Monday, August 2, 2010

Oliveira's ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIRED GIRL: a century old and still at it

A hundred-and-one years old and still making movies: That's some kind of record, no? But is it reason enough for viewers to keep watching? Well, it is for me, though it was not for my companion. Writer/director Manoel Oliveira's train of thought, in fact, reminded me of my companion's 96-year-old mother, who lives with us. She's there at the beginning of a sentence, but sometimes has hopped the track by the end -- which is more or less what the famed Portuguese director does in his latest tale, ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIRED GIRL (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura), which lasts 61 minutes but displays enough content for maybe three times that length.

Oliveira, shown at left, begins his story on a train, spending the first five minutes or so on ticket-taking by the conductor.  Then seat-mates begin a conversation in which one passenger tells the story of his recent life to another.  We come back again and again to these two on the train, except when we don't -- which is precisely when we would appreciate knowing the listener's response to the tale. But the director seem to have forgotten all about her and that train. To be fair, he has told a very bizarre anecdote, the ending to which offers a whopping good moment of visual body language, unlike almost anything else I can recall.  This alone made the train trip worthwhile for me.

There are plenty of other reasons to view, too, small though they may be (they're all accessories, rather than mainstays): sets, colors, architecture, sidewalks (three photos below), decor, and bits of art, music and poetry.  The film proves an almost consistent visual treat.

At its core (if there is one) would seem to be ideas of tradition and convention. A young man who works as an accountant for his uncle's fabric shop falls in love with a young woman whom he catches sight of outside the window of his office.  She carries a fan for which he appears to feel a bizarre attraction.  

Uncle is having none of this and in fact gives nephew a warning he ignores. The young man proceeds on his way and from that point, it's just one damn thing after another, most of which are narrated rather than shown -- which lends the proceedings an near-theatrical sense (and certainly keeps the movie's budget down). Though set in the present, the film seems to be taking place at least a half century ago in terms of behavior and conventions.  Or perhaps upper-to-middle-class Portuguese act like this? (TrustMovies has never visited that country.)

In any case, things move along, and eventually we get a surprise, plus that strange bit of body language mentioned earlier, and then -- boom, it's all over.  That's it?  What happened?  Did the story simply end?  Or maybe the director suddenly had to go lie down and, when he got up awhile later, simply moved on to his next project. I jest, and if it appears that am making fun of old age, I am not.  I'm simply telling it like it often is -- having started to arrive there myself and not enjoying it much.  Still, at whatever age, one does have some obligation to one's audience.

Oddly and interestingly, Oliveira seems to grow more prolific the older he becomes.  Between 1930 and 1960, he made only eight movies.  In the last decade alone, he's more than doubled that output. Perhaps movie-making is literally keeping the man alive.  In any case, it is undoubtedly very good therapy.

A few years ago, after viewing Oliveira's I'm Going Home (Je rentre à la maison), I questioned whether or not this director ought still to be making movies.  It was not so much the film (which itself wasn't much) but the interview with the director on the DVD, in which what he talked about proved utterly embarrassing and nowhere near the point.  But then I saw his A Talking Picture (Um Filme Falado) made two years later, and found it simply terrific.  So I had to eat my words.  Who knows, maybe I'll dine on them again when his next film, underway now and titled The Strange Case of Angelica, makes its eventual debut.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers can see Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl on the big screen for a week at Anthology Film Archives. It plays Monday through Friday at 7pm and 8:30, and Saturday and Sunday at 4pm, 5:30, 7 pm and 8:30.

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