Monthly Archives: February 2014

February 20, 2014

50. E la nave va (1983)

directed by Federico Fellini
story and screenplay by Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerro
opera texts by Andrea Zanzotto


Criterion #50. And the Ship Sails On.

You know he’s a big deal when this is one of his minor films.

Fellini’s late work seems to be generally thought of rather dimly, at least outside Italy. (“Late work” here means everything after Amarcord, which chronologically speaking is the entire second half of his career.) Several of the films seem to be completely unavailable on DVD. From my internet reading I don’t get the sense that there’s any very good critical reason for the neglect other than inertia of neglect.

It doesn’t surprise me that once things begin to be unfamous, reflexive skepticism would keep them that way. Like I said ages ago, “art” in the abstract tends to be assumed to be mediocre. If you just look at the list of an artist’s complete output — an artist you know nothing about — you may well feel some tickle of an inclination to think “how nice for him that he kept himself busy; a shame it’s all (probably) the same, all (probably) kind of blah.”

People tend to assume that their cultural exposure has been governed by an invisible hand of taste, and that if they haven’t heard of something, it’s probably not as good as the things they’ve heard of. This is the artgoer’s equivalent of “if you’re poor you must be lazy.” But it’s human nature. We ought to aspire to do better than to just run with it, though.

In E la nave va there are some aristocrats and artists on a luxurious ship. Various scenes play out. It all seems to be a dream. Everything is gently, sweetly unreal. One of the characters says he’s a journalist and seems to be our tour guide. There is an air of foreboding and also of quiet happiness. Eventually there is a sort of cataclysm and it ends.

That’s it!

There is some hint throughout, especially toward the end, that this is a socio-political Allegory of The Death of The 19th Century. That’s well and good, but it’s hardly a skeleton key to the movie; it’s just one of many layers on Fellini’s onion of subconsciousness. The feeling that this may all be some kind of metaphor or a critique is just another emotional thread in the dream fabric. (Critics who seize a movie like this by the allegory and then try to shake it into submission are just dreaming their own agitated sort of dream.) The archetypes of the 19th century and the looming significance of World War I are all crammed on this luxury liner together not as comments on a historical reality but simply as ingredients sloshing around in a certain part of the present-day imagination. At least of the imagination of a certain Italian filmmaker. And of mine too, because I too have seen A Night at the Opera.

I lay watching this in a very soft state of mind and found it thoroughly congenial. My only complaints would be that 1) it all ran a bit long, and 2) when the political material began to be more prominent toward the end I started to get the unfortunate impression that I was supposed to be watching more rationally and analytically. In retrospect I’m confident that impression was false, but I do think there’s something a little dramaturgically imbalanced in the second half. Though that’s also the nature of dreams. That was probably just a first-time thought that would not present itself on repeat viewings.

I will not recount the contents because it’s a movie to be mused over rather than worked out and explained. Here for flavor is one scene: everyone stands around in the kitchen and watches intently while the “deepest bass in the world” does his trick of singing a note so low that it makes a chicken fall asleep. It makes the narrator fall down unconscious too, but they quickly pick him up and he’s fine and in good spirits.

This is, I guess, “surrealism,” but the official “surrealists” sort of stole that term for the flavor of their dreams. That Salvador Dali stuff always feels a little off to the icky side, for me. Fellini’s dreams are more like mine. Like my good ones anyway.

Here’s a quote from the director, vindicating my approach toward this movie. I didn’t find this until afterward:

I would like to have billboards placed on the cinema doors with the following wording: “There is nothing more than what you’ll see.” Or: “Don’t make any efforts to see what is behind, or you’ll run the risk of not being able to see what is in front of you.”

It’s a show. It’s a poetic auteurist show, not one that follows a set recipe, but its freestyling will be more or less familiar from your subconscious, if you let it be.

Signor Fellini is a very great artist, I say, for being able to draw such well-modulated dreaminess out of the great messy world of production reality: set-building and actor-wrangling and crew-direction and blah and blah blah. It is rare that so elaborate a production is put to so ethereal an end, or at least rare that the ethereal note survives the physicality of the production. In the movie there is a stinking rhinoceros on board the ship, representing (perhaps) the fantastic in the real and the real in the fantastic. At the end our narrator rows away with it, planning to live off its milk.

