Monday, March 8, 2021

Adolfo Aristarain | Martín (hache)

whistling roofs

by Douglas Messerli

Adolfo Aristarain and Kathy Saavedra (screenplay), Adolfo Aristarain (director) Martín (hache) / 1997

Adolfo Aristarain’s film Martín (hache) begins with a scene in which the young lead, Juan Diego Botto as Hache (hache is Spanish for the letter “h,” which signifies the word “hijo” or son of Martin, which in English might be described as the equivalent of calling a son named after his father as Junior) is performing in a loud punk concert in Buenos Aires at which his girlfriend announces, in a rather blasé manner, that she is breaking up with the 19-year-old boy.

     Soon after we attend a luncheon with Martín senior (Federico Luppi) in Madrid with his friend Dante (Eusebio Poncela) and Martín’s film editor and much younger lover Alicia (Cecilia Roth) at which, we discover in the mix of the various personal and business conversations that Martín is a film director, now living in Spain, who is attempting to convince Dante to act the role of a pimp in a new film that he is considering, as they are interrupted time and again by Alicia who, having just snorted several lines of “perfect” cocaine attempts to share her ecstasy, which results in Martín misogynistically abusing her and, finally, sending her off, after which his friend scolds him for his behavior.

     Between the various threads of the three distinctly different conversational modes—with references from their personal lives, their business endeavors, and the drugged sexual connotations—all spoken at such a rapid-fire pace that the English subtitles can hardly keep up with the Spanish spoken language, I felt like a lost outsider listening from a nearby table without a clue of their word’s context.

     Indeed, I switched off the DVD for a few days just to attempt to assimilate what I had  witnessed and to consider whether or not it was worth my efforts to proceed.

     It is perhaps not accidental that in the very next scene, the Argentine director presents his fictional equivalent of himself quietly listening to an exquisite recording of jazz, rolling a joint, drinking a few glasses of wine, and putting on the headphones as he falls to sleep on the couch. And we can also now relate, more clearly, to Martín’s Garbo-like insistence throughout the rest of the film that we would prefer to be alone.

      The trouble is, of course, as Federico Fellini years before made clear in his great study of an endlessly besieged filmmaker in (1963), a director of cinema is never permitted a moment of isolation except in the convolutions of his own head—where, in fact, he is even more challenged by the ramifications of his encounters with others in the past.

      Dante suddenly barges into Martín’s luxurious home, reporting that family members have been attempting to get hold of him for hours. Hache (or as Junior refers to himself through the rest of the film, Jay) has just attempted suicide by drugs and is recovering in the hospital. Dante has already made a reservation for his friend on the first flight to Buenos Aires.

      We soon discover the wife Martín left behind in his homeland, Blanca (Ana María Picchio), who has remarried a doctor who has saved his stepson’s life, also has a new baby. Moreover, she reveals that their son Jay who refuses work or the opportunity to study, in her mind, is an uncontrollable 19-year-old who behaves as it he were 14. With a new child in their modest apartment, Jay no longer even has his own bedroom. Accordingly, Blanca wants her ex-husband to take his namesake back to Spain with him, or if nothing else for a month or so as they determine whether they can live together. Martín argues—and we soon after almost believe him—that they wouldn’t last a week together.

      Obviously, a man who wants to be alone and who is about to embark upon a new film venture that will take him for weeks or even months away from his homebase, wants no part of caring for aimless possibly still-suicidal son, even as he declares his love for his son. And, obviously, both Martín and Jay realize that the month of “vacation” represents, in fact, a permanent relocation.

     Although Jay insists his near-death was not intentional, but rather the wrong mix of alcohol and the drug called “dog,” which friends demanded he try, apparently no one in his family will believe him that he did not intentionally seek to die.

