The Argentine army is trying to conquer the Pampas away from indigenous people. But their soldiers keep deserting because the other side, including not only indigenous peoples but deserters, misfits and criminals of all kinds, will provide a woman for every soldier that joins them; and that in a nutshell is why I imagine this film will be of great interest to feminists.
Initially, women in Savage Pampas are merely a mode of exchange amongst men; they have no say; and their bodies are offered up by men for men to rape in exchange for men providing military service. As the film unfolds, this becomes more subtle as the army proper also brings in women to service these soldiers. But these are professional prostitutes who expect to make a fortune before returning back to Buenos Aires in a few years. These ‘bad’ girls, given some – not too much – depth by being depicted as having smarts, warmth, and humour, stereotypical traits in movie prostitutes, are also in turn contrasted with two ‘good’ girls; one who has also been sent to the Pampas for not revealing the whereabouts of her brother, a political dissident; and the other an indigenous woman, distinguished by her loyalty, freedom and honour. There’s even, in a brief role, a nun. To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, women in the Western matter not in themselves but in what they structurally represent and symbolise. In American Westerns, ‘civilisation’; the coming of church and schools to the West; here, merely money and sexual release. Even when the old madam is found a husband it’s purely as a form of exchange.
What really distinguishes this film, particularly in this beautiful restoration from Busch Media group, is how it looks and moves; and this is due to Hugo Fregonese’s superb direction. There is terrific use of landscape, in elegant compositions, that permit, people, horses, groups to move fluidly.
low camera in action
depth of compositions
disribution of composition so everything can be seen
full 70 mm wide framing
the fort reflected
a portion at dusck
the initial move into the fort
the framing of the opposition in action
the creation of depth through camera placement and placement of figures
There’s something both contained and explosive in the way that Fregonese films a chase. The run is charged, but the composition keeps everything contained, elegant, with the geography of the action always knowable.
The camera set-ups are varied, there are gorgeous shots with the camera on the ground and with Robert Taylor laid out across the 70mm frame; and in a lovely restoration that brings out the deep blues and reds of the uniforms. This is a film directed by someone with a great feel and knowledge of how visuals can mean, how rhythm is created both by what is shown within the frame and by the cutting between shots.
It would be hard to find a better example of what is valuable in a B film: thematically crude, with a cast led by a waning star and a cast of proficient relative unknowns, that nonetheless is gorgeous to look at, exciting to experience, with a fluid purposeful camera that is knowingly placed to create depth and to offer up space itself as a source of drama. Robert Taylor, is very interesting to see, still handsome, giving a professional performance in terms of body and voice but with something dead behind the eyes that seems more to do with the actor than with the character. A great watch in spite of its many faults.
Martín (Javier de Pietro) is a 16 year-old student, gay, in the closet, and with an insistent gaze that speaks of assertiveness and danger. He wanders around the locker room at the swim club he belongs to, holding that gaze for that second too long, that extra bit of time that creates discomfort. Yet, when the objects of his gaze look back to return or challenge it, he’s vamoosed.
Martín tells his gym-teacher Sebastián (Carlos Echeverria) that something’s lodged in his eye whilst swimming. The teacher kindly takes him to the doctor who finds nothing. When the teacher offers to drive him home, we hear that Martín was meant to sleep-over with a friend; that he left his phone is in his knapsack and now can’t use it; that he lives with his grandmother but she is now visiting an elderly relative, and that he doesn’t know where his friends lives. In short, he’s stuck. All this information unfurls in the first half hour of the film and we quickly sense that Martín isn’t telling the whole truth.
Sebastián feels he has no choice but to let him sleep over, nonetheless making explicit to the boy the danger he’s placing him in, bringing a student and a minor to sleep in his home. Sebastián calls his girlfriend to relieve some of that tension and bear witness but he doesn’t tell her why. She in turn is too distracted and busy with her own troubles to pursue it and simply says no. Her only concern is whether the boy might steal something from the home.
The teacher offers the student food, a place to stay, a change of clothes. But the student wants more. In the middle of the night and in a moment which feels both daring and tense, the student goes over to the sleeping teacher, puts his hand on Sebastián thighs and slowly moves it up and places it firmly on his crotch. This eventually wakes up Sebastián and though he senses something is not quite right, when he gets up to see what could be wrong Martín looks asleep, though provocatively positioned like a male Lolita.
