Five Poems in Search of an Author: THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

When I was ten, I was obliged to write a poem for a class exercise. Inspired by some tragic news I read in the newspaper, I composed a very tortuous, extremely affected sonnet in perfect hendecasyllabic verses. My teacher, who was greatly impressed, suggested only a small change in order to reinforce even further (as if it were necessary!) the already annoying, monotonous, consonant rhyme.

Three years later, my younger brother did the same exercise. This is what he wrote: “The goat on top of the mountain, / the burning sun, / Lord, how hot it is here!” Let me tell you: he was not congratulated. But, deep down inside, I knew that his poem was better than mine. My sonnet was a struggle with language, a desperate attempt to fabricate emotion through choosing the “right” words — while his three, effortless lines evoked an image stripped of all superfluity, an idea in a clear, powerful form. Today I still remember his poem, but I have completely forgotten my own.

This anecdote came to mind while watching Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), a fascinating film with a very unusual premise. Nira (Sarit Larry) becomes obsessed with one of her pupils, the 5-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), upon discovering that he has an exceptional gift for poetry. In Yoav’s compositions there’s a directness of imagination, a simplicity of language, that I relate to my brother’s poem. But, at the same time, there are techniques and inflections that don’t fit at all with our idea of a 5-year-old soul (no matter how cultivated).

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The mystery about the poems’ authorship drives the film from start to end. Yoav could indeed be an extremely talented, precocious poet. But, through a complex mirroring game, Lapid also suggests other possibilities: Yoav might be stealing the words (as several characters do), or speaking the feelings of others through a strange, magical transference. Amazed and intrigued, the teacher starts obsessively questioning the kid. But her curiosity will soon be replaced by the faith of the believer and the fanaticism of the missionary.

A poet: born or made? The Kindergarten Teacher confronts this clichéd quandary by formulating a deeper question: where does poetry come from? Lapid has declared that Yoav’s poems were, in fact, written by himself when he was five. But, by repurposing his own creation, Lapid makes a film about five poems in search of an author.

The Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote some famous lines that come in handy here: “What is poetry?, you ask
while fixing / Your blue pupil on mine.
/ What is poetry! And you are asking me?
/ Poetry … is you.” According to this vision, poetry is unaware of its essence or status; in order to be revealed, it needs to be sung to life by the poet. Thus, a fundamental split between the poet (subject) and poetry (object). The Kindergarten Teacher is built, precisely, in this gap. But, rather than reinforcing the subject/object relation, Lapid challenges it by putting in question the poet’s presumed self-awareness.

How does the film depict the creative act? Here, a poem’s birth resembles every writer’s dream. Yoav, usually in the middle of some game, starts walking like a robot, back and forth, between two points in space, announcing: “I have a poem!” Then he recites, without mistake or hesitation, the exact words. We never see him writing or pondering. Rather, he behaves like a mystic prophet: he enters a trance state, uttering the words as if they were being dictated to him. So, poetry still needs a poet in order to be revealed. But, instead of presenting this poet as the master of his creation, the film shows him as an instrument or channel: poetry has become the subject, the poet its object.

Today, when any film with a vaguely Instagram look is celebrated as the truest portrait of our times, The Kindergarten Teacher takes a far more intricate path: instead of superficially imitating the world, it develops an elaborate formal and narrative system so as to reflect on the contemporary beliefs and uncertainties brought on by the twin crises of art and authorship.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, July 2015

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If versus Despite: SWEET DREAMS

In Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams (Fai bei sogni, 2016), there’s a scene in which the teenage hero, Massimo (Dario Dal Pero), is questioned by his teacher, Father Ettore (Robert Herlitzka), about why he keeps telling his friends that his mother is alive when, in reality, she’s been dead for several years.

“If she were still here … “, says the kid.

“If, if … ‘If’ is the mark of failure. In this life, it’s ‘despite’ that makes you succeed”, responds the Father.

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This statement comes directly from the autobiographical novel by Massimo Gramellini on which Sweet Dreams is based. But, for various reasons, it resonates much deeper in Bellocchio’s film. It resonates within and beyond the film. And it resonates with me — despite knowing (I learnt this from Bob Dylan) that “there’s no success like failure, and that failure is no success at all”.

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One of my favourite uses of “if” happens when it comes preceded by a “what”: “What if … ?”. This is an opening of openings, an invitation to playfulness, a speculative trigger that unlocks the imagination. “What if … ?” traces pathways, fabricates hypotheses, invents situations, envisages alternatives and arrangements. “What if … ?” can come up with whole new worlds. But, more often than not, the “if” comes without the “what”; it comes without the joy of the multiple possibilities; and it becomes prisoner of one, single, heavy obsession. This is indeed Massimo’s “if”: an indicator of discontent.

