2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
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),[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, 2oo1) 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. 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.
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 less a movement than a generational shift that was facilitated by a boom of new film schools , the passing of the “Cinema law” which allowed for the recovery of some production costs, as well as the rebirth of film journals. 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.
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,” 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:
"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.
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, 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.
Given the centrality of women in La ciénaga — and especially Mecha’s psychosomatic illness, Tali’s renunciation, and the teenage girls’ forbidden desires (incestuous and otherwise) — as well as the focus on the bourgeoisie, the domestic and the maternal, it might be said that Martel is playing with the themes of melodrama, arguably the dominant mode in Latin American cinema and still central culturally through hugely popular soap operas. But usually melodrama is constructed from the spectacle of emotion, displacements and significant moments, and its pleasures less in the conservative resolution than “in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, a cloud of over-determined irreconcilables” that is cleared, however unconvincingly, in a happy ending (Mulvey, 76). Here Martel is doing something else with the basic materials of female “unfreedom.” We find neither fantasy nor excess, neither “tears and high moral tones” here (Elsaesser, 46). Martel's films are woven together through revealing but ordinary moments, emotion that only just ripples to the surface, and characteristically for new Argentine cinema, de-dramatized narrative. And even more radically than her peers, Martel uses “big moments” that only take place off-screen.
If sound effects, as I later suggest, replace music, audio does not mark or express the protagonist’s emotion as in melodrama. It is not used to define characters from the inside out – not articulating, for example, nostalgia or desire — but rather to define personality from the outside in. As I will show, Martel's sound motifs are tied to the reality of external space; they define characters through the friction between their interiority and that external reality. Martel, with multiple storylines and protagonists, doesn’t give a subjective hold on the characters, rather she uses a complexity of sounds to corral the particular to a corner of a vaster canvas.
Martel also pushes against the “unrelenting combustion engine of physical and psychic energy” of Hollywood-style narrative, its “ideology of action and spectacle” as well as melodrama. Her narratives, though tight as a well-laid trap, unfold in non-actions, misses and accidental revelations. If we could summarize the set up of most narratives as “usually…, and then, one day…” Martel’s do not leave the realm of “usually” until the very end.
Nothing much happens in La ciénaga, but that nothing much is everything. Martel shows the family as a hive of imposed closeness that leads to desire and disappointment. José’s interactions with his sister Verónica (Leonora Balcarce) are tinged with incestuousness, while the parents have nothing left but bitterness towards one another. At one point, Mecha throws her husband out of her bedroom, an action long overdue. It is represented, however, in the same laconic way as other vignettes: Mecha and Gregorio sit side by side, deflated. Her desperation is later revealed as she sits in a similar pose, this time in front of the ice machine after she has lost her servant. It isn’t an insignificant detail, as she has been shown numerous times asking Isabel to refresh her drink. Now, left to her own devices, even that simple task inspires paralysis. Mecha fears that she will become like her mother, confined to her bed for years. But throwing Gregorio out is as much a step away from him as it is a step towards her mother’s fate.
The disintegration of Tali’s marriage is equally understated. In one sequence she's filmed with a similar, and rare in Martel, pan of the camera. Tali keeps a surface calm that Mecha never achieves. We see her smile tightly, apologetically, to her husband when he finds her smoking after they've had a discussion about driving to Bolivia. Characteristically, the dramatic moment was communicated by offscreen sound. The explosion of a light bulb punctuates Tali’s frustration, after her husband has indirectly torpedoed her travel plans.
Many actions, moreover, aren’t connected to an overall plot: the characters roughouse, dance, buy a shirt. They shower, swim, fish, fill glasses with ice. Here the connections are symbolic. The image of water links but does not provide cause and effect. Mostly these characters lie around. If the spectator cannot relax with them, it is because of the underlying tension in the soundtrack that keeps her alert and off-kilter.
Most critics have commented on the place of sound in La ciénaga, especially in the opening scene, in which lawn chairs are drunkenly scraped across the pavement. In an interview with Luciano Monteagudo entitled “Whispers at Siesta Time,” Martel posits that she is “more confident with sound than with the image” and goes on to claim that
“to be faithful to [a] childlike viewpoint, I worked with the idea that the sound could tell more than the image, including more than the words” (74).
Constantini notes that the first sequence's soundscape aurally prefigures many of the film’s plotlines as it weaves together on- and off-screen space, the diegetic and non-diegetic (credits and black-outs) as well as the story of the two families. We hear thunder announcing a coming storm, the grating discord of the lawn chairs, Momi’s prayer, off-screen gunshots, clinking ice cubes, glass breaking as Mecha falls, a pop song “Mala mujer” [Bad Woman”] blaring from the car speaker, the sound of the rain, the return of thunder, and Mecha’s concerned question as to the whereabouts of her son. The intertwining of the two families with the anempathetic sounds (that is, sounds that seem to exhibit conspicuous indifference to what is going on in the film's plot) of the servants and townspeople, the gunshots in the distance and Mecha’s anxious question trace the film's developing tensions and its eventual quiet, devastating ending.
This ending shows a culminating shot of a ladder against a wall. The shot is held for a long time after an unsupervised and clumsy child has climbed up and lost his footing. The shot, held in silence,
“[materializes] the presentiment of death, in a bare and empty image” (Martín Morán, 236).
In his review for Slant, Ed Gonzalez frames the image's effect in terms of sound, or rather, its absence:
“A life is shattered so abruptly you might gasp — not because of the horror of the crash but because no one was there to listen.”
The audience is not made to watch (or listen to) the consequences of this loss in the characters' lives. Rather, they are made to feel it in their own body and breath.
