ISAKI LACUESTA: Believing in uncertainty
Cinema, at the end of one of its most glorious decades, had managed to take root, in the popular imaginary, an archetype that enjoyed great fortune in the context of German Expressionism: a liminal figure located at the point of intersection between the scientist and the sorcerer. The most illustrious and illuminating example of that model may have been the inventor C. A. Rotwang, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927). A scientist-sorcerer can be perceived as a paradox or as a synthesis: the location of his laboratory, in a primitive, dark, and irrational architecture within a futuristic city of aerodynamic lines and astonishing effulgence, offers a perfect image of this apparent contradiction. Lesser scientists than him, Caligari, Mabuse, and the puppeteer of the Arthur Robison’s “Shadow” (1923) could accompany Rotwang in the same semantic field, in which, after Siegfried Kracauer’s theoretical contributions, posterity wanted to see a kind of anticipation of the obscure powers of the emerging Nazism and its ability to hypnotize the masses. However, there is another way to read these figures - and, in this sense, the character of “Shadow” supposes a good argument in favor of this second interpretation. Caligari, Mabuse, Rotwang and, above all, that itinerant shadow theater’s master, envisioned by Robison with the complicity of the occultist producer Albin Grau, deserve to be considered as a fantastic distillation of a new model of artist, that had only been active for two decades, and which seemed to unite the characteristics - apparently antagonistic - of the sorcerer and the scientist in its identity: that is, the filmmaker.
Two years after Rotwang had created the robotics “Maria”, a Spanish film, so modest and eccentric that it did not reach the movie theaters in its time, he tried to introduce his own version of the wizard scientist to society. Co-directed by Nemesio Sobrevila and Eusebio Fernández Ardavín, “El sexto sentido” (1929) began with a label of peculiar interest: “Despite the multiple philosophical systems, we do not know the Truth. To know it, we need to add the perfection of mechanics to our imperfect senses. The atrabilious Kamus, a mixture of artist, drunkard and philosopher, thinks he had discovered a SIXTH SENSE in the cinematographer”. Sobrevila and Fernández Ardavín tried to integrate, in a more provocative and humorous than rigorous way, the expressive explorations of the avant-garde into the conventions of narrative cinema. For this, they used a schematic story that culminated with the projection of a film within the film, which, emulating the deconstructive grammar of some experimental proposals, ended up fixing a lie through an equivocal game with the framework: cinema, in the point of view of Kamus, played by Ricardo Baroja - the brother of the writer Pío Baroja -, as an extracorporeal eye capable of revealing a Truth with capital letters, ended up registering a non-existent adultery – reason why this Holy Objectivity, with which Salvador Dalí also dreamed on those times, was condemned to be defeated by the subjectivity of the biological eye that manipulates the mechanical eye.
The sorcerer-scientists of German Expressionism had a particular correlation with the figure of one of the most visionary theorists and filmmakers of French cinema in the 1920s: Jean Epstein, author of an enlightening literary work that would start with “Bonjour cinéma!” (1921) and reached its most radical positions in “L’ Intelligence d’ une machine” (1946) and “Le Cinéma du diable” (1947). Epstein was, to some extent, the Platonic version of Kamus: a poet convinced of the ability of the cinematographic camera’s technological eye to transcend the filmmaker’s subjectivity and stare to what the eye does not see. The reasons of the philosophical approach to cinema, that initiates Epstein, already include that persistent idea: the new art has, in the moving image, a specificity that reveals its greatness, its enlightening and epiphanic moments, in subtle gestures or actions that can last only a few seconds. Epstein, therefore, stresses an urgent need: the seventh art must separate itself from the narrative conventions that connects it to the literary tradition - namely, to the theatrical tradition - and from all latency of some criteria of aesthetic composition inherited from painting and photography. For him, cinema is a paradox: an objective art that arises from a machine, but that allows to deepen the spiritual, to unveil the intangible.
Reading Epstein feels like reading a mystic or a quantum physicist; in the case of those two extremes, they are not really the same thing: “Kabbalah, alchemy, which sum up an unfathomable tradition, proposed and intended to demonstrate more or less the substantial and functional unity of the universe. The microcosms and macrocosms had to have the same background nature and obey, both, to the same law. In general, the current development of sciences is on its way to confirm this prodigious intuition. The cinematographer also offers an experimental verification of this: he points out that the substance of the whole sensible real, even if it is not possible to conceive what it is, always behaves everywhere as if, effectively, it was always, and in all the parts, identical to itself. The cinematographer also shows that this unique unknown is governed, in all its variations, by a first law: the attribute is a function of time, variations in quality follow variations in the amount of time or, even better, space-time, since time is in fact inseparable from the space it guides”.
