Noisemaker: Spitting on Cinema’s Grave (Then Sweeping It): Is It “A Useful Life”?

Editor’s NoteA Useful Life, last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from Uruguay, concerns a man facing the imminent shutdown of a movie theater where he has devotedly worked for decades. The film screens Tuesday November 15 at San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema in San Francisco, co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society and the Global Film Initiative. I enlisted resident Noisemaker Alejandro Adams, who happens to manage a movie theater, thinking he’d bring his personal expertise to illuminate the film. Little did I realize how the film touched a nerve for him (to put it mildly). Film critic Fernando F. Croce graciously agreed to engage with Alejandro over his issues with the film, resulting in this wonderfully spirited debate over the film that expands into larger concerns over cinephile culture, past, present and future. – Kevin B. Lee

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Fernando F. Croce: “You didn’t tell me this was a horror picture,” a friend and fellow writer whispered me to me during a festival screening of Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life earlier this year. It’s as gentle a film as any I’ve recently seen, but I promptly understood how it could strike fear into the heart of any dedicated cinephile. Set largely inside a modest Montevideo cinematheque plagued by faulty projectors and dwindling patrons, it centers on Jorge, a middle-aged art-house curator; as played by real-life Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek, he’s a schlump’s schlump. Bespectacled, floppy-haired and diffident, he’s a blocky figure going through the monochromatic daily chores of testing theater seats, asking for donations and setting up retrospectives, with each activity executed with unassuming competence yet seemingly drained of the vitality it may once have held.

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What could be more frightening than a movie club that’s been turned into a bureaucratic maze, where as fascinating a discussion topic as the role Prokofiev’s score plays in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky can become as dry as toast and the film cans piled up in the projection room start to resemble nothing so much as the bulging file folders from Kafka’s nightmarish tales? In Tsai Ming-liang’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn the movie theater is a literal haunted house, and in Jacques Richard’s documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque, Jean-Luc Godard recalls Langlois telling him that the Cinémathèque Française should be burned if it ever became just another edifice.

New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer speak on the importance of the Cinematheque in Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque:

And yet, as the cinematheque’s economic plight forces Jorge dazedly into the outside world, Veiroj’s short and sweet second feature lingers both as a heartening elegy to the art of running a movie theater—a dying art, it seems to argue—and an ultimately hopeful fable about the need to take the medium’s romantic visions out of screening rooms and into life.

Alejandro Adams: I saw this film in the same pious pew of critics, bloggers and cinephiles and felt that your/their reaction to the film was a foregone conclusion. If that’s smug, forgive me—I am here to discuss, not dismiss. Some might remember Pauline Kael leveling American Beauty as a con job because it flattered its titular nation’s middle class liberal values without a single ideological obstacle in sight. That’s a good if thin touchstone here; personally I find my reaction rhymes with that of real life firefighters to Ron Howard’s Backdraft: A) real fire doesn’t behave that way and B) I don’t behave that way.

Sure, A Useful Life is an outburst of long overdue fantasy qualified by a hyperbolically inert quotidian existence, so maybe I shouldn’t be nitpicking the minutiae. But the guise of fantasy rarely placates me–this Southern boy walked out of Benjamin Button after twenty minutes because he didn’t want the real estate of his childhood memories redeveloped in that way. The South ain’t quaint, and neither is the arthouse.

Faulty projectors and dwindling patrons? Montevideo, c’est moi. The decline of one technology presupposes the rise of another. I want to see a film that romanticizes the torrent-ripping cinephile community, the blogger who delineates her rarefied tastes for whoever happens by, the armchair publicist telling Twitter followers where to see a limited release that a distributor has all but abandoned. We lament the poetic disarray of a projection booth in which 35mm projectors have been literally shoved aside to make room for 4K digital machines that “handle” like the European sports cars whistling and whirling in trailers before every feature [Insert photo of my actual projection booth here]. But we know that these new developments are better in every conceivable way for cinema–ease of distribution/access should always be our primary concern—just as the communities that have developed online, like Fandor, are better for film culture than reading Fangoria alone in your bedroom, and just as torrents or, more legally, Hulu/YouTube/Netflix streaming are better than fighting with your neighborhood’s other sophisticated bastard over the local video store’s supply of Antonioni on VHS.

The guy in A Useful Life needs Twitter. That’s the long and short of it. But of course we fetishize his listless alienation and rudimentary technical trappings just as we fetishize his haircut and glasses and girth. We look at him and feel some stirring mixture of kinship and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. As you point out, Fernando, I’m an exhibitor like the protagonist in this film, though I’m positioned at the junction of arthouse and multiplex, seeing faulty whatevers and dwindling whoevers from every possible angle, not just in 4:3 black and white. Though my livelihood is tied up in this business, I welcome whatever comes next. Let dying things die.

Did you see the Swiss satire Another Man? There’s a shamefully overlooked film about the “state” of “film criticism” today. I showed it to my film critic girlfriend to badger her–in a playful way of course. If you haven’t seen that film, hunt it down and tell me what you think. A perfect companion piece to A Useful Life. Parry and thrust.

