An Essay on Pedro Costa
A Tracking Shot
A young man walks with broad steps down a sidewalk. From one of his hands hangs something in a black plastic bag. Some distance away, the camera closely follows from the side his solitary stride. While the man remains in the centre of the frame, the sound that reverberates behind the images as they flow steadily to the right is not his footsteps but the roar of the cars’ engines that cross the screen now and then in the opposite direction. As shown clearly by the low but lively noise of the street, the camera is now exposed to the outside air. With a human form seen only here and there, the sidewalk is uncrowded. Perhaps it is still early morning.
The rays of light falling on the street are indeed still dull, and the figure of the man does not stand out strongly from the background as he walks along, the walls of dingy houses on his left. Clearly this is not unfamiliar territory for him; he is moving straight ahead through a well-known landscape. He glances neither right nor left, and no one looks back in surprise at his intense manner of walking. The doors of the houses painted crimson and blue, and the window shutters and the graffiti on the walls, provide visual accents to the long wordless tracking shot.
Anyone who has seen this much of Ossos (Bones, 1997), the third film by Pedro Costa, knows well who this ponytailed man is. He is a poor unemployed youth who has just unexpectedly become a father, and he still has the air of a child. But the viewer does not understand immediately the meaning of his intense pace, because, as in many other cases, Pedro Costa’s editing satisfyingly avoids explanations of the preceding and following context. The viewer is drawn without an intermediary into the long tracking shot passing before the eye and tries not to miss a moment. In fact, all of Pedro Costa’s shots have a vertical power that breaks the viewer free from the story’s linear cause and effect. The pleasure of exposure to that liberation has, ever since F W Murnau, been a privilege allowed only to film.
As the moving camera stays aligned with the walking man, a breathtaking suspense builds. This suspense is not anticipation that an unknown situation may arise; rather, it forms around the question of how long the certainty that nothing is likely to happen can be maintained. The viewer worries how long this scene will continue and has no choice but to keep staring at the screen so as not to be abandoned by the flow of the film.
In his solitary stride, the man appears both to be fleeing from something and to be hurrying somewhere. At one point, his pace seems to falter slightly. But his jeans-clad legs continue their broad, unhesitating motions. Only the movements of his arms show any change: without halting his step, he lifts the black bag that he has been dangling from one hand and suddenly holds it to his chest with both arms.
At this point, we suddenly comprehend what is wrapped up in the plastic bag. Embraced in the arms of the walking man is a small living thing. The manner in which his two arms hold the bag shows that the bag’s contents are not inanimate but alive. It must be a baby. The long-haired man who has just become a father has abducted his nursing baby from its mother and is now rushing away with it. Although we cannot accept immediately whatever it was that has led him to do this, we are forced to the awareness that, just as Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) is a film about a car thief, Costa’s Ossos is a film about a baby thief.
I will not go into detail about how the story develops thereafter. It is enough that we are drawn into that long tracking shot that begins so suddenly and that we are shaken by its immense directorial power. Watching any of Pedro Costa’s films grabs hold of our gaze and forces us to personally experience the motion of the film. At times his scenes sting our eyes with their piercing pain, and at times they wrap our eyes in ineffable tenderness. What is amazing for the viewer who witnesses the tracking shot in Ossos is how the motion that is first felt as pain is then, at the instant the young man embraces the black plastic bag, miraculously transformed into tenderness.
At that moment, the viewer must confront two issues. The first is the function and meaning of tracking shots in the works of this director, and the second is the role of the tracking shot in this particular film. At the beginning of Ossos is a series of fixed close-ups of the faces of men and women whose identity it is difficult to know at first and whose interrelations are hard to discern. But with the tracking shot the viewer is drawn into and disturbed by the horizontal motion of the camera. The story that has been taking place in narrow alleys and cramped rooms is suddenly flung out into the open air and exposed to natural light. What is the meaning of the change in texture introduced by this tracking shot?
What is clear is that ever since his early film O Sangue (The Blood, 1989), Pedro Costa’s camera has been moving less with each film, until No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), which consists almost entirely of fixed shots. Although the only long tracking shot in Ossos is the one of the young man walking, we of course recall that a similar long tracking shot appeared in Costa’s previous film, Casa de Lava (Down to Earth, 1995). The young nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) has come to the volcanic island of Cape Verde with a black laborer who was knocked unconscious in an accident. When she leaves the hospital for the first time and sets out alone for the centre of the island, the long tracking shot of her walking anticipates the similar scene in Ossos.
Wearing only a shortish red dress, the young woman in Casa de Lava suddenly starts stepping lightly along the foreign road. The long tracking shot of her unexpected walk, taken from the side, makes us pleasantly forget what the previous shot has been. As she moves ahead silently while looking at the dirty walls of the islanders’ homes on her left, the camera flows to the right, keeping the nurse in the centre of the frame and never changing the shooting angle. Unlike the youth in Ossos, she carries nothing in her arms, which swing fluidly around her petite body, and her occasional glances to the left and right harmonise pleasantly with her motions as she tries to create a new relationship with this unfamiliar land.
