Apr 122013

No is a movie about Pinochet’s ouster and the end of his military dictatorship in Chili. It is notable because of a bold aesthetic choice: it shoots its images using the video technology common during the period in which its story takes place. However much I want to praise this boldness (and numerous festival juries have done so), I walked out of the movie frustrated and angry because of it. I have three objections to what this film does.

The first and most basic is that the video makes the images terribly ugly. The framing and lighting try to turn the ugliness of the medium into style, emphasizing lens flare, color ghosting, silhouetting, but it doesn’t work. Ultimately though, I think that is the point: here, “ugly” means “serious” in a way familiar from what is sometimes called hipsterism. (I am not saying this is hipster movie or that there is even such a kind of movie.)

If the use of video aims to make ugliness read as seriousness, it also serves a more nefarious purpose. The retro-style of the images is not primarily an effort at periodization. It is a tool for blurring the line between archival materials and the new photography. This strategy is fundamentally different from something in, for example, Milk where the archive provides an aesthetic frame for the fictional images but remains distinct from them. In that film, the seams between the historical document and the fictional document are intact, recoverable and emphasized by a series of inserted “reels” beneath the opening and closing credits. Milk was a historical film about the past. No is a simulacrum of the past. In it, the lines between the archival document and the contemporary fiction are consciously effaced. It is not a story about the past; it is a story pretending to be the past. This confusion opens onto dark political territory.

Finally, these two objections are not missteps by the film’s narration. They do not mark failures of its efforts. Quite to the contrary, these “missteps” are clearly thematic and support the film’s project, which is the celebration of advertising’s displacement of history and politics in the public sphere. This film adores the idea that, in a country torn apart by a history of repression and political oppression, a happy message, not historical accounts of oppression or debates about political practices, is what is needed to make the world a better place.

This point is driven home repeatedly in dialogue: the old guard keep wanting to talk about what has happened or what should be done and the protagonist keeps telling them, no, that’s depressing or boring or–and this is the most important recurring phrase of the entire movie–it won’t sell. The protagonist’s message is absurd and he comes across as a completely disengaged, even mercenary person, but the film’s plot insists that he is right. History and politics are old. They don’t sell. Happiness does. So out with the old, in with the new.

Is this what happened in Argentina in the actual past? Is Pinochet’s defeat a product of the capitalism of ideas? The film’s simulacrum of history, which is in fact an advertisement for advertising, leaves me no ground to decide what really happened or not, much less develop an independent opinion about those events.

And one last thing: the contrived “authenticity” of the film’s cinematography? The confusion of historical and new materials? of the real and the fictional? These aestheic choices are the displacement of history and politics at the level of form. In other words, this film is controlled and coherent throughout its multiple levels. What it says, it means. But what it means is abhorent.