Michael Guarneri and Patrick Holzapfel end their discussion about the films they have seen after meeting with Mr. Costa in Munich, in June 2015. But is there really an end in cinema or does it have to be written on the screen artificially, as Serge Daney once stated, in order for us to believe in it and be able to leave the cinema to find out that outside the sun also shines bright?
Patrick: (…) I want to ask you two questions: 1) Do you think Mr. Costa films more the things he loves or the things he fears?; 2) Do you prefer in cinema to be confronted with the things you love or the things you fear?
Pedro Costa (Foto von Thomas Hauzenberger)
Michael: 1) I think it is a matter that goes beyond fear or love. I guess that Mr. Costa films the things, the places, the people, the dynamics that interest him. He films stuff that he wants to know more about. He was a student of history in his youth, wasn’t he? Can we say he is a searcher, a researcher, a historian, a chronicler? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I have always seen a certain (ideal) parallel between some of Mr. Costa’s films and things like Die Kinder von Golzow…Of course, in spite of all the years of hard work and efforts, Mr. Costa will never really know, much less understand, what it was like for people like Vanda or Ventura to grow up/old in Fontainhas: Vanda, Ventura and Mr. Costa might all be living in the same city at a given time, but they were born in different worlds completely. Nevertheless, what is crucial to me is that Mr. Costa wants to know: he struggles to know more – not everything, mind you, just a little bit more… the color of a shirt, the shape of the creature in Ventura’s nightmare, little details like that… He wants to know more about the things that interest him, and he tries to leave a record, a trace of what he finds out. This is what I admire.
2) I am not sure about what I like to be confronted with. I am open to all possibilities, I guess. Even though, I have my prejudices, as discussed before…
In addition to hearing your opinion on 1) and 2), I’d like to know: can you imagine In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth and Horse Money in literary form? Like an essay, or a Riis-esque news report, a novel…
Patrick: No, I cannot imagine those works as written texts. Mr. Costa is very much about the material sensuality as well as the time of things, in my opinion. There might be another relation to the Straubs: I cannot imagine someone blinking in another medium.
People talk about Hou Hsiao-hsien as a chronicler also, and I have problems with it. Yes, there is history in their works, there is a sense of time, politics and how they relate to each other. But I think to call them historians is wrong. They make cinema. Of course, we can talk about history through cinema, but there is an immediate presence of things that comes way before it… the wind, the movement, the eyes… all these things… and please do not tell me that this is mysticism again! It is not. There is a director and he makes a decision. It is like Godard said: History is with a big, capital “H” in cinema, because it constantly projects itself. It cannot be history without first being cinema, and by first being cinema it becomes presence (when done by those masters). It is a philosophical question, no doubt. Cinema can give me the experience of time… this is not what historians do. Historians – as much as I admire some of them – can also make me aware of time, but they can never make me experience it.
This is an emotional topic for me. I don’t know why. Concerning the questions about fear and love, there is a strange relationship going on between them in life, and also with Mr. Costa, I think. We were talking about that before: this fear of desire… When I was a child, cinema could make me be afraid of something, and this is why I have loved it. But now it is the other way around. Now, it can make me love certain things, and this is why I am afraid of it.
Have you seen any John Ford after we met with Mr. Costa? You have written a great article comparing Colossal Youth, Horse Money and Sergeant Rutledge (LINK).
Michael: “Histoire(s)” with a capital H and – Godard added – with two “S”, as in “S.S.”. Which naturally brings us to that good old fascist John Ford. Nah, just kidding. To answer your question: yes, I have seen some Ford after we met with Mr. Costa. Let’s go straight into eye of the cyclone: 7 Women. What do you think about it? I think it is quite a ridiculous film.
Patrick: I have seen 7 Women after having seen many Ford movies in a row and, for me, it was one of his weakest. It touches the ridiculous, especially in terms of casting. But then I couldn’t help seeing 7 Women in relation to its being the last of Ford’s films. His last film… It is full of bitterness and cynicism. There is a statement in the end. Moreover Ford got rid of many things there, it is a film that goes to the essence which in this case is survival for me. And he seemed much less a fascist in the end, didn’t he?
