Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 29, 2007 11:43 am 
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Sketches for a cinema of exhaustion

This filmmaker is Portuguese and has been chronicling the Cape Verdean immigrant population of Lisbon for some time. The Portuguese title is Juventude en marcha, Youth on the March; it's not clear where the Colossal comes from, though in either case the phrases are presumably ironic. Nobody is going anywhere. Using cinema vérité methods, Costa focuses on Ventura, a tall, lean sixty-something Cape Verdean man living in Lisbon whose wife leaves his cave-like second-story slum dwelling, tossing out the window and thereby destroying a lot of the furniture before doing so. Ventura subsequently appears to wander around acting as "a genial but vacant guide" to a series of people he refers to as "children" or "son" or daughter" and who engage in "impossibly long-winded monologues" in "uniformly grimy, unlit interiors" (except for a couple of bright white ones in the new housing project that has since replaced the slum; these quotations are from Justin Chang's review in Variety written after the film's Cannes Festival screening). Occasionally Ventura, who refers to himself as a "retired laborer," recalls building projects he worked on when he first came to Lisbon and a fall he suffered during one of them, but he does not offer much commentary or advice to his younger interlocutors.

The visuals are mostly gray, with patches of color that sing out in contrast. Ventura plays cards; looks at a new apartment in the project; listens there to Vanda (Vanda Duarte, subject of an earlier Costa film) talking about her painful childbirth experience,and later with her child; plays cards or eats a meal with "sons;" and visits the national museum where another "son" is a guard.

Costa offers less to viewers (and conversely perhaps gives them more to do) than almost any filmmaker presenting lives and people. Hence, in part paradoxically, he has a "coterie of fans" whom this new film will keep in "rapt attention"-- while doubtless "proving a colossal bore to anyone else" (Justin Chang again). Costa is a minimalist, and in minimal art, less is more; with success, the principle of the "tremendous trifle" will apply. Elements that elsewhere would go unnoticed will become significant or beautiful. The online cinephile writer Aquerello (Strictly Film School) believes this to be true of Colossal Youth and says of Ventura that his "lean and angular physicality cuts a dark and sinuous figure as majestic and transfixing as the works of art that frame him" in the museum. Aquerello further comments on the film's most studied element, in which an injured laborer asks Ventura to write a letter home to his girlfriend --a letter, Aquerello speculates, that also subsequently "becomes an expression of the wan protagonist's own sense of abandonment since his wife has left him." Aquerello calls the repetition of the letter's phrases in the film an "incantation." This, he thinks, typifies "the transfiguration of the corporeal into the ethereal through mundane ritual" of the film's "awkward composition, disarming humility, and poetic ineloquence."

The letter goes (it its most elaborate form) like this:

My love, being together again will brighten our lives for at least 30 years. I'll come back to you strong and loving. I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes, a dozen fancy dresses, a car, the little lava house you always dreamed of, a threepenny bouquet. But most of all, drink a bottle of good wine and think of me. Here, it's nothing but work. There are over a hundred of us now. Did my letter arrive safely? Still nothing from you. Some other time. Every day, every minute, I learn beautiful new words for me and you alone made to fit us both, like fine silk pajamas, wouldn't you like that? I can only send you one letter a month. I often get scared building these walls. Me with a pick and cement, you with your silence, a pit so deep, it swallows you up. It hurts to see these horrors that I don't want to see. Your lovely hair slips through my fingers like dry grass. Often, I feel week and think I'm going to forget you.

The overwhelming impression of Ventura is of fatigue, and one of my points of reference from literature for Costa's filmmaking as exhibited in Colossal Youth is the novels and to a lesser extent the plays of Samuel Beckett. "I can't go on. I'll go on," is a famous Beckett conclusion. Beckett's Irish gift for the music of language served him so well that he deliberately switched to French to limit himself, though in his own English translations of the results, especially the plays, the poetry still sings in the mud and ruins of his devastated dead-end characters' lives.

Beckett works entirely with the ear- and mind-stimulating power of words. However impoverished the vocabulary, in the hands of a master words can work magic. Costa is doing something different, because if he seeks indeed a "poetic ineloquence," whatever that might be (Beckett's characters aren't ineloquent, just desperate and impoverished), then in editing 320 hours of digital video down to 155 minutes, he is trying to knit together a fine carpet out of torn rags.

New York independent filmmaker Kevin Lee has a respectful take on Costa like Aquerello, but he has reservations. Lee rejects the assertion that Costa is completely outside the "zeitgeist," i.e., utterly original, insisting he "falls into much of the same stylistic territory as a dominant strain of festival cinema that relies heavily on static long takes and a non-demonstrative approach to performance. It's a style that I am finding increasingly exhausted and exhausting, which may be why I at times resisted Colossal Youth, suspecting it of defaulting to an international cinematic house style for universal ennui." But Lee is impressed by Costa's use of space, the way he gives his characters "profound dignity" by his "lensing" and use of limited single light sources (Aquerello's painting analogy may work here; one thinks of Caravaggio--though if you come to this film expecting the beauty of Caravaggio you will be as deeply disappointed as if you come to Beckett expecting Shakespeare). Lee concludes:

"As much as I've tried to make a case for the logic behind the film's more puzzling elements, after one viewing I am not fully persuaded that Colossal Youth's many fragments cohere into a masterful whole. According to Peranson, Costa spent two years shooting 320 hours of footage, and no doubt he established strong relationships with his actor-subjects in that time, but that still does not discern whether the film's seemingly loose structure is a vivid reflection of the dissolute lives playing out on screen, or is simply dissolute, indulgent filmmaking. Yet I have no reservations in lauding the film for the specific and innovative approaches it takes toward depicting a way of life that is usually portrayed, when it is portrayed at all, without attentiveness or empathy. It is in the attempt to create a house of cinema from the derelict moments of these people on screen that I find Colossal Youth pulsing with purpose." This may be true, and certainly there is something unique about Costa's dingy imagery, but the pulsing with purpose is a thing that comes and goes. What lasts is a sense of the hopelessness of urban immigrant poverty.

Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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