Crossing the Pont de Varsòvia: The Critical Resilience of Pere Portabella’s Warsaw Bridge Matt Carlin July 2012 Feature Articles Issue 63 | July 2012 The corpse of a scuba diver is found in the midst of a burnt forest. How did he get there? That is the question. And it has a practical, if highly unlikely answer. But alas, it did happen: in real life too. The end of the film assures us of this. It is about the only thing that we can be sure of. Pere Portabella’s 1990 puzzle of a film (does it form an object?) presents the deceased forest-found scuba diver as the hedge pin to this otherwise narrative-resistant cinema. Of the films eighty-five minutes, there are only two scenes devoted to this concept: the first scene appears after the opening credits (20 minutes in, or thereabouts) where the body is discovered and examined; and the second being the last scene, where the mystery is answered. In between, the viewer is left dealing with…well, interchangeable pompous writer types. Or more specifically, probably three: a conductor, a writer, and a professor of marine biology; a group of intellectuals (think capital “I”) that make Woody Allen’s Manhattan-ites seem like blue collar working men, lunch pail in hand. Warsaw Bridge is about a love triangle between these three stiffs: the passionate, pop lit hating, sometimes (or one time) composer; the successful writer of said pop lit; and the alluring female professor who is depressed because she feels she fails to seduce. Warsaw Bridge is about the mystery of the corpse of a scuba diver found in a burning forest, with a mashed up face. Warsaw Bridge is about a writer who is just about to accept a prestigious award for his latest novel, “Warsaw Bridge.” Warsaw Bridge is concerned with none of these things. So what the hell is the film about? Well, the film is about a lot…and nothing. And says a lot in defense of what it is, without actually being what it’s defending. It is symphonic cinema, albeit in a minor key. Okay…this seems deep. Maybe. Warsaw Bridge, Pere Portabella’s 1990 film (his first since the 70’s and the last film he’d make until 2003) is an enigma wrapped up in an apology fronting a defense that is all in support of Portabella’s (love of?) dissection of the arts. Music and literature stand in for the cinema; but surely they could stand in on their own as well. Divided into three parts, the whole may be greater than its parts, but the parts do not equal the whole. The Prologue (Pre-credits) THE PROLOGUE/PRE-CREDITS We open on some “Baraka” or Godfrey Reggio inspired montage of modern civilization in beautiful gliding camera aerial shots accompanied by disconcerting, haunting music. There are no credits to speak of. In the print I watched, I believe there was a certificate not recommending the movie for those under thirteen (given the copious amounts of nudity, sex, and occasional language outbursts, if this is true the Spanish are very liberal). The lights drop, the music pops, and we immediately know that we don’t know what we are in for. Portabella is trying to suck us in, to entrance the viewer in a world of mood, musing, and beautiful cinematography. The viewer glides through the city somberly, while the camera happens upon the wall of a sleek, stylish, building—all glossy, shiny windows, and New York City metropolitan. And, through the magic of film editing, the image is melded from the methodic exterior, to a peaceful, interior of… Abruptly cut the music; cue the guy tying the tie. And we meet our first character. He is, well, we don’t know. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the ceremony he is about to participate in. And he seems a bit rusty with the tie. His woman dresses in the bathroom. She is a little slower to the ready than he, which allows the camera enough time to gaze over its first naked body. The naked body belongs to Carme Elias, credited appropriately as Professora. She appears to be the lover of both the writer, currently doing up his tie, and the composer, whom the viewer has not yet met. The sequence is in and of itself one of elegant beauty. Confidently composed still shots merge and submerge with absolutely sublime tracking camera movements, as the quiet conversation is interrupted by the telephone call. The call? No matter, but it is interesting to note that the caller is ringing from one of three phones at his desk. He must be an important person. Now back to that quiet conversation: the writer mentions talking with somebody (perhaps the as-yet-unknown composer?), a literary type discussion. He doesn’t seem too fond of this conversation: all self-righteous pointlessness. He snidely remarks that she would feel at home in such talk; herself a marine biologist lecturer. Him, he seems more interested in the structure of the thing. That is the beauty: three swift movements to construct the perfect knot for the tie. An elegant, over the top sequence is next: a swank party thrown by the governor celebrating the writer’s latest work, “Warsaw Bridge.” But what is it we are watching? What is Portabella telling his viewers with his almost Fellini-esque portrayal of the characters at the party? Are we to laugh at them? Are we to take them seriously? We are watching farce, parody, commentary. The viewer is M. Hulot and goddammit if we don’t feel odd in this sort of playtime. But I didn’t know the characters yet. Perhaps I didn’t know Portabella yet. The serious sense of the characters and the dry, purposeful pace and mood of the entire film make farce sound out of tune with the rest of the number Portabella is orchestrating. So, who are these people and how is the viewer to handle them? Although, to Portabella’s credit, he doesn’t telegraph his points, these folks all fall into a group: the critics, those that are doing the saying rather than the doing. Love me or hate me, you are all the same—doing a big song and dance while I am actually creating the music. Which begs the question: does the prologue in it’s entirely serve as a defense, an apology, an explanation? I think the conversation the writer has with the critics answers this rather well. After dodging and diffusing several queries, he is asked to sum up his novel…to, in a sense, tell the story in but a few words, to sum it up. He replies that if it were a movie, he would be able to summarize it in thirty seconds, but it would take all two hundred some pages of the book in this case. She replies, “So it’s a book you have to read?” To which he replies, “Or try to.” And, oh, pay close attention to this whole sequence. Even the waiters are critics (everyone’s a critic). Portabella lets this first third of his flick play lighter and more pointedly comic than the rest. Portabella has no time for such people as these. What is it they are questioning and reviewing, and criticizing? Why, the writer’s book, which shares the film’s title, Warsaw Bridge. The film like the book, in order to get, you have to see. Or try to. This works on two levels. Portabella’s refusal of the home video format made his films increasingly difficult to see (though a recent resurgence of his work has allowed a few select opportunities at theatres throughout the States, and his films can now currently be found online). But, for our intents and purposes, we mean simply watching and comprehending what is on the screen for eighty-five minutes, if one can. THE CREDITS ROLL The Credits Roll We are twenty-something minutes into the film, when the opening credits begin. They appear quite rightly after the writer’s little retort about the book vs. the film (quite comically mocking the art form Portabella actually uses to tell the story). Perhaps while these credits slowly appear over a beautifully muted aerial shot travelling over a large body of water (does Warsaw Bridge traverse across said waters?) we should discuss Portabella and the cinema. While the first bit of the movie gave way for critics and poseurs, the rest of the piece will allow the creators their say. Pere Portabella came into being in Barcelona during the year 1929, born into a family of wealthy industrialists. His career in film began in 1960 in the role of producer on Carlos Saura’s feature debut. He also worked with Marco Ferreri before embarking with Luis Bunuel on the classic Viridiana in 1961 (the film caused a huge stink after being denounced by the Vatican, and the Franco government seized the film in an attempt to remove its identity as a Spanish film, and confiscated Portabella’s passport for several years). His first feature as director wasn’t until 1968, when he made the experimental art flick Nocturno 29 starring Lucia Bose. Even at this early stage in the game, Portabella clearly showed his true subject to be the contemplation, criticism, and perhaps refusal of the traditional narrative structure of film and its audience’s complacency with it. Nocturno 29 utilizes and exploits the connotation of the title, which refers to the Franco dictatorship’s twenty-nine “black years,” while telling the tale of an adulterous pair. Shot in a black and white of deep contrast which jars and unsettles; the film’s content jars as well, as the already jagged narrative of the story is interspersed with imagery that both contrasts and complements the narrative. With nearly no dialogue this film is an ode to the image, the visual, and the feelings associated with them. Ah, the credits have ended. Perhaps we are going about this all wrong. We know the three main characters. We know there is a dead scuba diving fool in a burnt forest. But to trace either thread would not inform one of what Warsaw Bridge is about. Surely, the rest of the film will half-heartedly deal with both issues and even, sort of connect the two stories, thereby perhaps making the writer’s novel more personal than pop after all (I am taking on faith that the book is about the scuba diver—as Lauren Possee of New York Cool magazine describes the book as being about such; I didn’t have such a clear concept of the writer’s subject matter). The two male characters, both vying for the affection of the professor of marine biology are a writer and a conductor. Two artist types. Two creators. If you are wondering why a professor of marine biology is mixed in with these creators, you should note that marine biology is “the scientific study of living organisms in the ocean or other marine of brackish bodies of water.” Given the end of the flick, this choice of occupation could be some devilish horseplay from Portabella. All have strong opinions about creativity. “Some take risks when they write; some write to make a living,” harps the sometimes conductor, sometimes passionate spokesperson for the arts, making a coy attack at the writer. When the writer describes how he writes for a public, a public he must please, the conductor replies, “Fuck your public.” And he might mean us! Or at least those of us who want to piss on the film simply for not taking the A to B stratagem of story telling: Introduce the character, introduce the problem, solve the problem, and