The artifice is part of the texture of the film: everything looks intentionally fake, in a pleasantly disorienting way, and our attention is repeatedly called to the deep strangeness in the very fact that this dream is so physical and real and made out of people and stuff at work in a studio. At the very end he goes all out and pulls back to show the studio and the lights the mechanism rocking the fake deck and the camera and the crew and, his face hidden by the camera, himself. But even over this the dreamy music continues to play. Even if I was wrong to say it about Nights of Cabiria, I know I’m right here: the spirit is simply that movies are dreams, life is a dream, we’re all on the ship and the ship sails on.

The flavor is sort of like Terry Gilliam meets Proust.

Or maybe David Lynch. And there’s some Chaplin and Marx Brothers thrown in. Plus at times it feels like you’re watching a movie about the Titanic. And/or an opera.

Pina Bausch is in it, not dancing. Barbara Jefford is in it, whom I was able to place (before the movie ended!) as Molly Bloom from the Ulysses movie. Odd that I quoted her in the last entry. The main narrator guy is played by Freddie Jones, who is apparently the father of Toby Jones.

One of the characters has clearly been intentionally made to resemble this painting.

I went online to read stuff people said about this movie but anyone who has anything to say other than that it’s underrated and a lovely piece of art seems mostly wrong to me. And I don’t want anyone to take away the half-asleep magic sympathy I felt for this movie so I stopped reading. Once I’ve posted this I probably won’t be able to help myself but read some more, though. I would watch this again someday.

Several of the lead actors are English-speaking only and had to be dubbed into Italian. The dubbing is very loose throughout, which serves to increase the dreamy effect and wasn’t a problem for me. But apparently (according to scattered comments online) the so-called “English dub” of the movie, as shown back in 1984 in the UK and apparently later on cable a few times, included the original audio in the actors’ real voices, and those who have seen it consider it the preferred version of the film. Criterion does not include this and I’m not sure it’s available anywhere. Criterion doesn’t include much of anything. Interestingly, since this release, they haven’t ventured to extend their catalog to include any of the other “obscure” Fellini items, even though this seems like ripe territory for “rediscovery.” Certainly for “repackaging.”

(Speaking of Criterion and its releases: hey, this is the 50th that I’ve watched! I’m going to do a little pointless celebrating of my grand achievement here, but not until after the 51st, for a dumb reason that I’ll explain when I get there.)

The music was done by one Gianfranco Plenizio (Nino Rota died in 1979). It’s almost entirely arrangements of familiar classical music (and a couple of “folk” items that I assume are at least partially traditional). The showpieces are two opera scenes, at the beginning and end of the voyage, sung by everyone on board, with new lyrics (including the title) set to bits of Verdi. But I couldn’t choose those because there are interfering sound effects and also I’m trying to avoid songs. The end credits are just Signor Plenizio playing “Clair de lune” with some odd editing, but it’s his own simple and dreamy take on it, and gives the flavor of the movie. So even though it’s not original music — in the strictest sense there is essentially none in the movie — this is what we’re going with. Track 50.

February 18, 2014

49. Le notti di Cabiria (1957)

directed by Federico Fellini
screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli
additional dialogue by Pier Paolo Pasolini


Criterion #49. Nights of Cabiria.

This has all the hallmarks of “great film” status (“Great film” in the snooty international Cahiers du Film Studies sense, not the Academy Awards montage “Oh, Toto! Attaboy Clarence! I’m the king of the world! You’re a wizard, Harry!” sense):

1) auteurism, this being Fellini’s own script for a movie showcasing his wife, plus did I mention “Fellini”
2) intra-cinematic reference (to e.g. Charlie Chaplin)
3) meta-cinematic reference (a movie star and a magic show figure in Cabiria’s adventures)
4) opportunity to say “breaks the fourth wall”
5) black-and-white
6) not American
7) slow pace
8) centrist approach to satisfy partisans of naturalism (unglamorous people and places + an impression of unmanaged humanity) and romanticism (touches of magic realism + fabulist contrivances in the plotting)
9) already established as a “great film”
10) (is good)

I may sound cynical about this, but I’m not. I enjoyed the movie and wouldn’t want to strip it of its fame at all. I do sometimes want to strip halls of fame of their fame, though. And their halls.

