I’m going to start by jumping ahead a day. During Pedro Costa’s Regents’ Lecture (on Sunday, March 9, 2008), he spoke of his film project in Fountaínhas as akin to James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Costa sees Vanda Duarte and her family (her neighborhood, her blood) as, if not equivalent, similar heroes to those three tenant families that Agee and Evans found, and lived with, in the cotton belt of Alabama. To those familiar with both works this rings as a perfect analogy; I, for one, see how Costa’s films inherit the burden of Agee’s words opening his “Book Two” volume:
1. The Great Ball on Which We Live
The world is our home. It is also the home of many, many other children, some of whom live in far-away lands. They are our world brothers and sisters…
Costa echoed this sentiment after our viewing of In Vanda’s Room when, describing the familial dynamic of Fountaínhas, he said, “a lot of things are mixed there, not just blood. There are a lot of sordid stories—a lot of secrets that everybody knows. But I will not tell them.” Given the intimacy of In Vanda’s Room, it’s hard to imagine what Costa withheld when building his film. For this is a document of substance, despite the physical disintegration (of buildings, of bodies) within its unclean, collapsing boundaries. If Ossos and Casa de Lava show us the decay neglect engenders, In Vanda’s Room records an in-progress dissolution and the daily contest carried on in its face.
In Vanda’s Room is a film of faces, a portrait, however much it hides faces (in the dark, behind walls, under hats and sheets, off screen) in its oblique compositions. It gives face, with much tenderness, to abjection. Vanda’s face, as you have seen above, is marked by her drug use. She sports a frown and lesions, an infrequent smile; she complains, often, that she is dirty. However, she seems to be the highest functioning addict in the film. Her using inhibits her life but not her will. She cannot be silenced. The film is named after Vanda for a reason. Vanda works to make her world work. As she tells her childhood friend (and occasional lover?), Nhurro, late in the film, “This is the life we choose.” Vanda refuses unaccountability. It’s her great strength. Not that Vanda is without fault: we watch her sit in bed smoking junk with her sister throughout the film, yell at her family about trivialities and, on occasion, shy from work in a smack-stupor. Gone now is any trace of O Sangue’s Romantic flow, or Ossos’ Bressonian “realism,” because In Vanda’s Room, like its chief heroine, is stubborn, habitual, dirty, angry, rooted, a block of space and time.
The film begins (of course) in Vanda’s room, Costa’s stationary digital camera positioned close to the bed where Vanda and Zita free base. They trade the tin foil and share a cigarette, a lazy back and forth. The daze is almost comfortable, were it not for Vanda’s signature hacking cough or Zita’s not-there eyeballs and limbs. Both girls are alarmingly thin, but Zita looks like bones wrapped in skin, not human; later the sisters talk about Zita’s stay in a hospital where all she could do was lay in bed and cry because she was too weak to walk anywhere and she could not smoke any smack. But the girls are far better off than the boys (the film’s biggest rift is the segregation of the sexes), who shoot junk into themselves, instead of inhaling, continually moving, “living in ghost houses other people left empty.” We first meet their leader, Nhurro, bathing in a house being torn apart around him: as he suds and rinses, standing nude in near darkness (save a beam of flecked light from behind), we hear bulldozers crunch and jackhammers thump an odd musique concrète rhythm around him. This carries over as the film return’s to Vanda’s room, seeming to continue the trajectory of the opening “scene,” and Vanda is quick to notice, “This noise is bugging me.”
Again: it’s the sound design in later Costa films that dictates the space, that colors the image, that roots the film in the tactile present. The camera aids this collapse, surely, as even the wide shots look like close-ups, every angle looking in (on rooms, on Fountaínhas), every stubborn edit thrusting the picture down a trajectory at once askew from and congruent with what preceded it. It echoes itself. It chronicles a destruction both corporeal and architectural. One might argue for the film as a “dispersal” of space, with its bifurcated alleyway structure that parallels the boys and girls without much intersection, but I see In Vanda’s Room described better as what Manny Farber coined “shallow-boxed space” in “Kitchen without Kitsch.” A true termite work, Costa’s film niggles its way forward, without ever appearing to move, eclipsing its path with new echoes—new faces, new spaces—of everything seen before. The final shot, like all the shots, is rather plain: an alleyway, half demolished, with a stalagmite of a wall’s remains centered in the frame, the sounds of the neighborhood plodding on as usual (conversations, bulldozing, birds), and a man walking, with a brief stop to rest his hand on the lone spear of rubble, before exiting the frame and the cut to black. But the sound keeps going. The present tense fades and extends. The world keeps growing in spite of the wreckage we humans amass and perpetuate. As I said to a friend after the film, this is the kind of humanism I want to see more often—the kind that keeps us in check, that shows the world is bigger than us, that reminds us this is the life we choose and to choose wisely. Maybe I don’t want humanism so much as a humanism in relief, in relation to the world. Maybe I want to see the world, the one I know and the one I do not know, so long as it is new.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent editor of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy. He will be graduating college, finally, in 2008: he’s excited.