film analysis: El Tercero

Let the right one in

El Tercero
Directed by Rodrigo Guerrero
Argentina, 2014

There are only 21 shots and 71 minutes in El Tercero, a 2014 GTM from Argentina. The average shot length (ASL) of the film is about 3 minutes, 38 seconds. For comparison, the ASL of X-Men: Days of Future Past is 2.7 seconds. You can imagine then, how many shots there are in a 132 min movie.

So I’m not sure why I was unable to watch El Tercero all the way through my first attempt. But it has something to do with my not recognizing, or not caring at the time, how the film produces its effects and affects via the interaction of and the dependence between its structural and formal properties and its quotidian, if sexy, content. In other words, I was lazy; I didn’t feel like paying attention to a film that seemed conventional in what it was showing and unconventional in the way it was constructed and shot, although I might be forgiven for not seeing or appreciating the latter right away. Impatient the first time late at night, I fast-forwarded through the whole thing, deciding that it looked interesting, particularly the colors and framings of the shots, but that I wasn’t ready for it at that moment. I was wrong to dismiss it, as I found out when I returned to it with a fresher mind.

Now that I’ve watched it twice more uninterrupted and also gone through it counting and timing the shots and taking screenshots, (this post constitutes an additional fourth viewing), I consider it the most interesting GTM I’ve seen since Patrick Wang’s demanding masterpiece, In the Family.

The two films have similarities — long takes, a static camera (with a few exceptions in the case of El Tercero) and an acting style and mise-en-scène that can be described as gesturing toward a certain kind of realism, although the artificiality of the formal structures of both films offers the audience the chance — through duration, camera placement, and in El Tercero a subtle and playful obscuring of the diegetic origins of viewpoint, as well as visual gags and prominent color blocking within shots — to think about what we’re seeing as well as what’s possible to feel about it in ways that surprise. One of the pleasures of the films, for me, has been unpacking the relationship between what’s presented as “real” and how.

At some point I’ll tackle how slippery and unreliable as a predictor of style or content the category of “realism” is, since it’s a recurring argument I have with friends, critics and fellow movie lovers. I’ll just say now that what’s perceived as real has at least as much to do with contingent ideologies, as well as trends, in particular places and times as it does with some idealized, fixed sense of aesthetics of film form and style.

Continue reading only if you’re interested in a shot-by-shot analysis, an analysis that constitutes a thorough set of spoilers. It also functions as a kind of riposte and correction to my at-first failure to pay attention. But further, I have yet to read a review online of El tercero, and there aren’t many, that is at all shot-conscious, which means there really isn’t a review of this film online. This analysis is an attempt to correct that lack, although it’s by no means exhaustive.

El Tercero is divided into 3 main sections, with entrance and exit shots bookending sections 2 and 3, plus a coda.

  1. Online chat
  2. Apartment/dinner conversation
  3. Sex

The first section occurs virtually, digitally, although what the film frame shows is not a computer screen. Rather, it shows specific windows, usually only one, with the background blacked out — what we might expect to be the desktop and the windows of other applications in a standard computing environment. The first shot we see is from the point of a view of an unknown spectator — and by extension, us — being shown the interior of a room via webcam. (This section shows some similarities with, if only formally and tangentially, the popular genre now known, somewhat inaccurately, as found footage.)

After a few seconds, a young man enters the viewport. So far, the soundtrack is ambient room noise. We can assume it’s the room of whoever is watching because we can’t hear the young man at all as he moves about the room where he’s at.

The young man, whose full face we’re never shown in this unbroken, unedited shot, shows off his body to whomever is watching (we don’t know who yet) and finally strips to his underwear. As he approaches the camera/his computer, we’re shown a close-up of his crotch as he leans in to type something on the keyboard.

The scene ends. This first shot lasts about 3 minutes. There are a couple seconds of black before the next scene begins, an editing and rhythmic pattern that repeats in the rest of the film.

