The Spatiotemporal Economy of Sound and Gaze in La ciénaga
Time is fundamental to the expressive phenomenon of cinema. It is a necessary condition for cinema to exist because movement unfolds across both space and time. Cinema, however, relates to them in very different ways. Time passes without the illusory possibility of its recuperation, whereas space remains almost intact on many levels. The space of the viewing room, of the screen, and of the celluloid upon which the actual motion pictures are impressed does not suffer any meaningful change even as the final credits leave the screen. Time, on the other hand, cannot be returned to the same moment that was at the start of the movie, its middle, or end. While space lingers, time moves in steady succession. There cannot be a now without an inevitable before and imminent after. This temporal structure shows how the movement of time occurs over space, and part of this text examines how cinema captures such a spatiotemporal dynamic.
One can reach the tentative conclusion that time and space hold a divergent relationship in cinema. Driven by different mechanics, they may serve different interests. Yet, they cannot be conceptualized separately. Keeping in mind this foundational tension between space and time in cinema, I explore temporal and spatial compositions in Lucrecia Martel’s first long feature La ciénaga (2001), a film that obsesses over particular spatiotemporal configurations of its own, such as those of sounds, the mundane, and the unfamiliar. As complex as the relationship between time and space remains in cinema, so is the relationship between sound and the camera’s gaze. While the gaze organizes the space in which the narrative takes visual form, sound materializes the movement of time, especially when sound is introduced to irrupt the predominant stillness of the camera’s gaze, thus creating aesthetic forms that re-imagine how time and space can be recreated in movies. La ciénaga stages such aesthetic complexities in searching and sophisticated ways.
Martel is a filmmaker whose main tool—thematic, formal and technical—is the familiar. The narratives of her three films take place in or somewhere near her hometown in the northern province of Salta, Argentina. Most of her main characters belong to the upper middle class that populated her world when she was growing up. Her movies also focus, laterally or frontally, on the lives of a working class that maintains a circular relationship of mutual determination with her own, more privileged class. La ciénaga, for instance, is a family tale around which the identity and purpose of most principal characters in the movie are defined. One’s identity hinges on his or her connection to the family, whose mother is found in irreversible physical and moral decline. Throughout the movie we see how Mercedes (Graciela Borges), the fallen matriarch of the family, drags her alcoholic self from one part of the house to another until she plummets in her bed to rarely rise again, literally.
Once the screen ceases to be black, we are presented with the beginning credits and an assortment of sounds of nature: winds, flowing water, chirping insects, and finally, a thunderstorm that appears along with the image of the mountains, veiled with green vegetation, some residual fog, and the sun hiding behind thick clouds. Disconcerting, the first seconds of La ciénaga rehearses the stereotypical beginning of horror or suspense movies. The print of the credits, vague shapes forming into letters that quickly dissolve again, are mildly evocative of gothic aesthetics. And in some ways, La ciénaga could be described broadly as a contemporary gothic tale, in which secrets and specters are always roaming around the living. What appears on the screen, audible and visible, results from the adding and subtracting economy of sense-making in cinema. In Martel’s movies, sound enters the scene to remind the audience that what the camera gaze captures is never, necessarily or entirely, the whole thing. Martel’s cinema foregoes the aspiration or pretension of anything whole or complete.
Before the first long sequence pierces the screen, La ciénaga erupts with confusing, inconstant, unidentifiable sounds that recreate the sense of uncertainty that permeates the entire film. If cinema generally mobilizes verbal sound to shed some cognitive light or undo the confusion created by soundless images, Martel, on contrary, deploys sound to enhance and relish in that confusion. Even when sound comes from within the scene (e.g., birds, tree leaves, winds, objects, etc.), the camera does not rush to identify the source.
The fact that Martel’s film privileges sound is partly predicated on how the image gets constructed in her movies. Usually there is use of a motionless camera that from a static position zooms in and out to fragment the body of things, places, and people. As a result, rather than unified configuration, the images speak of some form of disfiguration. The first five minutes of La ciénaga, for instance, is bereft of any whole body shot that may give us a more informed sense of what these various bodily parts are doing on their own and with one another, and to whom they might belong. Glasses filled with wine shake, travel, and fall. Outdoor chairs are dragged lazily and make the cement pavement underneath shrill. Closed eyes and agape mouths suggest a moment of leisure or idleness. This first almost uninterrupted sequence, composed of disconcerting sounds and fractured images, breaks upon Mercedes’s fall, a literal fall that painfully stages the figurative fall that her life has taken for many years now.
The static camera enhances the sense of lethargy that oozes out of still or slow bodies and showcases physical decay: the overal state of the patio, the chairs being used by the guests, and the swampy water of the swimmingpool. In the first sequence, Martel’s choice of light, almost clinical and unforgiving, makes the flaws and age governing these bodies more prominent. They materialize the decadence of the upper middle class. We never learn the names of Mercedes’s guests or what they do for a living. Nor do we find out of how close they are to Mercedes and her husband. Silent, they just lie in their reclining chairs. The absence of information suggests that such relationships matter little. These people, as their sluggish bodies attest, are of no consequence to Mercesdes, her family, and by extension the movie. As most family tales do, La ciénaga focuses on generational differences that are further complicated by tensions of class.
