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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

EL AURA (THE AURA)

ARGENTINA, 2005

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Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished.   The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street.  He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.

In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges.   The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.

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It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures.   He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience.   Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals.   Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.

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Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy.   How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances.  At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith.   El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.

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At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist.  The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her.   To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions.   Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure.   Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout.  In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.

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El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons.  She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine.  The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity.   The dog forages for food and is a searcher.  He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour.  This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog.   Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures.   Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.

The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.

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Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action.   Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves.   The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist.  The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie.  In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.

In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week.   If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men.   Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump.   Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded.   Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational.  If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records.   In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BLOW OUT

USA 1981

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The significance, potential and importance of expertise dominate Blow Out.  The opening is fake horror, a scene from a pretend low budget movie.  This second rate and cynical accomplishment can be compared to the superior cinematic skills that will facilitate the main film. Hero Jack Terry is a movie sound technician, and his expertise enables him to discover a political conspiracy. Sally is important to Jack because she has witnessed the murder of a politician. Sally and Jack argue when he becomes bored listening to her talk about make up skills. Brian De Palma wrote and directed Blow Out. He delivers important set pieces where the audience is invited to admire the soundtrack editing ability of Jack Terry.  On the two occasions in the film when the expertise of Jack is inadequate it has fatal consequences.  Jack Terry may be confused, his name consists of two Christian names, but he has hope for redemption. This is rooted in his faith in the benefits of technical knowledge. The visual spectacle that makes the film so memorable demonstrates the superior expertise of Brian De Palma. The style of De Palma mimics the approach of Alfred Hitchcock.   The guilt that Jack Terry has to endure because of a previous mishap repeats a Hitchcock theme of how guilt can be transferred to the innocent. Throughout Blow Out the expert English craftsman is honoured.

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Blow Out has suspense and is poignant and amusing. De Palma expects us to believe in his characters and their circumstances but he also uses his technical ability with sound and images to insist we never forget that we are watching a well-made film. Expertise is also important to the plot of Blow Out. Danger is created by people who make mistakes and neglect their expertise. Indeed the initial murder is an example of an ambitious professional interfering with the modest plans of amateurs. At the end of the film, Jack Terry is doomed and without hope of redemption. His expertise remains, and Jack has now found and inserted an authentic scream in the cheap movie. His expert contribution has been enhanced by the exploitation of a human sacrifice. He has lost his humanity but whatever the circumstances his expertise will gain from experience. In a dehumanised and brutalised world expertise not only gets things done. It is the only saving grace that we have.

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The final murder occurs before the American flag at a Liberty Day Parade in Philadelphia. It is at that moment Jack loses his hope of redemption and freedom from guilt. It disappears amidst celebrations of misunderstood patriotism and corrupted idealism and in the City where a new innocent world was once imagined. The explosive and beautiful fireworks that fill the sky are an empty orgasm beyond two people who tried to resist but failed. And the supposed promise of expertise and accomplishment has been exposed as nothing more than an impotent myth. When we hear the scream of the victim repeated in the cheap horror movie, we realise just what gets lost in the garbage that our expertise helps create.

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Blow Out is a masterpiece of American mainstream cinema, which is just as well because its conclusions are not cheerful.  The movie is now over thirty years old.  Back then the world was different.  The hospitals in the movie has ashtrays to help sick patients smoke themselves to death.  But then there were people who thought that Brian De Palma might be a genius. His films since Blow Out have been uneven but the exceptional talent is always evident. De Palma wrote the script of Blow Out.  He presents a world dominated by unseen corrupt masters who control the media and politicians. The rest of us are either hired gangsters or, because we avoid resistance to a world based on greed and a desire for power, willing stooges. Jack witnesses a murder and wants to see and hear more.   ‘Nobody wants to know about conspiracy,’ he says. ‘I don’t get it.’  The accusation by Jack can apply to people who like to relax watching a film. Movie audiences did not want to be accused or to have to think of themselves as stooges of crooked masters. Neither did the tragic ending help.  Word got around, and the box office receipts were modest.

