Video Essay: Death and Dying in Post Tenebras Lux

 

Link to Video essay: Death and Dying in Post Tenebras Lux

This is my first attempt at a video essay. It turned out less like a video essay and more like a read essay with video accompaniment. This was simply because the material is drawn from my dissertation. Wordy, to be sure.

I learned a lot about editing software and recording my voice. My pathetic laptop and software managed to record my voice on the left channel only, thus the volume is quite low. For this I apologize.

The video essay draws from other parts of the dissertation, some of which I have published in an entry here. Hopefully my essay can be understood without prior knowledge of the film and my research. Its focus is on the representation of death, non-professional actors, CGI, and affect.

The video essay text follows the bibliography.

 

Bibliography:

Michael Allen, “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Film Aesthetics” (2002)

Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation (2007)

Peter Bradshaw, “Post Tenebras Lux – review,” The Guardian (2013)

Manohla Dargis, “Juggling Primal Conflicts of Innocence and Sin,” NY Times (2013)

Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema (2014)

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 (1983)

Robert Koehler, “The Impossible Becomes Reality,” Cineaste (2013)

Tarja Laine, Feeling Cinema (2011)

Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” (2002)

Sheldon Penn, “The Time-Image in Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht: A Cinema of Immanence,” Bulletin of Spanish Studies (2013)

Fernanda Solórzano, “The Devil in the Detail,” Sight & Sound (2013)

Keith Uhlich, “Post Tenebras Lux: movie review,” Time Out (2013)

Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” (1991)

Linda Williams, Hard Core (1989/1999)

Jason Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema Book (2006)

 

Boys' rugby in Post Tenebras Lux

Reygadas is a director of the profilmic event. In each of his films he maintains the integrity of locations, persons, and objects without transforming them into narrative devices. The director’s aesthetics are often about presenting things as such as they function in space and time. If we push this argument to its limits, filmic representations of death would be the antithesis to the director’s style. It is difficult, if not impossible, to capture the precise moment of passing from existence to non-existence even in a non-fictional context. Unlike hard core pornography, which attempts to “‘fix’ the exact moment of the sexual act’s involuntary convulsion of pleasure” by documenting the male orgasm (Williams [1989] 1999: 113), death has no such visible instant. Provided this inability to realistically present the death of an individual, Reygadas has demonstrated a complex and varied relationship to cinematic dying, corpses, and the repercussions of death for the characters in his films. He has filmed the death of animals, shown the aftermath of a person’s death, tried to replicate murder with a high degree of verisimilitude, and in his latest feature, briefly turned to computer-generated imagery to symbolically illustrate a suicide. Each attempt to bring dying to the screen further exemplifies the director’s aim to elicit sensuous responses in spectators, quite apart from emotional empathy (Laine [2011] 2013) or spontaneous eruptions of screams or tears (Williams [1991] 2009).

Post Tenebras Lux has two deaths: Juan’s and Seven’s. The one follows the same pattern of representation in Reygadas’s oeuvre while the latter is expressed through CGI.

When Juan returns home to retrieve the forgotten stroller and other items, the camera positions itself at a distance from the family’s household, and maintains that distance for most of the scene. As Juan confronts Seven and his partner in crime, only then do we get a medium shot, used to establish a stronger sense of danger and urgency. Seven aims a gun at Juan, and Juan demands that Seven give him the gun back, i.e., the very weapon which will end Juan’s life is his own property.

Seven does not return Juan’s gun. The camera repositions itself to the location of the opening long shot. Seven chases Juan up the house’s patio stairs and a shot rings out. The two criminals flee. A very odd thing happens next, a shot which is unlike Reygadas’s familiar style: we cut to a view from the floor of the patio, tilted, which is clearly Juan’s perspective. The refracted lens shows us some trees in the distance. This POV shot demonstrates that Juan really was shot, is immobile, and we hear Jarro’s voice in the distance calling out for Don Juan. We have here a subtle critique of gun culture, and thus after Juan is shot and we leap ahead to a routine hunting party, Reygadas suggests that the proliferation of gun violence is due in part to the willingness of so many individual’s to purchase guns. He mentions to Koehler (2013: 12) that the dominant color of the film is red-orange, the color of blood: “it’s the color of Mexico for me, because Mexico is bleeding. More people died in Mexico in the last six years than in Afghanistan. Our land is bleeding.” So, with this cut to a hunter party, we await the result of the gunshot in a state of suspense. Yet Juan survives for one last episode, for one last speech from his deathbed – but the deathbed is a frequently misused place in cinema. Its clichés overwhelm.

