The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
“In this sense, cinema is the art of reality, the medium in which reality’s beauty is captured, where you can film marble or a face, or record someone’s voice, a sunset, the innate beauty of what you’re contemplating.”
Born in Mexico City and trained as a lawyer specializing in armed-conflict resolution, Carlos Reygadas was inspired at age 30 to try his hand at film out of his appreciation of the films of auteurs such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni. He has been making films ever since. Having released three feature-length films—Japón (2001), Battle in Heaven (2005), and Silent Light (2007)—as well as two shorts, Reygadas’s has become a unique voice that stands apart from the filmmakers commonly associated with the New Mexican Cinema movement of the last decade, whose productions are more in sync with Hollywood norms.
Over the course of his career, Reygadas’s technique has become more sophisticated and his vocabulary more controlled, achieving sublime moments of beauty and the grotesque. His films are neither autobiographical nor self-referential. They construct a platform in which visual language is the medium that produces affect. Their severity and power arise from the fact that they address serious matters—love, death, faith, fear, sex, sacrifice, and redemption—through everyday experiences, and in the process of doing so, they put forth a new type of humanism. Like a modern-day, cinematic Holden Caulfield, Reygadas seeks the authenticity of unmediated experience. Steering away from the predominance of narrative and professional acting in film, Reygadas has developed a moving and arresting body of work seemingly devoid of artifice.
Reygadas’s two most recent shorts have enriched his repertoire of techniques and subject matter: Serenghetti, a montage of views of a women’s soccer match, and Este es mi reino , a 12-minute film (for Revolución, a compilation of shorts commemorating the bicentenary of the Mexican Revolution) that exposes the paradoxes of community and individual freedom, celebration, and melancholy in Mexican society. He seldom talks about his work, and theorizes about it even less; he prefers instead to let his films evince the ideas and experiences he wants to convey. Regardless, we met at his six-acre property in Ocotitlán, Morelos—a village an hour outside of Mexico City where he is building a house—and talked about music, literature, and film. Our conversation made it apparent to me that for Reygadas, the road ahead is wide and clear.
José Castillo I would like to ask you about your choice to work with film. Could you have chosen a different art form? And how does this notion of creating a world of your own relate to film specifically?
Carlos Reygadas For me this simply has been a consequence of being alive, living my life, more than of any specific search. I’ve never programmatically set out to make movies that reflect my world somehow. Now that I’m building a house, the idea of wanting to live in a particular way is also defined a posteriori. But going back to film, when I wanted to make my first movie I was a lawyer and indeed liked law, but I remember wanting a change of life. I wanted to feel more freedom on a day-to-day basis.
Actually, though, I wanted to make a first movie in order to see if I had any talent for filmmaking—that was it. I had no idea whether I could pull it off or not. I went ahead and tried my hand at making a movie, but I knew nothing about the system. This determined what I’ve been doing ever since. As it turns out, the film I made ended up reflecting my personal vision. I’m convinced that to be original all you have to do is be yourself: we’re all original. It’s like people’s fingerprints. So, automatically I reflected a personal world.
JC There’s an interesting relationship between your characters’ internal and exterior lives. In your films there seems to be a moment in which personal miseries, tragedies, anguishes, and other feelings become public. And there’s also redemption, through love and intimacy. There’s a scene I find quite compelling in Silent Light, a film about personal relationships in the tight community of Mennonites in Chihuahua, involving a family bathing in a pool. Can you elaborate on the issue of making what’s private public and on making visible those private emotions?
CR It’s all a consequence of action. It’s all about spontaneity for me; I never put theory before practice. I’m thinking concretely of that bathing scene in Silent Light—all I wanted was to transmit the sense of peace and quiet that a family might experience when engaging in a daily ritual in a place of continuing beauty, such as that pool. These are feelings I must have had as a child, I’ve had moments of complete plenitude and tranquility, where nothing but the present mattered.
JC But do you think it’s possible to attain such a state through collective experiences? Your characters seem wrapped in their own emotions, so when, for instance, suffering turns outward, it’s manifested from one character to another; the same with their joy.
CR I’m sorry, I’ve never even thought of this. I just don’t think it’s my forte. For me community is nothing but the sum of individuals. Of course society as a whole has its own laws and such, but rather than trying to reflect that in my films, I prefer to read Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. What I’m interested in—not dogmatically, but on an emotional level—are those brief moments in which the truth is experienced. The truth is never absolute; it’s approached almost tangentially. Declaring a philosophical, religious, or social truth will turn it into dogma and therefore will prevent it from being experienced as real; it will always be normative. On the contrary, what feels real is poetic, ineffable, open-ended. Truth, by definition, is intangible.
