July 28, 2017

We are very pleased to add another text here expressly written in support of last night's "Kino Slang" program at the Echo Park Film Center, "Several Militant Films: Hitchcock, Barnet, Monteiro". Its author is Bruno Andrade, Brazilian critic and editor of the journal FOCO
and long-time friend of this blog (his own blog, o signo do dragãowe dialogued with for many years, roughly 2007-2015). Below, Andrade dives into João César Monteiro’s WHAT SHALL I DO WITH THIS SWORD? (1975) and comes up with a startling fugue of ideas. His text goes alongside the translation by Dmitry Martov of Evgenii Margolit's essay on Boris Barnet's A GOOD LAD (hereand Bill Krohn's essay on Hitchcock's AVENTURE MALGACHE (herein the endeavor to give non-summary attention to these films.

Along the Great Wall
by Bruno Andrade

It should come as no surprise that João César Monteiro’s What Shall I Do with This Sword? was programmed with a 1942 Boris Barnet musical comedy about a downed French pilot who falls in love with a Russian partisan, and a 1944 Alfred Hitchcock war-effort short that reflects upon the Resistance against the Axis powers during World War II. Product of an extremely volatile creative and social turmoil, Monteiro’s 1975 film works as a kind of great synaptic rift between past and present, document and representation, intervention and reflection. What Hitchcock and Barnet – what Murnau himself – did in the form of spectacle is done here by Monteiro in the form of documental inscription – and is closer in that respect to what filmmakers like Glauber Rocha and Santiago Álvarez were doing in films like Di Cavalcanti (1977) and 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh (1969), but with a meditative quality that appeals to the films of Monteiro’s countrymen Fernando Lopes, Manoel de Oliveira and António Reis.

The film begins its inquiry – about the situation of economic and social distress in Portugal during the aftermath of some maneuvers by NATO ships in the Tagus River from late January to early February 1975 (i.e. less than a year after the Carnation Revolution) – by establishing a fairly blunt intertextual structure: the interference of American imperialism is directly associated with the arrival of Murnau’s Nosferatu, the vampire, in the city of Wisborg (the famous scene where actor Max Schreck is seen carrying a coffin in the emptied entrance of a pier plays as an analogy to the arrival of American sailors on land). Later on we follow a pursuit of American sailors in the red-light district while Billie Holiday’s I Cover The Waterfront plays on the soundtrack (I cover the waterfront / I'm watching the sea / Will the one I love / Be coming back to me?).

To achieve this mixture of debauchery and committed testimony, Monteiro seeks less to merge past and present than to put them on a collision course, and it is by shock, by abbreviation, by montage, in short, that the profound reality of a country manifests itself through the very construction of a film: colonialism, in all its stages, both its face and its shadows, is violently stripped bare on the film surface itself. For what is shown to us is a country that represses its own colonialist past while being exploited by a country with a very active imperialist inclination. Much like the people we see in the film (a verbose prostitute who tells us about her sexual experiences with a priest, some Alentejo peasants, a couple of dockworkers, an old revolutionary who gives a long anti-fascist speech), we are constantly bewildered by the immediate disorder of such a situation. But the film itself lays out this disorder in a way that feels very much like the product of a culture that needs to be shaken up. By questioning each step of his own inquiry – i.e. the scenes where we listen to the life experiences of two black immigrants from former Portuguese colonies –, Monteiro establishes an unsparing invocation of Portugal’s past and present situation.

