Credit: Pablo Marín/IFFR
by Dylan Adamson Film

Materia vibrante — Pablo Marín [IFFR ’24 Review]

February 2, 2024

Pablo Marín’s cinema can be deceptively simple and deceptively complex. Having worked exclusively on 8 and 16mm celluloid, the Argentinian filmmaker has gravitated, as with many still tending the flame of analog filmmaking, toward artisanship. As such, his tools are as much the subject of his work as is the (loosely) travelog content. Two planes are at stake in each of his shorts: the landscape and the surface of the film strip. In his best work, a superimposition occurs — and a literal one often coincides — wherein the attention to form does not obscure the content, but rather, both are illuminated.

An early work, sin título (2008), exemplifies this harmony of form and subject, with Marín rotating from a fixed position and varying his zoom in order to construct a 360° portrait of his neighborhood in Buenos Aires. If the single-frame exposure pace feels frantic, it’s nonetheless the evidence of a careful, exacting attention. Buenos Aires, and later the urban geography of Berlin, will become hallmarks of Marín’s cinema, along with images of the sun’s rays scattering across moving water, wild grasses blowing in the wind, and deciduous forests. But always meeting this impressionist obsession with landscape is his structuralist investigation of the aesthetic needs of the film strip.

Take Resistfilm (2014), for example, which is titled after an early Brakhage experiment. The film comprises four sections, each of which deploys different strategies of fragmentation, and each of which is the standard 50-foot length of a Super 8 cartridge captured at 18 frames per second. Each section makes use of a different mask to fragment and superimpose his images from nature. Again, the viewer’s attention is split between the details caught in the camera and the details of their capture. In an interview with Dan Browne from the time of Resistfilm’s release, Marín described leaving the black sections between reels in the film so as to avoid jump cuts. The fact remains, however, that for approximately a minute and a half of Resistfilm’s 13-minute runtime, between masked geometries of landscape photography, we’re watching nothing more than the scratched and grainy surface of blank film.

These works evoke an observer spending as much time in nature as on small gauge message boards, but they’re equally informed by the personal and political. Stephen Broomer, in an overview of Marín’s cinema, reminds us of Angelus Novus’ (2014) implicit reference to Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” description of Paul Klee’s painting of the same name. “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin writes of Klee’s angel. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed.” In addition to the unfortunately nostalgic pursuit of analog filmmaking, it bears mentioning that Marín is also a stalwart proponent of experimental cinema in Argentina, and of Argentinian experimental cinema abroad. He’s translated the writings of Stan Brakhage, Manny Farber, and J. Hoberman into Spanish, and his curated programs of Argentine small Super 8 films have opened inquiry into a fertile tradition too often sequestered from Western-centric narratives of experimental film. Marín’s own films can be seen as an extension of this work and a reflection on it, situating himself as a latter-day participant in a tradition that seems to persist on borrowed time.

Watching Denkbilder (2013), with its images of maté and crossed women’s legs split between Berlin and Buenos Aires, I couldn’t help but think of the novelist Julio Cortàzar, whose Rayuela (1963) straddles Paris and the Argentine capital as it flits back and forth out of time and forever in a state of departure. I came to Cortàzar with much of my generation, through Roberto Bolaño, another Latin American artist fixed in a rearward gaze, unable to step out a door without leaving something behind. Denkbilder is, to my eye, Marín’s most emotional film. Flashing superimpositions — of rooftops, zoo animals, a woman’s face, silhouetted — imbricate scenes spanning the Atlantic. The film’s amber glow (Denkbilder is a rare color offering from Marín) aches of a bygone summer, and his manic structure translates these fleeting moments as the delirious state of dislocation typically known as nostalgia. This is also the emotional core of Cortàzar’s and Bolaño’s fiction, the ache of the time that’s slipped past continuing to accumulate.

Materia vibrante (2024) — or, translated, Vibrant Matter — for its first section, would seem to access a tranquility relatively novel in Marín’s filmography. A series of mostly still frames are allowed to proceed undisturbed: we look through gaps in leafy trees, at laundry hanging between apartment buildings, ducks floating idly in the water. A short fade to black bookends each image. Initially unobtrusive windy tones emitting unobtrusively slowly gain decibels on the soundtrack. A tension becomes apparent in the procession — a fluctuating balance in each image between the manmade and the natural. Through the trees we spied the peak of a roller coaster’s trajectory; between the dominant residential buildings, a few sidewalk-bound trees craned for sunlight; a disconcerting stream of foam passed under the idle ducklings. We emerge in the forest, and the windy tones on the optical track have suddenly achieved gale force. At once, the tranquil pose is discarded, and Marín zooms frantically on a single tree in the forest, as if urging, begging, the viewer to look.

Of Angelus Novus, wherein overlapping images of sun-dappled waves interspersed with two people walking in a field, fireworks exploding overhead, Marín offered a description: “Sentimentally turbulent images prompted unconsciously by the end of times… At some point I will have no choice than to call this film a political film.” 10 years past this point, things have evidently progressed. Despite Kodak’s unveiling of a new Super 8 camera retailing at $5,845 USD, the situation of low-budget analog filmmakers has not dramatically improved. On a more macro level, the new Argentine president Javier Milei “promised” not to meet reduced emission targets by 2030, and, in a new omnibus bill introduced last month, proposed scaling back legislation regulating the country’s protected forestry zones. The past continues to accumulate.

Following the manic break halfway through Materia vibrante, Marín returns for a moment to the relaxed pace of the opening section, lingering on these images of trees that are punctuated with fades to black. But the rupture redoubles: the virtuosic superimpositions that have heretofore pervaded his filmography refract the urban landscape with all of Dziga Vertov’s manic energy and none of his optimism. It’s a late period city symphony that Marín prefers to term “a mausoleum for our present existence.” We see a long shot of a town double across a verdant hillside, traffic scenes layering atop one another, and apartment buildings folded into origami, colonizing every grain of negative space.

Materia vibrante’s tension derives from a duality — the slowness inherent to “process cinema” and the urgency demanded by the climate crisis. The film closes with two uncorrupted shots: one showing footage on an iPhone, and the other a statue of Pegasus against the night sky. The attendant feeling is not one of resignation, but of knowingly futile effort in the face of obsolescence. Speaking further of Klee’s Angelus Novus, Benjamin adds: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 2.