Argentina: The Land of Fire and Ice | City Symphonies
“City Symphonies” is a monthly column in which film critic Victor Morozov aims to travel to several cities of the world via the films that made them famous.
It might seem a bit absurd for a column titled „City Symphonies” to travel to the very ends of the world, where there are no more wons left. Especially in a month of crazed shopping and urban madness. But this is as natural as it may be: first of all, because December is the one month when the town turns into a suffocating anthill where everything is up for sale, thus forcing the author of these lines to renege his object of study; and then, it’s because a world without towns means, at least intuitively, that there’s a bigger chance for snow; and, in the end, because a world of snow means – essentially when it takes on the shape of a sovereign, brutal storm – a stop-over in a world of crazed consumerism. Hounded by global warming, I arrived in the extreme south of Argentina and pulled over at its last pier, from where one can see Antarctica glistening in the sun on the other side of the sea. Then I went up, over along the Andes, until I was forced to accept defeat: interrupted from my small act of resistance, I stopped over on a slope – this symbol of everything we believe to hate – and watched the people effortlessly glide down, dressed in the garbs of aliens. The snow was now smooth, impeccable, and artificial – and our revolutionary city break had come to an end.
But let us return. And pick up back from where we were left – a cable car –, and go on another round of the Andes. The film is called Papirosen, it’s directed by Gastón Solnicki, and has all the bold tics and annoying reflexes that the home movie genre adopted ever since cameras became democratized. It’s just that, being in 2011, these tics are formal impulses, the reflexes are just small complacent acts, and the films must be given the privilege of a forerunner. Moreover, Solnicki seems aware of the importance of an old lesson, which is increasingly rare to discover in contemporary independent documentaries: meaning that a human being must be constructed in front of the camera from scratch, with just as much attention to detail as if they were a fictional character. Papirosen isn’t, in any sense, a film about snow or about “the white sport”: it’s preoccupied with the history of four generations coagulated – of course – around the Polish-Argentine axis, but it happens to pass through a mountain resort, without looking for anything in particular. The whiteness doesn’t evoke something in particular – not even the terrible coldness of the concentration camps –, while the ferry’s hypnotic trip has nothing from the apocalyptic nuance of a Bela Tarr film. On the contrary, Papirosen ends on a conciliatory tone – by placing grandfather and nephew nearby – the idea of passing on a legacy of identity. The landscape is allowed to linger for a long time – a unique occurrence in a film generated by the trembling of a personal gaze –, in the name of a deposition: the grandfather sings a song that he has learned from his father, a mysterious and depressive man, marked by the direct experience of atrocity, while the little boy looks forwards, hidden behind his ski helmet and slightly funny goggles. History, the filmmaker seems to tell us at this moment, has all sorts of strange ways of working – and it might be that a round of alpine skiing is not necessarily an absurd attempt at grasping it by the collar.
Somewhere to the south, coming from the sea, another man is readying himself to go down the threads of memory, but in a radically different fashion. Taciturn and intense, Farrel, the protagonist of Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (2008), goes ashore from the boat he is working on, taking advantage of a stopover in the Ushuaia roadstead. His mother lives – or lived since Farrel has left his home for many years and lost all contact – in a nearby village. The film presents this only seemingly minimalistic odyssey which carries with it the specters of a troubled past while revealing a contained and virile shell. As I was recently rewatching Liverpool, I thought that slow cinema – this global current that is often very relevant, like Romania for example, where it finally started to catch up after the communist bloc fell apart – was over once mobile phones became popular. What a drama of a lonely sailor – even if “de-dramatized” – can one still present nowadays, when it’s become so easy to contact other people, that any cut would seem like an eccentricity on the part of the script? But this is not just a matter of context: the telephone also allowed for the creation of new types of images, thus complicating the map of formats that Liverpool, with its “political” slowness acting in contrast to a dusty mainstream, could claim that it is correctly situated.
Once these categories have gone out of use, we may – or may not – appreciate a slow film beyond its program, in the name of a sacrosanct alignment between form and content. On this level, I will rush to say that Liverpool is sublime – a film that is not just beautiful, in which the primitivism of an elementary world, without whims, is matched in the nature of this drinking sailor, his face whipped by strong winds; but also a film that – with its Bressonian ellipses and Tarkovskyian stasis – puts the spectator at work, without asking for unpaid labor. Amid this reanimated past lies the landscape: the village next to Tolhuin, around a hundred kilometers away from Ushuaia, with its wooden houses and elderly that are as obstinate as the methuselahs in Sharunas Bartas’ oeuvre; the snowy road traveled on an old lorry loaded with wood; and the port covered with snowdrops, shot in the chemical light of a lantern and then again in the bitter cold of a morning spent in an abandoned bus, with only his ever-present bottle of vodka at his side. Liverpool doesn’t idealize anything: if Farrel is gone without a trace, that is not because his cellphone is missing, but rather, it’s simply because he’s a bastard – but a bastard who retains all the allure of a man past his prime and longing for solitude; and the village, in Alonso, which is not some corner of the world that is untouched by progress (but it might be that, too), it’s rather more of an abyss in which abuse and idyllic surroundings coexist in a tacit, merciless agreement. Liverpool is hard to find nowadays, at least in a decent quality – but even so, using whatever is available, I am convinced that it will impose the telling mutism of its images with a colossal force.
Whatever one may say, a ski resort is a more complex place than a film like Force majeure would like it to be: a spillway of small middle-class passions, the commodification of the idea of sport and performance, and – especially if we happen to be in Argentina – a living testimony to a colonial past that stretches, degenerated, to the present day. This is the starting point for the assemblage of images gathered by filmmaker Manque la Banca under the title Esqui (2021): a raid on a mountainous territory where abusive forms of the conversion of existence into a mere commodity to be sold and stubborn forms of resistance against this capitalist march come together. The great merit of such an explosive film is that it observes with equal fascination a vertiginous descent of a professional skier among colored sticks – a smooth, publicized and colorful spectacle – and an anti-colonial protest shot on grainy film. In this film, there lies the timely belief in a continuity of the layers of existence, via the image: in our ever-visual era, a Mapuche legend of a child-grabbing monster can connect nicely with these Sunday skiers who get off the bus in a line. I still haven’t decided whether Esqui is a sample of political thought so flowing through that it becomes abysmal, or a formalistic and frivolous romp that hopes to grab eyeballs but that investigates nothing in-depth. Undoubtedly, it has something of both – and that’s precisely why, through the arrogance with which it mimics self-criticism and preoccupation, but also its intuition to speak about these contradictory currents that animate the streets of Bariloche, lost somewhere in the middle of Patagonia, thanks to the image, Esqui is a film that participates fully, and greedily, in the audiovisual upheaval of the moment. Talking about the snow on the slope – harder to find an element easier to codify in a capitalistic key –, Manque la Banca is aware that he doesn’t need more than a few shovels to unearth the dead of the Conquistas and the ghosts of the World War. So, enjoy skiing – that is, if you still can.
Header image: Esqui; Main image: Esqui