Rotterdam: Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Imagens de uma cidade perdida

Just a little note, for those interested.   Newest film was invited to Rotterdam festival, where both Marcella and I will be to see friends, films, and introduce and do Q and A with film. Imagens (Images of a lost city) is a portrait of a disappearing Lisbon, which was recorded when I lived there, 1996-98. It was mostly shot in the area around the Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge, and Graça, though there are other places glimpsed. These are old neighborhoods in the center of the city, a hint of what once was Lisboa.

I first saw the city in 1964, while traveling on an Italian freighter, as one of 12 passengers, enroute to Tampico, Mexico.  Beginning in Genoa, other stops included Livorno, Marseille, Cadiz, then Lisboa and on across the Atlantic where we could have stopped in Habana but the United States had imposed its embargo, so we went on to La Guaira, a port for Caracas, and then to Vera Cruz and finally Tampico. It took a month, and cost all of $150, meals included. It was an Italian ship so the food was pretty good since one ate with the captain.  It was a fantastic adventure, too with many stories for another day.  Portugal at that time was still a very isolated little piece of Europe, under the right-wing dictator, Salazar, and distant from almost everywhere owing its location on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, the bad roads, poverty, and political climate. Then there were almost no cars, and little children trailed me as I went into the Alfama, the rare tourist, with my Pentax in hand.  It was at that time an extraordinarily beautiful city, its little pedrinas and stone inlays, its azulas (blue ceramic tiles which covered many buildings as protection against the ocean climate) all marking each square centimeter as being lovingly attended by hand and craft. I had seen many other European cities, but Lisboa left a deep impact.  Later, in the early 1980’s I returned, to shoot a documentary (never finished) for the BFI on Raul Ruiz, and renewed my acquaintance with Lisboa, which had already been somewhat ravaged by modernity, and which had begun to look and feel like a run-down 3rd world city. Again I returned in the late 80’s, and had a traumatic and passionate affair with a Portuguese singer, who quite inadvertently influenced the making of All the Vermeers in New York, which is dedicated to her.

And again I returned, then with my partner, Teresa Villaverde, a young (at that time) Portuguese filmmaker who had pursued me for several years after meeting me at a small festival in Dunquerque, in 1994 or so, and with whom I lived 5 years.  In 1997 our daughter Clara was born, at the same time I was shooting the material that became Imagens de uma cidade perdida.  In 1998 we moved to Paris, where Teresa edited her film Os Mutantes, as the producer, Jacques Bidou, was French.   Afterward we moved to Rome where we lived.   On November 2, 2000, Teresa Villaverde Cabral – having almost completed shooting of a new film, Agua e Sal (Water and Salt, i.e., tears) in which a surrogate filmmaker (a curator of photo exhibits), who was played by an Italian actress, Galatea Ranzi, who happened to look almost exactly like Teresa, especially after a bit of hair-cutting, etc., is breaking up with her husband, played by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, and who together have a young child, played by Clara Villaverde Cabral Jost, at her mother’s insistence  – kidnapped Clara from our home in Rome.  In the film the same occurs: Clara is kidnapped by her film mother. (More gruesome is that owing to typical film-world crap, Clara’s cinematic kidnapping was filmed after her real one – despite vehement objections I made to the Portuguese Juvenile court.)  To say a long and very unhappy period followed, as a completely corrupt Portuguese system closed around their “star” and legality was cavalierly trashed in the interests of an “important” Lisboa family. I have been unable to see my daughter, whom I had raised almost single-handedly for 3 and a half years while her mother tended the more important matter, to her,  of making her films (Os Mutantes and Agua e Sal), since August 2001. Teresa Villaverde has refused all contact, sent back gifts for Clara, and otherwise behaved in a manner typical to those called Parental Alienators. It has, for me, been a tragedy, which I am sadly certain has been doubled, or worse, in Clara. She will have her 14th birthday on March 27 of this year.

Clara, on her Facebook page, which was closed down the day I asked to “friend” her.

