Alonso’s Fantasma and Nikolaidis’s Morning Patrol
Lisandro Alonso’s post-apocalypse film of art-house demise, also known as Fantasma, climaxes with a lonely man in a movie theater. We spend one hour waiting for this image of a solitary figure watching a bright screen: a torso emerging from one seat among a row of seats and all the other empty rows extending towards the screen where the projected phantoms play. We view the film alongside or from behind the silhouette. He is eventually joined by a man and a woman, but the climactic image of the torso and the bright screen has already established that, whatever company might appear, the lonely man will remain essentially lonely. Yet he does not mope. He does not try to infiltrate society. He does not battle against it. He has accepted his solitude. Our brave moviegoer is serenely lonely. He is also the principal actor of the film he is watching: a previous work by Lisandro Alonso called Los Muertos. Our solitary figure escapes into the screen that holds his own self, albeit a contented version of himself boating across a rural landscape. He is now in the big city spying on his rural past through flickering celluloid, trapped in a massive arts-venue called the San Martin Complex. We assume that he will return to the rural landscape once the film ends, but during the hour-long journey of Fantasma, he is enveloped in an alien urbanity that provides no welcome niche.
No connection is made between the two fellow moviegoers or between one of them and the protagonist film star. All three briefly inhabit a space together. Their separate paths cross for a tiny stretch before continuing in different directions. The woman tries to build a feeble bridge, hoping to chat with the film star after the screening’s end. The resulting small talk is empty. She likes the film and mutters a vague compliment about the filmmaking. We are very far from an analysis or a deep appreciation. The natural world on the screen, for this well-intentioned woman, remains an exotic Other Place.
We have seen this woman before working inside the San Martin Complex. She is not obligated to watch the film nor is her job necessarily connected to the film screenings. The movie theater is just one feature of the Complex, which also has areas reserved for stage performance, photography, and music. Whatever her job is, it bores her. She decides to escape from her awful little office and her trivial paperwork. Minutes later, she’s lingering by the exit to the Complex. The glass doors leading out to the city, to the active and literature-friendly Corrientes Avenue, reveal a daytime scene of blinding daylight and innumerable pedestrians. She halts, dawdles by the doors, and considers the threatening sight beyond the glass panes . Alonso anchors his camera inside the Complex.
Before long the Complex inhabits its own spatiotemporal bubble, detached from Buenos Aires. We can hear the sounds of the cars and the crowds. Yet these noises are like the distant and garbled remnants of surface conversations when we are submerged underwater: the sounds are close, very close, so close we can touch their source, and yet these sounds are also coming from a different reality where you can breathe and there is no water. The source of the noises is both right there and not there at all. We have an analogue to that agonizing situation in dreams where we scream and alert people about incoming threats and nobody recognizes our existence. In the case of Fantasma, the sounds come from a world that ignores us. Since the camera traps us within the Complex, we are also doomed to inhabit this building and its peculiar bubble. We are in harmony with the characters in their immersive imprisonment.
Back in the movie theater, with the serenely lonely movie star and his two nameless partners: we are nearing the end of the universe, the great conflagration. Fantasma kills itself and becomes Los Muertos. Suddenly, we are not watching a man watching a movie. We have left the movie theater and have jumped into the screened film. After half an hour of cramped interiors, the trees and the river greet us. And when the projector stops its rolling and we return to the urban Fantasma, this latter film begins to crawl towards its vanishing, like an extended final exhaling.
The characters clumsily part ways after the movie. The bored woman has her small talk and exits without fanfare. The lonely film star departs quietly into a doorway. And there is a third party, a bogeyman. He is there in the background as a reflection in a mirror. He nervously approaches the film star like a serial killer. He rips the movie tickets in half. Perhaps he is not a monster. Perhaps he is another lonely man, save distraught in his loneliness. His efforts to connect with the film star are like the jittery approaches of a shy adolescent, blubbering words towards the object of his affections. Fantasma translates into Ghost. Three ghosts look at spectral images and then disappear: that is the story of Fantasma. Bodies in a labyrinthine building roam and explore and yet remain isolated. They are like billiard balls driven around by an inept player. Three balls in a restricted space and they manage not to crash, missing each other endlessly.
A torso seated in an empty row and all the other empty rows succeeding each other toward the screen. It is the image next to the precipice, moments before Fantasma is replaced by Los Muertos. Only the cinema allows a place for relationships. While the movie unfolds, the girl, the film star, and the bogeyman all share the space of the screen. This shared space is not necessarily an antidote to loneliness. But it inspires small talk between the girl and the film star. Not much, but it is a short-lived respite from the isolation they quickly return to.
The climactic image in Fantasma, with the movie theater and the torso, echoes a matching image in Morning Patrol by Nikos Nikolaidis. There too does the image surface, albeit in a different context. The apocalypse in Fantasma hides from view. There are no barren wastelands nor overwhelming death tolls. Nobody has died and there have been no bombs. But, for our protagonists, everyone else is as good as dead. In Morning Patrol, this suspicion is a reality. There has been death and there was a war. There are dozens of empty houses, few people to meet, and those who might be met usually promise mortal danger rather than friendship. Our protagonist is lonely and her loneliness is simultaneously like the serene loneliness of the film star and the desperate longing of the bogeyman. She appears to cope well by herself. But when she finds a companion, a male counterpart, she is quick to build an attachment.
Before she finds him, however, she makes the mistake of relaxing in a movie theater. She cannot remember what disaster has befallen mankind. The old films projected on the silver screen are pieces of a past that lies on the other side of the cataclysmic event that has swallowed up history and recollection. Cinema is distant. Its images are immaterial. They can only be remembered. The memory that has been lost is replaced by the memory of films that comprise the only past that can now become memory. This replacement is no antidote. It is a semblance of salvation that ends with the celluloid strip. In her movie-going pleasure, she is attacked by a street gang.
Empty rows and lonely viewers. For them, the evanescent fictions open windows to what is lost. When the projector dims and the lonely viewers are plunged back into the hostile environment that awaits them outside the movie theater, the only way they find to survive is to move. There is much traveling in Fantasma and Morning Patrol. Aimless walking seems preferable to stillness. The characters are prey and their predatory surroundings will catch them unless they hurry and avoid the traps. There is no time for friendship and relationships, and even if there were time, the perpetual escape has instilled distrust. Made vulnerable by predatory surroundings, no one is strong enough to engage another. Desolate cities offer up melancholy emptiness, yet this emptiness is also a safe haven. People have grown accustomed to their vacant lots, where other human beings are non-issues. Fellow citizens are potential enemies. Morning Patrol portrays an exception after fifty minutes of solitude. She meets her male counterpart and they travel together. In Fantasma, small talk is the greatest possible achievement.
The only way to survive is to move, but the characters pause for cinema. Our protagonists escape into the silver screen and leave behind a residual silhouette. The restraining walls cannot perpetuate their iron rule in the imagined plane where viewer meets film. Cinema is an escape, but not escapist. The flight is into a past that is at odds with the present, the unknown past missing from a dystopic world without history, or the cherished rural past that finds no echo in the impenetrable urban present. Characters move to find the past they have left behind. Not finding it, they settle for the movies.