Bad conscience and reverse narcissism

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By FERNÃO PESSOA RAMOS*

Considerations on the cinema of Retomada.

“Our modesty begins with the cows (…) The question then arises – and why do even Brazilian cows react this way? The mystery seems pretty transparent to me. Each of us carries the potential for holy hereditary humiliations. Each generation transmits to the next all its frustrations and miseries. At the end of a certain time, the Brazilian became an inverted Narcissus, who spits on his own image. Here's the truth - we find no personal or historical pretexts for self-esteem. If you don't understand me, patience. And everything haunts us. A simple “good morning” already gratifies us”. (Nelson Rodrigues, chronicle “The awarded cow”, from the collection the bitch goat).

The class fracture of Brazilian society is recurrently present in our cinema. It is expressed in what we can call, in otherness, “representation of the popular”. After the break in the 80s (when the most creative national production established a closed dialogue with genre cinema), the classic motifs for the representation of the popular (the favela, the hinterland, carnival, candomblé, football, northeastern folklore ) return in the Resumption of the 1990s and 2000s. We see, once again, the physiognomy of the people on the screen. Some differential elements, however, mark this moment.

The axis that guides the ethical question in the representation of the popular in Brazilian Cinema, from the 60s onwards, is the feeling of bad conscience. This bad conscience is related to the fact that this representation of the popular is the representation of an “other”, the assumption of a voice that is not the one who emits it. It is a crack that, following the critical sensibility of Visual Anthropology, we could call epistemological. In its contemporary complexity, it can already be felt with all its intensity in God and the Devil in the Land of Sol/1963), taking its more precise form in earth in trance (1966)

This is the film in which the ethical contradiction intrinsic to the representation of the popular as “other” emerges, a dilemma that makes up the central fulcrum of Glauber Rocha's work. In the field of thinking about cinema, the book Brazil in Cinema Time (Civilização Brasileira, 1967), by Jean-Claude Bernardet, clearly feels the pressure of this epistemological crack and notes it in a recriminating tone: this “other” who represents the people, who has ambitions of knowledge for the people, is nothing more than the middle class looking at its own navel. We have a middle-class cinema, instead of a popular cinema, and this bothers the generation that created Cinema Novo. “Have you ever imagined Geronimo in power?”, tells us in a certain Brechtian distance the protagonist of earth in trance/1967, Paulo Martins (Jardel Filho), with a union leader in his hands, gripped by the shoulders and staring at the spectator, embodying the distrust and anxieties of this otherness. Because “Gerônimo” came to power and Brazilian Cinema is still struggling with his shadow, in the form of a bad conscience.

reverse narcissism

In this article, we are going to give a name to the contemporary expression of this bad conscience: we are going to call it “inverted narcissism”, and we are going to consider that its manifestation embodies a form of cruelty. Bad conscience towards popular otherness shifts and, in wanting to deny itself, assumes an accusatory posture. Doubts about the potential of the people and their culture (present in the first Cinema Novo and, in particular, in Glauber's films from the 60s) disappear to be replaced by the idealized image of this same people. At the other end of the popular pole, at the negative pole, is no longer the middle class, but the nation as a whole and, in particular, the State and its institutions. The Manichean duality, idealized people/incompetent State, is then established, which runs through the production of the so-called Retomada. Satisfaction and spectatorial catharsis take place at the expense of this polarity, in the form of a “primary masochism” that, following Nelson Rodrigues, we will call “inverted narcissism”.

