A rough but accurate gauge of national resilience: When dictators fall, how soon do filmmakers rise again? In the case of Argentina, the recovery was impressively quick. Almost as soon as the generals were gone, artists responded to the immediate past with remarkable feature films and documentaries: Héctor Olivera’s Funny Dirty Little War (1983) in the first category, Susana Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo’s Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1986) in the second. Since then, films inspired by the “dirty war” have developed into a large and significant subset of world cinema, with Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story, Marco Bechis’s Garage Olimpo and Hijos, David Blaustein’s Spoils of War and (in a different mode) Fernando Solanas’s La Nube among the most notable on the list.
We may now add to them Albertina Carri’s complex and fascinating The Blonds (Los Rubios), which is having its US theatrical premiere at New York’s Film Forum (through April 20). It is, I admit, not an easy picture to grapple with–but then, neither is its subject matter, which is the gaping hole in the filmmaker’s life.
In 1977, when Carri was 4 years old, the police kidnapped and murdered her parents, the underground leftists Roberto Carri and Ana Maria Caruso. Years passed before the little girl learned what had happened. She grew up without memories of her mother and father; and no one has been able to supply for her what was lost. Her older sisters, who do remember the parents, evidently prefer not to talk about them, at least not for the record. Former comrades, when questioned, just rehash their own experiences and discourse on politics. The neighbors who saw Ana Maria and Roberto hauled away know only that they themselves did nothing wrong and don’t want trouble; and the cops, strangely enough, have a hard time recalling anything before 1983.
Everyone, it seems, wants to forget what Carri can’t remember. (Those old friends who mythologize her parents merely consign them to a different kind of oblivion.) As if to sum up this will to amnesia, the state agency that funds film production reviewed Carri’s proposal for a movie about her parents and sent back a letter–incorporated into The Blonds–saying that it could not yet decide whether to support this very worthy project and therefore was not supporting it.
Carri, in her various lives as baffled orphan, filmmaker and citizen, must find some way to cope with an ineradicable absence. Her response–by turns a documentary, fiction, essay, memoir and very low-budget animation–is no easier to describe than it is to categorize; but perhaps a list of topics will suggest what you may find, and admire, in The Blonds.
Doubles: The filmmaker you glimpse toward the beginning, conducting a hit-and-run interview with one of the parents’ neighbors, turns out not to be the filmmaker. As a voiceover soon explains, she is the actress Analía Couceyro, who has been hired to portray Albertina Carri. Does this mean that Carri, for the sake of discretion, has taken herself out of the picture? No. She’s on screen, too, and is often seen coaching her double.
Blonds: The neighbors used to refer to Ana Maria and Roberto as “blonds,” implying that the couple were nonindigenous, inauthentic, un-Argentine. Another blond in the film–another victim of kidnapping and torture–is Melanie Griffith, who may be seen in the background of Couceyro/Carri’s editing studio. She appears, bound and gagged, on a prominently displayed poster for John Waters’s movie Cecil B. Demented.
Filmmakers: When you watch Couceyro in the studio reviewing videotaped interviews, or when she pretends to be interviewed herself or visits sites associated with the parents, you also get to see Carri’s crew in action. They discuss how to proceed, conduct run-throughs, slate shots, film the filming; and as they do so, you get to know these young people. You understand that they have become Carri’s present-day family and are the real protagonists of the movie.
Masquerades: If so, then the surrogate family and the Carri double must be blonds, too. In the last section of the film, they all put on wigs, as if to fake–or is it flaunt?–the identity that was fatally assigned to Ana Maria and Roberto.
For a filmmaker–indeed, for a generation–that has been violently severed from its elders, this duplicitous, make-believe identification may be the only form of memory available. It’s a self-contradictory basis on which to live, but not without hope. In the final shots of The Blonds, we see Couceyro from behind, at a distance, walking down a country road, and at the same time overhear someone from the film crew saying, “It’s better. The film ends with her alone.” But then, the film doesn’t end like that. The shot is repeated, this time with the whole film crew walking together into the distance, their ridiculous blond wigs bobbing and shaking.
It’s better. She is cut off but not alone.
