Thursday, 4 December 2008

Film aesthetics, ethics, and politics in Missing (1982)

On Tuesday I gave a talk on my work on contemporary auteurism as part of the Screen Medias and Cultures Research seminars at the University of Cambridge. It was a very enjoyable occasion for me: many thanks to those present and especially to David Trotter, Matilda Mroz, and Piotr Cieplak, the series organisers, and Emma Wilson who chaired the seminar.

There is some very interesting and important Screen Studies research going on in this Cambridge grouping. I was particularly interested to hear of that by the aforementioned Piotr Cieplak who is currently working on 'Image, memory and trauma: photographic and filmic representations of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath'.

Discussion with Piotr Cieplak about this important topic has prompted me to publish online a related research paper of mine which deals with a cinematic representation of trauma and violence made (like some of the most prominent representations of the events in Rwanda) by those who didn't suffer this violence 'first-hand'; such repesentations prompt particular questions about the ethics of recognition. My paper (available HERE) is entitled ‘Questions of National and Transnational Film Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in Costa Gavras’s Missing (1982)’. Here's the abstract:

In the field of Latin American film studies, there has been a great deal of prescriptive criticism about how ‘dominant’ forms of cinema, sometimes even in the name of solidarity and raising political awareness, have crushed, deformed, or simply replaced the attempts of certain, more 'beleaguered', national cinemas to tell ‘their own’ stories about traumatic, political events. Rather than simply joining in with that criticism, it is important to set out to examine, analyse and account for what has actually happened with these ‘internationalised’ film stories during the last thirty years.

Films are never just ‘national’ (and therefore ‘good objects’) or 'international / transnational’ (and therefore ‘bad objects’): they are always made somewhere, by people who always come from somewhere, and although they may or may not be seen in lots of different places, they are obviously always seen in specific places and in specific circumstances. It is important, therefore, to study the unequal exchanges involved in such transactions, rather than simply to make assertions about iniquitousness at the outset.

The material I discuss in this paper draws on research for a project on the international fiction and documentary cinema about South American dictatorships and their aftermath, from September 11, 1973 to the present, and concerns one of the most obvious films to include in such a project: the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing for the North American production company Universal (on the recently released DVD of this film, the cover trumpets the movie as ‘The first American film by Costa-Gavras’ [not on the new Criterion Collection DVD version!]). This 'US film' about a hugely significant Latin American 'event', made by a non-US/non-Latin American filmmaker, has been vehemently criticised, over the years, on the political, ethical and aesthetic grounds of cultural and ethnic imperialism, and dominant-cinema ‘manipulation’.

How might a methodological narrative negotiate the minefield posed by these critical discourses? What I hope to show in my illustrated talk about Missing is that any study of cinema in a national (or 'transnational') and historical context can only be well served by paying close attention to the important political and ethical questions raised by how films aesthetically organise their multiple audiences’ access to knowledge and affect.

I have given this research paper as a talk a few times (see the PowerPoint slides which have accompanied it above), most recently on November 17, 2007 at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London as part of a study day on 'The National/Transnational in Hispanic and Latin American Film and the Telenovela' (alongside a great paper by Paul Julian Smith: 'Transnational telenovela: from Mexico to Spain').

It's been really interesting to revisit the paper this week as tomorrow I am acting as a respondent at a 'World Cinemas: in theory/on screen' study day organised by Jacqueline Maingard in the Department of Drama at the University of Bristol which will deal with related issues of cinematic representation, recognition and theory (Friday 5th December, 2-5 pm, Lecture Room, Dept of Drama: Theatre, Film, Television, Cantocks Close, Bristol). The titles of the Study Day papers are as follows:

  • Jacqueline Maingard (Bristol), 'African Cinema and Bamako: notes for screen theory'
  • Augusto de Oliveira (Bristol ), 'Marking time: Afro-Brazilian cinema and the quest for recognition'
  • Will Higbee (Exeter), 'Diaspora, intercultural exchange and the myth of return: recent journey film by Maghrebi-French directors'
  • Derek Duncan (Bristol), 'Princesa: transgender/transmedial/transnational'

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Homecoming and recognition: Volver, Almodóvar, Cruz, Maura, Le Pera, and Gardel

Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar talk about Volver at the 44th New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center, October 4, 2006 (posted on YouTube by muckster).

I am writing about returning and repeating, and what better film-object to ponder than Pedro Almodóvar’s 16th film, Volver (Return). The storyline of Volver appears as both a novel and movie script in Almodóvar’s earlier film, La flor de mi secreto/The Flower of My Secret (1995). But there are many different kinds of 'coming back' and the pleasurable and uncanny recognitions that these entail are laid bare -- and help to structure the spectator's experience -- in this remarkably affecting film.

In an interview for El País, Almodóvar explained that Volver "concludes the films I have made about women’s universe and the type of families that have moved from rural areas to the capital in search of prosperity. Therefore, it ends a cycle" ('Con 'Volver' culmina mi cine sobre el universo femenino: Maribel Marin, Diario El País, Madrid 30/01/2007).

