Shadows of Resignation: Jacques Tourneur in Locarno

What does it say about the state of cinema when the cinephile excitement and quality of a festival such as the 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival derives more from a retrospective than the latest batch of contemporary films? There is more than one possible answer to such a question, so we might as well pose another one: Why is it important to see Jacques Tourneur? Isn’t it just self-affirmation, a sort of homecoming, or even a celebration of sorts? When I told people that I would be in Locarno this year, many replied rather enviously: “Ah, I would love to be there with Mr. Tourneur.” Is such a desire connected to the idea of discovering something new with or in Mr. Tourneur or is it just about the pleasure of returning to a place one likes? Both might be true and valuable, and after Olaf Möller’s discovery tour into the neglected history of German cinema during the 69th edition Mr. Tourneur is a reasonable step for the festival. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking – though I must admit I didn’t see as much of Mr. Möller’s choices as I could have – that the element of surprise and discovery was much bigger in Mr. Tourneur, who always switches between chameleon and auteur. One is never quite sure what to expect, always astonished at where one lands but still feeling that all these different paths were followed by the same filmmaker.

I walked with a Zombie

Before seeing and re-seeing many of his works in Locarno, my impression of Jacques Tourneur was a certain movement connected with a certain half-light. It is a travelling that follows characters through various states of light and shadow, like the famous invisible chase sequence in Cat People, or a sleepless night and dreamy gaze into the dark horizon in Anne of the Indies. These certainties are in fact describing uncertainties of intermediate worlds, desires, absences, or the supernatural which, as the director states in the accompanying catalogue of the festival, he believes in. Through those moments and states, a feeling that I can best describe as a sort of fever arises. It is connected to something I discovered while revisiting films like I Walked with a Zombie (which was shown at midnight at the Piazza Grande while a thunderstorm approached and eventually made me leave in the pouring rain) or Night of the Demon: There is an idea of the past tense in the films of Mr. Tourneur. His cinematographic language speaks in the present but his narratives seem to have already happened. This becomes very clear in the short films he did for MGM such as the mesmerising The Ship That Died or The Face Behind the Mask. Most of those shorts are narrated by Carey Wilson or John Nesbitt in an exaggerated, dramatic, but still sober tone, recounting mysterious incidents in the way an enthusiastic explorer might tell a story to a group of old, cigar-smoking men. The manner in which these stories are told makes it clear that they have already happened. There is a time before the film, sometimes even a time before time. Fittingly, some of the shorts deal with historical topics such as the French Revolution or the history of radium in Romance of Radium. Those films are less about what is happening than they are about our position towards it. Most of all, they ask the question: Do we believe or not? The same is true for many feature films. In fact, the camera deliberately tends to arrive at the scene a bit too early or a bit too late. Actions have already taken place or will take place no matter what we see. Maybe some secrets can’t be shown at all. One could talk about an economy of means that was perhaps also formed during the short film years. Mr. Tourneur doesn’t show too much, he just shows what is necessary. There is an air of something unavoidable, as if many characters in his films were not presented as real beings but ghosts from a story that has already been told.

Mr. Tourneur has always been the Hollywood director I found most difficult to write about. There are many elements that escape us while being with his films and a high level of ambiguity to them. It seems fitting that Chris Fujiwara used introductory quotes by writers such as Maurice Blanchot or Hélène Cixous in his great book on Mr. Tourneur called Nightfall – writers who are capable of expressing things that escape the notion of expression. The retrospective didn’t make the task any easier since it was the first time I saw very strong films like Les filles de la concierge or Easy Living, which add new colours to the palette of the filmmaker. His very precise, comedic talent which shows in Les filles de la concierge is came as a particular surprise. In constant movement between different love stories, the film tells not only about class relations but more about the way gazes and perspectives are organised between desire and duty, expressing and hiding. It was also a pleasant surprise that the screening of the film (even if it was shown without subtitles) was packed. So there might be a hunger for discovery in Locarno. I wasn’t able to see Pour être aimé, another French comedy by Mr. Tourneur before he moved back to the USA. Despite those “new” facets, there was something that struck me in almost all the films and which shed a new light, or maybe a shadow on all of his films: The mode of resignation. Fujiwara mentions resignation in his book. He writes:

