The Inner Life of a Film
Looking at the films of Pedro Costa naturally calls up the cinephile experience par excellence: we compare, cross-reference, remember this moment in John Ford or that effect of style in Jacques Tourneur, a cut in Jean-Luc Godard or a superimposition in Jean Epstein, a mood from Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) or the anxious look on the face of a secondary player in Nicholas Ray … Films old and contemporary, classic and maudit.
But this is not just a lazy habit or a customary reflex when it comes to Costa: it is a burning necessity, a question of cinema.
Such lapidary remembering has nothing to do with quotation à la Quentin Tarantino, or the postmodern games of allusion, parody and reworking in so much contemporary narrative filmmaking. In Costa, we reach another, more profound level, a level we associate with Leos Carax or Godard, Werner Schroeter or F.J. Ossang, sometimes Emir Kusturica or Martin Scorsese or Aki Kaürismaki. The poetic cinema of certain filmmakers has been so deeply internalised, we might say so deeply lived (in the imaginary realm) by Costa, that a unique palimpsest has been formed at the intersection of all these visions, all these worlds, all these memories. His signature is that knotted thicket, too tangled, fused and transformed to ever be cleanly separated, now, into its various separate source elements.
From the very first moments of his debut feature Blood, Costa forces us to see something new and singular in cinema, rather than something generic and familiar. The black-and-white cinematography (by Wim Wenders compatriot Martin Schäfer) pushes far beyond a fashionable effect of high contrast, and into something visionary: whites that burn, blacks that devour. Immediately, faces are disfigured, bodies deformed by this richly oneiric work on light, darkness, shadow and staging.
Carl Dreyer in Gertrud (1964) gave cinema something that Jacques Rivette (among others) celebrated: bodies that disappear “in the splice”, (1) that live and die from shot to shot, thus pursuing a strange half-life in the interstices between reels, scenes, shots, even frames. Costa takes this poetic system of light and shade, of appearance and disappearance – the poetic system of Dreyer, F.W. Murnau, Tourneur – and radicalises it still further.
In Costa’s work we see what Raymond Bellour once referred to the “calculated play of the actors seized up as if they were sorts of figures” in Tourneur, subject to strange and unfathomable “ellipses and durations” (2): like the pregnant silence in a scene when Joel McCrea’s stolid back is turned to the camera in Stars in My Crown (1950), or the fine tension when someone walks off, away from the camera, dissolving into the darkness in Out of the Past (1947) …
In Blood, there is a constant, trembling tension: when a scene ends, when a door closes, when a back is turned to camera, will the character we are looking at ever return? People disappear in the splices, a sickly father dies between scenes, transforming in an instant from speaking and (barely) breathing body to heavy corpse.
And if some people do indeed return to the film, what form are they now in? Ghosts, zombies, memory-projections, virtual realities? The ambiguous status of the undead quietly haunts all Costa’s work through to Colossal Youth (2006) and beyond. It is the twilight melancholy of the half-life, but without the high-key sentimental angelism of Wenders’ after-life as portrayed in Wings of Desire (1987) and its lame sequel; Costa’s painting of the half-life takes its cue from the experiences of the poor, the homeless, junkies, the dispossessed.
As in the work of Philippe Garrel, there is something hard, unreconciled, spaced-out in this minimalism, like a brain that is straining to get focus or clarity on some daily, grinding vignette of unspeakable, social horror. Like a blind spot slowly growing, a stain at the heart of vision. And yet the gaze remains staring, rock-solid, unwilling or unable to turn away, like in In Vanda’s Room (2000).
Blood is a special first feature – the first features of not-yet auteurs themselves forming a particular cinematic genre, especially in retrospect. Perhaps it was from Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub’s Class Relations (1984) that Costa learned the priceless lesson of screen fiction, worthy of Samuel Fuller: start the piece instantly, with a gaze, a gesture, a movement, some displacement of air and energy, something dropped like a heavy stone to shatter the calm of pre-fiction equilibrium. To set the motor of the intrigue going – even if that intrigue will be so shadowy, so shrouded in questions that go to the very heart of its status as a depiction of the real.
