Joao Cesar Monteiro
Truths at Twenty Four Frames a Second
In the early stages of one of the Joao Cesar Monteiro's best known films, Recollections of the Yellow House Joao (Monteiro), can't stop scratching himself. Perhaps from another director this would be cause for comedic aside or narrative development, but there is in this fine filmmaker's work a very unusual example of what Andre Bazin would call 'concrete instants': "the narrative unit is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than another, for their ontological equality destroys drama at its very basis." (What is Cinema Vol. II?) It is one of the most pertinent comments in modern film criticism, and often the sign of a great observation is the myriad contexts in which it can be used. Monteiro is yet another filmmaker who, working against any ingrained sense of narrative obligation, finds purpose in such a remark, consciously or otherwise.
Now this notion of concrete instants doesn't mean Monteiro's films have no narrative development; more that it isn't mandatory the film follows through on events to which it introduces us. In the first section of Recollections of the Yellow House, Joao's rash becomes less a narrative strand than a characterisational preoccupation, and perhaps this latter element may help us locate the distinctiveness of a director who feels under no obligation to create plot, but at the same time holds his films together with a series of fascinations, projections and preoccupations. Indeed much of Monteiro's comedy comes out of these preoccupations, as though consequential events if personally enough developed are often a source of much amusement, where events impersonally generated but promptly engaged with lend themselves well to seriousness. If for argument's sake we contrast this story of Joao's itch with the action hero's problem of engaging with an impersonal action that becomes a necessary problem, we can see that the latter is often humourlessly ennobling. Gilles Deleuze astutely notes (in Cinema 1: The Movement Image) that, in what he calls the action image, "the milieu and its forces incurve on themselves, they act on the character, throw him a challenge, and constitute a situation in which he is caught. The character reacts in turn (action properly speaking) so as to respond to the situation, with other characters." Consequently, "he must acquire a new mode of being (habitus) or raise his mode of being to the demands of the milieu and of the situation." Here there are less concrete instants, in the Bazinian sense, than concrete situations: each 'instant' is a building block towards narrative momentum. In Monteiro's work it is much more as if out of the characterisational preoccupations he finds concrete instants of meaning that he doesn't expect to cohere into a narrative whole, but instead can be the sum of their enquiring parts. Yet there is something amusing in these moments, as if their arbitrariness next to the action hero's sense of necessity, inevitably invokes the humorous.
We might think here of the scene in the film where Joao does indeed go to the doctor to get a diagnosis, a scene that could have been covered in thirty seconds extends to three and a half minutes as the doctor inspects his body, asks him various questions, including whether he served in the army and if he has a high temperature, and puts him on a liquid diet of broth, vegetables, yogurt and fruit. One might assume the film has shifted its focus from a minor ailment to a major prognosis: that he might be dying of cancer. But though the disease would eventually take this Portuguese filmmaker, who was born in 1939, studied film in London, and, after years of grappling with it, died in 2003, this is not like Nanni Moretti's autobiographical account of his cancer struggle. In Dear Diary, Moretti's movie contains within it the sobering thought of death that concentrates the mind and the direction of the film. No, Monteiro in this scene wants to destroy drama at its ontological base rather than see how it can create narrative expectations in the viewer. Much of the humour comes from this 'destruction'.
Maybe there is always in film a bifurcation between the feelings and thoughts that concern ourselves, and the speculative thoughts about where the film is going, with the film relying on our capacity for comprehending events based on our experiential understanding of the world, and the acceptance that the world we are watching is a world beyond our own. Even in genres like sci-fi and horror, where we may never have spent time in space, or been carved up in a shower, the film will nevertheless be working with immediate affects that are physiobiographical. We might recall moments of immense claustrophobia that resembles the narrow confines of the spaceship, or a moment when our parents left us in the house for a few hours on our own when we were young and felt a sense of trepidation. These are the sort of physiobiographic elements cinema is constantly drawing upon, even if equally film functions at the same time off vaguer disinterested questions of what might happen next consistent with how we might try to work out a puzzle.
