Monday, January 25, 2010

Colossal Youth

It feels a little wrong to include Pedro Costa's gravely beautiful narrative poem Colossal Youth (2006) on a list of my favorite films from the last ten years. Apart from having not lived with this film very long (I only saw it last year), Colossal Youth is not meant for lists because it is not about looking back; it is hardly the kind of work you can simply slot away on a list and feel as if you've mastered. (Given that it's the only Costa I've seen, and that I'm not any kind of expert on Portuguese cinema, I'm especially unqualified to attempt such a feat). Since Colossal Youth feels like the beginning of a new adventure in world cinema rather than a punctuation mark on a moment that's already past, it seems best to proceed piecemeal, grasping at a few motifs and ideas that seem to me particularly important:

1. Humanistic warmth combined with modernist severity. It's those two hallmarks of twentieth-century art cinema Colossal Youth attempts to interweave. His film takes as its subject the poor of a small district in Lisbon. At its center is an older man (he appears to be in his sixties), played by, and named, Ventura, whom Costa met while shooting an earlier film. In the film, Ventura does nothing more than visit men and women who might be his children, and looks for a home in which they might all live together. His wife has left him and his life's work (manual labor, it is implied) doesn't seem to have come close at all with providing him the material comforts necessary for old age. The close identification of fictional characters with real social types recalls immediately the legacy of Neorealist cinema, and as Costa's sure camera carves out stark and telling images of the Lisbon community in which Ventura lives, one can feel him groping towards a large and very significant statement on the social ills and plight of the poor in a large community that far exceeds the personal problems of his central character. Yet the very real and humanistic gaze Costa casts on Ventura is no mistake: Costa lets Ventura linger on-screen longer than any other figure in the film. I've never seen a narrative film about the Lisbon poor, so it's enough, I suppose, to regard Ventura as a human being inherently worth the gaze of the camera simply by making the choice to point it at him without any economic or story-driven motivation. In counterpoint, however - and this is what makes the film difficult, and, to many audiences, unappealing - is a paratactic editing strategy that is straight out of the most difficult films of Godard, Ackerman, and Straub-Huillet. We see Ventura in one place, then we see him in another, without the usual scaffolds of continuity editing and temporal markers to tell us how he got there and why, exactly, he went.

2. Family, links, and ghosts. Judging from the few interviews I've read, Costa's great theme, or at least one of them, is the search for the family. The men and women who might be Ventura's sons and daughters appear fleetingly throughout the film; Ventura's visiting them feels hardly like a daily occurrence and more like a search for a lost past. Yet the film cryptically asks us to wonder if these are even his children, just as we are left baffled as to whether or not the woman in the first frame of the film is, in fact, Ventura's departed wife. I can think of no other "realist" film that is so shot through with the power of illusion and fantasy (it's no surprise that Costa references Howard Hawks in a recent interview). In fact, given that the film contains no reaction shots, and given that no outside social world (beyond that of his "family") confirms Ventura's existence (he is only rejected by the real estate agent and the museum docent, both of him regard him as filthy and unworthy of regard as a human being), the entire movie can be rationally defended as something like a waking dream, in which the hungry, forgotten poor of Lisbon become the equivalent of the living dead. Perhaps in seeking confirmation of his identity from these men and women, Ventura is looking for someone to give him life.

3.  An architectural cinema. Cinema scholars have long relied upon the other arts to explain what is interesting about their own, whether it's literary studies to come up with auteurism, painting and hieroglyphics as equivalents to the arts of mise-en-scene and montage, or music to describe the temporal modulations of narrative editing. (There's a word in art history, deriving from academic debates in the Italian Renaissance, for this kind of comparative analysis: paragone). Architecture seems, to me, to be one of the relatively untapped metaphors in studying cinema (although it's certainly been used from time to time).  In most every shot in Colossal Youth, Ventura, or another character, is framed by architecture: the awning of his daughter's shack, covered in shade; the falling-apart doors of his own small abode, a material sign of his impoverishment; or the museum and the expensive apartment homes that Ventura, it is implied, helped build with the labor of his hands, but is not invited to become a part of.  The mystery Costa finds in these kinds of spaces, however, suggests Ventura is not merely subjected to these structures; they hold a potential that might still be tapped. This is no fantasy of agency: Ventura ends the film, it would seem, with even less than he had when he began it. (Perhaps Costa is too, given the ethical perils that film-makers casting real-life subjects in fictional films always face?) But Costa defamiliarizes these evocative images of a poor, dilapidated world in ways that suggest they might still become something new.

In a fascinating new book on the relationship between cinema and architecture, Juhani Pallsmaa (a theorist and practitioner of architecture, and also an ardent cinephile) suggests that film directors are like naive architects: they do not know the discipline of architecture, but they nevertheless create cinematic structures that metaphorically house their characters and their viewers. The power of their naivete, I would suggest in following Pallasmaa's idea, is their power to imagine new kinds of spaces that might intervene poetically in our social worlds. I think there's a group of directors who not only create imaginative, boundary-pushing cinematic space for us but, at the same time, create a fictional world in which characters come to a desire for new spaces and worlds other than the ones they're currently living in. It's a search for home in the midst of change - paralleling the director's own search for a new kind of cinematic architecture - that I find palpable in the modernist works of Ozu, and the gesture towards post-classicism in Nicholas Ray (especially The Lusty Men and Rebel Without a Cause, and more violently in Bigger Than Life). And I feel it everywhere in Costa.

4. The poem. At several junctures in Colossal Youth, Ventura repeats a poem. At first, he intones it at the request of his son, who would appear to be looking for words to send to his own wife in a letter. In fact, this is the major patterning motif in the film: more than any other diegetic space or composition, its repetition provides us with a thoroughfare in a very tricky and difficult work. Here it is (as it first appears; each reiteration comes with its own variations):

My love, Being together again will brighten our lives for another 30 years. 
I'll come back to you strong and loving. 
I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes, 
a dozen fancy dresses, 
a car,
that little lava house you always dreamed of,
a threepenny bouquet. 
But most of all, 
drink a bottle of good wine and think of me. 
Here, it's nothing but work.
There's over a hundred of us now...

"A beautiful letter," his son says, after he hears it for the first time in the film. But it's not only its suggestion of romance, or its recall of some of the film's own motifs (the search for the home and the solace taken in alcohol, to name just two). Its foreboding beauty also comes as a reminder of how far work keeps figures like Ventura from achieving the dreams inscribed in the poem - economic, romantic, and otherwise - rather than bringing them closer to them.  "That's an awful letter," his son comes to think, the final time he hears it near film's end.

5. The woman at the beginning of the film. If it seems strange to end with the beginning, remember what I said about Colossal Youth being more about the future than the past. In the second shot, a woman holding a knife stares past the camera, intoning a fragment of a narrative about a body of water and her son, and backs away slowly, as if warding off the film itself - the camera in particular, nestled as it is in a threatening high-angle shot over her - from intruding in her private space. (In the first shot, we see her throw a television out of a window. Perhaps a fear of images? Costa seems to be acknowledging the dreadful power the cinema can have, especially when it attempts to account for real social problems) This woman, the film implies, is Ventura's wife, who has left their marriage just as she will leave this film after the opening sequence. Even though the movie is concerned with Ventura's search for a home, and his desire to reconnect with his family, and his dilapidated economic and social existence, it is also concerned with the mystery of his lost wife, who, like so much else in the movie, appears (and disappears) here as if in a waking dream.

The mystery is never solved and no better and more just world is found by Ventura; thus, Costa's socially committed and aesthetically rigorous cinema must continue.

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