The film memorably includes a sequence in which Cruz, as Almodóvar's protagonist Raimunda, sings Carlos Gardel's tango Volver in a beautiful flamenco-soft version. This moment in the film (see the video embedded below) marks Raimunda's return to singing, following years of silence and oppression in an abusive relationship. It is a poignant musical homecoming, uncannily witnessed by her character's revenant-mother (played by Carmen Maura, herself returning to Almodóvar's film-world after an absence of seventeen years).

The lyrics of Volver (by Alfredo Le Pera) are given in English below (as translated by Walter Kane).

I imagine the flickering of the lights that in the distance will be marking my return.
They're the same that lit, with their pale reflections, deep hours of pain
And even though I didn't want to come back, you always return to your first love
The tranquil street where the echo said yours is her life, yours is her love,
under the mocking gaze of the stars that, with indifference, today see me return.

To return with withered face, the snows of time have whitened my temples.
To feel... that life is a puff of wind, that twenty years is nothing,
that the feverish look, wandering in the shadow, looks for you and names you.
To live... with the soul clutched to a sweet memory that I cry once again

I am afraid of the encounter with the past that returns to confront my life
I am afraid of the nights that, filled with memories, shackle my dreams.
But the traveler that flees sooner or later stops his walking
And although forgetfulness, which destroys all, has killed my old dream,
I keep concealed a humble hope that is my heart's whole fortune.

To live... with the soul clutched to a sweet memory that I cry once again.

Update (28.11.08): Please see the beautiful and illuminating review of this film at Tativille by Michael J. Anderson.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A New Dawning

New recognition. New insight.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

'You are who you are seeking to find': Anagnorisis and gradual revelation

So, I saw Oedipus by Sophocles in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the National Theatre last weekend. It is an excellent production (see a couple of positive reviews HERE and HERE, and a much less convinced one HERE). There's a great little video 'trailer' for the production currently accessible through the National Theatre website that concisely conveys the studied starkness of this version. The weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth is performed, mostly, in austere dark suits and white shirts; Frank McGuinness's text is similarly sleek and contemporary.

What struck me about the play (a version of Oedipus the King, rather than of Oedipus at Colonus), which I had never seen performed before, was that the central revelation is gradual for Oedipus. The Wikipedia article on the play successfully conveys the stages of it; here is its summary of the plot:

The play begins years after Oedipus has taken the throne of Thebes. The Theban chorus cries out to him for salvation from the plague sent by the gods in response to Laius's murder. Oedipus searches for the murderer, unaware that he himself is the murderer.

The blind prophet Teiresias is called upon to aid the search, but, after his warning against following through with it, Oedipus oppugns him as the murderer, even though he is blind and aged. In response, an angry Teiresias tells Oedipus that he is looking for himself ['You are who you are seeking to find' in McGuinness's text], causing the king to become enraged in incredulity. He then accuses the prophet of conspiring with Creon, Jocasta's brother, to overthrow him.

Oedipus calls for one of Laius's former servants, the only surviving witness of the murder, who fled the city when Oedipus became king in order to avoid being the one to reveal the truth. Soon a messenger from Corinth arrives to inform the king of the death of Polybus, whom Oedipus still believes to be his real father. At this point, the messenger informs him that he was in fact adopted and that his true parentage is unknown. In the subsequent discussions between Oedipus, Jocasta, the servant and the messenger, the second-mentioned surmises the truth and runs away in shame.

Oedipus remains stubborn and incredulous until a second messenger arrives with the shepherd, who reveals that Oedipus himself was the child abandoned by Laius. He realises what he is [my emphasis], and leaves in a rage. An attendant then breaks the news that Jocasta has hanged herself. On discovering her body, Oedipus gouges out his eyes with the golden brooches on her dress.

The play ends with Oedipus entrusting his children to Creon and declaring his intent to live in exile. Although he initially begs for the company of his children, Creon refuses, and Oedipus is exiled alone. The theme can perhaps be summarized with a line spoken by Tiresias: "Wisdom is a dreadful thing when it bringeth no profit unto its possessor" (Sophocles). In the denouement, the chorus narrates his tragic history.

The final stage of the play's revelation ('He realises what he is') is all the more powerful for the (live) audience precisely, it seems to me, because we do not share this as the moment of our revelation; we can see what Oedipus 'is' long before him. Instead, the power of this terrible anagnorisis lies in the audience's final apprehension of the extent of Oedipus's blindness up until the encounter with the shepherd, a blindness later made literal; and our understanding that the tragedy consists of the impossibility of living with the knowledge he finally allows to sink in. In this play, it isn't the case at all that it is always darkest before the dawning. This is an ending which is possibly all the more tragic for a contemporary audience, standing, as it does, completely in contradiction to one of the self-evident truths of our reality-TV/DNA testing culture: that self-knowledge, self-seeking, is desirable at all costs. At the end of the play as he is driven out of Thebes, Oedipus is not remotely legible as a 'bowed but better' man (less arrogant, less ignorant), but as a human destroyed, a kind of monster. His complex is very devastatingly resolved in an abject non-identity.

McGuinness gave an interview about his work on the play for The Guardian in which he also speaks very movingly about his childhood:
"Of course we know about Freud, we know about the cliché that Oedipus marries his mother and the rest of it. Obviously it is a very primitive taboo that is taken apart in the play. But I find that when you are tackling a great play, something has to come at you, when you think you know the thing backwards but you don't."

