by Diego Costa
The film is “Vidas Secas”, or “Barren Lives.” The director is Nelson Pereira dos Santos and it’s 1963. The black-and-white film stock seems to crackle along with the drought-stricken land on which the characters step. They are a family searching for water, food, maybe even work. The dog is a barely animate sliver of flesh, the children not that much different. They make their way through the arid backlands of Northeastern Brazil as if obeying some kind of ontological compass one would reach if all of the ideological and historical gunk could be physically deconstructed. A kind of desperate drive stuck on the last bit of brittle bone before whatever humanity was left melted back into the earth. This isn’t the allegorical “becoming animal” borne out of the kind of existential wretchedness in the last scene of Béla Tarr’s “Damnation” (1988), when a man in a suit in the middle of nowhere ends up getting down on all fours and barking back at a stray communist doomsday dog in some kind of recoupling. The scenes also bear none of the spent humanity-cum-figurative bestiality of the horny garbage man in a rubber cat-suit finding solace in a no-man’s-land garbage dump in Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ “O Fantasma” (2000). This is misery so de facto that representing it requires a good bit of perversity. The kind of misery that is as abundant in certain corners of the world as it is perennially projected into an elsewhere that “Africa,” “Haiti,” or “developing world,” seem increasingly unfit to single-handedly contain.
At the same time “Barren Lives” was being made a brand new city, Brasília, was being built from scratch (with a manmade lake and all) in the middle of Brazil. The parallels couldn’t be more contrasting: the frail bodies of the Northeasterners headed to some elsewhere/nowhere and the modernist edification of large phallic structures for the new Brazilian capital. The irony seems more narrative-friendly once so many of the hungry travelers end up electing Brasília as the promise-land and populating not the city itself, but the slew of unaccounted-for slum-like “satellite cities” surrounding it. Who could have known, then, that five decades later, the city spawned as artificially as the Northeasterners’ misery was thought to be “natural,” would be home to Mangai. A branch of a restaurant that already exists in the Brazilian Northeast itself, Mangai is nothing short of a spectacle normally reserved to countries whose ethos is more imbricated in artifice. Mangai is outrageous bad taste of the Americana sort, a cartoonish appropriation akin to Mall of America’s Rainforest Café in which servers introduce themselves as tour guides of the amazing “adventure” patrons are about to embark in. Located in a new development by the (manmade) lake Paranoá, alongside several extravagant restaurants and the popular food kiosks selling hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob that such things beget, one has to climb a few flights of stairs to arrive at Mangai’s entrance. There one finds a collection of hammocks, as if the thematic substitutes of comfy couches for waiting or a babysitting-like McDonald’s playground. It’s not quite clear if the inspiration for the hammocks were the images of the well-fed Brazilian bourgeoisie vacationing at one of the Northeast’s paradisiacal beaches, or the stereotype of lazy Northeasterners, who couldn’t afford a proper bed even if they weren’t so sluggish. We are then treated to sculptures embodying the main visual tropes of the Brazilian Northeast: the ugly traveling donkey, the dirty chickens running around, the forlorn distorted vegetation that seems to mimic the Northeasterner’s own stunted growth (they are even said to have flat heads), the battered old jeep-esque vehicle with people’s belongings strapped to its hood. “It’s all fake, right?” asks a little girl climbing on her father’s leg after catching sight of one of the sculptures, which depicts a janitor cleaning the bathroom wall. Then one realizes all of the waiters and waitresses are dressed like “cangaceiros,” or the social bandits associated with the images of Northeastern lawlessness and “incivility” disseminated in popular culture, with their brown leather hats shaped like a downward-looking half moon. This is a mise-en-abyme blackface of sorts, as most of the waiters are precisely from the Northeast and yet must be re-signified as Northeastern servers (often a redundancy in Brazil already) with the cartoonish accoutrement.
The truth is while America has made the art of turning anything and everything into an effigy for consumption, including its most offensive figures of otherness, even if to eventually disavow them as too racist to fit in the kitchen (mammy spoon rests, for instance), this commodification of Brazilian otherness on this scale is very new. Brazil is used to turning its consumerist wants toward goods derived from abroad, either glazed with hyper-cathected American ersatz or discretely envied, and discretely displayed, European sophistication, depending on the class. Perhaps the country’s recent bout with a tangible rhetoric of “emergence,” its collections of symbolic victories toward “progress” (from hosting the Olympics to allowing same-sex civil unions), has produced in Brazil the demand to turn its own class and racial demarcations into tangible and consumable goods. Mangai, which charges around US$30 a person for its extensive buffet of typically Northeastern food (vatapá, moqueca, acarajé, couscous, tapioca and so on), is a theme park of an eatery where Brasília’s middle class can eat its own travestied as its other. “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” (1971), another Nelson Pereira dos Santos film, feels literally prophetic. Brazil, just now feeling the symbolic clout and luxuries that some of its classes can for the first time exercise, is finally able to turn its hunger into “appetite,” to use its national fabric as fodder for its class anxiety-managing fantasies, to do away with having to import the goods it elects as worthy of gluttony. Is this fantastic, and delicious(!), version of the Northeast not some kind of homegrown Disneyland? “The commodification of Otherness,” as bell hooks reminds us, “has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.” Ethnicity, or class, or whatever, becomes “spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
Mangai’s tables are arranged under very high ceilings and surrounded by art pieces that seem to celebrate (desecrate?) the quintessential products the Northeast exports. One wall is completely covered by bananas, another features a circle of rag dolls of the kind one cannot help but associate with the pity-eliciting UNICEF artifacts made by, and for (or with?) the weak bodies of African (Brazilian?) children. There is also a small store at Mangai, where rag dolls, mini sculptures of a smiling (!) hungry donkey, sorrowful women with their hair made out of rusty machine parts and penguins dressed as Northeastern cangaceiros (some kind of Dadaist joke, I suppose) are for sale. The abundance of the food, permanently exposed so that patrons can repeat their meals as they pay according to the weight of their plates, the deference of the Northeastern waiters in Northeastern drag, the lavishness of the restrooms (here the aesthetics of misery seems to be excused) and the display of figures of national hunger and trauma for the sake of immersive and playful realism all contribute to a new kind of Latin American perversity. One that we have not simply imported from the debris of American B sides, but one we have clearly learned how to produce ourselves, with our own structures, our own actors, our own twist, our own “spice.”
As Garth Risk Hallberg notes in his recent meditation on the existential purpose of novels for The New York Times Magazine, Pierre Bourdieu had a lot to say about the relationship between aesthetic choices and socio-economic positions. As upward class mobility becomes a reality in Brazil, the hunger (appetite?) for new modes of shoring up the boundaries between the classes must grow. Suddenly “cultural capital” must adjust itself to its shifting zeitgeist in the “last resort” anthropophagic style of the film “Alive” (1993), the story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose survival depends on the eating of each other’s flesh as they are stuck in the snow-swept Andres after a plane crash. For Brazil, currently riding what one could call an unusual anti-crash of economic opportunity and new social adjustments, the otherness of some, which used to be age-old guaranteed givens, must now be seized as thing/doll/artifact/sculpture/grub and promptly devoured before it decides to take advantage of its own newborn agency.
[The above piece originally appeared at The Qouch and is reprinted here with permission of the author.]