Youth Under The Influence (of Pedro Costa) – Part 1

How is it that we find cinema? This might be a rather big question, maybe too big for any satisfying evening among cinephile friends, maybe one of those existentialist questions that seduce us from time to time, to make it short: We can’t answer such a question and we won’t try to. Nevertheless there are moments when we clearly feel inspired. Such a moment sometimes occurs because of a memory, something we see in an image, a color or an actor, something we want know more about. It may also occur when we read about something we haven’t seen, we feel an urge to see, to know, to feel. Sometimes it is just the idea of something provoked by the name of a director, a title or a prize. And sometimes it is someone we talked to, someone whose opinion is valuable, someone we trust or someone in whose eyes we see the fascination, the struggle and joy we also want to have.

In June, during the Fontainhas-Retrospective at the Filmmuseum in Munich, Michael Guarneri and I had the chance to talk with Pedro Costa about cinema. Naturally we talked a lot about his cinema, but there were also occasions when Mr. Costa before or after a screening or while talking about his own work dropped names, mentioned films and filmmakers with a sudden blink of fever (almost invisible) in his eye and made us thirsty for more. It could happen that during a Q&A, while he talked about gangsters being the most sensitive characters in cinema, he just wandered in his thoughts, whispered “Nicholas Ray?”, looked calmly into the audience and went on after a few seconds. Later while we had a drink he would just face anyone and ask: “Have you seen Foolish Wives?”, in this case the answer was positive which made Mr. Costa smile in agreement. Additionally his whole confidence concerning his view on cinema must necessarily be seducing for young film-lovers, it sometimes feels like there is a secret in cinema, a secret people like Mr.Costa tell you with their blinks and nods, their smiles and adjournments.

 

Costa2

Mr. Costa at the Filmmuseum in Munich

Knowing what you like or dislike seems to be a religion in cinema circles. The ability to bring on a strong opinion sometimes seems more important than actually being able to talk about a film. Of course, such empty words are not what Mr. Costa is all about. He is very well able to tell you about the details and ideas behind certain filmmakers and their work which makes his attitude even more seducing.

A few weeks after meeting Mr. Costa, Michael and myself found that we were still under the spell having watched many films that Mr. Costa recommended or just mentioned, following his taste and discovering new plants in the garden of cinema. We then decided that – in order to deal with our experience and make it more profound – we should have a conversation about the films and filmmakers we discovered due to Mr. Costa. This way we could also check if the secrets of cinema are really secrets, if smiles were entitled and if the desire to see and find is matched by the actual experience of watching the films. Of course, our conversation which will be published in parts went into many directions and is therefore also a testimony of the certainties and uncertainties of different kinds of cinephilia.It might entirely fail as what it was supposed to be, but still, it is something we tried with honesty and passion.

Patrick: I just give it a start. First of all, I want to say that I don’t recall Mr. Costa mentioning any filmmaker I haven’t heard about at all, which kind of reassures me. But he created a sort of appetite in me for people like Jacques Tourneur, Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, João César Monteiro, the Straubs (naturally), Godard (naturally) and anything with Gary Cooper in it. I think the first film I saw at home after the retrospective was Canyon Passage by Tourneur. I expected a Western and somehow got a film that didn’t really want to be a Western, it wanted to escape to some other place, somewhere where it can just rest. I pretty much liked it, though it did not blow me away as other Tourneur films like I walked with a Zombie or Cat People did. Can you remember what your first Costa-inspired screening was, after we met?

 

Canyon Passage

Canyon Passage

Days of Glory

Days of Glory

 

Michael: I think it was Days of Glory by Tourneur, or, as Mr. Costa dubbed it, “Gregory Peck in the cellar”. At that time, I was finishing up this piece about Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow , and reflecting a lot about Tourneur’s role in the US propaganda machine before and after the end of WWII, so it was either anti-nazi Days of Glory or anti-communist The Fearmakers.

From Days of Glory I kept on exploring the anti-nazi genre with Lewis Milestone’s The North Star; whereas The Fearmakers led me to William Wellman’s The Iron Curtain and Robert Parrish’s Assignment: Paris. Suddenly, with the last four films I mentioned, a common denominator began to emerge: actor Dana Andrews playing an average guy – exhausted, trapped in planes, taxis, hotel rooms, prison cells, bureaus, offices, embassies, at the mercy of higher, hidden powers. Through the course of these four films we can really see him turning from idealistic war hero to a brainwashed, breathless, paranoid, insomniac war vet; a chain-smoking compulsive drinker tormented by splitting headaches. Canyon Passage might just be one of the few all-round hero roles in his career…

Patrick: I am not so sure about Dana Andrews being a hero in Canyon Passage. Well, there is a whole bunch of arguments speaking for it, of course, but something in his face aims to be the average guy you described. The way he sits on his horse, there is exhaustion in it, too. He always leans to the left or right, there are always wrinkles in his shirt. Furthermore, he is not really active in pursuing the two ladies of the film, oh, I think he very much would like to be an average guy there, just like Tourneur didn’t really want to make a Western like a Western.

In terms of anti-nazi films (I am hesitating calling it a genre because I am very much against taking ideology to arrange movies), I had only one experience in the wake of Mr. Costa’s recommendations: Man Hunt by Fritz Lang. Thinking about this film and the ones you mentioned, as well as some others I watched like Distant Drums or The Strawberry Blonde by Raoul Walsh, I recognize a certain tiredness and exhaustion everywhere… just like with Dana Andrews. In Man Hunt there is this middle part where the film doesn’t want to be paranoid anymore,there is always a flirt with those tormented headaches.

Michael: If you liked Man Hunt, you should try Ministry of Fear and Cloak and Dagger. In the latter, Gary Cooper is the lead. Anyway, what’s the reason behind your fascination with him?

 

Dana Andrews

Dana Andrews

Gary Cooper2

Gary Cooper

Patrick: I have seen Ministry of Fear and I like it. Will check out Cloak and Dagger as soon as possible, thanks for pointing it out. It would be too easy for me to talk about Gary Cooper’s exhaustion now, wouldn’t it? But just look at his tired face…

Distant Drums5

Colossal Youth8

It is something Mr. Costa mentioned when he compared Ventura to Cooper, the way he acts as himself and as something completely different while being there for the camera, for the other actors in the scene and for himself at the same time. There is sensuality in his acting that clearly comes from presenting itself as acting; it is like a Kiarostami and maybe also a film by Mr.Costa just with acting. The illusion comes when you know it is an illusion. But I think my fascination derives from his movement, his gestures. They way he beckons in Morocco by Von Sternberg, the way he marches in Distant Drums, the way he navigates his carriage in Friendly Persuasion and so on. It is different with Ventura for me though. I can understand why one can compare them but Ventura is something emerging from the shadows whereas Cooper is in broad limelight. They meet each other in the power Ventura shows despite the shadows and the shadows Cooper shows despite the fame. Something like that… Haven’t you had your Gary Cooper phase sometime? It somehow feels obsolete describing my fascination with him because after all, it is Gary Cooper…

Michael: No, I must confess that I have always felt very little attachment or sympathy to the big Hollywood stars, and to Hollywood cinema in general (except maybe for Bogart in High Sierra, for reasons I don’t want to disclose). In watching the films, I enjoy some of them, I like some of them… Of course, I am not immune to their power, or spell… They are made to be liked, aren’t they? Still there is always something very sneaky about them that troubles me, keeps me on my toes and even frightens me. A voice inside my head saying: “Woah, this is dangerous, they are trying to sell you something; watch out, don’t buy all the things they show and say”. So I never fall 100% in love with them. It must be because I come from a certain tradition of studies that sees Hollywood cinema as a sort of brainwashing machine at the service of an evil empire. Throughout the years, and thanks to wise people like Mr. Costa, Chris Fujiwara, Tag Gallagher, and so on, I have softened this approach, but I do not want to let it go completely. It is good to always be suspicious of the products of the cultural industry, I think.

Let’s take Night of the Hunter, for instance – a big influence on Costa’s O Sangue, and a personal favorite of many, many people. I watched it a couple of times in the past, and I rewatched it recently… Well, the movie is gorgeous, Mitchum is great as a deranged psycho and all that, but, man, all that Lillian Gish talking about children as little lambs who must abide and endure… it just pissed me off. I was like: fuck you, old lady! I guess I am more a “If the kids are united” kind of guy…

Patrick: I know exactly what you mean and I’m glad you have brought it up. First things first: Night of the Hunter. It’s a fragile one for me because my girlfriend loves it so fucking much (her way of whispering “Lillian Gish” when talking about this films resonates like an eternal echo in my ears)… but I’m more with you. I have seen it only one time and despite its obvious merits it left me cold. But it is certainly not a film I would like to bash, there are much, much worse. But I really don’t get the point of all those people mentioning how beautiful it is and so on. Yes, it looks great, but why don’t they talk more about Jean Vigo for instance? Is it childhood memories? Or is it because there is a certain romanticism about beautiful things appearing in the middle of this evil empire you are talking about? I don’t know. I know that it is not very simple.

With Mr. Costa I always had the feeling that it has to do with the craft. Hollywood after all means daily business, means going to work on a regular basis, it means living a life with certain restrictions, but still trying to build something personal or maybe poetic. And then you can start looking at some shots, some cuts, some gestures, and you will find them there with guys like Walsh or Lang. But you can also find them in a film by Jean Epstein or early Renoir (who Mr. Costa also loves, I think) and I always will prefer them because of the whole package, because of the testimony of their work as artists.Of course, a Hollywood film can also be art and an independent or European production can very much be part of the evil machine. As I said, it’s not so easy.

Last year we had this John Ford retrospective in Vienna. Mr. Costa was also there, he was talking a lot about it, I tried to watch as many films as possible and there were moments I really believed in Ford, in Ford as the peak of cinema… When I think of films like The Long Voyage Home or The Lost Patrol, I’m still shaking. But sometimes I found myself thinking of filmmakers like Bresson or Tarkovsky (to name the cliché) and I was thinking that I respect them more, the way they worked, the way they did not compromise with the machine, the way they don’t want to sell… Because after all you can always look at entertainment from two different angles. You can watch how they try to sell you something all the time, or you can look how sometimes a soul appears while selling you something. It’s the same with Ford and there is something in those films I always forget, it just slips through my mind. I think I want to forget it.

And while forgetting I am able to love certain things like an actor or a shot. It’s very naïve but I think this is what cinema is all about in the end. And there was a time in Hollywood when they were selling beautiful things. Gary Cooper is one of them because there is a soul visible sometimes… Maybe just in one shot, but then it is true. It is as true as it is in Dreyer or Dovzhenko. What do you refer to when you say “a certain tradition of studies”? I am always afraid of categorizing, I somehow have the feeling that cinema is wiser and richer than I will ever know. I feel that there are things in cinema beyond selling and not-selling, and therefore I would not speak of evil empires though I have a similar tendency as you. If cinephilia means loving cinema then sometimes you have to be blinded by love and if we hesitate here than it is maybe a problem of cinema, maybe we come from a generation where cinema has already betrayed us too often?

The Long voyage home

The Long Voyage Home

Stagecoach

Stagecoach

Cavalo Dinheiro

Cavalo Dinheiro

Michael: I don’t know about this betrayal business, I really have to think about it. Let’s come back to it later.

When I said “a certain tradition of studies”, I meant Adorno, Horkheimer, and all those who – to paraphrase Laura Mulvey – analyze pleasure or beauty in order to destroy it, so that beauty won’t blind us anymore. But we are not in a class, so let’s skip that. Here are two provocations.

First, you mentioned a girlfriend: aren’t cinephiles supposed not to have girlfriends?

