Three kings, photographed by Mark Peranson
I do not understand the films of Albert Serra.
Once, in my 20’s, I may have felt the need to compensate for some perceived suburban lack and praise - or at least suspend judgment on - suspected naked emperors as they strolled on by, inwardly thinking, “What the fuck was that?” - taking my very lack of comprehension as proof that the film was “above” me, and thus beyond my criticising. I remember the experience of first seeing Antonioni’s The Passenger at around age 15; tho’ it’s by no means a nude emperor, I certainly didn’t understand it, but I felt compelled to revisit it again and again until I got a sense of what was going on - an attitude towards cinema which I am quite grateful I had, back then. Still: I’m 40 years old now, and for good or bad, I am no longer so open-minded. I figure I know enough about film that if something doesn’t work for me, there’s a reason for it besides my own incapacity. “I know about art, and I know what I like” - like that.
Serra aside, I generally love contemplative, minimal cinema. My favourite film thus far at the 2008 VIFF was James Benning’s RR - nearly two hours of nothing but trains going by, which was as rewarding an aesthetic experience as I’ve had in months. I loved Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and liked Wendy and Lucy (still playing at the VIFF) - a film in which a woman comes to town, has a car breakdown, and has some problems involving her dog; though it opens onto vast expanses of human emotion and experience, I think it’s fair to describe it as formally quite spare - as is the music-free, Bresson-informed, and very sensitive Ballast, by Lance Hammer, another favourite this year. Describe a film as quiet, reflective - chances are you’ll find me in the audience, because nine times out of ten this means I will leave the theatre feeling rewarded, sometimes even (as was the case with my third viewing of Old Joy) in tears. Local cineaste Frank has pointed Liverpool out to me, and I’m excited to check it out. If I had no previous awareness of Serra’s cinema - and if I hadn’t checked out Birdsong on a screener in preparation for writing this article - I’d probably be quite excited to see it, based on the description in the VIFF program.
Both of the Albert Serra films I’ve seen, thus far, however - admittedly only having viewed them on the small screen - have filled me with impatience and irritation. They are indubitably quiet and spare, but somehow do nothing but agitate me, perhaps because - unlike with Benning or Reichardt or Hammer - I cannot hook on to the director’s project, which involves taking narratives of great historical import (Don Quixote for Honor de Cavalleria/ The Honor of the Knights, 2005; and the Journey of the Magi for El Cant Dels Ocells/ Birdsong, 2008), stripping away 75% of their content, translating them into Catalan, and reducing the characters to bumbling child-men who bicker, fuss, and occasionally observe the world around them with childish wonder. These observations are often somewhat poetic in resonance, as when the Magi in Birdsong consider whether they can walk on the clouds, but often at the same time have a gentle imbecility to them that strips them of any relevance to (my idea of) human experience (I mean, walking on clouds?). Besides such moments, a few pretty compositions, and occasionally striking landscapes, there’s nothing much that *I* feel compelled to feel, think, or contemplate during Birdsong, aside from my complete befuddlement and anxiety at waiting for the film to develop into something. See the men walk across the landscape. See them stumble. See them walk some more. See them pause. See them quibble. See them continue. Repeat with a similar landscape: Arrgh. Because I felt much the same way about The Honour of the Knights, it’s clear that there is a developed and singular aesthetic at work here - that Serra is indeed involved in producing art that is “absolute, inviolate, a discipline, a calling, a quest...” (to quote Robert Koehler, from the VIFF listing); but so far my instinct is to want no part of it.
VIFF programmer Mark Peranson is, unlike me, an admirer of Serra’s cinema, and acted in Birdsong, playing the Hebrew-speaking Joseph (his most memorable scene is a three minute static shot where he sits against a stone wall, idly moving his foot; his sole line in that scene is a complaint about the heat). Peranson made a “sort of making-of” film during the shoot, which took place in what the program describes as “the breathtaking, volcanic Canary Islands.” It seems only fitting, given how central a feature impatience was to my viewing of the film, that the title of his making of should be Waiting for Sancho (official site here; assumedly the title is a reference to a certain Beckett play, and not Waiting for Lefty, Waiting for Guffman, or Fear’s “Waiting for the Meat”). Sancho, by the way, is the nickname given to Lluís Serrat Masanellas, who played Sancho in Honor de Cavalleria; he returns in this film, along with Lluís Carbó, who played Quixote, and a third actor who (if I’ve got this right) is his father, Lluís Serrat Batlle. Mark and I talked about Birdsong and Waiting for Sancho. He seems to “get” Serra’s cinema, and he’s been trying to persuade me to come out and properly experience Serra on the large screen. He’s quite lucid, but, uh... I just don’t know...
Mark Peranson photographed by Román G. Yñan
Allan: To break the ice, I wanted to start by asking you, in Waiting for Sancho, when Albert is trying to make Sancho laugh, and he’s calling out, “blow job! Vicks Vapo Rub! Masturbation...”
Mark: You like masturbation, don’t you?
Allan: I do, I do, but... with Vicks Vapo Rub?
Allan: Do you know anything about this?
Mark: Well, he likes Vicks Vapo Rub, Sancho, actually. At one point there’s a scene where you see him in bed, in the room, lying down there, in the hotel. He’s actually got Vicks Vapo Rub on.
Allan: On his chest?
Mark: On his whole body. I don’t know exactly where, but all over the place.
Allan: But it’s not a sexual thing.
Mark: No, it’s a soothing thing, y’know, after walking all day and climbing the mountain - it’s like Ben Gay for Old People: Vicks Vapo Rub. It opens the pores.
Allan: This is the scene where he’s scratching his meaty thigh.
Mark: Yeah. Scratching, slapping - whatever he’s doing.
Allan: I actually quite liked that moment. He’s got a very unusual body - he’s got a very strange presence.
Mark (laughing): You could say that, yeah. A strange presence.
Allan: But compelling. I could see him becoming a kind of cult hero.
Mark: I think he is kind of a cult hero, in some ways, after the first film, in Barcelona. I think he’s very popular among bears.
Allan: Is he gay?
Mark: Sancho? I don’t think so.
Allan: Ah. But he’s got a bear audience.
Mark: Yeah, you know...
Allan: Oh, I see it.
Mark: His father definitely isn’t, as we know. That’s the other guy in his film, his father.
Allan: How do we know he’s not gay?
Mark: Because he had him - he impregnated someone!
Allan: Ah, I see. Well, lots of gay people in history have had children, but... We’re not doing this for Xtra West. We can roll past that.
Mark: I mean, it’s a pretty gay film, Birdsong. In a way.
Photograph by Mark Peranson; Sancho is in the foreground
Mark: Well, I mean... the circumstance a lot of the time is that you have three men helping each other out. But I mean, they could be three characters of any kind. They didn’t have to be men, but they are men.
Allan: Its true. There isn’t a strong female presence.
Mark: Well, there’s Montse, who’s extremely strong in my film. The producer.
Allan: Right. But in Serra’s films...
Mark: Yeah, he doesn’t like women, I don’t think, very much. I mean, he makes these films basically because of these guys - he wants to make films with these people. He finds them interesting. And you can tell why he finds them interesting, I think. Because they’re pretty intriguing people to watch, even if you have no idea of what they’re saying.
Allan: Yeah. The most enlightening part of your documentary, for me, other than just seeing how the process of making the film went, was where Serra talks about wanting to get rid of the sentimental - or you say naïve - relationship between figures and a landscape, so there’s just people left. I thought that was really interesting. But what’s your understanding of Serra’s project? ...because I don’t really get it.
Mark: Well, in that sense, this is one reason why I say seeing it on film is a necessary part of it, because of the spatial relationships that are going on, and the way the two cameras work. There’s no one field, there’s no axis that he’s working on, in terms of shooting. The cameras get up and they move in the middle of a scene. The spaces are 360 degrees that he’s working with - they’re much more opened up. And that’s also a reason why the film’s in black and white, not in colour, because - the colour, you see, it is quite gorgeous, the landscapes...
Allan: He’s taking that away from us.
Mark: As far as understanding his films, there are lots of people out there who have written eloquently on them. I don’t know if I should be the one to defend the film that I’m in. But you could say, in a way, he’s interested in these people, as he says: the way they move, the way they comport themselves, the way they relate to each other. But he’s not really interested in putting them in settings which are modern. They’re apart from time. It’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza - it’s the great stories of western culture, if you will. And I’m pretty sure he is a religious person, and I think that this film especially is one where the film form becomes a religious form. It’s about devotion. You’ve got to have some sort of devotional element in terms of watching, and experiencing.
Allan: Mm hmm?
Mark: And also, the way he describes this one, too - which is probably better than me describing it - it’s shot in the moment before Christianity exists. It’s a cult that’s in the process of being formed by these three people. These are the only three believers in Christianity. God told them, “Go and find this baby,” but they don’t know what they’re going to find. They’re just going on this blind faith - the faith is literally blind, because they’re walking around kind of aimlessly, hoping they’ll be led toward this place. And the rituals of Christianity haven’t yet been formed at all. They’re kind of like pioneers. And he’s making it as if he’s a pioneer of cinema, in a way, too. The last shot stands out to me - you probably can’t see it on DVD, even; it looks like some cinema from the early 20th century, or barely the turn of the century.
