F

In 2009, I became fascinated by a young man – I’ll call him F – who lived in the streets and used to beg for money near my workplace. The year before, I had walked past him several times. There was a group of about ten people – mostly Eastern-European women – who used to line up at the front and back doors of a cathedral, asking for money from the visitors (sometimes, also stealing wallets via tricks that were so crude I could not believe tourists let themselves be fooled so easily). One day, seeing all those beggars packing out the cathedral’s entrance, I – the expert – said to my co-worker: “Surely all these people could get more money if they dispersed themselves a bit. Can’t they see this space is overcrowded?”

Amongst these people was F, whose looks and manners were different. Male, young, blonde, very quiet, he never gazed at or badgered the visitors. It was clear that he did not belong to the group and, because of this, he stood out. At that time, I had very firm beliefs about money. I thought that money had to be, somehow, earned. That is: you get a job or, in absence of a job, you sing a song, or sell tissues, or tell jokes – but you don’t just stand there with your hand stretched out, expecting coins to fall from above. And so I told my colleague about F: “Look at this guy. He’s young, he’s healthy, he doesn’t look bad. Surely he has to be able to do something other than stand there for hours.” (You see: I, too, am full of stupid opinions. But, sometimes, my opinions come back to slap me in the face.)

A year later, the Eastern-European group had disappeared from the surroundings; only F remained. I used to see him, almost every day, when I arrived and left the ice-cream parlour where I worked. The place was small and slightly claustrophobic: at the entrance, three curved ice-cream fridges; stuck to those fridges, a short bar with four stools; next to the bar, four little tables stuck to the wall. I spent most of my time attending customers from behind those three fridges, or daydreaming while reclined on them. All I could see of the exterior was this: a bit of a wide, beautiful, walking path that extended toward my right; a very narrow street (perpendicular to that path) where a famous museum producing unbelievable queues of visitors was located; and, at my left, a brief portion of the back entrance to the cathedral.

(I’ll take this opportunity to send a big fuck-you to the author of the best-seller that made this cathedral so internationally notorious. I doubt this writer did a very accurate job of description, because tourists could never find the cathedral despite having it right in front of their noses. And so, I spent years of my life pointing out the obvious to them even before they opened their mouths to ask. It was tiring.)

One spring morning, a bit before noon, I was bored, my gaze lost in the street. I saw F’s hunched, unmistakable figure – always the same red T-shirt, Adidas joggers, and big blue backpack – walking by the wide path. Suddenly, he stopped, and turned toward me. Our eyes met. I was startled. He smiled, turned back, and kept walking. But, later in the afternoon, he came in for the first time. He ordered a coffee. In fact, he first asked how much a coffee was. I could see he struggled counting money. As he drank his coffee slowly, his gaze went from the cup, to me, to the streets. I was getting nervous; he seemed amused. Before leaving, he pushed the pile of small coins toward me and said: “Have a nice day”. This simple sentence, with its cute politeness, filled my heart. “You too”, I answered.

***

Last year (the temporality of this text won’t be easy to follow, get a hold of it!), I saw Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983). This film clicked with me from the very first scene where the protagonist, Christine (check that name!), is talking with a friend about her failed attempts at finding a job. The friend, who’s trying to cheer her up, says: “You write articles. You could sell one of yours!”. To which Christine answers: “I write articles, but nobody reads them”. (Well, doesn’t that feel close to home?) Eventually, Christine will get a job selling tickets in the booth of a porn cinema. Not that I have ever done that, but my work at the ice-cream parlour wasn’t very different than hers: same limited field of vision; same restriction of movement; same interactions with customers salivating at the prospect of what is on display.

Watching Variety brought back to me all the memories of that time. Like in the film, my work routine was defined by repetitive, boring, uninteresting exchanges with customers that, eventually, could get disturbing or thrilling. Like Christine, I was exposed to – but also expectant for – those rare, minuscule interactions that lit the senses: the tone of a voice, a touch of hands when giving the change … During her smoke breaks, Christine starts getting curious about those porn movies which women should not like because they are degrading and made so that a bunch of perverts can jerk off (it turns out, however, that both in life and in the film it’s more complicated than that). Here, I must admit: Christine’s work experience was more exciting than mine since, well, it’s not that I was ambivalently turned on by ice-cream. But the general point is: in both cases, we were seized by what surrounded us.

variety

One Sunday afternoon, after a busy streak of work, I took a pause to smoke. I used to sit in a backstreet that was half hidden so I could enjoy my cigarette in peace; but, that day, my usual place had been taken. So I sat on a tree pot, next to the door, keeping my gaze lowered so nobody would come and ask me silly questions. At one point, I lifted my gaze and was overcome by what I saw. Hordes of tourists were moving up and down, with their incessant chatter. There was all this activity, all this noise, all these people with a purpose, a will, a destination. Groups of teenagers, couples, families, friends. All heading to the museum, queuing for ice-cream, scouting window shops, coming in and out of the church, taking hundreds of pictures and videos they’ll never watch.

