New Artist Focus: Miguel Armas on Laida Lertxundi

Emotional Cartographies: The films of Laida Lertxundi

by Miguel Armas

The films of Laida Lertxundi find their inspiration in actions and places of the artist’s own life in order to reconstruct a mysterious sense of loneliness and longing. This idea of re-enactment is important: nothing is shown directly, as in a filmed diary, but is rather evoked as an unusual experience. Filming thus becomes a reality shared with friends, a form of collective work that allows for the discovery of new places. Improvised gestures in the landscape, the experimentation with the medium of cinema and an evocative flow of emotions constitute the raw material of this “life-like cinema” that doesn’t actually imitate life.

Born in Spain, she moved to the United States to study filmmaking, first in New York and later in Los Angeles, a location which features prominently in all her film work, the only exception being a trip to Norway in Utskor: Either/Or (2013). A student of filmmakers Peter Hutton and James Benning, Lertxundi doesn’t attempt to hide the influence of important figures of the North American avant-garde such as Morgan Fisher, Bruce Baillie or Hollis Frampton. Lertxundi assumes this heritage and acknowledges it, both in her films and in her work as a teacher and curator. The main lesson she takes from a certain American tradition is the integration of an everyday temporality with the formal strategies of structural cinema. Her oeuvre reveals the process of making films, criticising the suspension of disbelief that dominates narrative cinema, i.e. the perceptual state that makes us forget those technical mechanisms that allow transparency.

Her first film in California, Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), is based on a performative action enacted by a group of unrecognisable people in an abandoned house. Situated in the middle of the desert, this house appears to collapse and open into the landscape. Two lovers place their bed on the sand; somebody plays the cello while another records the sound. There is no dialogue; the bodies communicate what words can’t say. A love story is lightly insinuated between the shots, but the real protagonists are sound and image in conflict – silence in contrast with music, intimate spaces extending into exteriors. This leads to a kinetic abstraction that voids conventional narrative, “replacing the desire for a story with a structure of sound and image relationships”,[1] something that Lertxundi would continue to investigate in further works.

Her passion for landscape and the shift towards wider spaces are key to Cry When it Happens (2010), one of her greatest achievements, a kind of “mapping-film” that takes a more ambitious approach of Los Angeles and its surroundings, from the rocky coast to the desert valley. Interested in the representation of life in the megalopolis and the absence of public spaces (possibly inspired by another of her mentors, Thom Andersen), Lertxundi examines the contrast between intimate life (two people lying in a motel room) and the vast solitude of Southern California landscapes. Each image is the result of the filmmaker’s presence in these places, directly transmitting to us her experience of the shooting. We sometimes see Laida herself activating the camera, clapping her hands together to provide the sync mark, or being physically present in the shots (watching the sea waves, for example).

In her cinema, nature is not simply a background for human actions: it’s part of an organic system that is shaped by the editing, by which Lertxundi creates a series of rhythmic relationships between very heterogeneous shots.

Films like The Room Called Heaven (2012) invite the spectator to multiple haptic sensations; the montage working as a free association between certain places, objects, colours, textures, feelings, patterns, fabrics, noises and songs. Lertxundi favours perceptual shock, so the linking function of montage is interrupted by the rejection of a transparent syntax. She has spoken about a “digression towards objects”, conceiving cinema as a way to convert all material forms into plastic elements inside the film.

This form of montage is further explored in films like A Lax Riddle Unit (2011) or Utskor: Either/Or, always looking for the creation of vivid optical and sound images. A state of suspension evokes a feeling of waiting for something to happen, or rather longing for something that will never arrive. Watching these films together gives us the feeling of discovering a set of scattered shots of an imaginary melodrama about separation and loneliness in the huge city. In contrast with the static mood in which her characters seem submerged, Lertxundi appeals to a melodramatic language through the field recording of soul music or melancholic pop, whether through songs that characters choose to listen to (Hoagy Lands in My Tears are Dry [2009]), through the alternation between different spaces (The Blue Rondos in Cry When it Happens) or through its echoes between scenes (Robert Wyatt in A Lax Riddle Unit). These melodies are more than a soundtrack: they are an essential element in the ensemble of the film, often emptying the content of images or stealing their prominence. The music is directly related to human emotions – in Live to Live (2015) the recording of the filmmaker’s own heartbeat is combined with a song by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.

Lertxundi’s oeuvre is characterised by an aesthetic of materiality that is also due to the use of 16mm and analogue sound as imperfect, not fully controllable mediums. In her films, the constant presence of reproduction or projection devices that stop working, the playing of musical instruments, the desynchronization of sound and the manipulation of the camera are different means used to demystify the transparency of narrative movies. With this very particular creative method, Lertxundi approaches the relationship between affective states and the spaces in which they are developed, leading to a desire for liberation that is often symbolised by a single image: the blue sky in Cry When it Happens, The Room Called Heaven, and Live to Live, a burst of light on the horizon in A Lax Riddle Unit, or a moving car in We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014).

Two recent films, Utskor: Either/Or and We Had the Experience…, take their inspiration from text sources. The first is an essay film on political utopia that features a treatise by Friedrich Engels about the origins of private property, read in a kitchen by a mother and her children. The second is an “adaptation” of a short novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares about a man who prefers driving her lover’s car to being with her. Another text by Bioy Casares, quoted at the beginning of her latest film, Live to Live, deals with the remembrance of something that happened on a journey made in the past. The film begins in a desert and goes up and up to the sky and beyond, finishing in a lyrical, colourful abstraction. Laida Lertxundi seems to believe in filmmaking as a way to reach some kind of utopian knowledge, always starting from very small things: a vinyl record discovered with friends, a particular nook in the desert discovered from the car. All her films speak about the quest for new spaces of freedom – showing the experience without looking for meanings.

Miguel Armas is a writer based in Paris. He’s a member of the Spanish collective LUMIÈRE.



[1] “Espacios de Libertad”, Laida Lertxundi, 2012.




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