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Letters from Fontainhas

Pedro Costa’s hauntingly beautiful trilogy about the residents of an endangered neighborhood in Lisbon — “Ossos” (1997), “In Vanda’s Room” (2000) and “Colossal Youth” (2006) — has been released in a box set from Criterion replete with enlightening extras. It’s hard to believe that this will be the first time the work of this major filmmaker has been made available to American viewers beyond the museum or festival circuit, but I guess that’s the way things are going in an world where winsome 20-something romances have driven most subtitled fare off the art house screens. My New York Times review is here.

120 comments to Letters from Fontainhas

  • That’s quite true, Ted. It took me a while after receiving the box to start dipping into it, and now I’m having a hard time tearing myself away from the films.

    I do a little theorizing about the evolution of Costa’s trilogy here, for those interested:

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘My understanding is that indeed there was a thriving market for Japanese films (often not subtitled) from the 1950s to 70s on the west coast.’

    ‘What if anything was going on in NYC in the 50s and 60s, I’m not sure if there was a dedicated Japanese theatre (my guess is not, because of lack of population).’

    Tom, that is right about print without sub-title for some market. Toho opened a theater in Manhatten New York City in 1961 that closed in late 1960s. There was also Toho theater in Honolulu open until 1980s.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Couldn’t find anything at Cinema Treasures, but IBDb has this listening for the theatre that for a short time was known as the Toho in NYC – they list that Toho took it over in 1965 for a brief period (this is on the site that is now the Marriot Marquis Hotel._

    Toho Cinema
    209 W. 45th St., New York, NY
    Seats (approximate): 600

    Herbert J. Krapp, architect. Built by the Shuberts in 1917. In 1935, it became New York’s first all-cartoon cinema, beginning a rotating cycle during which the house alternated between legit and movie presentation (except when it was dark from 1937 to 1943). In 1959, the adjoining Astor was renovated and acquired a large chunk of the Bijou’s space. It reopened as an art cinema in 1962. Intermittent legit productions followed until the theatre was demolished in 1982, making room for the Marriott Hotel.

    Here’s a link to an LA Times ad for the Toho La Brea (La Brea & 9th), which ran Toho films from the late 50s to early 70s –

    This theatre is now used as a Korean Christian church.

  • I have yet to watch Petro Costa’s Letters from Fontainhas trilogy, hopefully I can get my hands on one of the Criterion box sets. The focus on an endangered neighborhood in Lisbon over an extended period of time reminds me of the focus of Donigan Cumming’s latest exhibition KINCORA, which he describes as:

    The title of this exhibition refers to a street in downtown Montreal that was erased by developers in the late 1980s, destroying a little neighborhood and scattering its residents across the city and suburbs. Nothing was ever built on the site. It remains an urban wasteland, a parking lot. Most of the people who lived there are now dead.

    Cumming’s latest two films MONUMENT (2008) and TOO MANY THINGS (2010), which just had their premiere at the Cinémathèque Québécoise are Montreal experimental-documentaries on the cities marginals. In MONUMENT, Donigan creates an angst-ridden portraiture of himself bereaving his brother and he encounters new collaborators, and in their interactions it showcase the slow process of building trust with an unreceptive participant. In TOO MANY THINGS, Donigan films a group of socially-assisted senior citizens during their routine weekday two-hour visits to the Salvation Army where they hang out and look at the assortment of objects. Where earlier on in his career Cumming’s was investigating the underrepresented now it is the underrepresented examining discarded household objects with the same magnifying precision.

    On the subject of art-house exotica, Atom Egoyan’s new film CHLOE has just been released. It is a chilling story of marital dysfunction and worrying about extramarital relations between a charming music professor David (Liam Neeson) and his gynecologist wife Catherine (Julianne Moore).

    CHOLE is a mixture of erotica, as the prostitute Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) is frequently naked, and stylization, as the film exist in a realm of heightened realism. I would like to define a distinct trait in Atom Egoyan oeuvre as the perfuming of scenes with a “cerebral musk”. This tendency comes from Egoyan’s interest in theatre which is apparent in his direction in the Samuel Beckett series of KRAPP’S LAST TAPE (2000) with John Hurt, as well his short film HOWARD IN PARTICULARr (1979), which seems rooted somewhere between the Theater of the Absurd and the works of Maya Deren. The emphasis of this “cerebral musk” is on psychoanalyticism and language.

