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.
François Truffaut, Small Change, 1976, color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Production stills. Photos: Hélène Jeanbreau.
“I NEVER TIRE of filming with children,” François Truffaut once said. “All that a child does on-screen, he seems to do for the first time.” More than any of the director’s other works, Small Change (1976) is devoted to cataloguing these magically fresh exploratory acts and gestures.
Made in collaboration with the people of Thiers, a steep-sloped town in central France, Small Change was shot over a two-month school break during the summer of ’75. Truffaut’s workshop approach to filming a group of child nonactors brings to mind Laurent Cantet’s recent film The Class (2008), but unlike that timely docudrama on classroom politics, Truffaut’s film is an ode to the peculiar delicacy and resilience of youth.
Near the end of Small Change, a teacher named Richet (Jean-François Stévenin) lectures his pupils: “Things balance out in an odd way, so people who have had a difficult youth are often better equipped to confront adult life than people who have been overprotected or very loved.” He’s referring to Julien Leclou (Philippe Goldmann), a student who lives with his abusive mother in a ramshackle house on the edge of town. But Julien also embodies a neglected-youth archetype that’s prominent in Truffaut’s oeuvre—most notably in the person of Antoine Doinel, hero of The 400 Blows (1959) and subsequent autobiographical follow-ups, and in The Wild Child, the 1969 film in which the director cast himself as a teacher bent on humanely socializing a boy who’s been raised by wolves.
Julien’s happier counterpart in Small Change is Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux), who lives with his disabled father but otherwise navigates the rules-filled world of adults the way most children do: counting down the school day’s final seconds, going to the movies with friends, washing the neighbor’s car for pocket money, and experiencing his first kiss—in an amusing fashion that, incidentally, is based on an encounter Truffaut had at summer camp.
Truffaut observed that “nothing is small when it comes to childhood.” But a scene in which a toddler tumbles out a high window and then somewhat surreally picks himself up as though nothing has happened demonstrates that, at the same time, the world is more than a minefield: “They knock themselves against life,” a young mother notes, “but they are in a state of grace, and they have tough skin.”
Small Change runs November 25–December 1 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here. The film will also screen on November 24 as part of the French Institute’s “François Truffaut: A Winter Portrait” film series. For more details, click here.
John Hillcoat, The Road, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Production still.
THE PERFORMANCES MATCH THE LANDSCAPE: devastated and raw, deliberately unrefined. In The Road, we walk alongside an exhausted father and son as they traverse a gray, vaguely familiar hellscape. The father is prone to emotional outbursts, the young boy is still struggling to comprehend his own emotional capacity; yet together, in the shadows of a world where gangs seek victims who can serve as both prison labor and food, these two final members of a devastated family struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy. When they come across a full can of Coca-Cola, the father (a scruffy Viggo Mortensen) gives it to the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who self-consciously sips as Dad scans his face. It’s a forced family-album moment—poignant in its artificiality.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, honored by two incongruous authorities—the Pulitzer Prizes and Oprah Winfrey—is notable for its bleak minimalism. McCarthy asks us to follow the travails of two characters through a hopeless, despairing marathon. Locating the fortitude to brave this nothingness is the point of the story, as a parent tries to shield his offspring from the harsh realities of a nuclear winter, protecting him at night, nursing him through illness, assuring the young one that better times are on the horizon—at “the coast.”
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition ) has molded a vision that is every bit as bleak and bare as the book’s. Hillcoat resists the quickened dialogic and emotional pace of other Hollywood films and thus remains faithful to McCarthy’s quiet terrors and futile hope. Mortensen and McPhee walk and walk, rummaging for food when they’re not skirting violent gangs. The camera hovers close, and we come to see in their eyes, faces, and bodies what McCarthy was able to describe in his precise prose: an epic vision of parenting, a story that reveals the human need to nurture and protect loved ones. Mortensen carries the emotional load, as an everyman who connects with primal instincts when a stranger threatens to kill his son. McPhee, as the boy, creates a convincing, terrified tween, with a performance so raw and jagged that it might initially read as simply unprofessional; but here his unsteadiness is not a flaw but an attribute. These are two humans out of their element, two actors dwarfed by their surroundings (Chris Kennedy’s production design evinces a compelling no-man’s-land), and this is a family struggling to hold on to something real even after its reality has been obliterated.
The Road opens November 25.
RIVERS HAVE no poetic power anymore, German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg tells us in David Barison and Daniel Ross’s 2004 documentary The Ister (now available on DVD). They have lost their mythic resonance and become part of the “machine” of “daily life.” These days, Syberberg asserts, nobody would create a major work of art about a river, the way Richard Wagner or Friedrich Hölderlin did. Syberberg’s musings appear at the very conclusion of Barison and Ross’s three-hour philosophical voyage. The film traces the Danube’s full course, from the Black Sea all the way to its source in southern Germany. Part rhapsodic journey replete with moments of great beauty, part tedious educational program rife with digressions on politics and history, it is not the great work of art that would prove Syberberg wrong. But it is certainly an original undertaking: a cinematic collage that turns on Hölderlin’s epic “river hymn,” The Ister (from “Istros,” the ancient Greek term for the Danube), and, more pointedly, on Martin Heidegger’s famous reading of it.
In Heideggerian thought, great poetry does not merely locate or interpret truth—it produces truth, bringing new verities into the world. “A properly unique beginning thus lies in whatever is said poetically,” said Heidegger in a series of lectures on Hölderlin delivered at Freiburg University in 1942. For Heidegger, the beginning that Hölderlin’s poetry points toward is also an end—the end of Western “metaphysics” and its progressive forgetfulness of Being, initiated by Plato and reaching its completion in technological modernity. What Hölderlin offers, then, is a glimpse of a world at once ancient and yet to come, in which Being as an unmediated process of “presencing” may yet be attained. This is a world far from the Freiburg of 1942, or so it would seem to us—but perhaps not to Heidegger, who joined the National Socialist party in 1933 (and became rector of the university the same year).
In addition to Syberberg, three leading French philosophers—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Bernard Stiegler, all of whom have studied Heidegger’s philosophy and confronted his politics—help Barison and Ross navigate their serpentine geographical and conceptual course. Excerpts from interviews with these four men are interspersed with shots of riverscapes—some sublime and bucolic, some postindustrial and polluted—and points of interest along the route: residents of Vokovar, Croatia, marching in remembrance of the Serb’s 1991 attack on their city; May Day celebrations in Hungary; Walhalla, King Ludwig I’s monument to Germanic greatness; the empty, debris-strewn lecture hall at Freiburg. Intertitles proffer quotes from Heidegger and Hölderlin and short histories of the various locales.
Stiegler, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe discourse on matters political, metaphysical, mythological, poetic, technological, and ecological, intermittently returning to Heidegger and the intractable fact of his Nazi affiliation. In one sequence in the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Lacoue-Labarthe quotes the most scandalous of Heidegger’s postwar remarks: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”
“I don’t want to stupidly accuse Heidegger of having been a Nazi,” Lacoue-Labarthe says, as if that would be too vulgar—an odd statement, since Heidegger was a Nazi. We know that for a fact, though we have yet to answer the great question: How could such a major philosophical mind be attracted to this kind of nationalist ideology? The film does not purport to solve the conundrum, but it does raise the interesting hypothesis that Heidegger’s delusions had to do with an understanding of the German nation and its language that was, in fact, metaphysical. Heideggerian thinking has its own geography, as does the poetic universe of Hölderlin, and these territories overlap: As Lacoue-Labarthe points out, the history of the West for both of them was primarily a Greek-German affair. In such an imaginary universe, a river springing up in the Black Forest is not just a waterway but a mysterious metaphysical power: “What that one does, that river / No one knows.”
Perhaps this accounts for the fact that it is not until we reach the Black Forest—real Heidegger country—and Syberberg appears, dressed in white like a latter-day Kurtz, that things get truly exciting. The creator of the magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) dilates on the “new Germany,” which he calls a “weak and friendly” place. Something has been lost, he suggests: The glory of Germany, the most spiritual of nations, is gone; gone is Hölderlin, gone is Heidegger. If you live in this weak, friendly nation, as I do, you’re especially susceptible to artists like Syberberg—artists who open the door to a world we thought no longer existed, a world of myths and heroic poetry. Syberberg’s art has always tapped into these archaic energies, although on the surface it critiques the irrationalism such energies produce when unleashed. His dangerously attractive soliloquy seems a necessary finale, reminding us that The Ister’s true subject is not the physical river but the metaphysical geography that has been evoked by poets and thinkers to devastating and barbaric effect. Although Syberberg is fully aware of this, he can’t help playing with fire. He is a mild and sophisticated man, someone I would love to get to know. Behind him, the forest whispers: “The horror, the horror.”
This article originally ran in the Summer 2005 issue of Artforum. The Ister is now available on DVD from Icarus Films. For more details, click here.
Lee Yoon-ki, My Dear Enemy, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes.
SOUTH KOREAN DIRECTOR Hong Sang-soo’s films haven’t yet attained steady American distribution, but they have had an impact on younger Korean filmmakers. Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008) is perhaps the first prominent Hong-influenced film to reach stateside screens, and it actually shows more of a flair for light comedy than Hong himself achieved in his latest film, Like You Know It All (2009).
Lee has a gift for visual style, but he wears this virtuosity casually. The Steadicam Cinemascope shots that kick off My Dear Enemy make clear that the film will be something beyond the humdrum or prosaic. By contrast, the narrative is more sedate than Lee’s direction—in fact, it sometimes suggests a sitcom pilot. After being met at the racetrack by his ex-girlfriend Hee-su (Jeon De-yeon), Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo) looks up other former lovers for loans to pay back a twenty-six-hundred-dollar debt to her. The entire film takes place over the course of a day.
