domingo, 23 de março de 2008

"Hide what the spectator most wants to see" - Ozu

(not seeing, hearing a love letter by Ventura, recited to Lento. COLOSSAL YOUTH.)

I see useless beauties
Extinguished in the night of doubt

And the flowers are not real
And the earth becomes barron

Soon I must say nothing

Yet if I walk the earth
The reason is that others too are there
Who like me spoke haltingly
When we were not entirely silent.

-excerpt from Ailleurs ici partout(Here There Everywhere)by PaulEluard
trans. Gilbert Bowen

By no small miracle did a 35mm print of COLOSSAL YOUTH (JUVENTUDE EM MARCHA, 2006, Pedro Costa) make it to Los Angeles. And by no small miracle was I able to find out about the screening and attend on September 27th (thank you Andre D., Filipe, Curtis, and David N.). It came by the good graces of Thom Andersen, still one of the great torch bearers of modern cinema/history in Los Angeles, and under the most unassuming of headings: Film Today, Andersen's class at CalArts (30 miles from city). I must dwell on Andersen's vanguardism for a moment and point out that this CalArts screening of COLOSSAL YOUTH was the U.S. premiere. What's more, no sooner did that week's artist-in-residence Costa leave the campus, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul was on his way. If there were only a way to amplify from Andersen's cinema pickups 30 miles out to the the public of Los Angeles! If this were done regularly I'm convinced it would reduce traffic, if perhaps increase loitering, as any good film screenings should. Anyhow "all great civilizations are based on loitering."

I've seen COLOSSAL YOUTH only once (to Andersen's credit, it was actually screened twice). For an extraordinarily concentrated film like COLOSSAL YOUTH -- an object so deeply hewn on every plane and every register -- this is both a curse and a blessing. The need to verify (or overturn) certain things about COLOSSAL's narrative is immediately and intensely felt; one wants to see it again straight away. But as the film sustains in the mind (something that goes on for weeks) the inscrutability of it strengthens into stanzas and its poetry reemerges. I don't believe any amount of dvd extras could destroy its mystery. The film's relation to time (narrative and cinematic), it's images (which remain overwhelmingly strong), the many stories of it's individuals and their implications -- what of these things will "set" upon further viewings?

While wondering this, for better or worse, I have begun comparing COLOSSAL to other films. There are few films that stand on their own two feet as steadily as COLOSSAL YOUTH, and lest the many film references below give any other impression, let me admit that they are my own attempts to stand. Mystery, and yet...

And yet one question haunts me now: is the film's narrative actually unequivocal? Upon seeing COLOSSAL I immediately thought "this is what it must've been like to see LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD in 1961", but the possibility of unequivocality has lead me to NICHT VERSöHNT (Straub/Huillet, 1965). Were people seeing NICHT VERSöHNT just once then scrambling for the Böll novel on which the film is achronologically based? Were they seeing NICHT VERSöHNT several times and ignoring the Böll text? In any case, in 1969 Rivette said this about NICHT and it could well apply to COLOSSAL YOUTH:

"Straub imposes on the spectator (the virgin spectator viewing the film for the first time, at any rate, but also in part a subsequent viewings) an obscurity in the language, which seems wilfully indirect, apparently unaware of him as the addressee (even if he nevertheless, though tacitly, fulfils his task), and which prevents him from direct attainment of the 'knowledge' it seemed to be entrusted with bringing him; the film functions before him as a dream, one might say, as the product of an unconscious (but whose unconscious? Does it belong to the literary text? To fifty years of German history? The Straubs? The 'characters' in the film ? )..."

(from 'Montage' by Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre, and Jacques Rivette - Cahiers du Cinema, No. 210, March 1969 - a heroic translation by Tom Milne)

Straub/Huillet's film is a complex operation on and materialization of a literary text (as always with them) and though prior knowledge of Böll's story far from dissolves all mystery of NICHT (it's not a puzzle, in fact it's articulations are inexhaustible), there is a known source in Böll to keep one's footing. They are realizing pre-existing material via excision and liasons (as Rivette calls them) and they are doing enormous work with a text laid out in front of them (see the Straub's heavily marked scripts), shuffling and emphasizing here, totally eliding there.

Costa's film may seem cryptic at first but there is something of necessity about the way it has been told, with it's soft indications of past and present, with it's particular ways of breathing and duration. If I can call this Costa's policy of presence (partly inherited from the Straubs but also Ozu and Ford) -- that is, the giving of time and weight to each person and place to work itself out "against" the montage and offscreen space -- it is another layer to take in which makes focusing on narrative chronology difficult. (And then there's a friend of mine in Taipei who found the chronology quite tractable).

COLOSSAL is comparable in density to NICHT, but there is another challenge; one of essence and consciousness, and that is of COLOSSAL YOUTH's source. The revelation of Costa's filmmaking, as film critic Quintin has elucidated it, boils down to the filmmaking process itself: "...the issue here is that the whole machinery of cinema is not exterior to its subject -- and by including cinema on the side of his subject, it no longer becomes an instrument of law and order." (Cinemascope 25, Winter 2006). COLOSSAL's subject is not a literary text but the actual stories and memories of the working class and unemployed of the Fountainhas ghetto and the new Casal Boba housing project in Lisbon. Costa has said his films are not creations but meetings. With each meeting we hear struggles orally recollected. Huillet/Straub's restoration of oral culture is taken to heart by Costa. He lives with the people he films, and he works hard everyday with them, with their stories and places. Costa's practice and the dignity and "non-inferiority" (Quintin) of Ventura, his children and comrades that results is nothing less than a restoration of the monumentality of humanity, and it is done precisely with every cinematic means a film is capable of. It's as if a year had been spent on each element of the film: lighting, composition, location, sound, voice, scansion, movement, duration, time, narrative, epic gesture, etc.. This dignity isn't created by Costa, it's been there all along; Costa's camera may often be low-angle but its thinking is the opposite of base. Contrary to professional belief, the cinema must concentrate the aforementioned cinematic elements, and perhaps use some unprecedenced ones, to even approach these struggles.

So if the film is based on understanding, not decipherment, will this give any solace to those hostile or dismissive of it?

Andy Rector in