Third Cinema revisited

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No, Chile, France, USA, Mexico 2011

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2017

This commentary was originally posted on ITP World. I have reposted it her with some of the comments that followed. I want to write about Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda and this film is part of the context.

Like the Chilean director’s earlier films, No is set during the military dictatorship presided over by General Pinochet. We are right at the end when the Junta bowed to both internal and international pressure and organised a National Plebiscite/Referendum. To the surprise of the military, observers and many Chileans it lost this plebiscite. An important factor was the campaign, fronted by fifteen minutes daily on national television, to vote ‘No’. The campaign relied to a large degree on professional public relations experts. It is that campaign that is the central focus of this film.

It is a film definitely worth seeing. At times humorous, at time dramatic, it has an excellent cast headed by Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, the advertising expert recruited by the ‘Vote No’ Alliance. The film includes footage showing the coup and the brutal repression of the Chilean working class and their organisations and parties. It also uses the actual television material from both right and left in the Referendum campaign: at times impressive, at times banal, and at time almost surreal.

The film used a 1983 U-matic video system, which gives a fairly uniform appearance to both the filmed footage and the archive material, mainly the advertisement featured. . The whole film has a sharp, tawdry look due to this. In fact, Pablo Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero had a low-budget tawdry feel which also matched its subject matter. The cinematographer on the film is Sergio Armstrong and he has done excellent work in producing this visual consistency.

My major reservation was a rather lightweight political stance. This seems to follow on from the approach that was adopted in the actual television campaign in 1988. And there are clearly strands of irony in the presentation. But there is not a developed sense of the politics of the different class fractions and factions involved. Terms like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ recur frequently. However both the left and the right at this moment were somewhat disparate coalitions of differing social forces, and this the film misses out on illuminating this. Certainly other films from Chile have managed to deal effectively with the political landscape under the dictatorship. I also felt that the film subscribes to a view that probably over-emphasises the contribution of the television adverts: but the absence of other factors in its plotting also contributes to this lack of overall illumination.

There is a trenchant set of criticisms by The Socialist Party [formerly Militant].

The Centre to which they are affiliated, Committee for a Worker’s International, had an organised presence in Chile in this period. The article lists some of the serious omissions from the film. The major problem is the absence of organised resistance by the working class. One telling example is the demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace as Pinochet and other military leaders wrestled with a response to the vote. The film suggests that it was plain sailing once the result was announced, when in fact there was a covert and overt class struggle over its implementation.

My other reservation was technical and may only apply to the UK release. The U-matic video format gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1: the ratio that preceded sound film, when the addition of an optical track produced 1.37:1. In the UK (and presumably in most territories) the film is distributed as a Digital Cinema Package. This comes in a standard 1.85:1, with other ratios printed within the standard format. For 1.33 or 1.37 you get the central image bordered by black framing. On 35mm the projectionist could adjust the framing to the ratio: on DCP it comes ‘baked in’. Good quality cinema presentation involved bringing in the black masking to frame the appropriate ratio. This is what usually happens at the Hyde Park Picture House where I viewed this film. They also continue the honourable tradition of opening the curtains at the start of the screening. Not so with No. For some odd reason the subtitles (in yellow) have been printed so that they frequently extend beyond the 1.33 ratio into the black borders. This means the black masking is unusable. Why, I don’t know, though it did seem that the font of the subtitles was larger than usual. I found this very distracting. I can usually flick my eyes up and down to accommodate both the image and the titles: with this film I had to flick to left and right to read all of the titles. I actually missed a few. The film is distributed by Network Releasing, but I could not see an end credit for titling, so I am not sure who is responsible.

So I feel it is a bit of a problematic movie, certainly in the UK. But it is still worth seeing. It is a distinctive film with a distinctive subject matter.

Director Pablo Larrain. Screenplay adapted Pedro Peirano from the play ‘Referendum’ (‘El Plebiscito’, unpublished) by Antonio Skarmeta.

