THE WHITE CITY, AND THE DIRT WHERE NO-ONE WALKS: Michael Pattison in Lisbon

Published on: May 26th, 2014

All good things begin with a contradiction—which is not to say that all contradictions are good. On the evening of 1 May, I sat down in Lisbon’s São Jorge cinema to watch Cristina Picchi’s Zima, one of my favourite short films from last year. I had seen the film three times previously: firstly in Locarno last August, secondly in Seville last November, and more recently in Bradford this March. One of my favourite Bob Dylan songs is “4th Time Around”.

Every time I watch Zima I like it a little more, but somehow I always forgot—or had done so before the fourth viewing—about that one scene, midway through, in which two farm workers tie a pig up by one of its hind legs to slice its throat. The duo’s intentions are immediately obvious. The animal becomes quickly agitated. A long knife appears in one of the boy’s hands. The audience around me began to murmur; I saw a few of them looking away in advance. At the point at which blood is to be shed, though, Picchi cuts to a landscape shot, denying her audience distress while cheekily bridging the two scenes with a sonic match, with the high-pitched howl of a chilly wind filling in for the pig’s would-be scream of death. The audience was visibly and audibly relieved.

Who were they kidding? This was Lisbon, Portugal: Vegetarian’s Nightmare. As a returning visitor to Lisbon—attending its IndieLisboa film festival for the second year running—I’d prepared for the city’s frankly backward state of affairs when it comes to catering for vegetarians. Granted, this European capital isn’t a total culinary wash-out—civilised pockets do exist—but never in all of the continent have I encountered as many restaurants and eateries whose menus don’t include a veggie option, and whose idea of “meat-free” upon being asked still includes fish and, sometimes, even more hilariously, chicken.

My point isn’t to complain about these things now that I’m back in the comfort of a home country that at least pretends vegetarians aren’t freaks. It’s that I’d bet my bottom euro that every last one of those Lisboetas making such a spectacle of looking away from a pig’s imminent slaughter are clockwork devourers of dead flesh. Eat what you like, but at least have the decency to kill it yourself—or, failing that, to watch it be killed. Of course, I empathise: in this modern age of tech-fetish consumerism, moral midgetry has never seemed so convenient. And convenience is the bottom line by which history itself has stumbled clumsily onward with cancerous self-consumption.

Campo Pequeno under the testing sun

In Portugal, bullfights (corridas de touros) conclude with the wounded animal being taken away to be put out of its misery. For here too, the most savage sport of all continues to exist, though unlike its Spanish equivalent, the paying public is spared the trouble of watching the creature be killed. Sitting through its torture is fair game, but the final reality, whereby such brutality is taken to its sad and logical conclusion, is apparently one inconvenience too many. Lisbon’s bullring, located in the district of Campo Pequeno just north of the city centre, sits above the underground mall in which one of IndieLisboa’s screening venues is located. In the same mall, not far from the cinema itself, there is a circle of fast food chains. Only one of them serves a vegetarian option.

Aguas Livres, looking north

Head west towards the Águas Livres Aqueduct, one of the few fixtures that survived Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake. Entry fee: €2. You walk along it and you walk back.The ticket apparently grants you access to other attractions around the city. Stay up there for a mere five minutes and you’ll notice that Lisbon Airport is served by one flight path only, and that the planes come in thick and fast over the aqueduct itself and those mainly rickety neighbourhoods through which its 65m-tall stone legs stretches. Such suburbs are avatars of displacement: cluttered and dilapidated, they look and feel more urban than the city centre itself. Railway tracks run parallel and in deafeningly close proximity to visibly new housing developments not too dissimilar from those seen in Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006). These neighbourhoods are never mentioned in guidebooks.

the art of travel?