Isaki Lacuesta has been said to be a 21st century filmmaker. A statement that seems sustained in his preference for open reporting and ambiguity, and for having assumed, without prejudice, that cinema is one of the many forms of contemporary art, which cannot be limited to the conventional space of the projection room, but to project beyond the screen, even invading and infecting architectures and spaces. For him, cinema is something that should be valued for its creative process, in addition to its final result. An infinite process, perhaps, because his works are always atomizing and reunifying, unfolding, fragmenting in a game of multiple variants that brings up the title of one of his most fortunate video-essays, “Las variaçiones Marker” (2008). What the filmmaker offered was, as a matter of fact, a self-portrait by interposed person: Lacuesta spoke of himself while he seemed to speak about the author of “La jetée” (1962) or “Sans soleil” (1983), he would use others images to compose a mosaic of stories, proper of Jorge Luis Borges, about the director’s taste for the paradox, the shadow and the double. That same substrate is also in his films “Cravan vs Cravan” (2002) or “Los pasos dobles” (2011), in which the boxing poet Arthur Cravan or the wandering painter François Augiéras behaved as masks that revealed the essence of a creator - as one of the pieces included in this exhibition highlights, “Où en êtes-vous?” (2017) -, which is neither here nor there, because it is impossible to determine its fixed location in a specific expressive territory.
Perhaps it would be opportune to contradict the statement that opens this section: Isaki Lacuesta is not, in fact, a filmmaker of the 21st century, but what most resembles a filmmaker of the 1920s, that prodigious decade, in which this art, still young, could be what it set out to do, or what poets like Jean Epstein were capable of imagining. Lacuesta could also be considered an even older director, so old that he could even have preceded the invention of cinema: the author of “La leyenda del tiempo” (2006) seems to carry the ancestral weight that Edgar Morin attributed to this medium in “The Cinema or the Imaginary Man” (1956), for being rooted in the magical practices that implied a split between man and his shadow, which opened the threshold that separates the living from the dead, the rational from the irrational, the light from the darkness… Lacuesta’s cinema is full of doubles, shadows and phantasmagoria. A trend that transforms this director into the contemporary form of those sorcerer-scientists mentioned at the beginning.
The double invitation that the city of Vila do Conde made to Isaki Lacuesta adapts perfectly to this creative identity that does not want to be fixed: on the one hand, a series of films screening at Curtas Vila do Conde festival that provides a direct stimulus for reflection about the fluid role of identity and time in the work of a creator who has always fought, so naturally, against stereotypes, and that has even played with the self-destruction of his prestige; on the other hand, the exhibition at Solar - Cinematic Art Gallery proposes a new reconfiguration of its installations and videographic works and explores the possibilities of an expanded cinema that did not come to the museum in order to sacralize itself or to seek a form of immortality, but rather in an attempt to infiltrate these territories, until recently negligent to integrate the moving image, with a festive and effervescent desire to play, to exercise as a real agent that provokes illuminations and unexpected connections.
His first film, “Cravan vs Cravan”, the diptych formed by “La leyenda del tempo” and “Entre dos aguas” (2018), and the revealing film-essay “La noche que no acaba” (2010) integrate this concise screenings that allows to untie many of the essential threads that make up the cinematographic discourse of a filmmaker who could have appropriated the maxim of the poet-boxer - or boxer-poet - who started his cinematographic trajectory: “Let us accept multiple”. Lacuesta accepts himself in his multiplicity, becomes Cravan, Augiéras, Ava Gardner, Marker or Isra - Camarón's successor that he never was - while his visual writing changes gender, mixes fiction and reality and configures a limbo of uncertainty which is a space for revelation. The public that discovers Lacuesta as a director in this screenings will only miss his anarcho-punk comedy, “Murieron por encima de sus possibilidades” (2014), which almost supposes his fall from grace as an author celebrated by critics and blessed by the festivals; his contribution to the memory of the ideological cinema, “Los Condenados” (2009), which calls into question its functionality in the present; his encounter with unusual gaming companions in the context of the internet post-humor, “Tres tristes triples” (2013), a play for the comic duo Venga Monjas; or his experience, very successful, with a commercial genre as codified as the “thriller” in “La propera pell” (2016).
“This is the story of a ghost: Arthur Cravan, the poet and boxer who disappeared in 1916, in the Gulf of Mexico. We never knew what happened to him. The story of a ghost. My story”, says the narrator of “Cravan vs Cravan” at the opening of the film. His words seem like a declaration of principles and generate an eloquent echo: the character's words speak about the author's purposes. Cravan's elusive and ghostly nature contaminates the modes of representation of a film that plays with the forms of a police investigation based on a strategy that uses unreliable narrators to mimic the unknown nature of an identity that has decided to enter the territory of myth forever. The film, like all of Lacuesta's later works, is many things at the same time: a search for the double, a documentary that wants to be fiction and vice versa, a narrative maze that could have seduced Borges or Bioy Casares, a celebration of life as pure artistic creation, as a gesture that joins the vital with the aesthetic, in perfect harmony with the principles of who was Oscar Wilde's nephew, but, at the same time, he could be perceived as an immortal Dorian Gray who decided to leave his portrait for disappear on the night of the adventure, in the fog of the puzzle.