The scene is so busy that it almost looks like one of those religious paintings from centuries ago. But, what stirs my gaze is F. He’s not at the centre of the frame. In compositional terms, he’s a marginal figure, pushed to the corner of the image. Sitting on one side of the stairs, in his dirty T-shirt, completely still, completely alone (nobody else is alone on this day). I see him like an abandoned, forgotten Christ (this is so fucked up). He radiates. Doves congregate around him, kids and adults pass close to him, but nobody pays attention. In a way, it’s as if he did not belong to the scene; but what is striking in this image – what strikes me – is that he’s the gravitational centre around which the whole scene is built. For this seer – for me – he’s the very core of the scene. He pulls my gaze, but only mine, because only I notice him. This pull is inscribed in what I see, it’s the how of what I see. And all the rest is a silly excuse, a ruse whose only function is to reveal him to me. I feel I’ve been chosen. And from that moment on, from that vision on, I can’t get him out of my head.

From my workplace, I had a direct view of F only when he was on the right side of the stairs. When he was on the other side, I could see him only if I served the tables, grabbed a drink from the fridge at the entrance, or sat at the border of the ice-cream fridges and stretched my body awkwardly toward him (that was a bit too weird, so I didn’t do that much). I, realised, however, that I could also see him reflected in the glass door of that beverages fridge at the entrance. This was a very Brian De Palma-type revelation that allowed me to put in practice indirect, baroque ways of looking. It’s not that F did anything special that prompted my desire to look at him. It was precisely the opposite: it was his stillness that amazed me. How can somebody spend hours in the same position, like a yogi, doing nothing at all?

He intrigued me. I wanted to know this person. Who is he? How old is he? Where was he from? How did he end up in the streets? Why is he always, always alone? What does he do when he’s not in that church? Does he eat, does he sleep, does he fuck? And those questions would go home with me. And, as I’m alone at night, I wonder: should I ask? Should I just ask him all this? (I’m bold when I think.)

In Variety, after a couple of slight and mysterious interactions with a customer – an older, well-dressed man that buys her a Coke (his hand appearing in the frame before the rest of him) – Christine becomes curious about him. One day, he invites her to a Yankees match and she accepts, but he has to leave in the middle of the game. Christine starts following him across the city, her pursuit leading her to discover the more than shady activities in which he is involved. We could play a Six Degrees of Separation game here. For the lead actor of Variety, Sandy McLeod, was in a relationship with Jonathan Demme at that time (just to clarify: I’m not into gossip, Gordon explained this during a Q&A). In 1991, Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs – a film I watched many times as a teenager (I had my own VHS tape).

During those weeks I could not take F from my mind, I also used to ask myself: how is this possible? How can I fall like this for a person I don’t know at all, whose life is nothing like mine, and who suddenly makes everybody else – everything else – look so utterly banal? And, in those moments, I often heard Hannibal Lecter (in the voice of Anthony Hopkins) instructing Clarice Starling about the serial killer she’s trying to uncover: “How do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?”. This statement, if you ask me, is fucking wise. And, on that note, I feel like pointing out that, while I’m not a serial killer, I did follow F on three or four occasions. All I learnt is that his wandering did not seem to have a destination; he liked places with people, to be alone amongst people, in this park, this street, this fountain.

***

One morning, I arrive to my workplace. I’m on my knees, unlocking the blinds, when F appears from behind the corner. “How are you? What’s your name? Do you like working here?” – three questions in a row: I’m elated. I say to myself that this is my chance to lay all my questions out. But I don’t need to. For F, so silent as he is, so withdrawn, seems to have guessed it all. I feel his urge to speak, and I’m happy that it’s me he’s speaking with. In ten minutes or so, he tells me he’s from a city in Portugal, that he came to Spain on a bus with some friends, that he did not have money to return. He has lived on the streets since. He doesn’t want money from me. But he’d like to have a place to rest and take a shower. There’s one thing he doesn’t tell me about: his age. And, since I’m curious, I ask. His answer impressed me and stayed with me all these years: “I don’t know.”

