The Perilous Allure of the Obscure

in 22nd Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI)

by José Antonio Teodoro

We know this designation, those of us of a certain vintage. Direct-to-video meant insufficient star-power, insufficient production value, insufficient marketability to justify theatrical release and the myriad expenses involved: prints, shipping, advertising, and so on. Direct-to-video might also simply mean insufficiently good, especially if “good” was measured on the spectra of bourgeois taste or the demands of spectacle-hungry teenagers. But as with every designation that on the surface looks like denigration, direct-to-video, as in direct-to-VHS and, somewhat later, DVD, was also an opportunity: low to mid-budget erotic thrillers, martial arts movies and horror movies thrived in the direct-to-video market, providing entertainment for shut-ins and suburban psychotronic cinephiles to watch, re-watch and, in those pre-internet days, raise to cult status through video clubs, tape swaps and niche magazines. Direct-to-video became a refuge from middle-brow acceptability.

The advent of the direct-to-video release also presented an opportunity for a new kind of micro-budget auteur, the sort of single-minded outsider artist who only ever felt alienated by institutional gatekeepers anyway. I’m talking about artists like Manuel Lamas. I hadn’t heard of him either. In the late 1980s, Lamas made a movie called Acto de violencia en una joven periodista. Its title alone, which roughly translates as Act of Violence in a Young Journalist, is gloriously unruly. The movie was always destined for VHS. In fact, it was shot and edited on VHS, a rarified format. (Rarified because it looks like shit and visibly degrades with every transfer.) It’s a movie that draws you in with the audacity of its ambitions and its absolute failure to meet those ambitions, at least in any conventional sense. As decades passed Acto de violencia earned a cadre of devotees in Lamas’ native Uruguay and neighbouring Argentina, while Lamas himself seemed to evanesce into obscurity, along with the VHS tape.

In the first part of Straight to VHS (Directamente para video, 2021), the feature debut of Uruguayan writer-director Emilio Silva Torres—who was, not incidentally, born the same year Acto de violencia was released—a number of filmmakers and movie nerds, among them actor-director Daniel Hendler, testify their love for Lamas’ ramshackle “thriller/documentary/rom-com/supernatural drama,” with its clumsy camera placement, awkward performances and overburdened plot, its flourishes of accidental avant-gardism. Silva Torres’ film, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at BAFICI 2021, initially comes across as an amiable documentary celebration of offbeat cinephilia. It’s only in the film’s second, longer section that Straight to VHS proves to be about something else altogether. It’s not really a documentary about cult movies. It’s not even really a documentary. What Silva Torres has created, with considerable grace, craft, imagination and investigative rigour, is a study in obsession—his own—an obsession fuelled, like all obsessions, by elusiveness: resolution is always tantalizingly out of reach.  

An editing suite surrounded by darkness, a phone booth in the middle of a forest, an intersection in Ushuaia: Silva Torres takes us to a number of strange locations while following an ostensibly straightforward pilgrimage. He makes appointments to meet with Acto de violencia’s actors, only to have those actors abruptly end their correspondence. He makes contact with a handful of people who knew Lamas and describe him as alternately charismatic, manipulative, eccentric, heroic, misogynistic. One especially memorable interview subject claims that Lamas saved him from the depths of despair. Lamas becomes a phantom, his monstrous qualities begin to overshadow his more appealing ones, but Silva Torres cannot let go of his quest to somehow know Lamas. With its echoes of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), not to mention several novels and stories by Roberto Bolaño, there is a point in Straight to VHS where Silva Torres seems to slip into a labyrinth of his own devise. It’s an elegantly sculpted journey that I’ll refrain from describing further, since surprise has been so carefully built into the film’s structure. I hope Silva Torres recovers from his chilling misadventure. I’m eager to see what he’ll do next.

José Teodoro