We are referring to the strategies developed by key films of the Retomada, to promote emotions in the spectator, through catharsis mechanisms that focus on a representation, markedly negative, of aspects of Brazilian social life. In an escape route, the cathartic satisfaction of this spectator is no longer directed towards the represented universe itself, but is identified with the accusatory posture that the narrative sustains, as an enunciating instance. The accusatory stance towards the incompetent nation emerges as proof of the non-belonging of the middle class to the sordid universe represented. We laugh and marvel at this universe, but it is not our responsibility, as we are, along with the narrative, also accusing. If the nation as a whole and, in particular, the Brazilian State, is covered with the “statute of incompetence”, the one who accuses marks, by the initiative to accuse, his non-belonging to the community of incompetents.

the cruel naturalism

This is the perverse pleasure, embedded in the voluptuousness of representing the sordid, that permeates contemporary Brazilian cinema. We can identify a kind of “cruel naturalism” that runs through Retomada's production, both in its fictional aspect and in its documentary production. Whether within a more intimate perspective, or based on the narcissist's bad conscience in reverse, cruel naturalistic representation appears in key works of Brazilian cinematographic production in the 1990s/2000s: Central do Brasil/1998 to crouniquely unfeasible/2000, including documentaries such as News of a War Private/1999; Garbage Mouthfinal match.; The Carvoeiros/2000; The Little Prince's Rap against the Greasy Soulsfinal match.; Bus 174final match.; The Prisoner of the Iron Grid/2003. We also found it in Orpheus/ 1999; The first dayfinal match.; Sixteen Zero Sixty/ 1996; How Angels Are Bornfinal match.; A Heaven of Stars/1996; The Blind Man Who Shouted Lightfinal match.; Bocage the Triumph of Lovefinal match.; hindrancefinal match.; A Cup of Cholerafinal match.; Archaic farmingfinal match.; Seven-Headed Beastfinal match.; zero latitude/2001. in the pioneer Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil/1995, or later A Wave in the Airfinal match.; The princefinal match.; The Invaderfinal match.; two lostOn a Dirty Nightfinal match.; or in the two great public successes of the national production of the time, City of God/ 2002 e Carandiru/2003.

Within its diverse range, this “cruel naturalism” can be defined by the pleasure the narrative takes in dwelling on the image of exasperation or agony. There are constant long shots dedicated to the representation of screams or moments of existential crisis. Dramatic exasperation is shown in detail and exaggerated to an extreme, beyond realistic motivation. The debauchery, the sordid characters, the hysterical laughter are highlighted, in a slow and prolonged way. The image of misery, dirt, dramatic action in closed and stuffy environments (such as prisons or slums), appears recurrently. Deaths, blood, actions with cruel refinements of violence are displayed in all their crudeness.

This image is constituted within a strategy that raises the intensity to the limit of aggression to the spectator. Cruel naturalism bothers, attacks, causes embarrassment and considers this embarrassment an asset. We call the bystander's strategy to gain pleasure in this situation "reverse narcissism". Cruel naturalism usually leaves the intimate-psychologizing sphere (where, in several cases, it remains) to crystallize in the representation of a socially divided nation. The films in which this happens are what interest us here.

The composition and overlapping of cruel naturalism with upside-down narcissism marks a path that embodies a form of reception. The genius of Rodrigues's expression ("the Brazilian has become an upside-down narcissus, who spits on his own image") is managing to summarize an essential feature of his own work (where cruelty excels) to the form of reception he senses: the character humble, bovine, on the masochistic edge, of the Brazilian personality, the ideal spectator to take pleasure in the iconoclastic cascade of his dramas. The taste, the “narcissistic” pleasure (Rodriguean irony here is clear) that Brazilians have in spitting on their own image is expressed with humor in a recurrent figure in their football chronicles: the intensity and ease (singular, according to the author , in the scenario of nations), with which the unique symbol is booed, in which the nation really stands out: the “selection”.

Returning to the route outlined: there is a cruel dimension in contemporary national cinema and this cruelty embeds an aggressiveness – in the form of Nelson’s reverse narcissist – towards institutions and the Brazilian State (in particular), or towards Brazil and the “Brazilian” (in particular). general). We suggest the hypothesis that a dual and Manichaean representation (incompetent State/idealized people), following a recurrent motif in the history of Brazilian cinema (the bad conscience inherent in the representation of the popular and the themes that are related to it), constitutes a way predominant drama that gives vent to the traditional narrative mechanism of catharsis and identification of the spectator.

