Four years ago, I requested and received authorization from Pere Portabella to publish in English translation two lengthy texts of his — a lecture that he gave in 2009 when he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by the Universidad Autónoma of Barcelona and the even lengthier (over twice as long) “Prologue” he wrote and published for Mutaciones del Cine Contemporáneo (2010), the Spanish translation of Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), which I coedited with Adrian Martin. The first of these was an unsigned English translation that Nicole Brenez sent to me; the second was a makeshift translation hastily but generously done by two of Rob Tregenza’s students at Virginia Commonwealth University, Daniel Schofield and Caleb Plutzer.
The original plan was for both of these pieces to appear in the online journal Lola, but for a variety of reasons, this didn’t pan out, and both of these texts were recently returned to me. For now, I am opting to reproduce the translation I have of the speech, in three consecutive installments. — J.R.
Speech by Pere Portabella for the event at which he is awarded an Honorary Doctoral Degree by the Universidad Autónoma of Barcelona
In order to conceive a film, I must always place a blank sheet of paper in front of me. This is the quickest way to envisage a blank and empty screen under the best of conditions. In a certain way, it is like working directly on the screen itself.
Then all I need to do is to allow a situation fall down onto the paper in black on white, a fortuitous event, a starting point… a stain. A core around which the story is woven.
The original ideas must be translated into images. They must be visualized. When you see them, you can distinguish between the ones that are right for you and the ones that are not. Feeling the silence and sounds, inseparable from the images as they take their place in the empty space of the screen, figuring out what can be seen most sharply amid everything you are looking at. It is like entering and exiting places as you delve further into them. Everything that takes place gradually materializes during the process prior to filming: the process of ideas. The space which they occupy in the imaginary landscape surrounding them forms an intimate relationship. Its own dialectic indicates what we can or cannot do and limits decision-making abilities, impeding dispersal and channeling the imagination, which strengthens the ability to create. Otherwise, it would be like working in a vacuum. When the time comes to film, with both text and agenda well-structured, each shot ties off the preceding shot and prepares for the next.
It is these and none others which must be filmed. In each shot, you must be able to recognize the pace and tone of the whole film, and there is no room for filming alternative or back-up shots. The pre-conceived story has already been visualized before you start filming. The space of the imaginable is to lighting what optics is to a look of the eye. And in this way, the narrative structure finds its logic by questioning the language which can adapt that space to your own demands.
Without performing this process prior to filming, there is no hope of achieving them from a natural setting or a stage. Spaces and stages are always expectant and dependent upon the intruder’s ability to have an abstract viewpoint. When you reach the editing room, the continuity, pace and tone have all been put in place already. You need only be careful when optimizing the filmed material, to adjust the shots in just the right time and place to which they are assigned. It is that simple.
I have ended up writing about the how and the why of using a screen design sheet as a stimulating and suggestive way to work on conceiving a new project, though a few clarifications should be given on my part:
• I have never spent any time at a cinema school.
• I am not a cinephile, and I do not regularly go to cinematheques.
• Nor did I have any contact or relationship with the world of film until I decided to produce my first movie.
• I have not collaborated with screenwriters, including those that have and have not graduated from some school. I have a compulsive and fickle tendency towards choosing collaborators from trades other than my own.
• I have paid special attention to the trade and achieving excellence in the use of instrumental tools, and to ethics in controlling the techniques which are used to materialize the proper look.
• You must never place models before you. You should turn your back on them. At most, you should feel their breath, though you should never speak directly to them. Otherwise, they will eat you up. You have to place yourself in an empty and silent space, and from that place their breath will push you forward…
• In fact, art history is no longer a field of study in which each artistic medium, including film, is examined on a linear basis until achieving full and proper knowledge, until conquering its specific essence. Quite to the contrary, they face the idea of impurity, and the urgent need to stand out clashes with the creation of any difference.
• Being able to see in another way means learning to look at things you did not expect and understanding what you see and hear in a different way. Freeing yourself from the snapshots that take the place of experiences and keep them locked away. A cross-cutting viewpoint spurred on by curiosity is the best way to counteract the tendencies of a society obsessed with educating its members about useful and
profitable skills and preparing them for a class of virtuosity and unidirectional excellence.
Pilar Parcerisas, a Doctor of Art History, refers to my presence on the preconceptual stage during the politicized era as the catalyzing figure who led to a clash amongst disciplines: “the Brossa/Portabella/ Santos combination led us to verify, yet again, that the advancement of the language of art and poetics owes a great deal to the clash amongst disciplines, to the chance meetings of people and to the desire to take a new look at reality.”
