Funny Folk: Miguel Gomes’s Short Films
by Michael Pattison
On one level, Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights seemed a wild departure for a director not especially known for his epics. While the six-hour triptych is by far the Lisbon filmmaker’s lengthiest and most ambitious project to date, its structure promotes the micro: consisting of standalone shorts, each around forty minutes in length, the film plays to its director’s strengths as a short filmmaker.
The Lisbon auteur’s oblique storytelling strategies have been a consistent element in his shorts. In 31 (aka Thirty-One Means Trouble), two teens embark upon a short journey following their tennis class; intertitles imply the story is analogous to both The Wizard of Oz and Portugal’s 1974 revolution. At the end of the film, onscreen text updates the setting: “Portugal, 2001: Silently, something was moving under the wreckage.”
Gomes tends to underplay drama, to approach seriousness as a veneer or throwaway gag. His theses are often filtered through comic detachment. The sincerity and sophistication of some of his sequences — their layered meanings, their exquisite sleights of hand — can be disarming: in Redemption, voice actors read out letters written by four heads of state (including Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel), only for the film’s odd sense of intimacy to be undercut by a final admission that each missive was purely make-believe.
Such ludic winks to camera, and his affinity to silent cinema (irises, intertitles, overacting), demonstrate Gomes’s fascination with distancing techniques. His is a cinema in which action is parsed, incidental, fragmented. Meanwhile, his first short, which he made in 1999, distills the chaotic grace involved in a rugby lineout to a tableau vivant, a suspended moment where each player is rooted to a gesture prior to movement.
An early sequence in Meanwhile embodies the director’s common approach to narrative. Two school kids, a boy and a girl, realize they share a romantic attraction to one another. Rather than show their physical positions with an establishing shot, Gomes compartmentalizes space, starts immediately with reaction shots, in medium-shot and close-up. Ideas of continuity, or some kind of intensified plane of action, are handled tongue in cheek. Scenarios demand our participation: meaning isn’t spoon-fed. We have to piece the images together; only then are we afforded the wider picture.
There’s something deliberately crude about this inversion of cinematic grammar. The way it goes straight for the jugular, the crux, its heavy faith in symbols. It is folkloric, adolescent. Meanwhile is in many respects a stereotypical film about teenage love, a ménage-à-trois (two boys, one girl) acted out on bleachers and the beach, at parties and in pools. The kisses are entirely physical, bluntly erotic: clumsy, profane. At the end of the film, the boys’ physical intimacy with one another seems dependent on the mutual connection to their female companion: kisses aside, they appear more interested in each other than they do her. Is the interest nonsexual? Isn’t that opening composition, gradually revealed as the formation of a rugby lineout, initially suggestive of one boy performing fellatio on another?
If Gomes peddles a kind of crystallized imagism, he taps into the sexual energies of innocence through music. He has a wonderful ear, and demonstrates superb judgment in imbuing familiar, even clichéd, narratives with an ambiguous, layered charge. Ray Conniff’s rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” must meld with “Ave Maria” D 839, Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” with “Funny Face” by The Kinks. In Christmas Inventory, he mounts nostalgia through the bathetic interplay of such discords: the warbling quiver of old records against the atonal ditties that emanate from a child’s toy. Its sense of melancholy is remarkably textured.
Nothing sums up Gomes’s cheek, his sense of mischief, his knowing employment of folk coatings (stepped narratives, patchwork structures, narration that frees itself from a responsibility to realism), like the opening sequence of Christmas Inventory. The inanimate figurines of a nativity scene form the backdrop of a bedtime story (“once upon a time…”); and then the appearance of an impossible element breaks the illusion: a Spiderman action figure. Pushed into the foreground, an intruder dressed in scarlet and blue. The Nativity is co-opted, commercialized, expanded — remade by the sound of a now-ubiquitous superhero’s foot repeatedly punting a metal donkey’s underbelly.
MIGUEL GOMES I.
Medtem / Entretanto (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 1999, 25′)
Božični inventar / Inventário de Natal (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 2000, 23′)
Odrešitev / Redemption (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 2013, 25′)
MIGUEL GOMES II.
31 (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 2001, 27′)
Kalkitos (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 2002, 19′)
Hvalnica stvarstva / Cântico das criaturas / A Canticle of all Creatures (Miguel Gomes, Portugalska, 2006, 24′)