Posted in: Essays

A Hole in the Heart of Man, Out At the Edge of the World: Some Remarks On the Cinema of Lisandro Alonso

[Published in conjunction with NWFF’s Hot Splice]

“Why is manhood… an endless highway?” – Adam Zagajewski, Tierra del Fuego


The NWFF is to be commended for presenting a rare coup: a cycle of films that taken together evince a dedicated and visionary artist at work, the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso. The devoted following that Alonso’s work to date has commanded owes mostly to the fact that his films are both rarefied in their aesthetic and scarcely screened to audiences beyond the festival circuit. In a career that is nascent yet already overwhelmingly singular in style, here is a director who is clearly hitting his stride. We are fortunate to have the opportunity of seeing Alonso’s four features, and it is truly an  honor to have the director in attendance.

When Alonso’s debut La Libertad premiered in 2001, seeming to come out of nowhere save for its own rural milieu, it was a bit of an enigma to cinephiles. Was the story, much of it unfolding in real time in an unnamed outback in the Pampas, involving the quotidien labor of a woodcutter named Misael, a piece of documentary or fiction? Was Misael playing himself? Did such labor exist? And crucially, was this for real? And who the fuck did the director think he was, offering very little in the way of narrative save for the swinging of an ax, the buying of cigarettes, a ride in a pick-up truck with dog and timber, and the ritual slaying of an armadillo for dinner?

Clearly, here was a director who had denuded his cinema down to its sheerest essentials, and what remained was a nominally minimal but ultimately voluptuous portrait of a beautifully forlorn landscape inhabited rather efficiently by a man and his work. Nature, and civilization. The banal, and the mythic. The story was not new – who hasn’t worked an arduous day’s labor at some time? But the grammar with which is was told was. Radically so. This elementary arc would come to define Alonso’s cinema, in which ‘drama’ is extracted from a sustained vigilance of the natural world – sometimes cruel, sometimes benign – and a solitary figure corporeally embedded within it. Any attempts to describe him (and in Alonso’s work, it is always a man) effectively missed the point: the camera could record his movements but not his motivations. Such determinations, it seems, were the goal of less ‘pure’ cinema, to which Alonso seemed to have little interest. And thus the auspicious career of a preternaturally gifted filmmaker began. An improbably young filmmaker attuned to film’s formal capacity,  loosed unto primitive territory, willing small gestures that assumed cumulatively grand proportions.

Los Muertos, Alonso’s second feature, proved that his acuity was no mere provocation. Beginning with a rather oblique prologue sequence that may or may not set up the rest of the film (Has the film’s protagonist butchered his siblings? Is this a dream? Is this a one-off reel, an attempt by the director to insure investors?). Inmate Vargas is released from prison, freshly shorn of his silver mane, and proceeds like many convicts before him to chart a course up or downstream – into a heart of darkness and seemingly toward some sort of redemption. The trip involves a cursory visit to a prostitute and a clothier before Vargas embarks by canoe down the Parana delta. Like the woodcutter before him, he must forage for food – and Alonso keenly observes Vargas’ gathering of honey from swarming combs, and the not-so fortunate fate of a white goat grazing riverside, fallen now by Vargas’ stained hands – small rituals of violence and survival that are now signatures of Alonso’s oeuvre. Again, a lone man’s destiny is foreclosed by the barest of means, chief among them the absence of dialogue. That Vargas is returning ‘home’ is the film’s unelaborated mystery: given form by the most tedious of forgotten objects, a toy figure left on the dirt, upon which Alonso’s camera remains, fixed, till the devastation of a life misspent sinks in. The choice is ours to feel it or not.

Fantasma – an exquisite way for Alonso to rethink his cinema

Fantasma, Alonso’s third feature but more aptly described as a featurette, was conceived while waiting for the financing of Liverpool to come through. What an exquisite way to rethink his cinema!Fantasma, per its title, coyly and spectrally endeavors to bring together the principal ‘non-actors’ of his previous films to Buenos Aires, to the fabled Teatro San Martin, for – what else? – a retrospective of Alonso’s films. The setup is an ingenious way to bring nature to the city, actors to their affect, and audiences to their subjective screens. And the result inevitably reminds one of Tati and Tsai Ming Liang, but Alonso’s bewitching patience and controlled mise en scene are again employed without parallel. Not least, one gets a an unofficial tour of the crumbling modernist multiplex, which Fantasma treats with utmost fidelity. Take my word for it, the Teatro San Martin, with its maze of cinemas and faded grand stairways, cool upholstery and chipped bathroom tile, is an intrinsically surreal experience.

