Sunday, September 27, 2009


Looking over my last post, I feel compelled to reassess my view of La Cienaga - if not to retract anything outright, then at least to leaven the overall mood of bitterness; I realize the striking disparity in my reactions to Martel's films, and I feel the need to better account for this disparity. This kind of apology-cum hedge is probably bad form, and I'm halfway tempted to simply redact the review, but since I consider it to be basically honest, I'd prefer to just tweak things at the safe remove of a new post.

Mostly, the emotion that was the driving force behind that little screed has its roots in my ever-changing ideas about Cinema as Art. This frequently boils down to what I think is permissible for an artist to "get away with", which might expose more than I'd like about my default position regarding the medium. Because this could easily devolve into a lengthy digression about said position, I'm just going to say that I am a firm believer in Cinema as Art, but my ideas about what films are worthy of such a designation are subject to changing winds of such caprice and whimsy (not to mention byzantine ideological and analytical contortions) that I have a recurring tendency to just whack my forehead in befuddlement.

In order to avoid such confusion and discord, I have lately taken a more enlightened approach, whereby I gently remind myself that unlike Old Man Yahweh, my judgments are neither omniscient nor eternally binding, and admitting my ignorance and accepting the provisional status of my perspective and judgment.

With that out of the way, I'll defer from more self-mortification and try to move into some specifics. The best way I know of to illuminate the flaws of a text is to point to an internal incoherence. This is as close as I usually come to objectivity, and I'm more than willing to admit that this still leaves me miles away from that unreachable destination. Without being to programmatic, and without too much redundancy, I'll say that La Cienaga seemed to exhibit two impulses that didn't coexist peacefully in her movie - on the one hand, the impulse to provide the audience with a realistic portrait of human behavior in certain circumstances, on the other hand, to provide a socio-political critique of the same people, and to tether this to a sensual meditation on humanity's relationship to the natural world. (I'm aware that that second impulse could be divided in two, but for me these two sub-themes were actual conflated, which was part of the problem - a confusion over politics and philosophy). We encounter characters that are well-shaded and believable - they aren't three dimensional, exactly, but they seem "real" - they have recognizable desires, emotions, tics. They are well-portrayed by the actors. Another way to put it, a simpler way, is that they are "crafted" - the result of collaboration between the director/writer and the actors.

When this is combined with the second strand of the film, the political/philosophical dimension, there is a clash. The characters are trapped in an overly deterministic universe that divides them into self-hating adults or callow children. Furthermore, it's suggested that the children are merely biding their time, and they too will someday develop into the feckless and decaying shades that spawned them. This is a classic example of the Artist confusing the message with the medium. In La Cienaga, the world is presented as a troubled and hostile place, with humans failing repeatedly to come to terms with it. Give them a bit of money and privilege, and they isolate themselves with intoxicants, while abusing the less privileged and blithely unaware of it. While it's true that this is a major problem in human society, to present it as an existential condition is to overreach. The helplessness of the cow stuck in quicksand is not the same thing as the perceived helplessness of a middle-aged drunk who is stuck in the past - to play with these images and ideas in the offhand way that Martel does is to be glib. The human dimension is quashed by a portentousness, and the film ends up feeling cheap and dishonest.

One need not provide a sunny outlook in a work of Art - part of Art's moral responsibility is to look openly and honestly at the suffering and senselessness of much of life. But if an artist is to depict suffering, I believe that there has to be some compassion involved. Otherwise, it will be hollow, and ineligible for the mantle of Art.

The frustrating thing is that Martel seemed to get the mixture wrong. The separate threads of the film, taken on their own, are fascinating and ripe for exploration. But the way they are combined in La Cienaga feels haphazard and imprecise. It's a movie that has the raw materials of a masterpiece, but instead of harmonizing, they provide dissonance.

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