segunda-feira, 12 de abril de 2010

Pedro Costa gets the Criterion treatment

Acclaimed Portuguese filmmaker see his Fontainhas Trilogy released in a DVD set this week

BY Neil Karassik April 01, 2010 14:04

Two features into a steadily accelerating career, Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa switched gears with his three challenging portraits of a Lisbon ghetto in different stages of demolition: Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006). The movies would become known as Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, compiled and issued this week on DVD by Criterion. Colossal Youth was recently included in TIFF CInematheque’s Top 50 Films of the ’00s. Yet, by the time the third film was released in 2006, the neighbourhood was a memory.

Fontainhas and its inhabitants will not soon be forgotten thanks to Costa’s distinctive vision and a company of non-actors playing variations of themselves, as is the case with Vanda Duarte, who appears in all three films. Criterion’s box set makes the trilogy available on home video for the first time in North America and includes commentaries, interviews, documentaries, short films and more. Costa spoke to EYE WEEKLY on the eve of his achieving Criterion status.

Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth form what has been called your Fontainhas Trilogy. Can you explain their associations?

It was never intended as a trilogy. Before Ossos I was having an artistic crisis and was questioning my position in cinema. That film was a discovery of this particular neighbourhood in Lisbon, Fontainhas. It was a very secretive place and I had to prepare carefully. But I was too fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, which sets Ossos apart from the other two. Not that I don’t like the film, but it was a bad decision to shoot on 35mm with a big crew in a normal way. Bringing cinema to that place was a good decision, but not with the usual clichés.

How was this new-found ideology initially received?

It took me two years after Ossos to find a new aesthetic and that required a cut from the system. I had a big fight with my producer, who wanted me to do another Ossos, but bigger. This was impossible for me. Seven weeks wasn’t enough [time], and it was too much money. It’s a lie that filmmaking is very expensive. It’s actually about knowing how to spend it. I was completely cut off, so I went away and stayed in Fontainhas.


Right. It was a political, economical and philosophical move. After shooting Ossos, my DP (Emmanuel Machuel) told me that it was great working together, but I no longer needed him. I remember at the premiere of In Vanda’s Room he came up to me and said, “See, I was right, you don’t need me.” It was very moving.

How did shooting on digital video shape production?

It was completely different and helped a lot. I never thought of doing what I [ended up doing] with the scope and colour and richness. I thought I would do a small documentary and then go back to the old approach. But then I saw that it worked and was even more organic. I also had to search for the film in the editing, which can be a bit frightening. That’s why I shoot so much — it’s out of fear.

At a glance, your films appear spontaneous, but they’re crafted with a distinct precision. How do you maintain the balance?

Balance is the right word, because you have to find a balance behind the lens and in front of it. Between you, the people and the landscape. That balance was very hard for me to find with the crew, money, lights, pressure and time constraints. Jean Renoir said the same when he was working in America. He thought his films in America were bad, and they’re not at all, but you can see the difference. I had to find this balance, so I took all the time I needed to search for my craft.

Do you see your work as a cross between sociological study and narrative film?

It’s that special moment when true and false don’t matter. You have to be true in other ways. The relation between people has to be true. I can tell you that a lot of things that Varda says and does are not true. I’ll never say what and when. Withholding it amuses me.

How does that play to your audience?

Whenever In Vanda’s Room is shown at a documentary festival, people get really angry. I’ve had ferocious Q&As. The argument is always, “You cannot do this in a documentary. It’s too vague, too poetic.” Those statements bore me to death.

Your films often reject dramatization. This is noticeable in Ossos and extremely evident in your later work that somehow feels more detached, yet more private.

Vanda is about taking something private and turning it into a public thing. It’s been done before. Warhol, Bergman and a lot of artists did it. But Vanda was a bit special in form. This kind of form never really became public before. This kind suffering done this way was prototypical. I could never make a film like Vanda again. Even if it feels brainy or arty, I can assure you it was made with blood and tears. It’s my personality and Vanda’s personality.

As an early adopter of DV, do you believe that film is becoming obsolete or does that depend on the production?

Now I’m editing on Avid and Final Cut, but it’s exactly the same. My craft never changed. I approach it with the same respectful attitude. It’s not about cold machines. It’s about the brain and heart behind the machine. For me, the small DV was as serious as the big 35mm cameras I worked with before. I don’t think there’s a language specific to video or film.

It’s interesting that more filmmakers are switching to DV for artistic purposes, like Abbas Kiarostami and David Lynch.

It’s great that Lynch found something. But when he comes into this plane and says the things he’s saying, there are a lot of lies. He’s a sincere guy, I’m sure, but this question of freedom that video brings or will bring is mystifying. Kiarostami is a bit different because he didn’t change. Like me, he always preferred to be alone and private with his subjects. There’s a ridiculous thing about a film crew; it’s a circus, in a bad sense. You lose so much purpose, reason and objectivity. Roberto Rossellini was the first to give us something from the private domain of human sensibility. His films were a shared secret.
Light Sensitive

Attitudes and opinions on movies, culture and sports, by Patrick Z. McGavin self-taught radical traditionalist

I came late to the movies of Pedro Costa. I discovered my considerable loss very quickly.

