Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Concrete Music: On The Films of Alexandra Cuesta

ratio

“As the years pass everything ends.”

Teresa María Terán, in TERRITORIO

 

“From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

 

Black, cut to image with the prow of a boat – moving fast through the water – and a figure seen in full from behind.

So it begins – in motion and at sea. I am transfixed by this fixed composition, yet my mind wanders freely.

Everything in the image is distinct, yet of such a similar palette that it forms a single impression. The boat, the figure, the sea, the clouds: all appear as one (which is not to say the same) – and strike me at once.

It is a long shot – over two minutes – long enough to feel its duration. The image is dark, underexposed, the sky dark as well, with a grey blue silver hue. It must be dawn. The sky is overcast, but there is light behind the clouds. This contributes to the sense that there is no external light source, but rather that the light is immanent, coming from the objects–or even the image itself.

A whistling sound – is it a signal? Another boat enters the frame–a brief moment of exhilaration: will they collide? Instead, the boat passes in front, turns toward the horizon – the boat that the camera is on passes over the other’s wake. It is an exciting interruption in a shot whose overall impression is otherwise still and quiet (though it is in fact comprised of speed and noise).

Cut to black, then the title – TERRITORIO – appears, thin white letters on a black ground.

Why begin here? Why start the movie with this long, droning, silver music that nonetheless hits? Yes, whenever I think back on it, it hits me; I feel it. Or rather, I remember the feeling of that hit – black, cut to image with the prow of a boat – and feel this remembrance as an impact.

It is powerful – and also a familiar feeling when I think back on the whole of Alexandra Cuesta’s cinema. What accounts for this?

***

Cinema, like music, happens to the body. Fragments – of people, places, spaces, and times – combine inside us. That is, cinema does not happen to our eyes, as so much of the literature would have us believe; it happens inside us: a kind of apperception by interior touch.[1]

The image in cinema is not necessarily composed of an individual shot; as Walter Benjamin writes, it “consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.”[2] That is, an image can be made of many and happens because of the others around it. The image happens over and because of time; and if the camera holds for a long time, as in the opening to TERRITORIO, one image can become many–that is, even as it continues, it also continues to move away from us: in cinema, we are always in the midst of the image and its wake.[3]

Over time, fragments combine to produce an impact, a feeling, a weight, a sensation: an image we know by interior touch. Is this why cinema can make my heart swell in ways a photograph never can?

I never feel this so acutely as when I watch certain films of Alexandra Cuesta’s, or more precisely, certain images in her films. Each of these moments is fleeting – almost painfully so, for, momentarily, I feel that I would like to live in that light forever – but they are also untimely. That is, when I think back on this body of work, it reduces down to these special few, prized images that – even in my memory of them – have the power to touch. These images are poignant: they pierce; they make me ache.

I have long thought of this quality in relation to Cuesta’s work, but have never been able to adequately describe it, even less so to account for it. Of course, even as I try now, I may fail; what’s worse, perhaps–as Barthes says in Camera Lucida–I will only almost find words for this feeling: “The almost: love’s dreadful regime, but also the dream’s disappointing status.”[4] I will try to show, however, how this particular almost–the desire we have for images to deliver an essence they never can–is important in Cuesta’s cinema, for there is an operative longing that animates her oeuvre, an intertwining of intense beauty and a sense of loss that is as inextricable from her images as the light itself.

***

There are at least two movements to cinema; neither one arises from what the image represents, but rather what it does–what it accomplishes. First, cinema shatters the world into fragments, fragments we then combine: an image. Second, this image occurs over and because of time, and therefore is always moving into the past. Cinema does not make the past present, in fact, it reveals that the present is not a moment, but a movement, a stream.

The image in cinema moves away from us in time – therefore our experience of it is always of something that is past and “cannot be arrested,” what Benjamin refers to as a state of distraction rather than contemplation.[5] This may be the condition of cinema, but I believe in some films we feel this brutal fact: that the experience of time is loss. On the shock of the cut, Benjamin writes: “The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change.”[6] Cinema is perhaps the art form most suited to depicting the loss and longing that is time itself, because we must experience it even as we watch.

