By Michael Guillén
Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa - a traveling retrospective organized by Lisbon's Ricardo Matos Cabo - launched at Toronto's Cinematheque Ontario and has since traveled on to the Vancouver International Film Center, Manhattan's Anthology Film Archives, the REDCAT in Los Angeles, the Harvard Film Archive, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center, Seattle's Northwest Film Forum, Rochester's George Eastman House, the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and recently the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California.
Pedro Costa was artist in residence at UC Berkeley as a Regent's Lecturer, sponsored by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and - along with the series (coordinated for PFA by Kathy Geritz) - delivered the annual Regents' Lecture. For over 50 years, this prestigious program has brought to the University individuals distinguished in the arts, letters, sciences, and business whose careers are outside of academia.
Daniel Kasman logged notes on the entire series when it hit Manhattan. Dennis Lim likewise previewed the series for the New York Times while Manohla Dargis focused in on Colossal Youth. The same one-two punch was delivered at the Village Voice, where Ed Halter previewed the series and his then-cohort Nathan Lee wrote up Colossal Youth. Scott Foundas previewed the series for LA Weekly when it played REDCAT, as did the Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough when it came to Harvard. After watching the series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote up his thoughts for the Chicago Reader.
Though nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the film's critical response at that festival could almost be described as hostile, as noted at GreenCine Daily. Perhaps there's something to be said for seeing a film in proper context, which this retrospective admittedly redresses?
My thanks to Kathy Geritz, Susan Oxtoby and Shelley Diekman for arranging time for me to sit down with Costa to discuss the series.
James Quandt has written that this traveling retrospective "acts as both primer and corrective, introduction and redress." Having traveled around with the retrospective to several cities in both Canada and the United States, have you found this to be true? Has the interaction with your audiences served to wake them up to your work?
Well, "waking them up" is perhaps too much. It has been a different experience because mostly in Europe the films are shown isolated, each one on their own, so they have no relation to each other like here in San Francisco or in Toronto, where the films have been screened daily, nearly in chronological order. In that sense, it's more interesting. Audiences make their own montage. They make their own associations, which is good.
I like retrospectives. When I was young, I had the chance of seeing a lot of films by, let's say, Japanese filmmakers - 15 films by Ozu - every day I saw them. With these great films from classic filmmakers, of course each film makes you want to see the next one and it produces your own idea of the filmmaker, of his themes or styles. It's great but it's also difficult because retrospectives in themselves are a difficult set-up.
Let's go back to the beginning, to your first film O Sangue. I can see why in your introduction you characterized O Sangue as a "safe" movie by comparison to your later films, "full" of cinema, "protected" by cinema. You insinuate the danger that was yet to arrive in your later work. What was it you learned from making O Sangue that helped you approach that danger?
It's not exactly O Sangue because - even if it's full of ghosts and demons and dreams, bad dreams most of all - the shooting on that film was quite usual. As I said, it was a first film for a lot of us, especially the actors, so it was rather a strange, very nice moment, a long succession of nights shooting with these big lights and everything. It was a kind of enchanted moment. You can see that, you can feel that in the film probably? All those nights in the park with the river and all of that. So it wasn't exactly this film; it was more Ossos, the following [film].
I did film school and just after that I had four or five years of [working] as an assistant to the producer/director. I did a lot of things from just getting sandwiches for the actors to picking [them] up [and driving them to location]. Those five years just before this film, that was the period where I saw a lot of things that I didn't like. I chose film or cinema; but then I had this experience of the hard reality of making films. What I saw was very bad. I did a lot of films - maybe 20 or 30 - as an assistant and each one of them were mirrors of the worst parts of society, from power relations to all the worst part of our organization as human beings. I was a bit afraid that this work could become the rest of my life because I saw a lot of directors collapsing, failing, afraid, usually in very bad situation[s]. It was all about money or about lacking time. As I was assistant director, my job was to say, "Calm down. Everything's all right"; but I saw that everything was collapsing. That's what an assistant director does more or less, is to calm down the paralytics. It's a phony job actually, at least in Europe.
Then I had this moment in my film where I tried to avoid a lot of things. I think we succeeded. We had a very good crew. We did this film in five weeks. It was very quick and hectic with a lot of lighting. We had no time to rehearse with the young boys. There were a lot of locations. Because I was a little bit experienced with this kind of organization, we managed through it, but it was more a sensing or feeling [of] what the secret of making a good film could be - not the film itself - but the way you make it; the way you live it. It took me many films and many experiences to get to that point, to get things more or less right, as I feel I have now. Now, the film and the way we live the film during the making has begun to balance. I feel I have achieved a certain balance between being behind and in front of the camera. Here [in O Sangue], though there were not a lot of production problems, there is still a lot of me in front of the camera. The balance is not right, correct. It's more [that] everything was a means to an end.
In some ways, I had to pay my debt to a lot of dead people and a lot of films that I liked. This was the way of finishing with that also. What I like about O Sangue is this sense of the long night of childhood that embraces a lot of films that were made and a lot of American books [that I read]. I'm remembering this now while I'm here, but there was a writer that I loved, Flannery O'Connor, and probably the title [of O Sangue] comes from O'Connor. I think I stole some things - like the [relationship of the] boy and the uncle - from one of her books, The Violent Bear It Away.
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