But about this audit
In Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), two middle-aged men stand at the back of a crowded picture-house. This is provincial Sicily in the early 1940s, and the men are staring at an onscreen message: Even today, many Sicilians still can’t read or write. Shouting to be heard, one asks the other to explain. “Sorry,” comes the equally loud reply, “I’m illiterate, too.”
The ironies here are almost too rich; but they remind me how dumb we can feel when suddenly asked what’s going on in any film. Though my wife and I watched it at home on digital TV, City of God (Fernando Meirelles/Katia Lund, Brazil, 2002) certainly tested our film literacy. For my part, the fact that we didn’t actually shout at each other was, at least partly, due to a strange connection between Tornatore’s famous cinematic autobiography and the more recent piece of Brazilian cinema verité. In the latter, when one of the young leads asks a minor character if he can read, the cocky reply is: “Yes. But only the pictures.”(!)
To get one idea out of the way at once, this isn’t about something as complex and bleak as media complicity in the glamorisation of crime. Not that complexity and bleakness are in short supply here. Factually based stories often provide filmmakers with enough heavy-duty material to go round. But the problems of keeping a semblance of structure are more tricky in this context than with completely fictional stuff. Unfortunately, in the hands of inexperienced or simply bad filmmakers many a True Story falls down on one or other side of the thin line that defines a Good Picture. Film lovers can then be faced either with poorly edited detail that swarms everywhere and gets nowhere; or, even when the storyline remains more or less under control, thematically naive assumptions are made, the most overworked of which is that the whole of human existence depends on the cruel whims of Lady Luck. (Maybe. But how many reminders do we need?)
Adding my own best compliment to a film already universally feted, then, I’ll start by saying that City of God makes neither of these common errors. In fact, this film is always about as far away from the common run as it’s possible to go and still remain comprehensible, let alone closely readable. Most exceptionally, for all the necessary survivalist pragmatism on view, I also picked up suggestions here of a rationally based sense of hope — something transferable to other desperate lives, perhaps even our own. After just one viewing, I admit to some difficulty pinning the sources of the film’s most positive qualities. But I’m sure that an almost invisibly underplayed subtext about hardly daring to dream, yet continuing to do so anyway, has something to do with the case. (At this point I’d advise people who haven’t yet seen the film to skip the unavoidable spoilers that immediately follow.)
At first glance — and at second and third — amid the deceptively neat-looking one-story municipal houses of Rocket’s favela, there are, indeed, no obvious challengers to cruel contingency as it goes about ruling the roost. (In mid-Victorian London, slum districts were called “rookeries,” another euphemism directing attention away from the all-too human nature of underlying realities.) In City of God, coming at an unusually early point in the film, the most overtly sickening moment ought, perhaps, to be the depiction of a mass murder during the robbery of a motel/bordello. At this stage, however, what we actually see — as a police or news photographer might — is the aftermath of a terrible crime.
We already know enough to feel disturbed by the sheer youth of everyone involved in a gone-wrong heist. But what will hit even harder is the long-delayed revelation that, in fact, it was the look-out and youngest member of the gang (the pre-teenage Li’l Dice) who single-handedly slaughtered all those bedroom occupants as well as an entire kitchen staff. We’d been speculating, perhaps, about an older gang moving in on the robbery; or maybe this was another outcome — however bizarre — of the police corruption to which the film also alludes. Not many of us will have guessed that it was all the work of one ten-year-old boy.
Those of us understandably still hungering for plain old-fashioned decency can turn, for a while anyway, to the handsome young hero, Knockout Ned. But then his wife is raped and his younger brother killed by L’il Ze’s gang, for the excellent reason that their immediate target, Ned himself, isn’t home. We’ve already learned that Ned — like Rocket — isn’t smitten from the cradle by the charms of a career as a criminal Mozart. But, unlike Rocket, he’s unusually attractive to women; and on top of this mindless provocation, his sudden grief-stricken charge into the home patch of his tormentors only makes him a clearer target for rivals. Worse still for someone who just wants to start a family and live a normal life, one untypically violent act has swollen another human tidal wave among the many whooshing around — this one forcing Ned into the leadership of the anti-L’il Ze faction. Now a much-better-than-average run of luck will be necessary for his survival; and, though we’re made to sweat on it, he does live through the final shoot-out.