So Blood begins sharply, after the sound (under the black screen) of a car stopping, a door slamming, footsteps: a young man, Vicente (Pedro Hestnes), has his face slapped. Cut (in a stark reverse-field, down an endless road in the wilderness) to an older man, the father (Canto e Castro). Then back to Vicente: “Do what you want with me.” The father picks up his suitcase (insert shot) and begins to walk off …
The beginning of Colossal Youth also announces, in just this way, its immortal story: bags thrown out a window, a perfect image (reminiscent of, on a surrealist plane, the suitcases thrown into rooms through absent windows, the sign of a ceaseless moving on and moving in, in Raúl Ruiz’s City of Pirates ) of dispossession, of beings restlessly on the move from the moment they begin to exist in the image.
It is something quite different to what Wenders attempted in his best, early films – Alice in the Cities (1974) or Kings of the Road (1976), where Schäfer’s and Robby Müller’s black-and-white cinematography works some of the same harsh defigurations as in Blood. There, in Wenders, the trick was to suspend the film before the trouble of the fiction could even start, float it within the wandering that exists beyond families or identities or sex … But in Costa, the fiction seems to give itself, deliver itself, all at once, instantly, right at the start: the rest of the film will constitute the reverberations, the echoes or ripples of that first blow or displacement … As Costa once expressed it in a Tokyo masterclass: we have to feel the disquiet, the fact that things are not right with the world. (3) Fiction comes in with this disquiet, and doesn’t seek to allay it.
Costa uses fiction, gives it a body, but simultaneously abstracts, hollows out that body into something ghostly and incorporeal: it is a vibrant paradox, and a rare combination in cinema. What this means is that Costa achieves moments that are pure cinema, pure fiction, pure intrigue, while at the same time conserving their mystery, their secret side (“don’t go showing every side of a thing”, cautioned Robert Bresson, advice that Godard subsequently often quotes).
Blood points us towards another remarkable aspect of Costa’s work and its approach to storytelling. All of his films have an intriguing relation to the grand cinematic figure of the encounter. So much classical and modern cinema depends on this encounter: the charged meeting, for the first time, of two people. André Breton’s surrealism depends on it; Hollywood romantic comedy, too. The Nouvelle Vague found its code of spontaneity, at all costs, in the encounter. And so many great films – from Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954) to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) – draw their very life-blood from the mystical, transformative power of encounters.
But, in Costa’s work, something odd has happened to the encounter; it, too, has slipped between scenes, between shots, between events. Even when characters seem to meet for the first time (it is something we find also in Garrel, for instance in Le Vent de la nuit ) we somehow suspect – but not rationally or logically, rather we feel – that they must have met before, that something is already shared between them. Not a romance, not an explosion, but something heavier: something that binds, that obligates, some ethical or moral connection. That’s what Bones (Ossos, 1997) is all about: the tie that binds doctor or social worker to patient, and ultimately even parent to child. Casa de lava (1994), too, is about the mystery of encounter, the mystery of human relation: across class, race, skin colour, personal and cultural history, something has connected two people, something weighty and difficult to bear.
From Blood to Tarrafal, Costa developed a remarkable repertoire of pictorial framings. Strong diagonals, starkly plunging perspectival lines, clusters of shapes and forms boldly defining each image. There is a dynamic geometry – a solidity in angularity – in his compositions. But to avoid the deadly trap of merely static poster-pictorialism, Costa conceives his frames in terms of editing sequences, shot and counter-shot: the effect is truly Eisensteinian (and is reminiscent, too, of Ritwik Ghatak). It stops short of the Baroque effect (of the kind we see in Ruiz or Orson Welles), but the geometry is no less hallucinatory for its Straubian/Eisensteinian/Ghatakian rigour: a constant clash of perspectives, forever mobile, just as Raymond Durgnat once described the clash of “chunks” in a face, muscle against bone, left side against right, eye against cheek, mouth against brow, face as landscape (4) … And who in cinema today is a greater portraitist of the complex human face than Costa? And who could possibly be fonder of those extraordinary, hypnotically asymmetrical faces (Pier Paolo Pasolini faces), where an imperfection opens up a whole landscape of personality, experience and desire?
Blood, being the first in line, is more baroque than what follows: like all first films, it tries to crowd in a little of everything. It goes so far as to incorporate dreamlike sights and sounds from other films – in the distance, through a fog – and even samples a few jolly bars of New Wave ‘80s rock (accordion plus synthesised bass, it’s “This is the Day” by The The) for the wonderful moment of joy when the lovers simply hurry across a road to enter a carnival …
Blood also lays out the terrain that Costa will explore in his subsequent work. To put it in pristinely cinephilic terms: Costa brings together that high-artistic tradition of Murnau and Dreyer with the strangest, most intense part of the so-called popular production from Old Hollywood: Ray’s They Live By Night (1948), with its poetry of loneliness, solitude and nightfall (as well as its menacing bad-guy criminals), looms large over Blood. With, incorporated in the chain of conscious and unconscious allusions, the crucial link between the high art and the low genre: in-between films like Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Moonfleet, always about the confusion of the child as she or he faces the scary adult world.
