Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Violeta Kovacsics and Adam Nayman
At the end of Lisandro Alonso’s second feature Los muertos (2004), the arrival of the long-journeying lead character at his former home constituted a distressing question mark. In the director’s new film Liverpool, which premiered at the Director’s Fortnight this past Cannes film festival, it feels more like a shrug. And, it’s not an ending, either. Liverpool drifts past what the viewer—in particular, the viewer familiar with Alonso’s special brand of measured, anti-dramatic cinema —might reasonably take as its conclusion, towards something heretofore undiscovered in the filmmaker’s work: sincere and blindsiding emotion.
This is not to say that Liverpool—co-written by Salvador Roselli—is at all sentimental, or that the audience is ever really invited to connect with the characters, who are kept at the same remove as the protagonists in other Alonso films. As in Los muertos, the Argentine director focuses on a taciturn man heading back from whence he came. This time out, the traveller is Farrel (Juan Fernandez), a sailor on shore leave who disembarks at a far-flung Argentine port and heads for the snowy Martial mountains in Tierra Del Fuego, duffel bag in hand (and vodka bottle in duffel).
We know from the opening scenes, set on a massive freighter, that Farrel is inclined to keep to himself. (He also appears to be possibly narcoleptic, sleeping where he falls in the ship’s various rooms). The one extended discussion he does have, about the details of his departure—when he’s leaving, where he’s going, when he has to be back—must be the longest dialogue scene to appear in one of Alonso’s films to date and surely the most obviously expository, which, in turn, structures the viewer’s expectations for the journey that immediately follows.
After this small shred of context, the film shifts back into a familiar observational mode. Nobody will ever mistake Alonso for an invisible director, but his distanced, protracted set-ups (the cinematographer is Lucio Bonelli, who shot 2006’s Fantasma) are self-effacing. It would thus be incorrect to lump Alonso in with other acclaimed contemporary practicioners of the long-take aesthetic—certainly not, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose gruelling Three Monkeys is the opposite of self-effacing. In lieu of deliberate, symbolically overwrought tableaux, Alonso gives us textured sequence shots that feel of a piece with one another, but also allow for slight tonal variations. There’s a fascinating emphasis on games, starting with the video games onboard the massive freighter, and in a sense regressing through lower-fi amusements on land (Farrel doesn’t partake of any of them). There are some moments of deadpan comedy as well, as Farrel’s obsessive drinking becomes a kind of recurring joke, peaking with an amusingly drawn-out bit where he awakens from a vodka-induced coma in what appears to be a ravaged bus. Alonso has also retreated—perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not—from the more blatantly confrontational aspects of La libertad (2001) and Los muertos: the matter-of-fact scenes of animal slaughter.
In Liverpool, an animal is killed, but it’s offscreen, and his death is bloodless. The animal in question is a fox, caught in a trap by Farrel’s father (Nieves Cabrera). It should be mentioned that Farrel has a family, and that their home—erected on the frozen grounds of a dilapidated logging camp—is his destination. We glean that his mother is ill, and that he has a daughter, Analia (Giselle Irrazabal). (Pointedly, we do not see any evidence of Analia’s mother). The girl seems wary of her father—how long ago did he leave? How frequently has he returned?—but won’t (or can’t) articulate her feelings; and Farrel sure as hell isn’t talking, either. The situation has the potential for drama but Alonso elides it. The family occupies the same space, but nothing passes between them. The only thing that communicates is the landscape, and what it says—to us, and surely to Farrel, whose impatience is palpable—is less than welcoming.
Farrel doesn’t stay in this small village, but, crucially, we do. The long shot that shows him taking his leave—walking purposefully away from the camera and towards the horizon—subverts the expectation that we are to be watching a film along the lines of Los muertos, wholly tethered to its protagonist’s ever-restless movements. It also signifies a step forward for Alonso. The shift in the film’s point of view—as well as the aforementioned sense of humour—makes Liverpool different than Alonso’s previous work. That no significant dramatic incidents occur after Farrel’s departure is not surprising (this is an Alonso film after all), but the telling development is that the director has shifted his attention away from the inscrutable loner and towards a community—however small and marginalized it may be. (Indeed, it can be said that Liverpool becomes Alonso’s take on the Western.)