The next sequence shows a chat window with two webcam viewports, this time showing both participants in the chat. Again, this is not what we would see if we or the camera were looking over the shoulder of the persons for whom this chat is taking place. The windows behind the chat window aren’t shown. The operating-system user interface isn’t shown and certainly the computer itself isn’t shown. It’s just a chat window over black, situated on the left of the film frame, whereas in the previous sequence, the window was center-frame.

So we have a kind of realism, or a real event, depicted or performed within a space, a viewport, that only exists in the world of this film as it’s shown and watched. A better way to think of why this is unique is to imagine how this webcam conversation might have been filmed in a more conventional movie. Could it have been a shot/reverse shot setup, in which the film-space bounces back and forth geographically between the two participants, with occasional inserts of the computer screen? It could have been, but it’s not in El Tercero. A more recent way of showing digital communication in movies has been superimposing text or photos over the film frame in a transparent overlay. This conveys these digital interactions and conversations without breaking up a scene by inserting close-ups of a screen or a device. That’s not what’s happening in El Tercero. The screens themselves, the viewports, are important to figuring out how these human conversations are contoured, changed and mediated by a virtual mode of communication. Isolating these windows within the frame allows us to more carefully consider not only what’s happening but how. So I would call this section of El Tercero more materialist than realist, which also indicates artistic discipline. It also manages to compress and simplify narrative, in a similar way that modern social media technology compresses, simplifies and facilitates communication. One of the film’s subtexts is a concern with the way this seduction plays out — it could only have happened with this technology, in this specific digitized space.

This shot displays the chat as it happens in real time, and the soundtrack is the ambient room noise of the older man’s whose webcam feed is at the bottom of the chat window. We find out his name is Franco, played by Nicolás Armengol. It took me a few moments to realize from whose viewpoint we’re watching. [Note: The yellow subtitles are Korean, I think? A lot of GTMs get ripped and uploaded first in China or Korea, bless ’em.]

We can hear the tapping of his keyboard as he types and see the text appear in the window. (This is a good opportunity for Spanish students to learn some dirty Argentine slang!) We can also hear his non-verbal expressions, like snuffling, chuckling or grunting. The younger man remains standing for a bit, shirtless, and then sits down so that we, and the older man, can see his face.

This sequence lasts a little over 8 minutes with no cuts. At some point, another older man (we find out his name is Hernán, played by Carlos Echevarría) enters the webcam viewport and the couple greets one another, another clue as to what the film’s title is all about.

After a couple seconds of black, sequence 3 begins with a movie-player window showing gay porn. (We’re still in the first main section of the film, all of which takes places virtually with windows floating over black.) We can hear the sounds of two men fucking in the movie, with a distorted echo characteristic of overhearing its playing in a room. There’s a feeling of open space, probably with hardwood floors. (The end credits identify the video as Palo al Palo: El Liberación. Argentine websites proudly proclaim it as the first gay porn produced in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina.)

A chat notification interrupts the playing of the video — we don’t know yet whether or not what we’re hearing and seeing is from Hernán’s viewpoint, as in the previous sequence, or from the young man’s. The video player disappears to be replaced by a chat window, this time on the right side of the film frame, signally a change in viewpoint and the origin of diegetic sound.

The young man’s webcam feed is at the bottom and a new face appears at the top. Subsequent references to previous chats, one of which we’ve already seen, indicate that these three men are familiar with each other, that this flirtation and seduction has been going on outside of what we’ve so far been shown. How long we don’t know, but long enough to know one another’s real names, at least. The man we’re seeing now is presumably Franco’s boyfriend or partner, whose name is Hernán, played by Carlos Echevarría. He entered briefly during the last sequence but didn’t interact with the young man, a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior we’ll find common to this character.

It was at this point that I noticed the chat-names of the participants. The older man’s nickname is DOSXTRES or Two For Three/A Third, which is the first clarification of what the film’s title is about. I hadn’t previously registered the name of the man in the previous sequence but now that I’ve gone back and looked, I see that the two men are sharing one chat account, which makes sense. (You might have noticed this basic point earlier.) They have a specific, mutual goal in mind. The young man’s nickname is camxcam, or “cam for cam”, which indicates his goal: finding someone to masturbate with, or to cam with, a practice we used to call cybersex. Now it’s usually called “camming.” Younger folks can correct me.

A great deal of exposition is provided through contextual clues, although the intelligibility of some of this information relies on cultural and technological context for the audience to understand the concepts of “chat”, “cam” or cam-to-cam, without even going into the specifics of castellano gay slang and sexual customs. So although what we see appears and feels spontaneous, I’m willing to bet that it’s scripted, despite its seeming to take place in real time as we watch.

Stacked video-player windows showing gay porn interrupt this sequence three times and last for a couple seconds. It shows a man giving another man a blow job, a man sitting on a cock, and a brief close-up shot of a double penetration. (That turns out not to be foreshadowing, but it does give us an idea of the kind of fantasies playing in Hernán’s mind.) Although in this section, we’re hearing diegetic sound from the young man’s point of view — the clicking of his keyboard for instance — it appears that it’s Hernán who’s watching the porn, judging from the way his eyes flick back and forth as he looks at his computer screen. The young man is focused on the chat window. But who’s watching isn’t clear. For me, these pornographic inserts contribute more to the erotic ambience or the crude visual poetry of the sequence rather than being shots we’re supposed to consider as linear parts of the narrative.

Just before one of these porn inserts, the young man asks, Would you like to fuck me?

Te gustaria cojerme. (I left out the accent mark because he did, too, as many Spanish-speakers do when they’re using digital devices to communicate.)

The acting style is subtle here and in a realist mode. The last few sentences the young man is typing end with his taking his hands off the keyboard and bringing one hand to his mouth, biting a nail. He’s smiling behind his hand. For someone who’s spent quite a bit of time flirting online and stripping to his underwear for two strangers, and maybe more, he’s still shy, an insight about these types of interactions that we don’t get in most movies. The other man has poked fun at him a bit and called him a sissy (cagón) for stalling, although I think a better translation would have been, chicken shit. Sissy would be maricón. With this, we’re shown perhaps that the young man has been resisting the seduction, but who knows for how long.

This section ends with Hernán asking the young man whether or not he’s hard, and how big it is, whether or not he’s little. The young man asks Hernán if he wants to see. So he backs up in his office chair, scooting across the floor while rubbing his crotch. He’s been chatting all this time in only his underwear. He stands up for a better presentation and then there’s a loud knock on his door, which startles him. He rushes to end the chat, says, “Voy!” [Coming!] to someone off-screen — we’re able to guess who in a later scene, a process of accumulating character detail that the filmmakers are committed to — and then it cuts to a couple seconds of black.

The film’s second section opens on the metal doors of an elevator, signaling that we’re in the physical world rather than the virtual, although it’s also a kind of reflective screen. The young man has decided to stop being a cagón. The lights reflected on the left metal panel are flickering, indicating that the elevator is moving. I didn’t notice this the first time I watched it.

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This is also the point where we see the title card, a little over 16 minutes into the film.

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(I don’t think the English translation is ideal. Yes, el tercero means third, but the Spanish allows for some ambiguity — the third in a group or the third in succession? The third what? I think just, The Third, would have been better.)

The door opens and we get our first clear, close look at the young man:

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This planimetric shot begins the film’s long second section which takes place in Hernán and Franco’s apartment. It continues with: a short ride in the elevator, taking place in real time with no cuts until the elevator stops and the young man exits frame right; the young man knocking on an apartment door and the door opening; some preliminary, awkward introductions between the men and the young man, who is finally identified as Fede; conversations at dinner; a conversation and a smoke on the balcony; a pre-sex conversation; and ends with foreplay at the foot of the stairs.

