He’s a terrible man.
Jake, the character played by Anton Yelchin in “Porto,” critic-turned-filmmaker Gabe Klinger’s first fiction feature (co-written by veteran screenwriter Larry Gross), perambulates a quietly picturesque port—Porto, Portugal—with no true excuse for his life at the age of twenty-six. (Hemingway? Fitzgerald? One of those expat papas said no man, no woman, is formed until at least the age of twenty-six.) Jake says he’s the son of a diplomat, but we see a rabbity, hunched, ill-shaven figure, down-at-heels inside indifferent work clothes and pressed to find work or someone to buy him drinks.
Jake meets Mati (Lucie Lucas), a French exchange student who is in a relationship with her Portuguese professor, at a train station and a café after glimpsing her at a wind-strewn archaeological dig where she makes calculations and he packs rocks. The cinematic reference available to the widest number of viewers would be Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, but without the generous range of banter and gab. The mantel of gossamer disenchantment of Jean Eustache’s “La maman et la putain” (The Mother and the Whore, 1973) is also quietly shouldered on.
Porto, the town, stands as international urban wilderness, the otherworld of cosmopolitan signifiers, the wildness of European culture and romance erected in a past beyond living memory. History and meaning stain the stones and cobbles, and mist the alleyways, but enlightenment eludes the blundering protagonist. Jake will fix upon a single moment, a moment within moments within several days, refracting a clumsy consummation, a fuck he finds majestic, but one that the woman is eager to escape through farfetched compliments and a readiness to run far away in the hours and days that follow, turned again, again, in Jake’s brain, the memory he succors of Lucie claiming she never had an orgasm like that before.
Jake persists: his memory shines the stone to the gleam of l’amour fou, a mad love that not only was not to be but never truly was. The leaps in time are visually tactile, and soothe while lacking the provocation of editing schemes in the boldest films by Alain Resnais (“Last Year at Marienbad”). As with James Salter’s lapidary classic novel of erotic fixation and fantastication, “A Sport and a Pastime,” “Porto” not only has an unreliable narrator, but an unreliable protagonist. Jake hardly exists beyond the incessant petty prick he feels from memory of moments, compounded by sensation recalled.
“Porto”’s native 35mm widescreen format contains fractures, with other time streams in 16mm and Super 8, under the steady, silken hand of cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, who worked in the camera department of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and on his own, shot quietly handsome low-budget films like Lou Howe’s “Gabriel” (2014) and Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz At Dinner” (2017). Time is quicksilver, memory is molten and unstable. How soon is now?
I know both Klinger and Gross. I’ve been acquainted with Klinger since at least the turn of the century and have had long exchanges about movies and philosophy with Gross for at least twenty years, including hours about Eustache’s “La maman et la putain.” (Mati’s mother, engraved by Françoise Lebrun with desultory yet emphatic presence; Lebrun played a casual lover of Jean-Pierre Léaud in that three-and-a-half-hour marathon centered on a twentyish Gallic cock-of-the-walk.) References are rife in the collaboration: the thirty-five-year-old Chicago-based co-writer-director has collaged an estimable matrix of male cinephile influence. The coruscating critique of the pathetic male is thick with predecessors: the suicide Eustache, the prole, dour nicotine-layered worldview of Finn Aki Kaurismäki, the dazed but eager wanderers of Jim Jarmusch (who is credited as executive producer). But Jake possesses not a shred of discernible talent, poetry, wit or virtue. Simply, it’s an apt, savage take on the fugly American. Yelchin’s Jake limps along irregular streets, slovenly, in approximation of Denis Lavant’s homeless addict in Leos Carax’s damp-dark “Lovers on the Bridge” (1991). Yelchin, from shuffle to stubble to thinned hair, has no vanity. As an actor, he invested tremulous intelligence into splendid, even electric, lack of self-pity. Jake is an offensive and common lout, and Yelchin brings him to lasting life.
Even as much as Kaurismäki and Jarmusch, two proven lovers of Portugal, “Porto” has affinities with the landscape films of the prolific American itinerant filmmaker of the wilderness, Jon Jost. Ruined; we wander ruins. In the work of this quartet of male filmmakers from different cultures and generations, days are finite, nights linger longer. And of course, there’s native Porto filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who died, still shooting and cutting at the age of 106 back in 2015. “He was a key influence, and not just because of the scarcity of films set in Porto,” Klinger told Daniel Kasman at Mubi Notebook. “My first connection with the city was through his films. ‘Douro, Faina Fluvial’ (1931), ‘O Pintor e a Cidade’ (1956), and ‘Porto of My Childhood’ (2001) are like great virtual maps of Porto and so incredibly beautiful… Of course they ended up influencing the visual design of our film.” Klinger also lists, amid other influences, the Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons, Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1,” Louis C.K., Godard’s “Bande à part…,” the Kuchar brothers’ 8mm films, Alan Clarke’s walks-to-murder short “Elephant,” the films of the Argentine atmospheric realist-minimalist Lisandro Alonso and “Airplane!” “[I hope] that’s a diverse enough list that no one can point at my film and say, ‘He’s copying this particular filmmaker or this particular style,’” Klinger told Kasman. “The reality is, I’m copying everybody…. You have to assume the posture of student as a filmmaker. There’s a 125-year history that comes before you and you can never forget that.”
Writing, taking photographs, arranging words, exposing celluloid, parsing pixels: we build on history, we burn our influences, kill our forebears by our example. After “Porto,” consider the forefathers murdered.
“Porto” opens Friday, January 12 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.