Historias Extraordinarias (2008) (aka Extraordinary Stories)
“Thrilled, X thinks, “She’s done it. She managed to escape. The case is closed. She fooled them all.” Then adds with some pride, “all but me…” But this isn’t really the case. X is wrong about everything. He will never know it, but his entire theory is wrong.”
Argentine director Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories (2008) is an interesting bundle of paradoxes. For one, it is one of the most entertaining films of last decade, yet not many people seem to have seen it (Even its festival visits seem few and far). The film runs for more than four hours, yet it “feels” as if it is only a third of that length. The stories it tells are so interesting and seem ready-made for a mass, global audience, yet its running time precludes the possibility of a wide release. The film was made for a mere $40,000 and yet it’s more ambitious than an industry product made with thousand times that budget Corporations would be glad to distribute the picture and yet would probably ask Llinás to cut the film to half its original length, which would only unmake the entire film. These kinds of contradictions are present even within the film. Extraordinary Stories tells stories that are simple, lucid and linear enough to understand easily, yet the way it chooses to tell them agitates us, calling attention to itself and nearly undoing the emotional involvement the stories offer. Furthermore, it tells stories that imbibe many of the conventions of genre cinema and yet the film freewheels all the way, never succumbing to the baseless needs raised by the genres. The result is not a filmmaking mess as one might think, but a heady mix of addictive stories and spectacular storytelling.
So, what is Extraordinary Stories about? Where to begin and where to end? For starters, it tells us three parallel stories in eighteen chapters about three common men – X (Mariano Llinás himself), Z (Walter Jakob) and H (Agustin Mendilaharzu, also the cinematographer) – as narrated by an unseen narrator (rather three of them – Daniel Hendler, Juan Minujin and Veronica Llinás). X is a state-commissioned architect who, by a strange turn of events, becomes a murderer and pigeonholes himself into a hotel room in order to evade the police. Z is a small-time government official in a secluded town who gradually finds a deep interest in the secret life of his predecessor. H is a manual labourer who is hired by an old man to hunt for some specific relics that are supposedly lying on the banks of the local river. Also interspersed in generous amounts are threads about an escaped convict who plans to infiltrate a top-level meeting of businessman, a bet between two old men about the feasibility of a construction project, a short biopic of an iconic architect who built demonic structures in the most remotest of villages, a flashback of a random character recounting war time experiences, a love triangle and what not. The story deviates on its whim with the narrator seemingly improvising as he goes along. One might argue that none of these diversions makes sense, but these irrational detours are the stuff that stories are made of.
Although the film makes no claim to study the psychology of its characters or the motivation for their actions, it is very interesting to speculate on why the protagonists do what they do. X is like L. B, Jefferies, confining himself to the hotel and observing the world through the rear window of his room. He attempts to construct a coherent world from the random images he observes and believes, in vain, that the can make sense of it all. He is trying to hold together not only the world that appears to be going berserk and out of his comprehension, but also his sanity. If X was trying to construct a game around him, Z attempts to get into a game already built. Like Antonioni’s photographer, out of sheer boredom of a drab suburban life, he creates a puzzle within the world (where none may exist) and plunges into it, thereby ceasing to be a passive observer and becoming an active participant. H, on the other hand, is nudged into a game he never wanted to be in the first place. Preferring the untroubled life that he already leads, he tries to shut himself out of the new universe that he seems to have been pulled into and tries to reject the larger-than-life stories of the old man. He initially thinks that he’s being paid for much more than what he’s doing but, gradually, he discovers that he’s got himself into something much more than what he signed up for. What connects them is their realization that, even though things may not have turned out the way they wanted, the experience itself was worth the investment.
The first, and obviously, striking thing about Extraordinary Stories is the presence of a narrator who recites to us the events like a news reporter, giving a sense of immediacy to the proceedings and packing so much of narrative material into these paltry 245 minutes. He authoritatively comments on the characters, their motivations and actions as if he knows everything about them. The apparent redundancy is nullified along the film as Llinás provides friction between the soundtrack and the visual. This discrepancy between what we see and what the narrator tells us is both comical and unsettling. For instance, the narrator elaborates on the theory that X concocts only to tell us, at the end of it all, that he’s wrong. Similarly, he tells us what is going to happen at a scene much before the event actually takes place (In fact, halfway into the film, he gives away what is to happen towards the end). So, for us, the narrator seems both omniscient and suspicious. But having no other objective point of view, we are forced to trust him. This way, Extraordinary Stories is a film about storytelling itself – its methods, its pitfalls and its very nature – and, consequently, also about the role of the director in the filmmaking process. It is as if we are forced to acknowledge that no story can be free of the tyranny of authorial subjectivity, that every story tells as much about its storyteller as it does about its characters and that every version of a story gets refracted by the ideological prisms of each of the narrator it passes through.
