Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Pedro Costa

A few quick notes about Pedro Costa’s 1997 film, Bones (“Ossos”), which I’ve seen twice in the last week.

  • A vivid setting: the Fontainhas district of Lisbon, a slum populated by Cape Verdean immigrants. A young woman becomes a mother and can’t or won’t take care of her baby. Without the mother’s permission, the father takes the baby out of the slum and into the city. But the lead character in the film is neither the mother nor the father but a housecleaning woman, Clotilde, played by Costa regular Vanda Duarte. The actors are nonprofessionals that Costa found living in poverty in that neighborhood.

  • Bones is the first film of a loose trilogy. In the second film, In Vanda’s Room (2000), Duarte plays herself, a heroin addict. Much of that three-hour film takes place in her ten-foot-square room, and is shot on DV. Soon afterwards, the Fontainhas neighborhood was demolished, and the residents relocated by the government to a low-income housing project. The third film, Colossal Youth, deals with this displacement. It shows next week in Toronto.

  • Bones is both documentary (‘real’ people living in ‘real’ settings) and fiction (it’s carefully scripted and rehearsed). The Fontainhas homes are underlit, with cracked walls painted in severely faded green and blue. Clotilde works cleaning houses in a far-away middle-class neighborhood, where the walls are white, and the homes are brightly lit. Ironic: Clotilde—and her physical features, her clothes, her gestures—are more clearly visible to us in these homes of privilege than in her own dingy bedroom and kitchen.

  • The movie is aggressively elliptical. The assembling of the film seems to be based on some private, enigmatic logic. The cuts sometimes seem like non-sequiturs, as if they were connecting nodes (shots) in an open diagram. J. Hoberman on Costa: “a Straubian neorealist.” Mark Peranson on Costa: “a neo-surrealist.”

  • There are extended shots of characters still and posed that seem like acts of portraiture. In their frontal compositions of blank and expressionless faces and bodies, they are reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Also, because of the long takes and temps morts, Andy Warhol’s screen tests.

* * *

Andy Rector at Kinoslang has posted a transcript of a talk given by Costa in Japan to film students. It's a tremendous read, all 10,000+ words of it. I culled a few favorite bits:

[S]ometimes in the cinema, it's just as important not to see, to hide, as it is to show.

For me, the primary function of cinema is to make us feel that something isn't right.

Bones ends exactly like Mizoguchi's film Street of Shame (1956, Akasen-chitai), that is to say, there's a girl who closes a door and who looks at you, and the door is closed on you. That means that you can't enter this film.

I believe that today, in the cinema, when we open a door, it's always quite false, because it says to the spectator: "Enter this film and you're going to be fine, you're going to have a good time," and finally what you see in this genre of film is nothing other than yourself, a projection of yourself. You don't see the film, you see yourself.

Never in my life have I thought: am I making documentary? Am I making a fiction, and what are the ways to make one or the other? They don't exist. We film life, and the more I close the doors, the more I hinder the spectator from taking pleasure in seeing himself on the screen - because I don't want that - the more I close the doors, the more I'm going to have the spectator against me, perhaps against the film, but at least he will be, I hope, uncomfortable and at war. That is, he will be in the uneasy situation of the world. It's not good if one is at ease all the time.

For Bresson to say what he wants to say, then, it's not necessary to use metaphors, MacGuffins, or stage tricks. He goes right to the point, in a very concrete manner. He's very much in the world. This is a very concrete working of the sound and image. Without metaphors, there are only sounds and images. Bresson doesn't use the means of the horror film, or the Western, or whatever, to tell us something, because the horror film, it's already a highly coded form, full of little things that must be done to tell a story. For these reasons, I admire, even more than that, I really like Jacques Tourneur, because he had to do horror films and detective films and Westerns, in order to say the same thing that Bresson says to us. That's difficult, poor guy. He has an idea, I believe it's the same idea that the world is not right, that there's evil, and that we can communicate this idea, and he has to make a horror film to convey this idea. I really admire Jacques Tourneur, because he makes very beautiful things, with a sort of eternity. The themes of Tourneur's films are always important, are still relevant today.

All of this is to say that we can use the cinema to represent things in two very different ways. In Hollywood, we can make highly fictional, adventuresome stories that say exactly the same thing that Bresson says without the same artifice, without needing to use effects. Yet, we can equally love Bresson and Tourneur, even if they stand for two totally different ways of representing the world.

