Lost in Spaces (and Guilt): A Case for Sebastián Silva’s “Magic Magic” and “Crystal Fairy”

On April 18, 2014, Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic (2013) finally received a theatrical release in the UK, prompting a string of new, mostly positive reviews from critics, including a perceptive take from Little White Lies’s Calum Marsh.[1] This release follows Magic Magic being dumped straight-to-DVD in North America, despite screening at a handful of film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes in 2012. In addition, 2013 saw the stateside theatrical release of Silva’s Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013), but the film managed only 20 theaters in its widest domestic release, despite prominently featuring Michael Cera throughout its trailers and low-scale marketing campaigns. Moreover, while each film was greeted favorably critics, neither managed to make a single critic’s top 10 list from 2013 (readers, correct me if you know otherwise). Perhaps these exclusions stem from each film’s limited exposure. More likely, however, is that neither film received the serious critical attention necessitated to parse through their askew aesthetics, which offer an unusual, though rewarding confluence of acerbic cultural critique and deadpan linguistic humor to, ultimately, disturbing effects. While Silva’s The Maid (2009) hinted at his desired aesthetic aims, these new films confirm and extend them, operating in a manner that synthesizes the sensibilities of 1960’s European Art Films and contemporary DIY cinema, yet transcend any easily proscribed attempt at pastiche because of their cultural specificity and interest in understanding both characters and scenario from the inside-out, beginning with character-driven minutia and culminating in thematic significance.

Each film’s outward narrative serves as a guise to articulate how the cinema continues to function as a forum to prize male subjectivity and desire, while relegating feminine autonomy to the sides of the frame. As such, both films star Michael Cera as a variation on the same character: an odd, priveleged white-guy travelling in Chile with a group of Chilean friends. In Crystal Fairy, he is Jamie, a motor-mouthed, drug-obsessed nuisance, whose goal is find a San Pedro cactus with buddy Champa (Juan Andrés Silva) and cook it on the beach, to consume its mescaline contents. Before departing (and high on “good Chilean cocaine”), he meets Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) at a party and invites her on the “trip”, all while making snide and derisive asides to Champa about how “weird” she is. As seen in the still above, Jamie is often positioned in the center of the frame (at least in the film’s first half), as he consistently antagonizes Crystal’s spiritual and cultural convictions, though always indirectly and never to her face. Silva approaches these interactions with compositional precision and yet the character interactions retain a spontaneity suggestive of consistent improvisation, primarily because Silva lets Jamie talk, talk, talk, while Champa and his two brothers Pilo and Lel (neither of whom speak fluent English), exchange glances that neither confirm or refute their understanding of the passive-aggressive cruelty inherent to Jamie’s repressive, unsure state. While walking back from the store, Jamie asks Pilo if he would rather “stick his nose in Crystal Fairy’s armpit or make-out with his father,” to which Pilo at-first responds with a shrug, before giving into Jamie’s crass insistence that an incestuous make-out would be preferable to Crystal’s unkempt body. Here, Jamie inflicts the same impish crudity on Pilo as he does Crystal by insisting upon his own cultural superiority, which is afforded credence through the homosocial bonding that Jamie values so dearly.

While these insights are complexly rendered by Silva, it should be stressed that each of his films are blanketed by an uncomfortable, hard-to-pinpoint humor that inflates what would otherwise be clinical, academic gender dynamics into fascinatingly polyvalent scenarios. While the humor is more palpable in Crystal Fairy, its presence in Magic Magic should not go ignored, as evidenced in the above still of Cera as Brink, perhaps an even stranger, perverse goofball than Jamie, whose tolerance for torment is exceeded only by his proclivity to exacerbate Alicia’s (Juno Temple) fractured mental state. She’s a naïf tourist in Chile, there to spend some time with her cousin Sara (Emily Browning). When Sara is called back to school for an exam (one of the film’s odd and inexplicable plot developments), Alicia is forced to shack up with Sara’s boyfriend, Augustín (Augustín Silva), Bárbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Brink, whose friendship with the group is as unlikely her as in Crystal Fairy. Nevertheless, Silva uses these unlikelihoods to examine both cultural separation and language barriers, not just across ethnicities, but genders. The opening sequence features the main characters speaking to one another, but shot from the neck down, shielding their racial and, even, gender identities. Conversations lack fluidity and it becomes quickly apparent that this group has almost nothing in common; Bárbara explains to Alicia the circumstances of local Chileans by offering that “white people in this country have totally fucked them up,” to which Alicia responds with puzzled, feigned sympathic nod to confirm her unthinking adherence to politically correct norms. She is not conversant in politics, apparently, but neither is she conversant in culture, as she responds to an offering to control the radio with “I don’t really know much about music.” Silva offers such naiveté not simply to criticize it, however, but to examine how underlying notions of cultural placement dictate the knowledge and interests of his characters.

