The philosopher Boris Groys writes, in his book Going Public, that the artist’s oeuvre, his material body of work, is a secular version of the artist’s soul. If what Groys states is true—if the oeuvre is the soul—then on a drowsy, overly warm weekend in early October, the soul of Pedro Costa entered the city of Bloomington, Indiana, and we got to see fragments of his soul up close; when we met Costa, he was carrying three videocassettes of his collected short films in a black plastic bag.
Costa came to Bloomington for a complete retrospective of his work, a rare but not unprecedented event—complete retrospectives have been held at the Tate Modern (Jacques Rancière wrote a magisterial essay for the program) and the Harvard Film Archive. In this case, the complete work was to be projected at the Indiana University Cinema, which opened its doors last year, an island for cinephiles stranded in the Midwest. It was a surprise to everyone that Costa had accepted the invitation and had flown to Indiana from his home in Lisbon. The director of the IU Cinema, John Vickers, who was familiar with an essay we had written on Costa for N1FR a year prior, asked us if we would show Costa around town and introduce some of his films. “I hear he doesn’t tolerate small talk,” Vickers warned, looking more than a little nervous. We agreed, but we were nervous, too.
For a certain kind of critic—certainly for us—Costa holds a place of great stature in cinema. This is due, in part, to the way he cultivates what Groys, again in Going Public, calls “the loneliness of the project.” That is to say that Costa spent many years beyond the pale of the film industry in a slum in Lisbon. During those years Costa did what many directors merely pretend to do: he abandoned the pretense of a marketable film—or really of a market entirely—and in the process proved, as Alexander Kluge once wrote, that cinema is a relation to production.
The fruit of Costa’s lonely decade, as we wrote in the earlier essay, is a series of communitarian masterpieces colloquially known as the Fontaínhas, or “slum,” films. While making the slum films, it is often pointed out, Costa hung out with drug addicts and vagrants. That adds to his air of mystery but actually everything about Costa’s myth points in the direction of a single reality: he is the sort of artist we are made to believe no longer exists. The Guardian and The Nation have branded him—for better or worse—the Samuel Beckett of the cinema. While we think that is kind of a stupid thing to say, not in the least because Samuel Becket made a film himself, it is true that Costa’s legacy precedes him wherever he goes.
Costa had just arrived in Bloomington, and we met him at a nouveau-country restaurant decorated with Prohibition-era paraphernalia: an inexplicable collection of bedpans that hang on the wall beside a series of pitchforks. Some undergraduate film students invited by the University were already seated in the restaurant, in a space cordoned off by a handmade pastel quilt. They apparently didn’t know who Costa was, so they went on at length about their current projects. One student explained that she shot a 16mm short through a doily. Another compared himself, bright-eyed, to Gaspar Noé. Costa met them with intense, stoic boredom. Yet another student mentioned that she had finished editing a film the night before. “Are you sure?” Costa asked. The student seemed scared. Conversation lagged.
It probably didn’t help that Costa cuts such an imposing figure. Clad always in black and gray, he is tall, and his aspect, as one can tell from photographs, is dark. Decidedly more anima than persona, he conveys an air of otherworldliness. His thoughts are always elsewhere—not on some distant planet, but in a hell deep inside him. Perhaps this is why he takes his time while speaking, as if summoning his words from a distance. This is especially the case when he talks about cinema.
When the students left, Costa began to relax. Slowly his Satanic disposition softened into a Mephistophelian charm. He impersonated Jacques Rivette by scrunching himself up and waxing poetic about his love for Thomas Hardy. We discussed the virtues of Harmony Korine, Costa’s pen pal, and talked about what we liked about Trash Humpers. Then he dropped the first of many hints about Hennessy cognac:
1. “Ozu’s favorite drink was Hennessy.”
2. “I once drank Hennessy in Matsuzaka, where Ozu was raised.”
3. “Another time I got drunk on Hennessy during an interview with Chris Fujiwara, who then had to write it from scratch.”
