Interview: José Luis Guerín
José Luis Guerín’s Academy of the Muses, which screened in the Signs of Life section at the Locarno film festival, plays something like a Frederick Wiseman movie—half a drama of speech and half a drama of faces, its subject no less than the confrontation between sound and image itself. Portraying the seminar and home life of a university lecturer, the film’s crystalline images—characters and their expressions framed under quicksilver reflections of the illusory outside world of passing traffic and dangling branches—generate a conflict of their own: between an emphatic refusal to cut to the other side of a conversation (as in some Eric Rohmer) and the escalating drama of the reflections that enclose them (à la Nathaniel Dorsky). More startling still is that the film’s documentary power is channeled into a narrative as classical—in both the Ancient Greek and Hollywood senses of the term—as any of the subjects the muses and the professor discuss in their classes. Pitting the philosophical against the unfolding challenges of the domestic, Guerín’s film takes place in the midst of a battle between living with one’s nascent ideas and putting them into the practice of everyday life.
FILM COMMENT spoke to Guerín, best known for In the City of Sylvia (07), shortly after the second screening of Academy of the Muses in Locarno. The film screens April 16 in Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Academy of the Muses
I wanted to start with a comment you made after yesterday’s screening, that Jean Rouch’s The Human Pyramid was one of your biggest influences.
More an inspiration. I think that, with Jean Rouch, it’s always a question between choice and chance. Every filmmaker proposes in their work one part for control and one part for chance. In Hitchcock, for example, it’s all control. Anything left to chance is bad, a complete accident. That’s not the case for Rossellini or Renoir—sometimes with them it’s all left up to chance, a reliance on pure accident, which creates the unique convergence of movement you see in their work. In this context, the experiments of Jean Rouch are very important. And his experimentation was specifically very important for the Nouvelle Vague generation. Maybe without Rouch it wouldn’t be the same at all. In the films of Godard and Truffaut, their technique and the Nouvelle Vague’s system of shooting in this particular way—without light, storyboards, etc.—all comes from Jean Rouch.
There’s something special in the heart of all of your films, something that’s also present in both Rouch and Rivette’s cinemas: this idea of starting with what seems like a total documentary, and then over the course of the film, the audience observes the process of wrestling fiction out of these documentary images.
I started with fiction movies. My first film was just fiction. I was young: 22 or 23 years old. And after my first film I had the feeling that I was in a cul-de-sac. That I was faced with a problem with regard to fiction movies, at least. I saw that fiction films worked with actors, with characters and caricatures—with archetypes. I totally believed in the actor “acting,” this very ancient form of dramaturgy. So I looked to documentary as a solution to my new problem; with documentary principles, I now had a way to renovate narrativity, dramaturgy—searching with these new tools for these other forms of storytelling. A critic said to me after the premiere of Academy of the Muses that my style takes the form of the principle of the prime number: one part fiction, one part documentary, another fiction, and so on. And of course, there’s ultimately something hybrid about the result you see in the final film. When I made pure documentary films, I used some techniques from other documentary movies but also many from fiction films. When I made a documentary, I constructed scenes using the rules of big-budget narrative montage.
In your film Innisfree , even though it’s ostensibly a documentary about Ireland, it’s almost as if you’re using fiction as a jumping-off point for the documentary. You take John Ford’s The Quiet Man and say something like: “Maybe if I film the same land, the same people and traditions, it will evoke something of this artist’s fiction.”
Yes. The most important thing for me about the village in Innisfree is the colonization of dreams and the imagination. If you want to understand a community, you need to research these different colonizing techniques, like the history of Celts, the British, the Catholics, and the Druids from the past—all these things that form the history of Ireland. More specifically, in this special village, you have the colonization of the imaginary as a result of the shooting of this big movie by John Ford, called The Quiet Man. And the people at this place, upon our arrival, knew the dialogue of the film very well. It completely changed the collective imagination of this village.
For example, a very funny thing from Innisfree was that in this village the people had caps just like those worn by the fishermen from Flaherty’s Man of Aran. That is to say, from the Aran Islands. This type of cap has no use, no history for the villagers—it’s from the Aran Islands. Why in this village does everyone now wear this type of hat? Because when John Ford, the director, asked all the people of the village to wear these hats in order to realize his own version of Ireland, they suddenly absorbed this new identity, an identity based on Ford’s imagination. Cinema changed the life of the people in this village for generations. It’s a frontier between imagination and reality, and it’s at the center of village life and at the center of my proposition in Innisfree.
Ford, in turn, was responsible for the colonization of my dreams as a child. My first contact with the cinema was through Westerns. I knew better the history of the American West than I did Spain’s history. I could tell you how people would arrive on the express train, how the railroad was constructed, about the conflicts between North and South, between outlaws and marshals. It was, and is, my world. And all because in this moment, making Innisfree, the open spaces of Ireland, the Irish public, the drinking, the saloons, the community feeling… it was like the John Ford Westerns of my memory.
There’s this idea you work with over and over again, of imposing movies on the world and changing reality. Because The Quiet Man exists, there’s a generation of villagers who wear this type of hat, completely alien at first but now part of a new culture, of a new reality. In Academy of the Muses, exactly how much is imposed upon a pre-existing reality and how much is left to chance?
It’s a fictional film, totally.
Academy of the Muses
All of it?
Yes, though there are some sequences that are built from techniques close to documentary, like, for example, the first sequence in the classroom. But at the same time, shooting this scene, where the lecturer has a discussion with his students, he would have never spoken like that had the camera not been there. He spoke like that because I was there looking at him through my camera. Usually, documentary filmmakers think that the camera is bad because it alters the behavior of the subjects. They want to neutralize the camera to retain “spontaneity.” But that’s not true—the camera provokes new interpretations. It provokes a new action. Sometimes documentary captures things that are there; it’s a reproduction of life. But sometimes film is not a reproduction of reality. Like with John Ford, it’s the creation of a new reality.
