The Prisoners of Corona Island

by Lucía Salas, Patrick Holzapfel

La vida útil meets Jugend ohne Film

Cinema doesn’t die easily. It has been declared dead for ages and by now it must be one of the undead; a ghost haunting our dreams, nightmares, hopes and lives. In a time in which we are not allowed to go to cinemas around the globe we decided to start a little dialogue about the films we see at home. We always believe that cinema is necessary and useful but even more so in these times of insecurity and when a lot of our friends face a struggle to survive within the world of cinema. Since cinema is always alive when we talk and write about it, dream and think about it, this is our contribution to resurrect what will never be lost.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Patrick: It seems quite obvious that films always react to the world around them. Recently watching films took a very abstract turn in my perception but being forced to sit at home all day, I rediscovered the life inside the frame, the touches, the sensuality. Though I don’t necessarily think that watching this or that film is an act of solidarity, I feel drawn to images of or from Italy these days. I watched Un petit monastère en Toscane by Otar Iosseliani. It’s a beautiful film portraying the life around a monastery. The workers, the monks, the nature. Like often with Iosseliani everything holds together because of music. There is a co-existence of sacral music and folk songs. The peasant’s life is touched by God and the believer’s life is touched by the world we live in. Though it is a very hopeful film it also made me sad. It’s also a film about ways of life being lost.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lucía: It is true that films always react to the world around them, even the way the world turned out to be after they appeared in it. So I have been mostly interested in seeing what I cannot see, which is people in places, now that space-travel has become almost as impossible as time travel because of the corona-sharks outside. Your monks and peasants took me to right across the border from where I am, to the French side of the Basque Country, as I watched Un petit monastère en Toscane and then, right after, Iosseliani’s Euskadi été 1982.  France now seems a lot farther than 25 km away. In this one the crew goes around some small villages of the region recording Basque parties and practices, as well as the infinite countryside. For example, in an amazing montage, an image of one woman shearing a sheep cuts to another woman, knitting. But I have a piece of life inside and out the frame for you: almost at the end of the film many people are on a stage for a town party and in the middle of a battle scene a little trap door opens in the stage and they throw the defeated enemies there (out of the frame). That image cuts to a shot from below the stage, where two actors receive their fellows surrounded by pillows (back to the frame). It impresses me very much when, after having watched something for almost an hour, I realize there is a second camera at work, which makes this cinematic magic trick possible: to be both in the stage and in the backstage while an action that will only take place once happens. Or perhaps (I can only hope) it is fake, and they were all plotting against us, and not only the filmmakers (as usual) but the characters too. As both films were made for the small screen (although perhaps not as small as a small computer), there’s still hope of being as close to the film as you can. I am glad your monks took me to France, as I hadn’t heard anyone speaking Euskera since the quarantine started (the film is half in French, half in Euskera). What I wonder is why on earth do your monks pray in French in the middle of all that Tuscan wine?

“quarantine in the basque country”

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Patrick: Isn’t it curious how cinema can occupy places and geographies? We are writing about Tuscany or Basque Country as if we could really visit them, walk through their mountains and hills, lie in their gras and survive their cruel histories. I recall Alain Badiou’s notion about how cinema is able to possess a piece of music, to even change it. I think, he describes how he can’t listen to Mahler’s 5th without thinking of Venice (because of Visconti’s Morte a Venezia) anymore. Yet, I think this is also true for the place itself. Venice is not the same after having seen that film. In these attractive mental movements of an imagined lifelong quarantine, I wonder what would happen to all those places we know but can’t reach anymore. Would they become memory? Would they be forgotten? Or would they become cinema? Concerning your question about the language spoken in Un petit monastère en Toscane, I read a bit about it. The monastery is the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, it has a long history and has changed since Iosseliani filmed there (maybe that’s why we didn’t get the film he promises at the end of this one) but at some point the French “chanoines réguliers de saint Augustin” moved there. They belong to the Premonstratensians and their task is to pray, sing songs and help the neighboring peasants. In itself this can maybe be seen as a metaphor for how cinema at its best might transform a landscape. It brings an aesthetic or spiritual truth into what’s already there and tries to help those who have to live. This brings me to two films I have seen inspired by your Basque ventures. Both are short films by Basque filmmaker Victor Erice, both were made as part of anthology films. Alumbramiento and Vidros Partidos. For now I only want to state that I won’t accept that there is no cinema of eventuality. As Erice shows we can imagine or fear without manipulating, there is an illusion which is also a reality. Maybe that is a comforting thought, maybe it is a nightmare. However, the landscapes, buildings, animals and people Erice films are transformed, they become a memory and still, I feel, they have a capacity of healing (not only for the viewer but for those involved). So is a filmmaker a Premonstratensian?

a dog dreaming (captured by Victor Erice)