     Fortunately, Dante—who clearly adores the kid and even tries to convince his director friend that if he tires of caring for Jay he will be glad to take on the responsibility—actually listens to what Jay says and believes his argument that although his life is aimless, he has no desire to end his life. The only problem, as we increasingly discover, is that his remarkable “uncle” is, as he describes himself, a true “epicurean,” a gay actor who has and continues to try every drug created (although he later reveals to the boy, that except for heroin, a habit he later kicked, he has never let a drug control him), goes to bed with males and females not because of their bodies but the personality they evoke, and lives permanently in a small hotel suite. Martín absolutely refuses his “faggot” friend’s offer.

     Jay’s father is also worried about the effect that Alicia may have upon the boy. When she shows up unexpectedly bearing a gift of her newly acquired Bolivian coke, he becomes incensed, once more abusing her so severely that she leaves him seemingly forever, throwing the keys he has given her to his house in his face, while warning him that even if he pretends to never take drugs, his son will nevertheless find drugs elsewhere and experiment.  

     Both she and Dante, in short, seem more in touch with Jay than their father. And it is no surprise that a few days later Martín—in search of shooting sites and a place to rewrite the movie script— leaves Hache’s care to Dante, while luring Alicia back to join him at the seaside villa he’s been loaned as a place in which to work.

     As frenetically crazy as Dante is, his short-lived parenting of Jay out of the shadow of the brooding Martín, is the first time in the film that we begin to see the boy poking his head from under his shell of quietude. The bond between the impetuous epicurean and Jay is natural, both being true outsiders who don’t fit the conventional definitions of adult behavior. Although he plays the guitar by ear, Jay has no musical training and no intention of seeking any. He dismisses Dante’s suggestion that he take up filming as many sons of renowned directors have. And he absolutely refuses the roles his entire family has suggested that all young men embrace, being a student or a novice employee. He is a self-defined underachiever. Or, to put it as he does at other moments, he is still seeking a way into adulthood.

      In his intentional embracement of everything prohibited by others, Dante may be a force to reckon with, but he is also quite mad, since almost all of his one-night stands and his brief tenures in theatrical roles leaves him lonely and penniless. He takes his temporary charge to the theater to see him perform, but mid-scene Dante breaks out of character, lecturing the audience about the revolutionary play they are watching as being utterly meaningless since they will return home without even thinking about enacting any of its tenants. Without him specifically saying so, art has utterly no effect, he suggests, upon life. And although this hedonist argues brilliantly about his desire to embrace only people who represent the whole of being, later in the film we find him in bed with a girl who appears to be without the ability to speak and almost brain dead. Like all this film’s characters, what Dante says is not always what he does.

     But what Jay now wants to do, to experiment with heroin and return to Argentina, awakens Dante from his self-infatuation as he shifts the boy’s intentions to focus on another form of escapist adventure, a road trip which will, obviously, end up in Martín’s seaside villa.

     There, to convince Martín to take on some responsibility, he tells his friend of Jay’s intentions and lies about the boy having again attempted suicide.

     For much of the rest of the film, Aristarain employs his now-gathered cast of Martín, Dante, Jay, and Alicia to simply speak out about what they have all bottled up: their love, hurts, pain, and a recounting of the tortures they have inflicted upon one another and suffer.

     As one might expect, it doesn’t end well. Clearly the aging man who’s used to being in charge, Martín is revealed as truly villainous through the others’ words. Even the normally restrained Jay realizes that although his father may love him he has completely given upon on his son. As the boy expresses it:

                   He gave up on me. I robbed him of a parent’s golden dream:

                   one day to be proud of what his son achieved.

And later, Jay summarizes for Alicia what all those around him—and even the film’s audience—have come to perceive about the famous director:

                  Dad is locked away in himself. He’ll never say he loves you

                  or that he needs you or anybody.

    Regarding women, it has long become clear that Martín is an inveterate sexist. He has left Jay’s mother and now is willing to let Alicia go without bothering to listen to any of her ideas or even plead her hopeless love. The only thing, at this point, for which she can truly blame herself is for having continually believed that her older lover might be able to change. And his final drunken disdain of her attempts to even enter into the conversation involving his relationship to his son, represent the final closure of his and Alicia’s relationship. After a brief illusion that she might take revenge on him by having sex with Jay, she breaks down in the boy’s arms as he gently embraces on the beach, trying to explain to him that all she really wanted was to be his “mother” if only Martín had allowed her the role of being his symbolic wife.


     Having given her no hope of true equal-standing in his life, Alicia becomes the victim that Martín feared that Jay might become. Combining barbiturates with tequila always works, Dante mutters, as he pulls her body the next morning from the pool.

      Dante barges into his friend’s room after dragging the body from the pool to put a curse upon Martín: that he suffer intense pain for the rest of his life. And, later, after the funeral, as he prepares to leave he attempts to make clear to his friend all that has happened:

                First you lost your wife without doing anything to keep her.

                You didn’t want to lose her. Now you’ve lost Alicia. It wasn’t

                suicide, you killed her. She did it because of you. You didn’t

                want to lose her, either. You always lose what you love most.

                Now you only have Jay. You’re losing him, too.

     Yet Martín’s comeback is somewhat unexpected and represents one of the most memorable moments of this sad but beautifully evocative work: 

                What about you? What right do you have to say that? What

                about you? Do you have a wife, a son, a lover? You don’t

                have shit! Take care of yourself.

Dante responds, “I used to have a family. Jay, you, and Alicia were my family.” So the gay man openly admits what poor Plato in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955) didn’t dare to say out loud to its US public.

     But Martín takes it one step further, asking a question behind the expressions played out in Sal Mineo’s gaze into James Dean’s face: “Your family or your secret love?”

     Martín takes this all one step further when, in discussing the final terms of the film he is about to direct, he is told that after Dante’s most recent theater rant along with his long history of drug use, the investors refuse to hire Martín’s choice. He walks away from their offer, telling Dante and his son that they wanted to shoot it cheaply, refusing to live up to their commitments.

     And yes, Martín—despite his admission of his love and admiration to Jay’s face and a reconciliation with the boy—ultimately loses his son.

     One morning Dante suddenly appears on his doorstep with a tape Jay has filmed at the airport saying goodbye to his father, explaining that he must return to Buenos Aires not because of a problem with their relationship, but because he feels he doesn’t truly belong in Madrid. He misses, strangely enough, the roofs of the Argentine city with their dirty water towers; everything is beautiful about the roofs of Madrid, but he feels at home in the Argentine capital without his having to define or explain his being there. Perhaps, he suggests, he can only find his future career in the city with which he so innately feels to be a part.

     If the moving film clip he sends his father is any evidence, perhaps he will go into filmmaking or at least into acting. For once he has stepped out of the frame, he returns closer to the lens to send a last message to Dante: what his father has not told them, and which he discovered through a telephone call he answered while his father was sleeping with his headphones over his ears, was that the studio was still asking for Martín to reconsider despite the fact that they cannot accept the actor he insisted upon.

     Together, the messages left by his son reveal deep love between father and son and, just as importantly, between Martín and his incorrigible friend. Martín recalls that when he first came to Madrid, he too almost returned to Buenos Aires because he missed the whistling of that city coming from the streets, the citizens there whistled while no one in Madrid did. A rationalist as always, however, Martín scoffs, “I missed people whistling in the streets....Ridiculous. You can’t go back ‘cause you want to hear people whistle.” 

     Interestingly, whistling, like directing, like loving moreover, is an act—all acts in which Martín seemingly refuses to participate. While a roof is a place, somewhere to go, the highest place you can reach to get out in the open and to stand under the stars. As Jay says, he is still always thinking...imagining perhaps what he might do or where he might go in life.

     Once more, Dante attempts to provoke his friend back into action, picking up the phone and dialing the studio head as he hands the phone to Martín demanding he accept their offer. “I won’t do it,” Martín insists.

  “They’ll think we’re lovers,” Dante adds as he hands over the phone. The director takes the phone to plant his finger down upon the off button. After all, aren’t they now clearly lovers?

Los Angeles, March 8, 2001

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2001).

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