Retro Short: Quartet for the End of Time (1983).
Impressed by Alfonso Cuarón’s new feature, Roma, we check out one of his earliest short films: Quartet for the End of Time.
When a director displays such an inimitable style and repertoire of techniques, it is fun to travel backwards through his filmography. While both Roma and Gravity share a master’s eye for visuals, they’re quite radically different in scope and execution. A better match is to one of Cuarón’s first student films: Quartet for the End of Times. Luckily that film was featured on Le Cinema Club recently, making for a fresh comparison. The short film is even set during the holidays, so it’s doubly apt!
Filmed in black and white, and composed with many long takes, the film shares much DNA with Roma. A meditation on depression named after an unconventional composition born of tragedy, Quartet is subdued, ambiguous, and stately while feeling intimate. While there are rough edges to the style that had yet to be sanded down, much of Cuarón’s technique shines through, serving as bridge between two works 35 years apart.
Quartet for the End of Time (1983)
A young musician suffering from depression isolates himself in his cramped apartment during the Christmas season. He grows ever more listless, and draws the ire of his neighbors as he rehearses an unorthodox composition on his clarinet: Quartour por la Fin du Temps, a piece created and first performed by prisoners in a Nazi POW camp.
The Story of a Mood.
The plot of the piece is rambling and seemingly unstructured. The young man begins by reading a book on tortoises to his new pet tortoise while in the bath. He then engages in random behavior as he narrates about the depression steadily gripping him. As the film moves from event to event, the actions become less moored to reality: in one scene we see the man finally go outside to walk among the Christmas shoppers, only to have the camera pull back to see him watching himself from his apartment window. The events are subjective; the only thing that is concrete is the suffocating emotional atmosphere.
As a meditation on depression, the film strikes a chord. Just as the man is trapped inside the interior of his home, we’re trapped inside the interior of his thoughts and emotions. Cuarón states: “it was an emotion rather than a idea that drove the process…” Despite moments of magical realism or absurdity, the narrative is grounded because of the veracity of the experience. Like logic in a dream, events may be nonsensical but still make sense.
Yet Still a Story.
For those worried the film is a mere exercise, it does resolve itself into a narrative arc…and quite a forceful one. Just like Roma, the film appears self indulgent for the first half, but it is really insinuating itself into your way of thinking. The oddities begin to take the shape of a pattern once you’ve had enough exposure to them. This allows the ending to leap at you, despite it being as ambiguous as the rest of the film. The doubling and tripling of images and motifs is employed to lull you, but also prime you for sudden revelations and suggestions. It was quite fascinating watching the random, slice-of-life events assemble themselves into a plot that became riveting.
One of the reasons the final minutes of the film are so effective comes from Cuarón deftly using long tracking shots to make the audience unwitting companions to his main character. The big revelatory moments are accomplished without cutting away, building an internal tension. Again, the director has primed you to expect these type of shots to pay off with an event that fundamentally changes your interpretation of events. Even when the limitation of budget and expertise hamper the shots (there’s a movement through a door that is pure artifice and happens simply because the camera man has to get through it before the actor in order to avoid a logistical cut away) it’s telling that Cuarón was working on such subtle maneuvers as a 22 year old student.
I’m tempted to say that this film will resonate the most with folks familiar with depression, but a second consideration makes me believe Cuarón’s methods of immersing you in a situation will reach anyone willing to stay with it. Much like Roma, there’s a learning curve as he asks the audience to accept some ambiguity and sluggishness. It seems to be the price to pay for his really audacious and emotionally powerful final flourishes. As a piece that sets out to capture a state of mind, it’s damn effective. It also displays a director with a precocious grasp of technique and storytelling, one unafraid to take risks in order to share a vision. Quartet for the End of Time does blow an occasional flat note but more than makes up for it with a unique and singular performance.