P:O.V. No.11 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, PEEPSHOW

The Finnish Icebreaker

Morten Riis

Las Nueve Vidas begins with the Spanish title, two maracas in the same frame as the title, the sound of salsa music, and the cheers of an audience. These four elements give us some idea as to the environment in which the story is about to unfold, and they do so even before we have seen the first picture. The first shot of the film supports the hypothesis that the events in this fiction film could be taking place in Spain or even in South America, because the first thing we see is a band playing the salsa music heard on the soundtrack. The shot is not redundant in relation to the title, but rather anchors the soundtrack and confirms our earlier hypothesis about the location.

To be exact, the first shot doesn't show an entire salsa band playing. Visible from the start are only the hands of three band members. The full picture of these band members and of the rest of the band is revealed afterwards as the camera tracks away from the stage and into the crowd. In the tracking shot we especially take notice of the bass player who is looking uneasy for reasons soon to be revealed. His attitude is contrary to the spontaneous feeling of joy one would naturally associate with almost any kind of live musical performance and perhaps especially with salsa rhythms. The glistening of the 'golden' suit he is wearing further marks his presence in the room, where all the other colors are less dominant. The camera keeps tracking back, revealing more people. Among these are an elderly, almost bald man dancing with a young woman, a woman dancing with another woman, a man standing with his back to the camera looking at the band, a crewcut man in his late twenties (with a mechanical and awkward dancing style) obviously interested in a blonde girl in a red dress, who is emotionally involved with the music. She is also being watched by another man, who is older than the first and dressed as though he was at a carnival or a New Year's Eve party. She is not taking notice of any of them. The tracking movement has stopped, and so does the music. Everyone turns to applaud the band.

These are highlights from the first of the twelve shots which constitute Las Nueve Vidas. We begin with an impression of coherence between text, sound and picture, but as the camera starts tracking, that coherence is questioned by the appearance of various people. Something is not right. Although the people in the audience seem to be having a good time - and therefore fit well in the context - the way their identity is revealed mystifies us somewhat. The tracking camera makes us notice these characters. We do so while wondering why we have been invited to do so. We are given a lot of information through body language and gestures. So instead of a clear introduction, for instance, to the main character of the film, we are introduced to a variety of people, which puts us off as an audience, because we are not sure where the narration is going and which parts of it most deserve our attention.

The second shot confirms with a close-up that the bass player plays a central part in the film. He still has an uneasy expression on his face. However, he thanks the audience for the applause, bows, and rapidly puts his instrument away.

With the following shot, our hypothesis about the location is negated. The film, we now realize, is not set in a warm, southern part of Europe or America but in a cold, snow-clad Finland, where people obviously just like to wriggle to the music from other parts of the world. That these Finns wish to be somewhere else is understandable on the basis of climate alone.

Some people are dancing in the snow in front of the house where the trumpet player is now having a cigarette on the veranda. Nobody seems to be leaving the place for good, the interruption is only a short break, and people are only going outside to relieve themselves. We don't really know this yet, but another tracking shot of our key figure tells us so. We now know why the bass player, whose 'golden' suit outside looks more like silver, looked so uneasy before, or at least we think we know. Automatically, we try to create coherence between his enigmatic character and his actions. Perhaps we would be right in doing so, but the opposite is also a possibility - not that he doesn't need to relieve himself, this just might not be the whole solution to the enigma that he is.

The truth, which at this point perhaps still seems a bit farfetched, could therefore be that there isn't necessarily any coherence within this series of shots; and if there is, that the coherence primarily arises from the viewer's reading of the film.

The outdoor toilet, to which the bass player goes, is for men only. This was not the case in the room where the concert was held, where both genders were represented as well as different age groups and maybe also different sexual tendencies. With the exception of the 'golden' bass player, who was singled out from the beginning, and some tensions that may or may not exist between some of the other people present, the ballroom seems in some sense to be characterised as a "tolerant" place.

The bass player's urge is obviously so powerful, that he can't wait until the queue of Finnish men between him and the toilet has disappeared, and he therefore tries, without any luck, to skip over the line. The threshold of tolerance has been crossed, the other men send him away, and he has no other option but to relieve himself somewhere else.

Oddly enough, it seems that only men are waiting in line to go to the toilet. There is just one woman waiting her turn in the women's line. Do Finnish women not urinate as much as Finnish men? Are there culturally and nationally defined differences relating to the different ways in which men and women relieve themselves? No matter what the answers to those sociological riddles may be, where are the women? All sorts of questions like these keep popping up, and although this shot ought to clarify some of the problems, the traditional connection between truth on the one hand and clarity and lucidity on the other, is absent. Some coherence and contexts could be claimed to be illuminated in this shot, others continue to be eclipsed or are given to us in impenetrable and obscure connections.