Two of the railway tracks lead to and extend across the 25th of April Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril), a suspension bridge that crosses the river Tagus into Pragal, a parish in Almada to the south. The bridge was designed by American Bridge Company and inaugurated in 1966. Its current name refers to the 1974 date on which the Estado Novo (‘New State’, also known as the country’s Second Republic) was overthrown by a military coup. Prior to this, it was known as the Salazar Bridge (Ponte Salazar), after the anti-communist leader of the Estado Novo, who ruled between 1932 and 1968. Since 1996, the 25th of April Bridge has been maintained by Lusoponte, a private consortium originally founded to build the 10.2 mile-long Vasco da Gama Bridge, a little further upriver, which is funded by toll charges on both bridges.

the bridge where every day is the 25th of April

Oddly, there is no way of crossing the Tagus from Lisbon on foot. Above the two railway tracks stretching across the 25th of April Bridge are six very busy car lanes. In addition, a ferry crosses the river at regular intervals through the day. Disappointed not to have had the option of a pedestrian walkway, I asked several locals about this detail later. “It’s too far to walk,” they said. “In the heat…” some added. Mad dogs and Englishmen, as the song goes. And so onward, under the testing afternoon sun, to Belém, a municipality located 1.2 miles west of the bridge.

Belém would be an altogether more serene part of Lisbon but for the nightmarish congestion caused there by tourists. It’s here that the tour guides tell you to visit, because this is where History with a capital H and Culture with a capital Care most visible: quaintness preserved, safety personified. Safety in numbers, at that: because the relatively open space of Belém accommodates a multitude of tour buses at any one time, it’s here also that one bumps (often literally) into other people, whose oversized, do-it-all cameras hang down to rest ever-so-politely against hard-earned Homer Simpson bellies. Tourists dawdle along pavements, ambling along three abreast as if they have every right to milk this top-down idea of Seeing The World for all its dilettante worth. There’s a famous pastry shop here, from which emanates a human centipede of poseurs palpably keen to lick and tick their way through life’s official list of must-dos.

off the tourist track

Ah salut, good for you,” as Tony Soprano might say. Only, when Tony Soprano does say that, he’s referring to society’s “happy fucking wanderer”, whom he can’t stand. My own nagging suspicions have to do with the sheer absence of such people in, for instance, Meia Laranja (literally, “half orange”), the small neighbourhood apparently known, I learned only after walking through it on my way to the nearby aqueduct, for its relatively recent drugs-related problems. Not to state things in too vulgar or inversely snobbish a manner. I’m not arguing to turn such places as Meia Laranja into tourist sites. What concerns me more—and it’s by no means a unique preoccupation—is the ways in which the uneven distribution of tourist interest is actively shaped by governmental policies.

"brace, brace"

The closest the happy wanderers come to neighbourhoods like Meia Laranja is when their plane is descending over them on the way in (incidentally, these same people, I’ve found, are the ones whose seatbelts you hear being clicked open and who you see retrieving luggage from overhead lockers before the plane’s “come to a complete standstill”). Strange creatures indeed. You don’t even see them walking to Belém: much more convenient to take the designated bus listed in the guide. All the better for us, then, perhaps. It’s apparently 3.7 miles to Belém from Lisbon’s city centre, and the more direct walk there, parallel to the Tagus, is all the more lovely for being so sparsely peopled. Meanwhile, there chugs another bus packed to the brim with hop-on-hop-off travellers. Where’s the fun?

25th of April Bridge seen from a neighbourhood between Belem and Lisbon

Walking costs nothing. Indeed, for me the joys of flânerie emerge out of budgetary constraints. One of the ongoing contradictions of being a 26-year-old film journalist from Gateshead is that you’re enviably footloose on the one hand and enviously cash-strapped on the other. It means, firstly, that I’m never quite sure if my hostility toward tourist hotspots is merely because I can’t fully commit to joining the circus, and secondly, that I’m comparatively unfazed when entering less alluring parts of a foreign city. As someone says in David Mamet’s Redbelt (2008): “You’re addicted to poverty.”

Maybe. As I said in a panel discussion on film criticism in Austria last month, this here is a lifestyle choice. And I’ll never bemoan my own situation before (or more than) the fact that too many estimable publications continue to get away with not paying their writers a fucking dime. If it all just falls down tomorrow, I’ve said, I’ll go and do something else. I can’t speak for others, though. At the time of writing, that odious bubble referred to as the Cannes Film Festival is coming to an end (they’ve just given out a prize for best dog). A kind of film-journo’s Holy Grail—and one I aim and hope one day to attend—Cannes is also a Baudrillardian nightmare, epitomising everything that’s wrong about film culture as a whole. It appears to be disconnected from everyday society even while being a very sharpened expression of the very militantly upheld hierarchies in place beyond its banal, gilded confines.

