December 27, 2006

...In the land of capital
I see
the golden chain of capital
the foxtrot
the machines
and you
and you
I see you
and you
and you
and you
it is you I see
in service of capital
more machines
and more
but no less hard is it for the worker
no less
I see
the colonies the capital
the colonies
the slaves
the capital
the slaves
from the negroes
for the fun of it
it makes "The Chocolate Kiddies"
the toys
the guns
on the verge of its historical perishing
is having fun...

-from the intertitles of A SIXTH PART OF THE WORLD (Dziga Vertov)

December 11, 2006

ain't supposed to die a natural death

Salvador Allende (1971): "We are fully aware that the educated people brought up in this society have nothing in common with what we call 'the new man'. Bourgeois ideology is dominant in our society as it stands, but it is quite clear that what we call 'the new man' will emerge to become the citizen of the new society. Our task now is to make a major effort in the field of education in order to awake interest in forming a new society in the conciousness of the masses, and presenting the image of the members of this new society, 'the new men'. Now the vanguard contains revolutionaries who are determined to behave as such, and it is clear that they are laying the foundations from which 'the new man' will emerge. I do not, therefore, consider it Utopian to talk in these terms, although it would indeed be if we were to imagine that this man was going to live in our society as it is at the moment."

Pinochet, you were an old man and an "old man". An old man that only a decrepit old society could allow to die a natural death. May you rot in hell. And may the society that failed to rip these uniforms to shreds find its way to the door. It needs some help finding the door.

December 9, 2006

December 5, 2006

«Camera Lucida» by Nobuhiro Suwa
Pedro Costa Film Retrospective in Sendai
translated by Kumiko Yamamoto
Sendai Mediatheque, 2005

I was once asked to write about Pedro Costa, but I refused, saying, "First of all, Pedro is one of my few close friends, and it's difficult to talk about one's friend since friendship is a personal experience." As a matter of fact, the real reason I turned down the offer was that my words could hardly touch his work, and they still cannot. Even now I'm not able to discuss his work, but his films - I can see them hundred times over. In Vanda's Room is an experience that cannot be exhausted, regardless of how often I see it, and even then I would be incapable of describing just what that experience is. Our works are created using completely different methods: while I have chosen to work with professional actors, Pedro has chosen to point the camera at people living their lives. He spent two years with a small DV camera, filming In Vanda's Room, and a year editing I nearly 130 hours of footage. 1, on the other hand, have just finished filming my current film in only thirteen days. When we first became acquainted, I told Pedro that in making a film, I had to work hard to connect with my staff. He then said to me, "I spend time working on my films. I hate to work with a crew." The way he said the word "hate" impressed me. It made me imagine how hurt he had been by the traditional filmmaking system. I have heard that Bones was shot with a film crew. Vanda was most probably surrounded by a huge crowd: cinematographers, sound engineers, electricians with a lot of equipment, cars laden with machinery and drivers, and those catering for the entire crew. The members of such a crew must have been only interested in their own assignments. It takes a lot of planning to get such a large number of people to work together efficiently. The plans for today and for tomorrow are all fixed. Everyone's task is connected to someone else's and they all contribute to the completion of the film. Time and expenses are carefully calculated. A change in the schedule is immediately reflected in the budget. There is a powerful system of filmmaking in motion. When ordered to stand before a camera, any human being would shudder in awe of such a system. Vanda was not allowed to behave as she would have liked. Nor was the director, for that matter. Pedro has chosen to part with such a traditional way of filmmaking. He has chosen to take filmmaking back to the time of "humane life," a time that is not punctuated by the number of days available for production, the start of filming or the end.