Sebastián Montagna as the little boy Luchi exudes vulnerability, but it is not only his performance and his character’s habit of holding his breath that makes the spectator worry for him. Visuals of Luchi, who is obsessed by the story of a blood-thirsty dog who turns out to be an “African rat,” are almost always accompanied by the sound of dogs barking or walking, as though he were pursued by the hound of his imagination. Tension arises from the combination of this aural motif and Luchi’s nervous awareness.
Similarly, whenever Mecha is onscreen, telephones ring. Her inability to deal with the phone, or to get servants to answer, point to her slipping grasp on the external demands made of her. These sound motifs are precise, but subtly integrated into a naturalistic and dense soundscape. They work, moreover, on the spectator in the same way as on the characters; like Mecha, we are jangled by the phone, alert like Luchi to danger everywhere.
Martel and her sound team make extreme use of a fact of the watching a film:
"the experience of a film is dislocated in space, split between the visual image projected on the screen at some distance from us, and the sound which envelops and even literally touches us as the air vibrates in sympathy with the speakers to transmit the acoustic waves which give us ‘sound’"(Stilwell, 173).
As we watch Martel's work, the sensation we get of being physically close to the world she depicts results from the way she plays with this fact of sound’s intimacy. We normally only experience this envelopment consciously when rattled by blockbusters whose sounds we feel in our teeth. But sounds can work their way into our bodies less consciously, and Martel’s subtle soundscapes exploit this fully. Her sound is not necessarily experienced through the ear, but liminally, on and in the body. We vibrate with the phone and the dog barking — which we perceive consciously as sound — and imperceptibly with other sounds in the mix. She herself considers sound a means of making
“physical contact with the spectator” (School for Sound).
Working against the rush of “what’s next” of most narrative, this physical contact creates a sensory awareness in the spectator, displacing absorption in a storyline with an absorption in a “story place.”
The film’s “sonic structure” is encapsulated in this first sequence which I have described, with a complexity of noise, music, and dialogue substituting for the classical overture that plays all the themes and variations that will unfold through the musical score. The rain, thunder and breaking glass will return as sound tropes throughout. As Constantini notes, the opening sequence sets up an alternation of dense low frequency sounds (filtered and hushed) and sharp harsh noises that immerse the viewer in the space. The audio creates a constant sense of foreboding while the visuals and the story itself focus on an almost banal “day in the life.”
Oubiña comments that visually, the opening sequence also plays with convention, depriving the viewer of any visual orientation:
"The first shot of La Ciénaga shows an approaching storm over a landscape of leafy vegetation, but it doesn't provide a framework for the following shots. It is not an establishing shot; it simply establishes a threat against the characters: it doesn't inform us “where” we are but “what” we might fear."
Or perhaps, the sense of “where” is claustrophobically close. There is no breathing room. Says Oubiña:
“There are no travels, no transitions, no displacements.”
The spectator is stuck, in a sense, within this emotional geography. As Kent Jones observes, Martel breaks up spaces
“into their component parts and [throws] out the center, so that the geography because strictly tied to emotions and inter-psychic connections” (24).
This sense of being “placed” inside the story world is also related to narrative point of view. In La ciénaga it is a limited one, multivalent and shifting, but associated mainly with Momi, the youngest of Mecha’s four children. As the earlier quote from Martel indicates, her choices of sound and camera position (the latter being determined by the former) are born out of this unspecified and child-like point of view:
"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 child. When you’re a child there are a lot of things you don’t understand, but you’re a lot more perceptive" (Monteagudo, 74).
Martel’s form of storytelling is not unlike what Thom describes as ideal. She claims
"not to try to be descriptive because I didn’t believe showing would make things any clearer […] To understand or have a clear idea about the events you have to be patient, as with sound" (74).
This limited point of view and “intimate, tactile” sound “plunges into you,” as Martel puts it (74). At the same time, camerawork and sound collude and contrast to add a sense of being both at once “inside” and “outside.” The natural world and even the homes team with noises all their own, oblivious to the human activity taking place. Inside, taps run, boards creek, air conditioners hum and clank, while outside, the buzz of insects is constant. The multilevel and complex mix of distinct sounds contribute to a sense of descriptive distance while nevertheless immersing the spectator in a physical world.
Thus, for example, in one sequence the adolescents fish in the swamp. The sequence begins with close-ups of bodies, faces and machetes, while we hear people's voices, cicadas, the wind, birds, all at almost the same volume on different tracks. There is a delay before they begin to hack at the fish below the surface. As water shoots out of a tunnel, there is a cut to a long shot. Although the shot changes, the sound of the water overwhelms the scene and does not diminish with camera distance. Similarly, during a key scene that takes place in a dance hall, the spectator cannot hear the words spoken for the music. A fight there between the upper class José, who feels entitled to Isabel’s attention, and the latter’s boyfriend, who is enraged by José’s unconscious arrogance, takes place in a kind of dumb show. The men speak, but the music blots out the words.
It is filmic convention to make the voice primary by modulating ambient sound. Martel does the opposite. When noise overwhelms voice and any other sounds, as in the example above, there may be a realistic basis for the submersion of the dialogue. Most of the time, however, in Martel’s films, noise is not “backgrounded” for the sake of clarity, and the spectator often has to strain to hear the words spoken. At one point, Tali and her husband discuss Luchi’s problem tooth over the sound of welding. As with Luchi and Mecha, there is an aural motif associated with Tali: she is constantly straining to hear above the sounds of children’s shouting. The motif is at once symbolic and realistic: Tali is enveloped in the noise of motherhood and can hardly hear herself think. Monteagudo notes that in La ciénaga there are
“so many overlapped voices, rather than crossed dialogue you could talk about polyphony” (74).
Martel emphasizes noise with clarity and uniformity, since for her sounds are more revealing than words.
To return to the opening of the film, narratively the sequence sets up Mecha's class position and emotionally desperate situation. At the same time it juxtaposes the decaying bourgeoisie with an overgrown and encroaching natural environment, with the sounds of the natural world made to sound as close as the clinking glasses. “The harsh, naked quality of the sounds, accentuated by their startling loudness and by the lack of intermediate noise as filler” intensifies the sense that both the social and natural world are pervaded by hostility, as Lindley Hanlon notes of the same technique in Bresson (327). The visual claustrophobia of the framing is organically reproduced in the soundtrack where the natural world threatens to close in.
Later in that sequence, as the boys run to see a cow mired and struggling in the swamp, the sounds of the woods are louder than their voices. Under the wash of the cicadas and the hum of the undergrowth, the mooing of the cow and the barking of the dogs are clearer and have less reverberation than the voices.
Again, Martel is playing with convention. In ordinary narrative cinema, sound without reverberation often functions to create intimacy, and thus close miking may be used to privilege narratively significant voices. As Rick Altman puts it, reverbless sound is
“a close-up sound, sound spoken by someone close to me, but it is also sound spoken toward me rather than way from me” (“Sound Space,” 61).
The intimate effect of close microphone placement, according to Altman, places viewers/listeners inside the “fabricated narrative.” Even though filmmakers currently have many means of creating this same effect of intimacy with digital and Dolby to “give a direct, close, and palpably physical to the voice” (Chion Voice, 166), Altman's point remains valid. Clarity of dialogue and intimacy of voice usually are the vehicles by which film spectators enter the story world.
Not so with Martel's films. In La ciénaga, the viewer has no such privileged audio access. Dialogue is not “sanctioned”; “the image displaces us incessantly.” But no verbal consistency “holds out its hand” as an “effective stabilizer” (Altman, 62). Within Martel’s narrative structure, noise remains impersonal and cannot address the spectator as speech can. What is more, the words spoken are often “emanation speech,” as I mentioned, and are rendered in a sense as noise. Thus the narrative creates an effect of “inside” and “outside” at the same time; the spectator is both immersed and excluded. The pattern of identification is not as direct as it usually is in art cinema nor as encompassing as it is in Hollywood movies. When our up-close observer stance gets pierced in the end, the emotional impact is unexpected.
As I demonstrated with regards to the opening sequence, noise takes the place of music throughout La ciénaga. It’s worth pointing out that the film is lacks non-diegetic music. Music, however, would have a far greater fluidity than sound effects “which tend to remain diegetic” (Gorbman, 22). The noise is part of and not a commentary on the diegesis or filmic story world. While noise holds the spectator to the story world as music does (though through an engagement more sensual than emotional), it never points outside that world. In contrast, music, especially use of pre-existing pieces, “adds value” in part by calling up the spectator’s associations and emotional memory of a particular piece. Narrative has a different relation to noise, which has no existence outside the filmic world. To put it simply, the spectator might enjoy the music for its own sake (and make a mental note to seek out the soundtrack); but she will not get “lost” in noise in quite the same way.
Through a contradictory but effective combination of tactile sound effects and speech that seems indifferent to the spectator, Martel traps the spectator in physical space, but she also allows for emotional and intellectual distance as we observe the minutia of every life. Like her colleagues from the New Argentine Cinema, she engages with current reality in a commitment to the everyday, ordinary lives that unfold in the shadow of political and economic crisis. As Tamara Falicov points out:
"While the pacing is slow at times, it resonates with audiences who can relate to those quotidian experiences when things do not function correctly (people block roads, gates are locked, the power goes out)" (125).
Despite her exploration of the middle class, Martel’s focus is on outsiders: to the Buenos Aires-centric national culture, to the masculine, to the public sphere. Leila Gómez notes that interiority is Martel's subject: the interior of Argentina and the interior of the domestic spaces where desire breeds and festers. This last is domain of women and children, and far more political than it might at first appear. La Ciénaga is full of pointed observations on the casual racism and class bias that is
“often assumed and unquestioned within the worldview of upper-crust white families in Argentina” (Falicov, 125).
Mecha constantly complains about “estos indios” [“those Indians”], accuses Isabel of stealing towels, and expects a “natural” subservience from her. Mecha cannot acknowledge her own dependence and is unable to see Isabel as anything but her servant. Isabel’s generosity in looking after the family goes unreciprocated when she finds herself in difficulty.
Such power dynamics permeate all aspects of family life. The boys hunt with native boys serving as “retrievers,” fretting all the while that the Indian youth might be “taking advantage” of their dog. Even as Joaquín pets the dog obsessively, he claims that such behavior is a sign of Indian perversity. Later, after Perro (Fabio Villafañe), Isabel’s boyfriend, has taken them fishing at her request, Joaquín throws the fish away, claiming that “those Indians” will eat fish that are “pura tierra” (“just dirt”). However, Isabel retrieves them, and in the next sequence the family is shown eating these same fish with gusto. Momi’s love for Isabel, though innocent enough, is also predicated on the servant's availability most of the time at home. Much like her brother José, Momi feels entitled to Isabel’s time and attention. Isabel’s role as Momi's object of adoration and maternal substitute is in fact an extension of her role as servant within the household. The distinctions between master and servant that are porous in practice must be reinforced symbolically through language.
Martel's psychological and social observations are acute, embedded in a subtle and witty dialogue. Graciela Borges gets some of the best lines, but her virtuoso performance reflects Martel’s subordination of words to other means of expression. When her eldest son slips in the familiarity of her own nickname Mecha and uses it for Mercedes, the family’s patron and her husband’s former lover, a small tightening of her lips conveys the sucker punch she swallows as she realizes she has lost her son to this rival. Mecha, perpetually intoxicated or hungover, tries to block out facts, realizations, noise. It is not insignificant that she tries in vain to focus on the television broadcasts of the apparition of the Virgin.
