Visual Vagabond: The Films of Matías Piñeiro

“When history is what it should be, it is an elaboration of cinema.” —Ortega y Gasset

 

“The key for me is finding some rhythm of the film, not so much in the plot from a traditional sense but, rather, from its internal rhythm.” —Matías Piñeiro

1

There are works of art that affect in bulk, all at once; these are the aesthetic experiences that unify, that impose boundaries on the license of eye and ear. Other works of art achieve a dissociated and dissociating stylistic program; these are the works that cannot be experienced or understood as feats of synthesis, or as products of a single point of view.

While much of the art of the past century might be described as an effort toward a radical disaffiliation of elements—word and image, depth and surface, form and content—awareness of a quarrelsome relationship between two presumably incompatible ways of making and experiencing works of art (the “total” or unified work on the one hand; the dissociated, asynchronous work on the other) is hardly new. What Gotthold Ephraim Lessing famously found objectionable about painting in the 18th century was that, unlike the evocative consecutive power of the poem, objects arranged coextensively in space forfeit the quality of our attention; the painter, in Lessing’s view, is the benefactor of a single, unimpeachable moment—the frozen moment of the canvas.

Some of the most interesting art being made today devise responses to this rather longstanding debate about what the parameters of a work of art are, or what they ought to be. For instance, the tendency of much of contemporary performance art to involve its audience in the design or completion of otherwise “unfinished” scripts, tasks, exercises, etc., is, in effect, one technique for turning viewing spaces into collaborative work environments, into interactive happenings cluttered by multiple points of view. A great deal of the new sound and image installations, by contrast, exist as total, immersive sensorial experiences: a roomful of speakers or a gallery converted entirely into color fields require a spectator who continuously expends, rather than receives or reframes, attention.

Under these conditions, two supplementary vocational models appear for the artist: the scientist and the mystic. One is the domain of hypothesis and repetition, of the chance operation; the other, of strenuousness and self-abnegation, of a sensibility that deploys extreme states of feeling and modes of conduct.

2

The three films written and directed by Matías Piñeiro to date might be treated as illustrations of the former model. Born in Buenos Aires in 1982, Piñeiro has been compared—at least by a small handful of critics in this country—to early Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, to a cinema invariably talk-heavy and high-energy, to films about the young and the playful, the urban and the prolix. But if Piñeiro’s comparatively small, but by no means shallow, output can be spoken of with any confidence as a stylistically confederated body of work1, then it may also be possible to say that his is cinema with its own preoccupations and pleasures, most of which have very little to do with the nouvelle vague. That is, one doesn't have to be familiar with the pop politics and pop tones of Godard's Sixtiesor with Rivette’s treatment of role-playing and the theatre, to be in tune with, to understand Piñeiro.

Not that being able to understand these films represents their sole value or interest (it doesn’t, although this is hardly a very satisfying expectation to have of a work of art anyway). But what I do want to suggest is that the fleet, aleatory sensibility that makes Piñeiro’s films so attractive—and, I think, worth championing—risks opacity and charges of derivativeness when viewed chiefly as an inheritance, or as the sapping of an aesthetic tradition that it never exceeds. When Piñeiro talks about his taste for a “fragmented narrative, free and autonomous in its parts,” he may very well be repeating, in addition to the remarks of any other number of filmmakers, Rivette’s own statement made during the shortening of his twelve-hour and forty-minute Out 1: Noli me tangere into the four-hour Out 1: Spectre that the latter ought to be “closer to a puzzle or a crossword game, playing less on affectivity and more on rhymes or oppositions, ruptures or connections, caesuras or censorships.” And yet, it may no longer be necessary to maintain, at least not under all circumstances, Walter Benjamin’s repeated claim that all great works either “found a genre or dissolve one.” Perhaps—and this is Piñeiro’s contribution—it is sufficient to refine one.

It is with an appreciation for the considerable aesthetic intelligence and sensitivity necessary not to inaugurate but to contribute successfully to a tradition—the tradition of montage—that Piñeiro's films should be viewed.