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“If she were still here … “. This is the “if” of a phantasy of longing. Of course, one can still long and fantasise with “despite”. But “despite” entails a totally different relation with the facts and with the phantasy itself. One thing is to say: “If she were still here, I’d be happy” (and, therefore, I’ll act as if she were alive, I’ll lie to myself, I’ll tell the others she’s working abroad). Another, very different thing is to say: “Despite that my mother is dead, I talk with her”. Only “despite” allows us to have conversations with the dead.

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“If” and “despite” give rise to different verbal moods and tenses. To jump from one verbal mood/tense to another is a powerful event, even when it happens only in thought or speech. There’s a moment in Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (La Naissance de l’amour, 1993) that truly attests to the high of this flight: fifteen seconds of a conversation between two friends, fifteen seconds (no subtitles seem able to do justice to them!) in which Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel mess and juggle with the treacherous conjugation of the verb “to do” (“faire”). Until the former, suddenly enlightened, blasts a declaration that makes his friend burst into laughter: “We’ve passed from the conditional to the future: I could do it, I will do it!”.

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“If” and “despite” imply different attitudes and strategies; they convey different images of time. “If” provides a suspended limbo for a past that is not anymore. “Despite” throws you into a ravaged present that is too much. “If” creates an illusion at the cost of a denial. “Despite” insists on itself at all costs, notwithstanding the brutality with which facts and people deny to us every illusion. “If” searches for protection, “despite” stands in pure resistance. I once heard somebody say: “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”. I think “if” helps you to survive. But “despite” is a bet for life. A bet for life despite the senselessness, despite the uncertainty, despite the night …

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This is an attempt at a distribution, not a prescription. I’ve inhabited (and keep inhabiting) the “if” a lot. “If” as condition, if as wish, “if” as affirmation that dares not, that shies away — that’s easier to see in Spanish where “if” and “yes” are only distinguished by an accent (“si”/”sí”). I’m not willing to give advice, even less to pass judgement. In the face of certain events, one does just what one can. It’s not enough to impose a word onto ourselves. In speech, as in life, everything must be conquered. Prepositions and conjunctions too.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, September 2018

Let the Right One In: MIKEY AND NICKY

Watching Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) for the first time is like driving at night through an unfamiliar route full of curves and cliffs. You need to be vigilant, attentive, constantly readjusting your vision and hearing. You have to carefully read the signs and, at the same time, be ready for some sudden surprises. You can’t relax; you must tune your reflexes. Maybe, at some point of the itinerary, you’ll start thinking that you are becoming acquainted with the scenery. But what, from far away, looked like a charming, little village with reassuring, lit windows and distant, barking sounds, suddenly becomes, as you approach it, a landscape modelled from pure guilt, pain, and suffering, whose gigantic proportions engulf you.

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Mikey and Nicky starts in full paranoiac mode: Nicky (John Cassavetes) hides in a hotel room, convinced that his boss has given an order to kill him. Desperate, he calls his friend Mikey (Peter Falk), but refuses to tell him the address of his hideout. Once Mikey arrives to the agreed spot — a street corner surveyed from his room window— he starts throwing empty bottles rolled up in a towel at him: it’s Nicky’s idiosyncratic way of signalling his exact location for his friend.

Unlike the three other fiction features directed by Elaine May — A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Ishtar (1987) — Mikey and Nicky leans more toward drama than comedy. But, nonetheless, the film is full of exhilarating moments like the one just described. Moments that, paradoxically, are also the darkest ones: their madness and violence always points to some obscure zone where this reckless behaviour leaves a deep imprint. As often happens in May’s movies, humour aggravates rather than alleviates the mood, giving the movie a unique, extreme, bitter emotion.

The intensity of Mikey and Nicky owes a great deal to the fabulous performances of Falk and Cassavetes, two actors who are so in tune with their personae, so deeply imbued in them, that they make this very complex character study look like a film made on the spot — an impression also sustained by its aesthetic rawness, full of brusque changes in light and out-of-focus shots. But Mikey and Nicky is, in fact, an extremely elaborate film; one soon realises that its intensity also springs from May’s ability to build a movie that rushes ever forward, with an incredible sense of urgency while, simultaneously, it inscribes, in its relatively brief time frame, the whole weight of a past — with its load of frustrations, humiliations, unresolved issues, and unspoken feelings — shared by two individuals who have been very close to each other. And May does this directly, with a linearity that doesn’t need flashbacks or stupid, atmospheric tricks to rescue it.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has rightly noted that secret betrayal is the obsessive theme shared by May’s four features. Of course, betrayal is quite common in genres such as romantic comedy or the gangster/crime film — to which The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky, respectively, belong. But betrayal, for May, is more than simply a contractual genre obligation, or an excuse to set in motion and resolve the plot. Betrayal becomes the true gravitational centre of the films. This is true even of A New Leaf and Ishtar, her movies that more clearly hold onto a specific generic model. In her work, the question of deceit is never just a matter of right and wrong, never just a clichéd, moral issue that is easy to clean up. Rather, the roles of victim and executioner are unstable, full of oscillations and reversals; often they create a fantasised self-image that acts as a mask — as a cover for a deeper dissatisfaction, and a more complex reality.

