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Pedro Costa, almost by chance at the Montreal Inter-
national Festival of New Cinema and New Media in
October 2001. I was drinking a cup of coffee in the
lobby of the Cinema Ex-Centris, and I noticed that it
was playing in a theater just a few feet away. I hadn't
noticed it in the catalogue. It was part of a special
Portuguese cinema program, and I am always leery o|-
these national cinema sections in festivals. Don't they^
just provide a showcase for movies thataren't eood
A scene from Colossal Youth;
Pedro Costa (above)

56 FILMCOMMENT March-April 2007

enough for the festival's tnain sectioti? But
there wasn't anything else to see at that
particular time, and I had nothing else to
do. It had already started, but I could
watch it for a few minutes and then catch
the movie I'd planned to see later. I missed
that other movie, whatever it was. I was
almost immediately transfixed by In
Vanda's Room. 1 had the impression that I
was seeing the future of movies. It was the
first movie shot on digital video that didn't
make me wish ir had been shot on film. I
didn't know then that Costa had gathered
140 hours of images and sounds from
which he culled these three hours, but it
was evident enough that he had spent a lot
of time with the people in the movie.
/ Vanda's Room (00) is a patient
work. Once upon a time, this kind of
patience was possible for documentary
filmmakers using 16mm cameras, and
some great works were created. I think
Immediately of An American Family by DOES IN VANDA'S ROOM AESTHETICIZE POVERTY?
Alan and Susan Raymond, Seventeen by
Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott, and the
Sanrizuka films of Shinsuke Ogawa, doc- THAT THIS IS ITS GREATEST VIRTUE.
umenting the peasant resistance to the friend Geny. She gives him some medicine, either side. In every encounter recorded by
construction of Narita Airport outside he gives her some flowers. There is a soli- Costa, there is a dignity and formality that
Tokyo. But film was cheaper then. Now darity, even a love, that is palpable. Pre- suggests Vanda and her friends are playing
this patience is only possible for those sumably, Costa could only have recorded themselves, not simply being themselves.
who work with video cameras. these moments with an unassuming, light- Costa ennobled them by taking great care
/ Vanda's Room is also an intimate weight camera. But, of course, the inti- with the images, exercising the same pains a
work, a chamber drama, as the title macy of the movie is not simply a matter Hollywood cameraman would lavish on
announces. 1 took it as documentary, but a of technique. There must have been a close Gwyneth Paltrow or Uma Thurman, That's
documentary of unprecedented candor, mutual respect and friendship between not quite right: throughout In Vanda's
the kind of movie Kieslowski claimed is Costa and the people he filmed. Room^ there are interpolated close-ups as
impossible because "there are spheres of Jean-Louis ComoUi and Gilles Deleuze beautiful as any in cinema.
human intimacy in which one cannot enter claimed that many of the most significant With this work on the image, Costa
with a camera." Costa had found his way documentary films of the past 40 years have reinvented digital video, and I discovered
into these spheres, among poor immigrants been acts of collaboration between the film- it watching his movie. It occurred to me
who can find only casual, irregular work maker and the filmmaker's subject in which there is no longer a film aesthetic distinct
and must struggle to create a space of their each passes over to the side of the other. from a video aesthetic, There may still be
own in a neighborhood (Fontamhas in The people in the movie discover them- films that emphasize the filmic specificity
Lisbon) that we can see being torn down selves by creating stories, dialogues, narra- of their images, particularly at the experi-
around them. They belong to what some tives, and the filmmaker reinvents himself mental end of 16mm film production, and
privileged technocrats and their dupes call or herself through this encounter. The videotapes that assert the special qualities
"the underclass." motto of this cinema is Rimbaud's slogan je of that medium, but it is no longer neces-
So we see Vanda Duartc and her friends est un autre ("I is an other"), a phrase sary to insist on the differences. There are
smoking smack, shooting up, and talking Costa has also quoted in reference to Chap- iust moving pictures; we can cail it all
trash. But there are also moments of lin. It's a seductive argument, but I had "cinema" if we like.
astonishing tenderness in which they seem never found their examples completely con- Costa has talked about using the video
even more vulnerable, moments that recall vincing. There always seemed to be more camera in a way that resists the intentions
the most mysterious encounters in the power, or at least more artistry, on the film- of its manufacturers: "They want me to
greatest fiction films. For example (a priv- maker's side. But here finally was a movie move it around a lot, and I don't want to
ileged one in my memory), in one of the that actually fit this theoretical construct, move it . . . Things are used for work.
film's plainest, brightest sequence shots, an act of collaboration in which there was Cameras, small cameras, they're very use-
Vanda and her friend Pedro sit on the edge a true fellowship and equality because there ful. They're practical, not expensive, but
of her bed talking about the death of their was no abdication of responsibility on watch out. It's necessary to work them a