Advocates of relatively marginalized art are usually too preoccupied by their marginalization to think straight. They want to do the public culture a service by trying to return good and worthwhile things to the light — as well they might, seeing as how much of what’s in the light at any given time is terrible. But they tend to go about it naively and ineffectually. They wish everyone else shared their tastes, but they don’t actually believe in manipulating people to bring that about — so they devote themselves to building shrines and halls of fame, and then polishing them brighter and brighter, rather than simply buying advertising space and insinuating themselves into people’s regular lives, which might actually do some good. Shrines and halls of fame are essentially defensive.

The people at The Criterion Collection, however — to their immense credit — actually do something quite genuinely constructive to rehabilitating great films with their Trojan Horse approach. They package! package! package! until their vacantly sexy product can attract the design-lust of the living, and then lo and behold some people are, they know not why, watching Nights of Cabiria again. Or, equally, something else. Obviously Trojan Horseplay places great responsibility on the curator. And thus by extension on the viewer. I could go on about Criterion and packaging and authenticity and my mixed feelings. Someday I will but it won’t be for a while.

Nights of Cabiria is about a good soul and whether she will be able to find kindness in the world. It is exactly a Charlie Chaplin movie, except that Chaplin was a very pure egomaniac and did not differentiate between the world being saved and the world learning to love him sufficiently. Fellini tries to work outside such illusions. Both this movie and nearly every Chaplin movie pose the same sentimental question: “Will this person be loved sufficiently?” But the philosophical extension of the question is different in the two cases. Chaplin egomaniacally implies that his film is asking “will the world ever be good and pure?” Fellini’s generalization is the more reasonable “will any person ever be loved sufficiently?” He is a less complete egomaniac and has at least some inkling that his audience is made up of individuals with their own problems.

This may sound dubiously psychoanalytic of me, but it’s explicitly what the second half of the movie is about. The pivot of the plot (such as it is) is that in a moment of spooky transcendence, Cabiria — outwardly already a lovable Little Tramp figure — is magically made to reveal her true purity and simplicity of soul in its complete nakedness. And after this moment of uncannily intense vulnerability, the audience is held in suspense about it for a very long time: has this been a good or a bad thing?

Well, to spoil the famous ending — I’m going to try not to be specific, but if you haven’t seen it you might want to do that rather than read this and the next paragraph — it is, of course, a mixed bag. The question left poignantly open at the end is how much the proportions of that mix matter.

The strength of art is to draw compelling philosophical equations where the rational mind would refuse them, and this is where the film earns its greatness, in my book. Fellini’s ultimate cinematic proposal is that there is a sense in which the proportions of pain and joy simply do not matter. There is kindness in life, and that is good; there is cruelty in life and that is bad. And he can put his finger on the bad side of the scale as heavily as he wants, and it is still in some sense balanced. In the art-sense of the film we feel the truth of this point of view, and the tears it draws are, I think, tears of recognition. Then the lights are immediately turned back on so that we can’t argue against any optimism but our own, because Fellini has already removed himself. This is a very sophisticated manipulation of the audience and a very generous one.

Incidentally: I want to be clear that my calling Chaplin a “very pure egomaniac” is not intended as a criticism. I think his movies (at least the famous Little Tramp ones — I haven’t seen any of the more transparently self-indulgent later ones) are wonderful as gifts to the ego in everyone, the part that says “I am pure, and all my problems arise from the world being impure.” As far as it goes, this is true and healthy and the movies let us experience the joy of that. The difficulty comes when we stop watching intuitively and emotionally, and start thinking critically about the man behind the curtain, as it were, the real guy wearing the fake moustache. Then we might realize that we aren’t so sure we like his self-aggrandizing manipulations. But that’s the fall from grace. In actuality we did like the manipulations. They are not harmful to us until we observe them.

