Thursday, August 29, 2019

Kiss of the Spider Woman

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN           B                    
Brazil  USA  (120 mi)  1985 d:  Hector Babenco

This business of being a man, it doesn’t give any special rights to anyone.
―Valentin (Raúl Juliá)

From the director of PIXOTE (1981), a searingly realist street drama of homeless youth and rampant criminal activity as seen through the eyes of a ten-year old caught up in a Darwinian dog-eat-dog world around him, this film is adapted from Argentine novelist Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel by the same name (initially published in Spain, as it was banned in his home country), reflective of the repressive military regimes in Argentina from the 60’s and 70’s, including the Dirty War when 30,000 citizens were rounded up and jailed for supposedly subversive acts against the state, tortured and held without trials, only to disappear without a trace.  Growing up as a gay man in Buenos Aires, Puig recounts there was an authoritarian and repressive atmosphere in his town, developing a habit of viewing movies with his mother in the local cinema, mostly B-movies or westerns, where he always viewed the townspeople as the villains, not the heroes, where movies served as an escape from his forbidden reality of being gay.  Today, Argentina is among the more advanced countries around the world in advancing gay rights, but that was only after a return to democracy in 1983.  Prior to that, military dictatorships went on cleansing sprees in an attempt to arrest and eradicate gays from public visibility, directly attacking gay community members prior to the World Cup in 1978, followed by another round of paramilitary attacks in 1982.  This political mood, and the revolutionary activism following the Cuban Revolution which led to a rising Marxist labor movement in South America is at the heart of the film, serving as the backdrop, much like the depiction of the Stasi government in East Germany, with government agents spying upon targeted citizens.  As Babenco is an Argentine-born Brazilian director with a propensity for social realism, he seems like the perfect fit to transport the novel to the screen, his first film in English, yet this is surprisingly Hollywood-oriented, featuring major stars, where controversy surrounds this film in the casting choice of William Hurt as Molina, playing a flamboyantly gay drag queen imprisoned for child molestation (a unique choice for a protagonist, not seen since), yet he’s clearly the star, while his cellmate is Raúl Juliá as Valentin, a Marxist revolutionary political prisoner who is a target of repeated interrogation sessions of torture designed to identify his activist group.  Set almost entirely within the four walls of their prison cell, these two are an unlikely duo, with completely different goals and ideas in life, with Molina, safely tucked into a corner lined with photographs of glamorous Hollywood movie stars, searching for the perfect man he can take care of while Valentin wants to overthrow the fascist government.  The fatalistic symbol of the spider ensnaring its prey along with a prevailing theme of entrappment are felt throughout, yet this is, at core, a love story, with both representing cultural stereotypes, their confinement in prison reflecting the government repression of homosexuality and Marxism.      

