Of Surfaces And Planes

Standing on the margins of the new independent Argentine cinema, Esteban Sapir's Picado fino is a unique film that gestures toward the past even as it distinguishes itself from both previous and contemporary films about young adults. Set in the city of Buenos Aires, the story revolves around Tomás, a young man from a working-class family who is ostensibly looking for work after he discovers that his girlfriend Ana is pregnant. Frequently shot in close-ups that cut across rather than frame his face, Picado fino tells a tale of social disconnection in which every search lacks direction and human relationships are void of affective grounding.

Like other contemporary Argentine films about young adults, Picado fino resonates with the themes of communication and desire reminiscent of the ''first'' Nuevo Cine—that is, films from the early 1960s by directors like David José Kohon, Simón Feldman, and José Martínez Súarez.3 The storyline of Sapir's film bears a remarkable similarity to the first episode of Kohon's Tres veces Ana (1961), in which a young, unmarried couple grapples with news of the young woman's pregnancy. And, both films utilize the urban mise-en-scène to articulate the subjective constraints experienced by their protagonists. Yet their differences are also startling. Whereas in Tres veces Ana the problem of communication was a matter of finding the words to overcome affective distances between two subjects, in Picado fino, there is monologue in place of dialogue. In the opening café sequence of Sapir's film when Ana tells Tomás that she is pregnant, alternating frontal close-ups of each character articulate their affective isolation as their stilted, monotonal dialogue underscores their disconnection:

ana: How quickly things change, Tomás. In a few days, the results. I'm not sure, but what are we going to do?

tomás: It's not important what we do. Today I've lived a hundred times. I'm tired of this monotony. What are we going to do? What everybody does.

ana: What does everybody do?

tomás: What everybody does. What does everybody do?4

This interchange is markedly different from a similar café sequence in Tres veces Ana. In the earlier film, a two-shot "held" the two young adults together even as their conversation about the impossibility of her having their child—continually overlaid by the sounds of clinking dishes, chatter about the most recent soccer match, and the honking of cars—signaled their unraveling as a couple. In Tres veces Ana, the young couple's desire for each other, frustrated by socioeconomic limitations, was unambiguously present. In Picado fino, desire is ephemeral, something that helps pass the time.

The differences between Picado fino and Tres veces Ana might suggest that the newer film (and others that are less formally experimental, like Sábado, or the appropriately titled No sabe, no contesta) articulate a postmodern sensibility. The alienation of the 1960s has been replaced by ennui and irritation and the subject has become fragmented (evident in the off-kilter framing of Picado fino). There is now a glory in surface play, rather than in plumbing the emotional depths of individuals—a difference visible in the film's proclivity for frontal shots, extreme close-ups, and overhead shots as well as in the absence of master shots to anchor the protagonists, and the spectator, in a given place. By cutting across the character's face and flattening out the pro-filmic space, Picado fino points to the fragmentation of the subject while its lack of master shots speaks of the subject's dislocation. Thus, it might be argued that in its depiction of young characters as destabilized and directionless subjects, Picado fino registers the irrelevance of politics to Argentine youth and, even more broadly, the impossibility of future social transformation.

Yet, I do not find this explanation entirely satisfactory. In the first place, the apathy of Picado fino's young protagonists stands in direct contrast to the insouciant playfulness of the film itself, which uses a variety of techniques, including graphic inserts and asynchronous sound, to comment ironically on the characters' actions. In the second place, Picado fino is one of many works by young filmmakers that have exploded onto the Argentine scene over the last decade to revitalize a somewhat stagnant national film industry. Many of these filmmakers have emerged from the numerous film schools that were established in the early 1990s. As noted by many Argentine critics, their films are not united by a dominant stylistic tendency or by a larger political or filmic project (as with the "first" New Latin American Cinema).5 Indeed, when provoked in interviews to comment on their own work, the latest group of young cineastes strenuously disavows any interest in political or social commentary.

