Space Is the Place
Michael Sicinski on new films by Gabriel Mascaro and Heinz Emigholz

As part of this year’s First Look series, the Museum of the Moving Image is highlighting films across the spectrum—international and domestic features, documentaries, and experimental works. Here I want to turn my attention to two very different films, one a feature film debut by an accomplished documentarian from Brazil, the other a new work by an established avant-garde filmmaker from Germany, one whose cinematic output over the past several decades has reflected a deep engagement with other art forms (notably photography and architecture), and has at least one foot planted firmly in the documentary genre. What links these two films is a deep commitment to using cinema’s unique qualities in order to conduct close examinations of very specific spaces. The directors, Gabriel Mascaro and Heinz Emigholz, are both interested in how the lens can organize an environment, articulate the structure of human intervention into the landscape, and provide us with a focused expanse of time, allowing us to see how certain places may continue to resonate with echoes of their past.

Ventos de Agosto (August Winds)

Ventos de Agosto, also known by its English title August Winds, was a Brazilian entry in last year’s Locarno Film Festival. The year 2014 was a banner one for Locarno, where the competition line-up included major new works by Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz, Matías Piñeiro, Eugène Green, and others, and this new film by Gabriel Mascaro is every bit their equal. Mascaro is probably best known for his 2013 film Doméstica (Housemaids), a crowd-sourced documentary in which young people across Brazil used camcorders to observe and interview their live-in domestic workers. Domésticas became a bit of a sensation in Brazil, a national talking point and significant political intervention, since it was released in the midst of a major push in Brazil’s National Congress to legislate for greater labor protections for domestic workers. Mascaro’s latest is his first foray into fiction filmmaking, but like his documentary work, Ventos de Agosto is grounded in the realities of contemporary Brazil, particularly as experienced by citizens situated on society’s margins.

Ventos begins with two extended shots of its protagonist crossing a body of water in a skiff. We are in the back of the boat with Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos) as he is heading out to do some fishing in his coastal village, near Porto de Pedras in the northeastern state of Alagoas. In the opening shot, Jeison is slowly wending his way through a thicket of foliage, hanging into the path of both the boat and the camera; as we pass through, the shot allows Mascaro to emphasize the all-enveloping depth of the inlet. One might expect this to be a long take, or for Ventos to be preparing us to settle in for some “slow cinema.” But this isn’t the case. The shot is brief, and we cut very quickly to a second shot from the same camera position, with Jeison taking the boat out into the open sea, this time using his motor.

In subsequent shots, we discover some key information that will be significant for understanding the central character and story elements of Ventos. Jeison is a fisherman who dives down to the seabed to collect octopi and shellfish. His girlfriend, Shirley (Dandara de Morais), is with him on the boat, occupying what was the camera’s point of view in the first two shots. And, in one of the most striking early scenes in Mascaro’s film, we learn that Shirley is quite comfortable with her body. She sunbathes on the deck of the skiff, cooling herself off by popping open a can of Coke and rubbing it all over as if it were suntan lotion.

This strange use of the Coca-Cola is the first of several moments when Ventos de Agosto breaks from the sort of naturalism that so often defines so much of the Latin American offerings at film festivals. Why would anyone douse themselves with Coke? Shirley, situated along the camera’s central axis, is literally positioned between the sky and sea, and her solution to negotiating this Heideggerian juncture of the elements, to say nothing of her own supple corporeality, is to treat capitalism’s most insidiously omnipresent elixir as if it were a second skin. Also, why are those cumulus clouds so low to the horizon? Things are strange, and only getting stranger.

The very title, “August Winds,” holds out the promise of lyric verse or odes to the humble majesty of nature, but in fact it turns out to be stubbornly literal. It is August, and the winds coming off the sea in Porto de Pedras are harsher than normal. A full-blown hurricane doesn’t form, but at several points we see the village pelted with hard rains. In two sequences, Mascaro even allows his own camera to become rain-soaked, the film image quavering into abstraction like a windshield in a storm.

