The Tragic Sense of Life
Pedro Costa is a filmmaker whose reputation seems to outweigh not so much his talent but maybe the analytic justification for his work. Yet perhaps that is always a problem with ‘new’ filmmakers: that we take for granted the greatness of the new generation, as if we await the bolstering that will justify the assumption at a later stage. What we want to do here is no more than muse over why Costas’s reputation is so high and whether it is deserved chiefly because of the ethical means by which he works, or because of the aesthetic originality of the result, and whether the two can be easily separated. The point of focus here is Colossal Youth, Costa’s two and a half hour account of characters who are moved out of the Lisbon slum district Fountainhas, and transposed to a new housing estate that is perhaps nearby, perhaps far away. When interviewed Costa says that the two places are quite near each other, but it takes two bus rides to go from one place to the next. Here, the space between them is left indeterminate, as if Costa wasn’t interested in the geographic specifics, but instead in the spatial differences. Where Fountainhas is dark, dank and ground-level, the new housing estate is high-rise and white-walled, a place of neat cleanliness next to the cramped houses the central character Ventura and others would have been living in for years.
Yet Costa doesn’t want to claim these new dwellings are paradise found any more than he wants to insist that Fountainhas is paradise lost. Due to an abiding respect for found realities, he isn’t a director given to creating filmic spaces that can lead us to certain conclusions, and there is a reasonable chance watching Colossal Youth that we may watch wondering whether what the characters have lost in the move from the slums to the housing estate is nothing next to what is gained. Don’t they now have fully-functioning houses, running electricity, hot water, washing machines? It isn’t as if Costa wants to deny this, but he wants to muse over not only where one’s body resides, but also one’s being. In various interviews Costa talks about the people living in Fountainhas whom he has spent years filming in Bones and In Vanda’s Room: often Cape Verdeans who came to Portugal to work, and quite literally made their homes in this shanty town put together by their own efforts. The new dwellings can keep their bodies warm and comfortable, but how must it feel for someone who has put their back into, and put their back out, doing years of labour, to move from the houses they built, however haphazardly, to a municipally designed housing estate?
This isn’t quite the subject of Colossal Youth, and Costa has directed a film where much of interest has been deliberately eschewed: he worked from three hundred and twenty hours of footage for a two and a half hour film. For example we might know from interviews with the director that the colossal youth is the central character Ventura, because he talks of the actor more or less playing himself: a young man who came to Lisbon, a powerful and beautiful ladies’ man, and suffered a terrible accident that has left him ever since partly crippled. Yet this isn’t the story Costa readily tells in the film, as he searches out an elliptical narrative (and ambiguous one, since we might wonder who exactly is or isn’t Ventura’s son or daughter), based on minimized space and cryptic conversation. If Costa is an important new director, it is through his configuring of these aspects – of elliptical narrative and cryptic conversation – that make him interesting. Frustrating, perhaps, sometimes dull even, but interesting.
Cinema frequently works with fictionalised spaces that are nevertheless vivid. It doesn’t matter if half the film is shot in Toronto and the other half shot in New York: the shots lead smoothly from one to the other and give the viewer a transitional freedom, a sense that the places are connected to other places even if it wouldn’t be possible geographically to link them together. When a character gets on a tube in Brooklyn and arrives in downtown Soho, it doesn’t matter that the Brooklyn they show was filmed in Toronto; what counts is the transitional freedom that we as viewers are given travelling from one place to another, and that the places are ostensibly linked. Costa refuses this possibility, just as much, say, in In Vanda’s Room as here. Each space is minimized, atomized. Often the scene begins with the character already in the given apartment and then the entire scene will take place in the room in which the characters’ find themselves. Not only are the characters in the given space, but they rarely move around it, or in and out of the rooms surrounding this central locale. On a few occasions Ventura goes over to Vanda’s apartment, and the scenes take place exclusively in her bedroom, with the pair of them sitting on the bed, the television on, and her child sometimes present, sometimes absent, sometimes in and out of the frame. Any lack of transitional freedom is matched by the restrictive movements within the scene.
