Monday, March 29, 2010

"In that place, life is in charge": A conversation with Pedro Costa on Letters From Fontaínhas

This is one of the great stories of 21st century cinema, how Pedro Costa returned home to Portugal after making his second feature in Cabo Verde, with messages and gifts in tow, how he was asked to deliver these items to Cabo Verdeans living in the ramshackle labyrinth of Lisbon’s Fontaínhas and discovered the place where he would forge something new. He was still making films, however unusual they may be, within the conventional means of production, with generators, lights, crews, and craft services, and by the time he’d wrapped
Ossos (1997), he’d had enough. That film, which traces the paths of several characters in and out of Fontaínhas, including one who endeavours to sell his newborn child, is haunting, funky, appalling, deadpan funny, at times perplexing, and, photographed by former Robert Bresson collaborator Emmanuel Machuel, gorgeously crafted. The performances owe something to Bresson’s dictum of the actor as model, but Costa lingers upon stillness until it yields unexpected riches, and allows the personal experiences of his cast to imbue their stark performances. The film’s compositions are dominated by corners, rippling across the frame with insistent angularity and depth, suggesting dilemmas, a constant potential for grand dramas that never quite arrive. But despite its tremendous merits, Ossos didn’t convey the Fontaínhas Costa wanted to know.


Prompted by Vanda Duarte, among the most darkly luminous locals in
Ossos’ cast, Costa started going back to Fontaínhas every day with just his Panasonic DV camera, passing time, using the minimal available light to create elegant chiaroscuro chambers of domestic activity, patiently working through hundreds of hours of tape, trying to get closer to the actual flow of life through this place that fascinated him and was now slowly being demolished by the municipality. In Vanda’s Room (00) documents a world undergoing it’s own private apocalypse, nearly three hours of people in tiny rooms, waking up, taking drugs, selling things, coughing, talking and talking, while the bulldozers rumble just outside. It’s the product of skeletal resources, years of hard work, and deepening friendships. It led to Colossal Youth (06), perhaps Costa’s masterpiece, in which he returns to Fontaínhas to find a world largely vanished, relegated to memory, in which the graying, oracular, strangely charming Ventura, a man with ghostly eyes and stiffened limbs, pays visits to a number of individuals—including Vanda, who’s given birth and gotten clean since we last saw her—whom he claims are his offspring, though whether or not they are the literal fruit of his lions is difficult to determine. The landscape he traverses is largely white, vertical, and featureless, loomed over by the housing projects erected in the wake of Fontaínhas’ collapse. Old Fontaínhas seems to have survived as one last hovel, occupied by a woman named Bete. At one point Bete and Ventura sit on her floor, marveling at the things they can read in the gloom of Bete’s crumbling, well-lived-in walls, things they’ll never be able to see once they’re relocated to the white towers.

In Vanda's Room

A formal motif that runs through all of the Costa films I’ve seen—including
Casa de lava (94), the Cabo Verde project, an elliptical remake of I Walked With a Zombie (42), featuring Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé—is the employment of a kind of portraiture, the typically static camera holding enigmatically upon a face—or, in Casa de lava, the back of a head. I note this particular motif because it both alludes to Costa’s formal rigour as well as his fundamental interest in people. It’s this investment in individuals, rather than some vague “social problem,” that makes In Vanda’s Room as powerful and accumulatively moving as it is. Yet newcomers to Costa should be aware of the fact that these films can be difficult in ways that mirror the arduousness of their genesis. They are long and slow, and Costa has a special disinclination to provide context. By far the best method of really understanding and enjoying these films is to simply spend a lot of time with them, to gradually make sense of how the whole ambitious project fits together. Thankfully, after years of international acclaim and virtually no opportunities for anyone other than festival attendees and major centre cinematheque-goers to see this work, the Criterion Collection is releasing Letters From Fontaínhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa, which collects Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth in a single box, along with a wealth of illuminating supplements.

Colossal Youth

I’d already heard Costa speak once during a post-screening Q&A session and knew his responses could be as circular and loquacious as his films. Even though Costa granted me twice the amount of time I was supposed to have been allotted—in fact,
I was the one who unfortunately had to draw the conversation to a close when I ran out of both tape and battery power for my phone—I think I might have asked him perhaps two of my long list of prepared questions. As with the experience of watching and listening to his films, speaking with Costa rewards deeper and longer investments. I hope the next time we talk it will be face-to-face, without time limits and an economy pack of micro-cassettes.

JB: Could you talk about where you were at in your life when you began work on

Pedro Costa: I had a period of five or six years as assistant director on lots of films, so I was very close to directors, actors, producers. This was after not even two years at film school, which I never finished, one of the reasons being that working on production crews seemed more useful. Those years I spent as an assistant gave me a very bad feeling of things to come. It wasn’t the work I’d wanted to do. I started wondering, without finding an answer, how I could make my films without falling into these traps. Filmmaking seemed to mirror the worst relations in our society. I went into my first films always thinking about that. It was only on the second one,
Casa de lava, that I started taking measures to change this. It provided the key to opening the others. It shot it in Africa, in Cabo Verde, the islands from where all the people I’m working with now come from. It’s funny, but I had to go to this faraway land to stop these games. I grabbed a camera, I grabbed two or three technicians and a crew, and I shot what I wanted. This gave the film a very strange form. You can see it in the acting. I’d written that this girl is lost, this guy’s in a coma, that one’s crazy, and I did everything possible to ensure they became really crazy and lost and in a coma. [Laughs] I’d left them with the script to think about, but our contract did not require them to think. By the time I went to make Ossos it was clear that Fontaínhas could be a studio for me, like in the old days. I had the actors, the set, the props. In a sense I had screenwriters writing all the time. In that place life is in charge.

JB: Did the story emerge from Fontaínhas and the people you met there, or did Fontaínhas influence
Ossos only as you were making it?

