Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Love Is Blonde

by James Hansen

With his stature becoming more and more mythic with each passing year (and each new film), 101-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira has become something of a godfather of contemporary cinema. Active in filmmaking since 1931, his career has persisted while cinema searched for (and found) its foothold throughout the world. Meanwhile, various other art forms have redefined and recontextualized themselves in light of the rise (and fall) of the moving image, modernism, post-modernism, et al. The few Oliveria films I’ve seen have all centered around a conflict between competing art forms, art and reality, representation and actuality. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl does the same. Eccentricities’ complex peculiarities – from the title, to the cinematography, to the 58-minute running time, to the ambiguousness of its storytelling – help contain its expanses and expand its containment. Replete with contradictions and anachronisms, Eccentricities plays like a photo-painting projected onto a cinema screen – several things all at once and each element is instantly isolated and united, beautiful and repellent, true and false, past and present, now and forever.

It starts with the Blonde-haired Girl whose hair color is one of the only things Eccentricities makes clear about her. Eventually her name is dropped – Luisa – but from the interactions seen with the protagonist, Marcario, she exists predominantly as a figure of the imagination. Marcario gazes into her room from across the street in his accounting office. Her window serves as a canvas into another world, one with a beautiful blonde-girl who waves her enchanting Chinese fan and stares longingly (but for what?) across the street. She fans herself and smiles. She fans herself and frowns. No matter for Marcario – he is completely under her spell. We never know very much about her or their relationship, but Marcario quotes romantic poets when speaking about her so there is little reason to doubt his honest sentimentality. Marcario, blinded by his love, misses the several, all be them brief, clues as to the true nature of his blonde.

Soon, Marcario pleads with his uncle to allow him to be married. His uncle, with no explanation, rejects the request and fires him from his accounting work. With his economic future in shambles, marriage is out of the question. Determined nonetheless, Marcario leaves in search of other work in hopes of becoming sound enough to marry his would-be goddess. Though the moral fabric of the story is undoubtedly 19th century (the film is based on a short story by Eça de Queirós), Oliveira fills the frame with eccentricities of its own. Macario recalls the fated story of the blonde-haired girl on a high speed train, his office has a computer, he does a goofy dance when he discovers a friend of his knows the family of blonde. Even more oddly, perhaps, Marcario visits the estate of Eça de Queirós with Luisa. Eccentricities shows Eça de Queirós in alternating forms – sculpture, figurine, and modernist painting (not to mention the film itself as a further extension of Eça de Queirós’ work). This sense of historical presence exists ambiguously (no one in the film mentions the oddity of the situation or winks towards the existence of contemporary objects) but is undoubtedly a primary concern for Oliveira. Michael Sicinski wonderfully summarizes, “Oliveira is implicitly asking his audience to lend a 21st century ear to works in a classical mode, to admire their beauty and present-day resonance, despite but perhaps in some ways even because of their temporal alterity to our world.” And, of course, this works both inside and outside of the film. Oliveira’s role as a contemporary cinematic figure shadows the historical presence within Eccentricities, while the film creates characters as figures with inescapable pasts and futures.

In the opening sequence of the film, voice-over narration advises, “If you can’t tell it to a friend, tell it to a stranger.” The voice-over then shifts to a conversation between Marcario and a stranger on a train, which ultimately functions as extended voice-over narration in conversation form. Thus, the romantic Maracario’s relationship with the blonde is fated (as always), but what is more interesting about Eccentricities is how the characters, the camera, and the film text itself serves as mere figures or identifiable objects rather than being entrenched, definable characters. However, this isn’t to say the choice leaves the film and its characters empty. Quite on the contrary, it allows Eccentricities to double back on itself and extend the characters and the film’s ideas in multiple ways. The stilted, awkwardly staged conversation between Marcario and the stranger seems almost as if the actors are reading from cue cards beyond the frame. They rarely look at one another, instead gazing at a strange angle off screen. Perhaps the mark of Oliveira’s translation, Marcario and the stranger may as well be holding his novel and reading from it. (Later, a man does exactly this with a book of poetry). The scenes on the train seem like cameos for the source text, where the characters suddenly exist as mere actors reading the narration. The actors are playing parts in a new artistic dimension, which may be understood as a piece of its own, yet – like the sculpture, figurines, and paintings of Eça de Queirós, or the harpist who plays Debussy, or the poet who recites Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) – they embody the livelihood and existence of these "dead" artists.

On a more narrative level, even in this opening scene, Marcario doesn’t refer to Luisa but rather “the blonde.” While this may contain different national signifiers, but she fits the Western bill and serves as a traditional figure of unfathomable beauty and mystery whose downfall, in the end, is vanity (and perhaps a dash of poverty). The blonde functions simultaneously functions as everything the sentimental romantic ever wants and the last thing he should ever have. Her inability to fulfill Marcario’s initial expectation of the mystical blonde-haired girl with the Chinese fan, precisely because of the flawed assumptions in defining her as such without any details, leaves her broken and rejected, possibly forever. Unlike the artists kept alive through the arts, she becomes a dead symbol by destroying her own "meaning." Her chief sin seems rather slight, but, for Marcario and the film, once her iconography is shattered she slumps over, as Keith Uhlich argues, and becomes an “animate still life” – stunningly real, almost alive, yet always already disintegrating.



Sam Juliano said...

"The few Oliveria films I’ve seen have all centered around a conflict between competing art forms, art and reality, representation and actuality."

I'd say aye to that, and great to see you busy again James, though for one reason or another I haven't been over here. I do believe that Oliveria has teh longest active career of any director in history. (But then again, how could he not have--79 years?) Ha! This is an excellent analytical stody of this new film and the director's style, though to this point I haven't seen it.

Beautiful writing throughout.

James Hansen said...

Thanks Sam. It's good to get back in the swing of things. Hopefully we'll be smooth sailing from here after our unintended hiatus. You should see the film if you get the chance.

Thanks for coming by and the kind comments. Getting back in full swing also requires me to start heading back over to your site (and everywhere else). Hope to be off and running this fall!