-liberation movement”—Ford has crafted one of the most laboriously art-directed, mawkish depictions of pre-Stonewall gay life. After nixing a completed screenplay by David Scearce, Ford (who put up almost seven million dollars of his own money to make A Single Man) wrote a script, introducing several misguided plot points. George, played by Colin Firth, now begins his day knowing it will be his last, assiduously attending to pre-suicide errands: arranging farewell notes on his desk just so; laying out the suit (designed, of course, by Ford, as is all of Firth’s attire) he is to be buried in, specifying a Windsor knot for his tie; retrieving documents from his safety-deposit box at the bank, where George will have a mystical encounter with the pigtailed moppet who lives next door. The protagonist of Isherwood’s novel, lonely, melancholic, but still vigorous and determined, has been stripped of his vitality, portrayed as a tragic, extremely fussy homosexual.
Preparing for his own death, George experiences all the events and interactions of the next twenty-four hours (set on an unspecified day sometime before Christmas 1962 in Isherwood’s book but assigned the specific date of November 30 in Ford’s movie) with heightened appreciation. George and a Madrileño hustler he meets in a liquor-store parking lot remark on the pretty pink hue of the smog hanging over Los Angeles at dusk—another narrative addition of Ford’s whose sole function is to allow Firth to show off a Castilian lisp.
Nothing randy happens between George and the pretty, pompadoured rent boy; Ford, notorious for his carnal fashion spreads in the 1990s, has made a sexless film. We catch a glimpse of well-sculpted butts when George and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, also outfitted by Ford), a student who’s hot for teacher, skinny-dip in the Pacific. George’s flashbacks to life with Jim (Matthew Goode), the love of his life for sixteen years, reveal a furtive nuzzle. In Ford’s most grotesque intervention into Isherwood’s text, George has the most bodily contact with Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s neighbor and fellow British expat, depicted on-screen as the pushiest of fag hags. “If you weren’t such a goddamn poof, we could have been happy,” Charley, soused on Tanqueray, her bouffant collapsed, slurs at George after he rebuffs her. Desperate women, suicidal gays: Ford may have perfected the retro look of 1962, but beneath the superficial glamour of his movie lies an exceptionally retrograde sensibility.
A Single Man is now available through Sony Pictures on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King, 1972, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 140 minutes.
THE NEW GERMAN CINEMA that blossomed in the 1970s is often reduced to three directors—Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—for US consumption. The distribution company Facets has slowly been working to counteract this trend: Soon to come is a stream of Alexander Kluge DVDs; for now, Facets has completed its release of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s trilogy of films on the roots of German pathology, following Hitler, a Film from Germany (1977) with Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974).
Ludwig blends the influences of Wagner—who is repeatedly name-dropped by the characters—and Brecht with those of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith. It’s easy to imagine eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig I (played here by Fassbinder regular Harry Baer) holding court in the Chelsea Hotel. The film presents a series of colorful tableaux with very little camera movement. The stylized performances make for an unusual type of narrative film, but it nevertheless tells a story, and one less drawn toward elaborate metaphors than its successors. (Though May and Hitler both get cameos.) Syberberg here seems less sure-footed than he is in his later work, but the mix of cinematic and theatrical influences, reflected both in visual style and in acting, draws one in nevertheless.
Karl May is the most conventional of Syberberg’s films. Until its final half hour, it reads as a naturalistic biopic of the eponymous author (played by Helmut Käutner). Stylistically, it’s a step forward from Ludwig’s minimal cinematography; Syberberg seems to have suddenly become aware of the expressive potential of camera movement. (He’s also fond of wipes.) May stands in for Germany’s tormented relationship with the rest of the world: He claimed to be a world traveler, with firsthand knowledge of Native American customs, but never left his homeland and wrote many of his books in prison. It’s the subtlest film of the trilogy, but one still powered by an overwhelming sense of paranoia and anxiety.
Hitler, Ludwig, and Karl May are all available through Facets. For more details, click here.
“CELEBRATING CHEKHOV,” a miniseries of adaptations of the Russian author’s work, is currently being presented at the Walter Reade Theater by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Confined to works by Soviet and Russian filmmakers, the series includes both familiar titles—Andrei Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970) and Yuli Karasik’s The Seagull (1970)—and lesser-known ones: Chekhov’s Motives (2002), directed by Kira Muratova, and Ward No. 6 (2009), directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornovsky, the Russian submission to the 2009 Oscar race, which is having its American premiere in the series.
