Certain films neither adhere to nor subvert genre conventions but instead sample them. They use common tropes and character types, which have accrued meanings after decades of iteration, as part of a broader, creative remix. Under no obligation to respect genre rules, but meaning no disrespect either, the following recent movies playfully rediscover the potential of weathered narrative traditions.
In Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), cowboys, chador-wearing vampires and rural pimps live in a fantasy Iran that’s obviously California. Shot in Taft, in black-and-white, with dialogue in Farsi, it sketches out an uncertain geography somewhere between North America and Asia. Viewers enter an airport of the imagination, with flights regularly scheduled towards different cultures, languages and clichés. Amirpour is no stranger to displacement. She was born in England to Iranian parents, grew up in Bakersfield (about 30 miles from Taft) and graduated from UCLA. Her debut feature combines all these international influences into a cosmopolitan package, even as her protagonists inhabit Small Town USA. It mirrors the mindscape of an immigrant, who inhabits one country but thinks about another, and whose identity is a battleground of competing heritages. Amirpour projects this battleground onto the screen. Her film is not only filled with the contents of her own peregrinations, but also enables further journeys. Her eclectic mix of recognizable movieland figures and varied cultural signs means every corner of the frame can be a gateway to somewhere else.
Tropes and archetypes are global, fitting into different national contexts while carrying with them the memory of their international itineraries. Yet with each immigrant excursion, they can be transformed. Kryptonite (2015), directed by Nicanor Loreti and based on the novel by Leonardo Oyola, imagines the Justice League in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina. Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Hawkgirl and The Green Lantern are a gang of outlaws, Batman is an ambiguous federal agent and Joker and Doomsday work for the shady provincial police. The movie’s tagline condenses the story through some brilliant wordplay: “La justicia la liga.” With a wink at the Justice League’s name, it leverages the fact that, in local slang, the Spanish word for “league” also means to “ligar” or “punish.” So the phrase translates into: “Justice (or the Law) will get what’s coming to it.” Outside of Batman, cops are henchmen.
The overarching joke is that, in South America’s social reality, superheroes and supervillains cannot exist as we know them. Our comic book icons are confined to a rundown hospital straight out of Pablo Trapero’s gritty Carancho. There, instead of saving Manhattan from another digital annihilation, they nurse an unconscious Superman, who’s recuperating from a nearly fatal kryptonite wound, and take the medical staff hostage while the police slowly assemble outside the building. Oyola’s street-smart novel might be superior, but the movie’s a more relevant pop culture phenomenon since it reconstructs its Hollywood kin from inside the multiplex. Loreti and Oyola aren’t parodying the original characters, which they clearly love. Rather, they blend the down-to-earth aesthetic of New Argentine Cinema with the out-of-this-world presence of famous superheroes to examine the role of heroism — super or otherwise — in a country where, after numerous dictatorships and interminable examples of police corruption, it remains unclear who the good guys are.