That day, as we walk to my home, he evades almost all my questions. All that morning need to talk is gone. To most of what I ask, he answers: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember”. Other of my questions, he misunderstands. First, I think it’s a problem with Spanish (he can’t speak it very well), but I soon realise it is not a problem with a specific language, but with language itself. He’s seized by what he sees but, contrary to me, he doesn’t make assumptions or derive conclusions. His observations are always in the present tense and of the ‘like’ kind. For instance: we’ll see a group of children playing football and he’ll ask me if I like football (fuck no!). Or, suddenly, he asks me if I go to the swimming pool (and I realise that we’re passing a gym and you can see people swimming on the other side of the windows). With him, it’s all about the now, and it’s simple. Questions about the past and the future won’t do.

Memories of that evening: the strong smell scattered around the house after his very long shower; how strange it felt giving him clothes from another person; how fast he passed me the joints after a few drags (eager as I am, I always find it funny when people conform to this ritual); that he was not hungry and would only have tea; that he told me: “You smoke a lot” (there you go!). Sometimes, he would ask me what time it was. But, on the larger scale, he didn’t have a grasp of time: he couldn’t tell me when he came to Spain, or how many years he had been here.

We are sitting on my bed. It’s very hot; I’m almost sweating. I look at him wondering how he can sip that cup of incredibly scalding tea on such a hot evening. I can’t communicate with him. This is not going well. I’m getting anxious. This is not going as I imagined (yes, what had I imagined?). He seems quite content sitting on my bed, in silence, like some Buddha, doing nothing other than sipping that tea, amused by thoughts or images or whatever it is that comes to his mind and he won’t share with me. I don’t know what to do in this strange situation into which I’ve brought myself. So, I’m making one joint after another, which is not helping. It doesn’t seem that he wants to leave, but he doesn’t look completely comfortable, either.

Am I looking at him too much? Probably. But what the fuck am I supposed to do with a person I cannot speak with? What would you do? Yes, I tried that. But he did not like much to be touched, either. “I like to look at you and at other people”: one of the few things he said to me that day, out of the blue. And he looked at me, sometimes; but he also avoided my gaze. Which was confusing.

It’s getting late. The blinds are almost drawn for, in my room, the sun is very strong at dusk. F’s face is in complete darkness. But, because of the light and our respective positions, I can see the dark interior of his mouth when he laughs or yawns. It’s like a big, black abyss that has engulfed everything else. I get scared. I think he is mad. I think he’ll turn violent. I think he’ll do something to me. And, then, I realise I’m getting all paranoid. But, still, there’s something, here, that doesn’t feel right.

***

He said very little that evening, and mostly prompted by me, but some things did lodge in my memory. When I asked about his family, he said he had “brothers and sisters”; when I inquired how many, he said “many, many brothers and sisters”. I found this sentence weird. He could, even with difficulty, count money; shouldn’t he be able to tell me how many brothers and sisters he had?

Not long after I met F, I saw a film I love: Teresa Villaverde’s Os mutantes (1998). This film follows the lives of several kids raised in juvenile institutions (in fact, many of Villaverde’s films are about stray kids, stray characters, trying to reconstitute something resembling a family). As the director herself explained, Os mutantes was initially meant to be “a documentary about childhood in Portugal, in all sorts of social environments” (1). But she couldn’t raise the money for the documentary, and turned her research into a fiction. Most of the characters are played by non-professional actors who were living in those centres. One of those teenagers, Alexandre Pinto (who plays Pedro), reminded me of F. The sentence “many, many brothers and sisters” has always been linked, in my mind, with this film – and, from that association, I derived the belief that F grew up in an institution.

os mutantes

When I asked F about his parents, he said: “I don’t have parents”. Again, an expression that haunted me. He didn’t say they died, or abandoned him, or didn’t know who they were. He said: “I don’t have parents”. When I tried to get him to be more specific, he mumbled his “I don’t remember”. But he also said something about a car and an accident. I stopped insisting because I could see my questions upset him.

Years later, I saw the first film by Teresa Villaverde, A idade maior (aka Alex, 1991). Set in the early 1970s, during the Colonial War, it tells the story of a Portuguese family split apart when the man is sent to battle in Africa. This is a film about war trauma that, mostly, remains close to the perspective of the child who observes the evasive and mysterious adult world. Near the end, there’s a stunning scene in a café. The couple is alone in an empty dancing hall. They approach each other and start an equivocal dance, strongly staged in its movements, gestures and looks. At one point the song fades out, but they keep dancing – the soundtrack increasingly invaded by colliding noises: the ringing bells and chatter of a wedding (their wedding?), and the explosive sounds of war. It’s as if man and woman were possessed by different pasts – their dance being a push and pull that only manifests their irreconcilability. While she looks at him with mad, unfulfilled desire, as if trying to retrieve the man he was before the war, he looks at her with a mix of impotence, detachment and alienation. It’s an amazing passage of collision echoing the dance between husband and wife in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978).

Villaverde cuts abruptly to the next scene: the woman is driving along a road, the man sits next to her. Suddenly, she turns to look at him, takes her hands off the wheel, and starts kissing him avidly. The husband offers no resistance. They embrace and kiss until the car falls off a cliff. Afterwards, the boy finds his parents’ dead bodies. Does he know that this hasn’t been an accident, that they have willingly driven themselves to death, that he has been abandoned? I think he knows. Because the most moving passage of this film, for me, is the simplest of all: the very beginning (which is, actually, the end). Over a black screen, a female voice calls the child: “Alex”. Then, we see him, standing still, with his back to us. “Do you remember your father?”; “No”. “Do you remember your mother?” – he turns and looks up toward the camera that is set at a high angle. With tears running down his cheeks, he defiantly repeats: “No”.

Of course, this could all be in my imagination. It could be that I am obsessed with trauma. It could be that I project my own trauma onto others, and I tend to see lost, abandoned children everywhere. F never said clearly that his parents died in a car crash, or that he grew up in an institution. “I don’t have parents” – as striking as this sentence is to me, as full of pain as it is for me, it could just be the result of an extravagant grasp of Spanish. “Many brothers and sisters”, for all I know, could simply mean that F was a hippie soul. And, yet, these two films carry, for me, the hidden history of F. Even if the fact is: I don’t know. After all this time, I still don’t know.

***

One of the best books I have read in recent years is Fernand Deligny’s The Arachnean and Other Texts [2]. Deligny was a writer and educator who, in 1948, founded ‘La Grand Cordée’, a network – this is the central concept of the book – for delinquent teenagers. After 1967, he and other collaborators installed themselves in some abandoned houses in Les Cévennes, at the south of France, where they lived with autistic children.

Deligny criticised both the psychoanalytic approach (whose vision of autism was that of “a charade”: “the subject going silent and seeking refuge in identification with some object in which obliteration of the subject would be seen”), but also the good intentions of well-meaning people and institutions watching over these children’s freedom and rights (“If, under the pretext that, however ‘autistic’ they may be, they indeed have the right to want […] I inflict this right on them and condemn them to a likeness – an identity – that is all the more burdensome because it is fictitious. Certainly, they have a right to the higher level; but what can they do with this right, if not live the disarray of extravagating?”). He didn’t want autistic children to reintegrate into society or to be locked up in institutions, but to create a space that was livable for them.

For Deligny, the autistic child exists outside conscious identity and language. Therefore, he’s not a “subject”, but an “individual” acting always in the infinitive, in an impersonal mode. He took into account their otherness and condemned the idea of speaking for them (in their name, occupying their place) as “an act of violence, a rape”. The difference between them and us must be acknowledged, not so as to erase it with indoctrination or to submit it to our grids, but rather to create a common ground, a space of amongness between them and us: “We were in search of a mode of being that allowed them to exist even if that meant changing our own mode, and we did not take into account any particular conceptions of mankind, whatever these might be, and not at all because we wanted to replace these conceptions with others; mankind mattered little to us; we were in search of a practice that would exclude from the outset interpretations referring to some code; we did not take the children’s ways of being as scrambled, coded messages addressed to us.”

Deligny incorporated cinema as part of an experimental, collective practice, and made several films with workers, children and other collaborators. In Ce gamin, là (Renaud Victor, 1976) one can see how they lived and what they did at Cévennes. Janmari, an autistic child around whom Deligny modelled their activities and daily life, is the main presence of the film. They devised an approach that consisted of acting (as opposed to any will, intention, to any doing or making with purpose) and tracing (as opposed to language, signs, meaning). One central practice at Cévennes was the making of maps of the living areas where they transcribed the children’s paths, detours, wanderings.

ce gamin la

Ce gamin, là begins with images of the reports on Janmari from psychiatric hospitals. Deligny reads their conclusions: “Incurable, unbearable, impossible to live with”. When, a little later, you can hear these same words repeated over the images of Janmari and another worker kneading bread, you realise that Janmari has not been cured, but nor is he impossible to live with. “It’s not a matter of going against them, of taking care of them, of addressing them, that’s not our way” – says an intertitle at the start of the film. And, indeed, if one thing can be clearly seen in Ce gamin, là, it is that the life they built in common took its cue from the children themselves, from their mode of being.