Mention of tidal waves seems to get us in the right frame of mind for a film concerned with so many swamped-out, brief existences. Quick-fire editing and a molten samba soundtrack serve the cause well, though “well” is an odd usage to set beside a raging moral pandemic. In fact, the last time I felt such a keen evocation of fateful forces was in a re-reading a few years back of Dubliners (1914). Obviously, one can’t press the comparison too closely: Joyce’s stories also portray characters trapped by fate whose frustrations can spill over into physical brutality; but, in Joyce, more typically this is what doesn’t happen. In this respect, many contemporary Cariocas (citizens of Rio) would probably wish to point out that Dubliners matches their own day-to-day experiences rather better than the film.
If it’s a question of fingering dark forces, Modernism, for all its new psychological complexity, was not devoid of a few remaining demons of its own — not least, perhaps, the fear-mongering potential of organised religion. In this comparison, though, what I think is most striking is a shared agenda in the editing of real-life tales: lavishing blame on priests — or police or any other handy agency — is pointedly under-indulged both by Joyce and the Brazilian film’s co-directors. For me, then, it’s this infra-red logic that brings into focus the truly blameworthy and highly organised forces behind guns-and-drugs culture. The horrific social realities of City of God aren’t so much “human tidal waves,” with all the hapless hand-of-God existentialism this might imply; rather — albeit largely by default — they reveal a ruthlessly planned exploitation of poverty by (Colombian and International) Crime Incorporated.
Much less troublingly, the technical and emotional reach of the film suggests that behind it there lies a strong local tradition. Brazilian cinema is, indeed, as sophisticated and socially aware as any on the planet; and the briefest of searches reveals not just a history going back to cinema’s earliest days but, alongside that, a critical culture wired to the hilt, ready to spot anything clichéd or over-manipulative. It’s hardly surprising, then, that there’s a Portuguese phrase for such off-key efforts: cosmetica da fome — literally, “hunger cosmetics.” Sentimental portraits of poverty are out; and so, too, is any merely formulaic bleakness in tales of inhumanity or injustice. Meanwhile, a film capable of impressing such a tough local crowd will have a better-than-average chance of cutting it in the non-Brazilian world. That, at least, is my excuse for being reduced by City of God to a state of quivering submission!
Some of the above points also apply to that other less well-known cross-over from Brazilian to world cinema, Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998): again we find an ostensibly big-print edition of stuff we think we already know; again we may feel that the finer points in the telling are about what’s left out or, at least, very much played down. But, despite a tremendous performance from one of Brazil’s most famous actresses — the then sixty-seven-year-old Fernanda Montenegro — the average fan won’t be immediately attracted by the plot, the bare bones of which suggest A Christmas Carol transferred to South America, with the lead somehow transgendered from Ebenezer to Dora Scrooge. (Fans of George Eliot might think the better comparison is with Silas Marner, and I’d agree.)
Late 20th-century Dora is an impoverished ex-teacher who, from her little pitch at Rio’s central station, now makes a living by writing letters for the illiterate people who are her customers. Not exactly guided by keen social principles, she makes no attempt to post anything she writes. (This looks particularly mean since she takes money for postage. Here, knowledgeable home audiences might also remember that in the 1840s, and second only to Britain, Brazil backed the introduction of postage stamps, a revolutionary concept that some feared would lead at once to an explosion of — you guessed it — universal literacy.) But, from Dora’s point of view, the reasons for her grabbiness are simple: even when the addressee is a living person, few of her clients give clear addresses. What’s more, a good percentage of them seem to know that what they’re doing amounts to sending messages to Santa. This almost turns Dora into a kind of alternative therapist; and here’s at least one use of literacy not foreshadowed in Richard Hoggart’s famous 1957 book. Indeed, this part of the script immediately muffles any oversimplified fanfare about the wonders of education! This is another of those subtle points we can overlook if we like; but it makes a statement about deeper human values important for any culture, not just for those with problems getting the Three R’s out there to all its citizens.
As Dora seeks to help reunite Josué with his distant family, the story segues naturally into a road movie, offering fascinating views of a rural hinterland and, at the same time, drawing out greater emotional depths in the leads. This simple enough two-for-one device calls up positive associations for me with a couple of films by Argentinian director Carlos Sorin: Historias Mínimas (2002), and El Perro aka Bombón El Perro (2004). From Salles I particularly remember the documentary-like poise in scenes of a village religious festival. Right or wrong, this is how things are, it seems to say; and, without slurring the reputations of great directors like Fellini or Bunuel, less anxious approaches to religious traditions are, I think, a timely development.
Without expanding any further on this here, I feel that all the above-mentioned are wonderful modern examples of socially-aware films where the worst kinds of audience exploitation are consciously avoided. Vis-à-vis mass audiences, no doubt this kind of stuff remains a hard sell. But this briefest of glances at South American cinema leads me to a concluding section where I take a peek at what’s been happening further North.