It’s this idea of lives being lived beyond our—or basically anybody’s who goes to the cinema—purview that renders Liverpool so unexpectedly moving. Analia and her grandparents are so culturally and economically disconnected from the rest of Argentina (and the rest of the world) that they may as well be on another planet. But Alonso’s film constitutes a respectful affirmation of their existence.
In the final scene, we see Analia holding a trinket handed to her by her now-absent father: a keychain bearing the name of a certain famous English port city. It’s possible to read this scene as cruelly funny—Analia can’t read the word, much less understand what it refers to, and the object itself is so chintzy as to preclude any talismanic significance. The object reiterates Farrel’s rootlessness, Liverpool being one of the countless harbours he’s passed through as part of his perpetual avoidance strategy. It also constitutes a gesture, however feeble, of remembrance, a thought spared for somebody left behind. That it seems impossible (or comic, or both) to reconcile Liverpool—the fact of it or the idea of it—with a snowy, out-of-time corner of Tierra Del Fuego is both Alonso’s point and also the sort of thinking that this deceptively compassionate, palpably contemporary film seeks to correct. No, we’re not all connected, but we are all here—wherever and however difficult “here” might be.
CINEMA SCOPE: Can you talk about your collaboration with Salvador Roselli? This is the first time you’ve worked with a co-writer. What did he bring to the film?
LISANDRO ALONSO: The idea came up when I finished touring festivals with my movie Los muertos. It was 2005, and I started thinking about Liverpool as a feature project. Salvador Roselli and I had shared some scholarships in of Argentina. I thought he could bring something to my film, and he did, but as the years went on, I decided to go back to the beginning. I wanted to get closer to the experience I had had making La libertad. So then most the work I did with Salvador got lost, and in the end it remained outside of the image and the essence of the movie. But his contribution made my point of view on the material stronger, and I really thank him for that.
SCOPE: How did you discover the location?
ALONSO: I was looking at a magazine that a friend gave to me, and there were photos of the sawmill where we ended up shooting, and also pictures of some of the people who would be in Liverpool. There was a kind of emptiness in their faces, and that, plus the extreme temperature—you could see the effect of it on their bodies—made me think that I might want to shoot there.
SCOPE: Do your projects usually begin with a desire to film in a specific place?
ALONSO: For me, there is always the place where I want to shoot, before the story and the characters. Once I decide where to shoot, I travel there and I start investigating what happens with the people who live there. I ask for permission to stay for a little while, and I observe without saying much. As days go by, we start communicating a bit and we all discover how much or how little we have in common, what we need and what the things are that we will never have in our lives. I don’t ask them to tell me their secrets and they don’t ask me, though I think both try to guess them, and that generates curiosity and mystery. In the best cases, this dynamic is captured in the images, and reflected in the film.
SCOPE: Your other features have been shot almost entirely outdoors. Was it a challenge to shoot in your normal style in the claustrophobic interiors of the freight ship at the beginning of the film?
ALONSO: Actually, we already had some experience on shooting these claustrophobic places from the time we shot Fantasma inside a movie theatre in Buenos Aires. That’s why I am always saying that if I hadn’t made Fantasma, Liverpool would have been a very different movie. Liverpool is the result of throwing the ingredients of Fantasma into La libertad and Los muertos.
SCOPE: Can you talk about the experience of shooting onboard the ship?
ALONSO: The experience was amazing, but it was also very exhausting. They only allowed four people on board besides me: the sound recorder, the cinematographer, the camera assistant, and Juan Fernandez. We wanted to observe and absorb the sailors’ attitudes and behaviours. We were really close to them, and we realized that the essence of these people lies in the way they shut themselves in their cabins, not in the diluted conversations they have at dinner or at breakfast. They find real tranquility when they shut themselves in. One night, because of a mistake, we had to walk in the middle of the night in heavy snow in the Canal de Beagle, and then we got on a tiny boat that listed from one side to the other for the two hours it took us to sail to the freighter. Finally, when we got there, we had to climb up some rope stairs, and when we were on top I just thanked…someone…It was an experience that I will never repeat, and something that I will never make the people I work with go through again. And I say that very seriously.
