“Books on the Internet” – An Interview with Mariano Llinás

by Maximilien Luc Proctor, edited by Martin Bremer

Two years ago, Llinás came to Rotterdam with La Flor (Part 1), a two-episode, five-hour film featuring a mummy and a musical. This year he returned with La Flor complete, a three-part, six-episode, fourteen-hour epic genre(s) film, riding a wave of praise from its premiere last August in Locarno. The film was partly brought to life by money from the Hubert Bals Fund, an initiative out of Rotterdam which seeks to help films from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe reach completion. Llinás left this year’s edition with the Hubert Bals Audience choice award for La Flor (Part 2), a cohesive episode in three acts outlining a poetic spy thriller filmed in far-flung locations on multiple continents. It was my personal favorite of the three parts, and marks a major milestone in independent low-to-no budget filmmaking. I sat down with Llinás in Rotterdam, where he was more than happy to talk about the film for longer than the 30-minute slot we’d been allotted.

La Flor (Part 2)

Maximilien Luc Proctor: I know that the idea for the film began when you saw the four actresses perform. I’m curious about the genesis of the film after you had decided on that element as being the center of the project. How did you decide to do episodes, and with a prologue and epilogue structure?

Mariano Llinás: Well, to tell you the truth, I have never started a project or a picture from a story. It has never been the way I think of the pictures. I’ve always had a subject, or more like an image, or a procedure, but never a story, the story is always the last thing that comes [to me]. Because it comes to make other things happen. It’s not that I want to tell stories, even if both of the pictures I’ve done are full of different stories. But the stories always come to get other things done; to make images, to put images into the pictures.

In this case I had known this group of four players for many years, and I was very fond of them, they became some kind of family to me. The five of us stayed together all the time, and we knew that we wanted to do something together. At the beginning the idea that triggered everything was to make one picture of a play they had performed in a small theater together. That was the first play that I saw them in. It was like an excuse, we didn’t know each other, and they came to me and they said, ‘Do you want to make a picture of this play?’ And I said yes. But of course, I said yes not because I wanted to do a picture of that play in particular but because I wanted to do a picture with them. That was the real reason. I would say yes to whatever they wanted to do.

Then I understood that when they brought the play to me, it wasn’t that they wanted to make a picture of that [particular play]. They [simply] wanted to make a picture, too – they wanted to make pictures, they wanted to do cinema. So we stayed for a couple of years working on that project which was called Neblina (which would be like, Mist).

Then I discovered that it wasn’t just me who was pretending to be interested in that particular project, but all I wanted was to be with them. I discovered that they wanted the same thing – we were building a friendship, and the important thing was to build some kind of thing together, some kind of a team, or a family, as I’ve said, metaphorically. Then it was no longer metaphorical, because one of these players is [now] my wife, [Laura] Paredes. We have a child, all of us became kind of a family. At that time, I was in the process of making another picture, which was called Extraordinary Stories. It was quite a big picture too, [though] not a ten year process. The point is: it was impossible for me to get involved in another picture. So in a way, in all those conversations, and all that process for doing Neblina, I was just taking time. It was like a red herring, for them to say, ‘Well, let’s do this, but…’

So when I finished the first picture, Extraordinary Stories, I said, okay, now’s the time, let’s do something together. It became evident that it was not going to be the project we were [originally] talking about. So we said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And, in that process, it happened to me all the time that stories and different situations came to me to do with them – stories with mummies, for example. I said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be funny to do some stupid thing with mummies where you would be this, and you would play that, and then you would play the possessed, and you the scientist,’ every time those fantasies came. And I said, ‘Well, maybe someday we are going to make a lot of pictures with this silly subject, with these silly stories.’ But when the possibility came, to really start working, I said, ‘Well, each of those small pictures is not going to be enough to carry all of the energy that we had through all those years of thinking together [about] what to do.’ So I thought we must do one picture that should include all those potential pictures. We must design an object that can carry not just one story but every story that would come to our minds. Design some kind of a big object that would admit any fantasy that we could frame [within it].

When I decided that – when I understood that we should make a very big object with the capability of admitting almost everything – [that’s when] the drawing came to me: four arrows pointing up, the circle, and the arrow pointing down. That was it. I said okay, this is a possible scheme; four starts, one story, a little fable, and one ending. This can work. Having the scheme of a machine – to me, it was a machine.

I was saying ‘Okay well four starts: that would be something, without an ending.’ I didn’t know yet if those four starts should be alternating or not, or one after the other. I went to them and I proposed, “I want to do this,” and I drew the thing, This is my proposal: this drawing, four starts, everything like that, and it’s not that we are going to do one picture and then another and then another, but we are going to make one picture that includes everyone, everything.

They said yes. We started and different ideas would find their place in that machine. We started with the mummy. That [segment] was almost ready because it was written very quickly and easily. It was supposed to be a silly story, as I said. I knew that we should start with a weak story, something that should somehow have this ‘B-series’ stuff, like a ‘40s-B-series thing, something from Val Lewton, or Torneur, or that kind of thing. It’s a mummy after all. Which was quite daring, in a way, right?

I don’t know if you have been to these kinds of film festivals [very often] in the independent [scene]… It’s quite daring to use mummies, for example. You see, cultivated audiences don’t [accept] that kind of stuff anymore. They reject fantasy. So it was quite audacious to start with the mummy, but I knew it should start with something like that. That way, we would see the performers [instead of] the story. If we had a silly story, a weak, [playful] story, it would be something different from a [‘serious’] mummy thing.

La Flor (Part 1)

So we did that, and different things started working opposite to others, to the previous [ones]. It was quite mathematical. We had four items, A, B, C, and D. If A was something in story one, it should be a different thing in story two. All the stories [were] in opposition to the previous [one]. That’s the way we fixed it. As the years passed, it became a little bit more difficult to find ways of [creating] opposition, that’s why, for instance, in the fifth episode, they [the lead actresses] are not there. We needed a strong thing, [an important element in the previous parts], to get opposed.

I really missed their presence when it came to the fifth episode. Did you feel that way, watching it?

Yes, of course. That’s what the fifth episode is: it’s another way of working with them, with the audience, with the viewer. You should miss them. It’s the way to understand the picture. ‘Ah, so they are not here.’ We had been with them so many times, so many years, in a way, so many hours, that – well, ‘Where are they?’ If you felt that way, then something worked properly. In the previous episode, when you see that ten-minute sequence, quite documentary, about them just going by, just being in front of the camera, the part before the intermission, I think that’s the moment when you feel that the picture is about the four players, directly. I think that’s the idea. They are no longer the different characters, they are just themselves, [and that’s] who you are missing.

So, what else?

We were talking about Episode Five. I was wondering why you decided to turn a non-silent film into a silent one and if you could talk a little bit about the shots of the airplanes?

Aha, yeah. Listen, all the ‘why’ things, all the ‘why’ questions… I’m never going to have…

You ask me, ‘Why?’ It’s difficult to tell you the truth, [because] I don’t know. I thought it was going to be a good idea, I thought it would be fine. I really don’t know the why-why-why. Never. It’s like a general answer for everything, ‘I thought it was a good idea.’

Or another way of saying it: in such a complex picture that would admit almost everything, it’s a good moment for caprice, you see? Why not? That’s the point. The object was so generous, and its hospitality was so wide that I think after so many years and hours we deserved to do whatever we wanted, and with the confidence that the audience would share that playful attitude toward our decisions. The only point for us was, they would say, ‘Hey I’m ready to accept everything, but don’t bore me. I’m going with you after the fifth hour or sixth hour.’ If they are still there, I think they are going to accept all things. But the only way of not letting them down is to keep on captivating their attention and emotions. So we kept on trying to find different ways of [producing] emotion.

I thought that having a silent moment, completely silent, was a way of finding a new sound for the picture. I’ve always wanted to experiment with that sensation of a completely silent theater situation. I thought it was a good idea; it could be the right answer to every question. I don’t understand why, after the invention of talking pictures, silent pictures stopped, disappeared. I never understood that. Well, I understand it. The answer is capitalism, and that kind of voracious attitude of the history of cinema. But almost every person who thinks of pictures would admit that there’s something that disappeared with silent pictures, which was never recovered by the talking pictures. There’s a whole language that vanished when silent pictures disappeared. Why?

