The Red Light Bandit

A filmography for Rogério Sganzerla is at the end of this article.

When we can’t do anything, we fuck up!

The Red Light Bandit (Rogério Sganzerla, 1968)

This is our story: of a spider that destroys
itself in silence

Sem Essa, Aranha (Rogério Sganzerla, 1970)

2004 marks the 40-year anniversary of a military coup d’état in Brazil that took place between 31 March and 1 April 1964: an event recalled with great bitterness. Of the 20 years (’64–’84) that this dictatorship spanned – an era of authoritarianism, the suppression of constitutional rights, police persecution, imprisonment and torture – the year 1968 stands out as an especially significant and dark one: later that year the Institutional Act n. 5 (AI-5), a concession that closed the Congress and increased even further the powers of censorship, was passed.

Concurrently, and paradoxically, Brazil was experiencing a burst of blazing creativity, in which artists resisted and attempted to transcend political and economic constraints with roguish aplomb. In 1967, stage director José Celso Martinez Corrêa rediscovered in the modernist author Oswald de Andrade’s 1933 play O Rei da Vela a means of addressing the complex issue of class relations as they played out in present-day Brazil. Corrêa’s direction of Andrade’s text was something of a landmark for an emerging underground movement; everyone saw it and was influenced by it. The play, although written in 1933 (and never performed until 1967), revealed itself as urgent and relevant to contemporary Brazil in its depiction of the various conflicting and corrupt social classes within Brazilian society, be it the rising bourgeoisie (the title refers to the “Candle King”, a man who profits at the expense of poverty and popular superstition) or the decadent classes of landowners, where perversion and vice dominated. In his adaptation, Corrêa employed the aggressive and participative techniques of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, and experimental enterprises and concepts from Brecht’s Epic and Didactic Theatre.

Another text by Andrade that resurfaced with urgent immediacy during this time was the Anthropophagite Manifesto, written in 1928. In it, Andrade insists, among other things, on the indigenous nature of Brazilians’ heritage (“tupi or not tupi, that is the question”; tupi relating both to the Indian language and the Indian itself); humour and the carnivalesque as critical tools and fundamental characteristics of Brazilian nature and behaviour; and the concept of cannibalism as a cultural and political strategy based not on the mimesis of Otherness but on its deglutition to create a new identity of “Brazilianness”. This new representation would be based on the critical assimilation of imported, non-native ideas, gestures, attitudes and concepts and their re-elaboration in accordance with indigenous needs and circumstances, thus subverting the relations between coloniser/colonised through dialectical reflections on violence, ethnicity and gender politics.

This reinterpretation of Andrade’s work impacted on all cultural areas. It gave birth to the Tropicalist Movement (’67–’68) and, especially, to ideas of the fusion and hybridisation of Brazilian culture and nationality with foreign elements to create new artistic products. It also gave birth to the dichotomy between primitiveness/tradition and modernity, and lowbrow and highbrow in performance and expression. The tropicalists also appropriated the revolutionary and subversive tactics of mockery, irreverence and improvisation from the Manifesto; and they relished in references considered outmoded, underdeveloped, kitsch and debauched from the counterculture. Although it lasted briefly, the Tropicalist Movement left indelible traces on music (Caetano Veloso – one of the main articulators of the movement, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and the influential rock band Os Mutantes, all of them combining forces to produce the key record of the period: Tropicália, ou Panis et Circenses [1968]), visual arts (the provocative installations of Hélio Oiticica), literature (most notably in the evolution of Concrete Poetry and the essays of Augusto and Haroldo de Campos) and Cinema Novo.

Arguably, Cinema Novo underwent three significant stylistic and thematic mutations in its development. From 1960–64, the films’ primary focus was north-eastern economic misery and mythology, the favela‘s daily struggles and, in an effort to come to grips with the past, historical revisionism (Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Barren Lives [Vidas Secas, 1963], Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil [Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, 1964], Ruy Guerra’s The Guns [Os Fuzis, 1963], Carlos Diegues’ Ganga Zumba [1964]). These approaches, however, changed after the military coup, and the years from ’64–’68 reflected the crisis of the left and the pessimism and lethargy of the middle-class, with a growing focus on urban themes (Paulo Cézar Saraceni’s The Challenge [O Desafio, 1965], Gustavo Dahl’s The Brave Warrior [O Bravo Guerreiro, 1968], Luiz Sérgio Person’s São Paulo S/A [1965]). Finally, in its last phase (’68–’72), the concerns of the cinemanovists shifted to the “cannibalistic” allegory and symbolic gestures and structures in works highly influenced by the Tropicalist movement (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma [1969], Walter Lima Jr.’s Brasil Ano 2000 [1969], dos Santos’ How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman [Como Era Gostoso O Meu Francês, 1970]).