The miraculous is packaged by television, here presented in the most localized terms — an Argentina that is surprisingly “Latin American” — rather than a globalizing force. But this televised religion comes to us as just part of the racket of the house, and Mecha can no more focus on it than on her children. Her one moment of release comes as an interruption of her TV viewing: music takes over as the family dances by her bedside. As Jones notes, this sequence is
“so carefully crafted and tightly organized that [it] is almost a film unto itself” (24).
It is another example how the soundtrack stops the forward movement of narrative time, albeit here through a more conventional device. Despite this interlude and others that suspend the plotline, the threat expressed sonically in the opening sequence comes to its implacable, silent conclusion. As Tali and her daughter Mariana focus on a sound upstairs, they miss the terrible thud in the patio as Luchi falls.
We never hear the sound Tali is so happy to discover. Jones characterizes this as one of Martel’s strategies of “mysterious dislocation”:
“her tendency to break in on her characters as they’re absorbed by some offscreen sound or event and show the event only later or not at all” (24).
This is one of number of ways that the spectator is exhorted to listen, and through listening to participate sensually in the film world, even while the dialogue functions to distance us. Martel’s use of noise, with its almost mathematical precision, though naturalistic, is heightened, hyper-real and often thereby more expressive and strange. (I will elaborate on this in the next section.)
As Penny Mintz has demonstrated in relation to Orson Welles, even a slight mismatch of sound (that is, variations in film sound conventions) can
“make us vaguely uncomfortable, slightly dislocated, usually without our knowing why” (290).
Martel, while demonstrating a keen engagement with current reality, keeps us “vaguely uncomfortable,” tense without quite knowing why, attuned, perhaps to something just beyond the concrete.
La niña santa
Martel's sense of the “mystic” takes a more explicit form in La niña santa, a less complex but equally effective narrative that again focuses on women and the domestic spaces of the “interior.” Though set in Salta, La niña santa is little concerned with the social tensions of this small town. The hotel setting is closed off, a timeless world apart. Here lives the teenaged Amalia (Maria Alche, in an acclaimed performance) with her mother (Mercedes Moran, in a complete reversal of her dowdy Tali), Uncle Freddie (Alejandro Urdapilleta), and the employees who actually run the place, mainly long suffering Mirta (Marta Lubos). Though the hotel teams with whispers, secrets and the very breath of so many strangers together, as in the previous film, a sense of abulia reigns. During the time the film takes place, the hotel is hosting the annual convention of ear, nose and throat specialists, some of whom prefer to ignore panels and papers in favor of feminine sightseeing. Amalia, indoctrinated into Catholic mysticism by her beautiful Sunday school teacher, Inés (Mía Maestro), thinks she hears God’s calling when she encounters one of the doctors, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), unexpectedly rubbing up against her in the street. Her mother Helena thinks she herself hears the stirrings of forbidden passion in the same rather hapless man. While Helena exudes a knowing sexuality, her “affair” with Jano is nearly as imaginary as her daughter’s. If Amalia misconstrues molestation for romantic interest, Helena confuses attraction with grand romance.
Martel stresses the sensuality of close quarters, the pool, the idle hours of the siesta, and late night. The overall effect is not unlike La ciénaga’s “promiscuity of sheets and smells,” a mix of eroticism and decay:
“strange vital energy amidst inertia and paralysis” (Monteagudo, 71.)
Once again the film represents as much inaction as action: Amalia lies around with Josefina, while her mother seems to spend most of her time napping. Sound effects here more obviously “stop” us in space as narrative time is suspended.
La niña santa, like La ciénaga, reveals a conception of sound as “active agent” that anchors and guides the visual. In her second film, Martel also thematizes sound as a narrative thread in a film that, the director says, is designed to inspire reverie (“Making of”). What’s more, because of the audiologists' conference taking place at the hotel, the ear itself is onscreen in numerous close-ups: as an object of sensual desire, and as a visual reminder of the complexity of communication. Its pathways hidden, it tantalizes with its erogenous mysteries. As Martel puts it,
“The ear is very beautiful, like a shell. It doesn't have the sense of moral judgment an eye can have when it's looking at you. Ears are more animal and less rational than eyes” (quted in “Sex and the Saintly”)
In terms of the film's visual style, Martel again eschews connecting spaces. With so many interiors and no establishing shots, the spectator might be confused as to location, thinking that everything takes place within the hotel. This only adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. The shots alternate between wide-angle close-ups with a foreshortened depth of field and medium shots with deeper focus. Martel, repeatedly using a frontal shot of one character standing behind the other, compresses the space between them and makes a simple shot begin to seem sinister. Indeed, the illumination and framing of Amalia’s odd off-kilter features is reminiscent at times of horror-film conventions. In terms of art direction, the palette is toned down in the interiors, where browns and ocres dominate, so that the sequences around the thermal pool stand out in their washed-out whites and blues. As in La ciénaga, water has a pride of place in the film’s symbology, with the splashes of the thermal pool adding one of the most indelible sound effects.
As I will demonstrate, the paradoxes of sound, with its confusion of materiality and immateriality, its sensuous elusiveness, as well as difficulty of interpretation is central in the narrative of La niña santa, which unfolds, it could be said, much like the mechanism of hearing itself:
"What we call 'sound' is really an onrushing, cresting and withdrawing wave of air molecules that begins with the movement of any object, large or small, and ripples out in all directions" (Ackerman, 177).
