Ride Lonesome: The Films of Lisandro Alonso (TIFF Cinemateque)

November 27 - December 1

“I’m interested in the world of prisoners.” – Lisandro Alonso

“The slow-moving minimalism of new Argentine cinema finds its poet and master in Lisandro Alonso.” – Deborah Young, Variety

Lisandro Alonso established his themes and method with La Libertad (2001), a slip of a film shot in nine days for very little money, which chronicles a single day in the life of Misael Saavedra, a young woodcutter Alonso met on his father’s farm. (The incongruous, semi-ominous thrash of techno percussion accompanying the credits would become an Alonso trademark, as would the subsequent avoidance of non-diegetic music.) So matter-of-fact and uninflected is Libertad’s recording of Misael’s daily routines, faithfully recreated from weeks of Alonso’s close observation of his actual life and edited so that several sequences seem to adhere as real time, that the film has been hailed as the apotheosis of Bazinian realism. Spare in dialogue – the first, a simple salutation, comes as a shock almost 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 of the boundary between fiction and documentary being 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.

If Lucrecia Martel is the Chekhov of the so-called New Argentine Cinema, there’s a touch of Tolstoy in Alonso’s portrait of this country peasant. Simple, authentic, uncorrupted, Misael is, unlike Alonso’s subsequent protagonists, gregarious in his solitude, which seems less innate than imposed by circumstance. By comparison, Argentino Vargas, the fifty-four-year-old principal of Alonso’s next film, Los Muertos (2004), appears pathologically opaque, his reticence and detachment a 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.

Like Misael in Libertad, Vargas is a non-actor whose character carries his real-life name, but whose being is subsumed more intensely and intensively into Alonso’s fiction. 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. (All of Alonso’s films feature protracted scenes of men eating by themselves, social ritual transformed into its opposite.) The film’s incidental religious-mythological associations aside – a shot of Vargas’ head in frame with a devotional in the police station; Vargas carrying bread and wine to a couple called Maria 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.

Duration is of prime importance to the economical Alonso, who is sparing with both edits and running time. (The Average Shot Lengths of his work must run extraordinarily high; note also the shorn simplicity of the films’ titles.) 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 theatre to watch, for the first time, the film he starred in. Though set within the confines of a cultural centre and its cinema, Fantasma is no less a film of landscape than the previous two. Like the pampas of La Libertad and jungle of Los Muertos, the labyrinthine interior becomes Fantasma’s second character: as much as the camera lingers on a now gaunter Vargas, in from the wild and uneasier than ever, Fantasma makes setting its preoccupation.

Stealthily shot in slow dollies, pans, and tracks, Fantasma has been both dismissed as insular or narcissistic (one of the other characters transiting the building is none other than Misael Saavedra) and justified as an experiment or etude. 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 lone through an adverse landscape only to arrive where he departed: “I’m off,” Farrel mutters as he escapes the place to which he has laboriously journeyed.

Even as Liverpool’s 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 towards 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 buzzsaw 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, colour, 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 Maria’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 culminate in the walls of the bedroom in which Farrel’s mother sleeps away her final days, which look like incarnadine imports from the villa in Cries and Whispers.

Liverpool explores Alonso’s signature theme of sole men on a journey, reticent men of obscure emotion and motive traveling through an isolated landscape, unchanged by their encounters with others. 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 and wary of connection; they make small talk but withdraw at any demand of divulgence. They evade – “That’s all in the past; I’ve already forgotten,” 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 after such a long absence), but whether they are unable or merely unwilling to answer remains moot.

– James Quandt

Please note that this introduction is a condensed, edited version of an article which appeared in Artforum Magazine in November 2008. The full version of the essay will be available online at Artforum.com.

TIFF Cinematheque would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance in the preparation of the Alonso & Martel retrospectives: Haden Guest, Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge; Marcus Hu, Strand Releasing, Culver City, CA; and Adam Sekuler, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle. The North American tour of Liverpool has been arranged Adam Sekuler. We thank Anne Götze, Match Factory, for her assistance.

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