Design for Living
by Jeff Reichert
A Useful Life
Dir. Federico Vieroj, Uruguay, Global Film Initiative
Federico Vieroj’s pint-sized second feature, A Useful Life, runs only slightly over an hour, but the gauntlet it tosses at the feet of the cinephiles who are its most likely audience suggests a young filmmaker eager to grapple with the state of film culture (if gently and humorously—don’t expect Histoire(s) du cinema-level gravitas here). Vieroj’s modest attempt to check the pulse of serious cinephilia in the second decade of the 21st century (surprise: blood pressure is low!) manages to pull something like a manifesto out of its mangy character study and shaggy romance, one that, however muted its delivery, still should give anyone who spends part of each day in front of a screen alight with images reason for pause. A Useful Life may not be what you’d call vital, but it does signals that the current Latin and South American filmmaking renaissance has a pretty deep bench.
Jorge (Jorge Jellinek, an actual film critic in Uruguay, likely cast so writers the world over could note this shared background with satisfaction) is a programmer at the rundown 58-year-old Cinemateca Uruguaya. If you’ve seen “serious” art cinema over the past few decades, you know the score: off-white institutional hallways, horribly echoing floors (several shots remind of the corridor outside of the basement-dwelling Harvard Film Archive), anonymous exteriors, uncomfortable rickety seats on the verge of total collapse, and, let us not forget, a distinct lack of patrons. As the film opens, Jorge and the institute’s director, Martínez (Manuel Martínez Carrilo, former CU head), ponder the organization’s future as their audience dwindles and their debts mount. A last-ditch appeal to a major funder falls on deaf ears: the two awkwardly suited cinephiles, clearly uncomfortable in the presence of obvious wealth, success, and business acumen, are informed that their patron saint will now only support profitable cultural institutions.
One of the film’s best running gags is the Cinemateca’s Manoel de Oliveira centenary celebration, planned even in the face of their massive arrears and failing equipment (a dire meeting to discuss broken gear with the projectionists features all the levity of the Last Supper). There’s romance in the stubborn idea that, through programming, a group of movie nerds, more comfortable alone in front of a screen than in a crowd, can convince a largely uncaring public to partake of their very specific tastes, but also some sadness in the blinkeredness of it all. Vieroj shot, appropriately, during the CU’s retrospective, and massive banners around the facilities signal the theater’s enthusiasm for a series that likely stands little of chance of resolving their financial situation. (He kids because he loves.) An air of doom surrounds the film’s first half, even as Jorge gamely carries on his duties—he brings a local filmmaker onto the stage to introduce a screening, divvies up some screeners recently arrived from Iceland, checks sound levels (nicely framed near Eadweard Muybridge horse-in-motion prints), tests the seats at the end of the day, repairing a loose chair or two. These Stations of the Cross, as it were, lovingly rendered in the muted grays of Vieroj’s black-and-white cinematography (the image, which feels like it’s from the middle of the last century, is also formatted to a dated aspect ratio, suggesting an out-of-time quality), will feel familiar to most moviegoers who regularly patronize their local art theater. Shot without irony and in the face of the institution’s shuttering (and the economic realities all viewers will likely be aware of), they take on an elegiac tone.
Once the Cinemateca’s doors close, A Useful Life switches gears. After a screening earlier in the film, Jorge steels himself up to ask Paola (Paola Venditto), a lovely theater patron, out to coffee. She rebuffs his advance, but not unkindly. So, like the romantic hero that the Cinemateca’s closure allows Jorge to dream himself to be (the CU’s screens might be dark, but the movies still clearly play in his oversized noggin), he tracks her down at the law school where she teaches, intent on scoring date. He arrives early, so instead of just waiting for her quietly, he impersonates a substitute teacher and delivers a bravura lecture on the nature and necessity of lying (perhaps a play on De Palma’s inversion [“Cinema lies 24 times/second”] of Godard’s famous cinematic dictum?), gets an drolly amusing haircut (shot as if something truly monumental was about to happen besides Jorge losing his Alfred Molina-esque coiffure), performs a poor man’s Gene Kelly impersonation on a staircase, and generally evinces little of the stoop-shouldered zombie-gait of his former life as programmer. When Jorge finally does find Paola, Vieroj’s sudden employment of askew close-ups of the grinning pair only serves to underscore the constructed movie-ness of the moment (a recognizable romantic theme cues on the soundtrack). Where are these two headed? The cinema, of course. Jorge may be liberated, but he has no desire to escape.
The film’s conclusion is rather madcap, coming as it does following an austere first half, but A Useful Life’s early sections contain the film’s manifesto. As part of his Cinemateca duties, Jorge was the host of a regular radio program that discusses the upcoming film schedule. In one show, Martínez acts as the special guest and embarks on a long discussion of the proper way to be a cinephile—for him it’s not about memorization of dates and titles, but about engagement with the image, about taking it out of the theater and into real life. His hilariously dour delivery aside (a parody of the character, or of the possibility of living this ideal?), the way this sentiment takes hold, the way Vieroj’s considered nonaesthetic of empty spaces and long takes (a less precise contrast to the more geometric compositions of countrymen Stoll and Rebella) opens up to match Jorge’s emergence into the romantic musical of his life, is a pretty nifty marriage of those things called form and content. A Useful Life’s actors and setting suggest a film potentially in line with that strain of heterodox cinema that’s been circulating of late (Alamar, The Anchorage), but this is much less a work interested in injecting cinema with reality than it is a movie about loving and living movies. Which one of the two lives Jorge leads—erstwhile manager of a declining film society or erstwhile top-heavy lothario—is the useful one? Vieroj wisely declines answering.