Let's take a closer look at how this Manichean universe is expressed within a precise thematic axis. Two groups can be highlighted (we leave aside the torn intimacy of A Cup of Cholera, Zero Latitude, Hindrance, A Sky of Stars, Archaic Farming): the films that expose the representation of the nation's ills vis-à-vis the Anglo-Saxon character (idealized foreigner/incompetent nation dichotomy) and those that focus on the construction of cruel naturalism, accentuating the opposition idealized people/incompetent nation. The two groups are not watertight with each other.

The mutt complex

In the first case, we place the films Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil; How Angels Are Born e What is this fellow?. In the second, they are emblematic Central do Brasil; News of a Private War; Orpheus e Chronically Inviable. Later movies like City of God e Carandiru fully adapt to an analysis centered on these categories, showing their pertinence.

The representation of the statute of national incompetence runs through Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil from side to side. The essence of Brazil appears shown in the low and servile universe of the Portuguese court that irremediably contaminates our origins. The Anglo-Saxon characters doubly exercise their moderating role. The Scottish narrator, in addition to the power of origin that the enunciation gives him, is amused and amazed by the incompetence within which the Tupiniquim historical framework unfolds. In the diegetic universe itself, it is the English diplomat who dominates the political situation in a haughty manner.

It defends its interests precisely, walking with agility through the eternal turmoil and orgies in which Luso-Brazilian leaders immerse themselves. At this key moment of our foundation as a nation, our myth of origin, so to speak, the Anglo-Saxon reference serves as a yardstick to measure our incompetence. Also characteristic is the exhibitionist pleasure (authentically “narcissistic in reverse”) with which the inferiority trait is figured. The tone is one of authentic humility, leaving the incompetent person with the pleasure of amusing the pondering of the foreigner he is evaluating. A hidden speech seems to repeat: “At least our messes should be valued, because they are innocent, childish, and only want the marginal space of approval that is proper to laughter”.

Em How Angels Are Born the status of incompetence is figured, in a dual way, between the positive people/negative State poles. And here too, the figure of the Anglo-Saxon character appears exercising his moderating power, in the face of the Brazilian nation exposed in its miseries. The institutional side of this nation, the police, is shown in opposition to the thoughtful and humanistic demands of the American, held hostage, who requests the presence of NGOs to prevent the murder of minors and also a Commission of Children's Rights when he is rescued .

Police activity is highlighted as an example of incompetence, prejudice and irrationality. Also the national media is presented in the same tone. On the “popular” side of the story, characters who cannot coherently articulate their demands predominate: two flighty children and a bandit on the verge of madness. This bandit, a rather silly character, screaming a lot and irritatingly, responds to an old tradition of Brazilian Cinema that dates back to Marginal Cinema in the 1960s.

Salles recovers this type as a way of dealing with and representing the popular universe of the favela, preparing it for the “constructive” interference of the Anglo-Saxon character. The film shifts the conflict to the institutional aspect of the nation (police brutality), seeking to preserve the “popular” side. The figuration of the universe of the favela through a retarded bandit and two insecure children seems to have the function of making the opposition between foreigner/incompetent nation take place in a way that is entirely favorable to the former. A thicker and more coherent, conscious popular character would compromise the Manichean polarity and the narcissistic posture in reverse.

The retarded bandit is, in reality, the configuration of a malaise, which is outlined in the first scenes. It configures a masochistic view of Brazilian society that offers the worst of it for the exercise of condescension by the Anglo-Saxon character, with whom the spectator identifies as an escape route.

