segunda-feira, 12 de abril de 2010

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.”