Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Wretched of the Earth (On Pedro Costa)

Broadly speaking, there are commercial movies and then there's everything else, films which sometimes get filed under categories like "avant-garde" or "experimental." Though none of them were exactly colossal hits, the first three features by Pedro Costa--O sangue (The Blood, 1989), Casa de lava (1994), and Ossos (Bones 1997)--are all nonetheless, technically speaking, commercial films in that they were shot on 35mm with a professional union crew; are a commercial length (in the area of ninety minutes); and most importantly, they all tell stories. Casa de lava (the only one of Costa's early films which I haven't seen) even features a recognizable star (Isaach de Bankolé, who's best known for appearing in films by such commercial figures as Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch), though reports that he and Costa nearly came to blows over the fact that his character spends almost the entire movie in a coma suggest that, even then, the director's methods were rather at odds with industry norms.

Though they both tell stories, O sangue and Ossos are both full of lingering ambiguities. The latter, set in a slum neighborhood in Lisbon, is about the interactions between three impoverished characters and a middle-class nurse who adopts each of them in turn. Early in the film, a teenage girl, Tina (Mariya Lipkina), brings home a baby boy from the hospital, and the father (Nuno Vaz), who isn't given a name, takes him to a downtown area to beg for money in front of a metro station. Just prior to this, there's a long lateral tracking shot of the father walking down a sidewalk, holding a garbage bag which may or may not contain the baby. Outside a pastry shop, a sympathetic nurse, Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), gives him milk for the baby and a sandwich for himself. But after feeding the baby milk and bread crumbs in an alley, he's shown rushing him to the emergency room. There, he tells Eduarda that, should the baby die, it's her fault for giving him "bad milk"--a statement typical of his refusal to take any kind of responsibility. (Eventually, he and the baby move into Eduarda's apartment. And later, he'll abandon the baby in a corridor.) Although he's shown following Eduarda as she walks away from the pastry shop, it's never explained how the father got her name.

The other major character is a neighbor of Tina's, Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), who eventually becomes Eduarda's maid. Clotilde isn't the most responsible person either; in one scene, her husband (Miguel Sermão) finds her at a party and tells her that her children haven't eaten. It's strongly implied that Clotilde, Tina, and the father are all drug addicts (at one point, the latter passes out on a bed, and Tina, in the middle of a suicide attempt, drags his unconscious body into the next room), but we never seen any direct evidence of drug use in the movie.

Costa favors a de-dramatized style of acting, which has the effect of making his actors seem at times like vacant zombies--an approach that works wonderfully in a movie about hopeless drug addicts living in abject poverty. (Some of the actors are old pros, such as Ruth, who's appeared in films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Manoel de Oliveira; but even the non-professional actors, like Duarte, who would go on to play herself in two of Costa's subsequent films, are here playing characters.) Writing about Costa's work, Jonathan Rosenbaum observes that his films aren't populated "so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw essences--souls, if you will" (and likens him in this regard to such exalted figures as Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur), but in a separate capsule review of Ossos notes that, "the Bressonian vacancy of the leads sometimes feels spooky rather than soulful." Like Philippe Garrel, Costa often lingers on his actors' faces in medium close-up as if they were painterly subjects, but even when the story comes to a halt, the film's dense ambient soundtrack is buzzing with offscreen activity.

To pursue a crude analogy between Costa and the marginal characters who populate his films, while mainstream figures such as Pedro Almodóvar, Noah Baumbach, Kathryn Bigelow, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese (to pick half a dozen names at random) can afford to live downtown, filmmakers like Costa are kept in a ghetto, invisible to the public. And just as a rich person can afford a bigger place, a huge blockbuster like James Cameron's Avatar (2009) will open on many more screens than a more specialized commercial movie, like Tom Ford's A Single Man (also 2009). If Costa started his career on the outskirts of commercial filmmaking--the Scarborough of cinema, if you will--with his fourth feature, In Vanda's Room (2000), it's as if he had dropped off the grid completely. Marking a radical break from the conventions of commercial cinema (which his earlier films at least nominally adhered to), this three-hour film was shot on video with a crew of less than five people, and it doesn't tell a story. A singular and unclassifiable work, it blurs the distinctions between fiction and documentary, as much of what we see looks like it's really happening. For instance, in contrast with Ossos, drug use is so ubiquitous here that very often one of the characters will be having a conversation while an unremarked upon syringe hangs out of his arm.

