The Colossal Cinema of Pedro Costa (Part Two)

Part Two of our three-part analysis of the cinema of Portuguese director Pedro Costa.

— By | May 17, 2010

The standing paradox of the camera-eye — of the frame which it creates and through which we inquire and learn of a spectacle — is that it permits freedom to gestate in a contained space. By ‘freedom’ I refer to that unmistakable sensation of plurality which the cinematographic spectacle invokes. The spectres of Cézanne (to borrow Derrida‘s treatment of Marx) have marched a long way in initiating the break in the cinematographer’s art, the rupture where such an event — the seeping through of freedom into the prison of the frame — could take place. From the perspective of film history, the first (or most visible) indication that Cézanne’s work on the limitations of the canvas would continue and spill over into kinema occurs in the filmography of Robert Bresson. Bresson is to the cinematographic arts what Cézanne represents to the fine arts: the breaking with tradition through an increased minimalism of means. Both artists had begun their careers steeped in the knowledge of classical standards, had questioned and blown up what those standards meant, and had pushed the realm of their respective art into passageways that urged asceticism and clarity in place of vapid ornamentation.

Bresson (who began his career as a painter) continued the work of Cézanne, and like his predecessor, remained a steadfast experimenter of form, each of his works a step toward geometrical purification. Cézanne finished his career by repainting the subjects he had worked on in earlier years over and over again, obsessively, each work stripping away at the dross that obscured the numerous planes of the tableau, which were in Cézanne’s eye the very reason for the spectacle to come into being; in Bresson too, though each of his films only superficially changed in plot and personae, the same thematic principles persisted, grew more focused and precise, as the methodology overtook the dramatization and liberated the narrative from single-plane linearity. The two artists discovered through their experiments — paradoxically, in works that are ‘complete’ to the extent that they are incomplete — that “attention to ‘the surface of the work’ produces inexhaustible depth.”

In an interview with Michel Ciment, shortly after the release of his final film L’Argent, Bresson states that painting, for all extents and purposes, ended after Cézanne: “I believe that painting is over. There is nowhere to go. I don’t mean after Picasso, but after Cezanne. He went to the brink of what could not be done.” Following the logic of the Cézanne/Bresson correlation, we may question whether cinema too, after Bresson, found itself with nowhere to go. In a way, Bresson’s statement is applicable: the new cinema of the 21st century, as exemplified by the work of Pedro Costa and by contemporaneous auteurs as divergent as Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Lisandro Alonso (to name a few), is one of dense, static long takes and/or increasingly motionless or non-conceptual camera-work that decentralizes story or narrative in favor of attaining real life synchronicity; all of which, I would argue, spring from a knowledge of Bressonian structures that in their most advanced state seem to ‘go nowhere’ in any traditional narrative sense. What is directly engaged with in place of over-contextualized dramatization is the inexhaustible “surface of the work.”

Still from Robert Bresson's "Au hasard Balthasar"

The cinema of Pedro Costa is emblematic of the Bressonian technique taken to its logical conclusion. The radical transitions Costa has made in his films signal a similarly obsessive preoccupation with stripping down the excess that accompanies conventional film narratives. Ossos, Costa’s third film, is also regarded as his most “Bressonian.” (Costa elected to have Emmanuel Machuel, the cinematographer of Bresson’s L’Argent, do the photography.)  James Quandt explains that “in Ossos… Costa’s love for Bresson is everywhere apparent — tight shots of hands, locks, and doorways, the camera sometimes held for a beat or two after a figure has departed the frame, offscreen sound to suggest contiguous space.” There is even the touch of Cézanne in Costa, by way of Bresson, where “exquisite lighting turns two symmetrical shots of a photograph, some keys, and crumpled cigarette packs lying on top of a dresser into painterly still lives.” Instead of defining dumb objects by enhancing their objectivity or ‘object-ness,’ Costa assembles his still lives by disclosing the objects’ geometrical and sensual relationship to the people who use them; the objects become something more than adornments, they are turned into vessels that appropriate the existential function of the human characters. If, as in the case of Ossos, a newborn baby is initially perceived to be an ‘object’ like any other in the eyes of its drug addicted father, gradually the baby sheds its ‘object-ness’ and becomes exactly what it is: a living, breathing being that irrevocably affects its wayward father’s life. This is a Bressonian vision of the world, in which every creature and object holds its own inner life, subtly pressing on the lives of others.

Still from Pedro Costa's "Ossos"

Ossos is the first film of the ‘trilogy’ that is based in Fontainhas, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lisbon where Costa was introduced to the impoverished lives of its marginalized residents. It is, in a way, a slightly more realized film than Casa de Lava (Costa’s prior film), and its scenes unfold with startling and direct poetry tinged with touches of the documentarian’s zeal. Interestingly, in that obsessive manner with which Cézanne reworked The Bathers, Costa recreates pivotal scenes from Casa de Lava in Ossos: Casa de Lava starts with beatific closeups of the faces of Cape Verdean women whose appearances at this point of the film are not yet established in the narrative; so too does the beginning of Ossos show fixed closeups of the young men and women who will feature in the film, without any preceding narrative description; we take these people just as they are, in Bressonian terms, “models” not of behavior or psychology, but of choices and acts. We learn about them later, as we watch them engage with themselves and with the objects and surroundings that occupy their lives. There is a lengthy tracking shot in Casa de Lava where the main female character, a Portuguese nurse, sprightly walks through the village street; in Ossos, the same tracking shot, this time involving the principal male character — a young drug addict who’s just become a father, and who at present walks determinedly down a city street — is lengthened and complexified. The repetition of the closeups and the tracking shots demonstrates Costa’s urge to peel away more layers from the same frame, as if dissatisfied that he had not unpacked the hidden engine which drives these scenes into being.

Nevertheless, the Bressonian scaffolding that helped Costa set up the elliptical structure of Ossos could not prevent him from encountering the same problems which dogged him during the production of Casa de Lava: namely the substantial loss of focus that the traditional method of filmmaking incurs when a large crew and a heavy arsenal of camera equipment are used. Costa himself explains (in a 2006 interview with Mark Peranson) that the radical stylistic shift in his fourth film, In Vanda’s Room, resulted from the numerous distractions that he could not escape on the set of Ossos:

Vanda comes a lot from the disappointments, the stuff that was not judged correctly from when we were shooting Ossos, which was a big production in comparison, with cars, a crew, etc. I saw only about 20% of the things that I should have been seeing every day because my eyes were attracted to the guys in the crew or whatever; the means and the ends weren’t thought through correctly. So I thought to myself I had to do things another way. And this led me to think that the normal way of making films is all wrong. We should rethink all of it. What are second, third assistants doing on the set?

Still from Pedro Costa's "In Vanda's Room"

The ratio of technique to subject, of means to ends, did not befit the truth which Costa desired to capture. For one thing, the audacity of attempting to arrive at any degree of realism or truth through a systematized and overwrought methodology, involving copious equipment and personnel, seemed insulting to the real lives of the Fontainhas residents. These were real people, not actors, and worse, some were even on the brink of indigence. Perhaps Costa sensed the imbalance between the fiction, however beautiful it was, of Ossos, and the reality in which Vanda Duarte lived in (Vanda appears in all three films of the Fontainhas trilogy). To arrive at the heart of Vanda’s existence, Costa did exactly that: he gained her trust and affection, and was permitted to enter the private life of a real woman, at that time a crack addict living in a squalid apartment with her sister, as well as the lives of the transients who visit her and make up her surrogate ‘family.’ Initially, In Vanda’s Room (Costa’s fourth film, and the second in the trilogy) began as a project with stronger documentarian linings than those faintly on display in Ossos: Costa reduced the film crew to just himself, and he abandoned the 35mm format, opting instead for digital video. Video allowed Costa not only an ease of navigating the small space of Vanda’s “room” but also the ability to cheaply shoot countless hours of footage. The film almost completely takes place indoors and all of its shots are motionless and intensely fixed on the play of light and shadow in Vanda’s habitation (Costa mainly used whatever natural light there was available, usually from a single source, which, to quote Richard Suchenski, resulted in “reinforcing the stately, hieratic quality of these increasingly still images.”) But, according to Costa, the absorptive motionlessness of the camera was not initially intended to be the dominant matrix for the frame:

In the beginning when I started making Vanda it was pure documentary… it started with this bad documentary process where you are like a stupid monkey shooting everywhere. If you see a bird, you shoot the bird. If you see a guy pissing, you shoot him. You’re turning your head all the time… it was the worst documentary ever made. I was there trying to catch things with my camera, and then slowly I realized I was there to lose moments, not to catch them. Video is very good for that. It’s made to go slower and slower, and not to try and catch reality, but to try and lose reality in a way… slowly you concentrate on a boy and his house, and the boy is trying to arrange his house, and you realize after a month that he’s always on the right, and Vanda comes in at the same point each day at the same time. It’s the Rossellini way: if you have the economics, the habitat, that makes it real. What do they wear, what’s the climate, and you have the film.

“To lose reality,” rather than catch it: this is the final revelation of the Bressonian method, only this time modified by Costa’s unique vision. The prison of the frame, instead of  merely subjecting the spectacle and its particulars to motionless fixity, loses its spatial pressure when the reality that is confined within its borders is allowed to breathe, to speak, to express its confinement on its own terms and in its own language. Thus, Costa found that the path to Bresson’s essentialism propelled new inquiries into what the master had meant when he stated that “cinema can go beyond painting,” beyond the “brink of what could not be done.” Where painting ends and cinema begins is the place where a nearly total intimacy can ensue — as that enjoyed by Costa in relationship with Vanda and her family.

Still from Pedro Costa's "In Vanda's Room"

I had mentioned that Costa’s first film, O Sangue, was an execution of “pure cinematics,” but I am inclined to believe that In Vanda’s Room is also modeled on a structure of pure cinema, in which the camera dissolves into the fabric of the spectacle, no longer a controlled or ‘caught’ picture, but as close as possible to the very blood (sangue) and bones (ossos) of the actual. The people we see onscreen are no longer representations, no more the actors who helped craft the fable of O Sangue or the documentarian fictions of Casa de Lava and Ossos: they are the barely living and the nearly dead but the determinedly alive; survivors of a dispossession — social and cultural– which they possess at more liberty than the cigarettes they smoke or the temporary homes they sleep in. Having nothing, as Costa learned, means also owning everything: to lose reality is also to regain it, to see it in a different spectrum (more on this later). Vanda’s small and barely lit room, imprisoned as it seems by the social injustices of poverty, transience, rampant drug use and encroaching demolition, becomes a metaphor for freedom: hers is a confession box where the lonely and bereaved can give expression to a tormented life which is otherwise marked out for displacement or extinction.

Read Part Three: Straub-Huillet and the Mythic Voice

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