Common Ground: Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen in Dialogue

The two great filmmakers, one Portuguese and the other American, met and talked for five days of the Courtisane Festival in Ghent.
Ruben Demasure
Thom Andersen and Pedro Costa on stage at the Courtisane Festival. Photo by Michiel Devijver.
This year’s Courtisane Festival paired Pedro Costa and Thom Andersen as their artists in focus. Both filmmakers hung out with each other and the public for the full five days of this under-recognized gem of a festival in Ghent. What at first might seem very different directors with distinct backgrounds actually proved to be kindred spirits. In the end credits of his new cine-history, The Thoughts That Once We Had, Andersen thanks Costa, because “without [him] this motion picture would have been poorer.” Andersen has admired Costa’s work ever since he discovered In Vanda’s Room (2000) at the Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in 2001. He wrote about this experience and about Colossal Youth (2006) in Film Comment in 2007. Andersen has invited Costa to CalArts, where he teaches, more than once, and Cinema Scope published a dialogue between the two that took place at CalArts after a screening of Costa’s documentary on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). At Courtisane, Costa and Andersen engaged in a public conversation after that same film. The scope of the talk this time was much broader than their shared love for the work of Straub and Huillet: Almost ten years later, this is the sequel to their dialogue.
In his 2003 essay film on Los Angeles in the movies, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen discerns two modes of watching by paraphrasing the psychologist and film theorist, Hugo Münsterberg. What if we raise our “voluntary” attention to the shared sensibilities in Costa and Andersen’s work instead of an “involuntary” viewing of the auteur’s oeuvres? Even if this approach entails generalization rather than close reading, what follows are five suggestions or observations after five festival days. Or, as Costa expects from cinema, “Here are some ideas. Here’s a world you should see.”
The moderator, Stoffel Debuysere, introduced the talk with the idea by the French critic Serge Daney of cinema as a supplementary country or continent, one that isn’t indicated on any geographical map. If both Costa and Andersen share a commitment to such an imaginary place, what common ground do they occupy? In their newest works, both Costa and Andersen actually arrive at an abstract, imaginary, inner place. The Thoughts That Once We Had, which saw its continental European premiere at the festival, is a digressive network that constitutes a very personal itinerary of cinema. Perhaps, the spatial dimension of Costa’s newest film, Horse Money, is grasped in the Chandleresque expression overheard in Los Angeles Plays Itself: a place “dark with something more than night.” The place that Costa is committed to, the now-demolished Fontainhas neighborhood in Lisbon, doesn’t exist anymore. As Costa himself said in the festival Q&A after Colossal Youth: “It has become an imaginary place.” The same goes for the image that many non-residents have of Andersen’s hometown. In Los Angeles Plays Itself he dissects how the city is depicted with a “geographic license,” which results in “silly geography.” They both act counter to the adage in that film that movies aren’t about places, they are about stories. “If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie.”
During the talk, Andersen referred to his friend and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who said that a movie is like getting a postcard from a distant place by someone who we didn’t know but who could be a friend. When I revisited Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994) and Colossal Youth over the next days, Rosenbaum’s words not only resonated with the poetic letter travelling from the former to the latter film, but also with the letter in the American noir Kiss Me Deadly, based on the Christina Rossetti poem, that inspired Andersen for the title of his latest film essay. If Andersen and Costa’s movies are postcards—maybe the directors are cine-cartographers themselves—they sure come from secret worlds, where tourists or the film industry doesn’t venture.
One of the functions of a postcard is to preserve a certain image of a place, to keep a memory. In Olivia’s Place (1966), Andersen documents a working class diner in Santa Monica, near where he lived at the time. In the festival introduction, he explained that what he loved was the iconography of the place. The film remains a record of the place, since it subsequently turned into a bohemian spot and was seven years later demolished as part of a redevelopment project. The same interest showed in Andersen’s own carte blanche program at Courtisane. He included “two films about places”: Leighton Pierce’s You Can Drive the Big Rigs (1989), on small town cafes in the rural Midwest and Ed Emshwiller’ George Dumpson’s Place (1965). The director’s own Get Out of the Car (2010), in its turn, is a pedestrian’s postcard of decayed or vanished signs and sites along the road instead of a destination. Already his earliest short, Melting (1965), was in a way about the entropy of structure.
