Alonso Ascends the Staircase By Robert Koehler

in 59th Cannes Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

On paper, Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma sounds impossible, even foolhardy, and just possibly hopelessly self-obsessed. A tiny group—including Argentino Vargas and Misael Saavedra, the primary actors of, respectively, Alonso’s first two features, Los muertos and La libertad—arrive at Buenos Aires’ San Martin cultural center to see a screening in the center’s upstairs Leopoldo Lugones cinema of… Los muertos. They arrive at the San Martin just fine; it’s getting to the Lugones—by defective elevator, by staircase, by luck—that gets them lost. Will they get to the screening on time? This kind of summary serves up nothing but worries, especially for the future of this extraordinarily gifted and defiantly unconventional young Argentine filmmaker, suggesting that he may be running low on ideas, or simply making an imitation of Tsai Ming-liang’s lost-in-the-movie funhouse, Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

This points to a syndrome that critics are all too wont to be trapped in—one I will address in a moment—but, more specifically for Alonso, it also highlights the risks inherent in his cinema of deliberately minimal narrative. It would be one thing if Alonso eschewed narrative altogether, and adhered to a cinema purely of sound and image. It would be another if he practiced the old storytelling ways of linearity, cause and effect, character development and the rest. But, as La libertad and Los muertos emphatically demonstrate, he does neither. His woodcutter in La libertad and his released ex-con in Los muertos are both identifiably poor men who share defined missions (cuts and sells wood, returns home from prison) as well as a constantly intimate relationship with nature. Their quietude with their surroundings is our quietude as well: Rather than tell the viewer the psychological or fundamental facts involving both men, Alonso allows realization to gradually dawn as we watch and listen to what the men do (which is more important than what they say).

The neither-story/neither-non-story paradigm that Alonso practices is hardly his alone, of course; one could argue that Tsai, among others, has been working this ground for awhile, and just as firmly argue that it’s been the most interesting direction in international film for the past decade. But, like any venture into the new, it can lead to dead-ends. The path between narrative and non-narrative is rich with possibility and fraught with hazard, since it can tempt trickery, a vacuous sensibility or, worse, self-parody. Is Fantasma Alonso’s fatal temptation?

No. By removing his favorite actors—who, in an irony, aren’t really actors at all—from their natural setting and placing them in the very heart of Buenos Aires’ sophisticated cinephilic culture, he discovers comedy. Like Harold Lloyd navigating his way through a strange college setting in The Freshman, Vargas and Saavedra (particularly Vargas) are everyday men way over their heads in a world they never made. Besides, Alonso isn’t making this up: As any visitor knows, getting to the Lugones, several floors above the San Martin lobby, actually takes considerable effort, with hallways leading in all sorts of useless directions and elevators barely working on the best of days.

More impressively, Alonso finds witty metaphor in a grounded reality. It is not only that he wants to have some fun with the idea of working-class men of the earth pulled off their moorings in the big city. He’s also making some jokes at his own expense, not least of which is that the image of three folks who actually do sit down in the Lugones to see Los muertos isn’t far from a typical turnout when the film had its commercial run in the same theater. The life of the renegade filmmaker is clearly not easy. For many Argentines, in fact, Los muertos is that legendary film: The one they’ve all heard about, but never actually seen.

It would be wrong, though, to presume that Alonso is reworking the haggard “death-of-cinema” theme. The image of Los muertos on screen is given some considerable weight here; it’s first seen as an insert of the film itself, and later as a shot filming the Lugones screen with the projected image. No one bolts from the screening: All stay until the end, and a woman goes out of her way to enthusiastically congratulate Vargas on the film and his performance. If anything, Fantasma has shown an adventure involving cinema-goers doing everything they can to get to their movie on time.

Having ascended the staircase and left the jungle of his previous two films, Alonso nevertheless remains remarkably true to his guiding aesthetic principles of plan-sequence (he is without question the most radically Bazinian of all younger filmmakers), observing people through physical behavior, allowing every moment to play out in front of the camera, a denial of intrusive montage and a fanatically precise eye for composition and depth-of-field. And he sticks to these principles—in an avowedly transitional film, or, as he has termed it, his 1/2 film before Liverpool, his new big project set in the icy extremes of Argentina’s south—with a wink in his eye and a smile.

So much for assumptions “on paper.” The danger for a critic receiving too much information about a film before seeing it is that the film can play out in the critic’s head before it plays out in front of his or her eyes. And we’re not talking about mere data; it may be enough to know the stars or the genre to jump to conclusions. (Who doesn’t do this with every teen comedy churned out by Hollywood studios?) This same syndrome operates, with a twist, when it comes to auteur films; both the assumption that the auteur will (and, it’s assumed, should) stick with his or her well-known ways, and the converse assumption that if the auteur doesn’t grow (meaning, change from previous patterns), then trouble is brewing.

This short-circuits the critic’s hard, necessary work of genuinely watching what’s actually on screen, and drawing conclusions from this, rather than the pre-movie-movie that may have been spinning in the mind before the lights went down. What’s easy is to fit a movie in a box, exactly as the rest of the entertainment media and the promotional machine behind the movies would have us do. Even with a film by Alonso, possibly the last artist this machine cares about.