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Foreplays #10: João César Monteiro's "Passeio com Johnny Guitar"

Unfolding a vast cinephiliac constellation around "Johnny Guitar", this short manages to travel a great distance in only 3 1/2 minutes.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. João César Monteiro's Passeio com Johnny Guitar (1995) is free to watch below.
Passeio com Johnny Guitar (“A Walk with Johnny Guitar”) conjures up a chapter in João César Monteiro’s own histoire(s) du cinéma. Occurring at that insomniac, delirious hour at which night gives way to day, this short film manages to travel a great distance in only three and a half minutes. Tracing the relations between sound and image, body and memory, gesture and affect, Monteiro unfolds a vast cinephiliac constellation that gravitates around one scene of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954).  
*** 
A lanky old man, preceded by his cough, walks home alone. He smokes a cigarette and advances through a typical cobblestoned Lisboan street, biding good night to another solitary smoker. Installed in his head, the soundtrack of the most famous scene of Johnny Guitar—the re-encounter between Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Johnny (Sterling Hayden)—starts playing out. Viewers familiar with Monteiro’s œuvre know that this slightly hunched man, all dressed in white, is João de Deus. This character, invented and performed by the director himself, is the protagonist of a trilogy comprising Recollections of the Yellow House (1989), A Comédia de Deus (1995), and As Bodas de Deus (1999).  
Before entering his home, João de Deus is distracted by the view of a woman combing her hair in the building opposite. As the dialogue between Vienna and Johnny starts unfolding on the soundtrack, João observes this woman while smoking another cigarette. In the third shot, João is sitting at his desk. The Johnny Guitar earworm continues. Suddenly, João stands up, draws back the curtains and opens the room’s window. Leaning on the railing, he lights his third cigarette and hums the musical score. With its houses seemingly stuck on top of each other, the city looks like an artificial, expressionistic décor—a flat, black and white background, imbued with blue hues, with only a couple of rooftops exhibiting russet stains. When the final line of dialogue from the Johnny Guitar scene is spoken, João de Deus turns towards us and walks out of the frame.
Then, a small stroke of grace: we witness the coming of a dawn. This moment feels like the apparition of Éric Rohmer’s green ray. To be sure, a typical dawn is a less extraordinary phenomenon than a green ray. But this small-scale miracle involves many complementary movements, an amazing conjunction of forces operating at the same time: the character’s exit from the frame, thus opening up our view of the city landscape; a slight sharpening of the image’s focal definition; the slow advancing and turning of the camera; the first light of day breaking in and completely transforming the world.
The houses, chimneys, trees, and rooftops suddenly acquire a variety of color—as if a nocturnal, painted décor had been magically replaced by a diurnal, real landscape. And, while in our memory that unforgettable kiss between Johnny and Vienna burns, the soundtrack of Johnny Guitar gives way to the sounds of the city awakening. All this happens across 40 glorious seconds, in one single take.
*** 
The scene from Johnny Guitar used by Monteiro has been a touchstone for many cinephiles. In “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered”, Paul Willemen and Noel King discuss it as one of those “cinephiliac moments,” bearing a sense of epiphany and excess, that are repeatedly isolated and invoked—they note, for instance, how both François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard loved it. But it’s another figure, generationally and geographically closer to Monteiro, that I’d like to call forth here: the teacher, film critic, and director (from 1991 to 2009) of the Portuguese Cinematheque, João Bénard da Costa, who wrote a wonderful text on Johnny Guitar, hailing it as the film of his life. Published in 1990, his piece has been reproduced and translated into multiple languages by the online Portuguese magazine, À Pala de Walsh. Every fan of Ray’s film should read this marvelous text closely; and those who don’t love Johnny Guitar should not bother—for they do not deserve it at all.  
If I bring Bénard da Costa’s text under consideration, it is not just for its sheer beauty. Rather, it is because Passeio com Johnny Guitar seems to enact, take on, elaborate cinematically, some of the ideas expressed by Bénard da Costa. The text begins by retracing the fluctuations that, across the years, have characterized the film’s critical reception. Bénard da Costa reminds us that when Johnny Guitar opened in Europe, very few defended it: “Most thought that only seriously disturbed or seriously illiterate people could like it. Or the blind, deaf, dumb, paralytics, and retards.” And, of course, João de Deus—the social outcast par excellence, and a figure who, with his idiosyncratic and incorruptible taste, rebels against every stance of common sense, dominant opinion, and bourgeois order—epitomizes all these options.