PC: There’s a lot of answers for that. Sometimes I say that the beginning of
Ossos is really Casa de lava. Without it I would have never found that place. I had no reason to go there until I came from Africa with messages to pass onto people who lived there.

Casa de lava

JB: I wonder if this process of discovering the inner margins of Portugal via its outer margins was important in itself.

PC: I think the answer to that exists a little bit in
Colossal Youth, and is starting to reveal itself more and more in the film I’m starting now. It’s getting to a point where the levels of the political and the religious, where all levels are balanced. There was a revolution in my country in 1974. I was 13, very young, but I was conscious. For three years I was involved, everybody was. Before there was fascism and now there was some kind of freedom. I was discovering politics—and film and music and books. Everything was mixed. It was the punk rock movement. When you have the streets filled with people and you walk into a cinema showing a Godard film, or even a John Ford film, I think you see it differently, read it differently, feel it differently. I wasn’t just a cinephile locked in a cinematheque. These films had a correspondence in the streets, in our lives. So I’m trying to tell you that the aim was to do films that were everything, that could be tragic and funny and political, and serious and strong and beautiful. Sometimes you read that some filmmakers want to do a film because of actors. Others want to do it because of the urgency of the theme, or something. Never happened to me. It’s something much more subterranean, more invisible, something you have to discover slowly. What I was not willing to do was discover it alone in my room, facing a blank page and writing stuff. That’s something I can’t understand, even today. This probably isn’t answering your question, but it was important that my approach to Fontaínhas was not pre-conceived. It didn’t come from searching for poverty or a reason to say something or defend something. I was really pushed by these people in Cabo Verde who said go there and see my mother, go and see my brother, tell them hello, I’m okay. Please bring them this tobacco. And when I went there it wasn’t misery that was in front of me—it was humanity. I have to confess I was absolutely fascinated by appearances, by surface, by colours, by smells, by sounds. I discovered an aesthetic world to which I could relate, finally. So I had to think a little bit about that. How to go beyond this fascination. And it was mutual I think, because they were so fascinated by me.

JB: What is it about you that fascinated them?

PC: We still talk about that. I’ve been there for years now, we’re brothers and sisters. The way they talk about meeting me is like the way I talk about them. “We saw this white guy coming alone, trying to be cool”—because I was afraid—“to speak his rudimentary Creole…” They saw me falling into this seductive trap they’d put on me. It was a spell. Their fascination was: “What does he want from us?” That was the preparation for
Ossos, to come back to your other question. There wasn’t a script. There weren’t ideas. There were feelings. I felt I wanted to film the walls, the colours, some faces, then perhaps some feelings. It took a year to put all of that together. I remember I was hearing stories, reading things in the paper while taking the bus from my house to their place. I’d read something about a baby being sold, and then started trying to bring out ideas from the neighbourhood guys I was working with. But it’s still a very controlled film. I was doing everything according to the rules of cinema. It took time to get rid of that. It took getting to know Vanda, especially. During the shooting of Ossos I had no time to know them, and that’s the painful thing, that’s the old mistake. You don’t have time to know people, or you know them only very superficially. Often your experience of discovering something is so much more interesting than the result.

In Vanda's Room

JB: You’re weighing the values of process over product, but one of the extraordinary things about this body of work we’re discussing is that, as you alluded to, we see the process of one film reflected in its predecessor. We see the process of
In Vanda’s Room reflected in Ossos. We see Colossal Youth reflected in Vanda.

PC: Yeah. For the first time in my life, working in that place with those guys and girls, sometimes I get a glimpse of something collective, something that happens because we took a lot of time. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s painful and there’s lots of takes, lots of trying this and that, and then it works and something materializes, something brief. I don’t know if it’s there in the films, though I hope it is. For me,
In Vanda’s Room, which has this extreme, expansive form, has the feeling of two scientists researching something. I even see myself in the film, researching something. I see Vanda and her sister discovering something for the first time, how to say something about their mother, how to say something to this guy, how to walk through that door. It gives this very laboratorial air to the film.

JB: Were there days when you felt like you were getting a sculpted performance and others where you were felt you were getting something more unguarded and immediate?

PC: You should not take this as devaluation of cinema—I’m doing the things I do because I have the highest esteem for film. And I admit I suffer a little bit from nostalgia for a cinema that no longer exists, you know, this feeling that everything was better in the 40s or 30s or 20s. That’s always in the back of my mind, even when the conditions of the day-by-day work is very loose, very on the edge of nothing, because the camera is so small, because I never say “silence” or “action.” Even Vanda asked me many times, “When are we starting?” And we had started already, months ago. Those guys knew what a film was supposed to be, because they saw the shooting of
Ossos, which was big, with trucks, with lights, with a 50-person crew, and money and producers. The problem was that I broke completely that cliché, and for the next film I was alone with my backpack and the sort of camera that everyone has, to film their babies and families. It seemed not serious, like, “What happened to this guy?” So I always say, for my sake and for their sake, that I had a double-task. One was to do the film that I wanted to do with them, and I expressed that every day. The other was to declare a cinema possible in this place, but not like Ossos. We have to learn it, this new book of rules. We have to start with less money, less machines, no lights. I had to remind them that cinema could be just a girl in the corner of a room and, I don’t know, some flowers, let’s say. No cars, no explosions, no guns. That was part of the job. All this is to say that I’m always aware of the fact that I’m a filmmaker and they’re actors. There is a ritual. We go into this mode and we do this take and then we try to do another take that could be better. Sometimes I like that they behave a little capriciously, or star-like. Vanda is very star-like. She wants things, like money, but we don’t have them. I like them to be actors and I’m very proud when people say Vanda or Ventura touches them, because of course they were acting. I don’t know if I was directing them. I was organizing something.

JB: Something that’s so resonant in these films is their manner of reflecting a complex sense of place, of home. How has your own sense of place informed your approach to this material?

