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Gael García Bernal in Pablo Larrain’s “no.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSIC

Gael García Bernal in Pablo Larrain’s “no.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSIC

BY STEVE ERICKSON | In the early 1970s, debate raged about whether it sufficed to make films with political subject matter or if a filmmaker, to be truly progressive, also had to use unconventional form to challenge the spectator’s expectations — “making a film politically” it was dubbed.

This discussion resonates in Olivier Assayas’ forthcoming “Something in the Air,” and it also comes to mind while watching Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “No.” The final part of a trilogy about the Pinochet dictatorship, the film makes the case for advertising being a progressive political force in some circumstances, rather than simply a way to push the usual products we don’t need. Larrain’s storytelling is linear, but his visual style is odd. To match archival footage from the ‘80s, “No” was shot on a primitive U-Matic video camera from 1983.

In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, under pressure from the US (which helped install him in the first place), agreed to a referendum on his presidency. Most liberal Chileans dismissed it as a farce that would only confirm his grip on power.

Gael García Bernal as an ad exec working to bring down Pinochet

In Larrain’s film, however, a group of 16 opposition political parties approaches advertising executive René (Gael García Bernal) to design a marketing campaign against Pinochet. In essence, they’re trying to market democracy as if it were a new brand of soda. René’s first attempt at a commercial for the “No” vote makes this quite clear. While the opposition’s initial attempts at ads are filled with ugly images of corpses and tanks in the streets, René goes in the opposite direction, trying to sell the push to take down Pinochet as fun and sexy.

Meanwhile, the opposition also produces nightly newscasts expressing their point of view, followed by a rebuttal from the government’s perspective.

René’s ex-wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers) is a radical activist who’s cynical about the vote, and he wants to win her back and live with her and their young son.

“No” uses an aspect ratio of 1.33, like an old-fashioned TV set. (We’ll have to see whether the city’s arthouses can honor this.) The primitive video camera with which it was shot gives it a unique look. I don’t know if cinematographer Sergio Armstrong used natural light, but the U-Matic doesn’t respond well to sunlight. Periodically, the image is flooded with lens flares, coronas, and bleached-out areas of the screen. The colors are relatively pale and slightly distorted.

There’s a term for the irony-laden fondness some East Germans have for communism: ostalgie. “No” runs the risk of fetishizing the ‘80s. Unlike “Argo,” set in 1980, it avoids decking out its cast in outlandish, ugly costumes and hairdos, but it can’t resist rubbing the audience’s face in the differences between 1988 and now. Microwaves are new, and René fears their potential dangers. Betamax and VHS machines hover in the background of many scenes. A clip of “We Are The World” is seen at one point, while the jingles used in the commercials draw on a dated ‘80s pop sound.

Larrain had one very good reason to shoot on the U-Matic. He was able to cheaply integrate fictional images created today with news clips from the ‘80s. The newsman from the “No” broadcasts is briefly seen today in a cameo, but the film incorporates footage of his actual broadcasts. Were it shot on HD, the image quality would be much slicker, but it would take a lot of expensive trickery to bridge the gap between past and present so seamlessly.

The idea of juxtaposing agitprop TV broadcasts from competing points of view recalls Peter Watkins’ “La Commune,” although the ultra-leftist Watkins would probably be horrified at the thought of advertising as a progressive force. It’s worth pointing out that Larrain is hardly uncritical, at least in interviews, of his characters and their politics. Speaking about René, he said the character “is a son of the neoliberal system that Pinochet imposed in this country…To me, the NO campaign is the first step toward the consolidation of capitalism as the only viable system in Chile. It’s not a metaphor — it’s direct capitalism, a pure and true product of advertising, taken to politics.”

“No” flirts with a Chilean form of ostalgie, especially since it takes place after the tortures and murders of Pinochet’s regime had largely ended. The first two films in Larrain’s trilogy, “Tony Manero “ and “Post Mortem,” were grim examinations of everyday fascism. With “No” he depicts people finally fighting back. There’s something provocative about using the huckster’s art to bring down a dictatorship, but the film is, in fact, largely based on a true story.

“No” is Larrain’s first crowd-pleaser, which may be why it attracted the attention of Sony Pictures Classics and got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. In the end, René sells the Chilean people on democracy, using the same means by which he embarks on a new campaign for a soap opera. “No” plays like a defense of populist filmmaking, which is somewhat ironic coming from the director of Larrain’s previous films. But Larrain is sharp enough to recognize that advertising is also a way of making films politically.

NO | Directed by Pablo Larrain | Sony Pictures Classics | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 15 | Angelika Film Center | 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafilmcenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinema | 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. | lincolnplazacinema.com

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