Bright Lights Film Journal

Black and White Orpheus: An Audio Visual Species

That still finds musicians easier to rob

It’s widely accepted that not since the coming of TV has cinema faced such a knock-out threat as the Internet. Yet film’s raw talent to continue delivering KOs of it own is equally widely taken for granted — this when the chips of the world economy aren’t so much down as lost in an eternal underworld. (An exaggeration, of course, remembering the chips of Brazil, Russia, India, and China are making quite tasty-looking stacks up here.) Meanwhile, facing similar challenges to film, the music industry continues to punch well below its weight (ask EMI). So, maybe those of us rooting for music as the obvious world champ of a new multicultural universe should finally admit it’s not going to make the grade. Not singlehandedly, anyway. In fact, maybe we should all recognize that, when pianissimo comes to sforzando, we never have been and never will be an exclusively audio-oriented — or, heaven help us, word-oriented — species. Rather, we seem born to revel, “very precisely” as George Steiner used to say, in the audio-visual. British academic Jean Franco has long argued that this is especially true of rapidly bourgeoning South American culture. To rule out any loitering suspicion, in Critical Passions (her collected essays from Duke, 1999) Franco nowhere suggests that societies that give a broad (broadband?) welcome to the audio-visual are, de facto, undermining future hopes for music or literature. Not that this will deter those able to see such threats at distances of several light-years. (Always the best way with alien invaders.)

But, hey, my trumped-up case for an evolving audio-visual species probably ignores the fact that musicians (black, white, or rainbow-coloured) are simply easier to rip off than movie-makers. And perhaps this is all it takes to explain cinema’s especially robust performance in the digital-age ring . . .

If I’ve started swinging with both hands, blame it on the infallible visionary powers by which I see South America in the very act of taking it away — “it” being the 2010 Football World Cup and every other cultural prize worth winning, now and forever. Yet, as a balanced Libran, I sense that South America still has battles to fight — for example, its film industry’s struggle with an unhelpful distributional/critical bias in world markets. However, not many of us would feel that the way to beat such problems is to copy the worst European/North American models. If I Were You/Se eu Fosse Voce (Daniel Filho, Brazil, 2006) comes in the middle of a (hopefully now exhausted) sub-genre, wherein two closely connected but mutually irritating people swap bodies and lifestyles, thus gaining insights about each other while audiences gain insights and laughs. That’s the idea, anyway. But despite typically good work from lead actors (in the Brazilian case, a couple of famous TV soap stars), none of these films could write their way out of a small plywood barn with wet paper doors.

Emerging from my own farm building/gaol and standing proudly covered in soggy googling debris (or was that just another tissue in the wash?), I find myself gazing beyond the narrowly local, nobly contemplating challenges universal to film-making and film-writing. Most of all, I’m thinking about that apocalyptic little foursome: commercialisation, sanitisation, specialisation, and genre-ification. No, the last’s not a typo for gentrification, though I admit that, in seeking a word to sum up issues of genre, I’ve added another entry to a list never prone to minoritisation.

Of course, as with any quartet of players, separating the contribution of one –ation from another can be a trial. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that genre-ification is the viola of the group, because that’s the voice most likely to fool us: Violin? Cello? It hints at the whole problem of Category: something liberatingly underplayed that secretly holds the whole show together? Or a necessary evil, leading, more often than not, to the horrors of homogenisation? A recent piece from one of my favourite reviewers, NYT’s A. O. Scott, reflects candidly on the oversecure, boxed and bow-tied uses of genre, which leave us not just bored and disappointed but deprived of wonder, in all senses of the term. Without isolating South America here, from my own viewing I can swell the collective if soundless sigh of relief that greeted Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008). I’m always a sucker for judicious use of the surreal — judicious, for me, when I can’t instantly explain why rooms or entire houses suddenly burst into flame, their inhabitants meanwhile remaining coolly absorbed in more urgent stuff — such as all that shitbowl-gazing that sets the early tone. Yes, we get that straightaway: what self-absorbed dolts the urban middle-classes are. So, full marks for avoiding slavish genre-ification, nul points for original wit about heads up arses. On balance, though, I’m giving Synecdoche beta double plus, maybe even a straight A, for adding its own blend of literalism and surrealism to the endless possibilities of romantic comedy. In fact, such twisty-twirliness of tone is something my old mucker, Shakespeare, would surely have approved, right down to the weird denouement where, long after the breakup of their omega-minus marriage, the husband might, after all, make it with the wife. Or, then again, he might not. If you were still wide awake at this point, you were probably not watching late-night TV where films of this kind are often ghetto-ised. In that case, your impressions and opinions will be clearer than mine.

