Too Fast Farewell

It can sometimes take a while — two or three days, I mean — for the real soul of a place to be felt.
I’ve met several more good people at the Mar del Plata Film Festival since arriving here last Thursday evening (and composing Friday’s column, which took a while), and the warmth — not just the efficiency or commitment to the staging of a first-rate event — has been seeping through.

Close to the beach in Mar del Plata — I know not specifically where.

Of course, a visiting Hollywood journalist would be treated with all kinds of caring and graciousness. I’m speaking of something beneath this.
It would be facile to try and sum up Argentina’s basic attitude in one or two sentences, but Ines Vionnet, a whip-smart Buenos Aires woman who translated my comments during Saturday’s “master class” with Hugh Hudson, seemed to put her finger on something when she told me last night, “This is a sad country.”
In some ways, Argentina is Europe of a different latitude. Things have been hard here economically (the peso devaluation of late ’01 was devastating), but I’m not feeling much depression or bitterness from anyone. I’m getting more of a world-weary positivism, if that makes any sense. One day at a time, comme ci comme ca, life is what you make it. I’ve been speaking only with artist or professional class types, of course, but my four days here have reminded me that laughter in the wake of hard times means a lot more than the usual kind.
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A special thanks to Angeles Anchou, who served as my “angel” (a festival term for someone who facilitates, translates, gets you into parties). And also to Tomas Posse, a young cinematography student who handled the DVD clips during the Hudson seminar. (Tomas was very upset when he lost his notes for the clip cues just before we started, but the presentation came off fine regardless — he proved himself a pro under pressure.)
And a heartfelt thanks to Miguel Pereira, the festival’s affable and gracious president, for having me here and taking the time to make me feel welcome and appreciated, and also for introducing me to the beautiful Esther Goris, who played the charismatic lead in Juan Carlos Desanzo’s Eva Peron (1996), which was billed in some quarters as “Argentina’s answer to Evita !”
Dylan Kidd, the director of P.S., a competition entry, was hanging around the Hermitage bar and in fairly good spirits. Ditto director Luis Mandoki (Voces Inocentes), whom I didn’t speak to. Federico Luppi, whose performance as an elderly vampire in Guillermo del Toro’s Chronos has never left me, was here and there, but I didn’t say hello to him either, mostly out of embarrassment over my lousy Spanish.
I’m off to the airport in an hour or so. I’ll have about six hours to wander around Buenos Aires (Nine Queens director Fabian Beilinsky has suggested a couple of excellent restaurants in the San Telmo district) before flying back to Los Angeles late this evening.

Beaten, Bruised, Hurting

No, not me. I’m relatively fine. I’m talking about the people of Argentina, or at least how they’ve recently been portrayed.
I’m basing this observation on descriptions of recent and noteworthy local films that I read about in a catalogue during a Thursday afternoon bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata.
There are films being made in Argentina these days that strive to entertain. The usual sex comedies, romantic whimsy films, youths-experimenting-with-this-or-that films, child-rearing dramas, tango movies…whatever. But social realism is the burn-through right now.

Avenida Nueve de Julio in Buenos Aires — Thursday, 3.10.05, 11:45 am.

Of the 86 films listed in the 2004-2005 Cine Argentino catalogue, there are 34 or 35 that are specifically about (or were largely inspired by) two social traumas that have had devastating impacts — the political atrocities and murders carried out by Argentina√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s military dictators from ’76 to ’83, and the foreign-loan default and currency devaluation of late ’01, a kind of economic 9/11 that decimated living standards and brought despair and depression into tens of millions of lives.
Of these 35 films, ten are focused on or inspired by the dictatorship and the “disappeared,” and 25 are about the agony and hopelessness that comes from poverty and being jobless and having little if any prospects. They√É‚Äö√Ǭ¥re mostly straight dramas with docs here and there, but altogether we’re talking about a world of hurt.
Painful stories are always more involving than stories that avoid this, or go in the opposite direction. As callous as it sounds, difficult and/or traumatic times tend to produce better films.
Argentina√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s only success at winning a Best Picture Foreign Film Oscar was The Official Story (’85), about an investigation into political murders by the military junta and their political allies in the Argentine government. (In fact,Story is the only Latin American film to win in this category.) Maybe a film dealing with the financial catastrophe will be the next one to register.
Here are some passages from the synopses for these 35 films, all of which convey the general notion that life in Argentina has been terrible or damn close to it:

Take-out delicatessen near Mar del Plata. Divide the prices by three, and that’s your cost in dollars.