Nevertheless, no matter how small a digital camera may be, there still is a camera. The camera divides the filmmaker from his subjects, placing the latter on the opposite side of the camera and the former on this side. It is a system that does not permit either side to cross over. Therefore, it cannot, by its nature, escape from a structure of one sided exploitation. The world is divided into two. When an image is inserted into this divided world, a window is created on this side of the wall that opens onto the other. The window functions like a magic mirror that lets our gaze pass from this side, without letting others gaze from the opposite side. When viewing a film, we are behind the camera, like the director. We are protected from the risk of being violated by the reality in front of the camera. I have chosen to work with actors because I see them as beings who need to stand before a camera in their life. When my subjects are non-professional actors living their own lives, the camera deprives them of their life without giving anything back to them. But I realize, from the images in In Vanda's Room, that in fact a crossing is permitted from this side to the other, and subsequently a relationship materializes, free from the camera's power structure. I have never thought that the camera could establish a non-exploitative relationship with its subject that seems unattainable. What in the world makes this possible in In Vanda's Room? Why only in In Vanda's Room? To answer these questions, I must continue writing...

I have previously mentioned the word "free". But the images of In Vanda's Room appear to be strictly controlled. The camera is always mounted on a tripod and never moves. Were this done according to the author's aesthetic judgment, the images could be controlled by the author and the character would then be inscribed in a controlled space. If that were the case, why wouldn't he just approach the subject with a handycam and say, "Now, you can move freely. I will follow you with my camera"? Wouldn't such a relationship be freer? In documentaries, in fact, the frame is always ready for the occurrence of unexpected events. The camera must always be ready to move as required. If a remarkable accident happens outside the frame, the camera will move without hesitation. The images captured in this way are somehow open to reality. As framing is transient and open in documentary films, we are conscious spatially that reality extends offscreen. By always reminding ourselves that documentary films can only capture a part of reality, we seek to suggest that reality extends out of the frame, i.e., outside the cinema. Documentary images depend on the reality that there is an object worth filming before the camera. In Vanda's Room was also made in a manner of a documentary film. There is a town that is being demolished, where the residents lead their humble lives. The existence of this town is a story that will be erased from history. There are objects at which the camera must be pointed. But the images of In Vanda's Room do not rely on these realities. They reject the thoughtless realism that something meaningful can be captured only once a camera is pointed at them. There is no sign that an accident or chance event barges into view, and the rigidly-constructed framing forms autonomous spaces. The sounds heard from behind the wall bring the expanse of the outside world into view, but the images do not readily indicate the world behind the wall. As extremely short exposures are used, the dimmer regions of the image sink into darkness, even depriving our gaze the freedom of movement, The images are never decentered in such a way as to allow the spectator to reconstruct them as freely as he can, as if saying, "Look just as you please!" Rather, they are so centered that they almost function, I might say, as if commanding our gaze. Moreover, they are frightfully beautiful. But then, if such filmmaking were only to create beauty, we would merely need to praise Pedro Costa for his creative talent. Costa would not have needed to break with the traditional crew system and go off by himself This beauty isn't simply for satisfying the filmmaker's aesthetics alone.