Shot in video as expected and almost exclusively with a shallow focus, the film has all the coziness and visual blandness of a home video or, at best, an independent production, which is especially evident in scenes with little lighting where the images start bleeding. Llinás also probably saved a lot in the sound department, given that not much rerecording would have been required. However, the film is directed lovingly, with a keen interest in telling the stories. As indicated by the film’s promotional poster that imitates van Gogh, Extraordinary Stories is a work that lies somewhere between modernist distortion (the subjectivity and personal nature of storytelling are continually brought to the fore) and postmodernist pastiche. Like Kill Bill (2003-04), the film that first comes to mind while watching this one, Llinás’ film is divided into chapters and traverses various genres and styles, taking us on a tour of the various zones of popular cinema. One moment we have the film lurking in the dark waters of a psychological thriller and in the other, cruising in the carefree playgrounds of a romantic comedy. Using almost every form out there – graphic animation, photo essay, journalistic reportage, cinema vérité – Llinás fabricates a film that instantly recalls the early works of the Nouvelle Vague, especially the pictures of Truffaut whose on-the-fly narration of events it emulates. Like the films of the French director, Llinás’ film, despite the alienating presence of the narrator, is full of emotions – humour, pathos, fear and love –which prevent the characters from being reduced to caricatures or pawns of a larger structure.
Throughout the film, we struggle to find a connection between the three stories. Genre cinema, especially those written by Guillermo Arriaga, has taught us to expect these seemingly independent stories to gloriously clash and merge in a magisterial showdown. Accordingly, we earnestly wish that the all-powerful narrator will somehow tie all these stories up and prevent the film from becoming a very long shaggy dog story. The inherent trait of genre cinema is to provide patterns, to prepare us to expect certain types of stories, conflicts and closures. The successful genre film supplies minor variations within the larger structure whereas the ordinary ones act by the book. But all of them provide the audience an integral, causal world the events of which could all be accommodated neatly into an overarching “meaning”. And Llinás’ film avoids precisely that. If at all there is some connection between the three stories, it must be the idea that our lives change in ways we never would have imagined and through the kind of people we never would have expected to meet. X, Z and H may not have found what they wanted, but the important thing for them is that they rediscover themselves in that quest. The people they meet may or may not be what they think they are, but even more vital is the transformation that this motley bunch brings to the worldview of the three protagonists. To kill a cliché, the journey for them is more important than the destination. Likewise, Llinás’ film seems to suggest that the details of the stories – the inflections, the moments and the events – that it presents are far more enriching – far more intriguing certainly – and important than any resolution to these stories could be.
Taken together, these three stories, save for a few tenuous connections between them, may not account for any singular “meaning” at all for Extraordinary Stories is the kind of film that abstains from making any grand statements about the world – political or otherwise. By actually recounting the tales through an active narrator, and not just presenting the stories visually, Llinás absolves the world within the fictional stories from the burden of causality, realism and meaning. If the film has something concrete to say at all, it can only be about storytelling and not the world. Now, one might argue that this form of depoliticization only obfuscates reality for the viewer. However, by freeing itself from the hinges of the genre, its mundane mechanizations and its inherent ideological choices, Llinás’ film provides true escapist entertainment that, for once, does not intimidate its audience. By rejecting the tyrannical structures of genre cinema such as pattern, meaning, closure and unambiguity, Llinás’ film brings back to stories what is absolutely essential to them – mystery. It is an achievement for the film that it does not hesitate to include what would otherwise be deemed superfluous elements. There is probably a whole film playing out through the eyes of the stray characters we see – the lovers at the town centre, the workers at the office and the old men at the village meeting, for instance – that would make for stories as fantastic as the ones we see. The greatest triumph for Llinás’ film is that it preserves such possibilities. It has, in essence, brought back the awe and curiosity that we felt as kids, sitting in the porch listening to the tall tales of our grandparents with wide eyes. Extraordinary stories indeed.
(Image Courtesy: Revista Post)