Later on in his text, Bénard da Costa notes how the dialogue of the scene used by Monteiro was endlessly quoted, repeated, and reproduced in program notes and magazine articles:  
However, if we boil the writing down, the dialogue is embarrassingly trivial. If people retain such a memory of it, it is because of the concert of voices heard in the film – Crawford’s scratchy voice, Hayden’s manly voice – and their association with the fabulous score by Victor Young. It is because of the way the camera and the bodies move throughout, because of the contrast between the reds, greens, and browns. Because of the prodigious presence of that cave-like set, dizzyingly baroque, at once a mausoleum and a house of spells.
In Passeio com Johnny Guitar, it is precisely the affective and rhythmic qualities of Ray’s soundtrack that grab João de Deus. Driven by the intonations, halts, and rushed accelerations of the dialogue, entangled in the cycles, progressions, and modulations of the music, his character walks or pauses, turns or stands up, nods, hums, and taps his fingers. The aural qualities penetrate and expand through his body, but also through the body of the film itself.  
*** 
Monteiro’s short will be experienced very differently depending on how familiar with Johnny Guitar the spectator is. “One never knows Johnny Guitar by heart. Each time is a new time”, remarks Bénard da Costa—and I don’t wish to contradict the man who, at the time of writing his text, had seen Johnny Guitar 68 times. In fact, I think that even a partial memory of the scene in question, a memory that retains only some of its key parameters and major moves, should suffice to appreciate how closely Monteiro’s own mise en scène relates to Ray’s.
João de Deus’ frontal walk across the street coincides loosely with the beginning of Ray’s scene, with Vienna descending the stairs and spinning the wheel. In the next shot, we see João de Deus crossing the screen in profile. This action echoes the lateral tracking shot used by Ray to follow Vienna’s walk in Johnny’s direction. In Monteiro’s suspended gesture of unlocking the door—triggered by a cue coming from the off-screen space—we can feel the jolt of the montage cut used by Ray to introduce the first shot of Johnny. In Ray’s film, the subsequent shot presents a more detached view of Johnny, sitting in the kitchen, while the camera starts pulling in as Vienna approaches the pass station’s window. This finds a perfect reversal in João de Deus’ walk towards the corridor’s window and the camera movement that follows him, revealing the woman in the other building.
In João de Deus’ gestures—lighting a cigarette, keeping the flame alive for some seconds, passing the lighter from one pocket to another—there resonates the gestures of Johnny drinking his glass of whiskey, and making an awkward turn in the chair to serve himself some more. Monteiro’s exit from the frame coincides with a new configuration in the mise en scène of Johnny Guitar: Vienna leaves her position at the pass station’s window and enters the kitchen to continue the conversation with Johnny.  
Those who know Ray’s film will not fail to notice that the most famous part of the dialogue (its “lie to me” section) is missing from Passeio com Johnny Guitar. Monteiro uses the cut between his second and third shots to engineer this ellipsis. In this latter shot, João de Deus suddenly turns, stands up, and walks towards the window, giving us his back. What resonates here is a magnificent montage decision in Johnny Guitar: the cut from a frontal shot of Vienna to another where the camera is right behind her, at the precise moment in which she turns her back to Johnny and continues speaking her lines facing the viewer. Finally, Monteiro’s slow camera movement towards the window is another reversal of the moment in which Johnny takes Vienna’s hand and, with the camera tracking back, rushes forward with her.  
The segmentation in Monteiro’s short (three shots in three distinct spaces) condenses the spatial and temporal progression of the scene in Johnny Guitar (which develops only across two sections of Vienna’s saloon, but in three different stages). Monteiro’s use of CinemaScope maximizes the effects of Ray’s compositions—his rich layering of planes of depth within the frame, his interplay of distance and proximity between bodies. Some set-ups and movements of Passeio com Johnny Guitar are built as the reversed mirror reflection of those envisaged by Ray. The more one watches Monteiro’s short, the more one appreciates its evocation of Ray’s mise en scène. But this evocation is not a copy, an imitation, or a reproduction. He follows the pulsations of the scene and, caught in its wavelength, expands its resonances. He responds to those memories triggered by the soundtrack as if executing the steps of a lover’s dance. 