Though all are worth seeing, I have always felt that Chekhov’s major plays do not translate easily to the screen. Their long silences, indicated by stage directions, in which action is suspended, in which nothing—and everything—happens, and during which the slightest gesture conveys the subtlest shifts of emotion, are either collapsed or entirely ignored on film in favor of a more fluid sense of narrative and dramatic continuity. Nikita Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1977), based on Chekhov’s first play, Platonov, may be an exception. While film versions of Chekhov’s fiction, both short (The Lady with the Dog [Iosif Kheifits, 1960]) and long (The Shooting Party [Emil Loteanu, 1978]), are more successful, no film I can think of has adequately captured what Tolstoy called Chekhov’s “impressionistic” style or has adhered to Chekhov’s declared aims to achieve the most objective observations of life free of preconceived political, social, and economic ideologies.
The new film, Ward No. 6, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is faithful to the essence of the curious story of a doctor in a lunatic asylum who becomes so attached to a patient with a persecution complex—the first man with whom he can have an intelligent conversation—that he is eventually committed to the same asylum. These two characters, beautifully enacted by Vladimir Ilyin and Alexey Vertkov, respectfully, are brought convincingly and affectingly to life, their conversations retaining whole chunks of Chekhov’s dialogue. On the other hand, in updating the story to present day, the film seems bent on turning what literary critic Lev Shestov called Chekhov’s “positivist materialism[, in which] man, brought face to face with the laws of nature, must always adapt himself and give way, give way, give way,” into a metaphor for despair over conditions in contemporary Russia. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the generic tendency throughout film history—from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)—wherein mental institutions become instant metaphors for social and political oppression.
This film might be said to suffer from the same schizophrenia described by the character of Dr. Khobotov (Evgeny Stychkin) on camera to an off-screen interviewer for what appears to be an investigative documentary on conditions in the asylum. In juxtaposing Chekhov’s story with this seemingly detached, modern point of view, his protagonist, Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin, whose verbal eloquence does not preclude affinities with Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s Josef K. and might even be said to prefigure Beckett’s narrators in Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, is here made a victim of the state and antiquated treatments of mental illness. While this does not contradict Chekhov’s observations as one trained in medicine, it tends to stress sociopolitical conditions over his far more comprehensive despair about the nature of existence itself as a dismal, unavoidable “trap,” which man tries to deny through any number of illusions, including the belief in the immortality of the soul.
Still, in addition to an appropriately dreary atmosphere and superior acting, the film has moments of unexpected poetry, even if they do not derive from Chekhov’s vision. It begins with a telescopic history of the building that eventually became the asylum, noting its use as a monastery centuries earlier. In an early scene with no discernible link to what follows, we see a seventeenth-century hooded monk and an angelic nun walking through the woods. While I cannot verify it, the actress who plays this nun reappears at the end as a female patient brought into Ward 6 with fellow inmates to celebrate the New Year with the male patients. A luminous close-up precedes her walk across the room, where she rouses fellow patient Dr. Ragin from his torpor and leads him to the dance floor. As she smiles enigmatically over his shoulder, she could well be an incarnation of the eternal female, hinting at the perennial cycle of life as both unavoidable trap and irresistible hope.
“Celebrating Chekhov” runs at the Walter Reade Theater in New York November 27–December 3. For more details, click here.
SINCE DEBATES OVER AUTEURISM now seem as distant as Madame de Staël, it was hardly noticed at the 2008 Cannes International Film Festival, even as the Directors’ Fortnight celebrated its fortieth birthday, that the politique’s monism had created a small crisis. Through caprice, impatience, or sheer fatigue, critics experienced collective irritation with the staunch constancy of several celebrated auteurs. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, even while extending his muted narrative into once unimaginable modes of suspense and melodrama in Three Monkeys, was scorned for relying on his patented long takes and meteorological effects. Jia Zhang-ke alienated some erstwhile supporters by retreading familiar territory in 24 City, which contemplates China’s social history of the last half century by recounting, as did his Still Life (2006), the erasure of a symbolic locale: here, Chengdu’s Factory 420, an aeronautics and munitions plant demolished to make way for the eponymous complex of luxury apartments. Although Jia audaciously makes a secret military site the object of his quasi-utopian nostalgia, and interpolates several scripted interviews, including ones acted by Joan Chen and Zhao Tao, into his ostensible documentary, he was accused of leaning on established Jia-ist strategies—“auteurism for the sake of it,” as one critic put it.
