Put your money on that horse

[To my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

2014 was the year of Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), by Pedro Costa. It was the only film looking us in the eyes: from a miserable surrounding cinematic landscape. A few lines inviting to explore one of the most complex works of contemporary cinema. A more ambitious essay would have to consider questions as the place of statues, the choice of buildings filmed by Costa, Portuguese history or the central presence of photography in the film. First impression, it might seem a strange element in this blog, but it is interesting to include here something about a truly different director. At least to begin the year exorcising the bad spirits inhabiting Malick’s work (laughter). Latter we will find time to dig into his garbage. What can I say? If it does not interest you, skip it.


“From Vanda’s room one does not get out anymore.” (J. B. da Costa)

Watch Ventura questioned by the doctor. This film is metacinematic in a more ludic fashion than most of Costa’s work and La jetée (1962) might be remembered in order to understand its play. Ventura, a man whose world is a ruin (Fontainhas no longer exists, his Cape Verde is lost forever), is admitted into a hospital-prison of infinite corridors built by Costa, somehow the doctor-scientist-priest of this therapy-experiment-ritual. Contrarily to Marker’s, this experiment does not send the patient to the past, it brings the past (or pasts) to confront the present. Ventura and the soldier locked up in the elevator.

There are films where the actors have the opportunity to fictionalize themselves. Particularly with Swanson and Stroheim, is not Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) one? Costa, in the tradition of docufiction, makes the gap between the character and the person behind the mask shorter, he even leaves to the actor part of the craft of his own mask and role. This play is a partnership and agreement between actor(s) and director, model and painter: You tell me things; We will find a way of telling those things, or something to do with them. But this is still far from Horse Money. And to say this could be called Inside Ventura is not enough.  
At times we feel that the border between actor (Ventura) and director (Costa), priest and victim, is not at all defined. Identities are not stable in Horse Money, it would suffice to remember Vitalina assuming the role of a doctor (a scene that for moments brought Persona to my mind). One who does not know anything about the film or Costa might even think that Ventura (according to the director he is indifferent to cinema) is actually the director or his alter-ego. It is both with psychodrama and the great classics of self-staging authorship, from Cocteau to Monteiro, that Horse Money finds its family. And only compared with these traditions one can admire its novelty and greatness. At times we ask ourselves if Costa is not trying to be possessed by Ventura in order to produce his friend’s own film, to offer him his own mirror to cross and inhabited a zone made of his own memory, particularly the cinematic. And also if Ventura did not permit Costa to confront the camera and paint the most complex image of his own work. If cinema does not try the impossible, for what then?
“Save me!” (Blood, 1989). “You’re on the road to perdition” (Horse Money). Does Horse Money have a therapeutic value? Does it exorcise anything at all? It begins with a succession of Jacob Riis’s photographs. People living in New York slums around 1900. An answer to this opening occurs in the middle of the film, with a sequence of shots from a Cape Verdian neighborhood accompanied by a Creole song about the lives of the immigrants. The sequence ends in an almost Caligarian alley where the man in the blood-red shirt reappears, descending a staircase holding his knife, searching for Ventura. First, the music and the images of the almost immobile inhabitants permits a somehow redeeming moment, a breath of air; then, Vitalina and the man, the return of the nightmare (fantastic the coincidence of red in the underwear, shirt and motorcycle). The song told us about a bright future when the immigrants will “come back” to their homeland to live their days of heaven, but what comes back is the past, or its demons. A bloody wound following Ventura, following the film. With it finally sits down Horse Money. (Is this beginning strange to the credits of Terrence Malick’s second film?)
Although parallels between the cinema and dreams are a commonplace, rarely was a film capable of giving its spectators the atmosphere of one. Dreyer was pretty close with Vampyr (1932). As a film-nightmare, Horse Money goes at least as far as Dreyer. (A great deal of this power relies in the extraordinary treatment of scenarios. Horse Money fuses some 2000 years of architecture to create Ventura’s prison.) And the film’s last shot seems a clear answer to any possibility of escape. We are in a never-ending nightmare echoing through the corridors of history.
So, we might well ask the stupid question: why? Costa himself says he does not like to do films like this. There is something of the order of addiction at stake. A wound one cannot heal and feels the need to expose, to explore.
One thing we can say: if there is no way out from this community of nightmare-dreamers for Ventura or Costa, there is neither for us. Put your money on that horse.



No one cares about reality anymore: thoughts on the trailer of Knight of Cups

[To my review of The Tree of LifeThe Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]

“Before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you’ve come to the right party.” (Sunset Boulevard)

Knight of Cups is a movie about the movie world. An old and important genre where we find Sunset Boulevard, Sullivan’s Travels, A Star Is Born, In a Lonely PlaceThe Barefoot Countessa, Le Mépris, Mulholland Drive, just to mention some particularly well-known and important examples of an enormous list, that can be divided, at least apparently, in films about the old days (Singing’ in the Rain, Inside Daisy Clover, The Last Tycoon) and the present ones (not to mention the days to come).

The photographer taking a shot in Sunset Boulevard. Suggestion: read what I wrote the last post about cinepilia and photography.

There is an even bigger list containing all movies about what is behind some curtain: in theater, painting, advertising; and politics, love, etc. Conclusion? The curtain, the veil, defines this genre: if there isn’t one, you can’t discover the “whole truth.”

Badlands: Palm trees and a river/canal running through them.

The impression from this poorly inspired trailer (by Malick himself?) is that Knight of Cups might offer a different kind of filmic experience in some respects. How different? After all, the trailer speaks about the palm trees (of Los Angeles, I suppose), those that tell you that “anything is possible” and palm trees already appeared in Badlands, in one of Holly’s stereoscopic cards: “Where would I be this very moment if...?” In The Thin Red Line we saw them again, through Private Bell’s eyes.

Apocalypse in Hollywood?

Regarding this coincidence, a story should be told: once there was a young director who debuted with a film about Holly...wood, Badlands.
Kit (not to speak of Holly) is, at some level, a product of the factory of dreams, an imitator of James Dean obsessed with fame and living in a world of his own where pulling the trigger is apparently not very different of lighting a cigarette. So if this first film showed us a rather ironic portrait of a movie-fan (who happened to be a serial-killer), this one is about the life of a movie-maker (someone involved in the process of which results a film).


Got the joke?

We can look behind the screen (Knight of Cups, supposedly), show what’s in front of it (Badlands, apparently), or contemplate what’s on the very screen. This third case, the specular film, the film about the film, inevitably contains the second (the director’s filmic memory). It might not seek to represent the object of the first (Fellini’s 81/2, another essential reference, does), at least as a material reality, but works playing these three keys of the piano are not rare (Singing’ in the Rain, for example). Of course that the “whole truth” can be that what’s in the back is what’s in the front: spectacle and speculum, the director’s and ours.

Cinema is strange, lot of people take it for a game... Place your bets! I leave you just a guess about the statue: Cocteau. I am going to restrain myself not to tell you about the rest. One film about the movie world is called The Player...

Already The Tree of Life contained something new with those computer generated dinosaurs, in particular. It will now be interesting to see how Malick will appropriate himself of an universe of delirious artificiality, not only interior, but exterior to the camera. Is our architect learning from Las Vegas? At times the trailer sounds like the last days of Sodom by MTV. How will the metacinematic character of Malick’s work be affected? Will it become more explicit and traditional? Next year we will know.

La dolce vita