Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Beloved Month of August

Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is a Möbius strip of swirling contradictions and questions of reality in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami's work, a mix of documentary and fiction that ultimately renders meaningless questions about what is true and what is not. But where Kiarostami's films generally peel back broader emotional truths by lying, Gomes uses his 147-minute triumph of lemonade-from-lemons to lovingly put to screen a part of the world many neglect, including some of the residents of the places spotlighted.

Gomes originally planned to head out to the small but vibrant resort village Arganil in rural Portugal to film a drama that he'd already scripted. But he ran into issues with producers, and when he arrived in town to shoot, Gomes discovered that he lost what meager funding he thought he'd secured. Reasoning that he was already there and might as well shoot something, Gomes switched gears and decided to focus on the music festivals he originally intended to use as backdrop.

Almost instantly, however, Gomes splits the film's diegetic lines, opening with a documented concert and the soundbites of musicians complaining abut power outages and the folk bands playing their danceable tunes to a shot in a cabin miles away. Inside, Gomes is carefully arranging dominoes for an ornate credits sequence, but a "producer" enters in a huff and knocks over a domino, sending the intricate design sprawling. He demands to know what is delaying shooting, unable to see the irony of himself being the reason for the setbacks, his latest involvement on delaying further by ruining the credits setup. (Hilariously, the film then cuts to an every day title card, thwarting Gomes' "intentions.")

For the first half of the movie, Gomes wanders around Agarnil and some surrounding villages as the locals prepare for then have to deal with the incoming tourists. He captures the bacchanalian tone of the endless celebrations, which oddly always seems to follow right behind a religious procession carrying icons of the Blessed Mother. Musicians must make a season's worth of income during August alone, as every village erects a stage where bands play a mixture of rock, folk and dance music, the constant stream of music only stopping for technical difficulties. "There is no dance music," says one musician speaking off-camera as couples head out in a space by the stage to start grooving. "All music is made for dancing." The Portuguese folk is romantic, lovesick entreaties laden with pastoral imagery that celebrates the rustic setting rather than use the throwback sound to focus on something like the working man -- how out of place would a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie tune sound here, where even the working class can enjoy a month of light debauchery?

If you're paying attention, you can see Gomes laying the foundation for what's about to come, but his earnestness and love for the community he documents is genuine, preventing those reflexive touches of the occasional returns to Gomes and his "producer" motifs rather than intellectualizing removes. In one of those asides, the director talks of moving beyond the script he can no longer shoot -- the exaggerated mass of paper always sits between them like the 800-lb gorilla in the room -- and moans, "I don't want actors, I want people," the sort of pretentious thing Barton Fink would say. But Gomes clearly goes out and finds those people and lets them ramble nostalgically for the camera, all of them relating tall tales of drunken exploits that might just have happened in such a crazy place. A loving but fiery old couple cannot remember how old they even are but have tons of gossip to impart, while another man recalls pissing off some Moroccan vendors who ran him over. When the man awoke from his coma, he discovered he had a new son. It would work as a killer joke in a Coen brothers film, but Gomes lets the moment happen, a half-farcical, half-touching remembrance from a man who still smiles though his teeth were shattered.

A lightly surreal image develops from the various sights on display, from children running through a mass of suds in the town square to the overlapping of motorcycle horn beeps as mopeds zoom down country roads with the big brass of the philharmonic orchestra that marches in the religious procession. These backwoods areas of Portuguese where Iberian hillbillies live are dusty and drab, but the locals create hidden pageants, adding lush texture to dull locations by dint of their lifestyles.

Yet the director's eye for detail also leads him to delve into some of the mild, almost imperceptible issues that such a lifestyle evokes. A city-dweller from Lisbon discusses the xenophobia rural folk feel for outsiders, though her English husband amusingly disagrees. Still, she has a point: Gomes' camera glides fluidly between villages, revealing the shared customs, modes of entertainment and types of people between them, yet there is an undeniable sense of isolationism among these communities against others of their own stripe. Some complain about money issues, but Gomes gently suggests through his visuals that perhaps financial woes might be a result of the incessant drinking and dancing and a certain lackadaisical attitude toward work ethic. By the same token, he rejoices in this love of entertainment and joie de vivre over mind-numbing commitment to work. Seemingly everyone in these villages owns a guitar, and even regular people may burst into song when the mood strikes.

