Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has made four feature and medium-length films to date:El hombre robado (The Stolen Man, 2007), Todos mienten ( They All Lie, 2009), Rosalinda(2010), and his latest, Viola (2012), which recently screened in New York as part of the New Directors / New Films series. His films are remarkable for their worrying of literature and the tension between text and image. Each of the four films takes either a literary figure or text as the jumping-off point for an exploration of the slippery correspondence between narrative and reality. Piñeiro is making movies that point to one of the original questions raised by cinema: How does the imposition of writing—of language or of a lens—alter the world? His carefully structured films—balanced like mobiles, as he says—describe with precision that slippage between words and reality.
While El hombre robado and Todos mienten both circle around the writing of statesman and polymath Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the Argentine equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, in essence, they are both descriptions of the power dynamics of a small group of young upper-middle-class friends. His latest two, Rosalinda and Viola, are both based on Shakespeare and are the first two entries in a trilogy that the filmmaker has called “The Shakespeariada.” Working with the same cast and crew in all four features, Piñeiro—whose work shows a debt to the comedies of Rohmer and the shell games of Rivette—has developed a language all his own. Using literature to foreground the complex web of lies, acting, and language that underlies any social interaction, these films are less interested in psychology and individual characters than they are in social and linguistic structures.
Both the filmmaker and his work are warm, funny, and full of life. I encountered his work when his first two films screened at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago while he was in Cambridge working on Viola as a Radcliffe Fellow. He is currently living in New York, where we met at a diner on a snowy February afternoon to discuss his films and how he makes them.
— Clinton Krute
Clinton Krute We were talking about your time in Boston, or Cambridge, actually. What were you doing there?
Matías Piñeiro I had a ten-month fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, among a community of academics and other artists developing their own projects. It was the perfect opportunity to produce something new.
CK How did that come about?
MP My partner was moving to the States, so it was a way of following him. I also needed a change.
MP We can share this absolutely huge slice of vegan carrot cake.
CK It’s like a meal in itself.
MP Radcliffe was great. I also applied for a scholarship to get an MFA in creative writing in Spanish at NYU. I needed time to develop another film project, and writing a novel on which it can be based seems like the way to move forward with it. So I am at NYU now. These are ways of making my system of work possible.
CK That’s my next question: what is your system of work? How did you approach your work in Cambridge, and how did that lead to Viola?
MP I first wanted to research and write, but you can change your plans at Radcliffe, so when I was done researching, I focused on editing Viola. In my second semester at Radcliffe, I realized that the space I had there was pretty similar to a production company. I had a computer, a camera, an assistant—they provided everything. I had shot this film, Viola, before coming to the States—
CK But you hadn’t edited it yet?
MP I had left it on my hard disk for some months. I shot Viola in a peculiar way before leaving because I didn’t exactly know when I would be returning to Argentina. I like to film in Buenos Aires, always with the same people, and I didn’t know when I would be able to do that again. At the time, I was doing a play, And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again, and the experience of working on it helped me make the film—it’s the process of capturing something and not letting it go. In the theater every time you perform something it disappears, but I am used to the opposite with cinema. I had some grant money I needed to use, the ensemble I worked with was there, and I was about to come here, so I said, “Let’s make a film.” Two months before leaving, I organized this ten-day shoot.
CK So what was the writing process like for Viola? Did you write it scene by scene while you were shooting?
MP No, everything was pretty much written before we started shooting. The first thing I know is when I’m going to shoot, so I prepare myself to be done writing by that date. I may have two or three months, or sometimes more, to write. For instance, now I’m working on another Shakespeare film, and I know I’m going to shoot in August. Nothing has been written yet. I bought some books today to help me write, among them a not terribly special book on the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau; Henry James’s The Lesson of the Master; Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville; and Preston Sturges’s autobiography—I have no idea how they will help, but who knows? So the process is very fragmentary at first, but then, when I want to rehearse, I need to communicate my ideas to the people with whom I’m working. That’s when the thing gets written, almost at once. This usually happens in the last month or two before shooting. Production and writing go pretty much together. Also, the films that deal with Shakespeare are connected with the play I did two years ago.