Space in Costa’s work is not the property of the viewer but of the filmmaker, and while this might seem an absurd statement, how often can we think of films where we look forward to the next appointment, where a character talks to another of meeting them somewhere, and we expect the filmmaker to fulfil our expectation by showing us the means by which someone gets there, and the movements of the characters at their destination? Clearly the filmmaker is setting up these expectations by filming the script that demands such changes of scene, but is there a demand in the viewer that transcends the filmmaker’s option and says much more about the convention – a convention one might not be consciously aware of until a filmmaker like Costa refuses it?
For example, when it is clear Ventura is moving out of his old dwelling and into one of the new flats, might we expect to see those two bus rides to get to the destination, and once in the apartment, might we want to see Ventura wandering around the space and checking out what the facilities are like? Instead Costa gives us no transitional freedom, and no spatial freedom either: when Ventura complains that he needs a much bigger space for his family, we have been given little sense of how big the space he happens to be in is. Equally, when he visits Vanda’s flat, the spaces are sectioned off. Though we must assume that the bedroom we see Ventura and Vanda in is part of the same flat where we see Vanda, her husband and Ventura later, in their dining room, Costa films them as if they are discrete spaces, with no connecting link between them.
Maybe we could stretch a point and see this spatial atomisation as a symbol of the characters’ own atomistic relationship with each other. But, firstly, we ought to be wary of ready symbolism, and secondly, of the condescension that could come from such a reading. Are the characters so readily inarticulate, or are they not instead given to monologue? The characters here often speak as if they would prefer to sing, the monologue segueing into the soliloquy whilst aspiring to the song. Articulacy isn’t the problem, unless we are willing to accept that many of us need to express feelings not in language but in a variation of it: in painting, music, song, dance, poetry. If we imagine Colossal Youth as a musical by other means we do so not to be facetious, but to understand a notion of atomisation that has less to do with a ready notion of the inarticulate than the clear notion of language’s limits. In some ways Costa’s characters resemble those of the fine Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas, but where Bartas’s characters often withhold language, Costa’s use it as a means of limited expression. There is this atomised quality in each director, but where Bartas’s characters one feels would move towards painting their feelings, would Costa’s move towards singing theirs? There are scenes sometimes in Terence Davies’s work that capture well the pain inherent in Costa’s: the songs that the characters sing in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes which release the painful feelings inherent in a hard life.
Generally in Colossal Youth the characters do not talk to each other; one talks and another listens, which is partly why one must be careful about talking of inarticulacy and atomisation: Costa wants to access feelings within the characters that wouldn’t be easily accessible no matter a person’s class, educational level or skill with language. When Ventura, Vanda and her husband discuss the death of Ventura’s daughter and Vanda’s sister, the dialogue is elliptical and vague, with Vanda saying to Ventura he only lost a daughter whilst she lost a sibling. It is a contentious point (whose grief is greater?), but it as though in Costa’s recent films (less so in Blood and Casa de Lava) characters only have the energy required for talking or listening, not for arguing and discussing. Ventura might not agree with his daughter’s claims, but one senses he would be unlikely to contradict them either. He would be more inclined to then talk to another person about his feelings, rather than argue with his daughter over his own.
There are of course numerous ways in which filmmakers can refuse dramatization, and there are plenty critics finding conceptual language to describe the process. Whether it is Peter Wollen in New Left Review discussing ‘Speed and the Cinema’, and the notion of deceleration, or David Bordwell in Figures Traced in Light talking of Antonioni’s dedramatization, there are also the many ways in which to dedramatize, to decelerate, and perhaps we can imagine through the chosen dedramatization and deceleration what mode would generate the movement which is missing in the form the film takes. In other words cinema, in such an instance, is the art form of choice not because it is capable of completeness (the notion of cinema as Gesamtkunstwerk), but that it pursues the partial as felt. When Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere (who’s written elsewhere on Costa) and others talk of cinema being a parasitic art, this isn’t derogatory: as Ranciere says: “if there is something proper to cinema, it is in the way it accumulates powers that it takes from elsewhere.” (L’affect indecis) Equally, as Alex Ling in his book on Badiou and Cinema notes “…cinema is literally a shadow art, an impure amalgamation (and re-presentation) of greater – and essentially Other – artistic Ideas.” Often one feels this amalgamation as mastery, with cinema drawing on other art forms to augment its own: colour from painting, a soundtrack from music, acting from theatre, a script from literature.
