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Our Beloved Month of August

(Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 2008)


 

A Documentary Fantasy

 

It starts like this: with a bunch of roosters running about together, watched hungrily by a fox who eventually pounces, breaking up the feathery gathering. A strange, off-hand, not-at-all ominous prologue: nothing like the scorpions at the start of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), nothing symbolic or allegorical or prophetic about it in terms of the human story to follow. More like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s abrupt pre-credit apparitions: what he called an im-sign, a floating, unstitchable piece of brute camera-reality.

 

If this opening is a key or clue to anything, it signals the incredible life that teems through Miguel Gomes’ second feature, Our Beloved Month of August: children, rivers, animals, old people, trucks, dancing, motorcycles, a newspaper printing press, day breaking and night falling … and, above all, stories and songs, re-told and re-performed for (no doubt) the thousandth time.

 

 It takes courage to make a film about popular music not in its glamorously resistant, underground forms, but music of the most everyday, ordinary kinds: religious parades, karaoke, a marching band, all-night accordion parties, radio programs, and middle-of-the-road cover bands who favour sentimental ballads of the Julio Iglesias style. But maybe even if you don’t love this music before you see the film, you will admire it afterwards …

 

There is a production story that comes with this film, circulated in Festival catalogues and press kits. We would call it a behind-the-scenes story, if what is supposedly behind the scenes was not also in the scenes … and here something puzzling begins to take shape.

 

The production story says that Gomes came to Arganil (in Portugal) during the popular holiday season (August), with a massive script for a fiction film (we see how big it is, there on a table), and a small crew. Unable to fully realise his vision for this film, he nonetheless hung around and began to film the real life of this time and place, like a documentarian or anthropologist or ethnographer: following in particular (as I have indicated) the ever-mutating trail of a folk musical culture, which expands to provide the picture of an entire migratory world, full of tourists, visitors, strangers who came and stayed … And it is this material Gomes eventually mixed with the traces of the fiction that he managed to get on film. (1)

 

Is this story true, or just too good to be true? We can never tell, very precisely, where the fiction ended and the reality began in this process, or even which of them came first. Certainly, everything to do with the ‘making-of’ (and of course the film project inside the film is also called Our Beloved Month of August) – what the French call la fabrique – seems perfectly artificial, as in the droll scenes of confrontation between the director and his irritated producer.

 

A specific scene is emblematic in this regard: a local girl comes to visit the members of the film crew, who are in the process of playing a game of quoits. The girl (in a long shot/long take) goes from one person to another, seeking to know “who do I ask?” to be an actor in the film (since a casting call has been made public); she goes from the sound man to the production manager to, finally, the director – but this social ritual is already a comedy, almost Tati-like, since all these people are standing very close to each other to begin with. Eventually, the girl strikes a deal with Gomes: if she can throw well as part of their game, she is in the film. That cues a beautiful, momentous cut: the girl throwing, everybody around her intently watching, the sound of where her gesture ends up signalling an off-screen we will never see. But we know the result, intuitively: she will be in the film they are making (indeed, she will be the heroine’s ‘best friend’ figure). It’s like a game of Snap: the trap or the lure of the fiction suddenly seizes the unfolding fragment of reality – even if that reality was completely scripted and staged to begin with.

 

It doesn’t matter, ultimately, how the film came about, how natural or contrived it may be. What matters is its brilliant game of pieces, of levels, of ‘panels’ as in a particularly ingenious art gallery installation or dispositif – where everything that is cinematic in this set-up depends on the inventive art of transitions. The film is always moving us along, jumbling us up, spacing us out in simple but ingenious ways, through the de-phasing and superimposition of image and sound. A person tells a story about their life, and about the music that is bound up in it; but usually, once we hear that music (or not long after) the film switches to some other scene, and the music continues to play over it for quite a long time (the radio station scene, early on, provides for the matricial model for this switching-circuit).

