One for the film artists and academicians among us, Nicolás Zukerfeld’s confidently obscure There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse presents a kaleidoscopic exploration of cinematic legacy and formal memory in a surprisingly fun and unpredictable format. Beginning ostensibly as an art piece, this perplexing Argentinian project initially resembles a straightforward supercut. After the exhaustingly long title is shown, we see far more than thirty-six different shots of various men performing the eponymous act, in what feels like hundreds of different films.
The effect is amusing at first and quickly becomes somewhat hypnotic, then comes off as rather cloying, and finally manages to eke out some profundity from the relentless snaps back and forth from clip to clip. It’s easy to find yourself fawning over the images before long, reading various interpretations into the montage from cowboy to cowboy, horse to horse — the edit pattern implies a democratizing effect, as though for any person to get on a horse is to elevate them into an exalted, hallowed position. We see white cowboys, defensive Native Americans, skeptical women, and many, many others in between mountings, cementing the legacy of equitation in cinema’s sense-memory. It is a startlingly beautiful effect — this viewer heartily approved.
Zukerfeld and co-editor Malena Solarz have other conceptions on their mind: after some time, horses are seen no more, and the editors instead depict rhythmic patterns of repeated images and eerily transplanted shots and lines of dialogue. It’s an odd, discomfiting feeling to view shots of doors slowly being opened, windows suddenly breaking, water flowing, morning greetings and front-porch reconciliations repeated again and again, in different works but with distinct formal parallels. These films are generally of rather high repute, and portray lofty, recognizable faces over and over: Cagney, Douglas, Mitchum, Poitier, Gable, Peck, Crosby, Fonda, Flynn, Robinson, Grant, the list goes on. Eventually, the montage becomes choppier, more surreal, and more obviously disorienting — the same shots start to be repeated, flipped, and used to unnerve the process. Suddenly, it all ends; the supercut is only Chapter One.
In Chapter Two, a brazen departure from the visual smorgasbord that preceded it, Zukerfeld keeps the screen totally blank, offering only a voiceover narration in Spanish. This narration finally provides some tonal and contextual clarity as Zukerfeld uses winking circumlocution to suggest some method to the madness. He relays the ‘story’ of a professor, who realizes he has written down a quote attributed to prolific Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, but cannot recall whether the quote is accurate and where exactly the phrasing came from. The quote he has written is the film’s title, but as he reads more and more about Walsh, he doubts whether the number (thirty-six) or the object (horses) of the sentence were actually said by him.
Soon enough, we come to understand that the barrage of classic Hollywood clips all came from Walsh’s filmography, including over 140 works spanning from the 1910s to the 1960s. Though these sections appear entirely disjointed, the patient explication provides a retroactive logic to the proceedings. As the narration continues, slides offering visual accompaniment to his laborious research provide some amusing and intriguing asides, and diligently involve the viewer in the professor’s travails. This section is a fun, engaging mystery of sorts; anyone who has felt the need to track down an academic source for the sheer thrill of the hunt will understand the satisfaction of nailing down that elusive reference. Perhaps this is an intrigue only a film academic could love, but with an open mind, the narrated chase is nonetheless exciting. Though the quote itself is not going to move mountains, the ethos underlying it and the multivalent reasons behind its evolution through the decades prove very compelling — and though one would not expect to have to include a spoiler warning on such an experimental film, we firmly suggest experiencing Chapter Two with no preconceptions. You will have more fun that way.
An amusingly meager Chapter Three ties up Zukerfeld’s bizarre little adventure and places a neat period at the end of a frenetic sentence. The calmness of the conclusion lets some of the air out, but this unique combination of art film and ontological mystery nevertheless beguiles the viewer from beginning to end and provides a journey well worth taking. You may never see the number thirty-six, the work of Raoul Walsh, or the image of a man getting on a horse the same way again.