Rather than take the filmmakers at their word, we must situate their work in relation to the way in which youth has been constructed in Argentina since the 1960s. In his fascinating work on rock music in Argentina, Pablo Vila has discussed the way in which the category of "youth" became synonymous with ''lo sospechoso" [the suspicious] starting around 1974-1975, during the second Peronist administration (255). In the following years, after the coup that would install the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (1976-1983), a hard-line military junta that carried out the campaign of terror known as the Dirty War, this association hardened to the point that ''the social space occupied by young people in those terror-filled years was absent, negated, a 'no-place''' (258). According to Vila, this ''no place" resulted not only from the actions of the military, but also from those of other institutions of civil society like the political parties and trade unions (258-259).® While youth could not be represented by (or represent themselves through) such institutions, they also disappeared from other discursive sites. Advertising agencies removed all young adults from commercials and replaced them with young children ''smiling, freshly scrubbed, and, of course, totally obedient'' (Guillermo O'Donnell cited in Vila, 258-259). In this context, the rock music scene became the dominant site through which young people could construct and negotiate their identity as youth during the initial years of the dictatorship (256).

Yet, by the mid/late 1980s, rock was no longer necessarily an alternative cultural space and, as big producers made in-roads, many bands turned their attention for the first time to the ''body, pleasure, and entertainment" (265). Around the same time, access to cable TV increased and malls proliferated, and commentators increasingly saw these shifts as contributing to the de-politicization of young people. It is now commonplace to characterize contemporary young adults as apathetic, indifferent to the horrors of the recent past, and lacking a sense of social solidarity as well as any totalizing view of society.7 It should be noted that many scholars do not "blame" young adults for their apathy and lack of sociopolitical commitment, but rather see the "apolitical sensibility" of contemporary youth as a result of the failures of social institutions (schools, the family) and the larger political apparatus8 as well as of the seductive powers of "postmodern culture," often defined as the unfettered power of the marketplace.9

While the increased commodification of all aspects of everyday life is certainly troubling, these analyses often betray an underlying urge to resuscitate older models of the political and, in so doing, pay insufficient attention to the sociocultural work carried out by the new "sensorially laden'' cultural practices favored by young adults. Films like Picado fino and La ciénaga as well Sábado and No sabe, no contesta are part of a youth culture "constellation" that includes other affectively charged works—from the ironic politics of the punk-ska band Todos tus muertos to the grunted screels of the heavy metal A.N.I.M. A.L. to the escraches practiced by HIJOS, a group composed of young adults who lost their parents during the Dirty War.10 If the latter's street performances are more readily identifiable as political acts, their emotionally packed, tactical interventions are nonetheless, like the recent films, remapping what might be considered political.11

If Picado fino is not political in any traditional sense (particularly when compared to the New Latin American Cinema), it does comment on class relations, globalization, and the legacies of the dictatorship. The film situates the emasculating, dead-end factory job held by Tomás' father in direct relation to the forces of globalization, evident in the omnipresence of U.S. media and entertainment products, from old reruns of Batman to Tomás' video games, whose English terminology ("Insert Coin,'' "Extended Play,'' "Round II,'' "Game Over'') are appropriated by the film itself and used as graphic inserts to provide ironic counterpoint to the actions of the characters. Although Picado fino antedated the December 2001 meltdown of the Argentine economy, the film ably anticipated the critiques that would be leveled against neoliberal policies and globalization in the aftermath of the crisis that led to the downfall of five presidents in a number of weeks — namely their exacerbation of socioeconomic inequalities.

Perhaps even more significant, if more subtle, are the film's references to Argentina's past. In one of his job applications, Tomás lists his birthday as May 25,1973, a date significant on several levels. May 25 is Argentina's independence day, a date commemorated in the name of the central plaza of the nation's capital: Plaza de Mayo. Born on that date in 1973, Tomás becomes a symbol of the failure of the dreams and promises associated with indepen dence and, more succinctly, of the political failures of the second Peronist government (1973-1976) as well as the infamous Proceso. By selecting 1973 (rather than, say, 1976) as the date of Tomás' birth and "hiding" the reference in the detail of a single shot, Picado fino eschews facile political denunciations to concentrate on the effects of such political legacies on contemporary urban youth. In Tomás' world, there are no "real" heroes, only dubbed, paro-dic imitations like Batman, and the signs of what must be done are mixed and ambiguous at best. This is quite some distance from the reification of the martyred Ché and the Manichean worldview expressed in the classic La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1966-1968) of the New Latin American Cinema. Yet, the call to "wake up" is ever present in the insistent ringing of an alarm clock and the persistent imagery of a crying baby.

Before discussing the sociopolitical significance of Picado fino's affective play, I will examine the representation of young adults in another Argentine film: Lucrecia Martel's much celebrated La ciénaga. Although Sapir worked as a cameraman on Martel's previous short, Rey muerto (1995), while he was putting together his own film, La ciénaga is notably different from Picado fino in stylistic and narrative terms. Martel's film features exuberant colors instead of black-and-white footage and a depth of field almost entirely absent from Sapir's film. Whereas Picado fino centered almost exclusively on the experiences of Tomás, La ciénaga chronicles the lives of two families: one, led by Meche, owns the Mandrágora (The Mandrake), an estate that grows red peppers, and the other, led by Tali, lives in the nearby town, La Ciénaga (The Swamp). Nonetheless, as argued below, as in Picado fino, the subjective experiences of youth become the ultimate measure of more generalized social decay.

La ciénaga traces the interactions between the two families from the day of Mecha's accident by the side of the pool at the Mandrágora (where she falls on broken wineglasses in a drunken stupor) to the tragic death of Tali's youngest son Luciano (Luchi) on the patio of their home in La Ciénaga. Although the wounds on Mecha's chest are the most recent, her children are the ones that have the most telling injuries and bear the most visible scars of familial and social decay. Joaquín, her youngest son, lost an eye while hunting in the nearby mountainside three years before; Vero, her teenage daughter, has a half-circle scar on her chin from some unknown accident in the past; and José, her eldest son, comes home bruised and beaten one night after getting into a fight during carnival. Yet, the scars are something more than signs of parental disregard, as the film is quick to point to the children's own unthinking cruelties, which contribute to their injuries: Joaquín's love of shooting small animals and his pitiless gaze on the dying cow; Vero's racist treatment of Isabel, one of the family's indigenous maids, and her boyfriend

In La ciénaga (2001), children of various ages gather around a pool and witness the antics of their parents.

El Perro; and José's harassment of Isabel. Indeed, the film has a refreshingly unsentimental approach to the children and young adults that are at the center of the plot.

Of all of Mecha's children, only Momi, her youngest daughter, does not bear any visible signs of injury, and it is precisely this character whose subjective state is privileged by the film. As a film about what lies underneath the surface of daily life, about that which is not immediately visible and yet is nonetheless detectable, La ciénaga characterizes the 15-year-old Momi as the only one to sense the latent forces ignored by the other characters. In a key sequence, Momi dives into the family's stagnant pool as the other children lounge around the deck. Framed in a prolonged long shot from the other side of the pool, her plunge draws stupefied reactions from the other children, who wait and wait for her to reappear, their lack of response underscored by a delayed reverse shot of the putrid surface of the water. The scene functions as an effective metaphor for Momi's compulsion, unique among all the characters, to penetrate the surface of the dirty reality ignored by others. To some degree, the film's critique of familial and social decay is keyed to Momi's ''psychic fall'' from sensitive teen to emotionally numb young adult.12

Joaquín (Diego Baenas) is a scarred and half-blinded child in La ciénaga.

Through the many scenes in which Momi stands as witness to the actions of others, La ciénaga suggests that the young girl somehow sees more than the other characters. Momi is different from her mother, Mecha, whose willful blindness is symbolized by the sunglasses that she wears inside the house and by her failure to schedule the cosmetic surgery that would give Joaquín a prosthetic eye. Momi's sensorial acuity goes beyond the merely visual. Unlike her father, Gregorio, and her sister, Vero, both of whom recoil from what they find to be offensive body odors produced by the oppressive summer heat, Momi rarely bathes. Told that she smells by others, Momi only showers after Isabel admonishes her for jumping in the fetid pool. In these and other ways, Momi functions as a key register of the film's ''disquieting materiality."

