On Carlos Reygadas’ Japón, and the concept of unilateral vs bilateral cinema

The goal of a mainstream filmmaker is to rivet you. Someone like Carlos Reygadas wants to free you.

Baradwaj Rangan June 27, 2019 14:09:07 IST
On Carlos Reygadas’ Japón, and the concept of unilateral vs bilateral cinema

This June, Film Comment published an interview with Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican filmmaker widely regarded as one of the leading proponents of Slow Cinema. (The term means exactly what you think it does. Think, for instance, of the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Albert Serra, Lav Diaz and Tsai Ming-liang.) Reygadas says he considers films “bilateral entities”, things that are ambiguous, “things that are only complete once they’ve reached the minds that connect with them.” These are unlike the classic narrative film, which is “unilateral”, meant to make you respond in a specific manner. “The moments in Hitchcock that make you afraid are meant to make everybody afraid. It’s disembarking on you, like a circus. It’s entertainment, perhaps of very good quality, but still entertainment because it’s only coming in one way.”

On Carlos Reygadas Japn and the concept of unilateral vs bilateral cinema

Alejandro Ferretis in Japón. Image via Facebook

“In the films I’m trying to make, which are about presence, rather than representation, things don’t inform you, they are not meaningful in themselves… The film is like a vase: you fill it up with who you are and how you experience life.” This is true of all Slow Cinema – but first, a minor quibble. Narrative films can be “bilateral”, too, in a sense. A Saving Private Ryan, for instance, will play very differently for someone who has actually been in combat, as opposed to someone who’s never seen war. A Boy Erased will probably resonate with a queer viewer in ways that it will not with a straight viewer. Narrative film or not, each one of us fills up a film with “who you are and how you experience life.”

But yes, in the larger scheme of things, Reygadas is right. Take the director Reygadas mentions. A Hitchcock film keeps moving. Every scene is sculpted around an event, or a revelation, or a character development -- so we are always invested. We may have the time to do some parallel processing. (Oh, look how amazing the staging is! Oh, what an amazing performance!) But we cannot “drift away” too much, or else we will lose track of the narrative. I wouldn’t call Hitchcock’s cinema “Fast Cinema”, exactly, for the sensual rhythms of Vertigo are slow in their own way. But not in the Reygadas way, in which the narrative is at best a clothesline for a series of abstract vignettes, variations on the film’s central theme: usually, couples or an individual in crisis.

Take Reygadas’s first film, Japón (2002). The individual in crisis (an unnamed painter) is similar to the protagonist of Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry: he wants to end his life. But unlike the Iranian film, the logistics here are not yet in place. The man knows what he wants to do, but when and how, he does not know. He reaches Ayacatzintla, a small town in the state of Hidalgo, and takes up a room in the house of an elderly woman named Ascen (Magdalena Flores). And he spends the rest of the film doing… not much. Life happens around him, but it’s not the Hitchcock kind of dramatised life. Nothing “exciting” happens, and in many scenes, there’s not much that’s crucial to our understanding of the “plot” -- so the mind wanders. It’s inevitable. And because each of our minds is different, the “wandering” happens in different ways. We see and process the same movie in different ways.

The goal of a mainstream filmmaker is to rivet you. Someone like Reygadas wants to free you. What you take away from the film is a combination of the images on screen and what you think while these scenes are allowed to unfold over a considerable amount of time. Films can be bilateral in another way, too. Take the opening scene of Japón. For about two-and-a-half minutes, we just see cars on the road. But note how the Mexican author, Valeria Luiselli, processes the same visuals. In her Criterion Collection essay, titled Japón: On Seeing Ourselves Seeing, she says that in 2002, it was really difficult to watch Mexican movies, or any Latin American movies. “Few films were being produced in Mexico, and we had anyhow been educated under the precept that good cinema was always synonymous with foreign cinema, especially if it was European… So when Japón arrived, we were unprepared, taken by surprise; but also desperately thirsty for something that we could call our own…”

On Carlos Reygadas Japn and the concept of unilateral vs bilateral cinema

Another still from Japón. Image via Facebook

“The film opens with a scene of Mexico City traffic, a scene almost identical to the one that was surely taking place right outside and around the [theatre I was watching the film in]: a long line of vochos and Tsurus in the darkness of an underpass, their rear lights moving like embers of slow lava toward the light at the other end of the tunnel. The effect was peculiar, as if the screen were suddenly removed and the viewers who had just sat down to watch the movie were all back in their cars, moving within and across Mexico City.” Now, how can a non-Mexican hope to have this experience? Later, Luiselli writes, “The question with Japón, as with the rest of Reygadas’s filmography, is not what it’s about but what the film does – to us, in the deepest of our emotional strata and our innermost neurological wirings.” In other words, bilateral cinema isn’t about a collective audience, but an audience of one. The theatre may be full, but film plays for you alone.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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