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Although there is humour in Blow Out it is unstressed, sly and cynical.   Some of it is visual, odd moments like the appearance of the impossibly short policeman in a hospital. In The Untouchables, De Palma paid homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from the Eisenstein classic Battleship Potemkin.  In Blow Out there is a scene where Jack Terry drives past a factory called Potamkin. It is a night scene, and the word on the side of the plant is not obvious and appears to be misspelt.  We can be forgiven for thinking De Palma is not that desperate for the audience to see what interests him.  Blow Out resembles the Antonioni film Blow Up, and the similarity in the titles is deliberate. Blow Out is not as obtuse and has more style and substance. Other movies are also in the mix, references to Rear Window by Hitchcock and The Conversation by Coppola can be spotted.  All these movies feature a lonely and socially impaired man reduced to voyeurism.   De Palma, though, is keen to make his own statement.  He once said that ‘Hitchcock is the dictionary of cinema’.  The social criticisms of De Palma oblige him to defy Hitchcock. The fireworks effect is borrowed from To Catch A Thief but its revised context has scorn for romantic celebration. Jack Terry and Sally are ordinary people. Sally has a low wage job and associates with low life Manny Carp because she needs the money.  The orgasmic fireworks are not meant for poor Sally.  In Rear Window the injured journalist LB Jeffries observes his neighbours. Jack Terry is curious about the people who matter, the powerful. The killers across the courtyard that interest Jeffries in Rear Window cause mayhem but the real villainy in Blow Out is out of reach but connected to the powerful by a telephone.

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Throughout his career Brian De Palma has been criticised for a lack of feeling towards women. Three are killed in Blow Out. His defence is that he makes suspense movies. This is what happens to women in his kind of films, he said. If De Palma is misogynistic, it did not prevent him from making the female rites of passage movie Carrie. Faced with hostile and cruel people looking for yet another victim to persecute and humiliate her, Carrie responds with violent vengeance. There is a lot of blood before she is finished.  In Blow Out, Sally is lied to by Jack, exploited in the schemes of Many Carp and identified as a disposable victim by the assassin Burke. There is no romantic relationship between Jack and Sally. He saves her life at the beginning of the film but insists that his act puts Sally in his debt.   He manipulates their conversations. The rescue attempt at the end happens because Jack needs redemption from previous failure and to confirm his technical expertise.   The fate of Sally is not of prime importance to Jack. No one except Sally believes that the handsome man who works in movies could be interested in a shop girl earning low wages. Jack is only curious about what Sally knows and what she can do for him. The prostitute who is murdered is a hard case but there is no doubt that she is a victim of men. Her prospects and existence pose questions about urban community and what is supposed to be being celebrated by the Liberty Day Parade.

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No one needs to be an expert in history to realise that the initial murder in Blow Out has parallels with the Chappaquiddick incident. De Palma could have picked other incidents to integrate into his story but he picked an event when a liberal Senator from the Democratic Party revealed the true nature of his priorities.  De Palma has mellowed with age but thirty years ago he had a radical core or at least his films did. He was suspicious of institutionalised politics, even those on the left. The radicalism of De Palma may not have conformed to revolutionary theory but in Blow Out he is clear about how the world has been shaped by those who believe they are entitled to have power over vast resources and large numbers of people.   In Blow Out the lust for power and money amongst the powerful persuades them to have affection for economic systems that legitimise criminality.   Their legacy is a world of moral absurdity and the rest of us relying on expertise for personal credibility. This week Donald Trump gave the State of the Union address to the American people. He talked of optimism, freedom and hope. A lot of flags were waved, and afterwards Trump returned to his main business, which is to ensure that his fellow billionaires have even more money and power and that the rest will have to be even more subservient. Meanwhile a mellowed Brian De Palma can be forgiven for listening to the speech of Donald Trump, looking again at the modest box office receipts for Blow Out and wondering just why the hell do so many people believe what they do.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.