Close-Up on Leandro Listori's "La película infinita"

A rule-bending cinematic experiment explores and celebrates unfinished Argentinian films.
Andrew Northrop

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Leandro Listori's La película infinita (2018) is showing January 31 – March 1, 2019 exclusively on MUBI as part of the series Direct from Rotterdam.

Still from La película infinita (2018) 

When Leandro Listorti’s La película infinita premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2018, the synopsis described the tapestry of unfinished Argentinian films as a “cinematic Frankenstein.” An allegorical reference to Frankenstein’s monster is poignant when we consider the vernacular we often employ around film archives and restorations. We endearingly refer to the "lost film"—examples that exist in record only, largely due to prints (especially volatile nitrate ones) having been hastily discarded or poorly stored. When these prints or camera negatives resurface, the terminology we use often implies that there was a prior state of death involved, with phrases like "revived," "discovered," "bought back from the dead" used in marketing efforts and word of mouth alike. Inclusive of prominent examples like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), films that are "lost," "unseen" or "incomplete" are effectively referred to by us as deceased until they are once again witnessed. In this regard, the notion of La película infinita operating like a reanimated cadaver of lost cinematic limbs and organs is apt.

Listorti currently works in the film archive at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires and has long worked on an independent project compiling information on unfinished Argentinian productions. A handful of prints were located as part of that research, and La película infinita emerged as a way of celebrating their, albeit somewhat incohesive, existence. From a historical perspective, the films—which were digitized at Cinecolor in Argentina—showcase the various thematic and aesthetic currents that Argentinian filmmakers have engaged with over several decades. Amongst the films, there’s even a 1984 attempt at adapting Zama, which forges an uncanny link to the recently released Lucrecia Martel version. Coincidentally, Martel’s film also flirted with incompletion when it was put on hold following her diagnosis with cancer. Towards the end of the La película infinita, Martel’s adaptation of the comic book El Eternauta, which never found its way to fruition, is referenced through a shot of moulded hands crafted during its pre-production stage. It also shouldn’t be overlooked that many of these films act as time capsules to areas of Argentina which have likely since changed due to urban development. The bustle of the urban street figures prominently, giving La película infinita a travelogue-like quality at points, with protagonists walking past busy shops and occupying stylistic phone booths.

Still from La película infinita (2018) 

Listorti’s film acts as a valuable historical document in this regard, but its editing style also distinguishes it as being a instinctive, rulebook-bending cinematic experiment, which avoids the familial documentary rigidness in favor of something more explorative. Forgoing narration or talking heads, and with some examples seemingly more mysterious than others, the film affords the viewer a degree of subjective and participatory freedom. Its a fluid composition that juxtaposes the films’ clippings along instinctive threads, gifting the viewer with the distinguished use of their own free will in terms of what elements they choose to focus on and obsess over. With so much going on behind the surface, and playing on the films' fractured states, La película infinita starts to feels rhizomic.

Like the complex workings of a city’s transportation grid firing off red, green and amber lights at multiple junctions, La película infinita’s multitude of lost cinematic moments constantly opens new streets and possibilities for each individual viewer to wander down, based on their own subjectivity and interests. The aforementioned awareness of the Martel productions may be one of the many tangents that you pick up on depending on your knowledge of certain cinematic histories, or you may begin to construct an overarching narrative that starts with the initial appearance of a chalk outline and evolves with a woman making phone calls about a disappearance. You might instead choose to look for repeat instances of a single film and try to delineate its intended plot, or take note of changes in aspect ratio and film stocks. An individual character’s facial expression or emotional state might tease a thought path towards their motivations and back story, and if you live in Argentina, spotting certain locations and how they might have changed decades later may offer a viewing experience that differs radically from others’. There is no right or wrong way to consume the film’s many facets, but there is a complexity to be gleaned, from which unique forms and associations can evolve. These tangents all make for a viewing experience that favors repeat viewings in a positive manner. A lot of this power has to do with La película infinita’s editing style, which does much to subtly highlight the formal aspects of filmmaking without them necessarily overpowering the pre-existing material.

Digitizing films for La película infinita

When film reels aren’t kept or played in ideal conditions, it is to be expected that they take on new physical qualities. Tramlines, scratches, faded colors, shrinkage and other cosmetic issues all begin to emerge. Drawn-on film leaders with lines of marker pen flashing past, various countdown timers, the quick appearance of a "leader lady," a shot with crosses drawn over each frame, the blue and green hues caused by the decay of a print’s emulsion: These elements become part of La película infinita’s texture and contribute to the film’s subjective viewing experience if you allow them to, becoming just as intriguing as the footage behind and around them. The shift between black and white and color film stocks also becomes part of this, highlighting aesthetic choices and genre changes in many cases. Almost all of the films that we could presume to be horrors or murder mysteries, such as those seen in the opening moments, are shot on black and white stock for example. 

Editing La película infinita

In kind, the audible elements of the analogue filmmaking process are always within earshot. We often hear the faint clacking sound of a projector, or the rustling sound that you often hear on older, worn prints with optical sound. Considering that many of the reels would not have had sound attributed to them, La película infinita instead chooses to manipulate and address the universal reliance on sound effects and soundtracks, highlighting our reliance on those forms, and our easy identification of how things are "meant to sound." Some examples find themselves delicately linked through the addition of foley, evoking generic or familiar locations—the bustle of the public street, torrential rain, or the sounds amongst rustling trees. In other shots, specific sound effects are matched to action (gunshots feature quite a few times—perhaps an analogy to the act of "shooting a film"), whilst dialogue often remains mute, save for a few chosen renditions of scripts. Other shots are married with sound effects or soundtracks that might reflect the film’s genre (a man sitting upright in a bathtub with a bag over his head is imparted with an unsettling, guttural rumble). What results is a disjointed, preternatural feeling, which succeeds in highlighting how these films still navigate a space wherein they are considered incomplete, and indeed untenable if it were not for appearing within the context of Listorti’s film. 

Still from La película infinita (2018) 

The final credits devote their time to listing the productions that the pieces of footage hail from, and Listorti and his colleagues intend to release a book that compiles the wide-ranging information they have on nearly 140 unfinished Argentinian films. Of those films, the team only gained access to footage from 20, with 16 films listed in the credits. What exists in conjunction are stills, scripts, storyboards and other keepsakes. As the film’s title implies (La película infinita translates to "The Endless Film"), gleaning information on "lost" films is a constantly evolving and incredibly time-consuming process. It’s also a potentially endless goal, but one which is endlessly fascinating to watch unfold in turn, especially when new cinematic moments emerge as part of that.

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