"And with this play I feel it is about how you deal with the loss of your father, the threat of your father. I had an astonishing experience when I was working on Oedipus. My father died 11 years ago and my mother about 10 months before. I have spent the past decade dealing with her death; the death I hadn't really dealt with was my father's. And when it came to tackling the scene where Oedipus calls for his children and says goodbye to them, this dreadful shock came over me and I started to see my father with incredible clarity."

"I'm not saying he manifested himself in front of me, but I think I had some tremendous buried grief and sorrow and fear, and it came to the fore. And that's when it struck me how primitive and powerful and basic this play is. You do have to confront the reality of the fact that you have a father, and your father will die. Oedipus killed his father. I'm not saying you'll go out and do it, but the very fact that you survive, the very fact of your existence, is a testament to your father's death."

"Oedipus the King puts us through the death of its principal character's father repeatedly and relentlessly, in different forms: we are told about the death of Laius, the former king; and we are told about the death of Oedipus's adoptive father, Polybus, whom he loved. Then comes the appalling wrench of Oedipus's discovery that he is a parricide, that not only did he kill Laius, but Laius was his father."

Finally, the blinded Oedipus, about to be exiled from Thebes, in one of the most touching scenes in all of theatre, bids his children goodbye: "He has sentenced them to a terrible life," says McGuinness, "and he is killing them in a way, just as he killed his father. It is the stringency of the writing, the plotting, the sheer skill: how much had we forgotten until Shakespeare came along? There's a ruthlessness there in the Greeks - an absolute pitilessness. And sometimes you need to stand before that kind of judgment, where there's no mercy."

The 'revelation' of this interview for me was that McGuinness, brought up in smalltown Northern Ireland in the 50s and 60s, is gay, and that this (along with his educational ambitions) was a hugely difficult matter for him, as it can be for so many of us, in his relationship with his parents ('I couldn't tell [my mother] I was gay for a long time, for instance. Though I knew - when I was very young."). It also helps, perhaps, to explain the particular power of the climax of his version of Oedipus's tragic cycle of revelation and denial of the always already-known and, especially, of the play's truly terrible understanding of human abjection.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Anagnorisis - back to basics

'History of Theater 2 - Development of Greek Tragedy'
Posted on YouTube by beta0net on May 21, 2008 (link HERE)

There are three good reasons why I wanted to post this great little video: one, it's got mighty quiet on this blog (been busy here, there, and elsewhere), but it will get more worthwhile visiting here again, especially as I am currently inspired to write about a couple of films I've been thinking about in the context of 'recognition' and 'insight', namely The Sweet Hereafter and Mulholland Dr. (the latter partly thanks to a comment posted by Nicholas Galvin); two, this blog clearly gets hits from people seeking basic, but good information about 'anagnorisis' and its origins in Greek tragic drama; and three, I'm just about to go and see a new production of Sophocles' Oedipus, in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the National Theatre, London., starring Ralph Fiennes (also see HERE). So, see you soon/Qa ta poume.

[For more discussion of this subject see the class notes on 'Classical Drama and Theatre' by Mark Damen of Utah State University (link HERE).]

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

R.I.P. Don LaFontaine

That most recognizable of unrecognizable men passed away, sadly, on Monday. Don LaFontaine, who voiced over 5,000 film trailers during his career, died in Los Angeles of complications caused by an ongoing lung-related illness.

The BBC website reported that 'LaFontaine insisted he never cared that no one knew his name or his face, though millions of film fans knew his voice.'

Friday, 25 July 2008

Necklaces and Attentive Recognition 2 (a): House M.D. Season 4 Finale

I have been busy moving office and am about to go on a film-free vacation, so my next proper post on attentive recognition will sadly have to wait until my return in a few weeks. I thought, in the meantime, I'd embed the sequence -- taken from the finale to House M.D. Season 4. (Episode 15: 'House's Head'; Fox Television: USA, 2007-8) -- that I will be discussing in that post (see below), which is also available on YouTube HERE (Note: there are some Spanish subtitles).

As you will see, if you watch it, it is a supremely-constructed, but also fairly graphic and disturbing piece of television narrative, at least from just before two minutes, forty seconds into the clip when we see a bus crash. So, please be warned. Highly impressive storytelling in any case.

Here's a short synopsis of the episode, taken from House: Guide to the TV Show, which has lots of information about the episode generally:

House has suffered a concussion in a bus accident and about the only thing he remembers is that before the crash he disagnosed someone with a life threatening medical problem. So he thinks it is the bus driver, who has some problems. But there are many people on the bus with not just damage from the accident but other things House observes. Only at the end do we discover who the real patient is!

Thanks very much to my (just) former Kent colleague Sergio Dias Branco, a thoughtful and talented writer on television and film, who posted some appreciative comments on my first 'Necklaces and Attentive Recognition' effort in his 'Uses of Philosophy' posting on his very stimulating blog.

Hasta luego, queridos lectores. And happy holidays, if you're having any.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Déjà vu again: Adolfo Bioy Casares's La invención de Morel/The Invention of Morel

A while back I posted a blog entry that referred to Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares's 1940 novella La invención de Morel/The Invention of Morel (see Déjà vu: 'uncanny recognition' or 'perpetual return'?). I wanted to post a link to a really interesting article about this novella that I have come across since which appears on the senses of cinema site. The article -- 'Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation' -- is by Thomas Beltzer; you can access it HERE.

The article deals with issues of literary and filmic recognition in the context of intertextuality and allusion (see also another blog post of mine on Pleasurable recognition in film adaptation). It examines how Alain Resnais's 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) 'more than secretly allude[s] to The Invention of Morel' (Beltzer), but it also examines some of Bioy Casares's own inspiration for his novella (Louise Brooks, H.G.Wells). The allusions to The Invention of Morel performed by Eliseo Subiela's 1986 film Hombre mirando al sudeste/Man Facing Southeast (see also HERE) are also compellingly explored.

Beltzer concludes his fascinating essay thus: 'This basic feeling with which many of us live daily is expressed in the increasing catalogue of ontological vertigo films of which Last Year at Marienbad may be the first in line because of its now-revealed relationship with The Invention of Morel.'

P.S. While I'm on the subject of Bioy Casares's novella, fans of Lost may like to know that the character of Sawyer is seen reading The Invention of Morel in an episode in Season 5. See a nice blog entry on the relevance of this novella for Sawyer's own predicament, at that point in the series (with some very good pictures of Sawyer), at SOME OTHER LOST SCREENS. And, finally, there's a funny little video on Sawyer's general passion for reading ('Reading is Sexy') by LilianaMW at YouTube, though it doesn't include the Bioy Casares episode. OK. Enough Déjà vu already...

Monday, 7 July 2008

Necklaces and Attentive Recognition 1: Hitchcock's Vertigo

A soon-to-be-forthcoming blog post will reveal the real reason for my rapidly developing interest in necklaces and attentive recognition in audiovisual culture. But, partly in order to pave the way for that discussion, I wanted to post this classic example of a Hitchcockian anagnorisis from his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Please forgive the Spanish dubbing (and the obvious plot spoilers if you haven't seen the film - for a full synopsis, click HERE), but this YouTube video clip shows the exact moment -- in a film in which recognition scenes of many kinds abound -- when Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson, played by James Stewart, sees in the mirror the necklace put on by Judy Barton, played by Kim Novak (here "imitating" Madeleine Elster), and then attentively recognises it (i.e. he recalls a virtual image of the necklace that Judy's necklace calls to mind, and then compares the virtual object with the one before him).

What is particularly interesting to me about this example of an attentive recognition scene is how underplayed it is, relatively at least. Vertigo is a film which doesn't otherwise shrink from highly expressive storytelling techniques; indeed, it is known for inventing some, such as the famous Vertigo shot. One of the reasons for the film's greater subtlety here is that, at this point, Scottie is choosing not to give away yet to Judy/Madeleine that he knows her secret; thus he contains his reaction to his memory of Carlotta's necklace.

Another explanation, however, is that an "excessive" heightening of Scottie's reaction is formally unnecessary, because this scene precisely isn't designed to cue exactly the same, shared moment of dawning with the film's audience. Despite the fact that Scottie is a detective, the film doesn't straightforwardly, or solely, employ what David Bordwell and others have labelled "detective narration", at least not throughout its whole duration. A "detective structure" is one in which (using Murray Smith's terms from his 1995 book Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema: 152-154) the range of narration in a film is tightly restricted to the knowledge of an investigating character, so the audience doesn't generally know things in advance of, or long after, the protagonist but usually simultaneously with him/her. In the last part of Vertigo, following the sequence in which we see (and hear) Judy write a letter to Scottie -- torn up and thus unsent -- in which she sets out her deception, the storytelling resembles "melodramatic narration", a form characterised by "a high degree of subjective transparency across various characters": "[i]n a melodramatic alignment structure, the spectator knows much more than any individual character does" (Smith, 1995: 153).

In this case, the audience may or may not exactly remember Carlotta's necklace but, even if we do recall it, it will mean something different to us, compared with what it means to Scottie. This is because we know more -- about Madeleine's murder and Judy's motivation as an at least partially unwitting accomplice to it -- than what is revealed to Scottie by his recognition of the necklace. The particular composition of tragedy in Vertigo requires that Scottie remain ignorant of the "full facts", of which we are cognizant, at least until the very ending of the film. So, while Scottie is convinced at this "mirror stage" that he has fully recognised the necklace, the film's audience witnesses the scene as only a partial, characterological (not intersubjective) anagnorisis, and as an incomplete, if not exactly false, dawning.

© 2008 Catherine Grant

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Bergson, Deleuze, Lury (and Mead)

Bibliographic and 'cybergraphic' notes on Bergson and Matter and Memory, Gilles Deleuze on 'attentive recognition', Celia Lury on 'prosthetic memory' (and George Herbert Mead)

I just came across an online publication of Henri Bergson's Matter and Memory (originally published as: Henri Bergson. Matter and Memory, translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen and Unwin [1911]), courtesy of the Mead Project (see below). It can be accessed HERE. Direct access to chapter 2 ('Of the Recognition of Images. Memory and Brain'), wherein the concept of 'attentive recognition' is discussed, can be accessed HERE.

