Manoel de Oliveira retrospective / The film critic situation in the U.S.

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 introduce myself.

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


Francisca (Manoel de Oliveira, 1981)