So after a little daytime beer drinking, and also wine, we left for the IU cinema. Costa surveyed the college town as we walked down the main street, peeling off our sweaters in the October sun. “Where are all the black people?” He asked. We told him about the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Martinsville. He fell silent and stared off somewhere far away, then turned and asked us about Jacques Tourneur’s 1950 Hollywood film, which was set in the South during Reconstruction: “Have you ever seen Stars in My Crown?”
Recently christened “the most unequal city in America” by Business Insider, Bloomington has its share, too, of drug addicts and vagrants. Many of them eat and sleep and congregate at People’s Park, right next to campus. We pointed Costa to the park, where Occupy Bloomington was planning to set up its tent city on the exact day Costa was scheduled to depart. “You have to go,” Costa told us. We assured him we would.
Little did we know that as we chatted with Costa on our way to the University, a handful of highly regarded critics had already descended upon Bloomington in order to be near the filmmaker. One was Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has written eloquently (and often) about Costa over the last decade. Another was James Naremore—author of the books More than Night, on film noir, and The Magic World of Orson Welles, among others—who had come down from Chicago with his wife Darlene Sadlier, director of IU’s Portuguese program. We heard a rumor, too, that a young critic referred to as “the Aristocrat” was travelling from afar. . . . The mood had changed; Costa was in demand.
That night we dined with Costa and the critics. It was not a banquet of equals, so we were left to observe. For much of the meal, Rosenbaum and Naremore took to rifling through the cinema in search of things to disagree about. After some chips and salsa, the conversation gravitated to films-of-the-year, and someone lazily broached the name Terrence Malick. Costa grinned, then leaned over to ask us: “Do you like this Tree of Life?” No, we told him. We do not like The Tree of Life. Nor did we care to talk about it, but we left that part out. Satisfied, Costa picked his teeth with a toothpick.
He told us about his monthly chats with Manoel de Oliveira, and he spoke of his former teacher Glauber Rocha, whose films, he lamented, are too little seen or written of today. Everyone, including Costa, sung the praises of Aki Kaurismäki. As Costa retold stories of his days as an assistant director, it became clear that his disgust with the film industry was hard-earned. He seemed discomfited by Midwestern dining at The Malibu Grill, although the wine had a palliative effect. Eventually he loosened up enough to play a bizarre parlor game in which he made us guess the identity of the famous actor seated in first class on his flight from Portugal. “He is your most famous young comedian actor,” Costa hinted. “His head is tiny, like a bead, and he had a bimbo on his arm.” It took an absurdly long time before someone, we think Rosenbaum, guessed, correctly, that it was Adam Sandler.
It was strange to watch Costa and Rosenbaum deliver a Q&A to a packed cinema later that evening. Rosenbaum, aloof in person, metamorphosed into a charismatic and quick-witted anecdotalist on stage. Costa, too, had a knack for answering the questions that the audience should have asked rather than the questions they did ask. A young woman with a Spanish accent, possibly a graduate student, who appeared sideswiped by the power of Costa’s work, asked about his reception in Portugal. Costa quietly confirmed that his films are almost never screened at home. “There is no reaction,” he said.
Moments later, Costa, who must have been exhausted, lingered to watch the long and soundless opening sequence of his second film, Casa de Lava (1994). Strangely, the image of Costa tarrying in the IU theater sharply recalled one of the most exceptional moments of his oeuvre. Costa closes his Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (2001) with a shot of Jean-Marie Straub, his mentor, sitting alone outside of a cinema, playing with a lighter. Reflecting on this double image, it has since struck us that the loneliness endured by Costa and Straub is not merely an aspect of their mythology, but a form of exile imposed from the outside by a critical cottage industry that chases away seriousness and death.
We wanted to thank Costa for visiting Bloomington, so we threw him a party. He accepted immediately, even enthusiastically. “Will there be punks at your party, MacDonald?” he asked. At some point Costa had begun referring to Jeanette only as MacDonald, after the actress-singer Jeanette MacDonald, who starred in early 1930s musicals—Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade and Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. “I used to be a punk!” Costa yelled, shaking his fist at MacDonald as we rode home on our bikes.