As intimated above, one of the most notable means by which the film creates this sense of density or ''materiality'' is the sound track. In a recent interview, Martel underscored the ''youthful'' perspective produced by the film's complex sonic density:

I always felt more confident with the sound than with the image. One thing that seems important to me about La ciénaga is that although there was no clearly defined narrator, which was a very big risk, the point of view of the narrator was not going to be me as an adult but me as a girl. When you're a child perhaps there are lots of things you don't understand, but you're much more perceptive ... In cinema, the most tactile, intimate thing you have to convey is sound. The sound plunges into you; it's very physical. And to be faithful to that childlike viewpoint, I worked with the idea that the sound could tell more than the image, including more than the words. (Monteagudo 74; translation from original article)

The point here is not that Momi is Martel's stand-in narrator, but rather that the film is trying to endow the spectator with the perceptive powers of the child. The sound track deliberately interweaves low-, medium-, and high-frequency sounds through the inclusion of distant thunder or airplanes, conversations, and the buzzing of different insects, respectively (Peña, Felix-Didier, and Luka 121). This density or multiplicity of sonic material "floods" the spectator and becomes that which s/he cannot ignore. As Martel says, ''In the cinema, you can close your eyes but you can't stop listening'' (122). Through this sonic density, the film ''tunes'' the spectator, like a piano, to vibrate in the correct key, to be able to interpret the cadences it taps out. The words of the characters become muffled and less distinguishable and the spectator, like a child, pays more attention to the tones and pitch of ambient sound to understand what is truly going on. Martel has said that La ciénaga "belongs to the genre of the 'desperate scream''' (123). It is this affective charge that lasts beyond the film's tragic ending.

And, indeed, it is there that one finds the politics in this ostensibly apolitical film about disaffected youth. Although references to the dictatorship are entirely absent from La ciénaga, its legacy is present in ''this tension between an ominous past and an indecipherable present'' (Quintín 115). Martel herself has noted that the films of the 1990s from first-time filmmakers register the Dirty War and the ''disappeared'' as ''densities'' or ''knots'' (Peña, Felix-Didier, and Luka 123). Unlike films like La historia oficial (1985) and Sur (1988), made immediately after the end of the dictatorship, which discussed the repression directly, the more recent films eschew explicit political denunciations:

What one feels is that the topic has lost its explicit, timely political charge and what has remained is the human, dramatic charge, the historical weight of all of that happened, the guilt, the lack of atonement . . . the absence, because everyone is missing someone, whether some-

one close to them or not. All of that has a strong presence on what is happening today. (Martel in Peña, Felix-Didier, and Luka 123)

La ciénaga registers that presence by evoking in the spectator a childlike sensibility, not as return to innocence, but rather as a way to access the affective legacies of the dictatorship. The film calls upon the spectator to plumb the depths that lie below the surface of today's civil democracy.

In sum, rather than putting forth a totalizing vision of societal reform, films like Picado fino and La ciénaga mobilize the affective legacies that have been ignored by the legalistic mechanisms of the so-called truth commissions and diverted by public performances of commemoration. As argued by Nelly Richard in relation to postdictatorial Chile, the rush to produce consensus after the ''return to democracy'' has "rationalized" politics.13 Addressing the crimes committed by the military government became reduced to a legal investigation, subject to the rules and regulations of court systems that had proved entirely bankrupt under the dictatorships that ruled the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 1980s. In Argentina, the trauma was ''summed up" by the Nunca más report and ''dealt with'' when President Raúl Alfonsín, the man who took office immediately after the military government and who promised to restore the country's democratic system, declared the ''Punto Final,'' an arbitrary date after which no further legal actions could be initiated for crimes committed during the military government. The pragmatism of such political maneuvers has coincided with the public ''appropriation'' of emotion whether in the feature story on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo on the cover of Gente (Argentina's version of People magazine), the media's repeated attention to the bloodier aspects of the military's repression, or the appearance of a former torturer and his victim on a TV talk show (Kaufman, 17-18, 23; Kaiser, 500, 502-503). Through emotional appeals to the most heart-wrenching and sensationalistic aspects of the military's repression, such media reports complement the legalistic approach to the crimes of the Dirty War. Both tendencies divert attention away from more in-depth examination of Argentina's political history and ongoing economic inequalities as well as from particular affective legacies—anger, guilt, complicity, mourning—that cannot be easily untangled.

Although Picado fino and La ciénaga do not address such issues explicitly, they do articulate emergent structures of feeling that signal less a simple ''waning of affect'' or the affective paralysis of young adults than a renegotiation of modes of sociopolitical engagement. By adjusting the spectator's depth perceptions, they force us to adopt a new type of sensibility—one that cannot ignore the emotional charge of history marginalized in the rational ized realm of traditional politics and, at the same time, one that does not subsume cognition under purgative outburst.

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