Saturday, March 28, 2000

Lucía: Sorry for the delay in my response, my friend, I didn’t get coronavirus but I sure got the corona blues. There’s a common joke between the students from the film school here in which you are either an obedient follower of Oteiza or of Chillida, but never both Basque sculptors (I know, we need better jokes around these parts). This also happens often between cinephiles, and I always wonder if that’s the case with Victor Erice and Ivan Zulueta, as they both lived in San Sebastián and Madrid for so many years. I think they are both their own kind of Premonstratensians, only they might have different definitions for what praying, songs and helping the neighbors is. My recuperation from the corona-blues came strangely from Zulueta, a filmmaker that I would have never called a healer before, although I would have called him an exorcist. But I came across some of his short films, some of them as an animator and found footage filmmaker. In his film Aquarium he starts by animating the sky. Most precisely, the clouds that float in it. It appears to be a Super 8mm single-frame animation, a time-lapse of the clouds which allows you to perceive their movements, shapes and relationship to the sunlight by making everything go faster. Curious how it usually works the other way around: to really perceive a movement it helps to slow it down and de-compose it, like in Muybridge. But here, the possibility of watching everything going faster is what makes you see how all those particles behave, and how time flies. They also look like an army of smoke slowly taking over Madrid (if only there was an anti-corona cloud). What a task, to stay still for so many hours, regularly capturing the clouds as they pass by in order to create the illusion of a new movement for them in the film strip. It seems like a perfect task for the quarantine. To answer your thought around the reality of illusion, if it’s comforting or a nightmare, for now, I will go for comforting. All the animators of the world must be saner today than all the rest of us.

Speaking of which, way down east, in Asturias, there is another monastery, Monasterio de Santa María de Valdediós. There are places that you want to visit for the first time only after watching a film, and this is one. Elena Duque made a film last year called Valdediós, about this particular place. It’s a three minute film that takes the spirituality of the place and animates all over it, bringing the world and the stars literally to its doorstep. Valdediós touches on the explosive feeling that landscape can create within you and makes shapes and forms out of that, which, superimposed to the images of the place, create a whole new explosion. I watched this for the first time in a documentary film festival, after which a friend told me it could also be thought of as a documentary about an animator, which made me like it even more. This has its own reality.

Look at this still from the film: Imagine being able to take a photographic image of a horse and have the texture of the brush at the same time? It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Patrick: Your descriptions and thoughts brought forth in me a desire to see clouds. Outside I can see a lot of them. I imagine them looking at us. They seem friendly and indifferent. They won’t bring rain but they still block the light of the sun like Socrates did with Alexander the Great. They are wiser than us. Allegedly we have more time these days. Some people I know treat this situation as if it was a meditation. I am not one of them. The clouds haven’t changed. Neither has the way I look at them. I think about James Benning’s Ten Skies and FAROCKI in which clouds are the protagonists. I feel too close to real clouds, real skies to really understand the merit of these films that remind us what it can mean to look. We exchanged some thoughts about the necessity to travel the world with cinema and though I am certain that cinema is also a school of seeing, I remain doubtful as to whether this applies for seeing films at home. I think, If I understand Ten Skies, it is in a cinema in which I am more or less entrapped in the dark and which might allow, after a busy day, to finally breathe, see, get closer to reality. Or, as you put it, to see how time flies. At home there is no need for it. I see the real clouds moving through the window behind my screen. Especially digital clouds (and I am not sure if I can trust Benning here?) have their way of reminding me what a lie cinema can be. Maybe it is the time for lies and illusions? (I have to remember that my dreams of riding on a cloud always end with rain.)

I also thought of Drifting Clouds by Aki Kaurismäki and Floating Clouds by Mikio Naruse. In the former (which I consider the most heartwarming film by this lover of people) there is a sense of reaching for the clouds when you’ve sunk so deep that you almost can’t see them anymore and in the latter there is a sense of of reaching for the clouds we once have known. Both films are melancholic to the bone and beautiful. Yet, both films also portray defeated societies and people. Which emotions can survive a war, a financial collapse, a loss of life? Is there a space for the touch, a kiss, a gesture of love? Of course there is, you just have to decide whether it’s an illusion or reality. Do you feel that in seeing films at home, time moves differently?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lucía: We allegedly have more time, but time flies more than ever. Where did all my days go? Films also, they end quite sooner than before now from home, but they seem to be taking much more space. I think this is what they call distraction. But to answer your question, it may depend on the conditions for watching you have at home. I don’t have a TV or a projector where I am, so I watch films on my computer, and as time and space are indivisible, so is the  perception of time and the perception of space (I’m guessing here). So, in my small screen, smaller than myself, there is always less immersion, in both the space and the time of the film. Sometimes I try hard to tweak my perception to get lost (physically) in the sounds and images a little, and it works. Everything is smaller of course, but what would be the word for what happens to time? Is it more dispersed? What I would give for a screen bigger than myself (and for problems that are the exact opposite).