3

In the cinema, montage is the preferred strategy of fragmentation. Used to break up, to disarrange scenes and images, it offers one way of countering some of the more assimilating conventions of film editing: to stay transparent as a technique, to clarify motives and causes, to give the viewer the advantage—through crosscutting, establishing shots, expository intertitles, cutaways, etc.—of omniscience.

But the twin standards of clarity and transparence are not, indeed cannot be, the  standards of Piñeiro’s work. There are far different needs, different prerogatives to satisfy. For, unlike a cinema whose main achievement is the cool, unfussy omniscience of it audience, Piñeiro’s films give an impression of unlimited improvisation; the pieces of the narrative, or the rules of the game, are rearranged continuously so that, at any given moment, we feel independent of (or less encumbered by) an authoritative point of view. And this is the accomplishment of their style of montage: the shots of park statues and feral cats that interrupt a moment of romantic intrigue in The Stolen Man, for instance, or the film’s division into chapter headings that have very little to do with its content and chronology, are appeals less to formal cohesiveness than efforts to maximize, if only obliquely, the film's itinerant range. Piñeiro’s narratives are thus assembled according to a policy that gives us multiple visions of multiple things simultaneously; the preference for the fragment, for the snatched or refractive image, is really the expression of an unappeasable type of cinematic sightseeing, a species of visual vagabondage. 

That isn’t to say that Piñeiro’s juxtapositions contribute nothing to our knowledge of his characters and settings. But the result is often informative, anecdotal, rather than substantive. (This may account, if only in a perverse way, for the presumed “literary” feeling of so much of Piñeiro’s work; the novel, at least beginning in the nineteenth century, perfected a way of attending to, say, the houses of Saumur or to the slim shoulders of Natasha Rostova by isolating and then enumerating—usually to the effect of slowing down the narrative—their surface. To describe a grimace, however, isn’t the same as denaturing it, or as making it less important, less meaningful to a dramatic situation. Anyway, it would be useless to try to deny the content of Piñeiro’s images; what I do want to stress, however, is that their content may be less interesting, and ultimately less pleasurable, than their force as staccato visual events.)

4

The aesthetic tradition inherited by Piñeiro does not exist primarily on the level of vision. More than just the juxtaposition of images, there is also montage on the level of words (or speech) and montage on the level of history.

Words and history are not incompatible, nor can they always be, for that matter, independent of images. Thus, Piñeiro’s statement: “I like movies where the characters talk a lot; they’re no less cinematic than the ones in which nothing is said.” And also: “The films take documents and views from reality—historical speeches or texts—and turn them into fiction.”

The conversion of historical reality into a fiction—or into a kind of role-playing and nimble drama making—is of course one of the great, perennial preoccupations of the theater. And Piñeiro’s use of historical documents might be likened to a special kind of theatrical enterprise, largely mental and imaginative, that impresses by the strength and range of its loquaciousness. When characters recite the nineteenth-century Argentinean writer and politician Domingo Sarmiento in The Stolen Man and They All Lie, for instance, Piñeiro does two things simultaneously: treats dialogue contrapuntally, as a formal thickening and crowding of the film (words as sounds), and stocks, fills up the film with imaginative space, with fecund oral histories in miniature (words as worlds). The idea of Sprechstrück, or “speech pieces,” deployed by Peter Handke, or the broken, inchoate utterances in Büchner and Beckett are a few obvious theatrical examples of the formal mode. (Cf. Jean-Jacques Benard, writing in the 1930s on Maeterlinck: “One has the impression that there is nothing behind the allusive language; that it is employed for its own sake.”)

But Shakespeare, not the modern theater, is the model for the later, imaginative style. The dramatization of personality through soliloquy, through playing a role (the play within Hamlet, the final speech by Prospero in The Tempest) has in Piñeiro the effect of a mental, as opposed to a purely visual, mise-en-scène crammed with historical incident. Excerpts of Sarmiento’s journals in They All Lie or Shakespeare’s own As You Like It, rehearsed by a group of actors in Rosalinda, are nested scripts, anachronistic texts that Piñeiro’s characters revivify by the speed and sound of their voices. The effect, however, is to make words stick, to give them adhesiveness. Thus, the cast of Rosalinda, which alternates between line readings of Shakespeare’s play and scenes written entirely by Piñeiro, who succeeds in reconciling the two: the play within the film—or the film within the film—concocts a double plot that, in good Elizabethan fashion, promotes symbiosis. Piñeiro: “Two different speeds in one body. The first of an actress, the second of her character.” 