In the middle of the film, a weather researcher (Mascaro) comes to the village to set up his anemometer at different locations and record the howling wind with a boom mic. But the coastal weather has clearly been a problem for some time. At several points in the film, Jeison goes out to the pier and studies the movement of the waves, the speed and direction of the wind, and senses something is off. An old cemetery on the shore is now being reclaimed by the ocean. Jeison discovers this when, during a fishing dive, he recovers a human skull disinterred by the tides.

When Jeison becomes preoccupied with recovering and reburying the dead, Ventos de Agosto might seem to have finally arrived at its main idea, the hard juncture of materiality and metaphor. The long-term consequences of environmental neglect have finally made themselves unavoidable, not only disrupting the present but also awakening the ghosts of the dead. As one villager remarks, “What the ocean claims, the ocean keeps.” Most of the folks around Jeison, including Shirley and especially his father (Antonio Jose Dos Santos), think his effort to keep the dead in the ground is a fool’s errand. However, as Mascaro has been showing us throughout Ventos, the global disturbances that are threatening to engulf the Brazilian coastline are only part of the problem.

The neglect is local as well. While the village elders are able to report on the changes that have taken place over the years, the younger folk only take an interest when things have reached an unavoidable crisis point. In general, they behave as though the natural world is either a resource or a plaything. Jeison and Shirley have a very nonchalant attitude, befitting the younger generation, but their often-amusing moments of rebellion add up to a bigger, more discomfiting picture. The couple works for Shirley’s dad, harvesting coconuts, Jeison as a palm-climbing picker and Shirley as the driver of the fruit truck. But each day, the two of them stop mid-delivery to have sex in the trailer, on top of the load of coconuts. At another point, we discover that Shirley wants to be a tattoo artist, but has no one to tattoo. (Jeison won’t allow her to ink him, out of fear of his father.) So we see her in the night, applying a large, painful tattoo to a tied-up pig.

These moments, like the Coca-Cola bath, seem like instances of strange or rebellious behavior, but they add up to a different overall impression, particularly when Mascaro reveals the consequences of Alagoas’ harsh weather and rising tides. They point to a generation that sees little difference between nature and culture, or for that matter the self and the other. Jeison and Shirley live and work around fishing, livestock, and farming, but they cannot see themselves as tied to the land, or as part of a life cycle. Mascaro takes us to a locale where an art-film audience expects to see the stereotypical tropes of “authenticity” and “the exotic,” and instead confronts us with a disconnection from the earth and sea as radical as that of any urban scenario. By the end, Jeison and Shirley are estranged even from one another. His preoccupation with tending to the disinterred bodies alienates Shirley, since she believes that her seductive live flesh should command more of Jeison’s attention than these salt-ravaged corpses. In short, the lovers experience a break over the importance of the past to the present.

Ventos is particularly remarkable in that these themes are undergirded through editing and organization, although this only becomes evident in retrospect. When Mascaro uses straight cuts like that between the first and second shots, with Jeison rowing in silence and then speeding across the sea with his motor, the director is emphasizing this radical break through form. The dynamic jump between the quiet and the loud (human power vs. gasoline engine) marks the very shift that is Ventos de Agosto’s primary theme. The loss not only of our harmonious connection to the environment, but even of the awareness of the problem itself, is the organizing principle with which Mascaro articulates the local and the global elements of his film.

This jarring dynamic shift, and the disrupted consciousness it reveals, is shown by Shirley’s love for hardcore punk, which she listens to on Jeison’s boat. We see her twice, lazing in the sun in the middle of the sea, enjoying the pounding nihilism of “Kill Yourself” by the Lewds and “Kill the Hippies” by the Deadbeats. Freud used to describe the sublimity of religious connection as an “oceanic feeling.” And yet, adrift on the great expanse, Shirley works overtime to kill the silence and isolate herself from the unavoidable fact of human interconnection. She imposes her own anomie on the wide-open sea. Mascaro couldn’t possibly diagnose the human side of ecological crisis in clearer terms.

