Step Inside the Camera Obscura: Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas Feb 1, 2015

by Jay Kuehner

Standing on a typically cobbled San Telmo street corner in Buenos Aires, I unintentionally stumble upon Bar Sur, the milonga eternalized on screen to quite ambient effect by the presence of a careening Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together. The sight conjures the film’s score of Astor Piazzolla’s sadly wheezing bandoneons eddying around the tango of two Hong Kong lovers fighting, drinking, smoking, sleeping, breaking up and getting back together, while time flows by like the revolving kitschy souvenir lamp of Iguazu Falls that sits tableside in their exquisitely despoiled hotel flat (somewhere in La Boca). Suddenly, I’m pleasantly embalmed in a ‘filmic’ moment, albeit one that is, essentially, an illusory projection of a Hong Kong filmmaker’s nostalgia for a place he had never seen until shooting but rather intuited through the novels of Manuel Puig and the records of Piazzolla. The street I now inhabit has become a stage, full of resonant cultural memories, which becomes increasingly apparent by the advance of Japanese tourists upon the site, who’ve come to pay homage to Wong, or Leslie, or Tony Leung, or the drunken sailor cinematographer who glossed the scenes into our collective consciousness, Christopher Doyle. We’re all pressed up against the windows, staring in, looking for something, reliving a movie memory that we’re convinced still lives within the sumptuously shabby walls of the old bar. I’ve become an unwitting player in this momentary urban theatre, with my only recourse to the real afforded by the sight of street cartoneros who have resourcefully created a sidewalk asado nearby, grilling meat in the literal gutter, entirely indifferent to the history of cinema that attends the occasion while themselves lending a whiff of authenticity to a city that artists have long romanticized for its gritty patina.

It’s a moment I can’t easily snap out of - which is the eternal moment, the perpetual condition, mined by Pensotti. The seance of fiction intrudes on my traveling reality, altering it, begging the question: how is experience rendered through fictional stories, and how do our shared fictions bear on our private experiences? This conundrum is the site of Pensotti’s Cineastas; scarcely the stuff of urgent existential crises, but rather the seldom flattering filler between representation and reality that constitutes so much of our quotidian lives, embodied in Cineastas’ opening scene in which the perfectly schlubby Marcelo Subiotto lies face down on the floor, inert, uninspired, perhaps drunk, while somewhere nearby a filmmaker dreams. Of course, in Pensotti’s clever split-level mise en scene (recalling a memorable bit of composition from Tati’s Playtime), one man’s literal floor is another’s figurative ceiling, and never more so in the act of artistic endeavor, in which sordid lives are often given idolatrous reprieve through the temporal ointment of the camera. One of the takeaways from Cineastas is the bittersweet irony that there is always someone living below you, be they the poor souls whom filmmakers so eagerly want to nominate as characters, or the bottomless self, the abyss of failure that attends even exalted lives when the day’s curtain closes. Somewhere there’s a subtitle beneath the events of anyone’s life, our actions beholden to lines that seem to be writing us. We experience this unfolding as a tragedy, but to a spectator, our life plays out like a farce.

The faithfulness with which our lives can be represented, or with which we can represent our lives, is one of Cineastas’ droll enigmas. The specter of simulation and simulacra looms large over Argentine letters since the publication of Borges’ On Exactitude in Science, in which a cartographer’s guild strikes an uncanny facsimile of a real empire such that it displaces the original. Pensotti seems invested less in the post-modern implications of this and instead burrows beneath the dirty rug that lays over some imagined reality to discern that everything indeed has a cover story, down to our privatest lies and unrealized hopes. Peel it back and there is no reveal that one can point to as true, authentic, reflective of just who or how we are; our ‘selves’ are constructed through contingency and in the cruel flow of time. In The Past is a Grotesque Animal, Pensotti set his players upon a ceaselessly revolving stage; in Cineastas he cuts into time by bringing that old cinematic conceit of simultaneity to bear on the ever-present space of the theatre. This compression of narrative space creates a rather appreciable sense of disparity, not only between a filmmaker and her subject, but between what we contain and what we will into being. That Pensotti and his comically nimble cast can achieve such a vast range of narrative and emotional content through such a relatively austere material framework is crucial to the piece’s pleasures, but the methodology isn’t incidental; it reflects the nature of storytelling as iterated in different mediums. For example, film can be especially effective at showing man in landscape, but is challenged by the attempt to represent the interior landscape of man. This is where words become important, capable of transporting the speaker, and by extension the listener (artist and audience) to exotic (or mundane) lands full of heroic (or damning) deeds, without leaving the room. Hence the prolix power of Cineastas, wherein we travel to Cannes, Bolivia, and the tragic past of Argentina’s dictatorial legacy of desaparicedos, while remaining relegated to the gym, the disco, and barely furnished apartments. Pensotti intimates that it is this domain in which we are most revealed and vulnerable, as opposed to our wished-for destinations that success has allowed us to flirt with. In this sense, for Pensotti, we can never really leave home. Fictions are constructed around our attempts to un-domesticate, we can experience our lives as genres, but we are eternally returned to the humble flat, the office cubicle, the chair and table which is the basic architecture of the self. It’s telling that there is an omnipresent William Eggleston photo hanging on the wall, with its strange charge of objective composure evinced in the most banal tableau of a car park.