And as the film goes on you can see everything—the people, the drama, etc., evolve.
Yes, exactly. I knew that my camera was creating this new reality in the classroom and elsewhere.
Particularly, there’s one image in the film that’s almost the Rouchian turning point, a moment one always sees in Rouch’s cinema when the whole film is reborn in a flash before our eyes. The lecturer’s wife, having just had an argument with her husband, is staring out the window. It’s a close-up from outside, the shifting reflections of trees outside masking or maybe framing her expression.
It’s startling! In the scenes building up to this, the film’s very loose and almost amateurish—very emblematic of documentary qualities. And then with this one image everything is recontextualized. Suddenly, we’re aware of a powerful, imposed emotion upon the image.
Interesting. In the first scene, you see the teacher in the public space: the classroom. Documentary is always about the public space. And then, it’s other things—back to fiction. All the same, I shoot through the window and use reflections in this way because it’s so violent, shooting into and through these different spatial planes… But with every different character, the teacher behaves differently. He changes a lot if he is in front of the community, or, on the other hand, if he’s with his wife. She’s conversing with him whenever we see her. She’s almost the critic of his public life. The perception of the lecturer changes a lot. It’s like in Citizen Kane. There are so many different people who speak about the same character, and it’s always a different image we get that we ultimately don’t see. In Kane, here’s the point of view of his wife, of Joseph Cotten, and so on. Everyone has a completely different perspective. And one alone is not emphasized, not this person, not that person… And in Academy of the Muses, I show that his behavior, the scenario, is different when he’s with his wife, or with a student, or with another student—it changes a lot.
It’s almost like the people in the film are open to changing the fiction themselves.
On the one hand, there’s the differing perspectives on this single character. But it’s also the motion of people within the movie. For me, cinema is motion. Every character has his own motion, his own arc and transformation. For example, the teacher’s wife, in the first part, is maybe the mère castratrice—she hates poetry, creativity, etc. But at the end of the movie she’s the only one who is able to love him. She grows and transforms completely, blossoming over the course of the narrative. Every character has a single line of motion: an evolution that we can trace. I remember the films of George Cukor, with the women and their dialogue. He gives each character their own specific taste. It’s clear at the end the individual impressions they leave with us.
And in the Sardinia sequence, which looks like a documentary, like Innisfree even, the three shepherds are being interviewed by one of the students, herself holding the microphone and walking around them within the same frame. The act of recording is not kept off screen. For these characters, there’s no difference between making the film and playing a part in it.
In this sequence, the research done by the character is also the research of the filmmaker. The tool is the same.
Academy of the Muses
That’s the same microphone?
Yes, I just gave it to her.
How big was the film crew?
Just one woman recording and mixing sound and then myself, on the camera.
In every scene?
Every scene. She’s worked with me on all my movies. But the tiny crew is also my answer to the current Spanish crisis, the heavy cuts to culture and cinema. It’s a choice I made not to demand a lot of public funding, not to pursue these formal avenues for financing. At the same time, the film was born in this exact context because there was no obligation to deliver the finished movie on an exact date, or even to deliver a movie at all. When I started production, I didn’t know that it was going to become a movie. I didn’t want to fit into the industrial model, to work with deadlines and so on. I thought maybe it could form several short films or maybe some kind of video installation. Small objects and such, but then after a while I realized that it would be a full movie. I like the idea of a sketch in cinema a lot.
And there are some images that an entire professional crew could never have conceived or executed in a hundred years, but at the same time there are also scenes that are very simple, improvised. They have the feeling of amateur images, designed off-the-cuff.
It’s something I love about your film. It creates a strange effect, like the shabbiness in Rouch’s The Human Pyramid.
You have to be careful with the tools you have, your material and the way you work. I hate the cinema of the nouveau riche: this idea of pretending to have all the tools in the world. I don’t want to hide the absence of an industrial model in my film; I accept the fragility of it within such-and-such industrial models. Whenever the image was not good, I didn’t try and cut around it—instead, I inserted a black screen, I retained the absence. No transitions. No simulations of a transition that doesn’t exist.
I like this idea that one sees in all of your work, also and especially in Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia . With The Academy of the Muses, you surrender your tools at the start: there’s no hiding. You just say, “It’s only going to be me on the camera and one other person on the sound. Simple images.” And, consequently, as in Unas fotos, because the film has become so small and condensed, whenever anything happens it’s a total shock to the audience.
I agree. I guess that bronze is very beautiful if not compared with gold. That’s not from me. That’s from Adolf Loos, the architect. There are no noble materials; there are only noble ways to use whatever materials you have at hand. And for me, cinema is like this. I use my little camera, with the particular qualities, the etiquette of this little machine…
Academy of the Muses
Almost like Pedro Costa’s cinema.
It’s not like a cinema camera, and I accept that. Every filmmaker needs to find his particular tools. With each new movie, I try to find something I couldn’t find in the previous, a technique or a certain something I cannot repeat. [Laughs] I don’t know why I said that.
Have you seen the interview Jacques Rivette did with Renoir?
Oh, yes. Very good stuff. Cinéastes de notre temps. It’s incredible, maybe the best movie by Rivette.
In that episode, he says that even the most beautiful vase in the modern world will never compare to the most primitive pot that has been buried in the dirt for a thousand years, freshly unearthed and immediately more important that any art today.
Exactly. As for production, Renoir also says that a good bottle of wine should just be for a handful of friends. The more people you invite to a banquet, the more you have to water down the same good wine.