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Colossal Youth

At last year's San Francisco International Film Festival, after seeing Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth for a second time in eight months, Darren Hughes and I tried to put into words why we like the film so much. [Darren, I hope you don't mind my recounting a bit of this conversation from memory.]

We traded answers to that difficult question: "I didn't know a film could do that," Darren said. "I love the doorways," I said. Back and forth we went until one of us remarked that the film is so still the camera only moves twice in two and a half hours. The other concurred. Yes, only twice.

But as we talked about those two times, we realized that between us we could come up with three times that the camera moves. We both remembered the way it pivots to follow the tree-lined stream and its parallel roadway; I'd forgotten that it lowers its gaze from the treetops to watch Ventura talk about the events of 1972 and his (his?) fall from a construction site's scaffolding; and Darren hadn't noticed that the camera pans during Ventura's first apartment tour. How strange that despite our rapt attention and, by some measures, seasoned eyes, we'd each overlooked something so basic and superficial as camera movement in a film that's built almost entirely out of static shots.

So I was both startled and amused last night to discover, on my third viewing of Colossal Youth, that the camera moves five times. What the. These pans are multiplying like loaves and fishes. My God.

In order:

  1. In the film's first few minutes, after his wife's knifepoint monologue, Ventura enters the frame from the left and the camera pans right to follow him. This is his first appearance.
  2. Ventura is touring the studio apartment. It's too small. After he examines the kitchen, the camera pans right to follow him into the main room.
  3. After the scene in the museum, the camera points at a leafy undercarriage seen from below, then slow-spins across it and eventually brings chin to chest and finds Ventura talking with his "son."
  4. The camera pans left-to-right to survey a stream in a park, ticking nearly 180 degrees before it stops. Except for the cars on a roadway that runs along the stream, we don't see anyone else in the shot until a rowboat enters the settled frame and sails over our left shoulder. The camera does not follow, but we hear the paddling even after the boat is no longer visible.
  5. The camera pans right-to-left — counter to all the other horizontal pans — to follow Ventura and Lento into the bedroom of the burned apartment building. It pauses for the conversation at the window then pans right to follow them back to the door, which is too narrow to allow simultaneous egress.

I'm not sure if it's the film's somnolence, its rapturous compositions, its multiple axes — time, space, character, repetition, historical context, rhythm of cuts, near-narrative, fiction/non-fiction divide, trilogy completion — any one of which could be overlooked momentarily as the mind pursues a thread, limited by that old rule-of-psycho-thumb about the human brain's ability to keep only 5 or 6 items aloft simultaneously. But, whatever the reason, Colossal Youth, like most great films, releases its mysteries slowly even though it hides them in plain sight.

Last night's screening ended with a Q&A. I smiled at the first question: a woman asked Costa to comment on the film's stillness, noting that there are only two instances of movement, the post-museum dialogue and the scene at the stream. Curious. Costa, who talked at length, humbly, about the film's stillness, didn't correct her, and I'm glad about that, for the sake of the questioner and other viewers who might rather watch the paint flake on its own without any extra chiseling. The first couple of viewings are better spent on something other than counting pans.

And besides, if he'd said the camera moves seven times, I'd have heard nothing for the rest of the evening.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
March 3, 2008, 08:34 AM

multiplying like loaves and fishes

You are hilarious. Not only do I come here for informed insights into film, but the jokes are swell too. Now, if we could figure out a little finger food....

It's absolutely illuminating to listen to Costa ramble. But God forbid I should ever ask him about doors or windows again....

March 3, 2008, 09:51 AM

Soon after that first screening of Colossal Youth at TIFF, I ran into another friend on the street, who greeted me with, "Oh, Darren, I almost cried when the camera finally moved just that once." The boat shot was the only one he'd noticed. And isn't that just the most enigmatic shot in a film packed with enigmatic shots?

You haven't seen Ossos and Vanda yet, right? Be prepared for more doors. Lots and lots of doors. An endless stream of doors.

March 3, 2008, 10:18 AM

But you do understand that he didn't mean to put those doors and windows in there and he's certainly not using them as framing devices? He attributes all that to his cinematographer, "in the old-fashioned sense."