Pedro has set up the camera alone. When a camera is placed among people, it brings about many different relationships. Through the camera's violence, people on one side may hurt those on the other and make them unhappy. Some may feel ashamed to expose themselves before the camera, but may still think that they can compromise themselves in exchange for money- Others may run away from the camera to protect themselves. However, occasionally there are others, who may find themselves in a joyous relationship in which the people on both sides can work together. In any case, there still remains an asymmetric relationship between the one behind the camera and the one beyond: Pedro is a seeing being and Vanda a being seen. While actors are always beings seen, they are forbidden to stare back and are forced to ignore the camera, i.e. to gaze. To accept this and behave as if there were no camera at all is the acting. Would this definition on make Vanda also an acting being? There is a camera, but it is not just any camera. it's the camera held by Pedro. Vanda simply ignores its presence. Is it because she has become accustomed to it? Is it possible that she has spent so much time filming, that she has become used to the camera and forgotten its presence altogether? Though she's not acting, she must be aware of Pedro's presence, only that she ignores it. In this sense, she's acting, one might say, and that would be fiction. But Vanda's coughing, for instance, belongs to nobody else but her. It's hers. When she coughs, the image of her body undermines the division between filming and being Filmed. It crystallizes between being constrained and behaving freely, between acting and being the way she is. She has to cough. She's so free that she throws Lip on her bed as she coughs. She's not acting for anybody. She has no desire to show off her usual self before the camera. But she's also not what she is, forgetting the presence of the camera. I can perhaps say that she participates in the filmmaking, in conspiracy with Pedro's camera, or that she avows that she has nothing to hide from the camera. just as she would say to her neighbors, "if you want to come, come anytime. I am always here," she lets a man who wants to film intrude, offers him her own image and provides a place for him and his camera. Pedro isn't just there to bring the image back to his editing room; but lie rather continues to stay there with his camera, taking the attitude that he stays there because lie wants to, the attitude of an ordinary man. He also seems to be saying, "I have nothing to hide, either." He composes her image through his gaze and gives it back to her. Vanda exists with or without a camera, but her image does not require or need our imagining or questioning what she is like in reality. Pedro has not taken advantage of reality to fabricate a pseudo-real world; nor has he attempted to preserve some intact fragments of real life. Vanda signifies both Vanda and Pedro, images crystallized through the interaction with the spectator's gaze. She is the resistance against the division between the two gazes. She is a representation of new gazes that contemplate how people can live together... Vanda is now. She is here just now...

My dear Pedro, I wanted to write about the spirit of your cinema with all my compassion for you. Unfortunately, my review hasn't been entirely successful Hopefully, this text will not interfere with the imagination of those who have seen your films. I will reflect on this unsuccessful question in my cinema. I trust you are going to see my next film. I do hope you like it.

(obrigado: André Dias)

December 1, 2006

"Hide what the spectator most wants to see" -Ozu

(not seeing, hearing a love letter by Ventura, recited to Lento. COLOSSAL YOUTH.)

I see useless beauties
Extinguished in the night of doubt

And the flowers are not real
And the earth becomes barron

Soon I must say nothing

Yet if I walk the earth
The reason is that others too are there
Who like me spoke haltingly
When we were not entirely silent.

-excerpt from Ailleurs ici partout
(Here There Everywhere)
by Paul
trans. Gilbert Bowen

By no small miracle did a 35mm print of COLOSSAL YOUTH (JUVENTUDE EM MARCHA, 2006, Pedro Costa) make it to Los Angeles. And by no small miracle was I able to find out about the screening and attend on September 27th (thank you Andre D., Filipe, Curtis, and David N.). It came by the good graces of Thom Andersen, still one of the great torch bearers of modern cinema/history in Los Angeles, and under the most unassuming of headings: Film Today, Andersen's class at CalArts (30 miles from city). I must dwell on Andersen's vanguardism for a moment and point out that this CalArts screening of COLOSSAL YOUTH was the U.S. premiere. What's more, no sooner did that week's artist-in-residence Costa leave the campus, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul was on his way. If there were only a way to amplify from Andersen's cinema pickups 30 miles out to the the public of Los Angeles! If this were done regularly I'm convinced it would reduce traffic, if perhaps increase loitering, as any good film screenings should. Anyhow "all great civilizations are based on loitering."

I've seen COLOSSAL YOUTH only once (to Andersen's credit, it was actually screened twice). For an extraordinarily concentrated film like COLOSSAL YOUTH -- an object so deeply hewn on every plane and every register -- this is both a curse and a blessing. The need to verify (or overturn) certain things about COLOSSAL's narrative is immediately and intensely felt; one wants to see it again straight away. But as the film sustains in the mind (something that goes on for weeks) the inscrutability of it strengthens into stanzas and its poetry reemerges. I don't believe any amount of dvd extras could destroy its mystery. The film's relation to time (narrative and cinematic), it's images (which remain overwhelmingly strong), the many stories of it's individuals and their implications -- what of these things will "set" upon further viewings?

