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Coutinho's documentary, as a dramatic form, is made from the confrontation between subject and filmmaker, observed by the cinematographic apparatus

In contemporary documentary, we have seen a variety of ways to build the “character”. This is understood within a wide spectrum, as it can be a subject present throughout a film that focuses on it, as in the case of Sandro in Bus 174, by José Padilha, or by Nelson Freire in the film by João Salles, or by Paulinho da Viola in the film by Isabel Jaguaribe; or it could be a previously unknown person interviewed (or talking to the filmmaker), whose presence on screen is more ephemeral, sometimes reduced to a single scene.

Depending on the method and materials mobilized by the filmmaker, not everything that is shown about a character can be reduced to interviews. These are particular ways for the subject to enter the scene, compose his image, act; but he can also be filmed “in action”, in full exercise of an activity that characterizes him in society or doing something else. It can also be the object of other reports, when an indirect image is given to us, mediated by other discourses.

It's what happens to Paulinho da Viola, but not exactly with Nelson Freire, where critical discourse, fan testimonies are avoided, anything that would result in an explicit comment on the musician's personality. In turn, Sandro is constructed as a classic character in the story of Bus 174, in a parallel montage that alternates the decisive scene, defining a destiny, with the retrospect built by the “mosaic of testimonials”. But we don't have his interview, unless you take what he says as he peeks out of the bus window as a kind of press conference, on the spur of the moment and according to his strategy.

Anyway, in these three cases there is a context for the interview situations; and this has a variable function, notably in Bus 174, as not all respondents are characters in the same sense. Everything changes depending on the position of each one in the game and their relationship with the “subject” (protagonist, theoretical observer, spokesperson for “public opinion”, witness/source of data) there is a hierarchy, as in fiction films that, for in turn, do not exclude interviews, testimonials, since Citizen Kane / Citizen Kane.

What interests me here is the extreme case in which the interview (or the “conversation”, as Coutinho prefers it) is the exclusive dramatic form, and the presence of the characters is not coupled to a before and after, nor to a continuous interaction with other figures around him. There, a radical identity is defined between character construction and “conversation”, other resources being discarded, as is the case of Coutinho. At the heart of his method is someone talking about their own experience, someone chosen because they are expected not to stick to the obvious, to the clichés related to their social condition. What is wanted is the original expression, a way of becoming a character, narrating, when the subject is given the opportunity of an affirmative action. Everything that is revealed about the character comes from her action in front of the camera, the conversation with the filmmaker and the confrontation with the gaze and listening of the cinematographic apparatus.

Coutinho's documentary, as a dramatic form, is made of this confrontation between subject and filmmaker observed by the apparatus, a situation in which it is expected that the affirmative posture and empathy, the engagement in the situation, overcome reactive forces, effects of various orders. Within different tones and styles, each conversation takes place within that frame that produces the mixture of spontaneity and theater, of authenticity and exhibitionism, of making oneself an image and being true – a duality well summarized in the speech of Alessandra, the girl of program Master Building –, remarkable example of intuition of what is implied in the effect/camera. She says "I'm a real liar" after a seductress performance in which he explained how one can lie when one speaks the truth or be truthful when one lies. Current form of inversion of the comedian's paradox (Diderot) intuited by an intelligent young woman? Definitive recognition of the documentary as a scene game?

The questions proceed, but there is something more there, no doubt. This duality present in the situation is not unknown to filmmakers. Coutinho, in particular, knows how few others work within this premise to compose a scenario of empathy and inclusion that is based on a philosophy of meeting which is not difficult to formulate in theory, but whose realization is rare. It requires effective openness to dialogue (which programming is not enough), the talent and experience that allow composing the scene able to make happen what would not be possible without the presence of the camera. The well-known catalyzing effect of the cinema gaze in the gestation of unexpected speech must reach its maximum power, in order to compensate for the asymmetry of powers. Asymmetry that the filmmaker must work with without the illusion of subtracting it, as it is there even if his objective is not to extract from the interviewee what he deems useful for a cause. In one way or another, the tensions remain, no matter how much the willingness to listen is because, after all, there is the editing, the agency, the context; and there is the mise-en-scène (a space, a scenography, a framing, a “climate”, a disposition of bodies that conditions the recording of speech).

