LONDON FILM FESTIVAL (pt4) : Honour of the Knights (Quixotic); Lights in the Dusk; Colossal Youth

film of the day : Colossal Youth

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Friday at the London Film Festival: for me, this ended up as "slow film day." Three pictures which made splashes of varying degrees back at Cannes in May. From Spain – or rather Catalonia - Albert Serra's glacially-paced Honour of the Knights (Quixotic), deconstructing the myth of Don Quixote into a pair of figures in rest and motion across a rural landscape: two gentlemen in Girona, if you like.
   Then from Finland, Lights in the Dusk, the latest from Aki Kaurismaki and another stately deconstruction, this time of film noir, via the story of a morose security guard who gets drawn into a jewel-heist plot by a femme fatale. And finally, the big one, perhaps the most critically-contentious – and, in certain quarters, avidly-analysed features of 2006, Pedro Costa's chronicle of life among Lisbon's dispossessed and overlooked, the enigmatically-titled Colossal Youth.
   A tough day, and I don't mind admitting that I didn't get through it without artificial stimulation: a black coffee and a can of sugar-free Red Bull before Colossal Youth, which I knew had provoked numerous walkouts whenever and wherever it's been screened. I even took the precaution of taking into the screening some caffeine Pro Plus tablets in case I started to flag – but even though the picture proved just as challenging as I'd expected (and the walk-outs outnumbered the stay-ins) the pills remained unpopped by the time the credits rolled.
   Indeed, of the day's three movies, I managed to remain alert and attentive much more easily during the hypnotically odd Colossal Youth than I did for the other two – even though it's nearly twice as long as Lights in the Dusk (during which I felt myself close to nodding off on more than one occasion, despite the undoubted charm of the picture.)
   Costa's film is, evidently, by no means for all audiences – and I can see why certain critics* (such as the reliably dyspeptic Mike D'Angelo) have ranked it among the very worst things they've seen in recent years. But I can also see why others (including Michael Sicinski) have been bowled over by it: Canadian magazine Cinema Scope, under the editorship of Mark Peranson, has become something of a Pedro Costa fanzine since Cannes.
   I don't quite share Peranson's view that Costa is among the world's great living film-makers – though, to be fair, I haven't seen anything else he's done. After four and a half days, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus remains my pick of LFF 2006 so far (with only Requiem to go). But I'm glad I got all the way through Colossal Youth – and if any festival-programmer is considering adding it to their lineup, I'd very much recommend that they do so – on the strict proviso that they brief potential audiences exactly what it is they'll be letting themselves in for.
   This entry is already too long – I should really devote the rest of it to a more orthodox summing-up of the three pictures in hand. Here goes.

Honour of the Knights (Quixotic)
   Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote is invariably described as one of the great Spanish novels. It's inspired countless adaptations on big screen and small, but surely none like Albert Serra's austerely stripped-down focus on the book's two main characters: aged knight Don Quixote (Lluis Carbo) and his faithful servant Sancho Panza (Eliseu Huertas.) We follow the pair as they make their way through a placid countryside. There's some dialogue; not much in the way of what could be called action. Don Quixote talks a lot about God, and what it means to be a knight, what it means to be a man. Sancho says little. Other persons appear about halfway through, but remain shadowy, background figures.
   It's very much the opposite of Terry Gilliam's legendarily ill-fated big-budget, effects-heavy project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (as chronicled in documentary Lost In La Mancha) – and very much aimed at the most rarefied of highbrow moviegoers. The film is punishingly slow – so much so, it makes the last notable, really slow Spanish picture, Mercedes Alvarez's The Sky Turns, feel like Crank. The slowness here is a function of the unspecified, centuries-ago setting, plus the fact that the main character is an old man with waning powers. But the pacing, and the way information is withheld (when night falls, we see little), are clearly deliberate: as Quixote says, "You have to follow my path, even if you don't understand it."
   And the audience does quite quickly adapt to the picture's unusual rhythms – appreciating, like Quixote, the simple pleasures of the wind in the trees, the water in the rivers, the songs of the birds. In the end, however, Serra's long, arduous path doesn't lead anywhere in particular – we get his point after an hour or so, after which the picture's poetic repetitions seem increasingly redundant. The crucial, penultimate shot is frustratingly ambiguous, and, typically, Serra doesn't let us see what's going on at all clearly. Honour of the Knights is, like its protagonist, something of a noble failure – capturing all too well the torpor and ennui of a life reluctantly but gracefully winding down to oblivion.

