From Donostia to Pasaia: Colours

Further down the road, as one passes by the stonewall, a turnout emerges. Even more than the trust in hiking trails, the excitement of the contrasting landscapes and the ocean attracts one towards the left. Under dense foliage, a tight alley leads to two different viewpoints; above, there is a rich variety of greens, a palette that intercepts light, obstructing growing grass, thus below, mottled grey awaits.

The first of the two lookouts is marked by its robust framing. A fracture in the line of rocks breaks open the ridge and one can see water. Disparate distances and colours complicate the experience as the rough, yellow surface of rock and its closeness intrude, prompting awareness of one’s gaze. It’s difficult not to get lost in the excess. The scream of seagulls grows sinister and leaves no question regarding the subject of attention. 

The second station offers a clearer image, its focus comes in handy because there, it takes a step to end things. It’s reasonable to step back and look up; there are no frames here, just the wide horizon. 

The overarching greens, craterous yellows and clean blues are accompanied by other colours, playfully bowing in the breeze. 

All this is subject to change of course, even in the same season, depending on the weather and light. Without the unruly drawn cliff on the periphery, the perception of the water’s surface is undisturbed at first glance. Yet, even with less facets, the profusion of sights is impossible to engross. Each square metre of the ocean displays a new shade and each wave suggests different depth. I speculate the latter with particular fondness, hoping that one day an ascending whale will darken the water where now a seamount appears. These impressions accentuate how tranquility can be swept away. Blue turns into grey in an instance. At its most peculiar, the storm has already absorbed the sky in front of me, while there is still clarity and immaculate brightness behind. The object underneath it will be lit and emerge in incomparable sharpness. An ephemeral phenomenon to observe.

In any event, it’s good to know that not only we do the observing.

photos by Babos Anna & Petri Simon

Inattentive Individualism: River of Grass by Kelly Reichardt

A film of offbeat humour, inert narration, yet with a creative and intense soundtrack, Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass is an unchallenging, dynamic blend of idiosyncratic self-awareness and shallow characters, whose thoughtlessness and irresponsibility are framed as the reinvention of the wheel. A very effective condensation of the period’s and the subculture’s celebrated cliches in form, lifestyle and casting, its superficiality and hipness distinctly differ from Reichardt’s later films, building upon scorn and the grotesque distortion of a sloven and uninspiring environment. Drift has no denotation in the film, it doesn’t evolve as a utopian and hopeful pursuit, nor as a strife of necessity, because nothing is at stake for the drifters in question; they are destined for a series of mishaps and ridicule. Stripped of wanderlust romanticism or political ties, Reichardt also deprives her characters of chance, conceiving their failure without investigating the conditions that lead to it. 

So far, Cozy’s (the main character) life simply happens, without any intervention on her part – she is in a loveless marriage and didn’t develop an emotional connection to her children. She often entertains the thought of predetermination (without any depth) in light of her mother, who had abandoned her when she was a child. Eventually, she also hits the road, both the first decision she wilfully makes about her life and a surrender to predetermination. Cozy teams up with Lee, a character who is never confronted with the falseness of self-pity. Lee finds a dropped gun belonging to Cozy’s father (a detective), which fills him with boyish pleasure. An exemplary instance of the film’s humour, Lee points the gun at his grandmother (with whom he lives together) – as a consequence he is kicked out of the apartment. The sheer appearance of consequence is unexpected, because up to that point such gags exist without any dramatic root, reinforcing the notion that everyone is a maverick living in their own world. It’s not a turning point though – at the film’s narrative peak Cozy and Lee trespass on his high school teacher’s backyard and when he notices them, they unintentionally shoot him, an accident that sets off the film’s main theme, their desire for independence obstructed by their inescapable social exposure. As it happens, the teacher wasn’t even injured.

Like Cozy herself, River of Grass is inattentive – it establishes a serious personal crisis and resolves it in an inappropriately comical manner. Cozy’s indifference to her environment is matched by the simplification of her boredom. She wonders what makes a housewife murder, but the film has no perception of time and solitude: there is no insight into the infertile hours spent alone or in the annoying company of children, whereas Cozy firmly believes that such cessation of putting up with unbearable circumstances culminates into violence over a long time, little by little. Denying inner development, Reichardt gets over the situation in the blink of an eye, showing Cozy’s parody of gymnastic exercises in rapid editing and absurd framing that only strengthen the detachment from reality. The film doesn’t connect Cozy’s ineptness and lack of expression to the systemic web that denies her interest and passion. Instead, it presents the resulting flatness, her irritated grimaces and attempts at autonomy as stand-ins for an actual personality. Without exploration of feelings and intentions, Reichardt allows social and cinematic stereotypes to define Cozy and Lee. The sense of haste and impatience extends to the getaway as well. The banal slips that could render the motif practical and criticise its untruthful elevation in popular consciousness, cannot unfold because no obstruction is elaborated on in the accelerated and weightless stream of scenes. 

The voice-over indicates that Cozy and Lee are destined to be together, because they’re equally lonely. While it is never suggested that their individualism is a matter of choice, they relish ignoring others and if an undeserved incapability wasn’t imposed on them, Cozy and Lee could be outsiders without their self-absorbed despondence. At the same time, their strive for liberty is portrayed as a more valid and honest way of life, strongly contrasted with the jovial male solidarity that surrounds Cozy’s father, which is the only form of communal engagement in River of Grass, yet it provides him with nothing but the abstention of his real ambitions.