And, secondly, you have the feeling that cinema is wiser and richer than you will ever know. In your view, who makes cinema wise and rich? Filmmakers or spectators? Most of the times, I have the feeling that, in order to make a very interesting movie, filmmakers just have to be vague or mysterious or “lazy” or ambiguous or contradictory enough so that spectators have the opportunity to make their own, custom-cut, “good film” in their heads. Take the ending of Stagecoach: ok, typical saccarine happy end from Hollywood, the couple of outcasts falls in love and they flee towards their new life; but wait a minute, they flee from the US, this rotten society ironically named “Lordsburg”… this doesn’t sound like a happy end at all! Choose one option, choose both, make up a third one, stay in the shadow of doubt, do as you please, please yourself as you please. Ford was not only a great storyteller but also a clever businessman… It is not by chance that they call it “narrative economy”!

Patrick: Then there was beloved president Nixon who said: I prefer Hollywood films.

I don’t know about your first provocation. The point is: I wouldn’t love cinema if I didn’t love that woman who knows so much more about it than me. And she knows a lot about the mysteries and vague things in cinema, a lot of things I wouldn’t understand otherwise. Mr.Costa spoke a lot about the Straubs… just to name an example (I don’t smoke as much…). And having four eyes helps a lot. Maybe she is writing to you now… it’s very mysterious.

Which leads me to your second provocation… I have some problems with it. First: Sharunas Bartas is also a clever businessman, so is Mr. Costa. The problem, I think, is not the selling, it is what they sell. They can sell me cinema as dirty as they like. As long as they don’t sell in order to sell. In my opinion cinema as an art form is beyond its makers and its spectators. I am very much opposed against intelligent people giving meaning or finding deep things everywhere. I know that one can do that, I have seen and read it but I often find it to be intellectual masturbation, worthless for anybody except the one who is masturbating and those who just like to watch (thinking of Giraudie now). There is a difference in filmmakers trying to be ambiguous and filmmakers finding an ambiguous truth. There are certain things cinema embraces and rejects and it is the task of viewers (critics, scientists and also filmmakers) to detect those aspects, to serve cinema, to use cinema, to play with cinema, to respect cinema. That might sound rather emotional but my point is that cinema just IS rich. Nobody needs to make it wise and rich. And this is also why in the first place it needs to be filmmakers that use this richness.

Is a good film for you something that is in accordance with your political believes only? Is it, to use Amos Vogel’s famous title, a subversive art?

Mes petites amoureuses

Mes petites amoureuses

Michael: Let’s say that, as an act of “intellectual honesty”, I try to like movies that are not right up my alley, and to dislike movies that are right up my alley. And, of course, I always fail. I guess I don’t really try that hard: too much pride and prejudice, not enough sense and sensibility.

I like a lot the expression “film as a subversive art” – this idea that cinema can take the world upside down. It is a wonderful mantra, it really gives me courage and strength when I think about it and repeat it in my head. But I cannot really think of a film that actually managed to subvert the status quo, right now. Can you?

Patrick: I think a single film didn’t, but maybe the idea of cinema as the only modern mystery like Breton said, had a few moments. What is your explanation for filmmakers like Mr. Costa, Godard or the Straubs liking a certain kind of Hollywood so much? I ask you because they seem to be right up your alley without having your dislike for the evil machine.

Michael: I think that, for Mr. Costa and the Straubs, it is like you said – the love for the craft, the production side, making ends meet, how can I do this with this much money. At least, this is how they rationalize it these days. But I suspect it also has to do with more mysterious things, like having seen these film at a young age, the dark theater, the giants on the screen, details in their personal biographies, and all the stuff you see in Mes petites amoureuses by Jean Eustache.

For Godard, I really don’t know. I read some of the things he wrote as a critic in the Cahiers, and I understood very little. But I don’t want to give you the impression that I reproach people who like films I don’t like. On the matter of taste, I agree with the Marquis: “Je respecte les goûts, les fantaisies: quelque baroques qu’elles soient, je les trouve toutes respectables, et parce qu’on n’en est pas le maître, et parce que la plus singulière, la plus bizarre de toutes, bien analysée, remonte toujours à un principe de délicatesse“.

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

TO BE CONTINUED

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