By Tom Charity.
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).
“All the cinemas went extinct,” observes a street vendor who used to sell movie posters and lobby cards behind the film distribution centre in downtown Recife, Brazil, before the bottom dropped out of the market. The kicker: this interview was recorded 30 years ago.
In 1895, Louis Lumière supposedly concluded that the cinema was “an invention without a future.” We’ve been reading the obituaries ever since, and with increasing urgency since the medium celebrated its centenary and went binary on us. Yet the movies keep on coming: good, bad, and indifferent. Here’s one of the good ones: Pictures of Ghosts, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s lovely, relaxed, and personal riff on movies, memory, and the imaginative space conferred by that place we call Cinema. And the rub: while the movies ain’t dead yet, “cinema,” in the sense of theatrical exhibition, feels like it’s on life support right now.
Kleber is in now his mid-fifties, and most of the cinemas he visited as a youth in downtown Recife aren’t cinemas anymore. These are some of the ghosts he’s talking about—the Art Palacio, the Trianon, the Veneza—along with folks like Mr. Alexandre, a projectionist at the Palacio for 30 years or more, until it shuttered in the early ’90s. Mr. Alexandre projected nothing but The Godfather (1972) for four months straight; it got so he couldn’t bear the music anymore, even swapping his last shift with a colleague at the Trianon just so he wouldn’t have to hear Nino Rota’s theme again. He was old enough to remember the first manager, a German, who used to avail himself of the trap door connecting his office to the balcony if things were getting hot during WWII. The Art Palacio had initially been touted as a UFA house in the late ’30s, back before Hollywood had colonized the market; that didn’t transpire, but the architect and the first manager were both Germans.
Hearing such tales, how can we not think of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) and the fabled Nazi propaganda flicks related with such relish by William Hurt, enacted in his mind’s eye by Sonia Braga some three decades before she would play Clara, a determined independent woman who refuses to sell her Recife apartment to developers in Kleber’s Aquarius (2016). Clara knows that places have a value beyond their market price, a value that can be measured in emotional attachment, in reminiscence, in the barometer of the heart. Clara would love Pictures of Ghosts—that is, if she existed beyond Kleber’s imagination.
There are other ghosts, too. In the film’s opening 20 minutes, Kleber shares his home movies, shot in the same three-bedroom apartment a couple of blocks from the beach where his mother, Joselice, moved her family (sans husband) in 1979 when Kleber was just ten, and where she lived until she died in 1995, age 54. It’s the same apartment we see in Kleber’s first feature, Neighboring Sounds (2012), and in any of a dozen or so short films he made before that. Even the neighbours’ incessantly barking dog from that first feature, Nico, makes an appearance—once upon a time more real than Clara ever was, he too is a ghost now, resurrected in one of the film’s best anecdotes.
There’s also photographic evidence of a supernatural apparition in a snapshot Kleber took years ago in that same apartment. Whether this is a ghost or a photochemical processing slip remains open to question, but let’s agree on the wider point that every photographic subject is transmuted into the spectral realm of phantoms and spirits; the movies’ eternal present tense is an optical illusion, after all, traces of the past projected into the future. All cinema is a time lapse. (Dustin Hoffman once said that when he became a movie star he lost his fear of death—preserved “forever” on film, he had already been embalmed.) It’s suggestive to learn that Kleber’s mother was an historian (we see an archival clip of her talking about oral history), and his brother is an architect, because these two practices combine in Pictures of Ghosts’ pictorial excavation of buildings and the memories they hold.
“Fiction films make the best documentaries,” (a fictional) Sergei Eisenstein confides to an archivist in a short film extracted here for precisely this reason: to offer an illustration of the room in which the film was shot. (This idea evokes Godard’s paradoxical observation that Méliès made documentaries and the Lumière brothers were painters, as well as the legend that sociologists at one Ivy League school studied mid-20th-century pornos to get an accurate sense of home furnishings in the period—the bed covers, the wallpaper, the curtains—because these films didn’t employ production designers.) Old movies don’t change, but their meanings do; often, you might say, the background overtakes the foreground. Buildings, on the other hand, are demolished, refashioned, and repurposed: a picture palace can become a shopping mall, or an evangelical church. This is what has happened to many of the movie theatres of Recife, and everywhere else too. But some remain: the Sao Luiz is a case in point, and for local cinephiles it is also a place of worship, a church of cinema. Because whatever form its future may take, cinema has a legacy. When we conjure up those ghosts, it’s a communion with the past.