That practice was never continued by – well, Bazin said that some [filmmakers] did [continue it] and kept on doing silent things, even in the talkies, but I don’t agree. I think there’s something that happens when the characters are not talking, or [rather], they are talking but we don’t hear what they are saying – that is not recoverable in talking pictures. I never understood why it was one thing or the other. I had my experiences with silent and everything, and with voiceover, which I use a lot. It’s a way of recovering some small experiments with the silent [pictures]. But I had never done a completely silent sequence. It’s 40 minutes without any sound (almost, there are the planes of course). I wanted to prove that there’s something in silent pictures that we miss, in a way, [when there is sound]. I don’t know if it works or not, but people don’t leave the room, at least [not during that episode]. Probably because of the planes. I like that kind of situation. I think you can see this picture, too, especially Part 3 – the whole last day of the picture’s [screening] – as a series of experiments for future pictures to [further investigate]. One of them, is an experiment – it’s a test – with silence. And I think it worked. I liked it, and I think I’m going to repeat it. You can take it as that: that it’s still possible to have a completely silent series of images with the audiences there. Will the audience be thankful for that, will they still be sensitive to it?

There’s a verse by Borges that talks about the silent and wise screen, taking silence and wisdom as the same thing. I think it’s true, when I look at silent pictures – which I prefer to watch without any sound, not with these pianos that they add – I find there’s something that we have lost in the exercise of watching pictures, something touching, something poetic and very different from anything else. It’s something that we can’t find in TV or theater, for instance. It’s new, silent, a world without sound. It’s something very – [Takes a deep breath] – intense.

So I tried that. And perhaps my suspicion was that A Day in the Country, the picture by Renoir, would work better as a silent picture. Maybe that was one point of [remaking it]. I like the sound, but that story could work for a silent too. As for the planes, I don’t know what to say. It’s not bad. But why did I do it?

I suspected that a love scene illustrated by acrobatic planes would be a good idea. But besides that suspicion, I think I use that sequence to consider a general notion that comes up in these kinds of interviews, which is the notion of authorship, right? And everybody speaks about authorship. They talk to me, like you’re doing right now, as the author of the picture, right? I understand that, we have all grown up with the author theory; almost everyone admits that the director is the creator of the picture.

But you gave up your authorship in Episode Four.

[Chuckles]

Yeah, not me! Him! The point is: it’s true. Anyone would say you don’t give up your authorship, because the story finishes, but I was [still] there editing, and then I was there making notes about the sound and everything. It would not work if it was me who shoots all of it, [rather than] the witches. [In this episode our main protagonists end up being witches.] That’s not the way it works. So I made the final decisions – that’s true – but does that make me the author of everything? In a way, it does. The planes… How can I be the author of those images? Or, at least, more than the pilots? How can I be author of that [when I] was there beside the camera[woman], just shooting some planes going by and making all those loops and reels. And those pilots didn’t know that we were shooting them. And they still don’t know that there’s a picture called La Flor which they are in, and they will never know.

Let’s think something impossible: that they are cinephiles. They are Dutch cinephiles, those pilots. So they are here. They go and see their planes and think, ‘Oh, hey, look, he is good!’ Probably they are not going to recognize themselves. So they don’t know that they are in a picture, they don’t know they are a part of it, but still they are the authors, and the woman who was shooting and who had the skill of continually capturing their movements in one of those shots and not losing [track of] all those planes? So who is the author in that sense?

So I decided: I had the idea of shooting the planes, I decided where each shot should be – but it’s them! The stuff belongs to them, or else it belongs to nobody. I think there’s something interesting there, to think about how pictures are made and how diffused the notion of authorship [has become], of the maker in a picture. It’s completely different than in the other performing arts, or narrative arts – and, of course, the image arts, such as painting, for instnace. Film deals with the real, so we should give the real world credit for it too. I think that’s something that should be discussed more. Of course, I’m not saying that they should invite those pilots to come here to the festival. I’m not saying that, but probably it would be cheaper since they could use their own planes. [We laugh.]