Everywhere in Cannes—including the Market, where Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day transported his axiomatic tale of male fecklessness from Seoul to Paris and abridged the expected sex, though, ironically, the result was echt Hong—directors were chastised for being too much themselves: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne for turning their drama of moral quandary into self-styled formula in Lorna’s Silence; Atom Egoyan for retrenching after the failed departure of Where the Truth Lies (2005) with a work that gathers so many of the director’s motifs and themes that it verges on self-parody (Adoration); Lucrecia Martel for again returning to her terrain of oblique unease among the rural bourgeoisie of Argentina (The Headless Woman). (Detractors noted with exaggerated relief that Martel’s next project would be a detour into science fiction.) Some directors, mindful of the traps of predictability, seem determined to avoid reiteration: Apichatpong Weerasethakul abashedly joked in private that his forthcoming film, Primitive, would not be structured in two contrasting halves, as has long been his identifying modus.
The young Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso shares no such compunction. Presented in the Fortnight, Alonso’s fourth feature, Liverpool, explored once more his signature theme of men alone on a journey, reticent men of obscure emotion and motive traveling through isolated landscapes, unchanged by their encounters with others. More Bresson than Boetticher (despite surprising affinities with the latter), Alonso’s films observe their battened protagonists with intent detachment. The men’s unyielding features and solitary, taciturn ways—they all “ride lonesome”—register less as enigmatic, the way the neutrality of Bresson’s “models” serves an aura of immanence and mystery, than as ramparts against the world. Precarious, inward, lost even to themselves, Alonso’s men are separated, estranged, or sundered from their families—Vargas from his daughter in Los Muertos (2004); Farrel from his addled mother in Liverpool; Misael from his madre in La Libertad (2001)—and wary of connection; they make small talk but withdraw at any demand for divulgence. They evade—“I don’t remember anymore; I’ve already forgotten everything,” Vargas tells a boatman inquiring after his crime in Los Muertos—or look past the question (Farrel’s sodden silence in Liverpool when asked why he has returned home after such a long absence), but whether they are unable or merely unwilling to answer remains moot. Alonso’s withholding cinema exhibits an opposite fault. Compulsively subtle, proceeding by hint and implication, it sometimes tells too much, no doubt because in the director’s rigorously delimited approach, the slightest insistence can appear as exaggeration.
Alonso established his themes and method with La Libertad, a slip of a film shot in nine days for very little money. (Alonso’s father is credited as a producer.) Steeped in Neorealism and influenced at the time by Abbas Kiarostami, the then-twenty-five-year-old graduate of the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires transformed, with great tact and modesty, a single day in the life of Misael Saavedra, a young woodcutter whom Alonso met on his father’s farm, into the simplest of scenarios. The incongruous, semiominous thrash of techno percussion accompanying the credits would become an Alonso trademark, but once the film proper begins, the director foregoes all nondiegetic music. (The profusion of birdsong on the sound track here and in Los Muertos makes one think the ideal orchestrator for Alonso’s films would be Messiaen.) Dedramatized, shot in watchful long takes, La Libertad opens on a nocturnal image of Misael’s bare torso as he saws and chews a hunk of meat, a lone tree and sky flickering with lightning behind him. After a fade to black and the appearance of the title, the film emerges into daylight, Alonso’s slow pans lingering over the landscape—fissured earth, tangled trees, the woodcutter’s bare encampment—as they follow Misael’s search for the best specimens to fell. The depiction of nature, immense, entropic, indifferent, stops just short of awe—Malick minus the mysticism.
Alonso’s quotidian approach becomes graphically apparent when the camera suddenly fixes on the woodcutter’s face as he blankly empties his bowels and wipes himself before continuing his search. Far from Rüdiger Vogler’s aestheticized defecation in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road (1976), Misael’s act seems nothing more than a shit in the woods. 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. Spare in dialogue—the first bit, a simple salutation, comes as a shock more than half an hour into the seventy-three-minute film—and attuned to the rhythms of daily existence (chopping, eating, shitting, sleeping, buying, and selling), the film elicited inevitable claims that the boundary between fiction and documentary had been blurred, collapsed, or straddled. But Alonso’s reliance on Bressonian synecdoche, both within the image (truncated framing) and within the narrative, and his exacting management of sound and image suggest a reality heightened enough to leave all notions of a modern-day Flaherty behind.
