Pedro Costa at I.U.: “Something happens, sometimes.”

I saw acclaimed Portuguese director Pedro Costa (dubbed “the Samuel Beckett of world cinema by The Guardian) at IU Cinema on Thursday before I actually saw any of his films, which made the experience that much stranger.  It was a little bit like one might imagine seeing a Portuguese Samuel Beckett interviewed on stage.  Long pauses, odd non sequitors, mysterious, brooding tangents landing up in apparently despairing conclusions often difficult to interpret.  But charming all the same.

Here are a few comments & remarks I recall:

  • In response to a question, he discussed his time studying medieval history in school.  “Film may have been invented to represent medieval history,” he proclaimed, somewhat inexplicably (as far as I know, all of his films take place in the present day or late 20th century).
  • “I hate the film world.  I think it should be destroyed.  A film set can be a … terrible thing.”
  • He described the making of his second film, Casa de Lava (1994), at some length.  He apparently intended for this to be a remake of the Jane Eyre Caribbean zombie film I Walked with a Zombie.  “It became a fiasco, a disaster.  It was like a mini-Apocalypse Now.  I wanted to make it a bad experience, and I think… I succeeded.”  (The Guardian writer selects this as Costa’s masterpiece. [no the writer was discussing Ossos (Bones)))
  • This was my favorite single moment, as he discussed his realization that he cannot film nature. “Set up a camera and film… the ocean?  The forest?  No, this is impossible… no… I cannot do this, I prefer interiors…. [discussed his desire to make a film about walls.]  And in fact, the people who do this, who show the ocean?  This is shameful!  I really do think these people should be ashamed of themselves.”  (Exact phrasing is as I recall it, but this was the gist.)

He’s best known for his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) and Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha, 2006)), all set in the (former) Fontainhas slum of Lisbon, a now-destroyed neighborhood that housed Cape Verdean immigrants, drug addicts, and a range of other marginalized Lisbon residents.

The author of a liner notes essay in a Criterion Collection re-release of this trilogy explains how Costa stumbled on his quasi-documentary working method:

In 1997, Pedro Costa made Ossos in Fontainhas. This was a traditional production, shot in 35 mm, with tracks, floodlights, and assistants. Costa was a professional, a part of the Portuguese film industry. The shoot proceeded with everyone doing his job, following the routine of European art film. And the uneasiness grew, the feeling that a lie was being told, that an imbalance both moral and totally concrete was taking root on both sides of the camera. Costa later said: “The trucks weren’t getting through—the neighborhood refused this kind of cinema, it didn’t want it.” …So one night, Costa decided to turn off the lights and pack up the extra equipment, in an attempt to diminish the shameful sense of invasion and indecency. His action was doubly groundbreaking because in what he did, Costa found his own light, that quality of darkness and nuance he would constantly hone from that night on, and because he understood that the cinema of tracking shots, assistants, producers, and lights was not his. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to be alone in this neighborhood with these people he loved. To take his time, to find a rhythm and working method attuned to their space and their existence. To start with a clean slate, from scratch. To reinvent his art. Three years after this leap into the void, In Vanda’s Room became the result of this departure—in Costa’s work but also in the history of the cinema.

So with this film Costa became, in effect, a Dogma-style film director, or his own Portuguese version of such.  At least in the film I ended up seeing the next day, Colossal Youth (Costa said this English-language name was imposed by a producer– is it a conscious reference to the Young Marble Giants album??  Or does that phrase come from elsewhere?  It does not seem to make any particular sense), is indeed, as the Guardian reviewer warned, “uncompromisingly difficult” and even “difficult and punishing;” “the movie itself, with its series of fixed camera positions, is closer in spirit to an exhibition of photography, a succession of cinematic tableaux” (actually he’s talking about In Vanda’s Room here).  The movie made me think at one time or another of simply made ethnographic films (e.g. Nanook of the North?) or documentaries made on the cheap (e.g. Dylan’s concert film Don’t Look Back), Michelangelo Antonioni movies, yes, a Beckett play (excruciatingly slow and drawn-out conversations leading nowhere; not much if any humor, though), and black and white photography of people living in poverty or straitened circumstances.  (I know I came across a comparison somewhere of In Vonda’s Room to Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which I can see, although Colossal Youth does not feature any drug-taking, which apparently constitutes a great deal of that earlier film.)  Also, painting: there’s a memorable scene in Colossal Youth where the camera focuses on a painting in a Lisbon museum by Rubens (?) while Ventura, who works a museum guard, lounges on an antique settee.  Costa momentarily invites a comparison between the painting and his own image, almost as unmoving.

I found Colossal Youth impressive & striking, often very beautiful, but quite tough going, agonizingly slow (2 1/2 hours long).  That Guardian reviewer observes amusingly, “I myself have seen critics and writers at festivals gird their loins reasonably happily for a Béla Tarr [Hungarian auteur] film. But at the words “Pedro Costa”, they flinch. A haunted look comes into their eyes.”  It does feel a bit like Antonioni in a Lisbon slum.

I made a low-quality iPad video of Costa discussing some of his experiences filming in Fontainhas, finding the performers, most of whom seem to play some version of themselves (Vonda was an actual heroin addict he met; the protagonist of Colossal Youth, Ventura, was a man who’d been hanging around the set during the making of In Vonda’s Room).  “I’m saying ‘in Fontainhas,’ but it’s a place that doesn’t exist,… it’s no longer there, like Greece.”  He also mentions, amusingly, the desire of the some of the Fontainhas residents that he direct “an action movie.”  I liked his comment about his method of casting and filming the residents he would meet in the neighborhood..  “One day you remember that guy and you say, “let’s go, let’s do… something.  And… something happens, sometimes.”

When I learned from an interview that Costa was a big fan of the English post-punk art-school band Wire as a student (their most famous album is the superb 1977 classic Pink Flag) it helped make sense of it all, somehow; this is cinema as uncompromising, minimalist, slightly apocalyptic post-punk.

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