Lisandro Alonso, <em>Liverpool</em>, 2008. © the artist

On Liverpool.
Guest blog by Cagney Gentry

In the creative process of making a film, Lisandro Alonso always starts at the same place: with a location.  For Liverpool that location is a small, sawmill village in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.  Alonso’s conceptualisation process involves complete immersion in the landscape; he lives in the world. He observes the world’s inhabitants; he knows their motions, their gestures, and the pace of it all. The result of this intense study is a film with an impeccable sense of space and time and, moreover, the film’s ability to interrupt the two. In Liverpool, particularly, it is the notion of interruption that struck me deepest.

Alonso’s writing process has been well documented. Because of his unique, observationalapproach to screenwriting, it istemptingto categorise his films as observational. Static camera and lengthy takes, which are trademarks of observational cinema, certainly pervade his work, but the slowness here does not distance the audience from the characters or their worlds. Instead, this tactic highlights the immediacy and the inescapable magnitude of space and time in the protagonist’s journey. Furthermore, its perspective gives us the distance and time to see the interruption in existence that initiated the journey and the smaller journeys along the way.

Lisandro Alonso, <em>Liverpool</em>, 2008. © the artist

Farrel is a sailor who decides to visit his estranged mother when the ship he works on docks near Tierra Del Fuego. His environment is immovable and fastened suggested by the enormity ofthe roar of the ship’s motors, the whir of the vessel’s inner workings, and even the roar of the sea. It is important to note here that the roar of the sea is not distinguished from the other sounds aboard the ship. So, it does not seem that the story is a dialectic discourse on infrastructure vis-à-vis nature (although the later saw mill scene might support this theme). In my mind, the importance of this sonic motif at the beginning of Liverpool signifies an undeniable state of being. The sound, as does the long take aesthetic, affords the scenario solidarity and differentiates it from the journey to come.

The decision to take leave once ashore is the first major narrative interruption. But, within the initial sequence we see other, smaller moments of interruption. Farrel takes food from the ship’s dry storage and leaves both the room and the frame of the image, and returns after realising he forgot to turn off the light; his process is interrupted. Farrel is found in the ship’s engine room sleeping. The unsuitability of the noisy room for sleep suggests that perhaps his process was literally interrupted. Other scenes in the film present evidence that Farrel falls asleep without warning. We find him asleep in an abandoned bus, we find him asleep in an old outhouse. His passing out throughout the film maybe be induced by the bottle of vodka ever at his side, but we never see him drunk and we never see him pass out - we only find him asleep. He rests, almost as a statuesque representation of sudden interruption. How and why he ends up where he does is not of interest. The focus is on experiencing a process, a being, an existence, with a consistency of space and time and then having that state come to an end because of an outside force.

When Farrel arrives at the small village, he finds his mother who appears to not know who he is and is teetering on the edge of invalidity. Confronted with this image of his mother, knowing only vaguely that she was ill, he succumbs to yet another interruption that rattles him to his core. This is not a literal interruption of a journey but instead an interruption to his existence; with this knowledge, he has become a changed man. He cannot return to what he once was. But, this is perhaps not even the most significant interruption he undergoes. And, in fact, he initiates an even more ground-shaking interruption in the end.  

The young Analia representsanother existential interruption for Farrel, but is, in turn, interrupted herself by Farrel. Analia’s interruption (that is her being interrupted), in particular, is a moment of piercing humanism. Analia is Farrel’s daughter who struggles with mental disabilities. It would have been very convenient, even with Alonso’s sublime style, to use Analia as a mere device to cause the final interruption that sends Farrel back on his way, interrupted by the discovery of his daughter and journeying back to his old existence as a new man. Indeed, this sentiment is captured beautifully in the extremely long take where Farrel hands something to Analia, walks through a snow-covered field, out of the village, and vanishes on the horizon. But, Alonso’s keen observation does not end with this convenient ending trope. The final twenty minutes of the film then shift focus to Analia. The film follows her through her day to day existence. She is a part of an immovable structure of processes; like her father on the ship, she has a routine existence, largely in silence. But in the final scene of the film, after Alonso perfectly lulls us into her life’s routine through a respect of her space and time, he shatters it with the penultimate interruption. We see Analia, face out of frame, holding the object given to her by her father. A key chain that says Liverpool, a trinket of his travels of little significance to him maybe, but in the hands of Analia it signifies a life-changing interruption. It signifies to the viewer that she does comprehend, on some level, what has happened and that this token symbolizes a change of consciousness.

Lisandro Alonso, <em>Liverpool</em>, 2008. © the artist

None of these interruptions are concrete. We don’t know how Farrel or Analia process any of these events. But, this is the beauty of Slow Cinema and, specifically, Alonso’s brand of it. It is a perfect example of form reflecting content.  The Slow Cinema technique, at its core, is an interruption of our human tendency to create narrative. It contradicts our sensibilities of story-telling and story-receiving. The story communication dynamic is an age-old process and it is part of what defines us as human. Today, more than ever, we have become overwhelmed with story economy - shorter, quicker, faster, and to the point. Slow Cinema is an essential interruption for us as a culture. An interruption that will give pause and reflection to the moments outside the lines of story.   

Cagney Gentry