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By Max Nelson
It would be easy to mistake Two Shots Fired, the new feature from Argentine filmmaker Martín Rejtman, for a less original film than it is. Considered in isolation, its stubborn, deliberate anti-expressiveness—it concerns a short spell in the life of three troubled members of an upper-class family whose faces, voices and bodies seem to have been set permanently in neutral—can come off as cagey or aloof. That it also represents a logical development of one of the sharpest, savviest, and most humane comic sensibilities in contemporary cinema suggests a good deal about what makes Rejtman such a fascinating, occasionally frustrating filmmaker. His fatalistic, obsessive-compulsive, bone-dry jokes get funnier and more profound the longer they are kept up, until they start to sink in the viewer’s stomach like a dead weight.
Two Shots Fired sinks deeper than Rejtman’s previous movies, which gives it an odd status in his filmography to date. It’s at once his least intrinsically satisfying film and the most perfect expression of his career-long theme: the suffocating straitjackets in which young urban men and women wrap themselves as a way of dealing, or coping, with one another. One of Kafka’s darkest, funniest aphorisms tells us simply that “a cage went in search of a bird”; Rejtman’s characters, more often, are birds seeking out their own cages.
When Rejtman first came on the scene in the late ’80s, Argentine narrative cinema was dominated by a staid, unimaginative brand of naturalism. Rejtman, then in his late twenties, was juggling his filmmaking work with a successful literary career: by 1996 he had published three collections of short stories, one of which included the template for his first feature Rapado (1992). The two years he spent in film school at NYU, where he made a short per week, left him heavily influenced by a tradition of Anglophone and European art-house cinema to which his compatriots had stayed all but deaf. (His 30-minute short Dolly Goes Home, made in 1986, owes much in style and tone to Akerman and early Jarmusch, and critics have rightly compared his more recent work to that of Bresson and Tati.) Rejtman kept passages in his films that nearly all of his contemporaries would have pared away—redundant lines of dialogue, long, languorous pauses, scenes of characters dressing, cooking or killing time—but carved those passages into tight, obsessive final shapes at which, one imagines, his naturalist colleagues would have balked. The National Film Institute stamped Rapado “without interest,” and it would be a few years before the film’s effect on the then-burgeoning New Argentine Cinema would come into focus.
Rejtman’s initial trio of poker-faced urban comedies—Rapado, Silvia Prieto (1999) and The Magic Gloves (2003)—move at a rhythm well-suited to their subjects, aimless middle-class Argentinians stuck in romantic and professional limbo. Each scene lurches into motion in its first few seconds, buzzes around in tight, erratic zigzags for several minutes, then comes to an abrupt full stop. Couples divide, re-shuffle and, as new partners come on the scene, multiply. People talk at brisk clips when they talk at all (Rapado has very little dialogue), but often move with a slow, indecisive lethargy. Male roommates have unexpected cohabitation troubles; female friends waver between antagonism and mutual support; adventurous young women trade their complacent boyfriends for uncertain and potentially lonely independences. Hapless older men have epiphanies that come like mild breezes—a cab driver, sitting in a parking lot, watches his fogged-up windshield gather luminous snowflakes one-by-one; a recently dumped husband spends a night in the woods after an embarrassing public incident, then, lighting a joint, goes to the planetarium early in the morning to track the stars—and go without leaving much of a trace. Money is lent, borrowed, given, invested, lost and withheld. Property, from cars and motorcycles to statuettes, dish soap and gloves, is bought, stolen, abandoned, cared for, gifted, discovered and sold. Quiet, sedentary loners find welcome moments of suspension in jaunty rock tunes and brief opportunities for connection at concerts and clubs. Unplanned meetings blossom into friendships, business partnerships and love affairs; everyone seems, by virtue of chance or circumstance, to know everyone else.
It’s interesting to compare Rejtman’s early features, especially The Magic Gloves and Silvia Prieto, to another set of seriocomic relationship studies from the same period: the “Tales of the Four Seasons” that Éric Rohmer began in 1990, two years before the release of Rapado. Late Rohmer shares with early Rejtman an exacting attention to the shifting levels of attraction and need in male-female relationships, a fondness for talk as a form of action both evasive and confrontational, a relatively direct and unshowy visual vocabulary, a posture of urbane, ironic worldliness, and a well-honed sense of the role chance plays in shaping—or, in many cases, disrupting—individual lives. But Rejtman’s films lack the soft, wistful glow of Rohmer’s, as well as the latter’s last-act emotional crescendos; their tone is tougher, terser, and more explicitly comic.
Put differently, Rejtman’s narrative voice rarely takes the same sort of moral interest in its heroes as Rohmer’s. In fact, it’s not clear that Rejtman’s characters ever arrive at the status of full-fledged moral agents, if only because they don’t have many choices to make. Instead, they are performers of repetitive, often humdrum actions—Alejandro, a cab driver, clicking his car locks on and off in The Magic Gloves; the eponymous heroine of Silvia Prieto selling soap on the street or carving meat at home; the two young male protagonists of Rapado playing arcade games—echoers of recurring quips and phrases, and makers of decisions for which, if pressed, they likely wouldn’t be able to give coherent justifications. They are neither especially articulate nor entirely self-aware, and they talk money with a frequency and bluntness that would, one senses, strike Rohmer’s heroes as vulgar.