PC: That’s something I’ve been discovering with these films. I’ve always loved reading interviews with filmmakers. It’s constituted a large part of my reading and learning, not theory or history, but reading something by Erich von Stroheim or Jerry Lewis. They’re very precise, very concrete, not like today where most filmmakers are vague. So I always had this impression that filmmaking was a good way to learn about yourself, about what you like and don’t like, even to learn how to accept or refuse certain things, to let things in that you could never imagine possible. So I’m making discoveries, and one of those has been that, well, what can I say? I’m a product of, how do you call it, a dysfunctional family? I’m a product of divorced parents, of a small city, but one with all the weaknesses of my social class. Everything that I’m trying to destroy, to dynamite, comes from my place in the world, my geographical or mental place. My city, the place I was born, is the antithesis of emotionally strength, its people are ill prepared to live with other human beings, this petit bourgeoisie that regards money as something very dirty, that you keep to yourself. These are things I’ve been trying to destroy because I found the opposite by working among people that lack everything, that lose everything, lose more with each day, these people who I’ve roped into my project. You have a sense that there are some social classes that cheat, and others are cheated. That’s Fontaínhas. It’s a reason not to cheat them with some kind of glamour-based thing that they thought cinema was. To speak in cinematographic terms, I had to focus myself, like a lens—even if my films seems out of focus, which they often are. [Laughs] But I’ve been focused on finding a centre for myself. If I feel that if I’m not having a confrontation with some sort of reality when I’m working, I’m in danger.

Colossal Youth

JB: You’ve lived your whole life in Lisbon. I wonder if you hadn’t discovered Fontaínhas if you would have stayed in Lisbon and continued your practice there.

PC: I don’t know. I can fantasize. I was told at some moment that my life was planned for me. I was told by a producer, several times, to go home, write, and bring in something bigger, but in the same style as the previous film. That’s what 90% of filmmakers do. You can feel that with
Ossos. It’s not that I don’t like the film, but that’s the one where you can see that if the director behaves he can probably just keep doing that same sort of thing for the rest of his life. So in another life I’d be doing that, probably having a slightly more comfortable existence, with more chances to do films with more money and more quickly. Or maybe I’d have gone into something else, some anthropological work, historical work, because I did history in university. I’d be very into the past and stones and people living in deserts. But I saw this chance for me and, this sounds pretentious, but for them too, how this could be great for this girl or this junky guy, and of course when you think of one in those places you think of everybody. The films are a bit like that, choosing one to speak for all. I think we’re almost succeeding with Ventura in Colossal Youth. The most beautiful compliment I ever heard about my films was in Fontaínhas, just after the first screening of Colossal Youth. Two or three of the young guys, the rappers, the activists, they left the theatre, walked straight up to Ventura and said: “This is amazing, Ventura. For 25 years we’ve seen you in Fontaínas, drunk. A bum. Crazy. Saying stupid things. Drooling. Falling apart. And then we see you like this in this film…. How!?” That was great. For me, for them, for Ventura. For everybody.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sounds of silence: new biographies of Eno, Gould

Eno, seated before at least two instruments

There are artists whose contributions to art enthrall us even while seemingly urging art itself toward some sort of end. Brian Eno and the late Glenn Gould offer potent case studies, the former a self-described “non-musician” traversing the margins of pop and the avant-garde, the latter one of history’s great virtuosos, working largely within the Western classical canon. Both either avoided or completely swore off live appearances early in their careers in favour of the recording studio, where their innovations focused on music’s vertical or textural qualities over the documentation of performance or celebration of technique. Both sought to diminish the centrality of the artist in the making of art, the former remaining an advocate of self-generating systems, the latter having made bold pronouncements to the effect of art’s eventual irrelevance altogether. There is something apocalyptic to such a sensibility.

Gould, with large pants

Of course, both Eno and Gould have at one time or another been pegged as consummate bullshitters. In his absorbing and ambitious new biography,
On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (Orion, $34.95), British writer and musician David Sheppard describes how being interviewed early in his life taught Eno “to construct a theoretical context for his work after the event. He would subsequently develop a nonpareil facility for articulating persuasively plausible retrospective concepts for what had simply been intuitive, or happenstance creativity.” In Glenn Gould (Penguin, $26), his provocative biographical essay, Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell writes of Gould’s “after-the-fact rationalizations” and the “danger that his theorizing will undermine the joy given by his performances.” What emerges in both books are portraits of artists whose capacity to apply systems or polemic to their art, however compelling, must be considered secondary to the art itself, which can feel so multifaceted as to overwhelm those who endeavour to encapsulate it.

Eno chased a lot of girls in his youth,
only partly to borrow their outfits

Eno was born the same year as the LP, the hologram, and Velcro. As a child in mid-1950s Suffolk he collected fossils, saw a UFO, and was fascinated by the alien-like sounds of doo-wop emanating from nearby USAF airbases. Sheppard, who first met the composer/producer/video-artist/et al. at Michael Brook’s studio when Eno popped by to examine Brook’s fish cutlery, gives a vivid sense of his subject’s rather idyllic rural English upbringing and panoply of early fascinations. It’s a lot of fun to read Sheppard’s evocations of Eno’s formative art school experiences, his attraction to John Cage, androgynous clothing, audio equipment, the Velvet Underground, Mondrian, Little Richard, and girls. A wildly productive, vivacious dilettante, Eno’s appetite for diverse forms and subversive approaches were matched by a particular bravado regarding his ability to interact with whatever medium, regardless of ostensible facility. There is, Sheppard writes, “something of a late medieval polymath about Brian Eno, albeit cut with a very mid-20th-century strain of British ‘garden shed’ amateurism.”