I also discovered that Celia Lury uses the concept, infused with Deleuze's reworking of it, in her book Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity (Routledge, 1998 - nicely reviewed by Jeffrey Pence at Film-Philosophy). HERE's a Google Book link to some of Lury's exploration of Bergson/Deleuze. And HERE's a link to Deleuze's discussion of attentive recognition in his book Cinema 2: The Time Image (Continuum, 2005). The concept of 'Prosthetic memory' is very nicely applied in a discussion of one of my favourite films - Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, USA, 2001) by Bjorn Ekeberg in the online peer-reviewed journal Image [&] Narrative: a direct link to Ekeberg's article can be found HERE .

Here's how Ekeberg defines 'prosthetic memory', following theorist Alison Landsberg:
In a seminal 1995 essay, Alison Landsberg [*] discusses the implications of what she calls 'prosthetic memory' - memories which do not come from a person's live experience in any strict sense. "Although memory might always have been prosthetic," she writes, "the mass media - technologies which structure and circumscribe experience - bring the texture and contours of prosthetic memory into dramatic relief." In particular, Landsberg contends, cinema has for roughly a century had the capacity to generate experiences and memories of its own - "memories which become experiences that film consumers both possess and feel possessed by." (191) The essential assumption of prosthetic memory as a theoretical construct is that reality always has been mediated, as a consensus upheld through narrative and information cultures - or indeed through the very structure of language itself. The concept of linear time is precisely such a cultural narrative, institutionalized in the grammar of Indo-European languages - a past, a present, a future - and perpetuated by film as a medium. In postmodern theory, the real as an unequivocal condition can be seen to have retreated from its previously uncontested inhabitation of grand structures and narratives, into the realm of the individual - effectively turning reality into a highly (and dangerously) relativistic enterprise. As such, the systematic and proliferated use of prosthetic memory leads to a conception of what we may call 'prosthetic culture' - roughly describing the ways in which culture, seamlessly or not, weaves together individual realities. From this point of view, culture is little more than the standardizing process of individual psychologies.

[* Landsberg, Alison. "Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner" in David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, The Cybercultures Reader . New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 190-203.]

Obviously the notion of 'memories which do not come from a person's live experience in any strict sense' is a very useful one in considering questions of 'false recognition' and déjà vu, as this is blog is wont to do.

[As for the Mead Project, mentioned above, while I'm more interested in Bergsonianism at present, George Herbert Mead's work, and symbolic interactionism generally, is also fascinating, and relevant to explorations of recognition in culture and I hope to return to it in later.]

Friday, 27 June 2008

Attentive recognition, or ‘intersubjective anagnorisis’

This will be the first (and quite possibly the longest) of several postings on this blog on the matter of ‘attentive recognition’, a Bergsonian concept (explained below), which has been taken up in several highly original publications by researcher and theorist Laura U. Marks. I have chosen to begin by presenting (unchanged) a fragment on this concept from the first article I wrote on issues of recognition and cinema: ‘Camera solidaria’ (published in Screen Vol. 38, No. 4, 1997, pp. 311-328).

The article as a whole examined two ‘solidarity’ films in detail: La amiga, a 1989 Argentine-West German co-production, directed by Jeanine Meerapfel; and Un muro de silencio (‘A Wall of Silence’)/Black Flowers, directed by Lita Stantic (Argentina/Mexico/UK, 1993). In general, ‘Camera solidaria’ is a piece I would want to revise a little in the light of critiques, published since, of Hegelian notions of recognition (I will return to this issue later). But I still like the section of the article which explores an ‘attentive recognition’ scene in La amiga, an ‘intersubjective anagnorisis’, as I would like to call it now, so I've reproduced it below. I will return to the general ideas presented here in other postings very shortly.

‘In La amiga, the Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann plays the character of María, a Catholic housewife whose left-wing activist son disappears at the hands of paramilitary forces acting under the orders of the military leaders in the early years of the [Argentine] dictatorship [1976-1983]. María is provoked into joining the protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo by the failure of the conventional methods which she and her husband, Pancho (played by the Argentine actor, Federico Luppi), use to try to find out what happened to their son.[1] Neither María's husband, who gradually seems to ‘give up’ his search for his son, nor her best friend from childhood, the other protagonist of the film, Raquel, a middle-class, Jewish actress (played by Argentine Cipe Lincovsky), ever fully comprehend María’s decision to join the Mothers’ protests. Raquel is forced into exile in Germany because of anti-semitic threats, and actual attacks because of her own oppositional stance to the regime, leaving behind her successful theatrical production of Antigone and Pancho is compelled to ‘face up to the reality that he no longer fills the role of provider and organizer of the family’.[2] Meanwhile María deepens her commitment to the Mothers’ campaign. When Raquel returns from exile after the end of the dirty war, María is now one of the Mothers’ leading spokeswomen, whereas Raquel struggles to find her place in the new Argentina, toying with the idea of producing a play about the Mothers.

