“I don’t care but I want to go down in history”
The night before Palme d’Or announcementa ghost haunted Cannes: would the jury dare to award Pacificion? The movie of Albert Serra it had dynamited the official section, revealing itself as the only radical proposal in a contest accustomed to sacred cows and not a few international media placed it as a favorite. It did not happen and there was no prize even for the amazing performance of its protagonist Benoit Magimel, but the impact has served to raise the consideration of the Catalan filmmaker one notch.
Those things matter to Serra and they don’t matter to him: the Catalan filmmaker is pure self-conscious contradiction and paradox. He defines himself as a mocker, but he vindicates his work as a serious cinema “that will be judged by history”. Pacificion It is his only film that rests on a narrative thread: a high-ranking official from Tahiti, an overseas territory of the French state, senses that the rumors of the natives about new nuclear tests may be true. With the participation of RTVE in the production, it opens in theaters on September 2 in the most ambitious distribution of its career.
Serra denies any political intentions or post-colonial concerns. His attidude arty not of this world. Pacificion he could have told any other plot. Or nothing. He says that he is a pure formalist who “has nothing to say”. He only cares about his creative method: endlessly rolling around in circles on the same subject. All the filmed dialogues, which the actor often improvises through an earpiece, occupied 1,276 transcribed pages. “Just to see what is recorded, it takes me three months, shooting 8, 10 or 12 hours a day”. Then, seven months of assembly, with three assemblers. The goal achieved is not a small one: to take the viewer to an unprecedented atmosphere, to a new perceptive world.
Albert Serra explains himself at the Film Academy headquarters. It has its value: it is the first time he has attended and he is used to disdaining practically all Spanish cinema: “I like to make others feel their own impotence”. There is no way to discern when the artist speaks and when the character.
QUESTION: What is cinema?
ANSWER: They are images that remain at that intermediate point between the narrative that still describes a credible world and the conceptual. To do justice to the complexity of this world, all tools are formally valid. It is open to any type of solution and formal resource that one wishes without fear of anything. I keep faith in images precisely by not creating speculative or critical images.
Q.: Is mystery the encounter between reality and artifice?
A.: Yes, at that intermediate point I think the battle is played. And more so today, because there are already other things that fulfill their function with much more perfection. In the series the images are already fixed. It does not cease to be a fixed, immovable, stable thing. Destined for consumption.
In Pacificion there are completely unlikely things, but you believe in them no matter how crazy they are. I look for that point where everything is spontaneous and ultra-sophisticated and you don’t understand very well. That is why it is so difficult to imitate.
Q.: Robert Bresson used to say that a beautiful film is one that gives “a lofty idea of cinematography”, in the sense that its qualities can only be expressed in cinematographic language. Do you agree with that ideal of purity?
A.: Yes, in part. What happens is that the current world we live in trashwhich is also the trash of the images. And you can’t continue living in your ivory tower. I always talk about creating new images, but you can’t escape that images will always be polluted. The purity of the image does not exist. What remains is to make it the most complex, personal and unique. Try to find new atmospheres. Therefore, I agree with the phrase as a paradigm, but it is not applicable and I reject it: we must accept the trash.
Q: And how do you interpret the trash?
A.: It is difficult, because vulgarity, banality, in a bad way, lie in wait. And, above all, simplicity. The main idea I have is to make things as complex as possible, even at the cost of making them incomprehensible. For example, the anticlimax moments that are so dear to me. They’re kind of unacceptable and they create a tension that can’t be created any other way. And maybe it’s only acceptable in a cinema experience, in all its physical dimension: because you don’t leave and understand that it’s part of the complexity of the experience you’re living. But you have to press the images. You have to roll up. It’s dirty.
Q.: Style can also be understood as a limitation: the ideal is to be creatively omnipotent, but you cannot escape from yourself and, in the end, style is what is always there, sometimes against your will.
A.: The idea is nice. In fact, it can be extrapolated even to more radical styles. It is true: it is a limitation, but at the same time it is what defines you. To what extent can you open paths without ceasing to be yourself?
Q.: What would be your limitations?
A.: It is a good question. Sometimes I have thought about this. I do not know what to tell you. There is a certain self-complacency in something humorous, in that idea of ridicule. I once said that I make movies to make fun of the world. And perhaps this is the biggest limitation. Because I don’t take it seriously. It is also a wealth because nobody does it, but for me it can become the maximum limitation. There will always be some form of irony, always a form of almost provocation. There is a form of insincerity in not taking it seriously. Because I don’t take it seriously, because I don’t care. I wanted to be a writer, I don’t want to make movies.