“For Tourneur, resignation isn’t a moral ideal in itself but comes as the inevitable result of the displacement of the hero in history (the prolonged aporia of Way of a Gaucho) or as a convulsion or exhaustion, like the confessions of characters in I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Great Day in the Morning and like the surrender of Vanning in front of the church in Nightfall. Tourneur’s sense of passivity and inevitability colors even his most straightforward and positive protagonist, Wyatt Earp in Wichita, who has to be goaded into action by events and who apologizes to his enemy in advance for the bullet with which he kills the latter in a duel.“

anne of the indies

It is an observation I find to be very true. The displacement of the protagonists as well as the feeling of exhaustion are on the one hand connected to what I described as the past tense in Mr. Tourneur, but, on the other hand, they are related to a form of resistance his cinema keeps hidden like a treasure. In this aspect of his cinema we can find an antipode to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg for whom wonder and overpowering mean everything. Mr. Tourneur tells about greater and truer miracles, but he never counts on the reaction of the protagonists to those miracles and supernatural happenings. Of course, in some of his films closer to the horror genre, most notably in Night of the Demon, there are close-up shots of people being afraid and staring at something unknown. However, there is a resistance to seeing supernatural and natural miracles as something extraordinary. This is most notably true for one of his best films, Stars in my Crown. In the film, a typhoid fever breaks out in a small village. It is one of the many sicknesses in the films of Mr. Tourneur. One finds many fragile and tender shots of people lying in bed, unable to move, pale and in a state between life and death or just between being able to perform or not as in Easy Living. It seems very fitting that the well-deserved winner of the Golden Leopard, Mrs. Fang by Wang Bing is also a meditation on sickness and death. Where Wang Bing finds a tender insecurity in the close-up of a dying woman, Mr. Tourneur tends to avoid lingering on a dying face because it might move and reawaken any second. Both filmmakers find each other in open eyes that are not awake.

Those sicknesses add to the feeling of exhaustion but they also help establish the recurring conflicts between resignation and hope. In Stars in my Crown a moral conflict between a priest and the new doctor develops as both struggle with helping the desperate people. After the disillusioned priest goes through a period of resignation, he performs a miracle on the doctor’s dying wife. Despite the musical crescendo accompanying this miracle, which almost recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer (the miracle, not the music), Mr. Tourneur does not call attention to this scene as one of an overpowering salvation. Instead, it seems very natural that saving lives is not only about bodies but also about souls. The true miracle follows and it is an act of humanity in the face of racism. The priest addresses the heart of Ku Klux Clan riders who want to slaughter a black man to gain his property. He reads them (from an empty piece of paper) how the man about to be murdered bequeaths them his belongings. After listening to the priest, consumed with a feeling of shame and guilt, the men leave the place. One can find a lot of belief in these shadows of resignation, since they are not about telling us something extraordinary has happened but just that it has happened. This means a great deal if we are talking about miracles.

