To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on Cineastas by Mariano Pensotti. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas opens with an outrageously clear structural conceit, represented by two chairs on two stages. The real chair on the bottom stage designates the area where “real life” filmmakers will be depicted, while a life-size photocopied image of a chair on the top stage marks a space for the world of their films. It’s a simple device that instructs us how to watch the action, and our understanding of the piece begins and ends with this image. We immediately see the congruence between “real life” and the filmic world, and the double image foretells the merging of the two spaces.
Nestled neatly within this delineation of space is a similarly clear narrative conceit: the filmmakers’ lives affect the films they create, and vice-versa. The visual split-screen produced by the architecture sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two stages. As we see the stories unfold (there are four main filmmakers, plus their films), we hear how each filmmaker’s vision for their work is changing due to their life circumstances (e.g., terminal illness, pregnancy, rising in the ranks of a corporation) and we are invited to scan the films above them for signs of change. It works the other way too, as we similarly see a film about a long-lost father subsume its filmmaker, whose own father was disappeared.
And in case either of these conceits fail to dawn on you initially, you are guaranteed to understand them thanks to Cineastas’ underlying performance conceit: constant narration. The narration is intended to evoke the sense of a voice over, but the narrators, who distinguish themselves by speaking into handheld mics, are nearly always onstage as they describe what is going on in the filmmaker’s life and their films. This narration is oftentimes crucial: with four filmmakers plus their respective films, we have somewhere between 7-9 mildly-interacting plot lines and probably 40 characters among the 5 actors. With every shift from filmmaker to filmmaker we need to be reminded who this new filmmaker is, which film is theirs, and brought up to speed on what has happened since the last time we saw them (e.g., they are now in Russia).
Their ability to shift seamlessly and even playfully from character to character, storyline to storyline, and narration to narration borders on the virtuosic. However, this sense of constant exposition extends to the point where it becomes an omnipresent oral history, telling everything that it’s showing, and then some. The performative conceit intended to evoke cinema ultimately lands it in another form, a lecture–or rather, a book, since those who do not speak Spanish will find themselves reading the subtitles projected between the stages.* The text would easily stand on its own as a printed publication. We are all about drawn-out structural conceits–but the question is: to what end was this conceit stretched? When the format refuses to change, how do we as an audience change in response? Perhaps apropos to movies, when we are constantly told what’s going on, what to look for and each character’s every action and motivation, we become much more passive and absorbent–not only to descriptions of what happens to the characters, but also when the piece tells us how to interpret it.
We can easily draw connections between the “real” lives of the filmmakers and their filmic creations, like relating fast food worker’s discontent with the character in his film who is kidnapped and forced to work as Ronald McDonald. Elements of the plot are often predictable–we are not surprised when the script exacerbates the filmmaker’s father issues. And yet the characters repeatedly comment on the obvious interaction of film and life, driving home just how meta they can be. To wit: “We know places by their fictional output.” “Two images come together to form a new meaning.” And the most obvious: “We live the way films tell us to live.” There are visual metaphors like this as well, such as the character in the film world who photocopies an image over and over until it’s faint and blurry. The production is eager to tell us that filmic life bleeds over into real life–so much so that the play includes not one, but two mentions of people literally walking onto a film set and believing that it’s real.
Many contemporary works of art ask whether art can have a true and profound effect on our lives. While we (Fire Drill) are more compelled by works that hold this question open rather than answer it, Cineastas makes a clear, partisan argument in the affirmative. We find this to be an interesting contribution to current discussions about the role of art in activism and civic life that are taking place locally and nationally. (Though we can’t speak well to the context in Argentina, that this show was curated here qualifies it as part of the conversation.) Cineastas makes a strong case for the material impact of art on life, with political threads tied throughout the work. No doubt this is inspiring for many viewers, fulfilling hopes that the time they’ve spent in the theater really does make a difference. As for the Minnesotan context, we see this piece as yet another work directly arguing for the importance of art via its content rather than its form. We wonder if these works would be more powerful if they didn’t try so hard to shore up their own powerlessness.
Another note on Cineastas and its contemporary context: The lower, real-life stage contained a laptop, which was sometimes used by the characters to view their own films. While it was somewhat out of place within the visuals of the piece, it served as the sole window into the contemporary. The play delimits film strictly, looking at cinema proper as opposed to the broader, more interesting question of how screen time and filmed media in general affects our lives now. Cinema has been around for roughly 100 years and has clearly impacted our sense of time and narrative, but Cineastas turns a blind eye to the contemporary manifestations of the omnipresence of film. Making films is no longer an esoteric activity, so what does it mean that everyone now carries a camera in their pocket? Focusing the piece on characters for whom film is a vocation and a profession, rather than an integrated part of their daily lives, actually seems out of step with the main argument of the piece.
We believe in evaluating work on its own terms, or watching it the way it asks to be watched. Cineastas is a work in which the form matches the content: the concept of the piece serves the narrative and vice versa. (Granted, that’s no small thing.) The structure is so airtight, however, that it forecloses the viewer’s ability to connect the dots on their own. It becomes didactic, spoonfeeding interpretation rather than suggesting pathways toward meaning. Rather than “show, don’t tell”, Pensotti’s code seems to be, “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”–a rhetorical strategy, not a filmmaking one. But who is not aware that we live in a mediated reality? If art is going to change our lives, it needs to give the viewer more credit, and make space for a different kind of understanding.
*For those fluent in Spanish, there is a good deal of spoken dialogue that remains untranslated and subtitled. In the performance these were often punctuated by the laughter of the handful of audience members sufficiently fluent in Spanish to catch a joke or reference. I highly recommend brushing up on your Spanish–particularly Spanish curses–as well as the recent geopolitical history of South America with particular emphasis on US interventionism and local resistance to globalization.
Cineastas continues tonight (Friday, January 23) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 24) at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.