Nostalgia for the Night
by Max Nelson

The Last Time I Saw Macao
Dir. JoĂŁo Pedro Rodrigues/JoĂŁo Rui Guerra da Mata, Portugal, Cinema Guild

Midway through João Pedro Rodrigues’s third feature To Die Like a Man, four characters find themselves wandering in the woods late at night. They’re a motley bunch, among them an aging drag queen, slowly succumbing to the poison secreted by her silicone implants, and her lanky, on-and-off junkie boyfriend. They enter a field, pause, and—for four uninterrupted minutes—sit quietly to Baby Dee’s “Calvary.” It’s the only nondiegetic music in the film, and it forces itself on the scene like a revelation from on high. There’s something about this spiritual, belted out in Dee’s trademark androgynous croon, that sounds like a statement of intent, an indication that the rest of this study of transgender life will allow for, and maybe even demand, some measure of grace—though it might come, not from the stuff of human life, but from above.

The Last Time I Saw Macao, Rodrigues’s unclassifiable new film (codirected with João Rui Guerra da Mata), gets to its statement of intent right away. Spirituals have given way to show tunes: a statuesque blonde struts into the spotlight, her face stretched into something between a grimace and a smirk, and lip-synchs to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” as a pair of tigers cavort just behind her. It’s not hard to see the film that follows as one extended lip-synch: our protagonist mouthing along to the strains of a past from which he’s long estranged, and an essay-film imitating a noir.

This last trick seems at first to be the big joke of Macao: that it forces a genre content with marinating and lingering to parrot one accustomed to barreling along unimpeded. Noirs thrive on passion, and on desire. The hapless gumshoe gets in hot water precisely because he’s content neither to observe nor to ruminate—he lives by doing, and, more often than not, dies the same way. We see Macao’s protagonist and narrator arrive in the titular Chinese city, a former Portuguese colony, looking for a missing friend; we see him hop from bar to bar asking after her—and yet our dogged investigator seems just as fascinated by a smiling inflatable tiger glimpsed out of a window, or by the way a statue reflects a flare of neon light. With his sensitivity to the impressions of the moment, his willingness to doodle and digress, and his self-imposed passivity, he’s more Chris Marker than Mike Hammer. There’s no will to act here, only a will to see. Perhaps that’s why Macao—with the exception of a few transparently staged encounters—plays entirely as an assemblage of documentary footage.

The premise might be vintage noir, but the format is anything but. Without the logic that bears most noirs along, from doomed inception to fatal conclusion, we’re left with only a backdrop. And maybe, Rodrigues suggests, that’s all you need. Maybe all those stifling narrative conventions—the back-alley confrontations, the mysterious briefcases, the shady, inscrutable antiheroes—are already in the air of Macao’s neon-lit pleasure districts and lonely docks. Maybe there’s not so great a space between a city symphony and Night and the City.

In fact, for Macao’s first third it’s remarkable just how closely all this ragged-but-lovely footage hews to the conventions of a Hollywood potboiler. But what were those mysterious runes the camera glimpsed hastily in that one early scene? What’s with the birdcage? What is what the narrator refers to as “the great ritual of the chosen ones?” When did this noir by way of essay-film break out of the parameters it set for itself? To reveal where this great prank of a film veers off to would be to spoil the whole thing. The fun lies in feeling Rodrigues slowly stretching your tolerance for genre-bending until you’re almost at ease with the proceedings, and then breaking it clean in two.

There’s another sense, though, in which Rodrigues, by imposing onto his free-form musings a logic totally foreign to them (and then by subverting even that logic) ends up honoring the intention that sparked those musings in the first place. If there’s one dominant theme to all our narrator’s reflections, it’s the sensation of being a stranger in his own home: recognizing his old elementary school, now in disrepair, rewalking familiar streets and identifying with nothing. Our narrator, as it turns out, grew up in Macao—and Rodrigues’s challenge is to film the city so that we, too, catch a whiff of familiarity, enough to make us alarmed at not recognizing more; to film what it’s like to feel nostalgia for that which lies in plain view.

To that end, he seizes upon a genre whose conventions we’d be sure to recognize, but whose actual output had long since been relegated to the textbook or the repertory house. In the iconography of film noir Rodrigues has found a perfect corollary to his narrator’s boyhood, it too lost to the past, it too lived under the shadow of night and the city. We’re not used to seeing an essay-film adopt conventions so unfamiliar to itself, and so archaic—but how better to articulate that favorite subject of so many essay-films: the sensation of failing to recognize that which one once loved, finding oneself estranged from one’s own past?

It’s all the more jarring, then, when Rodrigues simply stops adhering to those antiquated conventions; when the discovery of Jane Russell’s tights, floating in the tide at the edge of a mysterious cave, is the least outrageous event in a five-minute timespan; when we sense what’s in the birdcage, and when those nostalgia-tinged cityscapes give way to jungles under a twilight sky, scored to the roar of tigers. Rodrigues knows well that subverting genre-imposed expectations makes a great way to hurl off the burden of tradition and the weight of the past; here, though, the burden in question is less that of cinema history than of memory itself. Maybe, Rodrigues suggests, the solution to estrangement is, well, more estrangement: better to break from the pull of the past altogether, than to re-create that which it’s impossible to re-live—be it the halcyon days of childhood or the golden years of Hollywood.

That break isn’t made final until Macao’s last ten minutes, which trade in a sort of abstract, shuddering dread reminiscent of the conclusions of L’eclisse or Solaris but directed towards a very different end than either. Macao emerges like an alien planet, drenched in fog. Statues gaze impassively out at us, kindling our nostalgia for what might be the last time. No one’s in sight; the inflatable tigers are all overturned. It climaxes in a dazzling moment of apocalypse public and private, followed by silence. Some signs of life emerge. The statues lie in ruins, and with them all our signposts to the past. Well, save for one: Jane Russell’s voice, singing “You Kill Me” one last time.