What makes you dislike it? Mr. Costa has talked about abstraction in the past and how he observed that filmmakers are heading towards abstraction in their later works. Would you say he is right, also in regard of Ford?
Michael: Firstly, I don’t agree with your placing such an emphasis on closure, or finality. Ford couldn’t and didn’t know that 7 Women was to be his last film. Maybe his next project (I am sure there was a next project, there always is…) was a romantic comedy, who knows? I think it is one of the fallacies that affect last films: their importance tends to be overestimated (in dramatic, bitter and cynical terms, more often than not) because they are THE END of an author. This annoys me, I have to be honest. It is as if at the end of his life a man couldn’t help be bitter and cynical, which Ford certainly was, but no more in the ending of 7 Women than, say, in the ending of Stagecoach that I have already described and praised at the beginning of our conversation. And just imagine Ford dying after Donovan’s Reef, a film made a couple of years before 7 Women, but completely devoid of gloomy atmosphere, rape, infanticide, madness, suicide. Donovan’s Reef is a charming, heart-warming romantic comedy that totally looks like an old man saying goodbye to life and closing his eyes in peace with the world, doesn’t it? In the utopic atoll everything turns out fine for the main characters, Wayne gets the city girl and they all live happily ever after. I mean, the worst thing that happens in Donovan’s Reef is that the city girl might be a bit uppity and racist at the beginning. Nothing that a good spanking can’t cure…
Anyway, back on the main subject, yeah, in 7 Women the casting is kinda meh. Plus, the characters are not only too many (specifically, there are too many women, some of whom are overlapping in their “distinctive characteristics”), but also one-dimensional, cartoonish and uninteresting. The lines are awful most of the time, and the acting… ouch! The Anne Bancroft character is tough and cool, but watching her playing a johnwayner version of John Wayne is just painful. Plus, Mike Mazurki wrestles Woody Strode and wins? No fucking way. However, I believe that at that point in his career Ford was experienced enough to make a film in which everything is intentional, so if he did things like that, he wanted the film to be like that, for some reason I cannot grasp. It was intentional, I am sure, to make the mother-to-be SO annoying… that is kinda interesting, as a matter of fact: the big hero(ine)’s self-sacrifice for this nagging, unsympathetic, ugly, old woman who was stupid enough to get pregnant in middle-of-nowhere China, fucking her nagging, unsympathetic, ugly, old husband. Wow! Which leads me to what I believe is the essence of Ford’s cinema: to me it is not survival, as you say, but duty. If the core was survival, there would be no need for the Bancroft character to kill herself: she could have killed the big bad wolf and try to survive the aftermath of her action… Running away or something. Worst case scenario, the henchmen catch her and kill her. But no. She kills the baddy and immediately commits suicide. Why? Because she must fulfill her duty: to be a hero (and a fallen woman). Just my two cents, sorry if it sounds dogmatic.
I don’t know if there’s a connection between directors getting old and their movies moving towards abstraction, as Mr. Costa says. Do you think so? On the matter of aging filmmakers, I agree with Quentin Tarantino, who said that as a filmmaker gets old, his films tend to be not so good as the first ones. There are many exceptions, of course, but in my opinion this is generally true.