Even the title of Cuesta’s first film, Recordando el Ayer (2007), evokes this longing: remembering yesterday, the past. A portrait of an Ecuadorian neighbourhood in Queens, New York, the opening inscription reads: dedicado a los que se van (dedicated to those who leave). Death and migration make it acute, but in truth everything is ever left behind. This involves grief, of course, but that is not all. Following Édouard Glissant, we see how this can be generative, how “exile can be seen as beneficial” and errantry [errance] and rerouting [détournement] creative of a poetics – of a potential identity that is not within the root but the rhizome, what he terms Relation. According to Glissant, however, this is only potential, not a given–even errantry can be its own form of immobility; to become a poetics, it must be détourned.[7]

***

Cinema shatters. But this is not – or not necessarily – violent. It is a shattering without breaking, a breaking up that is generative. It fragments our world. A fragment has power, so much potential: it has the ability to go in many directions – is not fixed but fluid. A fragment as fragment retains this ability, its potentiality.[8]

In most movies, it is as though this power is too much and must be brought to bear: editing involves assembly, putting things together so that they make “sense.” Fragments that have been assembled begin to resemble things: they choose a direction, become located, limit the possibilities. Instead of assembling shards, however, Cuesta makes them proliferate. Fragments form a composition, an image, over time. That is, the fragment remains a fragment, which allows it to form connections with others without collapsing or coalescing into a unary thing. It remains multiple and en route as opposed to singular and stationary. Simply put, it is open, not closed.

This is perhaps most evident in Notes, Imprints (On Love): Part I (2020), a personal film made from swatches of image, sound, and text (including the quote from Camera Lucida that opens this essay). Here, even the landscape seems to fragment, with empty lots and abandoned buildings forming a loose series of anti-landmarks instantly recognizable as the deindustrial North. When a close-up appears – halfway through the film, a cut from brilliant fall foliage to a face: radiant, confident, in three-quarters profile – it is shocking. The portrait holds briefly before it flares and cuts to a wide shot of snow falling, accompanied by a sound like the clicks and pops of a well-worn record. This marks a turn in the movie toward the domestic and amid still lifes of house plants, hardwood, and snow-covered furniture are hints of the end of a relationship. The final intertitle suggests this when – in lowercase letters placed, almost provisionally, in the lower right-hand corner of the frame – it reads, (the end of love), interrupting and recasting all that has come before.

Here as elsewhere, Cuesta turns the fragment to her advantage. This is what brings her disparate work together. Cuesta’s fragment is not or not only the abstraction a close-up creates, it is more like glimpses, little flashes or pieces of things, not a “strategy,” so to speak, neither technique nor style. Rather, the images are fragments – and something happens within and between them: points evoking a field, evanescent flickers on the surface of a sea.

In Cuesta’s cinema, we never see a thing in its totality, only flashes, yet together these flashes evoke something tangible: a sense of a place or a person, or else a mood, an atmosphere. They are “Actualités” in the old sense – and in this way differ from most documentary films. Many of her works are “city films,” to be sure, but even here the logic is the opposite of a city symphony. Each film is a mosaic: fragments arranged into a composition. Even so, this composition is open, permeable, whereas one always senses in a city symphony its desire for completeness – a total representation or a representation of totality (Glissant’s term for this is generalization, which he characterizes as totalitarian). Cuesta’s work undoes this. Composed of fragments, it is intentionally incomplete. It lets the world in.

This is true even in her long-duration shots, such as the opening to TERRITORIO. A different sort of film would open with an establishing shot – expository and orienting – whereas here, the first shot dislocates, disorients, is never fixed, but fluid. The title card isolates it from the rest of the film, makes it a fragment: separate, apart. It is a prelude, not an introduction. Yet it also radiates out and touches the others. With no singular, concrete connection, it suggests many, not just one. It is in and of motion, and long enough that we cannot but reflect on this, or rather feel it, for we encounter the image in “a state of distraction.”[9]

I want to be clear: I do not wish to suggest that this image operates either symbolically or through metaphor. It simply does these things, it does not mean them. None of the images in Cuesta’s work signify, that is, they are not rhetorical and do not form arguments. The images do not “speak” – even when the person in them is speaking. Instead, each shot radiates. There is a special kind of light in her films that certainly contributes to this radiance, but that is not exclusively what I refer to here. Rather, each shot radiates out, making connections with the others (as well as with us, the viewers). The fragment glows, producing a warmth that touches the others around it. There is no contest of light and dark, as in Expressionist cinema; it is a cinema of all light, all relation, emanating out from each shot, forming connections.[10]

***

This is especially profound in Despedida (Farewell) (2012). Here the light is achieved by cutting together unlikely things: documentary footage breaks up/is broken up by a portrait: performance footage of the poet Mapkaulu Roger Nduku. In the opening shot, a tall chain link fence frames what looks like afternoon football practice, the first blush of twilight just beginning to purple the horizon. Two closeups of the players seem to intensify the warm key light of the low-angle Los Angeles sun, its highlights rhyming with their red and gold uniforms. The poet’s voice begins: “I stood / Stood and watched / Watched, the half moon, rise / Catty corner from the ballpark / Across the divide… .” Cut to black, then a close-up of Nduku, off centre, against a painted-red brick wall in bright daylight, the camera so close we cannot see his whole face. He moves in the frame, almost out of it at times, looks down, then at the camera, down then at the camera for a long time. So distinct, so surprising is the move from observational footage to portrait-through-performance this image creates, that, though I have seen it many times, the fact that there is a clear connection between the poem and the football field never occurred to me. Instead, when I think back on this image, what I retain – that is, what touches me – is the light, the light that is intensified by the cuts that create it. The light is immanent: it comes from the image: late afternoon football cut to close-up. It is not recorded, it is created by this cut and so it includes not only the fence, the football field, the players, the face, but the poet’s voice, his words, their repetition, his cadence, the cut to black, his pause at the end of his poem: an image, made of fragments over time.