Sebastián suffers the snoopy gaze of a neighbour who discovers Martín, coming out of the shower, and flashing the crack of his bum at her. In the morning, the gardener sees them leaving the house together, says nothing, but looks on disapprovingly. The world’s judgmental gaze is on the teacher, who has done nothing but be kind. In the meantime, the boy is wearing the teacher’s deodorant, his perfume, his shirt. He’s found a way of having the older man on top of him by stealth and without his consent.
The morning after, in the teachers’ common room Sebastián hear how the parents of a boy had come to the school with the police that morning crying that their son was missing only to find him there and the father was so upset that he wacked him. Sebastián realises it’s Martín they’re speaking of but why has Martín lied to him? The discovery of the lie takes place 45 minutes into the film; why Martín lied, and the effects of that lie will occupy the rest of the film.
Ausente is a film structured through a series of absences, which begin with the boy’s absence from home the night he tricks Sebastián into letting him stay over, continues through with absences from school, ends with the ultimate absence from the world itself, and is figuratively dramatised for us by what has by now become a trope traced to Bareback Mountain (2005): the sniffing of the shirt of he now loved but lost. But, like in Ang Lee’s film, those absences are in dialectical tension with another structuring device: the closet. It’s a film that begins with the boy’s external physique being examined in minute detail by a doctor and in huge close-up of every piece by the director. But as the film demonstrates no one is taking care or paying attention to the boy’s interior: his feelings, wishes, desires.
Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering and finally death and absence and guilt. And if the first part of the film is concerned with dramatizing the thrill, power and danger of a younger man pursuing an older one; the last half of the film is concerned with guilt over how the older man could have helped the younger one more, a guilt that’s woven through with the suggestion that Sebastián might not be entirely heterosexual himself.
Ausente is a minor film, and the last third is to me quite muddled with all the flashbacks, woven in to make sense of past events and not quite succeeding in doing so. But it’s a film that delights me. It is now possible for gay filmmakers to take a small cast of characters, a small crew, and explore a situation and an idea on film, thus articulating various aspects of gay men’s lives in miniature. Here, the shooting is mainly in the close-ups Berger favours, the leisurely pace; the furtive glances (both the characters’ and the camera’s); the literary allusions (Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves – ‘The book doesn’t tell me what I would like to hear’);camera moves that linger on empty spaces as spaces of possibility where things may (and sometimes do not) happen; and then there are the open lively faces Berger shows us (the young Javier de Pietro’s in particular), beautiful and full of feeling, a drama in itself. It’s a film that requires and rewards patience.
Eugenio (Manuel Vignau) drives into a small town. Martin (Mateo Chiarino) knocks door-to door trying to find work. Eventually, Martin knocks on Eugenio’s door. The premise is almost that of a porn film: the handyman knocks on the door, the householder eyes him up and before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, cut to the bedroom.
What Hawaii does that extends this basic premise is to offer social context, background, and to dramatise the partial perceptions, lack of knowledge, and barriers to communication that impede romance and act as blocks to the fulfilment of desire.
Martin’s mother died when he was 13 and he went off to live with his grandmother in Uruguay. The grandmother’s now died and it turns out she didn’t own the house they shared. The current owner, a distant relation, let him stay on three months longer. But eventually Martin had to leave. He’s got a promise of a job in Buenos Aires in the Autumn. He’s left his few boxes of belongings in the garage of a cousin but said cousin has barely room in his place for his wife and his three children and Martin doesn’t want to impose. He’s returned to the rural village in Argentina where he grew up to kill time in familiar surroundings whilst enduring scraping a living. He’s homeless. He’s been living outside in the woods, though Eugenio doesn’t know this yet. Martin’s been lying to him about this. He’s a childhood friend but also a homeless migrant. His nickname’s ‘The Russian’, only partly due to his colouring.