Los Angeles Plays Itself looks at how the movies unwittingly documented the stadia of transformation and destruction of the old Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. The same can be said of Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy. The bulldozers march in at the end of the second film and by the final one the neighborhood is gone. Costa is clear: “My ideas to do a film depend on that place. I like being in the same places, doing the same work. The filmmakers that I like also have their own small part of the world. You’re there, you stay there and you remain more or less faithful to that. I created my own prison, a very confined space, that is also my freedom.” Even if he leaves the neighborhood, as in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? or Ne Change Rien (2009), he ends up camping in a recording or editing room. Andersen—whose films are often born in the class room—pays attention to how time passes in space, as well, in the movie that’s the most manifest evidence of his architectural interest, Reconversion (2012). The Thoughts That Once We Had confirms that it’s not only about the preservation of material things, but also of more transient and intangible elements, like ideas and thoughts from the past that are about to be lost. Costa, in his turn, said to be “stuck in this memory lane.” “I don’t have the desire to do much more than watch people remember.”
The places are of course connected to the people that inhabit them. In the case of Costa, this mainly means the Cape Verdean community of Fontainhas. In the case of Andersen, this means the working-class. Olivia’s Place was infused by a love for the iconography as much as for the owner, Olivia, and the people who worked there. This also means Angelenos who walk or take the bus, blacklisted filmmakers and their progressive representations of women, workers, minorities or criminals. “The people are missing,” as the voice-over in Los Angeles Plays Itself mentions at one point. For me, this phrase was in a way answered by Costa’s story of how he “discovered” the people he kept on working with. It was Casa de Lava that made Costa realize that he should turn his back to the volcanoes and go inside bedrooms—probably dark, very small rooms—with people in order to let them talk. In one of the two carte blanche movies he chose, Farrebique (Georges Rouquier, 1946), the title card announces that, from the first to the last image, this film has been shot in the intimacy of a family over a long period of time. “People, what people do with people, that’s what exists in cinema for me. …I find my convictions in these people, their words and their fights. I need these people.” Earlier on, looking for a way to describe the continuous element in his work, Costa said it would be to continue side by side, loving and caring for the same people. He acknowledged that this collectivity or solidarity is one of the things that keeps him going. He called Vanda a co-director of the film he did with her. “She did almost as much of directing as I did.” Now, the younger generations in the neighborhood are helping him.  
After the screening of Colossal Youth, a young girl came down from one of the last rows to tell Costa face to face that she likes how the people move, how they stand and gesture. Costa explained that these people can give me, you and cinema something that actors cannot, perhaps. “They have this unemployed look at things. Each of them has their own singular movement, their way of moving and expressing themselves.” In the talk with Andersen, he had praised their own ways of timing and tempo. “It’s their mechanics.” These interactions, for me, recalled the ordinary gestures and movements that Andersen set in motion in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975). While Andersen reconstructs the flow in the sequentially photographed movements, the people in Costa’s films seem to have a natural flair for slowing down their movement in stilled gestures. The overture with a sequence of still images in Horse Money, the festival’s closing film, echoed the Muybridge film that opened the Costa/Andersen-program in yet another way. 
In The Thoughts That Once We Had, Andersen includes fragments of In Vanda’s Room, which he describes as “an extraordinary document of the turning towards and the turning away of faces.” It reminds me of Rosenbaum’s description of Costa’s cinema as “an almost epic battle between the portraiture of both places and people.” In the talk, Andersen praised how Costa’s films “let us in in the lives of people.” He described his work as “hanging out movies.” “We see a bunch of people just hanging out and we get to hang out with them. Like in the cinema of Howard Hawks, who basically just made movies that allow us to hang out with people we like to hang out with.” I agree with him when he sees this as “one of the higher purposes of cinema.”
Andersen added that Costa makes these people aristocrats, great aristocrats. Costa agreed and in a not unrelated note in another Q&A, he said: “You cannot but try to treat these people with the best lens you can get.” This ties in to the belief Costa expressed that “the heroes are somewhere else.” “The heroes are other guys. The story is wrong. It’s not really told like it should be told, so we have a lot of work to do.” As Los Angeles Plays Itself states: “History is written by the victors.” Not Vanda, Ventura, or Vitalina—all people from Costa’s films. In the mutual talk, Andersen dropped in an unreferenced citation from Buñuel that Costa used in his 2004 seminar at the Film School of Tokyo. It’s a quote Andersen had paraphrased before in his Sight & Sound piece on Ozu: “You make a movie because you feel there something isn’t right.” At different points during the talk, both directors expressed the need or possibility of “something else,” “something different that can be done.”
