Cinema Is Dead / Long Live Cinema: A Conversation with Federico Veiroj

The Uruguayan filmmaker discusses his film "A Useful Life".
Michael Guillen

Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj was born in Montevideo in 1976.  In 2000 he obtained a Degree in Social Communication at the Catholic University in Montevideo, coursing one semester at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA).  He has been directing and producing short-films since 1996.  He has also worked as an actor in many Uruguayan short-films and as script supervisor in Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's features 25 Watts and Whisky.  He has followed up his first feature film Acné with the cinephilic valentine A Useful Life (La vida útil, 2010).

A Useful Life was the first film at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival I heard applauded at its press screening, confirming as Diana Sanchez had written in her program capsule that "for anyone who loves cinema in its purest form, this film will be a revelation."  As Sanchez synopsized: "Federico Veiroj's thoughtful and delicate second feature contemplates the value of outmoded occupations with this evocative (and alarming!) depiction of life at the end of a cinematheque."

At an admirably unassuming 66 minutes, Daniel Kasman dispatched to The Daily Notebook: "Federico Veiroj's wonderfully trim and sensitive record of working at a place—and that place happens to be a cinema—is another elegiac entry in a micro-genre being slowly carved out by such filmmakers as Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and Lisandro Alonso (Fantasma) which explore the soon-to-be-abandoned spaces that will soon be inhabited only by the ghosts of cinema."

At Variety, Robert Koehler described A Useful Life as "delectable", adding that "what begins as a seemingly dry work directed purely at cinephiles evolves almost invisibly into a droll romantic comedy, and marks a clear step forward for Veiroj.  ...There's a certain perfection to Veiroj's conceit that's entirely winning and convincing, due in no small part to [Jorge] Jellinek, whose character evolves from a shy, ungainly creature into a man on the town.  This certainly marks one of the most dominant and sustained lead performances by a professional film critic; it's part of a recent phenomenon that includes Glenn Kenny in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience and Mark Peranson in Albert Serra's Birdsong."

An enthusiastic and grateful Veiroj met with me to discuss his heartfelt project.


NOTEBOOK: La vida útil felt more intimate to me than your previous film Acné in the comfortable embrace of its lustrous black and white (even though I understand it was originally filmed in color?) and what Variety critic Robert Koehler has noted as "a late-'50s/early-'60s retro feel."  Can you speak about that?

FEDERICO VEIROJ: Yes, I can.  There are two things.  The first thing is that, obviously, in La vida útil I am talking about a world that I belong to—not only the world of cinema, which we all belong to—but, the specific world of the Cinemateca Uruguaya, the place where I grew up as a filmmaker, moreso than through my university studies for example.  Also, I have worked at cinematheques, not only in Uruguay but also in Spain at the Spanish Film Archives.  In Uruguay I used to collaborate with their cinematheque and—instead of climbing double-decker buses in the cities—I went to cinematheques to watch movies like everyone else who loves movies.  This film reflects my world.  I can't say I know a lot about cinematheques in general, but they are places that I visit and like a lot and I have many friends who work at film archives.  So maybe you feel the film is intimate because I'm into cinematheques?

The other thing is that—now that I have seen the film as a spectator and received feedback from enthusiasts like yourself—La vida útil has something that makes the cinephilic audience feel they are part of the main character Jorge as well.  We all have rituals we indulge when we go see movies we like at our favorite cinematheques and moviehouses.  We all love to feel emotional watching movies.  That's what we all want.  Even in my case, though I am a filmmaker, I am first a spectator; that's what I like more.  Maybe the intimacy is my fault?  I made the movie about this subject, of course, but maybe the fault—and I mean good fault, right?—lies within you because maybe my film connects you with other films you've seen, other places you've been to where you've watched films, such that you can understand the plight in the film?  You understand what is happening in the film.  In my case, of course, I identify with all of the characters and there are little bits of me throughout the movie and I'm talking about a subject I know and like; but, I think for the film to work there has to be some similar contact within the person who is watching it.  I love having that dialogue with someone who is watching the film.  I appreciate it a lot.

NOTEBOOK: You're saying, then, that within cinephilia itself there is an inherent shared intimacy?  And that's what your audiences are relating to when they watch this film?

