Castle of Protest

The serene, troubling provocations of João César Monteiro
by Michael Atkinson  posted May 3, 2010
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Nations of peoples all have distinctive “characters,” even if it is dangerous to try to define them, and so if the Portuguese are, as British diplomat and author Marcus Cheke said in the mid-20th century, “distinguished by a kind of artless simplicity that to a sophisticated mind often appears incomprehensible,” it remains a moving hazard to box up Portugal’s nativity and label it. Still, it gives pause to consider how the three world-renowned filmmakers to come from Portugal—Manoel de Oliveira, João César Monteiro, and Pedro Costa—all manage a stylistic variation on a theme: a tone of regal peasant simplicity coupled with a fiercely recalcitrant abstruseness. Increasingly, Oliveira has been the warmest of this snippy trio, while Costa is the upstart intent on fragmented miserableness.

Between them, Monteiro appears to be one of world cinema’s most troubling figures, except when you realize that trouble was his (second) middle name, and virtually nothing he did on film was ever meant to be “filmic” per se, much less actively captivating to any but the most self-crucifying art-house audiences. At the same time, his texts were absurdly simple (often folktales), as if to dash his viewers’ assumptions of sophistication and elitist cinema on the rocks of pre-industrial tradition, all the while withholding ordinary cinematic pleasures. On top of that, it seems he regarded himself, in front of and behind the camera, as a comic figure. Except he’s never funny, and never tries to be. As Ozu has been labeled at home the “most Japanese” of homegrown filmmakers, could Monteiro be the definitive Portuguese film artist?

Or is he one man, one apostate methodically sending deceptive flares into the sky from the wilderness of his own objectives? There has certainly never been another filmmaker quite like Monteiro, and though he seems to be beloved by the cinephile class at home, it’s difficult to imagine his withholding narcissism could gather much of a popular reception in Portugal, one of the poorest of the European countries untroubled by the legacy of the Iron Curtain. It’s tough to characterize Monteiro without making his films sound like ordeals—which they sometimes are, ordeals by quotidian and deadpan whimsy and inessentials, and you don’t have to be deep into your first Monteiro to understand that this passive-aggressive inhospitality is part of the cosmic gag.

He is consistently called the “enfant terrible” of his film culture, but neither was he ever very young (he was 44 when he made his first feature, Veredas, in 1978, and not even 70, though startlingly cadaverous, when he died in 2003), nor were his films “terrible” in any familiar sense. Rather than rampaging controversies, Monteiro’s films are languid, stilted frustrations, rolling out at their own sweet pace as if our time is Monteiro’s to waste (and of course, it is), and composed almost entirely of extreme long takes while eschewing that trope’s potential for expressiveness. There is no masterpiece in Monteiro’s filmography—the very word would likely have made him shiver. You could say that his ground-up remaking, and uncluttering, of film time-space may be subject to diminishing returns, but in reply Monteiro would likely grumble, half-smiling, "Diminish this."

The one generous gift Monteiro gave his viewers, besides the frequent undressing of young girls for little more than salacious purposes (never effectively, engagingly salacious, of course) was himself. He appeared in his own films from the beginning, but finally took center stage in Recollections of the Yellow House (1989), as João de Deus, a grizzled, skeletal, disaffected, tobacco-hog Lisbon bachelor whose intentions, when they were made plain to us, revolved around the pursuit of girls one-third his age. But João de Deus is no Benny Hill—he is a slow mover and his activities mostly involve wandering on fuzzily outlined errands, having inconclusive conversations with strangers, and waiting, it seems, for death. Monteiro’s long face, rheumy eyes, and bony body evoked Edward Gorey as much as Cesare the Somnambulist, and he seemed inherently comedic, somehow, despite the frequent absence of schtick. When Monteiro does indulge in an absurd scenario—jamming his head into a vessel of crushed eggs after a young girl sat on them, in God’s Comedy (1995), or being imposed upon by a giant phallus while literally on his deathbed, in his terminal film Come and Go (2003)—it juts out of the suspended ether of the rest of the film like a weed.

