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.

“An Endlessly Repeating Evil Loop:” “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader at IU

[image from Wikipedia]

Wow, what a treat: Paul Schrader himself introducing the film he wrote, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in its new 35 millimeter restoration at the IU Cinema.  I must have seen Taxi Driver in the 1980s at the Brattle Theater, and I’d seen it at least a couple times, but seeing this new print in the beautiful theater was a pretty amazing aesthetic experience, starting with the gorgeous-evil blurred lights of the porn theaters of Times Square seen through the rainy windshield of Travis Bickle’s taxi in the opening shots.

Schrader introduced it briefly and then spoken for at least 45 minutes afterward, doing an on-stage interview and then taking questions.  I didn’t take notes, but here are some comments & points that stuck out for me (wording not exact):

  • He started by saying (I think I’d heard this before) that when he wrote the movie he was “in a very dark, morbid place,” sleeping in a car, and that when he went to a hospital for what turned out to be stomach ulcers, he realized that this was the first time he’d spoken to a human being in a month.  He said that the idea for the film came to him in a vision of a metaphor: a yellow taxicab as a “metal coffin,” a container for a dead person, floating through the city streets.
  • Someone asked about the slightly jarring coda, which I actually did not remember.  I thought the movie ended with the bloodbath (when Bickle rescues 13 y.o. prostitute Iris (!) (played by Jodie Foster) from her pimp), but it’s followed by a few minutes explaining how Bickle became, improbably, a celebrated hero for his actions.  It ends with him picking up as a fare the Cybill Shepherd character (Betsy) who’d previously rejected him; she seems interested, but he basically blows her off, and the whole thing plays, I thought, as pure fantasy, Bickle’s hallucination as he’s dying in the Harlem East 13th street walkup covered with blood.  Schrader commented that people often assume that the studio forced this more upbeat coda to be added, but he said “just the opposite” (that was a common refrain of his), that this had always been in the script and was integral to his vision of the movie.  He pointed out that the final shot of the film essentially is the film’s first shot: or perhaps literally is the first shot.  We once again see Bickle’s face in the rearview mirror and the blurred lights outside.  “Nothing has changed,” Schrader said, it’s all going to begin again in “an endlessly repeating evil loop.”  Someone in the audience tried to make the case that Bickle had changed and progressed and had gotten over his obsession with Betsy, but Schrader cut him off: “he’ll find someone else, he hasn’t changed, he hasn’t learned anything.”  His rage and delusion trap him in an eternal repetition.
  • Schrader was discussing how much he and Scorcese had/have in common — “we’re both short, asthmatic, movie-obsessed” (I forget what else he specified), with the key difference being that “Marty” was Roman Catholic and urban, whereas Schrader was raised in a strict Calvinist household in rural Michigan (wiki: “When he disobeyed his mother, she would stab his hand with a pin, asking, “You think that felt bad? Hell is like that, only every second and all over your body”).  These rural/urban cultural differences played out in different metaphors Schrader and Scorsese used to think about the film and Bickle; Schrader said that for him Bickle was “a lone wolf on the frozen tundra staring at the fires of civilization with envy and rage.”  Interestingly, in a subsequent discussion of Hollywood and his current work financed by non-American investment sources, he commented that a screenwriter or filmmaker these days is “a stray dog picking up scraps from any table he can find.”
  • Schrader was famously Pauline Kael’s protege/discovery.  He says that when he sent her the original script for Taxi Driver, he never heard back from her about it.  Later she told him that she found it so disturbing that it was sitting on her bedside table and she first turned it over to face down; that wasn’t enough, so she moved it to a shelf in her closet and covered it with boxes so it wouldn’t be visible.  (She loved the movie, however.)
  • Someone asked him if he could say anything about the movie’s racial subtext.  His answer was disturbing!  He said that “the movie is sanitized; the original script was much more racist.”  “I’m unapologetic about it: that’s who this character was,” explaining that Bickle’s rage was “fundamentally racist” and that his final “rescue mission” was originally “all about killing black people;” Iris’s pimp and everyone else in the building were originally black.  He said the studio told them that if shot this way, “there would be riots,” saying that “you can make a movie with a racist character, but filmed this way, you’d be right on the line between that and a racist film.”  As a result, Scorsese asked Schrader to find an actual white pimp who could serve as a model for the Harvey Keitel character Champ.  Schrader said he began referring to this as “the Great White Pimp Search,” and said that he literally could not find a white pimp, so they eventually gave up and Scorsese just made up Keitel’s character (who does feel a bit fabulized).
  • As part of the Great White Pimp Search, he met the 16-17 y.o. prostitute who became the model for Iris; he says almost everything about Jodie Foster’s character was based directly on this girl, who you see walking with Iris at one point wearing a big hat (they hired her as a consultant).  Schrader said he brought her up to his hotel room and left a note for Scorsese saying “I found Iris; we’re all having breakfast tomorrow morning at 8,” and that this meeting was reproduced almost exactly in the scene with Iris in the diner.  Disturbingly, Schrader said “I didn’t want to get sexually involved with her because it would have been way too complicated.”  Hmm, good reason for not sleeping with the underage prostitute. Roman Polanski much??
  • Someone asked him about the comparisons people often make between this film and Altman’s Nashville, which also draws on material from actual political assassination attempts.  Schrader basically dismissed this and characterized Nashville as “technically imaginative, but why on earth an intelligent man would want to make a movie about country music, a genre he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand…”
  • I asked a question!: “This movie could obviously never be made by a major studio today.  Do you think it might be possible for it, or some version of it, to be made by an independent studio?”  He said something like “well, now you’re opening up a whole new topic that brings us into a very empty, hollow place,” or something.  He said that Hollywood no longer is in the business of making dramas: they only want to make action/technology based movies, comedies, and family movies.  “If you want to see drama, watch [HBO’s and Todd Haynes’] Mildred Pierce, it’s fabulous, but don’t expect it from Hollywood.”
  • He praised Bernard Herrman’s score to the skies and commented that he thinks this was one of Scorsese’s most brilliant/crucial aesthetic choices.  He said that he’d assumed that this film, like Scorsese’s previous Mean Streets, would have a “needle-drop” score.  I’ve never heard that term, but I guess it means punctuated by previously-released songs (in the case of Mean Streets, pop songs of the era) as opposed to an actual score.  But instead, Scorsese got this unforgettable “horror-movie score” that becomes the soundtrack of Bickle’s inner life.
  • Schrader was pretty gruff and irascible; as I commented, he several times responded to questions by saying, “basically, the opposite of what you just said.”  But, he was actually noticeably kind at one point.  The Q&A was wrapping up but then Schrader said, “oh, Reese Witherspoon has a question in the back.”  A presumably IU undergrad who really did have a Reese W. look asked a somewhat confused/confusing question which Schrader dealt with very generously and responded in a way that pretended it was perfectly clear.  Her question had something to do with Scorsese’s penchant for ensemble dramas as opposed to Schrader’s tendency to focus on single protagonists (at least that was what Schrader made of it, the question as spoken had something to do with “lifestyle”), and he commented that he tends to write “monocular” narratives where you “take one centimeter in some guy’s skull — sometimes a woman, but usually a guy — and bore all the way into that one head” (I forget the full wording).

