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Cinema Room General Birdsong (El cant des ocells)
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Birdsong (El cant des ocells)
[Cross-posted with]

Since my Hong Kong visit has been extended a bit, I've been taking the chance to attend the 2009 Hong Kong International Film Festival. I plan to post a few notes here about some of the films. There are recent films by notable directors like Claire Denis, Ann Hui, Raúl Ruiz, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Peter Greenaway, and quite a few others; new films from mainland China and Taiwan; sets of new films from Italy and Finland; and a substantial number of other new films, independent and otherwise. But for the first few days, I found myself mainly attending the retrospectives that supplement the new film selection. These include film series on Ichikawa Jun, Hans Richter, Yu Hyun-mok, Film Workshop (Tsui Hark's company), a Hong Kong filmmaker of the 50s and 60s named Evan Yang, and recent films from Hong Kong. This last is particularly necessary, since Hong Kong film production has slowed considerably--a topic for another post someday.

The audience is larger than I might have guessed, given the consensus here that film and other matters of culture get little attention. Afternoon screenings are not packed, though, and the proportion of foreigners is higher. But a few nights ago I finally thought I had found where the cool kids are (or at least some art and film students) when I attended a screening at the Agnès b. theatre inside the Hong Kong Arts Center. (It's officially the Agnès b. CINEMA! and has a dubious "quotation" painted on the wall: "On aime le cinéma. -Agnes." Of course arthouse moviegoers are by now aware of the French designer's support for film production, and Hong Kong is the city where her fashion empire has the strongest showing.)

The film being screened was Alberto Serra's Birdsong (El cant des ocells). The director was in attendance, and he introduced the film by telling us we were luckier than the Hong Kong audience for his previous film, since this was his "commercial" effort: at Cannes only 300 of 1200 audience members stayed through his earlier film, but for Birdsong the number rose to 800. He went on to claim that these two are the best Spanish films in forty years, since the death of Buñuel, but that this is nothing to be proud of since all the other Spanish (or did he say European?) filmmakers are terrible. All this was delivered in a kind of ironic tone that continental European artists, perhaps Spaniards especially, sometimes adopt when speaking in English; it would have been grating if carried on much longer, but let's say that it signaled concisely where the director is coming from: an identification with a cosmopolitan intellectual tradition.  If we listen too long, this way of talking can border on a facile cynicism, and this question framed my viewing of the film.

The movie follows the three kings (from the New Testament book of Matthew) as they travel to Bethlehem; the middle section depicts Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus; and in the third section the kings return to wherever they came from. In the first scene, the magi are looking at some sort of rocks and one of them exclaims in hushed tones: "At times, we're awestruck with the beauty of things." This establishes a concern with transcendence that recalls other filmmakers like Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr; but like Tarr, Serra is far from straightforward about his characters' spiritual sense. The journey is frequently a comic one. For instance, we watch the magi turn passive-aggressive as they decide whether or not to continue: "I'll go to." "If I were you, I'd think it over." "You're in charge." This bickering continues for quite some time. "What if we can't?" "I say, wherever you go, I'll follow." "We could come back another day." "That's what I'm saying. We still have time." Or they fight over space as one of them tries to find a comfortable sleeping position.

The comedy is physical too, mainly owing to the bodies of the three actors. These Catalan-speaking wise men suggest the uproarious life of the body, Falstaffian joviality, rather than the kingly austerity or elegance. Two of them are especially plump, and the camera attends to their difficult traversal of desert sand dunes and rocky plains, just as it gives us a lakebottom view of their swimming when they pause to refresh themselves in a lake. And much of their journey has the character of this digression: they go, come back, go again. We watch them walk over the crest of a dune and disappear from view, only to reappear moments later, then mill around and maybe continue on their way. The film is in this way concerned with the purposiveness of their movements. I was reminded of Tarkovsky's films Stalker and Nostalghia, in which direct movement doesn't achieve its end, so the mystic must instead practice indirection. (In parody of this, perhaps, one of the three kings points to the sky and calls, "This way, over here!") In Birdsong mysticism is treated comically; the subject of vision arises explicitly late in the movie when the kings trade stories of their dreams and visions and compete to outdo each other.

Birdsong was shot in black&white digital video, though even viewers attuned to these things may still guess it was filmed. The director says he aspired to an "ambiguous image," combining flatness with deep focus. I won't dwell on this preference, but it might be fruitful to think about this ambiguity in relation to the dilemmas discussed below. The movie tends to use a fixed camera, but otherwise its visual uniformity is due only to the rugged landscapes, many of them photographed in Iceland. Some shots are high in contrast, others washed out or darkened to the point where we can barely discern the figures. (The movie ends on such a shot, in which, as best I can tell, the kings are trading garments.) Long shots alternate with monumental close-ups. The soundtrack is especially notable for its quietness and its combination of naturalism with artifice.

I've described the movie at some length because it's unlikely to be seen widely at the moment and because it seems to me to characterize (and perhaps address) a certain dilemma of the current cinema. From the first shot, it seemed to me that this was a movie that aspired to the condition of masterpiece (insofar as that category still circulates in the film world, and any cinephile will tell you it does). But the movie was also in danger of falling into amateurishness, of inviting the particular feeling you may sometimes have during a movie whose whispered tones and meandering reveal a lack of sense.

Would the movie compel the kind of attention that a Tarkovsky or Tarr film solicits? (The program notes also suggested Tarr as a reference point, probably because of apparent formal resemblance.) In the end I couldn't quite decide, and this indecision may be thought of as either a judgment of the film or an intended outcome of its own strategies. There may not be such a difference between these two responses, at least if we assume that a strong film is still possible.

I will try to explain my indecision. First, Serra's own version. I wanted to ask him about his interest in movement -- both physical movement and especially purposive activity. But after three audience questions, all of a technical nature but permitting the director to discuss his methods and purposes to some extent, the Q&A session ended to allow time for a screening of Waiting for Sancho, a making-of documentary by the actor who played Joseph in the middle part of Birdsong, the section I haven't discussed here. Very early in the documentary, Serra addressed the part of my question about physical movement. He said that he was primarily interested in the three men, non-actors whom he has known a long time and loves dearly, and that the film was a way to watch how they move and speak. During the Q&A, Serra had told us that he wanted to produce something in-between two cinematic alternatives: the documentary, which records something pre-existing and independent of the filmmaker, and the fiction film in which the actors reproduce something dictated by the filmmaker. So Serra has allowed documentary elements (the focus on three nonprofessional actors' personal modes of movement and speech) to develop inside a fictional, even religious, framework. The story is a sort of excuse for what we get to see. Hence, too, the semi-improvisational tactics Serra used, like sending the actors across the sand dune with a walkie-talkie and then issuing nonsensical instructions, forcing the actors to react somehow (but how?).

If there is an obvious problem with this, it's that it seems to shortchange the story. Although there's no plot to speak of (and I'm pretty sympathetic to filmmakers who aren't interested in plot), the dialogue and thematic elements of the story still demand attention. If they become entirely arbitrary, then they no longer work as an excuse for showing these actors, either. Buñuel's arbitrariness, for instance, was never itself arbitrary.

I am inclined to feel generously toward this movie, and I want to say that its representation of purposive, meaning-making activity--the part of my question that Serra didn't answer (*)--thematizes precisely the filmmaker's dilemma: how to produce meaning (therefore, not the kinds of recycled meanings we find at the multiplex) without losing the sense of the real. This is some version of the old dialectic of "absorption" and "theatricality" in western painting that Michael Fried has analyzed. What counts as theatricality changes, but it's always a bad thing. It seems to me that Serra believes, consciously or not, that non-documentary elements themselves are theatrical. He didn't make explicit what he finds inadequate about pure documentary; but I suppose it has to do with the interest that narrative and other non-documentary elements lend to the representation of persons. And so, like his characters, he has to take a roundabout way, to meander here and there in order to sustain an attachment to truth or beauty.

