Randal Johnson in his internet essay (@sensesofcinema.com) AGAINST THE GRAIN: ON THE CINEMATIC VISION OF MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA (and in his forthcoming book), writes of the strange primacy of the work of this man who is our oldest living and still active film-maker, with his 98th birthday approaching on December 11th. In his DVD notes to De Oliveira's I'M GOING HOME, Richard Pena writes of De Oliveira's early documentary work, HARD LABOR ON THE RIVER DOURO (1931) AND ANIKI-BOBO (1941), and he also says that many critics consider FRANCISCA (1981) as his masterpiece. I don't doubt it, although I have only seen I'M GOING HOME (2002) and A TALKING PICTURE (2003). De Oliveira is an inspiring director, restoring one's faith that there are still explorations beyond the technical which film can achieve, even after early Godard, Truffaut's SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, Cassavetes' SHADOWS, Antonioni and Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, Brakhage and the movement known as The New American Cinema, after Fassbinder/Herzog/Wenders, grainy British neo-realism, Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix in France, American independents from STRANGER THAN PARADISE through THE GRIFTERS, to MEMENTO, BRICK, and whatever other films you might care to add.

De Oliveira is known for his almost completely static camera. The great Kevin Brownlow, in his remarkable and richly illustrated book, THE PARADE'S GONE BY (highly recommended reading for any serious student of film), demonstrates his belief that the apex of cinematographic achievment was just in the process of being reached, and then sound came in, and camera movement took second place to spoken language, script was all, and the voices now to accompany the acting. So the static camera had to become, eventually, a technique in-itself: the closed shadow sets and "deep image" work of Gregg Toland in KANE, and, later, the broad wide screen images of James Wong Howe and the crisp intensity of Conrad Hall.

The tradition had begun to postmodern itself when Billy Wilder said that a camera should never be seen as intruding, that the film-goer should never be aware of the presence of the camera. But in Oliveira, you are ALWAYS aware of the camera, by the very nature of its extreme stasticity. It is a tradition going as far back as Carl Dreyer, whose THE PASSION OF JEANNE D'ARC, Oliveira has said, had a profound influence upon him. As did the French avant-garde, as Pena points out, even though the static camera is the opposite of the brilliance of Raoul Coutard's hand-held camera. The pace is slow, as slow as Ozu's pacing (Ozu possibly defining his own work against that of the more "Western" master, Kurosawa). In Oliveira the static camera seems a minimalist device, as do the repeated shots of the prow of the ship in A TALKING PICTURE. In the most radical and probably not wholly serious way, it was Andy Warhol who most used the static camera. EMPIRE STATE comes to mind. Eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building. I remember someone said that after about four hours, there was a bird. Someone else said there was a cloud passed briefly. (I sat through some of it, and also abbreviated versions of SLEEP and KISS.) Shirley Clarke tried a more static approach with PORTRAIT OF JASON, which followed upon her masterpiece, THE COOL WORLD.

With the medium range shot framing the film as if it were a picture, and of course it is, one which gives the illusion of motion, Oliveira also shoots totally absurdist camera angles and holds them. In I'M GOING HOME, two men hold a conversation at a Paris cafe, but the camera shows only their shoes and the pavement. It completely defamiliarizes the dialogue spoken, and the referentiality of the frame, the illusion of the reality of the film itself, and the reality which it nevertheless is, in spite of itself.

I'M GOING HOME is the more theatrical of the two companion piece films: unlike A TALKING PICTURE, the deus ex machina comes at the beginning of the film as the actor performs baroque and stylized excerpts from Ionesco and from Shakespeare.

John Malkovich was chosen to play foil parts in both of these films; I am not a part of his cult following. I do not reckon him as an actor of depth, and I tend in fact to cringe at his film presence. He seems always smarmily arrogant, and in these two films he plays roles which are suited to that manner. An obsequious and over-reaching film director doing Joyce's ULYSEES in I'M GOING HOME, and a ship's captain in A TALKING PICTURE, an imitation of an imitation of David Niven doing Ronald Coleman laced with a shot of John Cleese. He shows how much of a risk Oliveira is able to take, since the ship scenes in A TALKING PICTURE run the risk of being Ed Woodish. Malkovich falls over that line into camp at times; yet, there is no denying his weight in both films.

What Oliveira does is to refine and condense cinematic techniques, making them his own by the theatricality (as in late Abel Gance or Renoir's THE RIVER) and his jump cuts, no fade-ins or fade-outs, no cross-wipes. His jump cuts are not always establishing shots. Richard Pena notes that his editing is essentially musical, focusing on rhythms and movements and not on establishing temporal or spacial relations. I think of Rohmer here, and one can't help thinking of Anna Karina's dance in BAND OF OUTSIDERS, the film which is perhaps Godard's most astonishingly innovative achievment, as Irene Papas moves through the cruise ship audience singing a kind of Greek Fado, and, for the first time in ages, the camera moves into a slow and sustained tracking shot.

Catherine Deneuve is luminous and beautiful in both films, and unlike Malkovich doesn't try to ironize her lines, as she and Papas disclose the price of their artistic greatness.

I'M GOING HOME is a film with real heart and reverence and a superlative performance from Michel Piccoli. A TALKING PICTURE picks up a thread as the grandfather and boy in I'M GOING HOME are transformed into the young history professor mother (Leonor Silveira) and her daughter taking the ship from Lisbon to Bombay.

As the ship sails down the Tagus, leaving Lisbon, and the protagonist tells her daughter about the Age of Discoveries and Henry The Navigator, and touches on the myth of King Sebastian, the camera never moves. The scene drifts by. The history had taken but a few moments. The space through which the time flows is enormous. A TALKING PICTURE proceeds, beads-on-a-string, (edited by Valerie Loiseleux, a "sharply cut gem of a film" as Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times) to its inevitable conclusion.

When last did a film reach this level of Becoming, faultless in execution.

(Margate, New Jersey, August 2006)