Reygadas knows these melodramatic tropes well. Thus when Juan delivers his final speech, it is not accomplished with a convincing air – Castro is a non-professional actor. Due to Castro’s inability to deliver an authentic speech, a tearful moment for the spectator is denied, and instead Reygadas poses the question of just what we are weeping about when a fictional character dies. It is not a man who dies but his character. To add to the attempt to distance the spectator from heightened emotions based on character identification, Reygadas cuts the scene away from Juan, turns to the bedroom window as a conversation ensues between Juan and Natalia. Juan provocatively says he cannot remember who shot him. Shots of the dogs follow next then we return to an unconvincingly weeping Castro. Just as the representation of death is falsified, Reygadas, by casting non-professionals and allowing them to test their acting abilities with long takes, it additionally points to the unrepresentable state of an individual’s decline into death.

We learn about Juan’s passing from Eleazar. The little boy and his sister are not yet of an age to understand death and dying, and so their daily playtime continues on. Seven approaches, looking for Juan. Eleazar mentions his father’s passing and it seems secondary – the key thing is that Seven should play with him instead:“Come play with us cos Dad has died already.” The scene is presented not with shot-reverse shot technique; when Eleazar delivers the news we stay with him and Rut as they continue to play. What is Seven’s reaction? Again, an attempt for a non-professional to display such an emotion would be painfully faked. We cut instead to Seven’s empty home – his wife and children have parted – then to the murderer walking with purpose through the field in which the film began.

Reygadas cuts to close-ups of various parts of Seven’s/Torres’s body, shot with the refracted lens: the back of his legs, his hands, his right ear, his thighs and crotch. Martine Beugnet, writing on contemporary French film and sensation, argues the close-up is a haptic image which frees the figure from their subjectivity. “It is here, at the point where the boundary between subject and object of the gaze appears to dissolve, that cinema most powerfully evokes a sense of loss of self, where the cinematic experience offers itself most strikingly as an exultant combination of pleasure and terror” (Beugnet 2007: 89). Indeed Gilles Deleuze ([1983] 1986: 70) called the close-up the affection image par excellence. Fragmenting the body as Reygadas does, shot in close-up, the camera contemplating Seven’s limbs for an excessive number of seconds, also participates in the more general tendency of recent art cinema Beugnet has observed (2007 95), i.e., “opening to the gaze the realm of the ‘body-landscape’.” The body-landscape is the capacity for the camera to “wander” or “linger” on a body that exceeds narrative motivation and exists for itself as a haptic image. Reygadas’s close-ups operate according to this logic.

Seven comes to a standstill and gazes out across the landscape. His hands twitch, they are readying themselves. In Reygadas’s oeuvre we have seen consistent employment of pathetic fallacy and this scene of Seven’s suicide follows this pattern. We remember that Seven is a woodcutter. Shots of various trees tumbling down then symbolically prepare the man for his imminent death. Since these trees fall without the visible aid of human persons, we can see that even within a diegetically real sequence Reygadas turns to fantasy. For Seven this fantasy takes on a literalness: we have no marker that these trees are diegetically unreal, neither via a sound, edit, or style of cinematography. They simply point to Seven’s immanent experience.

In yet another effort to counter narrative cinema’s tendency to try to accurately present death, as if it were happening in the profilmic, Reygadas turns to CGI in Post Tenebras Lux. This is the first film the director has used these sort of images. We were introduced to a CGI devil in the opening of the film proper, the very antithesis of realist aesthetics. The devil had no resemblances or likeness to a made-up, costumed, or realistically drawn devil. It radiates redness, lighting up the dark room, bouncing its color off objects and walls. Bradshaw finds (2013) this scene to be “as bizarre and gripping as any conventional scary movie.” But there is nothing menacing about this creature. “I don’t see him as a ‘mean’ devil,” Reygadas said (Solórzano 2013: 53). The devil does carry a real toolbox however (Reygadas’s father’s toolbox to be exact [Reygadas in Koehler 2013: 12]), as if going to work, as if part of its regular activity – “like a handyman from Hades on an emergency call” (Dargis 2013).

