Split-Level Head: Cineastas

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The stage is bright. On top of the stage is another stage, a massive white box, maybe 20 feet high and 23.5 feet wide would be proper, as it comprises two separate white boxes, each approximately 10 feet tall. 23.5 feet wide would make each space a Cinemascope aspect ratio playing area, the bottom being reserved for a theatrical presentation of four filmmakers’ lives, the top reserved for a theatrical presentation of the films on which they are working. The bottom layer is filled with furniture and McDonald’s boxes. More importantly it is filled with different types of image: posters, photographs, paintings, storyboards. And, centrally located, a chair. The top layer is almost empty, with only a broom leaning against the right wall visible from my seat. And centrally located, a photograph of a chair. This is Mariana Tirantte’s set for Cineastas, a study in simulacrum.

The story of the first filmmaker, Gabriel, tells of his life as a successful commercial filmmaker, currently working on a Hollywood co-production in Buenos Aires. He discovers he is dying and begins to panic quietly.

The film by the first filmmaker is a straightforward Hollywood style comedy of a man named Tony whose wife leaves him. In his despair he turns into a fitness addict to take his mind off his sorrow. Then one day at the gym he meets an older man who has a tattoo of Tony’s missing wife.

The story of the second filmmaker, Mariela, deals with her newfound fame after winning an award at Cannes. Suffering writer’s block under the pressure to produce a new feature film and unable to write a script, her French producers force her to make a movie of someone else’s script.

The film by the second filmmaker is an arthouse feature about a desaparecido father, Carlos, who returns home after thirty years to his two now middle-aged sons, only to disappear again at an event where he is to sign his son’s book about Carlos’s reappearance.

The story of the third filmmaker, Nadia, shows her struggling through her unhappy marriage as she struggles to assemble her film. She divorces her husband and begins to see a cook at a Russian restaurant in Buenos Aires.

The film by the third filmmaker is a documentary on musicals from the late Soviet period in Russia as the country began to move from the death of Brezhnev toward perestroika. As the country opens up, themes in the musicals change from socialist realism to Soviet versions of Broadway musicals.

The story of the fourth filmmaker, Lucas examines his life as a low-paid McDonald’s worker who is anxious to quit so he can devote his life to making movies. One day he steals some money from the restaurant but instead of being fired finds his boss taking the fall and himself promoted to manager.

The film by the fourth filmmaker is a bizarro experimental film about a man who is one day kidnapped for no reason, beaten, tortured, and forced to dress up and play Ronald McDonald by his unseen kidnappers.

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Four films, four biographical stories of filmmakers. Each of them is nominally about film but there are no video or film projections at any point in the play. Each filmmaker’s life story on the lower stage either influences the film on the upper stage or is influenced by it–or both, as in the intertwined stories of Gabriel and his film. As Gabriel discovers he is dying he begins to change the script of his film to record the untold things in his own life, things he wishes to leave behind for his two year-old daughter, and finally just the objects in his life that have defined him. The film becomes one long exercise wish fulfillment. But even that is not enough. He invites the lead actor in his film to move into his house and become Gabriel’s replacement, though the actor does not know this. He begins to act the part of Gabriel’s alter-ego both on-screen and in Gabriel’s own life.

That story is the most extreme example of a blurry line between biography and fiction. The other three filmmakers play out their relationship with their films less directly.

Mariela, who hates the film she has been given on political grounds, is actually disturbed by it on personal grounds. The desaparecido father of the film begins to remind her of the absent father in her own life. She knows him to be dead but begins to believe nevertheless that he is alive and that he has always been there watching her. This causes her to become so desperate that she plans to bring him out of the shadows to save her by causing a major accident that almost kills her. He does not appear.

Nadia begins to rediscover her Russian roots through her new love affair. During the affair she gets pregnant and her lover leaves her to go to Russia. Nadia herself wishes to go to Russia. When the Sovfilm Archive in Russia offers her a chance to view extremely rare footage she has been needing for her documentary, she has the excuse she needs and leaves her Argentine life behind to fly to Moscow. By chance she runs into her former lover and discovers that he already has a family with two teenagers. She quits her film and goes back to her ancestral home to find peasants dancing, just as they did hundreds of years ago, and her soul finally at peace in this village that exists in frozen time.