Comments on ITP World:

keith1942

Further to the subtitles. It seems the UK distributor has advised that the filmmakers requested that the 1.33:1 frame was projected within the larger 1.85:1 frame of the DCP. And that they set the subtitles to extend beyond the frame of 1.33:1.

I have not been able to find an explanation of this anywhere. And I cannot think why they would want this. Any suggestions.

Reply

Roy Stafford

I didn’t find the subtitles to be a problem as such, but I agree that being unable to mask the image is not a good thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and though I agree with you that the political situation was not explained properly, I think that was to some extent deliberate so that the focus is on Rene (Gael García Bernal) and his position caught between his ex-wife, his father’s legacy, his own fatherhood and his professional ambitions and creativity. For that reason, I think it’s important that the film is shown to as many media students as possible and then discussed in detail. It’s a wonderful film for teaching.

Reply

keith1942

Roy is right that the film focuses on Rene, but this would seem to be an aspect of the way that ‘star power’ can produce its own distortions. There is a review of the film by the Socialist Party – http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/16112 – which fills out some of the aspects of class struggle in the late 1980s which NO overlooks or ignores. I think if it is used with media students then the sessions need to include other material which gives contrasting pictures. The film is ‘ideological’ in the sense that it offers the surface appearance, but it seems not the underlying social reality.

I have also looked at a few reviews and they all seem to think that the film used U-matic and the U-matic camera.

Reply

Roy Stafford

U-matic is a videotape format. A U-matic video recorder could receive an analogue video signal from any suitable camera. Before there were ‘camcorders’ with the tape machine physically part of the camera, the video camera was linked by cable to a separate recorder. The Press Pack for No does indeed state that they used ‘U-matic cameras’ (Ikegami tube cameras to be precise). However, I think that calling something a U-matic camera is misleading. Whereas a 16mm film camera shoots images on 16mm film, any video camera could be put directly through a mixing desk and the output recorded to any analogue video format. It’s the video recorder which is U-matic not the camera. A minor point I grant you and not that important perhaps, but it is revealing just how quickly people forget how these technologies were used.

Re the ideology of the film and its suitability for students, of course it needs other material. My point was that the film reveals the dilemmas of a bourgeois character caught between different forces and deciding to follow his ‘professional’ instincts, which is a common occurrence in media industries in capitalist societies. I don’t think the film attempts to explain the politics and I don’t think it is deliberately misleading, but it is disappointing to read in the Press Pack that the campaign was ‘instrumental’ in deposing Pinochet. My impression was that the film was much more circumspect about how valuable the campaign was. Which, I guess, just goes to show how things can be read differently.

Reply

keith1942

Maybe ‘camera’ was a short hand, and maybe they have never used the format.

My memory of it was always using the umatic’s camera.

More to the point I think you are being generous to the film. I cannot quote now, but my strong impression at the film’s conclusion was that it presented the advertising as a crucial factor. And it a sense that is reflected in a number of reviews.

My original comments about the film ‘lacking substance’ is in part that the film is rather like the adverts that it features. Rather long on gloss.

And I am afraid that it is likely that studies of the film will focus on the film itself and less on the wider context. While many people are aware of the dictatorship the context around the referendum is much less widely known. I have talked to several people who viewed it and their recurring comment was that they were not familiar with the event or period in Chile.

Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero presented politics at a tangent, but there was a clearer sense of the range of views and class forces.

Reply

keith1942

This film was screened on the UK Channel 4 last week. I have already noted the political problems with the film, which remain problematic at a second viewing. However, there was also the oddity of the digital version distributed in the UK, a 1.37:1 image letter-boxed into a 1.85:1 frame: and unalterable even in projection because of the yellow sub-titles that ran all across the larger frame. [A correspondent to Sight & Sound actually liked the use of yellow]. Channel 4 also letter-boxed the film, but into 16:9 frame [approximately 1.78:1] which was slightly less obtrusive. More importantly, the subtitles were white and contained with the original 1.37:1 image – so one could watch it in the 4:3 ratio on the television.

This mini-industry narrative grows odder and odder.

 

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