Fortunately, though by chance, Antoni Tàpies, Joan Brossa, Joan Ponç, Modest Cuixart and I all lived on the same street. On Calle Balmes, between Plaza Molina and Travessera de Gràcia, which was beneficial to us all: it was a stimulus to live under pressure but without suffering due to our contradictions, concerns and doubts, which stirred up my curiosity and interest in delving into a world which appeared just as complex as it was exciting to me. Losing a fear of the unknown and discovering adventure as a way of living inseparably from risk: the price of freedom. Joan Brossa expressed it by using a saying from the Far East: “If you want to reach an unknown place, you have to starting walking down unknown paths.” Soon during the dictatorship, these paths became clandestine, and the paths for film passed through areas of marginalization. It involved a mixture of the artistic avant-garde, the practice of filmmaking and political activity.
From then on, as of the publication of Dau al Set (Brossa-Tàpies), just one step was left before creating the El Paso group of Antonio Saura and Manolo Millares. Eduardo Chillida did as he liked, and Jorge Oteiza, creator of Equipo 57, was the most radical: for non-representation and against artistic individualism. There was the impact of the publication of El Jarama, the novel by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, and Tiempo de Silencio, by Luis Martín Santos. And that of Catalan poets such as Joan Brossa, Joan Vinyoli, Jaime Gil de Biedma and Gabriel Ferrater. The screenings time and again of 8 mm films which Antoni Tàpies showed in his home when he returned from Paris: Murnau, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein, Dreyer…, and those specially selected for Brossa’s pleasure and satisfaction: The Thief of Bagdad and Nosferatu, as well as those by Mack Sennett, along with movies about cross-dressers for which he expressed spontaneous enthusiasm and a childish liking. And, of course, there was the presence of musicians like Robert Gerhard, Josep Cercós, Carles Santos, Josep Maria Mestres Quadreny, etc. Living in the middle of this mixture of art forms was a decisive experience while finding my place in the political and cultural space, when in the year of 1959 I decided to enter the world of film as a producer, then becoming a director in 1966.
What was the underlying factor that caused this understanding amongst us all to occur, which fed the determined will to take a new critical look at reality? The imperious need to intervene in a hostile, mediocre, gray and repressive environment in the hands of the reactionary powers of the dictatorship. Situationism as a method for analyzing historical moments shows us that the political, social and cultural conditions of an authoritarian regime always lead to a greater level of politicization and a radicalization of the proposals and responses of artistic production in the world of culture, different from what occurs in countries under conditions of democratic freedom. At the same time, and above all, there was our connection to and attunement with the avant-garde movements that had come before us, thanks to Joan Brossa.
Having reached this point, we found that we had an immediate need to redefine the roles of both subjects and agents in the world of artistic production:
One chapter of the book Six Years, (1966-1973) by Lucy Lippard, reflects upon the object of art under the long shadow cast by Marcel Duchamp and the awesome physical presence of his ready-mades, the trademark of the Dadaist movement which most dazzled the media. Lucy Lippard found that there was a loss of interest in physically creating works of art, with an ever more evident interest in ideas. Indifference towards objects of art changed the meaning of contemplating works of art and their visual perception. His most radical statement was the need for “de-materialization of the art object.” Conceptualization took over, compared with the informalism in our country with the Work Group, under the obvious effects of the dictatorship due to a high degree of politicization.
In his essay “The Author as Producer” (1934), Walter Benjamin introduced a new concept of the creator and Roland Barthes, in his text “The Death of the Author” (1964), proposed replacing the term “viewer” with terms like“readers,” “audience,” “public” and “consumer,” lending essential protagonism and importance to them, because, as announced by Duchamp in 1957, the viewpoint of others is what completes an artist’s unfinished work. Viewers are attributed the same role as the author. In our field, informalism, though it came later, was open to a mixture of manydisciplines, accepting all forms of expression, categories of art and the widest range of materials, thereby greatly disconcerting the world of galleries and contemporary art museums. The fact that the visual factor was not longer essential to creating a work of art led to a crisis in the discourse of theretofore hegemonic criticism and forged the way for the breakdown between modernism and post-modernism.
Benjamin (1933) placed an emphasis on a broader perspective within the general framework of art production, the relations between the art work and its political and ideological orientation, pointing out that studying a work cannot be done in an isolated way, with no connection between it and the social context which it forms part of: unlike the stubborn and self-interested separation of form and content in canonical rules, Benjamin upheld that it makes no sense for the political content of an art work to be found only at the level of arguments or the contents of the work’s “theme,” because, most precisely, the relationship between film and politics is present in any movie, regardless of its “plot.” However, not only was this true in terms of theme, but also form: there was language and there were the filming techniques through which it was materialized. The difference between political genre film or modern politicized film. Without this critical viewpoint of the medium and questions about the languages used, reactionary films could be made with progressive plots: without adapting a language that deconstructs the canonical norm through a new narrative logic, no matter how good one’s intentions are, there is a split between the meaning of the content and the meaning of the form. Guy Debord speaks of a foreign language occupying the place of the dominant language. And we always speak of languages in the plural: alongside conceptual language, one finds emotional language, as well as the languages of logic or science, co-existing with the language of the poetic imagination.
