Sunday, October 3, 2010

Yeow -- it's João! Pedro Rodrigues gets a retro at BAM; quick chat w/the filmmaker

This week BAMcinématek's popular series The Next Director goes gay -- and kinda wild -- with the introduction of Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues' five-film retrospective (three full-lengths and two shorts) beginning Wednesday, October 6 at 7 pm (O Fantasma, preceded by the short Happy Birthday!), continuing Thursday, October 7, at 7:30 (Two Drifters, preceded by the short China, China) and ending Friday, October 8, with two showings of his latest movie, To Die Like a Man, at 4pm and 7.  The latter screening will feature a Q&A with Rodriguez and his frequent collaborator and jack of all trades, João Rui Guerra da Mata, who's done everything from acting, writing and directing to art/set decoration and costume design.

Though João-One (shown at left) claims he doesn't like to talk about his work (see interview below) -- and who can blame him? An artist's work should speak for itself -- still, he proved a charming and interesting conversationalist, so TrustMovies bets he'll make a smart and enjoyable host for that Q&A. If you're a newcomer to JPR's output, you're in for a crazy ride. In the first of the shorts in this fest, Happy Birthday! (Parabéns!),

a 20-year-old student (Eduardo Sobral) that a 30-something architect (played by João-Two, shown at right) has picked up the night before, awakens in the latter's apartment and has a morning look-around. Young Sobral is a delight in this extremely fresh outing, the most "normal" of Rodrigues' films that I've seen.

O Fantasma, on the other hand, tracks a sexy young Portuguese sanitation worker and is dark, dirty and hot--very hot--if you like your sex spiced with a good deal of S&M. The photography is excellent, and the performances are fine--as far as they go. The lead character has a dog fixation (he likes 'em and he likes to act like 'em, too). As the film moves along, his behavior grows more erratic and off-the-wall, culminating in a night-long spree of violence and sex that finally approaches the deep end. There is not a lot of story here, and you may find, as I did, not much reason to care about anyone in the film, but you can't easily dismiss the eye-popping visuals and the even more unusual character at the center of things. Night-time gay prowling has seldom seemed more bizarre.

In his second full-length narrative, Two Drifters, Rodrigues tackles this time a woman who fixates on the recently-deceased lover of a bereft young man.  The filmmaker's narrative here is much more complicated than in O Fantasma, though whether or not it at all coalesces will be yours to decide. For me, it did not, though I found the filmmaker's themes -- and how he deals with them -- as fascinating as they are flawed.  And, as I recall (it's been five years since I've seen this film), the song "Moon River" will never find a home in an odder movie.  (Two Drifters will be preceded by the 14-minute short China, China, which I've not yet seen and is said to deal with a Chinese family living in Lisbon.)

Rodrigues' longest and most-heralded film so far is his latest, 2009's To Die Like A Man, which tells of the travails of Tonia, a transvestite on her way to full transgenderation. The film opens with a young man applying... make-up?  Or is it war paint?  Then we cut to the shot of a spider in her web and then to a pair of soldiers, one of whom is that young man again, in camouflage, on a mission or perhaps part of a military game. Strange, very bad things happen, but, as usual with Rodrigues, you can never be sure if they're real.

In this film, which involves sexuality, identity, children, father-and-son (or mother-and-sons: Trannies, you may realize along the way, allow you to have your mom and dad all in one!), Rodrigues has created quite a character in Tonia, his drag-show entertainer with a fondness for young men, whether they be her son or her lover. That lover's a druggie, and so the two squabble, make up, and squabble some more. He's off drugs, then back on. And when s/he gives the kid a blow job, be breaks it off mid-suck.

Instead of the story circling around, it's the location that does so, coming back to the house through the window of which, at the film's beginning, the two soldiers watched as two transvestites partied.  When we come back to this house, the film turns (even more) surreal, offering up a love song (religious?), as our characters, including a dog, sit together in what seems a kind of enchanted forest. After which the movie momentarily turn into L'avventura (with Tonia standing in for the missing Anna).

Arbitrary does not begin to describe this movie -- philosophical, funny, moving, sentimental, silly -- in which events, desires, characters all change at the drop of a hat.  And yet, as usual with this man's work, you can't shake the thing. And Rodrigues saves his best costume, a glorious one, for the finale. And also his best line: "Don't be so sure; that's not who I am."

The Rodrigues retrospective takes off this Wednesday, October 6.  You can find all the information about it, including ticket availability, here.  Directions to BAM can be found here.


In order to speak with João Pedro Rodrigues (right), we do a Skype phone call -- New York to Portugal -- except that it's been quite awhile since TrustMovies has used Skype, so he's forgotten all the computer technology regarding what plugs into where.  Rodrigues, a very good sport, puts up with several phone calls with, apparently, no one at the other end of the phone -- until we get it straightened out (so to speak).  In the below interview, TM appears in boldface, and Rodrigues in standard type.

Whew!  Sorry about all that. I don't use Skype often enough to remember how to do it...  OK: I think I've seen all your films at this point -- oh, except for China, China. Any chance that we will see that soon?

Yes, it’s part of the retro at BAM. (João's right; this short precedes the showing of Two Drifters, Thursday, October 7 at 7:30.)

Do your films reflect gay life in Portugal, particularly?

I don’t draw the films to make a portrait of how is gay life in Portugal. It is more the stories I have in mind that are closer to me that I want to tell in that moment of my life. My purpose was never, when I started –- well, of course they are gay-themed but that was not my purpose. That is because I am gay and these are the stories that I want to tell. But I do feel in myself that my main goal is not to make gay cinema. I just want to make films.

