Issue 10: Winter 2012
The Filmmaker is a Traveller: Notes on Mauro Santini
We have lived in our own shade, isolated, not very sociable, enjoying each others' thoughts. In the midst of the complacent and superficial crowd we felt lost. We looked for personality in everything; in every work, painting or poem, we looked for a personal note. We maintained that the masters, the geniuses, were creators who, every one of them, had created a world out of many pieces and we rejected the followers, the impotent ones, whose metier it is to here and there steal a few scraps of originality.
Do you realise that we were revolutionary without knowing it?
-E. Zola to P. Cézanne. Paris, 20 May, 1866
Giornaliero di città e passanti (2008)
These words written by the French writer, Émile Zola, to the French painter, Paul Cézanne, are probably a useful help in revealing the ethics of the man behind some of most brilliant contemporary films made in Italy, Mauro Santini. Both artist and craftsman, like a few other contemporary Italian filmmakers, his body of work seems strictly related to the meaning of being independent in making cinema nowadays, especially for those who are currently based in Italy: such independence is a status at once globally experienced as work and radically translated as viewpoint, a condition comparable to the wanderlust of an eternal foreigner, constantly on the move towards other borders and lands, always alone and always alive, conscious of the difficulties to be faced but always open to any possible digression, suggestion, improvisation.
Mauro Santini (Fano, 1965) had a traditional artistic education and his interests were immediately directed towards figurative painting, which he actively practiced. Later, the personal discovery of abstract and conceptual art led him to prefer photography, especially once his studies ended: a sort of necessary step to get familiar with techniques needed in embracing the Super 8 film format, just a year before the coming of Hi8 video. Obviously, his increasing curiosity towards matters of technology did not hinder him from continuing to visit art exhibitions or from thinking about possible connections between painted and filmed images:
I remember in a very particular way an exhibition I visited in Venice when I was younger, it was at Ca' Pesaro, it was a Paul Klee's show, featuring his minimal paintings. I remember well, it impressed me greatly. I was completely shocked by the sizes of those works and think now that my works done during those years, minimal videos and films, both in length and scale of production, can be related to that. I believe this form has influenced me, somehow. (1)
Aside from the study of suitable formats, painting has also been decisive in shaping his cinematic language. He openly declares the influence of two great painters, the German Gerhard Richter and the French Nicolas De Staël, undoubtedly different in style but recognizable as great contemporary masters. Two models to face images in depth: Richter for his ‘adaptation' towards the heterogeneous indeterminacy of reality; De Staël for his ‘inspiration' towards the empathic abstraction of intimacy.
These tendencies are confirmed by analyzing Santini's most important works: the astonishing series entitled Videodiari (2001/2005), consisting of many videos, often selected by several prestigious film festivals (their titles are: Di ritorno; Dietro I vetri; Da lontano, which was awarded in the Spazio Italia section of the Torino Film Festival in 2002; Fermo del tempo; Petite mémoire; Da qui, sopra il mare; Flòr da Baixa); his first feature film, Flòr da Baixa (2006); Un jour à Marseille (2006), which played at Annecy, Turin and at DocLisboa; the series called Giornaliero di città e passanti (2008) dedicated to the cities of Marseille, Lisbon and Madrid; and the short Cosa che fugge (2008). (2)
Therefore, is his cinema an 'artistic' practice? Yes and no: yes, if you consider the term 'artistic' as a key factor in his methodological research and a way to appreciate his pictorial attitude in making images; no, if you mean a filmmaking totally dependent on painting or visual arts in general, absorbed by them, merged with them, as though they were the original effort and cinema a sort of void, technological extension of them. What remains clear in Santini's works is the centrality and autonomy of film language.
Confirmation of such a statement can be found in the inserts in his works on the cities he has been filming for years in his travels between Europe and America, and also in his ‘video-diaries' series, simultaneously travelogues and meditations which deconstruct both image and the function of a traditional 'diary'. Let's examine some examples in detail.
To film a city from an experimental point of view: watching Santini's Flòr da Baixa, it occurred to me that this ‘direction' is a possible leitmotiv in analyzing his shots dedicated to urban landscapes and scenes, and also, as a further theme requiring an additional understanding of the adjective 'experimental', the recollection of a sort of pioneering laboratory work.