Such placement stems from outside the confines of the films, themselves, and into rhetoric that each film only provides in flashes. In Crystal Fairy, the fivesome spend the night in a room with four beds; when Pilo offers his bed to Crystal, Jamie responds “what difference does it make? Don’t be sexist.” His interpretation of feminist liberation resounds with the same petty comprehension of social equality as George Costanza’s on Seinfeld when he says, “It’s the same thing with the feminists; they want everything to be equal, but when the check comes, where are they?”[2] Essentially, Jamie uses the language of liberation to mask his rather obvious hostility for societal structures that enable his passive-aggressive confusion, but his latent insistence upon homosocial relationships as the only order which produce pure and true meaning; when searching for the San Pedro, Jamie turns to Champa and says “if it were just you and me looking, we could do this all day.” The implication of Crystal (and the younger siblings’) unwillingness to endlessly pursue Jamie’s desires is projected as a personality flaw, rather than an ego-maniacal tantrum. Nevermind that Jamie eventually steals the San Pedro from the woman in the still above, who is left gloomily clutching her dog, gazing out the window. Silva provides this shot for only a few moments, suggesting that Jamie’s callous transgression of tradition and private property is but the norm (remember Bárbara’s castigation of whites in Magic Magic) and is likely to go unpunished by this lonely, older woman.

Magic Magic specifically aligns Alicia’s torment with a transgression of nature and the willful slaughter of animals. In a particularly striking scene, Alicia stands by helplessly as Brink shoots a bird. At the moment of the kill, Silva opts for a few slow-motion frames, as Alicia’s horror is juxtaposed with Brink’s apathetic celebration of his ability to murder an unthreatening, unarmed creature. As he reaches down to pick-up the bird’s lifeless, bloodied body, another slow-motion shot displays the bird in close-up, unceremoniously taken into Brink’s possession. The sequence recalls the film’s opening shots of nature, quiet and undisturbed, yet filled with a looming presence – perhaps even an uncanny one – that cannot he readily identified. Further cementing Brink’s pleasure in challenging Alicia’s deteriorating mental state, he leaves a picture of a similar bird on her pillow, with a simple “I’m sorry” written as apology. Another time, after Alicia has been jumped on by a random dog, Brink jumps on her and playfully humps, shouting “I’m that dog!” Later, when asked about it, Brink rationalizes his actions, saying “It’s not like I was trying to fist-fuck her; believe me, she would know if I was.” Brink’s sociopathic, even criminal behavior is excused in an environment where no one speaks the same language, but literally and culturally, leaving the vulnerable (like the bird and Alicia), to be assaulted at will.

These thematic assertions should not be mistaken as misogyny on Silva’s part; quite the contrary, his characters are constructed in a manner that exposes the structures which breed misogyny and probes the tragedy that comes when gender lines dictate how human beings approach social interaction. In this manner, Silva’s aims here are much the same as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which is often misunderstood as an Antonioni rip-off cum assassination thriller. No – De Palma’s film is really about how Sally’s (Nancy Allen) body is perpetually viewed as a pawn by male politicians and hit-men (the film makes no distinction) as an end to achieve financial or political gain. She is expendable, but of nature, aligned with the owl that Jack (John Travolta) sees right before the titular “blow out.” She uses her body to make a living, because she is afforded no other option, just like the prostitute late in the film is killed by Burke (John Lithgow) while trying to make ends meet. De Palma’s contempt is not for women, but the homosocial male structures that devalue both female socio-political participation and life.[3] In this sense, Crystal and Alicia are at the mercy of their male companions, left to grasp autonomy by self-identifying as an outsider, such as Crystal’s insistence that being completely naked in a room full of men is unthreatening – a revelation that seems amusing and harmless, at first, but devastating later, once it’s revealed that she was once raped at a party by a group of men. Alicia is given no such background – it’s unclear where or why she feels imprisoned and becomes fatally ill. Is it simply the scenario of the weekend? Is it her naiveté? Is it, symbolically (and most provocatively) her white guilt? These unanswerables deepen Silva’s canvas considerably, baiting his offbeat hooks with weighty topics for further contemplation.