CK Can you describe the play? Was that your first experience working with Shakespeare?
MP No, I’d done Rosalinda before. And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again was a very short stage play that was a pastiche of six or seven Shakespeare comedies. Mainly I took from the following five: As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, Love’s Labor’s Lost, andA Midsummer Night’s Dream. From Cymbeline I took a few things. I also wanted to include the prologue of Henry V, but that’s not a comedy and I had run out of time.
The play was part of a series called First Works. The University of Buenos Aires invited me as a filmmaker to produce my first play. That was the context. When I finished, I went back to cinema with Viola and my upcoming film, The Princess of France, named after the main female character in Love’s Labor’s Lost. The actors with whom I work, as well as my own activities, are in between cinema, theater, and literature. When I did Rosalinda I didn’t have any theater experience, so it’s not like I got to cinema through theater.
CK So did you approach theater and Shakespeare through cinema or literature?
MP Through the text, actually.
CK I see, through reading Shakespeare on the page. How did Shakespeare become such a large presence in your films?
MP When I was writing Todos mienten, my second feature, I was reading Shakespeare because the film was very fragmentary, very loose, and I wanted to influence myself by reading the opposite. It’s almost a cliché to go to Shakespeare to solve issues with a film’s dramatic structure, or even to think of staging his plays in the first place. It might be obvious to go to the most canonical of playwrights, but it’s still very helpful for me.
CK You like this thing about Shakespeare’s comedies with characters acting and pretending to be other people.
MP Yeah, there is something there. And in my daily life I’m connected to theater people, so it’s not that unusual that there’d be crossover. In my first film, El hombre robado, there is a scene from Othello that I didn’t put in on purpose. I needed people to be rehearsing a play, so I shot a rehearsal, and this was the play they were working on.
CK It’s pretty fortuitous that it turned out to be that play, because that movie seems to be about people doing things behind each other’s backs. One character manipulates events in a way that’s very similar to the way that Iago manipulates events.
MP Right. Life brings you a lot of opportunities and that’s azar—chance, right? But then you say, Okay, this thing from Othello is good. It can be used in this way. You give it purpose, but at first it comes because you are influenced by what is happening around you—
CK —during the production?
MP And that production was very long; it took a year. It’s my longest film. I want to do a 90-minute film again.
CK I love that film. That one and Viola are my favorites of yours, I think because they’re more difficult to process. They’re more mysterious and the narrative framework—the generative conceit—is more hinted at than foregrounded, as it is in Todos mienten and Rosalinda. The conceptual aspects of those two films are what’s most important. Whereas in El hombre robado and Viola, I get the sense that you were less interested in that concept than you were in the texture of the narrative itself, in the aesthetic qualities of that narrative framework.
MP I’m happy with all of them, but I don’t think that they’re that great either. I can see the good things, which I can repeat again, and the things that I can learn from. My creative process has been such that I’ll do one film in order to correct things from the last one, things I can improve or do differently. For instance, Viola is too girly, in my opinion.
CK You think so? You mean there are too many girl characters in it or that there are too many flowers and pink clothes?
MP Too girly. It’s not bad, I move confidently in that universe but I think maybe I should try something different in the next film, even though it’ll be called The Princess of France—
CK Which is about as girly as it gets. What’s really interesting to me about your work is that all the main characters are women. Obviously this isn’t true in the real world, but in your films femininity is often associated with a certain amount of ambiguity. It’s also a symbol for change, while the masculine is often associated with stasis or constancy. The women are associated with the dangerous freedom of the countryside, and the men are associated with the rigid, straightforward structure of life at court. The female characters in Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, put on masks and manipulate events by transforming their own identities. Viola is a very ambiguous film as well. The narrative is not direct and the story is constantly shifting and moving in several directions at once, just as the Shakespearean heroines are playing multiple roles at once.
MP I sometimes think that in Shakespeare’s comedies all the cross-dressing is a form of realism. All the roles were originally performed by men, so having a man play a woman who is pretending to be a man is a realistic operation—“she” will be a man because “she” actuallyis a man. It’s not that Shakespeare did it for that reason, but I like to think that he did.
