MoMA Film Series ‘On the Edge’: Profile on Rogério Sganzerla
The year 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Rogério Sganzerla (1946-2004), a seminal figure in words and images of what is commonly referred to as Cinema marginal (‘marginal cinema’) or the udigrudi (‘underground’) in Brazil. Sganzerla began as a film critic at the age of seventeen before he helmed his first film, the 1966 short titled Documentário/Documentary. It is a deceptively simple love letter from a film critic-turned-filmmaker to cinema, as two friends while away the afternoon in cinephilic polemics, that is, deciding which film to watch, amidst an urban background of film posters (among them, The Third Man, Man’s Favorite Sport, Diary of a Chambermaid, Alphaville). But as they weigh the options (or lack thereof) of films to see, the two friends tread unwittingly deeper into the practice of cinema-going and bigger things such as revolution, and the film betrays self-reflexive elements at its conclusion.
Two years later Sganzerla made his feature film debut, O bandido da luz vermelha/The Red Light Bandit. The film signaled a tide-change in, as well as a pop art compilation of, post-1964 aesthetic attitudes in Brazil. More specifically, it is one of the films often considered to mark the transition from the cinematic ‘aesthetics of hunger’ of early 1960s Cinema novo, as formulated by Glauber Rocha, to the ‘aesthetics of garbage.’ While both Cinema novo and Cinema marginal share narratives and characters of the marginalised, the distinguishing factor is the latter’s explicit playfulness in addressing politics, modernisation, representation, and identity, as witnessed in O bandido da luz vermelha’s blending of B film forms (American and Brazilian), multimedia collage (newspapers, comic books), and a degree of self-reflexivity, even self-deprecation. Characters in Cinema marginal films sometimes even possess a sense of self-awareness of being just that, characters, and not necessarily self-enclosed in a filmic world; or better yet, they navigate between the two seamlessly.
Sganzerla followed up his debut feature with another feature-length, A mulher de todos/The Woman of Everyone (1969). Both features star Helena Ignez, one of the most notable faces and firecracker presences of Cinema novo and Cinema marginal and Sganzerla’s companion until his death. (Ignez made her screen debut in the short film O Pátio/Patio , the film debut of Glauber Rocha, her husband at the time.) Sganzerla and Ignez collaborated on subsequent feature films directed by the former, especially when the couple co-founded with like-minded filmmaker Júlio Bressane in 1970 the production company Belair Filmes. The producer trio managed to churn out six films in four months (!)—one half directed by Sganzerla and the other half directed by Bressane—only to see them subject to state censorship, forced to do post-production in exile in England, and limited to little to no theatrical release.
Even as he engaged in filmmaking, Sganzerla never ceased to write and express his thoughts, be it on his particular idols (the triumvirate of Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix, and Noel Rosa) or on filmmaking in general. In conjunction with his first two features, he wrote pieces that describe his attitudes towards cinema and Brazilian cinema specifically, ‘Fora da lei’ (‘outside of law’ or ‘outlaw’) and ‘A mulher de todos.’ In fact, his writings and films were oftentimes complements of each other. If in 1965 he wrote a piece titled ‘Orson Welles, Jimi Hendrix, Noel Rosa,’ he also made short and feature-length ‘film collages’ (as Jorge Didaco calls them) that were about these figures, dedicated to them, or explicitly influenced by them, if not all three at the same time. Such film collages predominate his filmography following his exile and return to Brazil in the mid-1970s through to the 2000s.
While Sganzerla is most well known for O bandido da luz vermelha, his film collages are extremely complex works that bring together the found footage film and essay film in a captivating way. His series of film collages on Welles in particular—Nem tudo é verdade/Not Everything Is True (1986), the short O linguagem de Orson Welles/The Language of Orson Welles (1991), Tudo é Brasil/All is Brazil (1997), and his last work O signo de caos/The Sign of Chaos (2003)—are enigmatic and hypnotic sound-image ruminations solely on, at first glance, Welles’ botched production of It’s All True set in Brazil due to his deteriorating relationship with the RKO studio. But this tetralogy on Welles is also very much about Welles’ revolutionary thinking on representation, film history as social history, and filmmaking as postcolonial praxis. In Robert Stam’s chapter ‘Pan-American Interlude: Orson Welles in Brazil, 1942’ in his 1997 book Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture, Welles’ extended research on Brazilian cultural histories, with especial focus on Africanist sources, in 1942 arguably anticipated the thematic preoccupations of Cinema novo in the 1960s. Moreover, this tetralogy also takes on implicitly the knotty relationship between Brazil and the United States, or South America and North America; and within Brazil, its brand of modernisation and the legacy of modernist forms from Oswald de Andrade and his call for cultural anthropophagy (via Tropicalismo’s playfulness, pastiche, and political stance), all through the lens of Welles’ words and eyes. Sganzerla splices together in intricate ways footage of It’s All True (as well as other Welles films like The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil), footage and audio of Welles in Brazil (including radio broadcasts of Welles introducing musical performances, such as a conversation with Carmen Miranda), clips of Brazilian films, reenactments of scenes of Welles in Brazil (with musician Arrigo Barnabé as Welles speaking American-accented Portuguese and Ignez as another character), and conversations with or voiceovers by some of the cultural figures with whom Welles had collaborated on It’s All True, like the great star/comedian/singer-songwriter Grande Otelo. Sganzerla also often looped the same audio and images across all four film collages, making them into one grand über-film collage and inviting multiple viewings to pore through the thick layers of meanings and juxtapositions.
In his 1965 essay on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane ‘O legado de Kane’ (‘Kane’s legacy’), Sganzerla writes,
Em Orson Welles, como em William Blake, a beleza é a exuberância. Em todos os sentidos: exuberância técnica, acúmulo de personagens, de intenções históricas, histriônicas, de montagem, exuberância do mau gosto, e, enfim, a exuberância do cinema americano.
In Orson Welles, as in William Blake, beauty is exuberance. In all senses: technical exuberance, accumulation of characters, historical intentions, histrionics, montage, exuberance of bad taste, and, finally, the exuberance of American cinema.
A similar exuberance characterises the works of Sganzerla, in part because the Welles influence is palpable, but very much tempered by his own perspective. His films and film collages signify but one facet of the (admittedly still under-looked) Brazilian cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s and its specific social, historical, cultural, and political conditions of filmmaking, in ways that go beyond Cinema novo categories.