stars in my crown

Mr. Tourneur constructs his strategies of resignation concisely. Often, establishing shots are a drama of their own. The films jump right into some actions leaving the viewer clueless as to how they got there; it is like the displacement of the protagonists becomes clear in the very first shot. For example, in Circle of Danger (Mr. Tourneur’s first independent production), one of the many films that begin on a ship, there is a scale to the opening which almost feels like a red herring. We are on a ship and the protagonist played by Ray Milland is in the middle of some masculine action. Those seconds on a ship that merely serves as a character background and has nothing to do with the narrative of the film, shows how much Mr. Tourneur is interested in the mood surrounding his character and how he constructs a feeling of being out of place not only for the protagonists but also for the viewer. Fujiwara writes about this scene: “As in I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past, and Appointment in Honduras, we have the feeling of having arrived late to witness a process already about to be concluded.” The stuffy atmospheres, the sweat, the shadows, the male shoulders and soft female voices add to a mixture of temptation, sickness and giving in. Many writers on Mr. Tourneur (apparently mostly male as the catalogue and the round table in Locarno unwittingly showed) mention that he loved to make his actors talk very silently and move slowly. The latter is, for example, also true for Manoel De Oliveira with whom Mr. Tourneur shares the sense of predestination as well as the poetic soberness of looking at it. A title of a never-realised film of Mr. Tourneur, Whispering in Distant Chambers, seems to best describe the way people talk in his films. Especially in Nightfall, where the voice of Aldo Ray is surprisingly soft and silent in the face of the brutalities he has to go through. Detachment on the brink of alienation creates a distance in accordance with a knowledge about life which will sooner or later come to an end. For better or worse. Mr. Tourneur also talks about this process in an interview on Appointment in Honduras: “But I noticed that actors in most films tend to shout. The same dialogue said half as loud is more memorable and intense. To be worthwhile, dialogue should be said naturally, the way we talk everyday. You need to make actors not declaim and when they talk loudly, they have a tendency to declaim.” In his casting choices, especially concerning male actors, Mr. Tourneur seems to look for the type of actor that is sure not to declaim: Dana Andrews, Robert Mitchum or Aldo Ray are perfect examples of this. One could rightly ask what all of this has to do with resignation. It is the understatement and somnambulistic way of movement that is true for the protagonists as well as the camera and the way those movements face miracles and dramas. Moreover, the films focus on an absence of hysteria when confronted with tragedy. It is not that any of those elements, be it the past tense, the half-light, the camera movements, the way of talking, or the establishing shots are special per se. However, the combination of those elements forms a broken unity aiming at moods and memories in distant chambers.

easy living

Resignation is also a way of concealing an immense capacity for romanticism. In many films “strange forces” are at work. They bring perdition or redemption. The protagonists protect themselves against those forces by treating them normally. Even Dana Andrew’s role of the scientist in Night of the Demon or Frances Dee’s nurse in I Walked with a Zombie are never truly naive when confronted with things they normally wouldn’t believe in. They just struggle for rationalism which is, for Mr. Tourneur, closely related to resignation. In Easy Living, a film which Mr. Tourneur did not particularly like although it contains some of his finest directing, the whole idea of rationalism versus supernaturalism is turned upside down. A sportsman and star is told he should stop playing football because of a heart murmur. Afraid of his demanding wife and insecure about his post-career life, he keeps his condition a secret and goes on playing. Here, the seemingly supernatural force is the most natural of all: The fading of the body. The supernatural lies in not accepting nature. So, the film narrates the same battle as many other films by Mr. Tourneur, yet the protagonist has to learn to believe in the natural instead of the other way around. In place of fear, a sort of sadness informs the picture. In a brilliant move, the film establishes a character who could be called a figure of resignation, the one who knows about all this days before the protagonists or the viewer, the one who has seen it all before: A cynical journalist-photographer happens to be in the right place at the right time and helps dedramatize every possible flicker of romanticism until the very last shot. He appears to comment on the reunion kiss: “Yeah, yeah.” There is a sad undertone in this. These characters appear in all of Mr. Tourneur’s films and are best condensed in the stage worker in the short The Rainbow Pass, which should have been part of the program but was left out. The film presents a Chinese stage play and focuses on a stage worker dressed in black whom everyone in the audience pretends not to see when he goes about his business in creating imagination in the most bored way imaginable. To speak in John Ford’s terms: These are the men that print the legend. Yet, they don’t believe in it. The question is rather, as another title of a Tourneur short proposes: What Do You Think?

What we do in the shadows – Following a trace in I Walked with a Zombie

The concern with this particular shot must have crept in at some point after having watched Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie’s perplexing last four minutes for the 13th time. It was part of the process of getting prepared for that wonderful weekly gathering at which we discuss the films of Val Lewton in an extremely frigid building. If I was expecting to find the tools to encrypt the film’s last minutes, I am very glad to say that I did not. I Walked with a Zombie remains to me as beautifully ambiguous as before.