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

However, Brazilian cinema did not completely reduce itself to Cinema Novo in the ’60s; there was an underground (udigrudi in its Brazilian assimilation) movement, or Cinema Marginal as it eventually became known, of experimental filmmakers that would take the Tropicalist ideas to new levels of expression (1). In 1964, ultra-independently and on a shoestring budget, the self-taught José Mojica Marins (aka Zé do Caixão, aka Coffin Joe) released At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma), a cinematic flying circus of primitive wonderments and horrors, and a film that found amongst its greatest defenders a young critic called Rogério Sganzerla:

The natural is as false as the false. Only the arch false is really real. I’m talking about José Mojica Marins, cineaste of the excess and the crime (…) [in the film] everything is unstable, it might explode at anytime, exasperation dominates. He threatens the normal relations between actors, between camera and ‘décor’, dialogue and reality (…) in Mojica there’s the splendour and misery of Brazilian ‘mise en scène‘. To be sincere it must confess itself spontaneous and delusive. And everything is a naive and bloodthirsty sameness (2).

Cinema Marginal flourished in the crime stricken and prostitution-ridden area of São Paulo’s Boca do Lixo, and its representatives – Sganzerla, Júlio Bressane, Ozualdo Candeias, Carlos Reichenbach, Andrea Tonacci, among others – boldly resisted, at least for a while, both government censorship and persecution, and Cinema Novo’s ideas, dogmas and influences. In Cinema Marginal the Anthropophagite Manifesto encounters Sganzerla’s “Aesthetics of Garbage”, an embracing of polluted, precarious, and unsanitised textures and images, and of hybridity, metacinema, fragmentation and intertextuality in filmic syntax. The filmmaker, embodying this explosive encounter, becomes a bricoleur, linking subjectivities with historical contexts, pinpointing the unusual in what seems familiar, excavating, recovering and rehistoricising texts, images, words, gestures and attitudes that have been made dormant and silenced by the ideological weight – imposed and institutionalised – of the dominant, hierarchical structures and powers:

I will never transmit sanitised ideas, eloquent discourses or plastic images before the garbage (…) Crushed and exploited, the colonized can only invent their own form of suffocation: the scream of protest comes from an abortive ‘mise en scène‘ (…) I’ll continue to make an underdeveloped cinema by condition and vocation, barbarian and ours, anticulturalist (…) (3)

Rogério Sganzerla

Rogério Sganzerla had already made one short (Documentário, 1966) before the release, at the movement’s peak, of his first full-length picture: The Red Light Bandit (O Bandido da Luz Vermelha, 1968). The film is partially inspired by a news headline about a man who breaks into his female victims’ houses and, using a red flashlight, illuminates their faces and talks to them before proceeding to then rape and kill them. From this topical faits-divers, Sganzerla found the means to discuss different forms of marginality (a lexicon that encompasses the criminal, the excluded, and even both simultaneously) and those living on the fringe trying to “recycle from the garbage” – a theme/fascination that recurs constantly in Brazilian cinema. From the somewhat sympathetic figure of the malandro (seen for instance in the chanchadas of the ’50s, where an actor like Zé Trindade specialised in the role of the womaniser, taking advantage, by any possible means, of the most diverse and adverse situations, never losing his sometimes self-deprecating sense of humour) to the cafajeste (crystallised in Ruy Guerra’s The Unscrupulous Ones [Os Cafajestes, 1962], in which its two males characters wander in constant search of another cheat or blackmail, selecting prospective victims) to the cangaceiro and its ambiguous form of bandit-ism: heroic, cowardly, vengeful, nomadic and sanguinary. Sganzerla’s Red Light, the bandit (Paulo Villaça), covers all those anachronisms because, in an attempt to find his subjectivity, he needs to reinvent himself as a multi-faceted bandit – “Who am I?” he asks.

