Why do we watch movies? Or rather, what do we watch them for? What do we want out of them? These are the types of questions I ask from time to time, not really ever expecting to articulate a good enough, general answer.
Recently, there has a bit of a debate going on amongst film critics about the so-called “cultural vegetables” problem. I’ll spare you an overview, except to say that some are using it as an excuse to disregard certain films and others are counter-arguing that it over-classifies films into false categories that deter people from considering them.
I give this context to begin to start to think about this film. Pedro Costa is given the moniker of “slow” and “demanding”. Others, of course, would simply call this “boring”. Yet, very few people seem to attempt to argue that films of these descriptions are unaccomplished or, more bluntly, bad. This tells me that it may be a matter of taste rather than opinion. Which may be part of the problem. These two things are not necessarily one and the same. Everybody has their own personal tastes, which they should not have to defend or apologize for. Yet, not everyone can distinguish this from their personal opinion. Yes, our opinions are informed by own tastes and we can never really, completely separate our own perspective from our critical faculties, but one can consider multiple opinions at once….One can appreciate a film and not like it, etc.
This film is perhaps not the best to choose. I think it is an interesting construction. It revolves around an impoverished group of people in Lisbon who apparently have no prospects in life and no desire to care for themselves, let alone a newborn child that arrives. There is some sleeping (or just laying around), there is a lot of staring at the ground, there is some cleaning work, there is some scrounging for food. There are some suicide attempts. There’s not much of a traditional story here. So, I did not like it much while I was watching it. I do not mean to make it of it an exemplary specimen of my tastes. I simply chose it because it is a film that I found myself wanting to have seen, but not necessarily watch (if that makes any sense). Everything I’ve read about Costa makes me not want to expect to “enjoy” his movies. I have had similar reservations about, say, Bela Tarr, or making myself sit through Jeanne Dielman, viewing them more as chores to the canon than actual enjoyable experiences. Yet, I am still curious about their effects. I like to read about the positives people find in them. And this, in turn, makes me question my preconceptions (while knowing that I rarely misread the tastes of some of these same critics who I have come to formulate a comparison with my own).
This particular film is constructed in a way where you are given no expositional information. You simply follow the bodies around and learn the lean semblance of a plot from the seeming crisis in their lives (which revolves around an unwanted newborn child). Yet, the direction is curious in that it almost taunts the audience with its lack of emotion from its ‘non-professional actors’. I can see some comparing the style to Bresson because of this, but I’m not sure if that comparison alone should give merit to the film or not.
Inevitably, I found myself more interested as the film progresses, as I got more involved in figuring out the characters and attempting to figure out their motivations. But the film isn’t really interested in building character. Whatever it has to say is done through actual cinematic devices (I noticed a lot of re-occuring camera shots and actor blocking). And this is where I find that I re-learn something that I already knew about myself and my own taste. I am drawn to character; to the interaction of people. This is usually accomplished with dialogue and emotive gesture. So, I am drawn to strong, interactive dialogue and, well, movement.
This film has very sparse dialogue and very little emotion from the actors (there is a brief moment of smile and laughter near the end of the film that comes like a taunt and quickly disappears). All of the character building is done through subtle, interpretative gesture and through the camera and editing. There is also very little music (though when a Wire song briefly plays on a stereo it is all the more noticeable).
The film is deliberately constructed in a way that you must do the work of connecting the interactions between characters. Reviewing parts of the film again to grab my screenshots provided here, I found myself slightly more interested in the film. Like my viewing of Hadewijch last year, it seems that the second viewing would be more enjoyable than the first. This happens to me a lot. I won’t enjoy a movie, but force myself to finish it. Then, if I think about (and more specifically about what I didn’t like and why) I am drawn back into it. Sometimes I’ll even watch part of it again. Then, while I don’t necessarily enjoy it completely, I find my impression becomes less negative. So, now I find myself looking forward to watching Colossal Youth (though I know I’ll have to be “in the right mood” for it). Perhaps, this is some form of cinema-masochism?
Part of my problem, which I assume I share with many others, is with the physical context in which a film is viewed. If I had the opportunity to see this in a theatre, I would be more inclined to want to pay attention without distraction. At home, it is harder to maintain the spell, because I may be reminded that I have the psychological power to end it (granted one can walk out of a film at the theatre, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that). I’d like to think that this isn’t so much a matter of cultural vegetables as it is of my simply wanting to see more than I actually can/should. There are whole pathways of cinema that I have yet to sample and I have seen a lot. My inherent curiosity and drive for cinematic consumption makes me want to travel those paths (the maps of which are much more accessible thanks to the Internet). I do not necessarily think most of these films (if any) will better my existence if I do so. So, I suppose it can just be a matter of food for food’s sake, whether some are cultural vegetables or not? I rather like the taste of most vegetables anyway…