27 octobre 2007

Two or Three Things I Know About Fontainhas: No Quarto da Vanda

Assorted thoughts on Pedro Costa's No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room):

The similarities to Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her are striking.
Costa, like Godard, spends a lot of time observing the physical infrastructure of the place, not as an existent reality, but as a process, laying bare the essential components of construction/destruction involved in the realization of physical structure. In these films, we mainly see the machines involved in these processes, revealing their impersonal, structural basis (as in: the structures of capitalist development). The negative effects of this 'development' are explored in greater depth in Colossal Youth.

One interesting architectural component of the neighborhood was the mixing of public and private space. The ad-hoc construction of the neighborhood's buildings created porous boundaries between these spaces; Vanda's room is separated, in lieu of a fourth wall, only by a blanket. The result is a community connected by more than location or history, but also by the everpresent publicness of even private space. [This architectural structuring of community is lost by the demolition of the neighborhood and the residents' re-placement in public housing. One flaw of the bourgeois individualism enforced by the government's housing policy is the forced loss of this intimate sense of community.] The fluid lines between inside and outside are especially present in Costa's sound design, which is nowhere near as 'realist' as it seems; much of the construction noise heard offscreen was recorded separately and added after the fact (Note: I recollect Costa saying this, but don't have this in my notes. If you can confirm or deny, please weigh in. Update: see comments). Costa emphasizes the liminality of space in part through this sound design, which lacks the dialectical opposition of Godard's Two or Three Things in favor of creating a porous boundary between interior and exterior. Costa's construction and emphasis of this porosity focuses our attention on the Fontainhas community being lost by the 'upgrades' given to their physical environment. This community is rooted in their shared familial-historical-linguisticultural-socio-economic situation, but also in the solidarity created by the physical facts of their liminal situation.

Costa's interest in doors/rooms/liminal spaces is just one extension of his interest in the mixture of public and private space. Streets, per Costa, "can be more secretive than houses." The residents feel connected to their homes, to their space - a connection lost by the time of Colossal Youth. The neighborhood itself is like a secret world, harder to see than to look at. Costa approaches this world like a student, seeing oppositions - Vanda and the women in one world, the boys in another - that both insiders and outsiders would miss. As someone who has integrated himself into the community, but who can never fully lose his 'outsider' status for reasons of education, socioeconomics and profession, Costa is uniquely positioned to see both forest and trees.

Costa shot for 2 years and spent another year editing the footage to make the film. The story developed over the course of shooting, based on things that happened (Costa: "I dont have ideas for films"). Then a scene would be performed once, though the first take was always, according to Costa, bad. A week later they would shoot the same scene again, and it would be funny, interesting. Costa never wrote anything down; it was instead a mental editing process, an effort at improving what had been done before. One scene details the reactions of Vanda and another character to the death of Geny, who lived in the neighborhood. The first take, shot on the day of the event, was too emotional, full of too many tears. The scene was shot many times, once every week or so. The take used in the film was shot 6 months after the event. (The take used was emotionally understated, and Vanda was unhappy with it; she preferred the more emotional first take.)

Costa is allowed these liberties because he has integrated himself into the community. The neighborhood is, in a way, his office, where he goes every day to work. Costa told us about his dream of starting a TV station in the neighborhood, one that caters to and produces content from Fontainhas itself. But the neighborhood itself is moving toward the point when it no longer exists (the end result of the 'development' we see in No Quarto da Vanda is the transplantation and resettlement so central to Colossal Youth). Costa hopes to "test this impossibility" of continuing to work in the neighborhood: "the main work, I think, is still to be done there for me."

13 commentaires:

dave a dit…

One more note on the intersection of architecture and culture:
The re-settlement of members of this community into public housing is likely to weaken the community's bond in multiple ways. In addition to the loss of liminality and the encroachment of bourgeois-individualist notions of space and private property, the move to public housing will likely lead to linguisticultural as well as socio-economic assimilation. In spite of the material progress made possible (if not likely) by this assimilation, the familial, historical, and linguisitcultural ties to Cape Verde and to the other Cape Verdean immigrants of Fontainhas will certainly be felt as a dramatic loss.

David a dit…

Fascinating post. I asked Costa about his sound design--in general--on his films, and he said (Bresson-like) that visuals are worthless in locating you in a space--that should completely be the job of sound. He added that he lets his sound man go off and record whatever he wants, and then puts that in, which would certainly support the claim that it's not direct at all. It might be my favorite thing about his films: how the visuals are obsessed with walls, with the ways people are partioned from each other and dislocated and disoriented by architecture, even while his sound makes it sound like they're in the open air, or at least an open market. I think he did say, though, that the walls are incredibly thin--so these sounds can be heard at all times.

Darren a dit…

Great stuff, as usual, Dave. I wonder how much we can believe Costa when he says, "I don't have ideas for films"? There's an interesting exchange in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? in which Straub rants about the necessity of form being birthed by the idea. "The idea must always come first," he says. I'm sure that Costa finds the film in editing, but the shots are so rigorous and the performances are so carefully modulated (the background info about the Geny scene is really interesting) that I have no doubt he has very firm ideas about his film while shooting.

Daniel a dit…

I'm sure that Costa finds the film in editing, but the shots are so rigorous and the performances are so carefully modulated (the background info about the Geny scene is really interesting) that I have no doubt he has very firm ideas about his film while shooting.

Considering how much time he spent and footage he shot for this film and Colossal Youth, I might venture to say he has too many ideas and must find the core of each film, as you say, in the editing.

dave a dit…

David and Darren,

Thanks to you both.

David, perhaps it was your question that I heard Costa answer recently at Anthology? It's also possible we met after one of those screenings, in that case.

I think that Costa often obscures his own role in his work, perhaps in part to erase the auteurism 'myth' that gives insubstantial credit to what happens in front of the camera. I suspect he means: I don't impose 'ideas,' which are not of great significance, on 'events,' which occur in concrete reality and need to be addressed. He might be arguing against the predisposition of the auteur to invent situations in the service of a theoretical essence, and in favor of the presentation of (selected) experience in order to preserve the essence of those events.
Perhaps Costa's cinema - and/or Costa himself - strives to support the philosophical assertion that "existence precedes essence"?

dave a dit…

Is Costa's adherence to an aesthetic a philosophical assertion about representation and truth? Does this, in fact, precede his 'ideas' about the 'essence' of each film?

dave a dit…

You might be right. If he does work on a 'shot' basis as I've been proposing - capturing a moment without imposing a context on that moment, contextualizing in post - then editing becomes a (long) process of culling those shots into coherence.

Darren a dit…

"editing becomes a (long) process of culling those shots into coherence."

When I first watched In Vanda's Room, I mistakenly thought it was a little over three hours long. As I was watching what proved to be the last two shots of the film, though, I found myself thinking, "What's going on? This is the end of the film. This must be the end of the film." And sure enough . . . I had the biggest smile on my face when it cut to black and the music started.

That's maybe the most impressive accomplishment of the film -- that he has managed to give a coherent shape to the material. I'll be damned if I can explain how it works, though.

Andy Rector a dit…

ideas, matter, form:
Costa told me during his visit to Los Angeles that "unlike the Straubs, I have no convictions".

Straub does not privilege the idea at all and I think you've misquoted him there Darren. He says,

"First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! ...And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter, and the struggle with the matter, gives rise to the form."

The above being said I believe that Costa, who is following the Straubs ever more steadily with each new film, simply found an idea IN the matter, that is, matter first (colors, people, sentiments, stories of the neighborhood) idea second. In Huillet/Straub the idea and the matter are two SEPERATE things that "struggle between" eachother(Huillet has said they don't work on a text unless it resists them).

About sound, Costa's modesty knows no bounds. That he has his sound man "go off and do whatever he wants" sounds exactly like one of the self-effacements he said in Los Angeles --but one can read in the Cahiers interview about how he would spend days on mic PLACEMENT in certain scenes to be filmed direct -- starting with one mic, going to 3 or 4 mics, going back to 2 and then deciding to do it with one.

Costa has also spoken about the differences between the sounds of Fountainhas at night versus the day and the quandry of overlaying daysounds over nightsounds and vice-versa. In the end, with VANDA, I believe a bit of this was done but very carefully. The noise never stops in Fountainhas, he also said, except for maybe 20 minutes in the dead of night.

I've wondered whether Vanda's brief monologue about pickpockets, "the crafty ones", was overlayed over the image of a close-up of her phone-book or if this was shot direct; if it was a combination by Costa or by Vanda? In any case her words spoken over the book-of-the-marketplace effects a potent montage. This phone book/pickpocket scene seems one of the most public, bustling scenes in the film (surrealistically so?) -- a sudden and concentrated part of that public/private inversion that you talk about Dave.

Indeed when Vanda is in her room it's public and when she's on the street or in the alleyways, it's private. But I have a friendly disagreement with your definition of the representation as "a process, not an existent reality." What I think is most remarkable in the film is the sense of home that glows, burns even, beyond the living conditions and poison, and beyond the very definite process of destruction going on outside. Without this deep feeling of home and Costa's immersion and solidarity with it, the process outside would hardly feel so brutal, pressing, and unjust. As Daney said, empathy is the opposite of sympathy. Not that the film is constructed for this "statement" alone (or perhaps at all). IN VANDA'S ROOM is a war film with post-war fear and melancholy (GERMANY YEAR ZERO, Ozu's post-war films). Costa's film has a narrative construction, even a beginning, middle and end, but it's an "assembly" of concrete situations as well. The narrative or emotional "exchange of currency" that Costa hates is thus avoided. We're trading nothing for nothing, which is what Straub said a film should do. Every shot (even if many evoke Ozu, Murnau, Griffith, Lubitsch, Reis) belongs to them.