And you have. Drifters, in some ways, was not so gay. Or was it?

(He laughs) That’s a good question. How gay is it? And what does that mean? Mainly I want to make my films for everybody. Anyone who will see them and can -- or can not -- appreciate them. There are people who love them very much and others who hate them very much.

I try to be honest with what I am telling and my feelings. But my films are not autobiographical. Of course there are elements of things that come from myself. Because I write them, along with other people. But they are not portraits of myself . I don’t want to make self-centered cinema. I make my films for others to see.

So you are making them for as many people as possible to see. That’s what all artists do, on some level, I believe.

I do understand that these are not films for six-year-olds. But if you are 16 or 18 or more, then I think it is OK.

When Drifters first came out, it was allowed for twelve or older to get in to see it in Portugal. But for To Die Like a Man(he thinks a moment) I cannot remember because I was traveling a lot to promote the film and so I was not here when it opened.

I believe that children can better understand things than we, especially we here in America, give them credit for.

Yes, and anyway, they have access to the internet.

(I laugh) Right! It seems to me that you’re films have grown a little darker, one after another, as you’ve progressed --from Happy Birthday to O Fantasm, from Drifters to the new one. Does this make sense you?

Hmmm… (He think about this.) Maybe so. Happy Birthday, from 1997, was my first short. So… Yes, because I think I have grown darker myself.

That’s probably normal; as we age we become aware of the darker side of life and things that we can't so easily dismiss.

Maybe, but some people never seem to do this – to come to terms with the tragedy or what is happening in their lives.

One of my biggest questions about To Die Like a Man regards who the two “women” are that we see at the beginning, through the windows and then at greater length in the middle of the movie? Their house, and especially that wooded area around the hose seemed like something out of Shakespeare – the Forest of Arden. Something magical maybe.

They could be like ghosts, and yes, in an enchanted forest. You know, the character of Maria already existed as a character. A friend of mind plays this character in a play in the theater. She plays it in English. Originally she did not want to play it in Portuguese. But this character in the film is not exactly the same as Maria. The character is inspired by everyone from Callas to Dietrich. My friend creates a character, he sings songs, plays jokes, and is very funny. But it only makes sense in English -- at least he thought this would be true. He thought that the subtleties of the English language could not adapt to Portuguese, so I had to convince him.

So you did convince him, apparently. But where did his original character come from?

There is a book called Casa Susanna in which there are photos from the 60s of men dressed as women in a country house and in the forest. It is by Robert Swope. The people are not identified because the photos were found in flea market. There is one photo that says Casa Susanna. So he imagined this as the place where these men wearing drag would meet and have conversations and tea and whatever. These were the inspirations for a kind of utopia where you could be as you want to be.

Interesting.  Because, even though this is a world that could offer her/him a lot more freedom, Tonia becomes frightened there and insists on going back to her home and her life.

These two characters are kind of cynical. So Tonia feels this way. But these characters also made her think more about her life and that she did not make finished all the things she wanted to. Finding these two women suddenly made these questions more powerful for her. She always led her life trying not to think about these things. When I wrote the script for the film, I interviewed a lot of drag queens and transsexuals. While it is a fiction, some of these stories are true. And I think that we all tend to put our problems aside and try not to think about them. When Tonia faces her problems, she is also ill and so must come to terms with them.

Watching the film made me wonder if you, as a filmmaker, and maybe as a person, wanted to put the two sexes together into a single package that incorporates both male and female. So we can have it all.

Hmmm. ..I don’t have many friends who are this way, so I didn’t really know these people. They puzzled me. So the film is a reflection of what I felt while I was hearing these stories and while I was meeting these people. I don’t also want to give any answer that might say, "Transsexuals are all like this."  Even though my film is a tragedy, I did meet some younger people like this who seem to have a happier life. It’s not easy, this thing of changing gender, but they are people who have a somewhat normal life. Not every story is a tragedy. But I wanted to tell a tragedy so I wrote a script like this one.

Do you do see this story as tragedy??

It’s like a classical tragedy, because there is someone who can not find her most inner desires.

But also at the end of the film there is a kind of acceptance of her/his destiny. As there is with her young lover. So they are at peace, perhaps?

As she is very Catholic, there is almost, like, an assumption. She is the Virgin of -- or the Madonna of -- the Transsexuals. She is reaching up. And wearing red and blue – the colors of the Madonna, as in the painting of Titan and others. That I like very much!

What’s it like in Portugal – for gays?

We are following the steps of Spain. Gay marriage was approved in Portugal just this year -- a few years after Spain did it. Like in Spain, it was a political decision. We have a socialist government now -- you would call it liberal – and when we had elections, part of the program of that party was saying that they would approve gay marriage. If we had a popular referendum, it probably would not be approved. So I think it was a very brave decision on the party’s part.

Evidently you can trust your political parties to do what they say they will do. We can’t do that.

(He laughs) Sometimes, at least. Sometimes they promise things, and then they do not do them.

How is the economy there?

Not so good. Very complicated. We were always one of the poorest countries, and now that we are in the European Union, we are still one of the least developed counties.  It is not easy.

So you're on the Euro, right?

Oh, yes.

Is there anything else you want to say – while I’ve got you. Something you’ve always wanted to say, but nobody ever asked.

(He thinks a bit.) Only that I always feel that I am not the best person to talk to about my work.

I think you’ve been a fine person to talk to.  But you're right: When the work is good -- when it's real -- it will speak for itself. So thanks for this interview, João, and enjoy your time in the US and at BAM.

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