In Flòr da Baixa, the space-time continuum seems to flow to a vague past tense. This film displays fragments of several cities, all involved in a dreamy and poetic itinerary, all framed by a cinematic eye totally based on a personal research into something missing: maybe a plot or a drama; maybe a logic or connection with the sphere of emotions or, more simply, an image, the right one. From Lisbon to Lisbon, passing through black and savage flashes of Rio de Janeiro, aseptic urban areas of Marseille, isolated spaces of Taranto, the film's movement defines a circle which embraces two parallel and wandering bodies, one visible and the other invisible, whose glances will find each other once back at the starting point, Lisbon, and the guesthouse where everything took place, 'Flòr da Baixa'.
In such a movie of ‘intimate travels', it is hard to establish a distinction between documentary and fiction. In fact, it is not only hard but useless, as it seems more reasonable to consider the film's footage, framework and language according to the specific strategies applied in defining its vision. This leads to the questions: How to film a city? And how to film it experimentally?
Un jour à Marseille (2006)
The subjectivity of Santini is the subjectivity of a traveler, or rather the subjectivity of someone who crosses the borders that clearly divide identity and otherness, both in time and space. As ‘conceptual character', a traveler is the opposite of a tourist, which is the pose of an ego whose existence deceives majorities by telling them our world has always been made up of two parts: your own side, a microclimate to build personalities, and, on the other side, a monolith to screen identities. The experience of traveling, on the other hand, works out the dialectic between us and them by configuring both poles as parts of a single, long-term process: thus, it seems possible to affirm that when you travel, you are rewriting the maps you are going through. Strength of geography, which reveals limitations and relativities in its surface geometry; strength of autonomy, which leads one to look at and transfigure all the unrecorded details into private visions: to travel brings subjectivity towards a new, creative dimension, where one's own body is tangible and one's own mind is open, totally receptive; where everything is visualized and experienced as possible.
Santini films the cities in Flòr da Baixa by achieving three different and progressive operations: the choice of images of anonymous zones from his urban landscapes; the juxtaposition of these fragments in ephemeral frameworks displaying their natures as non-places; their manipulation in iconic signs and epiphanies. This third passage gathers and summarizes the others, but primarily, it is where the art of Santini reveals its science and more specifically, its techniques, based on a work on the body of light and the deconstruction of viewpoints.
Light has always been the source and substance of images, from painting to more modern and contemporary forms of visual art. Santini does not attempt to be an exception to this, as he seems to conceive this movie and his other works, pure laboratories of light, as strictly related to an idea of creative manipulation which outlines and emphasizes the real and surreal unreality of his images, visions conceived as fluctuating memories. And here, lighting is the ‘philosopher's stone', that which brings life to the surface and makes these fragments of vision living moments: as if witnessing an alchemical rite, its modulations define a scale of released intensities which seem to re-frame the whole recorded world, first its forms and then its objects, towards a new, transfiguring and shifting experience. It is, at the same time, both concrete in its resonating materialism and abstract, or just mental, in its progressive withdrawing from any kind of documentary reference. The nature of such a materialism can also remind one of what the prominent German film theorist, Rudolf Arnheim (3), claimed to be the specificity of ‘film as art', an autonomy of language explained and inspired by a Materialtheorie, that is:
A theory meant to show that artistic and scientific descriptions of reality are cast in molds that derive not so much from the subject matter itself as from the properties of the medium - or Material - employed.
More precisely, something based on a different understanding.
Fermo del tempo (2003)
According to which even the most elementary processes of vision do not produce mechanical recordings of the outer world but organize sensory raw material creatively according to principles of simplicity, regularity, and balance, which govern the receptor mechanism.
And that leads to a new notion:
That the work of art, too, is not simply an imitation or selective duplication of reality but a translation of observed characteristics into the forms of a given medium.
According to its nature, light is body and rhythm, the minimal measurement unit of space-time. Its variations constantly fill and void spaces, sculpt and nullify bodies, arrest movements and cause them to flow. All these features seem within the possibilities offered by film practice but not by other visual arts such as painting, sculpture or photography, whose static structures could hardly encompass such a complete spectrum of changes.
