Patrick and Michael have a chat about Michael Guarneri’s book Questi fiori malati. Il cinema di Pedro Costa, which has just been published by Bébert Edizioni, Bologna (Italy). The talk is followed by an English translation of the book’s Introduction.
PH: Michael, the first thing that leaps out while reading your book is the way you quote lyrics in order to connect the cinema of Mr. Costa to punk and post-punk music. Can you explain a bit what is this idea of “punk” in relation to Mr. Costa?
MG: Every chapter in my book starts with the lyrics to a song and most of the songs I quote are by punk and post-punk bands. As I was doing research for the book, I got to talk with Mr. Costa a lot and I understood that there are two energy sources feeding his filmmaking practice: the 1974 revolution in Portugal, which Mr. Costa experienced when he was 14, and the rawest bastard offsprings of rock and roll, which he discovered a bit later, in the late 1970s/early 1980s. If we imagine Mr. Costa’s mind as a volcano that explodes and “erupts” films, I’d say that in the magmatic chamber the fuel igniting the whole thing is this: the 1974 revolution (which never maintained its promise of wiping out the exploitation of man by man) and the punk spirit (which also failed in a way, although I doubt it ever tried to “succeed” in the first place).
“Punk” is an umbrella-term for many things, a constellation of meanings often contradicting each other. Personally, I use it as a way to penetrate the feelings of revolt, anger, disgust and sometimes solipsism that I can perceive in Mr. Costa’s oeuvre… You know, ever since his first feature, we get to hear lines like “Nobody is like us”: this is perhaps punk in its purest essence. But “punk” is also useful to convey another central idea behind Mr. Costa’s filmmaking practice – the idea of expressing yourself with what you have at hand, right here and know; the idea of working with a group of close friends for a group of close friends, and the rest of the world may well go to hell… At the same time, with a strange somersault, I also try to connect the punk spirit to the Marxist spirit of the revolution: getting together, “uniting”, destroying what is there, razing it to the ground to create something new and hopefully better for the kids that will come. Basically, I try to have in the same frame the “no future” of punk and the “hope for a new world” of Marxism. This is perhaps where post-punk bands like Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd come into the picture, within the (theoretical?) framework of my book. It’s a strange dialectic but I like the tension, and I think Mr. Costa likes it too. Anyway, I’d like to stress that Mr. Costa is not an intellectual filmmaker. He is very intuitive and savage in a way, it’s not like he makes films with a camera in one hand and Das Kapital in the other. “Punk” is also useful for me to convey this anti-intellectualist idea.
PH: How would you describe your approach? How did your research go? Can readers expect some crazy anecdotes like in Tag Gallagher’s books or you try to stick to close readings and film analysis? I am also asking because monographs and critical biographies seem to be a dying genre…
MG: You are way too obsessed with death, Patrick. Isn’t life wonderful? But to go back to your questions… My book is indeed a monograph, in that it is consecrated to one single topic: the cinema of Pedro Costa. “Critical biography” is perhaps the term that best describes my approach, as I try to investigate how cinema shaped the life of Mr. Costa and how Mr. Costa’s life shaped his filmmaking practice. So in my monograph there will be plenty of anecdotes and biographical stuff – not as much as in Gallagher’s book about John Ford, but still quite a lot. However, I use these biographical data only when it is needed to prove a point, not to just show off my “insider knowledge” or to make the filmmaker look cool.
Structure-wise, each chapter is dedicated to a single film. Every chapter opens with a matter-of-fact description of how the movie in question was made (original idea, where did the money come from, shooting dates, post-production and distribution issues, etc). Then film analysis kicks in. This, in synergy with the constant reference to biographical data, turned the “monograph” into a sort of bildungsroman – a portrait of the filmmaker as he struggled over the course of many many years to find his his own mode of production, his own studio, his own crew, his own voice, his own… family? The publisher of the book, Matteo Pioppi, told me something really nice after reading my first draft: “If the reader doesn’t know that Pedro Costa is a real person, your book could well be an adventure novel!”. I was very happy to hear that. You see, the idea behind the book series (of which my book is entry number two) is the following: engaging the widest possible audience – from the hardcore, knowledgeable cinéphile to the general public – with the works of certain filmmakers that are usually classified (= mummified, put away, forgotten) in the “élite” of the arthouse. So my book is a work of “cultural popularisation”, to quote the Straubs and Mr. Costa himself. “Cinema must be useful”, as they like to say, and books too. My aim is to make something available, to make people “meet” a cinema and a person that I find amazing. Can we take Mr. Costa out of “the museum”, like he tried to do with the Straubs in his film Où gît votre sourire enfoui? ?