Both filmmakers seem to be drawn to secret, alternative histories, but deal with history in their own ways. Costa returns again and again to April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution. There’s a history he keeps on (re)writing, expanding with new chapters or footnotes and annotations. Costa said he thinks of Ventura as a kind of historian, going around collecting memories and stories. (In Horse Money, he isn’t the visitor but visited.) Costa called Colossal Youth a historiography of the place, how it all started. Whereas Costa is mainly interested in the domain of personal histories and memories, Andersen rather reveals public histories. He unpacks the social history embedded in images. Costa remarked that he sees Andersen’s films as a form of sociology. The latter delved into the history of McCarthyism and the HUAC or the political, social and urban planning history of Los Angeles. The Thoughts That Once We Had interweaves a history of the 20th century with footage of Hitler visiting Paris, Leningrad in 1942, Korea in the fifties and the bombings in Vietnam, up to an image of the Twin Towers still standing. With his films, Andersen rewrites film history and fills gaps in the public knowledge. Most of the clips in Red Hollywood (1996) were unseen and undiscussed until the film exhumed them. They are contextualized with oral history through interviews. With Los Angeles Plays Itself, he raised attention to an incredible yet forgotten body of work by Kent MacKenzie, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry. This led to the restoration of MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961)—until which the fragments in Andersen’s film were unseen for more than forty years—and the work of the L.A. Rebellion film movement.
Just as years and years of investigation were put in Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself, Anderson’s graduation film—an important reconsideration of Muybridge—took ten years, including the re-photographing of more than 3000 images. I always thought of Andersen as the researcher, the maker of thoroughly scrutinized works, but Costa’s films as well are research in their own right. “The people I am working with need time to find their voice, their way of doing something. It takes a lot of time, a lot of wasted time, too. Waste time, just days and days without shooting. That’s the absolute opposite of how cinema works.” A researcher lets his sources speak and then searches for the right form to bring the material together. Before shooting, Horse Money required “wasted” months of talking, listening, and drinking.
During the festival, Costa mentioned twice that he has studied history. He believes this background provides him with an almost organic feeling for narration. For him, the best movies are the ones that narrate, which is not the same as telling a story. “Narration is everywhere.” This way, “we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, [and] fiction films for their documentary revelations,” as Costa’s oeuvre proves and the voice-over in Los Angeles Plays Itself notes. In this film, Andersen shows that movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential can be regarded as truth, the real, secret histories of the city.
In the talk, Andersen subscribed to Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s concept of documentary, something he elaborates on in his interview book with William E. Jones. He said it is about making a description, about showing things the way they really are, which isn’t always the case in the dominant culture. In that sense, it’s also a political act. He noted that the acknowledgment that something exists is more important than the form of the description. Although Andersen and Costa might share the former belief, the forms they use differ.
Andersen’s advocacy of filmic realism is best seen at work in Los Angeles Plays Itself. He prefers the “literalist” car chases in Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) that can be traced on an actual map instead of the standard practice of making impossible jumps between remote places. In the talk, Andersen confessed that a recent Hollywood movie he liked was Need for Speed (2014), because the car crashes were real and they avoided special effects. “It’s this connection with reality that I admire about it.” That’s also the reason behind his affection in Los Angeles Plays Itself for the real streets and the real address in Kiss Me Deadly. He favors the neorealist movement in Los Angeles, led by young black filmmakers such as Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, and pioneered fifteen years earlier by Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles. It’s precisely the idea of neorealism, as developed by Gilles Deleuze in his cinema books, that Andersen privileges and holds dear.
What Costa appreciates in Andersen’s films is that “even if they are crazy, they don’t go off.” For him, that’s something Andersen’s films have and that’s why they are films. Costa believes “film lived in a country or a land or a planet called reality and that is not the case today.” Over the festival, he ranted multiple times about the ideology that every new film needs to be bigger, more exaggerated. The core of this is in the anecdote in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? by Nicholas Ray who told Buñuel that in order to have a Hollywood career one could never direct a film with a lower budget than the previous one.  Costa continues: “There’s no reality anymore today. Everybody is reconciled with reality, that’s what happens today. I mean reality: tables, people walking, dogs, cars. You have to go back to the old days to see a door, a kitchen, a window, a small kid, some tears, things like that.” That’s why Costa liked Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) that was shown at the festival the evening before the talk. “Two people thinking around a table! And how long since you have seen a kitchen in a film?” That’s why Costa described the reality of his carte blanche film, Farrebique, at the same time as “two hours of science fiction.” Costa concludes: “I miss a world. I miss the kids, the dogs. I miss the street corners. (…) I’m bored with realism today. You have to concentrate on the fight with reality. For me it’s a fight.” 
