Historias mínimas and Familia rodante feature in the new Pre-U Paper 4 Topic La Argentina del siglo 21. Students will therefore be viewing them in the light of that Topic heading. In this study Professor Stephen Hart looks at the techniques and innovations used by the films’ directors to convey their message about contemporary Argentina.
In this essay I will be referring to a number of characteristics of Historias mínimas (2002) and Familia rodante (2004) but in order to produce my analysis I need to flesh out the broader frame in which these two films emerged. Not all of the characteristics I mention fit these two films, but the filmic language they pursue and express resonates with the broader picture, as we shall see. I will be talking about the birth of a new filmic language in Latin America, which I have called “slick grit” — and I list the characteristics – and then I turn to just some of those characteristics and look at ways in which they speak to Historias mínimas and Familia rodante. The themes I will be looking at in the two Argentine films are non-emplotment, continuum, digitality, everydayness and minimalism.
In chapter 4 of my recent book — Latin American Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) — I suggest that something new occurred in 21st century Latin America, something that completely changed the paradigm of film. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros (Life’s a Bitch, 2000) came out in the first year of the 21st century, and it kick-started that paradigm-shift.
I propose that the paradigm-shift changed as a result of SLICK grit. And I argue that there were seven basic features of SLICK grit.
Slick Grit 1: Slick editing
- the high-octane car-chase
- the experimental use of three interlocking narrative sequences focussed around a car crash
- the use of skip bleach on the film
- all this resulted in a quick-moving, lithe, “breathing” camera, to portray the gritty nature of life in Mexico City
Slick Grit 2: The use of unknown or virtually unknown actors
- Gael García Bernal was unknown when he appeared in Amores perros. Though there was the loss of star quality, he came over as “real”
- It was an extension of Italian neo-Realism (if you want to portray a postman, get a real postman). It was also used in Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus (2002). The actors were real gangsters rather than film gangsters…
And this definitely applies to Familia rodante. The director’s actual grandmother appears in the film!
Slick Grit 3: Rejection of synecdoche syntax
- Earlier Latin American films used the main character as the national synecdoche. His destiny is synonymous with national destiny: Ricardo Larraín’s La frontera (1991) and Fernando Solanas’s El viaje (1991).
- But in Amores perros and Cidade de Deus, we have no national landmarks, just an urban jungle, a generic, non-national site akin to what Gilles Deleuze called “any-space-whatever”; Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Continuum, 1989), p. 5.
Slick Grit 4: Rejection of “middle-speech”
- Latin American films of the 1990s portrayed middle-aged characters who used a neutral “middle-speech”, that is the Spanish you hear on CNN en español, the Portuguese you hear on the Globo networks
- But in Amores perros and Cidade de Deus, the characters are young, and they use swear-words. This innovation initially spooked the distributors. But they were proved wrong…
Slick Grit 5: Rejection of state finance
- Latin American films traditionally relied on state funding to finance a film. This led to a disinterest in audience reaction since the film was already paid for.
- Amores perros changed this. González Iñárritu: “we loath the government-financed movie-making that seems to operate by the maxim: ‘If nobody understands and nobody goes to see a movie, then it must mean it’s a masterpiece.’” Amores perros was funded by two private companies, Altavista (86%) and Zeta films (14%).
Slick Grit 6: The “English” Latin American Film
- There are those who have seen this creation of a new genre – the “English” Latin American film within the cinematic canon – as symptomatic of a generation who have “sold their soul” to Hollywood by turning their backs on Spanish and Portuguese.
- Others have interpreted this linguistic decision as simply a stage of the new journey that successful Latin American film directors have been keen to embark on. Clearly, though, this gesture has endeared a number of Latin American film directors to audiences across the globe…
Slick Grit 7: The Digital Turn
- One striking trend within Latin American cinema of the twenty-first century has been the increasing use of digital film. The pioneers were Amores perros (2000) which used digital-inspired techniques in editing the sequences, as well as Cidade de Deus (2002). Meirelles’s film was first filmed in analogue, the footage was then digitized by the editor, César Charlone, and then transformed back again into 35mm… In this sense both were hybrid films since they combined the use of analogue with the use of digital film. They were the trailblazers…
- Though the technology allowing the creation of digital images had been available since 1975, it was only at the end of the last millennium that the potential of digital film surfaced publicly. It was in 1998 that the first feature film was recorded in its entirety on a digital camera, the Danish film Idioterne/The Idiots (1998), directed by Dogme 95 film director Lars von Trier, was filmed on a Sony DCR-VX1000, making history by so doing.
- One of the most important differences between analogue and digital is that while digital allows you to see what you are filming simultaneously, in “real-time” as it were, analogue film is, ipso facto, always a “deferred” medium since you normally only see what you have filmed a day or – at the very least – a few hours later.