It is precisely this vibrant relation between sound and image, this capacity of the aural to unleash the total memory of the film, that Bénard da Costa describes so beautifully in his text, linking it to the central theme of the entire film:
I have heard the soundtrack of Johnny Guitar many times without seeing the images. It brings everything back, the entire memory of the film is repopulated. However, for that to happen, there has to be a memory, we must have watched the film. If it is true that Johnny Guitar is also an opera, it is no less true that it depends on that unique and irreducible mise en scène
To revisit the images (or sounds) of Johnny Guitar is to revisit our memory of them. For whoever watches it for the first time, it is still about revisiting. Because all the characters – the twelve main actors, each one of them essential – do no more.
 *** 
Passeio com Johnny Guitar is a great film for understanding what cinephilia (a term that often sounds too generic or simplistic) is all about. In this regard, it’s illuminating to evoke the story behind the making of this short—which, along with two others, Lettera Amorosa (1995) and Bestiário ou Cortejo de Orfeu (1995), was built from material initially filmed for A Comédia de Deus. Joaquim Pinto, who produced several features and these three shorts by Monteiro, explained that A Comédia de Deus was originally conceived in CinemaScope but, due to multiple problems and conflicts, Pinto decided to cancel the shooting. Months later, the project would be restarted from scratch and made with a new crew.
In fact, both A Comédia de Deus and Lettera Amorosa present slightly different variations of what we see in Passeio com Johnny Guitar. This constant coming and going to the same sources and ideas in order to give them a new spin, a new life, is at the core of an active cinephilia—one that, no matter the medium chosen, is intensely invested in a tenacious re-working and unfolding: selecting and studying fragments, tearing them apart, adding extra elements, trying out distinct accents, rehearsing varying combinations. In Passeio com Johnny Guitar, both the hour of the day and the soundtrack make all the difference in the creation of this very special Proustian madeleine that returns Monteiro’s own images to us and, simultaneously, inscribes those of other authors in his images.
Cinephilia is also a virus that spreads through the mind and body. Is there a better image of this than the vampiric figure of João de Deus, both agent and victim, traversed by this earworm that spreads under his skin and manifests in a few exterior signs? Here, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is a crucial reference. The creature performed by Max Schreck has long been associated with Monteiro’s cinema, not only due to a physical resemblance, but also because of the multiple allusions that the director has devoted to Murnau’s film across his entire career. The final shot of Passeio com Johnny Guitar evokes Nosferatu’s ending where, through an open window, we see the first light of the day tinting the rooftops of buildings, just before the vampire vanishes “as if blown away by the victorious rays of the living sun.” Equally, in Passeio com Johnny Guitar, the dialogue between Ray’s two insomniacs is extinguished at dawn. Cinephilia is a nocturnal disease: it feeds at night and rests during the day.  
But cinephilia is also the desire to freeze the cherished moment and hold it back, in order to eternally live in it. In the final shot of Passeio com Johnny Guitar, just before João de Deus abandons the frame, we hear Johnny’s words unravelling in a breathtaking crescendo. As he pulls Vienna forward, to a projected future together, his mad speech crystallizes the desire to continue on from the past just as they left it, five years ago, at the Aurora hotel. “Is Johnny Guitar a film built in flash-back on an immense ellipse? Or is it an immense ellipse built on a flash that cannot come back? Or is this all the same thing?”, asks Bénard da Costa in his text. The Aurora Hotel is the point of erasure of five years of absence (“as if nothing happened in between”), and the splice between the shared past and the dreamed future. The name of the hotel means, precisely, dawn—the same dawn that we witness through João de Deus’ window, enveloping the kiss between Vienna and Johnny—a kiss that we do, in a way, see, despite it literally not being shown to us. A kiss that comes wrapped in yet another kiss: that of the couple at the end of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), another dawn. From night to day, from the shadow of Nosferatu to the remarriage of Sunrise, Monteiro holds onto this hour of hope that weaves its promises into the vertigo of time.
Passeio com Johnny Guitar demonstrates that cinephilia is not a mere one-to-one relation between a single film object and its spectator. Monteiro spreads a beautiful net full of allusions, reflections, switches, and transformations. And he makes it all spin with and around Johnny Guitar—the film about which Bénard da Costa said he was only capable of speaking “in delirium.”

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