I am moved even as I remember and try to describe it. I feel I cannot quite express what happens in that cut, why it seems to me so important and so powerful. It is creative; that much is clear. Its poetry reroutes the images, giving rise to a profound sense of beauty and loss. Without changing them – the fragments remain fragments – it changes their direction, makes them circulate.

***

As in these images from Despedida and Notes, Imprints (On Love), there is almost always an atmosphere of portraiture, of both people and places, in Cuesta’s work; but it is the people, especially, that hold the most power.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes writes of what he describes as the phenomenological difference between cinema and photography: that “in the Photograph, something has posed” in front of the camera “and has remained there forever; but in cinema, something has passed” in front of the camera: “the pose is swept away and denied by the continuous series of images.”[11] Again, the image in cinema moves away from us in time, which is part of how it produces affect.

In Cuesta’s films, however, I believe we encounter both modes that Barthes describes. At the very least, Cuesta’s background in photography is evident in her films. Walter Benjamin once described the effect of the extremely long exposure times necessary for early photographs as teaching “the models to live inside rather than outside the moment” such that “they grew as it were into the picture.”[12] In Cuesta’s films, I believe we see something similar, albeit by different means: the duration, the framing, and the collaborative relationship between filmmaker and filmed invites her subjects to grow slowly into the image over time, even or especially as they acknowledge the presence of the camera. We see people’s comfort and discomfort with being photographed, how this changes over time and, even then, how it does not change in one direction only.

A special look: a look towards the camera. As Barthes writes, “in film, no one ever looks at me: it is forbidden: by the Fiction.”[13] Cuesta, though, has made a practice of it. In a lecture on cinema, Gilles Deleuze says, “What has always been criticized in close-ups is precisely the camera-look, when a face shot in close-up looks at the camera. Clearly this produces a quite special effect, but if the special effect is not absolutely necessary, it’s a catastrophe.”[14] This “quite special effect,” the camera-look, is at the heart of Cuesta’s films. In Cuesta, it is not a self-reflexive manoeuvre – what Deleuze criticizes in Ingmar Bergman, for instance. It does not say, “See? This is cinema.” – though it is a cinematic self-consciousness. Here, however, it is the subject that achieves self-consciousness, in cinema.

In Cuesta’s long portraits, we get people looking to and away from the lens, and it is both things that are very special; it is not that they signify–yes, cinema as a construction is present, but that is not all it says, or rather, it is not all the people have to say about themselves. For Cuesta’s cinema is a curious, but powerful combination of intensely formal (note the frequent use of strongly asymmetrical framing) and spontaneous and collaborative.

Cut to the torso of a man in a white polo shirt with black stripes. He is framed by the black rectangle of an open door. On either side of this doorway is a hand-painted mural: an ocean scene. Guitar music and a hand drum begin to play; in a moment, the music will reveal itself to be diegetic–but first, he looks side to side several times before looking into the lens, then away again. He starts to sing, moving a little with the music, occasionally looking straight into the camera. It is striking: an image, music, moving beyond words.

This is the special pleasure of so many of Cuesta’s images: over the course of a shot, for however long it takes, an individual comes to be themselves in such a way that we perceive not only them, but the fact that they are alive: that is, we see life, time itself. To do so, they must be vulnerable before the camera and this vulnerability is not only visible but communicable. It is touching. It is the very coming and going of this vulnerability, these looks to and from the camera, the movements over the face in waves, that wounds: a self-consciousness and cinema-consciousness that is created but not staged: it clearly comes into being.

For the self-consciousness we perceive is precisely a person becoming cinema-conscious before our eyes, which in turn induces an empathetic rather than a reflexive cinema-consciousness in us, the viewers: that is, in Benjamin’s terms, we receive their consciousness in a state of distraction and are all the more receptive to it because it is so. We relate.

Witnessing this vulnerability, this becoming, over and over again is exhausting, depleting, the way that beauty always is. When we see life, we cannot be far from its shadow; whenever we touch beauty, death too is close at hand. Perhaps this is why Cuesta’s films are all relatively short–and why TERRITORIO feels absolutely full at just 66 minutes. It is enough.

