From “pure truth” to radical uselessness: Fischerman’s advertising tactics

The same, subterranean tensions at work in the advertisement described here—between modernization and revolution; between hedonistic consumerism and working-class asceticism; between neo-colonial oppression and capitalist desire—prove just as useful for locating Alberto Fischerman’s The Players vs. Fallen Angels in the nexus of social and political relations from which it issued and the popular mass media to which it reacted. Accordingly, one viable theoretical approach to Fischerman’s film might be to construe it as an exercise in resistance to alienated capitalist labor that resolves itself, not in militant action, but rather in a kind of active, rigorously functional uselessness.

[Click here to open a visual essay, Figs. 8-21, in a separate window The following section of the text refers to the images in this visual essay about The Players vs. Fallen Angels and The Hours of the Furnaces..]

The plot of the film is intentionally slight, and involves the allegorical struggle between two groups—the eponymous “Players” and “Fallen Angels”—for a territory of apparent freedom and imagination. That territory happens to be the abandoned sound stages of Estudios Lumiton, the last of Buenos Aires’s Golden Age film studios. High above the sound stages, looking on from the lofts, bridges and catwalks to which they have been relegated by the victory of the Players (in a past battle the film mentions only in passing), the Fallen Angels [Fig. 8a-c] bide their time plotting—and failing to execute—the reconquest of the lost paradise below. The Players, meanwhile, haunt the jetsam of old sets and dressing rooms [Fig. 9a-c], enacting the communal tedium of their uncontested reign in a series of absurdist experiments and improvised tableaux, each corresponding to its own elemental concept—birth, affection, jealousy, force, fantasy—and each filmed in accordance with a unique audio-visual syntax.[19] [open endnotes in new window]

As the narrative gradually marginalizes the insurgent Fallen Angels (eventually dispensing with them altogether), the Players prepare to stage a freely adapted version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest [Fig. 10a-b]. At last, the film ends with a violent though inconclusive confrontation between Players and Fallen Angels, but not before a party in which both camps mingle blithely with Alberto Fischerman and his crew [Fig. 11a-c], along with other directors from the mythical Group of 5, all of them now seen filming the very footage we are watching. In the end, out of the ruins of a forsaken film studio and its own, self-referential logic of radical unproductiveness, The Players strains to produce a domain of revolutionary leisure, a move that seems to align, across oceans and hemispheres, with the heretical Marxist humanism of Henri Lefebvre, who at the time began to perceive in the space of leisure the last possibility for a truly differential resistance to the homogenizing oppression of capitalist labor.[20]

Of course, the attempt to translate its peculiar revolutionary politics of collective hedonism into a radicalized film form is precisely what distinguishes The Players from The Hour of the Furnaces. By notorious contrast, Solanas and Getino’s four-hour amalgam of dialectical and vertical montage, cinéma vérité, sermonic intertitles, straight-ahead objective documentary, and the pop-conceptualist appropriation of scraps of popular media—including a profusion of print and TV advertising imagery—batters the spectator with a more dour, more dogmatic, though considerably less ambiguous logic of anti-imperialist revolution[21] [Fig. 12a-l].

In effect, Solanas and Getino’s ideological program, underwritten by the ideal of national liberation and articulated in deliberately Manichaean terms, betrays what several scholars have perceived in the film as an implicit—and, I believ,e simplistic—logic of advertising, essentially aimed at co-opting “the System’s” own aesthetic tools in order to turn that System against itself and thereby “sell the Revolution” instead.[22] Julio Ludueña, a filmmaker who belonged to Fischerman’s wider avant-garde circle, has even dismissed The Hour of the Furnaces outright as “one long commercial made with political objectives.”[23]

Analyses such as these, however, appear to confuse the persuasive visual language of agit-prop with the prevailing formal principles of 60s-era advertising per se. In truth, there is no single moment or sequence of The Hour of the Furnaces that mimics or resembles the structure of a filmed advertisement in any self-conscious way. Rather, we can better understand the Solanas and Getino documentary’s critical engagement with advertising discourse as a form of re-appropriation in the service of ideological demystification. In a word, the film employs the strategy of détournement, construed precisely in the terms and techniques defined as early as the latter 1950s by the Lettrist International and later by the Situationist International in France, which Guy Debord himself would later adapt to the formal strategies of filmmaking.[24]

