"I prefer the film to be independent of myself. If you and your film are the same, then why make films?"
Martín Rejtman’s Dos disparos (Two Shots Fired) opens on a shot of a teenager dancing by himself at a nightclub. At dawn, he rides the bus home, alone and expressionless. Once there he swims laps in the garden pool, timing himself each round. Then he mows the lawn. Then he finds a gun in the shed. Then he goes up to his room and shoots himself twice.
“It was very hot,” is the boy’s explanation when later asked why he almost killed himself. Whether they’re attempting suicide, dropping acid, or engaging in threesomes—all sensational events in this consummately anti-sensational film—Rejtman’s characters go at it with the same enthusiasm afforded to the insipid hamburgers that comprise almost every one of their meals. That is to say: none.
If all this sounds depressing, it’s because it doesn’t account for Rejtman’s singular and exquisite brand of humor. In his four fictional features, released at intervals of up to a decade following his 1992 debut Rapado, the Argentine director has painted a highly idiosyncratic portrait of urban alienation in his native Buenos Aires, a portrait of a middle class mired in meaningless cycles of repetition and wholly insouciant about it. Rejtman gets great comic mileage out of his urbanites’ deadpan obliviousness, leaving them stranded in a world governed by absurdity and limiting their conversations to exchanges of non-sequiturs like the one above.
This thematic outlook extends to the cinematography, which traps the characters in stifling, carefully composed shots, all the while providing an abundance of visual gags that prevent the films from ever becoming oppressive. In Dos disparos, the camera almost never moves, and it’s truly remarkable how much laughter a simple, well-timed pan can elicit in an otherwise static world.
Rejtman is a central figure of the New Argentine Cinema that emerged in the 1990s. Like those of his peers, his films are widely considered to address the societal ills ushered in by the neoliberal economic policies of the time. Despite his estimation as one of his country’s most eloquent filmmakers in this regard, when I met him at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival after the premiere of his film, I was interested to find that he rejected such a reading. He also rejected all philosophical readings right at the outset. Nevertheless, what transpired was a discussion on cinema both insightful and thoroughly philosophical.
Giovanni Marchini Camia I find your characters so fascinating. If their lives weren’t anchored in a specific economic reality, the film would feel existential. Does that reflect your personal philosophy?
Martín Rejtman My personal philosophy? (laughter) I don’t think I have a personal philosophy. I am a little bit like my characters, in a way. I just go along. I think my characters are a reflection of whom I am. In a lesser way of course: I’m a little bit more conscious of myself than my characters. What happens to them is that they don’t reflect on themselves, they don’t reflect on what they do. They are atravesados—what’s the word in English? Atravesados por las circunstancias—the situations pass through them.
GMC They’re spectators, passengers?
MR They just go through life not being affected by what happens to them. Psychologically too, because factually they do things, but they don’t really suffer, because they don’t think about what’s going on. Only Susanna, in this film, is more affected by what Mariano did, but Mariano is exactly the same before and after. He shoots himself and survives, but nothing seems to have changed with him. It’s the same in all my films, and you can call that my philosophy if you want to, but philosophy is such a pretentious term. I don’t think I have a philosophy. We should leave philosophy to the philosophers, maybe? (laughter) That’s the way I build fictions, with these characters who go through life in this way. It helps me construct stories and build up situations. It’s just a way of working for me. Again, in this way I’m not reflective, I don’t care what it means that they’re not affected by what happens to them.
GMC You’ve tended to focus on youth in your films. Here the parent generation also has a very central role. Could you elaborate on this generational divide?
MR I made a thirty-minute film in black and white a long time ago about sixteen-year-old kids. Then I made a feature, Rapado, which is about teenagers. Then I made Silvia Prieto (1999), which is about twenty-somethings, and The Magic Gloves (2003) about people in their late thirties. I wanted to break this pattern, because otherwise I’d be making films like Cocoon or a film in a retirement home or something, so I wanted to mix everything up. That’s why here I have characters who are very young and characters who are older: the parents and the kids. I wanted that mix.
GMC Although career-wise, the older generation is better off—the mother is a lawyer, for example—they seem afflicted by the same apathy. The mother hides the knives, but still she doesn’t go through the emotions you’d expect from a mother following her son’s suicide attempt. Do you think they live the same experience?
MR Yes, probably. She reacts, but she doesn’t suffer. It’s an ideal way of living, no? It’s almost like a yogic way of life: in yoga you have to suppress your thoughts. In a way, it’s the key to happiness. (laughter)
GMC Is it?
MR It’s not unhappiness. You go through a dramatic situation and you don’t suffer, you just go through it. I’m not saying it’s a perfect way of living, but it could be. (laughter)
GMC Fair enough, better a fool satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied. At the end of the film though, the brother’s search for the girl seems to indicate an almost hopeful change of attitude. But then fate comes along and messes it up again. Is there no hope of getting out of this impasse?