The first Costa film I ever saw was Colossal Youth at the official screening at Cannes in 2006. It took a little bit of time to understand or differentiate the characters. At some point I responded the same way I did the first time I read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.

That is, I simply stopped trying to understand it but simply surrendered to the hypnotic rhythms and absolutely astounding imagery.

That liberation made it all the more terrifying, demanding and exhilarating a viewing experience. Of all the films I saw at Cannes that year, it stayed with me in a way few films have. It was, predictably, a very hostile screening marked by multiple walk outs. In the interim a traveling American retrospective has made it possible to see every Costa film. I saw the other works in different order, and each had a powerful, primal impact. I had no idea, for instance, in watching Colossal Youth it marked the final piece of a trilogy and the character of Vanda (played, or incarnated, by Vanda Duarte) was a connecting bridge to the three works.

Costa resists almost any form of classification. The particular tension comes out of the dialectical rupture of the forms, the brilliant intertwining of documentary, fiction and some glorious combination that eludes easy capture.

He is an ethnographer with a brilliant feel for visual texture, composition and editing. His stories move to the halting, languorous internal rhythms and hesitant glances and static passivity of the poor and dispossessed, mostly émigrés from the former Portuguese colony Cape Verde, that comprise the bulk of the inhabitants of Fontainhas section of Lisbon.

This week, the essential New York DVD label Criterion has published in a beautifully appointed box set, Letters from Fontainhas, that collects the three films: Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, with a group of shorts by the director and a strong range of critical pieces, video essays and scholarly analysis of the work (and a string of excellent interviews between Costa and director Jean-Pierre Gorin).

Pedro Costa made himself available for a long phone interview from his office in Lisbon. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Patrick Z. McGavin: Is it fair to suggest, particularly with In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, your way of working is closer to that of a sculptor, painter or novelist.

Pedro Costa: Sometimes when I see some colleagues, people shooting in the streets, it seems a bit different, almost two different worlds. A friend said to me once: “I have six more assistants than what I need.” I don’t know if it’s closer to a painter or sculptor. My way of working, more recently, has been the kind of ideal research, something closer to anthropology or social work.

The idea is to go a little bit beyond other parallel sources of interest because more and more I feel very limited or unhappy when I’m just thinking about the shot, or art. All of this new wave [of directors he is associated with, like Jia Zhang-ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul], this thing that I found was very precious was the feeling of being a bit more connected to reality. When I thought something didn’t work for me, I thought we’ve lost this sort of small confrontation with reality.

Film is a realistic art, when you go beyond this realistic, it’s not quite fake or unrealistic, but cinema becomes a bit lost. Every shot, every edit, becomes a bit too vague. If you work closely to some sort of tangible reality, it becomes a bit stronger.

McGavin: The soundtrack of all three films is quite stunning.

Costa: I was used to a much more constrained image and sound, especially the sound. [In the earlier films] everything was done a little bit after [shooting] by the sound director; sometimes by somebody was already doing another film. The neighborhood and the community are so rich. I have the impression that [the sound director] is doing a film because of the freedom of the shooting. The sound director can go out on his own and stop by and give you an idea for a shot.

People see the shots and image and the light, you can see the way I [used] less and less artificial light and got closer and closer to reality, or my impression of that place. We try to get closer and closer to that sound. It’s this very strange mix of the private and public. Sometimes a room is more public or louder than a place where people talk, dance and sing; sometimes the streets are the opposite. You never know when it’s secret. It’s an interesting problem for film. For cinema, it’s always been like that. You have life.

McGavin: In Ossos, the first time I saw it, I felt a Hitchcockian quality to the work, especially to the women, because of the similarities to the faces and bodies. There’s a strong sense of transference from one to the other.

Costa: We saw it during the shooting; there was this sort of Vertigo morphing of the different actors. I was more or less conscious as the film advanced. I had a script, but I was consciously boycotting the script and obviously boycotting all the production I had. I really began mixing faces, names; I think it has to do with the closer you get to the end, the closer there’s a very particular void, blankness, or something that is nullifying sexually. In the movie sometimes the boy [Nuno Vaz] seems much more feminine than the women, and Vanda is much more masculine.

[Vaz] said things to me you’d never get that from actors. He said to me, “What’s the title of the film?” I told him, “Ossos.” He said, “Bones, of course. Guys like me, junkies, poor guys, and guys on the street, that’s the first thing you see in our faces.” Later, when he had serious doubts because he was heavily on drugs throughout the shooting, he said, “I don’t know if I can go on doing the film because I feel much weaker.” That made the whole last part of the film.

