‘The one is the condition of the other’1
By Teresa María Díaz Nerio
In Vanda’s Room (2000) was directed and filmed by Pedro Costa with a small Panasonic digital camera, the main scenery being the room of Vanda Duarte, a young woman living in the ghetto Fointanhas in Lisboa, the ghetto is being demolished by bulldozers, immigrants squat abandoned houses and poor people live in misery. Vanda and her sister Zita get drugged in her bedroom.
In Vanda’s Room is an example of how media and reality can merge into an unrecognizable entity where the viewer doesn’t know anymore if what he/she is looking at is bare reality or a certain kind of fiction. The viewer is constantly aware that he/she is looking at a film, but the actors are not acting, they rather behave in a monotonous way, their dialogues seem to be uninteresting, so the presence of the viewer becomes revealed as an intruder in the film, as somebody who is already in the film, but as an outsider.
As Arjen Mulder says in his book Understanding Media Theory -transparent media create the impression of allowing the users to directly get to know the reality being represented.2– Which questions to which degree our presence is bound by space and time, and how space and time can actually depend to which media we are connected to. As the use of one or two of our senses is intensified we can indeed travel in between sight and sound constantly out of ourselves like in the case of In Vanda’s Room, the media is transparent because it allows us to feel that we experience someone else’s reality without actually being there, which means the understanding of another point in space and time is achieved.
Mulder’s definition of transparent media seems to apply negative differentiations between sight and hide as he says transparent media: – hide their own existence from view as much as possible by behaving as conventionally as they can.3– I argue that every media is transparent as long as the viewer is able to translate the information as an emotion, the most sensibility the most real the media is, the more transparent, in this regard -the users look straight through these media to the “real world”, without having to pay attention to the apparatus lying between their perception and what they are perceiving.4– This follow up in the description of transparent media makes me think of how Jean Luc Godard shows himself filming in the middle of La Chinoise (1967), showing the “apparatus” and the construction of the film, the camera, points towards the real in a way in which hiding and conventional behavior wouldn’t.
Like the very famous sentence of Marshall McLuhan “the medium is the message” I can see how the transparency of the media does not depend in its visibility or invisibility but rather in the suggestion of its omnipresence. Not that we see or not the camera but rather that the media user, in this case the director, is able by one way or the other to show or make us feel that ‘the body is the origin of all media’5, that the creation and the separation between reality and reality as a construction is depending on how the medium is acknowledge, and if the body is the medium, every media invites us to extend our consciousness through the enhancement of our senses, or by the partial or momentary deactivation of them.
In the words of Pedro Costa: There’s something that comes and goes, something that leaves the screen, towards you, and also something that goes from you towards the screen.6 This meeting point suggest the virtuality of our existence not only as viewers but also the involvement of all of our body and our senses in the act of looking, as the actors in the screen are involved in being looked at, so both the viewer and the actor become the material that binds the screen where reality is projected.
-Transparency and hypermediation are not characteristics of media, although that often seems to be the case. Rather, these terms describe sensations they bring about in their users. Transparent visual media evoke a visual space that appears as unconstructed as a reflection. Hypermedial media not only evoke a constructed, virtual space, but also show the scaffolding within which that space is build.7– In Vanda’s Room becomes hypermedial by being able to keep the viewer alert at all times, questioning the origin of the film, in this case the question is not if it is a documentary or a fiction like Costa was asked so repeatedly but, how was the film made? How come that it feels so real?
-She could show me. She could give the film a lot of things that were the neighborhood, that were the collective. She’s a little bit like Ventura. There’s that quality some people have of embodying other people. They’re not just one person; they’re already ghosts of people.8– In this way Vanda is the medium and the message. Her assimilation of her context as a collective gives the viewers the responsibility of acknowledging her position, not as an individuated element in some ghetto somewhere, but as a representation of themselves. The viewers from their comfortable chair in the darkness of the cinema position themselves in the ‘uneasy situation of the world’9 this shift of position is achieved through physical sensations which are the outcome of undeniable feelings ‘I want to insist that in fact cinema is made above all with feelings’.10
The overwhelming static images of Fontainhas and of Vanda taking heroin with her sister Zita puts the viewer into a very uncomfortable position and transmit a lot of feelings which often cannot be defined. It is from skin to skin, when the actor is naked, powerless, the viewer submits or leaves the cinema.
The way of entering a film is described by Costa as closing doors: ‘We film life and the more I close the doors, the more I hinder the spectator from taking pleasure in seeing himself on the screen -because I don’t want that-…’11 ‘The spectator can see a film if something on the screen resists him. If he can recognize everything, he’s going to project himself on the screen; he’s not going to see things’12 in this way the film is already constructed in order to make the viewers jump in and out the screen, creating a critical viewer who is able to travel between positions.
The viewers are invited at their own risk to step inside the “house” because the door suggests a space already created with the function of coming and going. But also that there is a space behind the door that differs from the one outside, and here we are dealing again with the question of what is real. It seems clear that inside the house is were the emotions unleash, where all the emotions possible go through the body, intimately, dangerously. As space seems to be gazing back, behind the door there is another door, I’m looking at myself and I’m not there.
The hypermedial quality of the “house” is that we know is a construction, it has being build in order to unleash all those emotions, what we are not able to distinguish is how virtual is the house? What does it means to be outside the house? Transparent media meets hypermedial media when these questions arouse, far away from definitions and suppositions, the viewers are afraid to admit that they don’t know. But they know that their not knowing makes them easily manipulable, so the excess of emotions is aiming at creating awareness in the viewers of their state of in-betweeness. Costa also talks about the ‘subject of lack’13 and that he believes that ‘film is an art that can fight excess, against inflation, against the excess of things, whether it be excess of money, images or effects.’14 Vanda personifies the ‘subject of lack’ but at the same time the excess which she is addicted to, heroin, binds her life into a repetitive circle, heroin is the drug of the homeless, the abandoned by society, the one who abandons society at will.
Vanda commits excess as a reaction to the demolished reality that she belongs to, her sister Zita is also addicted, the neighbors are also addicted, it is the excess of the ones that lack, the ones who have being pushed out of the picture, the house which is demolished in order to make a new one. The viewer in the cinema is rather a subject of excess, and the images of lack produce immense pain in them.
What the viewer doesn’t know is that nothing in this world can save them from feeling the lack, from being a subject that lacks, all the excess in the world would never replace the fact that anything which happens on the screen is a reflection of the reality that we have constructed. Because the screen is a meeting point for lack and excess, presence and absence, the poor and the rich, is the point where things merge not in order to become one or the other but in order to overcome both of them.
Bringing media back to the body Mulder cites:
The Body as a Medium: Bushman Presentiments
“The Bushmen’s letters are in their bodies. They (the letters) speak, they move, they make their (the Bushmen’s) bodies move. They (the Bushmen) order the others to be silent; a man is altogether still, when he feels that his body is tapping (inside). With regard to an old wound, a Bushman feels a taping at the wound’s place, while the tapping feels that the man (who has the old wound) walks, moving his body. The one man feels the other moving his body; he says to the children: ‘look ye around for grandfather, for grandfather seems to be coming; this is why I feel the place of his body’s old wound’. The children look around; the children perceive the man coming. They say to their father: ‘A man is coming yonder’. Their father says to them: ‘Grandfather (his own father) comes yonder; he would come to me; he was the one whose coming I felt at the place of his old wound. I wanted you to see that he is really coming. For ye contradict my presentiment, which speaks truly’.”15
Certainly this account proves that the body was ones the screen, in the sense that everything that is passes through the body, not as a visual image but as a feeling. It is very clear that people cannot distinguish their words anymore, as feelings, but rather as a concept, as meaning. I can feel In Vanda’s Room as an invitation to become the screen again, to regain the agency the body has.
What is describe in the account of the Bushmen’s is the capability of feeling somebody else’s body, which is what happens when we look at the screen, the Bushman knows that his father is coming because he feels his father moving, coming towards him. There is no confusion for him whether he is allowed to feel this or not, it is a communication from one body to the other, but the viewers are challenged by the “virtuality” of the image in the differentiation of their reality and the actors “reality”, as if there were two different spaces when it is rather just one screen were we all meet.
Transparency and hypermediation are definitions of sensations transmitted through a certain medium, but they do not express in themselves anything but an obstructed look at “reality” that can make the viewer blind or bless by sight. This is not at all what really happens when we are confronted with media, the construction of a virtual space is not something that can be seen or not, reality is not defined by what we think reality is rather defined by what we feel reality is, a definition can never overcome the potential the body has of making its own definitions through sensations. The experience of being confronted with a certain medium is not detached from the reality we experience outside the medium.
When Costa says ‘we must keep all of our feelings very sharp’16 and Mulder says ‘the body is the origen of all media’ it means that ‘one is the condition of the other’, a body without sharp feelings cannot differentiate between reality and a construction of reality. Cinema is not meant to paralyze the viewer and make him/her into an automaton but it shows the condition we are subjected to.
1 Pedro Costa, A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing (from 12-14 March 2004, Pedro Costa offered an intensive course in filmmaking at the Tokio Film School (under Joint auspices of Athenee Francais Cultural Center and Cinematrix). First published in the catalogue of Pedro Costa retrospective, Sendai Mediatheque, 2005. Transcription by Valerie-Anne Christen, English translation by Downing Roberts.) p.8 Retrieved on 10.06.2008 http://www.rouge.com.au/10/costa_seminar.html
2 Arjen Mulder, Understanding Media Theory: Language, Image, Sound, Behavior, translated by Laura Martz (V2_/NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2004) p.60
3 Ibid. p.60
4 Ibid. p.60
5 Ibid. p.12
6 Op. cit, Pedro Costa (2005) p.6
7 Op. cit, Arjen Mulder (2004) p.61
8 Michael Guillen, “Pedro Costa: I Have to Risk Each Shot” (interview to Pedro Costa) 2008
9 Op. cit, Pedro Costa (2005) p.5
10 Ibid. p.7
11 Ibid. p.5
12 Ibid. p.4
13 Ibid. p.6
14 Ibid. p.7
15 W.H.I Bleek and C. Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore (London 1911) cited in Arjen Mulder, Understanding Media Theory (2004) p.13
16 Op. cit, Pedro Costa (2005) p.8