With In the Intense Now, writer-director João Moreira Salles contemplates the political turmoil of the late 1960s through some of the essay film’s most basic staples: found footage, reappropriation, and melancholy voiceover narration. In his attempt to demonstrate the ways in which individual and world histories collide, the filmmaker intermingles archival footage recorded in France, Czechoslovakia, and Brazil in May 1968 with footage shot in China around the same time by his late mother. Salles’s film is an ode to inadvertent cinematic archives, which harbor the gift of accidental revelations.
Take, as an example, the black-and-white footage of an unidentified family in the streets of Brazil, shot by an unknown person around the time that massive student protests and strikes were happening in France. A white child walks toward the camera and away from her black nanny, who, as Salles argues, knows to step outside of the frame and assume her position of non-belonging when the camera is on. Without letting us make up our own minds about the events on screen, Salles ominously intones that “We don’t always know what we’re filming” and that images, reactivated by the filmmaker’s commitment to the politics of his craft, are not only revelatory but also “symptomatic.”
Salles links the black Brazilian nanny who evades the camera’s eye with amateur films shot in France at the same time, pointing out the camera’s tendency to push blackness to the margins of the frame, if not outside of it altogether. Reappropriating not only images but writings—such as those by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader during the unrest in Paris—the filmmaker recognizes that the few black men who turn up in his archival footage are never more than extras at a distance, that the white men all sport the same 1950-style conservative haircut, and that only they ever speak. If black men get pushed to the margins, white women are at times pulled toward the center of the frame, but on the condition that they only listen.
Throughout João Moreira Salles’s essay film, the knots between the personal and public feel tentative at best.
Although Salles tries to tap into the pleasurable elements inherent to the essayistic as a cinematic form, such as making the merging of intimate and social reality poetically visible, his storylines never quite gel. There are at least two different films here: the one about the May 1968 events in France, and the one about Salles’s mother’s visit to China. The first has been made before, and Salles doesn’t have that many new things to say about the events. The latter, during which the filmmaker both mourns his mother and brings her back to life by reconsidering footage bearing her authorship, is a much more authentic set of images begging to be decoded. But the knots between the personal and public feel tentative at best, and Salles’s introspection feels put-on and affected, as if he was reaching for a diaristic approach but couldn’t bear the burden of true personal exposure. We never learn much about his mother, apart from the fact that she thinks Chinese sculptures are mediocre and that the Chinese sound like they’re meowing when they speak.
An essay film like this would have required a more unabashed denuding from its author for it to work. Salles’s mother disappears for long stretches at a time, and lengthy sequences of newsreel-type footage of French intellectuals discussing the concept of revolution proceed without commentary from the filmmaker. (These sequences are akin to the block quotes students paste into their papers in order to fill up space.) In a film that often feels like a rough draft of an essay rushed for publication, the way a still photo of Salles’s mother is followed by footage from the Lumière brothers’ Exiting the Factory feels especially nonsensical. Other moments throughout In the Intense Now, such as the use of a Lhasa song, “La Marée Haute,” and later a Portuguese fado, try to give meaning to what can look like generic found footage, but they only highlight Salles’s failure to truly submit to the requirements of the essay form, which is not just about curation, but vulnerability.