A film about artistic ambition
By Mevi Zunopatre
At the beginning of the film, we are presented with the face and head of a man crowned with synthetic-looking gray hair and a twitchy left eyebrow. His eyes are evocative, his mouth redolent with prosperity and even his jowls seem to shift between practical efficiency and a disposition for despair, a wealth of self-satisfaction tempered but not eclipsed by melancholy skepticism. This enormous face keeps its conflicting emotions separate. We move on to the rest of the man: he’s standing high on an outcrop overlooking a large stretch of the Amplio River, his stance exuding laconic, posturing arrogance, wrapped in a cognac-colored cloak and a wavy scarf. From there, he can see the slope of the outcrop, the shore and, as though he were suddenly able to fly, the entire island. The star shape with its five peninsulas, each of which is connected to another island by a millatril bridge, is unmistakable: this is Vercot Island, a free port for goods and people. Across the water is Ubarusu Island and the man only looks away from its shores to stare deep into the river.
While everything seems to get washed away by the current, from somewhere we hear a scratchy, woody voice saying, The fact that I didn’t pay back the predatory loans from Kumasero & Nattua Big Stores doesn’t mean that I’m not a good painter. Truth be told, I think I’m very good.
Then the voiceover takes us back into the past, I was a good painter, I was a unique painter. And I still am. Now you’ll see how good I really am.
The voice belongs to a young man: Luvo Fungue, who until now has lived in Ubarusu. He was a painter. He is a painter. He came to the island having fled from an oppressive regime, it’s not clear which one, and in a dank, inhospitable cellar, amid financial penury, he was inspired and dedicated enough to perfect a mixture of pigments, semi-decomposed vegetables, sugar, peptides, yeast and hetero-fermented lactic bacteria that lent his paintings an attractive, shape-shifting vitality: the paintings moved. They’d change before your very eyes in a matter of minutes.
He immediately attracts interest from sharp-eyed collectors and makes his first sales. At an exhibition in a modest gallery, the viewer is drawn into a dynamic world that combines the visions of a cosmologist, a biologist and a mentalist. One review in a specialized journalium reports, “Fungue’s paintings are full to bursting with science.” Another says, “Fungue’s show has astounding organicity.” Increasing numbers of viewers keep taking selfies with the artist and the artwork. But none of this deceives Luvo into thinking that his Bacterialism is anything other than an embryonic artform that needs to mature, either that or a garish reincarnation of cadaver art. He fears that the superficial ignorance of the Ubarisi is going to ruin it. Luvo wanders the streets, indulging himself in comparative soliloquies about exile. In bars, downing one aquagris after another, he rejects the natives’ fuzzy interpretations of his art, saying, “But they need to be projections in space, infinite as cells, life that makes you think, not acts designed to squeeze out emotions.” In bed with his Ubarisi girlfriend, he resents the fact that they speak different languages. In his studio he injects auroral into his veins. He refuses to sell a canvas to a rich collector, slashes it, stitches it back up and gives it to a poor admirer. Anxiety gnaws away at him: either the colonies of bacterial pigment spread beyond the canvas or they die from lack of stimulation, thus killing the painting. But some collectors see this death as further proof of the life of the artworks and learn to add just enough matter to the piece like they’re feeding a pet. The stupidest call Luvo a fraud. All this happens fast. Although he’s earned a reputation, he doesn’t make the best of it. He yearns to make pieces of reality, not replicas, and because he’s a committed artist he doesn’t just sell anything. He suffers for his art and sometimes goes hungry. Then one day, so as at least to lend his fall from grace a little glamor, he visits the Kumasero & Nattua Emporium dressed in his best outfit, from the Chertí coat to the crocodile boots, and signs twenty-one promissory notes. That night, having packed his most treasured possessions and essential materials into a wheeled trunk, he climbs onto a clandestine dinghy that takes him to a lonely dock on Vercot Island. Almost immediately, we find the well-built, elegantly dressed Luvo in a hall in the purple quarter of Verc City, haggling with a street vendor, trying to get five doses of auroral for the price of four. Some time later, we see Luvo, his clothes no longer looking so new, almost crippled by self-hatred, reorganizing the bacteria farm he’s set up in a room in a boarding house, then Luvo at a street stall, trying to hustle tourists into buying shiny new versions of bacterial canvases that change right before your eyes, if you’ll only take a moment to look... Oh my, sometimes they just blind you with their beauty. Soon, we see a shabbier Luvo wasting his life away, harassing an aurora dust dealer, complaining that the price is too high for a free port, for an unlicensed drug, attempting to keep control of his body in taverns where robot bar staff extend pincers as far as they’ll go to take advance payment for a fifth glass of savián.
