JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Martel is a director who “writes for sound.” Here she works with one of the members of her sound team on the set of La niña santa.

Martel’s fellow director, Pablo Trapero.

Images from La Ciénaga [The Swamp]

Almost everyone is scarred or bruised: Mecha ...

... Martín ...

... José ...

... and Joaquin ...

José is involved with his father’s former lover and family patron, Mercedes.

Martel draws on Graciela Borges’ past as a star of melodrama. She is seen here in Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s Fin de fiesta [The End of the Party] (1960).

Mecha’s actions have the same physicality as her inaction. Here she kicks Gregorio out, and ...

... she frustratedly tries to get ice from her ice machine in her bedroom.

Tali and her husband: Tali maintains a surface calm while offscreen sound communicates her frustration.

Martel plays on the symbolism of water: liquidity, humidity, alcohol, the pool.

 

Lucrecia Martel —
“a decidedly polyphonic cinema”

by Dominique Russell

In his film sound manifesto, sound designer Randy Thom calls for films to be “designed for sound,” that is, to be conceived of aurally as well as visually. Rather than thinking of good sound as an add-on or as an effect at the service of the visual, Thom proposes that directors consider sound an “active agent,” one whose presence interacts with and therefore changes other elements of the film. In his words:

"What I propose is that the way for a filmmaker to take advantage of sound is not simply to make it possible to record good sound on the set, or simply to hire a talented sound designer/composer to fabricate sounds, but rather to design the film with sound in mind, to allow sound’s contributions to influence creative decisions in the other crafts."

While he gives examples as varied as Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Never Cry Wolf and Once Upon a Time in the West as films that were “thoroughly ‘sound designed,’ though no sound designer was credited on most of them,” Thom also theorizes more broadly what his ideal “aurally conceived” film would look like. Principally, a film that was “written for sound” would tell the story more-or-less through the point of view of one or more of the characters; have locations and sets which encourage sound as a player; and avoid non-stop dialogue. Thom then suggests a number of visual techniques that “starve the eye” and might heighten sound, allowing for sound to be part of the seduction of storytelling.

Reading this manifesto shortly after seeing Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004),[1][open endnotes in new window] I was struck how her films answer Thom’s call for “aurally conceived cinema.” Here is a filmmaker who makes truly “audio-visual” cinema. Unlike those of many of her contemporaries, her soundtracks are not suffused with loud music and bone-rattling effects, yet sound stands out in her films. Her stunning first feature, La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001) tells the story of two families, one upper class and in decline, the other middle class and harried, and through them builds a devastating portrait of life in the Argentine provinces. The film is autobiographical in many ways. It is almost as if she had closed her eyes to remember the sounds of her childhood, so prominent, detailed and realistic is the soundscape. She herself has argued that its

“sound display […] defines a very profound thing of the film. Because, in the cinema, you might close your eyes, but you can’t stop listening” (qted in Martín Morán, 235).

Martel's next film, La niña santa, deals with the confused sexual awakening of adolescent girls. Much of the film foregrounds environment, especially the provincial hotel in which it takes place; and the film's spaces and drama are largely delineated in audio terms. This is not to attribute either films’ effects completely to sound aesthetics, of course — the heightening of ambiguity, for example, is a hallmark of the art cinema to which Martel's cinema belongs — but it does explain some peculiarities of Martel’s film style.[2] Her films contain all the elements outlined by Thom, and then some. Limited point of view, carefully chosen locations, the use of close-ups and other means of what Thom advocates as “starving the eye,” characterize her features. In La ciénaga the precise manipulation of noise displaces dialogue in many instances and takes over many of the functions of a musical score, immersing the spectator in the life of the film's dysfunctional extended family while excluding her at the same time. La niña santa thematizes and visualizes sound as well, placing the question of sound at the heart of the screenplay and images. In the pages that follow I explore the mechanisms and effects of Martel’s soundtracks with an eye to demonstrating the originality of her sonic imagination by making comparisons with the conventions of film sound.

Martel and New Argentine Cinema

To understand this originality, it is important to place Martel's work in the context of the New Argentine Cinema, alongside filmmakers such as Martin Rejtman, Adrián Caetano, Pablo Trapero, Daniel Burman, to name the best-known. Her work emerges from this fervor of filmmaking that renewed Argentine cinema, and she is at once representative and exceptional within it. The New Argentine Cinema is[3] less a movement than a generational shift that was facilitated by a boom of new film schools ,[4] the passing of the “Cinema law” which allowed for the recovery of some production costs, as well as the rebirth of film journals.[5] All of this took place during and after the economic crisis that devastated the middle class. In some sense, the crisis helped inspire the boom, as middle class youth who might have studied medicine or law decided that if these professions offered no shelter from the storm, they might as well do what they loved.[6]

María Paulinelli defines the film movement as

“una cierta comunidad temporal que expresa homogeneidades a partir de sus productos y prácticas” [“a certain temporal community that expresses some similarities in its productions and practices”](13).

She traces some shared characteristics, including “dirty realism” or “new verosimilitude” that is “fully lodged” in the present (14, Wolf, 33). According to Martel:

“One of the problems my generation has to deal with is that we are so caught up in a situation of crisis and rupture that really the only means of committing ourselves is taking some stance toward reality” (qted in Sinagra).

The actual crisis in Argentina, however, is a backdrop to the films, in which the desire and hopes of characters are revealed

“a partir de un distanciamiento en el que está presente de una desdramatización de conflictos” [‘from a certain distancing in which conflicts are de-dramatized’] (Diaz).

