City of God
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
With an unflinching approach, City of God portrayed the life in Brazil’s favelas down through the decades. Much like the American gangster films of the 30s the taste of blood was still fresh in the mouths of those who hated banks and the government still distrusted, or the cult cinema made in Japan in the 60s and 70s by Fukasaku, Shinoda, and Suzuki, directors Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles, cooperating with the poor youths whose lives they filmed, traced a criminal genealogy back four generations, each one rooted in the rank poverty of the dispossessed. In so doing, we come to understand the encumbrances and dangers of getting rich.
A friend of mine recently suggested that America is looking to Brazil for baile funk today in the way Europe looked to Detroit for soul a generation ago. If that’s true, it’s just another moment in the ongoing search for the music of poverty and disenfranchisement, from field recordings of blues and folk, to country western and jazz, to soul and rock. Occasionally, that quixotic lunge at authenticity hits a mark (not its mark – there’s no such thing as authenticity, but go ahead and quote Heidegger anyway) and taps into something vital and alive. When City of God embraces its inhabitants with cold mortality, humanity eviscerated without notice or regard, we’re witnessing a source of inspirational storytelling and another round of criminal heroes whom we know in folklore and song.
Like Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, the passionate justice of the streets comes to bear on the collective unconscious of the protected classes: the wealthy and the politicians and their underlings, the police and informants. A revisionist’s lens exposes the fact that there are no innocents, and it’s through the Calvinistic spectrum that we see the favela, a Hobbesian ghetto run riot, in which Rousseau’s naiveté is violated by political economy and its frontier violence. But in the background, the music—whether it’s the folk strummed on nylon strings or the foreboding dub—provides eclectic shorthand as we follow Rocket in his ambitions from the City of God as a would-be hood into a low level photography gig.
We experience music through Benny, Lil Zé’s accomplice, as seen by Rocket. Once Benny goes playboy, everybody’s in the club getting drunk, and his pacifistic knack means that the kaleidoscopic tastes of each group could churn out the best parties in the slum. But following his death, Lil Zé’s control begins to destabilize. When Knockout Ned challenges his gang, there’s a new urgency, as each race through the narrow alleys is fraught with the Pontecorvo’s desperation, the amateur photography unexpectedly pitching at canted angles as they coin their own defiant conventions.
In being exposed to Brazil and its music, and privileging the raucous over the sensuous, this is as close as many of us will come to understanding the ongoing campaign of terror mediated by the state to maintain continuous depravation, and sponsor the illicit trade that provides all those great drugs and all that great music. One would be hard pressed to consider Rocket’s success redemptive, but his sympathy, artistry and luck make the story compelling, and somehow ease the brutality. Like Tre Styles, Rocket is that boy ‘n the hood who is spared the life of crime to seek waged work, which is presently underreported at 10.6% according to some estimates.
Look, someone’s even started favela tourism, which is apparently a practice dating back over 100 years. For those less cynical readers, check out Funky Do Morro which Douglas Wolk highlighted late last year in the Village Voice in his review of Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats, Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, and bossa nova, as well as the City of God soundtrack and its remixes for a general overview of Brasiliana.
By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2005-02-17