I like ambiguity. It is more productive. It makes spectators wonder about what they are watching. Also, I like it when female characters have a certain degree of masculinity; it can be very seductive. In this new film I want to have a male character in the lead role, even though he will be playing female roles. How to do this? I haven‘t yet found a solution.
CK In Todos mienten, the male characters are manipulated entirely by the lead female characters, though a lot of the other female characters are too.
MP Yeah, when I was writing Todos mienten I drew a pyramid of power and a pyramid of sex. At the top of both pyramids were three women—they knew more than everybody else. So how can I do the opposite in this next film? Jerry Lewis is a good example. He’s not macho; he’s stupid, so there’s balance.
CK So, it’s not about being macho, about one character imposing—
MP Right, I’m not attracted to that scheme, which I see everywhere. How can I work against that? Jerry Lewis is a peculiar type of main character. I am a big fan.
CK I’m a big Bob Hope fan. He is more verbal, which I like, but he is also really stupid.
MP What should I watch? I don’t know much about Bob Hope.
CK I really liked My Favorite Spy but I am sure there are better ones. Son of Paleface is good, that’s a Frank Tashlin one. But Jerry Lewis is not someone I’ve ever gotten into completely. I want to, but something’s holding me back.
MP Maybe he’s too close for Americans. It’d be the same for me with a local thing. It’s not that I want the male characters for this new project to be weak; I’m not after weakness. I’m trying to build an interesting male character that has nothing to do with power. The main question is how to be nonphallic.
CK I’m having a hard time thinking of any examples, now that you mention it. There are a lot of weak male characters in movies that are basically about failure. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, for one. Warren Oates is such a putz in his movies, and you have this incredible sympathy for him.
MP Foolishness is a weakness, but not in a bad way. Cary Grant in North by Northwest, for example.
CK Or Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, and Humphrey Bogart in African Queen or We’re No Angels. They are fools and failures, but maybe they’re appealing because they’ve given up trying to be powerful.
Can you talk about how you start with a Shakespeare play and then develop your own script or blueprint for the film from there? I see a difference between Viola and Rosalinda. Rosalindaseems more based on the text, and Viola seems to use the text to get at some dreamlike quality that exists in everyday experience.
MP Rosalinda came from literature and Viola from the theater. My approach to Rosalinda had to do with my approach to the text—a text whose density is very important. I know it’s exhausting to hear Rosalinda talk. It’s like, “Stop her please!” But that’s what I wanted. She’s a tornado, and when she’s not in the role, she’s the opposite. Rosalinda’s plot is very thin, very loose. It’s in two movements and it’s a 40-minute film—it’s hard to develop a plot in such a short amount of time. We had the strength of the text, and María Villar, the actor who plays Rosalinda, was a good match. I actually made the film because of María. Then in Viola, I did the play, which we rehearsed—it was a whole experience.
CK The play that you see in Viola?
MP Yes, it’s a riff off Twelfth Night, the names, speeches, and scenes are all mixed up—
CK It’s a pastiche, like you were saying.
MP Yes, and I decided to leave it that way. In Rosalinda you get the sense that they’re rehearsing too, but they never repeat the scenes; what kind of rehearsal is that? In that senseRosalinda is much more abstract than Viola, because you wonder about what the characters are doing. It’s impossible to explain in realistic terms.
CK Right, there’s no reason for the characters to be outside wrestling and swimming and playing around in a river.
MP Are they performing? Are they rehearsing? Is it As You Like It? It’s something in-between, which is nice. Then with Viola, it was like, Okay, I’m here working with a troupe of actors in a theater, rehearsing a play. Rehearsals are repetition. Let’s work with this idea of repetition, and take it to the extreme. So it loops into infinity, but the narrative is focused: it has a beginning, middle, and end. I just wanted to make a simpler film, with a plot, much more in context, and not overdoing the strangeness, like in Rosalinda.
CK I see Rosalinda as being more rural, or pastoral, and this happens in Shakespeare, too. And Viola is much more urban and plot driven as a result. Even just in terms of your setting: a city has roads on a grid, and the countryside is this diffuse world.