The plot, with its “elaborate pathways,” “curlicues, branches, roundabouts, relays” does not follow a straightforward linear pattern of cause and effect, yet is as efficient as any “ingenuous contraption” (Ackerman, 178). In commenting on how sound becomes a narrative theme in the film, Stephen Hunter summarizes the plot as
"a kind of rigorous meditation on the most banal of human interactions: It chronicles, in a dozen variants, the disconnect between what is said and what is heard. The movie, in other words, is a farrago of missed communications, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, always dispiriting. Is that the voice of God or random noise? Is that a sexual entreaty or a deviant's touch?"
The opening of the film sets up the dynamics and tensions the film will unfurl. The catechist Inés sings while the girls gossip about the teacher's involvement with an older man. The song is at the fore, but again Martel layers her soundtrack. The shots alternate between close-ups of Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) tightly framed, as they almost always are, nestled together, and close-ups of Inés, choking up. Their whisperings about their teacher’s sex life are woven into the song, itself ambiguously on the edge of religious and sexual passion. The girls are both moved and embarrassed by their teacher’s display of “private inwardness” (Rée, 58). Josefina’s questioning of Inés’s religious sincerity is the first expression of the narrative theme about the tension between soul and senses, which Martel describes as central to her film:
"There's conflict between religious ideas that tend to oppress the body and impose a rigid framework on it - and the body itself, which is always opposing that, always revolting against it" (“Sex and the Saintly”).
The voice, “the centre of the world of sound,” is at once the “expressive secret of the soul” and the thing that conceals it (Reé, 66). Yet Inés need not be misleading the girls with her song as Josefina suggests. Her faith need not be passionless since Catholicism itself is rich in voluptuousness. In art Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is often evoked to illustrate this sensual spirituality, and of course, the Song of Songs’ parallels religious surrender with that of lovers.
All of this might be expressed visually. Martel’s reliance on the ear, however, gets at a more fundamental religious truth. As Roland Barthes has noted:
“to listen is the evangelical verb par excellence” (250).
Catholicism’s sensuality is as much aural as visual. God speaks more often than he shows himself: “So then faith cometh by hearing” (Rm, 10:17). According to Charles Augrain,
“selon le sens hébraïque du mot vérité, écouter, accueillir la parole de Dieu, ce n’est pas seulement lui prêter une oreille attentive, c’est lui ouvrir son coeur” [“according to the Hebrew meaning of the word truth, to listen, to take in the word of God is not only to lend an attentive ear, it is to open one’s heart’] (241).
To listen implies, in a sense, a giving over, the surrender with which these young adolescents are obsessed. And, as we’ve seen,
“to hear is to vibrate, with touch doubling or performing sound, feeling it rather than commanding it” (Hammer, 1).
There is thus plenty of justification for Amalia’s confusing the love of God with the love of man (confusing the stirrings of sexual desire with the route to salvation, and worse, a tawdry act of molestation with the beginnings of a relationship.) Such a religious framework, however, is the “MacGuffin” of the film. Martel is less interested in religious devotion per se than the way the girls’ use it as a source of power and respite. Narratively using religion as an entry point into sensuality and emphasizing the power dynamics of human relations link Martel to Luis Buñuel, but her focus is less on hypocrisy than on the confused and confusing sensuality of girls and women. Of the two girls, Josefina finds her way around religious (and family) rules to physical pleasure, while Amalia, half angel, half devil, mixes the business of her divine mission with earthy ecstasy. The director captures the amorphous adolescent sexuality that is only half in the girls' own power. Once adults become attracted, the girls cannot control the consequences.
Sensuality touches every relationship in the film, and it is associated with immaturity: Josefina and Amalia, themselves, of course, experimenting with kissing and touch. So do the doctors who devolve to adolescence during the congress, mixing drink, ogling and frolics with medical discussions. And Helena and her brother, giggling and conspiring in her bedroom, retreat to a teenage dynamic as though they’ve never really left it. Not insignificantly, Jano remembers Helena as an adolescent, when he had a distant crush on her.
Once again sound, as much as Martel’s extreme close-ups, contributes to this sensual effect that one negative critic describes as “Sweatyscope.” As in her previous feature, we are bodily engaged by the intimacy of the film sound. The sensuality of the film is not just the “dance of small gestures,” a hand placed here, an embrace there, a flick of the hair or a flit of the eyes, though this choreography is tighter than might be supposed, but also the “visceral precision” of sound effects (Ruby Rich).
We could call these “aural close-ups,” analogous to visual close-ups. But the limited exactitude of the visual plays on the almost symmetrically opposite effect of aural exactitude. That is, we see details, but we cannot hear details in the same way. Rée notes,
"Although you may cup an ear with a hand […] hearing is not intrinsically spatial; there is no auditory “field” to compare to the visual one […] It is only by a precarious analogical extension that the idea of concentration gets transferred from looking to listening" (52).
Rick Altman reminds us,
“the process of selective auditory attention is far more difficult when we are listening to recorded material” (29).
While the peculiar close-ups focus our eyes on specific details, Martel’s use of them can be disorienting, as noted above, since she leaves out connecting spaces. Aural close-ups, a kind of auscultation of the rooms of the hotel, are similarly unmoored. While, as Barthes reminds us “the appropriation of space is a matter of sound,” neither the spectators nor the characters, as I will show, come to be entirely familiar with these
“noises whose ensemble forms a kind of household symphony” (246).
Thom would approve of this creaky hotel set as one conducive to “making sound a player,” and Martel makes full use of her chosen setting. An early sequence has Amalia and Josefina praying (the words again ambiguously perched between religious and sexual surrender) as machines hum and a “thump-thump” is heard intermittently off-screen. From a tight close-up of the girls lying down, there is a cut to a medium shot as Amalia sits up. In the background the source of the sound is revealed to be the hotel cleaners’ ironing and steaming clothes. In the same section, as Amalia enters Jano’s room, the noise of adjoining rooms and hallways — radios, voices, the swish of clothing, the rolling of wheels — create a multi-layered soundscape. We are listening to many rooms at once, and many of the sounds are “enigmatic and unlocatable” and troubling as a consequence.