I do not need to point out that this long tracking shot is amazingly similar to the one in Ossos. As she steps lightly through the intersections and keeps walking with no sign of stopping, her stride declares the pleasure of absorbing this unfamiliar world with her entire body and moves the scene far beyond the facile cinematic tool of exoticism.
In contrast to the shot of the young man walking with his arms around the black plastic bag, the long tracking shot in Casa de Lava is tender from the start. The young woman does not regard her unexpectedly intimate encounter with a foreign land even as an adventure. As the camera follows her from the side, the natural blending of her unhesitating forward motion into the surrounding atmosphere and sunlight is captured on film, and what deserves to be called an adventure is the extremely pure tension that fills the movie. Such is the power of Pedro Costa’s tracking shots. Like Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli, Terra di Dio (1950), Casa de Lava is an adventure film in the best sense of the word.
Casa de Lava also begins with close-ups: the expressionless faces of women who live on the island. It is unclear what their eyes are seeing or what their blank faces are trying to say, for Pedro Costa rarely uses shots that connect the eyes, which are the origin of sight, to the objects captured by their gaze.
These fixed shots of human faces, images that are gratuitous in the narrative sense, are suddenly interrupted by a moving camera shot, this time an aerial view taken from a camera looking down on volcanic rock. This shot is followed by a distant tracking shot of two helicopter pilots carrying the unconscious patient on a stretcher and the young nurse walking with the clear container of intravenous fluid held up high. The brown sand blown up by the unseen blades of the helicopter and the desolate volcanic landscape stretching off into the background highlight the foreignness of the setting. The pilots tell the nurse that it is her responsibility to take the stretcher to the hospital, and the camera reverses direction for another tracking shot of the nurse as she chases after them. After arguing with the nurse, the pilots go away, leaving the stretcher where it is.
As the young woman stands on this unfamiliar land with the unconscious black patient lying on the stretcher, her profile shows an innocence unsuitable for a person who is to take care of a patient who is clearly sturdier than she is. Compared with the calm caregiver in white portrayed by Isabel Ruth in Ossos, Inês de Medeiros is clearly helpless as she stands next to her patient. Nevertheless, she must get him to the island’s clinic by herself. This apparent imbalance is what drives her actions into a risky adventure on the volcanic island of Cape Verde.
The next shot in Casa de Lava, the viewer recalls, shows the young nurse embracing a living thing just as the young man does in Ossos. After vibrating shots of the volcanic mountains taken from a moving vehicle, a backing shot is inserted of a dog running up along a gravel road, telling us again of the risky adventure that has begun for the young nurse.
As she rattles along in the back of the truck with the unconscious patient resting against her chest and his transparent intravenous container held as high as she can reach, her blank expression suggests neither bewilderment nor a strong sense of devotion to duty. Her gestures reveal only an intense commitment to the present moment; despite her desperation, she shows no irritation, and her figure lit by the setting sun as she endures the uncomfortable shaking in the truck is incredibly beautiful. The filming here includes no consideration of the aesthetic, but in this silent shot there is born a solitary, taciturn beauty of a person endeavoring to endure a situation wisely when offered no other choice. As she embraces the head of the unconscious stranger, behind her stretches arid scenery that must be foreign to her. But she never allows her gaze to shift.
In the back of the truck, exposed and defenseless against the outside air, the only thing heard is the dull sound of the engine. It is late afternoon, and the sinking sun shines on the intravenous container as the nurse consciously tries to keep from lowering it. She has no time to look at the rays of the dull afternoon sun shining through the transparent container as she is carried wordlessly to the island’s clinic. While this shaking fixed shot in the back of the truck is not as long as the tracking shot along the sidewalk in Ossos, it is powerful enough to liberate the viewer from the cause and effect of the narrative. Though not understanding the origin of this power that inserts itself vertically into the movie, we can only mutter ‘splendid’ at the sweet pain inflicted by the film’s alignment with the present moment as it progresses across the screen.
Costa’s sequence of shots does not attempt to tell when or how the young nurse went from standing in that desolate alien landscape next to the sick man on the stretcher with the intravenous container hanging from a nearby tree branch to riding in the back of the truck. But the viewer acknowledges the young nurse being shaken along in the truck as it drives down the road covered with volcanic gravel and unhesitatingly accepts as the only possible reality the image of her cradling the unconscious patient against her chest.
What is happening is different from the classical aesthetic of omission practiced so expertly in the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Here, the present moment is made visually absolute. While not abandoning the time flow of the film, this ‘absolutification’ of the present moment is a bare, unadorned directorial technique that creates a raw filmic continuity for fiction, which otherwise would be subordinated to narrative flow and human psychology. Only rarely in film is the ultimate state of fiction thus so simply integrated with the ultimate state of documentary.
This visual absolutification of the present frees the shot from cause-and-effect narrative. By the time of No Quarto da Vanda, it would form the core of Pedro Costa’s films. But even in his earlier works, as in the scene on the moving truck bed and the walk into town in Casa de Lava and the long tracking shot in Ossos, it had already been attempted in partial form.