JC Inverting Carlos Monsiváis’s phrase “only the fleeting prevails,” what seems permanent tends to be contingent, temporary.
CR Exactly. I’ve always hated pronouncements, militancy based on slogans, religious dogmas. Ethics are the result of personal decisions; you ask yourself questions and try to solve them at a particular moment.
JC Ethics become manifest in your characters’ personal experiences. They hark back to Shakespeare’s and Dostoyevsky’s archetypes. How do their moral dilemmas unfold? How do you arrive at your characters’ ethics?
CR It’s a silly answer, but basically, via my imagination. But I don’t think like a novelist; if I tried to write a novel it’d be a complete disaster. I’m terrible at conventional screenwriting. So by “imagination,” I mean I imagine myself in concrete situations: walking up a hill and running into people. I can actually make myself see the colors, feel the wind and the temperature, hear the steps of the people around me. So I proceed by having these sensations and letting things happen as I go on writing the screenplay. This for me is the quintessential creative moment. I write everything in one blow over a few days and then make very few revisions—I’m in a state of trance.
You must have noticed that all of my films spring from a male lead character. At some point I’d like to start off with a female lead character … it hasn’t worked out for me yet. So this male character begins acting, moving, and feeling, and in the process, begins to emerge. That’s when the questions spontaneously arise, once I enter that character’s imagination. That human being encounters problems, hurdles, moments of pleasure—he faces ethical questions as well. I don’t need to think about this much; it’s like a dream in the sense that it reflects everything the person dreaming has ever lived, everything he or she will become. But again, it’s not as if I’m taking notes all year long , thinking about how I’d like this or that character to … I come up with them as I’m writing the screenplay.
JC How long are your scripts?
CR Very brief: 50 or 60 pages. That Hollywood idea of a page per minute is one of the stupidest I’ve ever heard: it’s utterly uncreative and noxious.
JC Yeah, like the notion that films need to be 105 minutes long or should never exceed two hours …
CR It’s absurd to think that all films have to have the same rhythm and duration; it destroys the essence of film’s conception of time. Imagine saying that all music had to follow a given tempo! It’s the same as saying each page of a script equals a minute in the film. That’s why even though Hollywood films can be comedies, dramas, or whatever, they all have exactly the same structure. The characters and plots might change, but the films are all alike; people find repetition comforting, that’s why the formula is successful. Anyway, although it takes me a few days to write the screenplay, it does take me a while—a few months, sometimes a year—to decide where I’m going to set it and what the film’s engine, or central motor, will be. In Silent Light the engine was the idea of death by emotional pain. There’d be a lot of intensity around the idea of infidelity, in a moralistic sense.
JC Meaning that you don’t believe in infidelity? You don’t seem to judge the possibility of being multi-amorous in the film. Your ethical position regarding the character’s being in love with two people is neutral.
CR It’s curious, when you think about all this, you understand why religion promotes monogamy—it’s complex.
JC Yes, it’s people’s way of resolving dilemmas like the one in your film.
CR It’s not a way of resolving them; it’s actually a way of avoiding conflict. If you firmly believe in dogmas, you’ll never experience conflicts, but that’s reducing life to nothingness. It’s like a friend of mine who never wants to have a dog because she thinks she’d suffer too much when it died. I understand why there’d be a book such as the Divine Comedy and so many representations of the devil and religious punishment; when something goes terribly wrong it seems as though the cause is divine retribution. I understand why there are rules regulating human drives, but I’d much rather embrace human nature with caution, setting limits for myself depending on where I’m coming from and what my goals are.
JC The critical reception of your films tends to emphasize the potency of your images. Where do you stand in regard to the art of cinema? You’ve said elsewhere that “there are few films, there are more movies, and plenty of illustrated literature.”
CR My screenplays are not literary in the way that most screenplays are literary. Mine are images and sounds, and because of that, they’re closer to film—they’re not merely translating literature into drawings for a storyboard. In my opinion most screenplays are, basically, literature, in a structural and finally even an ontological sense. As I said before, for my screenplays I enter this vision, a hypnotic, hallucinogenic, or dream-like one; I write it down, but the result is not literature. As I write I imagine I’m already seeing the film:
A black square appears, a cinemascope, or a 1:1.33 screen ratio, a text in a bright-blue Bauhaus font appears, it remains on screen for only two seconds. Cut. Then, it appears again on the background and then dissolves … The sound begins … The face of a dark 30-year-old man appears. The camera moves …
That’s how I go about writing; I’d be happy to lend you one of my screenplays so you can see how I go about numbering each take—that’s what films are, sequences of takes. And so what I write is images and sounds, basically. One of film’s burdens has been that usually someone writes a literary screenplay and then someone else illustrates it through the medium of cinema; sometimes it’s the same person. It’s a difficult idea to apprehend, because people think I’m just referring to the adaptation of novels, but I’m not at all: a novel can inspire a great translation into a sequence of images and sounds. In any case, my creative moment is registered in the script, because that’s when I have a total vision of the film.