As in La ciénaga, Martel at times delays the revelation of the sound source, as in the example of the steam machines. A peculiar rattle, like a curtain being drawn, heard for the first time in the twenty-first minute, is more than ten minutes later revealed to be an aerosol spray, which one particular dedicated employee wields fanatically throughout.
Martel also makes use of an exactitude, clarity and slight spatial disjunction that can make the ordinary strange. When Dr. Jano enters the elevator, for example, a close-up focuses on his neck (a shot repeated three times in the film) as the soundtrack emphasizes every creak and clank of the elevator. There is a “whiz,” and when Amalia surreptitiously touches her hand to Jano’s, the sound of the elevator door sliding into place could just as well be that of a guillotine. Extreme visual and aural close-ups collude to overlay an innocuous conversation between Jano and his colleague in the elevator with tension and foreboding.
Hence, I would argue, Martel’s “amazing talent for creating a heightened and uncanny atmosphere” without “stylistic effects” — and what Gonzalez refers to as the suggestion of “horror” in her films — come in part from this attention to the details of sound, which in and of themselves, are at once naturalistic and disconcerting (Rapfogel). Like Luchi's in La Ciénaga, the characters’ ears are keyed up. Amalia listens for a divine signal; Jano listens to discern the sounds of Amalia’s scouting (at one point she plinks on metal as she watches him lying back in the thermal pool); Helena, who suffers from an inner ear disorder caused by her past as a diver, listens mostly to herself. In one sequence, as she dives in the pool, only a few drops of water are heard. Helena looks around and her point of audition leaves us suspended in silence for a few seconds before the full aural complexity of the space returns.
Jano’s perspective is communicated in a brief sequence of six shots, without an obvious point of audition sound. It begins with a hallway filmed with depth and slightly off-centre (Martel’s carefully crafted frames are almost always slightly askance, asymmetrical). A waiter walks out of the frame in the background plane while in an aural close-up a set of keys jangles. Amalia walks into the shot with the keys, and we understand her to have been lurking. In the next shot she is briefly framed through a slightly opened door before her presence fills the frame. We hear Jano’s sleeping breath before we see him. A snuffle indicates his coming to the surface of his sleep; there is a pause — the silence of the ticking clock — and then a full intake of breath has him snap awake, listening. Like Jano we are cued to the sound of footsteps or doors, but these are vague; what is clearest is something like the sound of heavy ceramic. Jano goes to the bathroom before his attention, and ours, is called to the dogs barking, sounds of voices and doors coming from the window. The sequence highlights the basic function of hearing for all mammals, to mark out territory as “the space of security.” It also emphasizes the “defensive and predatory” nature of Jano’s listening:
"Listening is that preliminary attention which permits intercepting whatever might disturb the territorial system; it is a mode of defense against surprise; its object (what it is oriented toward) is menace or, conversely, need; the raw material listening is the index, because it either reveals danger or promises the satisfaction of need" (Barthes, 247).
Barthes’ reflection offers insight into Jano and Amalia’s excited awareness of sound. Sound, and therefore space, is neither safe nor familiar for Jano. For Amalia, it can at any time be pierced by the supernatural, the shiver of God or desire.
Earlier, the sound eventually identified as the theremin interrupts the Sunday school lesson about God’s calling. “What’s that?” ask the girls, looking out the window. Later, during another conversation about divine intervention, a terrible thud directs all anxious eyes to the balcony door; the source is revealed to be a naked man, who has miraculously survived a fall from the floor above unscathed. These touches of sly humor build slowly along with the tension. For if the film creeps towards a tragic unravelling, it also moves towards blacker and blacker humor that
“captures the low-intensity conflict that is real life, the constant off-center collisions, evasions, concatenating tiny events that add up to fate” (Appello).
Sound is also the medical specialty of Dr. Jano and Dr. Vesalio. The first man’s conference presentation is on vestibular disorders, while the other is supposed to present research on the difficulties of diagnosis taken from the patients’ descriptions of their ailments. The challenge for these specialists in hearing disorders, it seems, is to listen. The conference will close with a demonstration and discussion of doctor-patient communication. A suitably interesting "problem" needs to be found, and conveniently Helena has both a theatrical background and a malfunctioning inner ear. Flirting with Jano in her own diffident way, she agrees to participate, and to have her hearing tested in preparation for the public representation of the consultation. Martel cleverly transforms the interrogation of the patient, fraught with the gender politics of melodrama, into the gentle back and forth of flirtation that Jano barely controls. A few scenes later, however, Helena, wearing headphones, is isolated in a sound booth being tested, unaware of her hearing deficiencies as Jano looks on, his gaze “medical and de-eroticized” (Doane, 293). In this controlled environment, the gender hierarchy is re-established. The doctor’s power is in knowing more, diagnosing and revealing the woman's inner mystery, obscured from even herself. Helena seems in fact to be suffering from Jano’s micro-specialty, Menière syndrome, an incurable condition with symptoms of intermittent hearing loss, imbalance, roaring in the ears (tinnitus), dizziness and ear pressure.
Helena’s tinnitus is acerbated, according to Dr. Jano, by watching television at night. We’ve seen her wake to the sound of a child yelling, “Mama! Mama!” on the television. We see a few shots of children wearing headphones as they yell, before she turns the TV off . The condition is telling in regards to her way of being. The last to hear news, she is slightly off balance, slightly tone deaf, and living in her own distracted bubble as she considers the best way to present herself in a given situation.