Eno, Fripp, Bowie in Berlin

While methodically tracing the development of Eno’s iconoclastic musical approaches—including a careful re-examination of the oft-told and perhaps apocryphal tale of Eno’s “discovery” of ambient music while convalescing to a low-volume recording of 18th century harp music—Sheppard, perhaps unsurprisingly, pays closest attention to Eno’s name-making tenure with Roxy Music, his quartet of watershed experimental rock albums, and his 1970s collaborations with Robert Fripp, David Bowie and Talking Heads. Sheppard’s study of these periods, as well as Eno’s rigorous employment of both systems and accidents, yield countless great stories: co-producer Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son spontaneously “composing” the opening of Bowie’s ‘Warszawa’ on the piano during the
Low sessions; Eno convincing David Byrne to jog on the spot to create his breathless delivery on Talking Heads’ ‘Drugs’; or the transformation of ashtrays, lampshades and wooden flooring into musical instruments. Along the way Sheppard offers an unexpected defense of Paul McCartney, and suggests that Eno may bear some responsibility for Phil Collins’ solo career. (Readers are advised to refer to Sheppard’s footnotes, which contain some of his funniest findings, such as Eno’s contractual clause that he never be obligated to set foot in Los Angeles, or the time he signed autographs as Quincy Jones for excitable Japanese Michael Jackson fans.) The only real flaw with On Some Faraway Beach—other than Sheppard’s over-use of certain adjectives, “sanguine” especially—is his compression of the last quarter-century of Eno’s life into what reads like an annotated CV. Apparently, at some point Eno’s near-superhuman productivity simply exhausted Sheppard. I can’t entirely blame him. Eno's only in his 60s now, and it's easy to see him re-inventing everything well into our new millennium.


“I have decided to tell Gould’s story—really a linked set of ideas about perception, consciousness, time, and silence—not as a story but as a single contested piece considered from a variety of angles.” There have been some stern grievances with Kingwell’s approach to writing about Gould, one of Canada’s most beloved and enigmatic icons, but to be fair he makes his M.O. explicit from the start, and it’s not like there’s any lack of other conventional biographies of Gould available to those who crave a more well-behaved, chronologically-ordered series of facts and anecdotes. Having said that, Kingwell does court contention, having written a slim volume that isn’t quite biography and isn’t quite philosophy. Were he to concentrate his energies on fully realizing either of these things he would likely have had to compose something far bulkier and daunting.


The chapters, each pertaining to a single idea that connects, however tenuously, to Gould’s life and work, are short. Titles include ‘Memory,’ ‘Existence,’ ‘Quodlibet,’ and, of course, ‘Genius.’ The overall structure is prismatic. Kingwell’s observations on each topic form stimulating chains of epiphanies. He writes elegantly about the inherent constraints of several artistic forms and the challenges they pose. (Kingwell begins his ‘Architecture’ chapter with the oft-used claim that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” subsequently explaining that when taken to its logical conclusion such a claim implies that “the only appropriate reaction to music is more music, an absurd position if taken literally.” I immediately wondered if Kingwell had read Geoff Dyer’s sublime
But Beautiful, which in fact suggests that much of the history of jazz is exactly that: articulate musical responses to other music.) Whether or not these build toward a satisfying conclusion—conclusion in the argumentative, rather than the musical, sense—is open to debate.

The Oblique Strategies

In the end I got a lot out of both books, and found that so many of Kingwell’s preoccupations while examining Gould's life and work dovetailed nicely into themes raised by Eno’s life and work. It would be great if Kingwell could apply this same approach to an Eno book. Come to think of it, it would be great if Sheppard could apply his rigorous research and cultural and critical insight to a book about Gould. A trade-off—sounds like one of Eno’s
Oblique Strategies. What about it, guys?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Crisis of conformity: Bigger Than Life on DVD

Ed Avery must have come from somewhere other than the anonymous suburb where he now lives with his wife and young son and teaches grade school. He has that mid-Atlantic accent, untraceable yet distinctive. He once played football, but now wears bowties. He seems patient with his students and friendly with his colleagues, but might there be a subtle tone of condescension in his voice? There’s a curious tension between his emblematic middle-class Americaness and these hints at Otherness.

Ed moonlights as a taxi dispatcher, something he hasn’t yet told his family about. He’s overworked, and maybe that’s why the shooting pains he’s been suffering get worse until Ed finally collapses, is taken to hospital, and following a series of uncomfortable tests is told he has a rare inflammation of the arteries which kills those afflicted within a year. His only recourse is to take cortisone, a new ostensible wonderdrug still to be satisfactorily tested. The drug indeed makes Ed feel wonderful, charged, optimistic, ready to re-apply himself to his vocation and familial role. But this new life rapidly descends into nightmare. Ed becomes moody, flamboyantly arrogant and short-tempered, cruel to his wife and unreasonably demanding with his boy. The Avery home becomes a house under siege by its increasingly deranged patriarch. But here’s the thing about
Bigger Than Life (1956): I never really believe that Ed’s behaviour is the fault of the cortisone. Helpless as he is to the threat of pain and death—that force that ultimately proves to be bigger than life—Ed’s peculiar rampage feels like the release of some long repressed attitude toward the rest of the world. Ed the eager-to-assimilate outsider, perhaps more than his indigenous peers, has bought fully into the American Dream, and it may have simply been a matter of time before it made him crazy.

Bigger Than Life, now available from the Criterion Collection, is among the finest achievements of director Nicholas Ray’s career. Coming quickly after Rebel Without a Cause (55), it represents the zenith of Ray’s explorations in the realms of both Technicolor and Cinemascope, resulting in expressionistic flourishes of red and orange against a generally muted palate and framing that gradually forces the walls of the Avery home to seemingly close in on its inhabitants. Based on a New Yorker article by Berton Roueché, to which the script, written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, with uncredited contributions by Clifford Odets, is surprisingly faithful, Bigger Than Life also represents the height of Ray’s profound interest in social problems, especially those that refused to be facilely dismissed by way of class or race. The critique of postwar consumerism threaded through this vivid and continuously unnerving film is fairly overt without being chastising: when Ed ’s workmate mentions she’s having car trouble, Ed immediately suggests she just get a new one; when Ed arrives home from work the first thing his son Richie does is ask if Ed brought him anything; when Ed leaves hospital, despite increasing worry over medical bills, the first thing he does is take his wife Lou out to a fancy dress shop where he bullies her into elaborate gowns they can neither afford nor have any practical use for. Spending money seems the only way for Ed to express his feelings of anguish and exhilaration. That is, until he re-directs his energies toward an oppressively disciplinarian, reactionary vision of pedagogy, which then builds to quasi-religious delusions of grandeur. During the film’s climax Lou tries to remind Ed of God’s fundamental forgiveness. “God was wrong,” Ed tells her.