Fernando: Whoa and ouch, man! That’s a very perceptive and forcefully personal argument that got me thinking about intended audiences. Does A Useful Life aim to flatter the cadre of reviewers who catch it at festivals? Of course the silver screen often functions as Narcissus’s pond, but the film is surely no more of a fantasy than Sideways, another account of a pear-shaped mensch whose theoretically deep quandaries boil down to being able to ask a girl out. Veiroj is at once more fanciful and more honest than Alexander Payne—the protagonist’s great discovery isn’t Virginia Madsen offering herself on a platter, but the notion that the films he treasures can live beyond the screen, through his connections with the outside world.

Though managing a (now defunct, natch) video store is the closest I’ve ever come to film exhibition, I must confess to a shiver of recognition over the details captured in the first half. When Jorge’s fellow curator translates the intertitles of Stroheim’s Greed to a handful of moviegoers, I couldn’t help but flash back to my early years in this country, watching horrid movies on cable with my grandmother and converting each line of dialogue into semi-accurate Portuguese for her. In scenes such as this, I got a sense of wry fondness for the cinematheque’s analog elements that mitigated what you correctly described as the “listless alienation” of the characters. It’s an ode not just to an art form but to the fragile institutions that house it.

Which brings me to the “fetishistic” aspect of A Useful Life. From its refreshingly dry cinematic references to its fascination with old-timey apparatus, it’s an unabashedly backwards-looking work, which I suspected would rankle you the way an antiquarian like Peter Bogdanovich used to aggravate a modernist like Robert Altman. I’m suspended between the two extremes, which is but another way of saying I want to have it both ways—I’m invested enough in new forms of media to see the obsolescence of Jorge’s movie club yet too attached to its handmade romanticism to simply let a dying thing die, as you put it.

It’s interesting that you bring up Kael, whose famed (if to these eyes incomprehensible) refusal to see a film more than once attested to her insistence on moving forward, away from supposedly dead things. I’ve always been more of an Andrew Sarris guy, but I like to think of both of them being moved by Veiroj’s portrait of sheltered cinephilia not so much replaced as rejuvenated by life. In the film’s highly yet subtly subjective second half, the references that seemed so arid inside the theater are let loose.  The now-jobless Jorge wanders around Montevideo, and suddenly the city seems to vibrate like F.W. Murnau’s in Sunrise. At first tentative but with increasing friskiness, he gets a haircut, does a few Gene Kelly dance steps, slips into a classroom to quote Mark Twain, and asks an acquaintance out on a date. Veiroj slyly filters these modest but genuine epiphanies through his movie love. It’s no accident that the score from Cocteau’s Orpheus rings in the character’s ears—this is his own tale of transformation and rebirth.

Alejandro: We watched the same film, but for you it’s an apple and for me it’s an orange. That said, Sideways is a banana peel. Did you just want me to go off on Alexander Payne for a couple of paragraphs while you wandered off and grabbed a beer? And then my passing mention of Kael begets your mention of Sarris. It’s namedropping as wedge-driving around here! (Kael’s policy of not seeing a film more than once is as prissily fascistic as refusing to see Tati’s Playtime unless it’s projected in 70mm.)

Anyway, critics like to be flattered, and A Useful Life comes through. It appropriates this or that gleaming passage of canonical cinema and the initiated recognize each namedroplet like the junior high school student recognizes Kathy Bates’s Gertrude Stein haircut in Midnight in Paris, or like a fan of 80s teen comedies catches the references in the excruciatingly unfunny Wet Hot American Summer. Godard’s films namedrop at a fever pitch and I hate them. A subdued version of the same thing doesn’t stand a chance. So in A Useful Life when cinematheque boy wanders out of the cinematheque I pretty much hang up the phone. Cinema has never played the role of Christ’s robe in my life—I don’t rub against it expecting to be healed.

As for the dying art of running a movie theater, I’m grateful for your continued patronage of my humble arthouse/multiplex, Fernando. Excuse me if I’m too busy sweeping up Junior Mints to stop and romanticize the art of sweeping up Junior Mints.

Fernando: The Midnight in Paris jab is well-earned: There’s something particularly unseemly about an epoch of risky art being evoked for another of sitcom platitude. Still, the spot-the-reference games of A Useful Life strike me as nowhere near as fatuous possibly due to their succinctness and to their melancholia, relating as they do to sides of the character in a way that reminds me of Scorsese’s beautiful line about remembering films being akin to remembering people. Guess I’m a sucker for the naïve allure of things that fade, and maybe I should grab a broom and join you in order to flush that impractical notion out of my system.

For now, however, Veiroj’s film moves me as a deceptively unassuming cine-reverie with plenty of sneaky but palpable passion for its subject. Remember, after all, that the original title is La Vida Util—not merely A life, but The life.

Alejandro Adams is the director of three feature films (Around the Bay, Canary, Babnik). He is currently de(con)structing the TV talk show format as creator/producer of Sara Vizcarrondo’s Look of the Week.

Fernando F. Croce is a film critic who writes for Slant, MUBI, Reverse Shot and other sites. His own website is Cinepassion.

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