Saturday, April 4, 2009

El Cant des Ocells (Birdsong)

Dir: Albert Serra

Viewed: From the Balcony (Harvard Film Archive)

Birdsong is only director Albert Serra's second film, but it seems that the comparisons to masters like Bela Tarr found on the HFA website were not exaggerating - the guy is good. Why? I'm not so sure yet. The aesthetics of Serra are not entirely original, and combine some of the best attributes seen in recent work by Tarr, Van Sant, and even the old Dogma 95 program. It's more, however, much more, than simply trying out old styles - Serra is doing something pretty amazing, and I'll see if I can at least describe it, if not explain it.

Shot in B&W, with all natural lighting and sound, and filmed without professional actors, Serra sets out to tell the story of the Three Magi's journey to see the infant Christ. It may seem hard to believe given all the iconography of the 3K, but their appearance in the Bible is all of 5 lines, found in just one of the Gospels. Matthew 2:7-11. This slight story may have been the inspiration for a little thing called Christmas, but it doesn't leave much room for a story.

The source material is especially surprising given that Serra's first feature - Knight's Honor- was based on Don Quixote, one of the richest literary texts in the Western canon. Both films, however, share a sparse landscape, little dialogue, and lots of time for the audience to think "what the heck is going on here?"

The answer on one level is: very little. The kings - two fat guys and one old guy - walk around the desert for a while, argue about which direction to travel and how best to sleep, stop in to warn Mary and Joseph about the Romans, and wander back home. That's it.

One might think such a narrative sketch could be allegorical, but for what? One useful thing that did come from the Q&A session afterwards was that Serra explained that he wanted his film to be free of references that would seem familiar - that there could be no possible way for audiences to "identify"with any of the characters. The reason, I assume, is to let the images say something new rather than make you think of something you've already encountered, and on this level the movie is an unqualified success; it's nearly impossible to do anything other than stare.

The two best moments of the film, in fact, seem much closer to contemporary video and film art than feature narrative films. In the first, we get an extended shot of the Magi wandering over a sun-bleached desert, beginning next to the camera but traveling a few hundred yards until the turn into a few small specs in the distance, only to realize they are lost and return to near the same spot. It must be 10 minutes, and all we get is the gradual diminution and movement of three figures, and it's riveting.

The other shot occurs when the Magi prostrate themselves on the ground after arriving at Mary and Joseph's house, and we hear the first (and last) music of the movie; a jarring industrial score, which seems both completely inappropriate and magical. It's a transformative moment, where you forget your watching a movie and enter into another world.

Oh, and I guess there is also the underwater shot of the Three Kings paddling across a river, the long debate on whether to climb a mountain or not, and the Godot-like conversations that meander from nowhere to nowhere.

In fact Beckett is the most obvious comparison, but even Godot's dialogue was about something relative to the story and, in the end, we get Estragon's fairly obvious monologue explaining the point of the story. But in Serra, the dialogue not only has nothing to with us, or with things we would identify with; it doesn't even have anything to do with what the characters themselves are doing. Aside from a few lines about travel plans and sleeping arrangements, most of the dialogue in the film could be said by anyone and, indeed, the conversations among the Kings could often be swapped with the conversations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from Knight's Honor without disrupting the feel of the movie. Especially given that most of the spoken language is in Spanish (there's also a bit of ad-lib Hebrew), you could easily take the words of the characters to be no more informative that the chirping of the birds, the cracking of twigs, or the ever-present wind.

In place of information, you just get images, and unforgettable ones at that. I'm not sure this is commercially viable, but it would be nice to see more films like this in the context of the theater instead of it's usual home in contemporary art museums. Ninety minutes or so of sustained attention is what is really required for this kind of stuff, and if you have the patience, there's no more rewarding visual experience out there.

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