Lights in the Dusk
   Helsinki, the present. Security-guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiainen) lives alone, has no friends, is unpopular at work. His warmest relationship is with Aila (Maria Heiskanen), the woman who operates a hot-dog kiosk which he frequents most nights. But he doesn't pick up on the tentative signs of romantic interest Aila occasionally sends in his direction. He responds more strongly to the more aggressive approach taken by Mirja (Maria Jarvenhelmi), a shapely blonde who makes his acquaintance in a cafe one evening. Koistinen seems happy to reciprocate Mirja's attentions – but his new "girlfriend" isn't all she seems.
   The third in Kaurismaki's loose "Finland" trilogy, Lights in the Dusk is a decidedly minor affair in comparison with the most recent episode, Palme d'Or winner The Man Without A Past. It's recognisably and enjoyably Kaurismaki's work in pretty much every shot, being executed with the director's familiar, lightly stylised approach to lighting, framing and colour. Performances are also in 'Kaurismaki mode': direct, bald, sparing in their displays of emotion.
   Music-cuts are typically well-chosen: classical selections alongside rockabilly tracks (we get a full performance from local retro-stars Melrose when Koistinen and Mirja share a date at a club.) Humour is deadpan and droll, much of it deriving from the way the picture's protagonist so stoically reacts to the lousy hand he's dealt by fate. The diminutive Koistinen (his relative shortness especially notable in two scenes where he encounters extremely tall barmen) is the patsy's patsy: a man who reacts to being manipulated by heartless Russian mobsters not with anger but with dejected, bemused resignation. 
   All very low-key, all very Kaurismaki: delightful enough in the early stretches, but yielding diminishing returns as it proceeds with Koistinen-like doggedness along its path. A small-scale tale which feels a touch padded-out, even at seventy-odd minutes: as if Kaurismaki was fulfilling a contractual obligation (to his own conscience) rather than properly testing and flexing his creative muscles. Final shot is nice, however: a rare moment of warmth and optimism in a world of sardonic, fatalistic gloom.

Falling through the air
with minimal resistance : Colossal Youth

Repetitive, elliptical, gnomic episodes in the life of Ventura, a sixtyish gent living in an unspecified corner of an unspecified city. His wife Clotilde leaves him, destroying their furniture as she goes. Ventura, dejected, spends his time visiting his "children" (who call him 'Papa'). They talk. He listens. He talks. They listen. Conversations occasionally take place. Repetition and simplicity are crucial. Costa has gone on record that he intends certain sections of the audience to walk out at certain junctures: the film must therefore be seen in public, where the walkouts themselves become part of the experience.

The film is a contemplation of light on faces, buildings, furniture, walls, doors. The source and nature of the light is ambiguous: the street lights in this area seem unusually bright, lighting up the outsides of blocks of flats so that at midnight it seems bright as noon. The camera almost invariably stays fixed, at a certain distance above ground, looking up at the characters – all of whom are people in effect playing themselves. Ventura is a sculptural presence – perhaps in recognition of the English-language title (an album and track** by Welsh band Young Marble Giants: the 'giants' and 'colossi' being in turn a reference to the kouros sculptures from ancient Greece).

Is the dialogue written by Costa, or improvised by the participants? Impossible to tell: the 'characters' seem entirely natural and unforced, which is a minor miracle considering none of them are "actors" in the traditional sense. Their dialogue is often concerned with issues of family: their children, memories of past events involving other family members. Are these people actually related? Or are such terms as "papa" and "son" tokens of familiarity between neighbours/friends (as in Chinese films such as Taking Father Home?) There is no way of knowing, based solely on the information presented to us – so why simply not take things at face value?

Monologues abound – some of them unusually protracted. Duration is a significant element, but considerations of time become increasingly elastic – perhaps even irrelevant. A particular love-letter, written by Ventura for an illiterate friend (son?), is repeated throughout the film: the beginning is always the same (becomes in effect the picture's complex mantra) but the ending always changes – and the final reading is capped by a droll "punchline": the austerity of Costa's approach makes it seem unlikely, but a certain wry comedy can often be extracted from the picture's tough, seemingly unyielding meat.

Interiors and exteriors are shown; certain intersections of walls and ceilings take on particular significance. "It hurts to see these horrors, that I don't want to see." The camera is placed just so. The lighting is carefully arranged. Shadows are crucial. Aspects of horror, aspects of comedy. The strangeness proves compelling, even hypnotic: scenes are repeated with mild variation. A small number of locations is used, to which we return again and again in autistic fashion. The effect of the film is nothing if not cumulative.