MR I think there is, yeah. This is an ending for this story, but the story could go and on and on, bringing different situations, different people, different meetings. That’s the way we live: we keep crossing people, meeting new people, crossing people that we already met, reliving situations that we already lived, mirroring situations that other people lived—it’s like a big puzzle and we are in it. The only difference here is that I can be outside and look at it all and just put the pieces where I want to. And hope? I don’t think there is no hope. Often my films are taken to be pessimistic. I totally disagree with that. My films are not optimistic, but that doesn’t mean that they’re pessimistic. (laughter) I think they’re in a middle point. I don’t believe in making a tragic story and I don’t like happy endings either, so I am in-between.
GMC What do you dislike about the extremes?
MR I’m always looking for balance. Even in the unbalanced structure of this film, I’m looking for balance, somehow. Films are about balance and extremes are very difficult to balance. Going from extreme sadness to extreme happiness, I don’t like that. (laughter) I don’t want to watch that, you know? It’s asking too much from the audience.
GMC Since you comment on the current status of Argentinean society—
MR Do I?
GMC I would have thought, no?
GMC OK, if not comment, then reflect?
MR That’s more the vision of someone who watches the film, and not so much my intention. I wrote the script some years ago and then I made the film last year—we shot last year and finished it recently, the editing and the sound and everything—so I’m not reflecting on what’s going on right now. Maybe I’m reflecting on what was happening when I wrote the script. But it’s not reflecting; I’m influenced by it. There’s no reflection whatsoever in my films. I don’t like to have my own opinion in my films. There is my point of view, of course, but my point of view on the story, not on any kind of social or sociological or political situation.
I happen to live in Argentina and I happen to have made the film there with Argentinean actors and Argentinean technicians, but that doesn’t mean that I’m talking about Argentina. I’m talking about this particular story that happens to take place in Argentina. Of course it’ll reflect something of the country, but nothing intentional. I just hate to express an opinion in a film. A film has to have its own independence somehow and its own way of reflecting things, separate from my own subjective opinion on a certain society or a certain way things are going.
GMC That’s interesting, because one criticism levied against your films is that they don’t have an opinion. For you, then, this is not a criticism, it’s just a statement of fact.
MR I do have an opinion, I just hope my opinion is not the same as the film’s. I prefer the film to be independent of myself, to have an independent life. If you and your film are the same, then why make films? If you say with words the same thing the film would say with images and sounds and scenes, then why make films? I prefer for the film to find its own rhythm, its own music, its own way of looking at things, its own vision. Of course, it’s my vision in the end, but it’s not something that I thought about before, it’s something that appears once the film is finished and I don’t know about that before.
It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. I mean, I vote for a particular political party, but my film is my film—you don’t control that. I am a control freak, but I know that there are things in the film that I cannot control and I’m happy about it. It’s why I make the film, because I want to see that.
GMC So you’re not interested in cinema with a political agenda?
MR Oh, that’s very tricky. I think that most of the time cinema with a political agenda betrays cinema. The form of the film is the actual politics. Sometimes you make very efficient political films and they are very conservative in terms of form, so what do you think of that? If you make a Hollywood film with a very powerful political message, it’s a big contradiction. The politics of a film is very complex, that’s what I’m trying to say. The political agenda is just one part of the politics of a film.
I like Bertolucci, for example. He has his own politics and his films somehow transcend his politics. I like that: I like when someone is transcended by his film. The film is bigger than the author’s intention. That’s what matters for me. I hope my film is more intelligent than myself. I really hope so! (laughter) I’m not so important, but I hope that I can make something that is a little more meaningful than myself.
GMC I really appreciate the humor in your films, which is very idiosyncratic and unexpected. What role does humor play for you?
MR I enjoy myself very much when I write and shoot humorous situations. That’s what I like most. This time, I started with this dramatic situation of Mariano shooting himself twice, because I wanted to get away from the idea of comedy. But I couldn’t help myself, I enjoy it so much. It’s what gives me pleasure and it’s one of the reasons I make movies, so I couldn’t get away from it. I know it’s a very particular kind of humor and some people may not know if you’re supposed to laugh or not, but I don’t care, I laugh. (laughter)
GMC Regarding Mariano’s shooting himself twice: would it be wrong to ascribe symbolic significance to the fact that he shoots himself in the head and stomach?
MR What symbolic significance could you ascribe to it?
GMC Well, they’re the body parts usually linked to the cerebral and the emotional in humans.
MR No, it wouldn’t be wrong. Interpretations are never wrong: as I said, the film is independent. I never thought of it, actually. It’s just the two places you would shoot yourself if you try to be effective. (laughter)
GMC Except in this case he isn’t.
MR He’s not, no. (laughter) The film is also a rethinking of many motifs of the film noir, or of the thriller. The gun is very important, how it passes from hand to hand. The idea of the shots, all those things … It’s not that I tried to make a thriller or anything like that, because it has nothing to do with that, but I tried to include some of the elements from the film noir or thriller into the film, somehow, and also many other genres. I just tried to make a big mix. (laughter) A mix of ages, mix of genres, mix of dramatic and humorous situations.