MP Yes, it’s very abstract. Once the characters in Rosalinda get into the forest, it’s like, Pow! Everything could happen there. That’s why I chose As You Like It.
I’m kind of a talker. I like talking with my friends about what I’m planning to do. So when I was in Buenos Aires, I’d have weekly meetings with María Villar; we’re close friends. We’d go out to lunch every Thursday at noon, and most of the time we’d end up a little tipsy. It helped!
CK You talked over these ideas?
MP Yeah, we talked about many things; we weren’t so focused. But she had the idea of a group of actors being in the countryside. She’s married to the actor with the curly hair inRosalinda; he plays Orlando in the film. He has a house in the country. So I took her idea to put all of the actors on that island.
CK Your first two films, El hombre robado and Todos mienten, don’t deal with Shakespeare, but with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento instead. You seem to use these literary texts as jumping-off points. Why Sarmiento?
MP Well, Sarmiento is very important in Argentina. He’s one of the founding fathers and a major intellectual. He wrote essays and hybrid texts that are very well written, better written than most literature of that time. He developed Argentina’s educational system; his portrait is in every classroom. So, at first he seems like a very solemn and boring figure, but when you start reading his writing in a nonacademic way, you discover that he was almost a genius. But he was controversial, especially in the way he defined national identity. I’m less interested in him as a politician than as a writer, though. He was quite complex.
CK This might be a ridiculous question, but do you think that your work has any political content? I’m jumping off from Sarmiento here.
MP Yeah, I’m sure it does. The canon shouldn’t be put behind glass in a museum. I’m interested in the idea of opening up canonical figures—we should be dealing with them as our contemporaries.
CK Which is one of the themes of El hombre robado, the reclamation of culture from institutions.
MP Literally. It’s always strange to shed light on certain issues that have been overlooked. With Sarmiento, for example, suddenly you see how Buenos Aires was built, how that original plan is still present in the city today. You see traces of those 19th-century men and their quarrels. Spaces and iconography were not natural but thought out by someone whose picture is on our paper money. So you go back to him and discover new connections, new things.
CK I read in an interview that you don’t support cinema “infested with metaphors” and that you prefer metonymies.
MP I’m not that interested in the classical understanding of metaphor. This idea of a superficial resemblance between two things that have nothing to do with each other is forced and kind of feeble. It closes meaning. Even when Eisenstein does metaphor, it doesn’t work. When he does composition, he’s great because it’s metonymic—there’s an incompleteness. The spectator completes the meaning and in doing so adds something new that can be moving.
CK It’s richer as a result.
MP I’m much more interested in that richness. Tarkovsky can be metaphoric, but in a better way, because at the same time he’s very abstract. And he’s also a religious person. I’m more into ambiguity, a movement of doubt. My films are like games that I invite the spectator to participate in. I like leaving empty spaces for the viewers to enter my films. But I’m also worried about pace, and even though there may be long takes, I do like a fast pace. That’s not montage though; it’s something different in the image.
CK It’s also in the dialogue.
MP Yeah. For instance, in terms of pace, I like Todos mienten more than El hombre robado. It’s more complex, and although its narrative is fragmented, it has a faster pace and a tighter structure.
CK I had thought of the Goldberg Variations when I was watching Viola, though it is not as tightly structured. Just those repeated themes that always surface and then move away again. The film shifts directions and keeps you on your feet.
MP It’s also a short film.
CK It is; the difference between 43 minutes and 60 is not that much. I guess for a film festival it is. Would you say that you’re more interested in structures than in characters?
MP I’m attracted to structures. The structure always comes first, even in the films that are character driven, like Viola. I have this brick, Viola, a Shakespearean character, and I work up from there. I won’t adapt. The character will be filled out by the body and mind of the actor cast in this role. I’m not into the psychological analysis of characters and such. The actor can provide something much more mysterious than my justification for a breakup, for instance.
CK You don’t seem to be very interested in that.
MP It’s fake to tell people that characters are the way they are because of this or that. It’s too much pressure.
