During the last couple of decades the long-take, fixed-shot school of filmmaking has become something of a default for directors with an eye toward the festival circuit—the signature style of many of the world’s leading arthouse auteurs. You know the drill: the filmmaker sets his camera at a certain distance from his impassive protagonist and observes him enacting the minutiae of daily life. No music is there to cue the viewer’s emotions and we’re never invited into the character’s headspace. At its best, as in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, the approach encourages a certain intellectual distance between audience and character, granting the viewer sufficient freedom to mentally maneuver about the film’s staged environment, while never precluding the possibility of a direct emotional involvement. Such works encourage the viewer to adjust his mental rhythm to the pace of the picture, to recalibrate his body’s clock to the film’s tempo. Finally, this long-take approach promotes an appreciation of composition for its own sake, focusing audience attention for extended periods of time on a series of static framings.
But how does such an aesthetic, based as it is on the elimination of traditional narrative and character cues, produce sufficient meaning to make the project something more than an exercise in style? It’s a question well worth asking when considering the films of Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso, since of all the long-take, fixed-shot filmmakers, his approach is arguably the most extreme and thus the most susceptible to devolving into pure aestheticism. Alonso’s shots are longer, his characters more expressionless, his narratives more oblique than nearly all of his stylistic peers. In 2004’s Los Muertos, the director trained his camera on a nearly silent man, just released from prison, as he made his way down a jungle river to reunite with his daughter. The film was all open spaces; like the lead character’s unreadable visage, a blank on which the viewer was encouraged to create his own meaning. And Alonso’s latest film, Liverpool (2008), which similarly involves an impassive man searching for a lost family member, demands to be viewed in precisely the same terms.
From its first shot, a triangular composition which fixes three men in profile, two playing a video game and the other looking on, Liverpool announces its intention to proceed as a series of precisely rendered tableaux, the successful reading of which is key to an understanding of the film. For most of the picture’s running time, these compositions center on Farrel, a middle-aged sailor with a sharp nose, dull eyes and a penchant for vodka, and who figures in nearly every shot until he disappears from the film altogether roughly three-quarters of the way through. Sometimes Alonso brings his camera in close to his protagonist’s face; more often he fixes him in medium distance—as in an extended sequence where he films the hapless seadog packing his belongings in his tiny chamber—or at the margins of a more remote shot, one unimportant figure among a handful of others.
As Farrel’s ship approaches harbor, he asks permission to disembark for several days at the snowy southern tip of Argentina to see if his estranged mother is still alive. Granted leave, he enters the city of Ushuaia, where he dines at a restaurant (in a comic bit of mise-en-scène, Alonso films him at a table against a kitschy lake-side mural, an imagined respite from the snow-drenched landscape outside) and goes to a strip club before securing passage to the tiny village he grew up in and left years before. When he does arrive at his hometown, he finds he’s completely unknown to the villagers, recognized only by his father. Even his mother, sick in bed and largely senile, can’t recall him. He does, however, discover that he has a daughter, Analia, who is being cared for by her grandparents. The young woman—possibly retarded—is, if anything, even less garrulous than her father. As Farrel spends a brief moment at his familial home, he exchanges a few words with his own father, vainly tries (but not too hard) to jog his mother’s memory and makes small overtures to his daughter. But then he leaves, walking slowly away from the fixed camera against a snowy field, never to be seen again. The film’s final twenty minutes shift attention to the banalities of village life—peeling potatoes, cutting wood, trapping animals—the town continuing on as before, just as if Farrel had never returned.
But what, if anything, does it all amount to? Liverpool is so focused on stripping its screen of anything but the most banal actions and so committed to eliminating even the slightest show of expression from its characters’ faces that at times it seems like there’s nothing left to the film except a series of artfully rendered compositions. It’s within these compositions themselves, though, that Liverpool’s meaning is to be found, even if, taken cumulatively, their effect remains maddeningly diffuse. In a pair of shots staged as Farrell’s ship nears the port, the director fixes the character by the deck railing, smoking a cigarette and gazing out to sea. From the darkness emerge blurry circles of light, an abstraction of a city that is destined, for Farrel, to always remain an abstraction, even when he enters into its borders. At such moments, the character’s isolation from any notion of society—an isolation which becomes apparent when he reaches his hometown—registers not as an intellectual concept, but as a palpable sense of loss inherent in Alonso’s staging. And then there’s the tender ache of the film’s final Rosebud moment, as a gift from father to daughter is turned over and over in the recipient’s hands. A token of escape that will never come, a souvenir of a remembered past, like Kane’s sled, the trinket says everything and nothing about its owner. At moments like these, Liverpool fairly bursts with meaning, though, in what that meaning finally consists, it’s not always so easy to say.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.