Indeed one reason why many people may find so-called art cinema boring, and a film like Recollections of the Yellow House a work of quiet tedium, is because the biographically affective and the disinterested second guessing of plot are all but absent. When Monteiro's sound designer on the film says in the DVD extras to Recollections of the Yellow Housethat he thought it was the first time Monteiro had balanced perfectly his reasons for making cinema, one notices that the notion of affect and narrative are absent. As he says that Monteiro wanted to convey his love of cinema, his fascination for the real, his interest in painting and the other arts, and his self pity (though acknowledging this isn't quite the term), so one sees the affective and narrational are of no interest. We have not to expect the film to please us on the terms of the emotionally familiar, nor the idly anticipatory, but look elsewhere for the film's pleasure and purpose.
This doesn't mean the film has no interest in making us think or feel, of course, but to think and feel in more allusive, suggestive ways. In the scene at the doctor's, it is as if Monteiro deliberately captures a moment that is caught between pathos and the comedic: if his health problems were more serious we would be expected to feel pity; if the scene indicated hypochondria we would be expected to laugh. As with many scenes in Monteiro he sacrifices garden variety emotions for the complexity of mixed feelings: he plays on non-diegetic absurdity - on the idea that we might wonder why the filmmaker is giving so much time and space to a scene that is neither quite tragic nor quite funny.
However, if the scene we've described does at least lean towards the sympathetic, what are we to make of a moment much later in the film when Joao insists to a young woman many years his junior that he will take her from behind and stick a finger up her arse? It is but one of many scenes in the director's work where he plays on mixed moral feeling to establish an enquiring ethos. Here his character is noble and dismissive, sexually rapacious and capable of indifference. As he throws money at the woman in a moment that looks like it'll turn into a rape, Joao does so with the vindictiveness of the villain who's ravished the woman, but with the dignity of a man who accepts a woman cannot be his: he leaves without taking her. This would be all very well if he hadn't already gone some way to seducing her against her will; it becomes problematically absurd when he rejects her and scatters the money around her body after already embarking on the deed. It is here the situation leads not to the explicability of narrative action, but the inexplicability of characterization. There is a certain type of suspense in these concrete instants, but one has to be willing to accept at least two things: firstly that a scene is not necessarily part of a broader whole, and secondly that a character is not something given.
Now of course many a mainstream film while insisting on the strength of plot doesn't at the same time insist on consistency of character. If it did why we would constantly hear talk of 'character arcs', why would we have characters like the femme fatale and the worm that turned if characterization was so set? But perhaps often character doesn't change, just our perspective on the character. Hence it is more useful to think of characterization that is plotted or unplotted. In the former instance a character might surprise us, but they do so within a coherent psychology that strengthens the narrative momentum. In a recent film like Winter's Bone, John Hawkes' character Teardrop looks like he is all trouble, but at a certain point he shows protective instincts and from thereon in proves very useful for the film's plot momentum. The youthful female central character is looking for her drug-dealing dad, and having Teardrop on her side makes her enquiry much easier as she ventures into troublesome situations she would not be able to cope with on her own. The point here is that though Teardrop is initially presented as potential trouble, his affection for Ree moves from threatening to unthreatening. It is not so much a change of character, so much as a change of perspective: one assumes he is one type of person but he turns out to be capable of sympathetic behaviour too. There are plenty examples of characters whose change is even more obviously plot motivated: films like Jagged Edge and Body Heat, where characters are playing with other characters within the film. The idea is that no matter the character's behaviour, no matter how it appears to change, it remains linked to strong plot development. Monteiro creates characters that leads almost inevitably to weak development, as the obsessions, preoccupations and so on refuse to align themselves to the story as momentum and instead to character as drift.
This is beautifully explored and expressed in The Last Dive, a film about the three graces presented more as three potential disgraces. Montiero offers a film that seems to capture the beauty of Lisbon in a manner more spontaneous than in most of his work as he follows a young man who wants to commit suicide, and the older man who asks him to pause for a moment as he introduces him to the night life of the city.
Set during one night and filmed during local festivities, Monteiro hangs a light story on a dense and contradictory mise-en scene. Some scenes are filmed almost as documentary; others as theatre, still others as pure cinema in the tracking shot-style of Ophuls. In the scenes where Monteiro follows the two men and the three women dancing in the square, the film accepts the immediacy of concrete instants as documentative presence, but that isn't all it is. There is a poignant moment where we see our young hero Samuel watching one of the graces, Esperanca, dance with another man, and we see a world of sadness on his face projecting a world of possibility into her dance movements. Monteiro doesn't create a strong story around Samuel's desire to kill himself, but he captures it with great momentary melancholy in the reaction shot to Samuel watching Esperanca dance. This is where the concrete instant comes into its own, but also interestingly connects to the psychobiographical, but on a deeper level than most films.