With the fourth shot we are informed of the whereabouts of the women: they are passing water among some trees, which is quite weird considering the short line at the women's toilet and the physical difficulties that this practice involves for women. Without wishing to sound sexist, I would nevertheless suggest that men seem to be better built for this kind of thing. That the women do so anyhow, just emphasizes the reverse and bizarre order of this universe. The rationality of the public toilets is mirrored in the way these women demarcate the area where they are peeing, and the bass player, who represents manhood and otherness, is not allowed within this marked-off territory. Neither the males nor the females accept him on his own terms, and he has to look for a place of his own.

He finds this, an open space with trees in the background, in the fifth shot. This time the shot does not develop as a tracking shot, but the exact place, where he is about to urinate, is immediately shown as another demarcated area. The spot is marked by a small, red flag and even though the bass player is running in the background and the flag is in the foreground, there is, even from the very beginning of the shot, no doubt that this is where he is heading. This scene of the film is a comic highpoint, and it is probably the absurd situation in itself that inspires the laughs. It is absurd that out in the middle of nowhere there should appear a place reserved for him and his waste products. That this place is marked with a flag seems to suggest an intentionality, as though he were meant to do his thing there. The contrast between his impossible situation and the idea of a greater coherence or of destiny creates a cavity, which we fill up with laughter. It is also amusing and maybe absurd, without being unusual, that the bass player - as do most males, by the way - has to pass water onto something, as if someone or something had to suffer for his own lack of self-confidence after his previous rejections by males as well as females. While he is in the middle of doing his business, his attention is caught by something off-screen. He looks up, and at this moment, the film's first point-of-view figure has begun.

The next shot shows a big ferry moving forward at great speed. Because the ferry is framed by the picture, it is difficult to notice the zoom-out that the camera performs, but it is likely to be noticed when the bass player appears in what at first appears to be his own point of view. This deviation from the traditional language or logic of film and of film editing, calls attention to the obviousness of this tradition, and the unproblematic manner in which it works. A similar shot can be found in De Sica's Ladri di biciclette, where the shot is a unique one because of its contrast to the film's almost self-eclipsing, repressed and realistic form. In contrast to this, Las Nueve Vidas demonstrates a general form of exhibitionism, a distinctly reflexive attitude towards the traditional coherence of film editing and - in relation to this - also to film narration.

From this point in the film, that is from shot six to shot eleven, the film's language as well as the main character, skate on thin ice, and among these few shots we find one more "fake" point of view and a match shot which has the same obtrusive effect as a jump cut. Causality hasn't been suspended after all, the ferry still breaks the ice on which the bass player is standing, but the narration of the film is very surprising because new and unknown causes and effects are involved in it. The audience has no way of knowing that the foundation of the place where the bass player passes water is made of ice, and therefore the shot of the ferry takes us by surprise. Form and substance support each other brilliantly, and the formally experimental part of the film supports the narration, too. The surreal fingerprint of the film is not in opposition to the general language of film, but the film establishes a grammar of its own which fits the absurd tale it is telling.

In this unpleasant and dangerous situation in which the bass player has ended, there is, however, still light. At first, everything gets worse. As the ice breaks under his feet, he almost falls in the water and his one leg gets entangled in a fishing net. He nevertheless manages to pull himself up, and he finds, to his great amusement, another creature caught in the net: it is a big fish. As if he is somehow balanced by this, the bass player cheerfully begins his return to the safe and well-known by jumping from one icefloe to another.

The narrative structure of Las Nueve Vidas resembles that of the romantic novel of formation. The story ends where it first began, "home", and between these two points, the key figure goes on a journey into the unknown, so that he can return with wisdom and other goods. The goods often represent wisdom, as in our case the fish represents one of The Nine Lives that the bass player originally had at his disposal.

With the last shot the film returns to the interior. We're back at the concert, the dominant colour is red and everything seems to be in better harmony than at the beginning of the film. The film language that opened the short is now used again. We see a tracking shot moving from a "red" woman, who seems to be having a very good time, through the audience and ending with the bass player - the opposite movement of the one that started the film. The bass player's suit has a "golden" look again, and he is looking as if he is now full of energy and in good shape. He is laughing to the audience (to us and to the audience in the film), twinkling with his eye and has his charm turned on. The camera follows his gaze as he looks back, thereby allowing us to see the fish lying on the amplifier and flapping its tale, and the film ends with the picture of him, amused by this remembrance of fate's favour.

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