The reordering of the films and the artistic pieces that integrate Isaki Lacuesta's work gives rise to the emergence of new rhymes, such as when one remembers that the best cinematographic adapter of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” was Albert Lewin, the same creator of some of the images at the beginning of “La noche que no acaba”. The thirty-five years that separate Ava Gardner's resplendent face in Lewin's “Pandora” (1951), from her twilight counterpart in William Hale's television production “Harem” (1986), mark the distance that takes the double steps de Lacuesta in this documentary that, in principle, seems to adapt the powerful essay “Beberse la vida”, by Marcos Ordóñez. The book also tried to evoke a ghost or a void, about which the official biographies of the movie star always spent on tiptoe: the years that the actress of “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954) spent in Spain, disappeared in a perpetual Dionysian celebration that it could be the reverse of a self-destructive death drive. Ordóñez's book told this story in prose through the electrifying testimonies, in first person, of those who saw his life transformed by this hurricane. Lacuesta's film, however, uses a poetic tone that proposes rhymes between images while the film travels through a present dominated by the absence of many of the witnesses who had managed to interview the writer, and who, like Ava herself, have already entered the territory of the invisible - or myth.
Another time gap move away “La leyenda del tempo” and “Entre dos aguas”: the twelve years that separate young Isra - that teenager who changed his voice and lost the potential to be the new Camarón - from adult Isra who, in the first sequence from Lacuesta's most recent film, watches the birth of his daughter during a temporary license from the prison where he serves his sentence. “La leyenda del tempo” mixed two stories in a virtuous way: that of Isra, his brother and his family; and that of the Japanese woman who travels to Cádiz, obsessed with the spell of Camarón. “Entre dos aguas” proposes to retake the characters and environments of the first story through a work of stylistic purification that erases what in this previous film could have been perceived as construction. However, nothing is what it seems in Lacuesta's cinema, and in this last film, which takes the form of a pure fragment of life, there is an ingenious trap: the director deals with the same condition of extreme realism, apparently free from any manipulation, both the gestures and the bodies of his protagonists as well as his fears, fantasies and dreams. Just one example: Isra was never arrested, although childbirth - and much of what we see in the film - is strictly real; but that possibility of a life without freedom is part of the deepest fears of the actor who is interpreting himself, because he knows that he is conditioned by social circumstances that shorten the limit that exists between stability and integration in the face of a fall. The one who seems to disappear in this film, as if it were Cravan (or Houdini), is Lacuesta himself, for having created the illusion of a camera that limits itself to recording while making invisible the intricate construction of a set capable of abolishing time with a simple clean cut in the editing.
It is inevitable to think of Epstein when faced with the oldest piece in the exhibition: these “Microscopías” (2003) that bring together the languages of science and poetry to play with the game of scales, which, through quantum physics, can only end when we assume that uncertainty and ambiguity create the essential substance of the universe. It is also inevitable to think about Kamus, from “El sexto sentido”, in front of another work on display, “Goggle Earth 1.0”, co-created with Isa Campo, which took here the form of a double screen, but which generated a series of complementary videos during its process, that made it possible to face the subjectivity of looking at the territory in the face of the illusory and apparent objectivity of the technological image registered by the satellites: the most revealing, and also the most secret, is precisely what omits the Holy Digital Objectivity and which, therefore, can only be unraveled through singular subjectivities.
He is an alchemist, capable of transubstantiating his materials, as a witness of what he managed to do with some Super-8 tapes veiled in his correspondence with Naomi Kawase, or the pirouette he dedicates to Benny Moré - or to his stunt - in a fragment of “Ou en êtes-vous?”, Lacuesta spent a lot of time preparing a film / television project inscribed in the generic codification of true crime. However, as ambiguity lovers are condemned to never meet with certainty, that crime has not been clarified and the project has also failed to materialize. However, the installation “L’acusat” (2019) emerges from its materials, which here takes on a different form than it had in other exhibitions: around this altarpiece of identity and oppressive images, the title refers to the empty space that should be occupied by the false culprit, who spent three years in prison, in the middle of a judicial maze unable to determine the territory of the truth.
The incongruous fusion between the ritual and the more mechanical and dehumanized meat industry is the center of the speech of “El rito” (2011), a brutal miniature that culminates in the live disarticulation of a potential political metaphor, a game of magic that makes this short-film a new version of “Le sang des bêtes” (1949), tailored to our present of multicultural perplexity. Finally, the set of pieces that make up “Lunaby” (2015), “Ramírez 11012017” (2017) and the recent “Fatherless” (2020) and “Grito pelao” (2020) delves into a poetic and liberating potential of a format - the musical video - that provides an intense dialogue between artistic sensibilities, when it is not mediated by the demands of the record industry.
However, what this writer can say about the pieces in this exhibition dedicated to Isaki Lacuesta’s para-cinematographic work is only a provisional approach that must be revised, because the pieces I write about are not exactly the ones that will be seen later, for having already transformed. Its arrangement in the spaces of the Cinematic Art Gallery will introduce hues and variables that are impossible to predict before closing this text. Some nuances and variables that, probably, will do no more than confirm the singularity of Isaki Lacuesta as the oldest of the filmmakers of the future.