Friday, August 28, 2009

A Moveable Feast For The Senses

Orfeo Negro(Black Orpheus)(1959) Directed By Marcel Camus
I had avoided Black Orpheus for a long time, because I wasnt sure if I wanted to watch the Blacula equivalent of Cocteua's Orpheus, even though Ive owned the VHS for years now. I finally decided to pop it in, and couldnt have been more pleased. The Orpheus re-telling, though important takes second stage, as do characters, plot, and dialogue, because first and foremost, Black Orpheus is a showcase of Rio De Jeniros Carnival. In Carnival groups of "blocos"(blocks parties) dress as Kings and mythological characters, and for a day the social structure is inverted, and the entire city comes to life, in a gyrating samba scored fever dream. Visually this is comparable to The Archer's "The Red Shoes" except where that film held out on showcasing its most breathtaking moments until the middle of the film, Orpheus stretches them out across its running time. There is dancing and movement in almost every scene.If you watched "Rachel Getting Married", and thought "Can they stop dancing and having fun and get back to the emoting and shouting I came to see" then this is not for you. Fellini never delivered this much pageantry and liveliness, Tati himself couldnt have mustered this kind of crowd control, and even the endurance trial of jubilance in Emir Krusticas "Underground" would struggle to keep pace with the party people of Black Orpheus. Few non-musicals are willing to invest this much on the power of their music alone, but here the songs envelope the city, and transform it into a sensual playground of mythological proportions outside of the real world. Just as Tarsem created his fantasy world from dedicated location scouting in The Fall, and Jean Luc Godard did by photographing Paris at its most futuristic in Alphaville.I'd be interested to know if Marcel Camus had his scenes staged, or recorded the festivities documentary style, or set his scenes within the actually occurring party zones.In any event the movie sports an overwhelming, amount of action. If you understand that the action genres most fundamental essence is movement, and not necessarily just explosions, films like "Black Orpheus", "Run Lola Run", "Speed", "Vanishing Point" and countless musicals are among the greatest action movies ever made. The story is so classical and simple that its only paid a kind of tangential attention. That being said, the story is of a woman named Eurydice who comes to Rio to stay with her cousin in the flavellas after leaving her village fearing a mysterious man wanted to kill her.She meets a trolley car driver named Orpheus, who is engaged to marry another woman and is in general the town lothario, a man who the children believe makes the sun rise every mourning by playing his guitar. The characters are aware that they are not the first people in the world to bear their names, and when Orpheus is trying to get a marriage license and the attorney naturally assumes his wife is Eurydice, his girlfriend is none too pleased. She is downright fuming when the real Eurydice shows up, and Orpheus takes a liking to her instantly. This love triangle informs much of the plot.Orpheus is supposed to play the Sun in a dance competition his neighborhood has been organzing, with his girlfriend playing Dusk and Eurydices cousin as Dawn, but theyre rehearsals are interrupted when Death (a man in skeleton makeup and costume), shows up stalking Eurydice. Orpheus chases him off, but Eurydice is terrified and doesnt want to be left alone. Since its Carnival and everyone is outside anyway there is no place to be left alone anyway. Though the crowds are initially shown as an ocean of celebration, Camus is able to show how isolating being completely surrounded by strangers can be as well, and the film becomes darker and more frenzied as the dance competition reaches its peak. So the myth goes Eurydice dies, and Orpheus has to venture into the underworld to save her. Here the films tone changes dramatically, the wall to wall samba falls silent, the police come out and begin kicking the drunk and the poor off the streets "Carnivals over now, get back to your place". Orpheus must venture into one of the cities modern office buildings for the first time in the film, looking for some trace of paperwork that could tell him where Eurydices body is taken. There are no people here, only papers and words. You cannot find a human being here, you could look forever. an old custodian tells him. The staging of the underworld, and the structure of the movie, was particularly clever; life as a care-free party, death as endless bureaucracy (the rings of hell, are shown as a spiral staircase leading to the coroners offices in the basement of a building).Orpheus makes a kind of post-modern reference to his own re-make lineage early in the film, "My guitar [has written on it] Orpheus is my master. But it said that when I first got it. I am not the first Orpheus and will not be the last. I am only its master at the moment." Though the story is a tragedy, and this remains intact, there is something optimistic and self-reflexive in the ending, when the young boys who were once afraid to take up Orpheus guitar less they incorrectly play a wrong note and destroy the universe, are forced into playing to make the sun rise. Two boys and a girl then dance to the sunrise as if the party had never ended. Myths and names will outlive us all, and the young WILL dance on our graves, they have no other choice. Someones got to wake the sun in the mourning and put it to bed at night.

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