It was kind of ambitious, actually, to put everything together and see if it worked. It was a little risky to have this dramatic situation in the beginning and then have the film become more and more humorous. I didn’t know whether it was going to work or not, so we’ll see. I still have to see it.
GMC You haven’t seen it yet?
MR I’ve never seen the good-quality image with the good-quality sound: when I saw the good-quality image, the sound was bad and when I saw the good-quality sound mix, the image was bad, so today I will see it for the first time. With an audience, also—that makes a big difference for me. The film is never finished before an audience sees it. That’s the moment that I feel it’s done.
GMC That’s refreshing, many filmmakers claim they don’t care about the audience.
MR I do care. I care about the audience, of course I care. I mean, not everybody, but I want some people to like it. I know some people will and some people won’t, but I want to know who likes it and I want to hear opinions and I want to see reactions. And it’s also about the screening: the moment that it’s screened and there is an audience, that’s the moment there is a film. Before that, there is no film for me. I still believe in the old ways. (laughter)
GMC You mentioned earlier that you only happen to make your films in Argentina. Do you feel you could make them anywhere?
MR I could make a film somewhere else, yes. I don’t know where, but I could make a film somewhere else. I’m comfortable making films in Argentina. In one way, I’m comfortable, but in another way I’m so obsessed with many things, like the way people talk, for example. The actors have to speak in a certain way, so if I go somewhere else, I would be freer. I wouldn’t be so attached to the music of the films and maybe I would be able to do something different. In that respect, it may be nice to make a film somewhere else. It could be like a vacation from my mind, my obsessions.
GMC Your films have been very influential, particularly in the New Argentine Cinema of the 1990s. What were your own influences?
MR I was very influenced by classic American cinema. But also la nouvelle vague; Bresson, of course; Ozu; some Italian cinema, especially Antonioni. Also the American school of comedy: Preston sturges, Howard Hawks, those were very important directors for me. These were the directors whose films I watched and thought, “Wow, I feel complete empathy.” I mean that I don’t feel like an outsider, I feel like I could be in those films, I completely understand what these guys are making. They’re such great masters that I was shocked. Those were the big directors, and they still are, of course.
GMC Empathy towards the directors as artists or to the films themselves?
MR No, the films. The way they build their films, the way they build the emotions, basically. It’s the feeling that everything that’s there is necessary, that everything that’s there appeals to me—that they made the films for me, that was my feeling. It’s like when you listen to music and you feel that these people are playing just for you. The Smiths, for example, that was my feeling, that they made their music for me. And it was like that with Bresson and with Ozu. I felt so privileged to watch something so complete and perfect. I don’t know if I understand it, but I receive it in a … I’m almost talking about religion. (laughter)
GMC It’s interesting that you list Antonioni, because of course he’s the master of bourgeois angst and alienation, which also besets your characters, though in a completely different world.
MR Yes, but I could watch Antonioni without the psychology and still get it. You take out psychology from Antonioni’s films and you get the same kind of dryness, the same kind of objectivity that I like. I guess that when I watched Antonioni I just didn’t realize there was this angst, I didn’t notice the psychology of the characters. I was watching the aesthetics and the flow of the narrative rather than what is in the heads of the characters, which really doesn’t interest me. You can really relate to those films in the way that I was saying, in a more objective way, in the way Bresson works, the way Ozu works, where psychology is not important. What you see on the screen is important, not in the heads of the characters.
GMC Why this dislike for the psychological dimension?
MR It’s not a dislike, I just don’t care. (laughter) There are many films that can be very good using psychology, some of them can be masterpieces and I can like them, but I don’t feel the same empathy that I feel for these other films.
GMC You’re also a writer. Do your writing and filmmaking interact and complement one another?
MR They’re very different because when I write a script I have to think that I have to make a movie out of it, so I have to control many, many more things in terms of production. I have to think ahead, whereas when I write a story, I am freer. The story is finished when I read it, but the film is finished when an audience sees it, so it’s a completely different process in terms of production. But the elements in the short stories are the same as those in the films.
The last book of short stories, Tres cuentos, is made up of three short stories, but they’re about 120 pages each. They’re very long short stories and they’re very fluid in the same way that this film is: it goes from one character to the other and then you lose one character and maybe he comes back at the end. I think I’m developing in the same direction as a filmmaker and as a writer. Before I was more concise, and now I’m expanding.
I write short stories whenever I have a film script ready; when I don’t have a film script ready I have to put all my energy into writing a script because it’ll take me a long time afterwards to get the money and to make the film. In the meantime, I write short stories. (laughter) That’s my way of working.
GMC You say that your story is finished when you read it, whereas a film is finished when an audience sees it. Why the distinction between readers and spectators?
MR With readers, I don’t care. I don’t know why that is, but I really don’t care. I believe that I’m also a reader but I’m not a spectator—I can’t explain it, it’s just the way I feel. (laughter) A film is not complete before the audience sees it but with a short story, I finish it, I read it once again, and I say, “OK, it’s over.” (laughter)
Dos disparos (Two Shots Fired) screened as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival's Main Slate.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic and one of the founders and editors of Fireflies: A Film Zine.