““Perhaps my greatest limitation is a form of insincerity, of not taking it seriously”“
Q.: Do you think there is literature in your cinema?
A.: Yes. The script was written, there were no dialogues, but there was everything I thought, that it was a 120-page novel. It was very, very detailed. Everything that the characters thought in each scene is as if it were a novel.
Q.: What is your cinephile mythology?
A.: None. Sometimes the critics have been more than the filmmakers. I am referring to the skeptical reflection of some critics from the 1960s, especially Americans like Manny Farber or Robin Wood. They taught to look at the images, to see things that their own creators did not even know because they are not aware. Chance and subtle things that cannot be foreseen.
Q.: But I’ve read that Italian cinema shaped you more than French cinema, for example.
A.: Yes, but it is a matter of sensitivity and of everything that I am: spiritually I feel closer. French cinema was a little more bourgeois at the thematic level. The topic of relationships has never interested me too much, for example. I understand that France is a much more gifted country for literature. Even film critics are very good because they were, and are, very smart people. They can analyze things with a degree of insight, subtlety, and sensitivity that is more successful than doing the thing. Everything goes through the mind. And cinema for me is chaos. If it’s not chaos, it’s control. And, if it’s control, it’s boring.
Q.: What is the role of the artist in society? is it mutating?
A.: No, I think it continues to be about making people happy. In the sense of showing that there are fictional worlds that give satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment superior to the life one lives. It is so. The artistic experience of reading Proust is much more intense and strong than what I could live in life. There is some form of personal experience that if you don’t live it you won’t understand it, it’s true, but art is a form of pleasure that expands the limits of life and that, as Proust said precisely, is true life. Normal life is like a life of anesthetized perception of everyday life, numbness of the senses, numbness of the mind. It is pure anesthesia.
“The artistic experience of reading Proust is much more intense and strong than what I could live in life“
Well, and give pleasure. If I am interested in the public, it is because I try to offer them, within the limitations of the cinema, this slightly higher pleasure.
Q.: What would the analogical filmmaker Albert Serra be like, without being able to use three cameras or shoot hundreds of hours?
A.: Impossible. It never has been and never will be. It’s more boring. It’s just that I have nothing to say. Everything I say is everything that comes from outside, what comes from reality. It is everything that is invisible to the human eye and is only captured through the three-camera device that exerts strong pressure on the actor. It creates a total vulnerability and this vulnerability is the door that opens to innocence. So, only in this context, there begins to be an absence of control of the image. And then the camera captures the invisible. I trust the eye of the camera because one cannot have the concentration and insight to capture it oneself.
Q.: And how do you manage to have enough material shot to get what you want from each scene in editing?
A.: You have to have a quantity of heterogeneous material, but at the same time homogeneous. Heterogeneous in the sense that there has to be a lot of variety for the imagination to be activated by combining things. It’s something that only I do because I ride a lot, everything is chaotic, I do what I want. And a certain homogeneity because, otherwise, you couldn’t combine. I shoot five days with one actor, then I shoot the same dialogue with another actor, then I ask them to say something else. Thus, whether you like it or not, the motifs expand, repeating themselves in different characters: the homogeneity that allows the combination is created.
Directors shoot scripts that are already thought out. But you can’t make a collage mentally. The human mind creates coherently. For the dislocation or shock of meaning that creates a collage you have to have the elements and hide them. The collage it is a destruction, not a creation that can come out of a mind, let’s say, rational, coherent. Not even automatic writing can get there.
Q.: Would you like to teach cinema? What would your method have endured in some way?
A.: No. What I do is some master class from my own experience. Something short, in a university, preferably abroad, for traveling and for the contrast. I like to do a small class but to serve as an attitude, to provoke. I say barbarities, but more than anything to arouse motivation and show that if the attitude is authentic and does not obey any personal interest it can go a long way.
Q.: Luis Buñuel used to say that he would not mind seeing all his films burn. Do you agree with that idea of contempt for one’s own legacy?
A.: It is a hygienic attitude. And I think it’s useful for creativity to downplay you. Maybe it will be my limitation, but it also has to do with, as I said before, that I don’t take it seriously. In Buñuel, like a good surrealist, everything is a joke and everything is serious. Is the same. I don’t give myself any importance, but I like to make others feel their own helplessness. Because I make it easy. In the end, history will judge you.
Q.: But does your place in history matter to you then?
A.: Yes, because it is a way to have a better time. Making a movie to make fun of the world is interesting, but if this is combined with trying to go down in history, then imagine the combination of the two things. I do it to test, I don’t care but, at the same time, I want to pass as the most serious.