Such an oblique engagement with harsh realities is key in Martel’s two films. But she as well as her colleagues are equally concerned with questions of media aesthetics. The group also “proposes new questions,”[7] as David Oubiña puts it, with a desire to experiment at the level of screenplay, production and distribution. In a Senses of Cinema article, he quotes Alan Paul’s somewhat hyperbolic declaration:[8]

"For the first time, Argentine cinema advances; perhaps in an imprecise direction, but it is in movement. Today, style and mode of production are the same problem. To think about form is to think about production."

Focusing on the issue of stylistic innovation, Gustavo Constantini shows how this experimentation has renewed the soundtrack in terms of music and sound effects, while Paulinelli and others have also noted the close attention paid to dialogue. Martel herself identifies one inspiration for the movement to pay close attention to audio as artists' response to the abuse of language and the disdain for Spanish in cinema under the military dictatorship (1976-1982). Her generation, children during the repressive military takeover of nearly all aspects of civilian life, were subjected to a barrage of empty political rhetoric on television, while U.S. films flooded the market. The Spanish spoken by political and cultural leaders was far from the language of ordinary people, marking a hierarchy of class and geography as Buenos Aires tones predominate.

The New Argentine Cinema reclaims the particularities of local and diverse class-based slang in its screenplays. As Sergio Wolf notes, language itself is activated in these films as a

“live subject, changing, in motion” (35).

In a discussion at the School for Sound, Martel asserts that

“todo mi antecedente cinematográfico lo debo al lenguaje oral
[I owe my entire cinematic heritage to oral language].”

However, in these films if language is often the subject, it is not the structuring element of the work. There is a tendency, more extreme in Martel, to relativize speech, mostly through proliferation, ad lib, loss of intelligibility and decentering. Ambient speech is not

“tied to the heart of what might be called action, in a general sense.”

Here I use the description Michel Chion has elaborated for what he terms “emanation speech,” that is, words that are “not necessarily completely heard and understood.” According to Chion, in this case

“[s]peech becomes therefore an emanation of the characters, an aspect of themselves, like their silhouette: significant but not essential” (“Wasted,” 105).

As Gonzalo Aguilar says of La ciénaga and other films of the New Argentine Cinema:

“los diálogos no son sólo lo que los personajes se dicen, sino una tonalidad, un ruido o una musicalidad que recorre transversalmente las historias” [“the dialogue is not just what is said, but also a tonality, a noise or musicality that runs through the stories crosswise”](95).

From this sketch of the New Argentine Cinema movement’s characteristics, it is possible to discern how Martel can be viewed as representative. She is an auteur with a “quirky” style, and her films engage politic and social realities obliquely, while conflict is underplayed. She shares with her colleagues a technical virtuosity, a concern with the authenticity of language, and an impulse to experiment with the soundtrack. Where she is exceptional, and in the rare company of filmmakers described by Thom, is in her understanding and manipulation of both the conventions of film sound and the properties of sound itself. Her use of sound is almost orchestral, as polyphonic as her narratives. And she exploits noise’s contradictory status as both bodily and ethereal.[9]

La ciénaga

La Ciénaga takes place in Salta, in the northern province of Argentina where Martel grew up. On one level, the film tells the story of two families, presided over by Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Tali (Mercedes Morán), cousins who reconnect after meeting in a hospital. Tali’s young son has cut his leg, and Mecha, cared for by Isabel (Andrea Lopez), one of several native servants she both depends on and despises, has cut her chest in a drunken stumble. These are just a few of the injuries, in fact; almost everyone is scarred or bruised. The mothers compare notes: Tali’s boy has a tooth growing out of his palette, while Joaquín (Diego Baenas), Mecha’s youngest son, has lost an eye. In the background, there is the promise of a miracle since on television we hear from believers who have seen the Virgin Mary appear on a water tank.

After the encounter in the hospital, at Mecha’s suggestion Tali brings her family to visit Mandragora,[10] the decrepit estate. In Oubiña’s summary of the plot:

"The children come and go, and a certain liveliness invades this decadent ruralhome: José, Mecha's elder son, travels from Buenos Aires to visit his mother; the boys go hunting on the hill; and the girls take their siesta or chat by a pool filled with dirty water. Meanwhile, the women plan a trip to Bolivia to buy school materials for their children, but then it will all come to nothing. Nothing much more happens in this world, observed attentively by Momi (Sofía Bertolotto), Mecha's younger daughter."

Though there is little action, Martel’s narrative is almost cacophonous, with various threads competing for attention. There is Mecha’s disappointments with her vain and unfaithful husband, Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), Tali’s submission to Rafael (Daniel Valenzuela), who serves up his oppression as kindness, Isabel’s entanglements with the family and her boyfriend, José’s (Juan Cruz Bordeu, Graciela Borges real life son) relationship trouble (he is involved with his father’s former lover), Luchi’s questioning and Momi’s observation. As Amy Taubin puts it,

“Martel dispenses with the niceties of exposition, throwing us into this morass of frustration and anger, and leaving us, like the characters, to figure out on our own who's doing what to whom and who's to be trusted or not.”

Martel claims that her fractured, elliptical and disjointed narratives are partly inspired by a northern Argentine habit of meandering talk:

“People go round and round in circles, stories appear, and in the end you realize what it’s all about” (Monteagudo, 74).

Her own inspirations were her grandmother’s siesta revelations and her mother’s peculiar indirect speech over the phone, though she admits she later discovered that the feverish stories her grandmother told were in fact borrowed from author Horacio Quiroga.

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