The materialistic streak in Rejtman’s early movies is perhaps unsurprising, given the economic and political conditions under which they were made—by the time Rejtman began work on The Magic Gloves, Argentina was in the grip of a high-profile financial crisis, unemployment was steadily rising, political corruption was rife, and large-scale riots throughout Buenos Aires were being violently suppressed by police—but it is also entirely consistent with their sense of humour. Economic uncertainty is central to Rejtman’s first three features, each of which revolves around forced, illicit or misguided property transactions: the hero of The Magic Gloves commits himself to a pair of harebrained investments after becoming embroiled with a narcissistic rock musician, a Canadian-based porn star, and a pill-popping dog walker, among others; Rapado’s plot revolves around the theft, in the movie’s opening minutes, of the hero’s motorcycle, wallet and shoes; in Silvia Prieto, Silvia “borrows” a blazer from an older man who buys it back off her ex later in the film. (Additionally, a small statue that supposedly resembles Silvia keeps moving from owner to owner, transforming in the process from a malicious voodoo doll into a tender emotional talisman.) The films’ dialogue, meanwhile, rests heavily on the pedantic repetition of utterly trivial facts and figures: it is reiterated at least three times in The Magic Gloves that one character gained precisely four pounds in a week, and three times that the Canadian porn star is not, strictly speaking, from Canada.
This absurdist, accountant-like exactness extends to the movies’ odd, quasi-detached narrative voice. Even when they identify their point of view strongly with that of a single character, Rejtman’s films keep their subjects simultaneously cooped up and at arm’s length, favouring tight, slightly claustrophobic medium shots indoors and smooth, conveyor belt-style tracking shots for exterior scenes. Rejtman’s visual syntax gives one the impression that his heroes are somehow abstracted from the world, at odds with the socially constructed spaces into which they have been imperfectly stuffed and yet uneasy with the potential freedom that lurks beyond those spaces—a tragic double bind which is also a key ingredient of the films’ humour. It’s coincidence that tends to give Rejtman’s characters their rare chances to cut loose: in The Magic Gloves,Alejandro starts dating a flight attendant who “loves it that we’re both in transportation”; at the end of Silvia Prieto, Silvia hosts a group meeting, pitched somewhere between a book club and a support group, for local women who also happen to be named Silvia Prieto.
In the decade following the release of The Magic Gloves, Rejtman took a hiatus from fiction filmmaking. Granted, Rejtman had always incorporated non-fiction elements into his work—Dolly Goes Home is peppered with memorable glimpses of Buenos Aires street life, and Silvia Prieto ends on a series of digital talking-head interviews with its heroine’s fictionalized namesakes—and his style had always given off an impression of tough objectivity. One of his most evident gifts, however, had been his ability to expose the glitches, pitfalls and dead ends in languages that seemed to play things literal and straight: not only the supposedly straightforward language of daily conversation, which Rejtman loaded with nonsensical repetitions, rhythmic stutters, and slippages in comprehension, but also the conventions of cinematic realism itself. His cutting was unnaturallysharp, his compositions comicallyblunt or constricted, his “objective” voice suffused with deadpan irony.
It was a surprise, then, that Copacabana—the first of two hour-long, digitally shot documentaries he made between 2003 and 2014—turned out to be in some respects his most direct, plainspoken film. The Bolivian population of Buenos Aires, on which the film centres, are constrained in more obvious ways than the middle-class poets, cab drivers and street vendors who populated Rejtman’s previous films: they live in a country that stubbornly refuses to claim them as its own, and their daily work routines—stiff, silent bus trips, alienating passages through customs—come off as fairly grim. And yet in Rejtman’s (perhaps somewhat idealized) telling, these internal exiles have a more direct share in their own experience and a less fraught relation to their culture than their self-conscious, worked-up middle-class neighbours: the exuberant, synchronized group dances with which they celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Copacabana make for a striking contrast with the late-night cassette listening sessions and lonely concert-going outings that buoy up Rapado’s hero, or Alejandro’s stubbornly repeated trips to the dance floor. (“Let’s go dancing,” he desultorily suggests to his girlfriend at the start of the conversation that precipitates their breakup, receiving a less than enthusiastic response: “Not again, Alejandro.”)
