João César Monteiro's very first film, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1969), is the moving salutation from one genius to another that lasts a little longer than 17 minutes.
Who was de Mello Breyner? One of the great poets of the last century, a Portuguese stateswoman, an example for living. A volume of her selected poems was published in England in the '90s under the title Log Book, translated by Richard Zenith with collaboration from SdMB(A). Zenith is the great renderer of, among other poets, Fernando Pessoa into English. De Mello Breyner died in 2004 at the age of 85.
Who was Monteiro? An easy candidate for one of the six or seven greatest filmmakers, and a great poet in his own right — critic too. His satanic presence left the planet in 2003 at 64 — cancer — and he knew he was dying when he made his final film. Two years ago I wrote the following two paragraphs for the French magazine Panic, as the finale of a longer piece that also includes two preceding sections called "Birth" and "Death" —
RESURRECTION: In Monteiro's Vai-e-vem [Go-and-Come / Come-and-Go, 2003] (the English phrase precludes a return), João Vuvu too has been fucked to death. The offending strap-on phallus (also imagined?) rests on a small shrine-like table near the hospital bed of João dying (in life, as in the film). The table has been draped over with the American flag, and on the wall above the phallus' glans hangs a framed color photo of George W. Bush in mid-proclamation, wherein the flag appears again as backdrop. Here, in one of João César's final acts, a dying man uses the onset of the eternal to combat the ephemeral, and so redeems the power of the Political Statement; that any such Statement may be "merely current" makes it no less imperative, after all, and cinema holds the power to ensure nothing can diminish a Statement's near-magical resonance, influence.
As such, Monteiro's shot elevates the singular Statement to the power of the universal. — My emotion at this moment becomes validated by the final image of the film (and as JCM knew at the time, of his entire oeuvre), which I dare not describe — a sacred image, all-encompassing, one wherein Monteiro pays tribute to himself, and to his spectator. A final bow, and to quote Ishaghpour, citing Godard citing Malraux on Manet: "A gaze that joins the interior to the cosmos."
"I think my film represents above all the proof, to those who want to understand and accept it, that poetry can't be filmed, that it is useless to try." —João César Monteiro
Maybe poetry-in-and-of-itself can't be filmed, adapted, but in filming, in an attempt to film it, we possibly can capture something of the residue of originary material, and then, as spectator (either as the artist him-/herself, or as 'a member of the public'), in the interior apprehension create a parallel poem. The inside vs. the outside remains the greatest divide; the permeability or lack thereof not only between the cogito and the outside, one dilemma-of-all-dilemmas'-worth in and of itself, but also between the self and the Other. In other words, How to reconcile the commands, wishes and will of the interior with the stasis, the chaos and transgressiveness of the outside, of the majesty with the horror, promise with indifference, etc.? Is art, reduced to its singularity point, only yearning? And if so, — how pathetic and mockable, — nothing but the yawp of a sidewalk-baby-bird!
"You're important to yourself, because you're what you feel, / You're everything to yourself, because for you you're the universe, / The real universe and other people / Being mere satellites of your objective subjectivity. / You matter to yourself, because you're all that matters to you. / And if this is true for you, O myth, then won't it be true for others?" —Fernando Pessoa as Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith.
"He who sees a phenomenon wishes to see the whole phenomenon. It is simply a matter of attention, sequence, and rigor. And that's why poetry is a moral act. And that is why the poet is driven to search for justice through the very nature of poetry. Like Antigone, the poet of our time, says: I'm the one who did not learn to yield to disasters." —Sophia de Mello Breyner, in Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
In watching a film one cannot leave traces of the viewing in the way one can with written matter — poetry, novels, songs transcribed — no underlining of favorite passages, no notes on the margins. The experience is very naked — in other words, ready to slip away as easy as dream, tease or betrayal.
With Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, we watch a film about a writer, we watch Monteiro's coming-into-being, his first film; Monteiro, who in making a first film, chooses, as what cannot but be (by virtue of being "first-film") a first step or act powerfully autobiographical (necessarily and undeniably so, as though inscribed universally at the level of the ontology of the act), to biographize a fellow artist — as though to say, "This she will be me," spurred by the drive felt by any young artist at the moment of assumption, of self-declamation, affirmation, abandoning juvenilia with that great "Now — " — but then again —
— What does it mean to build these affirmative works out of quotations? A routine strategy, to a degree, in a biographical essay such as Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen... something else, and not only an enacting of pupilship underneath messieurs Godard and Straub in the case of the second through the fourth films — He Who Waits for Dead Men's Shoes Dies Barefoot: A Cinematographic Proverb [Quem espera por sapatos de defunto morre descalço, um provérbio cinematigráfico, 1970], Fragments of an Alms-Film [Fragmentos de um filme-esmola, 1974/1977], and What Shall I Do with This Sword? [Que ferai eu com esta espada?, 1975]. No, the phase of JCM's films #2-4 is like the day-of remarination, Lusitanian cuisine, — or (now different ingredients) a regathering of energy, a time for action to be activated and terminado, all over, at once, for reflection to be made dormant and begun over again anew; it's that beautiful act of first artistic migration, revealing itself mid-flight, proclaiming nothing-to-hide. But, in calling focus upon the gorgeous and particular moment of the first film (poised before metamorphosis, yet unable to conceal inevitable nature), we'll just remark for emphasis, again, and plainly, upon that initially perceivable distance between author (Monteiro) and Film #1. Is it a self-subversion (in the sense of a subterfuge) in the context of first film as an identity's-coming-out? Cold feet, indecision? "César wants to make a film, but he's lost for a subject..."? Well, some might call Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen barely even a film "in form"... one scene (living room) following another (children poking fun at Sophia the matron) after another (cigarette, verse composition) as they do... But let's thank for a moment The Film Desk, who reminded us on the occasion of the recent, 17-year-delayed U.S. theatrical release of Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare [I Don't Hear the Guitar No More, 1991], of Godard's words about Garrel, and use them to elevate everything laudable about the scenes in Monteiro's film, connected with such suppleness by the music of Bach — that is, let's say the construction of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen seems "as natural as breathing." In other words, the film's the domesticity of a poet, and if the subject weren't de Mello Breyner, it might have been Godard himself, Kubrick, or Paul Muldoon.
I've always thought of literature as the secret cinema, the one projecting inward on the mechanism. Here inscription exists as the very order of the process, and circumvents the time-flow of cinema's and real-life's inescapable presents. The underlining of favorite passages, the notes in the margins...
"...the biography of my life..." — de Mello Breyner reflects upon her history while the kids fiddle with the stereo on the left side of the frame — and as the music at last erupts from the speakers, and Sophia begs for calm, we see one origin of a similar scene in Fragments of an Alms-Film — still something about families and living rooms, but now the gap in space that signified a generational and temperamental difference acquires another nuance: the extra-familial, the charged opposition brought to bear by one's in-laws — the discrepancy between the default ease of parlor-welcome and the sado-masochism of the already hateful intruder coming to call. I had a friend at school who said she couldn't bear to decorate her dorm-room in the slightest degree lest any visitors begin to assess her, not on the basis of any tastes to which she might be alluding or which she might be endorsing or announcing as identifiable stand-ins for herself — but because to have any appointments at all would be 'to have made a display', and this was not bearable.
Here, look at the sun splashing off the ripples. The pleasure of the body and life in the outside. The breeze of the Portuguese sea. How can we live, in the United States? A country too vast and, as a result, paradoxically up until the point of progressing beyond the paradox, too homogeneous. Taken as a whole, America is a few cities of a relative sort of freedom, and they're tied together by what's basically a ranging network of scorn-for-many-things. Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is a film that shames me, undidactically, about not knowing how to cut out the guts of any fish larger than trout.
"...that we are rather, by natural light, heirs to the freedom and dignity of being." —SdMBA, in Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen
"I waited as one who waits in vain, / So clear and precise was the void." —Sophia de Mello Breyner, translated by Richard Zenith.
This expression I used to know —
("The angels' faces were becoming visible, / As if the earth had entered agony." —Sophia de Mello Breyner)
— at the time when women still had beautiful handwriting.
"I fall from images / As a dead bird falls from the bushes / And splatters on the cold ground." —Sophia de Mello Breyner, translated by Richard Zenith.
João César Monteiro directed twenty-one films from 1969 until his death in 2003. Most of them are masterpieces, even of the supreme sort. I'd like more people to know him, and to pursue seeing and showing his work, so over the next few years I'm going to write on Cinemasparagus about all of his movies. What follows is a completely random selection of frames from a selection of Monteiro's films I randomly pulled off my shelf.
"Destroyed among poems and staring in awe" —Sophia de Mello Breyner, translated by Richard Zenith.
Here's an incredible music-video (and by director unknown!!!) attached to one of my favorite groups, Deux. It's for the track "Felicita", which was c/w "Game and Performance" in 1983 — now findable on the must-have compilation BIPPP: French Synth Wave 1979-85, out on the Born Bad label in Europe and Everloving in the U.S.