While wondering this, for better or worse, I have begun comparing COLOSSAL to other films. There are few films that stand on their own two feet as steadily as COLOSSAL YOUTH, and lest the many film references below give any other impression, let me admit that they are my own attempts to stand. Mystery, and yet...

And yet one question haunts me now: is the film's narrative actually unequivocal? Upon seeing COLOSSAL I immediately thought "this is what it must've been like to see LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD in 1961", but the possibility of unequivocality has lead me to NICHT VERSöHNT (Straub/Huillet, 1965). Were people seeing NICHT VERSöHNT just once then scrambling for the Böll novel on which the film is achronologically based? Were they seeing NICHT VERSöHNT several times and ignoring the Böll text? In any case, in 1969 Rivette said this about NICHT and it could well apply to COLOSSAL YOUTH:

"Straub imposes on the spectator (the virgin spectator viewing the film for the first time, at any rate, but also in part a subsequent viewings) an obscurity in the language, which seems wilfully indirect, apparently unaware of him as the addressee (even if he nevertheless, though tacitly, fulfils his task), and which prevents him from direct attainment of the 'knowledge' it seemed to be entrusted with bringing him; the film functions before him as a dream, one might say, as the product of an unconscious (but whose unconscious? Does it belong to the literary text? To fifty years of German history? The Straubs? The 'characters' in the film ? )..."

(from 'Montage' by Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre, and Jacques Rivette - Cahiers du Cinema, No. 210, March 1969 - a heroic translation by Tom Milne)

Straub/Huillet's film is a complex operation on and materialization of a literary text (as always with them) and though prior knowledge of Böll's story far from dissolves all mystery of NICHT (it's not a puzzle, in fact it's articulations are inexhaustible), there is a known source in Böll to keep one's footing. They are realizing pre-existing material via excision and liasons (as Rivette calls them) and they are doing enormous work with a text laid out in front of them (see the Straub's heavily marked scripts), shuffling and emphasizing here, totally eliding there.

Costa's film may seem cryptic at first but there is something of necessity about the way it has been told, with it's soft indications of past and present, with it's particular ways of breathing and duration. If I can call this Costa's policy of presence (partly inherited from the Straubs but also Ozu and Ford) -- that is, the giving of time and weight to each person and place to work itself out "against" the montage and offscreen space -- it is another layer to take in which makes focusing on narrative chronology difficult. (And then there's a friend of mine in Taipei who found the chronology quite tractable).

COLOSSAL is comparable in density to NICHT, but there is another challenge; one of essence and consciousness, and that is of COLOSSAL YOUTH's source. The revelation of Costa's filmmaking, as film critic Quintin has elucidated it, boils down to the filmmaking process itself: "...the issue here is that the whole machinery of cinema is not exterior to its subject -- and by including cinema on the side of his subject, it no longer becomes an instrument of law and order." (Cinemascope 25, Winter 2006). COLOSSAL's subject is not a literary text but the actual stories and memories of the working class and unemployed of the Fountainhas ghetto and the new Casal Boba housing project in Lisbon. Costa has said his films are not creations but meetings. With each meeting we hear struggles orally recollected. Huillet/Straub's restoration of oral culture is taken to heart by Costa. He lives with the people he films, and he works hard everyday with them, with their stories and places. Costa's practice and the dignity and "non-inferiority" (Quintin) of Ventura, his children and comrades that results is nothing less than a restoration of the monumentality of humanity, and it is done precisely with every cinematic means a film is capable of. It's as if a year had been spent on each element of the film: lighting, composition, location, sound, voice, scansion, movement, duration, time, narrative, epic gesture, etc.. This dignity isn't created by Costa, it's been there all along; Costa's camera may often be low-angle but its thinking is the opposite of base. Contrary to professional belief, the cinema must concentrate the aforementioned cinematic elements, and perhaps use some unprecedenced ones, to even approach these struggles.

So if the film is based on understanding, not decipherment, will this give any solace to those hostile or dismissive of it?