Eugenio is a writer trying to write a novel called ‘The Germ’ about the conflict between a landowner and the young daughter who questions how come it is that he owns the land rather than someone else. Eugenio is a couple of years older than Martin but he’s the baby in his own family, younger than his brothers: Flor by five years; Santi by 7. His family is extensive and they are close: an uncle bought his childhood home so he and his brothers could enjoy the money it brought but also continue to enjoy the use of the house. In the beginning we see him pictured reading, writing, doing yoga, typing away in the dining room on his mac, at a handsome table on which rests piles of books, a soup tureen and other signifiers of bourgeois respectability.
What separates Eugenio and Martin is class and this is depicted in the starkest of terms. But throughout the first part of the film what keeps them apart is also the uncertainty about the other’s sexual orientation, the false clues they give each other regarding their sexuality, the insecurity that their own desire will not be returned. They play peekaboo games with each other. But what they hope to win by doing this is at the cost of real understanding and becomes a block.
Eugenio leaves pictures of himself with a naked woman for Martin to find. What does he hope Martin will think of this? He asks Martin to not be a faggot and feel free to undress in front of him. But where is this leading? Eugenio’s desire for Martin is shown palpably, even as he gives all these mixed signals to Martin. Martin’s desire is less clear, though at one point we do see him going into Eugenio’s room, sniffing his shirt à la Brokeback..and well.
All this is brought to a head when one of Eugenio’s brothers comes to visit, quickly assesses the situation and is not shy to share it: ‘You like him. Do you think I’m an idiot? You gave him work because you fancy him. What are you going to do? Are you going to fuck him and then are you going to tell him, ‘Hey sorry, I gave you a job because you turned me on?’ Do you want to be his boyfriend? Did something happen already? Does he know? And if you fuck him and the summer ends, what are you going to do. You’ll take him to Buenos Aires, to a Levi’s store you buy him some clothes. You take him to Palermo and support him? Or you’ll send him to work on a construction site and you’ll wait for him at six with tea prepared at yours?’ A bourgeois’ perception of the horrors of cross-class elected affinities of any kind.
The brother’s choices are stark and brutish. But it’s the first time in the narrative that we’re certain that Eugenio is gay and out to everyone but Martin. And this spins the story onto another level. Martin is only certain of Eugenio when he’s helping him move things, a bunch of explicit homoerotic drawings drops on the floor, and they’re clearly ones that Eugenio has been doing of Martin on the sly since the beginning. But then the plot gets complicated further because Eugenio then interprets Martin’s coming onto him for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with simple shared desire. And Eugenio’s rejection is so frustrating and hurtful to Martin that he leaves.
Eugenio wins him back by finding viewfinder slides of a shared childhood experience of marvelling at images of Hawaii, fixing the old machine, and leaving it in the woods where Martin previously took shelter so he may find them. And it’s this shared love of being in accord and at ease doing things they’ve enjoyed since childhood that finally brings them together at the end.
Hawaii, though in a way less successful than Plan B, has deepened my love of Marco Berger’s films. The way the viewer is always shown things at a distance, through a corner, via bars, glass, windows. The way the protagonists’ own mode of looking becomes a barrier to seeing and understanding. The way sexual reverie means the sound goes off, one isn’t listening, and thus one doesn’t understand anything other than one’s own want.
I love the the kindness evident throughout; the confident gazing on people’s faces so that they might reveal; the intermingling of fear of rejection with desire. In other words, whilst his films provide quite a bit to incite desire in the viewer – these are handsome and charming men, gazed at longingly – the desire for going deeper, for finding character and understanding in people, over-rules and subsumes the libidinal desire that drives the narrative. Sexual desire is seen and dramatised but also put in its place. It’s only carnal, and carnality is not all there is to people in Berger’s films. There’s hugging and sharing and trust and companionship, and all those marvellous things that continue to glow in memories of childhood companions. I have two quibbles: a) the music is better than in Plan B but not good enough and the film ends too abruptly.
I’m amazed that this was a Kickstarter project, delighted to see Manuel Vignault again. It’s a slow film in which nothing seems to happen unless you concentrate and look. But look; at the faces, the shots, the composition, the way things come and in go out of focus, the way spaces are places for feelings, and looks a way of suturing not only space but hearts and minds. A film that I liked the first time but learned to love by looking and looking better, the second time around.
