“The Bizarre Thing about 35mm is that It’s Almost Ageless”: Kleber Mendonça Filho on Pictures of Ghosts
Fading though they are, I still have fond memories of the UA Crossbay I movie theater in Ozone Park. Founded in 1924, the Queens theater went out of business in 2005 and was converted into a Modell’s Sporting Goods, then a Raymour & Flanigan furniture outlet (“sadly fitting,” writes one user in the comments section of the theater’s Cinema Treasures page, “since most people watch movies sitting or lying in their beds nowadays”). The marquee still remains, sporting a branded logo of its current tenant rather than a rundown of the week’s releases. I also remember having seen many movies at the Brandon Cinemas 2 on Austin Street in Forest Hills (since closed and reopened, with marquee intact, as a pediatric urgent care facility). And although I never saw a movie in the UA Forest Hills Twin Theatre two blocks over, I retain pleasant memories of having walked around the interior in its post-theatrical-exhibition form: as a Duane Reade pharmacy that allowed me to escape the cold while waiting for my mom to pick me up.
Those memories came back as I watched Pictures of Ghosts, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new documentary set in the filmmaker’s hometown of Recife, Brazil. Narrated by the director, the film has been labelled a kind of memoir, cine-essay or history of an urban area, and while those descriptions aren’t entirely off base, the film is most often about where personal memory and the photographic image intersect. If any film ever shot on location is a documentary of that location, then any film ever shown in a movie theater becomes a past inhabitant of that venue.
An ode to the recreational, not-quite-extinct act of “moviegoing,” Pictures of Ghosts makes the case for marquees as timekeepers. In countless photos, Mendonça Filho shows how a movie title displayed on a marquee immediately establishes a historical marker, a sense of time and place (as well as warm nostalgic feelings) for anyone who comes across it. With the death of marquees, something has been lost in the chronicling of a city’s history, and while the ghosts of the title do have a specific reference point for Mendonça Filho, it could also refer to collective pastimes that are increasingly no longer with us.
Brazil’s entry for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, Pictures of Ghosts is now playing in select cities and will expand in coming weeks. For the occasion, I spoke with Mendonça Filho about personal archives, rummaging through old movie theater listings, a movie star couple’s role in Recife’s history and more.
Filmmaker: Although I previously knew a little about your personal background, I didn’t realize until watching this film and reading through the press notes that some of the footage in Pictures of Ghosts comes from two short video documentaries you shot while attending graduate school. What were the reasons for choosing the subjects that you chose and how have those interests stayed with you in the decades since?
Mendonça Filho: I began university in 1988 and graduated in ’92, and it must have been in ’89 when I began to take 35mm black-and-white still photographs of movie houses, both ones in ruin and ones that were still open. I found them very photogenic as, sure enough, many of them had been photographed before, as they were these big movie palaces built in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s. [Years later], they were still very much intact, from the couches to the machines and fixtures. As I spent time photographing these buildings, I was also photographing the moviegoing aspects of them, the lines forming on the street with random moviegoers. I still have a lot of those photographs and many of them are featured in the film.
In 1991, I finally got my own VHS camera, a basic, domestic, home video camera. I [was not unlike] the Super 8 filmmakers from Recife in the ’70s who, not having access to professional 35mm or even 16mm film cameras, used Super 8. However, they used Super 8 cameras not to shoot birthday parties or family celebrations but to try and make films, and that’s what I tried too. I kept these tapes for many years, while, of course, using a lot of the footage in my graduation project, which was made up of a photo exhibit and two short documentaries, one about someone who had become a very good friend of mine [the Art-Palácio film projectionist Alexandre Moura] and the other more generally about the demise of movie palaces around the city. They were edited very quickly and without much time. Today, I like to take all the time I need to edit, but these were done at a production facility that created publicity and advertisements during the day and would allow students to come in to work on their projects in the evening after 10 pm.
