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That scene is in that place to get everyone out of the theatre who doesn’t want to be there, right? —Mark Peranson interviewing Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa 

Something I’d been puzzling over myself. The scene in question, which occurs a couple minutes into Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), a cinema pauvre exercise in painterly light and shadow (at Siskel Film Center 12/1 and 12/4), involves a woman on a bed nattering on about diapers, and more than once in this excruciatingly long, immobile take was I on the verge of tuning her—and the film—completely out. Then it suddenly dawned: it’s the same woman who played the emaciated, strung-out doper in Costa’s earlier In Vanda’s Room (2000) … but look what’s happened to her since. Then anorexic and wired, all exposed nerve endings, now more than a little zaftig, maybe even doughy, the edge-of-a-precipice energies rechanneled into (marginally) less frenzied methadone-inflected patter. Or: then emotionally scattered and unattached, now married and (marginally) more focused—unless it’s just dulled down—which she attributes to newfound love for an infant daughter, an inarticulate new spouse … but why then treat him so dismissively, like an unwelcome houseguest? That it took me as long as it did to recognize this quasi-actress/character’s (dis)continuities came as a kind of jolt—the tip-off was probably her hacking cough—but then I was thoroughly hooked: everything she said seemed resonant and pointed … because the underlying context had been radically reframed.

Which arguably provides a key to how we watch movies generally, since despite individual star ratings and the familiar insistence that every film—or every kind of “artwork,” period—necessarily stands or falls “on its own merits,” in splendid isolation or ignominy, the fact is that what we bring to a film a priori largely determines what its putative virtues are. Because, to put it simply and glibly, every informational bit in the (pre)conscious database affects our view of the whole, or at least subtly rearranges the organizing furniture. So if I’d never seen In Vanda’s Room (or presumably Bones, which is part of the same trilogy), my reaction to nattering mama would probably have been different—as indeed it was till realization kicked in. Or if I hadn’t at least a nodding acquaintance with 17th-century Spanish baroque painting—Zurbaran, Ribera, Velazquez, all masters of chiaroscuro, of the underlit tableau—or contemporary illusionist photography, or just recently speculated on the nature of 3-D imagery (since so much of Costa involves confusions of 2-D layering: like, how do you read these perspectival phantoms emerging from the dark?), my enthusiasms cum epiphanies could well have gone in another direction—or even vanished altogether. Contingency governs outcome—which makes sense from an auteurists’ point of view, where value largely accumulates through stalking horses and proxies, but not if you’re into eternity and canons.

Ergo: “four stars”—does this ratify a film or the culture that produced it?