Portabella and Continuity

The following essay was commissioned by Pere Portabella himself in 2009 when he was planning to include some written materials with a DVD box set of his complete works — a box set that he eventually decided to release four years later without any written material. This essay has subsequently appeared in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia and, in Spanish translation, in El mundo in March 2013. 

I’m speaking today about Portabella at the 12th annual edition of Tanja Vrvilo’s Movie Mutations event in Zagreb, where a Portabella retrospective is in progress.   — J.R.

Filmmakers who reinvent the cinema for their own purposes generally operate under certain distinct handicaps. In a few privileged cases (Griffith, Feuillade, Chaplin, Hitchcock) it’s the cinema itself, as art form and global institution, that winds up readjusting to the reinvention. But what happens more often is either a prolonged banishment of the filmmaker’s work from public awareness or a protracted series of misunderstandings until (or unless) the new rules are recognized, understood, and assimilated.

In the case of Pere Portabella, where some of the principles of production, distribution, and exhibition have been reinvented along with some concepts of reception, the frequent time lags between completed projects have only exacerbated some of the difficulties posed to uninitiated viewers. Interestingly, these difficulties have relatively little to do with an audience’s receptivity to the films themselves and a great deal to do with an audience discovering the very fact of their existence.

In my own case, I was fortunate in having my first acquaintance with Portabella’s cinema at a relatively early stage, in May 1971 and May 1972, when, as a Paris-based American expatriate in Cannes, I encountered Vampir Cuadecuc and then Umbracle in the Directors Fortnight, and briefly reviewed each of them for the Village Voice as part of my festival coverage. At that time, the familiarity I had with Spain and Catalan culture under Franco was so minimal that I could only respond to these films as if they had arrived from Mars — suggesting not only what Santos Zunzunegui has called an “extraterritorial Portabella” but also an extraterrestrial Portabella in the bargain. One example of what I mean was my incapacity to notice, process, or even acknowledge “Cuadecuc” as part of the first film’s title in my review, and a comparable lack of assurance the following year that I had any clear notion of what “Umbracle” meant, even after Carles Santos once tried to explain it to me in Paris. All I knew was that these films were being shown clandestinely, if at all, inside Spain.

Even after attending the San Sebastian Film Festival in July 1972, the insights I had into Franco Spain remained cursory, apart from such oddities as specific articles having been scissored out of some of the individual copies of the International Herald-Tribune that I purchased there, and a few glimpses of the local police station after my passport was stolen, on the final day of the festival — a lucky occurrence, as it turned out, because most of what I discovered over the next 24 hours, including a bus trip the next morning to the American Embassy in Bilbao, was precisely what the festival’s superb hospitality had contrived for me not to notice. I knew, of course, that Portabella had been unable to travel with his own films to Cannes because, as punishment for having been one of the Spanish producers of Viridiana, his own passport had been confiscated. But the only other thing I knew about his Spanish profile, apart from whatever I could glean from Vampir Cuadecuc and Umbracle, was that Variety’s Spanish correspondent, an American, had responded to my bringing up Portabella’s name in San Sebastian with dismissive hostility. Although I was able to see Nocturno 29 a little later in London, where I wrote a brief article about Portabella for Time Out to accompany a minimal retrospective at the National Film Theatre, three more decades would pass before I was able to see any other Portabella films, and the only one of these I’d even heard about was Informe General. My renewed acquaintance, moreover, came about only through the initiative of Portabella himself, corresponding with me in Chicago. (More recently, I would only begin to understand the special function of Poland as a generic foreign country vis-à-vis Spanish fantasy, in both Pont de Varsòvia and Calderón’s La vida es sueño, through the help of a friend with Catalan parents.)

Eventually, I would receive in the mail home-made video or DVD copies of No Compteu Amb El Dits (Don’t Count on Your Fingers, 1967), Nocturno 29 (1968), Miró l’Altre (1969), Miró 37 (Aidez l´Espagne) (1969), Vampir Cuadecuc (1970), Umbracle (1972), El Sopar (1974), Informe general sobre unas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (1977), and Pont de Varsòvia (1990), eventually to be followed by Die Stille vor Bach (2007). And in the meantime, an old filmmaker friend who now works as a producer for public television, Peter Bull, had emailed me asking if I’d ever heard of Pont de Varsòvia, which he’d just seen at a screening in New York’s Westchester county hosted by Jonathan Demme, describing it to me as “a fascinating blend of Tati and Buñuel” — a shrewd comment considering that he was then unaware of Portabella’s role as coproducer of Viridiana. In fact, Peter, whom I’d met in San Diego in 1978 when he was a graduate student, knew nothing about my reviews of Portabella films in the Village Voice or Time Out. As someone who had once made an experimental film I was privileged to star in (playing myself being interviewed as a film critic about an imaginary, nonexistent film that Peter then proceeded to shoot, based on my description, which he then intercut with the interview), he assumed that I would be interested if I’d never heard of Portabella and possibly helpful in furnishing him with more information if I had.

I wrote back to Portabella that even though Vampir Cuadecuc remained my favorite of his films, the “very exciting and beautiful” Pont de Varsòvia was “the biggest revelation”. “I’m especially struck by the remarkable continuity of your work over at least two decades — work that for me is in many ways largely concerned with issues of continuity, in almost every meaning of that term (historical, thematic, narrative, poetic, musical, stylistic, formal).”