The obvious thing about history is that we edit and interpret it in ways that often say more about Now than Then; and since they’ve probably grooved more on 20th-century American history than anyone else, I start this little round-up with the Coen Brothers. Actually, I’m thinking of just one film: The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen, 2001). I became interested in this precisely because some people felt it wasn’t a typical Coen effort — more heart, perhaps. Fewer laughs, even.
As someone who vaguely remembers the period — or at least the British counterpart — I think this movie has got some pretty awful social overtones dead right. So a plot where people communicate hardly at all and thereby make any number of false assumptions about each other, wishfully or fearfully, only irritates because it rings true. As a black-and-white homage to noir, the film is also a stylistic success — certainly better, I think, in this respect than some people say. As I fancy, there’s also a believable hint of war-weariness: shut up and keep dreaming, or at least let other people do it! This attitude, as much as poorer literacy rates, must have helped back then to keep the laconic mode nice and upright in the saddle.
For all the above reasons, Billy Bob Thornton as small-town barber Ed Crane is near perfect casting. His eerie lack of presence almost allows him to get away with murder. This, by the way, is played as self-defence; but he goes to the chair anyway for a murder he didn’t actually commit; and here, I think, is where Art and Life stir their usual mix beyond the call of duty. I’m thinking of how most of the leads are not straight-up-and-down doomed, but doomed “ironically.” They end up just as dead, of course. But, if you believe too much in the emotionally missing persona of Ed Crane, the man who wasn’t there, the question over his death must be — how can you tell?
Of course, liberal-left positions like this do seem outmoded: the populations even of small towns have become so shifting that knowing your neighbour, either in a positive or negative sense, is harder now than in 1948. Even so, Moonrise still casts a helpful beam or two on the issue of fatedness. In this context, though plain old-fashioned pessimism is never likely to be out-of-date, The Man Who Wasn’t There looks to me an unhappily exaggerated — even un-noirish — take on hopelessness. Maybe I’m reading too much in here; but to say the least, it’s weird to find the mists of Lebenstod — the sort of artistic mood that swirled around Vienna before World War I — settling over a film made, albeit coincidentally, around the time of 9/11.
If, in the terrorist-incident view of reality, “restrained, evidence-based assumptions” seem a bit naive, George Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck (2005) is a soft-spoken yet passionate reminder that — hey, wait a minute — maybe we can actually make use of this stuff after all! For me, all the glories of this film — like those I’ve been trying to identify and celebrate above — are of the subtler and quieter kind, whatever the enormities of subject matter. Of course, having a great liberal attitude doesn’t immediately stop the world from going to hell in a hand-cart. I’m thinking about the rising costs of energy — to us and to the planet; and the reason I introduce the point now is that Clooney’s admirably straightforward telling of one McCarthy-era story ends with its own note of strictly apolitical, profoundly economic concern.
As history, the film gave me a lot more relevant information than I previously had, not least about the sheer length of time it took to overcome what, in the end, was a nakedly daft form of social destructiveness. The interspliced newsreel footage of committee hearings showed, more and more, the almost palpable embarrassment of McCarthy’s fellow senators in having ever let things get this bad. Again, the film clearly reveals Murrow’s smouldering but restrained logic as it literally helps America get a grip on itself again. All right, then. Ed Murrow helped see off a monster that had been eating away for years at American hearts and minds.
But before the sudden crumpling of this hateful phenomenon, there were, of course, many serious casualties along the way. In this account, we’re spared a long and gruesome list; but we do see how one senior journalist, faced by insuperably conflicting urges between self-preservation and principled resistance, is driven to take his own life. Though he wasn’t the only person to fall victim in this way, there’s enough powerful and simple storytelling here to invoke all those other cases.
After the viewing, the unresolved issues that remain troubling to me concern another source of potentially debilitating social conflict: Artistic (and Journalistic) Integrity versus Commerce. As I recall the late scene, CBS chief executive William Paley (Frank Langella) is determined to put Ed Murrow (David Strathairn) back in a safer TV box, having seen enough morally influential “civics lessons” to last. Paley is, of course, interpreting the needs of advertisers and audiences by means of visionary powers possessed only by the bossman. Ironies aside, Murrow is not dealing here either with as wicked or foolish a person as Joseph McCarthy. When the closely related topics of editing and censorship are mooted, Paley is quick to spot that Murrow himself is not above concealing awkward facts, albeit to protect someone understood to be no threat to national security. “We’re all editing,” says Paley; and having let that hang on the air just long enough, he goes on to stress his own biggest concern — keeping the company financially afloat.