Abasto Shopping Mall in Buenos Aires

By Robert Koehler

Some additional thoughts on M˙sica nocturna….The film’s sense of comedy runs to such moments as a droll exchange between two of the characters, perambulating around the streets and finding themselves in a bookstore that’s actually closed but that they have somehow gotten into anyway, about how the Papacy in Rome has commissioned writers acquainted with Latin to devise new Latin terms for contemporary terms, like “hot pants.” It’s part of the film’s greater fabric, which is to ponder (in thoughtful and light ways) how the inheritance of older civilization is adopted and altered by our own; but equally, how the brightest of people can manage to fail creating a rewarding personal life for themselves.

BAFICI programmer Sergio Wolf, who introduced the film last night, told me today that part of the joke of the film is that, certainly in Buenos Aires, older or middle-aged people as those depicted in M˙sica nocturna simply don’t walk around the streets at night. “It’s a projection,” Wolf said, “of an artist of the older generation, recalling a time when they were night owls”….

The night owls are regularly out in Buenos Aires–a city that truly never seems to sleep. My room is on the 19th floor of Abasto Plaza Hotel, looking directly down on the massive Abasto shopping center (formerly, the city’s main open market) where BAFICI is centered. The perspective out my window is almost vertiginous, and I can also see the foot and car traffic buzzing along at well past 2 a.m.–the noise isn’t even a slight din I’m so far up, but the lights and movement suggest deep-night wanderers, prowling, exploring, some living ghosts from M˙sica nocturna…..

There have been varying reactions so far to the Argentine competition films–those in the national competition and those in the international section–with a hint at exasperation that the Next Great Thing has yet to be discovered. Well, I’ve already argued that there has been one exceptional work (which actually isn’t bad for what had been effectively three full days of projections–compare this ratio, if you will, to a typical Sundance year in the American competition, and you get an idea) and, besides, it’s a fool’s game anticipating such “greatness.” I hope for good films, and to expect or demand revelations on a daily basis is a strange case of setting oneself up for disappointment.

This may be why I’m not terribly bothered by Extranjera, InÈs de Oliveira Cezar’s stark, Western-style adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, since it was hard to resist a film that presented a rather unique blending of Greek tragedy and Anthony Mann (and, as someone noted, another item from the ’50s Western canon, Yellow Sky).

A minor piece like UPA! (Una Pelicula Argentina), from which I just returned, is too inconsequential to attack, as I’ve already heard from some quarters. An ersatz behind-the-scenes video-shot depiction of an indie Argentine film that manages to self-destruct, this is a calculated juggling of influences from Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to Dogme, and if the blatant overlay of American manners is something new for the younger Argentine filmmaking movement, it’s also demonstrably a strategy marked by a dead-end, with momentary amusements along the way.

Another film that openly thieves from another is Diego Martinez Vignatti’s La marea, which is one of several films that arrive here more or less direct from Rotterdam. Vignatti was Carlos Reygadas’ cinematographer on JapÛn and Battle in Heaven, and unfortunately, has effectively copied Reygadas’ cinema–from a stress on wordless physicality, figures in wild landscapes and characters facing the reality of death in solitude, down to the same anamorphic widescreen image and grainy film process as in JapÛn–a film that one duplicates at enormous artistic risk.

Essentially a metaphoric fable about a mother who can’t bear accepting the tragic death of her husband and only child, the film leaves this woman in the dunes and simply doesn’t know what to do with her. In the Latin American film world, there’s the additional arguing point that Vignatti’s isn’t a proper Argentine film (he lives permanently in Belgium, and most of his production money and post-production was based in Europe), though the locations (as far as one could detect) and characters were certainly Argentine, and the tale itself is essentially universal—indeed, abstract to a fault.

This is-it-Argentine-is-it-not bores me, and one hears it again and again; the film’s essential cultural sources seem to me sufficiently Argentine, but because of various national and regional interests (some of whom grow instantly suspicious, in the same way that critics of Francophone African films have tended to be, when European money is involved), this doesn’t seem to matter. What concerns me far more than the silly tic-tac-toe of claiming a film’s national identity is how Vignatti seems to be searching for his own voice with his first narrative film as a writer-director, but merely mimicking that of a former colleague.

And the naysayers of BAFICI’s Argentine selection would truly have a solid case if we were being inflicted with a steady attack of such disposable nonsense as El desierto negro, the debut from former film sound recordist Gaspar Scheuer, who appears to have ingested entirely too much Terrence Malick and Glauber Rocha for his own good. An archly mannered piece of pictorialism that’s much more about photography than cinema, Scheuer’s film is a stripped-down Western (again) featuring a kind of Gaucho-with-no-name (he has one, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it is, and hardly care) who–I’m not making this up–is the object of a manhunt through huge expansive wheat fields populated by birds and is finally downed by a bullet, at which point he promptly falls head-first (from our p.o.v.) into a river stream. (And that’s just the first half.) Free Dodger tickets to the first one who can spot what movie I would appear to be talking about here….

I’ll try my best to get back to Reg Harkema tomorrow, who appeared fairly tickled today when I told him the good news that not only has Gaumont finally–finally–released Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinÈma on DVD, but it’s done so with English subtitles…..

(Day 4 entry.)

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