Costa’s realism is situated in the way of production: a small camera, a small budget, a small crew and collaboration with the people that more or less play themselves. At the same time, there’s an extreme formalism to his style. Horse Money is the temporary climax of this. When asked about this epic or mythological side to his work, Costa replies that these people have to be seen as they’ve never been seen, as was the case with Straub, Ford, Godard, Brecht and others. With his documentary on Straub and Huillet, Costa made a clear example of a film on film, as Andersen likes to do. In most cases, however, Costa’s references are under the surface, in different details and aspects, but just as much present as in Andersen’s more explicit film historical essays.
When I talked to festival programmer Stoffel Debuysere at the closing night, it was the idea of a “militant cinephilia” that for him connects both filmmakers. He referred to the interview with Jacques Rancière in the March issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, where the French philosopher says: “An infinity of emotions is created in cinema - gestures, gazes, movements of bodies, possibilities for bodies to relate to each other: this is the treasure we should cherish. It’s fundamental with regard to the formatting of fictions, of expressions, of expected effects. This is why cinema has to be thought of as a global historic adventure - we lose sense of it if we continue to focus on the 'releases of the year'. Rather than dabbling in actuality we ought to take up cinema as a whole, in relation to all its potentialities, which assumes a real militant cinephilia. We should rethink cinema as part of a history of possibilities of life” [Stoffel’s translation]. If both directors cherish and contribute to this global historic adventure, the main difference seems that Andersen does so more directly, while Costa’s cinephilia goes through a kind of filter.
In the talk and Q&A’s, Costa again bombarded the audience with the names of filmmakers that he treasures, some of which return in The Thoughts That Once We Had. Mentioned multiple times were Godard, Chaplin, Lang, Straub, Hawks, Ford, Buñuel, Ozu…“Dreyer, it just doesn’t happen anymore.” Often these references were accompanied by the expression, “in the old days…” “I miss a world that I saw in films by so many filmmakers. Chaplin, I miss a lot,” Costa said. But, of course, he’s aware:  “I don’t want to do what others did before or replace them. There’s no replacement for Chaplin. Ozu is great. They did it. Let’s do something else. Now it’s a matter of rebalancing things.” He seeks a new form that works today and that’s nonetheless connected to this treasure of gestures, gazes and movements. Although Andersen judged that Costa is more down on contemporary cinema than he is, Costa had some nice words for Wang Bing, whose Father and Sons opened the festival. However, “One Wang Bing is not enough.” To my surprise, he expressed his fondness of the Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. With his “wonderful, small sentimental comedies,” Costa welcomes him as the heir of the early Woody Allen. Costa even reveled that one of his favorite films of last year was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, “a mainstream movie that is actually saying something strong.” “If I could do landscapes, I would probably do it like that.”
With The Thoughts That Once We Had Andersen perhaps made his most cinephilic film. While the clips in Red Hollywood and Los Angeles Plays Itself were employed to do justice to his city and the talents of the Blacklistees, in The Thoughts That Once We Had they are expressions of a very personal love of cinema. Upon a first viewing, this associative stream of intimate and singular choices of fragments constituted the real value of the film. Although the film is more than an illustration of Gilles Deleuze’s concepts and ideas, the textual inserts (especially the longer ones in the second half of the film) didn’t quite work for me. Nevertheless, Andersen cherishes this history of faces, bodies and sounds that Rancière mentioned, and extends Deleuze’s ideas to the contemporary cinema of Costa, Aki Kaurismäki, Hou Hsiao-hsien or Jem Cohen.
In Rosenbaum’s 2010 book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition there are two pieces on Costa and a text on Los Angeles Plays Itself closes the book. Indeed, I believe both directors open up to new or contemporary forms of cinephilia. At the festival, Costa said not to have too many convictions. “The only thing I really believe in is cinema, in the power of images and sound together.” They continue the struggle for something else, something different. After all, for the true militant, as screenwriter and director Abraham Polonsky says in Red Hollywood, “the only battles worth fighting are the ones for lost causes.”


CourtisaneCourtisane 2015Pedro CostaThom AndersenFestival CoverageLong Reads
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