The notion that the good film is often that which is most faithful to place – attentive to both the sentient and the material – is in full effect in Alonso’s cinema. Fictions can be seen to emanate from location rather than be imposed upon them, and documentary reflexes are better suited to capture these stories as they unfold, in contrast to willing implausible scenarios into theatrical life. Is there a more  intuitive  practitioner of this (admittedly ill-defined) aesthetic than Alonso? (Well, perhaps: Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul springs to mind, albeit in an altogether more surreal sense…).

Still, Liverpool is beguiling in its causal construction: no sooner does the film dispense with plot and succumb to the seemingly aimless drift of its protagonist, and the credits roll (no, credits never roll in an Alonso, they are smacked up on the screen to some punk tunes by Flormaleva)… when the retroactive weight of loss and failed connection floods the screen’s vacant spaces. And in Tierra del Fuego, this means pretty much everywhere. Even in the tiny quarters aboard the freighter where man-at-sea Farrel dwells, a sense of solitude prevails – visually broken but underscored by the nude pin-ups adorning the walls. Just as one of the most memorable features of Los Muertos was, banal as it seems, the recurring gesture of an ex-con running his hands through his thick mane of silvering hair (which tempered his aura of brutishness), here too Alonso fixes from a respectful remove on the sheer physicality of its enigmatically homesick wanderer, a slender, middle-aged shipworker (sailor doesn’t seem the appropriate title) who appears to see little light of day working in the bowels of a Patagonia freighter. His mates entertain themselves with video games. He dozes off in the boiler room, a narcoleptic symptom or a factor of the Stolichnaya that seems perpetually at arm’s length (forgivably so: Liverpool is cold just to look at). The vague sense of mystery, a feeling of latent portent, follows Farrel offshore as he shuffles his way, snow underfoot, duffel bag slung over shoulder, toward the tiny village where his mother is eking out her last days. He seems upon arrival none too welcome, an impression gleaned from the silent meals he partakes of (Farrel breaks bread in the world’s loneliest canteen) under the gaze of the locals. That he has a daughter whom he’s never met is the film’s hook, which Alonso divulges with unforced stride; she’s both a mystery to him as well to us, and the camera never lets us close to her. In their only exchange, he offers her a loaf of bread while she draws at the kitchen table. Does she ask for money as some kind of belated compensation? Does she know who he is? Lisandro leaves these questions unanswered, and offers the damnest parting shot, just a little bit closer now: a key chain dangling from her palm that lends the film its name as well as its undeniable pathos.

“Liverpool” – Farrel looks for his mark

Some have seen Liverpool as impersonally ironic, and after its Cannes reception the question of artistic sincerity emerged. The question persisted whether Alonso’s film was, to reduce the argument, an act of abstract humanism. Was it possible that esteemed auteurs held a kind of deep faith in their wounded protagonists yet had little regard in reality for their more immediate brethren? Could Liverpool‘s story be told without the majestic loneliness of the landscape, and rather take place in Alonso’s own neighborhood, its attentions extended to those more immediately present? There is a key shot in Liverpool that I think is telling of Alonso’s earnestness as well as his gift for incredibly discreet storytelling, wherever the location. Trudging across a snowy field, Farrel happens upon the frozen goal post of a buried football field. Ice hangs from the goal’s frame, which Farrel pauses to inspect, scraping away ice with a knife he’s drawn from his duffel bag. No insert shot, but one gets the sense that he’s looking for his own mark, initials possibly carved in childhood while playing there, inscribed and still surviving, even if he seems now something of a ghost.

Little attention is called to the gesture, and the moment only faintly registers. But like much of Liverpool and Alonso’s oeuvre in general, so much returns in hindsight that one is compelled to truly watch his films with increasing curiosity in the ever-unfolding moment. Was there something about recurring reds in Liverpool, or was it just a Liverpudlian joke? Farrel’s jumpsuit on the ship; the paint; his duffel bag; the vodka bottle; his mother’s room; the keychain. Never steeped in the overtly symbolic, the bruised blue world of Liverpool is nonetheless pricked by flashes of red – title shot included (Is it for nothing that an unseen character dispatched by radio is named Valasquez?). Either way, this is cinema that slowly smolders in the mind. Alonso has tapped that eternal sense of sorrow that dwells in the invisible hearts of men, sorrow scattered like snow on the cold surface of the world.