JC I’m interested to hear how close or distant you feel to other forms of visual representation in film. I’ll give you an example: if you think of certain scenes in the films of Peter Greenaway you have the sense that he’s working in a painterly fashion. This is different from what you do, and yet, I am interested in hearing how you work out the relationship between strong pictorial scenes, and the sense of experience.
CR The issue of reality and representation is incredibly complicated because it operates on many different levels, among them a philosophical one and even a semiotic one. They tend to get tangled up. I’ll address the simplest level, which is also the most complex. Film is based on the principle of photographic reality. If we were looking at a picture of you, even though we both know it’s ultimately nothing but pixels on paper, we’d both agree that the photo is a representation of you. We know that the piece of paper is not José, but we know that José was actually before the camera at the point in which the picture was taken. With the moving image, as well as sound, this reality effect is magnified. When you see a movie you know that what you’re seeing, in effect, truly happened.
In this sense, cinema is the art of reality, the medium in which reality’s beauty is captured, where you can film marble or a face, or record someone’s voice, a sunset, the innate beauty of what you’re contemplating. Tarkovsky achieved this. I never remember the plots of his films. People talk about Nostalgia and mention the part where so-and-so does this or that, and I fumble; even though I’ve seen that film about 15 times, I act like those people who bluff when they say they’ve seen something that they actually haven’t. I have no idea what they’re talking about. What I do remember is the camera’s movements, the sound of a saw up in the hills; I perfectly remember the textures of the pool and those other things that were really happening. When I attack representation in film, I’m talking about the issue of attempting to translate literature into film—everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator, to what it’s supposed to be instead of what it is. For instance, in Mexican telenovelas, when they want to represent a rural tiendita (a bodega), they’ll have three shelves stacked with the products that people assume are always sold there as well as a middle-aged señora with an apron at the register. Everyone gets used to seeing that tiendita, the code representing it, that is, instead of the real thing. If we went to a real tiendita right now and the camera was rolling, we’d discover a number of incredible surprises there and people would appreciate having access to a different visual experience. Maybe we find a dead cat hanging from a wall, or a poster we’d never imagine we’d find there. Reality has so many things to offer, things you wouldn’t have arrived at via your own imagination.
Often directors talk about how in their films they managed to achieve about 60 percent of what they had envisioned, which always, according to them, far exceeds what you can actually do in film. I always say the contrary; my films are always so much better than I could have ever dreamed of, not because the end result is magnificent, but because they utilize things that were unthinkable to me before making them: take Cornelio Wall’s wrinkles, his tone of voice in Silent Light. These are things I didn’t imagine before, I only allowed my camera to absorb them. Of course if I had imagined an actor with such-and-such traits, and then had dressed up an actor so he looked like the character in my head, I would end up with less than I had imagined.
The camera is a funnel taking in reality. I believe in natural locations, in working with non-actors. The ten commandments of Dogme 95, the Danish film collective, point to some profound truths even if they might seem silly to some people. The idea of not bringing anything to the set that isn’t already there makes a whole lot of sense to me. All they’re saying is let cinema transmit the power of vision, the power of sound, the power of feeling and being in the world we live in, instead of representing literary narratives taking place inside cardboard houses.
JC Two questions for you. You can answer each individually, though they’re linked, so I’ll ask them at the same time. In what you’re saying, I sense that there’s the logic of the character versus the logic of the actor. In English the word “character” is more potent because it also points to personality. Can you elaborate on the relationship between actors and characters? And the second question has to do with how you understand representation, and with your interest in music. You’ve said that in terms of how it is experienced, film is closer to music than to theater. Glenn Gould stopped playing live at some point because he thought that performing music in a concert hall was like a staging—it involved a degree of falsehood. So he began recording in his studio and broadcasting his music on the radio. He would record each Goldberg Variation many times over, until he got it right.
