Rio de Janeiro Out of Synch

As Rio de Janeiro celebrates its 450th anniversary, it conjures a narrative of citizenship and progress aligned with "civilizing" nationalism. Media ranging from online portals to photographic archives have been recruited to service this project. In this Deep Dive, Nilo Couret examines two documentaries that complicate its dominant narrative about the city.

As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the Olympic games amid controversies of water pollution, questionable “pacification” projects, and a daunting water and energy crisis, the city also celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. The 2015 Rio 450 campaign invites denizens of the city, affectionately referred to as cariocas, to help commemorate the city’s long history. From an online portal collecting voluntary contributions of photographs, videos, and historical documents into a “collaborative archive” to a downloadable “certificado de carioca” (carioca certificate) that confers the title of a legitimate carioca to its holder, the campaign has provided the opportunity to reflect on the cities’ “symbols, its history, the civilizing experience and the lifestyle it was able to forge.”1In Portugeuse, “símbolos, de sua história, da experiência civilizatória e do estilo de vida que foi capaz de forjar.” All translations by the author. Original text at Comitê 450 The “revitalization” of the Praça Mauá, an important city center in the early twentieth century, the time when Rio de Janeiro became the third busiest port city in the Americas, has been a cornerstone of the campaign. Its re-opening to the public for Brazil’s independence day – after decades of falling into disrepair and being displaced as city center – was accompanied by cultural events that both celebrated the fashioning of this “new” public space and contemplated the fraught history that has been paved over. Two films – Virginia Flores, Rodolfo Caesar, and Alexandre Fenerich’s Na trilha do bonde/On the Streetcar’s Track (2009) and Raimo Benedetti’s Pre–8 (2015) – comment on the politics behind the displacement of the city center in the mid-twentieth century and perhaps suggest a relation to the re-centering of the Praça by using archival material to offer a counterpoint to the fanfare behind the nostalgic Rio 450 campaign.

Na trilha do bonde – 2009 from DESERTO FILMES on Vimeo.

Best known for her sound design in the “marginal” auteur Júlio Bressane’s late films, Virginia Flores has long advocated for radical uses of sound, less synchronized and less causally beholden to the image so that “the spectator collaborates, creatively participates in her interpretation of the film.” Her film, Na trilha do bonde, features an entirely constructed soundscape accompanying silent orphan footage taken from streetcars mostly dating from the 1940s. The film begins with an epigraph by songwriter Noel Rosa: “coisas sem nexo, brotadas da inspiração musical improvisada…ou até mesmo a rude música urbana, com os rumores desconcertantes dos bondes.”2This translates to English as “things with no connection, spouting from the inspiration of improvised music; or even the gruff urban music, with the disconcerting rumble of the streetcar.” Introduced in the city in 1894 by the Botanical Garden Company, the bonde and its increasing presence in the early twentieth century was responsible for the growth of high-class suburban districts such as Flamengo, Botafogo, the Jardim Botânico and northern outlying working-class areas.3Kessel 14 The footage is reminiscent of Hale’s Tours although produced well outside the early cinema period of Paschoal Segreto’s Cinema Automóvel and the Estrada de Ferro Mundial.4Conde, Maite. Consuming Visions: Cinema, Writing, and Modernity in Rio de Janeiro. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 37. The manipulation of the image is reminiscent of Ken Jacobs’s optical experiments; however, if the latter indulges in “optic antics,” Flores’s manufactured soundscapes offer an aural experiment that animates the footage differently. The film proceeds through successive winding long takes, each long take manipulated in either sight or sound. Early long takes feature less overt intervention, forging a simulated coincidence of sound and image that unravels slowly. The remarkable Foley work simulates the sound of traffic, the clanging of the streetcar, and the imagined conversations between its riders. The following take features images turning mustard yellow while the tuning of a radio arrives at a broadcast of the program Cinelândia Carioca from 1947 announcing the premiere of Esse mundo é um pandeiro (Watson Macedo, 1947) and the latest MGM and Pathé developments from abroad.