McGavin: The long tracking shot evokes Godard’s observation about tracking equaling morality. It’s great filmmaking, but it also immediately sizes up this world and the people, providing a very concrete sense of place.

Costa: I remember I thought about this shot and I said we have to have a moment, a sense of movement and this presence of the weight of his feet on the ground. It was a little complex to do technically. Immediately after doing two or three takes, all the crew had the impression that we had something very solid; we made something and you can see it.

It’s not just a junkie walking. It goes to his mind, his body, the way he walks; he has this plastic bag that gives the scene it a little bit of menace, a feeling of something that’s not quite right.

McGavin: Vanda Duarte is an important linking figure in all three films. She plays an important dramatic role in Ossos and plays a variation of herself in the two other works. How did you meet her?

Costa: The first time I saw her I was just around the neighborhood, trying to think if I should do a film there or not. I was mostly hanging around young guys. Slowly some ideas formed and I thought I have to do this film voyage with people of my generation. I saw the boy first, and then I had the girls to find.Vanda resists everything. This seems almost mystical, this first moment we met. I took photographs just to remind myself of the people. I took a photograph of this girl I didn’t know; she was bending over in this very small alley very close to her house.

She was holding a quite big kitchen knife and she was trying to repair or open the sewer. And she did it. I tried to explain to her we’re trying to do a film here, and would she want to be involved and she said no immediately. She said, “I have too much to do.” This photograph was published in a book in France. Here was a girl [who] was obviously a junkie, or somebody with problems.

Here is a girl destroying herself and at the same time repairing the neighborhood. I thought of the Lubitsch film, Cluny Brown with Jenny Jones and the hammers. That was Vanda, she was very practical who had no time to play around with movies. That was what I wanted, a woman that was not gentle and somebody that could resist me very strongly.

She was rather beautiful at the time, I always thought. I had to insist, and I had to go back, weeks and weeks. She said, “You must probably want my sister [Zita Duarte]. My sister is the film star.” I said, “I want you both.” I started having all the cast and all the places we were going to shoot, and as we began approaching the shooting, she finally said yes. She said, “This is such a sad moment of my life. It was the worst moment of my life. Perhaps it will distract me.”

McGavin: You’ve acknowledged the classicism of Ford, and the compositional way Ventura is arrayed against landscapes and buildings in Colossal Youth evokes Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine.

Costa: There are films in one’s life, the same case, special films that you can never repeat again. Even Vanda said to me, “This Vanda is dead. She’s as dead as the neighborhood.” With Colossal Youth we had to change and do something different. Slowly, with this very expanded shooting which took almost two years, the form of the film was very ambitious.

I’m always quoting Hawks or Ford, or Anthony Mann. When I was a teenager watching Mann, Hawks and Ford, I always had this feeling with desert, Arizona, the mountains, the landscapes, those open air scenes were the most claustrophobic or the more reclusive. They felt like they were being shot in a cave or monastery. That lesson I remembered and I kept, especially with Colossal Youth.

[That authoritative sense] comes from Ventura, who’s so imposing. He has this very important thing [like Fonda or John Wayne]. You believe in him. He says, “I’ve done this. I’ve worked here. I loved this guy. I killed a man.” His past is so huge. He has this capacity in all [people of Fontainhas]. He was probably the only guy in the neighborhood capable of representing all of them.

When we showed the film to people close to the neighborhood, one of the most beautiful compliments I ever received came from a young guy, a left-wing rapper. He went straight to Ventura. “I saw you walking along the streets, half crazy, drunk, and falling to pieces and now I see you in this screen. Thank you.” What I’m doing is not just putting myself there with my sensibility but I’m trying to balance that with their sensibility.

McGavin: Casa de lava (Down to Earth) is not part of the collection, but it’s an important transition between your early work and these films.

Costa: If it weren’t for that film, I probably would be doing what my colleagues are doing. I’d be doing more expensive [commercial] projects. Without Casa de lava, there’d be no other films. It was the film that gave me the direction. They gave me the addresses and they just told me they’d never see me again. They’d say, “Take this message to my mother. Take this package of tobacco to my father.” They are all immigrants in this place. That’s how I found Fontainhas. You’d probably never go there. It’s almost a destiny, the key to the other films.

McGavin: You said in a lecture in Tokyo “Mizoguchi, Ozu, Griffith and Chaplin are the greatest documentary directors, and thus the greatest directors of life, of reality.” Is this how you’d characterize your own work, or does your work stand outside received forms?

Costa: Saying the things I say about these guys, we have to take care of this minimum contact. I’m not avoiding that [style of realism] through effects, scripts. It’s very difficult to explain, it’s like talking about editing. The people, the figures, the models, what I take as my human models and beings, they’re so fragile and so powerful. They belong to 80 percent of humanity. I have this feeling that much more than me they really take care of memory, they take their memory inside of them.