CR Well, a character in Spanish is called a personaje and that term also is related to personality. An actor is someone trained to represent a character—a carryover from the theater. We could get into Stanislavski’s method acting: you’ll play a soldier in the film, so you have to eat like a soldier, dress like one, and almost travel to Vietnam for a few days so you’re able to get into character. In my opinion this is not only completely unnecessary in film; it’s also quite sad, because when you see the film, instead of a human being, you’ll only be able to see the character that the actor is representing. Just like with locations, I’m interested in seeing human beings. Some people think that my films lack plots—they don’t, it’s just that for me the plot is a skeleton from which things are hung, and not the whole point of a film. When people talk about a film being “a good story” they don’t get it. The story is there so everything else can be structured around it. The Surrender of Breda by Velásquez is famous not because of the story; it’s much more interesting to read about it in a history book. It’s about how it’s painted. The same can be said about Rubens’s paintings of mythological figures. So when writing Silent Light (I’m talking about it simply because it’s my more recent film), I had in mind a character who causes his wife so much pain that she dies. I, more or less, had imagined who he was, where he lived, but had avoided describing what he looked like because I wanted the human being I encountered at a given moment to fill in that part. I’m often asked about how I cast people. It’s very simple; there’s no technique. It’s as if someone asked me how I go about liking a woman. There’s no science to it. You’ve had certain experiences in life that have determined your personality, and so you simply see a woman you like, and know that you like her, you don’t need to rationalize it. It’s the same with my actors. I met Cornelio, ate some shrimp with him in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and realized that the traits of this character who I had imagined all of a sudden were starting to fade and were being replaced by Cornelio’s humanity.
There’s a chemistry between the actors and me that seeps into the films. If they seem funny, melancholic, pleasant, or unpleasant to you, you’d be likely to feel the same way about them if you were to meet them in real life. Once I meet the human being, I begin to adapt the character for him or her, instead of the other way, which is more common, of asking the actor to adapt in order to complete the character. Some people argue something that to me seems like a sophism—they say that everyone is always acting, that we’re all characters in the theater of life. That’s one thing, and acting, or pretending, when you’ve got a camera in front of you is entirely different. That frustrates me, because it involves putting on a mask. I much prefer to see someone contribute their presence to a film. In this sense film is like portrait photography; I’m thinking of Richard Avedon’s work, for instance. When you see his photographs the soul of the flesh-and-blood person before the camera manages to emerge. To lose that in cinema is a shame to me. My actors are, say, like dogs, a sunset, or a tree—beings offering their presences. I obviously do not say this pejoratively, on the contrary. I ask them to offer their presence; which is much deeper and sophisticated than their professional acting technique.
JC I’d like to connect your notion of presences in your films to the way in which your films are experienced. The imagery in your films is arresting; it overtakes the viewer’s senses, not only their sight, beckoning an array of emotions. This might be related to music. The last take in Japón juxtaposes Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” with the image of a train wreck which the camera circles, conveying the idea of a spiral leading to tragedy.
CR It’s a descending spiral.
JC Absolutely. The other scene I’m thinking of is that of an engine running at a gas station and the chants by pilgrims walking on the highway in Battle in Heaven, for which you chose Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
CR It’s actually one of his clavichord concertos.
JC I can’t think of anyone who’s been able to articulate a moment of perfect attunement between a modern industrial experience and Bach. That’s when films cease to be merely visual; the presences in them attain, all of a sudden, humanity.
CR Or resplendence.
JC Do you also conceive of that when writing the screenplay?
CR I can imagine it, yes. For the gas-station scene, I imagined the conjunction of something sacred and something all too human and mundane, an engine. Only humans can create music and engines. One is the most poetic, divine, ethereal of our inventions, and the other the most practical, the most functional, but both are distinctly human. Again, some people would question the idea of hearing Bach at a gas station—we go back to the idea of the lowest common denominator. Can one only hear cumbias, soccer matches, and news on the radio? I’m glad you brought up Battle in Heaven; it’s my problem child, and therefore the film of mine I love the most. It’s full of that type of juxtapositions.
JC I won’t get into why Battle in Heaven is your problem child; that’s probably related to what some people perceived as the film’s shock value. I’d rather talk about the role of the human body in the film. You depict a bodily humanism; in other words, it’s not only that the body is a repository of anguish, desperation, and moral dilemmas, but also feelings expressed and experienced through sweat, groans, and wrinkles.
