A Strange Case

I used to write about films much more frequently and I can actually pinpoint when I stopped. It was after I saw Hunger and was awed, inspired and a little scared. Granted it came at a time when I was probably looking for something of the kind to truly knock me over and it more than did the trick. At the time I was living on my friend's couch and taking classes that didn't really amount to much. I had no control over anything and it seemed that the time I was spending at film school wasn't really going to get me any closer to making movies. Life was kicking my ass. The few weeks before Hunger were tough and the few after weren't great either but after Hunger little things fell into place. I stopped being an outsider insomuch as I picked up a camera and started making movies. I shot a huge documentary that I'm only just finishing, I started The Riverbed which just made it's online debut, some pretty huge personal stuff changed ultimately for the better but at the time it was rough going, so that by the start of 2010, a year after I saw Hunger the direction of my life and the prospects for how sunny a road it would be had shifted so dramatically that I could hardly recall the angry and fragile person who wrote the awed paragraph about Hunger all those months ago. I have legitmate reasons for not writing as much as I did when this site was new (I've been making movies pretty much non-stop since September, which you can check out here, if I may shamelessly plug myself for a minute) but I think part of me was exhausted. Hunger was good enough to be the last film I talked about and I think I wanted to focus on figuring myself out. And then once I had the free time I spent it watching or making movies and couldn't really find time between hitting play or record to write about any of it. I just wanted to keep going and not reflect. But now that I've sorted myself out just enough to know how good I have it (especially compared to March of 2009), I thought I might take a minute to talk about another movie that has once again had a pretty serious effect on me.
Once again, the site of my transformation from cynical college student (just three more months...) into wide-eyed child of the cinema was the Brattle Theatre, a place that was, for a time, pretty much my exclusive Cambridge haunt. Over the years I've seen Woman In The Dunes, Beauty and the Beast, Double Indemnity, Killer of Sheep, Top Hat, Pillow Talk, Suspiria, Ashes of Time, Last Year At Marienbad and so much more, some to be reveled in, others for the first time. The place has a coziness and a majesty that I'm told churches are supposed to have. If they manage the latter they forego the former, and churches are never anyplace I've felt welcome. The film: The Strange Case of Angelica, by Manoel De Oliveira, the oldest director in the world. Seeing this movie is a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of events. Oliveira is a piece of history even as he lives and breathes; a major player in the emergence of a national Portuguese cinema and a cast member in the second sound film ever produced there, he's been directing features since the 40s. He's been a legend even before he was a legend. He's currently 102 years old and something tells me this time next year he'll still be around making the rounds. It's funny, only fringe directors, guys like Allan Dwan, Richard Attenborough and Antonioni live to be this old. Guys who never get their due. The entire time I watched The Strange Case I was moved immensely. A confession: I think about death entirely too much. And so while watching this lovely film, every camera placement, the length of every shot, the degrees of intensity or naturalism in every performance, every decision, great or small kept getting stuck in my retinas on its way into my memory. It would sit on the cusp of the next moment and I would think: this might be his last movie. He knows it might be his last movie. Why this? Why that? Was it experience, was this method a radical departure? Does a man of his age take chances? There was never a second where I wasn't alive in the darkness and silence trying like hell to be there, to stand next to this incredible figure as he issued his orders. To have been there. My god, I'd give the pinky on my right hand to meet him.
Ah, but what of the film. The first half an hour passed in the blink of an eye. A more perfect stretch you'll likely not find this year. The lighting especially was gorgeous and it was all temporary or natural. Car headlights provide much of the light initially and somehow they seem like the kind of presentational chiaroscuro Roger Deakins is robbed of Oscars for. Oliveira's composition is so stunningly formal, so beautifully symmetrical, so perfect that it's almost distracting. He has such command over the environments he's inhabiting that it seems ridiculous that they all seem so lived-in, so part of the world. Oliveira's images suggest that everything can seem perfect to someone, and crucially, that beauty will be here even after we die. What a comforting thought. Every supporting character is either aged or a child, only the handsome protagonist and a nun he makes the acquaintance of buck the trend. They are of the land and they're at peace with the inexorability of time or they're trying and failing to adapt. They seem to believe that changing with everything else will extend their life, but Oliveira pities them their haste. If we don't slow down and look around we'll miss what's right in front of us and we'll be alone when it's gone. Such is the tragedy of the lead character.

The film is about a man so wrapped up in tangents and his own studies and photographs that he's never at rest. He is called away one night to photograph the deceased daughter of the wealthiest family in the Portuguese town he resides in (a place Oliveira captures splendidly). While looking through the view finder the girl comes alive for a brief second but when he looks again after his initial shock, she lies dead again. He develops the photograph and tries distracting himself with things he can rely on (workers in a field nearby are his constant grounding force) but soon Angelica has left the photograph and entered his dreams. He wants her, he cannot have her. It is a refreshing take on that maddening dichotomy: do I want you because I can't have you? He's only known her as something he can't have. In that regard he is the typical male, isn't he? The cruelest part is that he didn't know her to want her before her death and he would never have met her had she not died. It ties you in knots, this. And it's good that the movie asks so much because there are stretches where precious little happens and you need your brain to help you out a little. Oliveira shows his age only once or twice during the movie's 92 minutes and a real-time conversation about anti-matter between three people who will be dead before their questions are answered is one of them. A lesser movie couldn't support it, but this is a film on another plane of being. It's hero has one foot in the grave, or anyway that's where he keeps outstretching his arms in dream sequences at once odd and funny and heartbreaking. Angelica isn't a grand statement, a sweeping summation of a once-in-a-generation life or anything as unpredictable or deconstructionist as the latest by Alain Resnais or Jacques Rivette or Jean-Luc Godard or other aging filmmakers. What it is is perfectly natural and so simple it kills me. The protagonist's dalliances in dreams with Angelica are movies in a town without a movie theatre. Oliveira gave him a reason to want to die; on the other side, it's always showing your favourite film. I'm not a believer but that brings a smile to my face. What could be more touching than a man who has seen so many of his peers and family die than to think that there's the most beautiful woman in the world waiting for him when he goes? When Joey Ramone died, Joe Strummer said he didn't believe in heaven, but he knew that's where Joey Ramone was. Manoel De Oliveira will outlive us all and then enjoy eternity in a cozy and majestic film palace not unlike the brattle, where they'll always be showing just what he wants to see.
 For the first time in my life I'm taking steps towards having my first major film shown in festivals and on screens, something I'd only read about, something I never thought would happen. I'm walking on hallowed ground and though it scares me, I couldn't be more excited to be here and I'm going to try like hell to earn my place in this fantastic history marked by the footprints of geniuses like Manoel De Oliveira. This field is where the world has gone for distraction and truth since the turn of the twentieth century and with any luck will keep going until the end of time (the beauty of not knowing is believing in the future). I have a life of uncertainty ahead of me but I also have the best friends anyone could ever ask for who will be there for me when I turn 102. I can't thank them enough. I'm going to try not to let them down.I'm going to try to live beautifully. I'm going to try and write about film more often.

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