An enterprising soul could write an essay on just the doors alone. This go-round I was bemused by the door that won't stay open in Colossal Youth. In my own wholly-subjective Jungian-skewed way, I view all these windows and doors more as thresholds, with attendant spirits. More registers of access and lack of access.

Although he refused to answer my question of how he used architecture for compositional framing, he then waxed poetic on the soulful contours of Mideastern medinas, the relationship of interior to exterior space, how public Vanda's room is, and how private the street.

March 3, 2008, 06:43 PM

Michael, are you making fun of my sense of humor?

Yes, I've always liked the doors, like the one that Lento removes -- not opens, removes -- since Ventura is blocking the other doorway. My favorite is the door that won't stay open in the second apartment, the way it closes in front of the camera to seal off the characters, the way Ventura presses it open gently and watches it swing slowly back, with the same long fingers that he used to indicate that the place is full of spiders.

Darren, yeah, tons of doors in Ossos. I saw it yesterday. And locks, too. Keys, deadbolts. At the end, Clotilde passes through them in succession like she's running a gauntlet, just to get to work. I like the repeated instance of a woman entering a room and announcing her presence (which also checks to see if the owner is home, a contract with two purposes).

You know, I think that people who were understandably lukewarm about Colossal Youth, especially people skeptical of the emperor's clothes, might have had a different impression if they'd seen the earlier films. Not that the earlier films will make anyone like Colossal Youth, but they put to rest any notion that Costa is an unskilled charlatan letting his camera run and calling it art. The context makes clear that he has deliberately removed tools from his bag over time.

March 3, 2008, 11:42 PM

Rob, are you making fun of my making fun of your sense of humor?

PFA has programmed the retrospective such that Colossal Youth bookends the earlier films, which I find wholly cinematic. The film starts out with an event, then we flashback to how we got to that event, and then the event is shown again. It's been a while since I've been so thoroughly committed to a program such as this. I don't want to miss a single evening or even one of Costa's rambles. And I haven't been as nervous about interviewing someone since Bela.

When all is said and done, however, I'm glad that I saw Colossal Youth the first time without knowledge of what to expect or endure. I was transfixed by its visuals and thoroughly unmoored as to its narrative. My second viewing--informed by McDougall and Darren and much of Costa's own writing--presented a completely different experience. I am happy to have had both.

March 4, 2008, 04:22 AM

Yeah, I feel the same way. A few days ago, I thought it was unfortunate that the PFA was screening Colossal Youth first. Even though they're showing it again at the end, and even though that's the first of his films that I saw, I imagined that ideally you'd see them all in order.

But I agree with you that in reality it seems fitting. I was especially glad to get the refresher of that film before filling in some of the backstory, and I'll probably catch it on the way out, too.

Costa's films certainly take time. I saw his most recent short, The Rabbit Hunters at NYFF as part of an excellent triptych called Memories, and unfortunately I don't remember it very well because the other two films, by Eugène Green and Harun Farocki, were so great, and Costa's so familiar by comparison (it uses the same setting and characters as Colossal Youth), that I lost it in my head.

And unfortunately it's not a part of this retrospective.

March 4, 2008, 08:09 PM

I only saw the first "hallway" pan, the almost-360 along/across the park's stream and the final movement in the apartment with Ventura and Lento. Gosh, I better make sure I see this thing again in April. I wish I'd said something about the doorways in my piece but I think I'll get to more of that in my _Ossos_ piece (which I'm almost done with: damn you, homework!), as I began to catch on a little quicker to all the framing devices (and doubles/echoes) structuring space and time and all that formal jazz. I sure wish I'd stayed to hear him talk about the doorways! I agree: this is quite a cool series. I'm very happy to be a part of it each step of the way.

March 5, 2008, 11:48 PM

"And isn't that just the most enigmatic shot in a film packed with enigmatic shots?"

It makes me think of the beginning of Dead Man, when Crispin Glover seems to refer to the movie's final scene. Traveling in a train, he sits down across from Johnny Depp and says:

Look out the window. And doesn't this remind you of when you're in the boat, and then later that night you were lying looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, Why is it that the landscape is moving but the boat is still? And also, where is it that you're from?

Murky tenses, murky timelines.