There was no time for planning, and our efforts to make it look like we didn’t live in a college town proved futile. We did, however, manage to buy a handle of Hennessy Privilége V.S.O.P. Moments after we returned to a house packed with our unassuming, nerdy friends, Costa drove up with the Aristocrat.
Probably on account of the Hennessy, things got weird. It was almost Halloween, and our neighbors’ festive porch lighting threw a hellish, orangey pall over our yard. Early on, Costa became fascinated with a lanky graduate student who professed his desire to move to Lisbon in order to become a monk. Costa turned to Jeanette. “MacDonald, do you go to church? You should go to church,” he said. An hour or so later, lowball glass in hand, Costa confessed to us his longstanding obsession with ectoplasm; then he imitated the voice of Mercedes McCambridge as the demon in The Exorcist. He even asked us to take him to a hell house, which, for the uninitiated, is like a Christian version of a haunted house where you learn about the horrors of premarital sex and abortion. It was at that point that our friend Chris, dressed for Halloween in a faded button-down shirt, khakis, and glasses—he was trying to look like Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s, but he looked more like Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary—pointed out to Costa that many of his fascinations could be described as infernal. Costa agreed, and he signaled his approval with a wink. At that point, he was hurried out of the house by the Aristocrat, who all of a sudden seemed really angry. No one knew why.
The next morning Costa graciously sat down with us for an interview. He arrived carrying three books he had just bought at a shop nearby: The Rifles by William T. Vollmann, the Collected Prose of Osip Mandelstam, and a book of essays by James Baldwin. “Baldwin wrote a great essay on The Exorcist,” Costa reminded us. During the interview, Costa demonstrated a surprising willingness to discuss his contemporaries‘ films along with his own.
N1FR: What prompted you to make your most recent feature, Ne change rien (2010), after the Fontaínhas films? On the surface it seems like a great leap to go from working with people living in Fontaínhas to shooting someone like Jeanne Balibar, the daughter of the philosopher Étienne Balibar, a well-known French actress and singer who has acted in films by Desplechin and Assayas, Rivette and Ruiz.
Costa: It was made the same way as my other films. It was produced the same way. That’s important. I felt that Jeanne—I met her a long time before the film—she is the kind of actor who could have been in the other films. After I shot the film with her, I immediately thought that an actor like Isabelle Huppert could not have been in the film. She couldn’t be in Fontaínhas. She wouldn’t let go. She would be an embarrassment for my semi-Marxist kind of production. It was more about the qualities of the person, that actress. Qualities that are close to the people I’m working with. I thought about this after the film.
What I discovered is not so unique: it’s the same as always. They also seem to make some kind of effort in front of the camera. Vanda, Ventura, the boys, the Straubs. Effort, work. A kind of affection. A level of affection and effort that appeals to me. From the old films, the old days. The film resembles In Vanda’s Room (2001). She’s searching for things, like Vanda was searching for words. Jeanne was searching for tempo, rhythm. Then I was surprised that she was surprised at how—like to use another word—how fictional the film became. The power of music, the power of enchantment is a lot, of course. But also the literary quality. The lyrics of the songs were written by a nice man, Pierre Alféri, who at that time was Jeanne’s boyfriend, and he’s the son of Derrida. He’s a writer who has a nice book on film, Le Cinéma des familles, and he wrote a little bit for Trafic and Cahiers du cinéma, and he’s a teacher of philosophy, and a little bit of a musician. He composed most of the songs, and the songs are very well crafted, a little bit like they used to be in the 1960s. So there is a power of enchantment in the lyrics where he too works some kind of fiction, he proposes something.
N1FR: What about the relationship between Ne change rien and your other films?
Costa: Ne change rien is very deceptive, but not on purpose. They say it’s a film about work, and music is hard work. People don’t like to see that kind of thing. But I think it goes beyond that, it’s about failure and expressing yourself. It’s a failure when you die a thousand deaths and get reborn.
