Last night we had the opportunity to see the relevant and engrossing film by Kleber Mendonça Filho , Aquarius, at the AFI Silver Theatre. For me it is films like this that focus on a social setting and involve real, deep and complex characters who have had to traverse through our recent and complicated political pasts that make life so generous and films indispensable for our growth. The story's incorporation of music and how it functions in the characters' lives as they try to understand what is transpiring is an accurate but seldom seen depiction of music as daily religion. This is the story of our lives, or at least mine and my family's. In addition to this we also had the pleasure of hearing Sonia Braga speak about her film experience and opportunity to actually get a satisfying role for an older woman that is real and meaningful. She took it to town!
Here's a recent letter in Film Comment by the director detailing the issues with the film release in troubled Brazil:
Much of what has been written and discussed about Aquarius’s tumultuous release in Brazil—and this is of course, beyond discussing the film itself as a film—has focused on words like “struggle”, “tensions” and even “retaliation,” words normally associated with the political arena and not so much with the film world. I actually believe that these words do come up every now and then in the arts, for books, plays, films, but they are not, by definition, what you would normally expect when a film, a work of fiction and cinema language, is about to be released. So, I would like to point out that there has been a huge amount of support and love for Aquarius in Brazil and also for our political views on the current state of Brazilian politics. It would have been impossible to actually get the film out if the whole scenario was purely hostile.
I started noticing this from the first moment, at the Cannes Film Festival, when we got massive support and also when the Brazilian right started its attacks. For three months, much was discussed about the film, for and against, without anyone actually seeing it. We started getting requests by big media to actually show them Aquarius (which we did with caution), whereas Brazilian journalists who were in Cannes would get their ideas out, all of them raving about the film. The two dissonant voices in Brazilian media came from right-wing journalists who had not yet seen Aquarius, one of them calling for a boycott on the film. The other one suggested the film’s crew attended Cannes on some sort of glamorous holiday package paid by taxpayers, sponsored by the Dilma Rousseff government so we would stage the protest. The concept of attending Cannes to present a film in competition as some sort of glamorous holiday shows how artists are currently seen by some in Brazil, and this also confirmed some of the very negative reactions Brazilian artists in general seem to be getting from the right, a complete lack of understanding of how democracy works and also on the very nature of an artist’s work, normally pictured as vagabonds, bon vivants who do not actually work like real decent people do. This was probably the most comical aspect of this whole non-discussion, though I have to say that I struggle to use the word “comical” because it is, in fact, quite sad.
Then again, for every negative reaction, there was and still is a couple of positive ones, and the path to the release of Aquarius was paved with this huge political and human energy, a cloud of ideas and admiration that seemed to grow bigger every time the film was screened in an international film festival prior to its Brazilian release date. These screenings were attended by many Brazilians who would go online and rave about the film. It happened in Sydney, Munich, Paris, Lima; it just made the whole film grow.
And, of course, the similarities between the storyline in Aquarius and Dilma’s predicament were much discussed. They are, in fact, quite staggering. When we went up the steps of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the impeachment process had just begun after a very ugly chain of events that felt like a weird mix of Kafka and a cheap reality show. On that same week, the new interim government pulled the plug on the Ministry of Culture, widely seen by conservatives as a safe haven for radical leftists. That lasted about a week in May and it was also part of our protest. They decided it was a bad idea to get rid of the Ministry of Culture and brought it back, just like that crazy anarchist in Airplane!, plugging and unplugging the runway lights. Tools normally offered by democracy were re-orchestrated and creatively applied to meet the needs of conservatives who grew impatient and frustrated with four defeats in 13 years in Brazil’s very democratic general elections. They had to get to power through this nonsensical impeachment process with full support from big Brazilian media, which presented an outlandish narrative where all things liberal and left were presented as rotten through and through. Some people actually believe now that corruption was a concept brought into Brazilian society by PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party) less than 15 years ago. A fascinating case of short-term collective memory. Clara’s words in the film “Do you know when you feel mad, but you actually know you are not mad?” began to resonate strongly, and soon the story of these two women trying to resist eviction from their homes began to hit people.
