sexta-feira, 10 de setembro de 2010

Cem Mil Cigarros: Os Filmes de Pedro Costa / A Hundred Thousand Cigarettes: The Films of Pedro Costa, edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo (Lisbon: Orfeu Negro, 2009)

Reviewed by Sabrina Marques

A Hundred Thousand Cigarettes is an anthology, organized and prefaced by Ricardo Matos Cabo, built around the cinematic work of the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa. The growing visibility of Costa's legacy – a fundamental reference point in contemporary cinema – has generated a fortunate profusion of discussions of his work. Thus, Matos Cabo gathers many authors: some of them already familiar with Costa's work, others describing the novelty of their discovery. The result is an admirable publication, bolstered by several articles, commentaries and critical notes that cross distinct registers in order to narrate "the forms of persistence and evidence of Pedro Costa's cinema, today."

In the foreword notes in this retrospective book – in fact, the first book of its kind shaped around the filmmaker – we can find a statement of objective purposes: "to cement and fix resonances of diverse magnitude, made possible by a retrospective vision of [Costa's] work, in a particular moment of critical production around it." Although this book doesn't aim to be a thesis on the reception of his films (as Matos Cabo indicates in the preface), the gathered voices seem to merge into an echo of general esteem for the filmmaker's achievement. These are dedicated attempts to explain an adventurous commitment, a poetic wandering inside a rich film universe, whose forms visibly transcend simple categorization. A formal appeal arises from the widespread zigzag of these authors' particular approaches, supported by their achronological experiences inside Costa's filmography.

The book sets its course through more than thirty texts, most of which were originally written for this collective project, signed by critics, essayists and artists from all over the world. Joining these articles is a photographic essay by Richard Dumas, titled "Family Portraits."

The title A Hundred Thousand Cigarettes comes from a love letter written by Ventura in Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006), where he dreams of a distant future for two, when he would be able to offer his beloved (besides much else) that many cigarettes. The letter, which Ventura never sends in Juventude em Marcha, had previously appeared in Casa de Lava (1994), among Edite's mysterious belongings. This letter's irregular calligraphy gives the book its distinctive cover. It belongs to Ventura, and he wrote it by heart for the book. Because, in every single film where these words float, the letter is never actually shown. It was, in fact, Costa who composed this document, bringing together the real letter of an immigrant worker and a letter signed by the surrealist writer Robert Desnos, the latter written sixty years before Costa's project. When asked about the strong presence of the letter in his films, Costa recognizes that he chose the poet's letter due to the circumstances that frame its origin: "Desnos wrote it when he was in a concentration camp. It's his last love letter. In fact, he knows that he's going to die – and he died. This letter always seemed to me the last letter. It fitted the film we were doing, Juventude em Marcha. Ventura had to say some marvelous things and, among them, there was this letter."

Jacques Rancière, in his text "The Politics of Pedro Costa," considers the letter's significance as a "circulation between here and elsewhere" born from the lack of concrete property, of a receiver or sender of these written, vain promises. In fact, the recurrence of this letter reflects the symbolic persistence of elements that cross Costa's work, in various enunciated aspects. Retrospectively internalized, the strength of Costa's films reinforces itself through the continuity of its icons; the common remembrance of certain sequences shows the reverberation of something permanent in his cinema.

In fact, many paragraphs would be necessary to properly comment on each one of the texts composed for this book, attending to the variety of their specific details, intense descriptions and lively arguments. The book's structure suggests, as Matos Cabo announces, a "path taken in two movements." On the one hand, "a first sequence of monographic texts that look over his work, starting with O Sangue [Blood, 1989], which is still a preliminary film, continued by the cycle begun by Casa de Lava, followed by Ossos [Bones, 1997], No Quarto da Vanda [In Vanda's Room, 2000], Juventude em Marcha and completed, for the present moment, with A Caça ao Coelho com Pau [The Rabbit Hunters, 2007]." On the other hand, there's a second group of texts that focus on "the filmmaker's working method, via notes and detailed descriptions," reflect on the "thought in action of the filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, in Onde Jaz o Teu Sorriso [Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?, 2001]," and introduce other dimensions of Costa's œuvre: such as his use of sound and his gallery work.

A magnificent, highly pertinent inaugural essay is signed by the recently deceased João Bénard da Costa, titled "Black Is a Color, or The Cinema of Pedro Costa" (to translate this title is already to scratch the semantic ambiguity of the Portuguese language, which this critic embraces). This sensuous and synaesthetic general approach to the work carries us to directly to color, or its absence, and places us, alternately, inside the black or the white, with the proviso that Costa's work that "has to be seen in the deep dark, for it's only in that darkness that it may be seen in its astonishing brightness."

Also part of this general stream is Andy Rector, in an article named "Pappy: The Recollection of Children," who brilliantly illuminates the fraternal meeting of Costa's exiles, indicating Juventude em Marcha to be "unique at this moment in the history of cinema for enacting the dispossessed's repossession of the cinema."

Some texts shape themselves around the particular focus on a single film, like Jean-Pierre Gorin's remarkable "Nine Notes on Onde Jaz o Teu Sorriso." The essay lyrically recalls the silhouettes of Straub and Huillet cut out from "the editing room's penumbra," indicating the poetic presence of the film's single source of light on Huillet's editing screen. An idea, subscribed to by Costa, of a "film illuminated, not necessarily inspired, by the Straubs." Gorin praises the film's "untiring interest in the sweat, the combat that it implies, giving itself to the task of making them perceptible," and underlines how essential Costa's off-screen presence is in "allow[ing] the articulation of drama" and in "obtain[ing] extraordinary live footnotes from their work."

