Ride Lonesome

James Quandt on the films of Lisandro Alonso

Lisandro Alonso, Los Muertos, 2004, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 78 minutes. Vargas (Argentino Vargas).

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.

Lisandro Alonso, La Libertad, 2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 73 minutes. Misael (Misael Saavedra).

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 [1985], 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 [1983] just as the elevators’ winking red lights recall Le Diable probablement [1977]; the original plan to insert a clip from Pickpocket [1959] 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.