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Dr Geoffrey Kantaris

Lecturer in Latin American Culture

Department of Spanish and Portuguese

University of Cambridge, UK

First published in:

The Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

[Glasgow] 73.2 (April 1996): 219-44.

Reprinted with permission.


 © Elia Geoffrey Kantaris

First published: 1996

Last updated: 29-Jan-2000


Video clips and illustrative stills will be added eventually.

The Last Snapshots of Modernity
Argentine Cinema after the ‘Process’

It’s a very long and difficult job [ . . . ] to carry through this very powerful task, which is to see how, in the very detail of composition, a certain social structure, a certain history, discloses itself.

 — Raymond Williams[1]

The historicization of that structure of feeling which we call ‘modernity’ is both a necessary task and a paradoxical one.[2]  It is necessary because it is becoming ever more urgent to understand why modernity has failed us in its æsthetic and political projects, or in other words, at what point the blueprints for a ‘knowable community’ that it offered on so many different fronts, whether purely linguistic or thoroughly materialist, dissolved into the unknowing, specular surfaces of a ‘post’-modernity now fully incorporated (as fashion) into the multinational phase of capitalist production. To historicize modernity is also a paradoxical task because, in the words of Tony Pinkney, its awareness of itself as modern announces ‘merely the empty flow of time itself’, and its self-periodization is offered only as a break with the ‘mythic or circular (non)-temporality of the organic community’ — a break that has always already occurred no matter which moment one chooses as its starting point.[3]  Nevertheless, this understanding of the infinite expandability of the modern, and the infinite regress of its origins, remains caught up within modernism’s internal ideology. It might therefore be more helpful to try to show how different cultural products are now attempting to trace modernity as their own prehistory, to ‘frame’ it together with the æsthetic and political debates that it raised in order to better understand the conditions under which culture today can hope to map out the ideological terrain within which it operates, but which has become unthinkable as such.

      I shall argue that this framing attempt is similar to Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘cognitive mapping’, which might be roughly described as the process by which we unconsciously cast our own image onto the invisible screen of national sociopolitical space and its interface with the world-political system.[4]  Cultural artefacts, in this reading, can under certain circumstances be seen as imaginary forms of mediation between the micropolitical and the macropolitical, doing this unconscious work of integration within a world system that attempts to disarticulate any conscious linkage between the local and the global — between, say, the food on the dinner table and Third World debt, to give too obvious an example. Jameson examines the particular form of ‘conspiracy film’ in this context and also looks at other filmic texts for a less ultimate form of allegorical thinking in which can be glimpsed what he now terms the ‘geopolitical unconscious’. While I cannot here hope to provide his kind of analytical scope, I believe that by focusing on a precise reading of two contemporary filmic narratives from Argentina, a country which situates itself, often consciously, on the productive margins of the world system, be it culturally or economically, it becomes possible to gain some precise understanding of the urgency with which ‘Third’ culture is attempting to think that system from a standpoint where its formations become simultaneously more brutally visible and more insidiously conspiratorial. Moreover, in their attempt to ‘frame’ modernity (i.e., both to relativize it and to impute it) at a moment when the country was emerging from a ruthless dictatorship whose geopolitical determinants had been consciously stage-managed by the military itself, these texts are, I believe, trying to think their way through modernity and its postmodern corporations to modes of resistance, autonomy and self-representability. The films I shall be examining in this context are Sur (South, 1988) by the well-known director Fernando Solanas, veteran experimenter in filmic form and inaugurator of the concept of ‘Third Cinema’, and Últimas imágenes del naufragio (Last Images of the Shipwreck, 1989) by the more recently celebrated director Eliseo Subiela.[5]

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1. Of modernity, its castaways and shipwrecks

In the present era of multinational globalization, within a techno-cultural climate which has long since declared itself to be post-modern, any harking back to an earlier modernity may seem purely regressive or anachronistic. In order to understand why Argentine film of the late 1980s is still concerned with this historical moment, seeing in it something of a paradigm, it is necessary, firstly, to try to situate the meaning of ‘modernity’ within the context of Argentina, and, secondly, to understand the particularities of film’s own relationship to it. The first requires some discussion of Argentine history, and the second a brief detour through Walter Benjamin’s theorization of photography and film.

      Although the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the 1920s is generally associated with the great European cities and with New York, Buenos Aires was no stranger to the overall feeling of modernity and to the explosive outbursts of experimental activity in the arts that accompanied the period.[6]  It was a city where a massive influx of European immigrants (before the First World War and then again afterwards) was creating a climate of social and linguistic ferment in which the old structures and the old discourses, dominated by an agrarian élite, were no longer adequate to the mediation of popular aspirations. Nor could those structures respond adequately, on a cultural level, to a world in which the mechanical reproduction of words, speech and images was transforming the ways in which people interacted, and was indeed transforming the social function of such modes of representation — not only print, radio, gramophone and telegraphy, but also cinema, which took an immediate hold in Argentina, so that by 1930 there were over 1,000 cinema salons throughout the country (Sarlo, p. 21). This experience of modernity surfaced of course during the last period of British hegemony over Argentina’s trade and its links with the Imperial world trading system, but I would contend that it is primarily associated with the decline of that system of monopoly capitalism, when its structures begin to come under threat — externally from the shift of trading interests towards the United States, and internally from a mobilizing industrial proletariat. Yet, whereas what Linda Hutcheon calls the ‘messianic faith’ of modernism (‘the faith that technical innovation and purity of form can assure social order’) was destined to reach its grizzly end in the Nazi concentration camps in Europe,[7] in Argentina the period of radicalization and growth in popular participation was quashed by the military coup against the populist Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1930, and was supressed throughout the ‘Infamous Decade’ of the thirties until it resurfaced with a vengance with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s.

      What this suggests is that the élite urban modernity of the 1920s which we see giving way in the 1930s in Europe to the mass mobilization of the industrialized proletariat under ‘totalizing’ ideologies (fascism in Germany and Italy or revolutionary socialism in Spain, for example) did not in Argentina find a devastating outlet and final check in World War or Civil War, at least not immediately. Argentina, then, suffers what we might call a ‘delayed modernity’ which reaches deep into the totalizing core of Peronism with its blend of neo-fascist personalist rule, the quasi-socialist championing of workers’ rights and income redistribution, and the nationalist promise of industrial greatness on the backs of the ordered and mobilized masses.

      Yet what is the relevance of this delayed modernity to the Argentina of the 1980s, just emerging from the latest and bloodiest of its military dictatorships? One answer might be to view the period of military rule which began in 1976 as the violent culmination of the process of transition from the industrial modernization of the Peronist state-led economy of the 1940s and ’50s, with its emphasis on nationalization and unionization, to a multinational ‘free-market’ economy which demanded the complete destruction of the images of social utopia to which Peronism (of the right and the left) and socialism had appealed, and hence, in contrast to its economic ‘liberalism’, the severest forms of social repression (euphemistically termed el Proceso). The violence of the dictatorship would result from a conjunction of three factors: firstly, the perceived need to eradicate once and for all the (albeit false) image of Peronist collectivist utopia after the failed experiment of the second Peronist régime and its aftermath (1973-76); secondly, and closely related to this, a ruthless neo-liberal backlash in the name of free-markets and economic deregulation by which the various ruling élites attempted to align themselves with the (for them) lucrative flows of multinational capital; and finally, the particular dynamics of international Cold War politics and the military’s paranoid self-styled rôle at the forefront of the Western World’s struggle against ‘international communist subversion’. The period of redemocratization, in which the films are set, is itself a contradictory moment of rekindled utopian joy and of a profound crisis of consciousness, a call to account for the social cost of that ‘Process’ (la deuda interna), in the midst of the compulsive drives of hyper-inflation, the social dissolution of mass unemployment, and the rescheduling of an unpayable foreign debt (la deuda externa).[8]  At the same time, Argentine culture begins a profound re-examination of the ideologies and promises of this delayed modernity, scanning the horizon for a flash of light, for some clue of its cultural co-ordinates and of the direction in which to proceed.