The mythology surrounding cinema is a key component to this film, considering the pain and isolation of prison confinement, with Molina helping pass the time by telling the story of a movie from his past, an expressionist fantasy from the golden age of Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s, not one anyone’s ever heard of, but one that made an impression on him, so he loves telling it in his own way.  While the book recounts half a dozen movies, some vividly recognizable, the film condenses them all into one movie, becoming a movie-within-a-movie, with Babenco describing his film as “an exercise in lying in two styles.”  Weaving emotional illusion into their existing reality, with Valentin, weak and still bleeding profusely from brutal beatings, finding the stories utterly reprehensible bourgeois crap, particularly when he realizes it’s actually a heavily romanticized Nazi propaganda flick, an imagined UFA film shot in a sepia tone featuring wildly over-the-top acting, yet Molina’s heart flutters at the thought of the sexy Vichy-era French chanteuse, Leni (Sônia Braga), who he loves to describe, with a decadent, jazz-inspired underground flavor of Paris coming across as well, luridly pitting the head of Nazi counterintelligence (Herson Capri), against the buffoonish French Resistance.  Meant to resemble Zarah Leander, an UFA star during the war who became a gay icon, where one should point out that the song she sings is echoed later in the film when it is sung by a drag queen before a gay following.  Valentin initially rejects it as middle-class escapism, also rejecting small comforts, like food, believing he must maintain strict discipline to keep from breaking down during the interrogation sessions.  So when they are served disproportionate meals, one significantly larger than the other, he insists upon taking the smaller portion.  When Molina gets drastically sick afterwards, the best way Valentin can offer moral support is to allow him to continue telling his movie, as a means to distract him from the pain.  When he’s sent to the infirmary, however, we realize the food was poisoned with Valentin as the target.  The warden is using Molina to get information from Valentin, suddenly altering the playing field, with both characters viewed differently afterwards.  Dominating the screen time, viewers initially share in Molina’s dilemma, likely put-off initially by his exaggerated mannerisms, though over time he becomes more sympathetic, with the audience overlooking his crimes, viewing him more humanely, as his emotions are displayed for all to see, and while he’s overly self-centered, he’s also caring and considerate.  When the poisoned food finally hits its target, Valentin is overcome with shame, refusing medical treatment, embarrassed and humiliated by a wretched case of diarrhea, though Molina is more than helpful in cleaning him up, which establishes a trust that wasn’t there before.  The increasing misery of each character from the cyclical illness only accentuates the embellishments in the movie, like an antidote, intensifying a growing romance onscreen, with Molina, spinning his web of illusion, falling in love with Valentin, who can’t help falling into his trap.  These parallels are measured contrasts that attempt to lure the audience into their private worlds, suddenly more open with one another, with darker forces remaining in the background.

Puig was not happy with Hurt’s performance, claiming “La Hurt is so bad she will probably win an Oscar,” which, of course is exactly what happened, the first man to win Best Actor for playing a homosexual, as Hollywood loves to reward itself, even in its most grotesque depictions of exaggeration and camp, but Cannes awarded him Best Actor as well.  Through the passage of time, he seems terribly miscast in the role, feeling forced and pretentious, an opportunity missed for a gay actor, yet he likely helped increase the box office success of the film (increasing book sales as well).  The provocative nature of the film starts to wear thin in the final portion, particularly the relationship with Molina and the warden, with Molina feigning visits from his mother, returning with shopping bags filled with goodies, where suddenly the two prisoners are dining like kings.  One wonders what happened to that revolutionary discipline of Valentin, as suddenly he’s a softie, compromising at every turn, no longer a man on a mission fighting for his cause.  It all gets muddled by the luxuriated surfaces of the Nazi movie, which thoroughly transfixes Molina, clueless to the original intent, failing to understand its true implications, leaving him lost in a no man’s land, as if stranded on a desert island.  So he comes across on a completely different wavelength in the prison cell, waving treats and bonbons at Valentin, where his offered culinary delights are no answer to Valentin’s rage and anger in witnessing the horrid treatment of fellow prisoners.  This barbaric human condition, mirrored by the Nazi’s, gets lost in the lurid storytelling of Molina’s imagination (with Braga playing three different roles), which dwarfs and overwhelms Valentin’s political views, with reality taking a back seat by the end of the film, though Babenco tries to integrate them together, each taking on characteristics of the other.  Perhaps reflecting the futility of Marxist politicization in both Argentina, Brazil, and across South America, Valentin, much like the Communist Party itself, failed to comprehend the subversive quality of Molina’s exclusion from the status quo, as both are oppressed outcasts.  Yet the Party failed to give a voice to exiled and persecuted gays, offering them no sanctuary, instead they were caught up in the same inflammatory machismo rhetoric that got them nowhere, even as both were seeking the same human value, freedom and dignity.  With so much of this film caught up in delusional fantasy, any connection to real life becomes secondary, yet Valentin’s opinion of Molina changes drastically, eliminating accusations of being called a “faggot,” instead viewing him as a man with dignity, even willing to make love to him, with a shared kiss shattering any notion of what traditionally defines a man.  But the sexual union comes across as an afterthought, as the world in 1985 was not yet ready for that, embroiled in an AIDS epidemic with people dying by the thousands, seemingly with no recourse, with Rock Hudson becoming the first high-profile fatality that very same year.  Viewed as a queer milestone, filled with nostalgia and melodramatic excess, recalling Fassbinder’s LILI MARLENE (1981), the film is like a time capsule pastiche in honor of an era gone by, an homage to the glory years of Hollywood, a time when gays could fantasize about love and romance without compromise, yet the devastating reality of AIDS laid waste to that colorful gay fantasia, suffering a major setback, with gays disappearing from the mainstream for nearly a decade, their absence filled by Pedro Almodóvar, where this film is like a mirage in the desert, where freedom is only available through death or illusion.   

