Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Truly Extraordinary Stories

In a tried and true film noir convention, a stranger comes to town. He is not particularly strange, nor is the town, but the resulting stories are unusually intricate and slippery in nature. Yet, it is the telling of them that is the whole point of Mariano Llinás’ obsessive-compulsive four-and-a-half-hour thriller Extraordinary Stories, which begins a special week-long run at MoMA today as part their retrospective celebration of Cinema Tropical’s tenth anniversary.

Actually, not one, but three unnamed strangers come to provincial Argentina for work that seems absurd, only to find themselves sidetracked by skullduggery of some sort or another. “Z” is supposed to be performing some sort of survey work, which the ubiquitous narrator tells us not to worry about at this stage, when he happens upon a lethal falling out between conspirators. Finding himself an inadvertent participant, Z largely sequesters himself shortly thereafter.

“X” has reluctantly accepted a figurehead position “managing” the regional office of something simply called “the Federation.” Initially, he fears getting stuck there like his anonymous predecessor. However, as he learns about the mysterious Cuevas, X becomes increasingly obsessed with the recently deceased bureaucrat. “H” has also accepted a job that makes no sense to him. Yet, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation why he was hired to photograph old concrete markers placed along the river, which is explained in detail during Extraordinary’s first of many flashbacks.

Extraordinary is a lot like an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel, accept it has a recognizable plot. In fact, it has a whole mess of plot, bursting with flashbacks, back-story, and red herrings. At one point a tangential character even appropriates Z’s plot line, but considering how much time he spends hiding in his hotel room, viewers can hardly blame Lola Gallo, the narrative femme fatale.

While the comparisons to the literary gamesmanship of Borges and Cortázar are obvious, Llinás more or less keeps matters grounded in reality. Despite the film’s many lingering mysteries, he surprisingly establishes the truth of just what did and did not happen in a number of instances with explicit clarity. As a result, viewers are more likely to be dazzled by his elaborate puzzle than feel played. Rather, one might say Extraordinary is a game, not a con.

Clearly, Extraordinary is all about concept and execution. For good portions of the film, actors are only seen as tiny ants dotting open fields or figures obscured by shadows in cramped spaces. Indeed, it is not happenstance that X, Z, and H are reserved, even withdrawn characters. However, Ana Livingston gives the film a jolt as energy as the elusive Gallo, while Lola Arias and Mariana Chaud add credible human dimensions as the daughters of the Italian farmer X eventually takes refuge with. Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain how he gets there. Besides, the narrator(s) are dying to explain it all.

Indeed, it is that sense of story persistently unfolding the so assuredly pulls the audience through all 245 discursive minutes of the film. (It certainly is not the shabby looking video, though given the running time, obviously trade-offs had to be made). Regardless of his macro structure, Llinás’ on-screen developments are interesting on a micro level. That is the real trick. Frankly, it is why post-modernism has won academia yet lost the culture. No matter what the implications of Heisenberg or Foucault might be, people want to hear stories. Extraordinary has them in spades. Remarkably ambitious, yet completely engrossing, it is an altogether aptly titled film. MoMA and Cinema Tropical deserve considerable credit for programming it for a full week (six days), starting this afternoon (5/4). Considering how tricky it is to book a 245 minute subtitled film, patrons are strongly advised to see it while they can.