      But what of film’s own internal modernism? Walter Benjamin’s discussion of photography and film in his famous essay of 1936 attempts to work out the socially and historically differentiated relationship of these media to the changing mode of production within mass society. As forms which only exist in terms of mechanical reproduction, he saw photography and film as paradigmatic of the way in which mass-reproduced artefacts strip art of its ‘cult value’ or ‘aura’, displacing it by ‘exhibition value’.[9]  This can have a politically radical effect (demythification, popular access, etc.), but there is nothing intrinsic within the technologies guaranteeing that they will not be re-absorbed into the system of commodity-manufacture, which functions precisely by projecting the illusion of cult value into the commodity’s exhibition value. The function of any technology of reproduction is, then, socially and historically variable, and Benjamin illustrates this by showing how photography has functioned in radically different æsthetic modes throughout its short history. Early portrait photographs, for example, represent the last outpost of cult value, with the aura emanating ‘for the last time’ from the fleeting expression of a human face (p. 219). Such auratic photography would seem to be in technical opposition to the constellations of chance captured by the contemporary snapshot, whose contingency and unpredictability, Benjamin argues, emancipate the object from aura. Atget’s shots of empty city streets, of long rows of bootlasts, of the café tables after people have finished eating and left — photographs which concentrate on ‘what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift’ — are seen as object lessons in de-æsthetification. ‘Such pictures’, remarks Benjamin, ‘pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship’.[10]

      Yet for us these images of the flotsam and jetsam of the urban space, of its castaways and shipwrecks, are clearly now distanced and nostalgic, their monochrome greys washed out and fading, and this temporal fading gives them a curious kind of decaying aura. Benjamin himself claimed that the surrealists were the first to perceive ‘the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded”, in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, [ . . . ] fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them’, claiming that ‘they bring the immense forces of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion’.[11]  Such images, by liberating a revolutionary nihilism, mark out for us, even as they fade, the limits of a capitalist world system in crisis, the margins where its symbolic structures collapse in on themselves. We shall see how both of the Argentine films discussed here are able to draw on the atmospheric forces accumulated in an outmoded modernity in order to signal the critical limits of the territories staked out and absorbed by multinational capital.

      In the worldwide capitalist crises of the 1930s, Benjamin saw that still photography was at something of a crossroads, caught between cult aura, revolutionary nihilism, and the glossy surfaces of fashion. The moving images of film, however, were still new enough to retain a certain potential (though Hollywood was looming) to be the face of socialist technological utopia. The cine camera could delve into the political unconscious, into the very fabric of the material world, abolishing the distance of aura in its co-penetration of the technological and the real as effectively as a surgeon’s scalpel abolishes social distance and class in its penetration of the human body (`The Work of Art...', pp. 226-27). Yet in our postmodern age of television and video, film may well play a very different rôle, more akin to that which Benjamin identified for still photography.[12]  Not only is the moving picture of cinema itself already ageing and acquiring a cult æsthetic status, but it too may now be poised on the brink between, on the one hand, the shipwrecked meanings and drifting identities of a fading modernity, the nostalgic gaze at the last flickering images of a longed-for transcendence, and on the other, its full incorporation into the video, cable and satellite culture of postmodernity and the corresponding multinational phase of capitalist production. Tony Pinkney, stressing a slightly different yet complementary angle to film’s own ‘delayed modernism’, suggests that film outside Hollywood was itself forced to re-invent modernism as a strategy of resistance to its full absorption by U.S. corporate capital:

[A]s it moves into its own new technological phases of sound and colour, film takes a backward somersault behind Modernism, reinventing the latter’s own realist past so thoroughly in the Hollywood domination of the medium that after the Second World War a whole new brand of auteur Modernism has to seek all over again to return film ‘to itself’, to drag it back into that twentieth century whose very epitome it once was. (p. 15)

      In the Argentina of the late 1980s, the social imaginary is caught between the nostalgic desire for transcendence and salvation, and the catastrophic dissolution of a lost totality, cast adrift on the margins of a fading modernity. It is my contention that Argentina’s delayed modernity, which I described above, crosses with the delayed modernism of film in its resistance to the (in)corporations of the increasingly unaccountable flows of multinational capital, at the precise historical juncture in which Argentine culture is emerging from the social catastrophe which put a final, brutal end to all its messianic dreams, whether Peronist, socialist or nationalist. It is in this sense that these films represent the last snapshots of that sinking dream of modernity.

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2. The Table of Dreams and the ‘Proyecto Nacional Sur’

Sur is the story of a homecoming, telling of the long night of return of a political prisoner, Floreal, let out of gaol at the end of the military dictatorship in 1983. Before he can return, he has to come to terms with the way his life and those of the people around him, especially his wife Rosi, have changed over the intervening years. Many of his friends are dead; Rosi has had a desperate and lonely affair with another man; the meat-packing and refrigeration industry which he and his friends worked in has been decimated, and many are now unemployed. The film is mostly set in a bleak and nostalgic suburb of Buenos Aires, around the docks and meat-packing area, with deserted night-time streets draped with half-torn anti-régime banners, strewn with pieces of paper and leaflets blowing about in the wind like autumn leaves, as after an angry demonstration when all the people have left. The uninhabited, ‘haunted’ quality of the film (‘Este barrio está lleno de ausencias, lleno’, 0:10) might already be reminiscent of some peculiar Benjaminian mix between Atget’s photographs of empty city streets, likened to the scene of a crime (‘But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime?’),[13] and the surrealist perception of the revolutionary energies of the outmoded and abandoned. The film’s theme music is a series of nostalgic tangos of love, exile, and return.

      Floreal and Rosi’s ‘love story’ is told to the film-director (presumably Solanas, we only hear his voice), himself recently returned from exile, by his dead friend Ademar Martínez, ‘El Negro’, who has ‘reappeared’ so that he and the other ‘disappeared’ of Argentina’s dirty war might not be forgotten. From the very beginning of the recounting, El Negro makes explicit that the love story, like the tango, will serve as a paradigm for the mapping of a wider sociopolitical space, as an allegory of exile and return:

El Negro [voice-over to shot of empty street with swirling mist]: Así que vas a hacer una película de amor.
Solanas: ¿Qué decís? [ . . . ] Pero ¿de dónde lo sacaste?
El Negro: Vamos... Si de ida o de vuelta, nuestras historias eran siempre historias de amor.

(El Negro, being dead and omniscient, confounds any easy categorization of narrative boundaries: he provides much of the voice-over narration when it is required, and even appears to orchestrate the ‘telling’ of the film, as if he were himself functioning at the level of cinematic narrator, although the director occasionally intervenes to counterpoint this orchestration, problematizing the construction of extradiegetic or cinematic narration. Yet El Negro also acts on the level of character narration, both as heterodiegetic narrator, in that he recounts a story in which he has played no part (most of the important events occurred after his death), and as homodiegetic narrator, in that it is he (dead) who accompanies Floreal throughout his long night of return, helping him to come to terms with the changes around him, and telling him further stories about the other characters and events. El Negro is thus thoroughly ‘metadiegetic’, telling the overall story, telling the process of telling, sometimes orchestrating it, and acting in the story he is telling, both as the character whose death sparked off Floreal’s political involvement, and as the character who accompanies Floreal during the telling.)

