Neruda, Jackie, and Being Responsible by Refusing Responsibility

By  · Published on December 27th, 2016

Let’s talk about ideology.

Filmmaker Pablo Larraín currently has two films that would be labeled biopics ‐ Neruda and Jackie ‐ in theaters. However, when asked in an interview with Rolling Stone what he thought of the biopic genre, Pablo Larraín brought up two key terms: “boring” and “dangerous.” The first is perhaps the more obvious ‐ the traditional biopic “birth-to-death” formula naturally aligns itself with an ambling sort of pace and long run times. The ways in which both Jackie and Neruda combat this issue are similarly quite evident, making use of condensed timelines (a few years in Neruda, only a handful of days in Jackie), intriguing stylistic choices, and stream-of-consciousness non-linear narratives.

To understand the “dangerous” part, and how Larraín’s two “anti-biopics” neutralize this danger, we need to define a term that gets thrown around by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways: ideology. I have seen ideology defined before as the lens through which one views politics. For the purposes of this article, the more accurate analogy would be that ideology is the political lens through which one views everything, and the various biases, assumptions, and attitudes contained within that political view (many of which the individual in question may not even be conscious). Ideologies can be modified, but not removed.

In spite of Photoshop and CGI and everything else, we still live in a world where seeing is believing ‐ or, perhaps as demonstrated by certain recent mistrials, where visual evidence is a prerequisite to believing, but not always sufficient proof in its own right.

However, when we go to a movie, what we see on the screen in a film is not just a reproduction of reality, but a reproduction filtered through ideology.

The seminal editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni published in the influential film magazine Cahiers du cinema in 1969 described film as being a vehicle of ideology: “every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”

They further go on to add: “What the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant ideology. Cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself. They constitute its ideology for they reproduce the world as it is experienced when filtered through the ideology.”

But what does this mean for the filmmaker?

“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can se that the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called ‘depiction of reality.’ If he can do so there is a chance that we will be able to disrupt or possibly even sever the connection between the cinema and its ideological function.”

Since filmmakers cannot rid themselves or their films of ideology, they should not try to hide or mask the ideology but instead highlight it, drawing attention to the falseness of the images on screen ‐ in other words, instead of convincing people to believe what they are seeing, inviting them to question it.

The authors define five possible categories into which narrative films can fall depending on their relationship with their ideology:

Category A, or films that are “unconscious instruments of the ideology which produces them.” The vast majority of films made fall into this category. These films are reassuring to audiences because their ideology matches the one on screen to the point where it seems to disappear, giving the film greater verisimilitude. As the standard biopic is looking to tell a “true story” of a real person, it is particularly likely to fall into this category. This is where the “dangerous” part comes in. Unlike reality, which must be viewed through an ideological lens but can be viewed through any number of different lenses, films present a depiction of reality through a fixed ideological lens. Since the lens is fixed, it is all the easier to forget it is there at all ‐ making these films not just unconscious instruments of ideology, but very successful ones.

Films in Category B are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Category B films “attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts.” First, by dealing with a political subject, and secondly through form, by “breaking down [the] traditional way of depicting reality.” This is the category into which Neruda falls.

On the one hand to truly call Neruda a biopic would completely misrepresent the film. On the other hand, calling it an “anti-bio” as Larraín himself and others have done fails to give anyone who has not seen it any sense of what it actually is. The film takes place in 1948–1949, a period in which Neruda, a beloved poet and senator for the Chilean communist party, was forced into hiding after the government banned the Communist party. He avoided capture with the help of friends, political allies, and countless strangers before ultimately fleeing to Argentina. In Neruda, this persecution is depicted as a cat-and-mouse style chase involving Neruda and police inspector Oscar Peluchonneau. However, this is not what the film is about.

Neruda is not just a multi-faceted, beautifully convoluted meta-cinematic narrative, but one written in a cipher. Having some knowledge of Pablo Neruda and perhaps more importantly, his staggering legacy in not just Chilean culture but the Spanish language, is the key to that cipher.

“It’s less a movie about Pablo Neruda than it is like going to his house and playing with his toys. It’s a movie about movies, somehow, because we mix so many elements from cinema. It’s a movie about literature and the stories we tell. It’s about people telling stories and somehow building his own legend,” Larraín said in an interview with Deadline.

The political nature of Neruda’s content is evident, and its attack on the traditional depiction of reality is perhaps even more so ‐ Oscar Peluchonneau is fictional. As in diegetically fictional, a creation of Neruda himself. Adding this turns the once simple formula of “Fascist cat pursues Communist mouse” into a dizzying meditation on art and artists, politics, ideology, and legacy.

Neruda is not a biography of Pablo Neruda (“I have no idea who he was because he’s ungrabbable, impossible to put in a box,” Larrain said in an interview), but a Nerudian film, a film which captured the same essence as Neruda’s works that, in Larraín’s own words, “combine politics and ideology with poetry. To create this absurdity somehow, this nonrealistic space.” In sum, what Comolli and Narboni would define as an exemplary Category B film.

Category C contains films that “go against the grain” ‐ the content is not obviously political, but “becomes so through the criticism practiced on through it’s form.”

Category D films have “explicitly political content” but fully accept the language and imagery of their ideological systems and therefore fail to criticize these systems effectively.

