Sunday, February 7, 2010
Imagine a three-hour epic family saga, spanning years and roaming from the snowy, mountainous backwoods of Argentina to the debauched port towns of all Europe, complete with flashbacks and chuck-up-your-soul soliloquies and sobbing I-love-you-yet-I-hate-you arguments and everything else under the sun. Hold this imaginary film in your head for a moment, just to understand the weight of the thing. Careful not to drop it on your foot. It’s heavy.
Now whittle it down to a lean 90 minutes. Take away the exotic locales. Remove every passionate outburst. Cut away the flashbacks that flesh out the characters. Finally, take away nearly every scene that directly expresses some sort of plot point. Now sit back and admire your handiwork—feel it float in your hand like a balloon, it’s that light—you’ve created a film much like Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool.
Once you cut away most of the exposition and spectacle from a film, you’re left with mostly just interstitial moments, the little snippets of life that typically glue together scenes—a bit of small talk, a short walk from one place to another. True, this type of melancholy minimalism is an art-film cliché by this point. How many so-called serious artists do we need exploring the mechanics of loneliness, filming people eating alone and folding laundry and then staring sorrowfully at the horizon while they contemplate the howling void in their heart? I love this mopey shit, but when someone botches it I feel like running out of the theatre and renting some Michael Bay (to borrow a line from Warren Zevon, sometimes I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all). The downside of minimalism comes when the absence of drama is a pose hiding the absence of ideas.
But when done well—and make no mistake, Alonso does this kind of thing very well—the somber, restrained tone opens up into a richly suggestive experience. Little moments evoke wide possibilities, while each terse, flat conversation hides depths waiting to be explored by attentive viewers. Liverpool is a subtle beauty, difficult to grasp, almost impossible to describe. It may be technically accurate to describe a mirror's surface as reflective, but that doesn't really capture what you see, does it?
Consider the slender premise. Farrel, who works on a commercial freighter, takes shore leave at a port in Argentina in order to visit the little village where his family still lives. He wants to see if his mother is still alive, he explains to the captain. Riding on the back of logging trucks, trudging through snowy forests, Farrel reaches his old hometown a stranger. No one recognizes him. When he peers into his old home, he sees a strange young woman. Rather than knock on the door, he drinks himself into a stupor (his most constant companion in the film is a bottle of vodka, which returns his faith by seemingly never running empty).
After passing out overnight in a neighbour’s shed, Farrel is brought inside to warm up and reunite with him family. His father is unimpressed, admonishing his son for returning. “Nobody knows you now,” he says while his son remains silent. Later, the father offers a more cryptic rebuke. “Is this the sort of legacy you would leave for me?”
Perhaps that legacy refers to simple-minded Analia, the strange young woman, who appears to be Farrel’s daughter, born shortly after he left the village (her conception possibly being what provoked him to leave in the first place). But this is no teary-eyed reunion or saccharine ode to redemption. None of the characters openly acknowledge their familial bonds, leaving the drama in a suspended state. Even when Farrel briefly meets with his ill mother, it’s unclear whether or not she recognizes her own son. Lamely, he repeats his name over and over, while she refuses to acknowledge it, her only nod to maternal concern her repeated insistence that his hands must be cold. Everything is unspoken and unresolved, until Farrel finally leaves the village once again, while the camera lingers on a little longer to capture something of the sorrowful, quiet lives of his family.
Each low-key moment contains a wealth of information. A typical exchange—in the canteen while the radio plays, “Do you like the music?” one man asks Analia, who blankly replies “Yes” and then leaves—can open up a whole set of possibilities. That innocuous conversation contains an astounding amount of detail: a clumsy flirtation, Analia’s refusal of pleasure, the poverty of social life in the village, her fraught position as a rare young woman in a largely male environment. Drained of gloss and distractions, the film allows these moments to blossom in the viewer’s imagination. (“Show, don’t tell” is the traditional yardstick of storytelling, but this barely qualifies as either, making it all the more remarkable when the scene still manages to signify.)
Conversation, action, and incident are muted or excised altogether, allowing every unassuming shot in the film to take on great suggestive power. Farrel sits in a restaurant, isolated in a single shot while a baby at some other table off screen begins to cry. Later, as the man sits alone in the back of a strip club, we watch the shadow on the wall behind him, a ghost writhing in ecstasy. Both shots seem inconsequential, even pointless when we first see them, but the isolated details slowly accumulate meaning, alluding to what Farrel has abandoned and what haunts him still.
The surface of the film seems so barren, but as you dig down you find a tangled mess of roots, a fertile world beneath the dead land. This may not be a traditional narrative, but as a collection of tangible moments Liverpool acquires a remarkable emotional force. In the film’s extraordinary final shot, Analia holds in her hands a gift from her father—a plastic keychain that says “Liverpool.” She turns the gaudy trinket over and over in her hand, like a blind woman trying to understand the word through touch.
The keychain is rife with possibilities, both as a token of connection between father and daughter and between isolated Argentine village and bustling English port city. The world shrinks in that moment, even though it seems no less lonely for its diminution. This feels like an alien language infiltrating the remote village, a moment of connection rendered in an incomprehensible tongue. In that three-hour family saga, such an elusive, fragile emotion would die in a torrent of light and sound. In Alonso’s delicate film, it is the entire world.