Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Unfuckable: Waiting for Sancho, La última película

Waiting for Sancho is the making of Albert Serra’s Birdsong. It’s comprised of footage from the set, the cast in preparation to be filmed, and thoughts from the director. The documentary by Mark Peranson shows the amount of work that goes into the making of a small-scale independent film. Peranson, who has a small role in Birdsong, has a privileged position within the crew, and his personal footage attest to this friendly relationship. By making this documentary he’s emphasizing the importance and value of this kind of radical filmmaking, which is a world away from the norms of commercial Hollywood storytelling, and it also provides first-hand access to the artistic ambitions of its director.

Waiting for Sancho is, in some ways, similar to other ambitious making-of documentaries like Chris Marker’s A.K., Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, and Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha. The Los Angeles film critic Robert Koehler suggested at the recent MDFF screening of Waiting for Sancho that it would be an apt centerpiece to any potential “making-of” film festivals.

But Waiting for Sancho is different than these other films.  In these other making-of documentaries, one gets the impression that their whole raison d'être is the problems that arise on the sets and to see familiar directors trying to overcome them. As well, since these documentaries are not created in the publicity mold, their third-party perspective usually offer an implicit critique of these megalomaniac projects and the hubris of the directors and the industry that sustains them.

How is Waiting for Sancho different? First off: it’s very funny. What makes it stand out are the eccentric personalities of the actors and how they all get along with each other, along with the larger-than-life personality of its director Albert Serra.

Waiting for Sancho is more like a Serra film with its focus on characters and their gestures. There isn’t the typical over-exposition that one might find elsewhere. The cast and crew are just there, and Waiting for Sancho attests to this egalitarian spirit. This emphasis on the people and gestures can be illustrated by a quote from Serra about his most recent film Story of my Death,
“It was simply easier for me to work with historical and literary figures … so I could focus on atmosphere, on details, on things I love better than just showing the plot or trying to give information about the characters. With these characters you have more or less all the information and, well, then I can do whatever I want, I am free and I don’t care about being more or less faithful to the original source or character that comes from literature or history.” (The Beauty of Horror and the Horror of Beauty, Cinema Scope N.56).
But Waiting for Sancho is different then Serra’s films. In Serra’s cinema the framing is incredibly precise and, like with Bresson, he aims to get at the essential of the characters. The settings that Serra films, whether it is a forest, desert or castle; becomes a sparse canvas for this essential of the characters to emerge out of and for them to react against. The historical specificity of Serra’s films, which evolves with each new film, are also really unique as they provide a context for the character’s spiritual crisis as well as they provide a unique and captivating “look” in regards to the film’s costume and production design.

All of this to say that it is really interesting to see how Serra brings all of these filmmaking elements together in Waiting for Sancho.

The digital image of Peranson’s hand-held video frames the cast in long shots, which emphasizes the scale of the filmmaking.  As well Waiting for Sancho is in color and uses natural sounds which differs from the black and white cinematography and non-diegetic sounds of Birdsong. This access to the original location provides a better understanding of the final film’s artistic manipulations. The regular casting of Serra’s friends Lluis Carbo, Lluis Serrat Masanellas, and Lluis Serrat Batlle provide Waiting for Sancho with its primary subjects: they are all great together, and continue, though in a different register, the dynamics that they have in Birdsong and Serra’s other films. There is something intrinsically interesting about these guys being together, and watching them respond to the world around them, brings to mind what makes Serra’s films so interesting: life, people and the world itself.
The filmmaker in La última película is played by Alex Ross Perry, who at times recalls the sarcastic Paul Rudd (Role Models), and his accompanying guide is played by Gabino Rodríguez, the lead of Nicolás Pereda's films. In it the filmmaker goes to Yucatán, Mexico to make the last film on film-stock, and he suggests that it might be the last film ever made since the Mayan apocalypse is around the corner.