The constellation of the humble attitude towards the foreign character is also found in What is this fellow?, by Bruno Barreto. The kidnapped American diplomat has the only sane voice, amidst frantic teenagers, torturers and authoritarian military. The film's highest density character, the US ambassador is the only one to have existential conflicts that allow for a complex evolution of his personality. Despite being a representative of the imperialist nation, he develops a humanist sympathy for the kidnappers, taking an interest in the leftist bibliography presented, in addition to having a delicate poetic vision of their situation (by describing, for example, the skin and hands of the kidnappers).

These, on the contrary, are much flatter. They embody particular types (the tough guy, the young lady, the intellectual, the dazzled boy), serving as a parameter for establishing the axes through which the ambassador's character grows. The only kidnapper who could compete in terms of maturity and complexity with the personality of the ambassador, the character of the old communist leader who oversees the operation, remains in the background without any development. The dazzle with the ideological universe of North American counterculture and the elegy to the existential posture of the Anglo-Saxon liberal, constitute the point of view chosen by the film to portray the capital historical moment lived by Brazil at that moment.

The representation of the Brazilian group's incompetence in planning and carrying out the kidnapping is explicit. The humble attitude towards the foreign character, doing a double with the exhibition of popular culture, is recurrent in other films from the Retomada production and can be detected in beautiful Donna, by Fábio Barreto; For All – Springboard to Victory, by Luiz Carlos Lacerda and Buza Ferraz; Portugal's Christmas, by Paulo César Sarraceni; Jenipapo, by Monique Gardenberg. In Amelia, by Ana Carolina, the humble posture is more tense and the picture of the upside-down narcissist does not appear so clearly. The caipira duo develop concrete strategies to face and circumvent the oppression of the European prima donna. the documentary Banana is My Business, by Helena Solberg, constitutes an exception in this context, portraying the humiliation of Carmen Miranda and in a negative way the national humility in the face of Anglo-Saxon arrogance. In this film, narcissistic satisfaction in reverse does not take off.

The rescue of bad conscience in popular idealization and fierce criticism of the incompetent state

If the dichotomy “idealized Anglo-Saxon character/unfeasible Brazil” exemplifies the humble dimension of reverse narcissism, the second duality mentioned, between “idealized people/incompetent State”, marks the cruel naturalist representation in an even more emblematic way. Three key films of Brazilian cinematographic production in the 1990s/2000s, Central do Brasil, Orpheus e Chronically Unfeasible, are articulated in an emblematic way, updating, in a contemporary expression, the dilemmas inherent to the “epistemological rupture”, mentioned above, of the people/middle class duality of the 60s. Returned (his culture, his physiognomy return to the canvas), relating him to the humble posture of the spectator, in the form of an inverted narcissism. This humble posture is constituted through the fierce criticism of the incompetence of the Brazilian State, opposed to the idealization of the popular that borders as an escape route. The reverse narcissist denies himself through the idealized elegy of the other (that's why he is humble) and redeems himself in the catharsis of this idealization.

Em Central do Brasil the bad conscience of the protagonist (Dora) towards the humble people is evident and her oscillation will constitute the main dramatic motive of the film. To betray or not to betray the people is a recurring dilemma in Brazilian cinema in the 60s. In the 90s, existential-political tragedy is thinner and melodramatic. In Central do Brasil the course of the narrative is clear. It starts from a vision of the country that is accentuated in its negativism, to then develop a movement of redemption through the catharsis of piety. The most cruel of crimes (the murder of poor children for organ harvesting) appears as something commonplace in “central”, in the heart of Brazil.

Dora's small crimes are superimposed on this one, larger in scale, in which participation there is a “what” of banal everyday action. Also in “Central”, the murder of children who commit petty theft is commonplace. The engine of action, which will configure Dora's bad conscience, is conceived to be heavy to the extreme, reflecting the need to show a picture of the squalor in which the country is immersed. Dora is driven by bad conscience, which represents the class feeling of the film's directors (and a good part of the public) in relation to the popular universe that circulates in Central do Brasil.