The static gaze of the camera accentuates the uncomfortably sluggish movements that point to aimless lives. It would appear as if the camera, perhaps mirroring the position of the audience itself, were waiting for the characters to muster some action in front of it.
The still gaze produces another aspect of the film that little has to do with the characters’ arrested lives. The unmoving camera accentuates the wonderful sounds that populate Martel’s film. The natural sounds (birds, winds, thunderstorms, etc.) that situate the narrative are the same kinds of sounds that have always mesmerized her both affectively and intellectually, she has said in numerous interviews. While the stories in her movies do not inject symbolic meaning or purpose to these audible features, it is clear that she remains engrossed by what such sounds do and become. The fact that we are listening to specific sounds—of birds, winds, glasses or chairs—proves, in some ways, almost inconsequential to the aesthetic experience of that cinematic moment. Rather, the still gaze renders almost visible the temporal structure by which sound, irrespective of what kind or which object, is recreated in the film. The camera draws a close-up on clinking glasses filled with wine. Disembodied voices occupy the mise-en-scène. By fragmenting the already fragmented space or object, or by appearing without clearly visualizing its source, sound adopts an autonomous presence in La ciénaga. And with this autonomy, sound speaks of its spatiotemporal configuration in cinema.
This particular dynamic between sound and gaze does not attempt to inject an elevated symbolic value to the notions of chaos, disorder or disarray. Rather, it is the realist proposition that the valorative expression of the perceptible does not, necessarily or entirely, result from coherent signification. Sounds, especially the non-verbal kind, set the rhythm of the film to work for and also against its narrative. In La ciénaga, sounds claim a role as privileged as that of images for they are designed and incorporated into the film to express as much. Disembodied sounds declare independence from the ubiquitous image as it not only merely supplements the story parceled out in the screen but also complicates it in directions that often times are left unexplained.
La ciénaga also depicts the lives of the working class that serves Mercedes’s socioeconomic group, and during such depictions the camera rarely remains as static as it does in this first sequence or when it captures parts of Mercedes’s house, which is never shown in its entirety. When an inebriated Mercedes falls down, the person who erupts the stillness saturating these first scenes is Isabel (Andrea López), the young maid whom Mercedes accuses of stealing towels and whom Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), one of Mercedes’s daughters, is in love with. We do not see her running around the house as the camera does not leave Momi’s room, but we hear her hurried steps and her agitated call for Momi’s help. Even though the eye of the camera becomes more active in these later scenes, it is primarily sound that evinces the sudden irruption of movement. Sounds tell us about what remains outside the focus of the camera, and thus the universe of La ciénaga reverberates beyond just a world of images.
If depression and alcoholism driven by anger have incapacitated Mercedes, who still owns her house but no longer controls it, Isabel manages the practical details of the home to ensure that it remains a livable space day to day. She knows where the towels are, how to respond to emergent accidents, and what to do in even more trying circumstances. Despite the camera’s stillness—and how this could be interpreted, the camera never pretends to capture Mercedes and Isabel with an objective gaze. Despite the stoic disposition of the camera’s gaze, it is always partial and incomplete. Martel does not direct with a totalizing eye that aspires to completion.
At several moments in the film, the camera adopts Momi’s perspective. While unyielding, her gaze is ferocious. With slightly downcast eyelids, Momi’s eyes may seem lazy, even lost or confused at times, but her gaze moves with dissecting precision. What enters her gaze is never doubtful. She is a keen observer, and for someone her age she owns an uncloudy awareness of the messes that surround her. Her awareness is never stated or even implied, but rather shown by the gaze of the camera that sometimes inhabits her own. As a result, Momi’s gaze ushers our perception of Mercedes and Isabel, the two women who at this point in Momi’s life bear the most influence on her. Martel exquisitely exposes Momi’s gaze to the audience; it soon becomes evident that it is not just these two women who are captured by the camera. Rather, the camera materializes Momi’s at times pleading, and other times dismissive, gaze, alternatively fixed on Isabel and Mercedes. The movie shows them just as Momi perceives them to be.
If the location of La ciénaga is primarily an upper-middle class Salta, the spaces that the film recreates are not always as geographically or socioeconomically specific or determined. These spaces, in which action rarely happens or occurs extremely slowly and fragmentarily, visualize the irretrievable passing of time embodied by disorienting sounds that often times do not supplement meaning for the images. The camera’s gaze configures spaces that clash with irruptive sounds; in turn, these sounds remind us that while not much may seem to be happening, time persists on passing.
Martel’s camera moves with reticence; images and sounds supplement each other as much as they also collide in contradiction or confusion other times. The static gaze of the camera coexists with sounds to recreate a different spatiotemporal economy for which adding is not necessarily or entirely the only aesthetic operation in cinema. They subtract, too. To configure their spatiotemporal presence, the camera’s gaze and sound subtract clarity, coherence, and even emotive built-up, not so much to buttress the case that complex truths can be found in chaos, confusion or incoherence. Sound interacts with the camera’s gaze to put forth the need to rethink not only how meaning is created in cinema but also its function in the spatiotemporal configuration of cinematic aesthetic experience.