The Man Who Wasn’t There (Post Mortem)

Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010) is a grimly fascinating Chilean drama set during the early days of the Pinochet regime. Lacking the black humor of Larraín’s brilliant Tony Manero (2008), the film is about a morgue functionary in Santiago who scarcely seems more alive than the bodies that begin piling up at the hospital following the military coup on September 11, 1973. The miracle of the film is that something so compelling could be made from such bleak material.

The central character, Mario (Alfredo Castro), inhabits a life without purpose or joy; he’s just going through the motions. He has an undemanding job taking notes during autopsies, and lives alone. He has no family, no close friends, no hobbies or interests. His favorite meal is a fried egg on white rice. At the office, his colleagues sometimes discuss politics, but Mario has no political convictions either way. The film doesn’t tell us what happened to Mario to make him this way (indeed, it doesn’t give him any backstory whatsoever), but finds him already locked into a set pattern of behavior and incapable of change.

In the first sequence, Mario sees his neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), leaving her house and follows her to the cabaret where she works as a dancer. After buying a ticket for the show, Mario sneaks backstage in time to witness Nancy getting fired for having lost too much weight, and strikes up a friendship with her then and there. Although Nancy already has a boyfriend—a passionate communist who sometimes holds political meetings at her house—Mario remains willfully oblivious to this fact. One evening, Nancy comes over to visit and Mario makes her a fried egg on rice. Sitting at the table, Nancy begins to weep uncontrollably, and then so does Mario. But is this a genuine expression of despair, or is he simply going with the flow?

As in Tony Manero, Larraín considers the brutality unleashed by the Pinochet regime from the vantage point of some one who’s strangely apathetic to it. Even when Mario discovers that Nancy’s home has been raided by the military and the morgue is suddenly filled with bodies, he scarcely seems to notice the difference. In the film’s most political scene, Larraín endorses the controversial theory that Allende was assassinated, although that’s of little concern to Mario.

Shooting for the first time in ‘Scope, Larraín largely abandons the grainy, handheld style of Tony Manero in favor of symmetrical, planimetric compositions that underline the drab monotony of Mario’s existence. The settings are uniformly anemic-looking, and Mario often wears pale, Mr. Rogers-style sweaters that blend in with the background rather than standing out. At the center of everything is Castro’s performance, which is weirdly virtuosic in its singular lack of charisma. Although he appears in every scene, you almost don’t notice him.

Larraín and his writing partner, Mateo Iribarren, have a strong instinct for how much information to reveal to the audience and when. Early in the film, Mario and Nancy are driving around in his car when they find their way blocked by a political demonstration. Among the protestors happens to be Nancy’s boyfriend, who casually walks off with her. The next time we see Nancy, Mario’s colleagues are performing an autopsy on her. A few scenes later, Mario goes over to Nancy’s house and asks to see her, but the boyfriend says that she isn’t feeling well. It’s only when Nancy turns up at Mario’s door, miraculously resurrected, that we realize what we’re seeing is a flashback. (Larraín doesn’t use any stylistic devices, such as title cards or fades, to signal jumps back and forth in time.) By skipping ahead to Nancy’s death and then flipping back to the events leading up to it, Larraín not only gives us a little surprise, but also generates a sense of mystery about how she died.

This is only Larraín’s third feature yet he’s already well on his way towards creating a distinctive body of work. In Tony Manero and now this film, he peers into the abyss of human despair and emptiness. Indeed, if I have a slight criticism of Post Mortem, it’s that the film is a little too similar to Larraín’s previous movie. (I haven’t seen—and know almost nothing about—his first film, Fuga [2006].) Nevertheless, Larraín’s grasp of the medium and his seriousness in confronting the horrors of the Pinochet regime both command respect. This may not be an easy film to watch given the unrelieved grimness of the subject matter and mise en scène, but it’s clearly an important one.


A Kiss Is Just a Kiss (Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy)

Do movies have an unconscious? Martin Arnold’s Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) is an example of how a film’s style and associational form can create new implicit meanings from preexisting footage. Beginning with a series of innocuous small town comedies, Arnold cues the viewer to interpret them as Freudian parables. (Do I need to tell you he’s Austrian?)

MGM produced fifteen Andy Hardy films between 1937 and 1946 (plus one more in 1958), but I haven’t seen any of them, so I couldn’t tell you if the clips Arnold uses all come from the same movie. According to Wikipedia, “A typical plot involved Andy getting into minor trouble with money or girls, usually because of youthful selfishness and a slight willingness to fudge the truth. But after a ‘man-to-man’ talk with his father, Andy would listen to his own better nature and do the right thing, ensuring a happy ending.” Andy was played by Mickey Rooney in all sixteen films, and in three of these–Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941)–he was paired with Judy Garland as an aspiring singer named Betsy Booth.