Stylistically, the film “devours” everything from everywhere and “regurgitates” a totemic panoply of:

• homages – to the chanchada and its popular, easily accessible appeal, its carnivalesque attitude to pastiche and parody, its use of doubles, inversions and pretence, its freeness in the mix of musical numbers, romance and villainy, and to the radio culture from which it appropriates a radiophonic style of exaggerated, sensationalistic voice-over and a narration that imitates the suspense, turn of events and picaresque nature of comics and old broadcast serials;

• references and quotations – to Welles, Fuller, Glauber Rocha, Zé do Caixão, Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Pierrot le fou (1965), the newsreels of Primo Carbonari;

• genres – an assemblage of the western (Sganzerla calls his film “A Western about the Third World”), musical, B film, documentary, science-fiction (it all ends in a deus ex machina like an invasion of the Boca do Lixo by Welles’ Martians – a rereading of his famous 1938 radio dramatisation) and crime film, with noir aesthetics (from which it filters its characters’ iconic posture and significance: the anti-hero, the cop/police investigator that also functions as the anti-hero’s doppelganger, the criminal mogul/politician [“I will create the House for the Single Father, the Home for the Ruined Millionaire, I’ll distribute bubblegums for the poor – finally they will have something to chew”] and, of course, the mischievous, sensual femme fatale that will eventually be the anti-hero’s downfall [although in this case Janet Jane (Helena Ignez) is an almost anthropophagic parody of this role’s clichés]);

• fragments – the film is a revolutionary “montage of attractions” with sound (a rich tapestry of music [samba, bolero, guarânia, baião], disembodied voices, noises) and image displaying palimpsest juxtapositions of constant inventiveness and meaning. In terms of his manipulation of the image, of the various Brechtian epic methods of interruption and non-linearity Sganzerla uses in the film (narrative fragmentation, anti-psychological identification, songs), the use of advertising signs to make comments on the narrative (like Brecht’s use of subtitles projected on slides) is one of the most stylistically prominent.

Red Light was unanimously well received and its impact and appreciation has never ceased. It has the effect of a mirrored bomb: we look at it transfixed, recognising ourselves as we then explode into little pieces and partake of the same question Red Light poses: “Who are we?” Sganzerla sums up: “The characters of this magical and roguish film are sublime and uncouth. Stupidity and uncouthness are political data, revealing the secret laws of body and soul as exploited, desperate, servile, colonial and underdeveloped” (4).

The Woman of Everyone

The director followed with another idiosyncratic masterpiece, although one with a less nervous editing style and some beautifully composed tracking shots: The Woman of Everyone (A Mulher de Todos, 1969). Ângela Carne e Osso (Ângela Meat and Bone) as performed by Helena Ignez (Sganzerla’s wife, and muse/actress extraordinaire of both Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal) is one of the most memorable female characters in Brazilian cinema. Variously introduced as “the woman of uncouth men”, “the queen of the Island of Pleasures” and “one of the ten most…. megalomaniacs”, her motto being “I need all men, never stop loving them”. She is insouciant, insolent and impudent, one moment capturing the gaze of her assorted lovers (who include a playboy, an anarchist, a fake torero and a castaway from the Titanic!) with her alluring body and voice, the next being captured by their fractured masculinity and vanity. In fact she could be one of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) (or perhaps a parodic ersatz of Anna Karina’s Godard roles) with whom she shares a love for pranks and a freewheeling attitude to life, things and men. But, alas, they all must be punished (Ângela Carne e Osso by her own husband, the magnate Doktor Plirtz [Jô Soares]) as their independence and confident sexuality cannot be tolerated in totalitarian regimes (be it former Czechoslovakia or Brazil). Again, Sganzerla elucidates: “I wanted to show the neurotic, uncomfortable, difficult side of the modern woman (…) for the first time in our cinema, a woman sings, shouts, hits, kicks, dances, points fingers, has a devil of a time (…) (Helena Ignez) is Marlene Dietrich as co-directed by Mack Sennett and José Mojica Marins, that is, by me…” (5)

We must focus for a moment on one of Sganzerla’s most overlooked assets, his extraordinary gift for directing actors, making them part of the creative process and co-creators of his formal experiments. There is an anecdote involving Constantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold that not only reveals their two different approaches to acting but also where Sganzerla’s feelings lie. A young student had an important question for the two masters: “I’m facing a problem and need your help; there’s a scene with me walking through a forest and encountering a ferocious lion; how can I project this mix of surprise, horror and fright, and make myself convincing to the audience?” Stanislavski answers: “Well, you must find this fear inside you and then physically project your inner thoughts”, then Meyerhold responds, “Well, you may just run like hell and then think about it”. This anecdote, although reductionist, turns out to encapsulate the basic differences between naturalism and anti-illusionism in acting. Actors in Sganzerla’s films are always in constant movement, their bodies, words and faces channelling tons of unpredictable energy and eccentricities, and displaying a game of free associations, images and meanings; they are actors as defined by Walter Benjamin – hooligans: always ready to create some kind of disorder, chaos, to turn things upside down, to crush and fragment their internal and external constitution in order to create and reveal something anew. Sganzerla mixes actors/hooligans from various origins and different trainings, sometimes intertextualising the films with their well-known personae: from the chanchada (Grande Otelo, Wilson Grey) to established actors, some co-opted from Cinema Novo (Norma Bengell, Antonio Pitanga, Helena Ignez, Lilian Lemmertz, Maria Gladys, Stênio Garcia) and from popular culture (TV comedians Jorge Loredo and Jô Soares, radio humorist Pagano Sobrinho, filmmaker José Mojica Marins), to avant-garde musician Arrigo Barnabé.