Part of what makes
Bigger Than Life so persuasive are its finely tuned performances. The inspired casting of James Mason, also the film’s producer, provides Ed with layers of neurosis that a more obviously “average joe” sort of actor would never yield. During parent-teacher night Ed holds court, declaring childhood “a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it.” Such audacious outbursts are delivered with a subtly bizarre mixture of conviction and childish provocation, with Mason looking at once oddly oblivious and surveying the room to gauge reactions, perhaps gleeful over the more outraged faces. At other times Mason’s pain and confusion seems chillingly acute, such as in the scene that finds him staring into a fractured mirror after having driven the previously obedient Lou to the point of exasperation. Barbara Rush provides Lou with a heart-rending, if frustrating, inner-conflict between whether to coddle or berate her husband. She’s often in a state of terror, desperately calculating under attempted placidity as to how to best pacify Ed. There’s also sturdy support from Walter Matthau as the bachelor phys-ed teacher whose relative youth and physical strength seem to threaten Ed. (In one of the disc’s best supplements, author Jonathan Lethem makes a case for Matthau’s character’s hidden homosexuality. Of course Lethem also goes on a very amusing tangent about the pompadour created by James Mason’s shadow.)

The performances help imbue
Bigger Than Life with the balance of identification and strangeness, of urgency and ambiguity that Ray seemed to be nurturing on every level. The film is unrelenting in its disquiet, which may account for its being so unloved in its time. It wears the vestiges of a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, yet it at times feels like pitch-black comedy, and with its noirish shadows and claustrophobic interiors, it comes to resemble a horror movie, complete with a finale in which the monster hasn’t died but rather seems to be sleeping, waiting. The desperation with which Ed clutches his family in those last moments is genuinely touching. I truly believe his need and his fear and even his love. It’s just that his clutching could so easily erupt into a stranglehold.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Voy a explotar: hazardous hormones

It starts, rather misleadingly, with Román’s interior voice, a diary entry-cum-psychic yawp addressed to a mass of “Hijos de puta.” It’s Román’s aberrant fantasy we then watch play out, the one where he enters a classroom and blows away both of the trembling religious instructors before turning the gun on himself. This fantasy is what got him kicked out of boarding school and sent into the arms of destiny. Then it’s Maru’s turn, it becomes her voice that we hear express similar inner turmoil. Like Román she’s an exhilaratingly alienated teenager, anxious to rebel without a cause, her face and body alternately resembling those of a young woman and a four-year-old boy. It’ll be Maru’s voice that we stick with for the remainder of
Voy a explotar (I’m Gonna Explode). She describes Román’s sudden appearance in her life as a sort of revelation, a phenomenon, this sleazebag politician’s son riddled with uncontainable angst. He does a presentation at the school talent show called ‘See You in Hell’ that falls miserably flat but manages to catch Maru’s attention nonetheless. “A perfect accomplice, a twin,” she calls him. Román is both real and a being conjured by Maru’s dreamy desperation. Maybe that’s why, despite young Juan Pablo de Santiago’s perfectly capable performance, Román leaves less of an impression, why Maru seems so much more the fully realized of the two central characters. In any case, she’s our heroine, and Voy a explotar marks an auspicious debut for Maria Deschamps, the young actress who surrenders completely to Maru’s fascinated abandon, and does so with a remarkable, individual humour.

The French New Wave is a half-century old but for Mexican writer/director Gerardo Naranjo the tropes and techniques are still buzzing with freshness and audacity, still useful tools.
Voy a explotar is an unabashed homage to the Jean-Luc Godard of the early to mid-1960s, Pierrot le fou (1965) especially, with its delirious romance juxtaposed with cool formalism, its breathless, lovers on the run narrative, its flurry of jump-cuts and playful dissonance of image, voice-over and music, some of which is the work of composer Georges Delerue, ripped directly from Godard’s own iconoclastic interjections in the aforementioned film. Naranjo’s third feature, the follow-up to Drama/Mex (06), may look backward for its modus operandi, but the material this approach gives birth to feels perfectly contemporary, an irreverent reflection of Columbine culture and other recent manifestations of adolescent nihilism. It’s imbued with what might be a uniquely Mexican cynicism and some terrifically black humour. It also departs radically from other similarly themed movies, like say, Badlands (73), and from Godard’s Pierrot le fou casting of Anna Karina and Jean-Peal Belmondo especially, by using actors who really look like little kids, youngsters not fully grown into their bodies, a fact which doesn’t fail to inject the proceedings with an unnerving sense of the real.

Set in Naranjo’s native home of Guanajuato,
Voy a explotar offers a portrait of the picturesque colonial city, with its houses that climb the surrounding hills, as seen from the central rooftops and subterranean tunnels that Román and Maru traverse in search of the feeling of escape as much escape’s actuality. They, and we, see Guanajuato from above and below, a sly visual strategy that mirrors the kids’ mischievous plan, to pretend that they’ve fled the city when they’re actually camping out on the roof of Román’s family home, hiding in plain sight, fumbling their way through sex or snatching booze and junk food while everyone else is asleep or out, while their parents, either lazily indifferent or hysterical and useless, go about their negligent search. (Román’s father is hilariously played by Mexican veteran Daniel Giménez Cacho, probably most familiar to Anglophone viewers as a disembodied voice—he was the anonymous narrator of Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu mamá también (01).)