      Kathleen Newman has pointed out that because this allegorical homecoming is figured in terms of the return to a woman, the anxieties of the return from exile are mapped onto anxieties about her infidelity, setting up a gendered allegory whose implications are hardly worked out within the film, and which is inevitably inscribed within the organization of shots, the implied (male) gaze, the superimposition of reflected images, etc.[14]  While I agree that the film’s use of gender is highly problematic, it should be stated that much space is given over to Rosi’s own analysis of her fears, of her desires and needs, and it is rather too easy to reduce the sensitive portrayal of her guilt-ridden relationship with the Frenchman Roberto, and her final ‘choosing’ of the Argentine Floreal, to the level of an allegory of the choosing of the homeland over the country of exile (i.e., France in the case of Solanas himself). This content is no-doubt inferred, but it is complicated by many factors, not least by the fact that Roberto himself is Corsican and in a form of exile from his homeland. Corsica is explicitly figured in the film as another representation of the ‘South’ in relation to France, its colonizing power, and Roberto cannot unproblematically be made to represent either France or ‘the North’ in general. I therefore want to suggest some other ways in which the film attempts to map the effect of macropolitical systems in terms of the personal and vice-versa.

      As just hinted at, the title of Sur itself implies a loosely defined geopolitical space, rather than a distinct national one. It is a space which can only be understood in opposition to an implied other space, el Norte (the North), yet at the same time it represents an ideational project, a place of yet-to-be-fulfilled desires and unrealized aspirations, what could have been and what has yet to come: ‘Sur, es el después, lo que está por venir’, says El Negro (0:04). The film is set against the backdrop of this ideational project which would appear to encapsulate a constellation of ideas, desires, and aspirations of the people of Argentina and of all those peoples and nations (principally those of the South) struggling to emerge from structures of domination.

      The project is allegorized in the film as PRONASUR, the ‘Proyecto Nacional Sur’, described by Emilio, one of its founders and researchers, as ‘un plan de transformación a largo alcance’ (0:25). Born through a meeting of committed minds, through engaged all-night discussion around the Table of Dreams, at the Café Sur whose dilapidated façade we glimpse near the beginning of the film (0:09), or in the abandoned buildings of the old National Railway Station in ‘Melancholy Street’, this project involves the recopilation of the political unconscious of the ‘South’ and its lost collective memory (‘la memoria del saqueo’, 0:25). It is no coincidence that some of the names associated with the ‘Table of Dreams’ are, precisely, those of high modernity in the Buenos Aires of the late 1920s and early ’30s, especially during the phase of increasing social and national concern: ‘Pruebas y documentos, que vengo juntando desde la época de FORJA. [ . . . ] Aquí amanecíamos discutiendo con Scalabrini Ortiz, Dellepiane, Jauretche, que una vez nos retrajo a Borges, y tantos otros. Eran los tiempos en que nació nuestra Mesa de los Sueños’. In its origins the project is, then, clearly caught up within the general problematic of the social and cultural modernity of the 1930s at a moment when it turns from its giddy cosmopolitanism and infatuation with the ‘new’ to the serious ideological task of constructing a nation outside of the confines of British economic imperialism, in accordance with an utterly transformed urban space and the shifting structures of geopolitical space.[15]  Encapsulating the desire for economic independence, nationhood, and autonomous control over the country’s destiny, the Proyecto Sur draws a line of descent from Radicalism, through Peronism, to the resistance to the military régime of the 1970s and ’80s as dramatized in this film, and in political terms represents a Utopian-rational attempt to mediate popular desire and institutional government. It is highly reminiscent of those aspects of Peronism during the 1940s which promoted workers’ rights, unionization, popular participation, income redistribution, and national control over the economy, as well as the Peronist notion of the ‘Third Position’ between capitalism and state socialism. Finally, as we shall see, it is reminiscent of Solanas’ own parallel project of ‘Third Cinema’ famously summed up in the 1969 essay ‘Towards a Third Cinema’.[16]

      Despite the series of military dictatorships which have put an end to such Utopian-rational desires (‘la utopía de los hombres libres del Sur’), Emilio and his group of nostalgic old compatriots refuse to abandon their auratic dream of the South as an autonomous space, that will one day be able to recover the wealth and the destiny which the North has stolen from it. Having hidden what he could save of the Proyecto Sur in the abandoned station, as a kind of secret archive, both a map of underdevelopment and a blueprint for action, Emilio has spent his remaining days nostalgically reworking the remembrance of loss in a Benjaminian attempt to turn auratic nostalgia and depressive nihilism into a messianic force for future change:

Algún día se realizará, sin nosotros, por cierto. Mirá, Floreal, cuando un país no realiza el deseo de su pueblo, con o sin dictadura, termina reprimiendo este deseo. [ . . . ] Cincuenta años de trabajo a las escondidas. [ . . . ] Te imaginás si se pudiera recuperar todo lo que el Norte se ha llevado del continente. Se podrían reconstruir varias patrias grandes. Ah, qué historia. (0:25)

It is no coincidence that the abandoned railway station had once been at the infrastructural hub of the British trading system in Argentina, and is now used by Emilio as a hideout for his project and for those escaping from police persecution. Humming the broken phrases of a tango expressing loneliness and loss, and gazing out of the window over the deserted docks which had once linked Buenos Aires to the entire Imperial trading system during the belle époque, Emilio invokes the ghostly after-image of those abandoned trading lines, the last traces of past economic colonization and its auratic and treacherous promise of economic greatness, forming something like a faint cognitive map of the interlocking lines of personal history and world history.

      One of the most symbolic episodes in the dream of political and cultural autonomy represented by the Proyecto Sur is the sequence recounting the visit by Emilio and the old colonel, Aníbal, to the institutional headquarters of what had been PRONASUR before the military coup. The building has been taken over by the military and is in the process of being ‘sanitized’ in a hilarious parody of the military’s bumbling, sledgehammer attempts to clean up Argentine culture and rid it of Peronist, socialist, anti-Catholic, immoral and ‘subversive’ thought. The ‘sanitization’ involves fumigating the whole edifice and ransacking the shelves of documents, books, films, etc., representative both of independent Argentine culture and political thought and also of Western culture as a whole, all of which were to contribute to the ‘master narrative’ of the Proyecto Sur. To shots of piles of books and papers with military staff rummaging through them, the titles of the books are read out and each one is followed by a chanting chorus of voices condemning it as ‘Peronist’, ‘socialist’, ‘Marxist’.The list is interesting not only because, in its arbitrary cate­gor­iza­tions, it shows up the irra­tional­ity of the mili­tary cen­sorship, but also because it tells us something about the Proyecto itself and its attempt to mediate historical identity, geopolitical aware­ness and class consciousness:Proyecto Sur: democracia social y participación: «Está en la lista». Sur y la integración de América Latina: «Está en la lista». Enciclope­dia ilustrada de Salvaat: «Marxista». El princi­pito de Saint-Exupéry: «Socialista». Política británica, Yrigoyen y Perón de Scalabrini Ortiz; El modelo argentino y la hora de los pueblos: «Sub­versivo». La Biblia Latinoameri­cana: «Disol­vente». Historia de la sexualidad de Foucault: «Inmoral». Paulo Freire, Anto­nio Gramsci, Sartre: «Peronistas» [ . . . ] (0:57) Amongst the books and documents, the ransackers discover some reels of film. One of the military men comically misreads the title of the film: ‘Coño. Aquí leo coño. La hora de los coños. Pero esto es pornográfico. PORNOGRÁFICO’ (58:16). The reference is of course to Fernando Solanas’ and Octavio Getino’s famous experimental film of 1968, La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces), produced under the auspices of the 1960s Cine Liberación group and often taken as a key example or inaugurating gesture of ‘Third Cinema’.[17]  This episode thus clearly aligns Solanas’ earlier work, on a ‘Third’ cultural alternative to commercial Hollywood cinema and European auteur art cinema, with the sociopolitical aims of the Proyecto Sur as it is portrayed in this film. I suggest that Sur both cancels and preserves the transformatory power of such totalizing projects (that of Peronist ‘Third’ rhetoric and militant ‘Third Cinema’ for example). Because the Proyecto is embedded within the film, and La hora de los hornos is embedded within the Proyecto, these schemes, including ‘film’ itself, become relativized images, discarded blueprints of what might have been, and so are associated with the overall decay of systematic (political) narratives.[18]  At the same time, the misrecognition of the political film as pornography calls attention to the precarious status of film as an æsthetic form in possible transit between two modes of functioning, caught, like photography in Benjamin’s day, between the subversive politics of revolutionary transcendence, and its utter political irrelevance at a future moment when ideology will no longer be thinkable, subsumed into the contradictions of an overcoding drive which rewrites all political thought in terms of the abject libidinal operations of an immense desiring machine directed precisely at the consumption of death and sexuality itself. Pornography, then, comes to stand as a comically and sadly apt symbol of this process of political extinction.