The variety of these voices acts to cut-up, to pluralize the work. Sarmiento and Shakespeare furnish characters whose appearance in the form of line readings or recitations—as documents to be spoken aloud—involve the sensate world of the film with the alluded, and therefore more approximated worlds of the nineteenth-century and Elizabethan theater. The task is to keep multiple points of view inside and outside of the frame simultaneously. In the cinema, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, not Rivette or Godard, may be the preeminent example of this mode. But a work as massive, as comprehensive as Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany—with its puppets, projections, and stage props; its apparitional recordings of Hitler and Wagner; its brooding, melancholic exhaustiveness—is the product of a sensibility that stages history in full, as a spectacle on a plane (history = Total Work of Art). History isn't staged this way in Piñeiro, nor can it ever really be experienced comprehensively, as a total work or art. (After Godard: History should have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order.) The tendency in Piñeiro is always toward dissonance and accumulation, a plenum of voices and points of view; the incessant, often incomplete performances of Sarmiento and Shakespeare contribute to this (history = montage).

5

The achievement of these films is to do with words what other filmmakers have accomplished visually. Think of when Busby Berkeley dance numbers split the image, limb by limb, into mobile holographic compartments; or when Abel Gance’s techniques produce triptychs in Napoleon that give us different channels of information simultaneously; or when the camera dollies back to reveal an enormous house with cutaway walls, its multiple rooms and floors staffed with actors, in Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man.

With the exception of a few shots of billboards and store signs in The Stolen Man, and barring the use of intertitles in both of the features, words in Piñeiro’s films are never represented graphically, although words may have graphic—that is, plastic—consequences. Images of words (or typography) don’t feature in Piñeiro the way they are known to do in Godard or, to borrow an example from the contemporary avant-garde, in David Gatten’s ongoing Secret History project, where selections of letters, diaries, and books are transferred to the screen. But images do count; despite the differences of means, Piñeiro’s visual style replicates his use of the spoken word by working toward similar ends—namely, the juxtaposition of information, the crowding of the mise-en-scène, the high-speed receipt and delivery of surplus things. Hence the appeal of the baroque for Piñeiro, who has spoken of his efforts to put “multiple levels in the same shot,” and of his fondness for an aesthetic where “what is happening is happening too much.”

A few choice images from Piñeiro: a young woman runs fleet-footed across a street in lunch hour Buenos Aires; paperback books read and held chin level; apples, figs, sandwiches, loaves of bread eaten and shared; a couple kisses repeatedly on the mouth, a tangent to the action of the scene; a park, a city street conceived in pans and tilts; men and women play musical instruments (keyboards, cellos, guitars, upright pianos); a character walks across the length of the frame, entering and exiting, while speaking. There is also the taste for doorways and windowpanes, as when Piñeiro’s camera rests on a bookshop window display in an act of visual effrontery to what is happening off-screen in The Stolen Man, or when characters extend or diminish the depth of a shot by continuously opening and closing doors to other rooms in They All Lie. Sometimes we get information panoramically. For example, a slow pan that moves across the backyard in They All Lie anthologizes the contents of the scene: a character enters with a wheelbarrow while another bicycles in from screen right; a third character walks through the shot with book and apple at hand, and a fourth produces a garden hose and a shovel. The space is liquid, the elements are vaudeville; one character provides the off-screen commentary in the form of a list (“Two sets of cigarettes, three big cans of turpentine oil, kerosene, matches, black ink, the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary, a guitar”), adding more clutter to the shot, maximal timbre.