VEIROJ: I think so.  I'm not the kind of person who is all "cinephile" and all that—I'm more like the average person who goes to see movies in the cineplexes—I just love movies, I love to watch movies, I like to investigate them, it's the thing I like most; but, yeah, the film relates to other people who do the same thing.  That's beautiful.  But since films are related to emotion, anyone who feels emotion at the movies is going to connect to this film, more than someone who doesn't really like to watch movies or isn't used to watching movies.  You don't have to be a cinephile to enjoy my movie, even if it is telling the story of a man who is working at an archive.  As a filmmaker, I wanted to tell a story that was open and available to everyone, to anyone who loves movies, and not to close it off to any specific cinematheque, even though it seems to be about the Cinemateca Uruguaya—but it's really not—and even though there are people who are working at the real cinematheque or have worked at the real cinematheque who are in the movie—but it's not really their story—I wanted to play with that dialogue also.  What I like about my own film is that it makes a very small subject more universal perhaps?

NOTEBOOK: Clearly, one of the main reasons I loved La vida útil is, as you say, because I love movies like so many others love movies; but, where its narrative especially spoke to me was in this idea of losing a livelihood and having to come up with an alternate purpose.  Myself, I've only come to films in any disciplined and conscious way within the last five years or so.  Before then, I worked my entire adult life in the legal field and the state judiciary.  This was how I knew myself.  How I identified myself.  Unfortunately, about six years back I became ill and, as a consequence, was constructively discharged from my position with the Courts, much against my will.  You can imagine what a crisis of identity this was for me.  That's why that sequence when Jorge leaves the cinematheque after it has been officially closed down nearly sang to me in its desultory aimlessness, in his trying to gain some bearing as to what to do next, in how to fill his time and—as the film's title lays out—how to discover and reconstruct a useful life.

That moment when he is waiting for his love interest Paola (Paola Venditto) to finish up with her classes, filling his time by contemplating the carp in the pool, is an image redolent with wistful anticipation and an almost awkwardly-discovered reappreciation of the world.  It was my favorite image from your film.  It possessed the same awareness captured by M.C. Escher in his 1955 lithograph "Three Worlds."

VEIROJ: [Smiling] Yes, that image is beautiful.

NOTEBOOK: I'm glad we agree.  [Smiling.]  So let's talk about the visual look of your film, not only its intimate use of black and white, but also its 1.33 aspect ratio that you and your DoP (and co-writer) Arauco Hernandez utilized to further that intimacy.

VEIROJ: As I said before, when I make a film I never forget that I am also a spectator.  When I begin thinking about a film I want to make, I imagine myself as the spectator sitting in the audience watching the film on a screen in a theater.  In this case, I had an old script about a young guy working for a film archive in Spain who returns to work at a cinematheque in Uruguay; but, I put that story aside to film Acné but—while working on the distribution for Acné—I met Jorge Jellinek, the main character of La vida útil.  Meeting Jorge made me start thinking about this old script because his face and body seemed related to that story.  I couldn't resist rewriting that script for Jorge, for those places, that man, and—I don't know—as the imaginary spectator in my own mind, I saw it in that square format and in black and white.  I know it can be seen as an homage, as a way of working in the old days, or something like that and maybe my intention was a little bit that way; but, more, it was a way to present something to get the emotion I wanted in the spectator.  Can you imagine this story in Cinemascope or in color?  No!  This story was for a square format and for black and white.  If you met Jorge in real life, you would see that he is a black and white person.  It's nice!

People who go to see films at film archives and who are into films don't make a big distinction between color films and black and white films.  They go to see films, period, and even if it is a silent film, you can say, "Okay, it's black and white, it's silent, or this or that" but you don't see it just because it's in black and white.  But I know that today making a film in black and white and in a square format is a comment in itself, of course, because nowadays we aren't as used to black and white films.  But I said, "Okay, why not?  That's how I want to see this film, that's how I imagine it", and since it was a project I had started making on my own, producing it myself, spending money that I didn't have but was expecting to get from the previous film, and using film stock I had won at the AFI festival in Los Angeles, and because I had friends and people to help me do it, I said, "Let's go!"  These people came aboard because they liked me and they liked the project and, therefore, I didn't have to compromise myself in terms of marketing associates whose decisions I would have to consider.  The length of the film is less than 70 minutes.  I know that's not good for theatrical distribution but...