For its quietly confrontational finale, which earned the film a review titled “The Solitary Life and Interesting Diet of an Argentine Woodcutter” in the New York Times, La Libertad reveals what Misael was first seen eating, and what, in the film’s corporeal cycle, he will be excreting the next day. Misael partly severs the head of an armadillo he has caught, its limbs flailing and thrashing, before tossing the animal on the grill. He roasts it a little, scrapes its shell, bloodily guts it at great length, salts the meat, and returns it to the grate, before an inexplicable sequence in which he lights a fire in the forest, feeding the blaze into inferno—an act of purgation? revenge? brush clearing?—and strips off his shirt. (One is momentarily reminded of the ritualistic climax of Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s great Himatsuri , but Alonso’s materialist approach cannot brook the numinous.) The film then returns to its opening image, that long close-up of Misael eating as the night sky flares with lightning. Lowing cattle, birdcalls, wind, and distant thunder provide elemental counterpoint to his feast, before sound and image dissolve into darkness and rain, and the credits begin. Alonso’s original version reportedly ended differently, with a half-minute coda in which Misael openly laughs at the camera, joined by the off-screen mirth of the crew, before the Cannes festival convinced the director to remove this Brechtian breach. The circularity, the symmetry of the film’s structure as it now stands, may seem too schematic, but the film, as free as it leaves the viewer to extrapolate meaning from Misael’s actions, is nothing if not disciplined. Its libertad is strictly provisional.
If Lucrecia Martel is the Chekhov of the so-called New Argentine Cinema, there is a touch of Tolstoy in Alonso’s portrait of this country peasant who, despite the brands he partakes of (Ford, Fanta, Marlboro, Richmond), seems untouched by the city (which, Alonso has said, is associated with the techno music at the film’s beginning). Simple, authentic, uncorrupted, Misael is, unlike Alonso’s subsequent protagonists, gregarious in his solitude: On the telephone, he asks about his mother, and about Roxana and Micaela (sisters? girlfriends?), and he jokes to a gas station attendant that he will hang around until the ladies show up. His solitude seems less innate than imposed by circumstance. By comparison, Argentino Vargas, the fifty-six-year-old principal of Alonso’s next film, Los Muertos, appears pathologically opaque, his reticence and detachment the result of guilt, grief, or homicidal instincts, it is never clear. Vargas’s concealed emotions and motivation allow Alonso to explain nothing while manipulating narrative expectation and assumption as willfully as any genre director.
Whether the film’s opening sequence, shot in one virtuoso take, answers its closing one, the way La Libertad’s does, is central to the overly controlled mystery of Los Muertos. Slowly gliding and panning through lush forest, playing with shallow focus as if to undercut its omniscience, Alonso’s camera glances at a child’s bloodied body sprawled in a brackish stream, then continues to traverse dense foliage to disclose a naked corpse before briefly capturing the murderer’s arm as he moves past, clutching a machete. (One uses “he,” “murderer,” and “machete” tentatively, as the sequence is determinedly oblique, any inferences confirmed only by later evidence.) Alonso employs the tropes of revelation and occlusion in classic horror-film fashion before embarking on a journey that appears to be as cyclic as that in La Libertad, though here narrative closure proves to be anything but.
Like Misael in La Libertad, Vargas is a nonactor whose character carries his real-life name, but whose being is subsumed more intensely and intensively into Alonso’s fiction. Released after decades in prison for, as we later learn, murdering his brothers—“the dead” of the title, one assumes—Vargas spends his last day in jail sanding a chair, feeding a dog, drinking maté, eating lunch. (All of Alonso’s films feature protracted scenes of men eating by themselves—social ritual becoming its opposite.) Though he is capable of banter, Vargas’s natural disposition is mute aloneness, and, as with Farrel in Liverpool, the director repeatedly shows his protagonist at a remove from humanity, isolated in the frame or tellingly separated from surrounding groups: men watching soccer or huddled in the prison yard, a clutch of children buying treats in a rural store. Unsettled, Vargas grabs at his long, graying hair or cracks his knuckles; his energy is wary, implosive.
Vargas journeys through the hinterland by road and then boat to deliver a letter to María, a jail mate’s daughter, and to visit his own offspring, unseen for decades. Alonso again strives to make unstudied his aesthetic of the everyday, of basic drives and desires: Vargas buying bread and cigarettes, fucking a roadside prostitute, hitching a ride on the back of a truck (an act repeated in La Libertad and Liverpool). The brusque treatment of the sex scene, in which the camera lingers twice on a little girl playing in the yard as inside her mother gives Vargas a standing blow job and then submits to his pent-up thrusting, 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 film’s incidental religious-mythological associations aside—a shot of Vargas’s head in frame with a devotional in the police station; Vargas’s carrying bread and wine to a pair called María and Angel; the Charon-like aura of his boat drifting toward death—Los Muertos retains the minimal, materialist approach of La Libertad. Alonso wants to besot with the ordinary.