N1FR: When we watched Ne change rien I thought about rehearsal more than work. It brought to mind how you said that when you switched to video you were able to rehearse on camera like Chaplin did in his early films.
Costa: It’s about trying to find something. Their actors are so lost, they don’t care for you. So it’s not very collaborative. They’re working on their ideas and forms of love and lost women and all those songs she sings. I’m just trying to put a lamp or a mirror in the right place, and solve a sound problem, and try to find a balance or a road together.
N1FR: It’s hard not to see a change in a certain kind of cinema after In Vanda’s Room. In some sense your film is coterminous with José Luis Guerín’s En construcción, and the films of Lisandro Alonso, which are probably more influenced by Kiarostami. Do you see In Vanda’s Room as influential?
Costa: Do you think Alonso’s films come from In Vanda’s Room?
N1FR: Now it’s almost as if he’s trying to move away from you. Do you see an influence?
Costa: I saw one of his films. I’m not saying if it was bad or good, but it left me cold.
N1FR: Well, we think In Vanda’s Room has to be understood as very influential.
Costa: I don’t see that many films. Critics will write “in the mode of…” But In Vanda’s Room is the kind of film that creates a chain of correspondences, of letters. I received a letter from some girl in the Arctic. In that sense I think it was influential. The one filmmaker, and I had a nice meeting with him, was Wang Bing, the Chinese filmmaker. I really liked his first film, and then I liked the second one even more, Portrait of a Chinese Woman. That came just after Vanda. He never saw Vanda. It’s strange because he’s doing the complete opposite now. He did his first film, West of the Tracks. And now he’s doing an expansive European production. So I’m afraid for him. He has a lot of advisors and co-producers now. Those are the people I wanted to get rid of. Not just the crews, but also the financing. It’s very uncomfortable, as I was before Vanda.
N1FR: You mention letters. Is the idea of letters a part of the way you’ve always viewed cinema?
Costa: Probably. Especially after all of the films I’ve made. I don’t know if it’s letters, but you have to sign a letter. It’s about signing something. That comes from a lot of classic films. It’s easier to hide your signature, but a letter is something that belongs to two, that involves two people and not just one. There’s a transformation because in Colossal Youth (2006) there is no written letter. I like what we did with the invisible letter in Colossal Youth, how that came to be: very mysteriously. It became the whole film. The beginning was supposed to be just a scene with the letter. And the obvious cliché with a guy who knows how to write, and the other doesn’t know how to write. “I’ll pay you fifty cents and you write me a letter.” That was supposed to be the scene. When Jean-Marie Straub saw the film, the only thing he asked me was, “How do you think about the repetition of the letter.” And then he said, “I’m sorry. Stupid question.” I don’t know if he realized it then. The letter became our shooting schedule. Every scene was that thing.
N1FR: When you talk about memorizing the letter, do you think of these films as a way of memorizing the actors, as a sort of archival document?
Costa: If you want. But I would be more on the side of a fantasy land created in this magnificent studio that I found already broken and in ruins. I’m not very interested in documenting. Certainly I sense the danger of the neighborhood disappearing, more the people than the stones. It was one of the energies and the fears of the film, and every film. But no. I remember editing the end of In Vanda’s Room, and you can see some of the houses falling. The editing there, the association of images and sounds has nothing to do, I think, with documenting. It’s narrative. It’s: “There are almost no houses here. Let’s run away.” It’s narration. For me, I can feel it more with people. Like in Ne change rien, it’s very suspenseful and emotional. There is a tension in the film that comes from the fact that Jeanne will not get there. That she’s already lost something. Unfortunately things like that, people today associate with documentary. It’s unfortunate because it blocks something, it stops something. You can see it in writing, in students. And when I went with In Vanda’s Room to documentary film festivals—because I didn’t know them before—the thing was: is it documentary or fiction? Where does fiction end? Are they smoking real drugs? This was the sort of thing that was interesting for them. The film doesn’t matter, really, since cinema doesn’t matter for these people. Judgment comes easy in documentary.