These very concerns made me reconsider the first segment of Certain Women, which I deemed the least lively and moving; now, I think of the dutiful attorney who in time of need overcomes her reluctance and tiredness, and I understand that the absence of excitement underpins the significance of responsibility. 

From Donostia to Pasaia: the first steps – Goats & A stone wall

Whether it leads to an absurdly shaped reservoir, a rich seam of mushrooms, or vineyards blazing in yellow, hiking in the Basque Country is infinitely blissful. The most approachable site for me is Monte Ulía, a small but mysterious mountain connecting Donostia and Pasaia, which in itself offers inexhaustible excitement with its number of turnouts.

The urban side of the city ends abruptly – the dense tumult of the promenade is discontinued as a wide, rather drab road, with a petrol station emphasizing the industrial look, distinctly takes over. Then a few stair steps and the striking polish is left behind – the marble sidewalks are replaced by simple asphalt and the way up Monte Ulía begins. The cover used to be cobblestones, I imagine, remembering the sudden ascent of the street leading up to the Tomb of Gül Baba in Budapest. A mausoleum with a view, it takes a steep walk up one of the city’s tightest alleys to reach the tomb – a walk made enchanting and mythic by the unruly cobblestones that so harshly varied from everything around it. Because the tasteless visionaries of Budapest equate renovation with limitless block paving, the street, as well as the once wildly romantic tomb, almost fade into the environment – fortunately no municipal government can alter the unlikely incline. The slightly sloven aura of Monte Ulía’s borders is defined by the precipitous croft, lying parallelly to the road – it’s an anarchic animal farm, worthy of the literary connotation, given how one cannot see any signs of human maintenance. The anarchy only extends to how it looks: the fences, the bushes and the remainders of a shed are completely exposed to the ardent spirit of the inhabiting chickens, goats and horses. The political order, on the contrary, is kept well in hand by a black, one-eyed goat who rigorously warrants the oppression of his fellow animals. Although truly a commanding presence, he also personifies the inherent unsustainability of megalomania – he regularly misses out on some great pieces of cabbage given to him, being too busy to prevent others from receiving their share. Of course, the leader is often away from the fences to gather a comprehensive view of his land – that’s the occasion to observe peaceful family life.

Manifold eclectic impressions mark my overall image of the Basque Country. Sunlight, crystalline blue and white, then fog and grayish greens, impudent palm trees and severe pines, hot sand in the wind and the immobile starkness of rocks. The large-scale, distant awe of panoramas (such as the one opening up right after the goats), and the reductive beauty of various surfaces up close, with intricate, ever-changing details. Passing by the first lookout to the ocean, the opposite kind of spectacle emerges. A stone wall covered in moss and flowers, lusterless and earthy, nonetheless displays a remarkably broad spectrum of colors. Looking away from the unattainable magnitude of the ocean, one can turn to the stonewall to regard and touch something more fathomable.

photos by Anna Babos



Flashes of deception: Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur

Set in the world of swindlers accidentally outsmarting death and monarchs waiting to be assassinated, surrounded by tiny, smoke-filled theatres for angelic crooks and ornate, wrought-iron elevator doors for dishonorable gentlemen, Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur encapsulates a zeitgeist fascinated by the fanciful elegance of fraud. It is charming and light (although the tricheur evoked in the title, played by Guitry, commits himself to the reasonable rule of never robbing his own home) but the dominant tone is dictated by its pride in narcissism, invention and confessional self-reflection (beginning with the ostentatious opening credits and exploring the stripped-down, modernist humor of the constant opening and closing of lobby doors). The narrative intricacy and Guitry’s performative scintillation are striking in that the self-exhibition veils the film’s moving details.

A diverse emotional depth manifests itself in reductive dramatic form, vivid immediacy and gentle symbolism, charging virtuosity with feeling and vigor.

As the cheat recounts his life in a café, he tells the story of his first sexual experience – the sequence begins with an image of two lovebirds, a couple of doves. It is so untypically direct that it might as well be a coincidence, a remainder of the production’s spontaneity and freedom. That spontaneity feeds into the moment when the cheat is interrupted by the countess with whom he had shared this experience decades ago, and now she wouldn’t recognize him. She starts a monologue – the authenticity and internal life of the situation, Guitry’s mannered body language with which he reacts to her dimmed memories signifies a touch of reality, the hours and days spent working on the film, achieving an unfalsifiable sense of inhabitation.

The film’s most improbable and haunting scene shows the young cheat (played by Serge Grave, around 16 at the time but the physique of an 8-year-old orphan) realizing he had lost his entire family. In the austere framing, he is just hitting his head to the wall, contemplating about the impossibility of considering such loss.

It seems as if Grave’s tragic nodding was a reaction to Guitry’s voice-over – the self who suffered in the past is now acknowledging the fake reconciliation from the future. In a few seconds, the film’s richness is encompassed. The playful, self-aware defiance of linear time is given weight by the profundity of the actor’s presence – there, the innocence of a teenager forces its way in, forgetting about instruction and ignoring absurdity.

A hollowed chest, a small head, the hair still neat, bearing witness to the nearness of a once caring family, the genuineness of a face, before the exposure to street-wisdom, the beady eyes preserved in the moment of solitude by a fascinating poser with an immense skull and masterfully calibrated gaze.

And I wonder if all that is not trickery – the formidable Sacha Guitry showing exclusive attention to his own absorbing persona. And at once: showing the sharpest attention to life’s most delicate instances.

Flashes of deception rush into my mind occasionally and I think of the film’s universe with warmth.

Grave’s harrowing, catatonic movements; I could never forget them.