Friday, October 12, 2012

Ten Years Older: Víctor Erice's Lifeline (2002)

Produced as part of the two-film Ten Minutes Older project, a set of omnibus features that premiered at the 2002 Cannes film festival, Víctor Erice's ten-minute Lifeline (Alumbramiento) represents one of the cinema's most concentrated and philosophically expansive ruminations on the nature and meaning of time - which is to say the core substance of the art form. Prefaced along with the rest of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations words - "Time is a river, the irresistible flow all created things. One thing no sooner comes into view than it is hurried past and another takes its place. Only to be swept away in turn." - Erice's short, black-and-white masterwork opens with the piercing, acousmatic cry of a newborn, followed in rhythmic succession by on-camera set-ups of the sleeping infant, his unconscious mother and a small Madonna statue. Returning to the child, a heart-shaped stain begins to spread through his white cotton garments, introducing a rudimentary form of temporally-based suspense as Erice dissolves to a second short passage.

Here, Erice showcases a pre-adolescent boy as he sketches a wrist watch on his upper arm, thereby signalling the film's thematic focus: time. So too can this subject be deciphered on the soundtrack early on, with the clicking of a pendulum adding to the crowing rooster that accompanied the first appearance of the infant. As the short film progresses, we are given further audio-visual access to this theme, with a dripping faucet marking not only the work's evanescent subject matter, but also the infant's apparently perilous condition. (Lifeline in this sense seeks to focalize time in much the same fashion that the brilliant The Quince Tree Sun [1992] does light.)

The child of this second sequence will further prove essential to the film's temporal rhetoric in that he provides an another instantiation of the film's catalog of generations and ages, following the mother and infant, and with two older men (who sit in a photo-filled drawing room) presented in the short wordless scene to follow. The boy's gesture, more complexly, also introduces a frozen form of temporality that finds more obvious expression in the aforesaid photos, and in a newspaper headline dating to the twenty-eighth day of June 1940, or two days before Erice's birth. The newspaper, La Nueva Espana, an Austurian publication - Erice was born in the neighboring Basque Country - depicts Nazi soldiers on the French-Basque border, which is to say the condition into which both the film's infant and Erice were born. In this respect, Lifeline is a film about personal history and historical time - with additional references made to Christian tradition (or the West's religious history), from the snake slithering among the fallen apples to the Virgin statue - as much as it is about the suspenseful moment-to-moment temporal sequence that the child's unacknowledged injury produces.

With regard to the photos that hang on the parlor wall, Erice highlights a portrait of workers at El Paraiso, a place of business in Havana, with his camera slowly moving between the temporally fixed workers. The location of the portrait becomes additionally significant when Erice consequently shows four village children playing in a parked automobile that also sports Cuban plates. Within the 1940 context of the short's setting, this pairing of geographical references serves to position the film's subjects as pro-Republican, inasmuch as the island nation contributed scores of soldiers to combat Franco and his allies. The memory of the Civil War, which we must be reminded also haunts the director's debut masterpiece of personal history, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), indeed returns within Lifeline, with the short's one-legged soldier providing an even more conspicuous reference. This is to say that Lifeline is a work of the past and remembrance, lost time, as much as it is about its subjects' present, or lived temporal experience.

To return to the latter, Erice's film proceeds with images of the village population, who again spread across the age and gender spectrum, as they perform their daily mundane rituals in a series of acts which though temporal in nature, feel almost timeless in their actualization: a woman sews clothes for the infant Luisin, and another kneads bread; one man sharpens a blade, while a second thrashes in is field; the crippled young adult wraps a string around his toe, while a young, barefoot girl sits alone rocking on a swing. In other words, Erice's villagers pass time participating in mundane rituals - even as, as we are often made to remember, the infant child continues to bleed off screen.

The sudden shriek and mother's cry, "he's dying," stops this assorted collection of villagers in the midst of their routines, compelling each to rush to their neighbor's assistance in what will prove a measure of the community's shared sense of purpose. (Considering again the film's historical references, Erice's work demonstrates an essentially Socialistic politics.) With each member of the community accordingly looking on, we see as one of the oldest villagers removes the infant's umbilical cord, calmly reassuring child and parent alike that everything will be fine. Erice thusly transforms what appears to be a sign of ill-health into a natural stage in the child's growth. Or, to put it another way, we see life emerging where first we feared death - a metaphor that we are invited to extend to the film's post-Civil War rise of Franco and his Nazi allies, and surely to Erice's own life story. The personal history that is depicted therefore in profoundly poetic form is at once imbricated with Spain's political past, even as it maintains the deeper existential resonances identified in the feature's opening epigram, and which we will see in the short's closing passage.

With the healthy child returned to his parents' loving care and his mother singing "you wanted to leave us before your time" in voice-over, the clock hits 3:50 as the daily rituals of the small community recommence - and as the pre-adolescent boy wipes the frozen timepiece off his wrist. Erice's Lifeline villagers, in other words, reenter the inexorable flow of time that though arrested in portraits, historical memories and the child's watch, and though pausing for the community's concern for its youngest residence, continues unabated as the filmmaker's ten-minute masterpiece of multiplying and reinforcing temporal forms fades to black.

For those who wish to view this short with English subtitles, albeit in slightly lower resolution and with adds, you may do so at this link.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another enlightening post. Do you have any idea what Erice is up to these days and why he hasn't made a feature since The Quince Tree Sun?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Not sure, Lasse. Erice did shoot a 30-min. piece, "La Morte rouge," for the "Correspondences" project in 2006, and two more omnibus segments since then (in 2011 & 2012, I believe), but no features to the best of my knowledge.