If we've suggested that often film does no more than create a hypothetical scenario to release commonplace feelings - of claustrophobia, fright, embarrassment and so on - Monteiro seems to be a director searching out the implicit feeling over the explicit response. If claustrophobia, fright and embarrassment create a direct feeling, then guilt, melancholy and loneliness we see are indirect - indirect in the sense that they demand not manipulated reactions, but formative ones: reactions that are hard to place but difficult to deny. If in this moment where Samuel looks at Esperanca and felt jealous, this would be a direct emotion, easily explicable and also easy to create narrative around. Samuel could pull Esperanca away from the man, with the man reacting and a fight ensuing. The sequence is documentative in its immediacy but reflective in its emotional pull. It conforms to one of Monteiro's demands for cinema (capturing the real), but does so beyond the confines of documentary expectation. It could at first seem that Monteiro is doing no more than filming the St Anthony festival in Lisbon, but underpinning the sequence is the haunting possibility of death. Samuel's face manages to capture its likelihood, but also in Esperanca's dance he sees a reason to live.
Later on Esperanca will dance again, but this time Monteiro films it in a theatrical manner where the lighting is reddish hued and the movements deliberate. Esperanca is performing the dance of the seven veils, a dance that in the bible ends of course with John the Baptist's death. Here Monteiro appeals to another dimension of his cinema: the interest in the other arts and the mythic dimensions attached to them. During the sequence he cuts out the sound, a Brechtian device that is also empathic confrontation: Esperanca is deaf, and so can't 'hear', in a conventional sense, the music to which she is dancing. There is no sense that during this dance Samuel is watching, yet the last shot in the sequence is of Samuel's face, once again with its melancholic expression. From the documentative to the theatrical, Monteiro achieves the same effect, but with very different means. Instead of creating a different effect, and affect, by the same means, by creating a different feeling through a different set of events, Monteiro changes the form instead of the feeling.
He does it again in a couple of tracking shots as a prostitute walks the streets, with Monteiro concluding the shot with a man passing through the square she is sitting in, hovering behind the bench she is sitting on for a moment, and then leaving. It again gives us a sense of longing, as if Monteiro believed that cinema's purpose is not to create narrative events but instead invoke strong feelings as arbitrarily as possible, while at the same time indicating that the accumulative effect counters any sense of insignificance. The sound editor is right in talking of Monteiro's interest in self-pity, but it is even more generally a pity for the self. By combining a mixed aesthetic with a fascination for the real, and creating a permeating sense of pity that doesn't arrive at the egocentric, Monteiro gives us a film of immense pathos.
What makes the pathetic so evident is that death and decay seem central to many of his films, and find their obverse in youth and beauty. Seeing Monteiro in his early work we see a man of vitality and force, with a full head of hair and eyes startling even in black and white. In the later films he is a figure who appears to have incorporated death into his form, never more evident than in the visit to the doctor in Recollections of the Yellow House. Here we see, as we see in all fictional live-action cinema, the character and the actor simultaneously, as the character comments on his health, and the film documents Monteiro's emaciated body. We see this aging element again in God's Wedding, where Joao beds a beautiful young woman and the contrast between her youthful health and Monteiro's aging fragility is pronounced. Monteiro is often attracted to the self-pitying and the documentative, and the two come together in these moments, and become of immense importance in his last film, Come and Go. The film plays like the testimony of a dying man, and indeed ends on Joao's death just as Monteiro died in the year of its release. It contains near its conclusion a quiet irony, as we find out that Joao who often spends time sitting on a bench in the park, has been watched, indeed literally watched over, by a comely young woman up in a tree. He would love to join her, he says, but "with his arse in a state" after an operation, he must stay where he is as he asks her to join him. She says she can only give him her shadow, and the film moves to a close-up of one of Joao's eyes as over several minutes the life disappears from it. Is she a final vision of feminine beauty, or a figure guiding him into the afterlife? While Esperanca in The Last Dive is one of the goddesses capable of keeping Samuel in this world, the woman in the tree appears to be someone who will take Joao to the next. Earlier in the film she would have been witnessing Joao's antics in the park, where a lovely young woman keeps passing Joao on a bike as he sits on the bench, and he eventually chases after her, as if she's aware the only escape from the chasing of the flesh for Joao will be in the life after this one.