It's in one of these taverns, at dusk, that we see him begin to tremble. He’s accosted by a group of youths as big as he is. They’re wearing the insignia of a group of civic defenders of spontaneous life. Arrogant, with malice in their eyes, they slap him on the back, asking after the health of his little paintings. Even worse, almost as though they’d planned it like this, a trio of thugs emerges from the purplish shadows, elbowing the clientele out of the way to surround Luvo. They push him over, insisting that he pay back eleven of the promissory notes he owes the Kumasero & Nattua Emporium. One brandishes a glowing poker rod. The night wears on, Luvo won’t be intimidated. He shakes his head as though to express despair at the state of the world. Perhaps it’s this unexpected display of spirit that saves him. Suddenly, a man enters the fray with enough aplomb to give the wrong-footed thugs pause. It’s the man in the cloak and scarf, the one we saw at the beginning of the film on the outcrop. Leave the artist alone, you peringos. They stare at him, wondering who the hell he is. My name is D’Arço Luganeto. This doesn’t seem to mean anything to anyone.
“Over in Ubarasu, they say that I’m a criminal fraudster,” Luganeto continues. “That I moved my official residence here to deprive my island of three million panoramicos in back taxes from my maquinium mines. Here, they say that I moved my residency to Partlán to avoid paying taxes on what I earned adulterating Turonital to treat Ritte’s Disease. I’m accused of taking state subsidies and selling worthless medications to hospitals. I won’t say whether any of this is true or false but I can affirm that the medicine does work, a little more slowly, maybe, a little more slowly but in the long term it does the job and I used the earnings to pay the salaries of 527 heads of families.”
“Five hundred and twenty-seven!” exclaims one of the tavern’s clientele.
“Cut, and I bought this tavern and others to incentivize the production of authentic drinks, commerce and social life. But still they level their accusations, they never gave me time to balance the books,” murmurs D’Arço. “But they never took my honor, my men can attest to that.”
The robot, which has shrunk itself back down, amiably rolls back to the bar. The dull murmur of recognition, the stifled chortling of the hulking goons, crash against the melancholy authority of the grifter magnate. Luvo stands up, shaking off his stupor. The others are clearly impressed. D’Arço dusts himself off as well. He takes Luvo’s arm and gently but authoritatively leads him out into the street where he invites him into a convertible Ágocat he drives himself.
“How did you know that I’m an artist?” Luvo asks.
“Because after your third glass of Garlás you start running your mouth. And because I’ve seen you in the street, selling those interesting paintings.”
Back in Luvo’s shabby boarding house, D’Arço accompanies him up the stairs to his room, which is a mixture of studio and laboratory, and inspects the most bacterial of the paintings. As he ponders the physical undulations of the portraits, many of them imaginary, others of passersby, his pupils gleam brighter. D’Arço and the portraits regard one another, the ruminative jowls jiggling above the scarf with every nod.
“Clean yourself up, young man,” he says, giving Luvo a business card and five hundred panoramicos. “And do me the favor of coming to see me in an hour.”
An hour later, at the end of the riverside promenade in the Rodad Quarter, Luvo is walking up to the porch of a teak and onyx mansion so lavish it stuns the wind into silence. A virtual butler appears in the screen at the door and lets him in. There’s a formal dinner, overlooked by murals of the Ubarusu savannah, with Mrs. Luganeto, a daughter and a son. They don’t ask much about Luvo’s past but get straight to the point. D’Arço tells him that he still has plenty of misunderstandings to clear up before he’s allowed back to the island he so loves, in fact he’ll probably never get back. But the absence only feeds his nostalgia, which now fills his body. If he were ever to let it out, all that would be left would be an empty shell, like betraying one’s country. For years, he’s admired how full of life Luvo’s paintings are... now that he’s saved him from the thugs, and can take care of his debts with the emporium, why doesn’t Luvo paint a portrait of him, making sure to make the eyes as sensorily receptive as possible, and then take the portrait on a tour of Ubarusu Island for a few weeks? Taking your time, he adds. In a tone that’s hard to decipher, Luvo suggests adding as much active will as possible.