I think that should be [considered]. When all these people talk about ‘my picture, my picture, my picture’… How can they say ‘my picture’ when those people were risking their lives making all those reels? I don’t know, it’s not my picture, I was working, and the pilots were not even paid for appearance, it was just a festival of airplanes. We just stole those shots. It’s interesting. It’s something that makes us think and feel differently towards the whole question of ‘who owns images.’ I’m not sure. Each time I’m less sure about that subject. Every day I feel less the owner of the things I’ve done. And the picture, the very premise that I share the credit with the four players – with all the players, but of course with them in particular – it’s a bit strange. It’s a very personal picture, too, but ‘personal’ does not say anything about property: I don’t own this picture. That’s something that I like about it. What do you think?

Well, it’s interesting because I was thinking a lot about what was probably my favorite part of the film, which was your narration.You’re the author of those words and their delivery in a much more literal sense throughout Episode three. I was thinking a couple times about Bolaño.

[Chuckles.] Yeah.

I really liked that narration –

Which one?

What’s being said throughout the whole of Episode Three, with the spies. Very poetic stuff.

Yeah, the stars – everyone likes the stars, and the snow.

And the tsetse fly.

Ah, the tsetse fly. Yes, it’s true that it’s quite an authorial element. I understand that, and it is read by myself and it’s almost a part played by myself. I understand that. But still, if you would read that text that you find so moving, so poetic… Without the images, for instance, that last ‘white’ part in Russia, the snow, the litany of white things: I understand that’s inventive. But if you would read it, it would be shit. It’s good because it works, it sounds, it rings, it has some kind of rhyme, the train that moves the camera, it’s cinema. We don’t create cinema. We should understand that we don’t create: we just direct. See, that’s why the word director is so good, it’s so precise: we direct things, there are things spread [out] and we give them direction. It’s not that we create them. We don’t make them. I’m kind of obsessed with it.

Sorry to take the interview that way, I think it’s interesting to question certain words. To regard this entire director glorification that happens with suspicion. I think directors would be better if they were treated more – I’m not saying that they should be treated like in Hollywood, where they are treated like shit, it’s not like that but…

A little less idol worship?

Yes. Something like that. Or maybe if we understood the director’s work, as it is, directors would know better what they should do in the pictures. And people, critics, journalists, people who enjoy the pictures would ask more proper questions. Or the audience, for example. If you had been in the Q-&-As, people would ask things like ‘What do you think about…’ [One gets the impression that] it’s a picture as a way of telling what I think about different items, or why [I think what I do].

It’s more like some craft… I think that the craft part of our job has been a little bit dismissed in the thinking of cinema. And I think that the director is a craftsman more than a philosopher, or that his philosophy [is conveyed through his] craft. Not hand-craft, but a craft [nonetheless]. Well, that’s what I think.

La Flor (Part 3)

There is a feeling of hand-craft though, in a lot of [La Flor].

I understand that. That is because it was hand-crafted.

Let’s say that it’s not a metaphor; each panoramic shot is hand-crafted by the cameraperson. You feel it; the picture does not pretend to [hide] its handcraft. It’s more handcrafted than most of the pictures which want to make the handcraft something you should not notice. No, in this case, you should. For instance, the players, the acting of the girls: of course, it’s quite evident to all because you see them making different things, sometimes opposite things in the same picture. You understand that they are playing [roles]. So you see the craft, you see the skill, and the work, too; the weariness of playing all those different characters. I think at the end, when we stand there in front of the camera during the credits sequence – which is so long, and during which you see everyone packing the equipment away – you feel the weariness of all those people who were working there. Of course you should feel the handcraft, because handcraft is an effort, and joy. It’s supposed to be.

You should feel handcraft in every picture, because pictures are made by hand, and they’re made with effort and with work, and by different means of physicality. Sometimes that part of the picture is not there to be seen, and to be enjoyed and be thanked. I think for a fourteen-hour picture it would be impossible not to make that a part of it. Because, after fourteen hours, there’s a craft done by the spectator, too: the one who is watching has also [put in] a physical effort. We’re part of the same thing; we all make the picture happen.