I always thought the tapes could be used at some point in the future, even though I thought they looked very crummy due to the VHS [quality]. However, I think time caught up to the images, and today they look charming. Thanks to grading and other digital technology, you can make the footage look interesting—not 4K but interesting, where it has its own personality. I’m very happy that I got to use those tapes in the film, which are right over there [points off-screen to a shelf of tapes in his home].
Filmmaker: And speaking of the footage having its own personality, did you assume the viewer would subconsciously note those [format changes] as they watched the film? The personality of each format making clear that we’re now in a different time period.
Mendonça Filho: Yes, and while myself and a cinephile like you can pick up [on that] because we’ve developed a certain way of looking at images, I believe that even if you’re not regularly working with cinema, you could also understand. Time has been divided into how images will look and feel due to the [progression of the] industry itself. I think we have come to understand that anything on VHS will take us back to the ’80s and ’90s, MiniDV footage will show late ’90s and early 2000s, and from there we’ve gone onto HD. Super 8 is, of course, the ’70s and maybe late ’60s, and [even before that], you have 16mm and 35mm.
The bizarre thing about 35mm is that it’s almost ageless. For example, the archival footage [in Pictures of Ghosts] shot in 35mm from the 1970 grand opening of the Veneza Cinema looks as close to today as anything else shot for the film because the ’70s fashions remain familiar to us, certainly closer to us today than what people wore in the Roaring Twenties. I am fascinated by those images, and when we got them back from the lab, I was completely in love because it shows a place I loved that no longer exists but here it looked very alive, like the footage had been shot two weeks ago. I love the way [working on Pictures of Ghosts] made me look at images, how it made think of how to use different formats and different textures. At the end of the day, regardless [of what you’re shooting on], you’re looking at the same place, the same living room, the same streets. The only thing that changes is the technology or the film stock or having it in color, and that says a lot about the way we look at the world, through images in cinema.
Filmmaker: In the films you made with friends, in one scene we notice an image of Janet Leigh on a poster for Pyscho, which I thought was apropos given the archival footage you include in Pictures of Ghosts of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis visiting Recife on vacation in the ’60s. Were those thematic connections something that became apparent once you were piecing together the history of the city with your own personal movie fandom?
Mendonça Filho: It’s crazy because I’m sure you can tell that it’s a major coincidence, as I really love those shots of my good friend coming into the room and as he does, he shuts the door and [on that door] just happens to be a Psycho poster. Two years after I decided I might want to include that shot in [Pictures of Ghosts], my friends (who were working on research for the film) then discovered the black-and-white footage of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis in Recife. Of course, I fell in love with the footage, so we had it scanned in 4K. But even as we were editing it, it wasn’t until I was beginning to show the film to a few friends that one remarked, “but you know, you show the Psycho [poster] and then you show Janet Leigh in Recife, then you have Psycho [again].” That was a major coincidence. But since films are a part of our lives, they’re naturally a part of who you are, not only in terms of objects, but also in terms of memory, and it’s fantastic when a place is the point. It’s the union between cinema as memory and cinema as reality. The public bridge that you see in [Pictures of Ghosts] is [an example of that]—it connects [to] the Cinema São Luiz, yes, but it’s also exactly the same bridge we see Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh walk across in that black-and-white footage. We then see Janet Leigh on the beach with one of her daughters (I’m pretty sure it was Jamie Lee Curtis) and the footage was shot only 200 meters from where my family had lived. It’s like everything implodes into reality and cinema and the history of cinema. I think that’s one of the strongest feelings that many people get from this film, particularly when viewed from a Brazilian point of view.
Filmmaker: The film is into three chapters, each distinct but not without your narration tying everything together in an organic way that’s personal to you. Did you work chronologically? Or did you, say, begin with chapter two and, in the edit, build out and expand?