exit the film. Portabella appears not to be interested in this. He is more interested in the medium, the technological aspect; expanding what the cinema means and the kinds of ideas that it can explore. His love for the look and visual of film in and of itself causes him to immediately stand apart from much of typical experimental filmmaking. Where these projects often roll on 8mm or 16mm, Portabella appears committed to laying down his enigmatic cinematic essays on gorgeous 35mm film stock. And, this, his first colour feature, fully explores the colour palette in glorious shots of architecture, nature, etc. Beyond that, Portabella wields his camera like a conductor; he is making cinematic symphonies; expressing ideas, and hopes, and feelings, and passions with celluloid rather than utilizing cellos. The storytelling is the least of his concerns. Portabella is not concerned with the narrative flow or even the linear linkage (?) of his story. It need not exist in any “world” other than the world of “Warsaw Bridge, a film by Pere Portabella.” Witness the scene where the conductor, after a scene of extended sex over an unrelated voiceover narrative, reclines, spent; and watches the television. The camera tracks in on the image on the screen…and then, WHAM! The film’s image becomes the image of the television; that is, the movie and therefore, the audience, now take these images and scenes to be the film’s reality, rather than a television program. Portabella must leave the story as it has so far existed for the next part of the movement. The film works in this transportable reality throughout its entirety. One can even speculate that we have entered the novel from the prologue once the credits have rolled. The autopsy sequence we take as the film’s reality becomes quickly reduced to a primitive 1980’s computer-programming screen, and as soon as the audience begins to take this in, Portabella’s camera zooms in on another screen of cryptic programming which then dissolves into a building, and again back into the reality of the film that we think we “know.” Portabella is knocking cinema about, forcing the audience to be accountable for what it is watching. This isn’t the world. There are no rules. He even segues into a few surreal operatic sequences with hefty naked women, commenting both on cinematic score vs. emotion as well as a simple comment on what we take in our systems as seductive versus what the eye finds as such. Even more than this, the great whole of the thing, the emotional wallop of the number Portabella is orchestrating calls for this. The great Warsaw Bridge symphony needs a bathhouse crescendo, and Portabella will be damned if he doesn’t supply one or two. One could argue that Portabella is guiding us through concepts rather than a narrative; the semblance of narrative being simply the vehicle (or orchestra to nail the point dead) for Portabella to drive (or conduct, re: dead point). Portabella’s job therefore is to simply guide us from one sequence to the next, allowing and sometimes forcing, one sequence to turn over efficiently and seamlessly to the next. In this sense, he is very much a conductor of the story’s concepts and ideas. No wonder then that one of his characters is a conductor, or at least plays at being one. Notice one of the set pieces of the film: a portly conductor (not one of our triad, but another, whose only appearance is in this sequence) hoists his way atop a ladder in an outdoor shopping mall. He proceeds to flutter his arms about in the magical way that conductors do—and music starts. Real, live, beautiful stuff. But where is the orchestra? Why they are scattered about, each sitting in the comfort of his own balcony along the length of the mall. The conductor joins each member via a television which airs his swaying and bopping-about live via some sort of real-time broadcast. Aside from the obvious humour of this visual, one must pause to look at its implications. We have already discussed Portabella as conductor, and we all know that the television is a nice substitute for the giant screen his film is being projected against. Perhaps he is conducting us, his viewer, as we take his wild ride, and if we don’t want to take it, then, well, “Fuck you.” Otherwise, let’s build up your curiosity here, let’s let it drop there, let’s mystify you here—all to the tune of Warsaw Bridge. The moving image has a funny way of moving the viewer, and who leads such movement, but the conductor, the director? And he is totally playing at it, because, there is no real emotional investment. He sucks you in, flutters you about, giving you nothing in terms of personal contact, and then dispenses you with a both satisfying and bewildering conclusion…to which, the viewer feels nothing; no involvement; no release; no empathy, sympathy, or anything other than mystery. There is another interesting note to this sequence. We follow the conductor of our trio through the mall. He first sees the musicians, and watches them with a passing interest. He walks throughout the centre until he stops upon the portly mall conductor. Here he comes to a full stop and ponders and wonders. It is only after this sequence that we discover he is a composer at all. He reflects on the conductor, takes an interest, and next thing we know—he becomes one. Much like a writer, who must embody his characters if he wishes to write about them. In fact, a writer can be deemed a conductor of sorts: the image his symphony, the words his orchestra, his pen his