The figuration of bad conscience, however, seems to be too uncomfortable to be left in that form, without a horizon in which it can be rescued. And it is to this rescue that the second part of the film is dedicated. Dora is purged of her wobbles over the boy's sacrifice in the procession sequence, as she physically immerses herself in the people and finds herself steeped in their faith and culture. One of the film's key moments, the procession sequence, brings the personal commotion experienced internally, producing as a result the definitive conversion of the protagonist to the boy.

The turn is well marked and the conflicting dimension, which prevented the spectator from agreeing with the popular cause, disappears from the horizon. Even actress Fernanda Montenegro is now more comfortable with enhancing her character. Through catharsis through pity, the dilated space between the sordidness of the thought crime and the size of the conversion is explored. Through catharsis, the narrative rescues the characters' passivity towards the sordid dimension of the nation, which murders its children or traffics them abroad. It is the unfeasible nation that receives the onus of sustaining the conformation of the extreme poles of the equation, necessary for the figuration of catharsis through piety: “congratulation in the denial of belonging to the unfeasible nation” (and my adherence to the critical stance is proof that I belong to the incompetent collective) versus “congregation in the piety of the idealized people”. Cruel naturalism serves as a stylistic that accentuates dichotomies. It is interesting to note here how the reverse narcissistic posture makes room for the constellation of emotions of an exalting nature.

Em Orpheus (1999), by Cacá Diegues, the representation of popular culture makes up the dramatic axis of the film, as an opposing pole to the squalor that surrounds the institutional dimension of the nation. It is interesting to note Cacá's return to a theme that, in the late 50s, shaped a consensus for Cinema Novo around how not to treat popular culture. O Orpheus by Camus (carnival orpheus, 1959) embodied the humble posture of the popular folklore that offers itself to the enjoyment of the foreign spectator. In the second Orpheus, the idyllic hilltop climate of the first film is completely left out.

We have on the horizon the desperate picture of the unviable nation, represented by the corrupt and insensitive police. The protagonist sergeant is prejudiced, violent and advocates, among other things, the sterilization of the poor and their extermination. Orfeu explicitly states that this type of police is “the only thing in the State that goes up the hill”. Popular culture appears as an idyllic manifestation of the rescue of identity, from which the myth of Orpheus is established and the fanciful tone that permeates the positive fictional universe.

The idyllic favela of the first Orpheus disappears to make way for the representation of the unviable nation, but the idealized side of popular culture remains. This is the central displacement exercised in the myth by the second Orpheus regarding the representation of the popular in the first adaptation. To this we must add the division of the popular universe, which is now also represented in its negative side (the violence of the group of drug dealers, incorporating the mythical figure of Death). However, even within the negative dimension, the popular approach has an ethic of values ​​that is denied to the institutional agents of the State, allowing the establishment of the pole of opposition necessary for the redemptive identification that modulates the raw intensity of cruel naturalism.

chronically Impracticable it is the work that managed to delineate in a more precise way this statute of incompetence of the Brazilian State, laden with cruelty when detailing the representation of the sordid. Popular figures are not at the center of the film here, constructing a redemptive opposition to the incompetent State. The figuration of incompetence is horizontal. All are accused. An exception is not made in which the spectator manages to sustain himself to save any intention of identification. We did not find the door to the recovery of the ego through catharsis in the figure of the idealized popular. Nor is the redeeming figure of the Anglo-Saxon character present.

The nation as a whole is unfeasible and the film goes through, one by one, its social agents, wanting to demonstrate this thesis. From the landless movement, through indigenous leaders, the black movement, journalists, homosexuals, the bourgeoisie, teachers, NGOs, charity centers, alternative projects for the recovery of minors, all are reduced to evidence of incompetence, opportunism and minor intentions and selfish. Any punctual attempt to deal positively with social chaos is deconstructed with a hint of pleasure.

chronically Impracticable, however, makes room for a comfortable spectator posture. The fierce criticism, in its horizontality, establishes the redemptive axis of identification with the narrative voice that enunciates the accusation. Once in this position, we can direct ourselves, without bad conscience, to the unviable collectivity, since it is proven that we are not part of it (the proof is that we strongly criticize it), and comfortably install ourselves in narcissistic humility in reverse. It is the described mechanism of clash (and defense) with cruel naturalism.

