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By Devika Girish
The films of Nicolás Zukerfeld pit images against words, staging wily games of onscreen meaning-making. Literary miscellanea often spur the ambulatory narratives of the Argentine director’s works: a mysterious letter opens into two Rashomon-esque views of a street encounter in the short La distancia entre las cosas (2008); annotated articles and battered books punctuate the post-breakup meanderings of the characters in the feature-length Winter Comes After Autumn (2016), co-directed by Zukerfeld and his frequent collaborator Malena Solarz; and a page number scribbled on a photocopy brings together a community of cinephiles in the duo’s short, Let Us Now Praise Movies (2017). At a certain point in each film, these incidental connections turn into contests: a voice reads or narrates text over tenuously related visuals, the two mediums wrestling for our interpretive attention.
But Zukerfeld and Solarz’s latest short, the sparkling, Super 8mm-shot A Movie Made of (2020), seems to declare a victor. A third-person narrator describes the movements and thoughts of a young filmmaker as he wanders through the Spanish city of Vigo at night, waiting for his friends, “Nicolás and Malena,” to join him. As the filmmaker takes in the vibrant Christmas lights canopying the streets, the narrator tells us that he’s contemplating making a film about the evening’s encounters and sights. It would be “a movie made of… ” the voice begins to say, but it breaks off mid-sentence; a flurry of images follows, completing the thought. What movies are made of—shots, pictures of and in motion—exceeds language, the film suggests; or perhaps the idea is that it’s more efficient to make a movie than to describe it. The film theorist Christian Metz put it rather well: “A film is difficult to explain because it’s easy to understand.”
Raoul Walsh seemed to gesture at something similar with the quote that gives Zukerfeld’s breakout new feature, co-written and co-edited by Solarz, its (aptly wordy) title: “There are not thirty-six ways of showing a man getting on a horse.” Whether Walsh spoke those exact words is the knotty mystery at the heart of the film, but it seems safe to assume that the prolific director said something to that effect in a ’60s interview as a reproach of the showiness of younger filmmakers of the time. “There is only one way of showing a man entering a room,” another variation of his quote goes. “[It’s by] making that man walk into the room.” Walsh’s pithy call for simplicity in filmmaking also gets at a quality attributed to cinema—particularly classical cinema—since its early days: its irreducibility. Film is often described as a language, but words are inherently subjective—malleable, multivalent, and enclosed by cultural difference. Moving images, on the other hand, hold the promise of a more direct and universal relationship with the world, an ability to capture and transmit things as they are.
The first half of There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways puts that title to the test. An endlessly surprising, mutating film, it plunges us headfirst into a stream of shots of men mounting and dismounting horses. No context is provided as to the provenance of these clips, but an informed viewer might piece things together. There are glimpses of Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941); James Cagney in White Heat (1949); Errol Flynn in Objective, Burma! (1945). From horses we move to other patterns: men barging into rooms (Sidney Poitier in Band of Angels, 1957); women awakening in bed (Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, 1941). These are all, as it turns out, movies helmed by Walsh (Zukerfeld and Solarz excerpt more than half of the director’s 140 or so films), and as the clips whoosh from one to the next, hardly onscreen for more than a few seconds, the stars and the scenes blur into a breathless tempo. “Walsh was famous for his speed,” wrote Dave Kehr, noting that many of his movies “open in medias res, the exposition deftly dropped among the flurries of action.” Chasing these flurries across the director’s filmography, Zukerfeld and Solarz distill his style to its elemental form: a cinematic record of bodies in motion, whose DNA traces back to Muybridge’s equestrian studies.
Around 36 minutes in, the montage ends as abruptly as it begins, and the screen turns pitch-black. The structure of A Movie Made of is inverted in There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways: words wrest control from images here, as a narrator (Zukerfeld) wryly recounts the story of an unnamed professor’s quixotic quest to find the primary source for Walsh’s quote. The events arise, again, from marginalia: the professor finds the quote scribbled in a notebook and traces it to a 1965 essay by Edgardo Cozarinsky. But, finding no citations, he embarks on a footnote-chasing journey that takes him through the archives of foundational film journals (Film Culture, Cahiers du Cinéma), into the memories and personal obsessions of fellow critics, and down rabbit holes of deduction and interpretation. Notes, emails, and scanned pages appear occasionally onscreen as the professor neurotically assembles clues, each producing newer iterations of the titular quote. Thirty-six becomes five, sometimes one; “getting on a horse” becomes “walking into a room”; a negative formulation turns positive; translation introduces new idioms, all of it culminating in a Baudrillardian maze where the original is unfindable, and perhaps irrelevant.
The film’s ingenuity lies in its clean split down the middle, which paradoxically forces the two halves into an ouroboric shape. Each section anticipates and reflects the other’s form. The Walsh montage borrows its associative logic from the linguistic trajectory of the latter section, while the professor’s quest acquires a sense of grand, barrelling adventure from its prologue. The structure of the film also forces us to constantly think backwards and forwards, enlisting us in its frenzy of pattern-finding, only to overwhelm us with its density of information. Over the course of several views, I found myself wanting to tag all the Walsh scenes and find every source studied by the professor in the hope of stumbling upon fresh connections—but within minutes of finishing a section, its details would distort in my memory.
This slipperiness, charged with the excitement of untrodden paths, is precisely the thrill of the film. There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways enters unabashedly into the canon of filmmaking-as-criticism, a genre often derided for its insularity, but Zukerfeld demonstrates its openness, the symbiotic capacities of cinema and criticism to orient each other into new realms of possibility. Toward the end of the film, after many revelations and red herrings, the professor finds some inconsistencies between an older edition of Cozarinsky’s text, published when he was primarily a writer, and a newer one from when he’d become a filmmaker. And he wonders if, like a translator whose mistakes awaken him to his capacity for invention, Cozarinsky had found through his discrepancies in rendering Walsh’s statement an awareness of his own directorial vision. The gaps of memory and language as sites of creation: it’s a tantalizing hypothesis, and one that There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways embodies with great beauty and humour.
In those same gaps, Zukerfeld also locates the film’s enduring theme: the mapping of a cinephilic community. It’s a motif that appears throughout his and Solarz’s previous work, most notably Let Us Now Praise Movies, in which a critic tasked with translating an essay of Manny Farber’s has a series of chance encounters with friends and strangers that culminates in the filming of an indie movie on his parents’ roof. In voiceover, a character reads aloud Farber’s paean to The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and William A. Wellman’s ability to inject into the mechanical Hollywood form a measure of personal expression. Meanwhile, onscreen, the characters are trying to film a firework that refuses to go off, requiring many retakes. Let Us Now Praise Movies is a sly celebration of the rhizomatic communities of independent filmmaking in Buenos Aires: the improvisatory, incidental, and decidedly non-mechanical connections that tumble together to make movies possible. In much the same way, a network of critics and scholars rallies around the professor in There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways, all of them sharing in his contagious curiosity. They uncover in words and images, if not certainties, then an infinite and binding sense of discovery.