Patrick: You are right, I was wrong (sounds like a Locarno winner) about survival not being the essence, but I don‘t think it is duty either (though there is an argument that the duty in this film is survival). I think duty in Ford is not a question of morals, getting an order or something like that; it is about a political statement and the fiction that is built around it. In this regard, the ending of 7 Women may not be as dull as you described it. For me, it is also a film that takes place in a lost paradise (there is some strange turn-around connection with Donovan’s Reef). It is not China as China. As far as my perception and memories of the film are concerned, you take things very literally. The question of being a hero(ine) is not so simple here, because the question in Ford is always more about the: “What does it take? Where is the lie/fiction? Do we accept it?”. Here, his solution is killing, which leads to suicide. Is this a dull statement, or do we find something in-between, maybe more on an abstract level? 7 Women speaks to many things Ford has done during his career. The dry way suicide is shown is far away from heroism in my view. Maybe Ford even had the same thoughts as you about the stupidity of duty? I tend to find always both sides in Ford, especially in his endings. The romanticism of the hero, which he most clearly shows in Young Mr. Lincoln, is not always pure. There is a doubt, an irony (The Irony Horse, very bad play on words…)… Let’s take The Lost Patrol, a film I mentioned earlier which is also set in a supposed paradise, the Mesopotamian desert. This film is far more abstract than many others and it is not a late work of Ford… There is an invisible enemy and a feeling of sad impuissance in the face of war. Feelings we can understand today. There are also suicides. In the end, there is a kind of savior. A Sergeant defends himself against all enemies until another patrol saves him. For me, in The Lost Patrol as well as in 7 Women (though the former is a much, much better film, I am only trying to state that the latter is not dull), Ford tells about the fictional nostalgia of heroes in the shadow of a reality that overpowers anyone in it. There is a constant inability to explain, to communicate in these enclosed worlds of men or women. The only things that are able to reach out are violence and friendship/love, and both of them do not really work. 7 Women asks about the thin line between being victim and perpetrator, and in the end – like in The Lost Patrol – Ford talks about the salvation of destruction and the destruction of salvation. Maybe those words are much too big, but I find your approach to Ford in terms of narration, and how casting justifies it, a little narrow. For me, he is not a director that can be watched without his formalistic choices. Who does he show, what doesn’t he show, where is the close-up and so on. It has been almost a year since I have seen it, so my arguments may feel a little basic. Sorry for that. But I feel like defending Ford here because, firstly, he has done worse than 7 Women, and secondly with Ford there is always another film that speaks with the one you were seeing and which enriches the experience. This may be the reason why Alexander Horwath has called Ford’s cinema “an ocean” (though he does that with almost any director…).
Concerning the topic of the “last film”: probably you are right and we place too much value on some film being the last one of a filmmaker. But then, there is a fiction in film-watching, too… We print the legend, so to speak, and if a last sentence in Ford is “So long, ya bastard!”, or the last word in Kubrick is “Fuck”, then I WANT to believe though it is nothing more than an anecdote. What would cinema be without these mythologies? Moreover it surely stimulates thoughts about the worldview of this or that filmmaker. There are not many last films I really love. Gertrud by Dreyer is one of the few, L’Atalante by Vigo, of course, but in the case of Mr. Costa’s favorites, I tend to think that neither Ozu, nor Ford, nor Chaplin, nor Tourneur achieved something tremendously worth-wile in their last works. I don’t know about Tarantino’s notion of films getting worse with the age of their maker… I observe that some older filmmakers seem to get a bit lazy, they find their language and I miss the doubt in their late works. There is no doubt, no struggling visible any more. The problem for me is when I sense that somebody knows too well what he is doing. I often miss the burning fire, the impossibility of not-doing the film… like you said, there are filmmakers who manage to keep that fire or doubt… Godard is one of them and I wouldn’t know how to talk about De Oliveira.
In terms of abstraction I certainly feel that it is the case with Mr. Costa. Which leads me to an obvious question: do you think that Mr. Costa can be included in Tarantino’s (self-)observation? Is Cavalo Dinheiro in your view worse than O Sangue? Is there the still same fire?
Michael: Thank you for defending your opinion with such passion. I totally disagree with you, and our views are kind of “not-reconciliable”, but I see your point. Also, I took note of your insights on The Lost Patrol, which I haven’t seen: not a big fan of McLaglen in superdramatic roles here, I must admit… I didn’t like The Informer at all, for instance. And I will purposefully ignore your mentioning Young Mr. Lincoln, because it would take us too far into a dangerous territory (Young Mr. Lincoln is a film I find difficult to digest, together with another film in which Henry Fonda plays a sneaky, mephistophelic manipulator who bullies the crowd into being good, 12 Angry Men).