With its cyclical, Buddhist narrative, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring will strike some moviegoers as profound and others as profoundly clichéd. A rustic temple floats on a pond, cupped in the mountains of rural Korea; and there, in the springtime, a hermit monk (Oh Young-soo) watches and guides his child apprentice. Years pass; and one summer, when a young woman comes to the temple to be healed of an undefined malaise, the apprentice (now a young man) feels the first overpowering stirrings of desire. Autumn, some ten years later, finds the former apprentice emotionally ravaged and the old monk ready for death. You may imagine for yourself the meanings that attach to winter and the return of spring.
Archetype, or stereotype? The more curmudgeonly among us may notice that in this ninth feature film by Korea’s prolific Kim Ki-duk, the wheel of sin and expiation, death and rebirth, sometimes seems a little creaky. But because Kim is willing to bet his whole movie on a single stunning last shot–a summing up of the abundant natural beauty in the film, rendered so intense that the world seems to return your gaze, as if it were a single great eye–Spring, Summer is likely to win over even the most determinedly antispiritual moviegoer.
Kim’s first career was as a painter; but the painter’s eye accounts for only part of the elegance and charm of the film, and none of its sly humor. For example, Kim knows the trick of framing a shot with an architectural element–the elaborately carved wood panels of a gate, which magically swing open at the beginning of each season, or the doorway that separates the main room of the temple from its sleeping quarters. Coupled with the gracefulness of these images, though, is a sense of what you might call the ceremonial absurd. Both the gate and the doorway are freestanding, without walls; they mark points of entry that are entirely arbitrary. In a similar spirit, the older monk’s teachings sometimes take on the character of practical jokes, which grow more serious as the seasons turn. Even in autumn, when the apprentice is desperately agitated, having dragged the world’s violence (and its modernity) back to the lake, the old monk is capable of writing down for his student an entire sutra, using as a pen the tail of a remarkably patient cat. Kim’s inventiveness seems to me entirely cinematic–and not only in managing such physical details but also in guiding the performances, especially during the summertime romance between the eager, accident-prone, caterpillar-browed young monk (Kim Young-min) and the demure city girl (Ha Yeo-jin) who remains disdainful until she’s not.
Other actors who turn in good performances include a frog, some snakes, a waterfall and a tree that stands in the lake. Under Kim’s quietly assured direction, they all become animated–which is to say, he gives them a soul. Without that quality, the film would perhaps amount to little more than a package tour. (Take a vacation from your real problems in life! Get five seasons of Buddhism, complete with landscapes and sex, for just $10, popcorn not included.) With that quality, Spring, Summer is a living, breathing pleasure.
In this column, I have lavished praise on the first two films of Bruno Dumont, La Vie de Jésus and L’Humanité. Having now seen his third feature, Twentynine Palms, I must ask, in all seriousness, “What was I thinking?” Please accept my apology.
Maybe I was fooled by the language. My French is far from perfect, and my knowledge of the accent and manners of the north, around Bailleul, is nil; and so I could fantasize for Dumont a better picture than he perhaps had made. Now, though, he has ventured to make a film in the California desert, putting himself most embarrassingly in my territory.
A sulky American fellow (David Wissak) and his sex-doll of a Russian-born, French-speaking girlfriend (Katia Golubeva) set out from Los Angeles in a Hummer, which is apparently the only vehicle that Dumont considers equal to the American landscape. The vast, arid spaces of Southern California fill him with fear, he’s said in a canned interview, a fear so unmotivated and yet so pervasive that he was able to write the script of Twentynine Palms in just two weeks. Had he taken that crucial third week, I doubt he would have improved the picture. He can imagine only a handful of activities for David and Katia during their pointless stay in the desert, all of which recur with metronomic regularity: screaming at one another during fights, screaming at the ceiling during sex, eating junk food, driving around in the Hummer and being terrified whenever another vehicle drives near them. After one hour and fifteen minutes, a new element enters the picture: The Hummer sideswipes a dog. But no harm done–the pooch had only three legs to start with. After David and Katia scream some more, it hops up and limps away.
Would that they, too, had limped off the screen, and well before that moment! David is such an ineptly realized character that he doesn’t even know how to buy an ice-cream cone. As for Katia, her main contributions to the proceedings are cloacal: Either she’s squatting to pee in the desert or else has locked herself in the bathroom. When thugs finally descend on the couple, converting the movie’s threats into reality, I sympathized with the attackers, since they were exacting on David and Katia a revenge I felt I was owed.
A charmless man torments a senseless woman in an endless, clueless film. As my dear friend Stephen Harvey used to say, “If it were any worse, it wouldn’t have sprocket holes.”