Her desire for Dr. Jano never quite reaches a boiling point, as she seems always to be acting from a script rather from passion, more from loneliness and boredom than connection. And though he has diagnosed her medical condition, he doesn’t get round to telling her, and hardly seems a “site of wisdom and safety,” as Mary Ann Doane describes the doctor of melodrama (292). Jano wields the power of medical discourse, but it is severely limited by his secret transgressions — the double life that his mythic name suggests — and his own inability to hit the proper notes in social interactions. Between the two of them they effect a dance of seduction full of missteps, awkwardness and disconnection. Sexuality is dangerous and silly at any age, it seems.
As symbolic as Helena’s condition, and perhaps the overarching symbol of the film, is the theremin, which accompanies many of the important moments in the film. The first electronic instrument, invented by Russian physicist Lev Thermen in 1919, it is played without touching (thereminworld.com, 17). A novelty act that comes to the little town of Salta, the theramin in fact requires great musical skill to play. The player moves her hands around its two antennae to manipulate pitch and volume without frets, keys or other markers. To play it well demands both excellent pitch and manual dexterity. Martel uses Manuel Schaller a famous Argentine theremin player onscreen,
“transmit[iendo] con su cuerpo una rara sensación de hieratismo y misterio” [“transmiting with his body a strange sensation of priestliness and mystery”] (97).
The instrument’s ethereal sounds are associated in film with its more common use in science fiction classics, and there is some humor in incorporating its tones here as a supposed signal of the divine. As Jonathan Romney puts it, Amalia’s experience of frottage, while part of a crowd watching the theremin act, is “a bizarre juxtaposition of non-contact and improper-contact activities.” Martel’s framing emphasizes the contact's tawdriness. A close-up of Jano’s purposeful crotch movement is contrasted to a mid-shot of his casual expression. While Amalia’s face show her initial shock change to curiosity and pleasure, the spectator recognizes in Jano’s practiced body language the entitled abusiveness of a subway groper. The theremin demonstrates the beauty of the ethereal, Jano the ugly earthly.
The theremin’s unique touch-less playing emphasizes the paradoxes of sound that Martel exploits and explores. Sound is itself “touch-less.” Though it is experienced through the body, it cannot be confirmed by it. While it gives materiality to the image, it is itself immaterial. It grounds us in space, but as I mentioned it is “spatially agnostic,” a fact Martel and her team exploit by manipulating distance and directionality. I have described how sound brings us bodily into the world of the film (“viewers cannot watch La ciénaga without feeling the heat or checking the sky for rain,” says Ruby Rich, and the same is true of La niña santa.) Through the crisp, clear sound close-ups we not only watch but participate in the sensuality at play. Sound incorporates the spectator, and yet its “default condition” is one of disembodiment (Connor, 157).
A sense that works in and through the body, hearing nevertheless can be entirely in the mind. God speaks, we hear voices. The girls wonder, how then to tell the voice of God from that of the devil, or madness? Is it the voice of the soul or the voice of desire that they hear in Inés’ song? Perhaps both, suggests Martel. Her reflection on sound makes us consider the difficulty of separating the material from the immaterial, the body from the spirit. Rée’s analysis is worth quoting at length:
"Hearing does not presume as much as vision. It is not so arrogant, and it is willing to refer its experiences to evanescent qualities without insisting, as sight does, that they have to be tethered unambiguously to definite things in the material world" (46).
Martel’s films are also “willing to refer its experiences to evanescent qualities.” Engaging all the senses as well as the intellect, they nevertheless leave us with a sense of the intangible.
Like Randy Thom’s manifesto, the work of film scholars is often a lament for what isn’t, based on the tantalizing possibilities offered by filmmakers who make truly “audio-visual” productions. My own work as a feminist analyzing sound means I am often highlighting the way sound is feminized and subordinated to the visual, made to play “Echo” to vision’s “Narcissus,” in the terms developed by Amy Lawrence. As Geetha Ramanathan puts it:
“The primacy of the visual in Western epistemologies, what Luce Irigaray calls the scopic economy, conspires to institute its centrality in film, and to marginalize other ways of knowing” (110).
The senses, of course, work more in concert than our sound or vision-focused analyses suggest. Martel’s “written for sound” filmmaking reminds us of this, as one can hardly avoid discussing the oddities of both sound and framing in her work. Martel and her New Argentine Cinema colleagues understand sound as an intrinsic, if not primary, aspect of filmmaking. For Martel, listening is the first stage in the conception of a screenplay. More radically than her male colleagues, however, she sees listening as knowledge, sound as a conduit to a mode of being and understanding. While sound is most often associated with irrationality and emotion (music most obviously) and used in film primarily to externalize subjectivity, Martel posits sound as rational, listening as intelligent a sense as seeing, and equally primary to our being in the world.
The surprising result of this sound awareness is an embodied intellectual experience. Her films emphasize the interpenetration of hearing, seeing, touch and smell. Focusing on feminine interiorities of desire and domesticity, they engage wider social issues of class and power. Martel's touch is light and observational rather than judgmental. Neither La ciénaga nor La niña santa is overtly feminist in the ways we’ve come to expect. Rather, refusing the gendering and hierarchy of sound and image, they quietly assert a whole other way of seeing — and listening.
2. Jonathan Romney quips: “La Niña Santa […] appears at first to deal in familiar, even overworked art- film territory: sexual awakening, religious fervour and the uneasy tensions between a young girl and a much older man (a theme that has pretty much kept French cinema bankable over the last three decades.)”
3. I hesitate here between the present and past tense, for while the beginning of the phenomenon can be identified in Historias Breves (1995), there is some discussion as to whether it has already ended.
6. Daniel Burman frames it a little differently: With the advent of new cinema schools, the "sons of the bourgeois middle class realized that we would prefer not to continue studying law or becoming doctors. Instead, we could go to cinema school and find girls."