“Having described a circle in La Libertad, Alonso now draws a straight line,” claimed the program notes for Los Muertos when it screened at Cannes. The film does initially appear linear, especially in the drift of Vargas’s downriver trip, shot in long takes and desultory pans that sometimes swing away from the boat to the other bank or to the water’s surface, leaving Vargas out of frame altogether. When he raids a beehive, extracting great slabs of honeycomb to suck on as he rows, Vargas appears, like Misael, as man-in-nature, but his pastorale has an undercurrent of imminent violence. The original title of the film was Sangre, and its final third traffics in bloodletting, imagined, implied, and real. Clues as to whether Vargas murders María and Angel in their bed are intentionally equivocal: mysterious nighttime shots of their vulnerable bodies, a sudden shock sound bridge of a rooster’s violent cry as Vargas washes his face and hands (of carnage?) in the morning and departs with no sign of his hosts, caressing a machete by the boat before fashioning a spear from a long reed. Spying a goat onshore, Vargas grabs it, slits its throat, drains the blood into the canoe, his feet and legs spattered with gore. 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.
Lisandro Alonso, Fantasma, 2006, still from a color film in 35 mm, 63 minutes. Rosa Martínez Rivero.
Typically impassive when he first meets his young grandson, who is caring for his baby sister—the absence of their mother suggests another of Alonso’s fractured families—Vargas restively sits outside their tent, twisting and turning the limbs on a figurine, his machete driven into the earth beside him. Whether menace turns into actual violence is left to the viewer: Vargas tosses the toy away, takes the machete inside, lays it down, and disappears behind a flap into the interior where the boy and his sister await. The camera hangs back, swings slowly to look down at the ground, shadows of trees playing over the toy splayed in the sand. Blackout. Is Vargas a serial killer? Alonso says adamantly not, and that any violence portended in his ellipses is imagined, merely a sign, the director insists, of Vargas’s primitive existence. Perhaps. (Alonso removed the motive for murder that had been explicit in the original script: that Vargas killed his brothers because they were starving.) But if not quite La Libertad’s repetition of its opening image, the film’s egregiously ambiguous finale hints mightily that there will be blood, as in that first sequence of fratricide, and that Vargas has added his grandchildren to the little brothers he killed many years before, to his growing domain of Los Muertos.
Duration is of prime importance to the economical Alonso, who is sparing with both edits and running time. (The average shot lengths of his films must run extraordinarily high.) The diurnal span of La Libertad and the elliptical, four-day course of Los Muertos are further abbreviated in Fantasma (2006), which barely breaks the one-hour mark in transcribing the short visit of Argentino Vargas to a Buenos Aires theater to watch, for the first time, the film he starred in. Though set within the confines of the San Martín cultural center and its Leopoldo Lugones cinema, 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.
Flagrantly cinephilic, Fantasma displays the influence of Kubrick (ominously underlit interiors, steely textures, private sanctums become catacombs) and Bresson (a loping dog whose offscreen scamper and whine are an obvious homage to L’Argent  just as the elevators’ winking red lights recall Le Diable probablement ; the original plan to insert a clip from Pickpocket  was eventually dropped) and affinities with two of Alonso’s acknowledged contemporary exemplars, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The film appears inspired by the former’s fond farewell to traditional cinema-going, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), complete with Tsai’s requisite toilet scenes, and anticipates the latter’s treatment of subterranean light and space in the second half of his Syndromes and a Century (2006). 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. And, again like Tati, he embeds this vision of errant modernity in a musique concrète of mechanical sound: outside traffic; the whoosh, buzz, and hum of elevators; a computer whirring to life; an incessant, unanswered telephone; the squeal of an unoiled door; the roar of the projector showing Vargas the rural world of Los Muertos, with its contrasting quiet and cacophony of birds.
Stealthily shot in slow dollies, pans, and tracks, with two precredit ploys—a long, dreamy image of Vargas holding a woman’s red shoe and staring out a night-lit window, followed by an audience-testing blackout, lasting almost three minutes, accompanied by slashing guitar—Fantasma has been both dismissed as insular or narcissistic (one of the other characters transiting the San Martín is none other than Misael Saavedra) and justified as an experiment or étude. Though Alonso stated at the time of its release that Fantasma completed a trilogy with his first two films, it is now best seen as a pendant to the actual trilogy, which consists of that early duo plus his latest, Liverpool. Longer, more complex, with greater reach and maturity than La Libertad and Los Muertos, Liverpool nevertheless repeats their template, from the driving drums and guitar over the credits, to its inscrutable, tamped protagonist, who travels alone through an adverse landscape only to arrive where he departed: “I’m off,” Farrel mutters as he escapes the place to which he has so laboriously journeyed.