I was looking at some skies too, from inside two cars. In The United States of America Bette Gordon and James Benning drive from New York to Los Angeles with a camera attached to the back of their car (in the inside) in a way in which we can see them and the road ahead. In Lettre à mon ami Pol Cebé, Michel Desrois, José They and Antoine Bonfanti travel from Paris to Lille and back as members of the group Medvedkine to present the film Classe de lutte. Gordon and Benning appear to be silent, but they talk through the fragments they choose, both in image and in sound. The radio is always playing, songs and news, and we learn that the Vietnam war was about to end as they crossed the untouched territory of the losing side. Radio is almost gone, but TV is still here, still in the news and games business. Desrois, They and Bonfanti do talk, between them, to the friend who this letter is for, Pol Cèbe, and to everyone here at the house. They ask at the beginning why is taking film to the lab so expensive? And their answer is because film is a class instrument, as cinema is such a powerful tool. And joyfully (for them, for Pol Cèbe and for us) they take a good amount of film (color film stock!) and they write and capture comraderie all over the road. If time is money, then money should buy time, and it often seems that way. I wonder how we can continue to try and break that cycle now that we allegedly have more time, no space, no money, and we can’t get in the car with comrades and think or have such a conversation. I wonder this also because in The United States of America there’s a song that plays many times, as it is or was usual on the radio. It’s Minnie Riperton’s Loving You, a song I hadn’t heard in probably ten years, and I can’t help but think that this is how the new decade started. In the song she says And every day of my life is filled with lovin‘ you and, corny as it sounds and is, I am glad that we love cinema, as every day can be filled with something and some tools we have.

Speaking of time and skies, I leave you a few from João César Monteiro’s Branca de Neve.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Patrick: The beautiful clouds you sent make me think of three things at the same time: pubic hair, Robert Walser and John Wayne’s hips.

João César Monteiro has to be a companion these days. He always is. I remember reading the interview he conducted with himself and how he talks about his film Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen being a proof for the impossibility of filming poetry. In a poem of Sophia she talks about how volatile images are. She says that we are standing naked in front of living things and she asks whether any presence can satisfy the eternal urge within us. Those sentences have always reverberated in my heart. Looking at Monteiro’s clouds, it came to my mind we are not only looking at the clouds, we are also watching in the cloud. All these films that are now growing from the digital darkness like weeds, all those offers, all these films that can be downloaded, streamed. I have to run through my online garden with a hoe and scream: “Stop! Stop! I can’t see anything. I only see a big cloud!” I doubt these are the volatile images Sophia wrote about. This is an inflation, a senseless firework in which supply exceeds demand by a couple of lifespans. Who the hell is going to watch all those films? Is this the urge of cinema (culture) in times of its non-existence? Is it the purpose of cinema to be there for us or is it, as they make believe everywhere, that we are there for cinema if we continue seeing films (which films?) on this or that platform? I am not referring to the films we search for, I am referring to the ones we cannot hide from. Sometimes I wonder, whether we shouldn’t all just dream about the films we can’t see now. For example, I think I’d love it if you wrote to me about a film I have no chance of seeing at all in the near future. The cinema (cultural) world is under threat (has been as long as I remember) and I can understand certain reactions and ideas. It’s a struggle for survival, in this is certainly no time for ontological debates. Yet, the sheer speed in which after a couple of days solutions have been presented and we could read about how the crisis demanded certain reactions is a farce as far as I am concerned. The answer as to why this or that institution, festival or cinema shows films seems only to be: because if we don’t show films, we don’t exist. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The reason for showing films online is in most cases not one of solidarity but one of a digital marketplace that was very ready to be what it is now before there was a pandemic. I understand that this may come across rather cynical as there are people involved and their well being depends on these things and I am not one to talk because I also need a festival to happen in order to have enough money. It’s absurd and this is what I state. Camus wrote in his diary that people cry about and desire exactly what they are humiliated by. He calls it the great misery of humanity.

I think about Monteiro’s famous assessment that you are poorer if you don’t go to the cinema. I think this would be a start, to admit that we are poorer now instead of indulging into all kinds of cinephile euphorias, utopias, dystopias and self-important messages. Films can be a plaster for our wounds these days, they can help us, they can make us richer while we are poorer. The rest is cinema as a slave and I find it disquietingly funny that those who put everything online at the same time declare that now is a time to rethink some ideas we have about life. I hope nobody is believing into online utopias anymore while discussing things on corporate chat rooms under government surveillance. A good example for the real kind of help and plaster art and culture can offer is Krsto Papić’s Let Our Voices Be Heard, Too. It’s a little treasure from Former Yugoslavia about pirate radios in the countryside. It shows the love and resistance that goes into sharing knowledge and pleasure. Toward the end of the film we see how the equipment is confiscated by the authorities. The camera pans over cables and machines and somehow the radio suddenly seems to be a bomb. There is a difference between weeds and a bomb. I think I know which metaphor for cinema Monteiro would have preferred. But I am only guessing, of course.

to be continued…