In the darkness of cinematography

Brazilian film industry was always trailing behind the foreign ones

“One needs to go to the cinematograph. There’s nothing more agreeable. One film, another film, and yet another. The first one didn’t please us? Let’s go to the second. You can leave in the middle of one without a break, having the excellent quality of not obliging you to think, except for when the gentleman really insists in having ideas. They say that this is its best quality.” That was the way, without grand artistic attributes, that the cinema was viewed in 1909 (in an article in the Gazeta de Notícias), thirteen years after its Brazilian first showing in July of 1896, in Rio de Janeiro, that occurred, in fact, only six months after the world premier of the new media in France. In those days nobody spoke about the seventh art. “Cinema in Brazil, until the first World War, is a cultural experience closed within itself, in a crossing of practices from the 19th century with others of the 20th century”, explains José Inácio de Melo Souza, author of Imagens do passado: São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro nos primórdios do cinema [Images of the past: Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro at the primitive beginning of the cinema], the book now published by Senac and fruit of a project that had FAPESP’s financial support.

The initial conditions truly were miserly. “I don’t remember, since I was very small, where the local projection theatre had been installed. At the back there was a rectangle of white cloth, some 3 x 2 meters, which was very carefully moistened before the showing (to pacify the spectators who feared a fire). A fat woman, seated in a chair next to the cloth, sweet talking voice, was going to explain the scenes that would be refracted upon the screen.”, noted the famous painter Menotti del Picchia, describing one of the first sessions of what was then called the “omniograph”.

Contrary to the European and North American publics, who fled in panic when faced with the images of The Arrival of a Train at La Coitat (1895), from the Lumiére brothers, the national audiences saw everything with nonchalant elegance, if only but to show that they already knew the French novelty and were not cultural backwoodsmen. What frightened the national public were not trains, but “sneak thieves, since in the pitch blackness in which the room remained during the viewing, it was very easy for someone else’s friends to remove that which didn’t belong to them”, warned a newspaper of that time. Or the erotic advances of the “mashers”, who took advantage of the darkness to rub up against robust young women when intermingling with the action on screen.

“And in the reception, blasé, that we showed ourselves to be different, more ‘porous’ spectators than those who come from abroad, and, though today the American story of the cinema is dominant, the image of the Brazilian market was well received by other countries. We are more open to the exterior than the Americans, which makes us, on the contrary, more cosmopolitan than they are, who are the owners of the world”, evaluates Melo Souza. This is not without reason, since the cinema in Brazil, sprung up as a natural unfolding of the modernization of the country. “Its appearance here was not a mechanical result, but was derived from the slow construction of public space. The modernized city stimulated the family to take advantage of the space, turning it more conscientious of its rights to circulate in the streets with safety in order to make use of their spare time”, the researcher points out.

“In order to take root, the primordial cinema was structured for an elite of spectators, and today, only exists because of them. The consequence of this is clear: the nation was an importer and the idea that the cinema could only be foreign, adopted by the ruling classes, had scattered itself through wide sectors of public opinion, remaining amongst us like the most tenacious requisite of mentality that had emanated from an underdeveloped country”, the author observes.

According to him, we were underdeveloped because the cinematographic market had been created by and for the foreign film. The nonchalance with the arrival of the cinema reflected a dangerous neglect of what was national. “The foreign motion picture continued to be the food of the imagery of the Brazilian spectator, while the national film was the degraded reproduction for internal consumption.” Where there was an open market, there were merchant dealers and they had called themselves, from the start, Pathé, Nordisk, Vitagraph, Biograph and at a later date with the Hollywood invasion, Paramount, Warner, Columbia, among others.

In the end, the country civilized itself and that civilization was synonymous with foreign. Henceforth, as well, the initial concentration of the new media was in the incipient urban metropolises, especially São Paulo and Rio. At the beginning, the exhibitions did not have a fixed location to occur, in the same fashion as had happened in France. But in 1897 an immigrant Italian, Paschoal Segreto, created the first cinematographic projection room, the Salão das Novidades Paris, in Rio. In a short period of time the cinema became a mania: during 1907, only in the federal capital, between August and December, twenty- two new cinemas were established. This burst of spaces animated even more the importation of foreign films, but, for a short period of four years, between 1907 and 1911, there was space for the springing up of a national cinematographic production, the so-called Golden Era of Brazilian cinema.

