2010s, Chilean cinema, Drama, Historical

No (2012)

.
No1
.
Director: Pablo Larraín

By Roderick Heath

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
.
No2
.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
.
No3
.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
.
No4
.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
.
No5
.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
.
No6
.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
.
No7
.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation.  “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
.
No8
.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
.
No9
.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
.
No10
.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, sparking desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas will come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity. The war of messages is allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet their technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them, shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
.
No11
.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach and soon infuses their street rallies in displays of playful positivity. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
.
No12
.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
.
No13
.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.

Standard
1970s, British cinema, Comedy

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)

.

RiseRiseMRimmer01

Director: Kevin Billington

By Roderick Heath

One morning, at the London building that houses the clapped-out market research firm Fairburn Polls, a tall, attractive, preternaturally poised young man appears clutching a clipboard. He introduces himself to the manager, Mr. Ferret (Arthur Lowe), as Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook), from “coordination”. He moves about the building and discovers employees watching football, practising ballroom-dancing moves, perving on secretaries, and doing just about everything except their jobs. A client of the firm walks in and punches Ferret in the face. When Rimmer asks Ferret if he’s received the results of a poll on a brand of boot polish, Ferret replies that he hasn’t, but he does have the findings of a survey for a new breakfast treat: they have found that 90 percent of Britons don’t like eating boot polish for breakfast.

RiseRiseMRimmer02

Rimmer reports to the company’s owner, a fly-fishing plutocrat, Fairburn (Dennis Price), who doesn’t remember hiring Rimmer, that his organisation is a shambles and is losing £75,000 a year. “There’s a phrase coming to me,” Fairburn rants: “Fire Ferret!” Rimmer is soon installed as the head of the firm, and he transforms the building overnight into a slick ultramodern concern, whilst Ferret is reduced to working as a menial in the building, pretending to his wife that he’s still the boss whilst hocking all their furniture. Rimmer’s business approach soon reveals itself: when a pair of reps from a company that makes humbugs approaches him, he tells them that his surveys have found that customers simply don’t like their product’s taste. But not to worry. Rimmer makes a racy ad for it that shows a pining blonde in bed finding satisfaction with her humbug.

RiseRiseMRimmer03

Rimmer’s “sex sells” approach is gold, and he soon achieves national fame by conducting a Kinsey-esque survey, defending his lewd discoveries on the TV show of Steven Hench (Harold Pinter) by presenting himself as a messiah of a new age of genuine, personal satisfaction. He destroys a rival polling organisation by poaching their best man, Peter Niss (Denholm Elliot), and sabotaging their research by arranging for their sample takers to come up with figures that show a majority of residents in one town are practising Buddhists. Soon, Rimmer is everywhere, from advising the Bishop of Cowley (Graham Crowden) that because 70 percent of British people have serious difficulties believing in God, the Church should try selling agnosticism, to aiding the Tories’ stuffed-shirt leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser) in trying to build himself a public image that isn’t of a vapid, vain, humourless dimwit.

RiseRiseMRimmer04

Rimmer himself is aiming to join a future Conservative government. The treacly incumbent Labour Prime Minister (George A. Cooper) thinks he’s media-savvy, and proposes that the coming election is not about economics or anything like that, but about morality. “I’ve never seen anyone dig their own grave before,” Rimmer chuckles. Rimmer stage-manages a protestor’s invasion of a Conservative Party conference where Fraser puts down the hippie rabble (hired for the occasion) and manages, despite going on with his prepared script after being asked an entirely different question, to present himself as an emotional, responsible man—dare one say it?—a compassionate Conservative. Rimmer then contrives to let a rabid racist in the party off the leash so that Fraser can both condemn him while also confirming the Tories as generally tougher on immigration. He also arranges for an antiracist MP to be mugged by a black man, to break his veneer of tolerance, but without success.

RiseRiseMRimmer05

Rimmer’s a film I had heard about for so long—from a glowing review by sci-fi critic David Wingrove through to inspiring the name of Chris Barry’s archetypal priss in the TV series Red Dwarf—it had come to seem a cultural unicorn: legendary, impressive, and impossible to find. The film begins uneasily with a sequence scored with groovy music in which Lowe’s Ferret ogles the backside of his mini-skirted secretary. For a horrible moment, I thought the film would prove one of those try-hard sexy comedies that British cinema churned out with increasing desperation in the ’70s (many of which starred Cook and/or his ex-partner Dudley Moore). But Rimmer soon finds its gear and moves ahead, like the title character, with smooth, sharklike relentlessness of purpose. Cook and his costars John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and director Billington, were the quartet who provided the script, tossing off incisive ideas and gags that other satirical films would drag out and hammer home (see: the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Wag the Dog, 1998), and the result is a near-perfect example of what those comics could do at the height of their gifts.