In effect, under the aegis of an authors' reunion, there takes place a eulogistic insertion of Costa's universe inside several crystallized spectrums, among a vast range of emblematic names. His films are energetically crossed by recurrent indications of influence, many of them recognized by Costa himself. Countless parallels are drawn with the diverse names of John Ford, Jacques Tourneur, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Robert Bresson, and Fritz Lang, among others. Painting is evoked as well, via astonished reports of Costa's knack of capturing portraits.

Costa's connection with Straub and Huillet acquires an obvious significance, which is particularly detailed and confronted in Tag Gallagher's text "Straub Anti-Straub." The author eloquently discusses the visible correspondence and divergence of Costa's specific manner in relation to that of Straub and Huillet.

In a deeply theoretical essay titled "'All Modern Art May Be Called Montage': On the Necessity of Art in a Materialist Context," Nicole Brenez is able to identify the materialistic and interventionist quality of Costa's work. This quality saves cinema's original proletarian provenance, taking part in a engaged pact that involves several influential names, such as Straub, often paraphrased: "The cinema is precisely for workers and peasants, it corresponds to something ... The cinema derives its impact from experiences which workers and peasants encounter daily, in their normal lives." [1] This important reflection allows us to notice the importance given to the process of dignifying humanity that can be found in Costa's cinema, led by a class's emancipation and its part in "elaborating the history of those who have no history, the workers, peasants, fighters." Proposing that "every work of art constitutes a laboratory of meaning," Brenez analyzes in detail the editing structures, devices, and experiences of Straub and Huillet as shown in Onde Jaz o Teu Sorriso.

In his accurate text "The Inner Life of a Film," Adrian Martin indicates this natural convocation of a "cinephile experience" in the presence of Costa's films, arguing that "what we see, growing in each of his films, and also across them, is a strange inner life," a multiplicative quality of persistence. Similarly, Shigehiko Hasumi, in "Adventure: An Essay on Pedro Costa," alludes to the intensity of certain sequences, a mysterious rhythm where the eye is caught: "Watching any of Pedro Costa's films grabs hold of our gaze and forces us to personally experience the motion of the film."

Philippe Lafosse, throughout an essay titled "But Why?", which is particularly organized around a searching look at the Straub-Huillet method, joins Rui Chafes (in his text "Sentenced to Life, Sentenced to Death") in meandering portraits of sincere particular experience, evoking open approaches while verbalizing the richness of sensations, preferences, and inclinations. The artist Jeff Wall also narrates immediate resonances in his "About Bones," describing the signs engraved by Costa's cinema in his own experience. This revisitation is followed by Luce Vigo's "Cape Verdeans in Lisbon: What Future?", an inspiring text expressly dedicated to evoking the full strength embodied in Ventura, the errant lead character of Juventude em Marcha.

Jacques Lemière, in "Land to Land: Pedro Costa's Portugal and Cape Verde," inserts Costa's work within the Portuguese cinematic panorama, in order to think through the symbolic consequences of Costa's confrontation with Portugal and its past and the increasing definition of his subversive consistency. To paraphrase Costa's "disenchantment" about his country is to introduce his need to escape, which led to Casa de Lava, and created the drama's forms. Lemière argues that Costa's discovery of Cape Verde (citing Costa, "the land that saved me from shipwreck") can give continuity to his subsequent work and mark the principles of a new stylistic development in his career. João Miguel Fernandes Jorge adds, in relation to Ossos, his own personal belief that "Portugal is this film, particularly: hunger, blacks and whites, undistinguishable in their common horizon of misery."

Chris Fujiwara, in his absorbing text "The Mystery of Origins," dwells on a sensory pattern dyed in red and lava, dream and desire, figurative feminine and love letters, as a molten counterpoint to the mutism of the "mutilated, sleepwalking bodies," that carry Casa de Lava's progression "at a tangent to the characters' lives, disavowing knowledge of their origins and destinations."

In "What Do These Film(s) Tell?," Bernard Eisenschitz crucially contributes a look at the less explored works of Costa, Tarrafal and The Rabbit Hunters, two films that "condense, in an exemplary mode, the formal structures and thematic orders of Pedro Costa's cinema," as Matos Cabo writes in the preamble.

Mark Peranson's text, "Listening to the Films of Pedro Costa; or Pedro Costa, Post-Punk Director" is devoted to the director's specificity in the application of music, particularly connected to reminiscences of punk, in the course of the director's self-acknowledged youthful melomania. Peranson's fundamental analysis of the narrative complexification of sound versus the depurated minimalism of images paves the way for a discussion of Costa's most recent work, Ne change rien (2009).

João Nisa signs the final notes, about a semi-invisible side of the filmmaker's work, his gallery and museum installations. The text, "From Film to Exhibition: Pedro Costa's Video Installations," shows a new freedom that follows the unplanned character of Costa's taste for prolongation and fits his "indoor concentration principle."

The more than three hundred pages of One Hundred Thousand Cigarettes conclude with a complete index of the artist's work (filmography and video installations), biographical notes on each author, and a selected bibliography. Throughout the book, the intersection of texts follows a true work of thematic crossing – the recurrence, among Costa's work, of words, gestures, feelings, objects, shots, spaces, characters. It is fascinating to experience this multidisciplinary dialogue on the modes of relation within such a universe, to understand responses and concordances, in relation to one of the most "polyphonic" genealogies known to present-day cinema.

Quotations have been sourced, where possible, from the English-language edition (hopefully forthcoming) of A Hundred Thousand Cigarettes; the rest have been translated from the Portuguese.

Sabrina Marques

Undercurrent #6