Nothing gold can stay. So the saying goes and is thoughtfully illustrated in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s latest film Pictures of Ghosts. It’s a mosaic portrait of the director’s hometown of Recife through the lens of cinema that resonates with the sense of unease many presently feel about the state of film.
The city, which is also the capital of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, has a rich history of cinema that will come as a surprise to many. Filho unearths its cinematic past through archival footage blended with his own material presenting an evocative and personal account. He revives its halcyon days as a South American hub for Hollywood studios that erected glorious movie palaces and ushers us through its decay; which provided enough fertile ground for him to blossom into a filmmaker. His films––such as Aquarius, Neighboring Sounds, and Bacurau––are usually set so close to home that he’s able to use their footage for historical context.
I spoke with Filho during the 61st New York Film Festival about his elegiac hometown chronicle, his thoughts on the state of film today, and, of course, Full Metal Jacket.
The Film Stage: I wanted to begin with something you said when you were promoting Aquarius in 2016. “Time-traveling is something that fascinates me, especially because as you grow older, you realize traveling through time is strange, sad and sometimes very happy truth about living your life.” Can you speak to how you explored this sentiment in Pictures of Ghosts?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: Thank you for reminding me of that. It actually sounded pretty good! I’m 54 now, so the notion of time-traveling is very strong. At this point in my life I don’t really fight time. I tried to come to terms with what it means and what it is.
I started the film looking at tapes from 1989 to 1992, shot on VHS and many photographs from that time. Part of that was all the footage I shot with Alexandre Moura. Alexandre, the projectionist, to this day is one of the best human beings I was lucky to meet in life. He died 21 years ago and it was very moving to spend hours with him.
I basically left the camera on and followed him around, up and down flights of stairs in the cinema and sometimes just talking to him in the projection booth. It was almost like going back in time and being with him in April 1991. That had a strange effect on me and told me about the power of documents and archives that you keep. You can be really moved by a photograph that you find; imagine a two-hour tape with someone you loved very much and is now gone.
There was a very tough moment when I decided to use my mother’s interview on television in 1981. That just kept adding levels of emotional complexity because the tape was given to me by a colleague of hers, and I kept that tape for more than 20 years. At some point in post-production, I thought that I could get the original 16mm footage and we did. So when I saw the footage in high definition it was a completely different visual experience. And it was my mom, who died in ‘95. In color-grading it was a very emotional experience because now I could see the skin tones were right. It was a very complex film, emotionally, and a lot of that has to do with your understanding of what time is.
What was the audience’s perception of Hollywood films and Brazilian films that played in those cinemas at the time?
It’s a complex question, because Brazil was coming out of the dictatorship. In the ’70s Brazilian cinema was very strong, but it suffered under a lot of censorship. So what the military did was: all the films with dangerous ideas were censored, but they were very relaxed about sex comedies. So there was a kind of overproduction of sex comedies. They weren’t exactly pornographic––they had, you know, breasts and asses, but no full-frontal nudity and no hardcore sex. A lot of the political cinema in the ’70s was kind of strangled by censorship, but the sex comedies became very popular. When the ’80s began, Brazilian audiences were fed up with the notion that Brazilian cinema was only made up of sex comedies but they were still very popular. We had American films drawing millions of people but also the Brazilian films were popular.
Sônia Braga made three of the most popular films in Brazilian cinema, and even those had problems with censorship because they were too sexual, but never pornographic. So the presence of Brazilian cinema was constant, but at the same time struggling against the US-made movies––like everywhere else.
In the film, you draw this connection between cinemas and houses of worship as these spaces that are built with the intention that something important and precious is going to happen there. With the confluence of home theaters rapidly improving and the boom of streaming, do you feel that films have become less precious?
I think if we had not had the pandemic, I would probably find it easier to answer your question. Because I really think that pandemic messed things up. We’ve had access to good-quality equipment at home for at least 30 years. Even at the time of VHS, I had a really nice sound system hooked up to the VCR and a good CRT television. The picture was actually pretty good at the time. Of course, we did not see the whole frame––it was pan-and-scanned––but it was a good experience to watch. Do the Right Thing sounded and looked great, even 30 years ago. And today it’s crazy. I mean, the projector I have at home is better than most multiplex cinemas where the projection is just so shitty and the sound is bad.
I think that the pandemic taught people to make these discoveries at home because the studios shot themselves in the foot releasing their big films straight to video-on-demand. That really fucked things up. My neighbor learned that now she doesn’t have to go to the cinema anymore. I’m the kind of person who likes to have things. Whenever capitalism has a new product, it has to destroy what came before and I really hate that. I think vinyl and CDs are a great example. CDs came along in the ’80s so everybody was ordered to get rid of their vinyl records because they were terrible. Ironically, CDs are more problematic in the long run.
I’m happy with streaming and I’m happy with going to the cinema and I’m happy buying Blu-rays. I’m still one of the few people who buy Blu-rays, and it’s pretty much gone from the Brazilian cinephile experience. My films, including Pictures of Ghosts, I don’t think will release on Blu-ray because people don’t even have a player. It’s just sad that for something new to be introduced, the market has to destroy what came before it.
Photo by Julie Cunnah, courtesy of the 61st New York Film Festival / Film at Lincoln Center.
Do you think film exhibition is in any danger because of this?
I don’t. I think we’re going through a dramatic moment. We’ve gone through moments like this: television in the ’50s, VCRs in the ’80s, and now streaming. We’re still coming out of turbulent time so I don’t think I’m able to fully analyze what’s happening now. But I think cinema will stay because, from the point of view of Hollywood studios, there is still a lot of money to be made. I think what they have to do is: they have to make sure that the theatrical windows are protected.
When Pictures of Ghosts hit the digital platforms in Brazil, I think it was a little too soon. The system should have waited a little bit more because it’s still doing really well in cinemas. It’s almost like a runway and the plane needs more runway; otherwise, you’re going to have a very bumpy landing. But now 90 days, maybe 70 days, is what people are discussing, and I find that to be a problem.
Pictures of Ghosts does a wonderful job relating that enigmatic aspect of watching a film in a theater, how strangely magical the communal experience of seeing something in a dark room full of strangers is. What’s one of your more memorable experiences from those movie palaces featured in your film?
I have many, but I think it was back in 1988. I went to the Veneza cinema, which is in the film and was morphed into a strange shopping mall. It was just one of my favorite places in the world.
I went to see the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket on opening day. It was 800 seats, all packed in; about half with very loud, annoying, horrible teenagers. Like myself, actually, but I was quiet. They came straight from school, still wearing their uniforms, and basically went to see whatever film was on to act like idiots. I thought “this is going to be a nightmare” because I really wanted to see the film. And it was––we couldn’t even hear the trailers. The lights go down and Warner Bros. logo comes up on the screen and there’s still screaming and cheering and people just being idiots.
Then we begin to see those soldiers losing their hair along with the music and the whole place just calmed down. Just the image of those men losing their hair is so mysterious and enigmatic and everybody kind of shut up. Then the next shot is the sergeant just screaming the most horrible curse words, and the Portuguese subtitles were perfect. Each and every amazing four-letter word was perfectly translated. It was completely silent until the end of the film. I never forgot that. The film kind of hypnotized everyone in a way that I have rarely seen. It was really crazy and it says a lot about who Stanley Kubrick was as a filmmaker.
Pictures of Ghosts is now in limited release and will expand.