They’re containers of memory. Through the years of memory, by that I mean imagination. That’s the kind of imagination I need. That’s my material. That’s my scenario. It’s so powerful; it’s magnificent, interesting and as funny and tragic as anything by Lubitsch and scriptwriter [Samson] Raphaelson. They have everything, the tragedy, the illusions and a sense of something that was lived and that is there. They can name dates and things. My work is close to a collage, even a kind of surrealistic collage.

There’s no danger of going awkward or fake. Sometimes it doesn’t work, cinematically or in terms or narration. I think they protect themselves so well. I’ve thought about this a long time. Memory is their religion. It’s the only thing left for them. They don’t have money or a future. They don’t believe in democracy, but the dead and what’s behind them and some happiness.

McGavin: All your films seem of a part. Perhaps you didn’t conceive them this way, but is it possible to think of Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? and Ne change rien as bookend pieces, an entry point into the private realm of artists making art.

Costa: I was not looking for either one of them. They were both proposals. Jeanne said to me, “Let’s do something.” In both films, they’re in studios, editing rooms, other rooms, and places of research. You do this film with girls and guys in rooms. With [Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet] they are the filmmakers that have been the most influential to me. They’re my favorite filmmakers.

I need even the danger of not knowing of what to do next or tomorrow or something will not be there. It’s not metaphorical. I have to go beyond something and go beyond the documentary, around an artistic process and bringing it closer to this period. It’s very concrete, very material; you have to go through these motions, this grammar, but there’s this mystery, something else. There’s something else I always search for.

McGavin: Do you have any new films you are working on?

Costa: I’m going back slowly, not to Fontainhas, but that’s a memory. Ventura will be a part of the new film. It will be an all-male operation, like The Lost Patrol. The guys are telling me every five minutes. “Let’s not shoot here. We have shown this awful place.

Let’s do the thing somewhere else.” I have this slight suspicion we’re getting closer to some imaginary space, a little bit like theater. Every time I think about memory and the past, I say where, and they say, “Everywhere.”