Forever “off” as a world-wandering sailor, Farrel is granted leave in Tierra del Fuego to visit his mother, whom he has not seen in years and is not even sure is alive. The opening shipboard sequences, shot in extended takes that pan and pivot at a vigilant distance, repeat both the mechanical imagery of Fantasma and the detachment of the jail sequences in Los Muertos; shunted into near obscurity by both foreground-background composition and shallow focus in the film’s first image, Farrel is frequently isolated within the frame, contrasted with groups of men playing together (video sports at film’s start, a card game later), Alonso’s suggestive use of offscreen sound and a motif of windows further sequestering Farrel from the “normal” world. Swigging from an ever-present bottle, like Vargas on his boat journey, Farrel takes to the land as a loner, eating dinner in front of a trompe l’oeil autumn landscape that, like rear projection, eerily separates him from his surroundings, before visiting a strip club, rendered Bresson-style in two quick shots: the first showing a couple of strippers, one bare-assed and trussed, the other distractedly text-messaging, the second a countershot of Farrel at table, the dancers’ shadows gyrating on the wall behind him. Drink, food, sex: Alonso again pares to basics and implies that none grants comfort to his rootless protagonist.
Liverpool seems designed for auteurial legibility. Even as its snowy environs contrast with Alonso’s previous films, much harks back to compositions and themes in his earlier work, from the hitched ride on the back of a truck, to the long shot in which Farrel trudges through a field toward the horizon line, recreating Misael’s cross-plain journey near the end of La Libertad. Alonso’s fondness for abruptly cutting from loud sound to silence (a curt transition from buzz saw to the quiet of a bedroom), for disorienting transitions of setting (that mockery of an establishing shot in the unidentifiable transport equipped with ripped seats and torn mattress), and for restating moments in variation (Farrel’s two solo meals, the twinned inscriptions on a post) also remain. But Liverpool exhibits a greater variety of settings and shots, color, if not new, newly emphasized. The green motif of Los Muertos—the jungle and foliage, the blouse Vargas buys his daughter, the two bottles hanging on the wall in María’s home, the “green-out” after the opening sequence—is here replaced by an insistence on red, all the more marked against the chill, achromatic locale. (One thinks of Oshima, another chronicler of broken families, who banished green from his palette as too anodyne, and aggressively filled his images with red.) Liverpool’s many red objects—barrels, jumpsuit, Scania truck, backpack, winch, wheelbarrow, plaid jacket, stripper’s chemise, car siren, casserole, basin, canteen table—emphasized by Farrel’s painting a rope that color at film’s beginning, culminate in the deep red walls of the bedroom in which Farrel’s mother sleeps away her final days—walls that could be incarnadine imports from the villa in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.
As temporally compressed but more expressive and psychological than early Alonso—Juan Fernández, the highway worker from Tierra del Fuego who plays Farrel, physically resembles an older, wasted version of the director, and the film verges on self-revelation—Liverpool nevertheless keeps to his antidramatic ways, attenuating narrative through empty time and withheld information. (Alonso’s dilatory style affords as much attention to the packing of a haversack as to an encounter between characters.) A cipher whose feelings can only be guessed at, Farrel averts disclosure, but his “backstory” can be inferred from the reactions of others: the bitter comments of Trujillo, the old man tending Farrel’s mother; the befuddled memories of the old woman, who may be feigning nonrecognition of her son; and the demands for money of Analía, the damaged girl we take to be Farrel’s daughter (and, according to some, sexually exploited—like much in Alonso, possible but not provable). “I would like to know what Farrel did to his mother,” Alonso says in the film’s press materials, but he works hard to deny us many clues about their relationship. In Alonso’s art of arduous intimation, the danger of overstatement lingers. When the film’s hitherto mysterious title is explained in the final image, one feels that the flaking red letters on the gift Farrel has conferred upon Analía, a talisman of his drifting life and familial neglect, should read Rosebud instead of Liverpool.
This essay originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Artforum. “Ride Lonesome: The Films of Lisandro Alonso” runs November 27–December 1 at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. For more details, click here.