This section retains the remarkable naturalistic acting style — although here it’s foregrounded in a way that was not possible in the virtual world of the first section, constrained by chat windows and webcam viewports. That virtual world was also constructed in part by the Internet’s characteristic anonymity, mitigated but not eliminated by the men’s cams, as well as a playful level of lewd objectification and coded linguistic, sexual bravado. In the physical world, the three who are already familiar with one another, must meet again, and in some ways, they meet each other over and over the course of the evening. The young man who was so bold and forward in showing off his body, is shy and unassuming without the framing tactics of the online digital world. One of the implicit questions raised in this contrast is what exactly is the strategy of these framing tactics? Is it to bring us to a meeting in the real world, or to discourage us? Is camming a replacement for sex, or just another variety?r

The camera remains static in this opening shot, as it does for most of the film. Initially framed by the open elevator doors, and planimetrically framed by the camera, the young man enters the elevator and turns to his right to press the button for the correct floor. It doesn’t stick; he has to press it again. This character-based gag rhymes with another less than a minute later. When the young man rings the doorbell to the men’s apartment, and doesn’t receive an answer, he reaches to do it again and is interrupted by someone inside yelling, “Voy!” [Coming!] He pulls his hand back as if startled. We’ve seen the young man startled once before, when’s he’s just about to show his cock to Franco and Hernán, but is interrupted by whomever he lives with. He also yells, “Voy!” another rhyme, and an ironic double meaning.

He looks nervous in this shot, which is unbroken for as long as he’s in the elevator. In fact, we won’t see him not look nervous very often, until the sex scene. It’s part of his character, part of what it means to be el tercero, at least in this film. The elevator continues to go up; he puts a stick of gum in his mouth; he finally turns 180º to anticipate the door’s opening.

He looks left, then right, pauses and then exits the frame to the right. The shot continues for a a couple seconds, static on the empty, peach-colored wall opposite, and on the open, silver elevator doors. The film maintains this rhythm throughout, either through shots that last a little longer than might make narrative sense or via a couple of seconds of black as was seen in the virtual opening sections of the film. The latter reminded me of the sudden cuts to black between scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984). At the time, the effect was startling, but also comic, dramatic and oddly menacing. This was punctuated by and reflected in the film’s aggressive jazz and blues soundtrack.

El Tercero, on the other hand, has no musical score. I wouldn’t expect there to be one, given the film’s commitment to naturalism. But, now that I think of it, it is uncharacteristic maybe for youngish Argentines not to have music playing in their homes. But at no point during the dinner conversation that’s coming up do we hear diegetic music. Here, I think rather than sticking with what we might hear if we visited this couple’s apartment, if they were “real,” (are they, maybe?) director Guerrero has remained committed to a minimalist aesthetic, so as to provide a distraction-free setting and ambience for us to focus on the characters and what’s being said. This is similar to the way in the first section he cleared away the user-interface debris to focus on the chat windows and webcam viewports, on the interactions themselves, and how they’re framed.

The next shot is one I’ve mentioned, in which the young man rings the doorbell to apartment A. A bar of light rakes across the peach-colored wall and is projected on the far left wall running perpendicular to the film plane.

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The door opens and Franco greets the young man, lets him in. The door closes, but the shot lingers, with the camera in the same position. Eventually, the light shuts itself off and scene’s lighting changes radically.

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Although there is something noirish about the angles and the contrast, the timing, similar to the few seconds of black in the first section that I’ve already mentioned. struck me as comic. It’s a bit of a non-sequitur otherwise. (Note: Not all Americans are familiar with timed lights in shared apartment corridors, but they’re common in Argentina and in Europe.)

What follows is a short scene in the kitchen between Franco and the young man, who is finally identified as Fede. Franco has to verify this, accentuating the relative anonymity that characterized their previous encounters online. Then he was only: camxcam. Fede presents as nervous in this scene, different from the exhibitionist lad he was online, and there’s plenty of detailed character-work by both actors. Franco stands at an oblique angle to the camera, most of his face obscured as he talks to Fede.

