by Paul Felten
The Films of José Luis Guerín
Spanish director José Luis Guerín is one of contemporary cinema’s foremost practitioners of the documentary/fiction hybrid; and Anthology Film Archive’s near-complete retrospective of his films is ideal relief from the ugly campaign pageantry glutting the dog days of our absurd American summer. A true child of the Lumière brothers, Guerín is a filmmaker for whom the cinematic image retains an inherently sensitizing power, but he is also a child of Ford and George Cukor: a dramatist and a showman. Each of his films is a ghost story of sorts, an invocation of the dead and gone—absence made manifest. His singular, destabilizing merger of the fictive and the vérité is a decidedly old-fashioned effort to bring us back to first principles, to a prelapsarian time when the word “cinema” could still evoke a newfangled, mysterious, and slightly miraculous mechanism.
A highlight of the retrospective is the little-seen Train Of Shadows (1997), his second feature after the gentle cine-essay Innisfree (1990, also included). Shadows purports to be a tribute to Gérard Fleury, a Parisian lawyer and avid amateur filmmaker who, as an opening title explains, “died of circumstances that remain unclear” after leaving home one day in 1930 to shoot landscapes next to a nearby lake. What seems initially to be an honorific piece of cinematic vandalism—allegedly “restored” Fleury home movies alternating with contemporary color footage of his family estate—morphs into an eerie structuralist palimpsest. Arguably Guerín’s most rigorous work, Shadows nevertheless thrums with impish, palpable pleasure in both narrative gamesmanship and the tactile properties of celluloid itself.
Work In Progress (2001) manages to find the cosmos in a few city blocks, as Guerín charts a year in the life of a construction project in a gentrifying Barcelona neighborhood. On one level, the film is a work of a dispassionate ethnographer with an obsessive attention to process: to the arduous job of demolition and building, to the bodies of workers as they go about their business. But it is also a film about a (possibly dying) community, and Guerín peppers his documentary footage with mini-narratives involving the construction staff and the soon-to-be displaced denizens of the surrounding building. Work emerges as a movie cast firmly in the neorealist mode; one scene in particular, a pre-construction archeological dig in which the remains of Roman soldiers are unearthed beneath the proposed work site, explicitly evokes Rossellini’s Voyage To Italy in its clear-eyed mordancy. Something of a companion to Work, the short Memories of a Morning (2011) is an unsentimental and moving reflection on the morning that one of Guerín’s neighbors threw himself from a window onto a heavily trafficked city square. Taken together, the films are portraits of city living that manage to combine close-to-the ground reportage with nearly deity-like perspective on the urban ephemeral.
Another city symphony, In the City of Sylvia (2007) follows a young man on a quest in sunny summer Strasbourg. He seems to be an art student; we see him drawing a lot, sketching various women at a café (a surrogate for Guerín’s watchful camera) until he finally spies a particular brunette and rather ineptly follows her through streets strewn with dryly comic obstacles. That’s basically it, but in Guerín’s hands this nearly wordless film becomes a meditation on the aggressivity of watching and the unreliability of memory. In the penultimate scene, the artist finally speaks to his muse, who abruptly informs him that she doesn’t like to be followed (which the camera has been doing right alongside him) and that she isn’t the woman he imagines her to be. Indeed, by the end of the film we wonder if the “Sylvia” he mistakes her for ever existed at all, other than as a ghostly composite of fondly remembered time and place. An extension on an earlier docu-poem composed entirely of still images (Some Photographs From The City of Sylvia, 2007), Guerin’s most well-known film outside of his home country plays a little like Marienbad by way of Tati, but has a peculiar, haunted mien all its own.
His newest film, Academy of the Muses (2015) is another exercise in cerebral voyeurism, one that further complicates Sylvia’s inveterate girl-watching by giving copious, polyphonic voice to the watched. On the surface, it’s Guerín’s most conventional movie—a Rohmeresque campus comedy about a poetry course in the form of a training class for muses of all sexes, run by a coyly sybaritic Italian philologist who engages his down-for-whatever students in an ongoing dialogue on the conventions of lived romance as dictated by literary tradition. “There’s no escaping language,” he tells them, which is especially true in the unofficial office hours he holds with a few of his fetching female pupils in the front seat of his car. His wife, meanwhile, chides him for “preaching” in class and, and not unreasonably, questions his motives for following this particular line of inquiry.
As in all of Guerín’s films, the ethnographic and the fictive are so deeply intertwined as to be indistinguishable: the “classes” feel like seminars in real time, and a documentary field study on Sardinian shepherds is a crucial mid-stream rupture of the film’s otherwise urbane academic groove. Guerín’s signature banal uncanny is everywhere, exemplified in his tendency to shoot conversations from the outside of buildings, through hyper-reflective windows that transform his characters’ bodies into abstract, teeming canvases upon which the lives around them are projected. It is tempting to read the professor as a fictional stand-in for the director—a teacher (Guerín himself is an educator) whose relationship to his subject is in constant and necessary flux, whose attention ranges from mandarin distance to self-implicating intimacy. “I believe Arcadia is still possible,” he tells one student, and one can see Guerín’s entire oeuvre as a kind of Arcadian/Marxist effort to re-sensitize his audience to the power of the image and the image’s place in the sociopolitical whorl. His brand of cool humanism is a rarity on our screens right now, and we are lucky to have him. Go.
“The Films of José Luis Guerín” plays at Anthology Film Archives from August 24 to September 1.
PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.