Saturday, January 16, 2010

Return I Will To Old

On Thursday, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts each began a new season of screenings. The PFA showed Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot's Holiday. As I noted last month, the screening kicked off both a complete Tati retro at the PFA, and a month-long circumnavigation of Frisco Bay for this unique 1953 comedy. It will land at the YBCA January 28th during the downtown Frisco space's own retrospective, which concludes with a February 11 showing of one of my (and many others') favorite films of all-time, Playtime. The YBCA follows its Tati series with an eclectic set called Freaks, Punks, Skanks & Cranks, and a two-for-the-price-of-one pairing of James Benning's American Dreams and Landscape Suicide on February 26.

But before all of that, the YBCA's screening room will be given over to the largest country in South America for the next week or so, to match what's going on in the galleries through the end of the month. A Bit Of Brazilian Music On Film began with a sold-out showing of a 1977 concert tour film well-known in Brazil, called Os Doces Bárbaros or the Sweet Barbarians after the album and supergroup both bearing that name. The band included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania and Gal Costa, and if you're a Brazilian music novice like me, those names sound familiar but not familiar enough to hit home as a supergroup. You have to catch that from the musicianship and the scale of the concerts being staged, both of which are more than convincing.

For a beginner in the sphere of Brazilian popular music, the new documentary Beyond Ipanema seems an ideal introduction to the many styles that have been developed in the country and broken out into global consciousness over the past 70 years or so. It plays tonight (Saturday), but I was able to view a DVD screener alongside some Brazilian friends who enjoyed it from their position of familiarity as much as I did from my position of relative ignorance. The film traces the history of Brazil's international impact on music, starting with World War II-era Hollywood import Carmen Miranda and continuing into present-day electronic music, indie rock. Clips of artists in performance and music-centered films like Black Orpheus are intermingled with re-recordings of certain hits that were presumably too expensive to gain rights to.

But the story is told primarily through interviews with Brazilian and international music figures and fans alike. Former Talking Head frontman David Byrne is presented as a particularly passionate supporter. He observes that unlike many countries whose chief export is sugar or coal or some physical commodity, Brazil's chief export for many years was culture. We are exposed to samba, marcinhes, and the politically-oriented Tropicália movement and its "most experimental artist" Tom Zé (who Byrne sees as a particularly kindred spirit to the New York art-punk scene he was immersed in in the 1970s.) We experience the psychedelia of Os Mutantes, who influenced the likes of Beck and Beastie Boys decades after their heyday. We learn how Seu Jorge views Wes Anderson and the Life Aquatic's instigation of his popularity spike. We get a taste of Northeastern Brazil's lively folk strain called Forró (enough of a taste that I'm determined to check out a Frisco-based Forró band called Forró Brazuca when they play the Cafe Du Nord January 22nd!) Everything from the bossa nova explosion in the sixties to the raunchy Favela funk of the modern era gets spotlighted in a section. With so much to cover there's no time to go into much depth, however; one wishes for a full-length documentary on each genre and subgenre.

The YBCA answers that wish in one instance: the aforementioned funk is the focus of another new documentary playing next Saturday, January 23rd: Favela on Blast, featuring musicians with names like Deize, Tigrona, Mr. Catra, Duda Do Borell, etc. It's a highly-danceable, in-your-face form of music with some parallels to North American hip-hop, that has found a fan in international superstar M.I.A. I was not able to preview this doc, so I don't know if it takes a more unconventional approach than the interview/linear history of Beyond Ipanema. I am also curious to know if the lyrics to these funk songs will be subtitled in English so we non-Portuguese speakers can see just how dirty they can get; the funk in Beyond Ipanema was left untranslated but my friends assured me it would make most anyone blush.

I was able to view a screener DVD of the fourth and final entry in the YBCA series, the Discovery of Brazil. On first glance it appears to be an anomaly in the set. It's by far the oldest, made in 1937 by Humberto Mauro, who alert Frisco cinephiles may remember as the director of 2005 Silent Film Festival selection Sangue Mineiro. Moreover, the Discovery of Brazil is not a documentary at all, but a fictionalized retelling of the national founding myth, the voyage of the first European (Pedro Álvares Cabral) known to have touched Brazilian soil and interacted with its native populations back in the year 1500.