In late 1969 Rogério Sganzerla and Helena Ignez joined forces with filmmaker Júlio Bressane to create an independent production company named Belair. They made six films in four months and because of censorship problems and government persecution, the films had to be edited and completed in England, where they went into exile. As Bressane puts it, Belair “was a crossing through the erratic, the errant, an inversion that left indelible marks on Brazilian cinema. We were able (…) to dethrone false values, rigidities, seriousness (…).” (6) The films were barely released, their invisibility creating an aura of mystique around them, and for many years they have only been seen in retrospectives and special screenings. Sganzerla directed three of them (7): Carnaval na Lama (1970), Copacabana Mon Amour (1970) and Sem Essa, Aranha (1970). Of the three, Sem Essa, Aranha gained a strong following, to the point that some consider it to be Sganzerla’s most visceral work.

Sem Essa, Aranha is a most trenchant, gruelling political comment/exhortation/vomit on Brazilian society (although not without humour), reflecting through a distorted lens the extreme conditions and difficulties of those times: the retrenchment of one’s individuality; the impossibility of exercising free expression; the bourgeois hypocrisies and aphasia; economic instability and suffocating misery; and the endorsement of machismo. It is cinema as Macumba, where the actors seem possessed by animistic, primitive forces/deities and the camera accompanies this frenzied ritualising producing 17 incredible, hand-held continuous shots. Shots that could only be made by a director who inhabits, with vivid urgency, a desire to answer a question that reverberates through the entire film: “What is Brazil and what does it mean to be Brazilian?” It is impossible to erase from our collective conscience the sequence where the main characters walk downhill through the favela‘s slopes, in one uninterrupted take, interacting with its inhabitants, camera carefully maintaining a balance between improvisation, chance and meticulous choreography, and Maria Gladys vociferously spitting: “I’m hungry…I need to eat…I have a bellyache!!!” It is essential Sganzerla.

Abismu

After the abortive experience of Belair, Sganzerla, in exile, travelled through Europe and North Africa (where he made Fora do Baralho [1971], partially filmed in Morocco), and resumed his career six years later with Abismu (1977). Now, Abismu was the first film I saw by Sganzerla. It was one of those defining moments in my early years of formation where I felt a strong desire to write about a film, perceiving myself as part of its fabric, genesis and understanding. With Abismu I learned to cognise and not simply react/identify; it turned me into an active spectator with an urge to fill the film with my experiences, references, allusions, with my intellect, body and heart functioning in unison, in an effort to untie all the knots and help to create the arteries of a pulsating work. It is Sganzerla’s freest and most Ruizian film, in which he engages in the overlapping of narratives, images, structures and sounds; in the deconstruction of characters (reducing them to archetypes), space (heterogenous zones cohabiting in the narrative’s flow), and time (breaking all possible barriers between the present, past and future); and applying to the word and image, with vibrant gamesmanship, a series of cryptograms, treasure maps, mysterious symbols and phrases, ideograms, arrows, signals and Jimi Hendrix guitars, that finally, and excitingly, coalesce, in various ways, as wholes.

Throughout the next 25 years Sganzerla would draw himself into an odyssey of investigation and research across the lives and output of his three most revered artistic mentors: Jimi Hendrix, Noel Rosa and Orson Welles. The first had already punctuated Abismu with his chords, and Sganzerla would dedicate another short to him (Mudança de Hendrix [1971–78]), which is the filming of a performance in London with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso present in the audience. On Noel Rosa, one of Brazil’s greatest and most popular singers and composers of samba, he would assemble two homages: Noel por Noel (1980) and the medium-length Isto é Noel Rosa (1990). And finally, a tetralogy on Orson Welles, focusing especially on Welles’ decisive passage through Brazil in 1942 for the filming of the unfinished It’s All True (a project for which Welles was committed to RKO and which aimed to foster Pan-American relations). The films, a mix of archival images, re-enactments of actual events, interviews, fiction, faux documentary, pastiche and film essay, are: Nem Tudo é Verdade (1986), the short A Linguagem de Orson Welles (1991), Tudo é Brasil (1998) and his final film, not yet released commercially, O Signo do Caos (2003).