One might describe the movie as a kind of phenomenological documentary, in which each shot seems to say, "This is so." Included on the DVD as a bonus feature is Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female (2005), a video installation Costa made for a museum in Rotterdam incorporating footage from In Vanda's Room, which provides a window into how Costa shot the movie. On each side of a split screen, we see an unbroken take, of which only a small snippet was used in the feature. As the piece opens, we see on the left a building being demolished in the background, as passersby (who may or may not be aware that they're being filmed) move in and out of the frame; on the right, we see some of the film's stars doing nothing in particular. However, unlike a traditional, vérité-style documentary, which positions itself as an objective record of a pre-existing reality, Costa's film is reportedly a collaboration between himself and his actors, and the film's soundtrack is obviously constructed. During one scene in a living room, we hear a violin being tuned offscreen; Costa then cuts to a man tuning a violin, creating the illusion that the man is sitting in an adjacent space to the living room.

Structured as a series of days and nights in a slum neighborhood, the film is mainly about a woman named Vanda (Duarte), who--when she's not holed up in her room with her sister, Zita (Zita Duarte), smoking crack--goes door-to-door selling vegetables, and a neighbor of theirs', Nhurro, who's an intravenous drug user. As the film opens, Nhurro has just moved into a house whose previous tenant was a girl who tried to sell her baby, or left it in a trash can, or both, and gradually it's revealed that Vanda and Zita's sister has been sent to prison for some minor infraction, but there's nothing here that you could call a story (at least, not by the standards of a Robert McKee screenwriting seminar, the aim of such seminars being to make commercial films). Most of the film consists of the characters hanging out and getting high, tidying up (early on, Nhurro tells a fellow addict that he wants the place to be clean so they can feel at home), and trying to make money wherever they can.

For me, Costa's most difficult film is Colossal Youth (2006), even though, at first glance, it looks closer to a conventional narrative than In Vanda's Room as it has something like a protagonist, and indeed something like a plot. Again, the movie is structured as a series of days and nights in the life of its subject, Ventura (Ventura), a retired Cape Verdean laborer whose daily rounds involve visits to a loose assortment of wretched-of-the-earth types who comprise his adopted family. In an early scene, Ventura goes to the home of a young woman, Bete, who may or may not be his daughter, to tell her that his wife (whom we never see) has left him. Bete tells Ventura that he has the wrong house, but over the course of the film, the two gradually become more and more intimate.

What makes the film so difficult is Costa's willfully static staging of his actors, who remain seated or standing in one place during extremely long takes, and the trance-like quality of the performances (in contrast with the more naturalistic and energetic performances of In Vanda's Room). As David Bordwell often points out, when we look at other people, our gaze is instinctively drawn to high information areas like faces and hands, and looking at Colossal Youth a second time, I was able to downgrade my attention enough to focus on what the actors were doing particularly with their hands. The high point of the film in this regard is a long monologue delivered by a recovering drug addict, Vanda (Duarte), relating the pain of childbirth, in which her way of talking with her hands helps the viewer to imagine the scene she's describing. This sort of downgrading inevitably leads one to the question: Is this really the best use I could be making of my time, focusing so much attention on every minute gesture these people make? The film made me realize how most commercial movies are filled with big, exciting events, which are presumed to be the only ones worthy of our time and attention. (Accordingly, when I saw Lone Scherfig's An Education [2009] a few months back, I was disappointed that the heroine didn't suffer more.) Still, even after downgrading my attention, as the film went on I found myself becoming increasingly restless, and I'm left wondering: What makes the difference between an interesting downgrade movie, like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and one that's simply boring and a waste of time?

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