I saw
Voy a explotar at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and have since been patiently wondering when it might resurface. The film played the New York Film Festival that same year, and eventually returned to NYC screens last summer. It never received any theatrical release anywhere in Canada that I know of, but at least, unlike a number of other equally worthy recent Latin American films, it’s now been granted a DVD release from Paradox/E1 in a no-frills package but featuring a decent transfer. The film was co-produced by Canana, the Mexican company overseen by Y tu mamá también’s stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. They recently re-teamed for Rudo y Cursi (08), which was kinda fun but not nearly as exciting a film as Voy a explotar. It did however get some limited Canadian distribution, presumably in the hopes that García Bernal and Luna’s allure could result in another art house hit. (It didn’t.) I don’t know that Voy a explotar could have generated the sort of box office that potential distributors require to justify such a gamble, but with any luck its appearance on DVD will help to keep viewers alert to the fact that, ten years after Amores Perros (00), Mexican cinema is still very much alive and kicking and ready to explode upon the international scene.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ghost Writer: how to write yourself in, and out, of history

He has no name, and offers very little with regards to his past. He’s supposed to be a ghost: anonymous, invisible, not really here. But this ghost, brought to an island oppressively cloaked in wintry clouds to infuse some flavour into the insipid memoirs of a former British PM, will be punched, pressed, provoked and prompted to delve deeper into his subject’s past than professional etiquette would have it. Just as the ghost arrives his subject is hurled into a maelstrom of disgrace, accused of handing over terror suspects to the CIA for torture and subpoenaed by the international tribunal in the Hague.

The ways in which
The Ghost Writer mirrors real life are numerous. Though the PM is dubbed Alan Lang, this is clearly the next-best thing to an explicit indictment of Tony Blair by Robert Harris, former BBC journalist and author of the source novel. Lang’s disillusioned Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart seems loosely based on the late Robin Cook. There’s a US Secretary of State that so carefully resembles Condoleezza Rice as to almost be camp. And yes, the scenario eerily evokes the ongoing house arrest of director and co-scenarist Roman Polanski. But however tempted one might be to read The Ghost Writer as allegory, the movie demands to be appreciated as exactly what it is, an engrossing, somewhat artificial thriller, realized by Polanski with inspired classical economy. He imbues the whole with characteristic wit, cynicism, and a billowing dread that somehow remains playful.

Look at how Polanski opens the movie: Cars are ushered off the Woods Hole ferry that connects Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang holes up, to mainland Massachusetts. But one car seems to have been abandoned. Night falls, and the car is towed away. As gray dawn exhales upon a local beach a body washes up on the shore. The sequence is a shrewd, disarmingly detached vestibule to the main action. No central characters are introduced. Well, not exactly. That body belonged to one Mike McAra, Lang’s former press aide and his first ghost writer. McAra’s ghost will haunt all that proceeds, his nameless replacement retracing his footsteps, recovering his research, even sleeping in his bed. The protagonist lured into assuming the role of someone perished under mysterious circumstances is a theme familiar from some of Polanski’s finest work, most notably
The Tenant. It’s a condition to which Polanski displays a unmistakable affinity, one that interrogates the hazy region where free will dissolves into the caprices of merciless destiny. Crucially, the protagonist is neither innocent nor fully cognizant of what sort of trap he’s slipping into. No one’s ever innocent in Polanski, but that doesn’t mean knowledge will save you.

As Lang, Pierce Brosnan is a perfect blend of exhausted diplomacy and draining charm. Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall play Lang’s spouse and secretary, and both, sexy, smart, and a little scary, exude far greater control over Lang’s affairs than Lang himself. As the ghost, Ewan McGregor makes up for the protagonist’s dearth of conventional character development by playing each and every moment as potentially decisive, his actions at once motivated by a fatal curiosity driven by frustrations over a sub-mediocre literary career and the intoxication of letting oneself be dragged under by an overpowering wave. There are pleasingly portentous cameos from Eli Wallach as an old hermit and Tom Wilkinson as a reticent Harvard professor, absently patting the arms of his chair.

Polanski, working mostly on a German soundstage, handles everything with supreme confidence, unconcerned with the scattered holes in Harris’ labyrinthine plot and staging minor key set-pieces with bold efficacy, including a clever use of GPS that Hitchcock would surely have appreciated and a final, brilliantly staged single shot so chilling that Hitchcock would never have been allowed to end a movie thus in his Hollywood heyday.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Photographic memories: Barthes on mother, Smith on Mapplethorpe

It’s been 30 years since the publication of
Camera Lucida. This 25th of March marks 30 years since the death of its author, French literary theorist, philosopher and semoitcian Roland Barthes. After having lunch at François Mitterrand’s he was hit by a laundry truck and died exactly one month later. Truthfully, I have yet to really delve into Barthes oeuvre, to get a firm grasp of the breadth of his achievement. Yet however limited my understanding of his work in totality, I attest to his final book’s enormous effect on my life. It changed the way I consider the role of photography in our lives and what distinguishes it from the movies. It changed the way I look at photographs, and ultimately how I look at countless other things. It remains a favourite, stimulating, unabashedly personal, deeply moving, occasionally strange. As Barthes would have it, Camera Lucida, were it a photograph, vibrates with both studium and punctum. (As if to ensure its importance in my errant education, I was given the book twice by two different people, neither of whom knowing the other and the second giver unaware that I knew of the book in the first place. So thanks, John, and thanks, Kevin.)

Barthes wanted to learn if photography had “a genius” of its own, stressing his interest in the elusiveness of the medium’s essence, the absolute singularity of what each photograph contains, and, consequently, the medium’s unique relationship to death. When being photographed, Barthes, who always felt self-conscious before the camera, experiences “a micro-version of death… I am truly becoming a specter.” By contrast, Barthes’ beloved mother, who died in 1977, did not “struggle with her image.” In the second of the book’s two parts Barthes, “looking for the truth of the face I had loved,” examines a photograph of his mother taken when she was five-years-old. We’re never shown the photograph. At most, writes Barthes, it would activate our
studium, or sober interest, with its anthropological value. It would fail to prick or puncture us, to deliver the punctum, the compelling detail or air, almost always unintended by the photographer, indifferent to morality or taste, difficult or impossible to name, which for Barthes makes a photograph transcendent. Nowhere in Camera Lucida does Barthes differentiate between the attributes of snapshots, photojournalism, or art photography. He wants to make contact with the medium as it’s available to anyone, even if its full power is finally only apparent in the work of a few.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Young Man With Arm Extended
Below the reproduction in Camera Lucida Barthes writes:

"...the hand at
the right degree of openness,
the right density of abandonment..."