26

Nevertheless, something about the composition of this particular shot troubled me. The rocks surrounding, the exit to the sea, the figures seen from behind, all seemed somehow familiar. I suddenly thought of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead and, though it may be ridiculous, I did not at that moment ask myself why I recalled this particular painting with such ease.

frisland

Putting the images side by side (they had by then multiply mutated – I had paralyzed the shot from I Walked with a Zombie into a screenshot and I had picked out an image of one of Böcklin’s versions of the painting online) firstly resulted in sheer disappointment. In my attempt to compare them, I was looking merely at the shapes. Yet then I realized that looking out from the shore (a change of perspective, the counter-shot), the exit from the Isle of the Dead would look very similar to what can be seen in the shot that concerned me so.  (If this is an attempt to escape from the Isle of the Dead, does it succeed? Is this absolution or damnation? Is the ending the victory of the rational or the irrational?)

My comprehension of the connection between the setting where the ‘action’ of Zombie is supposed to take place and the isle of the dead was by that time perhaps long due.  Firstly because the painting (a reproduction thereof) can be seen earlier in the film, secondly because, of course, Lewton produced, a few years after the completion of Zombie, Isle of the Dead, which deals more explicitly with Böcklin’s painting.isleo

Though the island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies, the diegetic setting of I Walked with a Zombie, does not seem to exist as an isolated island, there is an island called Santa Clara which appertains to the Spanish municipality San Sebastian and it was to this island that the people of San Sebastian infected by the plague were transferred to in order to keep the infection from spreading. In Lewton’s Isle of the Dead the island is also presented as a place governed by the plague.

After having finally gotten a grip on the connection between I Walked with a Zombie and Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, it still seemed a bit far-stretched to accredit this awareness to the composition of this particular shot I had started from. I considered consulting the script and ended up doing it. The scene was not shot as described and, when I found the approximate spot I was looking for, there was no reference to Böcklin’s painting. I faced disappointment once more. Yet looking en passant at the following pages, I stumbled upon this

scriptzombie

I did find some comfort in the confirmation for Zombie turning to (Böcklin) paintings to draw inspiration for the composition of the shots, so I continued following the trace. Once more, the scene had ended up being shot differently than described. My superficial search for a Böcklin painting named And the sea gave up its dead was futile, although the painting might very well exist. However, there is a painting by Lord Leighton Frederic entitled “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it” (and having this Bible-quote to put in relation to the film did give me some satisfaction).  I had chosen an image to fit the approximate spot described in the script, put the two images side by side and was, once again, disappointed.

and

I kept scrolling through images of the paintings of Böcklin until stumbling upon several portraying Triton and (a) Nereid and assumed that it was one of this paintings that was intended to ‘somewhat influence the composition of this scene’.  I also assumed that ‘this scene’ ended up in the film as this dissolve that makes my heart skip a beat.

carre

I found a connection between Triton, messenger of the sea and Carrefour, also a messenger (but of what?). And then I imagined having found a connection between Triton’s trident and the tools the fishermen use when looking for Jessica’s body, tools that the script described as spears and ended up being very trident-looking. It also seemed natural for this scene’s equivalent of a Nereid, a protector of fishermen, to be found by fishermen. If nereids are usually represented as beautiful barefoot girls wearing silk gowns, it seemed only natural for Jessica to be presented in the same manner. (If the Nereids symbolize everything that is beautiful and kind about sea, does Jessica’s death put an end to the putrescence previously associated with the sea? Is the death a death?)

At that point I, realizing that I will not find enlightenment, I stopped following and remained blissfully perplex. Of course, there is also this and perhaps much more:

catp

 

Youth Under The Influence (Of Pedro Costa) – Part 2: The Mysterious One

Michael Guarneri and Patrick Holzapfel continue their discussion about the films they have seen after meeting with Mr. Costa in Munich, in June 2015. (Here you can find Part 1)

Michael: […] Which might be a good starting point for discussing our cinematic guilty pleasures… Do you want to start?

Patrick: Sure! But first I want to state that, for me, something that is recommended and liked by people like Mr. Costa or Straub can never be guilty. Maybe I’m too weak in this regard. I really don’t know about your mysterious childhood experiences. I think you underestimate a little bit the power of some of those films, and the differences within the evil machine, too. The craft also has some poetry that sometimes is bigger than the whole package… but we have discussed that already, I do not want to insist. Let’s talk about my guilty pleasures.