The motion picture specializes in presenting events. It shows changes in time. This preference is explained by the nature of the medium. A motion picture in itself is an event: it looks different every moment, whereas there is no such temporal progress in a painting or sculpture. Motion being one of its outstanding properties, film is required by its own aesthetic law to use and interpret motion.
Santini with Flòr da Baixa proves his closeness to this theme of the uniqueness of cinematic language in using and interpreting motion.
His feature film is the event of a transformation of his own experiences through using schemes and patterns of motions already lived, both physically and mentally (the itineraries through the cities, the memories of those passages), to interpret them as something different, an immemorial and unfinished quest for otherness (the two souls, all through the movie). A quest that is led by the movement of light, whose manipulation tests visions and durations as culturally constructed: mysterious map puzzles, where spatial margins seem the only landmarks in a world absorbed by flashes and shadows; altered paces through which daily time definitively blows up to merge itself into a more complex structure, meditative and chimerical.
It is interesting to study the deconstruction of viewpoints in Santini's works as his approach seems to be analogous to some pictorial methodologies. To explore this, I will consider the inserts of to the city of Marseille in Flòr da Baixa, Un jour à Marseille and in his latest work, Giornaliero di città e passanti. (4)
In order to deconstruct a viewpoint, first you need to build one up. Marseille is seen by a cinematic eye that observes what we can probably call daily life, with the passers-by, couples, daily workers and urban landscapes of this French city, with its streets, its buildings, its cafes and so on: they are framed like stolen fragments, whose images are filmed as full shots and in sequences that are edited as long takes. The results reveal a juxtaposed, heterogeneous and random series of views of Marseille, footage displayed by using different axes to set the camera.
This material, which can be conceived as a sort of personal archive by the filmmaker, seems not to produce any narrative; on the contrary, his composition, which emphasizes the unfinished nature of the observation, evokes a pictorial mechanics typical of the 19th century, defined with the French term concrétion, used "to describe how any perception always blends with a preceding or remembered perception" (5): like painting, the cinematic approach to this technique clearly remains a method referable to the significant role of time; unlike painting, such an approach enacts a different depiction of time in visual images. That becomes evident in comparing Santini's way of filming a city to what remarkable French painters like Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne did in their paintings, as in Monet's Rouen Cathedral series and Cézanne's series dedicated to Mont Sainte-Victoire. Both in painting and filming, concrétion always functions as an accumulation and persistence of signs, but whereas in the examples of these painters the main aim seems to outline ‘the difference in the sameness' (light variations in the same image over a limited period of time), Santini's work sets itself in counterpart, striving to depict ‘the sameness in the difference' through finding and framing a common measurement unit in each view.
What is a diary? According to Merriam-Webster:
A record of events, transactions, or observations kept daily or at frequent intervals: JOURNAL; especially: a daily record of personal activities, reflections, or feelings.
A book intended or used for a diary.
Basically, these definitions emphasize what can be summed up as its meaning and function: to keep thoughts of various types as secrets and to report the existence of a personal space for private matters to others. But what about visual diaries?
Flòr da Baixa (2006)
Undoubtedly, from writing to filming, the ‘personal function' of this form persists, unlike the paradigm of secrecy, as it is commonly known that written language has the potential to hide several levels of codes while audiovisual images can hardly hide an equal amount. Their nature conducts to a plan of visible immanence, to other and immediate mechanical aims, like the covering of spaces, the depiction of times, the revelation of lives, even in the genre that appears close to what a diary represents in written form: the home movie. However, this difference seems less marked once you make the same comparison with the use of the diary before Romanticism. Then it was mostly conceived as synonymous with travel accounts, often scientific and therefore shared as though its notes were in public domain. In this case, handwriting and filming reveal resemblances in approaching continuous phenomena.