Critics have similarly noted how the creature seems to situate himself: he “skulks” (Uhlich 2013), “strides in and surveys the abode” (Koehler 2013: 10). The creature and Reygadas take their time. The devil’s long stroll down the household’s hallway, shot with a static camera, is not unlike Tsai’s preference for extended shots of passageways and corridors.[1] This exceedingly slow and contemplative cinematographic gaze at an obviously unreal image seems to go against both the realist imperative and purpose of CGI. On the one hand we are supposed to be presented with things as such, their indexical quality, and on the other, the experience of something really occurring, usually accomplished with quick-edits, reverse shots of characters amazed, shocked, or scared by the CGI, and camera movements with pseudo-documentary authenticity (Allen [2002] 2009). As Michael Allen succinctly puts it (2009: 825), “The success or failure of any digital image lies in the degree to which it persuades its spectator that it is not digital, but is photographic.” Reygadas would seem to know this contemporary use of CGI in cinema and asserts his distance from it in this sequence and later with Seven’s suicide.

After we have seen Seven fragmented, and after the trees have fallen, the camera takes one last look at the character, framing him in a medium shot. Reygadas cuts to a long shot from behind the character. Seven places his hands on his neck and appears to struggle; he groans slightly then suddenly pops off his head. Blood spurts from the wound as Seven lays motionless on the ground. “Mexico is bleeding, dying, and it’s raining blood all over the land” (Reygadas in Koehler 2013: 14). In typical Reygadas style, it begins to pour rain over the corpse.

For Lev Manovich cinema has always been about the “art of the index.” He claims that contemporary cinema, with its increasing investment in special effects and CGI, is more akin to painting than photography: the realms of photochemical processes which take an impression of reality and hand-drawn or computer animation are no longer easily distinguished ([2002] 2011: 1060-1061). The profilmic real is lost once “live action footage is digitized” and subsequently manipulated by computer software, argues Manovich (2011: 1064). While this seems true for much of popular cinema today, most powerfully in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013),[2] I think Reygadas offers us something different in both the devil episode and Seven’s suicide episode. In the latter, with the emphasis on Torres’s body, the shot length, and the treatment of reality as I have articulated it in this chapter – i.e., attempting to present the immanent experience of characters even if those experiences take place in dreams, fantasies, and desires – the CGI sequences present the digital “as if” it were filming the raw material of the profilmic.

Thus Seven’s suicide, presented in an irreal style, suggests that it need not be indexical in the sense described by Manovich, Bazin, and others. His head is torn from his body and shown to us surrealistically for a number of possible reasons, each an expression of Reygadas’s attempt at crafting a cinema of immanence. Perhaps: for Seven the act of suicide felt like the represented gruesome death; or, the suicide may have taken on this appearance as if a child were seeing it, Rut for instance, or possibly, given the complex nature of the film, remembering it later in life; or, given the shot which immediately follows the act, namely, a cow chewing grass, the suicide is as if from that animal’s perspective. Again we see that Reygadas does not provide simple answers. What he demands of us instead is that we view his films with all that human perception allows.

The impossibility of shooting real death is all the more pronounced by its artifice in Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas seems to suggest that we do not need verisimilitude in the cinema; our reality, as it is lived through the body, is already attuned to strange modes of perceiving, whether dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, or desires. A death by a more cinematically realistic means is moot, for the scene would still offer us the character’s mortality either way. Further, an attempt to represent an act of suicide could not do justice to the lived emotional experience of a real person. Seven’s suicide turns out to be aesthetically pleasing in spite of its distance from filming the event with verisimilitude. And the narrative (almost) concludes where we began, giving the whole feature a definitive finale through symmetry.

 

[1] For an extended discussion of Tsai’s cinema and its realist tendencies, see de Luca 2014.

[2] A short film made by Cuarón’s brother Jonas, Aningaaq (2013), accompanies the feature-length film on the Warner Brothers Blu-ray edition. The short film functions as an alternate setting and story for one of the feature film’s episodes. Reygadas’s director of photography, Zabé, and his editor Lopez, both worked on the short. Reygadas received a thank you in the credits as well.

The Cuarón’s are acquaintances of Reygadas. Alfonso had some very kind words to say about the director’s debut. Cf. Wood 2006: 116.

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