“Restoring our belief in this world—this is the power of modern cinema.”—Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
The names of two genres of images have migrated from painting to photography and into our digital age: “portrait” and “landscape.” While these terms have become shorthand for whether an image is oriented vertically or horizontally, they are rarely used to describe contemporary commercial cinema, in which portraiture is all too often reduced to costume and cartoon, and landscape is a computer-generated backdrop. But there is a rich vein of filmmaking that privileges both portrait and landscape, in which they are no longer separate genres but two modes of cinema that can enrich and complicate each other.
It is at the intersection of portrait and landscape that the films of Joaquim Pinto, Matthew Porterfield and Agnès Varda reside. From the Mediterranean fishing community of Varda’s Le Pointe Courte to the Portuguese countryside in Pinto’s Onde Bate o Sol to the exurban woods and neighborhoods of Porterfield’s contemporary Baltimore, these three directors share a fascination with place and character that takes precedence over storytelling. What narrative there is in these films arises out of these other two modes.
Theirs is the cinema that Bazin had in mind when, citing Sartre, he argued that drama onscreen arises from the landscape to set the characters in motion. Similarly, Varda declares in The Beaches of Agnès that “if you open people up, you find landscapes.” In Porterfield’s Putty Hill, the splashing of water at a swimming hole is given equal weight with the conversations taking place. And in Pinto’s Onde Bate o Sol, his characters stride or scramble across brown fields, up and down hills, desperate to escape or to find each other.
In these films, landscape exists not just as geography or topography but also as audio-visual experience—colors and sounds—and as temporal setting—the warmth of the sun, the wind in the trees. The gaze of the filmmaker allows us to encounter the figures onscreen, and in turn, it is through their experience of the landscape that we encounter it as well. Just as the landscape helps create portraiture, so does character model an experience of place. Time moves through these films not in order to sweep these people from Point A to Point B in order that they complete some heroic task but rather as the ground for the revelation of person and place.
For the length of these films, these characters are rooted in their surroundings, whether that rootedness is a trap or a blessing. What is important is the link between person and place, a link that spreads to include the spectator. Seeing the characters of Varda, Porterfield and Pinto reveal themselves to us by interacting with their world restores our sense of the need to grapple with our own.
But at the same time, what we have in this relation that includes the spectator, is an unexpected revelation of the author that is also in the film as the voice of Matthew Porterfield, or Varda herself and Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel in What Now? Remind Me. The author isn’t invisible anymore, everything is in the world.
—David W. Pendleton and Joaquim Sapinho