The body politic

Last updated on March 29th, 2019 at 02:11 am

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This post is about an experimental film from Brazil and originally published on another blog of mine on March 18, 2015.

I never know what sort of creative I’m going to meet in Buenos Aires, but I’ve met a lot.

Recently I met a teenage actor from Chile, the star of an independent film called Hijo de Trauco. He was also a talented guitarist and singer. We talked Nick Drake and The Beats and drank beer until the hostel stopped serving us.

I met a 3-star chef from Italy, a Greek dancer on Broadway, and a grey-bearded, pot-smoking dude who used to be road manager for AC/DC. Artists and singers and graphic designers. I’ve haven’t met many writers, though, but maybe that’s because we’re all to some extent introverts, and hide what we do in public.

A couple weeks ago I woke up to the snores of a two new young dudes in my dorm room. At first I only saw them sleeping, the bright Buenos Aires sunrise not affecting them in the least. About a week after they got here, I watched them stumble half-lidded and red-eyed into the common room, looking like they didn’t know where they were at.

At first I thought they’d just been partying and given that I’d heard them speaking Brazilian Portuguese, that made sense. The energy level in the hostel goes up whenever a group of Brazilians arrive. Once I met them though and talked to them, I found out they were here in San Telmo to present an experimental film at the X Festival Transterritorial de Cine Underground, which I’d somehow managed not to have heard about. Turned out that, yes, they’d been partying some, but the director/editor, 24-year-old Pedro Maia de Brito, had been putting the finishing touches on the 50-minute film, Hypothalamus, or Hipotálamo in Portuguese and Spanish.

His musical collaborator, Vitor Araújo, had been enjoying the city. He was also the latest riser of the two — one afternoon when I was retrieving James McCourt’s book, Queer Street, from under my bed, he looked at me in surprise and asked, “You’re sleeping in this room, too?”

But he can be excused; Araújo’s work was done. Unlike most mainstream films and many experimental ones, the score for Hypothalamus came first — from Araújo’s A/B, enjoyable on its own, which you can download for free here, or listen to on YouTube. De Brito shot the footage, keeping in mind the individual tracks or sections, which were conceived as a suite, and cut it to Araújo’s music. De Brito calls it a “Punk Musical,” and there is something punk about its audacious mix of styles, reflected in the imagery and in the music, also collaborative. Araújo, a bit like Prince in being a master of many instruments but primarily a pianist, composed the suite but recorded it with a range of musicians, including a jazz trio and a hard-rock threesome.

Visually, Hypothalamus is just as eclectic. Both the opening and closing sections recall Stan Brakhage. The first is a series of dissolves between several paintings that fill the frame and are bracketed by its edges. While Brakhage painted directly on film, Maia de Brito used a technique he describes as “classical”: gouache over cardboard in a shoebox, lit by bouncing light from a regular bulb off aluminum foil. Maia de Brito and Araújo painted and recorded the series together, in more or less real-time.

The film’s final two sections and the longest, culled from YouTube videos of vivisections and surgeries, reminded me of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. In the latter film, one of the great film-works of the 70s, we witness human autopsies, edited without a natural narrative and presented without a soundtrack. So we are invited to abstract them, experiencing the scenes as only the play of light and color, not to minimize the value of human life but to contemplate its place in the wider visual field, its context within all life and its processes. Brakhage’s oeuvre places aesthetics as one of those processes.

Hypothalamus is more explicitly about the brutality of abstractions, specifically the abstractions of human bodies and their needs in favor of the imperatives of dominant political and economic systems.

In the film’s second section, black & white still shots of high-rises at varying focal lengths are edited together and manipulated slightly with shifting digital filters that provide the section’s only movement. Maia de Brito says he drove around his city of Recife, with close to 4 million people, accompanied by a photographer, telling him when and what to shoot.

Still from Brazilian experimental film Hipotálamo, by Pedro Maia de Brito and Vitor Araújo

The individual high-contrast shots are stark and beautiful as images, and there are a number of interesting modernist architectural details to take note of. When I mentioned this to Maia de Brito, he bristled.

“Wait, wait, let me finish!” I said, “But eventually, as you see empty window after empty window and expanses of dirty white and only a few indications of habitation, you start wondering where all the people are. It becomes an environment of dehumanization and subjugation. The presence of people is irrelevant.” This is one of the strengths of this section, and of the film in general: its ability to make us distrust and question our easiest aesthetic responses.

“Yes,” Maia de Brito said and began explaining to me how the coastline and center of Recife had been sold off to developers leaving the poor stacked on top of each other in those beautiful but brutal modernist buildings. The final shot of this section in Hypothalamus shows a man in a window, just a silhouette, looking down at the camera, looking more like a ghost.

Every section in the film has its own strengths and revelations and all of them are structured around Araújo’s music. Yet each section also gains its form and aesthetics from sub-structures within it. There is an external and internal architecture to Hypothalamus.

Perhaps my favorite section depicts close-ups of the faces of people, shot in noisy black and white. Maia de Brito says he shot it with “the crappiest handycam [he] could find.” But despite its low-fi look, it’s certainly the section in which formal beauty merges seamlessly with style. At first I thought that the camera itself, zoomed in so what we see was compressed, perspective and distance foreshortened, was moving laterally screen-right, panning a group of people who appeared to be waiting in line. Their restlessness and disconnected facial expressions added additional layers of mystery and movement to the frame. But Maia de Brito told me that, in fact, the camera was static on a tripod, set up in a subway station and pointed at the milling, moving crowd. So there’s a constant visual tension as we struggle to ascertain what’s moving and in which direction.

The film’s final sections proved too much for some viewers at the CineUnder screening, which took place in the basement of, San Telmo’s famous arts space run by the man known only as Charlie. A handful of folks walked out, although most of them came back eventually. Having seen Brakhage’s film several times, I’m not sure I could have been any more inured to seeing human bodies subject to various cuttings, probings and dissections, but perhaps for most, living tissue is inherently more disturbing. The intensity of the visuals is mitigated somewhat by the soundtrack but even more by the frenetic editing and the playful anthropomorphic split-frame employed throughout.

Still from Brazilian experimental film Hipotálamo, by Pedro Maia de Brito and Vitor Araújo
Still from Brazilian experimental film Hipotálamo, by Pedro Maia de Brito and Vitor Araújo

I told the film-makers that this section, as opposed to making me sick, often made me laugh. They were pleased.

Before Pedro told me about the screening, I’d had my first San Telmo Beer Bust scheduled. After a few seconds of hesitation, I decided to e-mail my guests and invite them to the screening instead. We could always go bar-hopping afterward, and besides, getting to watch an experimental film from Brazil in an underground arts space in San Telmo sounded like the kind of unique travel experience that my favorite kind of guest is looking for. And getting to meet the filmmakers, too? A no-brainer for me.

No-one took me up on the offer, however, but I have no regrets. I’m glad I got a chance to see this accomplished and complex film on a large screen. Each successive viewing of the film on a laptop has confirmed my initial observations and feelings about it.

Maia de Brito is a perfectionist, despite his admission that both he and Araújo are college drop-outs — Pedro from the Universidad del Cine here in San Telmo and Vitor from a reputable music conservatory in Brazil — so he says he’ll continue tweaking the film, “probably forever,” which seems appropriate for a film that’s more honest and far less abstract about the cycle of life than any Terrence Malick film I’ve ever seen.

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