Let's take two examples. In the case of Alessandra, the shot is more closed, with nothing very “marked” around her, while Senhor Henrique, also Master Building, whose interview takes longer, can move around and show us more of his space: an image of Christ on the wall, the modesty of the sparse furniture, the sound system from which Frank Sinatra's redeeming voice will emerge. That is, each one receives what the filmmaker considers best as an effect of producing meaning in the image that gives connotation to the lines; sometimes it's the strength of the face, sometimes the gesture, sometimes the environment, all depending on the duration of the shots. In Coutinho, this is generous, as he seeks to mitigate the effect of the factors that condition the performance of the “character”, as everyone needs time to put themselves on the scene, manage to create the conditions for the moment to thicken and be expressive, with surprises and accidents, revelations in the details, be it the happiness of a word, the drama of a hesitation or an extraordinary gesture made by confident hands (such as Dona Thereza's, in strong Saint). Duration is the condition for composing a look and listening capable of satisfying the demands of a phenomenological description, with an openness to the event and an understanding not anchored in predefined categories, attentive to what allows the interviewee to punctuate the process, the rhythm of the scene (again, as Dona Thereza).

It was not by chance that I used this very typical existential/humanist vocabulary of the 60s. character in modern fiction cinema, along with what has already been observed about his relationship with the documentary tradition.

Eduardo Coutinho's recent cinema can be seen as a way of facing questions raised by that experience of fiction, now radicalized in another form. She has in common this movement of rupture with the linearity of experience (or of the argument) as the supposed basis of any production of meaning, a linearity that would inscribe each lived moment in a determined logic, in such a way as to make the manifestation and knowledge of a personality (say, the truth of a subject) required a concatenation, an engagement in successive moments of action capable of composing a life story that we would have access to through, for example, classic narratives.

Modern cinema freed the character from this grid of actions and motives, from this natural, psychological, social logic. He rejected a form of representation that, by its nature, created the expectation that both the story (action, space, time) and its conflicting agents (the characters) would be organically composed, coherent and closer to an ideal type than to a individuals, being treated within a certain economy, rules of internal coherence and verisimilitude.

In classic fiction, the important thing is to appear true, due to the internal coherence of the relationships, and not to look for the “true” in the sense of the fact that actually happened. The representation of the logic of the world involves focusing on what can happen and what would be more typical of a certain order of things; not the exposition of what empirically happens at a certain place and time, a fact that may be improbable, extraordinary, and that, although it occurred, would not represent the order of the world because it would not be characteristic.

In short, classic fiction opens up a field of the possible where the pertinent traits essential to the description of a world are articulated, a field in which the key data in defining a character is his action. Although she can be the subject of a spoken portrait, of a meticulous external description of her psychological profile, she only really exists, in classical drama, from the decision she takes, from her progressive action to the outcome that seals her fate. (the manuals say: the end is the moral of the story). For modern cinema this is not true, it is a convention to refuse. Both the films and the critics attuned to them emphasized that the decisive point is the “dust” that was raised along the way, the strength of each episode, what is revealing in each instant of life (where data that escape the imagination can emerge). rationality of concatenation), within what can be a discontinuous, even arbitrary, series of experiences. Accordingly, what was done was to explore the fraying of the narrative, the wandering, the impasses, the impotence of the action, activating a sensitivity to the fragment, to what is sketched out, but does not end. Consecrating the moment, as the poet would say about his craft.

The classic fictional character, because a being polished according to principles of coherence, models of action and a certain psychological common sense, has its test (competition and risk, victory or defeat) in the terrain of the relationship with others, while acting and returning to act, with no participation of external agents to the diegesis. The modern character can be more erratic, she does not fully define her destiny, as the outcome is not always a logical consequence of premises contained in actions already experienced; there is room for inconsistency, opacity of motives, more open succession in which there is a gap for something unusual to occur. It is a field of discontinuities, of the same type as what happens, for example, in the succession of these moments in which the conversation between subject and filmmaker takes place in the documentary, as long as the latter sticks to the interview as a form.

In this case, the composition of the scene and its duration seek to enhance the power of the moment; produce, in the encounter, the irruption of an experience not domesticated by the discourse, something that, despite the montage and its flows of meaning, retains something irreducible in the subject's performance, more or less revealing, always according to what a peculiar combination of method and accident allows. Thus, the drama is decided on another axis: that of the exclusive interaction of the subject with filmmaker and apparatus – the only action by which the interviewees can be understood, judged. Everything focuses on this performance, in this here/now, as there are no peers to interact with (yes, there is the variant of the interview with couples, or groups, where this intra-social interaction takes place in front of the camera, which undoubtedly changes the rules of the game). And this performance, although guided by the situation created by the filmmaker, does not follow a script closed, which, although relevant, is far from indicating absolute freedom, since the pressures of verisimilarity, the question of the appearance of truth, are still present.

The tendency is for the interviewee to compose his speech according to what he considers to be the opinion of the interlocutor (the filmmaker and the “public opinion” that the camera represents). This action is sometimes a mere automatism that Coutinho vigorously combats, sometimes a significant fact of the posture of the subject who knows that it is necessary not to confirm what is expected, but to mock it, expressing without delay the desire to combat stereotypes, denounce the prejudice of the world about a certain community (let's remember the movie Babylon 2000, in several passages marked by this attitude of the interviewees, aware that there is an image to fight).

In any case, a series of victories over this pressure of verisimilitude and public opinion is already evident in Coutinho's cinema, in occurrences that can be erratic, in moves that can be improbable, the most uncharacteristic and unusual. Moves that gain their effect from the relationship between the unexpected and the sanction of the real (the here/now in which the camera, filmmaker and subject in focus are implicated). From the point of view of each one's truth, whatever is said, whatever results as an image, no one will need to confirm expectations or contradict themselves in another scene, in another action. As I observed, the meaning of the character's action, in this type of documentary, is not in the relationship with his peers in a plot, but in the exclusive strength of his orality when in interaction with the filmmaker and the technical apparatus.

By minimizing context and narrative resources, the documentary seeks to optimize itself as dramatic way made of this decisive clash that brings the speech to the center, except for the tacit report dimension (investigation path) that is insinuated in the discontinuity that separates the interviews. Much of our interest is based on this drama, on the “agony” of the interviewee, not here in the sense of suffering, but of competition, challenge when facing the effect/camera. If what you want to emphasize is the power of the moment, the thickness of a moment of life, it is better to make the camera participate in this situation (not for the mere idea of ​​authenticity, honesty with the spectator, but so as not to lose the that the camera can open to perception, what can happen in this situation).

This is a procedure that “modern fiction” incorporated into the relationship between the actor and the camera, favoring what, in the classic, would be of the order of “accident”, of the “irrational”, seeking the irruption of “something” (unconscious? ) that would betray the truth of the subject, beyond its representation by discourse. Finally, something that, in its own way, the documentary has been seeking supported by the performance in front of the camera assumed as an action in the sphere of the contingent, of what happens and can challenge a network of notions and knowledge.

However, it is a contingent that cannot be taken as a place of the spontaneous, of the autonomous action, absorbed in itself, but as a performance for an interlocutor and two looks (that of the filmmaker and what I refer to as the effect/camera , performance generator). The scene is set up as a moment of life, an ephemeral passage, due to its duration and openness, but the look of the apparatus and the frame of the process mark a clear duality: it is a meeting that, at one extreme, would reach the ontology of André Bazin, it would move towards the revelation of the world (the being in situation reveals itself in its authenticity); in another, it would be pure theater. In practice, there is always this constitutive duality, and the question, for Coutinho, is knowing how to work with it, betting on the thickness of the intersubjective relationship (between him and the chosen one) without forgetting this mark of ambiguity, because everything takes place within the operation of the device (there, no one is innocent, although the asymmetry of the situation gives the filmmaker greater authority and “guilt”).

On the part of the interviewee, there is a desire to appropriate the scene, to take the moment of filming as a self-affirmation in line with the dialogical situation sought there. Compose a style, a way of being and communicating. The space is demarcated, but opens up to a very peculiar field of possible speeches, as the interview is public speech (to the camera's eye). As such, its sphere is neither that of court testimony nor that of police interrogation; there is a touch of confessional, but that has nothing to do with the demand for State control institutions. It is speaking about oneself, about intimacy, which makes the speaker a “character” in the etymological sense of the term (ie, a public figure). The filmmaker is not the father, nor the boss, as he well remembers, in Master Building, the shy girl who finds it difficult to face Coutinho. Although a stranger, he is an expected visitor – he has chosen the subject and carries a query. A visit that brings with it the premise of trust, the shared sense of a “we” that supports the movement of exchange.