Occasionally, though, the filmmaker works the reverse by virtue of utilising film not for its mastery (which is assumed), but for its limitedness (which is not). An IMDB critic says of Colossal Youth, “the films consists of very static, long takes, focusing on the very dreary lives of the main characters, who are trying to get their lives back together. The images are bereft of all liveliness, with their coarse grain, little colour and bad lighting. Most of the scenes take place in only a few areas”, before adding: “nothing seems to happen, apart from useless conversations going on forever. Where some films are capable of making an interesting story about subjects as boredom (e.g. 25 Watts) or decay, the part of this film I saw hardly aroused any of my senses.” What the critic expresses is this feeling of sensual under-load. How can filmmakers with so many resources at their disposal fail to use them? Instead of asking why it is that the film under-loads rather than overloads our senses, the film is assumed to be a failure, or rather an unsatisfactory experience. We needn’t agree with the IMDB critic (and aren’t some of Costa’s images anything but flat as they suggest a digital Rembrandt?) , but we can utilise an aspect of the comments to understand an aspect of the filmmaker’s capacity to generate frustration.
If it is true cinema has the assumed power to offer sensual overload, and then denies that possibility, we are in less an un-illuminating experience than a variation of what Heidegger would call in Basic Writings an ‘experiencing’: a felt strangeness. The question is not so much why are Costa’s films boring or apparently lacking professional slickness, but how do they find a way of pursuing their felt strangeness. This might not only come about from what is missing in relation to the potential plenitude available to the image, but also in the film’s resistance to what the image threatens to require. It is one thing to say as the IMDB critic does that the lighting is bad, and the images are bereft of all liveliness, but what is more intriguing surely is to wonder what seems to be repressing the image’s possibilities beyond some assumed amateurism. Costa is clearly an experienced filmmaker, studying under Antonio Res, Paulo Rocha, Alberto Seixas Santos, and working as an assistant for Jorge Silva Melo and Joao Botelho. Within Portuguese cinema this is an impressive list, indicating someone who has learnt the craft of making films before working on his own. Anybody watching Costa’s debut Blood will see lighting that is luminously monochrome, with Wim Wenders’ cinematographer Martin Schafer giving the night time scenes a melancholy mood, while Casa de Lava offers the opposite – rich reds and yellows, shot by Emmanuel Machuel. The issue here is not one of craft, surely, but inclination. It is as though the work wants to suppress a number of formal luxuries, to find within this suppression a certain frustration. While on one side these suppressed elements can easily be felt (anything from the sometimes flat lighting to the cramped immobility in the apartments), on the other they would seem much harder to locate. If we’re correct in feeling that what is being suppressed is song, the tragic sense of life (to use the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s phrase) lies, in Costa’s film, in creating an extractive aesthetic in its various manifestations and that then reflects on its repression through musical absence. As Unamuno would say, “man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.”
The characters in Colossal Youth are nothing if not feeling animals, expressing their pain. When Ventura stands outside his daughter’s house and talks of his accident many years earlier, it is like an inverted serenade. He sings not a song of love (though he briefly sings a few words also), but speaks words of loss. “Bete. Your mother’s gone. She doesn’t love me anymore. She doesn’t want the new house anymore. I’ve been having this nightmare for more than 30 years. It started in the sheds of the Social Housing Institute on the Amadeu Gaudencio construction site. The anxiety tormented me every night.” Later in the film when the son talks from the hospital bed, again he speaks as if to himself but in a voice that might demand a different means of expression.