Monday, August 26, 2019

Bye Bye Brazil (Bye Bye Brasil)

(Left to right), Actor José Wilker, Betty Faria, Fábio Júnior, and director Carlos Diegues

Actor José Wilker in Rio de Janeiro

BYE BYE BRAZIL (Bye Bye Brasil)           A-                   
Brazil  France  Argentina  (110 mi)  1980 d:  Carlos Diegues

To the Brazilian people of the 21st Century
―title card at the end of the final credits

A tragi-comic road movie that literally goes in search of the Brazilian soul in this episodic quest for national identity, traveling some 9000 miles across a vast everchanging landscape into the heart of the Amazon, using a near documentary style of social realism mixed with flourishes of blatant theatricality in the form of Caravana Rolidei (Circus Holiday), a traveling circus group that scours the backwater towns in search of an audience, only to be thwarted by progress, as the national past time is watching TV, with viewers glued to the sets, disinterested in anything this road show can offer.  The overly flamboyant leader of the troupe is illusionist and “King of Dreams” Lord Cigano, José Wilker from Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (Doña Flor e Seus Dois Maridos) (1976) playing another larger-than-life yet morally dubious role, basically a swindler and scam artist in search of an easy mark, joined by his precocious lover Salomé (Betty Faria), an exotic rhumba dancer who’s not afraid to step into the back room for a price, and deaf-mute Andorinha, aka Swallow (Príncipe Nabor), a black indigenous strong man and human flamethrower who also brings in wads of cash from high stakes arm-wrestling wagers (whose silence may reflect how the indigenous have been omitted from history).  The show is distinguished by a colorfully decorated truck that announces its arrival by loudspeaker, with master of ceremony Lord Cigano, outrageously dressed in a cape with clothes the color of the Brazilian flag, his face caked with make-up, resorting to exaggerated bravado and flowery language in describing what secrets are in store, always advertised as the greatest or most spectacular, yet in truth it’s a flimsy act barely worth one’s trouble, which is why they have to go deeper and deeper into the hinterlands to find places that buy into all the hyperbole.  The story becomes more about the people themselves, both the performers and the world at large, as it’s a beguiling and strangely compelling exposé of the slow transition into modernization, highlighted by the construction of the tree-lined Trans-Amazonian Highway that cuts through the heart of the rainforest and jungle, an ambitious project that connected the Northeast, the North, and the Central Plateau, previously isolated regions, each with their own cultural identities.  This roadway connection is an attempt to unify the country, but it comes at a price, as it’s massively expensive and destroys much of the natural world, literally plundering the resources from the rainforests, including lumber and mining development, causing pollution and water contamination, literally driving indigenous groups out of the forests, sending them into the cities where little opportunity awaits them, as companies either refuse to hire them or pay significantly less wages, a holdover of centuries of discrimination.  Additionally, government social services are unable to keep up with the population flow streaming into the cities looking for work, offering neighborhood slums for new arrivals in contrast to sleek modern skyscrapers.