A few minutes ago, I intended for this train of thought to stop at several further stations that I had in mind, but my mental slate just got wiped and one of those end-of-the-line barriers got set up. And something I’m learning is that straining to recall thoughts that have untimely vanished is about the most destructive thing I can do to my flow, so let’s just go on to the next thing.

(“Untimely” as adverb: some dictionaries say “archaic” but OED, and more surprisingly, Merriam-Webster, do not. Take that, readers.)

During viewing I thought: “perhaps the title Nights of Cabiria is meant to suggest that the successive episodes are her different dreams, reflecting and embodying her various fears and hopes and ambivalences, as real dreams do.” In part I thought this because I wasn’t yet clear on what level of realism vs. clown-show I was seeing. Later on, when I had grown comfortable with the style of the movie, I no longer needed this conceit to get me through, but it still worked. And afterward it still does. Maybe it only does because all movies are like dreams, or all art is like dreams, or all life is like dreams. But maybe it specifically does because Fellini had that in mind at some level, though I can’t find that documented anywhere. Anyway I’m putting it out there.

Nights of Cabiria seemed to me to be one of those works by male artists that says “women (my wife/girlfriend especially) and their souls and feelings are so wonderful and deep, which is to say that my eye for women and my awareness that they have souls and feelings is wonderful and deep, are you getting this, ladies? Check out my massive throbbing sensitivity to what you really are.” As Molly Bloom says: “yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is”. She says this because a man made her say it, in the course of his very flashy attempt to demonstrate that he could understand or feel what a woman is better than anyone.

This genre is of course generally associated with Woody Allen… but I personally think of Steve Martin as its most embarrassing practitioner, with screenplay after book after play showcasing his sensitive understanding of the real literature-worthy feelings of women who, y’know, happen to be his type. Am I the only person who thought of this as horribly transparently no more than the output of an ingrained denialist compulsion to convert idle sex fantasies about hot girls into “real” “consideration” of their “particular inner lives”? I mean, look at the damn cover! And of course Steve Martin played the “guy in the me-Steve-Martin role in this sex fantasy” in the movie. (I admit, I didn’t read it or see the movie. I did read one of his later books. As I recall it too had a hot girl with a lot of inner sadness in it.)

I’m not saying that the thought “hey, I’m objectifying that person, but I don’t want to be like that: let me try to think more fully and empathetically about them” can’t ever yield fruit. I’m also not saying that the thought “hey, I’m objectifying that person and I love what I’m seeing and I’m going to write it down as art” is problematic. But I do squirm at the bad faith of “I agree that objectifying someone is insufficient but don’t worry, this can’t possibly be objectification because it has feelings in it. Look where I say that ‘she sighed with loneliness when men would ogle her long, toned legs.’ Look where I say that ‘her tasteful miniskirt kept riding up uncomfortably over her girlish, too-skinny thighs!'” If we’re reading about people as people and not people as bodies, why the obsession with appearances?

Though Steve Martin has walked the walk, in that particular respect, by descending into some kind of sad facelift spiral, so what do I know.

I guess all I’m really saying is that “depth” can also be an object, “sincerity” can be a fashion, and “sensitivity” can be a ploy. I would never hurt you, girl. (Aw shit you’ve just been v=dQw4w9WgXcQ‎’ed!) And I get uncomfortable during “Girlfriends: so full of human depth!” movies because some part of me feels like I’m being very slowly v=dQw4w9WgXcQ‎’ed.

Related: I have always been very nervous about attempting to write fiction about fictional people — and not just the hot ones — because I fear that all my “imaginative empathy” will just sound like Steve Martin’s writing: like someone who desperately needs to believe that he is sensitive, far more than he actually is sensitive. What causes that effect? Overthinking, and if you’re asking about it, it’s already too late. Damn! Try again later.

ANYWAY, let’s go back to Woody Allen, who like I said is a more common point of reference for the “dig me digging my girlfriend” genre. Maybe I’ve just got Woody Allen on the brain because Nicholas Kristof recently ran this provocative piece asking everyone what their favorite Woody Allen movie is — it’s been a while but I think mine may still be Love and Death. Thanks, New York Times, this was fun! — but Nights of Cabiria seemed to me like the ideal “why my girlfriend is cool” movie Woody has been trying to make for years. When I saw Amarcord I also got a strong sense of the extent of Woody’s debt to Fellini. Confirmed: it is a large extent.