If Monteiro is often drawn to mothers and whores, to temptresses and the saintly, he nevertheless problematizes the figures in both form and content. In God's Wedding, Joao miraculously gets left a fortune in a suitcase, and duly spends it on a fine chateau, gambling and, to his ruination, on a woman he wins at the card table. She is the lover of a wealthy figure who can perform twenty times a day the intimidated Joao is told, but she also adds that there are other ways to please a woman. Joao finds to his cost that the way he pleases her is by stupidly allowing her to go off with his fortune after their lovemaking. She is a classic vamp, and Joao the fall guy, but the precision of the form and the absurdity of the scenario means that the stereotypes get easily absorbed into the Monteiroesque. Part of Joao's attempt at seducing the countess is to take her to the theatre, and the performance turns into a political act of rebellion. It has all the irrelevance of the digression, but will have meaning within the context of Joao's later arrest: where weapons and tanks are found on his premises, with the oblivious Joao wondering how they got there.
As with much of Monteiro's oeuvre the director escapes the stereotype by searching out prototypes, myths rather than clichs, and in God's Wedding, one may well wonder whether the suitcase is a Faustian pact with the devil. The abbess at the convent Joao offers money to wonders whether the money has come from the devil's work, and the film explores the idea not through the notion that the pact is with the devil; more with the way money impacts on one's desires. It doesn't really matter where the money comes from: it is how one chooses to spend it, and the false gods one finds oneself worshipping when there is money enough to spend on them. The countess will be responsible for Joao's downfall, but she'll also be part of the beautiful mise-en-scene Monteiro films in scenes that show great taste and elegance. There are scenes here that aestheticise rather than moralise; it isn't at all in the American tradition of wealth gained and vulgarity accumulated as we see for example in De Palma's Scarface, where it is as if the fall of Tony Montana is deserved for no better reason than that he lacks taste and judgement. Joao is a character with a sure aesthetic sense, and it is as though Monteiro was also offered a suitcase full of money, with regular producer Paulo Branco giving him a bigger budget than usual. Always a director attentive to sound, here even nature suggests bountiful wealth, as we hear the numerous birds chirping in Joao's expansive chateau gardens. Few films have captured better not the vulgarity but the tranquillity of affluence, the easy pace of a life given over to slow-burn courting, long nights gambling, and meals leisurely taken. What interests Monteiro isn't the pact with the devil, but the ironic largesse of God, God's capacity to give Joao the good life but equally take it away from him also, and in the taking leave Joao in a far worse position than he was in without the money. Monteiro presents Joao's lifestyle with the influx of wealth not at all as devilish but instead heavenly. Where Tony Montana's prosperity is infernal; Joao's is celestial. The receiving of wealth isn't presented as a pact with the devil, but the miracle of God. Shortly after being given the suitcase full of money, Monteiro dives into the river where a woman is drowning. He has no concern for the cash and after rescuing her returns to the clearing in the woods where the money lies in the open suitcase, and says that he is happy there are honest people in the world: nobody went off with it while he was coming to the rescue.
Central to the idea behind Mephistopheles is the possessive dimension of the deadly sins that the story brings out: lust, pride, greed, envy, sloth, gluttony and wrath. Joao is close to devoid of all of them. In one scene at the convent, Joao piles food high on his plate, only for him to touch none if it as it then gets taken away. The heaped plate looks like it weighs more than he does: it is the ultimate example of one's eyes being bigger than one's belly. Equally he doesn't even lust after the countess: he wants instead to share his world with her, with the sexual a dimension of this sharing. When they make love the first thing he does is bury his head between her thighs, not rapidly thrust himself into her. After she betrays him he isn't vengeful, but sorrowful.