None of this is to say that films like The Players did not share with those like The Hour of the Furnaces a common resistance to capitalism, its markets, its divisions of labor, and its modes of social production, particularly as they inflected the period's dominant forms of film production, distribution, exhibition, and spectatorship. In fact, the starkly opposing responses that each film musters to that common enemy in many ways crystallized all the deep-seated antagonisms of Left cultural politics in Argentina generally at the end of the 60s. According to Beatriz Sarlo, the two works marked extremes in an ideological landscape of multifarious modes of artistic practice, the battles among which had yet entirely to exhaust themselves, despite what many at the time (and arguably still today) saw as evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, Sarlo admits, the cultural-political field was narrowing so precipitously by the end of the decade that scarce room remained for the options proposed by films like Fischerman’s. That is, from the standpoint of the militant Left, to defend the radicalization of aesthetic form as a still-viable mode of revolutionary politics seemed increasingly out of touch with the historical moment.[25]

In this light, while the overt and aggressive détournement of scavenged advertising media in Solanas and Getino’s agit-prop leviathan seems eminently familiar to us now, it is worth contemplating what sets Fischerman’s film apart in its own cinematic engagement with advertising discourse. To do so, I should like to turn now to a paradigmatic moment in The Players vs. Fallen Angels, just one of several in which the narrative slips seamlessly from its labyrinthine play of Brechtian reflexivity into a kind of simulated advertising mode of cinematic representation that, on second glance, suggests something considerably more subversive.

The sequence comes about halfway into the film, and follows a series of disjointed, improvised interactions among some of the Players that unfolds like a pageant of inspired ennui [Fig. 13a-c]. From there, a long series of alternating mobile and static framings, set to a non-diegetic cool jazz score, re-establishes the counterpoint between The Players and the Fallen Angels.[26] First, a number of slow lateral tracking shots in medium close-up back and forth along the cluttered floor of Lumiton Studios capture a group of the Players in repose; these are then intercut with two types of opposing shots. On the one hand, static, high-angle framings from the catwalks above are filmed over the shoulder of a Fallen Angel as he storyboards the film set far below; notably, whereas the crew is seen moving the camera along a pair of dolly tracks, the scene they film is subtly though conspicuously unlike that of the preceding tracking shots. On the other hand, we see quick close-up zooms into the drawings themselves, which depict in abstracted form the very mise-en-scène of the Players that we have witnessed in the preceding mobile framings. [Fig. 14a-f].

In the last of these contrasting series, we again watch over the shoulder of the Fallen Angel up among the rafters, as he rips up his sketches and scatters the scraps over the film set below. Then comes an abrupt cut to the studio floor, where a member of the crew shot in extreme close-up throws a large steel lever to the sound of the director calling, “Camera, Parodi!” Now, with a cut back to another high-angle, extreme long shot—this time without the Fallen Angel and his sketch pad—the jazz stops. We witness the film crew on set, tracking in towards a group of assistants opening a pair of massive black pocket doors in the far background, accompanied by further directives from the crew—“Open the door!” “Camera, Parodi!” “Action!”) [Fig. 15]. A cut-in to a high-angle long shot of the crew follows, as the director shouts, “Take 2!” Then the camera tilts up gradually to reveal the crew tracking forward toward Luís, a character in striped pajamas seen earlier, now entering frame-left holding a cup of coffee and beginning to sing to a new musical number, with a man and woman standing together some ways behind him just beyond the pocket doors [Fig. 16a-b].

In effect, what immediately ensues will consist of the frontal dolly shot we have just witnessed under construction, beginning with Luís framed in full scale in the foreground, and the couple in the background now practicing dance steps together in front of what appears to be the façade of a middle-class residential home. That façade, however, is surely part of yet another film set nested within the larger set of Lumiton Studios, itself a fabricated setting for the mise-en-abyme that is The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos [Fig. 17a-b].