At this point, the Aristocrat, who had shown up late, interceded. “I got a text message from Jeanne Balibar!” he exclaimed. “I asked her if she wants to connect via Skype tonight. She responds: ‘No dear, I can’t! I’m having some friends over for dinner. But it is so nice to hear from you both, and to think of you. I wish I was there. Loads and loads and loads of love!’”
Costa: She has a lot of love to give! Do you want some? Do you? Were we talking about documentary and fiction?
N1FR: We asked about memory.
Costa: Well, memory was probably a starting point. It’s not what drove us, but it was a starting point. But then people won’t tell or open up. Ventura just won’t remember. So something else happens that is much more interesting. Going through others. Trying to get in someone else’s head. Distorting the other guy’s memories. Or work with the other guy’s memories. Work with the neighborhood’s memory. That’s what the film does. It is very untrue sometimes. I don’t think the films worry about memory as a virtue. There is no identity factor in their memory. Their memory is very sloppy, mixed-up. It’s very fantasized or creative. Rancière told me that also: “I just don’t care if Ventura worked or not in the Gulbenkian Museum.” I believe him, so it’s probably true. If it’s not then we make the film anyway.
N1FR: We see a certain relationship between your first film, O sangue (1990), with its disavowal of the nuclear family, and your later film Ossos (1997). Were you thinking of Blood when you made Ossos? Obviously much has been made of the link between the titles, O sangue (The Blood) and Ossos (Bones).
Costa: No. For O Sangue I got the title first, for Ossos it was the opposite. Have you ever visited the type of church that has the underground chapel with bones? The old neighborhood resembled these places. The boy in Ossos told me: “Bones are the first thing you see on a person like me.” Then the film has a dusty quality also. It also seemed funny with Blood, because the film is in black and white. And now, Film Socialisme!
N1FR: What do you think about Film Socialisme?
Costa: The film is out there. For the future. And, with the Beethoven, I think sometimes it is a bit too much. When Straub saw Ne change rien he said it was too much. In films today, in general, there is an absolute absence of death. Not physical death, or characters dying, but death, it used to be a part of cinema. In criticism too, death is avoided. Nobody dies. Even the form of films today is a bit juvenile. The newborn, the reincarnate. The film itself does not want to die. It was so alive before, but films have to die sometimes. It’s not a bad thing to impose a final confrontation with something. The other day, you said that Film Socialisme is related to Melville’s The Confidence Man?
N1FR: Yes. With its double identities, and the fascination with how money or gold changes hands. But it’s also related to Noah’s Ark. And so is In Vanda’s Room. Where one of the inhabitants of Fontaínhas mentions that Noah’s Ark is coming. And then Vanda finds the ark.
Costa: (laughing) That comes from you, critics. Leave the film alone!
N1FR: So you mentioned that you are still with the former inhabitants of Fontaínhas, filming where? Where Fontaínhas used to be?
Costa: It’s not there, but we’re still there.
N1FR: What contemporary filmmakers have you watched or do you like? What did you think of Lucrecia Martel, for example?
Costa: I saw one of her films, but I can’t remember if I liked it. I like Wang Bing, as I said before. One filmmaker is of course Weerasethakul. Syndromes and a Century was nice. It’s a big difference, though, from Syndromes and a Century to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He’s more and more approaching something I never thought he’d get to. You can no longer sense the death in his films. In Boonmee it’s what I said before: he avoids death. In this sense he is the crystallization of all of the new filmmakers. He is the diamond of cinema.
At this point, our recorder ran out of memory. We went back to the IU Cinema, and after a Q&A for In Vanda’s Room, we said goodbye to Pedro Costa. When we turned to leave the theater with our friend Chris, who was still dressed as Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s, Costa called out to us. He formed a pair of devil horns on his head with his hand, directing our attention as if commanding our mortal souls: “I’ll see you down there. . . . ” He dropped his hand, signaling to hell below, complete with an exploding sound effect. “Kaboom!”
Costa had come and gone from our tiny provincial town. Now there was nothing left to do but keep our word. So we headed for People’s Park and joined the Occupation.