In Fellini’s defense on this count, if a defense is needed: what Giulietta Masina is doing here is real performance, not just a kind of relaxed self-exposure a la Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (which, to be clear, I like). But, as some pretentious clowning instructor (or for that matter Charlie Chaplin) might say: the essence of clowning is truth — real, if stylized, self-exposure — and of course what charms and endears us about Cabiria is her aura of humanity and spirit, not her specific “persona,” and that cannot be falsified out of whole cloth. (I know it is theoretically a big deal that this is a movie about a prostitute, but she’s only as much a prostitute as The Little Tramp is homeless, which is to say only slightly more than Donald Duck is a duck.) It is a movie meant to win Giulietta Masina awards for being lovably wonderful, as it did.

Again the train hits a barrier and wonders where it could possibly have been going. I swear it was somewhere else. But look at that beautiful expanse of uninhabited snow out there, with no tracks to be seen. Let’s get out of here.

Nino Rota is really very very good at what he does. His thing might seem limited and repetitive — if you listen to a “Best of Nino Rota’s Movie Music” album you might well feel that you’re just listening to a single cohesive album — but is actually exquisitely nuanced. The Amarcord theme and the Notti di Cabiria theme may sound like very similarly catchy little sentimental tunes in basically the same popular style, but if they swapped movies they wouldn’t work at all. The poignancy of one is not the same as the poignancy of the other: it’s a slightly different station at a slightly different volume at a slightly different time of day. In both cases the whole meaning of the film depends on the music, and he manages to get it exactly right.

Having on a few occasions been in or near the trenches when such musical choices are being hammered out, I know that this aspect of dramatic composing, getting the meaning exactly exactly right, is the subtlest and most important. John Williams used to say in interviews that the hardest part was getting the little motives on which the whole score was based to be exactly what they needed to be as signifiers, and that in more than one instance he had to work through many tens of almost-identical variants of the same few notes, trying to sniff out the right one. (Having them go on to be megafamous was surely vindicating. I think in the confidence of old age he may no longer spend quite as long as he might.) Nino Rota clearly had a special knack where he could get the dimension of meaning just right, and then execute it with such nonchalance that it would sound genuinely effortless, like it might just be a pre-existing track. I don’t know if he had to work at it or if it just came to him.

At the very end of this film, when the orchestra emerges in full force to bring down the curtain, we can’t help but notice that the score has known exactly what it was doing all along and has earned the feeling we’re feeling. It’s a very smart score that turns what might otherwise seem like a small and erratic movie into something cohesive and strong and moving. Here are the main titles: Track 49. (The themes that are “popular” here later appear arranged as “classical”; the themes that are “classical” here later appear arranged as “popular”.)

February 5, 2014

48. Orfeu negro (1959)

directed by Marcel Camus
screenplay by Jacques Viot
inspired by the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes (1954)
adaptation and dialogue by Jacques Viot and Marcel Camus


Criterion #48: Black Orpheus. In Portuguese, shot in Brazil, directed and produced by Frenchmen and considered a French film.

If you don’t know what this is, you can go to the Criterion site and press play to watch the preview. It gives a good sense.

I think the aspect of “blogging” that is most artificial to me — and accordingly the least fluid element of my writing — is form. Thoughts are not the same thing as a cohesive essay. In grooming the former to pass as the latter (like Henry Higgins), I feel that I am wasting my time and mental energy on fakery. Fakery ought not to be any part of this. If I wrote in drafts, on a second pass I would no doubt be inspired to impose some form of my own invention, but I really want to do these in one shot. That’s the nature of the exercise. And in one shot I’m not going to be thinking formally, because, as I said, thinking isn’t inherently formal. Mine isn’t, anyway.

Furthermore I’m a bit skeptical about the ideal of the “cohesive whole”; I think it’s overemphasized generally. I’m going to make an effort to remain more authentic to my inner parataxis. (Yeah that’s right, parataxis.)