Following their relocation to unfamiliar surroundings, genre conventions can be reinterpreted, stretched, or even slowed down, as expected plot points are traumatically postponed. The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (2016), co-directed and co-written by Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa, begins like a noirish spy flick before all narrative progress is rudely interrupted. The setup even resembles one of those Hitchcockian scenarios in which an everyman is precipitously embroiled in international intrigue. Only, instead of high-flying action, there’s hesitation. Our everyman, in this case, is the titular protagonist, a former leftist poet in college who has, with the years, slipped into the monotonous life of an office worker. As he sleepwalks through the 70s, he doesn’t even notice there’s a bloody regime in power. Then one day he learns that two complete strangers are about to be “disappeared.” He hears about this from a former lover with military connections, who has serendipitously come upon such intelligence. Unwilling to do anything herself, she asks Francisco to visit a specific address and warn the doomed pair. As she requests this in her car, the afternoon turning into night, one almost expects her to close with, “Your mission, Francisco, should you choose to accept it…”
Alas, he neither accepts nor refuses. His choice — between dangerous heroism and safe remorse — will hang in suspense during the remainder of the running time. In this suspension of the plot, there’s evidence of the regime’s power. Francisco wanders through empty streets and crowded bars, delaying his decision. Every unidentified shadow or awkward glance makes his mind race. He feels like an enemy of the state, like a persecuted man, for just thinking about warning the strangers. He has internalized the logic of the dictatorship, becoming his own warden. The drama of the film stems from how the narrative viewers anticipate is deferred. Brave resistance has difficulty getting off the ground because the regime has colonized the minds of its subjects, repressing them from within. Our narrative anticipation is based not only on other political thrillers but also on other movies about the dictatorship. Since the 1980s, most have been about dissenters dissenting and/or suffering torture (Sur, Imagining Argentina, Chronicle of an Escape, Olympic Garage), about their orphaned children (Cautiva, M) or about those complicit with the dictatorship who become woke (The Official Story and Kóblic). In every case, the characters react for or against the dictatorship. There are comparatively few films about those who ignore it or who, despite being confronted with the truth, consider returning to their previous indifference even up to the final frames. Francisco’s indecisiveness is contrasted with a cinematic tradition of action and movement, reminding Argentine viewers of an uncomfortable truth: how the regime was nourished by the apathy of thousands of civilians.
When a movie samples genre beats, it conjures up the ghosts of films past. And when these beats are stalled or elided, the ghosts stick around to remind us of future or alternative possibilities, like parallel movies projected besides or behind the current one. That is why Francisco’s inaction is so maddening and why Philippe Lesage’s Les démons (2015) is so distressing. In this moody film, set in Montreal during the 80s, 10-year-old Félix finds his middle-class existence is profoundly dangerous and unstable. He feels insecure back home, where his parents bicker and scream, and matters are no more reassuring at school or on the streets. His burgeoning homosexual longings are constantly mocked or derided by classmates who spout homophobic rhetoric in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, which Félix interprets as celestial punishment for his desires. In this already threatening situation, a serial killer is reportedly targeting young boys.
The presence of a serial killer in a suburban landscape recalls hundreds of slasher films. As critic Daniel Alaniz points out, in the program notes for the Buenos Aires film festival, “Les démons is filmed like Halloween.” Yet in Carpenter’s movie, we see the boogeyman scouting his victims. In this case, he’s at first invisible, the subject of rumor and hearsay. It takes a while for him to even be mentioned. Once he is, however, we see him everywhere precisely because he cannot be placed. He eventually shows his face, but his delayed entrance has endowed him with a supernatural, ubiquitous, even immaterial quality. He dissolves into the overall environment, which contains the possibility of all the suburban killers who have paraded in hundreds of previous slashers. It’s this environment that’s the real villain, made up of murderers and their ancestors from films past, of blistering social pressures and mundane growing pains, of conservative values and broken domestic spaces. Too young to fend for himself, but no longer sheltered by his surroundings, this 10-year-old Canadian must venture into the wilds of early adulthood, untangling himself from the brambles of incomprehension and hate.
The above films don’t fit neatly into the genres they borrow from. Instead, they develop friendly, ludic relationships with tropes, using them as part of their narrative, visual and aural palette. They expand their intertextual family trees without opposing or even being explicitly critical of the traditions they cite, while also refusing to present themselves as the rightful heirs of any genre. This relationship might not necessarily be new, yet it’s a perfect fit for our hypermediated present, where, whether in Iranian Taft or an Argentine hospital or a dangerous Canada, reality’s glimpsed at the intersection of clichés.
Guido Pellegrini (@beaucine) has been writing about film in Spanish and English for more than 10 years. Born in Spain to Argentine parents, he grew up in California, where he majored in English. Guido now lives in Buenos Aires, where he completed a master’s degree in journalism. He likes to bridge his different cultural traditions in both thought and on the digital page. His work has appeared in The Daily Bruin, The House Next Door, Next Projection, Sound on Sight, Playtime Magazine, Olfa Magazine, and A Sala Llena.