In the following scene, the camera moves for the first time. When I first began writing this post, I thought there were only two camera movements in the film. Once I’d watched it the third time, I realized there was another, important shot during which the camera moves. But unusual camera placement and the blocking of the actors camouflaged it, at least for me, and to a certain extent, what was happening in the frame distracted me from noticing how it was being shot. I’ll get to that and you’ll know why.

In this shot, however, Fede stands in a space between three rooms, checking how his hair looks in a mirror, another reflective surface that we don’t see. He’s texting on his phone to someone, and we never find out who. The camera pans screen-left, in order to show Hernán coming into the room. Although he greets Fede (at the end of the camera pan) and gives him the typical Argentine man-kiss on the cheek, he seems otherwise indifferent to the young man waiting there for him.

It’s these behavioral details that allows us to question who these men are, where they are, questions that are by and large never answered. Hernán seemed the horniest and most forward online and now he’s a bit standoffish. Franco chides him in the kitchen for this, while Fede looks on, his back to the camera, and then he turns, moves left, eyes down on his phone, listening to the couple’s conversation.

Here, as everywhere, director Guerrero is attuned to the significance of the arrangement of social spaces and personal geography. If we can imagine shooting this same script with a different camera style, say handheld with a very shallow depth of field as in Weekend, we can speculate on the different sorts of questions that style would raise. The handheld style is often described as connoting intimacy and spontaneity, and it’s one shared with some documentaries — both proposed as showing an over-determined and unquestioned realism. But, as El Tercero shows by counter example, there is something obscurantist about all that bouncing around. How much more can we see about social relationships and negotiations when the camera is fixed and the blocking of actors/character plotted in front of it. (The action in El Tercero never breaks the 180° line.)

At around the 21-minute mark, the film cuts to the dinner, which takes up the main bulk of the film’s second section. There are only two shots. The first opens with the threesome seated at a table eating. Fede is seated with his back to the camera, just slightly out of focus. He’s centered, más o menos, between Hernán and Franco, although if we looked down on them from above, their seating arrangement would form a triangle. An almost full-minute of awkward silence ensues as they eat. It’s interrupted by Hernán asking Fede if he wants more wine. They drink a lot of wine during dinner. The shot lasts around 9 minutes 41 seconds and the camera doesn’t move. I won’t go into the conversation details other than to say we find out that Franco and Hernán have been together 8 years. They demonstrate that familiarity throughout the conversation and relate their first meeting in a club, which involved a silly comic impersonation of a monkey by Franco.

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There are a couple moments of prickliness as well as passive-aggressive behavior typical of long-term relationships, revolving around mentions of their respective families, but Franco and Hernán behave like a couple. But if anyone watches this scene waiting for dark secrets to emerge, as we might if this were a Hollywood film, in which domesticity is so often the site of violence and repression or melodrama, they will be disappointed. Watching the scene, it’s hard to tell whether what we’re witnessing is improv, a rehearsal, or a reenactment. They’re really eating and drinking for one thing, and it would not surprise me to find out that the wine is real. It’s one long take, regardless.

It isn’t until the half-hour mark that sex is mentioned, after one of several questions about the possibility of getting drunk, which may or may not be necessary, or may or may not be expected. Hernán says, Maybe we can do what he said on camera. Franco replies, also referring to Fede in the third person. Fede doesn’t respond. More wine is offered, accepted, poured. They’re warming up.

The second shot jumps ahead an unspecified amount of time (although dessert is on the table) and begins with an ostensibly happier and livelier dinner party. The placement of the camera is reversed. Fede is still in the center, but we can see his face now, and his reactions. We can see profiles of Franco and Hernán, so their expressions aren’t hidden as Fede’s were in the previous shot.

