The major retrospective of the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam is dedicated to the Barcelona school of filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, with Catalonian master Pere Portabella’s body of work—and his new film—serving as a figurehead. Nearly completely unknown in the United States—where critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has been a beacon of support and revelation—insomuch as Portabella is known in the film community it is for his film Vampir-Cuadecuc, which hijacks the production of Christopher Lee and Jesús Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) for its own ends and exhilaratingly exposes this documentarian’s acute analysis of and play with the subject of his films. (I will note here that MUBI has shown a great deal of Portabella’s work in the past, including this 1970 horror film.) This is hardly a lone accomplishment; in 1961 he helped produce Luis Buñuel's masterpiece Viridiana, and the director has been a strident voice in documentary, essay, and generally unclassifiable, often political, cinema since the late 1960s. His premiere in Rotterdam, General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe, is a follow-up to his 1977 post-Franco documentary Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública. That film, made on the cusp of Spain’s first free elections after the dictatorship, shows a country actively moving into a new epoch. The new documentary identifies no such landmark change and instead is inundated with potential, filled to the brim with various discussions surrounding Spain’s current financial crisis in general and the political crisis of the Catalonian bid of independence specifically.
Reading Rosenbaum’s early writing on Portabella one encounters a modest admitted ignorance at the context from which his films came at the time, in that case, Franco-era Spain. I must confess a similar but more broad and embarrassing ignorance: that of contemporary Spain. Far from the censored and limited knowledge that escaped the era of the country’s dictatorship, I nevertheless know little of its current condition beyond bare reporting that reaches overseas about austerity, Catalonian voting, and a general, widespread post-2008 crisis. It is within this context—despite now-dated familiarity with most of the Portabella’s work—that I saw this new “report,” a survey of a certain strand of contemporary, liberal and privileged speakers in Spain (museum directors, prominent scientists, a new Catalonian political organization) captured in the spaces in which they work. From an outsider’s perspective, these conversations rang of equal amounts aspirational hope (both in words and in whom is included in this collection of future-thinkers)...and of an awful lot of talk—broad, positive and insisting in attitude but abstract in specifics or action.
These lengthy “discussions” do not flow freely, but rather exhibit a characteristically sly degree of practice and carefully paced construction characteristic of this director who to my knowledge has never made a conventional documentary. These scenes are juxtaposed by found or loosely captured footage of manifold protests, occupations and public expressions of Catalonian independence, and a handful of Portabella’s more obvious touches, like a silkily moving camera interrupted by firm cuts between participators' declarations, and a fascination with raising and lowering (mostly lowering) camera movements in transparent public building elevators. I hardly understood the precise aim of the picture, but suffice to say that like Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights from last year, I had the overwhelming sense that I should not take at face value the explanations of those who a film allows to speak.
Decades earlier, during the Franco era, many were not allowed to speak, or in fact, as in Ricardo Bofill’s Esquizo (1970), a pseudo-documentary that serves to visualize the inner mindstate of the mentally unstable, are incapable of speech. Could the hospitalization of the schizophrenic, their sometimes harsh medical study, and general incomprehensibility be a human metaphor or metonymy for some lives under the dictatorship? Who’s to say—for Esquizo is cleverly pitched, in astoundingly evocative opening and closing title cards, as a combination of cutting edge scientific reportage and speculative near-sci-fi related to the relativity of perception of space and time. (“A Fictitious Report on the Architecture of the Brain,” it calls itself. Bofill is a major Catalonian architect and has only made two films.) But such excuses hardly erase what comes after a dazzling prologue of close-ups of dials tweaked, electrodes placed, and charts charted: a screaming image of a cranium split in two, the red-raw gooey brains revealed, and horrendous wail on the soundtrack as if we are witnessing live experimentation. And then: cut. We are inside the mind, acted out like a living theatre performance of four men and one woman—the protagonist of insanity—crawling over each other and a spare white set, scored to the rhythmic, jumbled mutterings of schizophrenia. In a gesture it is hard to believe got past the censors, we are told by voices that are presumed to be the woman's doctors that she believes herself to be a social reformer and has delusions of omnipotence.