This elaborate execution of interlocking, auto-referential gestures announces the first of the film’s quasi-simulated advertising “spots.” Not coincidentially, the song begun by Luís, soon to be taken up by the character of Cristina in the “advertisement sequence” proper, will at first seem to conjure the same easygoing picture of domestic leisure and bourgeois “purity” behind the standard television commercial of the day. In Luís’s prelude—a lounge-like mixture of electric keyboard, strings, and winds—the lyrics begin, “I find myself awake again / with the world I left behind: / with my bedroom, with my girlfriend / with my cup of coffee….”[27]

At once the music shifts in tempo to a cheerful melody marking time with a snare drum and steel brush, as the film cuts to a close-up of Cristina counting beats, poised to continue the song, though her first attempt falters for having started an octave too high [Fig. 18]. The music stops short as she signals off-screen to the crew for another try, though her eye-line is matched not with a shot of the filmmakers, but rather with a brief, low-angle shot up to a pair of Fallen Angels roaming the bridges high above, that is, in a part of the set that may or may not be in proximity to the musical sketch transpiring below [Fig. 19a-b]. Meanwhile, the feigned croaking of Cristina’s voice together with her ostentatious smile now sets Luís’ words in dubious relief. Is he glad to reawake to the world he left behind, or does he in fact lament his captivity in a maze of conventions, where the doors of one contrived social space open onto the unremarkable contours of another, filled with its familiar objects and familiar people—same old bedroom, same old girlfriend, same old cup of coffee—and where imperturbable, smiling mannequins execute their daily, pre-determined gestures?

The jovial music begins again, this time a half-octave lower, and Cristina finds her key as the “advertising sequence” commences in earnest: roughly fifteen dynamic shots of more or less equal duration capture a chipper troupe of freshly coiffed Players flitting and dancing about a large domestic kitchen, making preparations for a communal breakfast [Fig. 20a-f]. The camera is hand-held, and waltzes fluidly among and around The Players as they move in concert with one another, and all about the merry Cristina as she glides and sings:

“Today, I awoke so cheerful,
for I was cheerful when I went to bed.
My love fell asleep by my side
and I awoke with him.
La-da-da-da-dum, da-da-da,
La-da-da-da-dum, da-da,
My love fell asleep by my side
and I awoke with him
If I sleep in, I’ll be late,
If I dress up, late it is.
If I make love I’ll be late
but I’ll make it just fine indeed”[28]

As the song winds down, the overlapping, diegetic sounds of knives clinking on butter dishes and coffee pouring into porcelain cups fades in, mingling with the small talk of The Players as they serve themselves their breakfast [Fig. 21a-c]. Up to this point, what has stood out most in the sequence is just how closely the filming of the scene in the kitchen of Fischerman’s movie resembles that of the cocktail party in the commercial for Jockey cigarettes discussed above, from the roaming, mobile framings and rhythmic editing down to the very elements of the mise-en-scène. Again we witness a well-dressed group of young Argentine urbanites, eating and drinking in an affluent domestic setting. Again we behold the recognizable gestures of happy people relating to their happy friends.

Nonetheless, when the putative “commercial” ends here, the film does not cut back to its program already in progress in some other cinematic space, namely, the “story” of The Players vs. Fallen Angels unfolding in the recesses of Lumiton Studios. Rather, it lingers with these actors—these players—in their kitchen, recording their unscripted, blasé interactions as they enjoy their breakfast and discuss last night’s antics. They are, in essence, playing themselves in precisely the same constructed corner of the film studio in which their selves, just moments ago, were the actors in a simulated advertising spot, the inexistent “product” of which remains entirely beside the point.

Yet, to play themselves is also to embody their roles as The Players, fictional characters in a circumscribed, cinematic world. As if to reinforce this triple interpenetration of advertising space, the space of cinematic fiction, and the space of middle-class everyday life (itself in no small way over-determined by received cultural forms), the film will intersperse several additional low-angle shots of the Fallen Angels up in the galleries, peering down once again towards a camera that may or may not occupy the languid domestic idyll in the kitchen from which they ostensibly have been spurned. Nearly five minutes will pass before the sunny music of the “spot” kicks in again, this time as a non-diegetic soundtrack to the brief montage that will conclude the sequence, comprised of more swirling hand-held shots of The Players as they clear the table and abandon the kitchen at last.

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