5fl FILM COMMENT I Mirch-Aprll 2007

lot, and work is the opposite of ease. Ease ow THERE IS A SEQUEL,
is the first idea. It's the lack of resistance." Cotossal Youth. This film I
So he doesn't move the camera at all, and sought out. Before I saw it, I
he lights each frame as John Altoti ttiight had seen Costa's three ear-
have back iti the Forties, Painting with lier features {The Blood, 89;
light, Alton called it, and Tve been tempted Casa de Lava, 94; Bones, 97), I had met
to call Costa's images painterly. What's Costa briefly in Lisbon, I had watched In
wrong with that way of putting it is that Vanda's Room again on DVD, and I had
the resemblance to painted images seems to read accounts of the premiere at the
me more coincidental than intentiotial. Cannes Film Festival last May, Last Sep-
Maybe it's more pertinent to invoke a John tember I arranged to have Colossal Youth
Ford movie. As in many Ford movies, screened at the California Institute of the
there's often a doorway in the back of Arts, where I teach, with Costa presenting
Costa's frames. Doors [and more often it. I watched it twice on a DVD screener
windows) open and sometimes close, but before I saw the 35mm print projected.
they are generally open. The spaces are We can call it a sequel because it is
small and cramped, full of objects that are made with the same people and the same
fussed over incessantly (cleaning is a persis- method. Costa amassed 320 hours of
tent motif). But perhaps because the fram- footage with a small digital camera over a
ing is so rigid and narrow (often with period of 15 months. Again the images are
somebody speaking or listening offscreen), static and stately, although Costa tilts his
they are always open to an outside that is camera upward instead of downward and
limitless. The wails are "distressed," but he includes a few panning shots, Vanda
the rooms are orderly and beautiful and two other people from In Vanda's
enough that we have reason to share the Room, Nhurro and Paulo, again appear
regrets of their residents that they must prominently, although the protagonist
move out (the ongoing destruction of the Ventura did not appear in the earlier film. THF.nKFmiTIVI-TWC.
neighborhood is never explained, but we Vanda has become healthier and more COM.KCTORS I-DITKW OF
all have witnessed the perversities of "slum robustshe has a new husband and SHORT l-ri,MS RKMA.STKRKD
clearance" or "urban renewal"). daughterbut her sister Zita dies. Zita's FROMGORGI-OUS
Most of In Vanda's Room is set indoors, death inspires one of the most moving pas- TSF.WHI DKF F.LKMKWTS
but I was grateful for the frequent, generally sages in the film, Ventura and his friend
brief exteriors that provide another sense of Xana watch some kind of funeral proces-
the neighborhood and its life. The single sion pass by offscreen. Ventura remarks,
images don't show too much, but together "Another one departing. The usual poi-
they describe a small world, a community son." Xana responds, "It wasn't the poi-
made up of narrow passageways and small son she took. It was all the poison taken
squares, each with a fire burning day or for her before she came into the worid."
nigbt. It's a neighborhood Jane Jacobs The destruction of Fontai'nhas docu-
would have loved. Toward the end of the mented by In Vanda's Room is now almost
movie, we begin to notice the ominous yel- complete, and almost all of its inhabitants,
low Xs that mark houses set for immediate including Vanda, have been relocated to
destruction. A few minutes later, some of new but shabby apartment blocks with
them are bulldozed. orange-yellow hallways and white rooms
There are even four shots of the natural that are perfect cubes, Costa's low angles
world that show a field of grass taller than make the doorways look like the vertical
the men who walk through it, a field of fiow- coffins in Nadar's famous photographs of
ers under a gray cloudy sky, and the wind the massacred Paris Communards. These ' OVI)
rustling the leaves in a dense grove of trees. towers are stripped-down, purist versions THf',g)UAY.S NI-Wr.STFKATURF.
Does In Vanda's Room aestheticize of tbe International Style, without decora-
poverty? I would answer yes, and I would tion or imagination, the sort of thing Cor- "Haunting! Exquisite pracition ana
contend that this is its greatest virtue. The busier might have designed if his practice it bl/arro, othrworMly fLn&ibility.
world is beautiful, and a useful image of hadn't gone beyond his theory.
the world must register this beauty. The Colossal Youth can't be mistaken for a
rich and the poor live under the same sky, pure documentary. It begins on a note of
and the sky (glimpsed only rarely in this high drama, melodrama even. We see furni-
film) is more beautiful than the most beau- ture being tossed from a second-story win- Order from our website
tiful landscape or cityscape. dow onto a courtyard under an eerily black
irirl y/A 2S% off all new titles