From the time we see, in the film’s first post-credits shot, a perfectly symmetrical and balanced composition of an old cannon atop Castelo de São Jorge targeting a NATO ship right down to the last shot of the film, where we face a shot of a peeling wall brutally ravaged by the passage of time, What Shall I Do with This Sword? avoids the guileful device of coercion through an opinionated testimony of its author. It does so by working less as an interventionist or a confrontational document than as an accurate testimony of some facts from a convulsive present. Monteiro contemplates, in such a situation, the possibility of exposing dialectically the conventions and the contradictions, the order and the despair of a whole society, projecting all of its memory into a kind of chaotic mythology (Nosferatu on one hand, Siegfried on the other; Billie Holliday’s music and Richard Wagner’s Siegfried's Funeral March on the soundtrack). The chaos, the contingent disorder of the present ends up unsteadily outlined by this richly textured assortment of icons, but such a resort has an inevitable consequence: it destabilizes all previous order. The disjunctive procedures of such an editing ploy, which scrutinizes directly and indirectly all that is narrated to us by speech, all that is articulated by language and cultural reflexes, cannot but lead us, spectators, to the scaffold: it is us, in our conditions as spectators, who are being summoned in the end. One cannot walk away from a film like What Shall I Do with This Sword?, or a film like Branca de Neve, unscathed: we leave them no longer as spectators, but as witnesses.

It is said that a book that demolishes everything but does not destroy itself has exasperated us in vain. The work of João César Monteiro, here and elsewhere (the last shot of Come and Go, the whole of Branca de Neve), has not been disappointing in that respect. From the moment, near the end, when Margarida Gil asks the film title’s question to its last moments, What Shall I Do with This Sword? seems to take an almost epic ascent, with the winds of Dovzhenko’s cinema blowing into Portugal’s seas, the peasants demonstrating through their marches the fearsome action of gravity upon earth. The image of a freighter cutting the ocean, seen under the effect of a diaphanous sea air that looms until it completely obliterates the image, could inspire in us the most romanticized feelings of a once lost grandeur now recovered by the magnitude of a new order, that of the immutable and eternal values of sacrosanct Western civilization. Monteiro would already be a great filmmaker for evoking such greatness in a film that until then not only seemed unable to accommodate it but also seemed to insidiously and deliberately reject it; he would be an even greater filmmaker by doing so with such an extreme scarcity of material means. But the truth is that Monteiro is more than a great filmmaker. As a man, as a witness – in other words, as a citizen with responsibilities –, Monteiro is capable of evoking this glorious past, haughtily and ironically at the same time, and then of discarding it, making this the main political point of his film. 

At the very end the camera zooms in on a depleted wall where the Marx and Engels phrase “Proletarians of all countries, unite” can be read. There’s a cut that brings us closer to that last word; a camera movement follows, which takes us off of it and leaves us only with the stripped wall, empty, not carrying any inscription. But that is not true: we’ve seen this wall before, at the beginning of the film. It carried the name of the film’s crew, the laboratory where film was processed and the film’s production office. These people that got together and worked together in the film we just saw were already occupying a place on this wall. This wall, the empty spot on it, points to the necessity of a new space, a space at no time previously explored. This space could only arise at the moment when everything is already said and done, the moment past the point of no return, past the risk of any retreat. This space is a void, the “after” that comes at the end of all stories, of all the possible tensions between history and civilization, a wall where nothing has yet been written, where it is still possible to inscribe something. Let us not be surprised, therefore, that Monteiro made a film from this “next instant”, from this wall still without inscriptions.

Its title is What Shall I Do with This Sword?


Andy Rector said...

Luis Miguel Oliveira writes in:
"Great text by Bruno, as was to be expected. I'd like to add just a tiny bit of information: the title (What Shall I Do With This Sword?) is a quote from Fernando Pessoa's 'Mensagem', arguably his most important work, dealing with Portuguese historical mythology. In the poem, the answer to the question, although elliptical ('You lifted it up / and it was done'), can perhaps be read as, simply, 'a country'.

Andy Rector said...

Luis Miguel Oliveira further adds:
The full poem, in case anyone's interested:

Todo começo é involuntário.
Deus é o agente,
O herói a si assiste, vário
E inconsciente.
À espada em tuas mãos achada
Teu olhar desce.
«Que farei eu com esta espada?»
Ergueste-a, e fez-se.