Opening on the banks of the São Francisco River, we see river transport as the primary means of travel, a connection to the past, featuring a small traditional village with colonial architecture, street vendors selling herbs and various handicrafts, with folk music playing in the background.  Witnessing the performance is a peasant farmer and youthful accordionist Ciço (Fábio Júnior), grown weary of tilling the family’s barren lands, dreaming of faraway places with hopes of viewing the sea, along with his pregnant wife Dasdô (Zaira Zambelli), who barely utters a word in the entire film, yet has a profound effect, as her understated innocence and untainted vulnerability are the heart of the film, the only one without a motive, observing without making judgment, yet enduring it all, eventually bearing a child, ushering in a new future.  As the Caravana is leaving town, Ciço begs to come along, claiming he can play music, breaking into an invigorating tune, but they leave without him, only to back up and bring them along, with his accordion music playing as they head down the highway, initially to the sea, satisfying one of Ciço’s dreams, before cutting through the tropics in search of less developed regions outside the reach of advancing progress.  The seedy theatrical troupe recalls Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) (1953), also bearing some resemblance to the traveling artists in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954), where a more innocent Gelsomina is forced to contend with brutally crude strongman Zampanó, yet in each this life on the road was a means to escape the entrenched exploitation of the poor, offering a chance at something better, even if they barely made ends meet.  Much of what these films encapsulate is a dream for a better future, an attempt to overcome the dire impoverished circumstances of the past.  Diegues has a talent for the gritty realism of roadside photojournalism, adding a layer of complexity, capturing the melancholy uniqueness of each small village, exposing rural poverty and the inescapable reality of underdevelopment, carrying goods by ox cart, including the belongings of desperate people on the side of the road, as the stark imagery from cinematographer Lauro Escorel is as expressive in intimate moments as the sweeping jungle landscapes, becoming our visual guide through the journey.  Following shortly after the magnificent Wim Wenders film, Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) Road Trilogy Pt. 3 (1976), there’s a curious American influence to both films, not just musically but in the presence of pinball machines in the jungle, or an indigenous family sipping coca cola, wearing designer jeans, eating ice-cream for the first time or listening to transistor radios, where their dream is to fly in an airplane.  While imagery may be what’s most remarkable about the film, they are accompanied by Chico Buarque’s uplifting soundtrack.

Featuring the contradictions brought on by globalization, with incomplete transitional stages in effect, where backwater squalor is set against a teeming urban metropolis, offering absurdly funny yet also bleakly sad reflections on the cultural impact felt across the nation.  The film reflects the changing culture of the country as it was making its transformation from military rule to a democratic government, as a rural-based society was heading towards rapid industrialization and urban migration.  Large-scale road development stimulated improved mass communication, particularly television, where broadcasting to all Brazilians was becoming possible.  With a remote interior village of Altamira advertised as a promised land, supposedly with food and wealth for everyone, a literal paradise on earth, they are surprised to discover it’s just another dusty village, a site where multi-national mining corporations are recruiting workers, flying them to remote locations where they’ll no doubt live in shabby conditions owned by the company, basically fleecing them with promises that never come, likely stuck in unimaginable filth and poverty, subjected to hazardous working conditions.  Dasdô delivers her baby out in the middle of an endless jungle, a baby girl, prompting Salomé to suggest it’s time for them to go, but Ciço is smitten by the exotic sensuality of Salomé, wanting to run away with her instead, but she sticks with Cigano, loyal to a fault.  Nevertheless, this tug of war of divergent interests keeps things interesting, with something unexpected always waiting in store for them, finding it more and more difficult to earn money, becoming destitute along the way, losing everything, forced into desperate straits, where they scatter like the winds.  Ciço and Dasdô make their way to Brasília, becoming part of a musical band in the local disco as the years pass, with mother and daughter on the triangles, doing backland variations of Bee-Gees songs, apparently doing fairly well for themselves when Ciço hears the familiar sounds of the truck loudspeakers promising an enchanted show.  Outside, a thoroughly modernized version of the Caravana Rolidey (now with a spelling correction) awaits, updated with dancing girls, a light show, and the crass commercialization of Frank Sinatra singing on cue, Frank Sinatra - Brazil (1958) - YouTube (2:55), with obscene sexual images painted onto the sides of the bus, led by the same enchanted duo of Lord Cigano and Salomé, suggesting sex never goes out of style.  Despite the allure of getting the band back together again, Ciço defers, liking the way things are, no longer searching for that elusive dream that never comes.  As the neon-lit bus heads down the road in pitch blackness, Cigano claps his hands and conjures up a morning sunshine, like Prospero in The Tempest, suggesting there’s something inherently magical about being Brazilian after all.