It is very hard for me, as I am living in a city where the expression “vulgar auteurism” was defined, and the mantra “Everything is Cinema – Cinema is Everything” gets repeated over and over. Now, for the first time, I see a connection with the Marquis, and that makes it even more attractive. Furthermore I think that, in a sense, watching cinema must be guilty.

Anchorman

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

But still, I just love many Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell films, I became a man (did I?) watching films like Old School, Zoolander, Anchorman or Semi-Pro. The same is true for Judd Apatow, which somehow feels even guiltier. Then there is Christopher Nolan. I hated Interstellar, but I would defend almost everything he did before Interstellar without arguments. I don’t remember a single outstanding shot, cut or moment in his films, but I remember the movement between shots (maybe there is an argument in the making…). I love agents, almost all of them. I like self-seriousness because I am very self-serious myself. But I cannot say that, during the last couple of years, there was anything I liked for its color like one could (but needn’t) like The River by Renoir, or for its dancing and singing. It has become harder to have guilty pleasures, because now they don’t sell you a box of candies, they just sell you the box.

But what’s even more interesting for me is what one doesn’t like despite one maybe should. We can call it “guilty failings” if you like. Do you have those failings?

the river

The River

casa de lava

Casa de Lava

Michael: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to skate over my guilty pleasures, and maintain a façade of very serious (self-serious?), austere intellectual. Yes, let’s talk about “guilty failings”! The River by Renoir – which you have just mentioned – is a film I cannot stand. It feels somehow too childish for my taste, as if somehow Renoir was trying to push people to watch everything with big watery eyes (the main characters are the kids/teenagers, it makes sense that Renoir does so: I just do not like it). This tear-jerking super-melodrama feeling is probably why I cannot take it seriously, especially in the big “the child is dead” monologue.

Another big guilty failing for me is The Third Man by Carol Reed. The movie has everything to be an excellent one: a genre I love, great casting (not only Welles but the always awesome, awesome Joseph Cotten), intriguing story and great dialogues, all the package. Yet, when I watch it, I just find it unbearable to sit through. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, every shot is like “Look, mom, I am directing!”: the film is bizarrely baroque throughout, with lots of weird angles and convoluted tracking shots, a total show-off for basically no reason. For most of the film I was saying to myself: “Can’t the director just keep that camera straight?”… The Third Man is probably the one and only 1940s US noir I don’t like.

Was there a specific film or a director that you couldn’t stand, like, five years ago, and now you appreciate?

Patrick: I have to think about it. This issue basically leads me back to many thoughts I had in the beginning of this conversation. Ernst Lubitsch is a director I didn’t like a few years ago, but now I like him very much. Why is that? First, I hope and know, it is because I have watched more films by Lubitsch. I also re-watched the ones I didn’t like at first (To Be or Not to Be, for example), and found them much better. Maybe my eyes have sharpened, I am pretty sure they have, they should have. I suddenly recognize the movement, the way he builds his shots, the way he works with motives and eyes and the way everything feels always wrong in the right way. But there is also a suspicion. It’s the way people like Mr. Costa talk about Lubitsch, the way Lubitsch is dealt with in certain cinema circles, the way he is a legend with a certain flavor (don’t call it “touch”, it is not what I mean), a certain secret around all those screenshot of Lubitsch films posted on the Internet. I am afraid that those things seduced me, too… or did they teach me? Perhaps they just told me to look closer.

Design for Living

Design for Living

Maybe what I am searching for is an innocent way of looking at films. But one must be careful. Many confuse this innocence with being against the canon, which is always a way of living for some critics. But that’s bullshit. I don’t mean that I want to go into a cinema without expectation or pre-knowledge. It is just the way of perceiving: it should be isolated, pure. It’s impossible, yet it happens. Or doesn’t it? What do you think? Are there still miracles happening in contemporary cinema? I ask you because I want to know if we are talking about something gone here, like Mr. Costa says it is, or something present.