March-Aprli 2007 I FILM COMMENT I 59
night sky. Ventura will soon explain this himself to actually tell it. There is an excess

SOVIET ERH image: his wife Clotilde has left him, slash-
ing his arm and destroying most of their
of comic relief and a long portrayal of Rut-
ledge's flight from the scene of the crime,
MHSTERWQRKS household possessions. Throughout the rest
of the film, fictional episodes alternate with
but the rape and murder are never depicted.
In the end, the defense attorney must pull a
FIRST TIME ON DVD more documentary sequences, all held Perry Mason stunt to exonerate the
TWO DISC EDITION "Grippingly ^ together by the commanding presence of sergeant. Yet Ford gave Woody Strode, who
Ventura, who wanders from one encounter plays Rutledge, the best role of his career,
to another among his comrades, many of the "top soldier" whose skills and courage
Extrauasant" whom he calls his "children," and from one make him larger than life, a model and leg-
temporality into another. That is, a period end to his black comrades, and Strode
from Ventura's past is depicted, but these made the most of it. Ford photographs him
SPECIAL % sequences aren't marked as flashbacks. in a special way, looking up from a low
JURY PRIZE % Their pastness is denoted simply by a angle to emphasize his mythic status. None
FILM FESTIVAL - * ? ^ change in costume and the appearance of a of the other characters get this treatment.
THE COMPLETE bandage wrapped around Ventura's head. Costa photographs Ventura in the same
260 MIN, VERSION By evoking the early days of an immigrant way, and 1 believe he regards this humble,
$29.95 from Cape Verde in Lisbon, they insistently unassuming man with the same kind of awe
assert the fictionality of Colossal Youth, and Ford felt for Rutledge. Ventura's struggles
QUIET they enable Ventura to embody the aspira- to preserve his roots and his family, also
tions and struggles of his immigrant com- rendered indirectly, serve to incarnate those
Four Disc Set munity, the people of Fontainhas, just as of his dispossessed, marginalized commu-
3 $39.95 Sgt. Braxton Rutledge etnbodies the aspira- nity, and his quiet nobility negates any trace
tions of the black "buffalo soldiers" in John of miserabilism, which for some viewers
Ford's 1960 film Sergeant Rutledge. disfigures In Vanda's Room. Like Sergeant
3^ $29.95
Rutledge, Colossal Youth is an attempt to
CALL OR F Mnil FOR OUR The link to Ford's films didn't occur to
turn the small form into an epic.
NEVM ZOa7 CATALOG me spontaneously. It was proposed by
LISTING MORE THAN 5OO FILMS. Costa, who said of Colossal Youth, "I'm The bond between Ventura and Rut-
800-5623330 www. kino, com afraid all I've done is to remake Sergeant ledgeas well as Costa's belief that Colos-
Ohio University School of Film Rutledge." For Costa, In Vanda's Room and sal Youth in some sense reiterates Sergeant
Colossal Youth are both continuations of his Rutledgeis made plainer by Joseph
M F A in Film and M A in Film ^ t w l i e s
effort to re-create classic Hollywood cinema McBride's perceptive characterization of
by other means. It's not as paradoxical or Rutledge in Searching for John Ford:
perverse as it sounds when Costa begins to "Ford's late films deal with characters
explain it, and I soon found myself noticing who, to a large extent, are able to stand
the echoes of Tourneur and Lang in his sec- outside of history at the same time as they
ond film, Casa de Lava. Fortunately, the are living it, Rutledge is one such charac-
more benign influences of Hawks and Ford ter, a man who realizes that the ultimate
come to the fore in In Vanda's Room and meaning of his personal struggle can only
Colossal Youth. There's a generosity in the be fully realized when he has become his-
directors' work, a yearning for solidarity tory." Even more than Rutledge, Ventura
Allend a small, highly ranked program offering and community that transcend their often expresses in every gesture this sense of dis-
mrlividualized mslriiction from award winnini;] (aciilly dull and lazy dramaturgy, and Costa has placement and detachment. He is a ghost
managed to re-create this quality. or an angel, offering a hand to the living to
Scholarships, teaching , and film festival internship
oppoitunities available to all Graduate Students guide them along their path.
FTER COSTA MENTIONED As it happened, Pedro Costa and I

Om Film Sludies program offers a sirong International
Cinema and Lxperimenlal Film emphasis
Sergeant Rutledge, I watched talked a lot about John Ford while he was
it again to see what he might in California. We argued about The
Leain all aspects of filmmaking during oui unique have borrowed. It's not a Searchers, a film he admires more than I
1st yeai MFA experience
rypica! Ford film. It's one of do. After we screened Colossal Youth, I
We are offering two new MFA ttack options his late, "smail fortn" westerns, to adopt began to see closer resemblances to The
Fealiirc Narrative Film & I- eatuic Length Documenlarv Deleuze's term, The story is told inside out. Searchers than to Sergeant Ruttedge. Like
It's a courtroom drama, so everything is Ethan Edwards, Ventura is a wanderer, a
Woih with young Filmmakers and Film Studies
related in flashback. And it's not one of "pilgrim," searching for his lost children.
students Irom throiigtioiit the world including
I ulbnqht nr\(\ Fnirl FniinHalion recipients Ford's best films. Ford seems so embar- When the rental agent at the new apart-
rassed by the drama of a black soldier ment tower asks him how many children
www.finearts.ohio.edu/film falsely accused of raping a white girl and he has, Ventura replies, "I don't know yet."
murdering her father that he can't bring As Monument Valley represents the entire

60 I FILM COMMENT March-April2007

Youth). In other words, they're not really
stars, they're character actors. Thus Colos-
sal Youth is the Hollywood movie we've all
dreamed of: the movie in which the charac- J | X J > 1 ARS
ter actors get the starring roles.
For me. Colossal Youth is beyond
praise. It is just there. It is a film that every
filmmaker coming after it will have to con- oiif,^io r,

