I first experienced Juan Carlos Gallardo’s 90 años sin dormir (90 Years Without Sleep, 2013) at the Pantalla Fantasma film festival in Bilbao in the company of my fellow experimental filmmaker Michael Higgins. As soon as the film was over, Higgins and I turned to each other in elation and simultaneously exclaimed: ‘I wish I could make films like that!’ The immediate source of the rush that led to this reaction was largely open-mouthed disbelief at the combined conceptual chops and humbling lack of self-consciousness this feature-length, no-budget underground remake of the first episode of The Twilight Zone displayed. With utter sincerity, it follows the agonies and tribulations of the last man on earth, a former officer in the American military who has landed in his predicament through being subject of a dubious experiment. Yet he is not burly all-American Earl Holliman adrift in a deserted US small town, as in the original. In this incarnation, he is an unprepossessing middle-aged Spanish man without the remotest hint of military in his appearance or costume wandering the beaches and suburbs of Barcelona. The formal strategy Gallardo employs is less minimalistic than doggedly monomaniacal. For the better part of 90 minutes, the fretting protagonist is tracked through the empty city with an old-school DV camcorder resulting in an extremely raw, hand-held home movie aesthetic. The takes are long, and the repetitive, fearful monologues the protagonist mutters to himself are interspersed with an endlessly repeated organ drone on the soundtrack that sets the teeth on edge. Just two scenes provide variety from the exhaustingly drawn out round of wanderings that constitute the bulk of the film. In one, Gallardo takes empty shots of the city with a red filter on the camera while the ex-soldier explains in voiceover the background of his situation; in the other, he encounters a figure supposedly representing the living embodiment of his mirror image in the person of a much younger, taller man who looks nothing like him. Other than that, this solitary survivor is completely alone. Well, almost – in a few shots stray passers-by do unwittingly wander into the background!
The immediate thrill of 90 Years Without Sleep comes from seeing a work that does everything ‘wrong’ by any conventional standard, that charges at absurdity headfirst without the shield of irony and manages to break through to emerge as an oddly haunting and affecting work, in which the single-minded simplicity of the treatment perfectly gels with the extreme isolation it explores. An act of unswerving faith rather than smart calculation, it transports viewers into a private headspace where an innocently personal vision unfolds with the intense urgency of the last videotape on earth. A message in a bottle. But even this does not quite account for the film’s quirky power, or the complex questions it throws up about how we categorize moving images these days. I was very glad of the opportunity some six months later to revisit this seldom-screened work on its projection at The Guesthouse in Cork – to be in a position to better formulate the challenge it poses to certain long-standing preconceptions about the relationship between moving images and reality.
It is, first and foremost, a response to and appropriation of genre cinema (and, of course, TV). As such, it is a very personal distillation of an emotional essence extracted from mainstream cinema and released into the ‘real world’ – a world without budget, a ‘documentary’ world. Unlike tedious amateur replications of mainstream movies that pedantically follow its techniques, Gallardo establishes a very particular and extreme relationship with time and space. In place of the traditionally pareddown, narrative-driven apparatus of mainstream storytelling, he creates an echo chamber in which the bellow of horror at the centre of both his film and the Twilight Zone original can reverberate endlessly in a temporal stasis born of repetitiveness. Formally, such an experiment brings his work somewhat in line with traditions of modernist art cinema as typified by Antonioni, or certain tendencies in structuralist filmmaking. But Gallardo eschews any claim to the cultural respectability or artistic self-consciousness of these cinemas and opts not only for home video technology and aesthetics but slightly dated ones at that. The result of this strikingly spontaneous combination is perhaps, above all, a radically immersive documentary on urban space that couldn’t have emerged as compellingly if conceived as documentary per se.
The dream of universally available filming tools and of being able to pick up a camera as easily as a pen is a very old one. It was born at a time when the technical and economic exigencies of filmmaking were such that the production of moving images was all but entirely under the control of movie studios. Therefore, it was equally a dream of images that would be free and other from the standard conventions of traditional cinema. One that could throw light on reality or lead to new, poetic ways of seeing. Now that this dream has become reality, what seems to have resulted is the multiplication of conventions rather than their obsolescence. And, of course, moving images are in no way synonymous with ‘cinema’ any longer. Gallardo’s film is in ways a reminder of some important works that appeared at the moment when the democratisation of filmmaking began in earnest, and which presented radically disconcerting reflections, perhaps less of mainstream cinema, as of its pervasive cultural influence, while still acknowledging it as the central reference point. Films by Warhol or Jack Smith overturned cinematic perception in terms of temporality and representation at least partly through the no-holds-barred embrace of a fantasy of cinema that, by manifesting in a ‘real’ world that couldn’t have been more different from the calculated formulae of Hollywood, forced a groundup rethinking of cinema’s possibilities. By flinging himself with such flailing intensity upon his cinematic fantasy, Gallardo presents us with an exploration of the margins of a city rendered fantastically vivid and experiential by being filtered through the fictionalised sensibility of his protagonist. Paradoxically, it is hard to imagine any documentary strategy that could bring viewers so close to this reality. 90 Years Without Sleep therefore succeeds best as a fascinating by-product of a by-product of cinema that, by refusing to strive for respectable adherence to any acknowledged cinematic category, and by throwing itself open to charges of ineptitude from all sides, reveals as much about the power and potential of the moving image as anything made in recent years.
Juan Carlos Gallardo: 90 Years Without Sleep was screened 10 September 2015.