conducting wand. And all the while the film’s title: Warsaw Bridge. And what is the meaning of this; what is the relevance? Does it refer to said bridge in Poland?For an answer, Portabella gives us an extended sex scene, shot beautifully by his cinematographer Tomas Pladevall. Amidst close up, exquisitely (colour) saturated shots of copulation, the composer relates a tale to us, in a voiceover which doesn’t correspond to the montage of lovemaking. The composer relates a tale—a dream, or childhood memory—of the Warsaw Bridge and the awe and possibility that it struck in his youthful heart. One day he was going to travel all of Warsaw Bridge; explore everywhere it went. He never did. All this while making love to the writer’s wife. This sequence continues the director’s theme of the audio track sometimes betraying the visual track. The sequence is almost trance inducing, slow and steady; he explores her body, getting lost in it amidst extreme close ups, much like he gets lost in the illusion of his childhood “Warsaw Bridge.” This is as much set-up or backstory as Portabella will allow for any of his characters. Later on, in a discussion the triad is having amidst projecting a reel of film onto a screen (again a dissection, or dissolution of film into film) the conductor is called out by his two peers: “You’re stifled by rather precarious aesthetics.” He is then called out for falling upon his idealized “Warsaw Bridge story.” This is as much context as the viewer gets of the Warsaw Bridge and what it means to the conductor. Lost hope, ideals, youth. In any event, he failed to live up to it. And it is just an illusion. It is the conductor’s illusion. And so what are we left with? And how does a scuba diver wind up dead in a burnt forest? Well, that one is easy enough: there is a plane designed to scoop down and fill up its bottom with ocean water, which it then uses to diffuse a fire by dumping the water over it as it flies by. The scuba diver dives, the plane scoops, one thing equals another, and before you know it…one dead scuba diver in one dead forest (marine biology, get it?). What can’t be explained is why the corpse discovered in the beginning of the film isn’t the same person as that who gets scooped up at the end, but, hey, Portabella can’t give away the ghost can he? Warsaw Bridge is a dream of a message wrapped up in a narrative, and as all dreams do, they can not fully add up. Portabella is clearly exploring his love of the art, and clearly expounding on just what narrative cinema can be, turning it into a symphony of images. And he does so with wicked abound, chastising and cursing an audience that won’t accept such things in the project proper. But, the message seems to be the structure, the format; and that is where the film lags, where it ceases to contain passion and fury, and just becomes beautiful and enigmatic. We like the puzzle because it puzzles, not because it stirs anything within us. The interchangeable characters can be Portabella, or the mall conductor, or you or me at times, and not at others. Warsaw Bridge seems to be a case of style over substance, what with picturesque images and sweeping grandiose camera movements, methodic, hypnotic, and manipulative; all set out to serve as commentary for the fact that cinema, or art, should exist as Warsaw Bridge does. It is almost an anecdote, commentary, or companion to a more meaningful film shot using the same methodology and structure: an apology and a war statement in one. To be sure, the reoccurring theme of the conductor image—pacing, swaying, controlling—is not lost on Portabella’s audience, this is a game of follow the leader, or as the writer would expound, a game of trying to. Portabella seems to be at ease with this, with the films shortcomings as well as its high water marks. During a particularly interesting sequence of the film, the trio cooks each other dinner and has an involved discussion about the building of myth: a villager lays claim to some such fact before experimental science does, and a village myth is discovered. The writer finds this interesting; the conductor finds it a necessary falsehood that the villagers tell themselves to differentiate and define their populous. Portabella is defining himself in cinema as its orchestrator, and anecdotes, narrative, misleading steps, and pure nonsense is all well and good as long as the final product is unforgettable cinema. There is a reason he has resisted home video. His is a cinema to play in the memory; long after the projector bulbs have dimmed; when scenes merge and coagulate until the memory has made its own Warsaw Bridge, and a myth is born. And it is all business. Portabella is serious about his art, and there is no time for levity, other than a quick bit at the critic’s expense. Laugh at them, not at art. NOTE: A viewer at the screening I was at: a balding middle-aged male, all ear rings, paunch, and loneliness, said to another viewer in what I hope is a fake accent: “It’s not like watching a movie; it is like dreaming it.” Jean Cocteau often discussed how he hated the time between dreams…waking life. Cocteau made me want to dream and breathe and explore. But Cocteau was filled with magic, and imagination, and hope, and despair, and joy. If Portabella is this serious and sardonic in his dreams…who needs his nightmares? Or his realities? Warsaw Bridge is not like dreaming a movie: it is like dreaming a movie’s interpretation of a dream, when you’re fully aware that you are awake. And the band played on.