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The couples’ families are mentioned again, and other than wine, the conversation swirls around family more than anything else, which if you knew any Argentines, would not be surprising. Fede opens up about his family at this point, too, saying he looks like his dad, but acts like his mom. He reveals more personal details than any presented so far. I won’t relate the specifics, as I think there are some tender interactions and subtle responses that are worth discovering on your own, via the loose and naturalistic performances from all three, and the characters’ backstories.

The interactions in these two shots, simple in their setup, reveal how identifying with someone else’s pain brings human beings together at moments that surprise them, and that it can take place at any time, even in the middle of a sexual seduction. In its position here, it’s foreplay, and as such is more radical in its implications than the conventional maneuvers of something like Travis Mathews’ I Want Your Love (2012), the “real sex” scenes of which have been touted by some, including the filmmakers, as risky or revealing.

I found them to be just as dissociated from or ignorant of social spaces and meanings as any other sex or relationship-focused American GTM with “simulated sex” scenes, not least because the overall tenor is preening and self-congratulatory. This may well be the defining characteristic of most American-made GTMs and why I find most of them to be off-putting. There is still a conceit that gay sex in and of itself (and cum!) is somehow liberating and defining and also always in opposition to an existing conservative social order. This conceit is in large part a projection, an outdated bohemian fantasy, and perhaps tells us something about why it was easier for Argentine Catholic families to accept gay marriage, ten years before the United States.

It’s inevitable therefore that I Want Your Love takes place in San Francisco; but take away away the piercings and tattoos, and aren’t these young men just swingers, or heterosexual frat boys keeping score? Travis’ documentary series, In Their Room is even more self-indulgent and flimsy in the case it makes for automatically giving artistic and outsider status to people who confess their sins, or their sexual kinks, for the rest of the world to see.

On the other hand, in El Tercero, in Argentina too perhaps, gay sexual relationships are inconceivable without family, without an intimate social context. Even though this one begins online, the three men discover that who they were in a virtual space, however free and open, was only the beginning and not sufficient — it was not all they wanted.

The film quickly cuts from a poignant moment that ends this nearly 9-minute unbroken conversation to an exterior shot, one of only two, and another expressive composition, like the hallway shot, used to connect two visually disparate spaces. It’s a blurred-out view of nighttime Córdoba, shot from one end of the couple’s balcony. No characters are present until Fede enters the frame from screen-left, in profile and medium close-up, but with a longer focal length. Fede lights up a cigarette and Hernán joins him a few moments later.

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The two have a brief conversation, the camera rack-focusing from Fede to Hernán. Hernán says he spies on his neighbors, a young couple who fuck every night. Hopefully that’s what we will be doing in a few minutes, he suggests. Fede deflects a bit. Everyone? The whole world? Hernán imagines the whole world, humans and animals fucking, coming together and exploding. Maybe that’s the closest we can get to peace, Fede says. Hernán in this scene assesses whether or not the young man will follow through. This scene lasts 4 minutes.

Cut to an interior shot, at the foot of the stairs inside the couple’s apartment.

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All three are nervous, although Hernán seems more impatient than the other two. In this shot, we can see the actors’ blocking expressing that, but also presaging the configuration of bodies that eventually occurs. After some seconds Hernán gets up and starts things with a kiss, and says into Fede’s face, turned up to him, in a low voice, “I want to fuck you,” which still sounds better to me in Spanish.

There are many things missing from most mainstream pornography, and from mainstream criticism about pornography, and this nervousness, this absence of sexual bravado, a sense of the distance and space between individuals, is one of them. Intimate is one way to describe it, but it’s a misdirecting adjective. What’s missing are individual, personal stakes. There’s something to be gained in any sexual encounter, but also something to lose besides loneliness or horniness or one’s virginity. A more accurate way to think about it is: as a redrawing of boundaries. Loss, change, advance, retreat, settlement, emigration — all here in this encounter, and this is what I mean when I say, personal geography.