Monteiro is a filmmaker interested in myths and prototypes, then, but he doesn't transpose them wholesale. He finds in them a problem all the more fascinatingly explored by refusing the static nature of the mythological. It is an approach not unlike Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, where the story of Abraham giving his only begotten son to God is turned into an investigation on the problem of faith. Monteiro absorbs the mythical, but all the better to generate existential questions out of the problems of the mythic, and by making not the myth static, but the narrative: to allow the myths to be transformed but the concrete instants to be pronounced. One sees this clearly in the Le Bassin de J. W., which opens with Lucifer the good angel and God the mischievous figure playing havoc with the universe, but it isn't only the inversion that creates the profane: the mise-en-scene adds to it, as we see God with ten beautiful young female angels, presented more as groupies, and with Monteiro like an aging rock star taking one or two at a time upstairs to be serviced. The sequence is shot not only in a long take, but also from a great distance, so that we can hardly make out who is who when God and Lucifer talk. The concrete instant reaches a level of stasis Bazin couldn't have envisaged, with Monteiro profanely playing with myth, but still more profanely playing with time.
Yet playing with time and for time needn't be the same thing, and this is where Monteiro like many a great modern director plays for time, demands an astonishing level of patience in return for making the entire film feel like a concrete instant. One of the achievements of commercial cinema is to make one's time constantly validated by the amount of immediately pertinent information the film gives us. We are given appointments to look forward to, cliffhangers to fret over, character transformations we can see coming, emotional entanglements we can half-predict, and narrative connections whose ingenuity we can admire. But maybe the consequence of all this drama is that the film avoids confronting the problem of time, the ontological surprise of the temporal.
This isn't easy to explain, partly because it isn't easy to do: easy in the sense that there is no formula that releases the film's aesthetic blueprint. In any film there is always an x factor, but in some the x factor seems to represent no more than a small percentage of the work; in others it seems much higher. If most Hollywood films bet on a ratio 2:1; Monteiro consistently asks to be taken as a rank outsider. If there is the carefully worked over script, the various formulas applied, the musical score added, and the preview audience in place, the film does all it can to pass for a safe bet. Certain filmmakers though are gamblers; asking for time to be on their side and not on the formula's. They want to make films possessed of aesthetic and ontological risk. Nobody explains this better than a filmmaker who shared with Monteiro the same producer (Paulo Branco): Raul Ruiz. In Poetics of Cinema he explains how he escapes the expectations of the formulaic thus: "Personally, I have sought to work with stories, fairly abstract ones I admit, using what might be called a pentadulic model. Put more simply, I consider that my protoganists are like a herd of dice...The number of sides to the dice varies from herd to herd - it can be zero, six or infinite - but in each herd this number is always the same." Ruiz explains that "the herds play five different games. They compete against other herds, and in this game the rules of central conflict theory are often observed. But the same herd will sometimes play a game of chance (which is quite natural for dice); and in a third variation, the dice also feign the emotions of fear, anger and joy, donning disguises and playing at scaring each other or making each other laugh." Ruiz concludes: "a fourth game is called vertigo: the aim is to strike the most dangerous pose, threatening the survival of the entire herd. A fifth game might best be called a long-term wager. For instance they'll say something like, "I swear not to change my shirt until Jerusalem falls..."
Out of such an approach time isn't dramatically given, it is found on the filmmakers' own terms. Ruiz is of course a very different filmmaker from Monteiro, as Ruiz is fascinated by stories labyrinthine in their complexity, and where it isn't that time stands still that proves troublesome, but that time moves so fast. He often makes films at a dizzying, accelerated narrative pace, where Monteiro makes films that are 'decelerative', as if always with the breaks still on. What they share though is the presumption that the film time belongs not to the audience's assumptions, but their own preoccupations. We enter into the creative endeavour rather as R. G. Collingwood believes this is exactly what art should offer, as it differentiates itself from craft: what he would call 'art proper' in his book The Principles of Art. "we commonly express this by saying that art doe not tolerate clichs. Every genuine expression must be an original one. However much it resembles others, this resemblance is due not to the fact that others exist, but to the fact that the emotion now being expressed resembles emotions that have been expressed before." Though Collingwood rejects cinema as an art (the book was published in 1937), Monteiro is surely a director looking to access emotions expressed before but refuses to do so in the ready form in which they have previously been channeled. The element of chance in a film that tells a tragic love story where a man dies for his lover's honour, but the lover gives birth to their son months later, and the music tells us that this is an emotionally meaningful moment, is deliberately minimal. The film has orchestrated its story to this end. The chance factor is slim. But if in Le Bassin de J. W., one has the equivalent emotional release, for example when three of the characters dance to a Jacques Brel song, can we explain with the same confidence how the emotion was arrived at? The accumulation of dead time, of sequences where very little happens, and where what happens seems very loosely connected to what came before, nevertheless has been building meaning. But where the mainstream film accumulates its meaning visibly and, perhaps often consequently, with some predictability, Monteiro asks for our forbearance as he refuses to show his method, whilst instead constantly showing us the impact of time. Yet each unit of time in most films that is taken up with events, development of character, actions, arguments, expectations, goals and so on, is often a form of temporal pick-pocketing. It is a means by which the filmmaker can waste our time without us noticing, where in Monteiro's work we start with an empty wallet, wander how we are going to survive, and find by the end we have money in abundance.
