Toy (Hi)stories and Playbacks

The central problem of most of the criticisms levelled at playful memories is that they are animated, I believe, by a fundamental confusion between “laughing at” and “playing with” past horrors. Certainly “to laugh at,” in the sense of scorn or ridicule, and the dismissive nature of “laughing something off,” share common ground with the verb “to play,” especially when the latter refers to pleasure and recreation. But, as I have shown here, play can also have serious, practical and political ends. Moreover, in

Spanish, the reflexive form of the verb (jugarse) also means to risk something, sometimes even life itself.

In fact, Carri’s playful memory addresses some of the most controversial and serious issues about armed struggle during the 1970s: the role of the militants’ offspring within armed struggle, the coexistence of fierros (weapons) and children in clandestine militant meetings, and the existence of traitors among “the people.” Toy art and a playful aesthetics have allowed Carri to discuss these topics in her film without the grave, nostalgic or judgemental tone that often marks the discourses of testimony, realism and documentary accounts. In this sense, playful memories like her’s ultimately remind us that the main purpose of memory and transmission is not to reproduce the past as it was via playbacks, but to transform it so that it can speak to the future.

Prior to Los rubios, Carri had already explored other pressing political issues by using toys—namely, in Barbie tambien puede eStar triste (Barbie Gets Sad Too) (2000), a short pornographic animation. This explicit and melodramatic cinematic production—a denunciatory film and an anti-sexist fable—tells the story of a sexually unsatisfied and aristocratic Barbie, the symbol of Western female beauty and “The Blond” par excellence, who leaves the sadistic and masochistic Ken and falls in love with her maid, the Latin Barbie of the collection. Barbie tambien puede eStar triste brings to light the racist elements underlying Barbie culture but also the class struggles, machismo and xenophobia that shape social relations of power in Argentina, a country that has one of the highest rates of Barbie consumption in the world, and one of the least inclusive treatments of immigrants and indigenous people in its construction of national identity in Latin America.53

Both films demonstrate that, far from removing history and politics from the representation of reality, Carri historicizes and politicizes toys, illuminating the underexplored responsibility of the toy industry in the social and cultural practices of childhood during and after the dictatorship in Argentina. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mattel, the producer of the Barbie dolls, received a court order banning Barbie tambien puede eStar triste from a festival in Mexico, arguing that the film would spoil the doll’s image. Something similar happened to Libera’s LEGO concentration camp set: whereas in 1996 the artist worked with the LEGO Corporation of Denmark to produce his box set, a collaboration proved by the inscription “This work of Zbigniew Libera has been sponsored by LEGO” in the upper left corner of the box, the company later started a legal battle with the artist to prohibit him from using its logo.54

Both reactions attest to the discomfort of toy manufacturers when their products are used in a way that disrespects the intended rules of play. It is interesting to note, in this vein, that toys have became progressively more normative over the years, leaving less space for children’s imagination. There is a strange paradox around this phenomenon in the sense that toys are now more varied and realistic, and yet simultaneously offer fewer options for use. When Barbie was created in 1959, “the only choice you had was over her hair colour—blonde, brunette or redhead. Now there are many sorts of Barbies ... A girl’s focus has been shifted from the single object to the collection, her fantasies harnessed to stereotypes.”55 Similarly, as North American writer Michael Chabon has pointed out, in opposition to the simple, austere, abstract, minimal pieces of the original LEGO, which left everything to the imagination of the child, there is a sense of imposition in the recent introduction of minifigures (LEGO figurines of Harry Potter, Disney or Lord of the Rings characters), whose scale and detailed accessories predetermine a “formulary of play” that dictates how children should play with them.56 In contrast to the purpose of the first LEGO sets—namely, to encourage exploratory approximation and versions of things you were trying to make—by the turn of the millennium a “full-blown realism reigned supreme in the Legosphere.”57 According to Chabon, the authoritarian nature of the new LEGO has more in common with puzzle-solving, of reaching pre-established and provided solutions, which implies that there is a right way and a wrong way to play with your toys. For Chabon we find a similar assumption in the orthodox subtext of Pixar’s film Toy Story (1995), where Andy, the hero, uses his toys the way the manufacturers intended (cowboys are cowboys and astronauts are astronauts), while Sid, the badly behaved “quasi-psychotic neighbour kid,” “hybridizes and ‘breaks the rules’ of orderly play, equipping an Erector-set spider, for example, with a stubbly doll’s head.”58 He argues that similar orthodoxy, structure of control, implied obedience to the norms of the manual and exigencies of realism itself are present in the current “Republic of Lego.”

Chabon’s references to “orthodoxy,” “structure of control” and “exigencies of realism” are exactly the implicit requests behind the discourses of those who have criticized Carri, Libera or Levinthal for their use of toys in the representation of historical events. For Chabon, LEGO realism, as with all types of realism, is meant to fail, partly thanks to the technical limitations inherent in its system, which cannot keep up with the exigencies of realism itself, such as accuracy, precision and faithfulness to experience.

But realism in toys will also fail because children (and adults who use them for memory play) are less like Andy and more like Sid, the little Frankenstein creator of hybrid freaks. They prefer disorder, unlikeliness and recombination of pieces, as this is a closer reflection of the imagined experience than of the real world, of the structure of memory rather than the parameters of “what happened.”

Thus the Playmobil sequences in Los rubios not only illustrate how (childhood) memories work (they combine real and imaginary recollections of the past) but also highlight the potential for play to make sense of and represent what is supposedly sacred, monumental and incompressible—that is, what is seemingly unrepresentable. Carri, and the rest of the artists addressed here, use the unrestricted, borderless power of imagination and play to unite what was not supposed to be reunited—concentration camps, abductions and disappearance with long-loved children’s toys and games—in monstrous play-scenes. One certainty lies behind this gesture: that horror has contaminated everything; that there is no sacred zone, no sanctuary where the fundamental events of our century can be preserved in an “intact memory,”59 neither in popular culture nor in Hollywood cinema, and certainly not in Playland.

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