On a certain occasion Pere Portabella declared that his films were based on constant surprises for the spectator, on "the magic, the charm (duende), the interest, passion and emotion roused by entering the unknown".1 But this observation is common to many film makers (particularly political leftists). Portabella adds, however, that "what penetrates is that which one is not conscious of, and which can modify and determine daily and even ideological behaviour";2 and, although true, this does not account for the imprint on his films.
A sequence from No compteu amb els dits (1967) gives us a clearer meaning of the surprise in his films. We refer to the dinner scene and in particular to a single shot. It begins with a medium - shot of Mario Cabré sliding underneath the table, followed by a backward travelling, always in a - shot, covering the whole length of the table until it reaches Natacha Gunkevitch; as it reaches her the camera descends and turns half-way to focus full front on the body, rising to show the face, as, at the same time, first Mario Cabre's hands and then his face appear caressing and then kissing her hair. This shot is an act of transformism, something greatly appreciated by Joan Brossa. The anomaly is that Mario Cabré is in two places at once: under the table (where we suppose him to be) and at the same time, behind the actress (where there is nothing that permits us to suppose he might be). Cabré's presence during the travelling has been a trick. But this sleight of hand has been produced before the very eyes of the spectator without, at any moment, cutting the shot. And this is what fills us with wonder and surprise. It is a change in the image that does not tolerate any change in the cinematographic continuity.
Another very noteworthy example can be found in Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (1977). I refer to a sequence shot in the part about the Basque Country. We see what looks like a summer afternoon sky. In May 1993, when the film was screened at the Filmoteca de Cataluña during a memorial ceremony for Octavi Pellissa, an enthralled spectator exclaimed in catalan !Oh, qu é maco! (Oh, how lovely). The shot, however, is a zoom -actually it is two shots put together since there is no zoom capable of covering that distance- and starts opening up from a detailed micro-shot to a great full shot. What seemed to be a detail in a painting from the 16th century Venetian school turns out to be a burning flame in the chimney of the Bilbao blast furnaces. At the end of the shot we have before us the factory with its chimney and a huge cloud of pollution rising into the atmosphere. The initial image has been transformed during the shot before the very eyes of the spectator. From delight in an optical illusion to the terrible surprise that lies hidden behind it. The unpredictable is precisely what it demonstrates, through a variation in the scale of the shot. The peculiar surprise prepared for the spectator is inseperable from the form in which it has been shot. On a spatial scale from smaller to larger, the spectator sets out on a trip leading to understanding.
At other times the strangeness does not appear within the shot but rather in the seam between one shot and the next. It is clearly an editing element, such as in the sequence during the mass in the Santiago de Compostela cathedral, a sequence that was massacred by the censors when Nocturn 29 (1968) premiered. This sequence lasts less than fifty seconds and consists of more than sixty shots. The beginning is a documentary filming of mass in Santiago de Compostela. Ten seconds later an insert shot of a puppet appears unexpectedly (for hardly a second) in the foreground. The sequence continues combining close shots of the mass with even briefer inserts of two puppets, finally including a repeated insert of several puppets raising their fists against the religious authorities. The scene, begun by cardinals, displaces them and ends with the puppets (approximately ten seconds). These images strike the spectator both through the rhythm imposed by the editing, and because of their significance. The alarm is not in the materials filmed but rather in their contrapositioning, in their apparently innocuous joining. The function of the Catholic church as an ideological and cultural support for the Franco regime -as well as its support of right wing politics in Spain since 1976-, should be taken into account in order to understand how audacious this sequence truly was (and the shot of the puppet menacing the cardinals). Due to its extremely rapid editing (more than one shot per second), the sequence is comparable to that of the religious symbols in October (1928) by Sergei Eisenstein (a film absolutely forbidden by the Franco regime censorship, as were all films from the Soviet Union).
In this sense, Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970) is, in itself, a surprise mechanism. To begin with, tv programs about "the making of" became popular in the early 1990s. In 1970, there was nothing like it. What today is considered unsurprising was not usual in the early 1970s. Artificial smoke, a fan that spreads spiderwebs, Dracula's coachman greeting the camera, the ever present filming crew, the optical illusion of windows on the set, the electrician's plugs, the spotlights on the scene, the noise of the drill, Christopher Lee in the process of removing his make-up, a constant mix of actors in period costumes and street dress, are some of the doors that lead towards the unusual. As for the rest, a high contrast film and sound negative -that had been previously been used in Nocturn 29-, dispense with any precaution in regard to lighting. Where this procedure is most relevant aesthetically is in the zip pan of trees as Dracula's coach drives by. The result of this zip pan is that it is impossible to guess where the shot changes so that what the spectator sees is a kind of abstract image which, nevertheless, is constantly changing ( might I add, that this is thirty-six years before some critics saw reminiscences of abstract art in some popular American directors).
