(26 June, 2008) By Ana Balona de Oliveira (full article at Mute)
"It is not surprising James Quandt titled an essay on the director’s work ‘Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa’ [at Artforum]. Some of the shots of Bones, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, most frequently those of poorly lit and impoverished interiors, resemble painterly still lives: dark shacks into which scarce rays of sunlight enter just to illuminate a half empty bottle of wine, a smashed piece of old furniture, unexpected red flowers, but also the back of a neck, an old, beaten up hand, the longing of an immigrant labourer’s eye for his Cape Verdean forgotten youth and lost love. The phrase ‘still lives’ gains here, therefore, a double meaning – not only does it refer to the painterly, shadowy objects that accompany the quietly empty despair of Fontaínhas’ inhabitants, but also to these ghostly characters’ lives themselves, filmed in the resistant stillness of their hopeless bodies."She equates the formal contemplation of the filming style to the contemplative lives of its subjects. There is an intent to depict people's genuine life at the pace of real life events.
"Showing an understanding of the Portuguese lineage of film-makers to which Costa very independently pertains (albeit limited to no more than two of its most notorious names), Quandt correctly approximates the director to Manoel de Oliveira and João César Monteiro’s ‘propensity for the long take and tableaux structure, a fondness for haunted, life-battered faces and desolate landscapes, and a Dostoyevskian sense of life as hell’ (Quandt, ‘Still Lives’, in Cinematheque Ontario). Here one could surely add the films of Paulo Rocha, José Álvaro Morais and Teresa Vilaverde."
I don't know the films of Morais, anybody has an idea? I've seen Villaverde's Transe, which is definitely CCC, in my mind.
"Costa’s films are not documentaries, except for Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, despite the fact that the director has increasingly chosen to work with non-professional actors, available light and an ever less intrusive occupation of the filming location by an ever more reduced crew and inconspicuous recording device. The films are long and composed of densely concentrated, non-moving shots which do not connect within a structure of linear narrative fluidity. The viewer of Bones, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth is challenged by this choice of intermingling past and present moments that are susceptible to being narratively perceived only by means of a very close attention to details, such as Ventura wearing builders’ clothes and a head bandage in some of the scenes, and a retiree’s black suit in others. These details might guide the viewer along a non-linear path of extremely long, steady shoots, where only the textures of an immutable present seem to matter and no obvious explanations about before and after are given. This inevitably creates the ‘vertical’ tension inherent to the almost total absence of ‘horizontal’ tracking shots.At a screening in Paris, Jean-Marie Straub was there with his friend Costa and said there was no flashback, that we had to read the film in a linear way (Costa didn't confirm this though).
Focussing on Bones, Shigehiko Hasumi discusses the notion of ‘a vertical power that breaks the viewer free from the story’s linear cause and effect’. He continues, ‘the present moment is made visually absolute. While not abandoning the time flow of the film, this “absolutification” of the present moment is a bare, unadorned directorial technique that creates a raw filmic continuity for fiction, which otherwise would be subordinated to narrative flow and human psychology. Only rarely in film is the ultimate state of fiction thus so simply integrated with the ultimate state of documentary’, Shigehiko Hasumi, ‘Adventure: An Essay on Pedro Costa’ (2005), in Rouge Pedro Costa, Collosal Youth, 2004"
I like how Ana Balona explains how CCC narrative works through attention to visual details rather than relying on plot cues.
I'm not sure I understand the horizontal/vertical dialectic there. No horizontal tracking shots, OK, most are static shots. But how does it make it a "vertical" film? I can't put my finger on the meaning of this "vertical tension", however I wholeheartedly agree with this "absolutification of the present moment", "raw filmic continuity" !
"Besides the paused rhythm, there is an excruciating silence, cut only by the characters’ words and the apparently unpremeditated mechanical and human sounds penetrating the neighbourhoods and rooms where action slowly unfolds. No other soundtrack is heard. Furthermore, actors spend many hours rehearsing each scene and line with the director to reach an outcome of nude simplicity and precision with an almost emotionally inexpressive declamatory effect.What Costa says about the presence of an underlying/implicit subtle psychology within the characters is very interesting. He admits not to go for the versimilitude of a documentary, so the essence of CCC is not necessarily "absolute realism", but an asymptotic approach to the Real. And unlike TV or melodrama, this tentative mimetism of reality is not obtained through dramatisation (synthetic caricature of emotions) but by decomposition of life-like moments, in their context, with awkward timing, uncomfortable silences... instead of a perfect theatrical timing that pumps up the audience on cue.
Dennis Lim wrote that ‘[In Vanda’s Room] feels at times like a documentary but is actually the result of long conversations and multiple takes. Ms. Duarte [Vanda] and her friends, who sit around, talk, prepare heroin fixes, smoke and shoot up, are not documentary subjects so much as actors playing themselves’ (Dennis Lim, ‘Director’s Quest for Truth Among the Downtrodden’, in NYT). In this context, Straub, who also works with non-professional actors, said what Costa could perhaps have said about his own work: ‘some people have the impression – because we reject verisimilitude and TV-style cinema … – that there is no psychology in our films. But that’s not true. All this is psychology. There is no psychology in terms of the performance of the actor because there is a dramatic abstraction that goes deeper than so-called verisimilitude. But it’s there, in between the shots, in the very montage and in the way the shots are linked to each other, it is extremely subtle psychology’ (Jean-Marie Straub, in Pedro Costa, Où gît votre sourire enfoui?/ Onde jaz o teu sorriso? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)."
"In Colossal Youth, some of this vertically mute tension is slightly released only when Ventura plays a Cape Verdean record and we listen in to its warmly melancholic musical murmur. As Straub put it, there is no ‘musical soup’ to help sustain the lack of idea and form."Absence of soundtrack, emphasis on real-life ambient sounds, of course.