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The big city on the screen

How the São Paulo cinema - in a special of seven films - covered the ailments and the personalities of the decade of the 80's

If you live in or know reasonable well the city of São Paulo, close your eyes and think on the first images that come into your head. Probably you won’t wander away from the pedestrians hurriedly walking through the city center or darting along Paulista avenue. Or possibly the limitations imposed by the Pinheiros and Tietê rivers and the bridges covered with congested traffic at the end of the day. Certainly you’ll also remember some famous skyscrapers: the Banespa building, the Terraço Italia building or the Copan building. A few words that spring to mind on the scene? Work, rush, progress, modern, opportunities and noise.

Stereotypes of the capital of the capital of the state of São Paulo, as well as with any other big city, remain in the memory of the city dweller. They are the fruit of the daily life of the metropolis’s individual, but as well of the images linked through cinema, television, the newspapers and even through literature. This observation belongs to Andrea Claudia Miguel Marques Barbosa, from the Anthropology Department of the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH) of the University of São Paulo (USP), who has written her doctorate thesis São Paulo: the Blue City. Analysis of the Construction of an Image of the City by the São Paulo Cinema of the 80’s.

During four years, financed through a doctorate grant, Andrea analyzed, from the anthropological point of view, the vision of the city of São Paulo existing in seven films produced by filmmakers from the city of during the 80’s. Also, she closely observed the way in which the personalities (individuals) dealt with this city. Placing herself as a privileged spectator, she watched them dozens of times, listened to and interpreted the works by Wilson Barros, Chico Botelho, Carlos Reichenbach, Guilherme de Almeida Prado and Cecilio Neto.

“I chose films from the 80’s because this was the period during which the urban issue was very common in the national cinema”, the researcher explains. “And this wasn’t just the privilege of São Paulo; in other locations in the country it also occurred.” The first film from the list is from 1979, Disaster Movie, a short film by Wilson Barros. The others are: Diversões Solitárias [Solitary Diversions] (Wilson Barros, 1983), Cidade Oculta [Dark City] (Chico Botelho, 1986), Anjos da Noite [Angels of the Night] (Wilson Barros, 1987), Anjos do Arrabalde [ Angels of Arrabalde] (Carlos Reichenbach, 1987), A Dama do Cine Xangai [The Lady from the Shanghai Cinema] (Guilherme de Almeida Prado, 1988) andWholes [Complete] (Cecílio Neto, 1991). “In chronological order, the first and the last were not made during the 80’s decade but contain the same characteristics as the others”, Andrea observes.

The films were selected, amongst dozens of options, for having been produced in the majority of cases – with the exception of Anjos de Arrabalde, then by the veteran Carlos Reichenbach -, by recently graduated filmmakers, the so-called young São Paulo film directors. The common point among some of them is the fact that they used technical resources in photography and lighting that came from advertising. “On graduating, these filmmakers came up against great difficulty to work in their profession”, the researcher explains. “Consequently, many of them went on to work with advertising and, from this area, which has greater economic prowess, they took technical sophistication to the cinema.”

Ironically, making use of these resources, these directors also managed to break with some limitations imposed by the standard of sponsorship current at that time, that of Embrafilme, the official organ for cinema funding. Currently, many filmmakers are demanding the establishing of a similar organization since Embrafilme was close down by ex-president Fernando Collor de Mello and today the policy of cinema financing is carried out through tax breaks, mainly through the Audiovisual Law, of the federal government.

From the historical point of view, the 80’s represented huge changes in national cinematography. With the deaths of Glauber Rocha, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Leon Hirszman, there was an overcoming of the hyper-realistic model of the Cinema Novo. Natural light was substituted with artificial light and night films became possible, as various films on Andrea’s list can testify: Dark City, Angels of the Night and The Lady from the Shanghai Cinema.

“Even though it wasn’t conscious, these film makers formed an esthetical movement”, says the doctorate student. “As well as the technical resources, they developed common themes”, she stated. Disaster Movie, by Wilson Barros, deals with the question of non-communication between human beings, the same theme as Solitary Diversions, by the same filmmaker. Social or cultural outcasts, by way of outsider personalities, is present in both Dark City and in the Angels of Arrabalde. This film, even being contrasted with the others – as well as being produced by a veteran and self-taught film maker, had preserved the Cinema Novo realism -, was chosen exactly because of the theme. “The main theme is that of the relationship between the individual and the city”, says the researcher.

At the beginning of her studies, the researcher believed that there would be some constants in the films: loneliness, violence and fragmentation. To her surprise at least one of these elements, that of the sensation of a fragmentation was not lived by any of the personalities. “By creating survival strategies for this immense city, the personalities make a selection between the thousands of references existing within it to construct their own city, a personal route”, the anthropologist analyzes.

“For example, the character Anjo (Angel), in the film Dark City, works on a dredger, removing accumulated rubbish from the bottom of the river. He builds his own world by way of objects found (a ring, a toy, a photo) in the rubbish”, says Andrea. “These are objects that symbolically build his own city, or that is to say, not a pile of fragments and references, but a totality”, she explains.

Audiovisual resource
To better understand the influence of the cinematographic images about the daily lives of the São Paulo citizens, Andrea made use of her own audiovisual resources theoretically analyzed in her thesis. She went out into the city streets interviewing all types of citizens, from a street vendor, to a restaurant owner, to an executive from the Stock Exchange, and produced a ten-minute video. “The basic question was: what does the city of São Paulo mean to you?”, the researcher relates. Going beyond first impressions, Andrea listened patiently to the interviews and arrived at the conclusion that there exists a common structure to the built up arguments of all of them, somewhat similar to the construction of their city by many of the personalities within the analyzed films.

“In the first instant, people use the stereotyped comments about the city: ‘It’s a difficult city, but only here there are opportunities’, ‘It’s the city of progress’, tells another. On a second reflection, Andrea points, the individual normally inserts into this stereotype, some testimony to justify the type: ‘It’s difficult, I get up at five and get home at eleven at night, but I have work”, for example. She noted that depending on how the conversation progresses, one discovers that the people have also built their own city, the city that is possible for them. In this construction, the researcher discovered another interesting fact. “The notion that within a large city there is only places for individualism is incorrect”, she says. “This is because the people belong to groups, they are never alone all of the time, thus they end up building similar symbolic cities and networks of solidarity in order to survive”, she observes.

With these elements, Andrea reached two conclusions in her thesis. On the one hand there is a two-way traffic in which one side the symbolic construction of the cinema feeds life and the image that people have of the city, and on the other this memory also feeds the work of the filmmakers. The second conclusion is that there is not just one city, but several cities in São Paulo and in the films that they portray. This does not mean, by obligation, a breaking up, but an intersection of various totalities. “A person can belong to one or various groups all at the same time”, assuming he chooses that direction. “It’s like a banker that hides his tattoos during the day when he is defending his professional interests, and at night transforms himself into a punk rocker and bangs his head at a show.” she exemplifies. These are the complexities of the modern metropolis.

The project
São Paulo: Blue City. Analysis of the Construction of the Image of the City by the São Paulo Cinema of the Decade of the 80’s; Modality Doctorate grant; Grant Holder Andrea Cláudia Miguel Marques Barbosa – (FFLCH/USP); Supervisor Dr. Sylvia Caiuby Novaes – (FFLCH/USP)