With its emphases upon glamour, glitz and embarrassing glossolalia about easy targets such as Grace of Monaco—the obviously terrible opening-night dud to which too many journalists were under objective pressures to donate valuable column space—Cannes is a Super Bowl with a niche fan-base whose most ominous effect is to draw even the more resistant soldiers among us into the blurrily dense fog of bragging rights (if attending) and sour grapes (if not). Paradoxically, if we were really bothered about sustaining and expanding the health of our profession, we’d be better off boycotting such festivals in unison. Especially when the majority of criticism filed there has been so wooden it’s basically a fire risk.

Such sentiments are signs, perhaps, of inner shifts. It’s been a year now since I first attended IndieLisboa. It was my first overseas film festival. I ate more food this time around not because there were more vegetarian options but because I had more money. I’m in a better place than I was 12 months ago: 14 festivals, three jury appearances, hundreds of articles, an expanding list of outlets and a little remuneration here and there. I’m writing faster but I’m writing less, and I’m writing less because I’m writing better—and also out of principle, because I don’t think I should be writing for free. I like to think such progress doubles as some indication that this thing called criticism might not be dead yet.

But the more films I see (over a thousand, including shorts and mid-lengthers, in the last 18 months), the more I also see a subculture that is nothing but symptomatic of wider and deeper malaises. Everywhere, all of the time, it’s imperative that we not only look for ways in which films themselves reinforce prejudices and the status quo, but speak up beyond and outside of the self-appointed authority of a printed column or bandwidth. Why? Because cinema won’t save itself. Meanwhile, I worry about the increasing number of people drawn to writing about cinema because it’s less about confrontation—and I mean actual confrontation, not just opinionship—than it is escape.

I agree with whoever said or wrote, “The more you know, the harder it is to write.” (It was Tim O’Brien, apparently, though he seems to mean that it’s harder to write the more you learn about your own craft, whereas I’m talking about actually knowing stuff, about the world.) Writing shouldn’t be easy. It should be difficult—intimidatingly, off-puttingly so, in fact. Otherwise, as with anything, what’s the point?

But while we’re on about good things and contradictions, none of this is to say film criticism can’t or shouldn’t be exciting. Both to write and to be read are exciting things indeed. But if writing is to give justice to the sheer bewildering complexity of the world, it shouldn’t be easy to do.

Why? Because it’s reading that should be easy. I haven’t been talking about getting lost in a maze of theory or in literary obfuscation. I’ve been talking about artistic sensitivity and truthfulness, about critical clarity and creativity, about capturing something about a film and about the world and about the world through that film and vice versa. And about the increasingly desperate need for all of these things at a time when the lowest common denominator is how nice the sensory experience of going to watch the new X-Men was: wow great film the best yet. Reminder: most films are a waste of time and money.

Six-time world snooker champion Steve Davis has said the key to conquering his sport, when on the biggest stage and under the utmost pressure, is to play as if it means nothing when in fact it means everything. Similarly, I think if film criticism is to mean anything at all, a critic must treat the profession as a matter of life and death while always remaining open to the contradictory possibility that it’s a thing of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.

Michael Pattison
25th May, 2014
all photographs (bar the
Zima one) are by the author

links to official site

a different view from the same aqueduct:
Resisting Transcendence – Lisbon 2014 by Neil Young

MP/JL
11 May 2013. Não then, não then: Michael Pattison’s IndieLisboa 2013.
2 October 2013. Berwick Ranger: Michael Pattison reports from the 8th Film & Media Arts Festival.
22 November 2013. Economic Devastation Is Not the Only Fruit: Michael Pattison reports from Seville.
6 February 2014. Of Maas, and Men: Michael Pattison reports from Rotterdam.
27 February 2014. Spree City: Michael Pattison Reports, and Escapes, from the 2014 Berlinale.
1 April 2014. Only Connect: Michael Pattison reports from Thessaloniki on three boxing documentaries.
7 May 2014: Me and a Meander: Michael Pattison’s second Thessaloniki report.

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