But the Discovery of Brazil speaks to the other films in the series in two major ways. One, as a film endorsed by a Brazilian government which in 1937 was at a peak of nationalist sentiment, it shows us a certain self-image of Brazil and its history at a singular moment, just before the country started to become better-known to the world thanks to its unofficial cultural ambassador, Carmen Miranda. In a way, it fills in a bit of backstory for Beyond Ipanema. Two, as the only Brazilian film scoring credit for perhaps the greatest of all South American classical composers, Heitor Villa-Lobos, the film lets us listen to one of the important strains of Brazilian music left out of the three documentaries in the series.

Indeed, the version of the Discovery of Brazil being shown at YBCA on Sunday, January 24th will privilege Villa-Lobos's composition over fidelity to the film as it was originally seen. Not all of the musical themes the composer was inspired to create for the film were actually used in the finished film that first screened in Rio in December 1937, and Villa-Lobos turned the music written for the score into a set of four suites, which apparently were not performed in that form until a 1952 concert in Paris. The music is best known in the classical music world in the form of these suites, which have been recorded or performed live relatively often. In deference to the importance of Villa-Lobos as a creative contributor to the film, the Rio archive which has made the Discovery of Brazil available has replaced the original music recording with a newer recording of the suites, in much higher recording quality than we are used to hearing accompany a late-1930s talking picture. The integration of the music with sound effects and original dialogue is deftly handled, but still a bit jarring for those accustomed to experiencing string sections in classic films recorded using long-outdated technology.

But though Villa-Lobos aficionados and archival-film purists may be split in their feelings on the Discovery of Brazil's soundtrack as it will be presented at YBCA, both should be pleased by the images themselves, as long as they can appreciate the practical necessity of showing them in a video format rather than 35mm. The first extended section of the film in particular is quite strikingly photographed. Mauro and his cinematographers (the imdb credits four of them, including Mauro himself) refused to approach shipboard shooting challenges as obstacles to creativity; rather they exploited every conceivable camera angle to capture the action from the appropriate distance to stress the meaning of each shot. Below deck we get an intense chiaroscuro that conveys claustrophobic sensations artfully. The way the camera captures the sea itself recalls the shimmering photography of another 1930's Brazilian film, Limite.

In the film's second half, focusing on the encounter between Portuguese and indigenous Brazilian people, religious significance is imbedded in every scene, if not every shot. There is an uncomfortableness to watching these scenes. One wonders how much factual resemblence it bears to the the way that first contact truly occurred. But strikingly, the film, though it emphasizes the so-called "primitive" aspects of the native Brazilians, lingering on lip-piercings and highlighting their ignorance of European technologies and customs, really does seem to convey a convincing awkwardness on both sides of the cross-cultural encounter, quite different from the patronizing platitudes that one might expect from a film made under a nationalist regime. We do get these platitudes in the dialogue of the film's final scene, but that doesn't wash away the mixed emotions invariably stirred by the penultimate sequence, the "first Mass in Brazil" in which newly-made Christians and Europeans alike gather around a huge cross made from one of the tallest trees in the forest. The scene is accompanied by Villa-Lobos's almost-mournful melodies, which befit both a sacred ceremony and a prelude to cultural domination.


  1. Brian - I named Beyond Ipanema as one of my 25 essential documentaries of the 2000s. My knowledge of Brazilian music stops somewhere around Airto, but it is a never-ending source of enjoyment and amazement to me. I learned more in the short span of this documentary than I can remember learning in any other doc of any kind. Brazilian culture is indeed a first-rate export, and it's great to see another film blogger who holds the film in esteem.

  2. Marilyn, thanks for stopping by. Just back from a trip and saw your comment. Your review of Beyond Ipanema was exciting to come across; the film still seems to have a pretty low online profile, which it doesn't deserve. Very excited to see that Forró band tonight after a stop at Noir City!