I make and fail this pledge pretty regularly.

On occasion here I have criticized works of art for not living up to an idealistic standard: that they should aim to be of spiritual/emotional/psychological benefit to their audience. This movie decidedly meets the standard. It is joyous and vibrant and celebrates life as being full of color and feeling.

Everything else about it is secondary. The mythological scheme that’s supposed to impart epic significance is actually completely gratuitous. Color and light and music already impart all the epic significance needed; that’s how movies work. (Color and light and music plus the freedom to stare at people’s faces with impunity.) In fact, in every respect other than vibrancy, this movie is pretty flimsy stuff. But that’s no criticism at all.

Actually, for me the value of the Greek overlay flowed the other way; the ecstatic immediacy of the movie’s fabric of music and dance and festivity gave me a new sense of what myth is.

Recently watching Fishing With John and a while ago watching Shock Corridor, I thought about the distinction between private home movies and creative work for public consumption, because in both of those cases that distinction was partially erased, to unusual effect. The spirit of Black Orpheus is also closely related to the spirit of private vacation footage, but in the more familiar mode of travelogue: here are some of the stimulating sights and sounds of X locale.

Perhaps it seems that what mainly distinguishes something like To Catch a Thief from your grandparents’ home movies of their trip to Europe is budget and camera skill, or degree of fiction. But what really makes the difference, I think, is the outlook that governs the photography (and is thus embedded in the film). The thing about To Catch a Thief‘s traveloguing that makes it unlike home movies is not the fiction per se but the fact that its camera’s-eye-view of the Riveria is commercially calculated and thus impersonal. Whereas any home movie is through-and-through an expression of its maker’s particular spontaneous sense of the world.

And this sense of the world is not diametrically opposite to fiction; on the contrary, many people — me and John Lurie included — have, in the act of capturing a stimulating “real” travel experience, been aware that their spirit of present wonder is already closely proximate to fantasy and figured “why not add some fiction to this?” Make-believe seems to have an organic place within that kind of joy-in-where-you-are.

All home movies are already a kind of make-believe, a nourishing kind based in the deep interpenetration of the imagination into one’s happiness. (It sounds like I am doing an impression of Gaston Bachelard, but it just came out that way.)

In fact you could say that vacations, even before you film them, are already a form of narrative fantasy. (Come to think of it I think that was the subject of a pretty good literature lecture I heard in college.) The use of a camera is in this sense just a way of giving perceptible form to the imaginative world in which one is already living. Which sounds to me like a definition of the function of art. So I see this overlap of the private/documentary and public/drama impulses as basically good and healthy.

Black Orpheus is overtly rooted in the joyful self-mythologizing impulse of the tourist, but it also encompasses classical myth. And then within its fictionalized travelogue of Rio’s Carnival (itself already a ritual of fantasy) it includes footage of an apparently real Umbanda ceremony, which, intercut with the actors, is made to serve as part of the fictional mythological story. This stew of reality and fiction was touching and stimulating; it revealed to me that religion, superstition, narrative, myth, exoticism, tourism, and self-image are all part of the same lump of imaginative feeling. And that this lump is none other than the same source that gives meaning to dance and music, a well of feeling with which we are all intimately familiar. (If Bachelard had written a book on travel I imagine he would have expressed this, but better.)

In the Disney conversation about Saludos Amigos, I said — yes that’s right, the authorial voice of these solo entries is the same BROOM who participated in the Disney discussions! — that I was pleased by the idea that a frothy travelogue could serve a propagandist political function. I find the very notion of the government adopting a Good Neighbor Policy heartwarming and politically attractive. It is the most honorable possible mode of leverage for the political manipulation of the public, and a grossly underused one: trying to make people happy about things that it would benefit their government (and the world at large) for them to be happy about.

All such policy is now of course utterly utterly defunct. I suppose presidential campaigns do a little of that sort of propaganda of positivity, but with such transparent ulterior motives and on such a petty scale that in the long term it only increases public cynicism. I’m talking about long-term subtle propaganda campaigns to get Americans to, say, think of the middle east as a fabled land of natural wonders and cultural glories. And of course vice versa, to send Pato Donald over there with a few benign skits to introduce our Iranian friends to the mystique of the Grand Canyon and the Space Needle, or whatever. It’s a piece of the international cultural landscape that is painfully lacking.