Of course not everyone will feel this way watching a Monteiro film, not everyone will believe that the time taken has been given back copiously. That might be central to Monteiro's aesthetic: the risk involved not so much in whether meaning has been conveyed or not, which is part of the gamble, but also in Monteiro's awareness that one person's meaningfulness is another person's time-banditry. This is consistent with an aesthetic experience as subjectivation rather than subjugation. Where in a commercial film we can reject the work, we do so from a position of refusing its subjugating force; in the type of film Monteiro makes we refuse from a position of its failure to generate subjectivating power. One uses the term subjectivating here as an aesthetic variation of what Michel Foucault in essays, lectures and interviews talks about in relation to self-choice. In the Ancients, in Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, Foucault sees not a general meaning in one's experiences, but specific ones available. "The subject and the truth are not bound together here externally, as in Christianity, as if in the grip of a higher power, but as a result of an irreducible choice of existence." In cinematic subjectivation we do not accept or reject the work because it oppresses or pleases us with the certitude of its meaning, but accept or reject it on the basis of the freedom it offers us or the meaning we feel it denies us.
To ground this we might think of three scenes from Monteiro's work. A scene from The Last Dive, from Le Bassin de J. W. and God's Wedding, and how they refuse to subjugate us and potentially create subjectivation instead. In The Last Dive the sequence opens with the deaf Esperanca picking up a jug of water that she pours into the sink as she washes her face, and afterwards we watch as she goes and sits at the table, leaning her head against someone's shoulder. There is no dramatic purpose to this scene as there could have been if the young Samuel who is clearly developing feelings for Esperanca showed signs of jealousy when she leans her head on the shoulder of the man who has earlier persuaded Samuel to defer suicide. But there is nothing in the shot structure to suggest this is the case. If the scene has any 'meaning' at all it would surely reside in the attention Monteiro gives to sound while Esperanca is without hearing. Cinema may only be able to access two of our five senses, but the hearing of sound is one that Esperanca is lacking, and there is something strangely and literally touching when she goes and leans her head on the older man's shoulder. After Esperanca does so the group go out and eat, and afterwards the characters dance in the square, and again no clear throughline appears. Monteiro follows the characters' movements through the city, but creates no categorical responses in the process. There is a moment during the characters' walk where Samuel puts his hand on Esperanca's back, but it is a detail we notice, not a moment the film demands we acknowledge.
In Le Bassin de J. W., there is the beautiful and aforementioned moment quite late in the film where three of the characters dance to Jacques Brel, and we might imagine how this scene could have been worked toward, but its joy is to achieve the affect of cumulative feeling without the working through of the events that are likely to release this emotional response. If we are moved by a character who is dying of cancer and then passes away, with the family around the body in the hospital bed, the music emphasizing the strings, and cuts to various members of the family tearful, then the emotion is unequivocally affective, and often so unequivocal that the affective isn't achieved at all, but the risible out of the forcibly pathetic. The strategies of affect endanger the feeling; but the other extreme is equivocal affect, where we cannot explain how the film has managed to move us, though we are moved. Yet that doesn't make it random either; more that it finds, in Gilberto Perez's always useful formulation, the "appropriateness of its arbitrariness". (The Material Ghost). In Le Bassin de J. W. has something to do with the characters re-enacting a narrative that echoes the central character whose wife was caught in the arms of another man, and who jumps into the Atlantic. But the film is so narratively 'incoherent' that we couldn't claim this as a reason, since we might not be thinking at all of the central character at this moment, and there is no especial narrative reason why we might, as opposed to a film that would show a woman dancing with another man but making it clear that she is thinking of her dead ex-husband. There is a certain ruin of representation, here, taking into account Dorotea Olkowski's remarks in the book of that title when she invokes Bergson. "The movements about to be carried out arise because each affection contains an invitation to act as well as the permission to wait to act, or not act at all. Within affectivity, there is nothing constraining choice. Feeling and sensation affirm this, for they are activated whenever the human being takes the initiative and they fade when behaviour becomes automatic." To achieve affectivity without Pavlovian representation that makes the feeling predictable is in some way to arrive at an affective miracle; the film manages to generate feeling not through cause and effect, but through the temporal accumulation of concrete instants.