In particular, Sganzerla’s obsession with Welles’ kaleidoscopic, contradictory, affectionate and anti-tourist visions of Brazil would provide him with material to dip into the anthropophagic notions of assimilation and fusion. Welles, with Four Men and a Boat (Jangadeiros – one of the constituent parts of It’s All True, seen in Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn’s documentary of the same name), forestalled certain cinema verité characteristics of Cinema Novo and the poetic realism of films like Rocha’s The Turning Wind (Barravento, 1961). Also Welles’ musings on the origins of samba and its meshing with jazz, and his encounters with musical legends Dalva de Oliveira, Carmen Miranda, Ary Barroso, Herivelto Martins and most notably Grande Otelo, instilled a sense of pride and nationality in Brazilian culture that would eventually enable artists like Sganzerla to investigate our past and heritage in an attempt to understand contemporary anxieties.

These three names would take their arts to their creative zenith and would have to grapple with the burden of precocious, explosive and unforeseeable genius. Their constant struggles against mediocrity, bureaucracy and personal demons could only resonate within a man that was trying constantly to break boundaries, valiantly resisting common sense and permanently reinventing himself, making us finally see through his film collages what Brazil is and what it means to be Brazilian.

* * *

Tudo é Brasil

On a sad note, besides Sganzerla’s untimely death (1946–2004) (8), Brazil has lost, in the past few months, two other important names related both with the unfolding of Cinema Marginal and Sganzerla’s cinema. First there was the passing of film critic, actor and occasional filmmaker Jairo Ferreira (1945–2003), who published in 1986 a seminal exegesis on the Brazilian underground and experimental movement: Cinema de Invenção (Cinema of Invention – a title he largely preferred to the more conventional Marginal); and then, more recently, Sylvio Renoldi (1942–2004), one of Brazil’s greatest editors (Roberto Santos’ The Hour and Turn of Augusto Matraga [A Hora e a Vez de Augusto Matraga, 1965]; Walter Hugo Khouri’s The Goddesses [As Deusas, 1972]) and the man responsible for (re)(dis)organising Sganzerla’s material on, among others, The Red Light Bandit and Tudo é Brasil. Their love and appetite for a personal and challenging cinema are affectionately printed in their entire bodies of work.

Filmography

1966 Documentário (short)

1968 O Bandido da Luz Vermelha (The Red Light Bandit)

1969 A Mulher de Todos (The Woman of Everyone)

1969 HQ (short)

1969 Quadrinhos no Brasil (short)

1970 Carnaval na Lama

1970 Copacabana Mon Amour

1970 Sem Essa, Aranha

1971 Fora do Baralho

1976 Viagem e Descrição do Rio Guanabara por Ocasião da França Antártica (short)

1977 Abismu

1971–78 Mudança de Hendrix (short)

1980 Noel por Noel (short)

1981 Brasil (short)

1984 O Petróleo Nasceu na Bahia (short)

1986 Nem Tudo é Verdade

1990 Isto é Noel Rosa (short)

1991 A Linguagem de Orson Welles (short)

1992 Perigo Negro (sketch, from Oswaldianas)

1998 Tudo é Brasil

2003 O Signo do Caos

Endnotes

  1. Although Cinema Marginal initiated from a rupture with Cinema Novo, the movements crossed paths and highly influenced each other, as we can see in Júlio Bressane’s Face to Face (Cara a Cara, 1967), Glauber Rocha’s Câncer (1968–72) and Paulo Cézar Saraceni’s Love, Carnival and Dream (Amor, Carnaval e Sonhos, 1972).
  2. Jairo Ferreira, Cinema de Invenção, Embrafilme/Max Limonad, São Paulo, 1986, p. 97.
  3. Rogério Sganzerla, “A Mulher de Todos”, Jornal do Brasil, February 20, 1970.
  4. Ferreira, p. 62.
  5. A Mulher de Todos – press-release, Contracampo 38.
  6. Júlio Bressane interviewed by Ruy Gardnier, Cinema Inocente-retrospectiva Júlio Bressane 2003, SESC, São Paulo, p. 14.
  7. The other three, directed by Bressane, were: A Família do Barulho (1970), Barão Olavo, o Horrível (1970) and Cuidado,Madame (1970); Bressane, in a recent interview, talks about a seventh film, directed by both he and Sganzerla, that is apparently lost: A Miss e o Dinossauro.
  8. Sganzerla has left a finished screenplay (among a number of unpublished articles and unedited films) that Helena Ignez hopes to film late in 2004; it is tantalisingly called Luz nas Trevas – Revolta de Luz Vermelha (Light in Darkness – Revolt of Red Light).

About The Author

Jorge Didaco is a Brazil-based teacher and writer in theatre, performance and film.