In Pedro Costa’s editing, the story’s context is rarely explained through sequences of shots, so the moment when the baby is grabbed away by his father is never shown on the screen. What we end up seeing is only the uncomfortable re-encounter, after some time has passed, between the father and the mother, and the miserable figure of the woman as she looks wordlessly at the man deep asleep next to the baby.
We do see, of course, shots of the childish mother as she returns home with her newborn baby in her arms, carefully shuts the windows, and drags the gas tank from the kitchen to the sofa where the baby is sleeping. But Pedro Costa projects these gestures performed by the woman into the future and avoids presenting the sequence as suspense over whether the mother has decided to use the gas to kill herself and her baby. Then the tracking shot suddenly begins, a long, powerful shot that is fully self-sufficient and that liberates the viewer from what comes before and after.
As I have already said, this long tracking shot is imbued with marvellous tension. While enduring that tension, the viewer attains an understanding of it by noticing a small gesture performed during the shot. When the man suddenly embraces with both arms the black plastic bag that he has been dangling casually from one hand, his act of having stolen the baby explodes silently upon the screen. While upset by the theft itself, the viewer is also pained by the memory that at the beginning of the shot the man let the bag nearly scrape against the ground as he walked.
Would someone really throw a newborn baby into a plastic bag like a bunch of vegetables and then stride down the sidewalk with the bag dangling from his hand? This is the question that all of us ask when we belatedly realise the seriousness of the situation. At the same time, we are relieved that the young father has felt it necessary to bring the tiny creature to his chest. As if ignoring that change, however, the long tracking shot continues.
Once again, one is deeply moved by the incredible power that this young director – Costa was only thirty-eight when he filmed Ossos – was able to put on the screen. One cannot help gasping in shock at the directorial boldness of Costa’s introduction into the long continuous shot of a tiny, momentary change – from dangling the plastic bag to embracing it—that reveals everything, and at the visual precision that such boldness demands.
I do not know whether Costa intended this long tracking shot to make the viewer realise that the plastic bag contains a newborn infant. But it seems certain that Costa carefully instructed the actor playing the father to make that motion. I also wonder idly about what was going on behind that directed action, such as whether the black plastic bag really did contain a baby.
It is not necessary to know the answer to that question, of course, to understand Ossos. But when, through this long tracking shot, we experience vicariously the palpable, forlorn feeling of holding that unidentified tiny life to our chests, that virtual sensation enlivens our view of the film at the uncertain boundary between fiction and documentary.
One ambitious element of Costa’s direction in Ossos is undoubtedly the way he had the unfatherlike young man embrace the baby and then captured that helpless gesture on camera. Costa’s ambition here, of course, is completely independent of our memories of banal comedies in which unmarried men fumble awkwardly as they try to take care of nursing babies. Rather, this element might better be said to show how tempting it is to point the camera at a man hesitatingly embracing an infant, as John Wayne does in John Ford’s Three Godfathers (1949).
The only director since Ford who has had an unfatherlike man walk a long way with a newborn infant in his arms is Pedro Costa. Although I point out this fact, I have no intention of declaring triumphantly that Ford’s Western is recalled in Ossos. But just as crossing the desert with a baby in his arms was a rare adventure for the Western star John Wayne, equally rare adventures for film are the young father’s embracing of the black plastic bag in the poor neighborhood of Ossos and the young nurse’s embracing of the head of her patient, who is clearly much sturdier than she is, as she rattles along in the back of the truck on the volcanic gravel road in Casa de Lava. The adventure here, of course, is not in the depiction of a situation that has already been imagined to be adventurous but in the capturing on film of an unknown experience that occurs during the moment of filming.
Perhaps for Pedro Costa the act of holding something to one’s chest is itself an adventure. To recall a familiar image, when the black plastic bag containing the baby is suddenly embraced in Ossos, it resembles the shoddy wooden box holding vegetables that Vanda (Vanda Duarte) carries now and then at her side in No Quarto da Vanda. The times when she carries that box along shadowy alleys and to the doors of houses so dark it is difficult to make out the residents are precisely the times when Vanda has left her room. For Pedro Costa, the act of carrying something in the arms may be an excuse for exposing a person to the outdoors. Just like Vanda trying to sell lettuce and salad greens as she carries the box through the alleys, the young father in Ossos is trying to get money for the embraced baby exposed to the gaze of passersby. The tired Vanda sets her box of unsold vegetables down, squats next to a wall, and smokes a cigarette; similarly, the father in Ossos sits on the pavement, leans against the wall, and takes a deep drag on his cigarette as he awkwardly gives milk to the infant.
I do not mean to suggest that the vegetable seller in No Quarto da Vanda is repeating the gesture of the young father in Ossos. The similarity between these two gestures in undeniable, but it would be difficult to say that merely pointing out that similarity will determine our understanding of these two works. But it is certainly true that the incredible liveliness of Pedro Costa’s direction appears when a man or woman holds something in or under his or her arms.
Does that gesture suggest an invisible family? Or does it show the embracing of a love that transcends carnality? To find out, we must look forward to the director’s next work.
This text first appeared in the catalogue of the Pedro Costa retrospective, Sendai Mediatheque, 2005. Thanks to Naoto Ogawa.
© Shigehiko Hasumi and Sendai Mediatheque 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.