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Compelling the Heart to Care

Dick Edelstein

Justo Gallego sixty years ago embarked on a seemingly lunatic mission: using cast-off materials to realise his wildly ambitious design for a cathedral built on his own land outside Madrid to honour La Virgen del Pilar – Our Lady of the Pillar. The feature-length Spanish-Irish documentary Pan Seco, subtitled in English and directed by Román Cadafalch and Cadhla Kennedy, catches up with Justo at the age of ninety-three. He is a difficult man to catch up with, in constant motion, exuding élan vital, brandishing a self-deprecating wit as he takes the piss out of everyone and everything, always minding his inner compass as he follows a mystical path. In its bizarre purity, his single-minded dedication is so forceful and imaginative that viewers begin to question the validity of their own values.

Most of the heavy lifting on the job site is now done by his younger, Sancho Panza-like sidekick and heir, appropriately named Ángel. The film takes the surreal quotidian existence of the comical pair at face value, as if their peculiar activities made perfect sense. The shambolic cathedral they are building without the necessary permits reveals a compelling home-grown logic of design and a particular sort of terrible beauty. This structure-in-progress provides Cadafalch and Kennedy with abundant opportunities to make cinematic sense of its aesthetic features. Casually but deftly, with studied nonchalance, they capture the vibrant qualities of the curiously coherent building and of the individuals whose lives play out within.

“Who knew such a counterpoint to the Sagrada Familia was out there?” mused an American friend who sent her thanks for putting Pan Seco and Justo’s cathedral on her radar screen. Does that mean Pan Seco is about a man and a cathedral? Many people know of Justo’s megalomaniac edifice; we can find photographs of the building, television segments and documentary features. But this film, now seeking distribution, has been seen by a relatively small number of spectators, so its informative function is probably not its raison d’être. It is not just about a man and a building; it could be many things: a new way of seeing film or just seeing, a song of youth, even an antidote to unreason and an aesthetic response to alarming trends in public discourse.

Pan Seco is a photographer’s film, understated and eloquent, a paean to photography but a choral work too. We can appreciate both of these aspects while considering the sound design and editing. The directors cut brusquely between scenes to avoid intrusive transitions, and the technicians shape the ambient sound in harmony with the sumptuous visual images. Sound levels accompany the action and confer realism by quickly rising when the ambient sound is noisier in a new shot. But, owing to the careful work of the sound editor, who eases transitions into place without stressing viewers, the transition doesn’t slap viewers in the face as you might expect. There is no jolt, and the rich ambient sound is diaphanous; I could follow the action just by listening whenever I momentarily left the room.

Although photography takes precedence, colour plays a key role in Pan Seco by foregrounding protagonists and showing the cathedral in a flattering light; when sunlight strikes its old and craggy, handsomely textured brickwork in reddish-brown cooked earth tones, I want to gobble it up like a tasty Catalan pastry. There is emotional impact in the way the director-photographers, colourist and editor pay attention to variations in natural light, stirring memories, bringing back winter vacations in Murcia and Alicante: solstice past, weather now pulled towards spring, light flat and warming.

Since a camera works differently from an eye, there is no such thing as natural colour, but we can compare Pan Seco’s colouring with photographs and video segments that treat the same subject. This commercial work, when contrasted, leaves Pan Seco in a good light. More importantly, it shows Justo in a bad light. While the photos resemble something from your father’s wallet, the busy video sequences distract viewers with pointless technical displays. But the most disturbing outcome is that these images, in their grim, grey mood, render Justo and his project uninteresting. In contrast, Cadafalch’s cinema displays a refreshing visual treatment as he depicts the two protagonists – Justo and his building. Although his cinematic treatment is a central element of Pan Seco, Cadafalch avoids calling attention to it.

The hand-held camera work of the co-directors owes a certain debt to the experiments of actor-director John Cassavetes, enfant terrible and innovative master of space and movement. However, Kennedy and Cadafalch don’t emulate his style, too unsuitable for documentary. Cassavetes’s camera is fluid and nervous, getting in people’s faces, poking in corners, and booming in on details like a Robbe-Grillet novel.

Cadafalch and Kennedy take another tack, using low camera angles to enhance the stature of their subjects without intimidating; this friendly gesture helps build rapport. The camera-handling of the directors supports a narrative that invites viewers to consider human values – a fiercely humanist vision infuses every element of their film, a cry for reflection, listening, questioning, and mutual respect that politely asks us to check our baggage at the door. Kennedy and Cadafalch convey their message using a visual language able to avoid triggering the knee-jerk responses to hot-button words that are shamefully becoming a dominant mode of discussion. They seek a way to counter an ill that makes verbal discourse a minefield tricky to negotiate.