In order to ask ourselves how it comes to be that, in most films, viewers see almost exactly the same story, a new term must be introduced, a nuance in relation with the story itself: the plot.
What we understand to be the plot, the compositional technique which properly links together situations and occurrences, coincides with the concepts delimited by Aristotle in his treatise on poetics: the plot-fable or “the perfect tool” for a composition of the facts: the what, how and when for building a specific story at a specific moment; sufficient information and the degree of credibility or pertinence which we can attribute to that information. Whereas the story is created by those who perceive (viewers/readers) narrations, the story as such is not effectively present in the screenplay or on screen. The narrative and, as a result, what is also referred to as narrative film, narrates or refers to a certain occurrence or real event. The story is always a representation through fiction, an imaginary construction which springs forth logically in accordance with the actions, in a certain space and time, all related through the cause-effect principle and with the ending of the tale. The story which is inferred from this is the result interpreted by the viewer, who is steered through by a series of deductive guidelines: simply deciphering the key points so that the story arises as if by magic.
Aristotle’s synthesis offers a logic and rational order for building the story. Closed, pre-determined stories which foment the existence of viewers reduced to the status of mere voyeurs, with a greater or lesser interest in what is happening to third parties. Outside of this formula, it appears that there is no other option for film narrative.
One of the most widespread trends in film since its advent continues to be its servility and dependence to theater and literature: the novel, short stories or theatrical texts are turned into plots, with all the difficulties and constraints created due to their literary origin. This, in fact, occurs in response to a powerful demand by the market and the interests of publishing companies and producers. This adaptation requires a two-part process, the passage from literature to cinema. There is an undoing for the sake of re-doing, from the strength of our literary tradition to the weakness of our film, then becoming trapped most times within the most academic and conservative formulas of literature. Surging forth from this convoluted and complicated process come plots, which in general are a mere simplification of a complex story. Some even intend to write original plots with literary pretensions, so as to transcribe them in the language of film in the end. I do not think that the result has ever caused any harm to literature, though it has done a great deal of damage to the world of film.
This leads to the need, in order to keep a hold of audiences, to have a plot, first and foremost, which serves as the common theme ensuring that viewers reach the end without getting lost along the way. Though the use of a plot is legitimized by its huge power to get viewers to watch films, it should not make us lose sight of all the other potential forms of expression that exist in film to take part as protagonists entering into the narration with our interpretive freedom as adult film viewers.
In any case, though, there is a real sensation of security provided by recognizing a setting and identifying a situation which suffice for understanding the story, and this does not occur when narrative proposals deny this need.
For me, screenplays cannot be regarded as or written like literary stories. They must simply provide information on the film which the screenwriter intends to create, with an inventory of ordered sequences, a route map of locations, an agenda for continuity, a list of dialogues, if there are any… and little more: a document.
Eisenstein concluded that the story is located amid the images, amongst the visual representations and representations of sound, between one shot and the next. The story lies between the film and the viewer. He lucidly proposes searching for the unity in the meaning of the story invoked by the polyphonic nature of its images (noises, dialogues, music, lighting, duration, framing, etc.), which are detected through the viewers’ intuition and sensitivity, freeing them from imposition and the rational nature of plots, without ceasing to be a form of intelligibility, which is a fundamental affair: this allows for a new and more open narrative, placing an emphasis on the text’s undetermined nature, open to suggestions, leaving the sum of
perception and own experiences in the hands of the reader-viewer.
Nullification of the hierarchicalization of sequences and disappearance of transitional sequences because they lack meaning. All in all: whereas a plot need only be “explained,” a story is constructed on the basis of one’s own imaginary and must be capable of drawing people’s attention because of its sensorial and emotional content. It offers one or more conflicts that have to be interpreted by their readers/viewers. The viewpoint must be focused on the basis of a prior project of an imaginary. Each shot has a bearing on all of the others. Each sequence has its own tension and meaning, and gathers all of the film’s potential in relation with the others. The order of the sequences is set in stone, and these sequences take the place of the plot. It is useless to search for the characters’ psychology or attempt to reconstruct the anecdote or dramatic progression of the film. The informalists and conceptualism already did away with a set of preconceptions that fit in with a viewpoint and a set of codes that have been left behind because they are obsolete.
(to be continued)