Pondering complexity though cinema

Filmmaker Pere Portabella's work as director, producer, and agitator has been influencing Spanish cinema since the late 1950s. Portabella produced Carlos Saura's first feature-length fil, Los golfos (1959), Marco Ferreri's El cochecito (1960), Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), and the young José Luis Guerin's Tren de sombras (1997); the latter is considered to be one of the most significant films of recent Spanish cinema. A solo exhibition at MACBA  (Museu d'Art contemporani de Barcelona) in 2001, a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003, and his participation in Documenta 11 have contributed to a recent renewal of interest in Portabella's work.

Expósito: I would like to ask you to evaluate the revival of your films under the perspective of two different displacements that I feeel have taken place. On the one hand there is the present degree of visibility of certain films that were done on the margins of the cinematographic institution and, so some extent, under illegal or clandestine conditions; on the oder hand, there is the inclusion within the system of contemporary art of artifacts that were originally conceived as political interventions in the  cinema institution.

Portabella: Before I say anything else, I would like to state that I consider myself primarily to be a filmmaker, I say this not to sublimate my profession, but rather in the sense that I believe that political responsability is part of the total process of the production of  a film, up to the moment that it is screened in a movie theater. This however, does not invalidate the use of or diffusion through other types of media or institutions. Since I have never identified with underground or art cinema, I think that the historical displacements that you are pointing out, on the one hand, and the artistics framework on the other, are the result of a process I will try to explain.

Two situations have controlled the visibility of my films. The first was the censorship imposed during the Franco era, which was a tactical decision made around 1970 -the  year I made Vampir-Cuadecuc- during a moment when  social and cultural forces were becoming radicalized in the democratic figth against the dictatorship. When these historical conditions came to  an end, first Informe General (1976) and above all Pont de Varsòvia (1989) - which I made  many years later, using differents methods - were both films that loojed for a maximum of "visibility". However, what happened is that under democratic conditions, the ideological and administrative censorship was replaced by a filter that was increasingly controlled by corporations that consider films the central product of a totalizing marketing system. As Godard would say, films are produced to the detriment of cinema.

I have always thought that the main political dimension of my films lies in attacking linguistic codes. Ideology impregnates society through  the dominant languages. I have never seen ,myself as working on a film that is "transparent" of supposedly more "comprehensible" codes. I understand their tactical function in certain political situations. But what I think has maintained the interest in my films beyond their juncture, is the way in which they are all related, within their contexts, through the complexity, rather than the complication, of language, and a subversion of the dominant codes.

While the cinema institution is increasingly dominated by corporations, in the last few years some artistics institutions have demonstrated a progresive interest in modern cinema through a historical focus on the complex and critical dimension of artistic languages. There are those who are revising the conservative character, the mausoleum -like kidnapping and elitism of culture that has historically dominated museums, by constructing new participative, open spaces. I think his has permitted the displacement of my films into the realm of contemporary art whitout changing their strictly cinematographic character and taking in consideration the various historical conditions under which my films were produced.

The displacements that you suggest, therefore, are not haphazard or capricious. They respond to the need to relocate one's exercise or practice where it is most operative in order  to openly debate the need to create codes for breaking away, for meeting with the circumstances. One does this not merely survive as a filmmaker, but to continue incising reality, which I insist upon, through a specific cinematographic practice.

Expósito: That reminds me of the way Alexander Kluge worked during the 60's and 70's in the field of cinema, simultaneously developing his political considerations on the oncept of the piblic sphere. Cinema was a place to criticize abd reach beyond the bourgeois public sphere which, behind its legitimizing facade of transparency and equality for all, hid  very precise machanisms for marginalization and exclusion. For Kluge, and alternative, critical public sphere was possible in films by exploring the comunicative and sociallizing capacities of the cinematographic language, and at the same time recovering the democratic control of the production, distriburion and exhibition sectors. As the struggles around '68 came to an end, and the cultural counter-revolution of the 80s attempted to present linguistic and political ruptures as obsolete, Kluge turned to commercial television. He understood that the strict cinematigraphic institution was no longer a field for influencing ideas on cinema and the public sphere.
I recall Kluge's case here, in spite of numerous differences between the two of you, because I think it is revealing in regard to the circumstances that a series of proposals hace continued from '68 ti the present and that, contrary to what is commonly stated, tell us of their current use as a reference model for artistic oppositional practices today. They are valid in the sense that, for instance, as you said, the first political dimension of certain aesthetic practices has to be found in its intervention on language, with an eye on the historical, political, and economic conditions under which they operate.

Portabella: Vampir-Cuadecuc, Informe General, and Pont de Varsòvia, which I have already mentioned, are three different examples. The first is a materialist film that exploits, to the utmost, the capacity to break away from the conventional cinematographic language by a precise analysis in order to overcome it and go on to the evocative powers of the images. Informa General was meant to occupy a new democratic space in the course of the Spanish political transition, leaving clandestine activity behind and  demonstrating the political scene after the death of Franco in a documentary directed in the form of narrative cinema. Pont de Varsòvia was made when dominant narratives were being restored, years after the international New Cinema had finished. That to construct apparently conventional scenes that, however, are narrated under extreme tension. In each case, using differents methods, my films tray to break with the Aristotelian rule of narrative (Brecht) so as to suggest an alternative use of the potentialities of the cinema.

Expósito: Could you specify whjere the materialistic dimension of your films is located? I always like to recall Joan-Enric Lahosa's insight when he spoke about the "revelatory fascination" in Noturn 29 (1968), Vampir, and Umbracle (1972). This idea tells us of type of materialism that captivates the spectator who explores the full range of the images's expressive possibilities but, at the same time, understands the illusory mechanisms, which unveil the material character of film stock. This practice is very close to a type of naïve materialism, a sterilized and mechanistic reductionism in the analysis of the production of feeling through images.

Portabella: I have never been keen on making materialist films of the type you call "sanitized". I have always wanted to exploit cinematic language starting with an implied radical subjectivity, with a gaze tahat does not avoid the notions of individual reformation/recreation. And it is from this pont that one is able to construct a "territory of encounter" with the spectator's gaze. Think about this scene from Pont de Varsòvia: the long travelling towards the exhibition of an autopsy. At the beginning it is seductive and refuses to be laborious and tense, yet by the end it offers us a detailed topography of a cadaver. It is only in this "territory of encounter", where the gaze is recreated and at the same time interpolated with tension, that things are able to be evidenced, unveiled, and revealed through images without the use of a merely mediating and utilitarian language.

Expósito: I remember a conversation with Godard recalled  by Serge Daney in regard to the television broadcast of the first Gulf War. Godard stated that the pesistent fixed shot of the camera, which showed no more than a greenish image of bursting lights from the bombardment over Baghdad, escaped two classic narrative elements of the cinema: the hors-champ and the reverse shot. For Godard, this impoverished audiovisual narrative was not sheer chance. Eliminating hors-chanp -the "out of camera"- hid the context in which the conflict was taking place and so impeded its comprehension. Avoiding a reverse shot denied the possibility of thinking against the image shown. Godard is the bodyguard of the history of cinema understood as the historical preocess that has given us new complex tools for looking at and representing reality, tools that can help us to construct a critical and complex way of thinking. As you suggested before, cinema has gone beyind films. As far as I am concerned, this is the meaning behind the revival of your films and the films of others within the framework of new artistic spaces with a critical vocation: this helps us to cut short the banality of the images which can be found not only in television or publicity, but even in the institutional fields of cinema and art, by affirming that the complexity of languages is the sine que non condition that is necessary in order to think critically about a world that is increasingly complex.

Autor:Marcelo Expósito