the sky is wicked huge. an epiphany. That very month, two filmmakers that I very much admire – Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-Liang - were going to be at the theater screening their new films and fielding audience questions. It sounds absurd, but seeing these films listed felt surreal. These were the kinds of films that I’ve only read about playing in festivals my whole life, works that I could only salvage, with some difficulty, on DVD. The first film I went to see was Liverpool, the latest work by Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso. Withholding excitement that had been accumulating for a few weeks, Mike and I got off the subway at Harvard Square and proceeded to follow the directions that I recalled imprecisely in memory. We soon found ourselves in the heart of Harvard University on a street that felt quaint with its dim lighting and oldfashioned brick buildings. Foolishly using the street numbers as my only guide, we quickly found ourselves lost, or so we thought. I walked up to the nearest passersby. “Hi, do you have any idea where the Harvard Film Archive is?” I asked, trying to obscure any blatant sense of tourist ignorance. “Of course, you’re standing right next to it,” he responded, as if immediately detecting that which I tried to obscure. Then he pointed to the nondescript spaceship that I had already seen several times sandwiched in between the more archaic buildings on the street. Something about its sleek modernism and uniqueness had already indicated to me that this was the place, but having witnessed the ambiguous lack of a sign I had not explored it. This was a building that really announced itself with its stylish architecture and minimalist visual design, a place whose exterior bareness seemed to suggest something paradoxically mysterious and wholesome inside.
explore Of course, after entering, we found this to be the case. You are first greeted by a large, arbitrarily placed assortment of televisions standing on pedestals that feature talking heads. This is a somewhat disarming first impression if only for its absolute dissonance from any other movie theater I’ve been to in my life. It felt more like the kind of art installation that would have been programmed for Andy Warhol’s famous “Screen Tests”. We didn’t stay there for long, scurrying down the stairs to the theater quickly, where we heard a large group of people gathering. Next to the doors of the theater, standing unobtrusively, we spotted Lisandro Alonso, whose physical appearance was most likely unfamiliar to the majority of the filmgoers. He was dressed more casually than any of the programmers at the Archive, and he periodically pushed back his long, wavy hair to reveal a quiet, boyish face. It was a genuinely surprising moment, the feeling of standing next to someone you’ve only regarded on a mythic level, an “artist” for lack of a better word. It was not like a celebrity sighting, because as in any serious artistic community, seeing filmmakers in person is an act that affords significantly less childlike reverence than seeing Miley Cyrus. I maintained a mild degree of highbrow aloofness, as if it didn’t matter that I was in the presence of greatness, and continued on into the theater after buying a ticket to the screening. The film, essentially a plotless study of a man in search of his estranged family told in elegant long takes, was transfixing. I’ve seen Alonso’s works before, but Liverpool was undoubtedly his finest effort. Afterwards, I took the opportunity to ask him a question when the floor opened up to it. I resorted to a question of practicality.
“When shooting your films, what size crew do you normally work with, as it is clear that this is an intimate, low-budget production?” I asked after moseying around the heart of the question for a while. “Our crew is usually the same group of 10 or 11 people,” he answered, among other things, in broken English. I was immediately satisfied for that extended moment of eye contact and artistic connection. It was reassuring to discover an acclaimed filmmaker who worked under similar conditions that I hope to, without the extraneous baggage that comes with a Hollywood production. Alonso restored my hope. I returned the following weekend for The Wayward Cloud, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s bizarre cinematic collage of musical, pornography, and contemplative drama. Once again, I had seen a confounding work that ignited a passionate response, encouraging another exchange that was interrupted this time by a translator who I suspect misinterpreted my question. However, this dividing line between Tsai and myself only augmented the sense of artistic mysticism surrounding him. Since these first two encounters with the Archive, I have regularly gone back. Though there are not always directors present, I can always rely on the theater to screen challenging work on a national and international level in optimal conditions and among a community of filmgoers who are searching for something much more than a simple entertainment. At the Archive, cinema is embraced as a lifestyle, something not just to pursue and follow but also to worship and savor, to recognize as an art form in a time when its life has been severely threatened.
text & photo · Carson Lund
Magazine project for Emerson College's WR121 Writing for Civic Engagement class, Spring '10.