One of the most enjoyable formal elements in La amiga is its use of two female-friend protagonists - María and Raquel - with their separate but intertwining stories which strand two continents and two countries (Argentina and Germany). In this ‘female buddy movie’ structure, it resembles certain films from North America in the 1970s, made against the backdrop of the increasingly influential women’s movement (such as the late Fred Zinnemann’s Julia, 1977), and in the1980s (such as Beaches, Garry Marshall, 1988). In La amiga, we are not only shown the history of María and Raquel’s friendship (as in Julia and Beaches) but screen time and space seem fairly evenly divided between the two women’s stories.[3]

Meerapfel has stated that she had long wanted to make a film about the story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from her voluntary exile in Germany. According to the director, parts of María’s story are loosely based on the experiences of one of the founder members of the Mothers’ Movement, Hebe de Bonafini, who stayed with the director in Berlin while she was giving talks at political meetings there.[4] In the earliest drafts of the script, the film was to have only one protagonist: the character of the Mother. But Meerapfel has said that these versions just did not work: María was turning out to be an ultra-‘saintly’ and uninteresting character. What was needed was an antagonist (‘una antípoda’) to provide a productive dichotomy for the film’s structure.[5] At this stage Meerapfel began to collaborate with the Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland, who got a screenplay development credit. Together they worked on the plot structure, coming up with the idea of a story about two childhood friends, one Catholic, one Jewish, who eventually grow apart because of their different experiences of and responses to the events of the dirty war: María (like most of the real Mothers) uncompromising in her pursuit of the truth about her son’s disappearance, and Raquel who only wants to ‘preserve the little bit of democracy that we actually have’. Like the characters in La historia oficial [The Official Story, aka The Official Version, directed by Luis Puenzo, Argentina 1985] the two protagonists of Meerapfel’s film may ‘stand’, therefore, on one level, for irreconcilably different attitudes towards the fight for justice in post ‘dirty-war’ Argentina, as well as, on another, more ‘universal’ level, for fundamentally opposing attitudes towards political struggle in general: pragmatism versus idealism (classic tropes in the Argentine cinema of ‘redemocratization’). In the opinion of the film-maker, the invention of the character of Raquel led to the possibility of creatively exploring the ‘friction between two different realities’,[6] which are clearly personal and political at one and the same time.

Like other ‘new women’s pictures’ about female friendship, La amiga is a highly self-reflexive film. It inscribes in its very plot and structure similar kinds of identificatory pleasures and displeasures as those which might be experienced by the film’s actual audiences.[7] The film begins with an idealised narrative recounting the origins of the two women’s friendship in pre-pubescent girlhood and depicts the pleasures for the two young girls of what Jackie Stacey has called the ‘intimacy between femininities’.[8] Then the film proceeds to ‘spoil’ this ‘ideal’ friendship by setting narrative obstacles for the two adult women characters in the way of a return to the relationship shown in these first, highly enjoyable images of plenitude and reciprocity. Spectators may well align themselves, consciously and unconsciously, with different protagonists at different points. But, above all with this film, they are likely to desire precisely a return to the pleasurable cinematic friendship established in the title sequence, mirroring the desires of the two characters to do just this at certain points in the narrative.

The women’s friendship is born of María’s girlhood act of solidarity with Raquel in the face of an anti-semitic attack by a group of children, led by Pancho, who later marries María. The film ends with Raquel’s act of solidarity as she goes to see María, despite their fundamental differences, to listen finally to her point of view. By ‘solidarity’ I mean to imply here a political act of positioning oneself with an other as a result of an act of empathy. As Madan Sarup writes, ‘Solidarity implies readiness to fight and joining the battle for the sake of the other’s difference, not one’s own’.[9] And, as Richard Rorty argues, to be imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. ...It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people.[10]
The references in these quotes to ‘the other’s difference’, and to ‘strange’ and ‘unfamiliar’ people are significant here since La amiga’s first sequence shows an act of solidarity precisely with a character who is perceived to be an outsider, at least from the point of view of the supposed ethnic group (Italo-Argentines) to which María and her schoolfriends belong. The group of friends have gone to a cemetery to bury a canary. As the uninvited Raquel joins them they call her ‘Rusa de mierda’ (‘Russian Yid’ [see Lindstrom for more information about anti-semitism in Argentina])[11], despite the fact that, as later becomes evident in the film, her ancestors were German Jews. She is not allowed at the ‘funeral’ because ‘our canary is Catholic’. María defends her new friend with her knowledge that Jews can attend Catholic funerals (her grandmother’s funeral had been attended by their Jewish family-doctor). In the ensuing fight, the poor canary gets trampled under foot.

This opening sequence, is followed by a scene in Raquel’s family home which depicts María’s enjoyable identification with Raquel’s ‘foreignness’ or Jewishness. This scene displays María’s visceral pleasure in the putting on of the other’s ‘unfamiliar’ clothes (which Raquel says ‘smell of Europe’) as the girls play at dressing up, while she sips away at her mate gourd, a common cinematic signifier of Argentinicity. The sequence also involves an uncanny imitation by María of her friend singing a Yiddish family song (María notes that Raquel’s parents ‘speak funny’). This scene depicts an act of mirroring as well, as the two girls play a clapping game while they sing.
María’s identification with Raquel is followed by Raquel’s identification with María (and with being ‘Argentinian’), in a beautiful sequence filmed on a pier where the two girls have gone to watch a film on an open-air screen. Raquel tastes María’s dulce de leche (caramel spread) cake, another ubiquitous signifier of Argentinicity. As the two girls gaze at the film melodrama being projected, Raquel also mirrors María’s expressed desire to be an actress, sharing her new friend’s identification with the great Argentine actress, Libertad Lamarque, who is at that moment delivering on the screen the kind of impassioned musical monologue for which she became renowned at the height of her stardom in the women’s pictures of the 1930s and 1940s.[12] The two girls swear a blood pact of allegiance and their friendship appears to be eternally sealed.