Hence what Costa works on here is a twofold frustration. Firstly, he restricts the possibilities in the form through confining characters in space and denying the spatial freedom of transitional moments that would let the film breathe. Secondly, he offers characters who offer sorrowful reminiscence, but refuses to allow the exchanges to become either dialogues between characters, or songs sung by a character. It is as if Costa was interested not only in the extractive aspect of a limited aesthetic form (taking into account Badiou), but also a limited aesthetic where music might seem to be demanded and yet where the film assertively withholds it. When National Geographic describes the traditional Portugeuese music of Fado as a “somber, sometimes mournful, music that, like the American blues, gives voice to heartache and disappointment”, it links to the famous Portuguese mood of “saudade – a word that does not readily translate into other languages. The difficulty stems from the fact that the word saudade expresses a range of emotions – loneliness, melancholy, longing, even a fatalistic view of loss. Saudade evokes love in ruins or a bittersweet nostalgia for persons or events lost in the past.” These characteristics are all present and correct in Colossal Youth, though one might invoke a musical absence more precisely located: Morna, a creole music similar to Fado but specific to Cape Verde.
Usually in American film, characters who sing have been incorporated generically into the musical, but elsewhere there has often been an impulse of freedom attached to characters bursting into song – with French films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Le Jeanne and le Garcon de formidable, On connait la chanson, and Christophe Honore films Love Songs and Beloved interested in utilising the musical for its distanciating possibilities: for what Brecht called ‘Verfremdungseffekt’. While in the American musical the form is seamlessly absorbed, leaving no space for the viewer to feel estranged by the sudden singing, and where the songs are often contained within a set-piece (evident in the June Bride sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers etc), the French semi-musical often wants the singing to contain a dimension of absurd and often more obviously sorrowful self-expression.
Yet what we are proposing, perhaps with more than a little provocation (and too little empirical justification), is that Costa’s films wonder how deeply can you repress the impetus for song. If the generic musical removes the gap between life and song, and the French films frequently emphasise this gap, Costa buries the music inside the characters and allows it to come out instead as fragmented discourse: a character talking and another listening. Part of one’s frustration is the absence of sublimation; however, this ought not to be a criticism of Costa’s work, but a recognition of one’s own expectations. What happens is that the naked despair isn’t covered by the partial clothing of musical release; it remains despair. When Ranciere says in his essay for the Tate Modern program, “Pedro Costa does not film the misery of the world; he films its wealth: a wealth that anyone at all can become a master of”, if we disagree, it is that we feel instead that Costa captures well the absence of this wealth in the world for its characters, and reflects it in his restricted form. There are two key moments in Colossal Youth where Costa moves his camera, with both instances taking place in a park that it seems Ventura was originally involved in creating: draining the swamp so that it could become a beautiful green space. But there is little sense that this belongs to Ventura, just as when he sits on the edge of the chair at a museum this is a space whose use value for him stretches little further than the chair on which he perches. Ventura is a character who may have helped contribute to the making of bourgeois life, but that doesn’t mean he is part of it. What he would feel does belong to him is being taken from him: the slum dwellings that he would have helped build not for others but for himself. Now he will be removed from that dwelling and moved into a new housing estate that he has neither built nor lived in. If in the past he was the beautiful womanizer Costa describes, now he is being geographically castrated. He might not share very much in the beauty that over the years as a construction worker he would have contributed to, but he would have partaken in the simplicity of the Fountainhas district.
What one feels Costa’s world explores here is the gap between expression and repression, with the intermediate term oppression. Ventura does not share in the wealth of this world, even on the level of immediate expressiveness. Where those singing Cape Verdean music (explored in Casa de Lava) can feel close to their musical heritage, Ventura appears like a man alienated in various forms from the world’s possibilities. Ranciere might insist this relationship with art and the gallery is exclusionary: “we understand: Ventura is an intruder”. But maybe we can see instead that the sorrow lies not in art that he cannot access externally in the socio-economic world, but art that he cannot quite seem to access as musical expression except in the briefest of snatches. It is understandable that one would feel umbraged at feeling unwelcome in the very places where one’s labour has brought them into existence, but this is problem of socio-political exclusion rather than trapped expressiveness. If we feel Costa’s recent work counts it lies in the form exploring the nature of this monologic limitation that hints at the musically possible. It is interesting that two of Costa’s documentary films appear to explore this problem: the former, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, on Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, has Straub talking endlessly while Huillet quietly works away on the editing suite, while in the latter, Ne change rien, Jeanne Balibar rehearses Offenbach. The former suggests the one-sided conversational dimension often present in Costa’s work; the latter the musical dimension that is often repressed.