Well, there was more, but those were some highlights for me.  I would have liked to catch his talk the next day about his entire career — Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Collar (which he directed, with Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic role), Mishima, Brian De Palma’s Obsession (I actually don’t recall what that movie is at all), etc — but didn’t make it.

IU Cinema/ John Ford

I moved to Bloomington about a decade ago and although I had never lived in such a small town, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that most of the things I needed or wanted existed here.  You don’t always have a dozen choices as you would in a big city, but there’s usually one or two of whatever you’re looking for — decent Japanese restaurant, good rock club, nice bar, etc.  OK, some of the shopping (for clothes say) is pretty limited, but you can always go to Indianapolis now and then.

For me, the one single biggest absence has always been a good independent movie theater.  I grew up going to the Brattle and Orson Welles Theaters in Cambridge, and one of my favorite things about living in NYC was access to places like the fantastic MOMA theater and the Angelica, etc.  Cambridge still has the Harvard Film Archive and the Kendall Square Theater.  You might be hard-pressed to buy a pair of tube socks, say, in Hyde Park in Chicago (it never used to have a Target or anything, that may have changed), but you can see amazing movies every night at Doc Films.  In Bloomington, though, it’s always been the suburban mall experience of Kerasotes (now AMC) or bust, basically.  Yes, there’s the Ryder but I never enjoyed sitting in the uncomfortable seats in the classroom auditorium, it felt too much like school for me.  So, sadly, I focused my cinephilia on Netflix.  All this is to say that the opening of the IU Cinema is maybe the single biggest improvement to my quality of life in Bloomington since I moved here.  Can’t say how good it felt to sit with my daughters, waiting for John Ford’s Rio Grande (the final film in his “cavalry trilogy”) to begin, and watch the theater curtain rise as the two smaller curtains fell over the Thomas Hart Benton “Indiana Murals” (originally created for the 1933 World’s Fair).  I’d also seen Stagecoach a few days earlier, and watching both movies, I was strongly aware of the film as projected light.  One example– the amazingly beautiful scenes early in Rio Grande when John Wayne interviews his long-lost son in his candle-lit camp tent: shadows play on the tent as they talk in what seems an implicit allegory for the surface light effects of cinema itself, creating a Plato’s Cave-like effect.

The girls did pretty well with the movie, which is maybe pitched a bit above the 7-y.o. attention span.  Throughout, I tried to whisper basic explanations of the Civil War context which explains the John Wayne’s character’s estrangement from his wife (played by Maureen O’Hara), etc.  Celie commented that she liked the fact that the movie “really paid attention to the horses.  Usually when horses are in movies they’re just there for riding, but in this movie they really paid attention to them.”  Her example was the discussion over the theft of John Wayne’s own favorite horse.  There’s some fun stunt-riding, too (standing up on two horses at once).

Stagecoach is fantastic, of course. One moment I especially liked: the prostitute Dallas looks over at the town’s priggish society ladies and comments, “there’s some things worse than Apaches:” the movie ponders different forces of violence, including the social violence of shaming and ostracizing.  Dallas asks, “Haven’t I any right to live? What have I done?” and the alcoholic doctor replies, “We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice, my child.”  Of course, it’s hard not to think about the question of the “right to live” of the Apaches who enter the film only as nameless, savage antagonists to civilization.

In both movies, the mowing down of the Indians (and their horses) is a bit hard to take.  Politics aside, just watching all the horses fall over (I assume) trip wires is kind of brutal — did they routinely break their legs?

So far, each film I’ve seen at the IU theater has ended in audience applause, which I think is partly sustained appreciation for the existence of the theater.