Something similar takes place in Umbracle (1972). A story about Christopher Lee's visit to Barcelona has hardly begun when the film is interrupted. We then see a brief summary of what we have seen previously and, following, a series of sequences with no apparent logic but which are intensely dramatic. This part is composed of interviews with people from the movie world who oppose the Franco regime, a critical view of El Frente Infinito (1956) by Pedro Lazaga -a prototypal film of the Falangist cinema at the time to which nothing has been added, it is a sample-, the clown sequence and, finally Christopher Lee singing and reciting Edgar Allan Poe and then remaining still, his eyes on the camera until the film begins again with the sequence in the Museum of Natural History (with only one shoe store insert). The three conventional acts (introduction, climax and conclusion) are filled by three images of the museum that are the three beginnings of the same film. Otherwise, the film is silent except when it leaves fiction behind (the three interviewees on censorship and militant cinema and Christopher Lee notifying his change in plans and his subsequent interpretation). The shots of the talks by the defenders of a militant cinema or the shot of Lee as he comes out of the elevator and talks to the camera are an example of a break in the narrative. Its continuity within the narrative causes wonder.
But there is an even more polysemous example. Christopher Lee is leaning over Jeanine Mestre's body and his head disappears past the lower part of the frame. The spectator -who associates Lee/Dracula- expects Lee to reappear with his bloody fangs. But instead, the person who reappears is Jeanine Mestre, making one go through a delayed process of perception of the whole sequence and to rethink the shot in relation to the idea of seduction (he is seduced by her).
After Informe general Portabella filmed nothing for the following twelve years. During this time he modeled his work style as a film maker. In Pont de Varsòvia (1989), the only occasion in which we find a mixture of shots that do not relate to one another is in a change of sequence between the discussion of two university professors that then changes to a group of women acting in a bathing scene of an Ingres painting. The professor's cry (Son loliguncula vulgaris, chipirones!) gives place to some nude women singing a Carles Santos score.
Whether within the same shot, or by the juxtapositioning of two shots, all the examples given as such are cases of continuity. They produce surprise because they are unexpected. The same happens with a succession of sequences. Normally, in commercial cinema, one sequence prepares the next. In Pere Portabella's films this is far from happening, especially in his beginning works, like No compteu amb els dits, with the publicity wipes that isolate each sequence making it a self-sufficient whole.
With Nocturn 29 and his step into full length features, the transition between sequences becomes more important, the story of the film slides smoothly. There is a clear distinction between those sequences with Lucia Bosé and the rest. Of the twelve sequences in which Llucia Bosé appears, two are in color, one is preceded by a fading into white, two open with a wipe from the center to the sides, and five are sequences that follow other sequences where she is the protagonist. The only ones left are the transformation sequence and the walk through the golf course, the only moment when they converse (and say nothing). The other sequences, on the contrary, function merely by cutting (even one at the beginning which is cut because the film broke). This was the only time he played with the very strangeness of the images and the apparent continuity of the narrative.
In Vampir-Cuadecuc the jump between sequences is constant. In an interview, Portabella stated that "one image leads me to the next. I don't edit so much in relation to ideas as to images" ,3 therefore revealing the way he proceeds in editing this film. In addition, in Umbracle a nexus of continuity is established with images that improbably have any continuity at all (the talks in favor of militant cinema, the piece from a fascist film, the homage to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, for example).
With Pont de Varsòvia he returned to fiction in his films. There was a slight scandal during the first screening at the Capsa movie theater because a part of the audience reacted disfavourably towards the film. Curiously enough, it was not to the strange or unusual that they objected but to that which was most innovative. The criticism was directed towards the title credits(that come on twenty-four minutes into the film ), towards the performance of Tristan e Isolda in Mercabarna, the revolt in the subway by the Fura dels Baus, the Ingres bathers, etc. However, very few recalled both evocations of Paco Guijar (the alter ego of Octavi Pellissa, the scriptwriter) on his political past, the changes in shot by computer, the two times that the word "Constantinople" appears, or the old lady who asks seriously, into the camera, how long she has been dead. (Nobody even wondered why the film begins with a rain gutter under a torrential rain storm.) The only thing that motivated the scandal was that which was not expected, not worthy of consideration. Not what was unusual, but only what caused cognitive disonance in the spectator.
Surprise begins with the movie in Die Stille vor Bach (2007), when after passing through the empty, white corridors of the Fundació Miró, we hear music. A camera moves in search of the music and a moving pianola appears and confronts the camera making it back up to the starting point. As a starting shot, the battle between the pianola and the camera predisposes or irritates the audience towards the film. Or, when the door Bach shuts becomes the mirror image of a contemporary man in a t-shirt washing his face. Or the horse that dances to a Bach variation. Or the abstract paintings that make up the images of the organ while we hear a piece by Ligeti.
In the sixties and seventies, Portabella was received preceeded by the idea of destruction, of working against the idealistic images emerging from Hollywood (that reached every nook and cranny of the planet thanks to the Motion Picture Association of America). Very present in the minds of the pioneers of modern cinema was the sad role that the history of the cinema had reserved for alternative cinema (for example, but not alone, for the Soviet school represented by Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov), banished from the memory of movie theaters. For the new movie houses, the priority was to dismantle the cinema from the multinational film companies. A materialistic image was what created a problem for the comprehension of the spectator accustomed to conventional cinema.