Last but not least, Category E is perhaps the most difficult to pinpoint because it contains films that “at first seem to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.” These films feature the conscious use of the prevailing ideology which they simultaneously embrace and subtly challenge; the dissonance forms a sort of internal criticism “which cracks the film apart at the seams.” The tension is perhaps barely visible at first glance, but the closer one looks, the more there is to see. Jackie is a particularly intriguing entry into this fifth category because the fractures created by this ideological tension both reflect and reinforce the splintered structure of the narrative and the sort of internal fracturing that is grief.

In the film, Jackie agonizes over appearances, putting incredible value in material objects and aesthetics. “We must get this right,” she insists, going over the details of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession to plan her husband’s. “It has to be beautiful.” One of the multiple framing devices Jackie makes use of is the 1962 “Tour of the White House” television special in which the First Lady put her efforts towards restoring the White House on display, which Larraín recreated with Natalie Portman instead of splicing in footage from the actual program. Another is an interview with Jackie conducted shortly after her husband’s assassination. When asked about her restoration project in the interview, Jackie tells the reporter, “objects and artifacts last far longer than people and they represent important ideas in history, identity…beauty.” These objects become symbolic of everything Jackie ‐ and to some extent, her husband ‐ believe in, but the film itself gives no clear appraisal of their worth.

One scene, for example, shows an increasingly inebriated Jackie wandering around an empty White House late at night, changing in and out of extravagant gowns and moving around the rooms that she has dedicated so much time, energy, and money into restoring and arranging just so. It’s a moving portrait of the emptiness of grief ‐ she surrounds herself with all these objects she has given such weight and significance, but instead of gaining something from them she only seems more lost. A chair is just a piece of wood, a dress is just some silky fabric. In light of what has already happened in the film, of everything Jackie has said and stood for, we almost feel a little embarrassed on her behalf. But that’s just one scene. Just as often as the worth of these objects and her concern with beauty and spectacle are questioned or even criticized, the value of these things and her beliefs are reinforced ‐ sometimes by other characters or events in the film, sometimes by a particularly iconic, recognizable moment and simple hindsight, that reminds us that all these aesthetic choices did help more-or-less successfully establish the “Camelot” myth she wanted her husband’s legacy to be.

Jackie clearly presents an ideology, but makes so many different judgments on so many different levels that it forms a giant question mark instead of a directed commentary. Similarly, the film both undermines the established image of a 20th-century icon and admires her. It strives to depict a particular moment in history, mixing detailed historical recreations with archival footage ‐ to feel authentic in a specific sense ‐ but never looks to be mistaken for reality or an attempt at recreating historical fact. From Mica Levi’s often dissonant score, to the non-linear narrative, to the opening scene in which Jackie only welcomes the journalist into the house once he agrees that the story he writes will be her version of events (“You understand that I will be editing this conversation?”) Jackie often reminds us that it is not attempting to tell the “real story” of the woman behind the myth or some such nonsense, but a counter-myth.

Though in different ways, Jackie and Neruda both ultimately undermine their own ideologies, which begs the question, why?

“I’m not here to tell people what to think. I don’t want to change anything. I don’t even want to feel responsible. I don’t believe in responsibility. I believe in respect, which is not the same,” Larraín said in a recent New York Times interview ‐ a sentiment which he has repeated in slightly different guises on a number of occasions. Ironically, what he refers to as denying responsibility is, following Comolli and Narboni’s logic, actually the most responsible course of a filmmaker could take: not telling viewers what to think and instead inviting them to question what they see.

There’s been a lot of talk of people living in “bubbles” recently, and arguments over where these bubbles are and what should be done with them. However, these bubbles are not a new phenomenon ‐ they’re ideologies. We all live in bubbles of ideology that shape how we see the world and differentiate our perception from those of others in ways we might not even realize. The difference between now and then is social media and the internet and modern culture as a whole has made it so easy for us to insulate ourselves from other ideologies that we forget not just that they exist, but that ours are not the end-all be-all reality and can never be, because our understanding of reality is limited by our experience and capacity as flawed human beings.

I much prefer the lens analogy to the “bubble” analogy for multiple reasons ‐ bubbles are frivolous, and this matter is not, for one, and the lens analogy is superior, for another. Speaking of bubbles naturally leads to discussions of popping bubbles, which is silly, because in this case, that’s simply not an option. The same reality through different lenses will look different, and none of them are “perfect” (whatever that even means), but a lens of some description is required to see anything at all. It’s not optional. But what happens when we forget that other lenses exist is we forget the difference between what we see through our lens and actual reality, which has some negative consequences ‐ one of which is an unhealthy and unrealistic sense of certainty. It is easier than ever to select everything from friends to films to news sources that see the world through the same lens and block those that don’t, meaning that it is also easier than ever to fall into this trap, even without any conscious intent.

“There is some kind of cinema that is just trying to tell us what to think, and I think there’s enough information in the world that’s trying to do that,” Larraín said in an interview with WBEZ. With Jackie and Neruda, Larraín has given us two films that are different, that invite viewers to question them as well as themselves. Of course, this is an issue that goes well beyond the bounds of cinema, and might well be beyond the reach of cinema alone to address. But this can, at the very least, be a start.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.