By analogy we might think of a day where we go for a walk with friends, with a lover, and nothing happens dramatically, but at the end of the experience as we drive home, or walk back, we're curiously moved by a friend's gesture, a song playing on the radio, mud on someone' shoes, sand between someone's toes. Without the accumulation of the day's concrete instances (that have not at all been dramatic), we would not have been moved by the same image, piece of music, a gesture. Time has given meaning to a representation; time hasn't been used to string together dramatic episodes. Consequently if one is moved by the Brel song and the characters waltzing to it, this doesn't mean we have to justify it narratively; more to accept it temporally. Watched on its own, out of context, with no knowledge of what preceded it and what follows it, one might be impressed but unlikely to be moved, and it isn't because one wouldn't have a narrative context; more because time hasn't been at work on the scene. It is a 'concrete instant', but one of a series, just as our day out has been a series of concrete instances also.
The third example that comes to mind is from Come and Go, and a lengthy sequence lasting twenty minutes and made up of five shots. Like Catherine (Romance, A ma soeur!) Breillat, Monteiro is a great director of the seduction scene, but where for Breillat the interest lies in the oppressiveness of men cajoling women into bed, in Monteiro the purpose is to try and find a combination of the sacred and the profane, acknowledging the beast but equally interested in invoking the awe a woman may inspire. This hardly makes Monteiro politically correct, but it doesn't make him straightforwardly misogynist either. His character talks about being married for twenty three years to a virgin, with the closest he ever got to having sex with her when he slipped a suppository in the wrong orifice while she was ill. Equally the sequence itself is no conventional seduction either. When Joao talks about his wife, here, when he starts talking about the fact that slaves from the past grew unhappy the more freedom they possessed because they could see the freedom they didn't have and how now the poor wish to have slaves of their own, this doesn't exactly add to the seduction. It does however add to the intimate. If many a film will indicate one character getting another into bed through modes of seductive behaviour, Monteiro in more interested in the intimate possibilities of the temporal. Where Breillat combines the seductive with the effect of the temporal as she films the oppressive dimension in conventional seduction with the weight of time in the sequence (often oppressive for the women; frustrating for the men), in Monteiro's work seduction is secondary to intimacy. Details that would add nothing to seduction, as when Joao talks about his wife's illness and the use of suppositories, nevertheless in the sheer time given over to the sequence allows emotional complicity to lead to the intimate. It is as though such an approach is consistent with Monteiro's broader aesthetic, where the purpose isn't in creating teleological thought and feeling (trying to tell a clear story; trying to get a character into bed), but the instants of concrete meaning that can pass for authenticity.
Authenticity was of course a term much used by the existentialists, so much so that Theodor Adorno wrote a book titled the Jargon of Authenticity decrying its use. "In Germany a jargon of authenticity is spoken - even more so, written. Its language is a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homey at once - sublanguage as superior language. The jargon extends from philosophy and theology - not only the Protestant academies - to pedagogy, evening schools, and youth organizations, even to the elevated diction of the representatives of business and administration." Adorno insists "while the jargon overflows with the pretense of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world it officially negates." One uses the word here, though, to attach it to a notion of concrete instants, to show Monteiro seeking a notion of the authentic out of a reaction to the component aspect of much cinema with its clear end-goals. The authentic comes in bringing together this bloody-mindedness with the affective response, yet at the same time not demanding the latter, as many a manipulative director will in the chain of actions created, but flaunting with its unlikelihood and still achieving it. The scene where Esperanca initially dances in The Last Dive, where the characters dance to Brel in Le Bassin de J. W., where Joao dies at the end of Come and Go, are all scenes capable of moving one greatly, but they make a mockery of much cinema, and indeed narrative generally, that insists in the chain of events that will release an emotion.