The found footage is coupled with archival radio material from the state-operated Radio Nacional, originally broadcast from the Praça Mauá. Subsequent editing establishes graphic relations in the image, with the tram direction alternating or looping in sinuous patterns, and rhythmic editing, with the sound skipping and jerking as the streetcar footage seems to flee the sound source. A voice on the soundtrack begins to announce the streets as we pass them by and yet the image loops. The image spools backward, and the sound pushes forward. The image loops five time but the sound is continuous. The image in slow motion seems to beckon the soundtrack to stay on track, but instead Humphrey Bogart’s exchange with the female taxi driver from The Big Sleep(1946) comes on the soundtrack. The image freeze-frames and emphasizes figures in the frame coupled to the dialogue of each speaker on the soundtrack, an impossible synch point. The short film concludes with a shift to bus and automobile traffic in the 1960s – transportation that would be responsible for the continued sprawl of the city – with the selective coloring of visible exhaust in the image accompanied by radio propaganda for public health and urban development. Journalists reviewing the film, originally made for Brazilian television, underscore its ostensible nostalgia, but this is a film that does not construct an idyllic 1940s past as a point of return. Instead, the aural antics of display produce a carioca journey that follows two tracks at once: image and soundtrack, past and present, Brazil and the world. The orphan footage and archival sound do not simply depict a since-vanished city center but also suggest in their interplay an ordem e progresso5The motto of Brazil – “order and progress” – adorns the national flag. that was always out of synch.

Benedetti’s Pré–8 intervenes in the Praça Mauá in a similar register. Video artist Benedetti has long worked with pre- and early cinema in his film practice, exhibiting his experimental work in live cinema and expanded cinema reception contexts. The short film emerged from Benedetti’s involvement in Festival Visualismo, which sponsored workshops and labs to open a dialogue about art and urban space, staging a series of urban interventions in several regions in Brazil. Pré–8 screened on September 11, 2015 in the Praça Mauá, projected on the façade of the landmark Josef Gire building, more commonly referred to as the A Noite building, and accompanied by live sound interventions by Benedetti on-site. The A Noite building, completed in 1929, was the continent’s first skyscraper. The concrete art-deco building served as the headquarters for the newspaper A Noite, spearheaded by the Hearst-like Assis Chateaubriand.6For more, see Segawa, Hugo. Arquiteturas no Brasil: 1900-1990. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de Saõ Paulo, 1998, 65. Also Sodré, Nelson Werneck. História de imprensa no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Mauad Editora, 1998, 375. The projected video uses the concrete façade as screen, starting with a single white square projected to coincide with the façade’s central window. An electronic tone chimes with the gradual multiplication of these squares until every window is alight. Benedetti’s voice booms over the public space, narrating the complicated history of the building. The first image on screen is the newspaper’s masthead descending the façade with each chime in a rhythm identical to the earlier multiplying windows. Benedetti explains how the building later housed the dominant Radio Nacional, eventually nationalized in 1940 by the Getúlio Vargas regime. On cue, the masthead splits in half, spawning the Radio Nacional logo moving in the opposite direction. The filmmaker’s voice continues to punctuate the video, a “cine-symphonic collage” that collects archival material culled from the newspaper A Noite and the Radio Nacional archives (“Artistas”). The newspaper clippings highlight the struggle between the newspaper and the new president. Vargas’s rise to power through a military coup d’état and the subsequent populist nationalism of the Estado Novo would be at odds with the pro-Estado Velho management of the newspaper, a conflict manifest architecturally in the subsequent modernist architectural projects in the city center. In the projected collage, the articles are not simply edited in succession, but are arranged on the façade like a newspaper layout. The diachronic news items are made to seem synchronic in their arrangement, and the building’s façade becomes overlain with both temporal modalities. Similarly, archival broadcasts are edited in a tumult, a tuner receiving transmissions from several periods in the building’s history. Radio propaganda is coupled with quickly edited images and new items, eventually stopping with a photograph of children, the central figure animated to speak in synch with the propaganda. The nationalist slogan resounds and slowly winds down. The image and the building are made to speak the slogan as time comes to a halt. The video concludes with the construction of the Avenida Presidente Vargas, a new automobile highway inaugurated in 1944 that would connect the different regions of the city but displaced the Avenida Rio Branco, the Praça Mauá, and the city center. The filmmaker’s analysis of state power and its relationship to mass media is made through an exploration of built environment. We onlookers standing in the revitalized Praça Mauá are invited to think about how controlling this space has historically meant controlling the nation. The building becomes representative of conflicts both old and new, the conflict between the Estado Velho and the Estado Novo as well as the enduring legacy of Estado Novo infrastructure and communication policies that would evacuate public spaces in promulgating modernization through the automobile and radio and television. Through archival material, both Flores and Benedetti explore the Rio de Janeiro that the Estado Novo transformed, unpacking the dense temporality of the novo through symphonies deliberately out of synch. As the city returns to its center, their projects welcome us to the praça but suggest how this re-centering and re-synchronizing of the city center might just be complicit with a consolidation of power.



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