“It would be wonderful,” interjects Mrs. Luganeta, “if the eyes of the painting were to remember their conversations with these beloved places.”
Her husband adds that he’ll finance the trip with the generosity for which he is well-known, all expenses paid. Then he adds, “I, friend Fungue, need to be consoled.”
Luvo’s voiceover chimes in, I always hated the word consolation, but I was still too young to be a nihilist and proud enough to accept an immoral proposition that was also an adventure. Of course, I knew that in truth, a lot of Rittetics had died after taking the adulterated Turonital, including my mother’s half-brother.
Luvo reluctantly says that to keep the bacterial paintings alive without outgrowing their canvas they needed to be tended to and fed at specific intervals.
“That will be your responsibility,” says D’Arço. “You can come here to feed them, or we’ll take them to you. What I need is consolation.”
This brings an end to the conversation. They shake hands unenthusiastically. There’s nothing diabolical about the deal. D’Arço can’t have the least interest in possessing Luvo’s soul; in the Delta, not many wealthy people even know what a devil is and even fewer believe in bargains, they welch on them so often. Luvo’s interest isn’t the money, not really, or the ability to move freely around Ubarusu Island, but in making the painting. This becomes clear over the next few days. To create this new landmark in experimental art, Luvo divides his attention between the canvas on the easel and the table on which the bacterial cultures he has separated are thriving in fermentations of pigment-infused vegetables. Bubbles burst, releasing carbon dioxide. The D’Arço beginning to appear on the canvas looks troubled by fierce inner gales before the bacteria has been even added. Luvo has forced D’Arço, posing with a pained expression, into a contraption that keeps his head immobile, and he ignores the rest. After five sessions, he's done. The painting pulsates with life. In its crazy, colloidal way, it is the very image of D’Arço, but it also, impossibly, absorbs the presences around it, like a swamp, and when nothing is left to absorb, the eyes light up, ripple, spin and bulge out of their sockets a little, anxious to see more.
D'Arço’s assessment is non-committal, he too is nothing but longing. He takes a road map out from his desk and spreads it on the table.
And so Luvo takes a catamaran line to Ubarasu Island. Now he’s in Ubara, where he unsheathes the painting and wanders around the galleries. We see dozens of stalls made from red, green and yellow corrugated iron clustered around impeccable crystalein buildings. He has lunch with the painting sitting on a chair next to him, eating local pies, dropping crumbs of rye bread on the tablecloth, holding the garnet dregs of the wine he’s drunk up to the light. Carrying the painting under his arm, careful not to cover the eyes, he stops at every doll store window and marquetry coffer, at the Chrono-man in the government palace tower, at the queues of workers waiting on a platform for a tram, at orange beams of light spreading down steps, at the chrome bumper of a landing flymoto, the traditional cumin green skirt of a woman climbing onto the back as she grabs hold of her man, his red hair and her slender calves, the shuddering branches of a centuries-old elabart, a vacant bench in an empty park, extravagantly-dressed old women selling costume jewelry, a grinder in a coffee kiosk. At night, on the hotel balcony, feeling somewhat pricklish, he presents the painting with the canopies of the Dramatiu neighborhood and the revolving beams of the Benevolence Titan, until he suspects that the beauty of the lights is putting the painting to sleep and his eyelids begin to droop as well.
The phenomenon continues over the next few days; on the barge down the Ges canal, through the smoky hills of Tocásir, at a way station on one of the mesas of the Maolú steppes, among the swarms of hoverflies in the Ganumero Lagoon resort, a place that D’Arço marked with an asterisk, we see clearly that the eyes of the portrait react physically to the views and even interact with some of the details. Within the workings of a sensitive colony of bacteria manipulated by a determined artist, the painting is having real experiences, appreciating their duration and appearance, assigning them different degrees of profundity as sensed or intuited, depending on the endless stream of details that exist in any given moment of reality. As though life were being infused into it, the portrait of D’Arço rises, shrinks, rises again, shrinks and compresses and yet it also seems that the real world is affected in turn by its breathing.