At the macro level, Arnold gives new meanings to the clips by wrenching them out of their narrative contexts. The movie begins with Andy kissing his mother tenderly, and then abruptly cuts to him being slapped by his father, who growls, “Shut up!” Without a clear causal link between the two events, the viewer is forced to come up with an interpretation to bridge the gap between them–for instance, that the father’s violent rage at Andy represents the resolution of the Oedipal stage, with the boy submitting to the authority of The Father. (When slapped, Andy doesn’t argue but immediately accepts defeat, saying “Alright… Dad,” although there’s something vaguely defiant about his calm obedience.)

The next sequence shows Betsy singing longingly of love (“On a night that was meant for love / There must be some one waiting who feels the way I do”). This is followed by a scene in which Andy, dressed to the hilt in a swell tuxedo, takes leave of his mother. “Where are you going, son?” asks the mother, sounding like a jealous lover. “You know where I’m going,” he replies coyly. (Part of the fun here is wondering how this dialogue played in its original context, and indeed, what that context might’ve been.) Of course, where he’s going is to see Betsy, and in the following clip, she finishes her song just as Andy is about to walk through the door. Betsy’s astonishment at Andy’s appearance (“Andy, you look beautiful!”) is juxtaposed with the mother’s horrified expression in close-up. The film ends with a shot of Andy kissing Betsy by a tree which mirrors the film’s opening, suggesting that Andy has transferred his incestuous desire for the mother onto a more socially acceptable object of desire.

Although Arnold didn’t have control over any aspect of the original film’s mise en scène, by placing the clips in a different context, settings and costumes take on an added significance. In other words, the meanings conveyed here by mise en scène aren’t always inherent in the clips themselves. The film opens with a medium close-up of Andy kissing his mother, and then cuts to a long shot revealing the setting (a kitchen), overall situation (Andy is helping his mother do the dishes), and that Andy is wearing an apron around his waist. In another context, this might all seem entirely innocent (that is, free of gender associations). But here, coming after a kiss that is more than just a kiss, the mise en scène reenforces our sense that there’s something transgressive about Andy’s relationship with his mother. So when Andy is subsequently slapped by his father, as shocking as the action is, it doesn’t seem to come totally out of the blue. Rather, we make the connection that the father is punishing him for what happened in the previous scene.

In addition to the selection and sequential arrangement of the clips, Arnold alters their meaning through montage, and the manipulation of figure movement and sound by optical printing. Rather than simply cutting from one scene to the next, Arnold typically flips back and forth several times between the end of one clip and the beginning of the next in order to emphasize continuities and discontinuities between the shots. At one point, Arnold cuts on an eye line match between Betsy and Andy’s mother in different locations, creating a smooth transition between the two scenes, as if they were happening simultaneously. This helps to create the impression that Andy is leaving his mother to go see Betsy. In other words, we “know” where Andy is going without him having to say it because the editing has already told us.

By way of contrast, an earlier transition from Andy’s stoic reaction at being slapped to Betsy singing the first part of her song is anything but smooth. Instead of flipping between two shots, here Arnold rotates through two different shots of Betsy and a third one of Andy. The sombre lighting in the earlier scene is opposed by the bright whites of the latter, and Arnold’s rapid editing creates a kind of strobing effect. In addition to the graphic discontinuities between the shots, Betsy’s high, unintelligible singing (which Arnold edits into a stuttered “ah-ah-ah” sound) contrasts sharply with Andy’s silence after being slapped.

Using an optical printer to re-photograph individual frames from the original film, Arnold is able to slow down, rewind, and repeat portions of the clips in order to emphasize certain gestures and invest them with new meanings. In the opening sequence, Arnold turns one kiss into several by reversing and repeating the action. This not only puts greater emphasis on the mother’s anguished expression (we’re made to notice how her lips part just slight as Andy kisses her on the back of the neck), but gives us time to register Andy moving his hands up and down her arms. And by rewinding this action back and forth so many times, Arnold transforms it into a sort of caress. Andy’s breathing becomes heavy panting, and later, while waiting for Andy to walk through the door with arms outstretched, Betsy seems to moan in sexual anticipation. More subtly, Arnold extends the pause between Andy saying, “Alright,” and “Dad,” in order to put greater emphasis on the latter.

However, while the film encourages Freudian interpretations, such readings don’t go all the way down. For instance, nothing about the movie’s form or style suggests that the spectral young woman standing behind Andy in the second sequence carries any narrative or symbolic weight; she’s simply there. Likewise, in addition to the meanings discussed in the previous paragraph, Arnold’s use of optical printing also functions to make the viewer more aware of the mechanical nature of film projection. In particular, his manipulation of the soundtrack invites us to see Betsy’s singing as squeals of pure sound without ever quite obliterating the meaning of the words. And as many times as I’ve seen the film, I always laugh at the final shot in which Arnold transforms Andy and Betsy’s nervous laughter into wheezing, Beavis-like tittering, reminding me that my “spontaneous” reactions to the film are no less mechanical than those of the figures on screen.