2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Monday, March 17, 2003

City of God

The opening (and for the most part, closing) scene of the new Brazilian film City of God reminds me of a scene in the one Boetticher Western that I did not write a review for, the hilariously absurd Buchanan Rides Alone. Towards the end of that movie, one character is sent out onto a short bridge to retrieve some money left in some saddlebags. The catch, the bridge smack dab in the middle of two sides with guns drawn, each threatening to kill the poor shlub who was sent out to retrieve the money in the first place. That kind of damned if you, damned if you don’t attitude permeates the newer, Brazilian crime film; hell, at one point the narrator of the film, Rocket (the character being based on the photojournalist and novelist Paulo Lins, whose book the movie is based upon) aptly sums it up: “If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you, too.” He’s of course referring to the criminal gangs, comprised mainly of local children and teenagers, which wage almost open warfare in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Cidade De Deus (“City of God”). Probably one of the most ironically named bureaucratic feats in recent memory, Cidade De Deus was the product of a conservative government which wanted to get the poor, and mainly black residents of the Rio De Janeiro slums out of the way, so as not to upset the tourists. Then they were pretty much forgotten, cast away with little or no material comforts or opportunity, and with even less and less space, as the government kept up it’s relocation program, jamming more and more people into the crowded favela (in the film, which spans two decades, from the 1960s through the 1970s, the Cidade De Deus transforms itself from a dusty collection of nearly identical bungalows into a grimy, concrete slum, or as Rocket puts it, from Purgatory to Hell), where they were at the mercy of gangs or the corrupt police force (apparently, the Cidade De Deus is so violent, that the movie had to be shot in other, relatively less violent, neighboring favelas in Rio).

At it’s most basic, the movie is an example of a well-trodden genre, the precipitous rise and fall of the gangster, in this case, the sociopathic cocaine kingpin known as Li’l Ze, as seen through the eyes of Rocket, a good kid trying to just survive and to get laid (his own attempts at crime are comedically inept). The film traces Li’l Ze from when he was a kid in the 1960s, known as Li’l Dice, whose older brother, along with Rocket’s, was part of a Robin Hood-esque gang of inept robbers nicknamed “The Tender Trio.” Then it’s onto the 1970s when Li’l Ze takes over the drug rackets in the Cidade, leaving only him, and a white dealer named Carrot, to vie for total control. A vicious rape leads to an ever escalating gang war, culminating in a final chilling bloodbath, as the formerly powerful Li’l Ze is gunned down by a gang of 10 and 11 year olds, beginning the cycle of violence anew (the final shots of the film are of the bunch of kids, known throughout the movie as the “Runts” walking down the street, brandishing automatic pistols, discussing who they should kill next). There’s even a certain mystical quality to the narrative; Li’l Dice is christened Li’l Ze by some sort of witch doctor who gives him a talisman and promises him power, but only if he refrains from fornicating while wearing the talisman. And, of course, it is the rape which leads to his downfall, by prompting Knockout Ned, an ex-soldier, to join forces with Carrot (which leads to a seemingly never ending cycle of revenge, death, and more revenge). The story of the film is of course, based on actual events and people, at the end of the scene, we are treated to still photos of most of the principal characters, as well as a short TV news interview with an imprisoned Knockout Ned, an interview which is actually re-created, quite faithfully I may add, in the film itself.

In many ways, the character of Li’l Ze reminds me of the protagonist of De Palma’s Scarface, certainly a cinematic touchstone for just about every crime/drug lord film of the past twenty years. But while De Palma was looking way back in the past with his remake, City of Gods director Fernando Meirelles (also, depending on which review or article you read, Katia Lund is sometimes credited as co-director, she is a documentary filmmaker who had worked previously in the favelas, and worked with other collaborators to train the many non-actors who comprise the films cast, many of whom are actually from a local theater troupe organized from the youth of the Rio favelas, Nos de morro) sets his eyes on more recent cinematic history, specifically films like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. Like the former film, City of God shares a constant, very detailed voice-over narration describing the in and outs of the Cidade de Deus’s history and culture with an almost anthropological eye (I dryly remarked to a coworker today that I now know how to run my own ruthless, street-level narcotics gang); the big difference is that Henry Hill was an intimate player in Goodfellas, while Rocket, other than being a witness, or better yet a survivor, is almost incidental to the events of the story, giving the whole thing an air of detachment.