Two Museums (Zwei Museen)

Few filmmakers have been as committed to a single long-term project as German experimentalist Heinz Emigholz, and fewer have been able to derive as much subtle variety from what may seem on the surface like a rather limited set of procedures. Since the early nineties Emigholz has been concentrating on using cinema to explore and transcribe the spatial experience of architecture. His “Photography and beyond” series treats filmmaking as a literal extension of the art of still photography. Emigholz never moves his camera, choosing instead to compose images as one would for a photographic essay or monograph, with video providing the additional component of time. We see cars go by in the distance, hear the hum of air conditioning, perceive slight footsteps in the background, or just observe micro-shifts in the light. In this respect, Emigholz honors architecture’s raison d’être, as a total environment to be occupied by the living, rather than an empty monument to itself.

Emigholz has long favored modernism, and while some of his films have focused on reasonably renowned subjects (1999’s Sullivan’s Banks; 2008’s Loos Ornamental), many more have involved reconsideration of lesser-known twentieth-century innovators (1999’s Maillart’s Bridges; 2003’s Goff in the Desert; 2007’s Schindler’s Houses; 2009’s Two Projects by Frederick Kiesler). These films profile the work of figures who are revered in architecture and design circles but seldom celebrated in the broader history of the modern era. These films, of course, are not educational tools, nor are they aimed at either students or specialists. They screen at festivals the world over and, through the auspices of the German video label Filmgalerie 451, can even be rented from Netflix. The “Photography and beyond” project, then, turns architecture into cinema, while allowing it to retain its identity. By providing an analytical cine-tour of the greatest extant works of underappreciated architects, Emigholz asks us to consider the history of modernism as an open, evolving question.

Unlike some films that are centered on individuals, Two Museums is a thematic work. In it, Emigholz focuses on two specific buildings: the Menil Collection in Houston, designed by Renzo Piano (best known for the Pompidou Centre in Paris), and the Museum of Art in Ein Herod, Israel, built by Samuel Bickels. Nearly forty years separate the two projects, and Emigholz takes us through the Menil first. Piano’s design is notable for its expansive use of natural light, with the long rectangular structure end-capped by large windows and, most notably, the ceiling outfitted with pivoting baffles that strategically channel the sunlight into the gallery spaces.

The Menil is situated in the middle of a Houston neighborhood (the one where I live, actually), and so Emigholz emphasizes Piano’s design in how it harmonizes indoor geometry with outdoor green space and the irregularity of urban flora. (That Emigholz filmed during an exhibition of Richard Serra’s large black charcoal drawings certainly helped his effort.) By contrast, the section on Bickels’s 1948 museum starts out on a desolate intersection with a military vehicle behind chain-link, shows us bomb-damaged structures, and takes us, shot by shot, down a tree-lined road to the museum. The rhetoric is clear: Houstonians can experience the aesthetic in safety, but those living in Ein Herod must seek it out as a sanctuary.

Bickels’s façade is nondescript, weather-beaten modernism in the Courbusier style with adaptations (metal siding on the roof, wooden paned-glass doors) that are likely borne of necessity. The building is wrapped by a four-foot high retaining wall. There is a sad functionalism to it all, but once inside Emigholz shows us how the dirty windows and porous ceiling actually bathe the museum in light. The Ein Heron building looks much more like a university library than a museum per se, with glass bookcases built right into the white walls and the offices and study rooms comprising as much space (at least as Emigholz shows it) as exhibition halls.

But a look at the ceiling displays a key point of connection to Piano’s Menil design: large directional shells for pivoting the light. In this case they are stationary, forming interior shades that filter the sun to the peripheral walls. As the second half of Two Museums concludes, we see that Bickels’s museum building has a sculpture courtyard deeply recessed in the structure, as well as numerous stairwells into underground galleries. Heavy pillars, thick walls, and reinforced concrete abounds. It is not surprising that security was foremost on Bickels’ mind, as it was built in 1948. What Emigholz’s film shows us through comparison is that both buildings share a general orientation—the open concept, the integration of natural light into a cultural citadel—but history and location demanded different solutions to the same basic assignment.

Photos: August Winds (top), courtesy Beto Figueiroa/FiGa Films; Two Museums, courtesy Filmgalerie 451 & Heinz Emigholz.

August Winds and Two Museums played Sunday, January, 18, 2015, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2015.