The sketch is often approached as one of two things – a study, or practice for, an eventual painting (polished and final; heavy) or a scribbling, something done on impulse and then put away or passed over – a doodle. But the sketch can offer something more, a kind of energy, the very lack of refinement opening up the possibility of a less mediated dialogue between artist and viewer. I’ve always preferred Surrealist drawings to paintings, particularly Dali’s. And who can forget Rembrandt’s self portraits, or Giacometti’s furious, violent charcoal storms, gradually accumulating layers approaching the human face. I’m also thinking even more specifically of the Impressionists: Millet, Courbet, Degas, Pissaro, and especially Cezanne and Picasso. The looseness, the lack of self awareness are refreshing, the lines of the pencil alive with energy – “drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing – a study of even the swiftest sketch discloses the mind and nature of its author”. (Maurice Serullaz).
Film can do the same: Rivette has created his epic sketch (Out 1); Chris Marker’s essays have a similar quality, along with late period Kiarostami, Assayas’ Irma Vep and Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn. Video doesn’t immediately signify the qualities I’m thinking of, and one shouldn’t push the analogy too far, although we do have Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema and Mann’s Miami Vice. Manoel de Oliveira has switched back and forth for some time now, vacillating between the unprepossessing and the heavier, more concrete – my favorite de Oliveira, The Uncertainty Principle, is film with a capitol 'F', along with A Talking Picture, Magic Mirror and The Convent. The sketch films include two of his earliest features, Rite of Spring and Doomed Love (epic in the Godard/Rivette sense), the more recent Porto of My Childhood and I’m Going Home, and now Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl.
Clocking in at a mere 65 minutes (although brevity is not the sole signifier or even a pre-requisite for a sketch), De Oliveira moves with economy and broad strokes, the film’s opening scene announcing, literally, that a man has a story to tell about a woman, and that it will not end well. De Oliveira regular (and grandson) Ricardo Trepa is the heart broken man; he flashes back to the beginnings of his love affair, the great lengths he has gone through to secure his beloved’s hand, and the abrupt ending of their affair, shocking in its immediate finality as much as anything else.
De Oliveira has sometimes been accused of focusing too frequently on the upper class, but here he has snuck in a critique that barely registers until that ending – charting Trepa’s rise through polite society and jockeying for financial position, the film is ultimately not about doomed love but his own failure to achieve the status he desires. De Oliveira films Trepa’s introduction to his obscure object of desire through several layers of artifice, framed (accordingly) through windows. Sitting in his accountant’s office, Trepa chances to gaze upon Catarina Wallenstein and her Chinese fan. Catarina first parts a lace curtain to reveal not only herself, but a framed portrait of a woman hanging behind her. She then coyly obscures her face with the waving of the fan, before lowering a window shade. Now blocked from view by the shade, although obliquely visible as if seen through gauze, she moves behind the curtain and walks underneath the portrait, leaving the image’s frame. At this moment, she essentially becomes a ghost of herself, physically receding into an opaque mirage-image, and it is the moment that Trepa falls in love not with a woman, but with a portrait of a woman – an idea. It is not until the film’s end that she will reveal a part of herself, only to be violently rejected by her suitor. The “eccentricities” of the title is Catarina’s humanity, and it is a humanity that is spurned in favor of societal appearances and resentments. A sketch of a film, to be sure, but what a moving, complex sketch it is, as de Oliveira indulges tangents through a literary club, with a brief history of its founder, as well as a musical scene featuring a harp and a poetry recital (a poem, incidentally, bemoaning class warfare and resentment in favor of the simple pleasures in life). Yes, this sketch might be one of the master’s finest.