[Bresson] shows our world, and at the same time it appears strange, this world. It's odd how people move in Bresson's films. They walk strangely, their gestures are very fast or very slow. That's the work. It's our world, and at the same time it's very abstract. Cinema is not exactly life. It works with the ingredients of life and you organize, construct these ingredients in a manner different from life. We're going to see them in a different light. It's not life, but at the same time, it's made using the elements of life, which is something very mysterious and sometimes quite beautiful.

* * *

Here's a recently posted Acquarello review of Pedro Costa's Straub/Huillet documentary Where Has Your Hidden Smile Gone?


Blogger girish said...

It's a been a crazy couple of weeks--start of classes; TIFF planning and scheduling, etc. I'm leaving for Toronto tomorrow afternoon. It turns out a goodly number of filmbloggers and on-line acquaintances will be there as well, which'll be cool.

I didn't blog last TIFF but this time I'm taking my iBook with me because my bed-and-breakfast has free wi-fi. So, hopefully I'll be able to squeeze in some posting between the back-to-back screenings and social stuff.

September 06, 2006 4:21 PM  
Anonymous Alok said...

For Bresson to say what he wants to say, then, it's not necessary to use metaphors, MacGuffins, or stage tricks. He goes right to the point, in a very concrete manner. He's very much in the world. This is a very concrete working of the sound and image.

this sounds a little strange to me, specially the use of "concrete" and "very much in the world" to describe Bresson's abstract and far-from-representational cinema.

September 06, 2006 4:32 PM  
Anonymous andyhorbal said...

Have fun in Toronto! I am envious, envious, envious...

September 06, 2006 4:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Andy, I hope you can join us one of these years.
And I wonder what exactly you're counting in this picture...

Alok, that's a very interesting question.

I can't speak for Costa, of course, but here's my own two cents:

--In many ways, I think of Bresson as a very materialist filmmaker: the way he uses frequent close-ups of objects and human body parts (feet, hands, etc), concentrating the focus of our eye on magnified images of the concrete.

--Perhaps Costa is contrasting this concreteness of Bresson with the qualities of Hollywood filmmaking (eg Tourneur) that works in genres. A horror film or western, for example, employs generic formulas, conventions, archetypes, etc which are often iconic and readily recognizable abstractions that are a bit removed from the 'real.'

In Bresson, the meticulously rendered daily, unchanging prison rituals in A Man Escaped or the elaborately detailed crime scenes in Pickpocket highlight the 'concreteness' of hands, bodies, stone, wood, wallets, money, etc., often with close-ups. The vividness of sound in Bresson might also be construed as emphasizing the concreteness of that which lies...offscreen.

Maybe others might feel inclined to chime in...

September 06, 2006 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

Ossos is a wonderful film. The Straubs doc is even better. You should try to find Casa de Lava, ehich is out on DVD R2 and is really good as well.

September 06, 2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

FYI: The comments discussion on cartoons in the Freleng post continues.

September 06, 2006 6:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filipe, Casa De Lava is on its way to me, thanks to a friend. I look forward to seeing it.

September 06, 2006 6:58 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, I was thinking much the same thing same thing that you said, but didn't want to say it (mostly because I've only seen three of Bresson's films and so had no idea if maybe I'd seen only three atypical Bresson films).

How does Bresson's pacing stack up against Hollywood genre pictures in the 1950s and 1960s? The two Tourneur films I've seen (Diabolique and Wages of Fear) were both not produced in Hollywood, and I'm not very familiar with Hollywood horror pics from the 50s and 60s, in spite of my love for the genre. But Bresson's pacing strikes me as very sedate (in a good way, like a Leone Western). That's not the same impression I get from most Hollywood genre pictures (except for the rom-coms, which almost always end up with the couple together at the end anyway, offsetting any potential suspense the mildly convoluted plot has to offer).

... Maybe this isn't even a line of thought worth pursuing. It might not be logically defensible to posit a standard "Hollywood genre picture" now, or at the time Costa is talking about, and I might not have understood Costa's point anyway.

September 06, 2006 7:54 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Regarding "concreteness", I think Costa's comment about being "in the world" contextualizes this idea better, i.e. that Bresson's aesthetic is rooted in "spiritual" representations of immanence rather than transcendence, and I'd agree with that.

September 06, 2006 7:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, I didn't remember the exact meaning of "immanence" and had to look it up. :-)

Just musing here, but I kinda also got the feeling from Costa's comment that he's referring to Bresson's filmmaking as concrete meaning non-metaphorical, as in the physical and corporeal world (which finally also includes sound and image of cinema) standing just for itself and not functioning as a stand-in (a metaphor) to explicitly telegraph or communicate something else, as a metaphor might, perhaps...? Maybe I'm saying the same thing...

Tuwa, I think you might be thinking of Clouzot.
Tourneur made I Walked With A Zombie, Cat People, Curse Of The Demon, Out Of The Past, etc.

Re: pacing, I think of Bresson cutting fairly quickly, even if he spends a lot of time on 'ordinary' actions or rituals, which Hollywood films might often elide. But in terms of cuts, I'm not sure if he's much less quick than the Hollywood norm...

September 06, 2006 8:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I was thinking of Tuwa's comment about pacing. I wonder what determines the pacing of a film...? Quickness of cuts could be one, but certainly not the only factor, I would think. I was also reminded of this article by Rosenbaum called "Is Ozu Slow?"

September 06, 2006 9:07 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I have yet to see a Pedro Costa film, but I am very thankful to have him move off the periphery of my watchlist to the center with this post.

Having recently seen Street of Shame I appreciated his comments on the closing of the door you excerpted, as well as the continued comments in the link you provided. I'm still wrangling with Mizoguchi's swan song and the way it is a vessel for social critique and at the same time titilation along the lines of an exploitation film.

September 06, 2006 9:12 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

d'oh! Yes, I was thinking of Clouzot.

And from the Rosenbaum article, I see that my impression of Bresson as "sedate," while not pejorative, is still personal and unscientific. Does he cut a lot? Does he cut a little? I don't know.... Is there any academic merit in talking about how films "feel," when it's likely to be tied up in personal background and impression rather than anything quantifiable or more universal?

September 06, 2006 9:16 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Geez, does anyone know if NYC has even had any Costa films screened? If they have been any I've missed 'em ... but now that he's got a mini-mini-following by now perhaps we'll see a retrospective or something ...

September 06, 2006 10:41 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Nice post, Girish. It gives me a great frame of reference for Colossal Youth at TIFF. That film will be my introduction Costa.

September 06, 2006 11:46 PM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

In Vanda's Room is also available on a Japanese edition DVD (sans subtitles, though). It's equally as impressive as Ossos (which, by the way, was photographed by Emmanuel Machuel, Bresson's cinematographer for L'Argent) and Vanda Duarte absolutely haunts every stationary long take. I'm really burning to see Colossal Youth!

September 07, 2006 1:50 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Zach, I don't remember any Costa films screening in NYC in at least the last eight years (since I moved to DC and started prowling the cinematheques again), my introduction to his work was also from the French DVDs. I'm hoping that Film Comment Selects will make Costa their mini-retrospective next year, like the Brisseau last year or Elaine May this year, where there's a lead-up to a premiere. Mubarak, is the amount of dialogue in In Vanda's Room comparable to Ossos or Casa de Lava? My Portuguese is pretty non-existent. :(

September 07, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

To me In Vanda's Room seems to contain even less dialogue than either Casa de Lava or Ossos but that may be an illusion due to dispersion over the 3-hour running time. While I remember longing for subtitles during at least two conversations (one with Vanda and a displaced neighbour, and another with her sister), most of the film works on external sounds and silences, specific quotidian repetitions, and the gorgeous shifts in natural light in Vanda's room, rather than words.

The disc does contain Japanese subtitles though, so if your Japanese is better than your Portuguese, then you won't have many problems. :)

September 07, 2006 9:32 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Heheh, alas, my Japanese vocabulary is pretty much limited to greetings and food... I don't suppose those scenes with Vanda were at a sushi bar?. ;) My Spanish and French are pretty decent though, so I can probably fumble through it. I love that still-life composition on the back cover, by the way.

September 07, 2006 12:33 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Rosenbaum champions some eccentric/neglected/overlooked films, MeFiers provide the MST3K commentary and mentions of even more eccentric/neglected/overlooked fare.

I enjoy the snarky comments, but not as much as I would enjoy that same sort of discussion on a cinephiliac site....

September 08, 2006 11:13 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Eh. House is empty.

[makes the bed, folds the blanket, writes Girish a note thanking him for his hospitality.]

September 09, 2006 11:08 PM  
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