It is as though Monteiro wonders whether there is something perhaps unique to cinema that allows the eschewal of the chain and yet the release of the feeling. He might accept with Bazin that a certain ontological equality of the image can destroy drama at its base, but this doesn't mean it needs to destroy feeling at all. Instead it makes the feeling unpredictable, surprising, where of course central to many scenes in cinema is that they are predictable, and part of their predictability is pleasurably anticipatory. If we think of the scene from Recollections of The Yellow House that we started with, predictive cinema would ask us to wonder whether this is a minor ailment or a major disease, and create tension gaps between the initial problem, the visit to the doctor, and the consequent results. Instead Monteiro shows the initial problem as merely one of itching, and then shows the doctor saying exactly what it is and prescribing accordingly. No suspense is developed out of it.
So much of our attention here has been focused on the reality of Monteiro's images as the concrete instant becomes documentative more than dramatic, but equally many of Monteiro's images move in the other direction from the real and arrive at the painterly. This is probably most pronounced in Silvestre, a film that utilises front-projection to create a world in which the actors are 'real' but the sets artificial. Part Bluebeard story, part based on a 15th century Portuguese legend, Silvestre resembles Monteiro's earlier period set Veridas but with the influence of Rohmer's Perceval more than Pasolini's work, with the Italian maestro's fascination with harsh landscapes evident in the earlier film. It is as if the latter film wants to explore layers of past myth through the interrogation of landscape and climate, Silvestre creates a sense of stillness in the frame through the fixity of the front-projected images, images that can capture the former but not the latter, since in cinematographer Luis de Almeida words, "the frontal projection system consists of a picture reflected on a screen juxtaposed by the image we're shooting."
Now it is perhaps an underestimated area of film where critics often talk of a film's landscapes but rarely about the climate in which these landscapes are contained, and it is as though if in Veridas Monteiro wanted to capture the climate as much as the landscape, in Silvestre he wondered what would happen if you captured the landscape without the climate. As the sky remains unchanged in each landscape shot, as the sound needn't attend to the wind, the camera to the rain and the harsh sunlight, so like a painter Monteiro can deal exclusively in light and colour, elements climate can play havoc with, but which can also give the film a vivid verisimiltitude. When de Almeida talks of shooting Veridas he mentions the difficulty of the shoot, with the means of transport a small Bedford as they roamed the region in which it is set. Like Pasolini's Oedipus Rex, Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God and the Tavianis' Padre Padrone, one feels the climate working on the film, so that colour and lighting get absorbed into the film's climatic dimensions.
Veridas and Silvestre are flipside works examining the problem of the historically real and the historically painterly in film form, yet like his film on the Snow White fable, which is based chiefly on a black screen with the story in voice-over, the films don't indicate the Monteiroesque, just as Perceval, The Marquis von O and The Lady and the Duke, are exceptions in the Rohmer canon, as Interiors, Another Woman and Alice are in Woody Allen's. This doesn't at all mean there isn't a logic at work that makes sense of them within the oeuvre, but it does mean when one thinks of Rohmer, Allen and Monteiro these are not the films that come to mind. Monteiro's fascination with chivalry, honour, myth, tradition and distressed damsels make sense of films like Silvestre and Veridas, but the main body of the work absorbs these elements into a contemporary milieu and allows the four elements Monteiro's sound designer talks of (the documentary, the self-pity, his love of cinema and his interest in the other arts), to play out. Silvestre is a fascinating example of the concrete instant invoking an art form where the concrete instant is a given of representative art, with the image fixed in a moment. Cinema is ontologically an art form of time and movement, so any attempt at making the instants concrete means working not so much against the form, but finding within it a different emphasis on movement and time. This is why Monteiro's scenes of apparent seduction are very much his own as he refuses to see them as scenes of categorical seducing; more as moments of potential intimacy. If Monteiro's purpose resides anywhere, it would be less with an experimental film like Silvestre where the concrete instants come in the fixity of the landscape against the fore-grounded movement of the actors, but more in the tension between the development of narrative and its forestalling. Monteiro is of course not unique in this, and Godard remains the most significant filmmaker who threatens to generate narrative whilst constantly distrusting it, in creating affect without determining it, but Monteiro is hardly an insignificant figure working in a similar manner. Cinema might be truth twenty four times a second, but those twenty four seconds can pass as quickly or as slowly as the filmmaker wishes, and perhaps the slower they feel the more truthful they can appear.
© Tony McKibbin