    Assimilation has also been a longstanding theme in the oeuvre of the Armenian-Canadian director. Since NEXT OF KIN (1984) – with an Armenian protagonist and a cameo by Atom Egoyan, to ADORATION (2008), a film about the stigmatization of ethnic minorities. His films deal with the role and stigmas of foreigners in Canada. CHLOE presents an interesting and complex addition to the Egoyan universe as the film presents an urban privilege all white cast.

  • dan

    Glenn, That’s a lovely piece. It is true, no poor Fontainhas resident will likely listen to Pink Flag on his music player, but i wonder why should its inclusion be considered as a “sin” by Costa. “Lowdown” works not just rhytemicaly with the scene but also conceptually, lyrics-wise. Thats a detail that goes beyond mere realism.
    IN VANDA’S ROOM and COLOSSAL YOUTH are indeed more attuned to their enviorment and the participants than his earlier films, but do consider the scene in IN VANDA’S ROOM which Snap’s “I’VE GOT THE POWER” is played in the background. It is ofcourse a more logical tune to be heard in Fontainhas than “Lowdown”, but the fact its was a 10 years old hit at the time of filming, and that its lyrics can be red as some kind of statement, i wouldn’t cancel it being more than just a background sound documented by Costa’s camera.
    Costa’s love for Wire is very justified, even their latest albums seem to me to be just as good as their earlier ones. I think Costa once mentioned CHAIRS MISSING to be his favorite Wire album. As much a i love PINK FLAG, I can’t help with agreeing with him about the superiority of CHAIRS MISSING.
    By the way Glenn, the recent post on your site with PIL – Bad Baby would very much appeal to Costa. He loves Metal Box.

  • ted

    Even if it was background sound caught by Costa or Morel, it was still sound that originated in Fontainhas and thus was faithful to the atmosphere of the neighborhood. The sound in the film is very worked over and mixed, sound from one scene was often used during another scene, for example (like the scene where we see Zita and her mother skinning a rabbit and we hear Miranda, Vanda’s stepfather off-screen lecturing Vanda – that sound was not recorded at the same time as the image).

    I think his problem was with how he used a Wire song that he introduced into/imposed on the location. That is, he was putting too much of himself into the film/in front of the camera.

  • Thanks Dan. Calling it a “sin” was a bit of hyperbole/poetic license on my part, admittedly.

  • Peter Henne

    Los Angeles theatres specializing in Japanese films stayed alive in my era (the 1980s) at the Little Tokyo Cinema, which is where I saw Ozu’s six color films for the first time, in a program just for them. I drove home in a giddy state of ecstasy after seeing THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM there, also saw late ’40s Mizoguchis and filled in some gaps thanks to an extensive Kurosawa program. The Little Tokyo gave a lot, but closed in the early 1990s. I couldn’t find it on, but it most certainly existed downtown and is cited in this 1990 article, in the 9th paragraph:

    Also in Kevin Thomas’s article here:

  • I was made aware that my comments on Cumming’s TOO MANY THINGS were a little too generalized. The men are not all “socially-assisted poor” the group actually consist a variety of people that include a professional musician and a teacher. TOO MANY THINGS will be screening April 15-21 at the International Competition Vision du Réel, Nyon, Switzerland.

    What I find so similar between the descriptions of these Pedro Costa’s films and Donigan Cumming’s films is the “cell-like dwellings” and how they are a “mix of the fictional and the real, often drawn from the lives of the nonprofessional actors who play them out”. Cumming’s films that documents this fictionalization and focuses more on his collaborators that have social assistance and clustered apartments include AFTER BRENDA, IF ONLY I, MY DINNER WITH WEEGEE, and CULTURE.

  • Am looking forward to seeing the Costa films.
    The description reminds one of another film about immigrants from the Cape Verde islands in Europe. That is “Black Dju” (Pol Cruchten, 1996). Saw this on cable TV years ago. It is a good, if conventionally made movie. When his middle aged father, an immigrant worker in Luxembourg, disappears, his grown son goes looking for him. A bit of mystery, a bit of social commentary about the treatment of immigrant labor, a guided tour of Luxembourg.

    This film seems to have attracted little attention. One suspects there are a lot of decent foreign films that get lost in the bad distribution system.

  • Johan Andreasson:
    “Not only the “important” movies that have disappeared from general conversation, but the whole concept of a popular culture of ideas. There is now a very small number of movies or novels that you can count on most people knowing about – that’s become limited to the really big blockbusters…bestsellers get a bigger and bigger share of the market. In Britain, for example, sales of the ten best selling books rose from 3.4 million to 6 million copies between 1998 and 2008.”

