The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Spanish Cinema Now series runs through next Thursday; this weekend’s most eagerly await item is Sunday night’s screening of Guest, a new travelogue film by Jose Luis Guerin, whose film-theory-savvy, rapturous, funny In the City of Sylvia was one of the great festival-circuit discoveries of recent years.
Jose Luis Guerin’s Guest begins with shots of the moon and an empty notebook, paralleling Guerin’s viewpoint with In The City Of Sylvia’s protagonist, who’s introduced staring at the wall with an unfilled notebook in the moonlight. But Sylvia was a thoroughly directed film, with Guerin coolly if sympathetically viewing one young man’s often-jackass behavior from a highly aestheticized distance. Here, Guerin expresses himself through a one-man kino-eye, a year-long video diary from the film festival circuit while touring Sylvia, to which Guest is very much a companion piece. It’s an entirely subjective film, with no evident dissonance between director and subject matter.
Talky where Sylvia was silent, black-and-white instead of color and video rather than film, Guest complements Sylvia in all kinds of inverse-image ways. The arena, once more, is the everyday drama of the streets. Sylvia took place in Strasbourg, one of the co-capitals of the European Union, and Guerin approached the city as a kind of generic pan-European metropolis, a babble of different tongues and generically “European” cobble-stoned streets. Guest has to go all over the world to similarly level big cities into one pan-global den of poverty.
Guest is actually Guerin’s second companion piece to In The City of Sylvia (after 2007’s Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia). It has two main through-lines. One’s the boundary between documentary and fiction, a distinction that Guerin (at least for rhetorical purposes) finds useless—an increasingly common and non-controversial position, with Jia Zhangke and Werner Herzog for company. People keep asking Guerin about it (and he keeps cutting away before answering); the film winds down with Chantal Akerman loudly asserting there’s no difference, as authoritative a statement as a cinephile (like Guerin, who also pays homage to Chaplin, Jonas Mekas and Portrait of Jennie in the film) could ask for. Introduced in France by Michel Ciment as “at the forefront of a major theme, where documentary stops and fiction begins,” he slyly cuts away to models walking down a street for a photo shoot: documentary footage of a fictional staging.
The other throughline is religion: in the urban spaces Guerin finds himself milling through, there’s always a screaming evangelist or sing-along ceremony to observe, one of the simpler anchoring points from which to observe passers-by. This culminates, logically enough, in Guerin’s next-to-last stop: Jerusalem, where a pair of boys demand to know when they’ll be shown in the cinema. “In two years,” Guerin replies; “two AM or PM,” they ask. It’s a dual miscomprehension, with post hoc subtitles conveying what both sides missed.
You could argue Guerin’s trying to be accurate to his experience on the ground by not bringing along anyone to translate. He’s already got three languages he can use—Spanish, French and English—so he’s rarely at a loss. Yet there’s a superficiality to Guerin’s curiosity that renders most of his visit curiously inert. He starts each festival visit with a few shots from above, then heads down to mingle with the commoners. Guerin’s interest in letting people speak for themselves at length with little to no mediation has a Pedro Costa-ish vibe (the comparison’s come up a lot), but he seems unwilling to probe or really immerse himself. He’s just a visitor, and whoever wants to overtly court the camera’s attention is welcomed regardless of insight or entertainment value, provided they speak a language he can understand.
Guerin gets the most sustained value out of his time in Sao Paulo—observing favela rappers freestyle and insulting the onlookers’ dick sizes—and Cuba, where meeting two men drinking on a park bench turns into a long day and night in their tenement houses. People argue vigorously about the benefits of free medical care, poetry is declaimed, rum is consumed, and a gay man who’s been HIV-positive for six years delivers a vigorous hymn of praise to Fidel Castro. This is fascinating stuff, far more so than unintentionally generic visions of poverty or the resilience of little children.
The problem may be that Guerin’s the kind of guy who thinks anyone who calls himself an “artist” is automatically fascinating, even if they’re someone with pretensions and an empty notebook. There’s a little of that at the start of Sylvia, thoroughly eviscerated by the end, but that’s all there is here, often: one man’s sketches of many people of varying interest, viewed through a generic liberal-humanist bent, with a great deal of sympathy. Guerin’s film is especially timely, as in the last few years “festival studies” has started emerging as something people care about (look it up on Amazon if you dare). Like the Richard Porton-edited Dekalog 3 volume, Guest seems skeptical about the value of festival-hopping from one city to another without actually venturing outside the fest’s artificial boundaries to see the rest of town. Unlike Porton, though, he already knows what he’s going to see outside.