***

Another image, also from TERRITORIO, another kind of cinema-consciousness. First, a landscape: a jungle scene with a dirt road receding into the distance. Slowly, a dog walks along this road, approaching the camera in a halting way (another kind of camera-look). Cut, but the sound of birds appears to carry over into the next shot: a woman sitting beside a rainbow-painted wall with the words Night Club Diabluras on it, taking up the left half of the frame. In addition to the bird sound, there is loud, reverberant music and, though we cannot hear what she says, we see she is speaking on a cell phone, playing with her flip flops. For reasons I cannot entirely explain, the flip flop, which she distractedly slips on and off while she talks, is what Barthes refers to as a punctum – it pierces. In fact, it is one of the most striking images I know. At one point, she turns slightly–because the flip flop falls off; she reaches for it with her foot – and I see that she is pregnant; another punctum. Then the filmmaker claps her hands in front of the lens and the diegetic (but is it?) music stops while the bird sound continues–and continues on into the next shot of people swimming in a river.

Now, this hand clap is recognizable as a rough and ready way to synch sound and image when recording in the field and, in a certain style of documentary cinema, there is a long tradition of inserting (or leaving) these claps in to rhetorically signal the constructedness of the image (and, by extension, truth). This may echo that tradition, but that does not explain it, nor can it account at all for its poignancy – on the contrary, if anything, it should be less poignant by virtue of its being cliché. Instead, coming late as they do in the film – for this is the second of two such claps, the first occurs around 45 minutes and the second around 51 minutes into a 66-minute movie – they break whatever spell the image may have temporarily cast over me. No, it is not quite right to say they “break the spell,” for they create another kind of magic altogether. They puncture the diegesis and, in doing so, they touch me.

Like a temporal version of the off-centre framing that marks so many of her compositions, their very asymmetry, coming as they do only in the second half of the film, are part of what makes them special, part of what makes them fragment the image – an image which at this point may have been threatening to choose a direction. The claps détourn the images and we are again in a poetics of rerouting. As fragments then, they continue to circulate, not take root. There is no generalization here, only movement.

***

Cuesta’s cinema is made of fragments – and in turn it fragments us. Together, we make a shifting formation, radiating out and touching one another: a tactile cinema whose light and truth is beauty, love, and loss. To live is to lose – “As the years pass everything ends.” Thus life is a series of losses, little aches that let me know I’m alive.

Because of their beauty, their power, and their poetry, I feel this acutely when I watch Cuesta’s films: I feel that I am alive.

 

Madison Brookshire lives in Los Angeles, where he makes films, paintings, and performances. His work invites viewers to become aware of perceptual processes and the sensuous experience of time. He frequently collaborates with musicians and composers, such as LCollective, Laura Steenberge, Mark So, and Tashi Wada. He is currently a Lecturer at University of California Riverside in the Departments of Art and the History of Art.


Footnotes

[1] This is an idea I derive, in part, from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Incidentally, Benjamin also writes of a connection between the shock of Dada (notably, the “word salad” of the Dada poets in particular: all the trappings of language, but in fragments) and what he calls the tactile element of cinema. He writes that Dada “hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality,” and in so doing predicted, or what’s more, “promoted a demand for film.” I think of this “hit” often as I write about Cuesta’s work. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 2007), 238.

[2] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 234.

[3] I believe this is in part what Gilles Deleuze refers to in his “Preface” to Cinema 2 when he writes: “It is not quite right to say that the cinematographic image is in the present. … The image itself is the system of relationships between its elements, that is, a set of relationships of time from which the variable present only flows.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), xii.

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 66. To Barthes I also owe the idea that an image can prick, pierce, or wound.

[5] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 238.

[6] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 238.

[7] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 18.

[8] Benjamin, of course, knew this power intimately: why The Arcades Project is made entirely of fragments–and montage his method of choice.

[9] Uncannily, roughly halfway through the film, the boat reappears, this time even darker and at anchor: a pendant or a double. The image of the boat then, both times, dislocates and détourns.

[10] Another filmmaker where we find this–interestingly, one who also makes portraits, perhaps even Actualités, albeit by way of fiction–is Pedro Costa. Costa’s cinema could also be considered a poetics of rerouting, of Relation. Costa’s best films, however, are almost entirely made up of interiors; in Cuesta, even the interiors seem porous, open: in a manner of speaking, in Cuesta, every shot is a landscape.

[11] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 78.

[12] Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” Screen 13, Issue 1 (Spring 1972): 17.

[13] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 111.

[14] Gilles Deleuze, “Seminar on Cinema: The Movement-Image; Lecture 10; February 23, 1982,” The Deleuze Seminars, trans. Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni, accessed June 20, 2022,