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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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?
TO BE CONTINUED