The films of Argentinian artist Sebastian Diaz Morales depicts a solitary figure moving through an urban or rural landscape to highlight certain issues or absurd realities in human existence. These landscapes or cityscapes are further abstracted at times to resemble a stage backdrop by using a cinematic technique that highlights the edges. In this respect Diaz Morales’ film can be seen as a cross between theatre and cinema, while the absence of dialog and lack of a traditional beginning and ending adds to the ambiguity.
The Man With A Bag (2004) displays such ambiguity. Displayed in a 2 channel side-by-side format, with the subject viewed from different angles simultaneously, the film depicts a reality that is as surreal as it is fragmented, where the cause has no bearing on the effect and a man’s circumstance doesn’t justify his intentions.In it, a man carries a bag running from something or someone, across the sparse Patagonian landscape, but we never see who or what he is running from. Half way into the film, he opens his bag to inspect its contents (of bones or rocks later) only to find himself standing in a place that’s has plenty of what he is carrying, scattered all over the ground.
The characterization of the landscape in fact lends it to become the antagonist in the story, always causing some trouble for the subject, which he manages to overcome, but in such a clumsy, exasperating way that leaves him quite defeated. His house is so run down, that the ‘flooring’ consists of the little rocks and pebbles found outside, with insects crawling around, blurring the lines between inside and outside. The event that proves to be the last straw for him, is when he gets tripped up over a rock on the ground, spilling out the contents of his bag which are also rocks. Angry over this misfortune, he yells in frustration and rips a plant from the ground, which happens to be a prickly plant, which cuts his hand and causes further violent outbursts. But even here he cannot seem to do anything to change the environment, and his temper tantrums ends up looking like a dance, while the ‘environment’ looks on, unfazed. Later as the protagonist finds himself walking along a desolate flat plain with nothing but rocks and pebbles as far as the eye can see, a stroke of luck befalls him; a car passing by stops and gives him a lift. In the car, the scene dramatically changes as the street life of the Patagonian town rolls by; it is as if the town had been flattened into a scroll and rolled out for all to see. The 2 channels with the addition of the rear view mirror produces an effect which is not unlike ‘seeing double’. But in the end, the car drops him off where it had picked him up; it had traveled in a loop. All that transpired for the protagonist was just the experience of traveling in the car for a while, but brought about no tangible change to his life. In Pasajes I (2012) it is the inter-connected ‘rooms’ or indoor public spaces of Buenos Aires that is the ‘environment’, as a man walks through them endlessly. Without any dialog with anyone, he is able to pass through these quite effortlessly; nobody stops him from entering some rooms which are semi-public, such as a classroom, or this museum exhibit space above. In fact there aren’t any security guards anywhere to be seen. It is almost as if the whole city is deserted, which might be a representation of the ‘internal’ scenery as one walks through the city. While Pasajes I (2012) emphasizes the horizontality of the sequence, Pasajes II (2013) emphasizes the vertical, as the film shows the same man endlessly going up the stairs of various buildings. The distinctive characteristics of this environment creates quite a dramatic, over-powering presence.
In El Camino entre dos puntos / The Road Between Two Points (2013) is another story about the experiences of a man, traveling around a Patagonian town. A feature length film, it has all the trademark elements of Diaz Morales’ films; the view from behind scenes following a lonely male figure around, the absurdity of certain man-made situations and the man vs. nature shots of the vast Patagonian rural landscape.
With a vague beginning, middle and ending, no dialog or storyline to follow, it is quite difficult to watch at first.
One of the first stops the man makes as he sets out upon this journey, is to visit a poet, who proceeds to recite an poem about which is at once a reverence and a lament for the state of Patagonia, or the state at which Patagonia has become. True to Diaz Morales’ style, there are no pleasantries or conversation; one starts reciting and the other listens, at the end of which our man just gets up and leaves.
“White plains, carpet of pebbles. All shapes and colours against the light, shiny. Like diamonds. And knee-high sharp horizon cutting through my walls, like a razor blade. Heavenly light absent. Looking for God in the sky, leaving the earth to the devil.”
After walking around town for a while and having lunch, he gets a car and goes on a road trip.“Dead fox and dog bodies, all beheaded. Some skinned, mummified by heat and drought. Absence of butteries, eating cadavars. Some places some places are littered with animal bones, skins and skulls. Here and there cold fireplaces, traces of someone…past.”
Passing by huge oil refineries and storage tanks, full of CCTV cameras and fenced off from any intrusion.“Stable homes, and farms, once. Now without hope, water, life. Endless fences separating left from right. His and others. Fences. Easy to trespass by a man’s stride. Cattle gates shot. Strong winds from the west, replace lush peaks, rivers, surface water.”
After his car runs out of petrol in the arid plains, he set off on foot, walking across a desolate valley with animal carcasses, stripped cars, traces of civilization but with no one around. In the midst of this barren landscape, he finds an oil well, with oil gushing out of the surface.“Thirsty wells and lakes turned to salt pans. Spotless white innocent and calm yet all livingness retecting. Eyes dusty mouth and ears. Strong winds dust beamed faces. From the eastern cold and stormy shores to the flanks of the western mountain ranges, massive clouds, weather barriers.”
Going on from the filth of the oil well, he finds a stream with water so clear that he drinks from it. And in the end, he is ‘rescued’ by a local tribesman with an extra horse, who takes him back near the industrial plant where he works. Once back in his room, he plops down on his bed once again; an oil mining worker, it had been his day-off.
While the misfortunes characterized in The Man With A Bag (2004) are reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin and other early comedic films that find other peoples’ mishaps entertaining, it doesn’t seem to be the intent here to draw a laugh. Dark and surreal, it seems to be trying to say something about contemporary urban life, where the civic systems that produce the ‘environment’ sometimes creates absurd realities, situations where noone in their right minds would be in unless forced to.
However extreme or unconscionable the depictions in The Man With A Bag (2004) may seem, they do have a correspondence with reality where people are made to do things that make no sense, run around in circles or get tripped up carrying something that’s in abundance where one is at. All of this happening while the structures, systems that produces these situations, overbearing and immovable, silently watches, which is what the Pasajes I and II series of films is about as well.
El Camino Entre Dos Puntos (2013) is along a similar vein but more specific to the area of Patagonia. Slightly political, it raises questions about how a place can have oil gushing out of the surface and be desolate at the same time and how the ‘stable homes’ as in the days of old has been replaced with a lot of graffiti walls. In fact ‘home’ for the protagonist, someone who is born of the wind swept grasslands and terrain of the region, has become a vague concept. Living in a metal container at the plant, he doesn’t seem to have much sense of privacy, domicility or permanence as he keeps the key to the door underneath the mat. Whether this applies to life in Buenos Aires in general is unclear.