Mendonça Filho: It always comes very late in the editing. I did that with [my narrative features] Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, then did it again with Pictures of Ghosts. It felt like the section at our family home was a very peculiar section of the film, one that seemed to deserve a chapter by itself. Then when I called it what it is, “The Setúbal Apartment,” it just felt like I should go onto a second chapter. That chapter is called “The Cinemas of Downtown Recife,” which is what this film, Pictures of Ghosts, used to be known by to my friends. I would say I’m working on a film and they’d ask what it was called and I’d say “The Cinemas of Downtown Recife” and they’d react very negatively to the title. I don’t know why (I still like it) but I decided to listen and rename the film, using “The Cinemas of Downtown Recife” as the title for the film’s second chapter instead. The third chapter, “Churches and Holy Ghosts,” is connected to cinemas as temples or churches, but that only became apparent in the editing. That’s when it makes sense. You pay attention to how the film flows and breathes, then you realize that it might work well with chapters.
Filmmaker: You also reference the political movements of years past and how different trends in urban planning may have redeveloped the sites of many beautiful theaters into drab, anonymous buildings. How much of those social elements were you looking to bring in to the discussion?
Mendonça Filho: I think the film is very naturally the offspring of someone who’s aging, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think I would’ve done this film the way I did it in my twenties. At 21, I did those two video documentaries, and while they might have some of the ideas [that would be included in Pictures of Ghosts], the layering of so many different timestamps, which come from the city itself and from living in the city, or maybe from traveling to different places and being aware that each city has its own life and is made up of many millions of lives and buildings and streets, has made me very sensitive to all of that. Recife, of course, has many layers of history to it, and a lot of poetry and information which you can access. The wealth of information becomes so incredibly complex in terms of what it takes to understand a city though. Sometimes you walk by a building and you go “Oh, that’s just a building,” but it’s not just a building. If I tell you the story of the building, the [history] of it, we will be standing here for the next three hours and you will cry. It’s everywhere. New York City, of course, is an amazing city, one which has its own set of different historical layers. As you grow old, I guess you become more sensitive to that, then you begin to find [archival] footage and realize that you have your own personal footage to add to that and it becomes a perfect tool for making a film. You can make many different kinds of films, but a film about history and cinemas seems to be a very fertile [subject] for that kind of development.
Filmmaker: At one point you visit an archive, reading through old newspapers and local movie theater listings. I also regularly do that on The New York Times’ Times Machine website, often choosing years before I was born to contextualize the movies within the social climate they were released into. I’m fascinated by what else was going on in the world on the day that so-and-so movie was released.
Mendonça Filho: I did a lot of that for this film because it was right to do that, and I did it in two ways. One, I went to the public archive, which you can see in the film in the scenes where I’m going about lifting and carrying heavy collections of old newspapers. When I spent a year in France two years ago, I basically did the same thing but via the internet and digital archives. I wish I could say that being physically present at the public archive was a stronger experience and more [beneficial] for my work, and maybe it was, but the main thing is once you dive in, especially if you do it from 9:30 am until 1 pm and then come back after lunch, it’s probably the closest you can come to time traveling. You’re so into each page of those newspapers! What you’re reading in those newspapers isn’t just [news] about cinema. Once you turn the page, you will see obituaries and ads for a new car or some crazy color television that’s coming out and read about some violent incident that took place the day before…you get lost in those things. You read about a victim who died under a truck, that her name was so-and-so. You begin to research her name, and down the rabbit hole you go.
While I was working on Pictures of Ghosts, I began to find the information and atmosphere needed for the script that I’m actually going to shoot later this year, Secret Agents, a fiction script [I wrote] that takes place in 1977. Researching Pictures of Ghosts made me more open to that script, I think, and then when I went back to it, I kept thinking of Pictures of Ghosts. It’s like they had an exchange program between them, suggesting incidents and bits of history for the other’s [development].
It was a wonderful experience to get my own hands—well, not dirty, because you have to use gloves in the public archive, but it was wonderful to do my own research that way. Of course, I also work with friends who are helping with research, which is always great, but I really enjoy doing it myself.
Filmmaker: And I love the idea of marquees as timekeepers. Even if maybe you can’t place when an old photo was taken, if you look at the marquee in the photo and know the year of release for the film it’s displaying, you now have a solid timeframe.