It is interesting to note that the film itself, and the filmmakers who composed it, are excluded from the iconoclastic machine gun that runs through Brazilian society. The film lacks any reflective dimension that thematizes the enunciation of the displayed frame. Indeed, the critical stance cannot encompass the enunciating instance of that same criticism, in this case the film itself. To the extent that this takes shape, the circle opens and the exercise of redemption, through the exclusion of belonging, will be made more difficult. The negative representation of the nation torn apart in Chronically Unfeasible it allows a kind of spectator satisfaction that embodies an identification with the collectivity, close to the exalted nationalist representation, with reverse narcissism bordering on right-wing nationalism.

The fact of City of God, by Fernando Meirelles, not featuring the idealized people/incompetent State duality as the redeeming axis of cruel naturalism is perhaps at the root of the conflicting reactions it provokes. In City of God the “Brazilian State” pole continues to be defined in a negative way. It does not occupy, however, in the film, the function of emotional rescue by the critics, thus establishing the contrast with the idealized positive-popular pole. This is uncomfortable, because the humble posture, embedded in the reverse narcissism, cannot be realized in its fullness.

In this film, the mixture of popular culture with elements of the counterculture of the 60s (an essentially middle-class culture) and with the mass culture conveyed by the media, is one of the factors in the breakdown of duality. Middle-class characters are also not configured in clear opposition to the popular axis (the character of the journalist, for example). the people in City of God he is not nice, nor does the exhibition of his traditional culture (samba, candomblé, football) occupy a prominent space.

In reality, the cruel naturalistic representation also reaches the axis of the popular and there is no rescue as in Orpheus ou Central do Brasil. In one of the striking representations of cruel naturalism in Brazilian cinema of the Retomada, the film depicts in detail the murder and torture of two children. The function of detailing the scene seems to be pure aggressive sadism towards the spectator. The classic leap of backwards narcissism in search of redemption has taken place, but its noose has not been tightened on the “Incompetent State” pole.

Em Carandiru the movement is already more classic and we can outline the theme of the incompetent State as a cathartic axis. Babenco is a filmmaker with clear Argentinian roots, of strong visual intensity, who always had a penchant for tears when he represented the sordid side of Brazilian social reality. In Carandiru, the last half-hour of the film seems to be at ease for the figuration of the infamous Brazil that we have already encountered in Pixote, the Law of the Weakestfinal match.; Lucio Flávio, the Passenger of Agonyfinal match.; Kiss of the Spider Womanfinal match.; Playing in the Fields of the Lordfinal match..

The massacre scene, where the cruel naturalistic detailing is given full vent, begins with the chanting of the national anthem in the soccer match and ends with the chords of Aquarela do Brasil, right at the beginning of the credits. The Brazil of coconut palms and clear moonlit nights cannot be left alone. The clash with the shock that the naturalistic representation of the massacre provokes is modulated by the endorsement of the easy irony that, through the song, opposes the idyllic Brazil to the cruel Brazil of the incompetent State.

This recurrent need for identification in the critical posture (again Nelson), dramatically exacerbated by the cruel representation, undoubtedly bears witness to a social malaise we call bad conscience. It is a form of purgation (synonymous with “catharsis” in classical aesthetics) of a perplexed middle class, faced with a torn social reality for which it feels, in addition to being frightened, responsible.

*Fernão Pessoa Ramos, sociologist, is a professor at the Institute of Arts at UNICAMP. Co-author of New History of Brazilian Cinema (Ed. SESC).

Originally published in the magazine Marxist Criticism, No.19, 2004.

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