 

Meanwhile, intriguing, unforced rhymes and echoes between pieces proliferate: for instance, the shadows of two teenagers goofing around in front of the lights of a car is answered by the shadows of two filmmakers posing at dusk; the real night sky is answered by the artificial one in a girl’s bedroom. The overall effect is dreamy, hypnotic, fascinating, setting the heart and the mind racing equally – and it lays the groundwork for the final, elaborate end-credit gag (worthy of Frank Tashlin), when Gomes confronts his sound-man for always recording (as in Godard’s Sauve qui peut) a musical soundtrack that cannot be directly heard in situ. It’s the documentary of a fantasy …

 

It takes a very long time – about 75 minutes – for the fiction, as such, to kick in. It is the love story between the young singer Tânia (Sónia Bandeira) and her guitarist cousin Helder (Fábio Oliveira), members of the band Estrelas do Alva – and the constraining, ambiguous complications caused by Tânia’s close relationship with her father, Domingos (Joaquim Carvalho), who is also the band’s leader. Before that point, we are introduced to the supposedly real people of Arganil who play these roles: Tânia in her job as fire guardian in a tower, Helder as able sportsman and amateur rock musician.

 

And we see the love story start here, on this level or register: and with perfect corniness, as the amorous couple is seen through the binocular-vision point-of-view shot previously introduced to convey the work of the roaming fire brigade (the fire truck introduced, in a superb transition, by a child’s fond, heroising drawing) … But fiction, really, has been poised to seep in, poised to strike (like that fox), from the very start, in practically the first line of the first song we hear: “Oh, what saudade …” – that particular form of Portuguese melancholia played out in the endless lyric tales of love and loss, abandonment and betrayal, jealousy and death.

 

Our Beloved Month of August is not so long by contemporary standards – a mere 147 minutes – but one will still hear the usual normative grumbles that it’s ‘too long’, that it could have been ‘tightened’, that it could have easily ‘lost an hour in editing’ and still amounted to the same film. Not so. It’s a film that needs time to roam between its different levels, to slowly find its fictional register (so subtly, just as it seems to have comfortably become a documentary alone), to move in and out of its different zones (hence the running gag of the making-of-the-film-within-the-film in all its fantastication or fabulation) …

 

Is every important, progressive film of today a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943)? Almost every Pedro Costa film, for instance, seems to return to it; and ghosts or zombies of every material sort seem to stalk or sleepwalk through the work of Albert Serra, Lisandro Alonso, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr … But Our Beloved Month of August takes us back to a very particular moment of Tourneur’s masterpiece: the scene in which the previously subservient, glad-handing, guitar-strumming, nightclub entertainer with the wonderful name of Sir Lancelot breaks his subaltern role and strides forward to gleefully accuse the drunken, guilty white man with his deceptively lilting ditty: “Woe is me / Shame and scandal in the family …”

 

Gomes gives us a more raucous and combative version of this scene. Indeed, it is a literal combat – a combat song (like a ghetto combat dance) phrased and performed as a call-and-response epic of mounting drama and histrionics. With true documentary intensity, Gomes renders this seemingly improvised performance with a simple pan from one side of the war to the other, from one side of the room to the other, within a long take: a drunken local man sings out his provocations about the suspicious father-daughter relationship (and the missing mother), cheered on by his tribe and backed by the accordion troupe we have witnessed in an earlier part of the film, and is answered with a like-spirited provocation. Sir Lancelot and his troupe in Tourneur’s film scampered away at the split second when their taunting game stood to be revealed; here, however, there is no such relief or escape route – at least until the drunkard is unceremoniously evicted. It is an extraordinary scene – raising the temperature and seriousness of the unfolding mosaic – ended only by Tânia’s abrupt, embarrassed exit from this space filled to bursting with music and community tension.

 

Our Beloved Month of August builds to an amazing, climactic moment of cinema: after the love story has reached its point of dramatic crisis, we see Tânia from the back, next to her father, as Helder gets on a bus, leaving her life forever. Then she turns, and she is crying; but, almost as soon as we have registered the deep, searing pathos of this, her tears turn into a kind of mad, uncontrollable laughter. This is not only a triumph of mood mixture, a profound emotional switch worthy of Jean Renoir: as the laughter continues, it is not only this woman who transforms, but the fiction itself which dissolves. Leaving only those thin, permeable barriers which will take us once again through a documentary im-sign (the printing press, but one that ‘prints the legend’ as Gomes says in homage to John Ford and Liberty Valence), to the final comedy of the filmmaking process itself, as the credits identify in turn each member of the crew involved in the fancy of arguing about the phantom sound …

