Monday, May 9, 2011

Down South American Way

The cultural images of South America that dwell within most people's memories revolve around the following themes:
The Amazon Theatre in Manaus

Long before "The Girl From Ipanema" became a popular hit, the songs and dances of South America often provided the inspiration for movie musicals. In the following clip, Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda sings Jimmy McHugh's "South American Way" (the song from 1940's Down Argentine Way that introduced her to American audiences).

Film audiences seeking escape from the grittiness of The Great Depression were thrilled to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance The Carioca in 1933's Flying Down To Rio (I especially love the part where they perform atop seven white baby grand pianos mounted on a revolving turntable).

And who could possibly forget watching Carmen Miranda perform in Busby Berkeley's hilarious banana ballet (set to the tune of "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat") in 1943's The Gang's All Here!

As one combs through the cinematic contributions from South America, one quickly realizes that the bulk of the continent's films have come from Brazil and Argentina. Far fewer have come from the West coast of South America. Last year, Peru's Undertow caused quite a sensation. This year, at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, two films from Chile stood out. To no one's surprise, each strongly referenced Chile's brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.

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Based on a story by Pedro Lemebel, Blokes (a 15-minute short by Marialy Rivas) captures a rare yet torrid moment in Santiago in 1986. Lucho is a 13-year-old boy whose mother works at home as a seamstress. From the bedroom window of his apartment, he's been keeping an eye on Manuel, the swarthy, muscular 16-year-old who lives in the apartment building across the street.

A budding soccer player, Manuel is quite the young ladies' man. But when Lucho (who has taken to locking himself in the bathroom to masturbate) spies Manuel getting head from a woman in his bedroom one night, he shines his flashlight on Manuel's bedroom window.

As reports of an attempted assassination flood the news, police storm the area. Manuel is one of the young men dragged from his apartment and humiliated by the police. Later, that night, when Manuel starts flashing his apartment light (in what neighbors misinterpret as a signal to Communist sympathizers), young Lucho gets a private show that would feed a young voyeur's best fantasies.

Rivas's film captures that nervous phase in a young man's life when even soccer takes second place to masturbation. The subtlety with which it shows Lucho's growing awareness of the price paid for voyeurism speaks volumes. You can watch Blokes in its entirety in the following clip:

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Without a doubt, one of my favorite films from the  recent San Francisco International Film Festival is Patricio Guzman's breathtaking documentary entitled Nostalgia for the Light. Guzman has developed a fascinating set of historical markers based on the fact that sound and light travel at very different speeds. His conclusion is a simple one: there is no such thing as the present.  All else is essentially an illusion. With that concept as a foundation, Guzman then ponders three different areas of time and space.
  • Exploring the giant telescopes at Chile's Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena, he interviews astronomers while recording some thrilling footage of the telescopes' giant mechanisms as well as their views of the clear night sky above the Atacama Desert.
  • Guzman also interviews widows and other relatives of people who were "disappeared" under the Pinochet regime. These women still search through the desert's arid landscape for human  remains.
  • Finally, Guzman looks back at the history of Pinochet's oppressive regime and the impact it had on Chilean society.

The giant telescopes at Chile's Las Campanas Observatory

In a recent interview, Guzman explained that:
"The film has many different angles: metaphysical, mystical or spiritual, astronomical, ethnographic, and political. How to explain that human bones are the same as certain asteroids? How to explain that the calcium that makes up our skeleton is the same calcium found in stars? How to explain that new stars are formed from our own atoms when we die ? How to explain that Chile is the world’s leading astronomical hub, even as 60% of the assassinations committed by the dictatorship remain unsolved? How is it possible that Chilean astronomers observe stars that are millions of light-years away, while children can’t even read in their schoolbooks about the events that took place barely 30 years ago? How to explain why a vast number of
bodies buried by the military were unearthed and then thrown into the sea? How to show that the labor of a woman who rummages through the earth with her bare hands resembles that of an astronomer?"

Poster art for Nostalgia for the Light

The strange thing about Nostalgia for the Light is that viewers can concentrate on the astronomy, the topography of the Atacama, or the politics and grieving of the Chilean women who keep digging with their bare hands. Indeed, Guzman divides his director's statement into three clearly-defined segments:
"The Atacama Desert: The desert is a vast, timeless space that is made up of salt and wind. A fragment of planet Mars on planet Earth. Everything there is motionless. And yet this stretch of land is filled with mysterious traces of the past. There are still ruins of villages, 2,000 years old. The trains abandoned in the sand by the 19th century miners have not moved. There are also some gigantic domes that look like fallen space vessels in which the astronomers live. All around there are human remains. When night falls, the Milky Way is so bright that it projects shadows onto the ground.
The Invisible Present: For an astronomer, the only real time is that which comes from the past. The light of the stars takes hundreds of thousands of years to reach us. That is why astronomers are always looking back, to the past. It’s the same for historians, archaeologists, geologists, paleontologists and the women who search for their disappeared. They all have
something in common: they observe the past in order to be able to better understand the present and future. In the face of the uncertain future, only the past can enlighten us.
Invisible MemoryMemory guarantees us life, as does the warmth of sunlight. Human beings would be nothing without memory -- objects with no pulse -- with no beginning and no future. After 18 years of dictatorship, Chile is once again experiencing democracy. But at what price? Many have lost their friends, relatives, houses, schools and universities. And others have lost their memory, perhaps forever."
The following trailer gives a taste of the emotional anguish shared by many of the women Guzman interviewed for the film. What it does not show is the glorious footage of the Milky Way at night, or of the internal workings of the giant observatories.

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