The most paranormal correlation between Clara and Dilma took place in late August. The three months which topped the whole lab generated political crisis, and what would be the season finale, took place on the exact week Aquarius was coming out nationwide, and after five raucous advance screenings took place all over the country. The Recife screening, the very first one in the country, on August 20th, at the 1952 movie Palace, the São Luiz, was about the most dramatic. One thousand seats, all taken. People began to cheer and applaud from the moment Clara starts throwing pieces of rotten wood on the marble table. Everyone could tell the film seemed to be hitting a nerve; a very cathartic experience.
Aquarius opened Thursday, September 1st, 12 hours after Dilma was finally told to leave office by senators, many of them accused of corruption crimes, whereas no charges whatsoever were ever presented for Dilma herself as a politician, as a citizen or as president. As for myself and for the group of friends who made Aquarius, we just went where the film took us. We opened the Gramado Film Festival, which was quite a big night, we had massive advance screenings in São Paulo and Rio, juggling huge media coverage (mostly supportive) through reviews, articles and interviews. I was either reacting accordingly or just reacting with irony to two very specific, government-related attacks: the unusual 18 rating the film got from the Ministry of Justice, something that became a huge controversy and that led us to argue in very technical terms with censors that, in reality, it did not make much sense. I have to say that a whole history of film and censorship came to mind during that episode, an area of cinema I have always been very fond of, having lived in Britain during my teenage years, at the time of the video nasties. I also thought of Jose Mojica Marins (Zé do Caixão), Verhoeven, De Palma, and also, inevitably, the dictatorship years, when I was a child, in the ’70s, a time when I was not allowed to see Sonia Braga’s films in cinemas because they were all rated 18, sometimes with cuts made by the Departamento de Censura.
I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.
As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.
The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself. Perhaps no critic got it more wrong than Pauline Kael in her infamous essay “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties: La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita,” in which Kael attacked the film, demanding less ambiguity:
La notte is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they could have to say if they could talk to each other? (2)
On the contrary, Antonioni gives us nothing but insight into the various relationships, and thus I find her dismissal baffling. More recently, critic Christopher Sharrett takes a far more perceptive feminist eco-critical approach to key Antonioni films such as Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) and L’eclisse (1961), noting of L’eclisse that “the failure of people to connect is rooted less in vague existential dread than in concrete social realities”. (3) For me, it is those specific social realities that are most vividly explored and exposed in La notte.
Of all the musicians who came to prominence in the 1960's, Jorge Ben has always seemed to be the one to whom music-making came easiest. Feted by the Bossa crowd, the Tropicalia crowd and even the rock musicians of the Jovem Guarda, Ben has always stood outside all those movements while being able to move freely between all of them.
Jorge Ben's first single "Mais Que Nada" (translated as either 'No Way, Man' or 'Oh, Come On') was chosen to be the music for the 1998 Brazilian World Cup commercial. Written when he was a soldier about a complaining friend, it's incredible to learn that it originally came out over 37 years ago on a 78 rpm single - and that to date it's been covered over 200 times.
Growing up in the working class north of Rio, the son of a stevedore and an Ethiopian mother, his parents were friends with the composer Ataulfo Alves, and his father wrote songs for carnival. Given a guitar at the age of 17, Ben's first group was the Copa 5, named after the Copacabana area of Rio where he was then living. Playing alongside Dom Um Romao and Dom Salvador, the little band played in the clubs along the Beco das Garrafas, and the informal atmosphere that existed in the small clubs, the jam sessions and the encouragement that he received led him to decide to become a musician instead of a football player for Flamengo (his earliest wish until injury got in the way) or a lawyer (the wish of his parents). He was a success right from the start: his first night in Bottle's Club was attended by Armando Pittigliani (a producer for Phillips records), who signed him on the spot.
From his very earliest recordings in the early '60's, Ben's guitar style made him unique. Having taught himself to play the guitar in the army, his percussive strumming style using either the thumb and forefinger or plectrum made him hard to play with. Jamming alongside Erasmo Carlos and Tim Maia in the clubs of his youth, his ability to incorporate all aspects of Brazilian popular music was (until the arrival of the Tropicalists) unrivalled.