Initially we mused over the high reputation versus the minimal analysis. But of course Costa has benefited from the anointing of philosophical probing through Ranciere’s article, and well-respected critics and filmmakers have also written on the director: Thom Andersen, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Mark Perensen, Adrian Martin, Frederic Bonnaud. And no doubt in various journals academics will be exploring the issues evident in Costa’s work. Our purpose here though is to acknowledge a certain bafflement in the face of aesthetic minimalism, and to try to understand why the reputation might be high not because of these difficulties, but because they contain within them a mode of being based on repression rather than expression. Costa doesn’t only insist on moving the camera rarely in In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, and also rarely moving beyond the constrained settings, he also insistently shows characters for whom expressive possibility is constrained.
It isn’t that there is no music in Costa’s films (a character singing to himself No Woman, No Cry in In Vanda’s Room, Ventura’s aforementioned snippet here, singing and dancing in Casa de Lava), but in the recent work it does not become part of the emotional release – as it does for example in not only Chantal Akerman’s musicals like The Golden Eighties and Night and Day, but even in her non-musicals, like La Captive and Almeyer’s Folly. (A director Costa has name-checked as we shall see.) It is this forestalling that seems especially interesting about Costa’s more recent film , and which allows us to find a singularity within a tradition of decelerated cinema Costa would seem to accept. After all when Peter Wollen used the term in his piece, he also invoked Warhol in the article, and Costa has spoken specifically of Warhol in a conversation with Interview magazine, saying, “every time I have a chance to see a Warhol film, half the theater walks out, just like in a Straub or an Akerman film”. Costa is hardly unaware of his genealogy, but within this decelerated filmmaking a question needs to come that acknowledges the importance of Costa’s slowness. If Costa slows his films down to remove narrative event, then he also creates in this non-event the expectation perhaps of another (the self-expressive) and represses this also. However out of this double cinematic repression (the limitations placed on the form’s expressivity; the limitations placed on the characters’ expressivity) comes the aesthetic object that is a form of distinct visibility and expression.
Costa films like In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth are not at all documentaries, but they are documents, films that insist on filming people and places without generating narrative around them, even when a narrative suggests itself. Could Colossal Youth not have been about resistance to change, with the filmmaker supporting the cause and looking forward to the documentative tension that can come out of the fight for it: an honourable enough approach that would include the seventies Harlan County USA and the recent Garbage Warrior? But there is no protest here, and we do not set Costa up against Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA), for maybe there is a need in Costa not to find a voice for the people, but to find people who can capture his own aesthetic voice. If Costa is interested in the genealogy in which he fits as an artist, then what matters first and foremost, aesthetically, is not to change the lives of the people with whom he comes into contact, but to come into contact with those who can reflect his creative needs. It means that the people do have a voice, but it is one that comes out of the aesthetic and not the other way round. It means Costa protects his vision and the people become visible at one remove. This explains both the hope and hopelessness in the work at the same time, but we shouldn’t misinterpret it: we shouldn’t give expressive credit to Ventura when it belongs to Costa, for this would be to solve the problem of the former too readily, no matter his presence in a film that makes visible the invisible. The visible it presents to us is that of aesthetic achievement (namely Costa’s) at the same time it shows its buried presence in the figure he casts at its centre (Ventura). Ventura may have been a colossal youth, but is the tragedy here that he becomes a shrunken, ageing presence, and that Costa’s reputation increases the more successfully he reflects his own aesthetic gift in relation to the repressed expression of this noble character? It is a question indeed, and shouldn’t be resolved one feels, by claims of aesthetic exploitation on Costa’s part, or an exclusion from aesthetics on Ventura’s. Is it not, after all, Costa’s ‘exploitation’ that allows for a certain type of inclusion, giving Ventura a dignity that we cannot easily appraise?