Yet, true to Silva’s askew characters and scenarios, he is not content to let any of his characters off easy or simply lay blame to a singular reason for why the events transpire. In this case, Magic Magic is perhaps the more noteworthy film, since Alicia’s actions are certainly in response to Brink’s cruelties, but also her culturally uninformed, even shallow understanding of where she has chosen to spend her vacation. Clueless to the language, customs, and geography, she expects to be guided to her destinations from day one. Thus, when Sara has to leave, she immediately panics and is opened to the mercy of her surroundings. When Alicia starts to verbalize her impending insanity, one of her first reasons is that “my phone doesn’t even work!” Her equation of sanity with the luxuries afforded by 21st century technology speaks to Silva’s awareness of the density of factors that prevent cultural assimilation. Moreover, Alicia’s blanket insistence that her fracturing sanity is the result of exterior forces and has nothing to do with her own insecurities and uncertainties, speaks to the implicit cultural privilege she unconsciously assumes – her life is one of luxury and security and, as such, any momentary derailment of those entitlements leads to a comprehensive breakdown. In this manner, Magic Magic is very much a descendant of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which views Rosemary (Mia Farrow) as a simultaneously tragic and contemptible figure, given her rampant abuse by a religious and phallocentric order, but contemptible insofar as her bourgeois contentment to move into the city with Guy (John Cassavetes), have a baby, and live comfortably. In both films, cultural comfort is violated, which may be as much to blame for the resultant horror as the assailants.

While Magic Magic ends with Alicia’s darkly comedic death (death by white privilege), Silva allows each of the characters (even Brink) to acknowledge the severity of their actions and ignorances. The ritualistic methods of natives (which includes the slaughtering of an animal) has no effect on Alicia and nor should it, given her complete and utter separation and understanding of the ethos from which such methods derive. However, make note that these characters acknowledge the severity rather than understand it, since each character is left it distraught silence, carrying Alicia’s body across a lake. These characters have the capacity for sympathy and recognition, but not revelation, since the course of the film has done little to bring them closer to understanding one another. Magic Magic, then, ends more cynically than Crystal Fairy, which uses a concluding campfire scene to give Crystal the chance to explain past abuse and offers the collective group a chance to arrive at a deeper reverence for one another’s strife – but make no mistake, Silva never loses site that this is a strife born of privilege, which allows these wanderers to meet in the first place. Silva does not, however, make light of Crystal’s recounting of her rape, precisely because of the conviction with which he bestows each of his characters.

In this moment, Jamie is at to the side of the frame, weeping as he feels a degree of compassion that can only be achieved once culturally-specific hang-ups are discarded. Not only is he isolated, but the remainder of the frame is black and void of anything except Jamie and, perhaps, his inescapable compassion. Such deft authorial vacillation between playful derision and deeply-rooted pain recalls Robert Altman’s ability to do much the same; in fact, Silva’s insistence upon improvisation and his masterful work with actors of varying training and talent-level is very much Altmanesque, especially in the refusal to condescendingly place a character within the diegesis for a specific rhetorical function. Every character in both Silva films is utilized to reveal something more about another character, until a complex tapestry of varying emotions and idiosyncrasies has been woven to dizzying degrees of potential significance. Silva wades through the qualities that foster despicable and misanthropic behavior to reveal structures that potentially imprison his characters and make their attempted engagement with both other people and cultures a Sisyphean task. That he does so with such a refined sense of humor and insight announce the arrival of a filmmaker already immanently capable of producing masterful work.


[1] Calum Marsh, “Magic Magic Review,” Little White Lies. http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/theatrical-reviews/magic-magic-26421

[2] See “The Handicapped Spot,” from Seinfeld, Season Four, Episode 22.

[3] For more on these I ideas, I recommend David Grevan’s recent book Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (Austin: Texas UP), 2013.

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Clayton Dillard is a Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Screen Studies at Oklahoma State University. He holds an M.A. in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State University. In addition, he is a film and book critic for Slant Magazineand has several book reviews forthcoming for The Journal of American Culture.

 

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