If a count was made of the proportion of good songs vs bad by all the major Brazilian artists of the last 40 years, the odds are that Jorge Ben would be very near the top. From 1963 to 1976 Ben produced a faultless string of albums, culminating in 1976's Africa Brasil. Samba, Bossa, Afro Samba, Tropicalia, Funk, Blues, Folk; you name it, it's there in his work. In later years, he's turned towards soul and an increasingly synthesised backing but it has made little difference either to his popularity or the quality of work.
His first albums, Samba Esquema Novo (1963), Sacundin Ben Samba (1964), Ben E Samba Bom (1964), and Big Ben, are nowadays almost impossible to get, though each is well represented on the Serie Grandes Nomes 4-CD set available from Polygram (Samba Esquema Novo has just been reissued in Japan). They all show Ben as the high flying pop sambista, pumping out hits with small combos somewhere between the rock of the Jovem Guarda and the post-Bossa work of the likes of Edu Lobo.
A change comes with the release of O Bidu (Silencio No Brooklin) (1967). Moving to the Sao Paulo district of Brooklin, he began pulling in other instruments and styles to augment his basic sound. The result is not unlike the sense of expanded horizons that you get on listening to The Beatles' Rubber Soul. Commenting on the album years later, Caetano Veloso remarked that the last track "Si Manda" (a brief tale of failed love) with its forceful beat and electric rhythm guitar was everything that he and Gil were hoping to achieve in their own work.
The ten years following O Bidu saw Ben building on its success. It is this period in which he really stood at centre stage of MPB, enjoying the achievement of having compared "O Fino Da Bossa" (the bossa TV show), the Tropicalists' psychedelic and short-lived "Divino Maravilhoso," and been an integral part of the Jovem Guarda's rival rock TV shows. When Tropicalia started doing in 1968 what he had been doing for the previous 2 years, his flamboyantly psychedelic appearance and mastery of eclectic pop songs fitted in naturally with its speedy pop aesthetic. During this time, he also appeared in an episode of "Mission Impossible" singing in a nightclub, when he was touring America with Sergio Mendes.
The fact that he was never the leader of any movement has meant that many histories of Brazilian music tend to overlook his huge contribution. Predating the Tropicalists by several years (and without copping the flack that they did), Ben was the first person to use an electric guitar to play sambas. A decade later (and again predating Caetano and Gil by a couple of years) he was the most successful popular artist at incorporating both African and black American rhythms into his work. His masterpiece, Africa Brasil (1976) takes on Fela Kuti and James Brown and (more so than Caetano's and Gil's efforts) successfully synthesises them with samba into something uniquely Brazilian.
With Ben, the groove is the thing. While Caetano Veloso seems to have hundreds of different tunes inside him and Marisa Monte can move effortlessly from one style to another, Jorge Ben's entire career is founded upon the edifice of perhaps the mightiest riff known to man. The variation that he brings to his greatest songs from the rhythms of "Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)" (from Africa Brasil), with its hypnotic percussion and guitar riff, to the soaring, propulsive "Mas Que Nada" of 13 years earlier is slight, but it's enough. Any of his albums up to Africa Brasil are a safe bet, and there's enough variety and joy in the songs to make them among the most timeless of their period.
Probably because of the simplicity of his songs, Ben escaped most of the persecution that was directed towards his contemporaries. Although he can be accused of being lightweight because of his lack of overt political agenda, it seems pointless to blame him for not doing something which obviously didn't come naturally. The flip side of this argument is that he did write some of the happiest songs of his (or indeed any) era. He has also probably written more songs about soccer than any other popular entertainer too.
"Pais Tropical," with its exultant chorus and irresistible hook, is at least the equal of The Undertones "Teenage Kicks" in its celebration of carefree youth. The lyrics run thus: 'I live in a tropical country / Blessed by God / & beautiful by nature / (but what beauty) / In February there's Carnaval / I've got a VW bug & a guitar / I support Flamengo football team / I've got a black girl called Teresa / I'm a young boy of average intelligence (oh yeah) / But even so I 'm happy.'