front. It demands a sequel, but it won't ft. A^^i Rsvliad

have to come from Costa. I am attracted to and
Colossal Youth what Scott Foundas wrote about it in the dltlon
LA Weekly: "In the week since I saw the
Southwest in The Searchers, Fontainhas 61m, it has haunted my dreams and is stilt
and the new housing projects represent with me upon waking." Colossal Youth
Ventura's entire world in Colossal Youth. didn't haunt my dreams, but it interrupted
So I said, "It's like The Searchersonly bet- my sleep. I thought about it obsessively for
ter. It's The Searchers remade from the days after seeing it, and it stays in my mind.
Action Speaks Louder
Violence, Spectacle, and the
viewpoint of Mose." Costa replied, "So I don't mean to suggest it is a perfect film, American Action Movie
you think Ventura is crazy?" I answered, or even a classic, like some of Ford's films. Eric Lichtenfeld
"No, but I don't think Mose is crazy." It In fact, it is an intentionally imperfect film:
"[A]n intelligent, coherent, and frequently
occurred to me only later that Mose is the Costa includes a take in which Ventura illuminating study of a genre that has
only sane character in The Searchers, so I muffs a line. I can't write with much confi- become firmly entrenched in pop
just said, "It's like a John Ford movie in dence, since I only previewed it twice culture...The book encourages the idea
that, although some action films may be
which Francis Ford is the protagonist." before seeing it screened, but it seems to me 'mindless,' our reaction to them doesn't
Costa finally accepted this praise. After all, that it is loosely constructed and almost have to be." Variety
John Ford's older brother Francis is the certainly obscure, which creates unfortu- $24.95 in paperback

noblest and gentlest actor in his stock com- nate difficulties for some viewers. You
pany, and the best Ford films are always the probably have to see it at least twice to get
ones in which he has the best parts. 1 could it, and to me that is not a virtue. Costa sug-
mention My Darling Clementine or The gested to me that he is still discovering the
Sun Shines Bright as examples. film himself. Lento, one of the main actors,
had to explain a major plot point to him
However, in its loose fictionality, Colos-
after the premiere at Cannes. Perhaps it can
sal Youth is closer to Andy Warhol than to
be a film in progress for us as well, as we
Ford. Costa acknowledged to me his inter-
watch it and think about it later. Its con-
est in Warhol, who also claimed he was
struction allows us CO shift scenes around
reinventing classic Hollywood cinema by
and remake it in our heads.
other means. Like Warhol, Costa takes the
inventions of his actors, who are also his So I look forward to the DVD version,
friends, and creates a loose fiction to frame even though a lot will be lost. It will allow
them, although unlike Warhol, he doesn't me to call up some of its magical moments
rely on improvisation and the spontaneity I haven't mentioned yet: Ventura's almost
of the first take. On the contrary, like his mantra-like recitals of the letter home,
more intimate influences, and Jean-Marie inspired by Robert Desnos; the liberation
Straub and Daniele Huiltet, he often shoots anthem played on a portable phonograph
20 or 30 takes of the same scene. Perhaps he and later sung by Ventura; the appearance
learned from them that "the accidental can of the two pens in the shack occupied by
only appear within a rigorously constructed Ventura and Lento; Paulo's two long mono-
frame," as Frederic Bonnaud has put it. logues. I don't think it is betraying the spirit
Of course, Warhol and Costa have dif- of the film to watch them over and over
ferent tastes in Hollywood films. To my again outside of their original context. G
knowledge, nobody ever accused Warhol of
being a Ford fan. So Ventura and Vanda THOM ANDERSEN teaches film/video com-
Duarte are "superstars" in another kind of position at the California Institute of the
movie. If Edie Sedgwick was Lupe Velez and Arts. His most recent movie is Los Angeles
Mary Woronov was Maria Montez and Plays Itself. For conversation and encour-
Viva was Katharine Hepburn, then Ventura agement, he'd like to thank Christine
is Woody Strode (or Hank Worden) and Chang, Pedro Costa, Valerie Massadian,
Vanda is Jane Darwell (at least in Cohssal Ricardo Matos Cabo, and Mark Peranson.

March-April 2007 FILM COMMENT I 6 1

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