Friday, March 2, 2007

Bowie Eyed Dog (El Aura)

35mm, 2005,
129 mins.)

The Taxidermist with No Name

A black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name.

-- Nick Drake, "Black Eyed Dog" (1974)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Nine Queens (2000), Fabián Bielinsky's first film, was like The Big Con
(1940) come to life. Two Buenos Aires-based con men (Gastón Pauls and
Ricardo Darín
) spend the entire time doing what they do best--separat-
ing marks from their wallets--but there's this disquieting tension through-
out. Is one also conning the other or is a dual-con in the works? The film is essential viewing for fans of The Sting, The Spanish Prisoner--even The Wizard of Oz. Released in the US three years later, it was one of my favorites of 2003, and I looked forward to seeing what Bielinsky would do next.

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas)

The Argentin-
ian writer/dir-
ector proceeded to do something good and something terrible. First, he made El Aura, thus proving that Nine Queens was no fluke.

Then, a year later, he died of a heart attack. On the way to the press
screening, I was hoping against hope that his final film wouldn't disap-
point. I was also concerned that, even if it did live up to my expectations, I'd feel so sad while watching that I wouldn't be able to fully enjoy myself. Fortunately, I got sucked into the story so quickly I forgot all about Bielinsky's untimely passing--until immediately after it ended.

While it saddens me that his filmography consists of only two entries,
I'm thankful he went out with such style. El Aura starts out as a two-
hander, like Nine Queens, but soon segues into something darker and
altogether stranger. On the one hand, it's more ambitious. On the oth-
er, it's more difficult. It's also more of a character study than Nine
, and Bielinsky has conjured up one heck of a character.

In the expertly choreographed opening sequence, he introduces
an unnamed taxidermist (Joe Mantegna doppelgänger Darín) as
he goes about his work, bringing a fox to static life with the aid of
needle, thread, wire, plaster, and pelt. This is how he spends his
days, creating lifelike tableaux for natural history museums.

He's a craftsman--an artist. In his head, though, where he spends most time, the taxidermist imagines he's a master criminal. Because he has a photographic memory, he could pull off the perfect crime, if only he had the guts to try. At least, that's what colleague Sontag (Alejandro Awada) tells him.

After his
wife aban-
dons him,
ly because
he only has
eyes for his
virtual pets,
Sontag con-
vinces his
friend to go
on a hunting
trip to Pata-

The taxidermist, who lives to stuff animals--not kill them--agrees that a vacation will do him good, but the plan goes awry. Out of desperation, the duo stays with a standoffish married woman and her surly brother. Then, during their first foray into the woods, the men argue, Sontag leaves, and the epileptic taxidermist has a seizure. As he convulses, he experiences a phenomenon he calls "the aura," a moment of intense clarity before the plunge into blackness.

When he comes to, the taxidermist is disoriented and startled by a
sound. Is it Sontag, the deer Sontag had been stalking, or something else? In his confused state, he opts to shoot now, ask questions later. As it turns out, the pacifist commits murder. Not only that, but he stumbles into the perfect crime. Near the body, he finds a cabin filled with plans for an ar-
mored car robbery. With his photographic memory, he absorbs every detail: names, figures, floor plans. He passes himself off as his victim's accomplice and sets out to score his share of the loot. He is not alone. The dead man left behind a dog, sole witness to the accidental execution.

El Aura then transitions from character piece to heist picture. Like
the hunt, all doesn't go as planned, but the film isn't a tragedy or a
morality tale. Bielinsky's psychological thriller borrows tropes from the
murder mystery and the film noir, but never tips its hand in either
direction (there's no narration, portentous music, etc.)

All the while, the black husky
mix follows the taxidermist a-
round. As with David Bowie, one eye is blue, the other brown. Unlike the Thin White Duke, however, he's shaggy and unkempt. Like the taxidermist (and pop singer), he's also different--special. I couldn't take my eyes off the magnetic mutt. Until he hit the scene, I thought Darín, with his dark-rimmed light eyes, had an expressive face, but he has nothing on this dog. Is the canine the manifestation of his conscience? He knows what the taxidermist has done, yet refuses to leave his side. Does he see the man as his master's replacement? Well, the dog can't talk and the taxidermist chooses not to. As in The Intruder, The Queen, and Notes on a Scandal, Bielinsky's quasi-sociopathic protagonist relates to animals in a way he isn't able to with humans.

Even without the dog, El Aura would be a good film, but his expertly de-
ployed presence elevates the proceedings. Weeks later, however, I still haven't decided whether or not it's great. Crisp cinematography, elegant score, and finely shaded performances aside, its aims are too humble for greatness. It's certainly less accessible than Nine Queens, but it's also richer and more complex. It isn't sad or depressing either--the film ends on a quietly humorous note that rhymes with that intriguing opening. The fact that there will never be another surprising, perceptive, keenly observed movie from its maker, however, is an undeniable tragedy.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Nine Queens opened up a path of tremendous possibilities
to me. My tribute to that film is to take a radically different
path, with all the satisfactions and the risks that that implies.

--Fabián Bielinsky (1959-2006)

"Black Eyed Dog" comes from Nick Drake's final recording session. The im-
age is believed to represent Death. El Aura plays the Northwest Film Forum
March 2-6, Fri.-Wed. at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave.
between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here.

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