Michael: Thanks for mentioning Lubitsch. In a very good interview-book by Cyril Neyrat, Mr. Costa talks a lot about Lubitsch being a major influence for In Vanda’s Room. He also says that one of the first times he saw Vanda, she was doing some plumbing job in Fontainhas and she reminded him of Cluny Brown, from the homonymous Lubitsch film. Cluny Brown is indeed an amazing film. As all the US production by Lubitsch, it is very witty and some very spicy (at times downright dirty) sexual innuendos are thrown in in a very casual way, which is absolutely fantastic. It is somewhat sexually deranged, but in a very controlled and seemingly proper way, hence (for me) the feeling of vertigo that makes me catch my breath. Plus, of course, in Cluny Brown there are a lot of very intelligent remarks on working within a cultural industry: in this sense, the last 5 minutes of the film are worth 1000 books on the subject. In my view, Lubitsch is one of the very few who managed to use “the Code” (the production code, the Hays Code) against itself, to make every shot a bomb that explodes in the face of the guardians of morality. In this sense, another masterpiece – in my view even superior to some Lubitsch films – is Allan Dwan’s Up in Mabel’s Room. If you haven’t already, please check it out: it is WILD.

Cluny Brown

Cluny Brown

 

Vanda

Vanda

Now, to answer your question… Well, it is a hell of a difficult question, and it requires my making very strict and arrogant statements, for which I apologize in advance. Personally, I do not believe in miracles of any kind. In particular, I do not like to think of cinema as a miracle: I try to think of it as a machine that people use to do/get stuff, and I resist with all my strength to qualify this stuff that cinema produces as a miracle. I prefer to think of films as the result of hard work that might or might not reflect an idea, a feeling, a question, a search, or whatever you want to call it – something on which the audience has to work on, too. I guess I am the typical skeptic character, like Dana Andrews in Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I guess I still have to meet my doctor Karswell to chastise and convert me to a more “mystical” perspective.

I don’t know if something in cinema is gone, or dead, but I tend not to be too apocalyptic. What do you think?

Patrick: Victor Kossakovsky once said that if he puts a camera at some place, something will happen there. Therefore he does not put it on a crossing.

Concerning miracles (now I am supposed to apologize in advance, but I won’t…), I think it is a question of how willing you are to let them in. Of course, films are fabricated, films are machines. But in my opinion this is a very simplistic way of seeing things, one that certainly is true and was very important at some time, but it has become to dominant. The Bazin-view seems to be out of fashion, I mean the theories about the camera as a recording device, something in touch with reality, with a life of its own. I don’t know if this is mysticism. It is very hard work to be able to let those things in. It goes back to the simple importance of perceiving some stuff around you and then getting the right angle, and so on, for these miracles to happen. It is obviously simplistic too, yes, but it is often ignored nowadays. We might translate miracles as life (those miracles are more often cruel than beautiful)…

About the whole cinema is dead business. I think it is an inspiration. For me cinema is always great when it reflects its own death, the art of dying so slow that you do not even recognize it, it is not only death at work, it becomes already-dead-but-still-seducing-at-work. You know what I mean? Cinema becomes like this girl you meet with too much make-up on it, she is drunk and exhausted, maybe she is coughing like Vanda or shaking like Ventura. But still there is movement, lights and shadows, there is cinema. For me cinema is always more alive when it is like that, not when it tries to shine bright, those times are over. Limelight by Chaplin is a perfect title for a perfect film for what I am trying to say.

Mr. Costa said in Munich that there are no cinematic qualities in a person, it has to do with something else, with getting to know someone, spending time with each other, understanding and trust. But then he somehow came back mentioning qualities in Ventura. What I am trying to say is that cinema for me is a way of perceiving the world. You can see it in a tree or in a person. Of course, it has to be fabricated and consumed and all that after it, and there is a high death rate in that, but as a way of life, as a way of seeing with one’s own eyes it will not die as long as someone is seeing it in things. So for me, Mr. Costa – though he might not agree – was seeing cinema, was seeing miracles (Gary Cooper in Ventura or Cluny Brown in Vanda…) though from a more distant point-of-view there was no cinema in his friends or Fontainhas at all. It was brought to life like a demon in the night, this is why I tend to speak of cinema as the art of the undead.