What Rejtman highlights in these dance sequences, however, is less the dancers’ communal fellow-feeling or their joyous freedom of movement than their intricate, virtuosic method. Knowing how to move within self-imposed limits is an essential skill for any performer; it is also, Rejtman suggests, a necessary, basic adaptation for life. “What do you mean, how she acts or how she is?” a mother asks her daughter’s acting teacher Sergio (Fabián Arenillas) midway through Elementary Training for Actors—a playful documentary-fiction hybrid centred on an experimental acting workshop for children aged eight to 12, which Rejtman co-directed with the playwright Federico León—after the latter asks her if she’s noticed a change in the girl. “You seriously still don’t understand that it’s all a part of the same thing?” the man answers incredulously; “An artist’s formation is chaotic…the body takes in diverse pieces of data that fall into place haphazardly over time. It’s about assimilating, not understanding.”
The lessons that Sergio gives throughout Elementary Training all stay more or less in this same oracular key: when he addresses the kids, tossing out casual references to Pavlov and Kuleshov before condescendingly identifying the “American singer” Carly Simon (“You wouldn’t know who she is”), it’s clear that he’s speaking primarily for himself. But he respects his pupils to a degree that neither their parents nor his hilariously conceited substitute teacher can, and the film—one of Rejtman’s wisest, and certainly his funniest—gives him like treatment. Rejtman tends to place his performers in contexts that favour their incidental features—natural vocal inflections, facial quirks, odd habits of posture—over their “performances,” and something of that same philosophy creeps into Sergio’s speeches. (“A child can only play a child,” he tells the kids. “Animals are his true competitors.” Later, he has them study footage of Balthasar and Rin Tin Tin.) The operating principle in many of the film’s best scenes is that no distinction exists between natural and performative behaviour—that true performance lies in listening to the innate rhythms of the body, the mind and the world rather than imposing false structures upon them. One student’s dependence on the audience’s laughter leads her to overact; another fails to “wait” convincingly for a kettle to boil; a third has an exchange with Sergio over whether “we’re already acting in everything we do,” in response to which Sergio invites another student down to re-enact the conversation word for word.
It’s a jarring transition from the empty stage on which much of Elementary Training takes place to the claustrophobic suburban landscapes of Two Shots Fired, Rejtman’s first digitally-shot fiction feature. The film’s typical composition resembles a geometric diagram, a network of gridlike, cross-cutting vectors into which the characters are placed with barely any room to move and little more to breathe. Having created this airtight, ruthlessly ordered space, Rejtman proceeds to bombard it with disruptions—runaway dogs, hyperactive metal detectors, swarms of fleas—from an unruly outside. (One particularly symbolic shot involves a bird colliding heavily against a plate glass window.) The most significant of these disruptions takes place in the movie’s first five minutes, when 16-year-old Mariano, the film’s centre of gravity and occasional narrator, returns home at 5 a.m. after a night at the club, does some timed laps in his family’s pool, finds a gun in a nearby tool shed, proceeds robotically to his room, shoots himself twice (in the head and then the belly), and survives more or less unscathed. Afterwards, the closest thing to a rationale he offers for his seemingly unmotivated action is that “it was hot outside.”
Mariano spends the rest of the film wandering through a landscape of office buildings, highways and fast-food chains, while his mother spends it hiding knives, scissors and other potential implements of self-harm. While there are the usual Rejtmanian repetitions—Mariano’s inability to produce fewer than two simultaneous tones on his flute in the wake of his injury; the strained elevator rides the older, dowdier members of his flute quartet make with the group’s newest member, a beautiful young woman who sent in a nude photo of herself in reply to their ad because it was “the only one she had”; the endless buzzing of his archaic mobile phone while the group tries to rehearse; his brother’s flirtation with a fast-food employee who’s spent two years telling everyone she meets that she and her boyfriend are “about to break up”—and a handful of fanciful, absurdist touches, the overall tone here is considerably grimmer than in any of Rejtman’s previous films. Escape is not an option for these characters, nor is redemption-by-chance: the movie ends with a missed romantic connection at a screening of Gravity.
The tug-of-war between freedom and constraint in Rejtman’s early films was complemented by another struggle: the resistance of romantic idealism to skeptical disenchantment. Midway through The Magic Gloves, Alejandro starts hearing a small rattling sound in the back of his cab; eventually, his girlfriend hears it as well. “It’s like music, isn’t it?” he asks her.
“Yes, music. Just listen to that rhythm.”
“It’s a loose part, Alejandro. It’s not music.”
“To me it sounds like music.”
“Are you serious?”
“Cecilia says the car’s trying to tell me something.”
Part of the charm of the protagonists in Rejtman’s first three films comes from their willingness to believe that the world has something to tell them, or that there is something out in the world that they might want to hear. The characters of Two Shots Fired, in contrast, are closer to the mole-like creature in Kafka’s “The Burrow” who, madly trying to escape the tiny whistling noise which disturbs its underground existence, avows that “I have no wish to discover any further signs that the noise is growing louder; I have had enough of discoveries; I let everything slide; I would be quite content if I could only still the conflict going on within me.” Their clammy, institutional environment doesn’t look capable of telling them anything, but perhaps there’s another reason for that: they have stopped listening.
Thanks to Matías Piñeiro, Dan Sullivan and Rosa Martínez Rivero.