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.

No comments: