Bear's Film Journal

Words and images with a focus on cinema.

A Decade with Lisandro Alonso

Nature, birds, sunlight; one man transforms his earthly environment. In Lisandro Alonso’s début film, La libertad, we do not learn the face of our lumberjack protagonist until he takes a moment to defecate in the long grass. Throughout the morning he strolls aimlessly, as at home among the trees as he is out of place. His technique is haphazard, yet he continues on with a definite purpose and aura of contentment. The camera glides as it needs to while keeping a polite distance, neither diving in too intimately nor isolating with empty space. As the viewer I sit under a tree and relax, silently watching the lumberjack work as time passes by. Subconsciously I follow his movements. It is a simpler act than analysis; this is stimulation by existence, a rhythmic massaging of sensory routine. The lumberjack appears neither abnormal nor exceptional. There is nothing of particular interest to be observed, for instead the intrigue comes in that his life is not mine. He smokes, he eats, he drinks, he even listens to the radio, yet he is not a part of any society that I know. However, the film is not entirely anchored to this man. The camera is always free to spiral away and find other items of curiosity. By doing this it draws a connection between the lumberjack and his surroundings. The camera is as alive as the viewer. We are not in control of it, and we need not be, for there are no distractions to complicate its decision making. By constantly moving it throws a rope wide around this small piece of the world, and then slowly tightens, pulling everything it reaches together. La libertad is not a slow film, but rather one that avoids drama. Through the absence of a narrative trajectory it comes much closer to a pure experience. This is not to say that the lumberjack never finds confrontation, only that it subverts impact by not becoming the focus. He is going through the motions, with his family, his job, his life. It is all different, yet so similar. There is an evasion of static framing, for despite the placidity there is no implication of stagnancy. The lumberjack is living, and we come alive by mimicking him. After spending a day together night falls and the rain begins. I can only assume the cycle continues.

Alonso’s second film, Los muertos, begins in much the same fashion as his first. The twirling camera, the abundance of nature, the bird noises, but this time around it is all darker. The sunlight is blocked and there are bloody bodies on the ground. Everything is out of focus and the atmosphere is one of dread. We move inside and find that this time our protagonist, Vargas, is part of a society. He is in prison, which presents quite a shift from the ‘freedom’ awarded through the expansive forest in La libertad. The contrast is clear, yet the similarities are also plentiful. Both lives are slow and full of routine. Vargas is released and, fittingly, heads towards the jungle, the endless green escape. His family ties are prevalent, with the focus resting on his search for his daughter. This is a much dirtier film, in both feeling and content, although Alonso’s approach remains consistent, with the same medium distance, drifting framing and calm editing. Despite his questionable past, Vargas is far more amiable and outgoing than the lumberjack. He sets off in a canoe and as he rows I feel the built up stress evaporate from my head. Back among the peaceful trees man and nature are free to work on each other in a harmonious exchange. Vargas drifts further down the river as we ease into its tempo. There is an honesty to be felt in the portrayal of his journey. Nature is very evocative, particularly when given such space to breathe and swell. It is the use of the river that takes Los muertos to a higher echelon of meditation than La libertad was able to achieve. As we witness the killing and gutting of a goat, it is emphasized no more than the rowing of the canoe. It is just another part of life, of the world, of this journey. With this I am reminded of the opening scene, of the dread. Animals are shown being killed in each of Alonso’s films, like darkness bubbling to the surface. Los muertos ends abruptly; it is not circular, but rather unsettling.