Photography is founded on the pose, Barthes notes, whereas in the movies everything is passing. (When discussing his own mourning of his mother’s death, Barthes concedes that time might eliminate the emotion of loss, but in every other sense “everything has remained motionless.” In this heart-rending paragraph he seems, perhaps inadvertently, to strike upon the photographic quality of grief.) Photography, Barthes maintains, is undeniable proof of what once was—“
that-has-been”—and in this argument he could be seen to falter. From the doctoring of propaganda photos to the omnipresence of Photoshop, surely photos are no evidence of anything empirically true. Yet everything we might call a photo does document something, and perhaps this is what matters when coming to terms with its meaning.

Alexander Gardner: Portrait of Lewis Payne, 1865
Below the reproduction in Camera Lucida Barthes writes:

"He is dead and he is going to die..."

While it probably already rang true with readers in 1980,
Camera Lucida strikes me as eerily prescient in its conclusion that the photograph, with its “certain but fugitive testimony,” had rendered us beings “no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.” (Think about how many times the fluidity of some jubilant experience you’re having has been interrupted by someone who asks you to hold it, demands the experience can be “captured” by a camera.) Barthes continues: “no doubt, the astonishment of that-has-been will also disappear.” Moments are now so routinely frozen by the slightest whim as to drain the photograph of its power. (Without ever having made a conscious decision to do so, I’ve come to realize that in the years since acquiring my first digital camera, which releases me from the burden of having to worry about making every shot count, I’ve gone from being an avid taker of snapshots to rarely picking up the camera at all.) It’s pointless to deny the forward motion of technology, but it behooves us to keep returning to Barthes’ “archaic trance” as a way of reminding us where this technology comes from, what impulses stirred it.

If Robert Mapplethorpe is an important point of reference in
Camera Lucida, where Barthes uses his work to mount a concise, eloquent method of distinguishing between the pornographic and erotic, Mapplethorpe positively haunts Just Kids (Ecco, $31.99), the new memoir by musician Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe took the iconic photo of Smith that adorned her debut record Horses, and Just Kids treats readers to many more wonderful portraits of Smith by Mapplethorpe, while the text itself reads intermittently like a portrait of Mapplethorpe by Smith. It is among other things a love story between a heterosexual woman perpetually drawn to questions of the spirit and a gay man who sought the sublime through the confines of the body. As though fated, Smith met Mapplethorpe on the day she first arrived in New York as a virtually penniless 20-year-old. The first time she laid eyes on Mapplethorpe he was asleep, as with the last time. Mapplethorpe died in 1989 on the 9th of March, the same date on which I write this. (I get the impression Smith would like that.)

Just a couple of kids, both in need of a sandwich

Just Kids is a tender, dignified remembrance of an unusually heady time and place. On one page Allen Ginsberg buys a near-starving Smith a sandwich, initially mistaking her for a pretty boy. On another Smith sees Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Salvador Dalí in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, or spots Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane in El Quixote. Smith was in the room when Kris Kristofferson first played ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ for Joplin. Lou Reed and Gregory Corso showed up for her first poetry reading. Sam Shepard once pulled a raw steak out of her pocket. Yet this is a profoundly intimate book, not a public one. It describes two young people finding themselves through art. Considering how central the subject is to her story, Smith is strangely un-forthcoming about her sexual experiences with Mapplethorpe, who would only gradually accept his homosexuality, doing so largely via the development of his work. But the intensity of her emotional experiences is almost palpable.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The singularity of Colin Firth

I missed
A Single Man during the Toronto Film Festival and missed it again when it first opened theatrically. I was wary of it, noting review headlines that often insinuated the too-easy yet suspiciously accurate-sounding attacks on fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s excessively fussed-over, largely superficial direction. What made me keep wanting to see it was, of course, Colin Firth. Is there another leading actor so consistently pleasurable and moving to watch who makes so many mediocre movies? Would A Single Man be the one to showcase his tremendous blend of talent and pure screen presence? It has, in any event, won him an Oscar nomination.

Having finally caught up with
A Single Man—the depiction of a day in the life of Firth’s Anglo-American English professor George, mourning the loss of his lover, set in November of 1962, and based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood—I was surprised to find the movie to be actually less glossy or formally rigorous or provocative that I’d intuited. Or hoped. It is an oddly cool movie for one so steeped in grief. There are loudly announced stylistic choices to be sure, but many of them fall short of their intended impact. Ford’s jump-cuts are annoying, and his jarring switching of angles within a scene is superfluous, often disguising stasis. His cutty yet ceremonialized flashbacks to moments shared by George and his conspicuously younger boyfriend convey little in the way of emotional weight. His combination of slow-motion and the shifting of the image from dull tones to saturated colour is employed frequently, which does help us to trace the many moment’s in George’s day when he briefly recognizes hints of beauty in an otherwise drab, Cold War era and now largely loveless world, but it also renders the technique a gimmick whose meaning is very limited. Besides, if George can so often be reminded of life’s value, even a purely aesthetic one, does his depression not begin to feel too close to mere self-pity?

Firth, unsurprisingly, looks very compelling. In fact, as unlikely as this might seem, with his lovely haircut, large framed glasses, and elegant suits, he closely resembles Marcello Mastroianni from roughly the same period in which
A Single Man is set. (Julianne Moore, who plays George’s one close friend, by contrast seems modeled after Dusty Springfield.) Firth has absorbed his costume fully, letting it alter his posture and expressions. Ford’s careful attention to George’s personal appearance and accoutrements is commendable. It only seems problematic when it begins to seem like a replacement for characterization.