Mendonça Filho: Films use that a lot as a narrative device too. What did I see recently? I think it was last week that I saw Forrest Gump with my kids, and there was a very strategically-placed marquee in the background of one of the scenes. I can’t remember [what the film displayed was] though, but I remember in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, in the background of the [parade scene], you notice a marquee for a theater showing The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is a very interesting subtext.
Filmmaker: And that does all the work you need. It gives you the time, the place and even provides an ironic context.
Mendonça Filho: Yeah, but those are in Hollywood films. When you see a real photograph and it’s the perfect match between time and place and history and cinema, then it’s really fascinating. One example is the photo I show in the film, from the marquee [of the Cine Pathé in Rio de Janiero] showing John Boorman’s Point Blank while the the military is outside [enforcing Institutional Act Number Five]
Filmmaker: Has moviegoing been further threatened, or its demise further expedited, by the arrival of the pandemic? As is said in the film, “the industry sets up the infrastructure for distribution and then throws it all out,” which is an observation that rings especially true in an age where streaming has complicated what constitutes a theatrical release and what doesn’t.
Mendonça Filho: Yeah, but for me, it’s particularly dramatic when you look at a cinema like the Veneza. What happened there has happened all over the U.S. and in different countries, [which is] these amazing movie palaces which opened in the early ’70s or late ’60s basically went on to have a very short life. I remember one in Denver, Colorado that was the same kind of spectacular, late ’60s movie theater as the Veneza, with a D150 [Dimension 150] screen for 70mm [projection]. But because they opened in ’69 or ’70, they only lived maybe 20 years. The Veneza closed after 27 years, which was still a very short life. It basically means that they built this amazing machine and then discarded it after a while. I think there were some cinemas in the US which only had an eight- or nine-year life span and that’s because the market and the industry changed so quickly. There was a cinema that opened here in ’88 and closed in ’94. It just became expendable. That’s the nature of the industry, of capitalism. There were many multiplexes which opened in the late ’80s and are now [permanently] closed [due to] the pandemic, and not only because of the pandemic but because of the arrival of streaming, which is just a new way of presenting films.
Filmmaker: Your film also made me think about where I live in Queens, a borough that still has quite a number of old movie palaces that have since been converted into churches. Having read up on the history of the Valencia Theatre, for example, I’ve often considered attending a Sunday service just so I can walk inside and explore the venue. I’ve walked by the exterior, and the architecture looks pretty much the same. I’m not a churchgoer by any means, but I’d like to take in the venue with a friend one of these days. Your film reminded me to do that.
Mendonça Filho: I have done that many times, and when I travel, as I did in L.A. maybe two months ago, I did it there as well. I was in downtown L.A., which has a fantastic collection of old movie palaces. One of them [the Tower Theatre] recently became an Apple Store, while another of them, the Orpheum Theatre, is an example of an old movie palace which is still growing, now as a restored music venue.
Filmmaker: I think they still host tapings of American Idol.
Mendonça Filho: Some of these places are churches now but have kept the facade of a movie theater. It’s a very peculiar area because you don’t [get] to see so many remnants from the past. You might see a bank and have to [inform] your friend that the bank used to be a great cinema. “The bank?” “Yeah, the bank.”
Filmmaker: Sometimes the marquee is all that remains and just by its appearance, you have to assume that in one of the building’s previous lives, it most likely was a movie theater.
Mendonça Filho: It’s fascinating because it’s almost like you’re performing archeology on different civilizations. It’s because cinema is, what now, 128 years old? I think when you have very young friends, you see in their faces how time is moving so quickly. But the remains of these [theaters] do feel like pieces of different civilizations, alien civilizations: “Here there used to be a 2000-seat cinema, which today is just three 30-story buildings.” It’s very hard to convince even an intelligent person that yes, what you’re staring at right now used to be a cinema. You can find proof of it, but it is like a proof of death.
Filmmaker: In need of an excavation.