I, too, think that “some older filmmakers seem to get a bit lazy, they find their language and I miss the doubt in their late works. There is no doubt, no struggling visible any more. The problem for me is when I sense that somebody knows too well what he is doing”: Lars von Trier, anyone? But then, to connect to your last one-in-three (triune?) question and spitting it back to you, isn’t Mr. Costa actually trying to find a filmmaking daily routine, to find some solid – possibly boring, white- or even blue-collar – basis in such an erratic profession, so that doubt, pressions, paranoia, deadlines, artsy bullshit, me, you, the festivals can be cast aside? Hasn’t he spent the last 15 years looking for a tranquility of sorts, a home-studio where he can get old making movies with his friends? O Sangue, too, was an attempt to make a movie with a bunch of friends…
Patrick: That’s an interesting one. Is Mr. Costa making friends and develops a desire to work with them, or does he have a desire for working with someone and in the process befriends the person? I think it is the former, but somewhere he had to start. For a filmmaker there must always be the potential of a film, in every movement, in every face, don’t you agree? I am not entirely sure that he really tries to find this quiet place you talk about. He seems to enjoy travelling the whole world, he seems very much to enjoy talking to cinema-people around the globe, to live in this world of cinema… he is searching for the last places where this idea of cinema exist, but as much as I believe in his films, I think now, for the first time in our conversation, you are the romantic believer and I am the skeptic… of course, I couldn‘t know. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Mr. Costa is searching for fame or anything like that… no… but he likes his films to be shown. Let’s take the event where we met. The Munich Filmmuseum was screening a Fontainhas retrospective. That is a perfectly suitable place for Mr. Costa to show his films. Not because it is a museum, but because it was programmed there with passion, with an idea of cinema, it was a cinema-experience. But one day later Cavalo Dinheiro was screened at the Munich Filmfest (it was screened in the same cinema, but it was a different event)… though it is great of them to show the film (they even awarded him the main prize thanks to Sam Fuller’s daughter who apparently knows something about cinema) it is a horrible industry-event, full of money, German tastelessness, no respect for cinema. Mr. Costa accepted their invitation without hesitation. Is that because of duty or survival? I completely understand Mr. Costa, of course, his films should be shown everywhere because they enrich the life of everyone who sees them, and it is the only way for him to keep on. It is also a way to fight for cinema. But I don’t think he is trying to have a quiet life with friends… I think the opposite is true… he is one of the very few filmmakers that are fighting for an ideal, that feel the need to make, talk and defend cinema in and against an unaware public. He was complaining in Munich that he is weaker than Straub in this regard, but I think he is just different. I think a part of the doubt I can still sense in his work is due to the bitterness of this contact with reality. It is a contact with friends, places but also with the industry of cinema… and he has to be part of it to fight it. It is just speculation and I feel a bit bad about it but these are just my thoughts. He is not David Perlov, Vincent Gallo or even Terrence Malick, avoiding festival life and so on. And we can be grateful for it. What do you think?
Michael: Yeah, there’s no easy answer, thanks for pointing out all the complexities… Even though I think that, given the chance, Mr. Costa would stay in his native Lisbon and shoot his stuff, haunting the rooms he loves like Pessoa did with his (imaginary) friends.
But you were talking about cinema and friendship. Let’s go back to that, I think it is important, last but not least because our friendship (I mean, you and I becoming friends) was mediated by cinema…
Patrick: You know that these are perfect words to finish our conversation, don’t you?
Michael: Better than those in the last title card of The Long Voyage Home? More perfect than “The rest is silence”? I don’t think so. But, please, let us not go astray: continue your discourse about cinema and friendship, or I’ll break our friendship, by devil!
Patrick: Many of the greatest worked, and are working, with their friends and relatives. I think it is very hard to create art in film without “friends”. Just a few random names to underscore my argument, and to stimulate our thoughts in a tender way in the midst of all this heat I still feel burning inside my fingertips concerning John Ford: Jean Renoir (another one of those who, for my taste, found their language too easily in his late works), Andrey Tarkovsky (may be fired after one or two drinks), Ingmar Bergman (too close), Tsai Ming-liang (Lee and melons at least), Fassbinder (a bit like Bergman, only without control) or Cassavettes (did not go to Fontainhas to find friends though)… But then there is something I also feel with Mr. Costa about this kind of friendship. It is another doubt, or let’s call it fear again… It is a question: Will it last? Are things mediated by cinema meant to last, or are they just ephemeral illusions, mechanical ghosts, memories? What do we have by talking about friendship via e-mail? What does Mr. Costa have making cinema with digital means? Oh, now I am very trendy philosophical. As I started this conversation you will have the final word, or shall we just close the door and leave everybody, including ourselves, guessing?