Meirelles, a former commercial director, creates a kinetic and violent narrative, using just about every trick in the book both old a new, in a self-consciously flashy manner, which could quickly become tiring if it wasn’t an example of bravura filmmaking, or anchored to an interesting story (it also helps that Meirelles, who also works with a huge cast of largely non-professional child and teenage actors and a complicated narrative, knows how to slow down when appropriate to a scene, like in the many bedroom or beachside interludes). One of the best examples is the oft talked about opening sequence: a propulsive, expertly cut montage that plunges you right into the thick of things (quick cuts of a knife being sharpened, chickens running around, the smiling cocksure menace of Li’l Ze, heavily armed children openly parading around with guns) before enveloping Rocket into the affair (the stand-off between the police and Li’l Ze’s gang that I mentioned in my opening paragraphs) quite literally, with a digitally-enhanced 360? swoop around Rocket showing just how screwed he really is, before morphing into the one of many flashbacks (this to both Rocket and the favela’s childhood).

Other scenes that I specifically notes includes the death scene of Shaggy, the ostensible leader of the Tender Trio, fleeing the police, running full stop through the narrow alley ways of the closely-bunched bungalows, as his girlfriend (and camera) watches from a car barreling down the dusty road at an equal speed. Gunned down by the police, more interested in vengeance than justice, for a crime that was actually perpetrated by the already psychotic Li’l Dice/Li’l Ze, it’s a scene that is almost lyrical in it’s intensity, an artful, almost romantic, not quite blaze of glory, which punctuates the conclusion of both the narrative and historical era of the 1960s, a time of relative innocence.

It is also demonstrative of the range of violence that Mierelles depicts (and there’s lots of it, especially after the gang war starts, and the bodies of anonymous children, foot soldiers in the war, begin to line the streets), especially compared with the other scene that readily sticks out in my memory, when Li’l Ze enraged by the delinquency of the Runts, decides to take action, to mete out his own particular brand of justice. In a completely cold-blooded scene, Li’l Ze and his gang manage to capture two of the smallest members of the Runts, offering them a stark choice, either get shot in the hand or the foot. One, the youngest looking, sobbing like the baby he nearly is, tentatively holds out his hand, while the other huddles in the corner; Li’l Ze makes the decision for them, shooting each in the foot (all accomplished in a series of close-ups). Then Li’l Ze is overcome with “inspiration,” deciding to test the mettle of his youngest follower, an errand boy nicknamed Steak N’ Fries (basically he’s the food gopher for Li’l Ze and his top lieutenant, the more intelligent, diplomatic, and carefree Benny, probably the second most sympathetic character in the film, despite his hoodlum status, as he is the only one who can keep Li’l Ze in check, is rather good natured, loves his girlfriend, Angelica, who incidentally Rocket has a crush on, and who is played by Sonia Braga’s niece; you could see him being successful in almost anything in life, if he wasn’t born into a crime-ridden slum; his death is doubly tragic because one, he wasn’t the intended target of the assassin’s bullet, and two it allowed the maniacal Li’l Ze to be fully unleashed) by having him shoot one of the kids. Steak, almost shaking, with the gun too big for his hand, hesitates (he is shot in a low angle shot, almost from the POV of the most likely victim), but ultimately shoots the tired one in the head in an almost casual manner, mostly like too numb and too afraid to do anything else. It’s a hard scene to watch, given how Mierelles draws out the scene, and especially with Li’l Ze’s flippant commands to the surviving Runt, and it prompted the woman sitting behind me to finally walk out (also in narrative terms, this event, is the reason why the Runts finally exact vengeance on Li’l Ze at the end of the film, heavily armed, they mercilessly riddle Li’l Ze with round after round of bullets; ironically, they were armed by Li’l Ze to act as soldiers in his war with Carrot).