Cinema Scope: Do you remember your first trip to the cinema?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I actually have a record of it. It was at the Sao Luiz cinema, and it was a Tom & Jerry marathon. It was 1973, and I was four years old.
Scope: And when did you fall in love with movies?
Mendonça Filho: Right from the start. I’m fascinated by Paul Schrader, who maintains he discovered films at 18. For me, it began very early. I don’t want to sound like a boomer, but I grew up watching all these films that are known as classics today and which are still shown in cinematheques and film festivals. I saw them as a child on their initial release. That’s a very fortunate historical instance.
I remember seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when I was nine. My uncle took me to the Veneza, which is in the film. And that made a very big impression. It was something special. The danger of going on about this is that you go into this nostalgia mood which can be very vulgar and cheap. But I’m talking about a personal moment which turned out to be quite important for me. Even if I didn’t understand the film, I got a lot of mystery out of it. Its imagery is quite strong. I showed it to my kids last year—we saw it in the cinema—and it was really strange, because they are nine now, and it felt like…You know when you are using tracing paper to draw, and you are tracing the lines, reproducing shapes out of something that already exists? It really felt like that. The relationship with images is really buried in your brain. It’s fascinating, but a difficult subject, I think, to discuss.
Scope: I was interested how you resisted the impulse to make it a reverie about the films themselves. In fact, the films don’t come into it much—the first films referenced are Rambo III (1988) and Deep Throat 2 (1974).
Mendonça Filho: Even when I was thinking about this film, I was terrified of making another love letter to cinema. It can be very tricky.
Scope: You have that reference to The Godfather, but in a very backhanded way…
Mendonça Filho: Yes. I like that. That’s one key for the film, I think. You have a projectionist, so the cliché would be someone who loves cinema. Alexandre did love cinema, but if you work at a cinema for 40 years, you see all kinds of things there that are not wholly romantic, and this is what I got from him: the ability to love cinema and still be realistic about it. The auditorium, the machines…I happened to catch that moment, you think he’s going to go on about The Godfather being one of the great masterpieces, and then suddenly he says, “I couldn’t stand that shit music.”
Of course, the whole film comes out of love. I’m very passionate about some of the people and the places. But I kept thinking of Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), which, generally speaking, is a film that I really like, but I really dislike moments in that film. And those moments would tell me where not to go. For example, I dislike all the romance in the projection booth: him kissing the girl in the booth, her head crushing against celluloid, it’s so poetic…I don’t like that. But I absolutely love the ending in that film, because it says so much about archives, censorship, and artistic expression, it says a lot about someone who died and left a gift…It’s a beautiful ending that will destroy anyone. So that film gave me some hints on what to do and what not to do.
Scope: Did you work in the cinema yourself?
Mendonça Filho: I started programming in 1998. I worked for 18 years in a federally funded foundation that at the time had one screen. And then, in 2016, I moved to this very prestigious cultural institute with cinemas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the Instituto Moreira Salles. They show 16mm, 35mm, and DCP, repertory programming with a lot of attention to archives. I’m some kind of senior curator, I guess. It’s something I really love, sharing films with people.
Scope: Cinema has been dying for a long time in a certain sense, all through your career…
Mendonça Filho: Before television, cinema ruled unchallenged. It’s almost like steps. TV arrives and you get the sense cinema is about to die, but it was just about updating the number of cinemas. Adaptation.
Scope: Change is constant, right.
Mendonça Filho: Yes, but right now is one of the most dramatic gear shifts. TV. Colour TV. VHS and home video. Cable TV. DVDs. HD. Streaming. Ultra-high def. You can get all that at home now, and the pandemic, it’s quite a moment. Here in Brazil we have not gotten back to where we were. But now everybody’s happy because of Barbenheimer, which really has brought back some energy. But then again, do you know what percentage of screens Barbenheimer took? In Brazil it was something like 95% of all commercial screens, which is unprecedented and really quite depressing. You go to a multiplex and there are not a lot of options!
Scope: Are you confident about the future of cinema-going? The industry itself seems unsure about whether it wants to sustain theatrical exhibition.