This caring documentation continues through the end of the first half, at which point the entire film folds in on itself. In some of the asides, the producer laments that Gomes' unwieldy screenplay actually grows as the director starts adding more characters inspired by his work in the villages. At last, he decides to film his script after all, using some of the musicians and other locals he spoke to in the first half. Suddenly, what were supposed to be talking heads of real people morph into auditions for the film proper, and the integration of Gomes' observations on village life infuse the narrative with a verisimilitude he surely could not have captured if he simply arrived in town and started projecting onto the residents.

The use of nonprofessional actors telling their own story is nothing new, but Gomes also shanghais them into performing his story, a lurid melodrama with overtones of incest between a musician father and his daughter/muse, Tania. Their constant proximity sets tongues wagging, just as the residents engaged in whispers and rumor throughout. The music Tania and her father play, romantic as all the other Portuguese folk, does not help perceptions, and music gets used against them when two drunken partygoers engage in a duel of insults through song. One man defends the family and attacks the challenger's own familial shame, but the other lout retorts by asking in verse whether the two are father and daughter or husband and wife. To get away from the shame, Tania turns to Heider, a teen ever-clad in an AC/DC T-shirt and slinging a guitar. But Heider is her cousin, and the love she finds to distract herself from the confusing devotion of her father's potentially worrisome adoration could itself be just as harmful.

A few critics have charged the second half of the film with being meandering and too improvisational, but Gomes has too clear a goal in mind for the Our Beloved Month of August to spin off its axis. Despite having no money and a hastily re-assembled screenplay and cast, he inserts some shots that betray a filmmaker who knew exactly what he wanted from the movie. Heider and Tania walk on a bridge, pause and kiss, and as they do, that damned Mother Mary procession comes walking by. Gomes captures them in extreme long shot, the passing line of priests and penitent speaking to the the dogmatic repression that might have shaped these two. But the shot lingers, and behind the usual procession are two giant puppets being walked in line, as if Carnival floats themselves got up in the morning and atoned during Lent like everyone else. The revelry, too, has had its effect. A forest fire that tears through the surrounding area just as sexual tensions may lack for subtlety, but as a comic explosion of visual innuendo, it was as welcome as the close-up of the lava lamp in Talk to Her. Tinier details, such as a stain on Tani'as clothing after a night with Heider that answers whether her father ever touched her inappropriately or the mural of the solar system where Tania occasionally goes with either her father or Heider (suggesting she might be star-crossed lovers with either one), caulk the cracks. If Gomes truly did have to throw out his first idea, he quickly solidified another one.

Our Beloved Month of August examines a well-known fact, that fiction comes from truth, but it also suggests that the reverse is true. Some of the villagers' stories are clearly exaggerations, fish tales delivered to the camera to impress, and the falsity surrounding the truth gets funneled into the film within the film, complicating the fiction until an insight into rural Portuguese life emerges. I admit I'm growing increasingly tired of self-reflexive cinema, mainly because it's become a cheap tool for bad writers to project an aura of multilayered genius when, in effect, they simply recognize their inability to tell a story and try to beat critics to pointing this out. Yet Gomes' film, like the best of reflexive, questionably diegetic filmmaking, gets at emotional truths through the use of intellectual falsehood.

In the ingenious and riotous end credits, Gomes gets into a minor argument with his sound designer for recording "phantom sounds" in the forest fire. Gomes, still clad in that damned, loud red jacket and poor boy hat, allows himself to come off as a petulant auteur, screaming for perfectionism in a movie assembled piecemeal from disparate elements. The crew, who get their credits on-screen next to their actual faces, reassure the boss that no errant sounds are there, but we can hear faint music underneath. The interplay between image and sound that makes Our Beloved Month of August such a delight comes to a head, and the tormenting buzz of barely audible music will drive its mock-severe maker 'round the bend even as it reminds the audience of the music contained seemingly in the hills and trees around these villages. It's both the punchline and the reassurance that this was not all just some joke: the rumble is the soul of the villages Gomes captured, and it will imbue his film whether his pretentious doppelgänger wants it to or not. The perfect bookend to the opening shot of a fox searching for a way into a chicken coop -- the outsider seeking entry for exploitation -- the moment signifies that it is the village that ultimately conquered the outsider, not the other way around.

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