RiseRiseMRimmer06

The credits confirm an interesting melding of the two disparate, influential comedy forces to emerge at the time: Private Eye/Beyond the Fringe mastermind Cook, and Monty Python members Cleese and Chapman, with a terrific battery of actors backing them up. Particularly notable is Pinter’s saturnine Hench; if Pinter had ever wanted to be a talk-show host, he’d have done it in style. Rimmer, as a character, was rumoured to have begun as a barbed portrait of David Frost, Cook’s former alumnus in the That Was the Week That Was TV show who, amusingly enough, executive produced this film. Cook, however, presents in Rimmer an übermensch with a devilish airiness, an expansion of his interest in the Mephistophelian figure as explored in his and Moore’s earlier hit Bedazzled (1967). Rimmer’s identity is unclear: where he comes from isn’t established, and even he doesn’t know who he is, claiming to have been found “in the bulrushes.” That said, Cook conceives in Rimmer a very real creature whose time had not yet come—a Yuppie. Smooth, slick, utterly involved in personal success, he defines and appeals to the self-centred bastard in everyone else.

RiseRiseMRimmer07

Rimmer sets about slashing away the remnants of messy, eccentric, classical Britannic spirit embodied in the Dickensian eccentricities seen in the Fairburn building, and replaces it with shiny, technocratic, streamlined exploitation. He manipulates the foolish, stuffy, country-gentleman affectations of the old-school Tories to make room for himself, the perfect prototype for a Neo-Conservative, installing himself as a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then, in the guise of saving his nation, he goes to war, not in the Falklands or Iraq, but in Switzerland, where he has a detachment of soldiers led by Col. Moffat (Julian Glover) rip off gold reserves and passing it off as terrorist action.

RiseRiseMRimmer08

Rimmer has a prescient focus that observes the undercurrents of the era,and predicts where they would resolve with unique clarity. So many of Rimmer’s stunts are now de rigueur, and not merely in suggestions of oral sex used to spice up a candy ad—advertising has long since equalled and surpassed such excesses—but in political culture. From “mission accomplished” to the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism, the naked greed-is-good public philosophy of the 1980s, and reactionary vote courting that pretends to condemn and exploits at the same time, we live in Rimmer’s world. The ’60s were, in addition to many other things, a golden age of satiric comedy that went hand in hand with the creative fecundity of the era. To survive beyond its moment of creation, satire needs other substantial qualities going for it, including a prescient edge. Dr. Strangelove (1964) lives long past the end of the Cold War because of its razor-sharp filmmaking, characterisation, and open embrace of the apocalyptic thinking that still defines the modern age.

RiseRiseMRimmer09

British cinema in particular served up some beautiful examples: 1959’s I’m All Right Jack, a tart reflection on postwar labour relations, was the trumpet blast for an era in which satire was the ennobled comedy form (how things change!), and writers like David Sherwin and Terry Southern had cultural clout. Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967) made notes on the potential interrelationship between poses of rebellion in pop stars, commercialism, and political manipulation, whose accuracy, like Rimmer’s, wouldn’t be entirely revealed until the 2000s. Rimmer also anticipates Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! in seeing the countercultural wave as on the wane; both films are angry, Voltairian epics reflecting both the cultural energy of their country coupled to an ironic reflection of the nation’s irreversible decline in world affairs (they share cast members Lowe and Crowden). Rimmer’s vision of the British place in world affairs depicts the Prime Minister sitting alongside other world leaders, advancing couch by couch up a hallway in the White House like customers in a deli.

RiseRiseMRimmer10

Rimmer’s only concession to standard dramatic conflict comes when Rimmer, to boost his profile and popularity, marries Olympic equestrian Patricia Cartwright (Vanessa Howard)—their honeymoon takes them to a photo opportunity in Budleigh Moor (pun intended), the seat he hopes to win in the election—and then neglects her once the job is done. Niss falls for Patricia, but she, although disappointed with Michael, maintains her loyalty. In the end, after toying with the idea of bringing him down, Niss and Patricia give in to Rimmer’s promises of power. The film’s most far-out, and yet devastating, segment is the final one, in which Rimmer introduces an experiment in direct democracy: involving the population in voting on all matters of policy. Everyday people analyse policy documents and are alerted by flashing alarms on their television sets to take part in emergency plebiscites on matters like regional development and water purification. The populace becomes so exhausted and outraged that they gladly vote for Rimmer to become president and dictator—exactly what he wanted, of course—to put an end to it. Perhaps because of its firmly British focus, its lack of soap-opera dramatics and speechy outrage (such as those that spice up the far-better-known, but bloated and soapy Network, 1976), or just its no-name director, Rimmer never received an American theatrical release and is largely neglected. But it’s a funny, incisive, relevant film.

Standard