Isn't this a beautiful and romantic prospect? To finish everything off with this one last gesture: to give back to cinema everything that it has ever meant: pleasure, humor, melancholy, friendship, beauty, violence. This epic finale is symbolically similar to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where Tyrone Slothrop is in a movie theater waiting for the world to end, and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, where the destruction of film stock in a movie theater can rid history of Hitler.

La última película is ostensibly a remake of the Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie with hints of that film's making-of, The American Dreamer. But similarities to other films come to mind: Godard’s Contempt, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (two films by other film-critics turned filmmakers) and iMDb lists many other possible movie connections. La última película is similar to Contempt as they are both about a director abroad who is trying to make, what seems to be, an unrealizable film; and it’s similar to Celine and Julie for its use of self-referential and distancing effects. But these effects aren't necessarily Brechtian as much as they call into question ideas of medium specificity, narrative illusion, and the creative impetus.

The Adieu 35 issue of Cahiers (N.672) announced that the digital revolution is over.  What more does the future of cinema have to give us? Is film going to become solely a historical artifact in a world of digital cinema projections? What's going to happen to the production and distribution platforms which even has Spielberg confused?  Has Carax given cinema its last breath with Holy Motors?

A great counter-example to these claims is La última película, which recent premiere in 35mm is one of this year's important film events. La última película affirms cinema's capabilities to reinvent itself.  It's directors are worth mentioning: the lauded Filipino auteur Raya Martin and the Canadian film-critic turned filmmaker Mark Peranson. What they create reflects a mixture of their two individual styles (more on this below) and its a brilliant piece of alchemy. It's an ode to film that simultaneously burns the last film strips. It's shot with a variety of film stocks that in a way calls attention to itself.

The film is a hybrid of both Martin and Peranson’s filming styles. There are some similarities between La última película and Martin’s Buenas noches, España, which in a experimental register, with shifting film stock and industrial music, a young couple go off on a road trip, where they experience some really intimidate moments, as they go deeper into nature and visit some local tourist sights. The Peranson qualities come across by the film-within-the-film's director who speaks at length about his lofty aims (though presented in a self-critical register), and the making-of quality of La última película that recalls Waiting for Sancho.

This making-of quality of La última película is important because now with it contemporary festival cinema has its Singin' in the Rain. Just like how in Cinema Scope they publish great director interviews, which are lengthy conversations about the filmmaking process, now with La última película this rarely shown aspect of filmmaking has returned into the construction of the film, which is in some ways similar to what Singin' in the Rain did by bringing a reflexivity to its presentation of cinema's transition to the talkies.

In Phil Coldiron’s review of La última película, The End of Cinema (Cinema Scope N.56) he speaks about the kinds of films that the free-form of La última película is reacting against,
“World cinema today finds itself in much the same place: films must dress up their culture of origin in the same ways that will most appeal to the cultural elite who make up film festival selection committees and audiences, a situation which has hardened into a set of rules that are every bit as dogmatic as those kept in place to ensure Hollywood blockbuster turn appropriate profits on their nine-figure investments.”
Olivier Père in his review of La última película also elaborates on the aesthetic rewards of these Cinema Scope films (my translation),
“Those that lament about the death of cinema, decry its rigid formatting and lack of audacity and freedom, ignore or refuse to see the films and the methods of Miguel Gomes, Albert Serra and Lisandro Alonso and a few other young cinéastes who for them the cinema is a collective experience that is vivifying and intrepid. Mark Peranson knows this. In his role as a film critic he has followed and brilliantly commented upon this fringe «jeune, pure et dure» of the cinema for these last ten years in his magazine Cinema Scope, which is actually the best one in the world. It's a sign-post for the creation and defense of these of new cinematographic forms."
Since Peranson’s Cinema Scope editorials are usually critical of current practices around cinema, it is a breath of fresh air to see how in the newest issue, Film is Dead, Long Live Film (N.56), it includes solely three screen grabs of La última película. It is a beautiful, passionate and modest gift to the world of cinephilia.

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