 

I have heard the complaint that Our Beloved Month of August is not real cinema, but an instance of a odd, disconcerting, perhaps dissatisfying new form of paracinema, namely: cinema of the art gallery, destined (or maybe better reworked) to be arranged across the variegated panels of digital photo-stills or computer display screens. This has been said, in various ways, of the cinema work of Philippe Grandrieux (‘a series of beautiful startling images – but where is the cohering cinematic structure?’), of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (which also wanders between the conjured levels of documentary and fiction, film and video, before-the-camera and behind-the-scenes, in Syndromes and a Century and Worldly Desires) and, a little earlier, of Abbas Kiarostami (in Taste of Cherry  and The Wind Will Carry Us) – all filmmakers who have indeed taken the step (alongside Ruiz, Akerman, Costa and others) of moving from cinema into gallery works and back again.

 

Doubtless, such impatient evaluations of Our Beloved Month of August are prompted by the background information that Gomes is part of Portugal’s current ‘experimental auteur scene’ (alongside Sandro Aguilar – his producer here – and João Pedro Rodrigues, channelling the departed free-radical spirit of João César Monteiro), and that he has dabbled in film theory and criticism. But such complaints miss what is innovative, indeed revelatory, about this great new film.

 

The great Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser once mused (in his book The Shape of Things, about issues of design) on the difference between a screen wall and a solid wall – for him, the convenient key (like so many mundane, everyday phenomena, of the kind that Gomes also alights upon) to understanding our civilisation and its discontents. The solid wall marks, for Flusser, a neurotic society – a society of houses and thus ‘dark secrets’, of properties and possessions. And of folly, too, because the wall will always be razed, in the final instance, by the typhoon or the flood or the earthquake. But whereas the solid wall gathers and locks people in, the screen wall – incarnated in history variously by the tent, the kite or the boating sail – is “a place where people assemble and disperse, a calming of the wind”. It is the site for the “assembly of experience”; it is woven, and thus a network.

 

It is only a small step for Flusser to move from the physical, material kind of screen to the immaterial kind: the screen that receives projected images, or (increasingly) holds computerised, digital images. From the Persian carpet to the Renaissance oil painting, from cinema to new media art: images (and thus memories) are stored within the surface of this woven wall. A wall that reflects movement, but itself increasingly moves within the everyday world: when I was a little child and once dreamed of taking a cinema screen (complete with a movie still playing loudly and brightly upon it), folding it up and putting in my pocket so I could go for a stroll, I had no idea it was a predictive vision of the future, the mundane laptop computer or mobile phone.

 

For a long time, cinema has seemed to be inextricably wed to the solid walls of halls, theatres, cinematheques, and now hi-tech home theatres. Wed to dark rooms and their Gothic dark secrets, to assemblies and pre-programmed public events. Our Beloved Month of August, in its own, remarkable vision of an ‘expanded cinema’, a cinema of multiple panels or screens interacting in space and time, frees the viewers’ minds and lets their emotions roam: through documentary and fiction, through music and travelogue, through drama and comedy, through the plaintive directness of eternal pop culture and the Baroque convolutions of modernism and postmodernism. Of course, it is literally not a museum installation, not a new media piece. It’s an old-fashioned film that gets projected from start to end in a linear fashion, that truly takes you on the passionate journey that every, lesser movie promises to do – but also manages to multiply that journey and the entry-points that we, as spectators, take into it.

 

Moreover – and this is key – Our Beloved Month of August matches its form to its subject in a startlingly rich way: in this film about music and family (as well as about itself), what counts as liberatory is not the wall that shut things in and gives them an illusory fixity and identity, but the fluctuating experience that happens when people “assemble and disperse” (as they literally do, dancing, in a long-held early image), and when the wind is mobilised, calmed and unleashed by the ‘soft machine’ of cinema.

 

Dedicated to the memory of Nika Bohinc (1979-2009), who commissioned it for her final issue of Ekran (Slovenia).

 

NOTE

(1) There are many ‘big lies’ wrapped up in this production story, as Gomes helpfully explains in this interview. back

MORE Gomes: Tabu

© Adrian Martin November 2008


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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