“In a country corrupted by poverty…” (from a synopsis of Eduardo Pinto√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Palermo Hollywood ).
“In the ’76 to ’83 period, thousands were kidnapped and murdered with absolute impugnity…[and] new-born babies of women pregnant at the time of their abduction were illegally taken away and adopted by other people. The disappearance of [these] children is one of the darkest legacies of this period.” (from a synopsis of Benjamin Avila√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Nietos (Identidad y Memoria ).
“Through all this time, the majority of the population had to survive below the poverty line, and marginality and unemployment grew at an accelerated rate, while politicians concocted obscure plans to cover the fact that the foreign debt was the cause and affect of an almost bankrupt coun try” (from a synopsis of Diego Musiak’s La Mayor Estafa al Pueblo Argentino).
Paula, a Buenos Aires actress, “wakes up one day and finds out her gas service has been cut off due to lack of payment. [And then] her boss fires her, the landlord threatens to evict her since she is four months late with the rent, her bank account balance is in the red, her father and friends refuse to help her, and even the director of a play she√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s in offers an indecent proposal.

Movie poster in central Buenos Aires — Thursday, 3.10.05, 11:05 am.

“What follows is an odyssey which drives a typical middle-class woman to relinquish her innocence, sink into a sordid Buenos Aires, and discover a universe not as safe as it once seemed to be.” (from a synopsis of Alejandro Chomski√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Hoy y Manana).
“Bernardo is 50. He feels overwhelmed, confused and almost devastated by a society that is, little by little, falling to pieces” (from a synopsis of Luis Barone√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s El Tigre Escondido).
“These are good, hard-working, desperate men tyring to overcome the despair generated by unemployment and to rebuild their lives, but their efforts crash against the crude reality, which seems to keep pushing them to the edge” (from a synopsis of Nicolas Tuosso√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Proxima Salida).
“The documentary reviews the 1976-2001 period, depicting the economic, social, political and moral decadence of those years in Argentina…[and explores] what this battered South American country√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s inhabitants, always ready to put up a fight even against the most catastrophic developments, had to go through” (from a synopsis of Fernando Solanas√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Avila√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢s Memoria del saqueo ).

Buenos Aires street — Thursday, 3.10.05, 10:50 pm.

Estoy Aqui

There’ll be no summing up the essence of the Mar del Plata Film Festival in this column, or even a stab at a semi-comprehensive overview. Not after what I’ve been through over the last 40 hours, which has put me in a fatigued and grimy mood.
I guess this was in the cards when I knew I’d be flying 6100 miles one-way.
I√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢ve been sniffing things out since pulling into this Argentinean resort town last night around 7 pm…”sniffing” being a euphemism for not really getting into it and hanging back and scowling with a drink in my hand and leaning against walls.

View of Atlantic Ocean from sixth-floor hotel room at the Hermitage in Mar del Plata — Thursday, 3.10.05, 7:45 pm.

I’d never heard of this festival until Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Rabbit Proof Fence) turned me on to it a couple of months ago. (He was here last year.) It’s very well-run and tastefully programmed, and, in my judgment, as “good” of a film festival as Karlovy Vary or Locarno or San Francisco.
I guess the festival organizers flew me down here so I’d pass the word along to the Hollywood community that it’s cool to visit and that the vibe is all right. Yes, this is so. The people behind the Mar del Plata Film Festival are committed and energetic and as much in love with film as Tom Luddy or Geoff Gilmore or anyone else in the film festival universe, and you can feel this we-really-and-truly-care vibe everywhere you turn.
The festival website, the festival-at-a-glance brochure, the daily printed schedules, the publicity element…it’s all totally first-rate.
I’m just not feeling huge electrical currents so far. I thought I might luck onto some bat-out-of hell Argentinean film that everyone will be clamoring to see when it plays at Tellruride or Toronto six months from now, but I don√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t know what this film might be might be since no one from the festival is telling me anything, and I’ve been too shagged to ask.


I’ve been in a place between fuming and despair for the last twelve hours or so. I’m delighted, actually. I just like to hide my feelings when I√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢m feeling good. Late last night I donated my $400 digital camera to some Mar del Plata citizen, and I just want to go out on the streets and give the world a big hug.
I donate valuable possessions whenever I’m really tired. My brain stops working and I start forgetting.

One of the last photos taken on my disappeared Fuji digital camera.

Sometime between my sitting in an Italian restaurant right around the corner from the Hermitage hotel (a superb five-star operation and the headquarters for the festival) around 11:45 pm and walking into my hotel room five or ten minutes later, the device was left behind and the new owner was rejoicing.
Ten minutes later, he/she was starting to take shots and try out different exposure settings.
The only way I can stop feeling angry is to take a Born Into Brothels attitude and hope that some poor teenage kid (or the parent of one) found it and this will lead to the young person discovering he/she has real potential or talent as a photographer, etc.


