Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

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Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

picture references:

moviemail-online.co.uk

screentrek.com

smh.com.au

thecia.com.au

narod.ru

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.