Rep Diary: Tropicália
The Red Light Bandit
Observed through the prism of the 20th century, the avant-garde, be it artistic or cinematic, is usually associated with the Western hemisphere. A mix of provincial ignorance and patronizing presumption has prevented the “civilized world” from looking at the “third world” as capable of deconstructing its own culture, of consciously tweaking its representational codes. While “we” usually are makers of culture, “they” often are prisoners of their own culture, which can either be backward or naïve, pure or foul, scary or amusing—in any case, never self-aware. Such views are not necessarily or inherently discriminatory, they simply reflect a Western culture that has more often imposed itself on others. Conversely, cultures that had to deal with, resist or fight foreign influxes are presented with unique, synergetic possibilities that are anthropologically unavailable to dominant cultures. The cultural DNA of Brazil is in this respect a case in point.
Modernism, for Brazil, meant carnal hybridization, transcultural exchange, and multi-lateral assimilation. Equivalents of early 20th-century avant-gardes such as Dada, the Surrealists, or the Futurists manifested itself in Brazil in the form of a movement called cultural anthropophagy. Penning its manifesto in 1928, Oswald de Andrade takes up metaphorical arms “against all importers of canned consciousness,” advocating a “spirit that refuses the bodyless [sic] spirit.” What the “Anthropophagous Manifesto” and the artistic movement it ignited called for was the cannibalization of foreign cultures that made up Brazil: devouring the invaders, digesting their folklore and vomiting up a cultural multi-verse of myriad influences. As the Sixties neared their turbulent end, Brazil witnessed its own version of countercultural upheaval, which, in tune with the country's history, was of a polyphonic and crossbreeding kind. Named after an art installation by Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália was both an umbrella term under which a multitude of “cre-active” practices found refuge, and the name by which that cultural chapter of Brazilian history is now remembered.
The Red Light Bandit
Oiticica's installation was a porous, conceptual journey to be physically experienced; an allegorical trip through the many faces of Brazil that, from the slums, brought you in front of a TV set. The labyrinthine dimension and its multi-layered possibilities were reflected in the diversity that the movement it was named after produced. Music electrified the folk tradition, theatre merged the ritual with the experimental and cinema was traversed by violent shockwaves, dialectically opposed yet part of the same magmatic whole. “On the Edge: Brazilian Film Experiments of the 1960s and Early 1970s”, a series that ran at MoMA in occasion of an exhibition dedicated to Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, sampled some of the offerings that came out of Brazil's cinematic underbelly in the Sixties and Seventies. Very much like the days and time it covers, the selection is heterogeneous, almost schizophrenic, but fruitfully (in)coherent. What distinguishes the anthropophagic spirit, which was the archetypical backbone of Tropicália, from other avant-gardes is its trajectory. While experimental art (avant-garde is a military term referring to an act of preliminary, forward exploration of the battlefield) usually negates or sets out to overcome traditions, cultural anthropology moves both backward and forward. It in fact recuperates tradition and infuses it with the new, the experimental, thus overturning hierarchies rather than setting new standards. It doesn't reject tradition; it critically incorporates it into a new practice.
It is rare for avant-garde/experimental films to be traversed by the carnal immediacy that characterizes popular cinema. Theory usually eclipses libidinal fruition. But the work of Brazilian filmmakers Rogério Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane (showcased last summer at MoMA) represent a very rare and precious instances of avant-gardistic B movies in which popular appeal coexists with unconventional theoretical and poetic elaboration. The Red Light Bandit (68) by Rogério Sganzerla, who was only 21 when he made it, truly is a work of savage audacity, of exhilarating, lucid insanity. It recounts the exploits of a mass-mediated criminal on the run—the titular bandit that terrorizes the very same society that created him. Though the film temporally chronicles the rise and fall of the bandit, the elliptical montage creates a chronological vacuum in which the spectator no longer senses the linear passing of time but gets caught up in a dizzying whirlwind of immoral pleasures. The protagonist's magnetic personality challenges the ethical position of the audience, torn between complicity and repellence towards the red light bandit's criminal acts. In “Outlaw cinema,” an intervention written for the magazine Cavalo Azul, Sganzerla describes his own film thus: “My film is a western about the third world, a musical documentary, a sci-fi comedy . . . the red light bandit pursues the police, while the cops meditate on solitude and the incommunicable. I wanted to make a magical rogue film with characters who are sublime and idiotic.” He then goes on to list a series of cannibalized influences: “Orson Welles taught me not to separate politics from crime. It was Fuller who showed me how to deconstruct traditional film through montage . . . Never forgetting Hitchcock, Eisenstein, and Nicholas Ray.” He concludes suggesting that “the departure point of Brazilian films should be the instability of cinema—of our society, our aesthetics, our loves, and our sleep.”
Killed the Family and Went to the Movies
A similar convulsive thrust is found in Júlio Bressane's Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (69), a rapturous and criminally insane hymn to the Seventh Art and its irrepressible power to inspire, deviate, corrupt, and elate. This is cinema as the crazed totem of modern civilization in whose name any sacrifice is conceivable, for its industrial ab-originality absorbs and reflects the endless range of human (im)possibilities. Bressane's black-and-white film recounts the imaginary genesis of a neo-tribal film community doing away with familial ties only to get lost in the perdition of the senses. Bressane merges the labyrinthine trajectories of theoretical elaboration with the basest instincts of the cinematic unconscious in a reckless and hysterical film-spasm. It is a film of intuitive formalism, in which the molecular morphology of the photography, rather than following the plot, hijacks it. Scenes exceed their expected length and from this exasperating gaze emerges another way to comprehend the latent and infinite meanings that every image possesses. Sapphic love, murder, and the emptiness of life are accorded the same aesthetic respect. Images are transfigured into metaphysical allegories; dialogue expresses the “de-lyrical” essence of the characters instead of narrating their movements.
While experimental cinema is usually cerebral and conceptual, the films of Bressane and Sganzerla have a material concupiscence that engages the spectator both “intellectually” and physically. Often compared to and surely inspired by the Nouvelle Vague, Godard in primis, their work is characterized by a bodily dimension, which is completely absent from the films of the famed Swiss filmmaker. Their provocation knows no calculations; profanity is embraced remorselessly; and their films are devoid of any ornamental intellectualism. They are the blazing proof that experimental and popular cinema are not two different genres but potential elements of a single, aesthetic experience unsuitable for passive consumption. A felt, imaginary tension between time and space in the constellation of world cinema, a series of wavering, luminous points to follow in order to not find an answer, but to discover the question. As Bressane often claimed: “I make films because I don't know why I make them. I make them to find out why.”
The series On the Edge: Brazilian Film Experiments of the 1960s and Early 1970s ran May 10 through July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art.