Albert Serra by Steve Macfarlane

Casanova, Dracula, and art in the age of digital filmmaking.

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Still from Story of my Death, 2013, directed by Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

Albert Serra’s maniacally self-effacing The Story Of My Death is a shadow play of European philosophies, clearly shot in DV but somehow blown up to widescreen—nearly panoramic—35mm. The twilight years of the Enlightenment, embodied in the flesh by a grape-gobbling, cheese-snuffing Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), give way to darkness and temptation in the countryside as the aging lothario’s remote getaway is visited by none other than his new neighbor Dracula (Elisu Huertas). To describe Serra’s vision out loud is to parody it, but the picture is drenched in allusions, meanings, and whispers of games; as a viewer, your guess on the narrative significance of any individual scene is as good as anybody else’s. One way of putting it might be that the thirty-eight-year-old Catalan filmmaker builds a narrative with isolated tableaux—his shots linger in my memory like the Met’s most opulent still lifes.

Albert Serra, with glistening jewels wrapped around his knuckles, and with a classic rock soundtrack as backdrop, persistently employed an increasingly meaningful neologism—“performatic”—over the course of our serpentine discussion. He told me he submitted forty-nine scripted scenes to get the movie made, wrote an additional 128 more, shot everything, then spent a year editing The Story of My Death down to a total of fifty-three. Infamously, he shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and then—without remorse, it seems—cropped his images down, printing them in a vertically tight strip that looks as if somebody cluelessly left the CinemaScope camera setting on. Though his explanations of on-set techniques made me blush, only a fool would call Serra sloppy. Every one of his answers was a passionate counterdefense, hammered out one syllable at a time.

The Story of My Death opens on November 20 at Anthology Film Archives.

Steve MacFarlane This all began when you were a student of literature.

Albert Serra Yes. I was interested in Spanish literature and then comparative literature; it took six years to do that, then I studied art history for two years more. It was just because, you know … I was trying to avoid the moment.

SM Which moment?

AS The moment to go to work. (laughter) My parents are poor, but as I was studying, I tried to make that last as long as possible. But at the end of that, I was twenty-four or twenty-five, and it was in the beginning of digital filmmaking. It was 1999. There were smaller cameras, some videotapes, and you could do it yourself. There was a dream, or a hope, there, and I was very much a cinephile, but I was interested in radical cinema, the stuff from the ’60s, or Bunuel, or the avant-garde from the ’20s and ’30s, or Warhol. You know, all those people.

SM You’ve been aligned with Jean-Marie Straub.

AS That influence came a little bit later. I was born near Figueres, Dali’s hometown, where he made Un chien andalou with Buñuel, and I was influenced by this approach. Not so much by the formal content of the film but by the attitude, you know? The Surrealist or Dadaist stuff. Some of them were saying the same thing as I am: whether they were making pictures, or paintings, or actions, it was just for fun. History has judged it afterwards as art. Even if they were serious, it was subversive, fun stuff. Even if it’s a little bit pretentious, I like this word “subversive.”

SM It gets abused nowadays, I think. Somebody will call The Avengers subversive because it dares to criticize the military. It’s not Buñuel.

AS Yes, there’s that leftism. My background was not linked with the making of cinema; that world is very conventional. It’s like a factory. It’s academic. If you go to a school, nobody will tell you, “Put cows on the set. Go against what the technicians say. Do things only for fun. Torture the actors. Forget the light. Focus on the actors.” Or the opposite either, “Forget the actors and focus on the light.” No! This radicalism, it’s not for the making of cinema. But for making art, it’s completely different. If you’re an artist, you can be as crazy as you want, and the crazier you are, the better you are. The crazier your approach and the way you work, the more interesting you are.

SM Also, artists can also present their work as persons, not in the context of enlisting to become a specific type of filmmaker. It’s just “you.”