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3. The degradation of language and the search for the Word

Like Sur, Últimas imágenes del naufragio presents us with characters whose desire for transcendence and transformation is continually checked by dissipation and loss, by the dissolution of the social structures which give meaning to their existence. I shall argue that the ‘last images’ which the film attempts to give us are both a nostalgic glance over the shoulder at a fading modernist messianism, with its desire for ‘full meaning’, ‘salvation’, ‘the transcendental Word’, and at the same time, through the nihilism which they generate, a glance forwards towards the micronarratives of the familiar and the personal, towards the disappearance of the grands récits, and, perhaps paradoxically (or perhaps to give the film a happy ending), towards the making flesh of the modernist Word.

      Set in Buenos Aires towards or just after the end of the military dictatorship,[19] the film recounts the story of a frustrated novelist, Roberto, who works for his living as an insurance salesman. Roberto tells his own story, although the ‘telling’ is by no means unproblematic — indeed, the film continually projects the axis of plot (composition, symbolization) onto that of story, projects ‘writing’ onto the cinematic signified, and exploits the slippage between the two. The opening sequence of shots (close-up of grass, tilting to long shot of Roberto, cutting to close up of his head) occurs before the title and credits and serves to establish a narrative frame from within which Roberto narrates his story, thus in a sense ‘embedding’ the entire film. Roberto is sitting writing beneath a tree in an idyllic country setting, and, lifting his eyes from his papers, apparently addresses the viewer directly in the familiar second person, announcing that the narrative we are about to view is ‘his story’. The film thus from the outset calls attention to the late modernist auteur principal which it will subsequently problematize, and although we discover at the end of the film that this interpellation of the viewer is not quite what it seems, its effect is no less dramatic at the time. The picture cuts immediately to the opening credits, the title, and the establishing theme music.

      The opening shot of the narrative ‘proper’ (the embedded film) continues this literalizing of narrative process, showing a close-up of a blank sheet of paper in an old, Imperial-style typewriter. Several montage shots show the other items and furniture in the room, which also have a ‘dated’ feel about them, like some hangover of modernity: the obsolete gramophone set with its record going incessantly round and round in the last groove, the wireless, the tubular metal reading lamp, the wind-up alarm-clock with its harsh, short ringing, the old chunky taps in the kitchen. These are the flotsam and jetsam of a previous stage in capitalist development, the leftovers of heavy-industrial manufacture, as if washed up here on the shores of some place marooned in time.[20]  Roberto, slumped in a chair next to the typewriter, awakes from his own ‘modernist hangover’ — a night spent futilely trying to put words on a blank sheet of paper which he now crumples up and throws in the bin. We then see, in episodic sequence, various segments which indicate Roberto’s routine daily life, trapped in the cycle of ‘métro-boulot-dodo’, desperately snatching a few hours at nights to compose a ‘novel’ that would somehow transcend the routine of his life and save him from mediocrity. Condemned to remain on the sidelines of life, caught in a marginal and dated modernity, he sees himself and the whole society around him advancing passively like cattle towards the slaughterhouse.

      The following voice-over, with its startling insert-shot, occurs during an episode describing Roberto’s daily journey to work on the underground, first picturing him lined up with other grey-suited commuters on the platform, then sitting in the crowded carriage with other subdued-looking passangers, accompanied by ‘eerie’ tonal music:

¿Cuántos de nosotros seríamos los elegidos? ¿O los elegidos habrían sido apartados? Ahí sólo estaban los condenados ... a días grises ... a muertes insignificantes ... a velorios de barrio con parientes viejos y aburridos que nos cuentan desde hace tiempo nuestra muerte. ¿Dónde nos habíamos equivocado? ¿Dónde había estado la falla? ¿Cuántos en ese vagón sin embargo seguirían creyendo en la salvación? ... un billete de lotería, un gran robo, un invento genial. Cualquier cosa, Dios mío, menos esa mansedumbre con la que nos dejábamos llevar al matadero. [Surreal insert shot of underground carriage filled with seated people covered in plastic sheets like so many joints of meat] [ . . . ] Yo clamaba por la aparición de una palabra. Una sola palabra podría ser el comienzo de esa gran novela que me rescataría de una muerte tan segura, tan correcta. (0:04)

Although the shocking slaughterhouse image, underlined by the nightmare insert shot reminiscent of a surrealist painting, is meant to be suggestive of the alienating routine of lives reduced to cogs in an overarching socio-economic system, the implicit political content of the image cannot be ignored. For Argentinians, this image acts as a specifically coded cultural icon of political terror which dates back to Esteban Echeverría’s nineteenth century classic El matadero, in which Buenos Aires under Rosas is synecdochally figured as a slaughterhouse.[21]  Thus the reference can also be read in a deeper political and historical dimension, encompassing in one brief constellatory image the political terror which has always been the underside of Argentina’s insertion into the capitalist world system, or, put more brutally, the slaughtering of people which enabled the trade in slaughtered cattle. To ask the question ‘¿Dónde nos habíamos equivocado?’ in this context is to invoke the last fading images of the success and failure of a nation, of a continent, and of the social and political aspirations and desires of its peoples, just as surely as, in Sur, Emilio, looking out of the window in the abandoned train station, invokes an entire geopolitical history of overexploitation and underdevelopment.

      Roberto’s clamouring for the Word, ‘una sola palabra’, suggests an imaginary search for a transcendental signifier, for a sense of coherence and meaning which would act as a form of ‘salvation’ and spark off the writing of the novel, finally giving full expression to, and making whole, the shattered non-narratives of an alienated social existence. It is thus the personal equivalent, at the level of privatized experience, of PRONASUR, the collective but institutionalized socio-political project for transformation which we saw in Sur. Several commentators have suggested that when a film embeds images of other æsthetic modes or other media within its frame, it does so only to dramatize its superiority over them, ‘to set off and demonstrate film’s ontological primacy’.[22]  Rather than demonstrate primacy or superiority, I would suggest that other æsthetic modes or projects (and there is no reason not to include PRONASUR under such a label, as the attempt to compose a grand socio-cultural text) immediately become relativized once they are cited within a film, or in other words, they become citational images of themselves, simulations, or generic blueprints for an unconscious mapping of an unknowable, total symbolic system. As an æsthetic project, Roberto’s novel still clings to the unconscious ideology of the modernist æsthetic, its flight from an alienating commercial system into an imaginary order which would somehow jump beyond codified existence to achieve an unmediated encounter with the real in the transcendent Word. As such it is doomed to be dashed against the rocks of a newly emerging mode of social (dis)organization and global deterritorialization, and it is in the slippage between the longed-for, unifying æsthetic project and the dissolving moment of this social catastrophe, in the faint after-image still descernible in that gap, that something like a figuration of the political unconsciousDeleted text:, at the point of interface between under­develop­ment and over­develop­ment, begins to emerge.

      At the very moment that he is searching for his Word, despairing of ever finding it, Estela appears in his life like some re-incarnation of a modernist mistress, the inevitable Nadja or La Maga.[23]  He first sees her in the underground (subte), in what turns out to be a rehearsed suicide sequence, slowly advancing towards the platform edge with a mesmerized expression. Roberto falls into the trap and ‘rescues’ her. Estela, it later emerges, does this for a living, attracting clients (her ‘audience’) by exploiting male rescue fantasies (and I would add that, by analogy, this ‘performance of performance’ exploits the generic expectations and imaginary identifications of the cinema audience, since we too are taken in for exactly the same period of time as Roberto). He is fascinated by her for another reason, however, seeing her and her story as ideal subjects for his novel: `Yo supe desde el primer mo­mento que Estela era la portadora de una llave. No sabía entonces qué puerta iba a abrir, a dónde daría esa puerta, pero al menos en mi vida ese día había una puerta' (0:13). He offers to pay her for her story, and gradually becomes more and more involved in her life, visiting her family’s meagre home on the far-flung outskirts of Buenos Aires along the shores of the River Plate, to observe their poverty-stricken lives and provide more ‘material’ for his novel. He meets her brothers: Mario, who is building an aeroplane on the roof of the house, by which he imagines he will one day be able to escape from the prisonhouse of poverty and a collapsing social fabric;Deleted text: `Estamos condenados, Roberto, y yo quiero escaparme de la prisión. En lugar de hacer un túnel en la tierra, voy a hacer un túnel, pero en el cielo' (0:53) José, who practises hold-ups and petty thievery, and who will later ask Roberto to think up good ‘plots’ for his hold-ups; and Claudio, who spends his life growing pumpkins, trying to poison his mother with slug poison, and, most curiously of all, is gradually deleting words which he will never use again from his vocabulary, crossing them out on his bedroom wall:

Claudio: Voy dejando ... lugares libres en mi cabeza para ... llenarlos con cosas nuevas.
Roberto: Si seguís tachando palabras un día te vas a quedar mudo.
Claudio: Ese día no necesitaré hablar.

This loss and degeneration of language becomes an allegory for a generalized loss of social and narrative cohesion, directly linked, as we shall see, to a series of psychic prohibitions which extend from the break-up of the family, through economic degradation, to the repressions of the despotic military machine.

      Roberto’s fiction becomes inextricably mixed up with these strange characters’ lives, and their shipwrecked lives with his fiction, yet he desperately tries to keep a hold on the increasingly untenable limits between the two: ‘Todavía creía que para eso bastaría con escribirlos, con encerrarlos en una novela’ (0:27). It is as if, clinging to the modernist belief in the autonomy of the æsthetic, its status as the only place in which one can free oneself from the means-ends rationality of codified social existence, he is resisting the breaching of the confines of that autonomous sphere, unable to relinquish control over a representational system which ultimately depends on the dominant rational order for its licence to ‘play’, while the values of his own bourgeois morality are increasingly called into question (particularly by José). Ostensibly, Roberto is using these characters’ lives as material for his novel, paying Estela for her services, in a traditional one-way, mimetic process of art feeding upon life. But the tables soon turn, and Claudio proposes this comical but disturbing reversal of the situation, in a modernist nightmare worthy of Unamuno or Pirandello:

Claudio: Yo pensé ... Ud es un escritor ... Quizá ... pudiera conseguir para nosotros otra vida ... Alguien de afuera, inteligente ... de pronto puede darse ... lo que pasa y puede decirnos qué podemos hacer.
Roberto: ¿Vos qué querés Claudio?
C: Colaborar con Ud, ayudarle a escribir esa novela. Y quiero pagarle.
R: ¿Pagarme, para qué?
C: Para que nos escriba episodios.
R: ¿Qué?
C: Ud puede indicarnos la ... Ud puede llevarnos hacia el final de esa novela que quiere escribir.C: Pensaba pagarle ...

At this point the writer comes up against the futility of the æsthetic project, and the external limits at which it is forced to think its own contradictions, as Adorno might have put it. All of the characters are in some sense in search of an ‘Author’, someone who can give meaning to their drifting lives, who can tell them where they went wrong, what they can do to put it right. Yet Roberto is unable to be the ‘God’ who would provide a coherent narrative for these fragments, or rather he is unable to accept the ethical responsibilities with which his æsthetic project has unwittingly become entangled. Looking for the transcendent Word, he comes up short against the shattering of the social text, and finds that his words provide no meaningful cover concept, no standpoint from which to organize these dissolving social units. There is a fundamental discontinuity between Roberto’s æsthetic aims — to write a coherent narrative for his textual characters — and the aimlessness of the social text in which no such coherent narrative is possible, in which even ‘God’ has lost any credibility as author.

      In this fundamental discontinuity between the æsthetic and the social, is it possible to glimpse something of the social determinants of this collapse of meaning and narrative, of the catastrophe which has shipwrecked a whole society? The systematic deprival of systemicity, the ‘conspiracy’ behind the breakdown in plot, to use Jameson’s term, cannot of course be symbolized from within, but like the Lacanian Other, can perhaps be glimpsed only in the gaps and discontinuities which open up in the symbolic system of representation. It is in this sense that Claudio’s loss of language, which deteriorates as the film progresses, must be read as the counterpoint to the film’s narrative process. The yawning gaps which open up in his speech give us a clue as to the double wave of repression which lies behind the death of narrative itself: the first wave which produces symbolicity, and the second which cancels its use. This theme, which is also hinted at in Sur in the embedded black-and-white filmlet of the ‘Stutterer’, but with a different conclusion as we shall see, gives us an image of the psychic effects of the military censorship and, more importantly, allows us to mediate between the æsthetic and the political. In fact, the only scene in the film which refers explicitly to the military régime takes place in a bookshop as Roberto and Claudio distractedly look over the titles of the books and Roberto questions Claudio about his past, as if subliminally mapping the very limits of ‘text’. Claudio had been a philosophy student, and had to abandon his studies in 1977, a year after the coup. He managed to escape persecution by a technique of outward obedience and internalized repression:

C: La única técnica de supervivencia que siempre he conocido es la cobardía... De modo que no tuve problemas de ... Una vez me llevaron preso. Me cortaron el pelo, me decían que era un putito. Pero como yo acepté todo sin ..., por lo menos no me ... de subversivo... Mamá siempre ... razón. No había que pensar cosas raras. No había que pensar. Había que ser calladito, educadito, pelo corto a la gomina.
R: Como ahora.
C: Ahora me gusta.
R: Decime, Claudio. Aparte de tachar palabras, ¿qué hacés durante el día?
C: Cultivo zapallos.

The phrase ‘ahora me gusta’, referring to the way he now wears his hair, suggests with chilling simplicity how efficiently all signifiers of independent thought have been psychically erased, in direct parallel to Claudio’s deleting of words from his vocabulary. This is not to say that the repressions of the military régime are the ‘final signified’ of these absent or erased signifiers, for they are themselves only symptoms in which can be glimpsed a wider geopolitical system that will not allow itself to be ‘thought’ as such (‘no había que pensar’).