sexta-feira, 9 de abril de 2010

Durante o trabalho

por Carlos Melo Ferreira

Dizer que “Ne Change Rien, o último filme de Pedro Costa (2009), é um filme belíssimo não diz quase nada e é, no entanto, a estrita verdade.
Rodado em mini DV a cores, o filme foi passado a preto e branco durante a montagem e pode considerar-se decisiva essa opção do cineasta, já que o preto e branco marca o filme de forma indelével, tornando-se indissociável dele. Se um sopro narrativo romântico atravessa aquilo que poderia ser um simples, embora muito livre, documento de ensaios de Jeanne Balibar, tal fica a dever-se em grande medida a essa decisão tardia, que explica que a fotografia surja como escura e sombria, num preto e branco muito distante do da primeira longa-metragem do cineasta, “O Sangue” (1989). Ora é o regime visual assim criado que, em primeiro lugar, liberta os fantasmas que atravessam o filme a partir das figuras, das vozes, da música tocada e cantada.
Mas a própria sequência das imagens e dos sons, que acaba por se estruturar, na segunda parte do filme, nos ensaios de “La Périchole”, opereta de Jacques Offenbach, torna fulgurante a passagem do mero registo passivo dos ensaios de uma banda ou de um concerto, a que o cinema para o pior e para o melhor já nos habituou, para um tom de insinuada narrativa de amores frustres e perseguidos, em fuga. Não chega a haver uma linha narrativa expressa, mas as próprias canções, as letras delas, as palavras trocadas entre a cantora e os membros da banda que a acompanha, mesmo as sonoridades musicais ganham, graças à montagem, uma vida nova, que lhes dá sentido e cria o sentido do filme.
De facto, “Ne Change Rien” arranca sobre “Peines perdues” e aí vai regressar para a fabulosa sequência de imagens que culmina com o plano das duas japonesas (uma das quais se levanta e sai no final), e a partir daí vai ser o ensaio de Offenbach, com a sua encenação própria, que vai dominar, regressando recorrentemente, para se preparar um final em perda a partir de “Ton Diable”. Esta simples arrumação formal permite que se soltem os fantasmas que habitam aquelas imagens a preto e branco e aqueles sons, vozes e música, que remetem de forma inequívoca para a história, o passado do cinema, nomeadamente para essa figura incontornável dos filmes de Pedro Costa que é Jacques Tourneur. Com efeito, sob as referências expressas a John Ford, nas figuras do pianista e do homem que atravessa a porta no final do ensaio de Offenbach, e a Nicholas Ray, na sugestão do par em fuga (o momento em que Jeanne canta “Johnny Guitar” é de puro encantamento cinematográfico, já que então ela canta com todas as vozes que para nós cantaram essa canção), aquilo que mais fortemente se desprende da pessoa da cantora e actriz durante o filme é a sua metamorfose, as transformações que ela sofre de canção em canção, de tentativa em ensaio, de plano em plano e no interior do mesmo plano, sem que, todavia, seja mostrado nada mais além dela e dos que a rodeiam no estúdio. Apenas se verifica que o preto e branco lhe acentua os contornos e traços do rosto, que ganham uma ainda maior, excepcional expressividade, que lhe anima o corpo e que o corpo dela anima, o que se torna vertiginoso quando modulado pelas pálpebras dela quando se fecham, pelos olhos dela quando abertos, atentos ou cansados, vivos e atravessados, também eles, pela ligeira ironia proveniente dos seus lábios. Ora, como se sabe, a metamorfose é uma figura central nos filmes fantásticos de Jacques Tourneur.
Outra coisa que impressiona e merece toda a atenção é a insistência de Pedro Costa nos planos fixos e longos, que permitem ritmar um filme centrado em canções e música de forma diferente e que são uma constante da obra dele, especialmente trabalhada a partir de “No quarto da Vanda” (2000). Esse facto vai permitir acentuar o cenário fechado, de estúdio, em que os ensaios decorrem, em que a porta visível dá para os bastidores e apenas através das vidraças de uma janela se vislumbra, por momentos, o exterior. Mas dentro desse espaço e durante esses ensaios passam-se imensas coisas entre as personagens (cantora e banda, cantora e ensaiadora, cantora, outros cantores, o pianista), mas delas destaca-se uma enorme quantidade e variedade de emoções da própria cantora, prodigiosa Jeanne Balibar, que é quem em primeiro lugar o cineasta trabalha, quem em primeiro lugar ele capta durante o trabalho. E se no início a figura dela, rosto e braços, se recortava contra um fundo escuro que uma luz ou um reflexo dela pontuavam - e todo o trabalho de iluminação dos rostos e dos espaços é, durante essa primeira parte, de uma grande precisão -, para o final as paredes surgem mais claras, mais iluminadas, e a figura dela, sempre vestida de escuro, passa a recortar-se contra elas, acompanhando a tendência para planos mais afastados, mais abertos.
Faltará ainda uma referência, que se afigura capital. De facto, “Ne Change Rien” é feito contra os hábitos dos espectadores do comum, e tantas vezes banal, cinema comercial de hoje, e vai insistir num distanciamento que vem dos filmes anteriores do cineasta, a que, no entanto, quer o som ruidoso da banda, quer a voz, ora hesitante, ora justa da cantora, não dão tréguas. Assim, se o preto e branco do filme cria, por si mesmo, um princípio de estranheza e de distanciamento, que a duração em geral longa dos planos acentua, tudo isso é abalado nas suas próprias bases pelo que se diz, pelo que se canta e se toca, pelo sentido que tudo isso faz, que é também sugestivo de narrativa, de narrativas fragmentárias no contexto fílmico criado.
Chamando as coisas pelos nomes, o distanciamento abertamente criado neste filme tem, como nos anteriores filmes do cineasta, um tom que é trabalhado pela influência dos Straub, que ele filmou em “Où gît votre sourire enfoui?” (2001), mas também por uma influência muito godardiana, manifesta na configuração da sugestão dos fugitivos numa narrativa lacunar - que, se vem de “Os Filhos da Noite”/“They Live By Night”, de Ray (1948), passa também pelo inaugural “O Acossado”/”À Bout de Souffle”, a longa-metragem de estreia de Jean-Luc Godard (1960) - e na liberdade de trabalhar autonomamente imagens e sons, presente em trabalhos mais recentes dele, nomeadamente naqueles que fez em vídeo a partir da década de 70 do século passado. Agora que esse trabalho sobre imagens e sons venha introduzir um novo princípio de fascinação, elaborado de forma diferente do que é usual no cinema, será já uma outra questão, que haverá que relacionar com as sugestões narrativas mas também com o excelente trabalho com o fora de campo - a longa sequência da lição de canto, em que a cantora treina, ensaia o seu “instrumento”, a sua voz, é a este respeito prodigiosa, e se não é caso único na obra do cineasta terá tudo que ver também com a inspiração em (e a influência de) Andy Warhol.
Profundamente trabalhado pela memória do cinema, em “Ne Change Rien” Pedro Costa filma Jeanne Balibar, já por duas vezes actriz em filmes de Jacques Rivette, em si mesma, por si mesma e sem tropeçar de ternura por ela, mas também como uma continuação, uma rememoração e uma nova síntese das mulheres que filmou antes, de Inês Medeiros, Isabel de Castro, Edith Scob, Isabel Ruth até, mais recentemente, Vanda e Zita Duarte, Danièle Huillet. Nesse aspecto (dir-se-ia que sobretudo, embora não exclusivamente nesse aspecto), o filme é também uma fabulosa súmula da obra do cineasta até agora.
Deste modo, o mais recente filme de Pedro Costa, para além de belíssimo, como se disse inicialmente, confirma o seu autor como um dos mais importantes cineastas deste início de século. Uma parte absolutamente imprescindível do melhor cinema actual passa pelos filmes dele, está a passar por aqui.