It took fifteen and a half hours to fly to Buenos Aires from L.A., for which I blame Delta Airlines because they take you all the way to Atlanta before heading south.
I would have much preferred flying straight to Panama City, say, and stretching my legs for an hour or so and then going from there. I left LAX on Wednesday at 12:30 pm, and arrived Thursday about 9 am, or 4 am L.A. time. (Buenos Aires is two hours later than Atlanta and New York.)
I ran into producer Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction, From Dusk to Dawn) at the luggage carousel. The Mar del Plata festival is giving him an award on Sunday, and making him the focus of a “master class” interview on Saturday. Bender stayed in town on Thursday to night to celebrate the opening of a friend’s hotel.
And then Gabriela, an extremely bright volunteer from the Argentine Film Institute, gave me a ride into town and took me to the institute’s offices where I left my bags so I could walk around Buenos Aires a bit, which I did for a couple of hours.

Buenos Aires street — Thursday, 3.10.05, 12:55 pm.

Buenos Aires didn√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t give me one of those “I really love it here” feelings, to be perfectly frank.
It’s generally acknowledged as a great city and all, but that’s about the people and the culture and the teemingness of it. The city itself is big and flat and endlessly sprawled…miles upon miles. It smells to me like the air has an inordinate amount of pollution. The streets feel hot and vaguely oppressive — not enough fresh air, moisture oozing out — everywhere you go. I saw a lot of weary expressions on a lot of faces.
Bureaucratically-speaking, Argentina is one of those horrid places in which doing things very thoroughly (a polite term for “very slowly”) and filling out forms is either a matter of national pride, or an example of people having been beaten down and Kafka-ized into pulp. Stuff takes a long time to figure out or get done, and you’re always being asked to fill out a form, or being handed one. It’s like Soviet Russia.
I waited at a bank to change some dollars into pesos and it took over 20 minutes to get to a teller. Then the teller said no currency exchange because I didn√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t have my passport. (If it’s just cash, why should anyone care?) I went back and got the passport and then waited in line another 15 or 20 minutes, and then the teller made me fill out a form before giving me the 400 pesos.

Cluster of businesses in southern neighborhood of Buenos Aires, on the way out of town.

Road sign about 30 kilometers outside Mar del Plata.

But the exchange rate is great here (i.e., bad for Argentinians, good for Americans).
You can use a computer at an internet café for a full hour for only 2 pesos, or about 70 cents. Beers at a pricey hotel bar in Los Angeles or New York are at least five or six bucks, but here they’re four pesos, or about $1.40. That Italian meal I had last night just before losing my camera only ran me about 15 pesos, or a little less than six dollars.
The power of the American dollar has been destroyed by the huge Bush deficit. Euros cost about $1.32 now, which is way higher than they’ve ever been. It shows you how completely de-valued the Argentinian peso is when even the crummy dollar has serious buying power here.
A woman who works for the festival told me that even the Nicaraguan economy is doing better than Argentina’s at this stage. She also told me her monthly salary comes to about $300 U.S. She shares an apartment in Buenos Aires with another woman, she said, for which the rent is the equivalent of $275 U.S. monthly.
The area of Argentina from the airport north of Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata is totally flat. I√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢m told there are other portions of the country with contour, but the part I was driven through yesterday was like southern New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas. Not the slightest mound or gulley or sinkhole anywhere…until I got to Mar del Plata, which has a hilly area close to the beach.
The double-deckered bus from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata has big, cushy, sofa-like seats, as nice as the ones in the first-class section of 747s or 767s. I slept like a rock.

Melanie Griffith in A Stranger Among Us, as seen on 17″ screen on the double decker bus from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata.

And the TV monitors actually work and have programming, which the monitors on U.S. buses never do. It’s a very weird thing to wake up from a long nap and see Melanie Griffith playing a cop in A Stranger Among Us on a little TV screen, with Spanish subtitles, just above your seat.
The waves are very slight in front of the Hermitage Hotel on Mar del Plata beach. The Atlantic Ocean here is almost like one of the Great Lakes, or the Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut.
Don’t get me started on my Mar del Plata computer problems.
The broadband hookup in the hotel room won√ɬ¢√¢‚Äö¬¨√¢‚Äû¬¢t work for my Toshiba laptop (I’m being told it’s my computer’s fault, even though the computer and I have been online with all kinds of plug-ins and dial-ups and wireless devices).

Festival “angels” who picked me up at Mar del Plata bus station and drove me to the hotel.

Since none of the computers at the internet cafes are new enough to read information off a USB data plug-in thing (they don’t even have the receptacles), I’m forced to file in the press room downstairs between the hours of 9 am and 6 pm, which sucks.
It’s impossible to figure out how to type the “@” sign on an Argentinian keyboard — someone has to show you. The “@” sign shares the number 2 key, but this key is a red herring…just something to throw you off. You have to press down the ALT key and then type 6 and 4, but not the ones on the top keyboard row. You have to type the 6 and 4 that are part of the far-right keyboard cluster.

Subway stop near Avenida Nueve de Julio in Buenos Aires — Thursday, 3.10.05, 12:40 pm.

Posters on Avenida Nueve Julio.