Mark: Something Hungarian or something like that, where these guys are just sort of barely visible - it’s a very strange, long, dark shot, and a long passage, like going backwards in time. But you don’t have to interpret it, you can just sit back and experience it.
Allan: Yeah, I just find... his films make me very restless and impatient... I think Waiting for Sancho is a brilliant title, because there’s a real feeling of waiting for something to happen.
Mark: Sure. Maybe that’s what’s filmmaking is all about, in all extents - waiting a lot on the film set. But in this one, moreso, because it’s completely improvisation-based, and he’s waiting for the right moment to be captured. And he doesn’t know exactly what he’s waiting for, I don’t think. He has a rough idea what he’s waiting for, but he doesn’t know exactly. That’s the brilliance of it, because so much is given to these performers, to do what they’re doing. To be themselves, but also they are acting; they’re not just repeating what he’s saying. That one scene where the woman repeats dialogue is the one time there’s any dialogue written for the film. And he wrote it on the spot! So even her reaction, by reading the dialogue - he’s not sure how she’s going to say it, because he’s never heard it before; she doesn’t know how she’s going to say it, she doesn’t know what the right way to say it is; I don’t think he knows what the right way to say it is, as he’s reading it back to her.
Allan: The scene (in Mark’s film) that really struck me was the “catching up with the fog” moment. (Serra is directing the cast and crew to try to get in front of a moving bank of fog, so that he can film the actors as the fog rolls in, but no one is exactly sure which way the fog is going to go).
Mark: Yeah, we did that for about three hours. Driving around, trying to find fog. It's a bit mad.
Allan: Did you ever feel like you were participating in an immense folly, or were you sure that it would amount to something?
Mark: No, I was sure it would amount to something. I mean, that fog scene is not in the final film. You don't see it. I think, in my film, the only scenes you see that are in the final product are the ones where the clips are there. There's a whole lot they shot that isn't in the final film. I think he shot something like thirty five scenes, and maybe there's eighteen or twenty in the film, or something like that. On the one hand, they shot for about a month, which is a relatively long time to shoot a film like this; but on the other hand, the way the film is structured is in the editing room - he watched the footage and chose which scenes to use of all of them. So even if one didn't work, I was pretty sure [the overall film would work]. What shocked me was, after he shot my first scene, or the first day that I was there, with the Joseph and Mary stuff, he was like, "Oh, now we can shoot more Joseph and Mary stuff, now we can change it, add more scenes." One of the scenes I was in in the film, I wasn't even supposed to be there on that day, the one where we're all by the rock and I give that speech. I was supposed to have left the set, already. That's actually in Tenerife. I was never even supposed to go to Tenerife - I was actually just supposed to stay in Fuerteventura. So you know, it's more just taking advantage of this crazy situation... because I realized, when I was there, and shooting, that 'this is ridiculous, and I have to keep on staying here for as long as I can because this is good stuff!'
Allan: Yeah, yeah. I'm not sure how I feel about his films, but your film is a vital document! It needed to be made.
Mark: And the thing is, if I'd shot on five different days, it would have been a different film entirely in terms of the settings and stuff, but I'm pretty sure it would be similar in terms of the content. Just the locations would be different - the names would be the same. But who knows. Because, I mean, that bathing scene is pretty ridiculous, and the whole fog moment, and climbing the mountain... I just managed to be in the right place for the right time for a lot of that stuff, too. Because I didn't have to be standing there with Albert. I mean, everybody else is already at the top of the hill when Sancho is walking up the mountain, for half an hour... And that's a great scene, I think. It's completely a factor of happenstance, I suppose.
Allan: What's your favourite moment in your film?
Mark: The fog scene is pretty good, where he has that fit. And I also liked the way the scene is framed, it worked out very well - how it turns out he walks away, and she (Montse) sort of sits down, and she's in the bottom right hand corner of the frame.
Mark: But everything is pretty funny, I think. I loved the three minute take of the sound crew taking sound. You look at them and it's like they're on Mars or something - taking the sound at the top of the mountain. I liked the dancing number - I had a couple of dance numbers, I used that one. It all comes together, I think. I tried to vary it up. I had about seven hours of footage. I wish I'd had more, but then again, that made it a bit easier to edit. But still...