Revista "Cinema", nº 41.

quinta-feira, 8 de abril de 2010

Pedro Costa on the Secrets of Warhol

By Eugene Kotlyarenko 03/30/2010 07:10 AM

As far as epic minimalism in film goes, Andy Warhol both laid the ground work and set the standard. His prolific mid-1960s output defined very straightforward single-take films depicting exactly what their titles imply—Sleep (1963, 321 minutes), Empire [The Empire State Building] (1964, 485 minutes), Taylor Mead's Ass (1965, 70 minutes). With the introduction of synchronized sound, he added another layer of realism and meaning to his aggrandizement of mundane reality and produced classics like Chelsea Girls and the Paul Morrissey directed trilogy of Flesh, Trash, and Heat.

While the films' receptions were famously divisive at the time—reviled by some critics and avant-garde filmmakers (director Stan Brakhage), celebrated by others (Jonas Mekas)—looking at the films now, it is easy to spot the origins for what is popular international festival and art house scenes. In the same way, you could trace almost every sub-genre of alternative rock music to a song by the Velvet Underground. Long takes, simple scene-to-scene editing, fetishization of fringe-society lifestyles, the successful illusion that people are simply being filmed and not performing a rehearsed and written role—these are the qualities of the best recognized international films today. From the formal minimalism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-Liang and Jia Zhangke, to the "realism" of the Dardenne brothers and the tenets behind the mostly-aborted Dogme95 experiment—Warhol's films can make a not-unjust claim to be the seminal ancestor.

Among this cadre of filmmakers stands Pedro Costa, whose decision to film his last three major works (In Vanda's Room, Colossal Youth, Ne Change Rien) mostly by himself with a digital video camera has resulted in an entrancing minimalist style, which allows characters' realities to unfurl before our eyes, completely subservient to the primacy of the image. Recently in discussing his trilogy, shot in the Cape Verdean shantytown of Lisbon (released today by Criterion as "Letters from Fontainhas"), the director, devoted cineaste and occasional lecturer, spoke about the foundations of his metaphorical "filmhouse" and the special room reserved for Warhol.

EUGENE KOTLYARENKO: Two movies I thought of when watching crack addicts sit and talk for long stretches in In Vanda's Room were Andy Warhol's Trash (the definitive rumination on junkie life) and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann (following the daily exploits of a Belgian housewife.)

COSTA: I have to confess Trash is not one of my favorites.

KOTLYARENKO: I can understand that, but I'd be surprised if it never crossed your mind.

COSTA: Yes, well, of course Akerman and Warhol and [Jean-Marie] Straub and Godard and more... Everything has its place in my filmhouse. Actually it's exactly like a house. It has the foundations that I cannot avoid—The Chaplins, The Fords, the Ozus and the Mizoguchis. You have to go there one way or another—every filmmaker does. Then you can go into the rooms. And a room that I'm very drawn to is that of Warhol.

KOTLYARENKO: What about it is special to you?

COSTA: I'm a bit afraid to talk about him because I don't know anything about Warhol. No one does: He was the maximum of secrecy and the maximum of being public. It's interesting because he exhibits exactly the same thing that the town of Fontainhas does: he hides so well and he shows everything at the same time. The neighborhood and the people in it are exactly the same. They are absolutely isolated, elusive, secretive, lost and they can really disappear from one second to the other, they can die or vanish easily. But at the same time they shout, they show themselves, they like to be seen, they dance. This feature is one of cinema's foundations, too. How are we organizing the secrecy and what are we going to show in the film? And for me Warhol is the most consistent in that.

There is a certain gravitas to his work. It's not a weight... it's not serious or academic. His gravitas is very human, on the verge of death; all of the films I like have this dangerous quality and all of his Superstars are so fragile.

KOTLYARENKO: it seems that today, more than ever, people are looking at Warhol's films, from all types of backgrounds.

COSTA: Maybe, but he's never really shown like the typical classic filmmakers. I mean there are retrospectives, but every time I have a chance to see a Warhol film, half the theater walks out, just like in a Straub or an Akerman film. It's not like a painting in the MoMA —that people will see. But the films, well no one knows, no one cares.

KOTLYARENKO: Well, film is a time-based medium with a captive audience... you're not forced to sit for several hours in front a painting.

COSTA: Yes, but that time is where the greatness is. Much more than anything it is the gravity of mere seconds, that frighten me. Like in the middle of a long shot inChelsea Girls, just three or four seconds that are absolutely a matter of life and death. It's not the entire duration of the film that's important, it can be just that one second, and he knew that I think. I think he was a very rational guy. It seems like he was working with a kind of non-direction, but actually there is something there. In a film I absolutely love, Beauty #2, you hear the voice of a guy directing Edie Sedgwick, so there is direction and there is some mise en scene and everything goes towards a certain point in the film, a very serious moment. And those moments can be very frightening, exciting, or exhilarating. I'm very very enthusiastic about him.

KOTLYARENKO: I think with good reason.