In many respects, however, after the opening moments of the film, the narrative is not really one about the pleasures of identification in friendship. Instead, most of La amiga is taken up with the story of the estrangement of the two women. Aside from the two women’s political differences, the problems in the friendship seem to arise partly because at a certain point in the film it is clear that María has stopped empathising with Raquel, no longer able to identify with her situation as a Jewish woman under attack. In a scene in Raquel’s downtown apartment where the actress is making plans to go into exile in Germany after the bomb attack on her production of Antigone, María accuses her friend of cowardice in not wanting to stay and fight. Later, when the two meet up again as María goes to Berlin to speak to the West German President on behalf of the Mothers’ Movement, María cannot accept her friend’s gesture in taking her to visit the cemetery where some of Raquel’s Jewish ancestors are buried. She interprets it, correctly it seems, as Raquel’s attempt to convince her that, historically, others who have experienced the pain of oppression and loss have taken solace in knowing where their loved ones are buried. Yet Raquel’s desire for closure is incompatible with María’s desire for knowledge and justice in her search for her son and so she quite violently rejects her friend’s attempt to bridge the gap between them.[13]

The long-awaited moment of the two women’s final reconciliation is deferred, suitably enough, until the end of the film. This ‘epilogue’, set in 1986 against the background of the Mothers’ demonstrations against the ‘Full Stop’ Law, takes up almost directly from the moment, some three years before, of the definitive rupture in the two women’s friendship when Raquel tells María in a Buenos Aires cemetery that if she carries on refusing to compromise over her son’s death, ‘You’re going to end up on your own and I won’t be there for you’. Their long-desired reconciliation is made possible by a kind of ‘joke catharsis’ when, as the two women begin to argue once more about their different politics, Raquel finally lets María into a big secret: she hates her friend’s dulce de leche cake, an unexpected comment which shatters the uncomfortable atmosphere between the two estranged friends, but which, notably, leaves their differences intact. Nonetheless, they may walk together to sit once more before the now blank cinema screen at the same pier location as at the beginning of the film. As María finally explains to Raquel why she holds the beliefs she does, the two friends are framed together in a final image of solidarity, as the credits roll and the camera pans away to the horizon.

I would like to analyse one sequence in [some] detail to show how the film potentially allows the spectator similar possibilities for identification to those of the women characters. Shortly after the German cemetery scene, there is a head and shoulders shot of María standing in a Berlin street, looking at a shop window, as an upset Raquel moves behind her out of shot. The film cuts to a reverse medium shot showing María’s point of view: cages of canaries in the window. Then it cuts back quickly to the same shot as before, showing María’s reaction to what she has seen, a look of anguish. For María this is an uncanny experience, in the Freudian sense, but it is also a moment of what Bergson called ‘attentive recognition’.[14] She oscillates between seeing the object (the canaries), recalling the virtual image it calls to mind (the earlier canary in the Buenos Aires cemetery), and comparing the virtual object with the one before her. She is shown to be remembering in this way her initial act of solidarity with Raquel, a memory which she must have repressed to have reacted differently in the face of Raquel’s Jewishness on subsequent occasions. This sequence, however, can only be ‘read’ in the above way if the caged canaries shown in the reverse shot prompt the spectator to recall the canary shown at the beginning of the film and to create, like María, a semantic connection between the two images. Attentive recognition is, then, in this case, potentially a participatory notion of spectatorship.[15] It requires of the spectator an act of memory, an act of imagination and an act of identification or empathy with a fictional character to ‘work’. If the spectator takes up the semantic challenge set by the film’s many such non-linear, visual cues, they can make the intended associative links: in this case, with one of the symbols in the film of Jewishness, but also with that of the lack of respect for the dead which connects both of the women, in different ways, to the theme of Antigone. It is an invitation to an act of solidarity, one of many such invitations that this complex film makes.'