Lucas has his picture taken with President Obama who is touring Argentina. Even though he is now more capable of finishing it than ever, and has all the resources, he begins to forget about it entirely, seeing it as absurd. At the height of his success as a franchise manager, angry protesters recognize him from his picture with Obama and give him an internationally renowned beatdown, which hospitalizes him in critical condition. By the time he heals, he returns to work and finds himself replaced by a different manager. Only then does he return to finishing his film.

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On one level the play is fundamentally about cinema, and how cinema affects and sometimes replaces reality. This is a familiar enough postmodernist trope. In Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” he discusses a second order of simulacra, where distinctions between images and what they represent begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. The most prolific of the copying devices in that order is the camera, and the danger of the camera is that it leads a society to the third order of simulacra where there is no distinction whatsoever between images and what they represent. In my America most people’s knowledge of foreign cultures, foreign countries, and foreign people comes from images of them, rather than direct experience. Director Mariano Pensotti knows this and questions it in his own country. In his own introduction to the piece, he quotes the late Argentine filmmaker Leonardo Favio’s statement that “We are what movies told us we should be.”

On another level the play is about time, and the desire to capture time. Again, from Mr. Pensotti’s notes: “Cinema purports to capture a moment and freeze time, while theatre, like life, is an ephemeral experience in which time flows freely.”

I am not, however, that much of a postmodernist. I am certainly not a technological determinist, and I don’t believe that people’s wills are immediately erased by technology. Technology may make it easier to subjugate them and obviously does on many occasions, but I’ll be damned first rather than believe that human behavior does not precede technological interface. Furthermore, as a former filmmaker myself I have no illusions that cinema purports to capture a moment and freeze time. Still photography may pretend to do so, but regardless of Godard’s statements otherwise cinema is not still photography at 24 frames per second. Cinema doesn’t freeze time: it recreates it. It extrudes time, compresses it, dissects it, synthesizes it, and directly connects the experience of time to the experience of a flattened picture plane on a highly selective screen.

Mr. Pensotti, also a former filmmaker like me, has two of his characters discuss Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which is the very essence of analytic dissection of time and space, so I know that he knows this. When he asks in his notes, “Is there a kind of cinema that is ephemeral? Could something be built in theatre that actually lasts?” he neglects to mention that his approach comes at this from the point of view of the theatrical: whatever happens on this stage, it is most certainly not cinema, even though the experience is constructed to be as flat as possible. One could make a film that tackles this same problem of phenomenology, but it will be similarly bounded, only by the second dimension rather than the third. Theater cannot compress space. It cannot control viewpoint. It cannot create a uniform record of experience that is the same for all people who behold the same piece over time. These qualities are the province of cinema.

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Is there a kind of cinema that is ephemeral? Could something be built in theater that lasts? To me the answer remains obviously not. I am not suggesting the questions are doomed and therefore uninteresting. On the contrary, the questions are doomed, and therefore they are interesting. There are extremely interesting ideas in the piece. One of my favorite devices is that the play starts with its lower half, the world of the “real” characters, also filled with images that define them. As their films and stories go on, the images are removed slowly until the world of their “real” lives becomes indistinguishable from the “fictional” films of the upper level, with the final story, in which Nadia returns to her home village, actually proving to be a massive film set while her own documentary film set above is empty. The difference between cinematic fiction in a theater and theatrical truth in a theater proves non-existent: both are, in fact, theatrical fiction. Also fascinating is the interplay between the filmmakers’ rough cuts of their films shown on their laptops (which face the audience) as the theatrical films are enacted simultaneously.

While on one level the play seems to be about cinema and about time, I think it is much more accurately about the nature of fiction. This was also the subject of El pasado es un animal grotesco at On the Boards in 2012, and also his entry in Enzyklopaedie des ungelebten Leben. His exploration of the facets of fiction and their meaning run through all of Mr. Pensotti’s work all the way back to his version of James Joyce’s The Dead. While it’s easy to be impressed so thoroughly by his eye for stage construction, it is more important to remember that stage construction itself is a kind of fiction, simply another tool to clarify thoughts. Mariano Pensotti is fundamentally interested in ideas, and Cineastas continues to explore those ideas in his own uniquely striking way. That the exploration is incomplete is a sign of its vitality.

Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net