* * *

Flying down to Rio fuelled only by the green logic of essay genre, and catching glimpses through the window of the city’s famous plunge from mountain to sea, I now land on the tarmac of Galeão-Antonio Carlos Jobim International. As Wikipedia explains:Galeão, meaning galleon in Portuguese, refers to the beach located in front of the old terminal . . . where in 1663 the galleon Padre Eterno was built . . .  Antonio Carlos Jobim is in honour of the Brazilian musician.

What brings me here is Black Orpheus, made during the 1958 Carnival by French director Marcel Camus, music by . . . Antonio Carlos Jobim. Excitingly enough, watching the DVD with me was a film- and football-loving Brazilian friend; but, having asked him over, last-minute self-consciousness had me thinking this world cinema classic could turn out to be, at best, an interesting cousin of Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus — bossa nova with motorbikes? Or, at worst, an earnestly well-preserved, blandly middle-class museum piece. Not that I’ve anything against modern museums — they can deliver unexpected oomphs of their own, day or night. On the other hand, like their tired predecessors, they can also be the perfect cure for shitbowl-gazing. (So boring there’s nothing to gaze at.) At this point, I can’t let slip the chance to mention the film genre I hereby dub “modern museum,” with — obviously — the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh as chief curators. Don’t get me wrong. These guys make good movies. But, to this non-American, the semi-detached affection that helped a shift away from guilt-ridden, throat-swollen melodrama — Frank Borzage being the usual ’40s groan target here — has been itself guilty of protectionionist urges that, very frustratingly, place too much shiny glass between us and attempts at more layered views of social history. That’s how it feels, anyway, after watching Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, a project on which nobody — or no one with any clout — had the faintest idea how skewed towards the well-fed ’90s were its depictions of raw-boned ’30s hunger.

In any event, Black Orpheus didn’t teeter near any of these brinks. Yet what I most remember is the sheer vertigo of its most frequent location: a steeply inclined slum/favela above a city we can’t really see from this angle, with compensating vistas of a high-horizoned, breeze-delivering sea. In a little song of praise for the film’s evocation of here-but-not-here, its perfect balance of myth and modernity, I’m not assuming that elementalism automatically delivers the artistic goods. While researching this I discovered, for example, that at a point in late antiquity, someone foresaw that the death of Orpheus — the death of music as magic, even the death of love itself — could pose a reception problem. After all, how could anyone with a scrap of decency, let alone a mythic hero, inflict such losses on the rest of us? Obviously, what must have happened was that — having lost Eurydice — Orpheus could only cope by becoming gay; and this led to his being torn apart by some understandably furious maidens. Just to be clear, we now have a Greco-Roman “explanation” for the origin of homosexuality. There’s a very nice Durer print of the scene, illustrating, among other things, the popularity of this theory over the centuries.

But, thank Zeus, or whoever you like, it’s the Orpheus/Eurydice story, first fully expressed by Dante’s old pal Virgil, that has spanned longer and wider ages. Famously, this deals with a lover’s bereavement; and the pains alluded to are those that all lovers go on experiencing — be their relationships straight, gay, or anywhere in between. Meanwhile, it’s a story that doesn’t “explain” a thing and to its eternal credit, like all great examples of mythos, it doesn’t even try — something to bear in mind if we want to get the best out of any re-telling.