“I am exactly what I appear to be. If only you look closely.” This is George’s most memorable line, and says an awful lot about Firth too, whose best moments may be the ones where George, as a way of making peace with the world before leaving it—he’s planning to kill himself before the day is through—makes a point of saying something nice to women. In one such beautifully played moment, while complimenting a secretary’s hair, he almost looks like he’s in a trance. Firth has always had great success with a less-is-more approach to his craft. His eyes especially are exceptionally expressive, and his awareness of this allows him to make bold choices with regards to how much he lets his visage colour a moment. But
A Single Man simply lacks colour, even during those moments when the whole world seems to blush for George, and Firth’s careful modulation and discretion, while still the best approach given the circumstances, can’t flush out what simply isn’t there to be had. George has some sort of revelation before the movie is through, though it barely registers on screen.

I’m thrilled that Firth is getting more attention as an actor, though I hope audiences less familiar with his work don’t get the false impression that
A Single Man is its apotheosis. How much more alive, dynamic, charming, and emotionally vivid Firth has been in movies more obviously awkward or even tacky than this one. In some cases, more risky too. I'm thinking of one of Bridget Jones' Diary, and one of the all-time great comic punch-ups. I’m thinking of recent movies like Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me, where Firth played a single dad who was wildly neurotic, tactless, exhausted, and totally irresistible, or When Did You Last See Your Father?, where he played a middle-aged man seething with childish anger toward his dying pup. Hell, even in fairly awful or silly movies like the new Dorian Gray or The Last Legion or Where the Truth Lies or Easy Virtue… I could go on. The point is he’s a wonderful actor, and should he win an Oscar for A Single Man (which isn’t very likely, I suppose) then so be it. Just don’t let the movie’s undigested gloom let you think this guy can’t do so much more.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Uprooted and abandoned: Treeless Mountain

Moving from city to village to countryside, from a wearied mother to a neglectful aunt to an elderly grandparent, Jin and Bin (Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim) cultivate an impressive itinerary for a couple of sisters aged six and four respectively. Having already been abandoned by one parent, Jin and Bin are uprooted from their Seoul home and taken to live with their “Big Auntie” so that their mother can search for their errant father. When not drunk or inexplicably absent Big Auntie can be found extorting money from neighbours or occasionally throwing together a not very nutritious looking meal. The sisters take to roasting grasshoppers alive and selling them on the street, the money earned intended not for filling their rumbling bellies but rather the piggy bank given to them by mom just before her departure. By the time it’s filled, she tells them, I’ll be back. The girls take this promise at face value and receive their first lesson in how our parents bullshit us. Their journey features passages so desperate as to make your head spin, yet by the end of
Treeless Mountain we’re left not with a sense of despair over the cruelty and indifference of the world but rather one of confidence in the inherent resilience of children.

This gradual sense of consolation arises partially from Korean-American writer/director So Yong Kim’s carefully modulated script, and partially, and perhaps more significantly, from her willingness to let her child actors frequently take the lead. Kim’s second feature opens with a series of close-ups of Jin, listening to her teacher at school, going home to retrieve Bin from a neighbour, having supper, being scolded by her mother. As Kim explains during an interview featured on Oscilloscope’s new DVD, close-ups became the master shots while making
Treeless Mountain, so that scene after scene had to be constructed to an unusual degree from images of the children’s faces fully immersed in the act of trying to understand what’s going on. If you know something about how movies are made such a strategy might seem like a gamble, but it plays out here as a very sound approach to telling a story centering on kids. The camera stays close so as to register the slightest transition, and it typically does so from the height of the kids themselves. Just as the movie doesn’t concern itself with plot points the kids wouldn’t have access to, so does it evoke something of their perspective. This surrendering to the experience of its characters and the untutored contributions of its actors is what makes Treeless Mountain memorable.

Kim’s willingness to observe rather than impose is also in keeping with the tenants of neorealism, and
Treeless Mountain can certainly be regarded as a noble entry into the genre. It not only features kids in trouble—a neorealist staple—but also spends a good third of its running time monitoring its characters as they single-mindedly try to perform a simple task. You could argue that the relatively early fulfillment of this task—the girls manage to fill the piggy bank a good half-hour before the end—is a major flaw in the movie’s construction, letting the air out of the whole thing so that it just sort of drifts toward finale. But the lack of dramatic escalation is one of the things that actually make Treeless Mountain absorbing. The narrative is as unanchored as its characters. The shape of the movie feels right for the content. And there’s never really a dull moment. Hee Yong and Song Hee are extremely cute and also captivating in their train of discoveries, and their director’s judicious use of Ozu-like intermediary scenes—a sky bisected by power lines becomes a motif—endow the whole with a sense of even pacing and a unified aesthetic.

Oscilloscope’s disc is handsomely packaged, though some of the extras are insubstantial. The audio commentary from Kim and producer Bradley Rust Gray feels unprepared for, with the pair prompting each other to say something to fill the gaps. Better is the Q&A presided over by Kim after a screening at New York’s Film Forum. She discusses the casting—Hee Yong was found at her elementary school, Song Hee at an orphanage—and her technique to working with them. Despite the uniformity of last names the writer/director and her actors are none related to the other, yet there is a sense here of an artist’s refamiliarizing herself with her roots. Having been transplanted to the US at the age of 12, Kim lives in Brooklyn and made
Treeless Mountain under the auspices of the Sundance Institute. But the village where much of the movie was shot was the same one where Kim grew up, and, having spent so much of her life abroad, her spoken Korean is actually less proficient that that of Hee Yong’s. So perhaps the conditions under which the movie was made formed a sort of equalizer—language has a great way of demolishing hierarchy. In any case it’s always a pleasure to see a movie about kids where the adults filing them aren’t always looking down.