But what makes the film really interesting is the narrative, which is the film’s most inventive aspect (I probably should not generalize so much, but I did remark to phyrephox on AIM that it seems like Latin American filmmakers who crafted films like City of God and Amores Perros have been the only ones to really successfully take the narrative techniques popularized by Tarantino, and extrapolate and create new derivations, instead of just aping conventions such as just moving the story out of chronological order for the sake of doing so). Rocket, the ever knowledgeable narrator guides us through a narrative which is constantly looping back on itself (and often broken up by episode titles), revealing additional information, or information from a different, previously unknown perspective.

A case in point would be the multiple takes on the Hotel Miami robbery, which the Tender Trio perpetrates at the urging of Li’l Dice; we see the robbery from the Tender Trio perspective, but the narrative returns to the scene again and again, revealing more information (first we get some quick shots of the bodies, even though we hadn’t seen any of the Trio actually kill anyone, then we see what really happened, as Li’l Dice gleefully gunned down everyone he could find), adding detail and explaining events. Another example is how the film reveals the true nature of Knockout Ned’s killer. After watching the film, I thought to myself, it’s almost structured like I think, with digressions onto tangents, focus on details, starting and stopping, and relooping back onto to previous subjects. My favorite narrative technique is almost like the cinematic equivalent of a really informative footnote, as Rocket, traces the history of this or that person or place. The exemplar of this narrative trait is the episode where Rocket recounts the history of a local apartment used by several “generations” of drug dealers; in probably around a minute of screen time, you get a full, complex history of one particular apartment and the people who lived there (it also introduces one of the movie’s most pivotal characters, Carrot) using a combination of dissolves and voice-over. It’s great stuff, and I loved the attention to detail and atmosphere (again, it reminds me of Scorsese and his penchant for an almost anthropological focus on detail).

An article in the January 2003 issue of Sight & Sound drew parallels between the film’s usage of non-actors drawn from the favelas to make the movie, and the figure of Rocket, who essentially escapes the favelas through his talent for photography (or more by accident, since he’s really the only way that the Rio media can get into the Cidade Des Deus). While the reason for his escape is elucidated, Rocket’s reasons for never being drawn into the life of crime are really never made clear, even after a close association with several of the pivotal criminal figures in the favelas crimeworld, especially Benny, who became something of an older brother to Rocket (Rocket’s own brother was gunned down by Li’l Dice, a scene that the film returns to twice, each time supplying more information). It must have been a combination of fear, first of his father, and then of the gangs, and ineptitude. So while living in the fray, he’s also above it. I would say his detachment grows even more once he gets behind the telephoto lens of the camera supplied by a local newspaper (they make him an intern, instead of a reporter); the final gun battle is mostly depicted from the POV of his lens, being not quite an actor in the drama around him. He even fully captures the complicity of the police force in the crime swirling around him (as the police, the best of whom are on the take, the worst of whom are the supplies to the gun dealers who bring Rugger automatic rifles and Uzi submachine guns into the favelas), though he’s faced with the resignation that those photos could never see the light of day, despite the media frenzy that the colorful and violent gangwars had created (the poor, largely black denizens of the Cidade, being the quasi-mythical Other to the middle and upper class whites of Rio, especially after Li’l Ze takes to having his photograph taken by Rocket in dynamically composed shots with his gang and their heavy weaponry). In some respects, you could say that the runaway success of City of God in Brazil is symptomatic of this same fascination, but its nice to know that some of the larger picture is not obscured anymore (and from what I’ve read, the film has actually caused some controversy and policy review in the government).