Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 6, 2010
The inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off on April 22nd, and there’s going to be wall-to-wall coverage here once it begins. Jeff Stafford has already posted a wide-ranging, must-read interview with Norman Lloyd, who’ll be introducing Saboteur on the 25th. But like the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks later (May 12 – 23), I’ll be unable to attend, marooned as I am on the East Coast. But I’ll be checking back here at Movie Morlocks for reports on the TCM-fest, and there will be an endless array of outlets covering Cannes. But what about seeing the films, the vast majority of which won’t receive stateside distribution?
The on-line cinematheque The Auteurs has come through for me on at least one title on my list, with an assist by Stella Artois. They’re streaming nine former Cannes selections for free thanks to that mediocre Belgian beer sponsor. These include Our Beloved Month of August (2008), a Portuguese experiment highly regarded by Cinema Scope’s Mark Peranson and Robert Koehler, Jonathan Romney of Sight & Sound, and filmmaker C.W. Winter (The Anchorage, which I wrote about recently), who placed it on his best-of-the-decade list. It was never picked up for the U.S., and I was ecstatic to find it offered along with a group of higher-profile past Cannes selections including L’aaventura, Mon Oncle, and Amarcord. The kind of curatorial adventurousness that led to August being included among this canonical group is sorely needed in programming these days, and The Auteurs should be praised (once again), for loosing this strange beast upon American eyes.
Miguel Gomes had an idea for a movie. It was to be an atmospheric melodrama about a small-town girl and her fraught relationships with her guitar-playing cousin and over-protective father. As Gomes tells Peranson, the funding dried up when their money-man died before signing the authorization to release the cash. With a crew already assembled, Gomes began filming the people and rituals of Arganil instead, the municipality in central Portugal in which he was to set his movie. He documents karaoke performances in central squares, father-son accordion duos in underground bars, the history of a local newspaper, and the perils of Paulo, the local drunk legend whose outrageous fictions permeate the rest of the stories. Paulo (pictured at the head of the post), is an inveterate liar, or in other words a storyteller, and Gomes records his exploits as recounted by a variety of locals before getting the embroidered tales from the man himself (they involve beatings from Moroccans, blackouts, and bridge jumping).
Gomes interweaves the checkered production history of his film in the midst of these slices of life. He frames himself as a deadpan morose type, spouting one word answers to his angsty producer Joaquim Carvalho when asked why he hasn’t found any actors (he’s looking for “people”). Or else he’s playing a horseshoe-like game called “quoits” and ignoring the two girls trying to nab his attention for a part in his film. These sections are entirely staged by Gomes, while in the Arganil portraits, as Peranson notes, the actors are making their own mise-en-scene. In the documentary portions, they are leading Gomes, while in the self-reflexive “production” scenes, Gomes is leading the actors. He is simply placing everything in the frame – from the chance conversations of a bickering couple to the equipment Gomes is using to record that scene. He tells Peranson:
Everything placed in front of the camera becomes cinema, whether it is based on reality or in Gomes’ head – each is mediated in its own way, as the case of Paulo makes clear. His “reality” is as melodramatic as the story that follows, as Gomes shifts his film into a narrative mode.
Gomes makes the leap to fiction when some of the villagers start acting out his original screenplay. A local girl who was a lookout for forest fires becomes Tania, a teenaged vocalist. Joaquim Carvalho, already seen as the film’s producer, becomes Tania’s father, a keyboardist. Fabio, profiled as a star athlete on the local hockey team who dabbles on the guitar, becomes Helder, Tania’s cousin and new guitarist for Estrelas do Alva, a traveling band. They play the lovelorn pop songs we’ve seen from the karaoke scenes, but now in service to a plot, and their lyrics soon gain resonance as the character relationship deepen and fracture.
Fabio and Tania slowly fall in love, while the father’s protectiveness starts to seem more than fatherly… This incestuous trio becomes a metaphor for the stifling nature of Tania’s small town life, but also for the intense intimacy engendered by the creative process. Estrelas do Alva could also be read as a stand-in for Gomes’ own film crew, stranded, like Tania and her family, in Arganil and prodded to make art without much financial backing. While the tempo is slow (the movie runs to two and a half hours), it is necessary to tease out the rhymings between the two sections of the film, and to build the fabric of their “real” and “fictional” lives.
What at first seems like a laid-back travelogue turns out to be a finely structured piece of modernist cinema, jauntily self-reflexive while humorously obliterating the distinction between fiction and documentary. It’s hard to describe how a movie can be so relaxed and yet so thematically rich. It teases structural puzzles that are never resolved, like Rivette, and yet render the simple beauties of pop songs with an earnestness out of MGM Musicals. It’s frankly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and while Robert Koehler rightly groups it with his “cinema of in-betweenness” of Lisandro Alonso, Uruphong Rakasad, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, et.al., there is a undefinable generosity here that separates August from the works of those equally demanding (and essential) filmmakers. It is warm, teasing, intellectual, and filled with pathos. An absolute original and an easy (and free!) way of jumping into the vanguard of international cinema.
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