Quixotically yours

Pub date January 25, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› johnny@sfbg.com

In a multiplex in San Francisco (whose name I do not care to recall) there is at least one movie intent on bludgeoning viewers with a bombastic soundtrack, a mechanical approach to emotion, and a conclusion that is obvious before the story has begun.

In contrast, in a smaller theater, Albert Serra’s Honor of the Knights offers one of the best windows onto a current phenomenon that might be tagged somnambulant cinema.

Amid contemporary sensory overload, it’s unsurprising that somnambulant cinema – meditative and ambient, often set outdoors and yet never fully outside society – has begun to flower. Does the darkness of a movie theater have to be a site of sonic and visual assault? A recent spate of films, perhaps led by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), has answered that question with a low-key rebuff, choosing quietude and nature instead, evoking contemplative wonder in the process. By revivifying a literary classic – Don Quixote de la Mancha – that through sheer proliferation has become a myth of modernity, Serra’s first feature announces itself as a worthy Spanish answer to Apichatpong’s Thai fables.

To be sure, what I’m calling somnambulant cinema might easily be tagged “boring art films” by detractors. Any style or subgenre contains failures and successes. But Serra’s movie succeeds – partly because of its lightness, a quality not found in the hordes of festival films that confuse slowness or idyll with turgidity. In following the progress – or lack thereof – of Don Quixote (Lluís Carbó) and Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat), Honor of the Knights immerses viewers in hypnotic rhythms. Using only natural light and shooting primarily during the magic hours of dusk and dawn, Serra gives the moon one of its most gorgeous scenes since the time of Georges Méliès and constructs a symphony from the way an orchestra of insects varies in pitch depending on the time of day or night.

As embodied by Carbó, the Don Quixote of Honor of the Knights is disheveled, with the matted hair of a bear and rusty armor, and he careens convincingly from senility to spryness. One minute he’s muttering to his lumpen sidekick as if Sancho (who still has traces of disobedient boyhood on his face) were nothing more than an extension of himself; the next he’s taking a dip in a stream with renewed vigor – even swimming while wearing heavy boots. Transutf8g an almost 1,000-page work into a 90-minute film with only a few hundred words of dialogue, Serra has inspired more than one critic to claim he’s bringing Samuel Beckett to bear on Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. But while this Don Quixote doesn’t seem to know where’s he’s going or even what time it is, after parrying phantoms with a sword and retreating from the wind, he leads Honor of the Knights to moments of offhand beauty and old joy.

Those last two words are no accident: juxtaposing various degrees of a fraternal bond against a varying but uncaring landscape, Honor of the Knights is closer to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) than it is to Gus Van Sant’s more overtly Beckett-like and aloof Gerry (2002). Comedy moves to the fore when the archaic Don Quixote urges Sancho to look up at the sky and cry, “God, you are the best,” but the character’s final musings on mortality hint that – within himself at least – he isn’t as lost as he might appear. “Chivalry is civilization,” he asserts, and with fealty the movie records his avoidance of all humanity besides Sancho. Serra’s movie ends on literal notes of melancholy, plucked and strummed on Ferrant Font’s solitary acoustic guitar.

When Don Quixote addresses the sky, Honor of the Knights takes on a simple grandeur not far from that found in Marcos Prado’s extraordinary, underseen 2004 documentary Estamira, a portrait of a sage madwoman who lives in an apocalyptic Rio de Janeiro landfill. In appearance, Carbó also somewhat resembles fellow journeyman traveler Vargas, the threatening protagonist of another recent somnambulant cinema work, Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos (2004). Much like Serra’s Apichatpong-influenced debut, the Argentine Alonso’s recent films reflect a conversation between filmmakers from different countries that is beginning to emerge from the somnambulant style. Just as Los Muertos shares traits with Apichatpong’s Blissfully Yours, Alonso’s more recent Fantasma (2006) resembles Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 Goodbye, Dragon Inn more than it does any recent work of new Argentine cinema.

By moving Tsai’s and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s updates of Michelangelo Antonioni’s slackness from urban settings to mountains and jungles, Apichatpong helped establish the tone, atmosphere, and characteristics of somnambulant cinema, which treats the screen of a movie theater as a wide-open rather than narratively enclosed site for conscious and unconscious dreaming. The most literal example of the form has to be Paz Encina’s 2006 Hamaca Paraguaya, which confronts the audience with an extended shot of a rural hammock, using this sight and the voice-over banter to represent Paraguay’s place in the world.

Certainly, the very idea of somnambulant cinema brings the prospect of loud snoring two seats away or two rows down, but amid the cavalcade of cell phone rudeness in movie theaters today, that possibility is more humorous than annoying. There is a difference between a slow film and a boring film, and Honor of the Knights is lively – it doesn’t require a prescreening blast of black coffee and sugar-free Red Bull (one veteran online critic’s diet before watching Pedro Costa’s literally awesome 2005 Colossal Youth).

What is the dark good for, if not dreaming?<\!s>2

Thurs/13 and Sat/15, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/16, 2 p.m.; $6-<\d>$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-ARTS