23 September 2010

you know who your mates are

Put it down to ennui, unemployment or orientalism but last week I packed three Latin American films into less than 24 hours in my pursuit of things to do. And the three experiences of that short period all left remarkable, and different, impressions.

First was El secreto de sus ojos, Argentinian winner of 2010's Best Foreign Language Oscar and starring Soledad Villamil and Ricardo Darin:

I've already got into a few minor skirmishes (verbal) about the film, but I have to say that the Time Out review immediately raised an issue which I was surprised to have overlooked myself.

In it Dave Calhoun observes that this film, enjoying an extensive release in the UK due to its Oscar success, beat both The White Ribbon and A Prophet to the Academy Awards; he reminds us that such an achievement does not indicate that it is a better film than Haneke or Audiard's, but that the voters have bad taste. For some reason, such an obvious statement jolted me. Was I, like the Academy itself, persistent in pretending that the 'foreign language' award is somehow for the 'edgy', alternative or 'risky' films of world cinema, when in fact such exoticising patronisation of such superior film-makers totally disguises the real agenda, which is to honour the kind of films that would win 'Best Picture', and only fail to do so because they are not in English?

My own surprise at reading Calhoun's review made me reassess my own enjoyment of foreign cinema, especially my attitude towards Latin American films, which I consider to be some of the most inventive and exciting in contemporary film-making. Had I been guilty of exoticising? Like the Oscars, do I treat these films as 'special' because they are foreign, non-Hollywood, or can I simply enjoy them as films?

My attitude towards Secreto probably confirms the latter. The film itself, despite all this preamble, felt...flimsy. Like a lot of Oscar-contenders that attempt to pack in all the right references, events and stylistic notes to please but not challenge the audience. It isn't awful - Ricardo Darin is the kind of performer you could watch for hours - but its seeming lack of integral ambition results in the kind of film-making and acting which is competent without ever working up a sweat. Having last seen Darin in the sublime XXY - a phenomenally-shot film set in Uruguay in which he plays the father of a 15 year old hermaphrodite hitting puberty, which dealt subtly and provocatively with issues of gender, identity and expressed sexuality in South American society - this felt phoned in.

What is more, the film itself seemed structurally unsure of itself. Despite spanning 25 years, it displayed little to no interest in engaging with or evoking the considerable political and social changes which Argentina experienced since the 1970s; history was quickly nodded to with a few costume changes and a shot of Eva Peron. Unlike The White Ribbon, whose acutely detailed, claustrophobic atmosphere was all the more allusive and relevant to the history of modern Germany because of its specificity, this felt caught between periods, genres and stories. Whilst such in-between-ness can have incredible effects when it is deliberate, here it felt confused. This was neither a thriller, a love story nor an historical chronicle. It was somewhere between all three without being any of them. There were plenty of allusive themes and threads which we were referred to in passing rather than invited to dwell on.

Thus the overarching links of the script - memory, silence, the unspoken trust of true love - were named, and even discussed, but never really seen acting or moving through people, or through the edits and compositions of the film. So we have a scene - earmarked 'crucial' by its dark lighting and close-ups - in which two characters discuss the nature of memory and its ability to reinvent; this is half-heartedly carried into the structure of the film itself, which slips between old and new Argentina, with a few dodgy flashbacks. And that’s it! We are given no further clues as to how memory might work here.

The conceit of Darin's character writing a novel problematises, rather than illuminates, this evasiveness. It multiplies the perspectives of the film, almost denying that Darin is the real central character, the author, through whom there is at least a little clarity. Instead the constant shifting, which flirts with lucidity then seems to quite deliberately obfuscate it again, makes it difficult to connect.

This is, at best, a 3* Hollywood film. It has plenty of good ideas but I can't help feeling that it is coyly disguising the fact that, at heart, it doesn't have much to say. Like the novel written by Darin's character, it seems to suffer from wanting to be everybody, in every place, at once, yet endeavouring to tie things neatly together in the end – a neatness which its very generic profligacy would surely make impossible. (Of course this being a Hollywood film with big stars, we do get that attempted neat conclusion, patterned by a few motifs and repeated images, which still don't bear that much meaning when the two lovers finally seem to unite....I had no real idea that the lovers were going to unite - or that they were in love in the first place....!!)