- Some theorists have argued that the quantum leap produced by the digital medium is not confined to its technology. Instead they see digital film – in its emphasis upon continuity – as departing from the cut-and-splice paradigm which underwrites analogue film, producing a new vision of the world around us. A good exemplar of this new approach to digital film is William Brown who, in his study, Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age: Supercinema (New York: Berghahn, 2013), has argued that “digital cinema is defined by spatial and temporal continuity and by a rejection of the cut” (p. 9). He also argues: “Digital cinema tells us that all points in space, be they coordinates in thin air, within a wall, miles under the Earth’s crust, on Mars, or in a wholly different galaxy, coexist simultaneously, even if we humans cannot normally see them. Furthermore, access to these points in space is made easy in digital cinema: it can be achieved in single, continuous, and fluid shots” (p. 51).
- One obvious question emerges: What impact, if any, has the digital turn had on film in general and filmmaking in particular? Based on William Brown’s theory, we would expect its “anti-cut bias” to lead to a filmic environment in which there are longer shots, and less emphasis on quick cuts from one scene to another. Is this what we find?
- Curiously enough we are able to test this theory because there is a lot of evidence out there about trends in 20th-century filmmaking, based on the meticulous and scientific measurement of the length of every shot in a given film. Although this does not seem to be a particularly exciting way of studying film, there are quite a few film buffs out there who – inspired by a film scholar called Barry Salt – have sat down, watched a complete film, listed all the shots in the film, decided what type of shot it was in each case – i.e. anything from a long shot to a close up – and then timed the length of each shot. And then uploaded the results to a website; Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (London: Starword, 1983). It’s called cinemetrics. Here’s what the results look like:
At this point in time, the results for 19,361 have been uploaded to the cinemetrics website. Barry Salt has used the data first of all to calculate the Average Shot Length of any given film (i.e. based on dividing the length of the film by the number of shots), and then (ii) comparing how those figures vary over time. Salt demonstrates that, from the 1920s until the late 1990s, the Average Shot Length decreased consistently when looked at from a year-on-year basis in terms of its overall trend. One of my graduate students, Owen Williams, and I used Barry Salt’s data base, Cinemetrics, containing information on 16,000 or so films and calculated the ASL of Hollywood films in the 1980s, 1990s, up until 2005. We found that the ASL of Hollywood reduced year on year during this period, appearing to confirm Salt’s hypothesis about diminishing Average Shot Lengths. Common ASLs in the 1980s were around 6 seconds, in the 1990s the Average Shot Length hovered around 5 seconds, and in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century got down as low as 4 seconds. We asked the same question about Latin American film, and the data for Latin American cinema pointed to evidence of greater openness to more extended Average Shot Lengths in Latin American film of the same period. We decided to concentrate on contemporary examples, especially during the post-1998 period. We found that five of the post-1998 films demonstrate ASLs which are much higher than the Hollywood norm for the same period:
- Y tu mamá también (2001): 18.75 seconds;
- As tres Marias (2002): 15.60 seconds;
- El bonaerense (2002): 15.10 seconds;
- Temporada de patos (2004): 15.94 seconds
- and Hamaca Paraguaya (2006): 123.04
These figures appear to point, as far as a number of Latin American film directors working with digital are concerned, to a greater willingness to experiment with shot length… One film in particular, released in 2006, with a spectacularly high ASL of 123.04 seconds (Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya), mentioned above, suggests that something very different and very new has been occurring in twenty-first century Latin American film…
This something new in Latin in Latin American film is what I will be calling “slow film”, yet it is not simply that the camera “slows down”. The camera also focuses on the everyday as the theatre where “real” life takes place…. Whereas in Hamaca paraguaya it’s daily life around the hammock, in Historias mínimas and Familia rodante, it’s daily life based on journeys around Argentina.
I want now to touch briefly on those main characteristics of these two films, as mentioned above, that is: (i) non-emplotment, (ii) continuum, (iii) digitality, (iv) everydayness and (v) minimalism. Before moving to a discussion of the two films, I need to refer to the implications of this paradigm-shift in 21st-century film, by focussing on what is meant by the first term, non-emplotment. And I want to do this via the theory of plot in the novel as analysed by E.M. Foster in his study, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976). In his study, E.M. Foster defines plot as follows:
The most important aspect of plot, in E.M. Forster’s view, is causality. Conversely, we can argue that non-emplotment will be defined by a series of events following one after the other, without a clear sense of causality or connections between them. Some see this type of fiction as emblematized by the picaresque novel, i.e. the style of Lazarillo de Tormes. Here we find a series of events with little connection, except that the same character is experiencing them.
What implications does E.M. Forster’s theory of the novel have for characters in fiction or film? Interestingly enough, Forster argues that the world of fiction is very different from the world of everyday life. The worlds of “homo sapiens” and of “homo fictus” are radically opposed. “Homo fictus is more elusive than his cousin (…). He is generally born off. He is capable of dying on, he wants little food or sleep, he is tirelessly occupied with human relationships” (Aspects of the Novel, p. 63). As Forster points out “homo fictus” is obsessed with love, for example, and he spends 90% of his life thinking and talking about it! Very different, we might think, from “homo sapiens”!