* * *

In my own case, I suppose I came to Black Orpheus bringing almost as much Gluck and Monteverdi as Jean Cocteau. But apart from the focus on music, a common denominator between these films and operas turns out to be their shared reputation as moments of artistic breakthrough — such big moments that a vivid sense of newly released energy is still available via any good recording, live production, or new screening. In that broader context, I can safely say that Black Orpheus doesn’t let the side down.

As for immediate background, the little I’ve been able to glean about the film’s director, Marcel Camus, is that he was a music fan used to working on music-oriented projects. He also shared the political/artistic sympathies of Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes, on whose play the film is based. In that respect, Black Orpheus joins another select group: films not at all hampered by stage origins.

But it’s at the level of plot where adaptations of well-known tales make their own best claims for recognition. Yes, of course, Cocteau gave us brilliant modern settings, which could be used for their everydayness and their mythic suggestiveness. Yet it’s the Brazilian Orpheus that goes back to Virgil (and Monteverdi) to show the death of Eurydice as shockingly final. In fact, literally so: trying to save her from that shadowy stalker, Death, her desperate lover throws a light switch that also sends a current into cables to which she has been clinging. Bizarre or not, the actual scene is extremely well-realised, not least because — from the start — we’ve been caught by the unaffected acting styles of an amateur cast, and, just as vitally, by a directing style that never loses emotional focus. I’m tempted at this point to say that Cocteau is less emotionally engaging. Remember that, in deference to all us romantics, in Gluck and Cocteau, Eurydice is allowed to live on, albeit in Cocteau’s film carrying another man’s child. In fact, though, far from caving in to post-war demands for escapist endings, Cocteau is deliberately challenging us — and genrification — with the messiness of real life; and he does it so well that, following a tram-driving, black guitarist with an eye for women, Camus also gives us an Orpheus whose love life is far from tidy.

But if the samba-school Rio of Black Orpheus easily matches Cocteau’s cafe-culture Paris (and — in the more famous North American film it surely influenced — the 1960 street-gang New York of Robert Wise’s West Side Story), there is at least one uniquely South American focus in the Camus/Moraes scenario. In a sub-plot woven throughout, we see two boys, admirers not so much of Orpheus, doom of womankind, but Orpheus, cosmos-mesmerising musician, without whose song the sun cannot rise. If that sounds like a cheap exercise in magic-realism, remember that in this film, without labouring the point, the makers often keep us in mind of chickens-roaming-the-house reality. In fact, as my Brazilian co-viewer reminded me in our post-film chat, where children of the favela are concerned, there’s not much about adult life from which they can be protectively screened. So, yes, at one level the children of the favela are, of course, symbolic in the film’s last scene, of new dawns, as they dance against the background of that sky-enveloping sea. But they do this in the face of death and destruction, much of which is literally, unsunnily man-made. And this is what takes us away from one-dimensional mysticism, moving us closer toward the multi-logic of that meta-genre we call Life . . .

In a more straightforward comparison with other films, we could go on to say that whereas Cocteau, like so many directors of the era, made a virtue of limited black-and-white film stock, Black Orpheus is a colour film made when austerity had all but lost its post-war sway. In this case, Italian and French money was also supplemented by Brazilian funds as that country began what, in hindsight, has become a “natural” economic leadership of the region.

As a coda, 1958 was also the year of the first internationally televised Football World Cup. Held in Sweden, it was the stage on which a certain black teenager from Brazil first walked. In fact, neither Pele nor his older team-mates ever seemed to have to run anywhere, while still showing the rest of us what the beautiful game was all about. It’s been a slow process; but maybe we should have known, there and then, that we were already heading irrevocably away from a world where black and white too often meant naked exploitation of darker-skinned humanity by its lighter-skinned economic masters. Of course, racist economics, in every part of the globe, still prevent us seeing colour as an underexploited universe just bursting to bring all its talents and energies to the fore. But it wouldn’t surprise me if films and football continued to play a big part in prospecting for this kind of aesthetic and moral gold.