I completely agree about your remarks on Lubitsch. Do you recognise Cluny Brown in Vanda?

Michael: To be honest, no, I do not recognize Cluny Brown in Vanda, just like I do not recognize Cooper in Ventura. I understand why Mr. Costa makes the comparison, it makes sense and I respect that, it’s just that I – from a very personal point of view – do not really believe in Cluny Brown or Cooper. I accept them as characters in a film, and as a remarkable, at times even sublime abstraction of certain aspects of “humanbeingness”. But I do not really believe in them, I simply suspend my disbelief: because the dialogue is so cool, because I want to have fun, because I want to lose myself in the story, in the screen-world, whatever. Then the film is over, and that’s it for me. Cluny Brown, Cooper, they all die, I tend to forget them and move on with my life, and so did they when their job was finished, of course. What I mean to say is that they do not leave me much, I have the feeling that we live in two separate worlds.

With Vanda and Ventura (or the super-fascinating Zita, or Vitalina, or the incomparable, magnificent Lento) I feel a little different. It’s not a fiction versus documentary thing: I find the distinction between the two very boring, and of course one can tell at first glance that Mr. Costa’s post-1997 digital films are as carefully crafted and staged and enacted and performed as any other fiction film ever made. It’s just that, when I watch or listen to the Fontainhas people, I get in contact with something that it is here, that is not just a film, just a thing I am watching. It is something that watches me back as I am watching, and stays with me forever. It’s life, it’s their life, it’s Mr. Costa’s life and in the end it’s part of my life too. How was it? “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”

And now a one-million dollar question: if anyone can be in a movie, can anyone be a filmmaker?

Von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim

Patrick: You have some great points here, so this is going to be a long answer. For me the whole documentary/fiction debate that has been popping up for almost a century now is best solved by Gilberto Perez in his bible The Material Ghost. There is the light and the projector and together they are cinema. So, why bother? It is so stupid of a film magazine like Sight&Sound to make a poll of the Best Documentaries in 2014… In the words of Jia Zhang-ke: WTF! I still can’t believe how many serious filmmakers and critics took part in this awful game. At least people like James Benning or Alexander Horwath used the opportunity to point at the stupidity of such a distinction. It is not boring, it is plainly wrong to do so.

Then, I find it very curious that you talk about “life”. I think your “life” is what I earlier called “miracle”. And here I find a strange clash of opposed views within Mr. Costa’s recommendations. On the one hand, there is someone like Straub. Straub clearly is against the idea of using real life circumstances, of doing something for real in cinema. He said so more than once. On the other hand, there are people like Von Stroheim and Godard: both of them tried things with hidden cameras, both of them were fascinated by the idea of their picture becoming “life”. The most famous incident is surely when Von Stroheim tried everything he could to have a real knife in the finale of Greed as he wanted to see real pain in the eyes of Jean Hersholt, who played Marcus. (We can imagine what happened in the lost Africa sequences of Queen Kelly now). So this is not the “life” you are talking about… This “life” or “miracle” has to do with seeing and not-seeing, light and darkness and so on. I am completely with you there. But what about this other definition of “life” I have just mentioned? For you, when you see the weakness of a man confronted with his inner demons like Ventura in Horse Money, is it something like the pain in the eyes of Hersholt or something different? I am not asking if it is real or not which would be very strange after what I said before, I merely want to know if Von Stroheim was wrong in trying to have a real knife… I want to know what makes the pain real in cinema.

I am also glad you brought up Vitalina, Lento and Zita. They show me exactly what you mean, as all these comparisons with actors are something personal: it is a memory, a desire, maybe also a trick our mind plays on us. Our common friend Klaus, for example, told me that while looking at the picture of Gary Cooper in the first part of our conversation he suddenly recognized a similarity with Mr. Costa. Material Ghosts.

