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Dennis Grunes

I don’t recall quite when I first noticed Dennis Grunes and started reading his reviews and blog.  Seems a long time ago.  I do recall meeting him in Portland perhaps in 2005 or 6.  He came to some screening of mine (private), I forget of which film.   Later I went to visit him at his apartment on the northeast side of Portland.   Hardly enough time to call him a friend, but I liked him, and what he did, and think of him as a friend despite the very limited real-world contact.  What he does is about the opposite of what I do.   He watches 2 or 3 or is it 4 or 5 films each day, and writes concise, intelligent reviews of them.  Films of all kinds and times – old, very old, brand new and everything in between.  I hardly ever watch films – instead I make them.

Dennis has a pretty severe diabetes problem which has slowly nibbled away at him, and periodically leaves him adrift and in need of help, and lands him in the hospital seeming to be at life’s edge.  After I left Portland in 2006 I recall him having what seemed a particularly bad bout and I contacted a handful of friends asking them to drop by and see if they could offer a hand, as I would have had I still lived there.  One, Jane Wilcox, did, and has apparently been going by a few times a week for some time now, helping with shopping and such things, for which I am deeply grateful.  She’s been a real dear, helping, as well as keeping me apprised of Dennis’ condition.   A week and some ago I dropped by with her to see him, which was a treat for me.  I hope it was in some way for him.

Given his condition I am rather amazed at his stamina, when after one or another bout with the ravages of diabetes, when he’s at risk of losing a foot, or his eyes dim still more, or he’s in hospital flickering near “the end,” he seems to bounce back, immediately sit down to see another fistful of films and write his reviews.   It would be one thing if his reviews were just opinions, but he has an ability to briefly give a sense of a film, tying into a to me vast knowledge of film and its history, and convey things in a way that has prompted me to want to see any number of obscure works I had never heard of.   In some odd way, my vision of Dennis is weirdly that I see him as heroic – which is again, utterly contrary to my views of life: I don’t believe in heroes, or geniuses or the ideas and concepts that do.  We’re all just people, constricted by our own circumstances, and do what we do, for better or worse.   Dennis has taken a pretty harsh hand dealt to him, and managed to find something possible for him to do, and something he clearly loves, and make the most of it.  His blog, www.grunes.wordpress.com, is, for anyone interested or engaged with cinema, a priceless compendium of intelligence and insight, touching on a oceanic range of films.   It strikes me as a kind of personal catalog of the cinema and should stand as a kind of reference source for a long time to come.

As I left a week ago, I gave Dennis DVDs of two of my most recent films.   A few days later, he wrote this:

IMAGES OF A LOST CITY (Jon Jost, 2011)

“I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see.” ― José Saramago

Prolific Jon Jost’s videographed Imagens de uma cidade perdida, from Portugal and South Korea, now that I’ve seen it, replaces Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as my choice for the best “film” of 2011. Jost has written about “the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness,” their saudade. His portrait of modern Lisbon perhaps suggests this (although this would not have occurred to me had I not read Jost’s remark), but reflects as well its mirror-image, the sadness that derives from the gradual loss of everything to Time. Jost has dedicated Imagens to his young daughter, Clara. (For an explanation of the tragic situation involved, see my essay on his 2006 Passages.) Poetic and never poetical, it is a documentary that ferrets out glimpses of human and material disrepair. Only children at play and hands at work hammering pieces of stone into the sand to create an alley pathway—something for future feet—escape the pervasive tenor of loss, exhaustion, dilapidation. We witness people who are being, or feeling, left behind in a globalized city dropping from its historical and cultural stature into the Third World.

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Jost casts his camera behind and under places and structures, favoring peoples’ backs. (A mischievous boy, though, pops his face into the camera; we enjoy following his vivid shirt to the far back of the frame and again up front.) The framing divides and otherwise restricts exterior space. The opening static, long-held shot is behind a residential structure—a house, I think—and another, an apartment building, with an alley in between the two. Children play. On a bench, closer to us, her back towards us, a solitary older woman sits; at one point, the boy mockingly kisses her and is reprimanded, presumably by his mother. The woman sits and sits; is she observing, or simply staring into space? Is she as much remembering as living?—inside her head in the past, or in the moment? Eventually she is joined by a neighbor her age. They softly converse. What of life has slipped away from them? Both are nearly as stationary as the camera—so much so, in fact, that when the first woman, alone, reaches once to the ground, this motion of hers perplexes and unsettles.

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Jost’s video passes between substantiality and abstraction; sometimes, abstract images are conjoined with clear, immediate sounds, or substantial images are conjoined with abstract sounds, the echo-y or distant sounds of seeming voices of the past. Images also pass between color and monochrome. An overhead long-shot, seemingly black-and-white, studies children at play in the street. They resemble the blind, groping, evolutionary beetles in Robert Browning’s poem “Two in the Campagna.” Individually some of them may have futures; but, visually, vertically, the group of them, however young, are imagined lost to Time. In time, most everything we see and hear in this “film” becomes a metaphor.

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The governing one, because it evolves into a metaphor for the creative process that is generating Imagens, as well as a wider metaphor for the narrow, peripherally blind purposefulness of our laboring lives, shows masculine hands at work constructing the aforementioned pathway. The activity is “in the moment,” direct and immediate, except that the abstraction achieved by focusing only on hands almost feverishly busy amidst speechlessness and the alienating sound of hammer on stone, consigns it to something more elusive than a material dimension. Later, a dissolve restores the activity, now approaching completion, to our view. Both passages seem to be in black and white—until a glimpse of a worker’s blue jeans enters the frame: as quietly explosive a visual gesture as when the woman on the bench reached momentarily to the ground. Is it an illusion that the present seems capable of redeeming, however briefly, whatever has been lost to Time?

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For a long time, Imagens remains out of doors, in a way separating us, as well as the people themselves, from the stability of their lives. Eventually, the camera is indoors—for instance, at a window observing a municipal bus, as well as other traffic, outside. Darkness; covered with blinds, the window—or another window—is doubly mysterious. Jost applies distortion to create the illusion that the venetian blinds and window are undulating—breathing. It is a blind and labored—a mortal—breath. Sound, also, seems distant, ghostly. The occupants of the house or apartment, although it is their own struggle, are themselves blind to the struggle at the window.

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Imagens de uma cidade perdida, outdoors again, closes on an older gentleman occupying a bench. The image startles for two reasons. This bench, on the street, isn’t shot from behind; we are given a lateral view. The solitary occupant, moreover, seems to be in the throes of anguish or terrible pain. Rather than sitting upright and facing forward, he is all over the bench, as though he were using it to hold himself together. We are seeing how he feels—for whatever cause. Jost doesn’t budge the camera, and we cannot help but see. Is it Portugal’s experience of fascism, which an earlier inserted passage addressed, what is weighing on this man? Is his health, like his city, in disrepair? We do not know, we will never know; but we cannot help but see.

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Lisbon is a city that has never meant anything to me. Now it will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I note that while Imagens de uma cidade perdida played at the Rotterdam Festival, 2011, and was in competition at the Yamagata Documentary Festival in Japan in October 2011, it was rejected by a fistful of other festivals, among them the Margaret Meade, Florence Documentary, Bilbao, DocLisboa, Lisboa Indie, DOCSDF (Mexico City), Mumbai and Busan and Jeonju (Korea) fests.  Win some, lose a lot.

Thanks Dennis, and be well.

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