There are many tasks to be performed: preparation of meals, cleaning of dishes, baking of bread, laundry, lighting the fire … All these activities are performed by adults and children, in perfect harmony, without one single word spoken, indication given, behaviour corrected. On occasions, you can see how these activities are populated by what Deligny called “the adorned”: a series of “detours that were in no way necessary” for the completion of necessary tasks. The adorned means nothing, expresses nothing, represents nothing – it’s not a sign or a code. The adorned worked multiplying and diversifying the actings – making up for the lack of language and ensuing they weren’t too close to the side of finality or will. The adorned was born out of respect for the mode of being of these kids – one without meaning or intention.

To watch this film was a shock for me. More for what it taught me about myself than for what it taught me about F. I can’t really tell what F’s issue with language was, exactly. I’m not a doctor, or a psychiatrist, or a pedagogue. So, what do I know? But whatever it was, it made communication if not impossible, barely tenable. And, yet, I did it again. Two times more. Why?

Yes. Why?

Certainly, not out of charity. He needed a bed and a shower and, as much as I’m happy to provide that, this was not my main drive. My drive was my own fascination for this person I did not know, but whom I had watched for hours and hours, and with whom it turned out I couldn’t communicate. Because that’s what our encounters were: an absolute failure in communication. I wanted to know, yes. I clung so strongly to my wish to understand, to my need to build a history for someone who didn’t even know his age, and perhaps didn’t need an age or a history.

Watching Ce gamin là showed me that, oddly enough, there are ways to fully be with someone with whom you cannot communicate. I’m not saying I could, should, would have wanted, or had the means to do that. So much has to be given up, just in order for this possibility to come into being. This is not done overnight; it’s a practice. And, in the end, I’m just too tethered (and too seduced) by body and language – ambivalent as my relation is with those two things, it’s still the only way I know. And don’t be a fool: most probably, it’s the only way you know, too. If you don’t believe me, try to be with another person in a room for six hours, without talking or touching, and let’s see how you go. It ain’t easy. This I can tell you.

***

During the Q&A for Variety, Bette Gordon explained that some people criticised the movie because (you’d never guess it) they couldn’t understand how a young, beautiful woman could become so obsessed with this older, shady, disgusting man. To this accusation, Gordon responded (I’m paraphrasing) that, for her, the man didn’t really matter; she saw him as the blank screen on which Christine projected her desire. And that’s also how she saw cinema working.

While I agree, I also disagree – respectfully, however, because this is not my movie. But, since I’ve spent my life fantasising, I hope I can have a say here. Firstly, it must be pointed out that it’s much healthier and easier fantasising with dead or totally unreachable people, so you don’t have to deal with the burden of the day-to-day reality which always, always turns out to be problematic. Truly, I love the idea that people we fantasise with are a blank screen. But, while I agree that desire produces in such a way as to exceed the object that triggers it (this or that man, in this case), I happen to think – or to experience – that this production can never be entirely detached from the object (it’s ugly, this word, when referring to people). Which is all a way to say: the man does matter. Because the screen has never been completely blank. The screen is always already filled.

Maybe it’s just to keep my sanity that I think this. But, as much (and as madly) as I may have projected onto F, there remains what I saw, what attracted me in the first place, and what opened a world that expanded even after my interest in him had faded: a body so completely outside the social order (with all its rules, its obligations, its humiliations, its everyday nonsense) that it made me want to flee it all; and, even more deeply, his ‘doing nothing’, his needing nothing (and less than anything that I had to give), his complete unattachment to the feelings others may put onto him or to the lack of those feelings, the absence of these thoughts and emotions that distress me so fucking much. Which is to say, the thing that attracted me was the same thing I couldn’t find a way to go with: a radically different way of being in the world.

 

[1] “One Day, The Swan Sang This With Its Wings: An Interview with Teresa Villaverde”, by Ela Bittencourt, Senses of Cinema, no. 65 (December 2012).

[2] All subsequent quotations from Fernand Deligny, The Arachnean and Other Texts (Univocal, 2013).

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, March 2020

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