Lisandro Alonso interview (Cineaste)

excerpts from : "Cinema Beyond Words" By: Dennis West and Joan M. West (Cineaste, Spring 2011)

Really interesting interview (spreading on 9 pages!), looking back on the trilogy : La Libertad, Los Muertos, Liverpool. The title is fitting, I like it. Sadly, they had to pimp it up on the magazine cover and word out the infamous "slow cinema" stereotype that any serious critic caring for cinema aesthetics beyond its formated speed should avoid like the plague... This shallow shorthand was particularly unnecessary since the interviewers never asked Lisandro Alonso to comment on this random appellation. Anyway.
The interviewers seem very familiar with Latin American life and culture, which makes for an in-depth and pertinent discussion, although... overtly on the literary side unfortunately. For an article titled "beyond words", there is too much novel references and not enough visual mise en scène analysis. Which is inadequate for Lisandro Alonso's cinema, one of the CCC filmmakers I cite most often, without reservations (precisely because there is never ambiguous melodrama or dialogue that alters the perception of the hardcore contemplative mode in his films). 
I also regret that they didn't watch Fantasma, and call it "artistically and thematically different" from the other three. Which is false. The only difference is the indoor setting, but the characters are even the same actors and the contemplative gaze is as comparable as can be. They probably find it different because, unlike the others, they cannot interpret it as an ethnographic documentary on real-life rural Argentina. In this one the farmers are like fishes out of the water in Buenos Aires... but that doesn't make it science fiction...

Lisandro Alonso : "[..] This is why I like the observational approach that we were discussing previously - to observe without sticking my hand into the mix too much. To observe respectfully and to allow the spectator to grasp the appropriate elements and make up his or her own world. Of course this approach isn't for everyone. There are spectators who need you to grab them and lead them by the nose - now you laugh, now you cry, now you applaud, and now you go home. Not that this is necessarily so bad. What is worthwhile, it seems to me, is to seek out cinematographic diversity. [..]"
I love this quote! He touches on one of the biggest misconception about CCC. So I can relate. 
The general public, the festival audience, and even some film critics feel threatened in their taste by these films. They think that giving them awards, or suggesting that this form of cinema is the most interesting today, means that THIS is the only way possible for films to be great. This is all wrong. Acknowledging the greatness of such films doesn't in any way diminish the eventual achievements of other films that do not use the contemplative mode. Cinema history is not exclusive. The advent and (relative) proliferation of "slower" films doesn't mean that it's now outmoded or frowned upon to make melodramas and fast edits... Developing personal styles is bound to meet a mixed reception. Certain people prefer certain kinds of narration, and it's perfectly alright. I hate it when professionals from the movie industry (critics amongst them) are only able to consider filmmaking as carpet bombing : one-size-fits-all; where for a genre or a style to be successful it MUST please EVERYONE and make a killing at the box-office. Anything short of that is worthless and should never be funded. This rampant mentality is unbearable. And I repeat, some critics actually believe THAT. 

It is OK to make films that will only please a very limited demographic !!!! Thank you.

Niche filmmaking might not be the most profitable, but aesthetic diversity is worth it. Remember the Long Tail Consumers. Tastes are unique and there should be all kinds of films available in the world for every needs. I wish movie distributors would listen to this! Niche distribution should be allowed to exist without being shelved endlessly on the sideline or marginalized to the point of being too much of a pain to make the effort to watch a film where and when it is popping out, while commercial movies get an ubiquitous accessibility. 
And Lisandro Alonso knows this situation too well, since his films are rarely screened.
Contemplative Cinema should not be relegated to Museum gallery showings... because this is not Avant Garde. CCC is a legit form of narrative cinema. Not a non-narrative cinema or abstract cinema. It is merely a minimal narration, not an anti-narration. These films are totally watchable in the conditions of any other entertainment-based spectacles. Just not on the scope of a more mainstream narration (the one that fits-all and offends none).

CCC is different from your usual commercial fare. Maybe it needs more time to get used to it. Maybe it's a kind of cinema that people don't want to watch as often as commercial movies. Maybe these films are slow to catch on with the audience and should not be removed from distribution after only 1 week! Please stop pushing all films through the same funnel, leaving out the ones that fail to click at first sight.

The world needs to take a moment to ponder over things that require deeper reflection. Contemplation needs more time and more commitment than normal movies. Give it a chance.

Lisandro Alonso : "There is a part of me that is not really interested in political cinema. It's just not that interesting, because I believe cinema is not an appropriate tool for playing out politics. It is something different. I see cinema more as an artistic activity that does have its political and social messages; but it cannot become a political pamphlet. [..]
Cinema doesn't need to mix in politics, because there is already a lot of interest out there in politics. In political cinema lots of ideas come into play, but you lose the human element, which is the universal dimension that belongs to all humanity. In politics, there are many struggles of vested interests, particularly in Latin American politics. Sometimes they ask me why my films don't have a lot of words. So sometimes I answer, partly in jest, that it's because I have listened to so many politicians in Argentina who spout out so much blah-blah-blah and then do just the opposite; I just don't have any confidence in words. I do have confidence in what I see, do you understand?"
I'm happy to hear this. I personally think that political cinema is possible and other filmmakers do very well with it (Eisenstein, Jancso, Oshima, Costa-Gavras, Pontecorvo, Satyajit Ray, Rosi, Marker, Sembene, Moretti, Loach, Mograbi...). But that's besides the point. 
Contemplation does not have to be political. In fact, if I need a treatise on Thai politics I would not got to Apichatpong Weerasethakul... (not that his visual poetry is not a genuine incarnation of the Thai society in this day and time). If I would like to know more about the democratic transition in post-Iron Curtain Lithuania or Kazakhstan, I wouldn't go to Sharunas Bartas and Darezhan Omirbaev respectively. Gus Vant Sant's Elephant doesn't provide a socio-political analysis of the Columbine tragedy, like Alan Clarke's Elephant doesn't explain why Northern Ireland's inhabitants kill eachothers. I'm not searching Tsai Ming-liang's film for an insightful portrait of the Taiwanese society, or Jia Zhang-ke's films for a criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Real, serious political investigations, whether in documentary or fiction form, is better treated with other stylistics than the wordless modality of CCC.
Like Lisandro Alonso says, CCC films are not drained of any political message... but it is definitely NOT the main part of the film nor the most eloquent/explicit. So all the political interpretation stuffed in a review of a CCC films, is most likely overstated, overinflated, extrapolated or even fantasized... And this is annoying to read, especially because it eclipses the more interesting and pertinent aspect : the visual language and the mise en scène, or simply the poetry.
This is something most critics or audience is not ready to hear, because they are so conditioned by decades of pseudo-politisation of the filmic discourse, when it was hip to transform every film into a political pamphlet of sorts. 

Lisandro Alonso: "From the perspective of the script, I prefer to communicate via means other than words. These are solitary characters so I prefer that the spectator imagine what's going on in their heads without recourse to spoken words. [..] I endeavor to resist using a lot of dialog because today there are films we end up just listening to, films in which the image is absolutely unimportant. I'm talking here about contemporary cinema. A given movie consists of simply such and such a type of shot, and everything else seems like radio, like a radio melodrama. In this case the filmmaker is not giving due importance to the image. Previously in the history of cinema image was everything, or almost everything. So I don't believe that I need to have to recourse to words in order to explain how my characters feel."
Nothing to add here. His explanation is perfectly clear.
And the raison d'être of the Unspoken Cinema blog is precisely to make film culture evolve and stop people (especially critics) to ask justifications to some filmmakers why they never use dialogue... It is OK to try and make films without dialogue! It's not new, and it shouldn't be "odd" to anybody. Get over it. Do they ask Comedy filmmakers WHY they put jokes in their scripts?
Let's move on, and talk about what these films actually achieve with this particular modality.

Lisandro Alonso: "I believe that it is by way of showing man in his environment that we come to understand all the he needs to survive. And understand what his manner is of being in this world - how he lives, how he exists, with what precious few elements he survives. [..]
[The observational style] is for the spectator's process of 'envisionment,' so that the viewer is freed to read calmly and with distanciation and with time to ponder. The spectator is not spoon-fed one piece of information after the other, and I'm not the one guiding the spectator."
This is interesting to listen to what Michelangelo Frammartino has to say about this point as well. See his interview in French here.

Lisandro Alonso : "[on cutting long after the character exited the frame] it is also a pause I choose to include in order to raise the question of what happens if after a given sequence, in which not very much has happened, we nevertheless give the spectator time to think about what it is that is happening. And so he has time to say, 'OK, what's going on here?' During that pause he comes to realize that cinematographic language exists - because he is made to feel the presence of the camera. And if the viewer feels the presence of the camera, he is also feeling the presence of the director. When he's made aware of all that, a viewer is forced to think about cinematographic language. That is always important to me - that is to say, making the spectator realize that, over and beyond what is happening to the fictional character, there is always someone else who is narrating the story."

I fully agreed with him until he mentions self-awareness of the camera. There are more obvious ways to make the spectator aware of the camera and the director behind the camera, the camera address for instance (popular in Nouvelle Vague) or the revealed film crew in the diegetic world (Duras or Godard). This was the non-diegetic complicity with their audience, the filmmakers of Modern Cinema sought on a narrative level back in the 60ies, and most especially by the Postmodern filmmakers from the 70ies on, on a concrete level.
I think CCC is past this attention to the non-diegetic context of a film set, precisely because it distracts from the focus on contemplation. Even Alonso's films do not provide enough evidence to bring up the presence of the camera and break out of the diegetic universe. Only film critics seeking for exogenous clues would integrate this frame of mind. Alonso's quasi-trademark credit music might be the only hint toward this self-awareness that I would concede.
I have another rationale for the delayed cut at the end of a scene. And we discussed it on this blog already. (see : Roundtable 3 : Aesthetic economy). This cutting style is not new nor particular to CCC. I mean it is a more general technique that spans across different cinema aesthetics. Ozu, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Jancso, Garrel, Wenders, Jarmusch, Angelopoulos often use it, even though they are not strictly speaking part of CCC.
Zhang Lu did what I thought was an interesting experiment (although dismissed by a lot of reviewers), in Desert Dream (2007). His character exits the frame on one side, the camera stays put (in a fixed shot) for a while, a pause on a vacated landscape, then the camera pans towards where the character disappeared to catch up with where the action was continuing off-screen. It was used repeatedly during the film, thus making the gimmick really noticeable (and predictable in a way), which inevitably takes the spectator away from the diegetic world by dragging attention to a self-aware camerawork. In this case, we could say that the choice of technique does enough to make the audience reflect on the form. And I thought it was really interesting to add an Ozu-type of pillow shot, within a sequence, without cuts. Shot-pause-shot all in one plan-sequence sans cut.  


HarryTuttle said…
Tsai Ming-liang : "They also profess that cinema should be a media of advertisement – to advertise a city, represent a nation or to promote tourism, for example. Indeed, wherever I go, local people often ask the same question: “When are you coming here to shoot a film? You should shoot one so that the outside world will know Taiwan better.” But why is that necessary? I don’t think film should be made just for marketing purposes." (National Central University in Taiwan on May 26th 2010)

Senses of Cinema, 13 March 2011