It’s our handcraft too, and our effort too. I think it should be a part of it. Not only because it’s me who writes those sheets and words and everything, but – we’ve been there through all those years, driving through the roads, and taking the camera. You should include that because it’s very nice, it’s an adventure and I suppose that a picture should show its own adventure. Or at least I’m very thankful, when I’m watching a picture, if I can understand the adventure that has created it. I think that’s one of the most unbelievable ways that a picture can give us beauty. That’s what I think: to see the tracks of the people who worked on it is very nice.

Well, what else? … it’s you who will have a lot of work, unrecording that.

That’s not a problem.

Let’s do one more.

Last question, then, about ‘Books on the internet.’

[Chuckles] Yeah, yeah.

In your view, how would you position your film in relation to the Internet?

[Laughs.]

I actually saw a very strange film here, Nietzsche Sils Maria Rochedo de Surlej, by Júlio Bressane. It’s essentially just his vacation footage. But I was thinking again about the concept of ‘books on the internet’ during one part where he is filming scans and reproductions of Nietzsche first editions. He’s just filming it…

He has those books?

No, he traveled to see them.

Uh-huh.

He tells his friend, ‘Okay, turn the page,’ and he’s kind of scanning the pages with his camcorder.

I think it’s quite a joke. You see, I collect books, and this ‘internet’ is not quite poetic, yet. Those of us who like lovely things – such a 19th century idea – well, the internet is not yet a lovely thing. Well, we used this – How old are you?

I’m almost 27.

Did you ever dial-up?

Yes.

Wow. We used that sound, you see – Gatto, who’s the – I don’t know what he is, but he’s there in the picture. He’s in the hotel where he works in the fourth part, [which] has no Wi-Fi, so he has to dial up. The sound of dial up is very nice. I think that sound is lovely but the internet itself is not lovely. But I like books, I collect [them], and once a nice lady told me, ‘There are books on the internet, you know, you can get almost everything.’ Well, not everything… every time they say “the internet has everything,” I go looking for everything, and it’s never there; [especially] the particular things that I’m [interested in]. They said Netflix has everything.

Yeah right.

So I said okay let’s see this Netflix thing, let’s look for…

There’s nothing.

Nothing! Just TV shows. Nothing! There’s no Chaplin. So I said ok, well…

But in the ‘books on the internet’ thing: it started a compulsion. I opened my account and everything, I bought almost three books daily – in the beginning they were very cheap – the difficult thing is finding them [in my collection later].

But the point is, there’s a joke in there, because it’s a part where the picture has some kind of a rewriting of my previous, Extraordinary Stories, in which someone finds a map. In that map – an old road map – are some names, then he finds a red notebook. In that notebook are the same names, so he starts thinking that it is some kind of code. In a way I knew that many people who would watch this picture, La Flor, would remember that. So I wanted to joke with them, ‘He’s completely run out of ideas, he’s using the same trick again, telling the very same story again.’

I thought that it could be a funny joke that there wasn’t [an answer this time]. The answer was not a code, but  something so unsexy, like books on the internet. And it served as a way of making some sexy thing, like filming books, shooting books. That was something that I wanted to do, and still want to do after this picture. Not just scan, I don’t know your Brazilian who scans. For one it’s much more difficult to scan. And when we shoot, we’re not scanning people. It was the opportunity to buy the books [which appear in the film].

I said, ‘Let’s imagine that he gets obsessed and starts searching for x…’ And it was an opportunity to do some Borges stuff. It was like inventing or recognizing the path of a reader, who buys books. The itinerary of a reader, who started reading this, and then got interested in that, and then he started buying everything about it. You see, it’s like something that I would recognize. Why did he start with trees and then he said the trees took him to some witchcraft and some remedies of beverages, of herbal beverage, of medieval, some medieval took him to witch books, and witch books took him to fantastic literature… and then, you know, rivers spread.

So I wanted to [follow] some kind of mental path of a reader – I enjoy that. Because I decided I should first read every book that appears in his story, so I bought almost every book that appears there, and I didn’t succeed in reading them all, but I did read many of them. It was one of the games. We had to invent a lot. I do like books, and to shoot books. No scanning.

La Flor (Part 1)

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