CR Actually I do want to address the issue of those images that people find shocking. If you think about it, what’s so outrageous about a naked obese woman? There are plenty of astonishing images in other films with flying cars and such … What you find in my films you see any ordinary day: a gas station, a hunter killing an animal, people making love. I’m not trying to impress anyone with those images; they make sense in the context of my films. People feel uncomfortable seeing a beheaded pigeon. What’s the big deal? With Battle in Heaven some people accused me of filming monstrous people making love and then showing that to the public. How did they come up with that? My subjects never seemed monstrous or grotesque to me. Mexico has the second highest rate of obesity in the world. My subjects are overweight, and yes, I filmed them making love, and walking, and I love them and that’s it. Whoever thinks I’m depicting something shocking is a hypocrite who thinks that what he or she would prefer not to see simply doesn’t exist. For me the real is beautiful. Blood is beautiful if it’s real, but a beautiful woman and a beautiful house are horrible to me if they’re not authentic. All those feel-good things to me feel really bad—their falsehood is depressing. I can’t believe that in England, the country that birthed democracy, Japón, to this date, is censored: they cut the scenes in which the pigeon is killed and the village’s veterinarian tickles a little dog. The country with the most infamous colonial history thinks that by censoring my film they’ve paid for their sins!
JC I don’t think you’ve ever referred to your films as art films, although they do represent an alternate type of cinematic production.
CR Ninety-nine percent of films are part of the entertainment business. Even so-called independent film is still a business. Most films screened at Sundance are simply a poor man’s Hollywood film—they have the same formula, the same structure, the same mechanisms … A man looking for a woman on a road trip across the United States. The soundtrack, a minimalist piano piece.
I was talking to my brother recently, and he mentioned James Cameron’s Avatar. I told him I hadn’t heard anything about it, and he couldn’t believe I was so out of it I didn’t even know the film existed. That same day I saw Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. What beauty! I couldn’t believe my eyes! Yet if my brother were to see it, it’d be nothing but a tripped out black-and-white Hungarian film to him. There’s no point in trying to explain to him what he’s missing—it’s a shame. Werckmeister Harmonies is truly an art film: it masterfully reveals the nature of existence.
JC How do you experience other people’s films? You’re not a film buff, though you obviously enjoy films.
CR I’m not interested in referential films; that’s why I don’t like some of Godard’s more famous films. I appreciate his daring, but I don’t like the demonstrational quality of his films, their didacticism, theoretical approach, and filmic references. I guess it’s one thing if you spent your entire adolescence watching movies. I spent mine digging in the dirt, with schoolmates, breaking things. I take pleasure in small things: feeding my dogs, walking around, feeling the sheets of my bed on my body, using my chainsaw, listening to Glenn Gould’s superslow 1983 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. I can have a great time not having any artistic experiences per se and simply talking with my wife or a friend, or doing math with the calculator on my cell phone. Ultimately, I really enjoy making films. I love casting, scouting for locations, shooting the film. It’s the actual experience that I most enjoy. I’m fascinated by film’s materials, building a take, thinking about the light. And mixing the sound, I really enjoy all of that. I deal with those processes myself.
JC Is it painful labor, or does it all flow naturally?
CR It’s not painful at all. I’m happy from the minute I start thinking of a film until I emerge from the tunnel, so to speak. I even enjoy the subtitling process. The materialization of a vision that up till then was only on paper unfolds before your very eyes.
JC You made a film called Serenghetti for the Rotterdam Film Festival. Is the film more in a documentary vein?
CR I shot a match in a nearby soccer field, but it’s not a documentary. In my own experience, the difference between genres has vanished. My film is “fiction,” though I used “real” materials. Silent Light could be seen as a better documentary on Mennonites in Mexico than one produced by National Geographic. They’ll tell you the whereabouts and indexes of Mennonites in Mexico, but you’ll never see them making love, having an intimate conversation, bathing with their families in a pool, or dying. What I recently filmed for the Mexican Revolution’s bicentennial celebration is perhaps more akin to a ’70s happening: it is a short film about a gathering which includes food, conversation, music, children playing, and a bonfire. It’s about freedom.
JC Ideally it’d be screened at galleries instead of movie houses.
CR Yes. The same with the soccer match.
JC In relationship to your audience, what would be the measure of your success, what brings you satisfaction?
CR I have a brutal ambition to materialize my vision so I can share it with others. I wouldn’t make films otherwise. And it doesn’t matter to me if there’s one person or 3,000 who like what they see. I remember professors saying, “I’ll be satisfied if even one of you sitting here ends up practicing criminal procedural law.” It’s completely true. You know you connected with someone if only one person laughs at your jokes. Film prizes are frankly absurd. When have symphonies competed against each other? People say Citizen Kane is better than Werckmesiter Harmonies—it’s like saying a pine tree is better than a rose, or milk better than beer.
Translated from the Spanish by Camino Detorrela.
José Castillo is an architect living and working in Mexico City. He is the principal of arquitectura 911sc, whose award-winning projects include the CEDIM school in Monterrey and the expansion of the Spanish Cultural Center in Mexico City. Castillo has curated exhibitions for the Rotterdam, São Paolo, and Venice Biennials.
Originally published in
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.