Cows Wearing Glasses: A Film About the Art of Life

The artist in his studio. Image courtesy of the director, Alex Santiago Pérez

Cows Wearing Glasses (Las vacas con gafas) is the first major feature by Puerto Rican film director Alex Santiago Pérez, who previously directed shorts and documentaries. I was able to preview the film just before its international release, which begins in the month of August. The film is currently scheduled to participate in various festivals including: The AFI Latin American Film Festival and The Mar de Plata Film Festival, Argentina among others (See full list below). The film is made available for screening across universities in the U.S. by Pragda's Spanish Film Club. What follows is a review of the film complemented with a brief interview with Santiago Pérez.

Cows Wearing Glasses offers a complex representation of the human condition. It's the story of a man, Marcelino Sariego (Daniel Lugo), a painter and university professor in Puerto Rico living the last days of his life, who is losing his eyesight and realizes he has to bring closure to familial conflicts with his only daughter (Cristina Soler).

The fact that the main character is an artist makes possible a rich exploration of the aesthetics of film as an art form, while also providing playful commentary on serious issues of creativity and their relevance in life. This possibility begins with the elegant simplicity of Santiago Pérez's mise en scène. The camera remains still throughout the film, except for selected key moments, and most of the story takes place in limited spaces. In effect, the viewer is pushed to engage with the main character with an intimacy that only perhaps his daughter at one point may have had.

This is more evident when one realizes that Marso (as he is called throughout the film) is in most of the scenes. Marso is a conflicted character with whom the viewer is able to engage as different aspects of his past are revealed almost at the slow pace with which he walks from and to the coffee shop, the bar, the university, the pharmacy, his daughter's place, and his home.

The artist at his home. Image courtesy of the director, Alex Santiago Pérez

The film, in effect, uses the streets of Old San Juan as its backdrop, along with an impressive sequence of the inside architecture of El Morro, an iconic fort of great importance in the colonial history of Puerto Rico. In a way, Marso and his relation to Old San Juan and El Morro are stand-ins for the human subject's relation to history itself: people learn about their past only to realize that heritage is full of joys, sorrows, conflicts and compromises that make all of it worthy of understanding only if one is critically honest in such engagement. The fact that the camera is almost always still, then, pushes the viewer to consider Marso and his environment as metaphors of the ongoing construction of cultural history.

On a more personal level, Marso seems approachable but remains enigmatic, which is why his daughter becomes a pivotal figure with whom one can empathize as she tries to come to terms with her own relationship with her father. Silence is also a major element used quite effectively throughout the film. There are only a few musical compositions heard, and for the most part it is the ambient sound of the spaces in which Marso finds himself that the viewer experiences. This pushes the viewer to reflect upon the questions that Marso confronts as he accepts the fact that he may go blind at any moment.

The artist in his studio. Image courtesy of the director, Alex Santiago Pérez

A painter losing his sight is a strong metaphor of life itself. What can people do when they cannot function as they have throughout their lives? How much of what they are is defined by their day to day activities and what they do for a living? The fact that Marso is a painter makes such questions no longer rhetorical but real when one realizes that seeing can be interpreted as living--for what can Marso be and live for once he can no longer paint and teach? At one point in the film Marso, himself, is questioned on how to see by one of his students. He answers that in order to be an artist one must feel things in the world, not just see them. This reflection on Marso's part alludes to the bigger questions that loom over him as he confronts his imminent blindness--a paradoxical statement, one could add, when Marso appears to have been insensitive, even apathetic, to those near him in the past.

Cows Wearing Glasses is one of the few films I have seen that presents the visual artist as a figure that is real--a figure that is not romanticized as a genius with great ideas and ability of supernatural expression. Santiago Pérez effectively uses humor to ponder on questions that creative individuals, not just artists, may ask themselves in their day to day practice. Playful allusions are in fact inserted throughout the film in which Marso sits day in and day out next to a fellow painter at a bar. Marso's friend rants on art and painting; he discusses how aesthetics have been redefined with the works of famous artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. These moments are refreshing, not only because of their clear self-referentiality of the very act of creativity (film being a proper art form itself) but also because such moments are welcomed breaks from the more pressing questions that Marso is facing in terms of existence at its most basic level.

People in the fine arts will also be able to identify with Marso not because he is primarily an artist, but because he, as a person, is willing to ask real questions about life, and tell his students to always tell the truth--even when he himself may not be able to live up to such high standard. Ultimately Cows Wearing Glasses asks basic but complex questions which can be extremely personal as the film is open enough for viewers to project their own experiences on to the characters. Marso and his daughter are inviting figures that, surprisingly, we may be unwilling to get to know better, even when strongly compelled with each carefully composed scene. The reason for this may be that Santiago Pérez's film is effectively a metaphorical mirror in which the subjects appear playfully uncomfortable and real.

The film is being screened at the following festivals:

3. Trinidad + Tobago Film Festival, Trinidad & Tobago.

Brief Q&A with director Alex Santiago Pérez

Alex Santiago Pérez. Image courtesy of the director

1) Cows wearing glasses offers very specific commentaries on the creative process particularly of the studio artist (the act of painting in particular). Do you have a background in studio art practice, given that some of the comments are quite specific to the fine arts?

I think that one of the main benefits of filmmaking is to be able to explore worlds that are new to me. I immerse myself in the worlds that I'm writing about throughout research, and that was the case with the art theme in this film. It's all research.

2) Given that you also wrote the script, can you tell us how you developed the story? Did you have an inspirational reference at the time of writing?

This story began with the need to write about my grandfather, who was my father figure. He had a very particular sense of humor and I grew up fascinated with that. Then I met painter Domingo Garcia, an eccentric, gifted and very complex artist who was blind from one eye for several months, and I came up with the idea of "mixing" the friendly-humorous personality of my grandfather with the sophisticated-grumpy personality of Domingo and from that blend Marso's character emerged.

3) Are there any particular film-makers that you studied, which you would say have influenced your directing? This begs to be asked because for the most part, the camera is left still, and you let the action take place according to things that come in and out of the frame.

Ingmar Bergman, Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the Dardenne brothers are a big influence. They all use the camera in service to the narrative. I wanted to do the same and I used the camera to create a visual and aural texture that invokes the texture of the everyday. I've tried to accomplish that throughout a decisive point of view based on the minimalistic use of filmmaking tools. I wanted to get an imposing quietness to the film, to avoid excesses. I wanted people to notice the main character, and I needed to do something so people would do so, because his not a charming guy, his grumpy and mischievous.

So I decided not to move the camera and to repeat most of the sets and the frames, we even shot the film using only a 27 millimeters lens (except from the two dream sequences and the El Morro stills shots), so the audience would not have anything new or different to look at and they would be obligated to see Marso, to know him, to feel him, and feel his loneliness. Not moving the camera was a practical idea, which like most practical ideas ended up being an aesthetic one.

4) How do you relate to the possibility that people may get the opposite of the film that you maybe envisioned?

That would make my day! That's what this film is all about, letting the audience participate in the story, raising questions that people have to answer, implicating them so they could take part on a momentous experience. The movie, at this point, is not in screenplay format anymore, it's no longer being filmed, and it's no longer being edited. Once viewed it is in the mind of the audience and their viewpoints towards it will keep the film alive.