Monday, December 10, 2007

The Post-Punk Poet of Portugal: Part Two

COLOSSAL YOUTH / Juventude Em Marcha
(Pedro Costa, Portugal/France/Switzerland, 2006, 155 mins.)


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Click here for part one

"[H]is slow-moving, impressively photographed and deliberately rep-
etitious zero-tech docudramas about the degraded lives of the poor
will infuriate and alienate far more people than they please."
-- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

"This is so out of the zeitgeist I don't know where to begin."
-- Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope

*****

Like Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa prefers to work with non-professionals. To
a person, they have intriguing faces: young, old, male, female, Portuguese,
and Cape Verdean. Like Bela Tarr and Tsai Ming-Liang, he patiently follows
his photogenic players around. While the director eschews non-diegetic music, movement and ambient sound are constant. Clearly, he finds his subjects fas-
cinating. Consequently, he encourages them to incorporate biography into their performances. Some viewers appreciate the trust he places in his cast. Some don't.

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After watching O Sangue, Casa de Lava, and now Colossal Youth, I'm thankful for
that trust. And I'm confounded by those critics who find his work so exasperating-
if not unendurable. (Variety's Justin Chang, for instance, feels that Colossal Youth
is "weighed down by its soporific structure, deliberately indolent pacing and end-
lessly attenuated conversations among a clutch of ill-defined personalities.")
Costa's films may not move quickly, but they aren't exactly endurance tests either. (Comparing Colossal Youth to Andy Warhol's Empire, for instance, would be foolhar-
dy at best.) Because they're so intimate and empathetic, however, I wonder if his detractors aren't reacting to something beyond their lack of forward momentum. To quote the NME's Stuart Maconie, "Yes, there are people in the world who do not love Scott Walker. But what must their hearts be like?" Just replace Walker with Costa.
Often cited as his best-and "slowest"-effort, Colossal Youth begins with
a woman, who is possibly insane, hounding an unidentified man from their
home. She could be his wife, his lover-Costa doesn't say. The grey-hair-
ed figure manages to dodge her knife, but in the fracas, all his belongings
are destroyed. Soon afterwards, a middle-aged fellow shows the elderly gent-
leman around an empty apartment. Both sport dark suits, but the former
flauts a flashier ensemble. Presumably, he's a government housing agent.
Afterwards, the latter chats with a methadone user about her daughter's wel-
fare. As it transpires, the locations are the lower-class Lisbon neighborhoods of
Fonta/<>nhas and Casal da Boba. Costa has visited this rapidly-changing area be-
fore, starting with 1997's Ossos ("Bones"). This time around, his main man is
the mono-monikered Ventura, and the chain-smoking mother is Vanda Duarte,
focus of 2001's In Vanda's Room (No Quarta de Vanda). Ventura appears to be
sharing her living quarters, but since she plans on leaving, he takes the apart-
ment from the earlier sequence. The three films form the Vanda Trilogy.
Visitors frequent the new place, like his friend, Paulo. As with Isaach de Bankole's Le/co in Casa de Lava, Ventura hails from Cape Verde. His callers do most of the talking. He listens. The exception is Lento, for whom he is composing a love letter. In these scenes, Ventura does most of the talking-or reciting, since memorization replaces pen and paper. It is, indeed, the same letter featured in Casa de Lava.
A retired laborer, Ventura is only a rung or two above his "children" on the socio-economic ladder. "The flat's too big for you alone," notes Paulo about the new
digs. "It's for all of us," Ventura explains. Some, like Vanda, even call him Papa.
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The photogenic filmmaker
Costa continues to parcel out information about this community slowly, like the
name of the woman from the opening sequence. She is Ventura's wife, Clotilde (she will not return). The director also makes little distinction between past and present.
Ventura's encounters with the letter-recipient, for example, appear to take place
in the past as he's dressed more casually and the dark interiors are even murk-
ier. In addition, Ventura's head is bandaged in these scenes, a reference to the workplace injury that hastened his retirement-yet another link with Casa de Lava.
There's so much formal control behind Costa's painterly compositions and
poetic pacing that accusations of carelessness-or self"ndulgence-would
be misplaced. Either he wants viewers to make these distinctions themsel-
ves, he's showing the world as Ventura sees it, or he's reacting to the over-
accentuated clarity of conventional cinema (or some combination thereof).
In other words, though his films don't look surrealistic, it's difficult to distinguish internal from external reality, hence the occasional comparisons to David Lynch.
It makes little sense on the surface-Costa forgoes reptilean babies, rabbit-head-
ed families, Robert Blake, etc.-but their movies share a dream-like logic.
As James Quandt mentions in his Artforum essay (reprinted in the program), Jac-
ques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie had a profound affect on the filmmaker, and Costa often shoots Ventura, from low-practically subterranean-angles, as if he were a zombie or a statue. Ventura is tall, gaunt, still. There's nothing frightening about
his placid visage, but there's something eerie about his preternatural composure.
And so it goes with the rest of the film. It's leisurely-paced to be sure, but
there's always something going on. Much has been made about the long takes,
but they're never completely static. This is also true of Tarr and Ming-Liang's features. Their cinematographers may not move often (or quickly), but the
subjects within their viewfinders are always engaged in some kind of activity.
Nevertheless, Colossal Youth inspired "mass walk-outs" at festivals and
events in Cannes, London, New York, and Vancouver-all film-savvy cit-
ies. Will Seattle prove its mettle, and break the cycle? It remains to be
seen, but here's hoping the intrepid souls who take it on stay to the end.
My advice: Do like British film critic Neil Young and load up on "artificial stimula-
tion" beforehand. In his case: "a black coffee and a can of sugar-free Red Bull."
Or feel free to walk in and out of the screening, just as Ventura rambles about
his ramshackle environs. That was, apparently, Costa's original intention, making Colossal Youth closer to performance art than most movies are prepared to go.
*****
Note: I apologize that I failed to explore Costa's interest in post-punk further.
Not counting the use of and/or allusions to The The (O Sangue), Wire and Gang
of Four (Ossos), and the Young Marble Giants (Colossal Youth), I would have to
spend more time with his work to determine exactly how it's influenced his film-
ography. He does, after all, also integrate music from Cats (In Vanda's Room).
Oh, and about that Gang of Four number. It only plays for a few seconds, but
I'd recognize that squealing guitar line anywhere-it's "To Hell With Poverty."
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Still Lives - The Films of Pedro Costa continues this week at the Northwest
Film Forum. In Vanda's Room plays Mon., 12/10, at 6 and 9:15 pm, Where
Lies Your Hidden Smile?
plays Tues., 12/11, at 6:30 and 9:15pm, and Colossal
Youth
concludes the series on Wed., 12/12, at 6:30 and 9:15pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the NWFF,
Fest21, The Vancouver International Film Centre, and Neil Young's Film Lounge.

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