NOTEBOOK: It works!

VEIROJ: Yeah!  But I was free not to have to make it a little bit longer just to make sure I could get it shown theatrically.  No.  This film was made so free and it will remain free until the end.  I know it's not a marketable film.  But I'll write another story and fend for money one more year and a half, which is about the amount of time it takes to make a South American movie, and I'll do it like that in the official way.  But with this movie, we were able to make it in the time we wanted with the people we wanted in a very special way.

NOTEBOOK: I can't speak for its marketability because I'm not informed enough about such things and, truly, not as interested as perhaps I should be; but, I predict this film will have an affectionate critical success and—among festival audiences—a measure of popular success as well.

VEIROJ: I hope.

NOTEBOOK: As a cinephile with at least a limited awareness of how cinematheques are run, there were distinct pleasures I could sift from the film, which I noted were being equally appreciated by the audience around me.  In the first half of the film especially you set up the quotidian and rather unglamorous practice of maintaining a cinematheque.  Diana Sanchez details "selecting, projecting and introducing films, programming retrospectives and cultivating an audience"; Robert Koehler notes "searching for reels in the (hardly climate-controlled) print library, tracking the steadily declining membership roster, meeting with Martinez and staff to discuss problems or promoting the cinematheque program on local radio"; and Danny Kasman spots such "quiet, succinctly considerate detail[s]" as "the maintenance of theater seating, the retrieval of film cans in a tight archive hallway, and the way programmers will nod to a projectionist to start the film after an announcement."  The specific instance where Jorge is checking out the auditorium seats is droll and hilarious.  My audience loved it.

By film's end, however, when the cinematheque closes and Jorge has that moment of transition we talked about before, instead of a sense of despair over what has happened, there's more a sense that—because the monotony of overwork has been interrupted—Jorge gradually recognizes the chance to lead a real life.  He purposely leaves behind his briefcase with his personal effects from the cinematheque after getting the haircut he hopes will better woo Paola.  After waiting all day for her classes to end, he suggests they go see a movie.  What a resolution to this crisis!  What were you actually saying there?  Were you saying that—as admirable as it might be to devote one's life to a cinematheque—it might also be an unsatisfying substitution for a more engaged life?

VEIROJ: I'm saying two things.  First, as you observed, the film is structured in two parts.  As the script was originally written for the first part, we had included scenes of Jorge's domestic life alongside the depiction of his daily work; but, I decided I didn't want to do that.  I thought it would make it like any other movie on this subject.  I decided to make the first half a complete unit in itself that focused just on his work.  Then in the second half of the film, the idea was to save our hero once he has lost his work.  By the second half, we believe this man has to continue his life and that it should be connected to something he believes in, something he is sensitive to, another life worth living.  The question we asked ourselves was: how could we do that?  We thought of many things but it was important to make the right decision because, after the first half of the movie—boom!—we knew that the audience would not be happy if we left things like that.  We knew we had to give Jorge a rebirth that would somehow not go against the first part; but that, instead, would deepen the first part.  The idea was that the rebirth would come out of him.  He's leaving behind the world he knows but, out of what he knows, comes his new life.

NOTEBOOK: In effect, the man who loves heroes in films becomes the hero in his own film; i.e., his own life?

VEIROJ: Yes.  It's a Quixotic impulse to live his own film.  He was in love with film in the first part and we, as spectators, went along with him and his activities—we appreciated his devotion to movies—but in the second half we get to see Jorge as a man reborn.

NOTEBOOK: With his love of cinema intact but reconfigured?

VEIROJ: Yes.  We decided the way for this man to survive the death of the cinematheque was through cinema.  Not cinema by way of a reference to this movie or that movie; but, cinema in itself as a way of communicating emotion.  If within you there is only a negative critic, you will watch that second half and think, "What happens?  Nothing!"  But actually a lot happens to Jorge in that second half.  Our challenge was to keep the audience sitting there for the second half of the movie as engaged with Jorge as they were during the first half and to represent his transition through beautiful images, like the one you liked of the fish in the pool.  So we edited the structure of the film like that and then we brought in the music.  The idea was that the man who worked in this doomed cinematheque should not end up being a waiter or a shoe repair guy.  No!  That would be a stupid resolution.  That would be a resolution we've already seen in other movies.  We don't need that.  What we needed was to save that man, to treat him like a hero for all the work he did at the cinematheque, and movies were the only way to save this guy.  That's it.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the music, I must ask you about that profoundly appropriate song about the two horses.  Was that written for La vida útil?  Or does it have its own unique history?