Less about filmmakers and films per se than an inquiry into the medium’s formal capacity to express (or in some cases, stunt) a semblance of the experiential, Cineastas employs cinema’s devices within a theatrical setting to create a ‘filmic drama’ that seems to parody the ‘New Argentine Cinema’ while being a kind of primer to it. Eisenstein’s theory of montage gets a send up among the characters while Pensotti uses similar juxtapositional methods to tease out contextual meaning (disparate scenarios and character’s gestures are occasionally rhymed to show how the same gesture might be absurd or elegant depending on the context of, say, an audition or a doctor’s visit). Cross-cutting is implied by temporal and characterological shifts. Voiceover, the literary crutch of filmmaking that grants intimate access to characters’ otherwise inaccessible interiority, is here employed as a Brechtian distancing effect, a kind of ironic commentary on the ‘action’ that doesn’t necessarily illuminate what we’re seeing as much as underscore its sense of absurdity. Close-ups occur only in the mind’s eye, furnished by the acute details rendered by Pensotti’s sublimely discursive script. The actors gesticulate in a manner reserved for film, in which the camera’s supposedly watchful eye turns even the most discrete gestures into histrionic movements, in the name of naturalism (the play’s opening scene is shrouded in sound, putting the characters at a remove similar to the register of a film, as if in amber).

Sergei Eisenstein montage editing example

While Cineastas bears no biographical resemblance to the directors whom Pensotti interviewed as inspiration, there is plenty of allusion to the documentary/fiction hybrids that populate Argentine cinema in its traveled (i.e. international film festival circuit) iteration. The Bazinian distinction that every film is a record of its own making, in essence a documentary in spite of itself (which Godard would riff on: “I started with fiction and discovered the real; but behind the real is again fiction.”), is treated by Pensotti like a playground rather than a didactic discovery. What if, he proposes, the parts of a film based upon your real life were excised from the final cut - would you experience yourself, your memory, the same? Are our actions pre-determined by existing fictions, in which our sense of anticipation in the present is foreclosed by our previous interface with cultural archetypes? If a Japanese film crew made a film based on your life in their native language, would you recognize yourself in it? If a production built a set so appealingly inhabitable, can you blame poor Bolivians for taking up residence in it?

Pensotti’s work can be situated within the context of (another) new wave of Argentine cinema that has yet to reach a global audience, namely the films of Mariano Llinas (whose modestly monumental Historias Extraordinarios can be seen as cinematically commensurate to Pensotti’s infinitely digressive but hyper-protean The Past Is A Grotesque Animal) and Matías Piñeiro (whose self-reflexive but obtuse variations on Shakespeare and Sarmiento - Viola, They All Lie, Rosalinda - are possessed of an equally referential textuality). Films such as Alejo Moguillansky’s Castro and The Golden Bug bear a mutual influence when it comes to an all-inclusive attitude toward genre (not only can Cineastas shift from political drama to avant garde to telenovela, it does so often within the same ‘frame’). So too is Pensotti indebted to the dry mannerism of the pioneering director Martin Rejtman, whose films The Magic Gloves and Silvia Prieto could be viewed as out-takes from Pensotti’s pained directors’ imaginations. The list goes on; indeed Pensotti’s work often plays like a recitation of cultural references, such that Balzac may get air time along with Roberto Bolaño, Fernando Solanos with Leonardo Favio, by way of Hugo Santiago and Grupo Krapp. Oh, and let’s not forget the writer Bioy Casares, contemporary of Borges, whose lean fiction of the fantastic has become inspiration for both Last Year at Marienbad and reality television shows like Lost. It’s an irony not even Pensotti could invent.  

Eschewing the comfortable staple of cinematic storytelling that demands narrative arc, Cineastas operates more an a plane that ripples with incident and a kind of non-equitur logic. There isn’t a plot or host of subplots so much as narrative yarns, unspooled and then recoiled. In the act of tracing threads to their ends and then back again, what we’re left with isn’t the beguiling sense of watching someone’s personal trajectory but of time’s inexorable passing, of change, of how this shapes the lives paraded before us. We can’t see the gaping absences of our own histories, the static shots and protracted passages of our life’s movie. It is this emotionally rugged, oft-spoken but rarely seen or screened terrain that Pensotti renders so palpably true, so comically tragic. You realize all along that the important furniture in your life has been moved about by the fastidious work of a stagehand, who may or may not be acting.