COSTA: It's a shame that young people, don't see the films. It would be amazing to see Chelsea Girls and then John Ford's The Searchers. They're about the same thing.
Colossal Cinema: The Films of Pedro Costa

by Eugene Kotlyarenko 03/25/10

Scanning through the yellow pages of a phonebook, searching for the bits of crack residue that may have been left long ago, our hero, Vanda, lets out a cough for the ages. The sound is a proclamation of unbearable junkie misery, and a ferociously lived in human reality—one that the camera and its operator, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, refuses to romanticize. This moment, and many more bleak fragments of transcendence, make up In Vanda's Room, the second film in Costa's trilogy of life and near-death in a shantytown outside of Lisbon. Next week Criterion will release these rarely screened masterworks as a four-disc box set, called "Letters from Fontainhas."

The series begins with Ossos (1997), the story of an infant in the ghetto, and its ambivalent, deadbeat parents as they try to care for the child through a devestatingly reckless set of decisions. In many ways it is an exemplar of 90s European filmmaking with its combination of stark realism, elliptical storytelling, precisely tuned soundscape and muted, poetic visual minimalism. After reaching that apex through the conventional production avenues of a professional cast and crew, Costa still felt a dissatisfied separation from the world he had explored.

Digital video camera in hand, he set off to Fontainhas to spend some time with its residents - the supporting actors and extras from Ossos—and see if he could uncover a less mediated version of their lives. What he found was a place of despair and beauty, of addiction and survival, memory and destruction, real lives to capture and share. From that experience came In Vanda's Room (2000), a minimal masterpiece of drug addiction and family life, and Colossal Youth (2006), a poem-portrait of a displaced society, noosed by its past and in the midst of an uncertain future. Both are towering accomplishments that speak to the untapped beauty of the digital video image and the potential for a lone filmmaker to make something as epic and rich as any Hollywood production. With their intimate access to real lives and thoughtful consideration of formal and structural concerns, Costa's latter films exist on the tightrope between documentary realism and fictional storytelling, exploring a rarely visited territory of cinema. Several months ago, both were selected to Film Comment's list of "Top 100 Movies of the Decade."

Recently, Costa discussed his responsibilities to the neighborhood, and the difficulties of the rock music movie:

EUGENE KOTLYARENKO: Have you returned to Fontainhas to visit the people from the films?

PEDRO COSTA: Of course. After all of this it would be treason not to go there...

KOTLYARENKO: Do you go there without your camera; would that be a treason to yourself as a filmmaker, knowing the richness of the location and the people?

COSTA: Sure, my friends and I, the small crew who did the films, go together. I'm an honorary member of the neighborhood association. My friend who does the sound was appointed a councilor of the new housing bloc. We have these kind of extravagant tasks that we accept, and we go back—without cameras, without mics. I go to community meetings, discussions every weekend, and I'm only away from there when I'm shooting or promoting something else.

KOTLYARENKO: When you were making these films did you think about a specific audience in mind? Do you consider the reaction of the people involved more than your regular international film audience?

COSTA: It will sound pretentious, but I'm not really thinking... Though I am aware I have a certain mixed responsibility to this community. Even if I'm just filming a composition of Vanda or Ventura [the protagonists of the latter two films] alone in a bed, drinking or smoking, I know that she will be judged, he will be judged and I will be judged, as representations of the community. And it's tricky and raises some serious questions, because, as you know, sometimes they do drugs or they are a bit irrational. So there are image problems that are serious. I think about that of course, and I know every time I point a camera at one of them there are actually 5000 guys in that shot. Sometimes the actor feels it too—something proud, something collective, you know a voice—and when it comes across, it can be very nice. And probably more than that I'm talking about 80 percent of our planet—India or the Southern United States, Mexico, Asia, it's not very different.

KOTLYARENKO: In the second film, In Vanda's Room, there's a certain question of authenticity in the characters' behavior and backstories. There is talk of the construction and destruction of the neighborhood and we hear that Vanda's father operated a bulldozer. Later, in Colossal Youth, we find out that Ventura is her father and a former construction worker. Is his role of construction/destruction something you wrote in, or is that something true from Vanda's life?

COSTA: (LAUGHS) What can I say? Vanda, her sister, her mother, her father, all white from the north of Portugal, came and built this shack in Fountainhas in the 60s. Her father was a drunk who quickly abandoned Vanda's mother and Vanda as a baby. But yes, he actually worked building houses, that was the best pay you could find. I never met the guy, but Vanda told me that he was a policeman for some time. And this is one of those true clichés: that men are construction workers and women, as you see in Ossos, are cleaning ladies or cooks. All the stories in the films are based on these clichés that are true, and we—I wouldn't say create or invent—but we play around with these associations, which sometimes can be funny. Ventura, a black Cape Verdean, claims to be her father, which is unlikely, but he was like her father, and he had the same kind of life and the same kind of connection and understanding.

