27 février 2007

Pedro Costa is just like Michael Bay

Juventude em marcha / Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

I need to see this film again. Costa's project (and perhaps his career) is sui generis, and I wasn't able to fully appreciate the film on a first viewing because I didn't know the rules by which he was playing. My reflections, then, are mainly on those rules, and how they interact with the processes of spectatorship.

"So if the film is based on understanding, not decipherment, will this give any solace to those hostile or dismissive of it?" - Andy Rector

Understanding stands apart from decipherment in that understanding is a deeper experience. Decipherment is nothing more than the registration of information as it is presented, than the cutting through of obfuscation in favor of clarity.

Understanding beyond decipherment is rarely present in movies, even those that posit themselves as artistic statements. Yet a few are successful enough to encourage - or even demand - understanding.

Pedro Costa is demanding. Pedro Costa is demanding understanding. A demanding, more forceful than an asking, and requiring reciprocal effort.

In Colossal Youth, there isn't that much decipherment even made possible. The narrative confusions are few, because the narrative itself is little.

The frame in Colossal Youth transmits oppression. Beyond its limits might be freedom - if only we could get there. Then, we might know.

Costa's characters are trapped in the frame. Not by something as simple as bars or even framelines, but instead by exterior space, which seems to press inward even as they gaze outward. Characters are frozen inside.

If the body perceives something before the mind, does it necessarily follow that the mind will understand? No, but Costa isn't worried about the stragglers.

Silence, observation, statis. These are the components of action.

An economy of shots for a poverty of economy. Showing things without saying things.


The presentation of information is a giant part of how we register film artistry. Mostly, this means that discrete details are given, which later add up to a whole story. This story can be convoluted or simple. Through the understanding of the story, we can come to understand a greater truth. In these films understanding is a progression of fact and logic. A + B = C. In one story a geisha is taken advantage of and loses her chance at happiness. Therefore, we experience human sadness and loss, and also a social critique of the Geisha system.
Information presented by other means is often lost in the shuffle. As a filmmaker, though, I know that information presented secretly is also secretly preserved, subconsciously eliciting responses in the audience. In most movies, this additive information encourages the perception of the plot in order to facilitate the mathematical process of plot perception and meaning.
Occasionally an artist arises who carries such incredible meaning in his/her formal choices that they becomes the main conduits for meaning in a film. Pedro Costa is just such an artist.
Costa's observational, static shots close off all but a very small portion of the world. But the most interesting thing to me is the mindset you're put in as an audience member: frames do not move. space is rarely established beyond the frame. little action occurs. Trapped in these long-duration shots, you can only tolerate or walk out. Either one is a statement on our freedoms to decide our own level of investment in the world we are shown. We have more agency than Ventura. In staying, a gulf opens up between Ventura and you the viewer. In those long takes of limited space, Ventura remains in his world. Your presence is optional. [Is it often that Ventura enters or leaves the frame? I recollect that its rare.]
Colossal Youth demands an intense level of attention/concentration. As very little "happens," it takes a dedicated investment to decipher the details of the plot. But Colossal Youth also demands a physical concentration. The body grows accustomed to stasis, to silence. If given over to it, watching the film can approach a meditative state. Or, it can be a battle (to stay awake, to stay in your seat). Both the battle and the submission earn us greater knowledge of Ventura and the poverty of his social and economic concerns.
In watching Costa's movie, then, presentation of information is given mainly through the use of formally rigorous stylistic cues, notably the use of silence, the absence of camera movement, and the narrow (lack of) construction of space. But much of this information is presented so subtly that I responded to it physically before recognizing it intellectually. Which brings me to my post's title:

Pedro Costa is just like Michael Bay

Because Michael Bay is if nothing else, an auteur of the visceral. Quick shots that make you feel a sense of motion are his M.O. Watch an action scene from, say, Pearl Harbor in super slow motion. Note that adjacent shots will often contain contradictory visual information. The direction of a plane's flight path or the direction of shrapnel after an explosion might change from one shot to the next, but at full speed as an audience member what's most important is the sense of kinesis. Michael Bay is literally a director of action.
Pedro Costa is the opposite. Colossal Youth relies on stillness and the near-inability to move. But like Michael Bay, it has the effect of causing a visceral response before (above? in lieu of?) an intellectual one. Both work with the physical effects of cinema, in the same way a composer of music might choose certain frequencies for their physiological effects.
Like Michael Bay, Costa's formal choices are an agenda unto themselves. But Costa's choices are also an implicit politics - of identification and social mobility. These politics, and their physiological underpinning, are one piece of what makes Colossal Youth a spectacular work of art.

did i really get through an entire post on Colossal Youth without mentioning Bresson? how?

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