The themes, nevertheless, were not the most noble, varying between issues of the day and crimes, such as Os estranguladores [The Stranglers], by Antônio Leal, which with almost forty minutes of projection was exhibited more than eight hundred times. Equally, the pornographic films exhibited by Segreto attracted the multitudes. These were announced with the limitation that they dealt with “a complete spectacle in which women and minors cannot intervene”, as the newspaper O País advertised. Also serving as inspiration for the local cinema was making a spectacle out of the lives of the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo citizens. “Various oarsmen have written to us soliciting that the cinematographs Pathé, Rio Branco and Cinema Palace send out crews to film the next Sunday regattas”, requested the columnist of O Binóculo, who recognized that it was “the national films that the public most appreciates”. Even confetti battles along Botafogo Avenue could be the theme of yet another Brazilian motion picture.

Virgin film
The Golden Age lasted little. National production declined rapidly and the parting shot was given in 1914 with the first World War, which made the virgin film market disappear. “The production of that period had been linked to the exhibition room, and, within this system, the interest of the greatest exhibitor, Francisco Serrador, in São Paulo, had changed towards the importation/distribution, the heart that had moved the cinematography market”, says the author. “Production was always a marginal business not the main focus, since there was an abundant worldwide supply and at low cost.” The blasé public would receive well any offering, from any place.

Thus, if between 1910 and 1914 the French had dominated 43% of the market, in a short time the newspapers were praising the American cinema. “They had a much more human comprehension of embellishing emotion than any other people. The European producers, when they want to jangle the nerves of naive audiences that watch their films, cling onto social dramas, for which today they are famous. The American makes the film with more intelligence, because he likes to give it an aspect of possibility and to develop it within the limits of a perfectly acceptable reality. Emotion is gradual, without major jumps, without unpredictable events, and the intelligent spectator begins to feel it as a just and verisimilar truth.”

Between the two great wars (when the European cinematographic industry entered into crisis), Hollywood came to dominate the Brazilian market, making the survival of the national cinema even more difficult. The Yankees didn’t come into Brazil to play. Contrary to the Europeans, who made the exhibitors purchase their films, the Americans opened up the opportunity of renting the motion picture, making the producer lose interest in participating in the production of films made in the country. In 1921, of the 1,295 films censored for showing in Rio de Janeiro, 923 were products made in the USA, making Brazil transform itself into the fourth largest importer of American films.

Whilst this was happening, between 1912 and 1922, few Brazilian spectators had the chance to view six films made in Brazil per year. “With the supremacy of the American distributors, after the First World War, the importers/exhibitors of the first decade shrunk to a subaltern position”, the researcher says. “The polyphony of voices and images in operation up until 1916 was substituted by the monotonous discourse of the American merchandise. If this gave a certain tranquility to the exhibition, whose projects of longer maturation depended on the abundant supply of films, it took away the audacity that had motivated it during the previous ten years”, he says. “It became bourgeois, living off a guaranteed income for a product placed in the doorway of the cinema. The only sector that continued skating on thin ice, without a pathway or a coherent discourse, was that of the Brazilian film producers”, he completes. This reached such a point that in 1932 the government of president Vargas set out decree No 21,240 on the nationalization of censorship, imposing the exhibition of a complementary national film, the first legitimate measure of reserving the market for the Brazilian film.

Not everything, however, were blemishes during the origins of cinema in Brazil. The ticket price fell and the half price ticket became popular, opening up space for a relatively democratized culture, bringing close to drama and comedy the common guy who had no way of frequenting the theaters. “And the cinematography ,so modest, so convenient, is more and more to assume the proportions of a vice that is not harmful  neither to families nor to Serrador”, said an article in the magazine Cri-cri. “For us, the best part of the show is the waiting… of the advance, of the frightful fight, titanic, with which the crowd bursts through the three doors of the room to pillage through the rows of seats with the same fury with which they would do if the ticket attendant were to announce nothing less than the novelty of a fire or of a collapse of the roof.” Another positive point was the flight of the street exhibitors of Rio and São Paulo in the face of the victory of the fixed cinemas. Obliged to circulate throughout the country, they took the cinema from Manaus to Porto Alegre. The cinema would stop being a characteristic of the major urban centers, one of its proofs of civilization.

But it was not only this. The doctors who for years had been waging a war against the “blindness of the cinema”, supposedly brought about by problems with the fixation of the image (“The scenes of human life appear deformed by the convulsive tremor of the film,  as if attacked by delirium shakes, in an epileptic trepidation”, in the words of Olavo Bilac), in 1909, for the general happiness of the spectators, they said in the Gazeta Clinica, that the cinema was not the cause of ocular lesions, although it brings about other damage, such as photophobia, watery eyes, and in the most serious cases, conjunctivitis”. Now you can effectively watch the film and relax, without thinking about  anything.

The Project
The culture and market of the first decades of the cinema in Brazil: (1896-1916)
Post-doctoral scholarship (FAPESP)
José Mário Ortiz Ramos – IFCH/Unicamp
Grant holder
José Inácio de Melo Souza – IFCH/Unicamp