The rock music that plays during the opening of Alonso’s third film, Fantasma, suggests that he may be going in a different direction with this feature. Gone are the earthly connections of the trees and the river, replaced instead with the cold interior of a building. Still, the aesthetic approach remains true to its predecessors, and thematically it stabs once more at the heart of the wandering man. This modern societal context is now familiar to me. More than ever we are invited to move with the camera, as if just below the frame extend two possessed legs that carry us. There is grave evocation of alienation and detachment in the way Argentino Vargas moves and examines his surroundings, as he passes the time before attending the première of Alonso’s Los muertos, in which he is the star. Humanity appears to become even more segregated and alone the closer it is forced together through built up cities and formalised events. The sounds, which are prominent in all of Alonso’s works, have changed. The ambient hum is now of city life and the birds have been replaced with mechanical chattering. Straight lines define the interior visual space. It has a sterile consistency to it, a callousness that diverges greatly from the sporadic and innocent construction of nature. Now the focus has shifted away from the people themselves and onto the wavering tension between them and their environment. We enter the empty cinema and view Alonso’s previous film. As clever, maybe cheeky, as this is, it does not to me entail any pretension on the part of the director. The valuable exploration lies outside of this meta-injection and inside the people who float about this world as forlorn spirits. As a film lover there is a certain mystical appeal in absorbing a screening second-hand through a lens. It generates a profoundly shared yet jarring experience. Coupled with this is the palpable disconnection between the characters and their surroundings, where even direct interactions are stilted by mute confusion. They do no better talking between themselves than they do operating an elevator.

In a bizarre step, Alonso’s forth and most recent release, Liverpool, begins with two characters utilizing technology efficiently. Each of his films so far has increased the complexity of its world in this direction. Once again the interior framing is built around harsh lines, but the style is now more textured, detailed and considered. The medium distance camera still tracks and tracks, one shot after another. It does not matter which scenario we are placed in, as the act of observation remains unchanged. Being now on a boat separates the handful of men from the bustling city backdrop that rumbled just outside the windows in Fantasma. Here they are surrounded by the ocean and free to move from interior to exterior with ease. It does not feel as closed off as the deep cold stairwells and oversized empty rooms in the cinema complex. Without delay we recognize that the aimlessness of man continues out at sea, because despite the limited room to meander, the space to think is unlimited. The sailor Farrel leaves the ship, almost silently and without personable interaction. He marches alone into the cold winter night. His jungle is made of concrete and covered in snow. For the first time as a director Alonso takes us onto a city street and then into a restaurant. It is nothing special. Even a brief interlude to a strip club does not interrupt the pensive style that he has refined over his previous three films. The wandering man is an intimate personification; his struggle is deeply internal and is explored via the world that he passes through. We travel on the back of a truck, which is a defining, characteristic scene for Alonso. It is a provocative mode of transportation; to be so vigilant of the area yet without control of the destination, having no choice but to go along for the ride. It speaks volumes about the lives of Alonso’s subjects. You can sense the fear in Farrel’s bleak search for meaning, with its various detours and long bouts of inactivity. The deeply rooted connection between man and nature has never been as clear as when put against the majestic snowy landscapes. Still, everything feels so empty, and this is reinforced through the reflection on past and family, two things that Alonso is recurrently interested in. As Farrel walks slowly into the foreboding distance the human soul continues its steady self-destruction. The symbolism of the title, Liverpool, is particularly potent, and tops off a decade’s worth of cinematic searching that has only increased its own belief in hopeless solitude.

Nárcisz és Psyché (Gábor Bódy, 1980)

There are several cuts of this film, ranging in length from 140 to 261 minutes. I will be discussing the latter, full length version. It is an adaptation of acclaimed Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres’ 1972 novel Psyché, a work comprising an anthology of poems written from the perspective of a fictional woman. Beginning in the early 1800s, it spans over a century, concluding in the 1920s. The protagonist of the film is Psyché herself, and she remains our personal point of contact throughout this ambitious saga, acting as the one recognizable tying point between scattered events. This sweeping tale all begins with a humble voice-over that retells the convoluted story of her childhood, bringing an early context to a narrative that continuously grows and expands upon itself to an ever increasing degree of obscurity. Shuffled between gypsies and violinists, Psyché developed a unique, rebellious personality, clashing disastrously with the times she was living in. Her character derives from Greek mythology, as does her love interest, Nárcisz, played by Udo Kier. They are both eternally youthful, and their paths frequently intertwine in a tragic romance, as if drawn together by fate across all barriers of time and space. Psyché is a very sexual young being; lust radiates from her, attracting all those that she comes in contact with. For this she is cursed, persistently punished and mistreated. She is her own burden, and it is through this private struggle against hardship that we accompany her into a world which shifts and re-imagines itself over and over, just as often as her life dramatically changes and hurtles her into unfamiliar circumstances. Despite this never ending turbulence, she remains loyal to her individuality and outspokenness. Her eyes shape our exploration of Bódy’s epic creation.

Silence trailed by noise; tranquillity followed by movement. This is the rhythm of all living things, with it eventually finding a balance. Editing is of unparalleled importance, bridging together a narrative of loose causality through remote exposition and surreal imagery; the atmosphere is that of a floating dream. One moment we are among the rich at a lavish party, the next our protagonist is stripped of it all, walking haplessly along a dirt road, spouting vulgarities. Passionate, expressionistic passages constructed through layered images capture a fevered detachment from reality and present grand illustrations of desire. Bódy’s camera is often distant, stagnant, but always finding unique angles from which to come at the action, provoking a fantastic curiosity. It is this curiosity which has landed Psyché in trouble so consistently, as she is always inquisitive and willing to involve herself, even in the face of opposition. The sex scenes, of which there are many, often feel whimsical and heavenly, yet dirty at the same time. Captured in these excursions is an exploration into the nature of pleasure and sickness, health and disease. Rodents surround the act of intercourse, symbolising the transmission of illness. Later it becomes kittens, perhaps softening, even resolving this notion. By this point, however, the characters have already gone through so much torture at the hands of human frailty and the brutality of medicine, which is depicted as a gruesome but necessary part of life. The film’s overall aesthetic is one of great versatility, and relies heavily on a distinctive lighting style which casts much of the frame into darkness, highlighting just the subjects of interest. This creates a theatrical sensation, adding to the larger-than-life mythology which sits permanently atop the film. The story is so infused with energy and franticness; it propels itself with such a massive scope, yet remains driven at heart by the personal issues of Psyché, and her many tribulations with her own femininity.

Packed full of philosophical depth and substance, together the characters and the narrative explore a breadth of thematic territory, which is compulsively stimulating and equally confounding. There is a strong link to poetry to be found in the dialogue, structure and imagery. On the surface this is often harsh, even critical. However, on deeper inspection it blends into pure fantasy, becoming an elevation of imagination through lyrical creativity, leaving behind the earth and all its mortal binds. There is an articulate concern with the segregated aspects of love and sexuality, especially for women, and ponderings on how both purity and impurity find their place in art. Psyché is distinctive in that she is able to traverse the rigid social ladder with ease, experiencing all degrees of the spectrum over many decades. Harnessing this is what allows the film to explore so many aspects of civilisation, across countless locations, while always maintaining for the viewer an intimate voyage. As characters discuss the symbolism of man, woman and nature, it becomes apparent that Bódy has been exploring this already, without the need to pontificate openly on the matter. As we near the end of the narrative, Nárcisz transforms into a far more complex character, achieving an almost divine level of enlightenment. His every word is laced with questioning significance. He has finally attained a position of some power, in many ways inversely mirroring Psyche’s journey. He seeks to immortalise himself through art, believing that to be the antidote to his weakness. As all of this transpires there is, lurking in the background, an electronic system of mysterious design. Its purpose is unclear, even frightening; it seems unrelated to the main storyline, but thought provoking nevertheless. Nárcisz és Psyché is a mesmerizing work, full of striking colourations, glimpses into complex psychology, deep commentary on the essence of living, and a dramatic scale filtered down through one wilful young woman who experiences it all. It is such a pity there is not a better transfer available.