Later we do indeed see images that must be of some of the hospitalized, images of people far less pretty and mannered than the conceptual “insanity” of the inner brain’s hipster playacting. Yet this gap, between what insanity is like as metaphoric, bodily performance, and what it is for those who suffer, those about whom we have little real insight, is the gap Esquizo purposely pries open, exposing the lack of understanding, the lack of sympathy, the lack even of seeing or being incapable of visualizing how some people suffer, how incomprehensible their anguish is. If, in the neoliberal democracy of Portabellla’s General Report II there is an over-abundance of talk and analysis, in Franco’s dictatorship in Esquizo words nearly seem to lose all meaning in “polymorphic delusion,” as a (presumed) doctor diagnoses. And, like much of the best of the cinema devoted to hospitalizing institutions, the metaphor of captivity, scrutiny and rehabilitation maps with profound discomfort onto institutions whose range and power is even more extensive.
Next to such aggressively political cinema it’s challenging to turn to the often hermetic world of American independent film, but Actor Martinez, the first collaboration between young Americans Mike Ott (Littlerock) and Nathan Silver (Stinking Heaven), bears some comparison to Equizo in its strong distrust of film’s ability to portray anything with precise accuracy and instead has to construct layers of hypotheticals to reach towards truth. This slim film is a surprisingly natural meeting point between Ott’s work fictionalizing the lives of preferred non-professional characters and Silver’s micro-budgeted explorations of fraught group dynamics. These aspects of each filmmaker collide in the character (and real person) of Arthur Martinez, a Coloradan computer repairman with an interest in local amateur film production. The film begins with Ott and Silver casting Martinez in a dramatization of his life, but the film quickly unpeels another layer to suggest, in a darkly accurate characterization of the worst side of this trendy cinema approach, that the directors are intent on manipulating Martinez’s life to inspire the drama. (What drama though, is a question the film stumbles on, as we don’t see enough of whatever “original” film there might have been before tricks begin to be played.) And yet the film steps back again: before we’ve settled into the the film starring Martinez, or even this “second” film about the nefarious making of this first film, a third layer rears when Ott and Silver make clear that they are staging scenes of their directorial manipulation. So we now have four layers of conceptual drama: Martinez’s life, the film about him, the film about the production of that film, and the film about the production of the film about the production. Are you following? Perhaps; but then again the actor and directors may not be, as they keep decrying that the “film” (whichever they may be talking about) doesn’t seem to have much to it. Unfortunately, Actor Martinez doesn't seem to have fleshed out each (or indeed any) of its layers laid in composite. We move too quickly into the these nested meta-elements before what is at stake—in Marintez's life in front of the camera, in the film's production behind it—is made clear. The discomfit espoused from this wry concept was very palpable, which is no doubt the point. In a surreal, extra-cinematic coincidence, the actor from the film stood next to me during the Rotterdam screening the whole time, sipping wine and variously laughing, scoffing and reacting to himself on screen, and I felt undue pressure to perform as an audience member in such a way that would validate what he saw in himself in the movie. Another layer added.
So Actor Martinez is a stunt of a stunt of a stunt of a stunt, clever in conception and enjoyably modest in approach, but whose main target (in clever self-deprecation) is other films like itself. Or at least like the film within it, or the film that contains that one, or the one that contains that. American indie cinema could certainly use more self-reflection, -analysis and perhaps -destruction; Robert Greene’s 2014 quasi-documentary Actress is a good example of a story that, in processing what came before it in regards to collaboration between subject and filmmaker (which has a long history in cinema, going back at least to Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North), and in fully processing who the person is at that story’s center, strode forward in a strange, challenging mixed form. Actor Martinez has the concept and nimbly let’s us trip over it in a way so off-hand it’s both funny and disarming, but I was left with too many questions: Who is Arthur (the real person, the movie character, the character of character)? What was the set of the film (or the film within the film…) like? What does this area of Colorado look and feel like? What is the dynamic between the two directors like? In one moment the film completely lit up for me: real actress Lindsay Burdge plays “herself” in the production, an actress "with real credits" brought in to inject the slipshod production and Martinez's limited range with more traditional acting experience. Ott and Silver casually suggest to her, in front of Arthur and the off-camera crew, that the next shot is an unplanned sex scene and they’d like her to take her top off. In a long take looking at the bed that is Arthur’s actual bed—maybe—in which Burdge is supposed to be living as a kind of embedded living-actor—certainly not true—we watch the real Burdge act the role of herself being profoundly uncomfortable not just in the oppression of the men's direction but in the unstable method of such spontaneous, evolving filmmaking. And in this moment Actor Martinez reveals the raw, moral core at issue in the very act of filming drama.