Mendonça Filho: The industry…Sometimes I suspect they’re not even people. They don’t seem to be aware of how history works. With the pandemics, they began to throw their films onto screening platforms. And when they did that they broke an agreement that we all had. Even my neighbours, who are not related to the film world in any way, understood that if you wanted to see a film you went first to the cinema, or you would wait to access the film at home. Warner Brothers, Disney, they broke that agreement. It might take a long time to relearn that lesson. They fucked it up.
The experience of watching films in cinemas builds the character of the film. For me, that’s really important. I don’t care that eventually they will be seen eventually on streaming platforms or even eventually on an iPhone, if in the beginning they got the best release they could. I have a friend who learned that his film dropped on Netflix last night, and he was still hoping for a theatrical release in a few countries. That’s very problematic for a filmmaker. It’s as if you don’t get to live the film. You are denying the film a life. The film needs the oxygen of theatrical exhibition to breathe.
Scope: Thinking of Oppenheimer and Christopher Nolan’s insistence on celluloid, is that a factor for you at all, the photo-chimerical properties of film?
Mendonça Filho: I shot Neighboring Sounds on 35mm in 2010. I wanted to shoot Aquarius on film, but I couldn’t. When the whole workflow was explained to me, I felt like an eccentric, because all the labs in Brazil had closed. We would have to send the negative to Los Angeles, or Paris, or London, shipping them out and getting them back in three or four days. In France or Britain, even Australia, they seem to have more access to these industrial elements. For me, it’s not a question of desire or will. I really think that Aquarius should have been 35mm. Am I happy with how Aquarius looks on the Alexa? Yes.
With Bacurau (2019), I think we missed something. Where we shot it, the light is so harsh…But still, we presented the film in some of the best cinemas in Brazil, in the big room at the New York Film Festival, at the Lumière in Cannes. It is a fucking movie, a film of cinema, and the fact that it wasn’t shot on film…At the end of the day it’s not the celluloid that makes a film, it’s the attitude that goes into each and every move. But yes, I would love to have the option.
It’s quite perverse. I remember in the ’80s when CDs were introduced, the industry sold the idea that vinyl was nothing and you should get rid of it. It was part of the strategy to get CDs into people’s homes. In my family we kept the vinyl and also bought CDs. I like the idea of adding new ideas and experiences. I don’t understand why the industry always has to sell subtraction. With 35mm and digital, the best thing would be for me to have more options. But capitalism always finds a way to fuck everything up.
Scope: In the latter half of the film, you talk about how some cinemas have been taken over by evangelical churches. Is there a spiritual affinity there?
Mendonça Filho: For me, it’s all connected to the physical experience. It’s not a religious connection at all. I was brought up Catholic so I have Catholicism in me, but I’m not a religious person even if I like the liturgy and the Catholic narrative, so violent…When I was a kid and used to go to church, and saw the tableaux on the walls of what Jesus went through, it was almost like a comic strip, so gory and harsh.
But a multiplex is just nothing—just a space with seats. If it’s a classic movie palace, then that’s different. When we go to the Sao Luiz to watch a film, the room is dark, and there are 600 people with you. Let’s say Paris, Texas (1984) ends: the guy is driving down some highway in Texas, a beautiful Robby Müller shot, accompanied by Ry Cooder music. It takes a while for you to leave the cinema, but you get up, and once you step out of the cinema it’s still 5:50 in the afternoon, and there is a really strange moment where you are still in Paris, Texas and you are actually back in the street.
The other day I was talking to a friend who was talking about the last sequence of my film in the Uber, and I think I came up with something that makes some sense. There is a short distance between the actual place, the physical space, and—I’m beginning to sound like Rod Serling—the beginning of imagination. The point where you go into imagination, ideas, cinema, and literature. I think it’s quite easy to live in the city and go into the desert and make a film like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But if you make a film where you live, the distance between reality and the imagination is just the camera. And that thought led me to the last sequence in the film: it begins like realism, but slowly the sound becomes a little more Hollywood, a little like a late-’80s Warners movie, and the music becomes more present. And for me it’s like stepping out of the cinema, into that overlapping space.
Scope: Has this film shown at the Sao Luiz yet?
Mendonça Filho: No, it’s quite unfortunate. It’s closed for renovations connected to the roof. It was battered by three storms this winter. So the film won’t show at the Sao Luiz this year. We will show at the Parque, which is a 1919 cinema, and was recently restored. It’s going to be spectacular.
Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho, Pictures of Ghosts