Lake Tahoe: The Style of Absence

There’s a lot of absence in Fernando Eimbcke’s odd but ultimately moving film Lake Tahoe. Reason, for one thing, and Plot, at least initially, as well as smooth transitions. Eimbcke simply cuts to black, sometimes staying there many seconds before the next scene pops up. And when the next scene does pop up we sometimes wonder what it has to do with what preceded it—except for the opening scenes. These are scenes of the main character, Juan (Diego Catano), walking away from a car he’s just crashed into a light pole towards, presumably, someone who can fix it, or home, or to a friend’s house. We don’t know. We just see him walking in one scene after another after another, all punctuated by blackouts which seem to promise something new, but never deliver minute after minute. After one blackout, we see him walking from left to right across the screen instead of right to left, but then it’s back to right-left again. How long can he keep this up? I wondered. My favorite stage direction of all time is, “The curtin is lowered for seven days to denote the passing of a week,” and I thought if he crashed the car a 90-minute walk away, that’s what we’ll get: 90 minutes of Juan walking. I started secretly rooting for this. It would have been an audacious excursion of style.

But soon slightly different scenes begin popping up and subtly they begin to add up—to what, we’re not sure until late in the film, but to “something,” we feel. It’s a fleeting sense of something, however, because most scenes chronicle an absence of one kind or another, and what does a string of absences add up to anyway? The first absence is of anyone to fix the car, then a part to fix the car with, then any sense of urgency about fixing the car at all. Juan finally arrives home to an absent mother, and a sister who’s sitting outside in a tent cutting pictures out of some magazines, we think, but for reasons so absent it just seems weird. How does this fit in to anything? Only near the very end, do we find out why the film is titled Lake Tahoe, and perhaps to no one’s surprise by now it’s because they did NOT take a trip there.

The central absence in the film I won’t tell you. It’s big, obvious on reflection, and moving, explaining almost everything, but not quite. When something is gone it’s just gone. Finally, we understand that the film is really chronicling the slow, very random ways we begin to come to terms with things that seem to have been ripped out of our lives…randomly. Why did this or that happen? We search for reasons that are usually absent.

Just as most absences in the film finally symbolize the central absence, there are also scenes—though separated by many black outs and intervening scenes—that finally add up to actual scene sequences which show how we deal with absence. One sequence involves the martial arts obsessions of the young mechanic who finally fixes the car. It ends with Juan smashing the hood of the fixed car with a baseball bat. But this is the film’s longest, most convoluted set of scenes. Here’s a shorter, simpler sequence to end with.

Early in the film Juan walks into a parts store. The old man who runs it takes him for a thief. Black out. Next scene he’s trying to find a phone to call the police while Juan sits terrified at the menacing boxer dog sitting in front of him just daring him to flinch. Much later in the film he takes the dog out for a walk and the dog, hungry for the outside world, bolts away. Later he and the old man travel the streets looking for it. Scene after scene of driving separated by black outs, until finally they stop in front of a house where the dog is seen cavorting with a family in their front courtyard. “It’s your dog,” Juan says, but the old man, silent, waves him on. Loving the dog, he knew he would be imposing absence on it if he took him back, and thereby suffer that absence himself. Sometimes to deal with absence you just have to walk away, instead of sitting at its feet trying to reason your way around it.

(2008, Dir. Fernando Eimbcke, 89m, NR.  I say, 3 stars.)

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