Reviewed: Pablo Larrain's "No"

An inspiring watch that explores the role advertising played in Chile's progress.

No (15)
dir: Pablo Larrain

How surprising that a film called No should be so positive. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been drawn previously to macabre interpretations of his country’s past: Tony Manero used a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed psychopath as a symbol for the pervasive sadism of the Pinochet regime, while Post Mortem concerned a dead-eyed mortician present when the overthrown President Allende arrives on the slab.

Larraín hasn’t left Pinochet behind with No: he is still gnawing away at him, just as Pinochet gnaws away at Chile. But the new picture is energised, its tenor brightened, by the switch of focus from history’s abyss to a clinching moment of hope: the 1988 plebiscite held to establish whether Pinochet would stay or go. Fifteen minutes of daily television airtime was allocated to the regime in the weeks leading up to the vote, another 15 per day to its opponents. No examines how those anti-Pinochet broadcasts challenged a climate of “learned hopelessness,” decisively steering the vote – and Chile’s future.

René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is the hotshot advertising executive recruited to oversee the television spots for the “No” lobby. René’s ex-wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), sometimes drops in to see their young son, Simon (Pascal Montero), when she is on her way back from the police station after running carelessly on to yet another police officer’s fist, boot or baton. “Did they hurt you much?” René asks in the manner of someone enquiring about a dull day at the office. Veronica is aghast when she learns he has accepted the “No” commission: doesn’t he see, she reasons, that merely participating will validate the entire fraud? But René has resolve. “We’re going to get rid of Pinochet,” he tells her firmly. Were the film a bigbudget star vehicle gunning for our goosebumps, the line would be pitched at full pelt with orchestral italicising. Here, it is delivered sotto voce so as not to wake Simon as he snoozes on René’s shoulder.

Veronica is not René’s only critic. His boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), who is masterminding the “Yes” campaign, tries to lure him away by promising to make him a partner. When bribery fails, the threats begin: phone calls in the early hours, sinister allusions to Simon’s safety, strangers loitering outside René’s window at night. Anyone familiar with Larraín’s previous work may find Lucho’s deviousness obscurely comforting: Castro, a brilliantly cold fish of an actor, played the chilling lead roles in those earlier films and it’s hard to feel all is right with No until you’ve seen him behaving in a weaselly or intimidating fashion.

Castro makes a pointed contrast with García Bernal, who is not just a charismatic actor with his own advertising associations. (He was one of the faces of a recent ad campaign for a facial-hair styling product, the sort of thing that confirms we have too much time on our hands as a race.) He is also a rather delicate soul: he suggests a wee faun, bearded but boyish, a timeless Mr Tumnus.

Bernal’s role in No doesn’t demand any grand, stirring speeches – René’s watchful, low-key confidence is that of a man who knows his power is the backroom kind, exercised in the editing suite or during the shooting of life-affirming vignettes to promote the slogan “Happiness is coming.” René thinks this will be a more effective tactic than dwelling on the executions, the oppression, the legacy of the thousands of people who were “disappeared” under Pinochet. That’s a downer. Upbeat sells.

No is adapted from the play Referendum by Antonio Skármeta (who also wrote the novel that became the 1994 film Il Postino). A more cinematic treatment would be difficult to imagine. Period authenticity extends beyond the dapper ad men’s wardrobes and into the texture of the movie. Larraín shot Noon the U-matic magnetic tape prevalent in the 1980s.

For non-techies such as me this means the film blends seamlessly with archive material from the era, whether it’s news footage of demonstrations or endorsements of democracy from Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss (who played a Pinochet-style dictator and his double in the 1988 comedy Moon Over Parador).

The images look frazzled, as though the stock has been blitzed in one of the newfangled microwaves that René brings home to Simon. Father and son sit mildly dazed in front of the illuminated box as it melts cheese on to floppy bread. No is an inspiring watch. But that doesn’t stop it suggesting that advertising, for all that it was instrumental in Chile’s progress, may be having the same effect on our brains.

A still from "No".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

GETTY IMAGES/LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION
Show Hide image

Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt