It is a Flemish tradition for children to write a “New Year’s letter” and to read it out loud to their parents and godparents on the first of January. As the tradition prescribes, the children solemnly declare their New Year’s resolutions before being handed their presents. For the first week of 2021, we’ve selected films that feature beautiful letters. Unlike the tradition though, the letters in these films are all love letters in their own right.
Juventude em marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2006)
“Every day, every minute, I learn beautiful new words for you and me alone – made to fit us both, like fine silk pyjamas,” Ventura recites in Juventude em marcha. When Pedro Costa made Casa de Lava in 1995, people from the Cape Verde Islands asked him to take letters with him to their loved ones who moved to Portugal in search for a better life. He became their postman of sorts, and these letters granted him a key to Fontainhas: the Lisbon neighbourhood where most Cape Verdeans lived and to which he would dedicate the greater part of his oeuvre to this day. The letter Ventura repeats as if he were rehearsing it, with small variations in each repetition, is composed as a montage, a collage of fragments from real letters by emigrants and the famous “Letter to Youki” by Robert Desnos, sent from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Juventude em marcha is available on The Criterion Channel.
The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
A man and a woman fall in love with each other. As much as this is the film, it is not. The man and woman we see on the screen can’t stand one another. Employees at a shop in Budapest, he is the top salesman and she is the new girl: they are rivalling colleagues. They both correspond with an anonymous other through letters on “cultural subjects”. Unaware that they are in fact writing to each other, they swiftly switch subject matter to the subject of love, “naturally on a very cultural level”. “What else can you do in a letter?” he asks himself. And so, they both fall in love with the author of the letters they receive. You can watch The Shop Around the Corner here.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
“This is the city: Los Angeles, California. They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city.” Thom Andersen deals with his two loves – his hometown and the cinema – by looking at and listening to the moments where the two intersect. He writes a history of the city by taking a critical look at the way others have filmed it. Except for the voice-over, written by Andersen and narrated by Encke King, Los Angeles Plays Itself does not so much feature a beautiful letter as it is one itself. It is a love letter. Kanopy offers the film here.
Ventura, a Cape Verdean laborer living in the outskirts of Lisbon, is suddenly abandoned by his wife Clotilde. Ventura feels lost between the dilapidated old quarter where he spent the last 34 years and his new lodgings in a recently-built low-cost housing complex. All the young poor souls he meets seem to become his own children.
“It seems to me that we are losing an incredible amount of things that are vital to go on telling the tale. I mean, me being someone who believes in narration. This is the catastrophe we’re facing. We’re left with nothing else but words, with the power of words. I’ve always had a great belief in them, much more than in images. When I say ‘the power of words’, it’s not like there’s a secret meaning to it. Remember the letter in Juventude em marcha? Do you know the sad story of the last days of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam? The KGB was coming to his apartment to arrest and deport him to the gulag. In a frenzy, he begged his wife to memorize his poems so that the police wouldn’t get hold of them. He could no longer write them down, do you understand? Perhaps you’ll disagree and say it’s not yet that tragic; but I’ll tell you that if we don’t grab the words now, they will be taken from us. And the feelings too. Then there will be no more films. We’ll have to grab the words quickly because they are being kidnapped. Our people are going mute, amnesic and insane. Our people are being imprisoned and impoverished. The working class – what we used to call the working class – is handicapped, autistic, confused. Insane.”
Pedro Costa in conversation with Martin Grennberger1
“It is true that there has been a certain shift from the beginning Pedro Costa’s cycle, which now consists of four films. The very first film, Ossos (1997), was still a kind of conventional fiction, while the second one, No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (2000), looked like a chronicle, following the character in her room, her drug addiction, her conversations with other drug addicts. Then, in the following film, Juventude em marcha [Colossal Youth] (2006), it appeared more and more clearly that what looks like a chronicle of the life of some migrant workers was entirely a fiction, meaning that it was composed, if you will, of theatrical performances, of little scenes that have some kind of Brechtianism about them, though not in the same way as in Straub. Scenes in which the characters play or replay moments or episodes of their own life or the life of their friends and acquaintances, of all the people who came from Cape Verde to work in Portugal. With each new film, these theatrical performances become epic – something that looks like a journey into Hell, something reminiscent of the journey into Hades in the Aeneid or the Odyssey. That’s what Pedro Costa wants to show: these people are in our world, living amongst us, even though, at the same time, they don’t really live amongst us, they are a kind of living dead. There is a moment at the end of Juventude em marcha when they appear to be ghosts and this ghostly presence becomes a way of illustrating their situation.”
Jacques Rancière in conversation with Stoffel Debuysere2
“Over time, and through Costa’s patient, insistent observation, Ventura “comes to presence,” in the Heideggerian sense. He is allowed to transcend the categories that both well-intentioned liberal cinema and the social bureaucracies have slotted for him. Colossal Youth bathes him in shafts of almost heavenly light, bringing him forth and challenging the imposed, even ritualized invisibility that society has typically imposed. Likewise, Vanda, the garrulous single mother and former heroin addict, gets to launch into a manic monologue that, over time and through the cluttered verbiage, allows us to see who she might really be – a scattered thinker, a loving but distracted mother, a fighter, an effortless comedienne. This isn’t to say that Costa idealizes his subjects. We clearly perceive Vanda’s mania, just as Ventura's endless repetitions of the poem following Clotilde’s departure speak to his traumatized frailty. But Costa and his film embrace these contradictions as part of the human tapestry, and nothing to fear. (Likewise, Ventura's run-ins with the museum guard, himself a former slum-dweller, are socially charged, but Costa refrains from judging the guard’s obligation to give Ventura the bum’s rush.) Like Straub and Huillet before him, Costa practices a cinema of exacting materialist rigor, and this allows him to re-see the world for us in ways that have significant consequences for how we, his audience, might behave in the world. After all, as I watched Colossal Youth, I had to think about my own reactions and where they came from. I had to wonder why I was surprised when Lento dished up a plate of food and, instead of digging in, passed it over to Ventura. I had to remember that part of the reason that Costa’s hieratic lighting effects were possible was the fact that his subjects were living with holes in their ceilings. They must let the rain come in, but Costa challenges us to remember that they let in sunshine as well.”
“In other films they’d call it a retake, but for us it’s not: we don’t correct. I don’t think Vanda or Ventura correct. They are writing, if we can say ‘write’ for this kind of work. They reorganise the text in their heads and find different ways to tell it. The great pleasure I get is feeling that we’re all searching at the same time. I really like when you see the effort on the screen. People try to avoid that. The idea is that you shouldn’t see the work. I like to see it. There’s an element of resistance that confronts the viewer, the audience. I think this work, this repetition, is an attempt to exclude the bullshit you see in other films: clever looks, all the unnecessary things. They come up like a monster and we beat them away with a stick.”
Pedro Costa in conversation with Giovanni Marchini Camia4
“Ik ben geen videokunstenaar, ik ben een filmmaker, en een film is een constructie. De onderdelen moeten in elkaar passen, anders zakt het hele ding in elkaar, of erger: het mist beweging en spanning. Elk shot, elke scène hangt af van de shots en scènes die eraan voorafgaan en erop volgen. Je kunt natuurlijk ook zeggen dat elke scène haar specifieke waarde heeft, maar uiteindelijk is film de kunst om momenten op zo’n manier samen te brengen dat ze een verhaal vertellen. Misschien kom ik nu wat reactionair over, maar ik geloof dat de film zijn narratieve basis nooit kan vergeten.”
Pedro Costa in gesprek met Catherine David en Chris Dercon5
“Hij zit gebogen over een tafel, insisteert gebiedend dat Lento moet komen kaartspelen en gaat voort met het lezen van de liefdesbrief die hij aan Lento wil leren, die zelf niet kan lezen. Deze brief, die verschillende keren luidop voorgelezen wordt is zoals een refrein voor de film. Hij spreekt over een scheiding en over werken op bouwwerven ver van geliefden. Hij spreekt ook over de nakende vereniging die twee levens voor twintig of dertig jaar zal begenadigen, over de droom om de geliefde honderdduizend sigaretten te geven, kleren, een auto, een klein huis gemaakt van lava, en een driestuiversboeket; hij spreekt over de inspanning om elke dag een nieuw woord te leren – woorden waarvan de schoonheid perfect geschikt is om deze twee wezens te omhullen zoals een zijden pyjama.”
- 1. Pedro Costa in Martin Grennberger and Stefan Ramstedt, “In the Shadows of Catacombs. A Conversation with Pedro Costa,” Sabzian, 16 October 2015.
- 2. Jacques Rancière in Stoffel Debuysere, “On the Borders of Fiction. A Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Sabzian, 20 September 2017.
- 3. Michael Sicinski, “Another 10-day, 50-film clustertiff,” The Academic Hack, 2006.
- 4. Pedro Costa in Giovanni Marchini Camia, “Interview with Pedro Costa,” Fireflies, 4 (2016), 55-65.
- 5. Pedro Costa, Catherine David en Chris Dercon, “Film in het museum. Een panelgesprek over video en film tussen ‘cinema’ en ‘tentoonstelling’,” De Witte Raaf, 2007.
- 6. Jacques Rancière, “De politiek van Pedro Costa,” Sabzian, 2 juni 2014.
Two employees at a gift shop can barely stand one another, without realizing that they’re falling in love through the post as each other’s anonymous pen pal.
Alfred: There might be a lot we don’t know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.
Klara: Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter... which doesn’t work.
“The Shop Around the Corner is different from other Lubitsch comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939) because it is purposefully non-glamorous. I mean, sure, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are glamorous without even doing anything. But the story goes that Lubitsch wanted this film to be different – no elegant costumes, or eccentric wealthy main characters or elaborate sets. Lubitsch reportedly had Sullavan buy a dress off the rack and then set it out in the sun to give it a worn look. The Shop Around the Corner feels very working-class and thus more believable. The ‘Lubitsch touch’ doesn’t need any external signifiers of wealth to be glamorous and sophisticated. The ‘Lubitsch touch’ comes from characters and his clockwork direction.”
“I’ve written all of this without talking about the main attraction: Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. They are a match made in Hollywood heaven. And it is precisely because these two awkward, incredibly fragile misfits transcend the surface impressions they give off. Despite his easy-going rapport and 22 years of experience at Matuschek and Co., Stewart plays a man with grave self-doubts, his excessively lanky body a burden and a bale. Likewise, Sullavan’s wet eyes and the nervous way she bites into her lower lip don’t speak to her subtle strength and determination. Her thin, reedy, smashed-china voice sounds like it’s about to burst into tears at any second, but it rarely does. In their exceptionality and star power, Sullavan and Stewart ooze genuineness. Think back to the café scene, where Margaret Sullavan is waiting to meet her pen pal; instead, her louse of a coworker (her pen pal!) shows up. Listen to the quick, instinctive haste and desperation Sullavan expresses to Stewart (and to us) when she begs him to leave her table, in that pained, strained voice of hers: ‘R. Kralik! Please! I was expecting somebody … ’ Each sentence has its own distinct flavor, from anger to flustered nervousness to the lonely realization that you’ve been stood up. Sullavan conveys all of this in only three seconds. It’s the magic of performance.”
“What’s especially striking about the film’s humor is the vein of real, deep sadness that runs through the center of it. There’s a sense of loneliness in both Kralik and Karla, who separately believe they’ve found love in the form of someone they’ve never even met face-to-face, someone they’ve only corresponded with through letters. There’s more than a hint of desperation in both characters: they invest so much into their romance-by-pen, as though it represents the last chance they each have for happiness or romance. In the process, they don’t realize that the object of their love is right in front of them every day, that their relationship consists of sparring angrily by day and writing loving, romantic letters to one another by night. As such, the film is about the ideal of love as contrasted against the more prosaic but also more tangible reality: it’s telling that before Kralik can reveal himself to Karla, he must adjust her expectations downward by shattering the fantasy of the letters, preparing her not only for the revelation that he’s her great love, but that her great love is only a flesh-and-blood man after all.”
- 1. Manish Mathur, “The Shop Around the Corner: The Grand Budapest Gift Shop”, Brattle Film, 31 July 2015.
- 2. Carlos Valladares, “Perf romance: Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ at the Stanford Theatre”, The Stanford Daily, March 15, 2017.
- 3. Ed Howard, “Films I Love #55: The Shop Around the Corner”, Only the Cinema, 19 October 2011.
In this documentary Thom Anderson explores the tangled relationship between the movies and their fabled hometown, Los Angeles. Entirely from the perspective of the films themselves.
“This is the city: Los Angeles, California. They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city.
I know it’s not easy. The city is big. The image is small. Movies are vertical. At least when they’re projected on a screen. The city is horizontal, except for what we call downtown. Maybe that’s why the movies love downtown more than we do. If it isn’t the site of the action, they try to stick its high-rise towers in the back of the shot.
But movies have some advantages over us.
They can fly through the air. We must travel by land.
They exist in space. We live and die in time.
So why should I be generous?
Of course, I know movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories. If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else.”
Voice-over by Thom Andersen1
“People call Los Angeles Plays Itself an essay film; personally, I prefer to call it a documentary. I think that when you go see a documentary film, you should learn something, and I don’t think that’s such a radical idea, actually. Of course we learn from a good fiction film as well, although maybe it’s a different type of truth. I think all films should aspire toward truth, but people misunderstand the idea when it comes to movies. They think of truth as being accuracy, and that is unobtainable by the nature of film, which is selection by framing and editing. Truth is simply an aspiration, like any other classic virtue–charity, for example. Sometimes you may give money to a beggar, but other times you keep walking.”
“With the finesse of a personable human rights lawyer, Andersen rockets through the clustered wrongs of Hollywood. Pointing out early that most studios reside in Culver City, not in Hollywood, Los Angeles Plays Itself addresses ‘Hollywood’ primarily as an idea, and one with a consistently shifting definition. It distances itself from L.A., though at the same time siphoning from its sprawl decades’ worth of money-making – and Andersen interprets Hollywood’s implementation of the unfortunate abbreviation as a strategy for diminution, tutelage. Los Angeles, Thom Andersen’s hometown, has figured, it seems, for most of its existence, as a misunderstood mutant, a territory without definitive identity, despite now serving as residence to nearly four million people. A McDonald’s restaurant in the City of Industry remains forever closed to the public, but functions exclusively as a set for commercials. The Bradbury Building has been cast as a Mandalay locale or as the headquarters of an East Coast newspaper. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House has provided context for such varying visions as that of Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982), House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959) (a cheesy Vincent Price joint), and a Ricky Martin music video. Hollywood refuses to take Los Angeles for what it is, Andersen insists, if the professionals that make up the movie machine have any clue about its essence to begin with. Hollywood denigrates what should represent the pride of Los Angeles’s eclectic architectural scene, casting its Modernist and International style homes as dens of iniquity, the mansions of gangsters and drug lords, rather than centers for evolved living. Moreover ‘conventional ideology trumps personal conviction’ just as geographic license provides a cover for lazy writing. Runaway rapscallions find shelter in Malibu beach houses–some kind of Reagan-era joke, no doubt–and landmarks are renamed, relocated to serve inept plot twists.”
- 1. Thom Andersen, “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Diagonal Thoughts, 20 February 2015.
- 2. Thom Andersen, “Thom Andersen talks about his films and politics,” interview by Travis Diehl, Artforum, 3 June 2016.
- 3. Peter Moysaenko, “Thom Andersen Tarnishes The Silver: Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Bomb Magazine, 7 December 2009.