To say I have a conflicted sensibility about Portugal and Lisbon would be a considerable understatement. My experience there,  perhaps reflected in Imagens, is fully expressive of the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness. For them it is as if a part of their DNA, a cultural piece which they are obliged to carry. They have a particular word for it, saudade. However fanciful it sounds, the place is pervaded with it, and in a sense they are proud of it.   It is a phenomenon which is collectively neurotic, wherein they seem willfully to bring upon themselves actions which will induce a bit of saudade.   It is little wonder they are currently undergoing their economic travails, and surely in a way, they imagine they deserve it.

Imagens de uma cidade perdida runs 93 minutes. It’s slow and languid, like Lisboa. It is drenched in both beauty and melancholy, again, as Lisboa is. Its screening times and places in Rotterdam are as follows:

Friday, 01/28/2011, 14:30 Cinerama 5

Monday, 01/31/2011 14:30 Cinerama 7

Tuesday, 02/01/2011 22:15 LV 6

Also screening in Rotterdam will be a retrospective of my friend Nathaniel Dorsky’s films. See this.

[For post-festival comments on my own film see this, and for comments on Nathaniel’s screenings, see this.]

Nathaniel Dorsky, in Retrospect

Triste, by Nathaniel Dorsky

Nathaniel Dorsky Retrospective at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

January 27th 28th 29th 30th 31st
Five shows in person and then the cycle will be repeated in a  slightly different order for five more days beginning on February 1st.  Approximate time for all shows: 4pm

Thursday, January 27th and repeated on Tuesday, February 1st
Titled: The Two Sides of Light

Love’s Refrain

FridayJanuary 28th and repeated on Wednesday, February 2nd
Titled: Songs of the Earth

A Fall Trip Home
Arbor Vitae

Saturday, January 29th and repeated on Saturday, February 5th
Titled: Songs of Another Time

Song and Solitude
The Visitation

Sunday, January 30th and repeated on Friday, February 4th
Titled: The Late Quartet


Monday, January 31st and repeated on Thursday, February 3rd,
Titled: The Hours and the Days

Hours for Jerome

Link for Rotterdam Festival

I met Nathaniel sometime in the mid-1980’s, when moving back to the Bay Area which I’d lived in during the late 1960’s and start of the 70’s. Back then he was already a fixture in the San Francisco film world, known for his films (17 Reasons Why, Alaya, Pneuma), but also for being a “film doctor.”   He was famed for his uncanny capacity to be able rescue a film, so that if someone shot a hopeless mess, he could give it a once over, find some editorial thread, and stitch it together, if not into gold, at least into something watchable, and if the stuff was there to do the trick, maybe more.  He was pretty busy at this trade.

I frankly don’t recall how we met – I assume some modest film event, but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is becoming his dealer – well, a kind of dealer. As a bottom-of-the-fiscal-barrel filmmaker I had a habit of buying up cheap, out-of-date, or otherwise odd or undesirable film stocks. When I had a weird emulsion, or old film carton and can, Nick would eagerly snap it up.  Or I gave it to him.  He was a kind of celluloid fetishist, enamored of the actual stuff – the celluloid base, the emulsion, the label, the can.  I was just a crude opportunist looking to save some money I didn’t have, and he was a lover of the stuff.  He tells me Triste was made of those rolls he got from me.  He would hand process stock, and in one of my own films he gave me a minute of outs of some beautiful hand-processed work, flashing blue.  Also some sections of outs from Alaya, sand shifting in the wind.  And he let himself be in that film, Rembrandt Laughing, a filmic valentine to one of the qualities that makes San Francisco such a pleasure.

Dorsky’s hand processed film, mangled on his living room rug

Frame grabs from Rembrandt Laughing

Along with himself as “actor,” and the blue, torn-emulsion film and the shifting grains of sand, he also became in a sense embodied in the film through his persona, which materialized in his scenes, in my use of his collection of sand, and in echoes that reverberate throughout the film of a certain sensibility which he is, and which I hope I faithfully reflected.   Nowadays thoughts of that film caste another tone as I am prompted to remember Jon A. English, the lead actor/musician, and composer for many of my films, who died 14 years ago.  And Roger Ruffin, in this film and 3 others of mine, who died this past year.  And as well thinking of the difficult time some others have had since then.  So it is a saving grace that I also have Nathaniel to think of, a glimmer of the serious joy which the film was about. Though we are very different souls, Nick and me, along some very fundamental places we share a deep kinship.