KOTLYARENKO: Further discussing these issues of realism, in Ossos Tina listens to the band Wire. As I watched, I wondered "Does she legitimately listen to Wire?" In In Vanda's Room we hear the song "I've Got the Power," first in the background and then louder in subsequent shots. Even though it is so perfectly ironic to the disenfranchised situation in Fontainhas, I never questioned that it was really being listened to by the residents of the shantytown.

COSTA: Of course with these movies, I showed their lives, but they show a lot of my life too, as a filmmaker and as someone who lived there and evolved there. Definitely they didn't all listen to Wire. What was playing all the time was hip hop, rap or Metallica and Pantera [LAUGHS], things that I will never put in my films. So I brought the CD first to the community, and I played the track "Lowdown" before the shoot, and everyone who heard it wanted a copy of the CD. After that, they all had CDs of Wire and the Buzzcocks. Of course we exchange things.

KOTLYARENKO: You end In Vanda's Room with an uncredited piece of classical music. What was the idea behind putting a scored piece of music at the end of this very spartan, unconventional film?

COSTA: The music is by a living Hungarian composer, [György] Kurtág. I had this record I used to listen to and I remembered his piece, "Elegy for a Departed Friend," a 1-minute, 13-second fragment that I liked a lot. The decision was to give the [people of Fontainhas] something from our side. Saying, "I was not born here, I am not black, I am not poor, I am not from this social class, even." It's like an homage from everybody behind the camera, taking something from a Hungarian classical composer who studied with Schoenberg in Vienna, and seeing if this thing has a place in the film and this world, with these guys who use heroin and crackheads and Cape Verdeans. I think it has a place. I think it ends the film in an unexpected way and it's very moving for me. In music you have a conventional piece called an "offering," the music you give to people, and even though we didn't compose it, we still gave it to them.

In Colossal Youth I did something similar when Ventura goes to the museum and we show paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Ventura is at home there and he should be, he built the museum; it's his floor, it's his ground, his walls, his stones. He's just lucky they hung a Rubens there.

Those are the kinds of meetings between famous men that I like. Like that beautiful book by Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I mean Ventura, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vanda... it's a beautiful thing with film, if you can abolish class and status, it's very utopian. You can still accomplish some revolutions in film, but not in life I'm afraid.

KOTLYARENKO: There is a solitude to your filmmaking process. Do you feel akin to certain other contemporary filmmakers?

COSTA: We all know each other because in the last 20 years the festival circuit has developed, and we all go on it. Just the other day I saw Harmony [Korine] and we had a drink and he's a great guy. It's nice to know that we are contemporary to some things, that we live in the same time. With my friends in China working and working well, like Jia Zhangke. The films are like letters that we send to each other. But we are very shy, we cannot talk about our films, but we go see them and it's comforting to know that far away some guy is trying to do something with a girl in the room...

KOTLYARKENKO: You have been working on a project outside of Fontainhas.

COSTA: That's finished and came out in several European countries. There will probably be a small commercial run in America. It's a musical film [Ne Change Rien] I did with a French actress and singer, Jeanne Balibar. It's something I've been filming every weekend for five years. I shouldn't say this to a magazine because everyone thinks rock music in film is a marvelous story, but it's a very sad story. Rock is always there in the background to illustrate robbing a bank, when you're killing your mother or taking drugs. The rock soundtrack comes up when the camera turns upside down and becomes psychedelic. I don't use music a lot in my films. I'm not Tarantino—I like Tarantino's films—but we are working in very different situations. The scene shouldn't have the need to have a crutch of music to hold everything together; I'm trying to see if it holds together without that. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but that's not a reason to go search your CD collection and see what about this, or what about that.

And with films about rock, it's very poor what we have, besides four or five movies, Godard with the Stones [Sympathy for the Devil], Robert Frank with the Stones [Cocksucker Blues], two or three things with Bob Dylan (not Scorsese's No Direction Home), and I like the Neil Young film he did himself, playing just on video, which is very beautiful.

KOTLYARENKO: Which Neil Young, the Jarmusch film [Year of the Horse]?

COSTA: I'm not saying anything bad about that film and Jim Jarmusch is a nice man, but that is exactly what I wanted to avoid. These kind of films-the Jarmusch, the Scorsese, hundreds of rock films—there's nothing to take away form those movies. I wanted to do something different. I tried. At least [in Ne Change Rien] you see how a song is born, and the joy, desperation, and suffering of that moment. That's the film I made and that's the film I hope you can see in NY or LA. It's far removed from my other films but it's done in the same method: small crew, no money, everybody's happy, no police, no guys shouting silence; just four musicians hard at work. All of the movies have a laboratory mentality—In Ne Change Rien it's a studio and you see people searching for something: a chord, a sound an idea. And In Vanda's Room it is the the same thing. She was searching for an emotion, a word, something that could express her feelings. At the same time I was searching for a shot, the composition, a spot for the camera, my place in that room.