In regards to home, there are many materializations, the courtyard for example (where there's always a fire, a hearth one might say) and in Vanda's excursions into the labyrinth of familiarities, but I'm speaking mainly of Vanda and her family's house, the relationships there, Costa's mise en scene of intimacy within their home, and further, Costa's closeness to Nhurro, whose aspects aren't talked about enough. The scenes of Nhurro in the new place at the beginning are "a realization of (a) physcial structure" into a home, a "process". But Nhurro is not a machine. His care, his yearning, his durations, and his almost maternal sensibility towards the other guys roots him there instantly in spite of a dwelling in the process -- he's piecemeal but brilliant.

This is why, I think, Nhurro's literal appearance in Vanda's room at the end is so powerful, apart from the dialogue itself. The two specific homes, incarnate in Vanda and Nhurro, finally (and quite possibly finally for they are felt as the last days) collide together in one space: Vanda's room.

About dialogue, in the Cinemascope interview Costa says the Geny-mourning scene has dialogue like Hawks, that he could never write such dialogue. I think it's utterly true, it is Hawksian and there are many such scenes ("been there done that and I've got the basket to prove it"). This is not a cinephiliac miracle, it resembles more the "world spirit" of Hegel.

About machines, Costa certainly had an idea when he framed a the arm of a bulldozer demolishing a house so that it looks like a toy, especially when the sound has been much "bigger" and menacing prior to that (and it will be horrifying again in the second to last shot of Vanda, Zita and Diogo the child in their room). We finally see the sound/image action of demolition together and it looks pathetic and defeatable, even in its act. What's devastating is when, in the same shot, the dozer's arm stops and the driver walks onscreen. It's the same guy who seems to have been moving his belongings out the house a few shots earlier.

One can see a Costa idea being worked, then abandoned in the documentary TOUT REFLEURIT. We see his sound man crouched in Fountainhas (Costa's there too) recording a lament on a violin for COLOSSAL YOUTH. We then see Costa in the editing room applying these sounds/music to the off-screen funeral scene. In the final film however that scene has no music.

Dave, I hadn't heard Costa's dream of a Fountainhas tv station. His latest films THE RABBIT HUNTERS and TARRAFAL do have a more episodic character. There are shots and story from one in the other; they share material. I'm sure this is also in partly inspired by Straub/Huillet's ethic of not wasting anything, but maybe it comes more from this tv idea, how tv dramas often have intersecting stories and a regular cast. It's certainly not ELEPHANT by Van Sant! Costa doesn't make schemes.

dave a dit…

Andy - Thanks.

There's a lot to unpack in your comments, but not much for me to emphasize or contend with. I especially like the "matter first / idea second" phrasing; this is where I was trying to go with the 'ideas vs. events' of my earlier comment (and thus, possibly, my idea that Costa's work might have an implicit philosophical agenda about the primacy of materiality).

dave a dit…

there's a tangentially related article in the New York Times about the blurring of private and public space in contemporary urban architecture, accompanied by the (expected) bourgeois hangups about privacy and online representation. I was a bit surprised not to hear any architects speak radically about the relationship between community and the blurring of private and public space.

Andy Rector a dit…

did you see his short video NE CHANGE RIEN? Jean Balibar sings three songs in three shots. Its a series of events indentifiable as events because the song begins and ends, the camera doesn't move or hesitate and there are no cuts within. Removed from any social, communal or familial sphere (but not completely "alone" either, there is accompaniment via muscians)this film seems, somehow, to fit the philosophical -- the idea of "the primacy of materiality" -- but...it's strange, if the voice and body are materiality here why does the film seem so "electronic"? Perhaps it was simply the digital projection and ITS materiality of buzzing!
all the best,

dave a dit…

Ne Change Rien engages with materiality in a weird way; I think it's so de-contextualized that it's own materiality is less important structurally, if that makes any sense.

The materiality seems buried beneath the musical and painterly aspects because - and this is the key, I think - there's no story for this materiality to interact with. Materiality as a point of emphasis needs tension to be successful, and the pure performance aspects of Ne Change Rien made it less material because it was _only_ material.

For me, "materiality" is related to Heidegger's "Being" (and also "Being-in-the-world"), which is revealed (at least in part) through the relationship of Dasein to the world. For me, Ne Change Rien doesn't adequately address Being, it simply exists in the physical world, which is different than the implied Dasein-materiality of his best work.

The temporal grounding of Dasein is an important component of approaching Being through an art that is itself grounded in the passing of time.