AS Yeah, and digital filmmaking opened the door in some sense to be in cinema, because I was obsessed with the idea of fiction. I hated documentaries, the easy things, I wanted to really build a world, a fantasy. So I said, Well, with this technology, maybe we’ve reached a point where we can have the attitude of artists, doing crazy things. We can now have film, with small cameras. We discovered it was really possible to make what we wanted, and it changed everything, even from the psychological point of view. When it’s 35mm, or even now with these big digital cameras, you have to prepare shots. Cinema is drawn in shots. The camera is heavy, you can’t move it, you have to prepare everything. If somebody moves, it’s already out of focus. With digital cameras, these things disappear. It’s easygoing, and then you can think in scenes, or even in just one scene, instead of in terms of shots. If we set up a camera here, for this interview, it would now be a film! I don’t even have to prepare shots.

SM You can create “cinema” from nothing.

AS Yeah! And that’s the most important thing: the world in the mind of these new filmmakers, in the beginning of the 21st century, is not just the frame of the shot. You can work with the whole world. Because you have a smaller camera, you can do this, you can do that. If one actor is inspired, I can focus there.

It’s more atmospheric, this approach. It’s not about what you have in mind, it’s more about what you have in front of you. Not what is behind you, in your mind. It’s about being sensitive to the atmosphere, because you can catch everything. So this change, from the world in the mind of the filmmaker to the 360 degrees of the world around him, makes everything possible.

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Still from Story of my Death, 2013, directed by Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

SM You were trying to explain, at a Q&A I went to, your concept of the film as performance.

AS You try to make the film as performatic as possible. It’s also a game, when you have the crew and the cast and you can be really sensitive to what’s happening in front of you: the inspiration of actors, the details of the decor, to everything. I mean, it’s really an approach that’s completely unconventional for a feature film. This technique is used for documentary, okay, and in the ’60s, with direct sound and the 16mm camera, and okay, some filmmakers in Europe have tried it. Cassavetes, blah blah blah … But now the possibilities are really, really incredibly wide and open.

SM And yet, do you feel like the possibilities offered by digital filmmaking have been betrayed? Or are being betrayed?

AS Yeah, but I don’t care. There are some Hollywood filmmakers using this technique a little bit. They have started to think differently, you know? You have more dialogues, more confusion, the plot and everything is secondary. Zodiac, for instance. The revolution of digital filmmaking has influenced everybody in some sense, though now it does seem that they have come back around. People use digital cameras, but they do shoot as they would in 35mm. This is my point: there has been a comeback. In the beginning it felt like a liberation, even for the more important filmmakers—

SM And young amateurs, too.

AS Yes. But then, they prepared the cameras to have better images, higher definition. They focus on the technical, technical, technical, but never on the psychological. Hollywood will never think about that, because they need to be sure, to be safe, before putting down the money. For the big films it’s over, but I like the attitude of never falling into academicism. The Straub thing is another example of this attitude: the perfectly erratic shot, its frontality, is not usually accepted by audiences.

SM Time, too. You can be radical in how you use space, or how you use time, and sometimes I feel that’s becoming the more pressing element.

AS Because cinema is the only art that can deal with time. This is the point. Theater is not about time, because it’s real time. For me it’s important to make the past present. We have many ideas about how we think about the past, but it’s not the same as being in the present.

There was a time when I was worried about the books in Casanova’s mansion while we were shooting—I was afraid they looked too new. Then I realized: they are new, because it’s the late 18th century. They’re probably nice, expensive books. They don’t need to look old and dusted. The idea is that, if you keep the image as you shoot it, it’s your version, your interpretation. You are putting, in your composition, your vision of the past.

SM So if the old goal was to forget your troubles at the movies, today you need to be aware of context at all times.

AS Well, if you edit, it’s really present, it’s part of a reality that didn’t exist before. It is its own present, because it has not been thought by anybody. It didn’t exist before. It’s born in the cinema, only existing the moment you see it: fucking present. So it’s really a beautiful moment, because it’s born for our moment, for the cinema. No? That image creates the ambiguity of being in the past but also in the present, really one and the same. So, there is the possibility of having a more real sense of time, of the past, than if it was the perfect recreation of the past.

SM So you’re against fetishizing the past?