CK Nobody says, “I am angry because my father left me”—
MP Or, “Because I’m angry, I grabbed the glass this way.”
CK There are movies that do that well. There’s a place for that, I guess. I’m interested in the way your films build these structures and then allow the characters to exist in and bounce off these structures’ walls.
MP I want equilibrium. It’s like a Calder mobile, you know? You add something here, and the whole thing shifts. And then you put something else there, and you have to find the system’s balance. It’s a structuralist way of thinking. It has movement, and I like that.
CK Also, there’s no metaphor there. It’s just a balanced, coherent system unto itself, which is really satisfying. But, at the same time, each one of your films is related to the last one. It’s the same actors, who are sort of assimilations or variations of all your different characters, shifting and moving forward.
MP That’s because the films are being done somewhat close to each other. And since I don’t build characters, I’m not interested in actors performing different kinds of roles. They’re permeable. They adjust from one film to the next, and are who they are.
CK Some of your friends and actors are also musicians and they play music in the films. There’s that scene in Rosalinda where one of the guys is playing the keyboard; I thought it was really mysterious. How did that scene come about? It comes out of nowhere.
MP When they are playing the synthesizer? Well, I wanted music in there, and I don’t like to use music that’s not being played in the scene. I wanted to have some music in these more relaxed scenes in which people are doing nothing—it’s summertime. I knew that these guys are actual musicians. So, one plus one …
I also wanted music in that scene because I needed to change the pace. In this mobile structure that I was building, I had too many things on one side, so I needed to put something on the opposite side to balance things out. Music was the solution, not more words. Besides, I like what happens when people are playing music: their facial expressions, their behavior. People are having a true relationship with something. You catch these sparks, you see this energy happening, and you shoot it. It’s the same when the characters are playing games. In those moments, I’m not shooting a storyboard anymore. I like to see what’s happening inside the picture, inside the frame, on its own.
CK Are you talking about the end of Rosalinda, when they’re playing the Mafia game around the table, or the scene in Todos mienten that it echoes, in which they’re playing a much more cryptic game, a group test on Sarmiento?
MP In Todos mienten, I was attracted to the game scenes because they provide something that cannot be entirely thought out beforehand—something is improvised. At the same time, in games you have rules. So it’s both forces. When you shoot people playing games it’s not like you’re saying, “Put your hand here, and then over there. Walk to there, and say these words.” You make decisions—you decide to put the camera in one place and not another—but then the action turns out differently from what you first thought.
CK It seems like the interactions in those scenes are all based around the rules provided by the game, and as a result things are revealed about the characters. You hold on one character, who’s maybe not involved or saying anything, who’s thinking about how he’s going to win the game, and you see maybe there’s some tension between him and another character that’s only revealed through the structure of the game. Viewers might be uncomfortable because they don’t understand the nature of the relationships between the characters.
MP Yeah. The rehearsal scene in Viola has a set of rules, and the game that they are all playing in Todos mienten has even stranger rules. For me it’s a bit of an excuse to focus on the energy between the characters and actors; I don’t only care about the words. I’d like to do that with Shakespeare too, to lessen the importance of the words and focus on other things.
CK Well, I feel that’s clear already. Your interest in Shakespeare might lie in the poetry, on some level, but it’s clearly more in the masks and acting and all the complex relationships of which those masks are a product and source. Did you do the translations into Spanish yourself, by the way?
MP Yeah, I took things from translations that I like, mixed them up, and then redid them. I did that for the play and then again for the film. When I was comparing the English originals with my own and other translations, it was like, Wow, they’re all so different.
CK It’s almost impossible to do, really.
MP In that sense, it allows me to hop in.
CK You also get to choose the meaning that you want out of Shakespeare because there are so many different directions, sentence by sentence, from which to choose.
MP Yes, but you can keep the ambiguity also. Shakespeare is often pretty ambiguous—that’s why he’s well known.
CK That’s the trait of a poet, right? That’s the negative capability.
MP If he were not ambiguous he would have been more of a Marlowe.
CK Also pretty incredible, but in different ways. He would have been Ben Jonson, maybe.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.