Moreover, all of her films are woven around a betrayal that is announced early on, followed by its largely postponed confession or completion. And it’s precisely this in-between time, with all its turnarounds, shifts and hesitations, that May obsessively draws and explores. If the whole first part of The Heartbreak Kid, for instance, relies on the necessity and difficulty of the protagonist to confess his deceit to his wife and pursue a new life with another woman, Mikey and Nicky is entirely built on the sheer impossibility of admitting betrayal as an idea, as a thought, let alone as an actual fact. From start to end, the film is driven by uncertainty and suspicion precisely because neither of the protagonists can face or directly address the possibility of a betrayal.

It takes several viewings to tackle the careful layering designed by May — small behavioural details, seemingly illogical reactions, verbal slips and offhand revelations — in order to address this dual impossibility, this dual denial. As a writer, she has created not only superb dialogue, but also a very tight narrative structure that generally follows the rule of ‘one place for each scene’ (avoiding intercutting for the most part) while, simultaneously, working with retrospective accumulation: forcing the viewer to constantly reconfigure his or her knowledge about the characters and their situation.

This ambiguity was something highly valued and pursued by May, who spent two years editing 300 hours of material. The production company, tired of waiting, took it from her and released their own version in 1976. A compromise was reached in a cut released in 1980 and approved by May (this is the film we see today). But, subsequently, she kept testing different editing options and variations; in 1986, she screened an ultimate, authorised version of the film at MoMA. It was ten minutes shorter, with some scenes suppressed and some crucial information buried, in order to complicate even further the viewer’s knowledge and understanding of the situation as it unfolds.

No matter the version, in less than two hours, while the night moves and the clock ticks, May keeps the viewer breathless, totally involved in this epic portrait of a friendship that is both tender and toxic, warm and consuming, intricately rooted in a shared childhood not totally abandoned — isn’t Mikey and Nicky (with the contraction in both names) a great title for a gangster movie?

A perfectly reversed rhyme frames the film, insisting once more on the vampiric bond between the two men, and pushing it to its most dramatic effect. Mikey and Nicky starts with a door that, after much hesitation and some violence, is opened, allowing the reunion of the two friends, welcoming the possibility of salvation. And, in a devastating, superbly constructed ending, another door is painfully bolted and barred: a blockage splitting the space, disjoining the bodies which, nonetheless, melt in a common disintegration. As Pedro Costa said of Kenji Mizoguchi: a closed door leaves us guessing …

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, September 2015

Getting Ahead of Myself

Writing on, with, around film is something I’ve been doing quite regularly for ten years now. On, with, around: for me, those are not pure or exclusive categories. They often overlap and intertwine in ways that are quite mysterious and unpredictable. This is something I value highly and, therefore, I want to keep doing it. But I’d also like to do something different.

There are two problems that have been a constant (sometimes inconspicuous) concern of mine over the years. Problems to which I’m instinctively drawn when I watch films, when I think on, with, around film: space and routine. Space as a set of coordinates and conditions (physical or virtual, mental and emotional) that allow the writing to happen. Routine as a sense of grounding born in the intersection between body, time and energy. Those are problems that I need to keep shaping and negotiating, not without difficulty and distress, once and again. Problems of writing, problems of life.

One of the aims of this blog is to give a space to texts that are either de-published (in the sense of having been withdrawn from the sites for which they were originally written) or unpublished (repeatedly rejected, denied a place). There are other pieces that I haven’t offered to any publication because, frankly, I’m tired of the “pitching protocol”, of being told they don’t fit, or I don’t fit. Then, there are a few texts that were published in Spanish and that I’d like to translate and revisit.

Sometimes I have ideas (!) that could work as brief comments, side notes. They still need to be developed, but they have a sparky, concise feel. I simply don’t pursue them, for lack of a space. However, they keep floating in my mind, they retreat for a while, they are suddenly called forth … they persist, somehow. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about these unwritten, unpursued ideas. And it’s here that routine enters the picture, too.

For me, writing involves — in unequal and uneasy measure — desire, anxiety and pleasure. The question is to which degree and in which combination. Above all, what I’d like to do here is to experiment with short texts, with a more fragmentary approach, with a return to handwriting, drafting in a notebook that I can carry around. Hoping that this will perhaps afford me another kind of investment in writing, one less energetically exhausting. Hoping, too, that this will reconnect me with when it all began — mid-nineties, sixteen years old (approximately), time felt different then …

Writing on, with, around film. That’s not how writing began for me, but that’s how I re-encountered writing after having thought I was done with it.

But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. An introduction, when written in advance, is always tentative. Of the future, I know nothing. This, however, is my wish.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, September 2018