Exactly how can directors signify values such as mutual respect just by moving a camera around? This is a key question. While each viewer responds to filmic language in a particular way, I find the contemplative mood of Cadafalch’s cinematography a thing of shy great beauty. Inviting contemplation and reflection, his work is pregnant with implication, but it’s technical too – resourcefully exploiting the features and limitations of a simple hand-held camera. Cadafalch uses this resource to speak softly in his shots while approaching interlocutors respectfully, regardless of ideological persuasion.

Here we come to a key point of his graphic vision: the handwriting revealed in his camera movement and way of holding the camera. Although stabilised, a stable shot with a Handycam is not the same as dolly shots used in productions that can afford them, where the lens stares balefully, impassive, fixedly. When this fixed stare is used abusively, it can remind us of Malcolm McDowell’s predicament in A Clockwork Orange, where our anti-hero is lashed to a chair with restraints, eyelids propped open with a scientific torture device, as technicians gauge his response to various types of sexual images.

Cadafalch’s camera vision works because it comes closer to the way we really see. We can’t stare fixedly, since our eyeballs jump in saccades from one fixed point to another. In his photography, the image looks stable but we always feel it is about to move slightly at any moment, and it always does. Often it is his subject who provides an excuse to move the camera – some gesture or movement; and this is Cadafalch’s best gambit because the movement is not an artifice of the photographer; it is initiated by the subject. When a subject stands still, the photographers look for an excuse to shift the camera, using the movement to suggest notions and feelings. We are the eye, or close to it, and that is a subtle way of showing respect.

Heeding the biblical injunction to “Seek and ye shall find”, the directors find intriguing sights and actions in interstices, nooks and crannies. Fortuitously lit, these details allow them opportunities to shift the camera or insert a vignette. But never to call attention with stylistic effects that look planned; and this above all: always to speak with the tiniest voice. How else could they be heard amidst the din, when public discourse is a megaphone-driven sneak preview of barbarism?

Having considered some technical details, I feel like Christ at the Cana wedding: “Thou hast saved the best wine ’til last.” The ideology. How does a pictorial film convey ideas using scraps of spontaneous, unscripted dialogue? The directors create a non-fiction narrative that exploits the graphic features of cinema while inviting viewers to explore narratives meaningful to them.

We couldn’t ignore the generational implications of this film, but I note for the record that the principals are around twenty-six years old. If they had free time to read the papers, they could find out all they need to know about themselves. We are told that their generation came easily into our world, enjoying the benefits of past struggles, and that this made them lazy and dependent. In terms of educational opportunities, the most fortunate members of this cohort often prefer media studies or going to film school if they can wangle it, having a whole lifetime ahead to pay off the loans so long as they avoid distraction and, above all, get a real job. But they may later go off on a tangent, marketing ugly fruit, creating cultural centres from disused theatres or building arts retreats using a bunch of discarded yurts, and – the most worrying symptom – thinking and speaking differently.

Placing our future in their hands, we can bestow our final gift – practically all we’ve got left – freedom to proceed from a blank state. Having bollixed everything that can be bollixed, we can leave them, as Gandhi said, to God or anarchy, to contemplate and reason. We have already bestowed another legacy, an ancient craftsman’s tool box dating from the year of the flood. When they opened it, the box seemed emptier than it had looked like from the outside, although it contained quite a few ornate, hand-crafted tools from the eighteenth century. There were parlour tricks and amusements, but also deadly weapons, land mines, and instruments of torture. Good luck with that. Oh, and thanks for all the fish.

We say members of the emerging generations have difficulty focusing on tasks, goals and priorities, and they probably say that about us too. They are impoverished and stressed, sometimes needing more than one job to get by, a real job, paying in cash rather than experience. This dilemma has a simple solution: we know from the papers and David McWilliams’s podcasts that money doesn’t really exist as a repository of intrinsic value; it is merely a way of accounting so the bean counters can accurately notate, well, technical things, and keep everything on an even keel. While nobody believes that last part any more, the notions serve as a placeholder until we come up with a more lucid explanation. Since our generation’s wealth came from several ill-timed accounting errors when the machine was broken, we should be able to sort this out just by getting together for a natter. The simplest thing would be to give the current generation back their half since it was an accounting error. If we can’t do that, we have probably internalised the attitudes of our oppressors. In any case, this analysis suggests that new generations have an entirely different take on global, social, political and artistic phenomena since they are subject to different forces and likely to seek answers in different places – which may be a good place to look.