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4. Tangos, photography, and film

Both films use the tango as a cultural icon, which may hardly seem surprising given that its association with Argentina is almost automatic, and that it is a theme which Solanas had already explored at length in his previous feature made in exile in Paris: Tangos/El exilio de Gardel (1985). The tango provides one method of iconizing the personal in terms of the national and the national in terms of the personal. Moreover, in its lyrics, it unceasingly maps its personal themes — unrequited love, departure, the loss of love or youth — onto the fading street plan of the city barrio which represents ‘home’, as in the following lines of street verse which are incantated, rather than sung, before the final tango in Sur:

Mi barrio era así, así, así...
Es decir, qué sé yo si era así...
Alguien dijo una vez
que yo me fui de mi barrio.
¿Cuándo, pero cuándo?
Si siempre estoy llegando.
Y si una vez me olvidé,
las estrellas de la esquina
de la casa de mi vieja,
titilando como si fueran
manos amigas, me dijeron,
«Gordo, Gordo, quedate aquí»  (1:48)

Identification with the tango is in itself an archetypal process of cognitive mapping by which people process ‘raw’ experience and symbolize their own lives in relation to the shifting social structures of the city. Its scene is, more often than not, the suburban margins where the interplay between city and country is at its most disorientating. Moreover, the urban and suburban space of Buenos Aires itself becomes a nodal point linking the national and the geopolitical, having historically looked as much, if not more, towards Europe as towards the distant interior of the country (which nevertheless remains as an omnipresent and worrying internal frontier). The city, taken as a sort of symbolic mind map, can thus chart not only the shifting social structures of urban and suburban space but also its point of interface with a wider world system of migrating populations, where the barrio is only a displaced home pointing inexorably towards another lost place of origin (Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe...).[24]

      The tango is also a dated æsthetic form, outmoded and thoroughly nostalgic, and its use in Sur, like so many other aspects of the film, brings with it something of that revolutionary nihilism which, for Benjamin, is stirred up ‘on mournful railway journeys (railways are beginning to age), on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment’ (‘Surrealism’, p. 229). In Sur it is Rosi’s aged father, Amado, and his ‘dead’ friend El Gordo, the accordionist, who provide the tango music that pervades the film from beginning to end. The tangos are contrasted only with a snatch of merengue, one cumbia, a light-hearted milonga, and a scene with a youth rock band (‘Marcelo y sus Raviolis’), providing a moment’s liberation from the constant dwelling on past, memory, absence, and marking the point in the film at which Rosi begins to rediscover her own repressed desires. But the film is otherwise dominated by the tango: it is performed in the street, in the proletarian barrio south of Barracas, or in and around the abandoned railway station; it is provided as background to the short love-affair between Floreal and ‘María’ (herself confused with the character in the tango), counterpointed by tearful glances through rain-blurred windows of buses and trains; it accompanies María’s melancholy truck-journey (‘más triste que guitarra sin cuerda’) on the endless road down ‘South’ to Patagonia and her longed-for new life... (‘Quería venir al Sur. Poder encontrar un lugar donde la vida, el deseo fueran posibles...’, 0:48); and it occurs in countless other instances as a nostalgic counterpoint to the lonely walk through suburban streets in remembrance of a lost past... 

Sur, paredor y después,
Sur... una luz de almacén.
Ya nunca me verás como me vieras
recostado en la vidriera
esperándote... Y ya nunca
alumbraré con las estrellas
nuestras marchas sin querellas
por las calles de Pompeya.
Las calles, y las lunas suburbanas
y mi amor, y tu ventana
todo muerto, ya lo sé...  
(0:02, 1:18)

       In Últimas imágenes del naufragio, the tango makes a much briefer, but highly significant appearance. Much of the theme music is classical (Verdi, Bach), with the aria ‘Ah, si, bien mío’ from Il Trovatore used to counterpoint the grafted Italian signified of much of the popular Argentine way of life — mostly the eating of pizza and raviolis, but also the prevalence of Italian names, etc. The classical music would appear to fill and ennoble the modest rituals of the characters’ lives with a sense of history and lineage just at the moment when they seem to be emptied out of all substance, of any meaningful place in the social system; yet at the same time this is mostly an extradiegetic interpretation, or at best possibly an ‘authorial’ intervention, since it is made clear that Verdi is what Roberto (the pseudo author) listens to on his old gramophone. Beautiful and ennobling as such passages are (Roberto’s subsequent encounters with Estela in the subte, the family ritual of raviolis on Sunday), we cannot fail to notice the extent to which they are mediated through a high-cultural æsthetic and are hence part of the auteurist problematic of cultural autonomy and social transformation which the film addresses.

      This question is raised explicitly in the one scene in the film that uses the tango and associated dance — the spontaneous celebration that Roberto observes when José comes home with champagne having won a bet at the betting office. Claudio tunes in the radio and, with Roberto looking on, the family dances outside the house (with several shots in slow motion) to a creaky old musical tango, ‘Organito de la tarde’, reminiscent of the earliest instrumental recordings, and vertiginously whirling us back to the lost origins of mechanical reproduction, that very process that abolishes all origins. As we view the scene, in turn, from the interior of the house, framed by the doorway, from the pumpkin patch, from a vantage point looking down onto the house and out over the wasteland at the furthest limits where city meets country, and finally set against the intense colours of the darkening sky at sunset, we hear the following voice-over from Roberto:

¿Qué hacía yo ahí? ¿Cómo habían llegado a mezclarse nuestras vidas? En todo caso, ahí estaban ellos, conmigo, en la misma película. Yo sentía que todos éramos eso, los personajes en una película que alguien estaba mirando. Pero ¿quién estaría mirándonos? Quizás nadie. La luz se iba a apagar un día, tanto para ellos como para mí, posiblemente sin llegar a saber por qué habíamos estado allí, por qué habíamos dejado que nos maltrataran, por qué habíamos aceptado no ser felices. (1:18)

Although authorially mediated, through its very self-consciousness this scene holds in tense juxtaposition many of the underlying processes which I have attempted to weave together in this article: the sense of being at the final limits of some irreversible transition, viewing the ‘last images’ of some epoch as if already frozen forever in time; the constellation of auratic identity and catastrophic loss of identity which inheres in the outmoded, in the creaky tango, the past mechanically reproduced, crackling across the wireless perhaps as a warning to the future; and finally the obscure attempt at cognitive mapping, the desire to understand how and where and why, in what sense and of what these lives are pure representation, and yours too, viewer, reader, if you ‘are’ at all. The tango, the wireless, the sunset, the film, force these questions, propel us to think through and beyond the local, to ask by what kind of representation we can chart our lives, in the name of what ungraspable Other they might signify. Above all it asks us at the expense of what suffering we can afford to ignore these dark connections, never to ask ourselves why we put up with human suffering, why we accept the misery of poverty and hunger, why we turn a blind eye to the torture of our fellow human beings.

      Sur uses a black-and-white film insert, accompanied by the ‘milonga del tartamudo’, to dramatize the relationship between language, representation, popular culture and the political unconscious. Although a stutterer, with his language in a sense psychically censored, the Tartamudo, and by implication all those who struggled to create a system of popular representation and participation in the early years of the twentieth century in Argentina, always knew when to say No. Floreal remembers his father, too, who at great personal cost also said No to those who attempted to buy out the union movement (which Floreal had later refused to participate in, until El Negro’s murder). In fact, Solanas has claimed that the film Sur is ‘a homage to all those who, like my character the stutterer, knew how to say no. They were the ones who maintained their dignity. They said no to injustice, oppression, the surrender of the country’ (cited in Newman, p. 181, translation modified). The black-and-white images of the insert film, tinted with age, and the distant jangling of the cowbells from the cattle which the Stutterer released in his act of defiance, haunt the present of the film we are watching like an unconscious subtext. The cowbells in particular are heard at a couple of nostalgic moments, when Rosi imagines her re-encounter with Floreal, before it is revealed that the bells are a haunting reminder of popular resistance, so that once more the love story is subtly mapped onto the political unconscious which the film attempts to figure.

      The black-and-white silent film at once highlights the filmic, and its running at the wrong speed, typical of the attempt to show early snatches of film on modern equipment, suggests precisely the mechanical medium, the ‘apparatus’ of film, just as the stuttering suggests the effort required to translate political thought into discourse. The residue left by the slippage of the mechanics of speech, film and song, points us, then, to something other than Benjamin’s ‘unconsciously penetrated space’ by which film, through the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, supposedly gives us an equipment-free aspect of the real (‘The Work of Art...’, pp. 227, 230). Instead, it suggests that there are gaps and silences which film can never fully reproduce and represent, no matter how permeated by a probing equipment which is all too easily placed at the service of torturers. By scanning the film for those gaps, it becomes possible to discern inhering within them a ‘No’ which could counter the inaugurating and prohibiting ‘Non’ of the social symbolic and its violent extension in military law. The film can only point to the necessary effort to think through these gaps in representation, the impossible attempt to trace out the incomplete and unrepresentable blueprint which they would form could they but be linked together.

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5. The Great Battle Against Death

Wandering around the streets of Barracas al Sur with El Negro, Floreal bumps into an abandoned tank. ‘Un tanque,’ explains El Negro, ‘un tanque urbano. Pos-moderno’ (0:34). This ‘postmodern’ neighbourhood tank makes a series of strange noises and from time to time reels off a set of automatic phrases in a smooth-talking female voice:

Comunicado Número Uno: Vecinos, el Enemigo está infiltrado en todas partes. Desconfíe. No exponga la seguridad de los suyos. Denuncie a su tanque amigo cualquier anormalidad. ‘Proteger es querer.’ [ . . . ] ‘Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos.’ ‘Por favor, circulen.[25]

If one of the characteristics of the postmodern is the compulsive repetition of set formulæ, preconsumed stereotypes, and the pastiche quotation of commodified and æstheticized social relations, then one might provisionally say that the citation of the rhetoric of military dictatorship in this film has a postmodern veneer. But the incongruity of a postmodern tank also brings to the fore the necessarily tangential relationship to First World postmodernism of a film which is forced to contend with a mode of functioning of power of which such postmodernity has no direct experience and which it seeks to render impossible even to acknowledge: a form of power which is systematic and brutal in its application of repression even as it embraces the diffuse, decentered, libidinal operations of that ‘immense desiring machine’ of multinational capital and its psychopolitical micro-networks of social control. A run-down tank, uttering mechanically reproduced clichés, thus serves as an apt symbol of a society caught in a state of confused transition between the recoding author(itarian)ism of modernity and the decoding dissipation of the political narrative of postmodernity.

      Two sequences from Últimas imágenes del naufragio serve to underline this dialectic of the recoding and decoding of social narrative. The first consists of a couple of scenes in a church which Estela visits, partly in desperation over her relationship with Roberto. There she regularly meets a Christ figure, sitting in the pews in the darkness and dressed in his loin cloth and crown of thorns, to whom she brings food. On the second occasion, he has asked her to bring him clothes:

Estela: ¿Para qué es?
Cristo: Me voy.
E: ¿A dónde?
C [adopting position of crucifix]: No sé. A estar con la gente. Estoy muy cansado. No aguanto más, Estelita. Tengo que soportar que quienes agarraron la carne de sus semejantes pretiéndanme perdón. Y tengo que estar ahí, mirándolos de la misma manera en que te miro a vos. Y tengo que sentir amor... por quienes condenan a sus hermanos a la miseria, al dolor. No doy más. (1:22)

This doubly coded dissolution of Christian narrative and dissemination of Christ himself amongst ‘the people’ is typical of the way in which this film positions itself at some midway point between the yearning for transcendence and the realization that ‘transcendence’ itself is part of the problem. The Christian narrative is caught in a double bind: it can no longer function in the very mode of forgiveness which defines it as Christian. Christ himself is confused and tired, unable to regard with ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ those who have torn apart human flesh, so horrendous are the crimes that have been committed in the name of ‘Western Christian values’ by those who kneel at his altar. Christ’s dressing in mortal clothes and abandoning the church can either be seen as a return to the origins of Christianity in the ordinary people, the poor, the needy, or it can be seen as a sign of the failure of the Christian Word to signify in the face of torture, rape and murder, the collapse of its social narrative in the face of a world system which it can no longer comprehend. It is therefore no surprise that immediately following on from this scene of the dissolution of Christian narrative is the sequence in which the metaphor of the shipwreck reaches its most poignant moment. This consists of a dream-like insert sequence (immediately following a shot of Roberto in the subte looking at a newspaper headline about floods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires) showing Estela and Claudio huddled together in bed, and the mother on her armchair, amidst a great sheet of water lapping around them, as if floating out to sea. Estela had already told Roberto of these regular floods, but this is now combined with the image of the shipwreck to provide a brilliant and powerful literalization of the metaphor of social dissolution which has been so carefully prepared throughout the film.[26]

      The second, related, sequence involves José’s final Great Battle Against Death which he announces to Roberto, significantly, in a video games arcade. The overtly postmodern setting, with the machines’ computer-generated musical jingles and the garishly coloured video screens, acts as a counterfoil to José’s final and desperate attempt to get ‘God’ to answer for ‘His’ creation by carrying out an armed robbery in a funeral parlour, like some last-ditch attempt to revive modernity’s fading quest for transcendental meanings and coherent narratives. Roberto had earlier been persuaded to write ‘scripts’ for José’s hold-ups, in a vertiginous confusion of text and life, and in each story, we are told, José had been desperate to know on whose side ‘God’ would have been. Now he has gone too far and killed a man, and Estela, in a rage, demands Roberto to account for the moral responsibility of his reduction of their lives to that of paper characters in a novel (1:39). Estela’s attempt to get the Author to answer for his actions, to recognize his own complicity, is directly paralleled in José’s attempt to get ‘God’ to take note of him and to account for the meaninglessness of their lives:

José: Iba a darte otra idea para tu novela. Voy a dar un gran golpe. [ . . . ] Una funeraria. Anotá, mirá qué título: «La gran batalla final contra la muerte». [ . . . ] Va a ser un golpe genial. Un asalto a metros de Dios. En la oficina de su secretaria. Va a oírnos, Roberto. Si existe, voy a estar tan cerca de él, que va a tener que oírnos. (1:42)

To the music of Bach’s Passion According to St Matthew, we watch as José and his accomplices are embroiled in a police trap, like in some gangster movie, and we later learn that they are shot dead in cold blood. The modernist quest initiated by Roberto has turned sour; God’s answer to this futile quest for significance has been the final negating absence of death.