There is in this public character, beyond what is an intersubjective vector that only involves the subjects in presence, the observance of decorum, from part to part, in a tonality that distances the filmmaker's listening from the psychoanalytic listening, although many of us have reiterated this metaphor referred to the (psycho)analytical power of the movie camera since the beginning of the XNUMXth century. Such a catalyzing power of confidentiality is a pillar of the documentary – a sign of its strength, but not of its “objectivity” or neutrality, nor of the idea that everything there is therapy.

The subject speaks to two interlocutors: he looks and recognizes the director (a figure that sanctions a possible sense of confidentiality), but he knows about the camera and shows off whether he wants to or not. Faced with the camera, he sees himself as an actor on the scene, fulfilling the classic rule of self-absorption of those who act and must not recognize any gaze other than that of someone who is literally present in their space (and also acts in the game). A curious device is set up by which the conversation (the exchange between the subject and the filmmaker) is confessed as filming (shows the camera and other things), but the interviewee's attitude tends to obey the classical theatrical rule of the fourth wall . Almost always, the cameras are there and record everything in the name of capturing the real; but the subjects in focus act as if it didn't exist, keeping an eye on the filmmaker and crew, on those who are present.

A good example of this is the scene with Senhor Henrique, from Master Building, a character that the filmmaker finds in the very terrain of self-exclusion, where loneliness has already become a system and set up its ritual in identification with a famous hymn of the resentful – “I did it my way”. Mr. Henrique crowns his presence in the film with the performance what is worth the duet with Frank Sinatra; there is the camera bringing into focus a “second unit” that becomes more invasive in the face of the tearful catharsis, composing a very close image that we will not see exactly from that point of view, because the scene of the Master Building requires this combination of insistence (in duration) and withdrawal (in modulation of what is invasive in the gaze).

And it requires Mr. Henrique lives his catharsis as an actor who ignores the camera, choosing the filmmaker as mediator (he looks at him and talks to him). It would remain to ask what is implied in this posture of the subjects respecting the “fourth wall” although, in principle, they are not in the theater. They can be instructed in this direction or act like this spontaneously, perhaps because of a difficulty in looking at the device head on, that is, the “audience”, the virtual, non-visible interlocutor.

Show Mr. Henrique and, at the same time, the second camera that focuses more closely on him is a way of explaining the rules of the game, placing the data of the representation within reach of the eye; warn that empathy has its limits and coordinates. It is to affirm the premises of an ethics that goes against the grain of what surrounds us with manipulation in the sphere of images within the routine of the media. The filmmaker avoids the questioning that constrains, it is present in the form of retreat, of expectation, leaving space and time, a certain freedom for the subject. In short, its virtue is to know how to create a void, let's say of a Socratic type, to make self-exposure emerge and, at best, a knowledge of oneself produced by the exchange in which, even ephemeral, this “we” is defined. a sharing of experience projected on the desired level in which the involvement must go deep without ever becoming obscene, since it is public.

Here, there is a new inflection towards what would be a legacy of modern cinema in its relationship with the fragmented, singular experience. The fiction of the 1960s and 70s worked with the subject's experiences of crisis, giving more space to characters admitted to be more complex, because they were more sensitive to the loss of values ​​and the dehumanizations implied in a certain type of technical/industrial/urban development. Finally, it paid attention to those endowed with unique marks of perception and, especially, to those inclined to reflection, opposed to a supposed mass of common subjects who would be condemned to poverty of experience, since they were entangled in the meshes of the conventional universe, of media clichés, of ways of reasoning that have an affinity with prejudice, with unreflected ideology.

Did “ordinary” matter? Yes, by what was manifested in him in general. We know that Coutinho's movement is in the opposite direction of massification, a form of humanism that wants to be in a practical state in contact with those who are generally seen as conventional, uninteresting, framed in formulas (religious, ideological, consumerist, parochial). ; figures that he puts in a situation to surprise, to break such presuppositions. That is, your recent cinema ꟷ notably Master Building – is done to show that people are more than they appear and not less, and can attract an unsuspected interest for what they say and do, and not just for what they represent or illustrate on the social scale and in the context of culture.