PH: Isn’t the task of a museum to make something present, to bring something to the light? I don’t know if we need to take Mr. Costa out of the museum. Perhaps we should just bring him to the right one? After all a book can be a museum too, in my opinion. So, in your monograph there is punk rebellion, there is Marxism, there is an anti-intellectualist drive, there is cultural popularisation. I like the way you compare your approach to Mr. Costa’s. Did you identify with the filmmaker while writing about him?
MG: I like your “bring Mr. Costa to the right museum” statement, perhaps this is what I am doing. In the end, issues relating to cultural and subcultural capital, official aesthetic canons, official history and counter-history of cinema, etc, are inescapable, you are absolutely right.
I do not identify with Mr. Costa at all. I don’t think I could identify with him even if I wanted to: too many differences in age, socio-historical background, personality… Plus, I am always suspicious of this identification process in “biographical” writing, because it may lead the writer to write about himself/herself rather than about a his/her subject matter. I don’t want to talk about myself: the book is not dedicated to myself, it’s dedicated to the life and work of Mr. Costa, whom I greatly admire, as he is part of my “Holy Trinity” Lav Diaz / Pedro Costa / Wang Bing (in order of age). So I try to stay out of the picture as much as I can, in order for people to “see” Mr. Costa and his work… although in the end the book is authored and signed by me, so my ego is satisfied and I can impress girls at parties by saying that I am a writer.
PH: How does all this relate to the title of your book, “Questi fiori malati”, i.e. “these unhealthy/sick/ill flowers”?
MG: The title of my book dedicated to Mr. Costa comes from Charles Baudelaire’s dedication at the beginning of Les Fleurs du Mal: “Au poète impeccable / Au parfait magicien des lettres françaises / À mon très-cher et très-vénéré / Maître et ami / Théophile Gautier / Avec les sentiments / De la plus profonde humilité / Je dédie / Ces fleurs maladives”. But the “unhealthy/sick/ill flowers” are also a reference to the typical characters of Mr. Costa’s films ever since his debut feature O Sangue : very beautiful, very fragile creatures consuming themselves at the border between life and death. And isn’t this a perfect definition for people like the punks of the first wave, Sid Vicious and all the others who died, or went insane, or got lost in the woods during a strange Baudelairean night? I think so. Then, you see, everything is connected…
November 16th 2014
From: Michael Guarneri
To: Pedro Costa
Dear Mr. Costa, my name is Michael Guarneri, I am an Italian film critic. We had a brief talk at Copenhagen’s Cinemateket on November 14th, during CPH:DOX Festival 2014, and you kindly gave me your e-mail address. I have recently curated the interview section of an Italian monograph dedicated to your friend and colleague Béla Tarr, published by Bébert Edizioni, a small publishing house in Bologna.
As I told you during our meeting in Copenhagen, Bébert Edizioni now gives me the opportunity to write a monograph consecrated to a filmmaker of my own choice. Since I would like to write a book about your work (for which I feel the deepest, most sincere admiration), I was wondering if we could meet anytime over the course of the following months. My idea is to spend some time with you and gather material for my book, perhaps in Lisbon, the city where you live and work.
I don’t want to write an ‘explanatory book’ saying things like ‘Pedro Costa’s cinema means this and that’: I read several interviews you gave during the 1990s and 2000s, and I understand how proud you are of the secrets buried in your films, so it’s not my intention to ruin it all and reveal them. It’s better to let these secrets sleep with the dead, buried in silence… Rather, I’d like to focus on the ‘worker’ Pedro Costa by adopting a historical-materialist perspective, and to provide a chronicle of your struggle to appropriate the means of production and create your own studio run by a close-knit group of friends-actors-crewmen. At the same time, I’d like to open a series of ‘interstices’ in this hardcore Marxist framework – little cracks through which black magic, voodoo, demons and all the strange creatures that make your films so unique and special can seep in. In my mind, my book about you will somehow resemble Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, your film about ‘film workers’ Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: a strange, impossible, dialectical embrace between materialism and mysticism. I hope that you like the idea, and I hope that I will somehow manage to realise it. In any case, we can always discuss the best perspective to adopt for the book: I certainly don’t want to provide a distorted, or just plain wrong, image of you and your films. As Pierre Berger wrote in his preface to Robert Desnos’ Oeuvres choisies, “my only desire, as the author of this book, is to do an act of friendship”.
In conclusion: I would like to meet you and have a long talk, a long interview, if you want. Please, let me know if it’s possible to organise a meeting somewhere. Thank you for your kind attention.