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6. Conclusion

Both Sur and Últimas imágenes del naufragio are clearly caught up in a nostalgic, backward-looking gaze at the narratives of the past, scanning them for some hint of a potential difference which might generate a flash of light capable of illuminating the future. The need to understand what had led the Argentinians into the crisis of the bloody military dictatorship, to understand that long process of decline from the hayday of the 1920s with its giddy modernity, through the grand narratives of social organization of nationalism, Peronism and socialism, to the social and economic collapse of the 1980s, and the desire to know what to do in order to rebuild a future community, lie behind the interwoven themes of these films and their different narrative impulses. ‘El error, durante todo ese tiempo’, says Roberto in the last words of the film, ‘fue buscar la gran salvación. No existe. No existen las grandes salvaciones. Algún día lo sabrás. Quizá, si existe alguna, sólo se trate de pequeñas salvaciones, como vos, o como tu madre [ . . . ]’ (1:58). As he says these words, the camera zooms out to reveal that he is talking to his baby in the idyllic country setting of the film’s opening sequence. Although the film provides no ‘solution’, it clearly signals that the mistakes of the past were bound up with the search for transcendental social narratives, and, while signalling the end of metanarrative which we are told is a characteristic of postmodernity, it concretizes its image of future community in the body of a child. Sur, similarly, allegorizes the end of the long, backward-looking night of anguish, its preoccupation with the past, in terms of the return ‘home’, to Rosi, to the ‘South’, and emphasizes this in the words of its last tango, over which the credits roll:

Vuelvo al Sur,
como se vuelve siempre al amor...
Vuelvo a vos,
con mi deseo, con mi temor.
 . . . ]
Sueño el Sur,
inmensa luna, cielo al revés.
Busco el Sur,
el tiempo abierto y su después.
Quiero al Sur,
su buena gente, su dignidad.
Siento el Sur,
como tu cuerpo, en la intimidad... 

Sur seems less self-conscious of the problems raised by this conflation of the South and its destiny with the woman’s body, than does Últimas imágenes... in its similar return to the ‘human family’. The last images of that film show Roberto walking back across the pumpkin fields as evening draws near with his son strapped into a rucksack on his back, and as he talks to him of Paradise and the Fall, it is impossible not to notice that the baby’s arms are spread in the form of a cross. The same grand narratives persist, and the film knows it, in the micronarratives of the personal and the familiar. Nevertheless, both films perhaps stand as the last snapshots of an era which believed in them a little too much.

      Do the endings of these films represent a capitulation to depoliticization, a retreat into ‘family and home’ at a moment when multinational capital announces the death of ideology and sets the limits of the knowable community at the nuclear family itself? Yes and no. Perhaps due to commercial pressures, few films — and few articles — can resist the ‘sense of an ending’, the temptation to close and repeat the only allowable narrative closure. Moreover, both films inevitably comply with catharsis, with the need to examine, and then to close, a horrendous chapter in Argentine history. That they bow to this pressure is almost inevitable, maybe even necessary. Read another way, however, the films leave off where the future begins, consciously placing themselves at a point of juncture where past and present constellate in the domain of future possibility. By mapping out those constellations, they demand a future no longer tied to the repressions and silences of the past.


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Footnotes to Article ‘The Last Snapshots of Modernity’:

[1] In conversation with Edward Said, ‘Media, Margins and Modernity’ (1986), The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, ed. Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989) pp. 177-97 (p. 185).

[2] The term ‘structure of feeling’ is taken from Raymond Williams, and I use it deliberately to designate a non-homogenous complex of emerging cultural, social and political formations which feed upon and interact with each other. See, for example, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977) pp. 128-35.

[3] Pinkney, ‘Modernism and Cultural Theory’, editor’s introduction to Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism, pp. 1-29 (p. 3).

[4] Jameson, The Geopolitical Æsthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (London: British Film Institute, 1992) p. 3 et passim. The concept of cognitive mapping is in fact adapted from the geographer Kevin Lynch.

[5]Sur (Buenos Aires: Cinesur Argentina, Pacific Productions and Canal Plus France) 115 mins; Últimas imágenes del naufragio (Buenos Aires: Cinequanon Argentina and TVE Televisión Española) 120 mins.

[6] For a detailed account see Beatriz Sarlo’s illuminating study of the Argentine experience of modernity, Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930, Colección Cultura y Sociedad (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Nueva Visión, 1988), which has been invaluable to the development of my argument.

[7] Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, New Accents (London: Routledge, 1989) pp. 12, 24.

[8] La deuda interna (renamed Verónico Cruz) was the title of a film by Miguel Pereira (1987) following the life of a peasant boy from Tucumán through to his death on board the General Belgrano, sunk by British submarine fire during the Malvinas/Falklands war.

[9] ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973; repr. 1992) pp. 211-44 (p. 219).

[10] ‘A Small History of Photography’, One Way Street, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1985) pp. 240-57 (p. 250).

[11] ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929), in One Way Street, pp. 225-39 (p. 229).

[12] See Jameson (pp. 140-43) for further discussion of this point.

[13] Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’ (p. 256).

[14] Newman, ‘Cultural Redemocratization: Argentina, 1978-89’, in George Yúdice, Jean Franco, and Juan Flores, eds., On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture, Cultural Politics, 4 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) pp. 161-85.

[15] This intellectual impulse was of course closely tied in to the political movement of Radicalism and was accentuated in response to the military coup against Hipólito Yrigoyen and his Radical government in 1930. For a full account, see Sarlo (pp. 206-46), where she also discusses the essayistic and narrative work of Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, the Gauchesque poems of Arturo Jauretche, and the publications of FORJA, as well as a political article by Luis Dellepiane, in relation to what she terms the ‘historical imagination’, which is analagous to Fredric Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’ and Raymond Williams’ ‘construction of a knowable community’.

[16] Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, reprinted in Michael Chanan, ed., Twenty Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema (London: British Film Institute and Channel Four, 1983).

[17] For an account of this, see John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America, Critical Studies in Latin American Culture, 4 (London: Verso, 1990) pp. 86-88.

[18] This also helps to explain why Sur itself is so distanced from Solanas’ earlier work with Cine Liberación, much more æstheticized in terms of its composition of shots, its exquisite photography, and its concentration on personal stories at their point of intersection with wider socio-political narratives.

[19] The action of the film cannot be dated precisely, but the inclusion of a scene in a cinema where the film Tiempo de revancha (Adolfo Aristarain) is being shown places the action post 1981 (the date of the first showing of the film), and more probably a little later while the régime was crumbling.

[20] It could be objected that this point of view might not be shared by the average Argentine spectator, or that within the context of the film there is nothing unusual about these objects. A ‘postmodern’ environment is however evoked, in a scene set in a computer games arcade, which I shall discuss later, and a comparison with other films over the period, such as La historia oficial (Luis Puenzo, 1986), with its contemporary bourgeois apartments and hi-tech toys, or La amiga (Jeanine Meerapfel, 1989), suggest that the dating effect is deliberate.

[21] First published 1871. For a modern edition, see El matadero; La cautiva, ed. Leonor Fleming, Letras Hispánicas (Madrid: Cátedra, 1986) pp. 89-114.

[22] See, for example, Jameson (pp. 62, 76, 84n19), who claims that this notion derives from the work of Miriam Hansen.

[23] Nadja, from André Breton’s novel of the same name (1928), and La Maga, the Argentine/Uruguayan version of Nadja, from Julio Cortázar’s novel Rayuela (1963).

[24] See Sarlo’s discussion of the rôle of the tango in the literature of the 1920s in the construction of an imaginary ‘scene’ at the margins between the city and the country (la orilla, el suburbio, pp. 179-205).

[25] The expression ‘Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos’ was a cynical slogan invented by the Régime’s propagandists at the time of Amnesty International’s visit to Argentina to investigate the human rights abuses of the régime.

[26] The image has proved to be very forceful indeed, so much so that Solanas, in his most recent film, El viaje (shown in the Fourth London Latin American Film Festival, September 1993), has a long, rather laboured sequence in which the whole of Buenos Aires is shown submerged in water, soaking in its own sewage, while the President wears flippers and gives vacuous speeches about economic recovery. The political potential of the image is unfortunately neutralized by heavy-handed farce.