    This corresponds with my impressions here in the USA. Many people I know, especially those of the male persuasion, read only best-sellers. This seems crazy: good genre books, such as mysteries by Ellery Queen or Edward D. Hoch, or science fiction by Clifford Simak or Ursula K. LeGuin, are far better crafted and more imaginative than any best-seller.

    I have a strong grasp of US culture from around 1910-1985: have read lots of plays and poetry, looked at paintings and architecture. But have little grasp of US culture from 1985 to the present. Need to correct this…
    Comic book publisher Top Shelf mails me their newsletter too. They’re talking about their Swedish Invasion (shades of the British Invasion of 60’s rock). Lots of graphic novels from the Swedish.

    Stieg Larsson has hit my local grocery store (Meijer’s – I would never go to the right wing Walmart.) The Scandinavians are coming!
    Watched FRONTIER RANGERS (Jacques Tourneur) on TCM yesterday. Found it mainly disappointing. This is edited from three episodes JT did of a TV series NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1958), based on the King Vidor film.
    Like most Tourneur TV work seen, here, much of this is lousy. When Joseph H. Lewis entered TV in 1958, his artistry soared. But when Tourneur directed TV, he crashed and burned.
    The first half hour has its moments. This episode was THE GUNSMITH. It suffers from racism, like the other segments. But its (white) characters are interesting. It also has about the only male gay subtext ever seen in a Tourneur film, as well as a good use of color.

    Really enjoyed such recent Tourneur viewings as WICHITA and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Mike, What you’re seeing here are the complete opposite ends of Swedish publishing. Stieg Larsson is now so well known that you find his books in your local grocery store and I can read an article in The New York Times (March 20) where he is used as an example of someone who was prophetic about the economic meltdown of 2008, while most people living in Stockholm would have little idea who the Swedish cartoonists published by Top Shelf are.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Mike, a silly (or at least naive) question: are “best-sellers” a genre? Those books are always mentioned as though they belonged to some kind of actual genre — which would have to be described, I guess,as the genre that many readers read because the books are best-sellers — and they are best-sellers of course because so many people read them. In other words any definition of the best-seller is condemned to circularity and ultimately meaninglessness.

    Of course best-sellers are written in many different traditional genres, but their status as “best-sellers” seems to supersede their superficial belonging (to “romance” or “spy mystery” or whatever).

  • Jean-Pierre,
    This is a good question.
    Lots of best-sellers seem to be written to a “best-seller formula”: very long books, an “inside” look at glamorous or powerful people, really simple prose style, characters with deep dark secrets, PG-13 sex, maybe a serial killer, no intellectuals, etc. These books almost seem like a “genre”.

    Popular Culture expert John G. Cawelti did a long study of a different kind of best seller that was popular circa 1960: books that wrapped a simple entertaining story around a lot of facts about a subject. James A. Michener’s “Hawaii” taught you a lot about Hawaii, Arthur Hailey’s “Wheels” showed you the auto industry, Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi mysteries taught you about Judaism. These best-sellers are all of a distinctly higher grade. They are not serious literature, but they aren’t low brow junk written for slobs, either.

    There are probably other kinds of best-seller sub-genres out there. My grocery store is loaded with novels about Amish or Mennonite women who lead “simple lives”. It’s apparently some sort of craze…

  • Barry Putterman

    I’ve always found it interesting that in most mediums (music, movies, television, etc.) they usually use the word “top” to denote that which has become the post popular, implying merely its place in the hierarchy. It is only with books that the word”best” is used, with its possible implication of quality.

  • Vivian

    Barry, I love the designation “post-popular.” Something to strive for.

  • Barry Putterman

    Vivian, typos can indeed lead us towards a more satisfying future. I must admit that I achieved the post-popular in my personal life quite some time ago. However, as an aesthetic goal it is, as you say, something to strive for. As professional posters, perhaps we at can discuss what would define the post-popular.

    In any event, this most certainly constitutes a profound aspect of the post-futurism that we both seek.

  • Z. Crowell

    Dave Kehr:

    When are you going to publish a collection of your writing?

  • Thanks for asking, Z. The University of Chicago Press will be publishing a collection of my early work for the Chicago Reader in April, 2011; other projects are in the works but I am not one to count my chickens before they have fully emerged from the shell.

  • Z. Crowell

    …and Rosenbaum in the fall! That is exciting news. Thanks for replying.