Pier Paolo Pasolini may have been right when he warned that avant-garde cinematography had destroyed much, but had destroyed it badly. It is also true that now there are communications media that, due to a deterioration from an ethical point of view, use cinematographic modernity as they please. In this manner, modernity has gradually become detached from the label that associated it with the left and with an aesthetic break. Seen under the perspective allowed by time, modernity must be redefined. At least what was considered historical modernity. Not only its attempt to destroy the ruling codes but also -and above all- its endeavors in creating a freer cinema.
The narrative order to which we are accustomed is not the only one possible: in reality, it coexists with others. Both custom and habit are the two most powerful mechanisms that maintain an unbending, rigid cinematographic language. From this point of view, Portabella is at the crossroads of the new sixties cinema, since in his films we see both destructive and constructive aspects. Therefore, they seem like flashing discoveries that change the way a contemporary film maker is perceived. A certain materialistic image can also be seen as a constructive image -and not merely destructive- such as an image that is filled with the possibility of nourishing discourses in the future.
The present day interest in Portabella's films has to do with these unsuspected discoveries, with one of these sudden flashes that discover in his work the beat of an incipient, new continuity. What makes Portabella's cinema irrepeatable is the rennovated repetition of one same attitude, a constant close up shot of the idea that "what penetrates is that of which we are not conscious". This saying is where all his films originate. In this sense, there is a red thread that binds together No compteu amb els dits with Die Stille vor Bach.
This explains some of the most recent phenomena, such as being the first Spanish film maker to be included in a museum (MACBA Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona, 2001), or being preferred by the Kassel Documenta in 2002 rather than other Spanish artists, or a series of positive, we could even say enthusiastic reactions to screenings of his films, no matter when they were made. The materialistic image uncovers a constructive image.
In his films, Portabella has torn to shreds the rules for narrative continuity in the institutional performance model. Portabella's model of intention has always been to investigate the relationship between the change of shots: what happens between one shot and the next; and, further, the phenomena that intervene between the step from one sequence to another. Precisely in this invisible space is where Portabella unfolds his radical invention. He has therefore annulled hierarchy in regard to sequences in favor of a kaleidoscopic structure where each sequence is, of itself, independent. The distinction between preparatory sequences and culminating sequences has been deprived of meaning grinding any trace of transitive sequences into dust. The dramatic progression has been substituted by a structure where aesthetic criteria matter more than narrative criteria.
But his obfuscation of narrative transparency has also resulted in investigating what could be called the paths to a different narrative continuity. In other words, the ways of a new type of continuity: freer and unrestricted. Which is to say that what Straub and Huillet had been searching for for years is what Portabella found in the furnaces in Barakaldo when filming Informe General :a shot that in its length reveals the whole critical intention for which it has been filmed. Or the scene between Jeanine Mestre and Christopher Lee in Umbracle, for example, demonstrating that the concordance of delayed perception also works within the scene, and not only starting with the sequence. Or the sequence shot in Die Stille vor Bach where the pianola and the camera confront each other, showing us an absolutely visual form of cinema, clearly innovative and eminently aesthetic. The reference to Eisenstein in Nocturn 29, is also a reference to the most well-known film maker of the soviet film editing school, to the most combative of alternative ways of filming and which enclosed the possibility of a different way of representation.
This search, carried out by Portabella for forty years has its internal logic -in his own words, the structure of the scaffolding- in regard to a different narrative continuity from the conventional one (continuity by discontinuity). The change in shot -or in sequence- is the central point in cinematographic narrative and this is where Portabella has emplaced a good part of his firing power.
The whole discourse on surprise is, at the same time, a reflection on continuity. Due to this centrality, his work does not age but rather becomes more and more contemporary. Because as long as cinema exists, those who make it will have to deal with the linking of two shots; with the imagination of what can follow after a certain shot. His permanence derives both from the will to innovate and from the acute perception of being on the edge. Portabella's modernity has nothing to do with the volts in a film library, but a cinematographic determination of such vitality and ethical tension that it unceasingly reformulates his aesthetic and rennovative program.
Any director, faced with shooting a film -and, any critic or fan who is a movie buff (if they still exist) watching the film - is permanently faced with what type of shot or what type of sequence to place following the previous one. Such a simple thing gives Portabella's work a huge importance with the "other" narrative continuity. This is what makes him impervious to the march of time: this is what makes him an undeniable classic of modernity.
Barcelona, July 8, 2007
1. Pere Portabella: "Sesión continua o la rutina del acomodador" in Marcelo Expósito (ed.): Historias sin argumento. El cine de Pere Portabella, Contemporary Art Museum, Barcelona, 2001, pg. 132. This article is a compilation of writings from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s, done by Marcelo Expósito.
2. Ibid., pg. 122
3. Edorta Kortadi: "Pere Portabella Catalunyako Zinegilerik Garrantzitsuena" ("Pere Portabella, el cineasta más importante de Catalunya"), Deia, 19-X-1975, pg. 8.Autor:Torrell, Josep Volver