This is a characteristic dilemma of the European cinematic tradition right now, and though I want to state it in more general terms than the documentary/narrative distinction Serra uses, it seems to me that he understands this dilemma pretty well. Perhaps this understanding is an advantage of coming to filmmaking as a relative outsider, free of film-school preconceptions and methods. (I will devote a second, probably shorter, post to another current movie by a well-known filmmaker that treats the same problem.)

But just as I am not sure that "masterpieces" are dead, though it often seems so, I am also not sure that the dilemma is as grave as it seems to Serra. Indeed, there may even be something a bit puerile about taking this problematic of acting and directorial control too seriously. (It reminds me a bit of thankfully superseded debates about "form" and "content.") The current festival is full of intelligent work that sometimes seems more engaging than Birdsong; and I'm not convinced that the cinema's old narrative procedures are unusable today. Do not mistake this for an anti-intellectual attitude; the films I value most highly (and both Tarkovsky and Tarr are among their makers) often use these frameworks in unusual and frequently highly abstract ways. My ambivalence toward Birdsong has more to do with its reluctance to engage in meaning-making activity itself, to allow the framework to be more than an excuse.

(*) Confession: I only watched half of the making-of documentary. Maybe it's a measure of my aging cinephilia that, where a few years ago I would have felt compelled to stay, the strain of a long day of other movies and walking in typically humid, rainy weather through the crowds of Mongkok seemed reason enough to skip out after seeing enough to feel I understood what there was to be learned.

N.B. The documentary is 105 minutes long, 7 minutes longer than Birdsong itself. But it's a terrific counterpoint to the movie, both because the actors say amusing things like "Did the kings not smoke? Did the kings not eat or screw either?" and because we can ask how different it is to watch these people in a documentary mode.
Very interesting, though I didn't see the movie (but I'd like to).
The title reminds me of this so beautiful medieval melody with the same name, El cant dels ocells. I found it on one of the Savall-Figueras records (Cants de la Catalunya medieval, I think). The kind of melody you may write poems, books, paint things, make movies only trying to approach it.
What you say about the "dilemma of the current cinema" seems me accurate about recent "quite good but not so good" european movies. The more stunning european movies I have seen so far are the quite violent or rude ones by directors like Dumont or Dardenne. You know you won't see it again but you can't deny it was something deep and great.
Thanks Jean, I sympathize very much with what you say about "quite good but not so good" movies, and I'd extend this to American movies as well.  (There's a lot of rubbish in the so-called independent cinema in the U.S., but also some movies that aspire to be more interesting.  A lot of these strike me in roughly the way you describe.)

About the medieval Catalan melody, I think this is exactly what the filmmaker had in mind.  (If I'm not mistaken, the birds in the song are singing for the Christ child.)  But I can't actually call the melody to mind, so I may look for the recording you mention.

Besides its title, the film also draws on the history of religious painting, which (as Serra himself said; he's pretty eager to explain himself) provides the only representations we have of the magi apart from a few sentences in the New Testament.  In spite of my reservations, there's something compelling for me about this use of ordinary people in a context dictated by religious and artistic codes.  This is obviously not too far from the way that religious art itself was often produced.
I didn't think it was the same with american movies. I'm always stunned by the "sense of reality" Americans are showing even in the worst movies. The contrary here, especially in France where only a few directors know (knew) how to deal with it, like Pialat for instance (did you see the "Van Gogh" movie ? kind of trap for any director and Pialat made something absolutely real of it, a marvel). One another american talent, my opinion: they know how to express the unexpressable, deep or remote feelings and more, to be naive, sincerely naive (wicked Europeans can't), sincerely hopeful. I'm always happy to see some movies like "Buffalo 66" by Gallo, everything is perfect in them, it's modest but perfect and deeply moving.
One talent one can give to the Europeans: they can be very desperate, very dark. Part of their history, certainly.
For the religious point of view, it's the difficult part. Cinema is so un-religious... or better: over-religious, cult of images, idols and so on. The very pagan art... So its difficulty to treat the subject apart of clichés (The Exorcist, Da Vinci Code, Mel Gibson, etc...). But a few successes too like "Il Vangelio secondo Matteo" by Pasolini or "Sous le soleil de Satan" by Pialat (again). Or "The night of the hunter", the most protestant film I know (don't believe men).
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