In Videodiari, Santini offers his ideas on the matter. He reprises the pre-Romantic use of diary, which is related to journey, by executing these works as unusual travelogues of his own wanderlust and experiences. Travelogues which combine aspects of various genres, from documentary to experimental cinema, and different outlooks, from the point of view closest to home (i.e., Dietro ai vetri) to much more exotic places (i.e. Lisbon in Flòr da Baixa). At the same time, Santini pursues, within his images and where the operation seems possible, visual echoes of that unfinished mystery of life in writing, given by the discontinuous nature of any reported record or reflection and evoked by the overlapping of written codes that written diaries usually have. In other words, he works to outline in a personal cinematic language traces of that logic of secrecy that the diary embodies from Romanticism onwards as the main symbol of a human inwardness. To lock up, not to touch, something that you consider to exist but not available for all. The ideal subjective handwriting: always personal, always selective. Like a mirror...
This is the case for the ‘mirrors of history'. To be sure, they hide their relation to practices that are no longer historical but now political and commercial; but in using a past in order to deny the present that they repeat, they set apart something foreign to current social relations, they produce secrets within language; their games designate a withdrawal that can be told in legends inverting the normal channels of research and superseding them. Mirror writing is serious because of what it does - it states something other through the inversion of code of practice; it is illusory only insofar as, not realizing what it is doing, one takes its secret to be what it puts into language, and not what it subtracts from it. (6)
Private and secret, that is the diary in the modern age, whose deciphering is clearly possible but only under certain circumstances. In order to restore a code of secrecy in images, without pretending to insert a grammatical substance into any possible variation of visual language, I think Santini conceptually conceives diary as one of De Certeau's mirrors of history. This allows him to share two expressed subjects via the same medium: the author, whose personal side seems given to the diary form with a marked and poetical style and a miscellaneous mixture of genres; and history, the other side of the mirror, the nebulous and towering side, whose codes lie within Santini's visions as hidden frameworks, as interstices, appearances, phantoms: metaphorically speaking and by using a literary analogy, ‘the knocking on the door in Macbeth'. In this sense, the visual diary is less a blank space to fill with recordings of secrets to constantly keep from most people and more a ‘conceptual device', able to produce a sophisticated dialectic between secrecy and openness.
Furthermore, always to emphasize the double relationship between man and history, it is important to briefly summarize how Santini re-frames cinematic language in these works, by reducing the role of narrative and increasing the material resonance of language; by stressing discontinuity as rhythm and flattening the images' aspects of simulation. So these diaries seem to be personal diaries without any classic subject involved, as the representations of author's ego and history's echo lie on the margins of each flux of images whose dynamic, from reality to fantasy, reveals different levels of vision, progressively complex or, I would rather say, whose dynamic outlines the insight of a gaze into the ephemeral limits of time-space, where any distinction begins and ends, even that between seen and unseen, said and unsaid.
Images travel as the man does. That is why you need to be a traveler, to control their intimate nature, as Mauro Santini does.
Mauro Santini, filmography:
Dove sono stato, Hi-8, 2000, 27'
Di ritorno, Hi-8, 2001, 10'
Dietro i vetri, miniDV, 2001, 9'
Da lontano, miniDV, 2002, 7'
Fermo del tempo, miniDV, 2003, 7'30''
Petite mémoire, miniDV, 2003, 6'
Da qui, sopra il mare, miniDV, 2003, 10'
Flòr da Baixa, miniDV, 2005, 10'
Rio de Janeiro, miniDV, 2005, 33'
Desalento, miniDV, 2006, 44'
Un jour à Marseille, miniDV, 2006, 51'
Flòr da Baixa, miniDV, 2006, 77'
Giornaliero di città e passanti #1, miniDV, 2006-2008, 58'
- Boulevard d'Athènes, Marseille
- São Mamede, Lisboa
- Calle de Atocha, Madrid
Cosa che fugge, miniDV, 2008, 5'
Notturno, HDV, 2009, 7'
Dove non siamo stati, HDV, 2011, 22'
Carmela, salvata dai filibustieri (2012) co-director, Giovanni Maderna
Il fiume, a ritroso (2012)
The French Collectif Jeune Cinéma (http://www.cjcinema.org/) releases these Santini's works: Cosa che fugge; Da lontano; Da qui, sopra il mare; Fermo del tempo; Flòr da Baixa; Notturno; Petite Mémoire. Da qui, sopra il mare, is also available in dvd, here: