The unimaginable cinematheque

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By VICTOR SANTOS VIGNERON*

Let it be clear: ruin is not empty. The much that was done by the workers of this institution needs remuneration.

The first time I saw a handwritten document by Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes I felt a certain concern. Would it be worth facing that letter with the deadlines I had to complete my doctorate? Over time and mastering certain deciphering keys – such as the infallible letter g – I acquired a certain confidence and today I make up the handful of Paulemilianists familiar with the handwriting of film critics. Although I have always resisted the esoteric temptations of graphology, I confess the attraction that the physical dimension of writing exerted on my investigation. In my defense, I remember that Paulo Emílio himself suffered the same attraction, visible in the proliferation of notebooks, filled with different colors and calligraphy in the stories of Three women of three PPPês (Companhia das Letras, 2015). And so, on a weekly basis, I visited the table set aside for researchers at the Cinemateca Brasileira archive, in São Paulo.

The personal archive of Paulo Emílio began to be structured months after his death in 1977, based on the generous donation made by Lygia Fagundes Telles. Generosity, in this case, is measured by the relative absence of discrimination between public and private material. Incidentally, the first references made in this paperwork to the Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo, the future Brazilian Cinematheque, show the proximity between these dimensions. Which can give rise to curious archival problems: in 1953, Lourival Gomes Machado told that Paulo Emílio's use of profanity prevented his letters from being stored in the MAM archives. Perhaps for this reason, the correspondence sent by Lourival to his friend was divided into two parts. The first of them, typewritten, has an official tone; then came a letter by hand, where more commonplace problems were told, with details that sometimes give meaning to more “serious” reports.

Lourival was director of MAM, Paulo Emílio lived in Paris. Already recognized in the São Paulo intellectual environment for his articles in the magazine Climate and through the creation of the São Paulo Film Club in the early 1940s, he had become a sort of representative of the MAM Film Library in Europe. The position was of some importance, since it was up to the critic to mediate the institution's relationship with the International Federation of Film Archives and to acquire materials from European cinematheques. There was certainly a lot to curse. Despite its technical reproducibility, it was not easy to assemble a film collection on the periphery of capitalism. Problems with the official exchange rate were added to mismatches of information, at a time when air mail was still precarious. Furthermore, as there was never a very clear definition of this product that came in cans (do you pay for film per unit or per kilo?), customs has always been a hindrance, aggravated by the rudimentary technique used: Paulo Emílio's mother or the Lourival himself cleared the shipments at the port of Santos. Finally, the projection of the rolls that arrived often revealed the poor quality of the copies sent to Brazil. It was with suspicious eyes, therefore, that the São Paulo bourgeoisie put the high costs of an operation like this alongside the limited prestige that the cinema had.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to know the exact content of the insults to which Lourival refers, as the letters written by Paulo Emílio were dispersed among several files. Nothing that prevents us, today, from investigating this important form of resistance to underdevelopment: Paulo Emílio's papers are full of profanity.

* * *

I became aware of Paulo Emílio's ideas before I came across his writing, when I read the articles published between 1956 and 1965 in the “Suplemento Literário” d'O State St. Paul (Peace & Earth, 1981). By this time, the critic had already returned to the country and was consolidating himself as a public figure in São Paulo. Two elements, then, facilitate the researcher's work. On the one hand, published texts increase considerably. On the other hand, as cinema had not yet been annexed by the academy, criticism was carried out in a more accessible scope. However, Paulo Emílio’s “pedagogical” approach was covered in a tricky transparency, revealed here and there by his taste for paradoxes, as in “A sublime idiocy” (Jun/59) and “An innocent revolution” (Mar/61). . Freed from the São Paulo industrialists, the Cinemateca formed this platform for intervention in the cultural life of the city and the country.

It is at this point that we come across the tragic note placed by the editors of the “Literary Supplement” to the article by Paulo Emílio published on February 2, 1957: “This article was already written and composed when the fire broke out at the Cinemateca Brasileira. We prefer to publish it without any alteration, certain that the fire has only given more strength and relevance to the concepts developed in it.” The fire and the aftermath work destroyed unique fragments of Brazilian and world audiovisual memory. Given this, the sinister harmony between the article written before the fire and its supplementary meaning after it is not unusual. In the midst of the Cinematheque's construction process, the fire clarified the narrow limits within which cultural institutions in the country were structured. Coming back and forth between materialization and dematerialization that still configures the Brazilian cultural process as a barrel organ and fixes our horizon on the limits of reaction.

The texts published by Paulo Emílio shortly after the fire point to two paths. In “The Other Menace”, “Birth of the Cinematheques” and “Funções da Cinemateca”, written between February and March 1957, the critic turned to denouncing the situation, claiming state funding to remedy the material crisis of the Brazilian Cinematheque. When reading these articles in sequence, a path suggested by the anthology organized by Carlos Augusto Calil (Companhia das Letras, 2016), the articulation of the problem and its solution becomes clear. But when we look at the complete series of the “Literary Supplement” we see that those more urgent reflections were interspersed with slightly extemporaneous texts, “The Fidelity of Luis Buñuel”, “René Clair and Love” and “Polish Posters”. I would like to suggest that these ranges are fundamental, as they open up gaps for a diversification of strategies.

While publicly demanding the vaunted funds for the Cinemateca, Paulo Emílio produced a discreet constellation of texts on socialism. Between 1957 and 1958, he dealt with Polish cinematographic posters, George Orwell's pessimism, André Bazin's controversial analysis of Stalinist historical films, the trajectory of Serguei Eisenstein and Hungarian cinema production. The proximity between the Cinemateca fire and the political situation in Eastern Europe appears in two letters sent to Paulo Emílio by a guy named Garino, in February and March 1957. On both occasions, the European sender regrets the tragedy that occurred in São Paulo and then he gives news about the Hungarian Revolution, which had taken place the previous year. Even if briefly, hope on the left allowed the critic to go beyond the material limits of his cultural militancy.

It was not the only detour taken by the critic at that time. From the mention of Orwell he would write sparsely, but regularly, about science fiction and horror cinema. Everything happens as if these fictional genres constituted an intellectual guarantee in the face of frustrations inside and outside the country, either by postponing the sending of funds to the Cinematheque, or by the suffocation of the opening initiated in Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union itself. And through working with these “compensatory fictions” (a term that is dear to him), Paulo Emílio seems to gradually find the possibility of formulating his own political experience. Thus, the combination of imagined horror (a B movie) and experienced horror (the prisons of the Estado Novo) would finally be made explicit in “Variação de buried vivo” (Apr/63, Brazil, urgent). At this point, however, the stubborn postponement of a public approach to the Cinemateca problem left new marks on Paulo Emílio's paperwork.

* * *

In the early 1960s the documentation changes profoundly. Although he enjoyed a relatively wide projection in the field of cinema (the famous thesis “A colonial situation?” was published at the beginning of the decade), the critic found himself increasingly absorbed by bureaucratic tasks. The use of the typewriter, copies on carbon paper or duplicates and the premonition that one is reading a text written by someone becomes constant. This institutionalization of Paulo Emílio's writing allowed for the storage of duplicates of letters sent to authorities on behalf of the Cinemateca. The moment called for all precaution, since several negotiations were under way, with reasonable chances of success, to provide the institution with a stable budget.

The tone is protocol and cold and we have the impression that Paulo Emílio has become an intellectual out of time. Divided between São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília and Salvador, he begins to publish a smaller number of articles. And he writes less by hand. Between November and December 1963, he produced a diary that gives a more vivid dimension of the bureaucratic drowsiness he found himself in and which, however, was experienced as a necessary prelude to the stabilization of the Cinematheque. Together with the correspondence exchanged with Gustavo Dahl, this material reveals a melancholy sympathy for the government of João Goulart. Through numerous contacts with Darcy Ribeiro, Paschoal Carlos Magno and, above all, Anísio Teixeira, the possibility of federalizing the Cinemateca was negotiated. The fruits were meager, but they allowed Paulo Emílio to participate, alongside Jean-Claude Bernardet, Lucila Ribeiro, Pompeu de Souza and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, in the creation of the Cinema course at the University of Brasília.

More disappointing were the negotiations with the Legislature. Letters from that time allow us to outline an articulation that, through film clubs, reached congressmen from several states and seemed to point to a victory. However, the budget appropriation project was shelved at the time of its vote, in 1962. The motivation – a personal quarrel between two parliamentarians – once again demonstrated the importance of the Cinematheque and the cinematographic problem in the eyes of public authorities. This theme would be raised by Paulo Emílio in his participation in the CPI do Cinema, in May 1964, and would contaminate the critic's initial view of the coup d'état that had taken place shortly before.

(A visual counterpoint to the melancholic aridity of Paulo Emílio's typewritten writing is given by the letters sent to the critic by Glauber Rocha from that time on: even using a typewriter, the young Bahian filmmaker composed his correspondence not only with his anarchic writing, but also by multiplying postscripta and using a marker pen to make additions. Glauber Rocha's collection is also deposited at the Cinemateca.)

* * *

In 2012, filmmaker Djalma Batista Limongi wrote a statement about Paulo Emílio's reaction to yet another fire at the Cinematheque: “Lygia Fagundes Telles, standing, watched Paulo Emílio collapse on his knees and cry. She couldn't go to that man she loved, beautiful, destroyed at that moment. Lygia, her black hair disheveled, took her lipstick out of her bag and painted her beautiful lips red with blood. In her imagination, she climbed the white marble ramps of the palaces of Brasília, machine gun in hand, and erased all the rulers of Brazil”. Although the event dates back to 1965, it probably refers to the fire that occurred in February 1969, when the Cinemateca collection was stored in several buildings in Ibirapuera Park, including part of the entrance gates. As far as I know, this event left no traces in Paulo Emílio's documentation.

In the second half of the 1960s, the critic had distanced himself from the everyday life of the Cinematheque. At the same time that the successive setbacks in Brasília sowed discouragement, he saw himself increasingly converted into a university professor. They then proliferate in their material roles related to teaching, such as class scripts, assessments and course programs. Publicly, the silencing would be imposed by the dictatorship, a fact evidenced in the abrupt interruption of the ephemeral columns of Paulo Emílio n'The Gazette (1968) and in Jornal da Tarde (1973). This silencing leads to a new strategy for formalizing ideas, even in “serious” texts by the critic: instead of the cold politeness of typed correspondence, mockery, profanity, and obscenity come into play. The fictional drift, the sense of the polemical formula and the anecdote began to increasingly structure the texts of Paulo Emílio, who, incidentally, began to write cinema scripts systematically at the same time. Although the first manifestations of this tendency are already visible in the chronicle tone assumed in his column in Brazil, urgent and in the last texts of the “Suplemento Literário”, it is now accentuated and marks a position quite different from the one assumed at the beginning of the decade.

A document that perhaps marks a tense compromise between these two positions is the “Note on the creation of a Cultural Power”, written in 1968 due to the demonstrations that took over São Paulo. In it, Paulo Emílio proposes the constitution of a fourth power in the country, responsible for the university scope, for the production of books, films, etc. and the operation of the press. In this way, the budget allocation and autonomy of all cultural institutions would be guaranteed, as with legal institutions. The idea of ​​culture as a value in itself and the autonomy of this sphere as a form of resistance to the regime was debated at the time by the opposition to the military regime, even though the validity of a left-wing cultural hegemony ran within certain limits. In any case, the fire of 1969 and the meeting between Costa e Silva and his associates a few months earlier would bring this period to an end in Paulo Emílio's career.

* * *

The lack of importance of cinema and, more than that, of culture not mediated by the market, would become increasingly accentuated with the consortium built by many hands by the military regime and by communication companies (or not even that), which structured Brazilian television. In 1970, Paulo Emílio would publish “The cinema in the century” (Newspapers in Brazil), an article in which he assumes the loss of pregnancy of cinema over the public. Thanks to a type of material that appears in the last years of the critic's production, the arguments in postgraduate boards, it is possible to reestablish a little of his vision regarding television. In 1974, in his commentary on Sônia Miceli Pessoa de Barros' master's degree, he confessed that his relationship with TV was still linked to an earlier cultural context. Hence his preference for soap operas written by Jorge Andrade, a playwright who followed since the staging of Quarry of Souls, in 1958. In general, his public interventions on TV were limited to denouncing foreign advances in the market, somewhat in line with what he thought about cinematographic production. But the fact is that Paulo Emílio's voice has little echo in relation to the theme, which also converges with his personal inclinations.

However, the loss of importance of cinema and, together with it, of the critic's own intellectual position would not receive a negative treatment in “O cinema no Século”. The detachment from the public was accompanied by an unprecedented freedom of creation and a more forceful stance (shortly afterwards, the critic would become enthusiastic about the films by Ozualdo Candeias, Andrea Tonacci and João Silvério Trevisan). If between 1968 and 1969 “cultural power” would suffer severe blows, Paulo Emílio assumes a posture of acceptance of indifference, which would even guide his best-known thesis, “Cinema: trajectory in underdevelopment” (1973). This expansion of the critical load should start from the recognition of the class commitments of Brazilian cinema. After all, even in its most radical moments, such as Cinema Novo, intellectuals remained privileged managers of the images of the people. It is suggested that class betrayal is the next step. And perhaps for this reason the São Paulo bourgeoisie (or the “specific São Paulo stupidity”, as the author says elsewhere) would be the object of Three women of three PPPês e Cemetery (Cosac Naify, 2007), a mixture of dense description and execration in the public square, guaranteed by the condition of Paulo Emílio, a member of that same class.

But what about the Cinematheque? In the 1970s, Paulo Emílio gradually got closer to the institution. It even plays a central role in his last text written for publication, “A very personal celebration” (1977): “The imaginary cinematheque, documentary and posed, illustrates, refounds and completes any public fact that points to Pedro Nava's childhood memories. ” Adding to this “imaginary cinematheque” a comment about the “real” and, however, “unimaginable” cinematheque: “If the neglect for film conservation remains, the celebrations of the centenary of Brazilian cinema will certainly be disturbed by the presence of an unimaginable cinematheque , squalid and accusing.” The stubborn imagination, a kind of prosthesis necessary for intellectual life in underdevelopment, complements the image of the squalid cinematheque, which nevertheless provides valuable fragments for understanding our society. It was on this audiovisual ruin that Paulo Emílio operated, in 1972, the imaginary reconstitution of lost films by Humberto Mauro. From this same ruin, at the end of his intellectual trajectory, his final accusation against the part of society that had amassed the Brazilian State.

Let it be clear: ruin is not empty. The much that was done by the workers of this institution needs remuneration.

*Victor Santos Vigneron is a doctoral candidate in social history at USP.

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