"Los muertos": Unwrite Them, Unwrite Us

In an excerpt from the Viennale's new book on Lisandro Alonso, the filmmaker Deborah Stratman conjures the sonic thickets of his 2004 film.
Deborah Stratman

The following text is an excerpt from the sixth volume of the Viennale's ongoing Textur series, each of which is devoted to the atmospheric craft of a single filmmaker. Textur #6 focuses on the films of Lisandro Alonso; its publication coincides with the Viennale's presentation of his new film Eureka, as well as a festival masterclass.

In the excerpt below, the American experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman explores the sonic palettes and "fugue states of repetition" in Alonso's 2004 film, Los muertos.

Los muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004).

Besides Queen of Diamonds (1991), Nina Menkes’ sublimely tedious reverie of capital and misogyny, Lisandro Alonso’s 2004 feature Los muertos might be the most transactional film I’ve seen. In each, the largely speechless, impassive protagonists inhabit landscapes from which they, and thereby we, have been dispossessed. The casino tables of Menkes’ blackjack-dealing Firdaus (Tinka Menkes) and the prison yards of Alonso’s inmate Vargas (Argentino Vargas) suspend each in fugue states of repetition.

But even when they are released from these internments, they are haunted by infrastructures which have colonised their surroundings. Dammed reservoirs flood and bury the Mojave Desert. Agribusiness domesticates forests and estuaries of backcountry Argentina. The containments of patriarchy and lack, compulsion and profit, work implacably on all those dwelling within. 

Throughout Los muertos, there is a towering muteness that registers as lament. Muteness, not silence. Because there are sounds, and they are visceral. A fish torn from its skin, fruit from its rind, honeycomb from its hive, internal organs from a cavity. A truck creaks and groans as it travels over rutted gravel. Knuckles crack. A bedframe squeaks under fucking bodies. Frogs and insects form a dense sonic thicket, complex and humid. The sounds bear testimony to a litany of exchange, as fecund and violent as they are quotidian.

And before it all, there is a massacre to deal with. A fratricide. The child brothers of Vargas. The act for which he has served his time. This act from which Vargas is formally released, and by which we are stalked, neither receives nor leaves an explanation. Just a hole where there used to be none.

Los muertos establishes an almost perversely stubborn equivalence of acts. Sitting, waiting, smoking, screwing, killing; they are blankly matter-of-fact, like sets of blocks which evade any attempts to impose a hierarchy upon them. A chair is sanded, a dish washed, release forms typed. A ride is hitched, a shirt bought, a letter carried, a dick sucked, a boat loaned, a dog fed, a neck slit. A sibling is held, a daughter sought, a mother absent, a brother dead, a brother is dead.

We enter the tale through a gaze that slowly careens, disembodied, reeling, stunned, as if tumbling back into the world after having been blindsided. This unmoored camera starts the film and shadows Vargas, reappearing now and then. Sometimes it tires of Vargas, turning away from him to stare at the shoreline, the billowing trees, a blank sky. After his release, Vargas gets a ride in the back of a pickup truck and peers at the landscape in its wake. Soon the truck leaves Vargas behind on the side of the road, and now it is he who recedes to a speck, the camera occupying his just-vacated position. The gaze becomes his understudy, shedding Vargas like a skin.

Alonso’s dead frame the living. Our assumptions about each killing are thrown back at us and destabilise ethical boundaries between hunger, mercy, necessity and horror. Vargas says he has forgotten it all, that he’s over it. But words are unreliable in this territory of acts. Alonso’s films, the few I’ve seen at any rate, traffic in encounter, not explanation. Solitary men traverse spaces with which they do not coincide. They are defrocked of their own story. Their journeys rewrite them. Unwrite them. Unwrite us. This decoupling from standard westernised hero-driven lexicons makes space for other sorts of exchange, for choreography, for touch, for the intelligence of our feet that do the walking.

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