Probably Disney (for one) has been approached with this sort of proposal in the last 50 years but said “no way,” because the risk of being seen as government pawns, or even just meddling in foreign policy on their own dime, is far too toxic for the shareholders in this day and age. Understandable.

I bring up politics at all only reluctantly. This film could be taken as a Good Neighborly fantasy (not that the French filmmakers are exactly neighbors to Brazil, but we’re all planetary neighbors, right?), or it could remain just a human fantasy, which is all that is actually captured on the film, and is what a good vacation is. (At least in my mind. Politics are abstractions but the blue of the sky and the good warm air are not.)

But. I bring this up because the DVD (and apparently the discourse at large about this movie) is full of another way of “politicizing” it, which really irks me. Basically the gist is: this is a movie set in the favelas, the slums of Rio, which are in reality no bossa nova love poem but a vast nightmare of poverty and crime and hopelessness. If you saw City of God you can understand that the lyrical vacation fantasy of this movie is to say the least highly inaccurate, even for 1959. The critique writes itself, right? Naturally, this movie is irresponsible, offensive, whitewashes a serious issue, tells unconscionable and condescending lies about Brazil and blackness for the amusement of foreigners, blah blah blah. It is a Song of the South of Rio. (My summary of the criticism; nobody actually says that in so many words.)

Now, to be clear, everyone on the disc who brings up this point of view then dismisses it. The film, they essentially say, is an outsider’s exoticist distortion of Brazil, but a forgivable one, especially in light of what it did to promote real Brazilian music (see below). But I say that even in entertaining the criticism in the first place, we hurt ourselves. This film does not require forgiveness. The impression given by the people in the documentaries and such — essentially all of whom like the movie! — is that liking the movie may be a kind of error, but they have made peace with the error. That makes me mad. Either it’s an error or it’s not, and if it’s not an error, why are you all talking about it?

The critique is senseless to begin with. It is based on a guilt that has no political source and no political end. Of course this movie is a lyrical fantasy. It could not be more explicit about it. That it derives from a tourist’s exoticist raptures does not actually complicate that; all fantasy is exoticism and all rapture is irrational and inexact. Being angry about this is like being angry that back in Nagasaki the fellers do not chew tobaccy and the women do not wicky-wacky woo, because that was always racist and inaccurate and furthermore the fellers and women were all later incinerated and the song is thus in poor taste. The bonus features here keep returning to the angle that “well, yes, but the song remains catchy nonetheless.” There is no nonetheless. The bomb has no bearing on the catchiness, period.

The most hateful thing that politicization does is deny that there is any such thing as politicization. “Everything is already inherently political; it’s for us to come to terms with that.” This is vile sophistry. Nothing is inherently anything. The power to choose one’s perspective is equally the responsibility of those who choose the perspective of pooping at parties.

This perspective requires vigorous defense instead of the implicit free pass it is constantly given, because despite its obvious good intentions, it is truly unclear what good it actually does, whereas it is very clear what ill it does: it puts everyone on a defensive footing about everything. And then that gets put in the bonus materials on my DVDs and brings me down from a state of general dreamy transport into a state of rationalization and qualification.

Here’s my defense of my position: I believe that people naturally do good to one another when they have 1) freedom to choose their actions and 2) a feeling of unthreatened well-being. The scolding guilt of moral obligation can only diminish both of these prerequisites. Going to a happy party makes people more likely to do good afterward; being told “enjoy your party but just don’t forget to keep in mind that you are always, passively or indirectly, the cause of suffering in others, and that the greater your pleasure, the more shameful your sin” only makes that less likely to happen. Plus it’s blatantly untrue. Suffering that occurs simultaneously with pleasure is not caused by it. The starving people in China very truly do not care whether you finish your broccoli. Morality is paratactic, not hypotactic. You heard me! Take that!

After reading this you might ask, “Well, what about Song of the South then? Are you really okay with that?” To which I say, testily, “I don’t understand the question.” Am I okay with the movie having been made? Sure. Am I okay with people being so offended by it that they wanted it taken out of circulation? Sure. Am I okay with the distributor complying? Sure. But: am I also okay with people not being offended by it? Yes. I am okay with myself not being offended by it. If it weren’t so boring I might even enjoy it. (Song of the South, that is. Black Orpheus I did enjoy.)

What I am not okay with is people being not okay with me not being offended by it. I don’t think their claim that such censure serves a philanthropic purpose holds any water. This is the thrust of my argument.

However, my being “not okay” with censorious zeal is only another spiritual hurdle for me to go over (or is it under?). The more okay with such people I can be, the better my life will feel. I’m in the process of inching under.

In brief: Intolerance of error is not equivalent to, nor nearly as valuable as, love of truth. The former is frequently counterproductive, the latter never.

This movie was made with real love of a form of truth. Any “errors” bob harmlessly in the wake of that forward impulse.

Furthermore I declare that: Marcel Camus is neither the same person as, nor any documented relation to, Albert Camus.

Boy, I really didn’t say much about Orfeu negro but it just worked out that way. I’m allowed.

It’s pretty like a postcard. Haven’t you ever wanted to live and love in a postcard? Well, I have.

It’s actually remarkably like a live-action version of one of the Disney good neighbor movies. Which is the sequence where the buildings all dance along? (I think it’s “Os Quindins de Yayá”.) That spirit is exactly captured in the opening scenes here.

It also goes on a bit. As a kid I would have found it terrifically dull and disingenuous. I would have felt that I was being pandered to with supposed “beautiful people” and their supposed “beautiful story,” just another bout of flaccid cultural fawning, all endless dance sequences and no real bones to it. But I am old and mellow enough now to know that not all dullness is an error and not all faux-naivete is hypocritical or pandering. The goodwill and good color carried me happily through.

Hey, don’t blame me, I’m just a guitar.

I had intended to link to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infamous Carnival in Rio video somewhere in this entry as a joke, but I just watched the clip (for the first time in years) and it made me feel so uncomfortable that I can’t in good conscience impose that on you.

The music is the glory of the movie. The best bonus feature is two guys who know what they’re talking about explaining what bossa nova is and isn’t, where things stood when this movie came out, and tracing Jobim and Gilberto’s path through this movie’s soundtrack and beyond. I wish that feature had been longer. The worst bonus feature is a full-length French documentary where they go to Rio “in search of” the movie today, with nothing particular to say and a lot of boring footage to say it in, cut together very badly. I’ll admit that as I type this I still haven’t watched the last 20 minutes of it, but I promise will before I click “publish”!

Anyway, the music is almost constant in one form or another, and is overtly the soul of what the movie has to offer. The atmosphere of the middle section of the movie almost exactly the same as that of bossa nova: i.e. waking in a warm breezy beach house. There is also some genial raucousness for scenes of the eager crowds, and of course a couple of more intimate mellow-voiced love songs. It’s all buoyant and evocative; it’s no surprise that the soundtrack was a big seller and sparked the bossa nova craze.

There is a main title song (Jobim’s “A felicidade”) but there are sound effects all over it. Then in the middle there’s “Manhã de Carnaval” by Luis Bonfá, which is generally thought of as the breakout hit from the score and accordingly gets called simply “Black Orpheus” on a lot of jazz albums. But if you’ve seen the movie you’ll probably agree that the selection has to be the wonderful finale, the “Samba de Orfeu,” also by Bonfá. The ecstatic poignancy of the ending, with the children’s voices, has been widely imitated and for good reason. It’s not quite the same without the visual but it’s still very charming. Track 48.

Okay, I watched the rest of that pointless documentary. If I’d been the Criterion producer I would have tried to extract only the brief bits of interviews with the original cast and crew, which are probably no more than 10 minutes. Seeing the guy who played Orfeu in 2005, bald and overweight but still with a great smile, is obviously a desirable bonus feature. (He has since died.) I wonder if they tried to do that and the filmmakers said “we will only give you permission to include the film intact.” Because as a whole it’s really not up to snuff, certainly not up to 88 minutes of snuff.