Lisandro Alonso: Space, Time, Cinema

It’s surely dawned on Seattle cineastes that program director of Northwest Film Forum, Adam Sekular, has an affection for films that are minimalist portraits in time. Think back to the retrospectives of Pedro Costa and Albert Serra, as well as numerous defiantly non-commercial films on calendars past that are uniquely individual, resolutely observational and more concerned with the texture of scenes (from the ambiguous and guarded emotions of impassive performers to the way time passes on screen) than the narrative movement of story.

I’d say that’s a good description of the cinema of Lisandro Alonso, whose four features are showcased in Northwest Film Forum’s series “At the Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” (November 11-20). I wrote an essay on Alonso and his films for The Stranger, but wasn’t able to get in everything that I was thinking about, so consider this a companion piece.

Alonso keeps company with Lucretia Martel (whose The Headless Woman just finished a run at NWFF) as the most exciting filmmakers to have come out of Argentina (is it the New Argentine Cinema or the New New Argentine Cinema?). Both are immersive directors with cameras that observe their subjects intently with little exposition and no commentary. Critics talk of cameras as microscopes. These directors are more like naturalists shooting fictional documentaries of subjects in their environments, but where Martel explores the thickets of messy lives at their most tangled and murky, Alonso prefers isolated subjects and lonely landscapes. And by isolated, I mean from other people.  These are not men (and Alonso’s protagonists are all men) who explain themselves. They are content in their silence as they sip mate or swig vodka from a bottle.

It’s about space, with and without people, and the passing of time, both subjective and objective. In La Libertad, his debut film, the spaces are all outside, in the forest, on roads, and the changing of the light from morning to afternoon to  dark of night is an essential element of the environment; in one shot, we see the late afternoon light dim until it turns dusk while he does his evening chores before settling down for dinner, his day literally keyed to the rhythm of the turning of the Earth. In Fantasma, those spaces are interior, from the emptiness of a vast modern theater lobby (it looks more like the foyer of a modern office tower designed not just to impress but to intimidate) to the emptiness of a theater auditorium where, at most, three people arrive to watch the movie. (I love how they all gravitate to clump within a couple of seats of each other, as if drawn to comfort of society, but never actually interact or even acknowledge on another.)

Los Muertos and Liverpool are the closest Alonso comes to making conventional, commercial narratives. Both are journey films where the explanations are kept to a minimum and the motivations are vague, perhaps even to the hero of the latter. But for the most part, his films are experiences, people moving through space and time, filmed by a director more interested in what they are doing than where they are going. His shots played out leisurely and long, often past the point you expect a cut. That creates a tension of its own; when a character leaves the frame but the camera holds of the space he just left, the anticipation can be unsettling. We expect something to happen. And yes, things do happen, but not the way we’ve been led to expect in narrative filmmaking. Alonso’s defiance of those expectations provides a sense of apprehension and unease amidst the calm.

He’s patient and demands our patience, something the Hollywood cinema is not noted for, but he’s also exacting. His framing is carefully arranged to look unarranged. They are beautiful without drawing attention to themselves because they are so attuned to the landscape and the people within. He prefers shooting from the middle distance. Close-ups are rare; Alonso doesn’t want to pull character out of his surroundings. This is a cinematic ecosystem in a frame.

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 Sekular and NWFF stepped in to arrange a fifteen-city tour of the film, essentially taking the distribution of the film as a non-for-profit undertaking and expanding the concept of nonprofit film organization. The week-long Seattle Run is accompanied by his three other features and (an unadvertised bonus) his gorgeous short (barely a minute long) S/T, created as the festival trailer for the Buenos Ares film festival BAFICI. This is a rare opportunity to see the work a filmmaker who defies commercial conventions and expectations to create a personal cinema that reminds us that there are different ways of seeing the word and our place within it. Not all stories need to be told the same way.

And of course Lisandro Alonso himself, the modest young filmmaker who loves to make movies and loves to talk to anyone and everyone about films and filmmaking, will be in the house and more. He’ll be introducing films and answering questions from the audience at all screenings through Saturday, November 14, conducting a “Master Class” on that same Saturday, and making a short film with NWFF and a local Seattle cast and crew.

The complete schedule is at NWFF here.

My essay on Lisandro Alonso for The Stranger is here.