SCOPE: How did you meet Juan Fernandez and cast him as Farrel?
ALONSO: Juan works removing snow from the highways in Tierra del Fuego, and I discovered him while I was visiting the location. Like everyone in Liverpool, Juan is not an actor, but he did an excellent job and I think that he really enjoyed the process of making the film.
SCOPE: It seems that there are aspects of Liverpool that are more overtly comic than your previous films. We’re thinking of the running gag of Farrel drinking vodka and passing out all over the place. Unless, of course, that isn’t supposed to be funny.
ALONSO: Actually, I never thought it as something funny, but this is precisely what interests me about the movies I make. Anyone can create the meaning that they’d like, and even register depths that aren’t there. I just think that when is Farrel drinking it’s a combination of his alcoholism and also a way to warm his body in the extreme cold.
SCOPE: Can you talk about your interest in solitary male characters? Where does it come from?
ALONSO: I think that simply filming someone is the best way to demonstrate what I think about the human being—about his lack of communication, his isolation, and his incomprehension about himself and the world. I think that, in the end, a human being is always alone in each decision he makes, although it is true that his family, his friends, and his surroundings contribute to those decisions. That’s why I’m very interested in describing characters’ environments. I think that these environments may even be more important than the characters themselves. Usually the environments I film are cruel. They are far away from the city, and so there we find some behaviours that are much closer to animal instinct.
SCOPE: At the same time, this is the first of your films that really shows a community.
ALONSO: As I said, we spent a couple of months in Tierra Del Fuego before shooting. I have also travelled there on my own, and observed how the people you see in Liverpool live, and how they express themselves. I have spent weeks inside a school for children with different capacities, I have travelled in a ship and I have slept in the sawmill, and I have lived with the people. That way, I’m able to win the confidence of these people, and also of my movie crew, who see what I have done and are so disposed to live out this little experience beyond the limits of a regular production. For me, the preproduction and the shoot can be more important than the final result. I know that it is a little bit strange to say that, but I feel strongly about it. Sometimes, with the excuse of making a movie, we can discover new places and people who we might otherwise have never been able to communicate with.
SCOPE: Liverpool is also the first one of your films that features a significant change in the point of view. The story continues well after Farrel leaves the village and returns to his boat.
ALONSO: I wanted to keep looking at what the character leaves behind in that village —mainly at his daughter once he’s disappeared for good. I also thought it was important for me as a filmmaker to see what happens with this change in point of view, and I was interested in how the audience would respond, too. I think that the second half of the film might actually be more interesting than the first, as we suddenly don’t know what’s going to happen—everything is more surprising and magical. We start observing from zero again, except that we’ve been introduced to the location and the people who live there.
SCOPE: You broke with a tendency in your mise en scène with the last shot, a detail shot, which is not very common in your films.
ALONSO: Actually, it is not really a detail shot but a medium shot, framed differently: paying more attention to the object and the hands than to the face. It’s meant to be a similar shot to the one at the end of Los muertos, where the protagonist goes out of the frame and the camera remains focused on some toys that are lying on the ground.
SCOPE: At the end of Fernando Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe, there is a postcard bearing the name of that location, that symbolizes the bond between father and sons—even though they have never been there. In a way, it’s the same as the keychain in Liverpool.
ALONSO: Unfortunately, I didn’t see Lake Tahoe. But I can speak about the keychain in Liverpool, which isn’t anything more than that: a keychain with the word Liverpool on it. But in Analia’s hands, it becomes the last and only object her father gave her. It seems very sad to me that this key holder is the only thing from her father that she is going to have. And she doesn’t even know for sure if he’s her dad, anyway. She doesn’t understand the meaning of the keychain, and that it refers to an English city that’s very far away. When we see that object, what we think about is Farrel’s dark life, where he was born and where he’s gone. So I think that it means more to us than it does to Analia.