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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ana Balona de Oliveira on Colossal Youth

Rooms of Colossal Bones – Pedro Costa’s Trilogy
(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."

"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."
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.
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. Rocha seems a bit surrealist or burlesque, which uses a paced rhythm and wordlessness for a parabolic message rather than going for actual naturalism. [Sorry I thought of Glauber Rocha, I don't know Paulo's films]

"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.

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"
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).
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.

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)."
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.

"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.


André Dias said...

It's the first time I hear it being called a trilogy. OSSOS is quite different from the other two most recent features. Costa, for all I know, never mentioned them as a trilogy. They are made quite differently also. OSSOS was shot with a regular crew in 35mm.

Regarding the Portuguese lineage of film-makers, although Costa surely acknowledges Manoel de Oliveira and Paulo Rocha (but only his films of the 60'), his major defining influence, one which he recognizes at several interviews, came from a teacher at film school and film-maker called António Reis, specially TRÁS-OS-MONTES (1976) and ANA (1985).

At least regarding Pedro Costa, forget José Álvaro de Morais and, for sure, Teresa Villaverde.

HarryTuttle said...

I guess it's the three films filmed in the Fonthainas district. But there are actually 4 (counting Tarrafal, I guess)

Thanks for the link to Antonio Reis, who I didn't know. I'll add this to our Costa profile.
I'd be happy to know more about him if you like to tell us about his films.

Do you mean "forget for sure" Villaverde? Transe is CCC, but I didn't really like it. It has too many excess of the "boring art film" clichés... Costa doesn't work like her though.

Carlos Ferrao said...

André is 100% correct. António Reis was Pedro Costa's teacher at filmschool (this before my time there) and is one of his favourite filmmakers. He says as much here: http://pedrocosta-heroi.blogspot.com/2008/02/de-um-lado-para-o-outro.html
and in other interviews too.
Curious fact: Reis's daughter, Ana, was my classmate at film school and is to this day a very good friend. She appears in Ana and Rosa de Areia and is currently an independent music producer - http://www.last.fm/music/Hyaena+Reich

BTW, André's blog is really good!

HarryTuttle said...

Erratum : Forget what I said of Paulo Rocha. I was thinking of Glauber Rocha for some strange reason. Actually, I haven't seen any film by Paulo Rocha.

dave said...

I've recently posted an excerpt from a forthcoming translation of a long interview with Costa, where he talks about Reis. Reis is definitely a major touchstone for Costa, but is a much more marginal figure than even Straub and Huillet (certainly outside of Portugal).

HarryTuttle said...

Dave, please add a link to our Costa page, when your interview goes online.

André Dias said...

António Reis is marginal alright, even in Portugal. But, notwithstanding, Serge Daney wrote a text, about one of his films, called "Ana" in June 8th 1983, published in Ciné journal, vol. II.

Carlos Ferrao said...

Went to the screening of In Vanda's Room in Westminster University here in London today which had a short lecture by Ana Balona de Oliveira. I think I understand what she means by verticality now. She's talking about a lot of the framings in both Vanda's Room and Colossal. There are a lot of shots through doors in which we can see the vertical frame of the doorway, lots of corners of walls (as opposed to shooting the flat part of the wall), and a general use of vertical elements when they are present in the scene.

Ana Balona de Oliveira said...

Hi Carlos. The context in which I mentioned those vertical elements of some scenes had more to do with the way the camera's presence shows itself in its very invisibility by including, in the lateral sides of those scenes, the corridors and alleys behind which it is hiding itself and filming something or someone who appears in the centre of the scene.

What I meant by that notion of vertical power in Mute's article is a bit more abstract and inspired by Hasumi, as I acknowledge in the endnotes. It has to do with that immutable present, the absolutification of the present moment he talks about. He does it, namely, by focussing on the famous tracking shot in 'Bones' - a shot that kind of stops the linear time of the narrative, allows the viewer to disconnect from cause-and-effect sequences, from past, present, future, from the flow of time. And what is more astonishing in Hasumi's analysis and Costa's achievement is that this stopping of the flow or passage of time is made by means of a tracking shot, which in itself necessarily involves some sort of linearity, of a walking path – someone is physically walking in a more or less horizontal surface and the camera horizontally accompanies this movement. Still, it invites the viewer to stop linear-narrative connections and opens space for contemplation.

So, particularly regarding 'In Vanda's Room' and 'Colossal Youth', when I mention the vertical power and tension in contradistinction to an almost absence of tracking shots (thereby acknowledging how a tracking shot still encompasses linearity, but not necessarily narrative, as per above), I mean that same interruption of the flow of the narrative, of linear time in favour of another sort of time – not stopped, not frozen, but incredibly slowed down. And this, as opposed to the tracking shot in ‘Bones’, is now achieved by different means – those of the very long, steady, portraiture-like scene, which, to me, constitutes another way of opening space for contemplation.

Of course, besides these more contemplative ways of disrupting linear narrative - either the tracking shot in ‘Bones’ or the steady portraiture and still lives in ‘In Vanda’s Room’ and ‘Colossal Youth’ - we also discussed the timely flashbacks in ‘Colossal Youth’ as another way of achieving this effect. But I believe that the flashback has more solely to do with that disrupting of the linear-narrative structure than with the possibility of contemplation, the absolutification of the present, which the notion of verticality is, in the end, all about. So, to conclude, I would say that some interruptions of linearity are more contemplative than others. It is in the contemplative ones that I find the verticality.

Ana Balona de Oliveira said...

sorry: in my analysis, the vertical power is obviously not in contradistinction to the absence of tracking shots, it's precisely the contrary, it arises also from that absence (in conjunction with the length and steadiness of each scene).

Carlos Ferrao said...

Thanks for that, Ana.

Matthew Flanagan said...

As an addendum to info about the French Vanda DVD from Capricci, here's a couple of pieces from Artforum & Craig Keller. A similar edition of Serra's Honor de cavalleria is on the way too, and should be equally essential.

Thanks for posting your thoughts here, Ana.