#338. Black Orpheus (1959)

There’s a certain kind of partying that I simply cannot do, no matter how much I drink or try, and that kind of extraordinary partying, that proud and relinquishing of self, is on display here in Black Orpheus, whose real action takes place during Carnival in San Pablo, Brazil, which not only makes this the first Brazilian feature on the List (with the exception of the experimental film Limite, unless I’m forgetting something else…) and it also gives a titillating idea of another famous movie, something that might have made the List if it’d ever been finished: a wartime documentary that Orson Welles was sent to make about Carnival. I made a YouTube video about the ins and outs of that documentary: why it was put into production (the U.S. was trying to cozy up to a neutral South America before Hitler did) and how it fell into shambles and never got finished (Welles kept getting distracted by his boozy priapism and newfound fame following the release of Citizen Kane and the impending release of Magnificent Ambersons), but I’ve gotten such a bevy of ongoing comments from Welles fans (of which there exists an alarming and rabid number) that I’m remiss to get too much into it. 

    I promise that the little video is informed entirely by information presented in the second volume of Simon Callow’s authoritative Orson Welles biography. Pretty sure I didn’t consult any dubious sources. But Welles fans, bothered to hear that he was less than a saintly polymath, still drop comments from time to time about how misguided it is. 

The indiscreet but still effectively creepy manifestation of Death.

    Which is just as well, because we’re here to talk about Marcel Camus’s opus, Black Orpheus, which features an all-Black cast, like Carmen Jones a few years back, but it isn’t an American film, and so the color of the cast, and its time and place in history, doesn’t feel freighted with striations of historical, social, political and sexual complexity. 

    Or not for an oblivious American like myself who knows nothing of Brazilian history; who knows little, even, of what’s surely a dense history just of the festival itself (about which I’ve heard the author Barbara Ehrenreich say some interesting things with respect to communal living, the abnegation of self, becoming free from the burden of hyper individualistic identity); but for all that I adored Carmen Jones, there was an awareness in most scenes of how belated the achievement was, and an implicit understanding of how much Hollywood talent was squandered over the decades because of prejudice, the fact that the talent in question was piloting a darker body. Hattie McDaniel, the first Black artist to win an Oscar, allegedly said, with respect to the servile role she plays in Gone with the Wind, that it’s better to play a maid than to be one. A pretty tragic distinction to have to make.

    But as an oafish foreigner watching Black Orpheus, that meta-awareness isn’t really present. It’s just the movie itself. Which I will credit, apart from being fun in a way that makes my rhythmless loafer tappa tappa throughout, is also the first manifestation of the Orpheus myth that I’ve ever been able to follow. It’s certainly more coherent than Jean Cocteau’s batshit modernist shim-sham.

Marpessa Dawn

    Orpheu (Bruno Mello) is engaged to Mira (Lourdes De Oliveira), technically, but he falls in love with Eurydice (Marpissa Dawn) (these fucking people have incredible names)–Eurydice is being pursued by a guy in a black bodysuit with a skeleton design emblazoned over the front. A heavy-handed metaphor for Death, sure (and maybe an homage to Jean Renoir’s gorgeous skeleton dance in THE RULES OF THE GAME), but subtlety isn’t the point here. It’s Carnival. Shit’s flashy and overt. It’s rife with sex and tradition. The self disappears into the crowd, the culture, the ritual. Hence, perhaps,, the use of an ancient myth to capture something about the modern man and woman. Our hero isn’t named Orphal P. Theus, nor the heroine called some noirish thing like Eura Dice. 

    If you know the myth, you know how the movie plays out. It isn’t happy, but Camus allows us a note of hope at the end. What’s to be appreciated here is the style of the story’s execution. And since, like with Shakespeare adaptations, we know what’s coming but we get to enjoy the vicissitudes of interpretation: the actors’, the directors’, the cultures’.

    I’ll go ahead and mention too that Black Orpheus, like Man of the West and Ashes and Diamonds and Gigi, is one of the movies I watched (slightly out of order, cuz I found the DVDs at my library) while my Big Calamitous Breakup was at a fever pitch, and so my memory of it is that of a glinting light in a very dark time, and it bears the distinction of featuring, in it star Marpessa Dawn, a woman who bore no small resemblance to the woman from whom I was cutting ties.

    Heavy stuff.

    And it fit in kinda menacingly with the myth’s native themes. 

    Anyway. It’s bleak, but it’’s beautiful. I recommend it, but confer with your mood first.

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