Luvo’s voiceover explains: During this period, I entered a state of jubilation, not because the Bacterialism was working so well but because, thanks to the portrait’s reactions, I’m not sure whether you can call them emotions, I was attentive as I never had been before to what was happening in front of our eyes. I was enjoying a honeymoon with reality.
Unfortunately, it’s also obvious that he’s considering his paintings and how, next to the real thing, the best likeness he can achieve is only a pale reflection. One can describe a silver poplar as a symbol, or apply the epithet to a cheering crowd in a full stadium on a sunny afternoon, but for the artistic ethics of Luvo’s art, describing one of his bacterial paintings as such would be immoral. Picture, for instance, the town of Mongostu, at the entrance to a primary scholarium on a winter afternoon, with the seventeen shades of thought of the mothers crouching down to kiss their kiddles and wearily tie their scarves around their necks. Apparently, as energetic as the throbbing paint might be, it will never capture the multifarious ambiguities of the scene. Luva feels anger, repulsion and sorrow. But perhaps what aren’t standing up to comparison with reality aren’t the paintings but the memories: the memories stored in the paintings. The expression of the image Luvo is holding in his hands, which is now being given a tour of a seaside promenade in Asparetu, contains a range of incomprehensible, tumultuous emotions.
Of course, this isn’t a landscape but a portrait of D’Arço Luganeto and the distinctiveness of the painting has nothing to do with the model. When this realization came to me, I began to grow bored, says Luvo’s voice, and this becomes obvious. The casino in Bartus Cápana, for instance, looks like the games room in a hospice. If it has any of the sparkle of the leisured classes, it’s only visible to the agitated eyes of the portrait. For the rest of the journey, their receptive gleam increases. The landscapes pass Luvo by. The only thing he ever did right in his life is this portrait.
At the end of the day, what did I care about Ubarasu? It wasn’t my homeland. Not that I think any land belongs to me, truth be told. But the trip showed me that failure is a harsh master, many of the things I know now I learned from the pain of failure. You’ll see how much use that was to me.
Now the scenes in the film begin to blur together. Humans, Luvo mainly, remain clear, but the backdrop is faded, as though the story were only interested in the trials of an artist. You can tell that this isn’t going to end with the painting being displayed on the walls of a gallery. But the plot moves on quickly.
A slightly overweight Luvo, exhausted, his soul in tatters, asks the screen at D’Arço’s mansion to inform its owner of his arrival. He’s carrying the covered painting under his arm. D’Arço, who is going over paperwork with his lawyers, gives him a friendly, jubilant welcome. Dinner, wife, children, chewing, anticipation. For the moment, no one has seen the painting.
“So, friend Fungue, how did you find our island?”
“On your island, some places are very beautiful, others are unremarkable, like anywhere else, but that’s good too. People seem content, they don’t talk too much.”
“What a graphic summary,” says D’Arço, with a fierce sadness. “But I didn’t see any of it, I didn’t see any of it.”
Oddly, the time that Luvo needs to comprehend the reproach is covered with small talk, so the tension increases. Over dessert, Luvo finally answers that it’s not surprising he didn’t see anything; it was the eyes of the portrait that were supposed to do the seeing. Disbelief, suspicion, hope and co-active tyranny coexist on D’Arço’s face. After another period of idle chitchat, time he’s been using to think, he asks, “And did they see a lot?”
Luvo gets up and uncovers the portrait. The green eyes, open wide, swirl like mint mousse whipped by unseen propellors.
“I got the feeling that they were devouring everything.”
“I’d swear to it.”
The son asks why they aren’t any bigger then.
“The eyes? Because they digest information,” says Luvo. “Like the brain.”
“So,” says D’Arço, “they must contain the memory of what they’ve seen.”
Statement or plea, it admits no reply.
Just then, another lawyer comes in, more of a flunky, and has his boss sign some papers. Then he stands in the background with his arms crossed. They call him Gavón. Husband and wife exchange a look. Discreet but magnificent, she bows her head. One of the children shrugs. D’Arço stretches and lays a heavy hand on Luvo’s forearm, “Fungue, I want you to give me those eyes; implant them, fuse them to me, whatever, I just want it done.”
Luvo warns him, “There might be consequences beyond our control. I’ll leave gaps, but there’s no guarantee that the real eyes won’t get covered over. You might end up blind in both sets of eyes.”