Allan: What was your first contact with Serra for the project, and why did he decide on you?
Mark: I don't know why. It had something to do with the look, I suppose. Montse texted me, sometime last summer - it was May or June. Probably after Cannes, so it's, like, June. "Okay, we're going to shoot in the fall in the Canaries. Do you want to be Joseph?" I said, "Yeah, sure!" The one thing that's interesting to me - in Toronto, he was talking about this: the way I sort of helped add things to the actual filmmaking project was that, intially, I wasn't supposed to speak Hebrew in the film. I was supposed to speak English. He didn't know I spoke Hebrew, and he only found out when I got there. And I wasn't prepared to speak Hebrew, so you can imagine I was kind of hesitant to do so, having not really spoken Hebrew in a very long time. But the scenes before the two of us, when she's speaking Catalan and I'm speaking Hebrew - we'd do that stuff for three hours straight, or something, improvising some basic dialogue. I had no idea what she was saying - she knew what I was saying. The kind of performances that that elicited were, I think, more real, to him, in that, if you know what you're saying, but you don't know what the other person's saying, you've got to try to react to them and pay attention, but you're still a bit confused. So the performance becomes different. And he started to integrate that with the way he was working with the other guys, too. So at the very beginning, at the very first scene where they're walking in the distance, maybe it's not the easiest thing to tell, but he gave them a walkie-talkie, I think in Sancho's robe, or something, and he's just shouting out gibberish at them, and they're walking in circles. Stuff like that - to elicit a reaction based on miscommunication or confusion. It's some sort of directorial style he's developed, I hope based on my participation in the film.
Allan: Do you think Vancouver audiences are going to get Birdsong, or enjoy it...?
Mark: Oh, there'll be a few, but I'm sure it's not... It's the same everywhere. In Toronto he introduced Birdsong by saying, "You know, my first film, we played in Cannes to a big theatre of 1000 people, and by the end, there were 200 people. And this one, again, in the same theatre in Cannes - 1000 people, and by the end, 600 people! So I can say, you're lucky you came to see this one and not the other one."
Mark: The film festival in Toronto - usually the reputation of the filmgoers is, they like everything. For a long time they didn't even want to show this movie, because they thought the audience wouldn't go for it. But, you know, some of them did. Most of them did. There were walkouts, but there were people who stayed to the end and asked questions. Some questions were angry, some questions were understanding... People hopefully have done their research and know what they're in for. I'm sure when he gets here he'll say the same sort of thing at the beginning. But it's also funny, too, Albert's film, and that's something, I think.
Allan: There is something funny, to be sure. But it's a very strange mind to be participating in. I still don't know...
Mark: The dialogue is pretty funny, I'd say. There's kind of a Three Stooges element to it, as well.
Allan: Mark, this is more than enough for a fun little blogpiece. Is there anything else we should touch on?
Mark: Well, the one thing I was going to say - the one thing I understood based on observing him for a day and starting to shoot, and what I hope people get out of the film - is how the line between the film and not-the-film is extremely porous and loose. In my film, this is what I tried to show: it is about filmmaking, with the concrete making-of-a-film, but also about how he makes his own world, in a way. That style - the way he directs people, the environment on the set, the way that all these people are from the same small town outside of Spain - it allows him to do something which, I think, translates onto the screen as something unique. But in my film, you see how even the film Birdsong, in a way, becomes a chronicle of its own making. The scene where we're walking on the mountain and him and Sancho are talking back and forth about the clouds, and being above the clouds - the next thing you see is (the Kings) sitting there, talking about being above the clouds. In a sense, the experience of making it is translated into the actual finished project.
Allan: That's interesting, because I'd experienced a similar thing in terms of your film and his film, how similar they are. I see exactly what you mean, but...
Mark: That similarity, too, is very interesting, because I edited my film - the first cut - before I saw his film at all. So that last shot of the sun, I didn't know he'd have a shot like that in the film. And I didn't know it would be so funny, actually. Well, a lot of people think it's funny, and I do, too... [The two films have] the same sort of moments - long moments where nothing happens, and then dialogue moments that are funny, and more long moments... And then different settings, and then they get to Mary and Joseph at the end, and then they say goodbye. [The similarity is] pretty funny, coincidental. But maybe we were on the same wavelength, I don't know...
Far more can be read about Waiting for Sancho (and by implication, Birdsong) by looking at Mark's article on the film(s), here; Birdsong plays October 5th and 7th at the VIFF, and Waiting for Sancho the 6th and 7th - more information here. The screenings on the 7th comprise a double bill, for those of you who are singularly adventurous.