We could extend the list of bodily functions that are not included in a novel or a conventional film. But I want to mention just one, and this is breathing. Traditional Hollywood films focus on love but they don’t focus on breathing. 21st century film, however, bucks this trend because it focuses on a new way of looking at life, one which includes something we all do but take for granted – breathing. Not for nothing does Familia rodante begin with the sound of breathing — we see a black screen and hear the grandmother breathing, and then sighing, and then talking. And then we see her. Breathing is made invisible by Hollywood film, as well as the kind of traditional novel E.M. Forster referred to (see above). But the two films we are analysing show us people breathing, eating, living their everyday lives. And this is the distinctiveness of them.
Historias mínimas (Intimate Stories), directed by Carlos Soria, was released in 2002. It was one of four exceptional films released in that year – the others were Carlos Carrera’s El crimen del padre Amaro, Carlos Reygadas’s Japón and Adrián Caetano’s Un oso rojo. The title of Historias mínimas in a sense gives it away; it will be a minimal story, the story of the everyday, not the massive story of, say, war between nations, or a war between mankind and aliens. This comedy-drama thus traces a deliberate departure from the nation-image dramas of the 1990s (such as El viaje and La frontera) in which the protagonists represent a national consciousness. Here it is the small story that counts – there is no mention of politics or work or ambition; the film focusses on the everyday narrative of their lives – at home, as it were.
But, despite this, the film is surprisingly strong and profound. As Peter Bradshaw suggests: “Maria (Javiera Bravo) is a young woman travelling to take part in a game show in which she has a chance of winning a food processor; Roberto (Javier Lombardo) is taking a birthday cake to the child of the woman he is not so secretly in love with; Don Justo (Antonio Benedictti) has just been told that his dog Badface, who left him three years ago, has been seen in a nearby town – so he’s going to track him down, and it is in Don Justo’s story that the emotional heart of the movie resides”; Film review, The Guardian, 25 July 2003. Historias mínimas focuses on three stories – and this feature was in all likelihood drawn from Amores perros which was released two years earlier and which also had a tripartite structure – but it deliberately re-focussed those stories within the realm of the everyday.
And two years later, in 2004, Familia rodante (Rolling Family), directed by the Argentine Pablo Trapero, was released. It was itself influenced by Historias mínimas; it drew upon the quotidian set idea but decided not to use the tripartite structure, no doubt because of its complexity. Familia rodante tells the story of a large Argentine family who take a very long trip northwards in their camper van from Buenos Aires to Misiones in order to attend a wedding. Like Historias mínimas, it traces a deliberate departure from the nation-image dramas of the 1990s, for here it is the small story that counts – there is no mention of politics or work or ambition; the film focusses on the everyday narrative of their lives – at home, as it were. Even when the family visit the town where José de San Martín was born, and visit the Libertador’s house, the mise-en-scène is overwhelmed by the reality of everyday life, the horses, the two primos getting annoyed with each other because they are sexually attracted, and the micro-narrative of the tooth extraction. The narrative of independence is a narrative in voice-over which hardly touches the characters’ lives.
We see the characters breathing, eating, drinking, talking, smoking, looking at the countryside, brushing their teeth, going to the toilet, swimming in a river when the camper van breaks down, laughing, gossipping, arguing, fighting, crying, flirting, seducing, and falling in love. They make up their new narratives as they go along – Yanina (Marienela Pedano) tries to seduce her cousin, Gustavo (Raúl Viñona), Ernesto (Carlos Resta) tries to seduce Marta (Liliana Capurro), and is thrown off the camper van when her husband, the driver, Oscar (Bernardo Forteza) finds out. These are all examples of what I call non-emplotment.
The documentary feel of the film is underlined not only by the hand-held camera – which imbues the film with the spontaneous-cum-casual look of a home movie – and the non-professional actors who were employed in the film by the director when he arrived in different towns, but by the fact that star of the film, the grandmother and matriarch of the family, Emilia (Graciana Chironi), is played by Pablo Trapero’s actual grandmother, as mentioned above.
There are many examples of the documentary feel of the feel early on in the film when, for example, during the scene when the grandmother feels ill, she is surrounded by people all talking at once. This happens in documentary but not in feature films. Trapero is therefore giving his film a lived feel to it. A picaresque film, Familia rodante deliberately eschews any broader significance, either of a political or a philosophical nature, focusing on the drama of the everyday. Or does it? The important point is that it deliberately focusses on the micro-narratives of life, leaving the grand narratives for others.
As we can see, there is a strain within Latin American film interested in the small micro-narratives of everyday life. These films rely on the continuum of the digital take – there is no sense of the Hollywood cut here. The world moves seamlessly on. In this way we can point to the birth of a new experimentalism in Latin American film in the 21st century, one which combines the spacefulness of the Long Shot and the Very Long Shot with the timefulness of the Long Digital Take to construct a new world-vision in which space and time are not seen as separate but as a living, “breathing” continuum…. It is a cinema that breathes, filmed by the “breathing everyday camera”.
By Stephen M. Hart, University College London