8. Ana Amado’s assessment may be more accurate:
Coincidente con el cambio de siglo, el nuevo cine argentino vive una pequeña aurora que tiene resonancia internacional gracias a los festivales y a una producción creciente que suma realizadores y títulos en una generosa lista de recién llegados y de cada vez menos desconocidos, junto a nuevos y antiguos productores. Estos elementos reunidos hacen hoy la figura de un (modesto) fenómeno, aunque del otro lado del espejo acumula paradojas, ya que tal auge es simultáneo con la decadencia de la industria fílmica en sentido tradicional y con la crisis económica, social e institucional más aguda que se recuerden en el país.
[Coinciding with the change of century, the New Argentine Cinema is experiencing a small aurora with international resonance thanks to festivals and an increase in production that adds filmmakers and titles to a generous list of new arrivals and not-so unknowns, along with new and old producers. These elements together today create the figure of a (modest) phenomenon, although on the other side of the mirror paradoxes accumulate, since this rise is simultaneous with the decadence of the film industry in the traditional sense and with an economic, social and institutional crisis that is the most acute the country has ever seen.]
9. The emphasis on sound could be added to Leila Gómez’s cataloguing of the “visibility of the marginal,” which includes the focus on female adolescence, domesticity, the Northeast of Argentina, hardly seen in the Buenos Aires-centric national cinema, and Argentina itself, home of ‘third cinema.’ I take issue, however, with Gómez’s characterization of Martel’s style as “traditional,” which allows her to dispense with any analysis of form. She also ignores the particularity of Martel’s narratives.
11. There is much more to be written on melodrama and the New Argentine Cinema and Martel in particular. Some points to be explored include the understanding of social change in “private contexts and emotional terms” (Elsaesser, 47), the focus on victims, the emphasis on the maternal and paternal in a “feminised” culture. Martel’s men are also feminized, trying to find (and keep) their place in the domestic world. As in melodrama, but more overtly perhaps, “feminine desire is actively aimed at [these] passive, eroticized male” (Modleski, 332).
13. “Martel has a flair for the symbolic, too, especially obvious in the case of water. It is ever-present in the air, for instance, as an oppressive humidity; frozen into ice to be secured from the maid or the bedside freezer; drawn in the bathroom, where José and Veronica shower incestuously; drained from the horrifyingly fetid swimming pool, and refilled; or in its alcoholic form, a potion for the middle-aged and elixir for the young, sip after sip of danger and relief” (Ruby Rich).
14. The term is Chion’s. The definition at filmsound.org is taken from Audio-vision: “Anempathetic sound —usually diegetic music—that seems to exhibit conspicuous indifference to what is going on in the film's plot, creating a strong sense of the tragic. For example, a radio continues to play a happy tune even as the character who first turned it on has died. Anempathetic effects can occur with sound effects —in a very violent scene after the death of a character some sonic process continues like the noise of a machine, the hum of a fan, a shower running as if nothing had happened.”
16. Latin American productions tend not to credit the tasks of sound design individually. Hence, for example, the entire sound team for La ciénaga —Hervé Guyader, Emmanuel Croset, Guido Berenblum, Adrián De Michele— won the award for best sound at the 2001 Havana Film Festival.
"es también, sobre todo, un film de sonidos: de susurros, de rezos, de diminutivos, de chicharras, de zumbidos, de acoples, de interferencias. Son expresiones quizá de un mundo librado a su propio, misterioso orden. [it is also a film of sounds; of whispers, prayers, diminutives, cicadas, buzzings, howlings, interferences. They are expressions perhaps of a world left to its own mysterious order."
“las escenas de fiesta o de los bailes les permitieron a los nuevos directores no sólo mostrar un estado de lo cuerpos, de los gustos […] sino también los conflictos entre diversos sectores y clases socials” [“the dance or party scenes allow the new directors [of the New Argentine Cinema] not only to show the state of bodies, of taste […] but also conflicts between different sectors and social classes”] (52).
24. As a result of technological changes, Martel’s soundtrack is far more complex than Bresson’s. As Walter Murch notes: “Sixty years ago […] it would not be unusual for an entire film to need only fifteen to twenty sound effects. Today that number could be hundreds to thousands of times greater”
< http://www.ps1.org/cut/volume/murch.html >
“A sound’s high frequencies usually travel in a more directional manner than the low; and when someone speaks to us with his back turned we perceive fewer of the voice’s high harmonics and find the voice less present” (Audio-Vision 92).
“song lyrics threaten to offset the aesthetic balance between music and narrative cinematic representation. The common solution taken by the standard feature film is not to declare songs off limits—for they can give pleasure of their own—but to defer significant action and dialogue during their performance” (20).
“Most films set in other regions of Argentina typically are directed by porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), rather than the locals themselves. Thus the ‘porteño gaze’ leaves an indelible mark on films set in the north, south or interior of the country. These films are narrated from the point of view of a protagonist outsider (usually a porteño)” (123).
29. I’m using the term here as “over-emphatically stated, over-hyped, and exaggerated […] both in loudness and in intimacy.” This isn’t so unusual, as the definition from filmsound.org quoted above suggests. Martel’s use of it, especially the orchestration of many hyper-real sounds, is.
“Doctor Jano, cirujano/hoy tenemos que operar/en la sala de emergencias/a una chica de su edad/Ella tiene veintiún años/Usted tiene un año más/Doctor Jano, cirujano/No se vaya a enamorar."
[“Dr. Jano, surgeon/today we have to operate/in the emergency room/on a girl your age/She’s twenty one/you’re a year older/Dr. Jano, surgeon/Don’t go falling in love.”] Martel claims the rhyme was the starting point of her second film. See Diego Lerer “Lobo suelto, cordero atado”
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