I should have added “political” to my list of adjectives, because the continuity between Portabella’s political and aesthetic concerns has indeed provided the basis for most of the other links I had in mind. But there is a continuity between Portabella’s separate works that also rewards close scrutiny — not just the way, for instance, that most of them occupy some netherworld between fiction and non-fiction, but also the way that Francisco Franco and his own forms of fiction and narrative link Nocturno 29, the Miró shorts of 1969, Vampir Cuadacuc, Umbracle, El Sopar and the opening sequence of Informe general (General Report), while other forms of narrative dominance relating to Hollywood and other western models of continuity, including the Common Market, seem to figure more prominently afterwards. Indeed, the end of Informe general’s lengthy title, una proyección pública, inevitably calls to mind all the preceding proyecciones privadas. Clearly Portabella’s second career as senator, starting in 1977, which included his participation in writing the new Spanish Constitution, helping to abolish the death penalty, and assisting Spain’s entry into the Common Market, has redirected the focus of his filmmaking, even though the larger and the smaller concerns of continuity between the two parts of his career have been more lasting.

Provocative forms of continuity and discontinuity within as well as between his films abound. The stuttering, staccato rhythms of Miró l’Altre that chronicle the making and unmaking of a Miró painting are succeeded by the making and unmaking of Spain in the mid-1930s via newsreel footage that is also made to stutter in Miró 37 (Aidez l’Espagne); and this is succeeded in turn by the legato camera movements of Vampir Cuadecuc, which in a different way chart the making and unmaking of a Count Dracula story by another Franco. Meanwhile, the continuity and discontinuity formed by Portabella’s collaborations with Carles Santos in this work so that sound either amplifies or contradicts image (creating especially brutal and aggressive combinations of the two in the aforementioned Miró shorts and Umbracle) provides another form of persistence.

Or consider the continuity of the camera movements in Vampir Cuadecuc, which typically proceed from the Count Dracula story being filmed by Jesús Franco to surrounding details pertaining to the actors, crew, and locations, thereby traversing centuries as well as the space between fiction and documentary. These disconcerting shifts of syntax within single shots bears some similarity to the effects obtained by William S. Burroughs in switching syntax within individual sentences in Naked Lunch and Nova Express, often achieved through “cutups”, which allow the formal shapes of expressive units (shots, sentences) to overtake their narrative meanings and thus highlight some of the means by which those meanings get produced.

Many portions of No compteu amb el dits, Nocturno 29, Vampir Cuadecuc, Umbracle, Pont de Varsòvia, and even Die Stille vor Bach evoke certain aspects of the Surrealist universe — especially ones associated with the Buñuel of such films as Un chien andalou, L’age d’or, El, Viridiana, El Ángel exterminador, Belle de jour, Tristana, and Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, and partly consisting of decorous people in decorous clothes and decorous surroundings doing indecorous things. Sometimes these indecorous things are merely evoked (as in El Sopar) rather than shown, and sometimes they are only suggested by implication (e.g., the extreme close-ups of a priest being shaved in Don’t Count on Your Fingers). But since Surrealism already testifies to the power of one’s imagination, this distinction should probably be regarded as secondary. (“Is that true?” asks a woman’s offscreen voice in Don’t Count on Your Fingers. “No, it’s not true, replies a man’s offscreen voice. “But if you repeat it often enough, a falsehood becomes an affirmation” — thereby affirming what amounts to a Surrealist manifesto.) Even more evocative of early Buñuel are the odd juxtapositions suggesting poetic metaphors: the menace and torment located in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory in Don’t Count on Your Fingers, or the shift from the unseeing “glass eye” of a TV screen in Nocturno 29 to the literal unseeing glass eye of the man who was just watching it, or the painfully silent drop of a piano into a river in The Silence Before Bach.

Portabella’s avowed method of composing the script of Warsaw Bridge — “taking a short article from a newspaper about the body of a diver found in a burnt forest” and then expanding “in all directions” from there — certainly suggests a Surrealist procedure comparable to that of “Data Towards the Irrational Enlargement of a Film: Shanghai Gesture,” with the pertinent distinction that in this case, the game involves an enlargement/expansion based on establishing continuities of characters, locations, themes (such as the crossing of class boundaries involving culture during a verbal chess match in a kitchen, a brief discussion of verse forms at an adjacent party, and an opera staged in a fish market), stray motifs (such as “Constantinople” and algae), visual patterns (such as cutting from adjacent buildings to a row of ties, or from one airplane to another airplane), and camera movements, all of which ultimately supersede conventional narrative continuities.

But it would be misleading to limit Portabella’s references to Buñuel, or to Murnau and Dreyer (in Vampir Cuadecuc), or to Antonioni and Resnais (despite echoes of La notte and L’année dernière à Marienbad in both Nocturno 29 and Warsaw Bridge) or to Welles (even if Informe general begins rather like Citizen Kane as it hovers creepily around Franco’s tomb — before mutating into something closer to the car ride in Vampir Cuadecuc, albeit one arriving this time at “Barcelona 1976”), or to Straub-Huillet when it comes to discovering both the materiality and the persistence of Bach. We also have to consider all the references that precede cinema, ranging all the way from Bram Stoker to Bach himself.

If the overall movement of Warsaw Bridge is towards enlargement and expansion, the overall movement of The Silence Before Bach tends more towards contraction and convergence. It’s the music, mainly Bach’s, that provides the continuity and the convergence, spatial as well as temporal, crossing boundaries of class and language, modes of representation, musical instruments, forms of both spirituality and food preparation, and several centuries, not to mention musical staffs. Meanwhile, vehicles predominate — truck, train, boats, subway, and an almost continually moving camera traversing roads and rooms, streets and rivers, countries and centuries with a fluidity that matches the flow of musical notes. Starting as well as ending in a neutral white space, The Silence Before Bach presupposes an “after” as well as “before” — that is to say, another new beginning.

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