Reality Return

By Fernando Ganzo

(leer en castellano / lire en français)

Looking back on the delusional conversation that I transcribed yesterday, I came to think on why those characters went to that bar to watch a tennis match. I concluded that it was because tennis is, by far, the most dialectical sport there is, and that way of functioning links it very much with cinema. For instance, No, by Pablo Larraín. The virtues of that film lean on the dialectical lines that it draws. The film takes us back to the 1988 referendum held in Chile in order to confirm or remove the dictator from power. The lead character, played by Gabriel García Bernal, is an advertising agent who accepts to work for the NO campaign. Here we have the first dialectic: yes versus no. Both camps are equally naïve, and yet they know that if the campaign is to run on fear, YES would come out winning. The NO camp decides then that they will take an optimistic approach (Guardiolesque if you will), promising a radiant future very much populated by blonde children and singing women. The second dialectic: the NO camp is persuaded that there is going to be a fraud at polls and that they are going to lose the referendum. The question for them is: should they go for it anyway and hope for the best, or should they use the 15-minute television slot assigned to them to voice the claims of the victims of the military-rule and, hence, denounce the dictatorship? Those two dialectics force both camps to pursue a trial / error strategy in which they reply to one another; and so, if we know our dialectics, we know which one should win, historically speaking. (The main character´s foreman works for the YES campaign, but his employees work for the NO camp). Just for this time around, everything falls accordingly to the way Karl Marx planed it, but actually, the fight was won by none other than advertising itself. To see this story again can be refreshing, but it doesn´t calm the thirst of the real conflict that Chile has with its own past, because (as one character rightly points out in the film) when you promise the future you are also covering all the iniquities and grievances of the past. On the plus side we should mention that the dialectics of the film offer room for some humour in the form of verbal exchanges and gags that are sometimes brilliantly funny. Or maybe it is only that we are still laughing at a recent NO given to a despicable President.

I also came to remember a conversation between Daney and Biette; mainly because a conversation between the two of them is very much like watching a good tennis match. They return the ball so well that each hit is better than the previous one; up to a point in which they really hit impossible balls that are very much out of reach for us and that float in our minds beyond comprehension. They just don´t ace, which makes it even more unforgettable. Deney would ask Biette what should we be filming today, what subject would be suitable for cinema; for instance, without the Second World War we will not have Roma cittá aperta, he will argue. Television (and this conversation took place in the late eighties, what would they say about it today?) has expanded the threshold of what it is to be seen—let´s just say that everyone got its 15 minutes of fame. Biette answered (and here comes the big surprise, because he himself had always filmed things and characters that nobody else would) that yes, all the pieces very quite visible, but the relation that it is established among those pieces was not visible at al; and since the heart of the matter in cinema, according to him, is the invisible, we should film the invisible; which is to say: the relation between those pieces (between two shots, if you will; and that´s only one step away, however important, from Godard´s “ in between” [entre]).

I reflect on that and come to realized that, if they are right, the struggle for realism (whether it was right or wrong) is over. I´m not talking about the reality of the actual recording process, but that in order to record something and to make visible what it is invisible, you need and artifice. I suppose it is only my own way of comprehending the end of a tennis match between two dead Frenchmen. In the mean time I go to see, by chance, Reality, by Matteo Garrone. And the outcome of that match can be measured, as ever, in terms of morals and aesthetics.

First set: morals. The main character (Luciano) wants to be in the Big Brother show, and after he successfully completes the first part of the casting, he is convinced that he is already being monitored by Big Brother in his daily routines so they can decided whether he will enter to live in “the house” or not. The paradoxical conclusion of that: since Luciano is convinced that he is being watched and judged by a “higher conscience”, he acts morally different that he would had otherwise. His previous actions (towards his family, for example) were not bad, but now, in his preoccupation for being generous, he is actually destroying his home. We can argue that given that God is dead we should go ahead and kill television too (and it would not be bad). There is a problem with that: what we understand to be his moral virtue (his lack of self-interest and his sacrifice for the sake of his family) is what actually drags him down to a path of hypocrisy and the worship of false idols; for he believes in television as if it was The Bible (he went to the casting just to please his family). In his pretence to draw a realistic account of the alienation of our desires and the exertion of happiness by the media, Garrone destroys the moral account of his character: the realism scoreboard is in zero.

Second set: aesthetics. Garrone´s gaze on his characters is that of contempt: his characters are fat and ugly, the world they inhabit is aesthetically vulgar and absurd, and so it is their dream: to be a part of Big Brother. Let´s think of The King of Comedy, which has a similar plot. The character in that film goes mad because he insists on being Jerry Lewis; that is: in being a genius. Luciano´s madness, in the other hand, comes from his insistence in clowning on TV. And that´s a dream that he won´t be able to share with the audience of this film, which it´s never the same (even less so today) as that of Big Brother.

The realistic approach of the film forces that gaze of contempt on its characters. It is neither distorting nor grotesque, but mocking as if to make us feel good in our own more “clever” stance. Garrone needs the flabs of this ugly family so he would have something to film, something to look at. The problem with the film is that it can only be watch with very much the same disposition than the one we have while watching a reality show. Garrone has filmed a Big Brother for the Italian and European intellectual bourgeoisie to see how foolish the common man of Naples is.

Realism loses this match. The last shot, looking down on Luciano from a high crane as the camera zooms out endlessly (attention: we are watching from afar alongside with Garrone; remember: we are not like that, we should feel good about it) backfires on Garrone leaving his film dead: he made a film about ugly people that has ugly dreams. Let´s set it out as if it was an equation:

Ugly divided by ugly dreams = Reality by Marco Garrone.

But the equal factors in either side of the equation cancel each other. Let´s delete, then, “ugly” from the equation and we will get the essence of the film: Luciano´s dream (to become visible, to be part of something, to be talked about) and Garrone´s dream (to compete in the Cannes Film Festival) are one and the same. Garrone filmed a reality show about himself and is therefore exposed.

Translated from Spanish by Hugo Obregón

Quinzaine des réalisateurs
CHILE, USA, MÉXICO. 2012. 115’
Director: Pablo Larraín.
Script: Pedro Peirano.
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong.
Editing: Andrea Chignoli.
Sound: Ivo Moraga.
Casting: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Luis Gnecco.

On competition
ITALY, FRANCE. 2012. 115’
Director: Matteo Garrone.
Script: Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso.
Cinematography: Marco Onorato.
Editing: Marco Spoletini.
Sound: Maricetta Lombardo.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Casting: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone, Raffele Ferrante.