© 2008 Catherine Grant

[1] John King, ‘Assailing the heights of macho pictures: Women film-makers in contemporary Argentina’, in Susan Bassnett (ed), Knives and Angels: Women Writers in Latin America (London: Zed Press, 1990) pp. 158-170, p. 167.
[2] John King, ‘Assailing the heights...’, p. 169.
[3] John King argues that María’s story is given more emotional weight in the film, partly because she is given the ‘last word’: ‘Assailing the heights...’, p. 168.
[4] Jeanine Meerapfel’s comment at a Colloquium at the Filmoteca Española in Madrid, February 11 1997.
[5] My interview with Jeanine Meerapfel, Madrid, February 12, 1997.
[6] My interview with Jeanine Meerapfel.
[7] A point Jackie Stacey makes of the films with two female protagonists which she analyses in ‘Desperately Seeking Difference’ in Gamman and Marshment (eds), The Female Gaze (London: The Women’s Press, 1988, 1994), pp. 112-129, p. 115
[8] Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 172.
[9] Madan Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996) p. 62.
[10] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p.xvi.
[11] This is a common anti-semitic slur in Argentina to where many Jewish migrants fled from oppression in Eastern Europe in the first half of this century.
[12] The film is Ayúdame a vivir, directed by José A.(el “Negro”) Ferreyra (Argentina 1936).
[13] The film alludes here, and elsewhere, to the discovery, in the aftermath of the ‘dirty war’, of mass graves (known popularly as the ‘No Names’ or ‘NN’ graves). The graves were ‘presented’ to the relatives of the ‘disappeared’ by the democratic government agencies as ‘proof’ that their children were dead. While some relatives accepted them, the more hard-line group of Mothers (like the fictional María) refused to acknowledge them since this would legitimize attempts to put a ‘full stop’ to the fight for justice. John King links these allusions in La amiga to its theme of Antigone; while Raquel plays Antigone, María is an ‘Antigone in reverse’: King, ‘Assailing the heights...’, p. 168.
[14] Here I am paraphrasing Laura Marks, ‘Deterritorialized filmmaking: a Deleuzian politics of hybrid cinema’, Screen, vol. 35, no. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 244-264, p. 254.
[15] Laura Marks, ‘Deterritorialized filmmaking’, p. 256.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Déjà vu: 'uncanny recognition' or 'perpetual return'?

Sigmund Freud first attempted an explanation of déjà vu in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), where he described it as a "perceptual judgement" which relates to the recollection of an unconscious fantasy and represents a wish to improve the current situation. Related notions of ewige Wiederkunft, or perpetual (physical or perceptual) return were already quite prominent in German and European thought by the time Freud was exploring his psychoanalytic understanding of these concepts. Consider the following quotation from Nietzsche's The Gay Science:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

And, also, see the beautiful poem, below, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, written in 1853/4, which inspired Jorge Luis Borges in the prologue to his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares's 1940 novella La invención de Morel/The Invention of Morel, which, in turn, has inspired numerous films, including Eliseo Subiela's magical 1986 movie Hombre mirando al sudeste/Man Facing Southeast.

Sudden Light

I HAVE been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turn’d so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

[Then, now,--perchance again!...
O round mine eyes your tresses shake!
Shall we not lie as we have lain
Thus for Love's sake,
And sleep, and wake, yet never break the chain?]

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

If you would like to read more about Hombre mirando al sudeste, click HERE to access a pdf of the following article of mine: Catherine Grant, 'Giving up Ghosts: Eliseo Subiela's Hombre mirando al sudeste and No te mueras sin decirme a dónde vas', Changing Reels: Latin American Cinema against the Odds, eds. Rob Rix and Roberto Rodríguez-Saona [Leeds: Leeds Iberian Papers - Trinity and All Saints/University of Leeds, 1997], pp. 89-120.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A simile to my face

Some thoughts have been inspired by a double take (a form of recognition in itself, of course) repeatedly prompted, for me, by sight of what I interpret as the mischievous, malapropistic subtitle of Factotum (A Man Who Preforms [sic??] Many Jobs (Bent Hamer, USA 2005). See what Neil Young says in his Film Lounge review (7th November, 2005):
Although the film is generally referred to in the media simply as Factotum, the title is actually given on-screen as Factotum (A man who preforms many jobs), and therefore appears as such on the British Board of Film Classification's certificate which precedes the film in UK cinemas. The mis-spelling of 'performs' as 'preforms' is presumably accidental/careless, unless Hamer intended to make some kind of jokey point about drunken people spelling things incorrectly. Evidence of the famed Norwegian sense of humour?
Most reviews of the film didn't exactly reproduce the film's subtitle in this way, preferring to substitute (as does the Internet Movie Database) Factotum: A Man Who Performs Many Jobs. I'm not sure that the spelling is accidental or careless, given the subject matter of the film; thus I prefer the 'jokey' thesis. Like others, I'm sure, I enjoy the idea that, even when it is 'recognised' as a misspelling, 'preforms' provokes a rushed (and potentially unnecessary and pompous) brandishing of the [sic] 'editorial reflex'. Indeed, not being prompted to double-take -- to single-take wrongly, as it were -- is here (potentially, at least) an interesting form of error recognition, or misrecognition, as well as a failure to take up a chance for pleasurable 'error recognition' (irony?), an interesting subcategory of pattern recognition to which I shall (must!) return. It's a highly preformative one, too.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Varieties of 'The Reveal'

The Reveal

The pivot in any plotline is often The Reveal. A character is revealed as another character's mother, a god, or secret suitor or arch nemesis in disguise. More broadly, the audience is given new information which had been withheld to create suspense. The Reveal changes the nature of the plot, often pushing it from suspense towards action. A good reveal will also create a new set of questions and further suspense.

Luke, I Am Your Father

Darth Vader: If you only knew the power of The Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No. I am your father.
Luke Skywalker: No...that's not true! That's impossible!
Darth Vader: Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

- Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back



The moment of recognition or discovery (especially in myths, plays, films, etc.)

[From Latin, from Greek anagnorizein (to recognize or discover). Ultimately from Indo-European root gno- (to know) that is the ancestor of such words as know, can, notorious, notice, connoisseur, recognize, diagnosis, ignore, annotate, noble, and narrate.]