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Viennale 2019: Liberation and Squalor

Square Dance

I had been waiting years to see Sílvia das Fadas’ movies. Whatever the circumstance, I knew it would be a waiting game. By implicitly “limiting” her audience in only showcasing the work in 16mm, Fadas gives her movies a second life. She puts the brakes on the consumption machine. Perhaps fewer people will see them. Perhaps. “Accessibility” itself is a vague, even dubious premise in a rarefied festival world dominated by powerful distributors with the means to withhold movies for different audiences at will. For many of those with the desire to seek out her movies, the individual films, in however small a way, exist independently of screen and projector. They are alive in these people’s minds, fostered, as in mine for the best part of a decade, by random traces of their existence: fragments, reviews, scattered still frames available online or in catalogues. When I finally caught up with Fadas’ movies at the Viennale late last year, their pleasures proved to be so particular and their construction so diffuse that there was little cause to feel like the Fadasiana of my imagination had been curtailed.

As better writers than me have observed, the experience of coming into contact with a work of art long coveted in the mind can be deflating. It makes me think of Jean-Marie Straub telling Thom Andersen—on a short tour of New York State with Straub and Danièle Huillet—that he was far happier looking at Niagara Falls from behind the falls themselves, so that his imagination could do the rest of the work. Likewise how can any movie produced by a human being, with all the constituent limitations of budget, imagination, and willpower, better the brushstrokes of an overactive psyche given free reign?

In the case of Fadas’ Apanhar Laranja (Picking Oranges) (2012) or Square Dance, Los Angeles County, 2013 (2013), the premise itself is undercut by the shock of the experience, a loose kind of moviegoing synergy that defies the idea of a sealed-off cine-object. These movies—two and nine minutes respectively—extend far beyond the limits of their runtimes, embedding themselves in the mind long after they are over. In the former, Fadas herself can be seen in a sun-dappled orchard in California, a basket filled with freshly picked oranges dangling from the crook of her arm. She walks towards the camera in a strange kind of slow-motion. Her soothing smile, pinned-up locks, and deep red polka dress give the impression of an historical advertisement, the kind reproduced en mass in homages to the Los Angeles of the ’40s and early ’50s. On the soundtrack her voice, in English with a Portuguese accent: “I have told them I would pick oranges in California after having seen The Grapes of Wrath at Cinemateca.” This scene repeats a number of times, intercut with a hand grasping an orange dangling from a tree. Fadas walks those few steps again and again. Her voice repeats that same phrase, speaking as if to an audience of just ten people in the whole world. An accident of either shooting or celluloid processing warps the image, lacerating it with warbling streaks of golden light. These marks dance, the image itself judders, seemingly simultaneous to the acceleration of the montage. 

In Square Dance, photographs by Russell Lee, taken for and rejected by the Farm Securities Administration during the Roosevelt era, are re-photographed by Fadas in her backyard. In them, farmers and their wives and comrades dance in a square dance, their lurching movements blurrily frozen in time by Lee’s camera. Socialist protest songs of the era play on the soundtrack. The shadows cast by branches twitching in the Los Angeles breeze caress the glossy surface of the images, both reanimating them in a way impossible in still photography and calling attention to their life as petrified objects. These people, after all, are not alive—at least in the sense that they are not jigging in time to the music before our eyes, or even before Fadas’ at the moment of recording. Fadas merely arranges these elements like a collage, leaving their implications to manifest in our minds. By the time both Square Dance and Picking Oranges are over, these oblique arrangements of images have left their mark on our minds. Instead both unfurl as aesthetic fairycraft, both hyper-realistic and magical, with all their weirdness preserved and their irregularities unregulated.

There is a wide-reaching liberation in the Viennale’s emphatic rejection of the red carpet and an undeniable power in their full-bodied embrace of the archival and, if not imported from the archive, of the tactile gratification of celluloid. Snaking through the entire Viennale programme is the large retrospective that the festival coordinates each year with the Austrian Filmmuseum, which in 2019 was dedicated to wartime and post-war partisan cinema of all styles and stripes, and of which Takis Kanellopoulos’ poetic, fragile wartime romance Ouranos (Glory Sky, 1962) was a major highlight. Like all great mix tapes, the Viennale programme—despite being assembled from parts with scattered provenances—somehow comes together as a single if multi-layered beat.