Concerning your last question I will just quote Renoir from his interview with Rivette and Truffaut in 1954: “ (…) I’m convinced that film is a more secret art than the so/called private arts. We think that painting is private, but film is much more so. We think that a film is made for the six thousand moviegoers at the Gaumont-Palace, but that isn’t true. Instead, it’s made for only three people among those six thousand. I found a word for film lovers; it’s aficionados. I remember a bullfight that took place a long time ago. I didn’t know anything about bullfights, but I was there with people who were all very knowledgeable. They became delirious with excitement when the toreador made a slight movement like that toward the right and then he made another slight movement, also toward the right – which seemed the same to me – and everyone yelled at him. I was the one who was wrong. I was wrong to go to a bullfight without knowing the rules of the game. One must always know the rules of the game. The same thing happened to me again. I have some cousins in America who come from North Dakota. In North Dakota, everyone iceskates, because for six months of the year there’s so much snow that it falls horizontally instead of vertically. (…) Every time my cousins meet me, they take me to an ice show. They take me to see some women on ice skates who do lots of tricks. It’s always the same thing: From time to time you see a woman who does a very impressive twirl: I applaud, and then I stop, seeing that my cousins are looking at me severely, because it seems that she wasn’t good at all, but I had no way of knowing. And film is like that as well. And all professions are for the benefit of – well – not only for the aficionados but also for the sympathizers. In reality, there must be sympathizers, there must be a brotherhood. Besides, you’ve heard about Barnes. His theory was very simple: The qualities, the gifts, or the education that painters have are the same gifts, education and qualities that lovers of paintings have. In other words, in order to love a painting, one must be a would-be painter, or else you cannot really love it. And to love a film, one must be a would-be filmmaker. You have to be able to say to yourself, “ I would have done it this way, I would have done it that way”. You have to make films yourself, if only in your mind, but you have to make them. If not, you’re not worthy of going to the movies.”

Renoir

Jean Renoir

Michael: Wow, awesome and inspiring words from Renoir, I have to seriously think about them now! You don’t get the one million dollar, though, since you answered with a quote by someone else.

Back on the life-miracle issue… A certain dose of mysticism is always healthy, it is good that you insist on this point to try and break my stubbornness. As you know, Mr. Costa made Où gît votre sourire enfoui? to destroy a critical stereotype about Straub-Huillet, namely that they are purely materialist filmmakers: as Mr. Costa’s shows, there is something in their daily work with machines that cannot be put into words, something mysterious… a smile that is hidden, or just imagined. And so is in Mr. Costa’s films, from O Sangue until now: there are always cemeteries, there is voodoo stuff going on all the time.

Night of the Demon

Night of the Demon

Where does your hidden smile lie?

Where does your hidden smile lie?

About the Hersholt-Ventura comparison: in my view, yes, the pain in the eyes of the former is different from the pain in the eyes of the latter. Very different. But allow me to make another example, and be more controversial. Are the sufferings of Chaplin’s tramp and the sufferings of Ventura the same? Are they both real? Well, they both are choreographed and made more intriguing by heavy doses of “melodramatization” (a cinematic treatment, or fictionalization, of reality that aspires to make human feelings visible and audible). But we must never forget that one of these two “screen personae” is a millionaire playing a tramp. In the end of his tramp films, Chaplin walks towards the horizon, and I always have this image of him in mind: the camera stops rolling, the tramp wipes off his makeup, hops into a sport car and drives away to bang some hot girls or something like that. Unfortunately, there is no such “release” for Ventura and the others. This is not to diminish Chaplin. He is one of the greatest – not only a total filmmaker but also a total artist: actor, director, musician, producer… It is just that I do not believe in him, in his films, in the world that he shows. I like the films, I enjoy them, I think that their humanism is heart-warming and powerful, and that many people should see them. I just do not believe in the world they show. I do not see life in it, I do not recognize this world as mine. It is a world that I cannot connect to. Maybe it’s an Italian thing, an Italian take on poverty, but when I asked my grandparents about Chaplin’s films, they said something I find very interesting: “Yeah, I remember the tramp guy, very funny movies, I laughed so hard… but being poor is another world entirely”.

Please mind that I have consciously chosen Chaplin as he is one of Costa’s favorite filmmakers. Is Chaplin a traitor, in your view?

 Chaplin

 

Chaplin2

TO BE CONTINUED