AS Perfect definition. It’s forgetting that this is the past; at the same time, okay, we have beautiful decor, we have everything you like: wine, candles. I’m not looking for truth, and it’s the same with actors. We are never looking for truth. We’re looking for the beauty. Even if it’s artificial, even if it’s more risky from the psychological point of view, or the credibility of the film’s history, I don’t care. We’re not looking for truth, but for beauty. The same for the vision of the past: we’re looking for the beauty of the past, something more alive than looking for some truth that you can read, a cliché of truth or a simple illustration of truth. Beauty is never an illustration. Beauty can’t be illustrated because it’s an experience of our eyes. But truth, yes, it can be illustrated, because it’s information.

SM Which is funny. The original models of screenwriting are all kind of about dispensing information to the audience. So maybe when you say “truth,” you’re also saying, “accuracy?”

AS Maybe, but for me art is an experience. This was the challenge with digital filmmaking: at the beginning there was less money, and I found a millionaire, and I convinced him, because he was a collector of art, that cinema could have the dignity and the depth of art. He told me cinema is what you watch on a Sunday afternoon because you are bored, just to have fun or forget your own life and escape a little bit. Because he was very fetishistic, focusing on the beauty or the purity of the object or whatever—never thinking cinema could be as pure as that.

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Still from Story of my Death, 2013, directed by Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

SM So that was your first challenge.

AS To convince that guy, yeah. I was already convinced. My influence came from the art world, so I was “pure.” I never thought about making a film that would not ask viewers any of these artistic kinds of questions. The purity of my film would be the same. Then, I had to deal with the fact that it is a different language. I don’t know. Do you agree that beauty is an experience, and truth is information?

SM I guess what I would say is, in my education, truth was aligned with beauty, because “truth”—at least in acting—means that the actor got something across that the viewer could relate to. And that’s what is also found “beautiful.” But that is not entirely the same beauty you’re talking about.

AS You’re right. Mine is more an experience. You can judge information, but an experience is much more difficult to judge.

SM There’s something slightly confrontational about this, though, because it seems like your audiences must come to realize at some point how little they actually enjoy considering the past. For example, he may be Casanova but he still needs to take a shit like anybody else.

AS Being on set for me, the question is more, “Well, why not?” There’s also this idea of the past as a cliche. In the past, they didn’t shit? We focus on the cliches in our image of the past, so I like to … This is pure provocation. You do not need to show a guy shitting.

SM Have people complained about it?

AS In France, it’s not the kind of humor that is loved. Apart from that, no. English people like it, for example. (laughter)

SM Your vision of the Enlightenment isn’t entirely complimentary. The film suggests that maybe a vampire’s life is more liberating than the life of one of Casanova’s girlfriends. Dracula gives his victims more agency than they ever had before.

AS This is one of the main questions of the film. Everyone has experienced this: where do you get more pleasure? Imagine yourself with a beautiful woman, in a dangerous scene, in the dark … it’s sexy. Now imagine you’re with your normal girlfriend, or your wife, and you know, everybody will agree that the darkness has more pleasure. This “outlaw” situation, we can say.

So where is the real pleasure? Can the real pleasure be transgressive, or is it with communication? And this is a point of constriction in our whole world. If you arrive to the conclusion that pleasure is always transgressive, then you can build a civilization. It’s always about primitive and dark desires, even at the top of any government. You cannot really build it up, though, if you arrive at the conclusion that communication is always deeper and more interesting, ultimately giving more pleasure than possession and transgression, Casanova instead of Dracula …

SM (laughter) So Casanova is a model of communication?

AS Well, according to the memoir, yes. In fact, he was a very interesting man. Very generous, Casanova. Never complained, never fought with the women; everything was very sweet, very light, and in real communication. Nobody hiding anything or complaining.

I don’t know; it was not psychological, not this idea of possession. When possession arrives, in the form of Dracula, then it’s about freedom. Entitlement. There is the fight: possession is the opposite of freedom. Maybe communication allows freedom and maybe freedom is a source of pleasure. Maybe possession is dark: you see these things, you have no pleasure, but you kill freedom.

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Still from Story of my Death, 2013, directed by Albert Serra. Image courtesy of Anthology Film Archives.