Like Olivier Assayas’ feverish portraits of youth, or Chantal Akerman’s cooler parables of sexual identity, Costa’s films (especially this first one) tell the tale of subjects ill-equipped to enter the Symbolic Order, undergoing a fraught ritual passage. And couldn’t all Costa’s characters carry the introductory intertitle that Ray gave his young misfits: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in”. Except here it’s a young man (Vicente) and his younger brother, Nino (Nuno Ferreira) – the shard of a family, set adrift to look after each other as best they can. It’s “a hard world for little things”, as Laughton’s film indelibly taught us.
Pedro Costa’s films are easy to love, and hard to interpret. Perhaps they are easy to love because they are so hard to interpret. They do not give themselves up to us simply or quickly. Their mystery, their secretiveness, is not something contrived, not something sprayed onto the film like a mood or an affectation (as is so often the case). What we see, growing in each of his films, and also across them, is a strange inner life. (5) It is rare for films to exhibit an inner life – which has nothing (or not much) to do with the inner psychology of characters, or the enigmatic moves of a plot.
Films that have this quality unfailingly rearrange their pieces, redistribute their elements in the spectator’s mind over time – with repeated viewings only prolonging and enhancing this movement. It is as if each cinematographic unit – each shot, each block of sound, each gesture, each landscape – sends tendrils into some unseen deep-perspectival space of the text, a space at once wholly imagined and fantastically concrete; these tendrils then meet, touch, interweave, creating new logics, new connections, new pockets of worlds. Costa’s visual dynamics undoubtedly create the most visible piece of the architecture of this inner, living film: the lines of flight burst out of each image, yet at the same time they burrow in, to do another kind of busy, termite-like work.
Rivette (again) intuited this cell-like construction in Elia Kazan, and Jean-André Fieschi traced it in Murnau (6); today we have the rich examples of Víctor Erice, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang … But Pedro Costa, more than any of these fine filmmakers, brings his rich poetic intution of the logics of worlds (Alain Badiou’s book title) to bear upon the smallest, most local, most intractable zone of the real world he inhabits: not for him – not yet, at least – the high-flying global cosmopolitanism (Wong Kar-wai-style) of much contemporary cutting-edge cinema. Costa turns in a slow circle in the place where he stands in Portugal (or locked in a room in France for his Straub-Huillet film), and takes stock; but he is not a realist like some other proud localists such as the Dardennes (and doesn’t their film The Child  exist in a relation of delayed dialogue with Ossos?).
Costa burrows deep into the psychic-imaginary space that opens up before him within that small patch of familiar ground, that street or milieu, just as Abel Ferrara or Monte Hellman or Garrel do; he takes us through a profound anamorphosis – a movement of transformation that leaves nobody or nothing untouched, while still retaining the murky half-light of the world’s penumbra.
Postscript: My close analysis of a scene from Blood appears (in both English and Spanish) as the first instalment of an ongoing series (in collaboration with Cristina Álvarez López) titled “The Moves” in Transit (29 October 2013).
2. Raymond Bellour (trans. Dana Polan), “Believing in the Cinema”, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Psychoanalysis & Cinema (Routledge/American Film Institute, 1990), p. 98. The original 1986 essay, “Croire au cinéma”, has been reprinted (with abundant screenshots) in Bellour, Pensées du cinéma (Paris: P.O.L, 2016), pp. 30-43; citation from p. 31. back
4. See Raymond Durgnat, Films and Feelings (MIT Press, 1967). back
5. This term, suggested to me in personal correspondence by Kent Jones, originally derives from scattered remarks (“a secret preoccupation with linking, a connections business involving people, plots, and eight-inch hat brims”) in Manny Farber’s 1969 essay “Howard Hawks” – see Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (The Library of America, 2009), pp. 653-657; quotation is from p. 654. back
6. Jacques Rivette, “L’art du présent”, in Textes critiques, pp. 227-229; Jean-André Fieschi, “F.W. Murnau”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema – A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 704-720. back
© Adrian Martin July-September 2007 / December 2009-February 2010