There is a lot of telling, a bit of showing, but not a whole lot of doing here. It is ironic that Darin's pursuit of the widower of a rape victim whose case begins and ends the film is driven by a fascination with this bereaved man's ability to love. In one scene, he notes how the widower is alive, pulsing with love for his dead wife: we get the sense that Darin is almost jealous of this - because he knows he is incapable of doing love, of being it. His is a struggle to say I love you: the film returns to a note he scribbled as he falls asleep - TEMO (I fear), becomes TE AMO (I love you), when he connects his writing with the battered typewriter from his love’s office, on which he now writes, which is missing an A key. There is exciting in the potential here - a possible exploration of the real fears and self-prohibitions which go along with love and male sexuality in an increasingly 'equal' or developed society - but we only get the superficial nod towards it. Instead, this is a classy, well-executed box ticker and box-office hopeful, which doesn't get to the heart of its own questions: a heart whose pulse defies the very security of terms such as 'developed', 'equal' and 'love' in modern Latin America.


A film which does strike at the heart (literal and political) of contemporary Argentina is Plan B, recently released on DVD, the debut of Norwegian/Argentinian Marco Berger. This brilliant film, set in Buenos Aires, explores identity, sexuality and self-realisation in a country which this year became only the second in the Americas to legalize gay marriage.

The ‘plan B’ of the title refers to jilted Bruno, left by his girlfriend (though still occasionally sleeping with her) who plots to ruin her relationship with new boyfriend Pablo by befriending the former and pulling the two apart. However this initial idea quickly reveals the possibility of a more successful plan: seduce the shy Pablo, who has apparently experimented with men.

What ensues is a superbly acted, generous, honest film directed with attentiveness and humour by Marco Berger. It continues to quietly slink into my head weeks after having seen it. This isn’t a film about ‘queer’ love, or male homosexuality, so much as a gently opening of the binaries and divisions society often places between homosociality and homosexuality, and more broadly, the kind of impositions and systems of thought which find ourselves misidentifying the erotic and the Platonic without seeing them as part of the same spectrum.

With a simplicity that Secreto sometimes presented as contrivance, the film finds visual poetry and composition which converses with the stories and experiences shared by Pablo and Bruno: the building-block towers of Buenos Aires recall Pablo’s admission of his fascination with architecture, and identify him unconsciously with the simple, geometric ‘bucket and spade’ he describes himself as to Bruno.

This visual poetry is somehow natural and obviously composed, and kind of ripple effect of the story itself. Like Bruno’s B-plan, the cinematography feels beautifully uncalculated: there is an accidentally-on-purpose feel to the film which neither points gratuitously to some kind of notion of fate nor indicates an attempted ‘effortless cool’ which kills the energy of the story. Instead it feels like an intuitive piece of directing and acting, which has given time and patience to those involved, trusting every element of the piece, and in doing so revealing a profundity unexpected at the beginning. So too, Bruno’s envelopment in his plan mimics is kind of accidental discovery: not a huge self-revelation, rather a conjunction of time, space and feeling which is happy and alive.

One of the images which keeps returning to me is the punctuation of scenes with wonderful, almost stumbled-upon shots of straight block structures being crossed, intersected, by a diagonal line. It might be a ladder, a phone line; something visible in the distance or crossing the glass of the camera itself. These architectural happenstances became a kind of visual signpost, as my memory continued to turn over the film, of the entire piece’s trajectory, a beautiful way of using cinema and the camera’s often independent eye to tie the counter-currents of the city’s buildings to the equally newly acknowledged counter currents of emotion and desire that are challenging and struggling to be heard and told in Argentinian society.


This idea of counter-currents, landscapes and sexual desires is also at the centre of the film completing my trilogy, aptly titled Contracorriente (Undertow). Berger’s architectural spots of urban countercurrents here become poetic and metaphysical in this film set at the shores of a tiny fishing village in northern Peru.

If anything this is a more traditional film than Plan B, in both its rhetoric and execution: effectively a triumph-against-the-odds love story. What marks it apart is that, like the remote village away from the cities and superstructures of power, the story’s genre is dislocated from conventional cinematic models. What we see are novelistic devices and tropes – and a supernatural magical realism most famously celebrated in Latin American novels – now being employed filmically. A brave choice, but one that works.

Just as the central character, Miguel, married and expecting a child with his wife, and a respected community figure, is torn between his secret love of painter Santiago, a outsider from the city, so too the film delicately plays against itself, at times subverting cinematic norms and engaging the viewer with the kind of hypnotic richness that readers usually experience.Indeed the location, landscape and costuming is what provides some of the most interesting dwelling points and investigations of role-playing and self-acceptance in the film. Miguel and Santiago meet in half-complete buildings and rocky caves, contrasting with the bright walls and simple, clean lines of his home with Mariela.

What we see in Contracorriente is the kind of love Secreto hints at but never commits to. As a film it goes deeper into the psychological conflicts which affect the men and women at the centre of the story. Not only does it question what it is to 'be a man' in contemporary Peru, it questions what it is to be a male lead on film: how do we access the male characters, what are we allowed to see or not see? This is Miguel's story, and in focusing on him, we get a complex dissection of issues of identity, sex and responsibility; yet this inevitably means that Santiago is more of a stranger.

And what do we learn about love? Is the love in Contracorriente 'greater' than that in Secreto, because it is evident and acted upon? Or is it simply more attractive, more obvious as a story because in Contracorriente it is more impossible – that we see why Miguel prohibits himself, and we see why society might also prohibit him, whereas Secreto gave us no hint of any real obstacles? We come up here against an issue of both love and film: the story itself and how it is conveyed by the camera are inextricably entwined. Film mathematics dictating how much or little of a story we can fit in. Secreto attempts to tell a subtle story but inevitably ends up with a love-declaring finale, turning feeling into love, not through the power of the love or the characters, but through the will of film itself, and the spectre of Hollywood love stories. And Contracorriente gives us a more intriguing, pensive exploration of the conflicts surrounding Miguel's choice of 'mate', at the expense of allowing us to contact the other characters with the same depth.


As with all three films, Contracorriente is superbly acted. It isn’t simply that the two leads – particularly Miguel – are good. Miguel’s wife Mariela is a standout performance in a role that could very easily have been trite, undervalued or simply crass. Nevertheless her character remains one whose perspective we rarely get to see from. This lack of female perspective is perhaps one abiding link between all three films.

Whilst Latin American cinema continues to interrogate the machisto traditions and stereoptypes which have shaped and hampered its societies, now colliding with the growing Americanised ‘development’ of its industries – there remains a gap, on the international stage at least, where the female perspective should be.

I cannot expect Contracorriente to become about Mariela – the story is not hers – and I think that films which cast a homosexual perspective on societal relations in Latin America are essential – however my concern is that these male homosexual perspectives must then be challenged and re-viewed again. It would make me happy to see a film which tackled these issues from a heterosexual female perspective; and from a homosexual female perspective.

Perhaps, as I have touched on already, it is an issue of media and genre. Do certain types of art open themselves more accessibly to certain voices: are there different media more available to Latin Amercan women? Certainly on a local scale performance and performance art is much more available and utilized by Latin American woman, from independent artist and dancers to organizations such as FOMMA, which work through performance to deal with politics and indigenous relations with identity in Mexico.

Whatever happens, the stories of women in Latin America, and how they stand to be affected by the kind of social, sexual and political changes which (uniquely) impact each unique country in the region, deserve to be told. Otherwise the national identities of the region risk perpetuating nothing but a more nuanced version of its machisto relics which still do not embrace equality.


After all, what makes Contracorriente and Plan B remarkable is that they are not films about homosexuality, but about love and relationships. To say a film was purely about homosexuality would be to confirm an inner prejudice that such a thing was purely scientific, or isolated, or able to be studied as some kind of medical or social condition. Instead the films explore different ways of loving, friendship, homosociality and homosexuality.

The difference, then, between Secreto, Contracorriente and Plan B is not the difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but between attitudes, versions of love. Social preconceptions – and cinematic conventions – which allow ideas of love on film to be reconfigured and explored. And this openness and exploration is something that mainstream American film consistently struggles to achieve. When it comes to male relationships, all love stories end in death, all friendship stories in marriage. The only exploration of homosociality which social preconceptions will allow in Hollywood are the ‘bromances’ of I Love You, Man.

These bromances are comedies which flirt with the idea of homosocial love and its potential erotic ends, whilst seemingly being forced to neutralise the potential destabilising effect of eroticism in male friendship through laughter - and having a quiet female partner in the background. These encourage white males growing up in late capitalism to identify with such films, to form male bonds whilst pronouncing disgust at the idea of homosexuality, but nevertheless allow them to find identity through being part of a group, by being the same as the men they hang out with. Not homosociality but homogeneity: men who, in these bromances, are traditionally ‘scared’ of marriage or unable to hold an identity in relation to their wives or female friends. Identikit films about males becoming identical – an attempt to reform a ‘man’s man’ group, tribe, that really lets you know who your mates are .

We know who our mates are.

Do we?

Isn't the key idea holding this blog together the fact that we don't know who our mates are: the confusion over who to settle with, who to sleep with and who to hang out with seems to be the key point holding together the Latin American trilogy I began with and the Hollywood bromances I am finishing on.

Or maybe even more specifically, these adverts and films only tell one side of the story, confirming that men don't know who their mates are. All the pieces mentioned deal with this crisis of male sexual and social identity: the difference is that Plan B and Contracorriente seem to be drawn unstoppably into that search for real identity, taking us on a journey in which ‘your mates’ become your mate (i.e. partner), demonstrating that ‘you know who your mates are’ is more than just a beer advert. It’s a statement of intent, designed to combat a dilemma of choice and self-definition in male ‘heterosexuality’. If anything, it lays bare the truth, that there is no such thing as homosexuality or heterosexuality, simply sexuality: and the elasticity of the role and identity of ‘your mates’ displays how easily friendship becomes love, becomes family and so on.

But we must be careful. That phrase ‘you know who your mates are’, opens up a can of worms in relation to biology, gender, reproduction and social structure. Once more it completely overlooks the female perspective, instead constructing a world of societal relations through a male gaze (be it self-identified as homosexual, heterosexual or homosocial). Isn’t what we find in cinematic treatments of male friendship, and adverts such as Carling’s, a dangerous elision of the female role to little more than a reproductive ‘mate’? Laura in Plan B is someone to have sex with, rather than someone we see Bruno really in love with; Mariela is seen suffering but we can only identify her as an image, a pregnant wife, a new mother. We only glimpse her suffering through Miguel’s story.

And perhaps this has something to do with cinema and women, the role of the predominantly male gaze. Yet it also seems to hint at social and linguistic gender issues. Isn’t it for women that the term ‘mate’ never seems to really make sense: it does not give her a chance to form her own identity. And if ‘mate’ is such a male-gendered word, whose meanings seem to have been totally defined by male social relations, how can a woman make friendships, build relationships with these homogenous tribes? What words can she use? What models or networks exist for her to do this? Is there a return to an Athenian concept of society where male friendship, spending time with your real ‘mates’, is far more edifying than loving a female? Are women becoming in fact, the ‘obstacles’ to true love, in ‘bromances’ and in love stories like Plan B and Contracorriente? I am unsure whether is this age of increasing self-consciousness, women oblivious to this occurrence - or complicit in it.

Who will make a film which has a woman at its centre trying to piece together her own identity with a vocabulary (linguistic, filmic and perhaps even societal) that has been defined by men?

16 September 2010

the six month itch


especially for you all, to coincide with London Fashion Week so we can all keep busy between shows, the launch of REPETITIVE STRAIN's A/W 2010 collection.

it has been nearly six months since we last got active on the blog here, and after a long spring/summer of finding employment, writing dissertations and taking shows to edinburgh, it is time for the dormant beast to raise its head and let forth a great yawn of verbiage. and maybe a few photos.

coming up in the next few weeks, i will be endeavouring to create a truly non-linear collage of many things that have provoked thought in the last half-year, including Edinburgh musings, some thoughts on dance and location, orientalism and the foreign language Oscar winner and much, much more...

please be a little patient, these fragments to be shored against our ruin may come in fits and starts --

- -
but they are coming.