Time loses its meaning. We navigate our way into the future by means of the reel changes: red pen marks on the side of a frame, every twenty minutes. The reel changes become epochal shifts; the squarish screen a hole in our reality through which further holes may be observed. Ventura, briefed on the many advantages of a small, spotlessly white flat in a brand new block, points his long arm, long finger towards the corner of the room: "It's full of spiders."

Only a fraction of the film's mysteries will yield themselves up to us, no matter how intently we address them. Colossal Youth is composed of the mysteries of a family's existence, their inter-relations, events from the past. But it is primarily a psychological portrait of Ventura: an impressionist map of fragments which can only make a partial sense to any observer. Colossal Youth is a different kind of cinematic experience: beyond slow, beyond difficult. Unforced and uninflected, a ritual in the dark, an incantation (the spell, the love-letter begins "nha creceu, my love…") The tone is one of elegant, bemused, resigned despair.

We squat in rooms of resigned, bemused melancholia, occupied by Ventura and his interlocutors. 'Youth' is invariably elswehere, just off-camera, just over the horizon into the past. Ventura's head is sometimes bandaged, sometimes not. A list of "do's and don'ts for residents" is mentioned. Colossal Youth demands a subjective response (colossal achievement? colossal bore?): it is painterly, philosophical, sculptural, emphatically cinematic. Ventura wears odd socks.

Neil Young
28th October 2006

HONOUR OF THE KNIGHTS (QUIXOTIC) : [5/10] : Honor de cavalleria : Spain 2006 : Albert SERRA : 113 mins (timed)
LIGHTS IN THE DUSK : [6/10] : Lautakaipungin valot : Finland 2006 : Aki KAURISMAKI : 77m (timed)
COLOSSAL YOUTH : [7/10] : Juventud em marcha : Portugal 2006  : Pedro COSTA : 157m (timed)

seen 27th October 2006 (public shows)
Honour of the Knights (Quixotic) and Colossal Youth at NFT (paid  £8.50 for both); Lights in the Dusk at Odeon West End (paid  £11)

index to Jigsaw Lounge's coverage of LFF 2006                 LFF official site

*
THE PRO…

A rebel with a cause (and an eye), Portuguese director Pedro Costa is redefining cinema, working with Lisbon slum dwellers to create a collaborative expression of social injustice. In this defiant, astonishing film, Costa's experimentation reaches an aesthetic peak. Colossal Youth follows the 50-ish Ventura, partly disabled from a workplace accident, on encounters with his "children." Though these downtrodden yet vibrant kids may, in fact, exist only in Ventura's mind, he doesn't fail to hear their deeply personal and tragic stories of struggle. For one child, who seeks to communicate with his family in Cape Verde, Ventura repeats an eloquent love letter he earlier wrote, exhorting his illiterate friend to memorize it. The past is in danger, Costa says, and memory may be all that we have left. The image, however, is very much present: A luminous glow caused by natural light reflecting from mirrors held off-camera often coats the characters, revealing them as wandering souls unable to find rest. A cryptic, heartbreaking masterpiece of tremendous power, Colossal Youth features unmotivated flashbacks, probable ghosts, and drawn-out scenes that appear improvised (though Costa rehearsed and re-rehearsed, then shot 320 hours of footage over 15 months). The scenes all play out in real time, without camera movement, and appear unconnected; the pleasure is found in the coincidences. Patience is demanded–and completely rewarded. (Mark Peranson)

THE CON…
The only other notable film I've seen since my last post is Colossal Youth, by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, and perhaps the kindest thing I can do is note that most viewers will find it an endurance test, and then just move on. There's a tiny, self-selecting audience for this sort of ultra-austere art film, and you could hear those 15 people — I could probably name ten of them, without even seeing the reviews — applauding madly (and rather defiantly, it seemed) throughout the end credits, as those of us who didn't flee the theater during an early 10- or 12-minute monologue sat in respectful silence…or were gently nudged awake. (Mike D'Angelo)

** the lyrics for Young Marble Giants' Colossal Youth (1981):

If you think the world is
a machine with one cog
And that cog is you,
or the things that you do
Then you are not in this world
The world is not you
If you think the world
is a balloon in your head
When it goes bang only
you will be dead
'Cos you are not in this world
The world is not you
If you think the world lies
at the top of your legs
And you only live when you are in bed
Then you are not in this world
The world is your head
If you think the world is
a clutter of existence
Falling through the air
with minimal resistance

You could be right, how would I know?
Colossal youth is showing the way to go