Of course, there are questions to be asked in this direction, as the chosen set has a certain effect because it is adjusted to that objective. It would be naive to imagine that the sample could be any, and the spectator should be prudent in his eagerness to make what he sees “representative”. This is not the objective, since Coutinho insists on the question of uniqueness. In this regard, Master Building inaugurates a consultation movement that distances itself from the usual contact that elects the popular classes, communities marked by a strong personality as a group (linked by religion, living space, social class). It is now a question of delving into what Arnaldo Jabor defined in the past as the terrain of “public opinion”, observed from a specific perspective, with an emphasis on uniformity, the sharing of fear and conservatism.

Here, if there is in Coutinho a refusal of a priori postures that recalls that tonic of “giving voice to the other”, typical of the 60s and 70s, his empirical investigation has other assumptions, as it does not stop to ask what the subject thinks concerning a certain topic of relevance to political discussion. By not conforming to the clichés of fragmentation, the crisis of the subject and consented massification, its horizon is a contrary movement of affirmation, meeting narrators, figures capable of talking about experience, exposing an imaginary, figures that, curiously, they seek to be characters in the classical sense, not exactly figures of alienation and fragmentation, not subjects. What results from this tension between an invitation to the opening and a possible shelter in the convention is very variable, and the reading of each scene is subject to controversy.

In any case, the dialogue capable of giving rise to the replacement of the subject must begin with the invitation to speak, even though this reiterates people's impulse to project themselves in what they deem to be the expectations of the public gaze directed at them. Their desire is to put together a biography that makes sense, putting together a (summarized) past, explaining themselves in a way that arouses interest, exposing themselves in a seductive way (even if timidly), seeking to take the chance to show resourcefulness or sincerely confess disorientation (“I don’t know”), as the last interviewee from Master Building.

The current documentary movement is linked to the tradition of the modern, but many of its characters want to be “classic”, composed – this is a notable point of tension. A point to which Coutinho responds with the countercurrent gesture of radicalizing the status of the word in cinema, in an inversion of everything that was aesthetic value in the theories defending its specificity. Valuing orality is the way to fight its own limits in the usual situations of cinema and TV; it is the way to combat the situation of asymmetry in the division of powers. He patiently mobilizes what is everyone's prerogative – he is not in a hurry, he is not anxious about concatenating. Once the measures are taken, the illusion of full speeches is not deposited at all times, since much in the films is done as an exposition of what is unfinished in this self-construction of the character outlined in the interview, with his speech divided between the spontaneous, the slide and the conscious effort of coherence, of molding a style. Coutinho's films are not a plethora of expressive lines, a world of full communication; they are the exposition of a movement in this direction that depends on what, as I said, the combination of method and chance allows.

The principle that people are interesting when they free themselves from the stereotype is valid, recovering in conversation a sense of self-construction that has its aesthetic dimension. Ultimately, Coutinho's cinema has as its horizon a presentation of the subject as the focus of a style (in the Shakespearean sense of self-conformation, not in the sense of adopting fashionable fetishes). It is no longer a question of faith in the natural, in the absolutely spontaneous, in the truth already given to anyone. It is about highlighting the practices of orality and gestures by which a subject appropriates his condition, is creative. Within this mixture of theater and authenticity catalyzed by the effect/camera, each one is full of folds and becomes a subject in practice, in the struggle with the situation, or in the invention of a way of living a certain condition, including the brief experience of this situation. filmmaker's visit to his world.

In this sense, the filmmaker's interest is not limited to the exclusive aim of the subject as a vector of transformation, a political actor whose drama would be defined in the unfolding of his action in the world (and not at the time of the interview), the stage of a destiny of victory or defeat . Politics here is concentrated on a way of filming conversations with anyone, regardless of their vectors. The decisive point is in the quality of the here/now of the filming, in the attention to this becoming a subject (or image) in front of the camera, a point of affirmation of a dialogue that goes against the current of the media, as the filmmaker seeks in all the that time is sabotaging them: the subject condition, even if it is known that it is perhaps impossible for this to be fully exercised in terms of self-training and self-cultivation as set out by the humanist tradition.

*Ismail Xavier He is a professor at the School of Communication and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Modern Brazilian Cinema (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in Cinemais magazine, no.o. 36, Oct.-Dec. 2003.


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