The three make their way up the stairs as the scene closes, having lasted almost 4 minutes, and ends the film’s second section.

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The shot above opens the sex section with an unusual and unexpected camera placement, and it also depicts a jump in narrative time (the three are already naked and in bed), like the cut that joins the two dinner-conversation shots. Rather than shooting from above and down, or at near bed-level and across, just to name two more conventional ways of shooting sex scenes, cinematographer Gustavo Tejeda lays the camera on its side, the normal, horizontal film-plane perpendicular to the bed and the floor, almost as if the camera were a participant, or at least a participatory voyeur. When Hernán pulls Fede down roughly toward the end of the bed, the camera tracks with him, on a slider probably, to keep him in frame. This is one of the camera movements I either forgot about, or didn’t notice the first two times I watched the film. The camera adjusts itself as the three move about, and up and down on the bed.

This sequence in the bedroom is divided up into 4 separate shots, lasting a total of 13 minutes, 26 seconds. The first three shots last around 3 minutes, 40 seconds on average and the final shot, after they orgasm and lie about in each others’ arms, lasts 2 minutes, 16 seconds. (I tried to find out how long was the longest sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Color, remembering the myth of the 10-minute sex scene which was debunked, but couldn’t find it. Regardless, this is over 3 minutes longer than that mythical 10. You might check out this New Yorker post by Richard Brody on the Blue, which squares with my feelings about it, as well. Manohla Dargis, on the other hand, has apparently never seen pornography.)

The second shot in the sequence is more conventional, if angled higher than I would expect from the way many sex scenes are shot and framed.

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The camera shoots from the foot of the bed and across the bodies of the men. The shot ends with Franco off to the side, opening up a condom package with his teeth, while Hernán is fucking Fede from behind. The third shot returns to the unconventional setup of the first, but unlike the first shot, the camera doesn’t move, not even when characters move out of frame.

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The sex gets intense.

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Somebody comes; I think it’s Hernán.

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The three men settle into a comfortable, intimate resolution in the 4th shot of the sex section.

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What’s laudatory and unique in this sequence, besides how hot it is — just as hot as any of the “real sex” in the gay indies I’ve mentioned — is that none of the characters turn into indistinguishable cardboard, as often happens in most movies with sex scenes, when performances flatten out, the room and the bed look like every other in every other sex scene and the filmmakers trot out clichéd lighting tricks and soft-focus cinematography. The tone often changes and turns to fantasy. This happens in GTMs as well, although the tone changes less drastically in independent features.

Instead, Guerrero’s characters remain themselves — individuals with specific traits, a couple in a long-term relationship and a trick — and also a recognizable threesome — Franco, Fede, Hernán — in a specific, recognizable place. There’s a strong sense that as we see these characters fuck, they don’t just fuck like any gay men, as they do of course in a generic sense; rather, we see them fuck like these gay men.

The idyllic tone and rapport, particularly in the afterglow shot, struck me as utopian at times, in contrast to what Brody describes accurately in Blue as “un-self-sparing exertion to exhaustion,” although that might be my own cynicism talking. I say that in spite of the fact that my own experiences of threesomes have been marked by similar senses of fun, friendship, intimacy and good humor, if not with overwhelming lust. (That’s one reason why I liked the gay threesome scene in Shortbus.) But what’s emphasized in this sequence, as in the other sections of the film, is a simultaneous affirmation of human banality and distinction, which Guerrero achieves through the minimalist forms his individual shots take, and how they heighten and focus the script, and how the dialogue, often pedestrian, and its accompanying detailed expressions and gestures are performed by the actors. Nothing unique happens in this film, does it? Yet whole worlds move.

