Down Argentine Way: Hoberman Finds the Avant Garde in Buenos Aires

Down Argentine Way: Hoberman Finds the Avant Garde in Buenos Aires
Film still from Jonathan Perel’s documentary “17 Monumentos”
(Images courtesy of BAFICI)

BUENOS AIRES — I’m in downtown Buenos Aires for a few days as the guest of BAFICI (Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente), which has published a Spanish-language anthology of my work.

As film festivals go, BAFICI places a natural emphasis on Latin American and especially Argentine movies, but with an unusual avant-garde bias. When I was here in 2006 there was a line around the block to hear Jonas Mekas show and discuss his work. Given the brevity of my stay and various commitments, which included introducing a screening of Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” I devoted most of my viewing time to the local product.

Jonathan Perel’s hour-long documentary “17 Monumentos” is a James Benning-like structural film composed of 17 shots, each showing one of the modest monuments built on the sites of the various detention and torture centers established by the 1976-83 military dictatorship. The structures, which all feature three vertical planks each marked with a single word (“Justice,” “Memory,” and “Truth,”) are more or less identical, as is the camera angle; the sites vary from non-descript highways to suburban backyards to shabby city streets to empty vistas fronting majestic mountains. I found the movie affectingly understated — although a respected Argentine critic of my acquaintance thought it self-serving propaganda for the current government.

“Masterplan,” a shaggy-dog comedy by the brothers Diego and Pablo Levy, had a promising first half detailing the after-effects suffered by a hapless, depressed George Costanza-type for his passive complicity in his prospective brother-in-law’s harebrained credit card scam. Restrained performances (mainly by non-actors, including some filmed by the Levy brothers as part of their 2011 documentary on the neighborhood Once, Buenos Aires’s equivalent to New York’s Lower East Side) and deadpan, observational humor give way to a sort of modified magic realism as the schlemiehl-like protagonist is compelled to “abandon” his beloved car, and comes under the redemptive spell of the happy vagrant who has taken up residence in it.

“Nocturnos,” by the distinguished filmmaker and writer Edgardo Cozarinski, concerns a sad young man who, as Robert Frost wrote, is “acquainted with the night.” He frequents empty tango bars, walks deserted streets, drives around the empty city in search ... of what? Buenos Aires is additionally haunted by the ghosts of old movies, memories of a lost love, and the dreams of the pavement dwellers. Precious but accomplished, “Nocturnos” is something of a knock-off. (The movie’s laziness is emphasized by its closing words, with Cozarinski’s attributing William Faulkner’s most quoted line to Jean-Luc Godard.) But it does capture the uncanny feel of this expansive, shabby, grandiose, self-absorbed city, a sea port at the edge of the world.

For me, the Buenos Aires uncanny was accentuated by seeing jury member Pilar López de Alaya (a fetish object in both “In the City of Sylvia” and “The Strange Case of Angelika”) materializing, expressionless and solitary, around the festival, and also by being recognized by an old acquaintance, avant-garde filmmaker Leandro Katz, at a screening of movies by the work of the German-born artist Narcisa Hirsch. Still active in her 80s (although hitherto unknown to me), Hirsch was a bridge between Buenos Aires and the New York underground film scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. To judge from the first of five programs devoted to her oeuvre, her work is not so much derivative of as engaged with that of certain American avant-garde filmmakers, most productively Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. “Patagonia” (1970) is a refilmed, ominously-scored landscape film — eerie and atmospheric. Another sort of mood piece, “Descendencia” (1971) reworks home movies from the 1920s. Hirsch’s more overtly feminist super-8 productions include “Bebes” (1974), which is a birth film that opens with a shot of distressed doll heads on a turn-table, and “Mujeres” (1979), which recycles some of the Patagonia footage as projected on some guy’s torso.

Hirsch is definitely a figure for further research. Still, the one non-Argentine movie I saw was also the strongest one that I saw — Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ two-part, flashback, silent-talkie melodrama “Tabu.” Winner of a third-place prize at Berlin last February and quite different from his elaborate sit-doc “Our Beloved Month of August,” “Tabu” is an affecting, energizing, funny (ha-ha as well as peculiar) movie about mad love, Portuguese colonialism, and the music of the Ronettes. It’s a brilliant, maybe even a great piece of cinema that I hope to be able to write about at greater length when it is shown, as it surely will be, at the 50th edition of the New York Film Festival.

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