327 Cuadernos is a beautiful and complex work on biography and on the intersection of memory and history, both individual, as a reconstitution of fragments of the self; and collective, as a shared social history; one that simultaneously examines the intersection of expression and re-presentation whilst keeping in play the various ways in which they differ: very moving.
Andrés di Tella, one of Latin America’s foremost documentary essayist, arrives in Princeton to find writer Ricardo Piglia, a colleague at the University and someone he’s interviewed before many years ago, packing up to return to Buenos Aires after having worked in the U.S. for many years. Piglia’s kept a diary since the age of 16, when politics –the aftermath of the coup against Perón in ‘55 – meant his father, a lifelong Perón supporter, moved the whole family from Adrogué, a suburb of Buenos Aires, to the relative safety of Mar de Plata. His father defended Perón in ’55 and was in prison for a year as a result. “It’s really tough when you’re a kid and your old man is taken away by the cops. That’s really ugly: a strange feeling. But anyway, that’s how it was”.
‘’’55 was the year of sorrow; ’56 was prison and ’57 was even worse” says Piglia, “the trip (to Mar de Plata) was like an exile. Since then, where I live has never really mattered.” In the film, the old writer’s return to Buenos Aires is rhymed, accompanied, contradicted, by that first exile that would turn the displaced and disturbed teenager into the writer of these 327 notebooks; though, interestingly, the images that accompany the latter will be reconstructed, re-imagined and even re-imaged ones. Thus, like we see in the rest of the film, the self, the past, history and society are all both documented and, via acts of interpretation, also to a degree imagined; they offer no immediate or clear access; they’re always mediated, often by more than one element or source.
“There’s nothing more ridiculous that the aspiration of recording one’s own life,” says Piglia, “It automatically turns you into a clown.” But something propelled him into keeping a diary, one that would eventually sprawl across the eponymous 327 notebooks, and he believes the displacement and the diary that ensued as a result was transformative and might have been what turned him into a writer. The film begins with the exposition of a point of origin – that ‘exile’ to the provinces of the film’s protagonist — in which the subject at the film’s present – the return to Buenos Aires from another type of exile in America –- may be found, whilst at the same time acknowledging the narrational and fictional dimensions of such a search. “The art of narration is the relationship the narrator has with the story’s narratives’, says Piglia, ‘that’s what defines the tone”.
Initially, Di Tella announces the film’s project as ‘‘To keep a diary of the reading of a diary”. But who and what does a diary document? The problems begin at the beginning: “I have the impression I’ve led two lives. The one written in the notebooks and the one fixed in my memories. Sometimes when I re-read it, it’s hard to recognise what I’ve lived. There are episodes set down there that I’d completely forgotten. They exist in the diary but not in my memory. Yet at the same time, certain events that endure in my memory with the vividness of a photograph are absent as if I’d never experienced them.”
Thus begins a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history, how the self is narrated to oneself but also to others, socially. Di Tella consciously delineates a series of methodological problems: How does one film the diary of a writer? What’s a film’s present tense? Who is the narrator and who and what is being narrated? What is the connection between documentary and fiction.
“I can’t even make out my own writing,” says Piglia, “The diary allows you to integrate what happens with a certain documentary style … but (uses) the genre and its tricks to make fiction, an imperceptible fiction. There’s a con there: there’s fiction, and then there’s my real life, my experience; and in between there’s an area of experimentation in which I experiment also with possible lives, you know”.
Piglia’s diaries are not just what’s written in them but also the doodles and sketches they contain – Evita, for example, figures — what falls out of them when opened — pictures of Brecht, an airline ticket from a trip to Cuba, newspaper clippings — ‘Demons Reluctant to be Exorcised– etc; and also what they convey: what does a ranking of boxers reveal about Piglia?
“There’s always a propensity to lists,’ he says, “I think one makes lists in order not to think, right? To rid one’s head of ideas.” He sees another list: love, meaning of life, politics, days of soccer, theatre, movies, literature. “It’s another list but more internal, see? The meaning of life! Isn’t that marvellous. And here it is, side by side with boxing!”
Until the filming, Piglia’s never re-read his diaries. He started to type them up at various times but failed to follow through. Now, as he tries going over them once more, problems arise: ‘It’s hard going back over your own life. It’s not easy’. Moreover, he sometimes can’t make out his writing, often doesn’t remember the events described and eventually declares: ‘ ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like anything I’m reading. That could be the title of the film.’
Half-way through the film, Piglia develops a serious illness which the film doesn’t reveal but which we now know to be Lou Gherig’s desease. Thus the film has to change tak. Piglia now needs help writing and an assistant is found for him. The scratching sound of the pen that has accompanied most of the film until now gives way to the tapping on a keyboard and it’s as if the change in sounds leads to a change in tone.
The illness leads to a series of interrogations on the nature of the project and thus of the intersections of biograpy/autobiography/ fiction: Autobiography could be a collage (of other autobiographies); the project could re-focus on what wasn’t written down but is still remembered; memory comes to us as splinters, flashes, full of light, perfect, unconnected; that’s how it should be written, affirms Piglia. He experiments with putting diaries in third person; he talks about himself as if he were someone else. “A writer’s diary is also a laboratory. Not so much experiences but rather experiments”. He re-writes, makes changes. Literature, he says, is the place in which someone else always does the talking. He thinks on the connection between his fiction and his diaries:
“It’s as if in my novels there’s always this anchor. Hooked to something that actually happened. Sometimes found in diaries.” He fantasises about publishing the diaries under the name of one of his fictional characters, Emilio Renzi (which is how the first volume has since been published). Sometimes, he just dreams of setting match to paper, burning them all and be done with.
De Piglia’s illness becomes more serious and Di Tella is unable to film for two months. What to do? Di Tella does as Enrique Amorim did in the 30s and films Piglia’s friends, tries to talk about him through filming them: Roberto Jacoby, Tata Cedrón, Germán Garcia, Gerardo Gandini. Gandini like possibly Horacio Quiroga in Amorim’s filming, dies unexpectedly shortly after these images were filmed. Even as the film tries to bring Piglia to life through various means and in various guises, death haunts this project.
327 Notebooks is a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history. The times when one feels part of a historical event, when a historical event intersects with one’s personal life, changes it and one is tossed about by the waves of change and feels part of history are few. For Piglia, “’55 was a moment were history enters life”, so was the coup of ’66 and the death of Che Guevara: “It rained a lot that day…I have an image of myself crossing the street flooded with rain with the awareness that Che was dead.”
The film uses found footage gathered from a private archive of Super 8 films, as well as the leftovers of 16mm footage shot for news reports (what was broadcast has been lost; but the trims survive). Thus Piglia reading of events he lived but can’t remember is interspersed with historical events (people waving their white handkerchiefs as a symbol that Cristo Vence! (Christ Wins!), Peron’s wife giving an emotional speech from the presidential balcony, the debates around whether the photographs of Che Guevara’s corpse are authentic), some home movies, other people’s memories but with the people now dead or scattered away so that they can’t re-invoke them; someone’s else’s home movies standing in for a social memory, something akin to what one might have experienced.
As the film unfolds this interlayering of history, the social, the personal, the personal as history, events unremembered, memories unrecorded, all these partial but interacting layerings of aspects, of parts we sometimes reconstitute into a whole and call the self, becomes more deliberately metaphoric, thus we’re asked to interpret the meaning of a polar flight with huskies being pushed onto a plain, or at the end of the film, a horse tamer, bronco-ing through the horse’s every attempt to throw him.
In voice-over Di Tella recounts how according to Piglia: “in the diaries an unknown man appears, unknown even to him, an intimate character who only exists in the pages of the notebooks; someone darker, more violent, sentimental, vulnerable. It’s not the same man his friends know.” The man that appears to us in the film is probably also different to the man that appears in the diaries, or the person who unfolds and changes through history and who write them in the process of changing who that self, those various selves, was in the very process of transformation, of perhaps altering into someone else. It’s a great film that manages to convey all of this whilst interrogating the various grounds of each step of the representation itself. And the found footage also gives it a touch of the poet, those powerful images that evoke a social history one recognises but can’t quite pin down into a singular meaning. Very beautiful.