After the 13-minute+ sex section, follows a short shot — short for this film, less than two minutes, long for most other films — showing Franco and Hernán laid out on their bed asleep. There’s no sign of Fede for over a minute, until he’s revealed as lying between the two men, as Hernán gets up, presumably to go to the toilet. It’s a mild visual gag, but it allows us to think of, in case we haven’t noticed yet, how small Fede is in comparison to his lovers, and also of the difference in age and experience. He’s the meat in their sandwich, yes, but a thin slice.

The next shot rhymes with an earlier one, edited in just before the long dinner conversation, which also featured a panning camera movement. In this case, the camera pans screen-right, beginning in close-up on Fede in the shower and allowing Hernán to enter the bathroom to give Fede a towel, and a few seconds later, for Franco to enter and ask Fede if he needs anything, and also to stare at his ass.

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Both this shot and the following, another elevator shot, depict exits, as their rhyming shots depicted entrances. If you look back on the film now as I’ve described it, you can see its structure — a long self-contained section, the online seduction; followed by a short series of entrance shots; the dinner conversation acting as a destination itself but also as prelude to the sex section; now we have three shots moving us out of the two central sections, conversation and sex; and then finally two shots which constitute a denouement.

The second elevator shot, this one going down, may be what an IMDb commenter was thinking about when he wrote this, describing El Tercero: Tender feel-good movie about a Menage a Trois.

First a repeat shot of the interior of the elevator:

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Then the three men get in, and again, the elevator button doesn’t respond at first.

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What I see in the scene, more than anything, is sexual pride, and a kind of group self-satisfaction quite different in tone and representation from the solipsism and narcissism I’ve come to expect in gay indie GTMs from the States. This shot also reinforces character background details introduced in the dinner conversation. We should know why everyone is dressed as they are. Fede is in the middle again, happy, and the affectionate patronizing of him by the couple is more overt here than elsewhere.

The final two shots feature Fede alone as the first shot of the film also did, although in that shot he was “headless.” The shot immediately preceding the final one is the film’s shortest, at 47 seconds. It represents another elliptical cut, from the elevator shot, in which we see three men going down but cut to only Fede standing outside on a road opposite a modern building with large glass doors. It’s the film’s second exterior shot. I immediately recognized the building as a school, both for its appearance and from inferences I made from Fede’s character, but others may not know this right away.

The final shot shows a pensive Fede seated in class. He’s in focus while the rest of the students are not. A teacher drones on but what she says isn’t important. That’s made clear because there are no subtitles in this shot, translating from castellano; but also the length of the shot and the way Fede is framed encourages the viewer to tone her out and focus instead on el tercero.

The shot lasts a more typical 2 minutes, 47 seconds. Several different expressions play across his face; he’s restless and distracted. We have plenty of time to wonder what he’s thinking, and although we can guess what’s replaying in his mind, at least the visuals, how they’ve made him feel is something we can’t exactly know.

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The duration of the shot made me wonder about what sort of relationship had just been born, if any at all, by inviting me to relive the previous evening through Fede’s facial expressions. Yet the film also seems to invite us to contemplate, remain in the present, rather than complicate it with wondering about the future, a cheerful ambivalence that’s built into the film’s title, as well.

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I’d like to track down director Rodrigo Guerrero and ask him about this final shot. While Emiliano Dionisi as Fede acts in this scene, I’m betting that the shot itself occurred during a real class lecture with diegetic, or direct sound. Or at least that’s the sense I get. The blonde guy on the left, for instance, keeps looking at the camera, and one guy at the back does, too, at one point. The rest of the students ignore the camera, not in the way that actors do, or even self-conscious extras do, but in the way people do, people who have something real, something else to focus on.

For me, it encapsulates the film’s clever interplay between concepts and styles of realism represented in shot duration and natural-sounding dialogue, contrasted with the carefully colored and framed shots, and the “found” mise-en-scène. The film’s opening section, the manipulated, artificial digital world that brought these men together, is all but forgotten now in this final shot; and that’s as it should be. Camxcam is great; but it can’t beat the Monkey Face.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
El Tercero
Author Rating
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