But none of his objections has any effect. D’Arço tells him to come to terms with Gavón and then leaves the room.
“Daddy never leaves like that,” says the youngest.
“He’d rather die than forget the island,” says his wife.
“He trusts in your art more than himself,” says Gavón, who puts his own hand on Luvo’s forearm.
About two days pass. In the anteroom where he did the portrait, Luvo explains to D’Arço that he’s smothering his eyes with retinal protectors and catalyzing amino acids. Then he’ll use the least corrosive substances possible to remove the eyes from the portrait, more or less from below the eyebrows to the zygomatic arch. He restores their viscosity and, with a gesture of weary triumph, finds that they cover precisely the same area on the real face.
The results don’t look entirely ridiculous. What one gleans from the face of D’Arço, in a silk shirt, looking at himself in a hand mirror, is untrammeled amazement, garish in its involuntary hyperreality, and acutely conflicting emotions, more so even than the D’Arço on the outcrop. He looks overwhelmed. He takes Luvo warmly by the hand but is so distracted that he forgets to thank him. Luvo’s expression as he leaves isn’t ironic, disappointed or full of curious expectation; it’s of accomplished equanimity. Over the next few days, we do indeed see Luvo distancing himself from the world, but most of all himself, as he observes D’Arço’s amazed reaction, sitting on a three-seat sofa next to his wife, leaning forward to tell him, “I can see, Fungue. I saw and I’m still seeing! The terrace of the Badger Bar. The flocks of egrets over Ganumero Lagoon!”
“I know,” says Luvo. “I saw them too.”
“How wonderful it is to see one’s island, I am profoundly grateful.”
Later, with an incomprehensibly graceful manner, Mrs. Luganeto accompanies Luvo to the door and the voiceover says, No one could say that he was swindling me, or even that he had defrauded himself.
These words suggest that the story is about to end, especially when Luvo gets to his hotel room, regards the paintings he has produced over the years, successful and otherwise, ponders for a brief moment and, after washing his face, we don’t know why, shoves some things and a sizeable wad of thousand panoramico tarbits in a bag. He leaves the room, closing the door behind him, walks down the stairs, chucks the key onto the empty concierge desk and leaves the hotel.
Next, he’s back in Ubara City, dressed from head to toe in an outfit from the La Ubaratí Emporium and signing a bunch of promissory notes before that very afternoon leading a wheeled trunk to the dock of the catamaran line, one of whose vessels we see sailing away from the coast. Over its fading bullhorn, we hear the voiceover, I shan’t say that I knew that D’Arço was going to die, but the news didn’t come as a surprise. And yet, when his wife called me, I couldn’t feign indifference.
Luvo’s voice says this while the Luvo on screen, standing on an outcrop among the cliffs to the south of Vercot Island, looks down on the many coastal hills of Ubarasu Island without nostalgia or ambition, with no emotions other than a curl of the eyebrow that we take to mean, perhaps because the story foreshadowed it to a degree, that he’s contemplating the discipline of failure. From above, we see that he has a scarf tied around his neck. Perhaps that lack of coldness helped me to be a good painter. I think she thinks so, because otherwise she wouldn’t have sent me the scarf. Once again, the landscape fades away, as does Luvo’s body. The blur of shapes freezes, then rearranges itself, in the end revealing an art gallery with a sign at the entrance that reads, The Pain and Delight of Memory – Posthumous Artworks by D’Arço Luganeto, and, inside, like a series of flaws in the walls, we see flowers opening up into multicolored arabesques, a busy scene at a tram station, bodies splashing around in a lagoon. They seem like autonomous, throbbing forms, making you want either to dive into the artwork or kill yourself just to bring an end to the sensations, it’s hard to know which because the shapes never settle down. The viewing eye is unable to focus on any one thing and starts to float away, accompanied by Luvo’s voice, I didn’t go to see the dead man’s paintings. Perhaps I can’t imagine them as well as if I’d done them myself but they’re still plenty vivid enough in my mind’s eye.
A minute later, over a continuous pattern of these images, in the face of the Luvo looking out over the hills of Ubarusu, we see a hint of relaxation, the imminent arrival of a new kind of patience, or perhaps a new ignorance, or even the spirit with which some addicts withstand abstinence. There’s no nostalgia, or future, nothing in this face other than that which enters through the eyes.