In other instances, we get information in the form of an immobile tableau. An example, from the same film: in a section called “Isabel’s Dream,” an immense tree, its trunk frame center, snares Piñeiro’s cast, who, faces red with paint, climb its branches at the command of J.M.R., the film’s elusive surrogate for the nineteenth-century Argentine dictator, Juan Martin de Rosas. Supplementing this image are questions and answers: “Pity we weren’t able to build a country?”/“That was never my idea!”/“So why did you make us quarrel so much?”/“Because that was the only way to govern the people!” Piñeiro distributes our attention across the frame, a fugue of seven bodies dangling in mid air.

6

Jean Renoir, writing in My Life and My Films, remarked, “What is interesting about an adaptation is not its resemblance to the original work but the way in which the filmmaker reacts to the original work, and if his reaction produces results seeming to have no connection with the original work, what does it matter?”

My own view is that it doesn’t. There are plenty of films that exceed the quality of their sources, or that stand as autonomous creations, regardless of their fidelity to the original work. Think of films by Lang, Bresson, Tarr, Hitchcock, Clouzot, Preminger, Straub-Huillet, etc. But just as one doesn’t need Boileau-Narcejac to have Vertigo, or Heinrich Böll to have Not Reconciled, one may not need Sarmiento or Shakespeare to have Piñeiro. That’s not to say that his films are adaptations in any strict sense, or that they adapt material in the same way that Hitchcock or Straub-Huillet might; but their literary and historical documentation—what Piñeiro calls the inhale and exhale of his films—may be like the “original work” described by Renoir, a source material of means, not ends. When one critic calls The Stolen Man “big ideas about civilization and history posing an obstacle to the drama,” or when another says that They All Lie “could even be read as a commentary on the current regime, with highly controversial President Cristina Kirchner repping de Rosas, and her opposition standing in for Sarmiento.” There are no “big ideas abut civilization and history” in these films, nor do they pretend to offer any; ideas are always supplied as splinters, aphorisms, incomplete images and texts in sensate form. They give not “commentary,” but the composite elements of an aesthetic. To hold Piñeiro’s films accountable for not clarifying, not better integrating their historical allusions is to impose the shallow critical demand that they self-exegete.

I’m not arguing that Piñeiro’s films should be understood mainly as assemblies of inchoate effects. Lamentably, the tradition that these films contribute to—the fractured aesthetic tradition, the tradition of multiple points of view—is wounded by punitive critical prejudices that treat works of art as roundabout journalism, or as extensions of literary realism with only a terse, secondary relationship to the senses. Contemporary films that combine written or controlled scenarios with an exacting documentary aesthetics (Our Beloved Month of AugustSweetgrassPutty HillThe AnchorageLa libertadOxhide, etc.) are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of critical reactions and expectations, although my own view is that the best of these films succeed not as confections of fiction and reality, but as works that stylize and derealize the world. Piñeiro’s entropic techniques, his interest in being everywhere at once, in a surfeit of speed and information, provide a style of derealization that continuously cuts, runs across streets, interrupts with visual asides, pans and tilts, speaks vociferously, and engages in role-playing and disguise. They offer prescriptions for going beyond the real.

But one can never entirely abandon realism, just as it is fruitless to believe that a work of art can eliminate the traces of its orientation to the world. (Delacroix: “For realism not to be a word devoid of sense, all men must have the same minds and the same way of conceiving things.”) A painting, a novel, a film, however, can turn away from the world in order to intensify its infrastructure (think of Cubism, for example, which sought not to annihilate a world but to exhaust the possibilities for viewing it). So, too, does Piñeiro want to defamiliarize the world, to turn away from it; the furcated images, the demand for simultaneity—for being inside and outside of one’s body and head—may be less the work of the scientist than the mystic. The goal isn’t adherence to the letter, but to the spirit of the world—the supreme leap of faith.
 

Notes

1. Piñeiro’s first film, The Stolen Man, premiered at BAFICI in 2007. This was followed by a second feature, They All Lie, screened at film festivals in Locarno, London, Vienna, Oslo, Nantes, and Melbourne in 2009 and 2010. Rosalinda, a forty-three-minute short included in New York’s Migrating Forms Festival in 2011, is Piñeiro’s most recent film. All of these films share actors (María Villar, Julia Martínez Rubio, Julían Tello) and a cinematographer (Fernando Lockett).

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