My Dear Enemy often threatens to turn into a conventional romantic comedy, but it ends up flirting with such bromides rather than indulging them. The jazzy score suggests Woody Allen, but the pissy tone brings to mind Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985)—as well as Larry David’s television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–). The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic: Byeong-woon is an overgrown adolescent who hatches big plans that will never come to pass, while Hee-su sublimates her feelings beneath an icy facade. The two lead actors generate something akin to antichemistry. If there ever existed sexual desire (or even tension) between the two, that day has long passed. While Lee borrows from Hong and other Asian filmmakers (particularly Hou Hsiao-hsien), his sensibility also stems from an openness to more mainstream inspirations. My Dear Enemy successfully dodges the tropes of much “festival cinema,” which now threaten to become clichés.
My Dear Enemy plays at the Museum of Modern Art in New York November 20–27. For more details, click here.
WHILE MOST FESTIVALS rush to trumpet the abundance of premieres in their lineups, the Viennale, a two-week cinephile’s delight that concluded last Wednesday, prides itself on a discerning mix of old and new. In fact, the sheer range of its retrospective programming tells you all you need to know about this ambitious, eclectic festival. This year’s edition featured a ten-film retro of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka, handpicked by his younger compatriots, including Khavn de la Cruz and Raya Martin. A parallel retrospective at the Austrian Filmmuseum, titled “The Unquiet American” and curated by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, found examples of the boisterous American character in a broad sample of “transgressive” comedies, from the freewheeling Victor Fleming–Douglas Fairbanks adventure When the Clouds Roll By (1919) to Mike Judge’s dystopian satire of butt-headedness, Idiocracy (2006).
Even the actor tributes have a whiff of the unexpected. This year’s spotlights fell on Timothy Carey, late character-mugger extraordinaire (Paths of Glory ) and director of the underground classic The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), and Tilda Swinton, represented by her Hollywood present (Michael Clayton ), her British past (various Jarmans, of course, but also rarities like Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death  and John Maybury’s Man to Man ), and her idea of a great performance: the title role in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). (“You can project yourself onto that donkey,” she explained in the program note.)
In keeping with the rich local avant-garde tradition, the Viennale has long been a prominent showcase for experimental cinema. This year’s slate featured new work by festival regular Jean-Marie Straub (Corneille-Brecht, a world premiere, directed with Cornelia Geiser), Ben Russell’s psychedelic “Trypps” series, and a program of old and new shorts by bargain-basement innovators George and Mike Kuchar (as well as a new documentary about the brothers, Jennifer Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar). The festival trailer itself is a stand-alone experimental short and a big-name commission to boot (past contributors: Stan Brakhage, Agnès Varda, and, last year, Jean-Luc Godard). This year’s, a remarkable miniature from James Benning called Fire & Rain (after James Taylor), reduces an industrial steel-rolling process to a kind of elemental equation: a stream of molten steel, a spray of water, a cloud of steam. (It’s an outtake from Benning’s latest—and first digital—work, Ruhr, which just premiered at the Duisburg Film Week.)
James Benning, Fire & Rain, 2009. Trailer for the 2009 Viennale.
An event as convivial and well attended as the Viennale gives the lie to the pseudo-populist contention that a rigorous festival is necessarily audience-unfriendly—ticket sales were up this year, and many screenings were sold out or close to capacity. The main slate sweeps up many of the year’s best movies, never mind that they had premiered in Cannes (João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man) or Berlin (Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax). With curatorial taste much more a factor than competitions and red-carpet bait, it’s the kind of festival that offers a clear perspective on the most significant movements in contemporary world cinema. For one thing, Chinese independent film—and especially Chinese independent documentary—retains its capacity to surprise. Yu Guangyi’s video doc Survival Song (2008), which won a prize from the critics’ jury (on which I served), tells the story of a new-China casualty: a forest ranger, displaced by the construction of a new reservoir, turns to the hard work of hunting and herding.
The changing nature of work and a vanishing way of life are also the themes of Agrarian Utopia (2009), by the Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad. The son of farmers, Uruphong left the Bangkok film industry and returned to his childhood village to make his serenely mournful first film, Stories from the North (2006). Agrarian Utopia, about two rural families working the same rice paddy, is even lovelier, with its golden fields and time-lapse skies, but also more tough-minded in its assessment of the economic and political realities that make its title deeply ironic.
Utopia looks like a documentary but is in fact scripted, shot on a rented plot, and cast with nonprofessionals (playing roles not too different from their real lives). This blurring of narrative and documentary has become an increasingly common—and productive—mode, evident in the films of Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and others. Another case in point: The Anchorage (2009), the first feature by C. W. Winter and Anders Edström (and a prizewinner at the Locarno International Film Festival this year). A meditative, enigmatic portrait of a middle-aged woman who lives alone on a remote Baltic island, it sometimes brings to mind Jeanne Dielman—we are, after all, observing a woman’s everyday life, acutely aware of her environment, the passage of time, and the smallest variations in her routine. (She’s played by Ulla Edström, the codirector’s mother, who lives part of the year on the island.) But The Anchorage is more insistent in its minimalism than Akerman (or Ozu, whose pillow shots are another reference point). There’s no plot to speak of, save for the eerie occasional appearance of a passing hunter. A film that forces and rewards close attention (which means not just watching but also, given the intricate sound recording and design, listening), it’s proof that you can make something, if not from nothing, then certainly from the in-between.