Besides the one for Fadas, filmmaker profiles were held for figures as diverse as Angela Schanelec and Pierre Creton, and an extended tribute to Brazilian cinema in the main program protested the attacks on Brazil’s film industry and heritage by the Bolsonaro government. I only got to see one of these movies, Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeais’ unrelentingly ugly Aopção ou as rosas da estrada, which in English might be clunkily translated as The (Non-) Option, or Roses of the Street (1981). Set in large part on country roads populated by vagrants, truck drivers and prostitutes escaping a hard life working in cane fields, Candeais’ film stems from years of driving a truck himself and draws a singular inspiration from the tawdriness and brutality of a life of extreme poverty, an unforgiving existence with which Candeais is obviously intimately familiar. The film is a blur of inspired, scattershot shifts in mood and tone, shot through with the kind of unwavering, black-hearted cynicism earned after spending an eternity on the streets as a card-carrying member of the hopelessly poor. 

Candeais readily acknowledges that the only fate that awaits his brothers and sisters—even as they try to make a better life for themselves by traveling north to São Paulo±is further exploitation. He offers no hope, no political solution. While his sounds and images may carry with them the faint promise of poetry in squalor, the filmmaker’s ideas offer no such balm, his bleak sense of humor about it all perfectly expressed in Aopção’s final image. A cleaning woman picks a newspaper out of the bushes on the side of the pavement. She glances at the tabloid and passes it to her colleague, who studies its front page while pushing her trolley. First headline: “Religious man wins lotto and freaks out.” Second: “Hooker’s genitals found in pieces.” She indifferently tosses it into the garbage. Cut to black.

Another highlight of this year’s edition, Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983), was also about sex and squalor, specifically that of a New York porn theatre in the early eighties. It showed in a flawless 35mm restoration, one of the most pristine and alluring I have ever seen. Gordon, as far removed from Candeais’ style as is possible—given that his formal mania basically amounts to one long, wild-eyed, artistically insane howl in the face of a savage and indifferent world—is sober and penetrating, striking a perfect balance with the luridness of her subject. In the standout sequence in a movie filled with standout sequences, Christine (Sandy McLeod) returns home from her job in the ticket booth of a dirty movie theatre house. As she gets settled, she walks to the answering machine and listens to her messages. A male voice purrs filthily from out of the machine, whispering obscenities. Given the context, we assume that this is the voice of one of Christine’s many lecherous admirers from work; these men skulk into the place to watch porn and pull and prod themselves in the dark. They are awed by the presence of a soft-spoken, slim, and statuesque blonde working the register at the entrance. Gordon lingers on Christine as she listens to the message. She holds it in wide shot, so we see Christine’s expression, the machine itself, and the still dark, empty apartment all around her. Light from outside illuminates the scene only faintly, obscuring the details of the image. 

Gradually, we realise that Christine is processing the man’s words in an unexpected way. She is not rejecting his sleaziness outright, slamming off the machine or visibly expressing disgust. Neither is she reacting in an overtly sexual way, stimulated by what she hears. Instead she sits there, turning over the words in her mind. At first, the absence of a response either way is unsettling; then, almost imperceptibly, the movie starts to shift in an altogether different direction. We realise that there is a significant part of Christine that is entirely inaccessible to the camera. The tape ends and clicks off. In a shocking gesture, Christine reaches over and, with one finger, rewinds the message and listens to it through again.

When at their best, festivals like the Viennale make the past present. Rather than codifying pleasures, they offer the possibility of a spontaneous fresco of cinema, a panorama of forms and styles across history and the world. They implicitly make the case that there is no past, only history revived as a communal experience and placed into a lineage. In blending approaches in such a rigorous, pluralistic fashion, these institutions show that a work produced in 2019, in 1919, or 1979—or in 2012 in Alentejo, Portugal on a Bolex among friends, in 1980 on a rented camera taken along highways in the south of Brazil, or in a studio in post-war Czechoslovakia, with a goal to shape the popular imagination about a devastating epochal war—as projected on a screen before an audience in 2019 or 2020, unravels and come alive in the present tense.

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