SM So if The Story Of My Death were shown in a philosophy class, you’d be cool with that?

AS Yeah! Very much. One of the main goals was to make a philosophical film, but only with images, without the little screenwriter hidden inside, you know. This film is one jumping-off point, there may be many others. But it’s done without the dialogues and the words that describe what you can really do with the images.

SM Why don’t you like to rehearse with your actors?

AS Because it’s boring. I decided to make the film because of the fun, and the fun of using the digital technology. You can have a fun shoot, not just a boring, factory-like shoot.

I wait for inspiration in actors. I am there, shooting and waiting for the inspiration, when they are really with this “magical moment.” With time, with the way I feel that day, with that moment, that scene, I can make a projection and try to understand when this magic will appear. And then, there are always surprises in the edit. But, it’s about being sensitive to the shooting and not being focused on myself, but on what’s actually in front of the camera. I make a suspension of judgment when I shoot a film. I kill the judgment of what I am doing. This was a big lesson of Warhol’s, just being concentrated. It’s like a performance. It can be seen as ridiculous, but it’s very concentrated in the act.

SM Actors must like working with you.

AS I never say anything. I don’t like to sit back, but usually at the time, I don’t look at what’s happening.

SM Well, the pitch is just where it needs to be—Dracula’s scream, for instance, is genuinely terrifying. You didn’t specifically request that?

AS It depends. In quiet and still moments, Casanova’s world is transforming into Dracula’s. I am not always looking at the scenes as we are shooting. I don’t want to interfere.

SM So it’s not about what you had in mind, but rather, what you’re getting.

AS Yes. “I do not look for, I just find,” as Picasso said. I never look at the faces or at the books. I was there, but not looking. Most of the time I am quite far away—I never heard the dialogue, but it depends on the shooting day.

I learned everything from my own system. I explained my process to a class of college students for two hours, because I know it will take them ten years to develop their own systems. You can never teach knowledge like this. All this “knowledge,” you lose it as easily as you get it. So the more difficult it is for you to acquire, the most difficult it will be to lose. It’s a long, long process.

It never comes from outside. I’ve never been at somebody else’s shoot. I cannot watch films anymore as a spectator, just for the pleasure of it. If I watch a film, it’s because I will find in that film something useful for my own film. I will pick up something, put it inside and transform it and use it in my next film. I don’t want to judge a film. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, I do it because there is, inside it, something that will be useful for me. And I use it.

SM Do you still consider yourself a cinephile?

AS It’s my career—no, it’s not my career. It’s my job, my work, that interests me. Not cinema, not cinema history, not other people’s work; time is short. I mean, I’m thirty-eight, so it’s not so easy to develop all these things I have in mind. I can’t lose time worrying about other people’s films or other people’s aesthetics or movements of contemporary cinema. I’m following it in some sense, but it’s not my goal. My goal is my own, and I’m obsessive about it.

SM All three of your films have been about historical figures, but they’re not “pop” films. The idea is more pop than the execution.

AS Well, this is the thing. The Straub influence is very important to me, this primitive frontality. Sometimes I try to escape the fetishists’ approach because fetishism, if it exists, is always very primitive. It’s Sokurov who said, “I don’t shoot actors, I don’t shoot characters, I shoot human beings.” You know? In some sense it is that approach; I don’t focus on the cliché of the character of the book—Quixote or whomever, so much—because if I do that then I’m not focusing on the actors or on the work. We are interested in the human being, the materiality, you know? You escape the pop approach by focussing on the materiality of the human beings in front of you. If you are really focused on that, it will never be reduced to a mere illustration, because pop is, in some sense, just a means of illustration.

SM Which is one type of beauty, just not the one you’re talking about.

AS Yes, of course, I love it. But I also think it’s dangerous for the evolution of cinema in general—it’s too present, now, this kind of “pop” approach. If there were two lines in film history, the Antonioni line and the Parajanov line—unfortunately I think film history followed the Modernist, Antonioni line. But it could have chosen Parajanov, as Godard said.

The Story of My Death opens on November 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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