VEIROJ: No, it was not written specifically for La vida útil.  I've known the song for many many years.  It's a song based on a poem by Leo Masliah.  He's an author and an actor as well as a musician.  He's a very special person, great of course, is known for his sense of humor, and this particular song was from a poem written in 1980-81 during the dictatorship in Uruguay.  That song at that moment from that artist represented something more than just the past.  It was like a Proustian way of seeing and relating to the past.  Though I lived through the 80s in Uruguay, I was not so active—I'm not a political person anyways—but I know what the song represents.  I connected to its themes of the loss of innocence and how one must leave the past behind in order to grow.  These are themes you must handle with great care because we all share a lost past—such as these abandoned cinematheques where none of us will go to see movies anymore—and when we shot that sequence for the film, we shot it in silence because I already knew that I was going to use that song.

NOTEBOOK: You've taken great care with the song; it's exquisitely placed in your film.  Another moment I wanted to address in La vida útil is Jorge's lecture on lying to the law students.  Again, this spoke to me because of my personal disillusionment with the law when everything I had believed about justice turned out to be a lie.  Can you speak to that scene?

VEIROJ: Yes.  Two things.  First, since the credits are in Spanish you might not have noticed that Jorge's "lecture" was written by Mark Twain ("On the Decay of the Art of Lying").  I don't know how old the lecture is but he delivered it to a group of university students.  The idea was that we wanted to have the sensation that Jorge is saying something that is maybe from a movie, maybe from somewhere else, and I liked the idea that it was like bad acting, like an actor trying to remember a monologue.  I liked that sensation in that moment, you know?  Because after he delivers the text, you are led to believe what he is saying.  It's also talking about his own life, that he is lying at that moment, but that cinema also lies, which linked back to the first part of the film where Frank Norris—the author of Erich von Stroheim's Greed—is talking about truth.  It also links back to the first part of the film being almost a documentary, something like a real testimony, whereas the second part becomes more of a fiction, more lies.  We thought it was perfect.

Second, it served as a middle step for Jorge to go crazy as the protagonist of his own movie because—without that sequence—maybe you wouldn't believe his dancing on the stairs or his transformation into a new character?  That was the idea.  We needed a text and a way of shooting it to slowly believe his transformation of character and so that—as a spectator—you are discovering new depths to that man.

NOTEBOOK: I'm glad you reference your film's inclusion of the clip from Greed (1924) because lately I have become interested in various practices of cinematic citation.  In your film, Jorge's partner at the cinematheque Manuel Martínez Carrilo (playing himself) is fulfilling his duties as projectionist and screening McTeague (i.e., Greed).  In fact, Robert Koehler in his review for Variety singled out that scene as "a particularly charming moment that captures the film's cinematic heart and soul."  Why did you choose Greed to include within your own film?

VEIROJ: I wanted to use von Stroheim's Greed because, as I mentioned earlier, the prologue (by F. Norris) is about the truth, and because it is one of my favorite silent films.  Even if we hadn't shown that specific scene in La vida útil, I would still have liked that Greed was part of the film by way of its subject.  The cruelty and jealousy in Greed, shown at that small film theatre, and with the intertitles read by Mr. Martínez ... it was the combination of those elements, plus the fact that I knew that at the cinematheque that film was in 16mm (in that screening cabin there's no 35mm).  So, it was a mixture of items.  Maybe I could have equally used Murnau's The Last Laugh; but, it would have had too obvious a relation with my story.  Obviously, Murnau was a very important friend to me while I was making La vida útil (the fantasy ending at the end of The Last Laugh is, for me, one of the best moments in cinema).  But even if we hadn't used a single specific sequence or reference to another film, there were atmospheres or influences that were close by during the process: the character of Guglielmo Bertone played by Alberto Sordi in Guglielmo il dentone (1965), Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), and the Argentine film Tute Cabrero (1968) by Juan José Jusid.  And obviously, American classics were present...

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