My life took me away from San Francisco, and a few years later, in Italy (a place Nick loves) the Pesaro Film Festival, (once a very lively and good one, perhaps still is), invited me to program some films for them.  One I chose was Nathaniel’s Alaya – 30 minutes of silence and sand.  For me it’s a gorgeous film, in its utter simplicity, its masterful editing, and I’ve seen it maybe 5 or 6 times.  One minute into it and I am in a meditative state, wandering in my home-grown kind of Buddhist thought.   Anyone who knows me at all knows how hard it is to get me to watch a film once, much less twice, and five times, well….!   However, programming it I thought it was likely a hard film for most viewers, and I suggested they place it last in line, lest people leave and miss the other films.  The screening was on a hot Italian summer day, the cinema had no air conditioning, and was packed.  It was like an oven.  The projector rolled and… and Nathaniel’s film was first despite my suggestion, and my thoughts went gray as I thought of the empty cinema to come.  Half an hour later though I was elated – almost no one left, and later, when the discussion time came, the film drew very positive comments.  I’d miscalculated something seriously – my trust in the audience?  my trust in Nathaniel’s artistry?  I learned a good lesson.

A dish of stones in Nathaniel’s apartment, shown in Rembrandt Laughing Frame grab, Alaya

The last time I saw Nathaniel was in Portland, Oregon, 5 years ago.  He was doing a screening for a small group, the Cinema Project.   The setting was a small art gallery, on the east side of the Willamette, and Nathaniel, as usual, was concerned with the projection – the color temperature, that the machine ran smoothly, at 18fps, focus.   He seemed a bit harried, and there wasn’t much chance to talk.  If I recall properly he, and a cluster from the screening, afterward went to a cafe, and Marcella and I joined, but it was a bit too much to actually have words.  Since then we’ve corresponded here and there, and I’ve watched with a warm pleasure as his work has found screenings around the world – in Paris, New York, London.  I’m trying to get him here to Korea, not only for the selfish reason to see his films, and to see him, but also he’s never been to Asia.  At least not physically.  He might like, and it would be good for his work to get seen in this part of the world.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”
Nathaniel Dorsky

PastourelleAubadeComplineSong and SolitudeThe VisitationLove’s Refrain Triste

As it turns out, one of my own films has been invited to Rotterdam as well so I’ll be able to catch up with Nick there, see the new films I haven’t and see some others again.   And if things work out, I suggested we go on the train to Den Haag for him to see the gorgeous View of Delft, and a few other Vermeers there at the Mauritshuis.   And if very lucky, perhaps the canals will be frozen and we can go ice-skating!

Nathaniel, photo by Jerome Hiler Threnody Variations

For further thoughts and reading see these:

Making Light of It

Art Forum article by P.F. Sitney (PDF, good pictures)

About Nathaniel Dorsky, website

Mubi interview

Scott McDonald interview

IndieWire, Dorsky and Brakhage talk

Review, Redcat screening, 2006

Review, Toronto 2010

Review of Devotional Cinema

Bowl of miso soup, Nathaniel’s feet, in Rembrandt Laughing

Nathaniel’s films are certainly not for everyone – in truth for a little minority of people who are open to a kind of rarified experience rather remote from the hurly-burly of our society, and most of the cinema it produces.  But if you’re of the inclination to enjoy, say, a Persian or Indian miniature, or marvel at the exquisite perfection of van Eyck’s “Als ich kann” or simply let the wonder of a flicker of light against a wall stun you, then his discreet and subtle work just might be your ticket.   So if at Rotterdam, or somewhere near, this is a rare chance to see this work.

Nathaniel skating, Alaya out-take, big bang: Rembrant Laughing

[Added March 8 2011: Marcella’s Video of Nathaniel on a little trip, talking and shooting.]

[March 14, 2011: new article and interview with Nathaniel.]