Greetings from New York City, whose populace
has caught that rare but intoxicating Manoel de Oliveira
fever. The only
cure? More Oliveira. And
I shall get some – this weekend will bring screenings
of I'm Going Home and Inquietude, among
others, to wrap up the Brooklyn Academy of Music's incredible
month-long retrospective. But before I delve any further
into the Portuguese maestro's work, I suppose I should
I'm R. Emmet Sweeney, a pretentious moniker decided
upon during my brief stay at New York University, where
I obtained an incredibly expensive piece of paper that
says I received a Masters degree in Cinema Studies. I suppose I did, but most of my learning came
from post-screening discussions with impassioned friends
and late-night viewings of some dusted-off noir (T-Men,
perhaps?) on the USA's greatest cultural treasury: the
cable channel Turner Classic Movies. The learned professors
helped, sure, but John Alton's images buzz around in
my head far longer than any one lecture.
I've been able to turn that buzz into a part-time career,
freelancing for a few august publications and making
enough to pay off the minor utility bills (gas is cheap).
But the urge to write, and to share my enthusiasm for
works I consider ignored (the collected works of Jason
Statham) or underseen (everything by Johnnie To) often
exceeds the boundaries of what I can get published.
Which is why I leapt at the offer from the sage
Luiz Carlos Oliveira to write a semi-regular column
reporting on the film scene in NYC.
There's an overwhelming amount of celluloid that
unspools here every day, so my take will be selective
and idiosyncratic...which brings me back to Manoel.
I've seen six of his features so far, but two tower
above the rest, and would seem to cement his status
as a master: Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978) and Francisca (1981). Both reflect and inform the other, and establish
a set of narrative codes that Oliveira will play with
and deconstruct the rest of his career. The key is the
spoken word and how it drives narration. Love
is told through dueling voice-overs, one is male and
expository, the other is female and poetic. In this
film, the word drives the action instead of vice-versa.
Oliveira's favored acting style is presentational and
overtly theatrical, as he often has his performers speak
directly to the camera and destroy any idea of "suspension
of disbelief". His films are about interrogating the construction
of stories while still falling under their spell. Doomed Love is an archetypal case of
this self-reflexivity still producing an emotional wallop.
In it, the two star-crossed lovers, Simao and Teresa,
are continually separated by forces outside of their
control – mainly their feuding parents.
In this 4 1/2 hour made for TV work, Oliveira
distills their passion through the voice-over which
describes actions we never see, and evokes emotions
the actors (and Oliveira) refuse to enact for the camera. It requires the work of the viewer.
If Doomed Love is about love purified by separation
and sanctified in death, Francisca tells of a
love poisoned by decadence, set as it is after Brazil
achieves independence and the Portuguese upper classes
descend into vanity and self-destruction. Jose Augusto
is the tortured lead, prone to staring vacantly into
the camera and cracking wise with his companion in ironic
distance, the writer Camilo Castelo Branco (whose last
days are rendered beautifully in 1992's underrated Day
of Despair). Falling in love as a kind of game,
Jose goes through the motions of desire until it takes
him over for keeps. The key plot device, unsurprisingly,
is a letter. In Oliveira, words kill more than actions.
In short, this series has been a revelation, as well
as a bracing reminder about how much goes unseen on
U.S. shores. This is the first major Oliveira
retrospective in the states, for a guy whose been making
essential work for what, 70 years now? What kept his
name alive in cinephile circles here has been the diligent
work of critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum, who almost
single-handedly brought his name some measure of recognition
to the cinephile set.
Which brings me to the subject of the film critic situation
here in the U.S., which is dire.
In the past few weeks, three major NYC film critics
(Jan Stuart, Gene Seymour, and Nathan Lee) have retired
or been dismissed, expanding a trend in print publications
across the country. The local film critic is a dying
breed, what with wire services and freelancers being
so much cheaper. We are witnessing the end of an era,
and an uncertain beginning to a new one, as the internet
brings a chorus of impassioned voices such as mine but
driving down salaries in the process. As writer Matthew
Zoller Seitz says on his blog The House Next Door (mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com),
we're reaching a point where film criticism is going
to become more a devotion than a job – the benefits
of which are a diversity of voices and the negatives,
are, well, a lack of health benefits. Most of the interesting
discussions on this subject, unsurprisingly, are taking
place on blogs. I'd direct people to the aforementioned
House Next Door, but also to Dave Kehr's site (www.davekehr.com),
where run-of-the-mill cinephiles like myself can get
into commenter kerfuffles with pros like Rosenbaum and
Kent Jones. The future is bright, it'll just require
a secondary source of income.
Until next time!
R. Emmet Sweeney