The ideological underpinning of Pan Seco is of great interest, showing the production team used good criteria in choosing their subject. My neighbour Pau Gilabert, adept student of the classical era and a respected film writer, explained that Justo is the living embodiment of Platonic notions imported into Christian ideals. “It’s textbook stuff!” Pau declaimed “Point for point, all the way down the list!” This is another way of saying Justo is a stone cold fundamentalist, obscurantist Catholic. But, since the film-makers are dedicated humanists, in the light of those deep ideological differences shouldn’t they try to annihilate his close family, torture his relatives and generally bring down abomination? That’s what enemies do, right? It’s written somewhere. But that’s not what they do.

Humanism is wrongly or rightly an appealing world view we embrace based more on what we feel than what we know. My friend, the conspicuously talented New York poet Ricky Ray, doesn’t view aesthetics as a domain apart from the human condition but rather as a place from which to launch a fierce battle of the heart against forces of unreason, going as far as words are able in his statement of purpose prefacing Rascal, his journal of the arts, ecology and literature. This is his stated aim:

to wake the inattentive mind out of its doldrums
and compel the shrinking heart to care

Here we need to bring poetry into the discussion since the Pan Seco crew appropriate many notions from it, often in preference to narrative prose-styling, taking good advantage of the suggestive power and ambiguity of signs that we see in contemporary poetry. The film does include a linear narrative around Justo’s obsessive concern with meeting his maker, but the directors more often organically deploy the arguments of poetics to build a rich narrative text that is fertile ground for speculation, contemplation and reflection.

The Pan Seco website notes the influence of postmodern cinema. Varda’s influence seems important, but there is more: Jean-Luc Godard’s social-Maoist personal film guru André Bazin founded the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, still as influential today. He enumerated techniques he deemed essential for the kind of cinema that seeks his preferred goal: objective truth. He always included a list of techniques to be avoided, and Pan Seco shows close agreement with both lists.

A prime example is use of infinite depth of field, which Bazin claimed democratically gave viewers the power to choose to look at action occurring in any plane in the shot. Kennedy and Cadafalch exploit this property of their camera, but not with the same rationale. Viewers see movement in all parts of the background, not for democratic reasons but because the deep field enhances realism while giving viewers an interesting visual treat.

Bazin suggested ways of breaking the fourth wall in cinema to better convey objective truth at twenty-four frames per second. Some Nouvelle Vague directors thought a good way to do this was to have film crew members wandering around in the shot, bringing the reality of the film closer to the unvarnished, out-there truth. The Pan Seco crew religiously keep out of the shot, even though the subjects sometimes engage by addressing them, looking in their direction, or trying to avoid looking at them. My neighbour Adolfo Perinat explored this phenomenon by analysing videos of human behaviour that he and his research team recorded. In a book chapter on recursivity, he describes what happens when observed subjects become aware they are observing too.

They involve the observer and at the same time they perceive themselves to be involved by the observer. The little boy creates the observer when he perceives himself to be observed; ipso facto he himself becomes the observer of the observer.

The Pan Seco crew have little interest in objective truth – that’s Justo’s bag and he prefers the revealed sort. But they manage to discount the ideology of a film genius while profiting from his practical advice. They turn his guns around by using visual language to explore multiple conceptions of truth while rejecting certainties like objective reality. Not a shabby accomplishment for a crew of artists starting out in their careers. What else did Bazin recommend? Clean edits, no busy montage using rapidly cut sequences, no mise en scène to create an atmosphere. The directors tick the boxes without buying the whole hog.

The Irish axis of this film entails an interesting back story. Kennedy is the granddaughter of Irish writers Val Mulkerns and Maurice Kennedy and daughter of the recently departed Conor Kennedy, ad man and copy writer by trade with a sideline in media production. Dubliners remark that he never used eleven words in a text when two would suffice.

The directors used music sparingly in Pan Seco to great effect – the two brief interludes produced by the London-based band White Flower strongly reinforce the contemplative tone of the film. I became an instant fan of their classically rooted modern music themes that chime with the contemporary recycling of cinema history seen in the film.

I couldn’t learn much about producer Katarina Grbić. Evidently she works all the time, instigated the Pan Seco project, managed crowd-funding and made key decisions jointly with the co-directors. The makers of Pan Seco are holding good cards – right now, not in the future. If they should continue their fruitful collaboration, they seem likely to achieve their goals in some parcel of the visual and performing arts amenable to their talents, skills and sensibilities. Advice? Well, there is one thing – from my film industry experience as a long-time consumer: never fold four aces against a busted flush. I learned that from cinema’s most prolific genre – cowboy movies.

1/1/2021

Dick Edelstein contributes essays, reviews and articles to journals and websites in Ireland and the UK.

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