From Monteiro’s first period of theatrically framed folktales—Veredas and Silvestre (1981)—through to his complete immersion in self-awareness, to which God’s Comedy and Come and Go are the apotheosis, his sensibility reins in almost every aspect of traditional moviemaking. There may not be a more concise and disquieting example of an auteur’s stamping his personality on his movies’ every frame. Sam Adams, in the Philadelphia City Paper, memorably remarked that with Monteiro “long-take aficionados have their Marquis de Sade,” and there’s more to that than a jibe at the patience-shredding length and inactivity of Monteiro’s scenes. Never an artist in any manner that made sense to anyone but himself, Sade didn’t write books per se, stories meant to be read progressively in time for purposes of empathy and enlightenment and entertainment—he was the first hell-and-high-water oppositionist, assembling massive ramparts of words and ideas intended not as art but only as testaments to a tireless anti-establishmentarianism. He didn’t care about his readers, their interest or arousal or even disgust; Sade only cared about building his unreadable castle of protest.

Monteiro shares some formal and attitudinal DNA with Buñuel (minus the satire) and Bresson (minus the gravity), but it’s Sade that he’s most aligned with, not for Sade’s subject matter but for the great old warrior’s undying defiance, his commitment to everything he does standing as a howling joke played on the very ideas of “fiction” and sympathetic association and authorial intent. Far gentler, Monteiro remains an antagonist to ordinary cinematic reflexes—filmmakers’ and viewers’. His key films are pure geysers of Monteiro-ness, yet they exist for their own sake, not because he seeks to communicate himself to us. He was not after beauty or wisdom, that much is certain, and it may not be accurate to say he was after anything at all. This arms-length relationship is less than entrancing at first blush for most of us, and the tension that results is what Monteiro finds ludicrously amusing.

It is, in the end, an existentialist stance—a dependence only on the self and a shrugging surrender to helpless doom. “Here we are all on our own again,” he says at the outset of Recollections of the Yellow House, which may be as fatalistic and cynical as any film one could think of, not in its material thrust but in its surrender to not having material at all. The key Monteiro films are not Duck Amuck–ish failures at assembling an orthodox movie so much as acknowledgments of the project’s uselessness in the face of death. The only thing that Monteiro respected, at least when he was healthy enough to get out of the city, is landscape—be they real meadows and mountains unchanged from medieval times, or beautifully rendered theatrical backdrops of same, the sole deliberate touch of beauty in Silvestre’s conscientiously cardboard fairy-tale world, where the set seams show and old Dutch masters are invoked in tableaux only to be scorned by passionlessness and flat stage lighting. It’s a slant on Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac as Kenneth Anger might’ve lit and shot it in the ’70s as a protracted piece of experimental theater, and as such it has nothing on the self-conscious later films, the strange and calm uniqueness of which could be read as a funeral march, ironic and amiably non-sequitur-ial but subject to no delusions about the end to come.

For that, though, there’s a serene air of pleasantness to his films, and the possibility of impulsive hijinks is never very far. As for the later existentialists, Monteiro’s consideration of life embraces the idea that its futile ordeal also begets personal liberty and love for the absurd. Still, however distinctive, Snow White (2000) may be Monteiro’s definitive statement—an anti-movie à la Derek Jarman’s Blue, in which 75 minutes of black leader (punctuated by brief shots of blue sky) is accompanied by an actors’ reading of Robert Walser’s 1901 playlet, which converts the Grimm tale into a prefeminist struggle between Snow and the powers of state that try to control her. Monteiro references Hölderlin and evokes Nabokov, but Walser might be his closest aesthetic brother—see if critic/translator Walter Arndt’s description of Walser doesn’t nail Monteiro to the wall: “He is not your ordinary honest psychopath but an insidiously wide-eyed mild-and-mellow one. One senses too acutely that he thinks of the reader as his meat, not the other way around. And if you take refuge in the comforting assumption of at least intermittent dementia on his part, you are likely to see him, in his own good time, turn around, fix you with those seductively long-lashed eyes, and flute: ‘Ah, imbécile lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.’”

Monteiro wasn’t clinically mad like Walser, but the glare is the same, beaming full-faced straight into the camera suddenly at the end of Snow White, as if in recrimination, and at the end of Come and Go, nearly five solid minutes of Monteiro’s eyeball holding us in a tractor beam, shot literally days or weeks before his death, staring us down. Ah, you imbecile, my brother.  


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Gémini Films
João César Monteiro in his film Recollections of the Yellow House
Photo Gallery: Castle of Protest


April 28–May 24, 2010 Perverse Poet: João César Monteiro


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct