20 March 2012

FADOS by Saura: A high-class cultural hijacking

Now that FADOS--a 2007 film by the Spanish director Carlos Saura--is available in the US via Netflix streaming, this seems a good time to call the film what it is: a high-class cultural hijacking. Over the years since its release, Saura has cast it as a film "about" the fado, one that, according to the liner notes, draws on its "history" and its "contemporary expressions."

By the same logic, I can probably make a good argument for "Austin Powers" as a handbook for international espionage. But this would be unjust: unlike FADOS, the Austin Powers films present themselves a nothing other than elaborate confections.

With FADOS, Saura has rebranded the fado as a distinctly non-Portuguese drums-n-dance affair. Here,  the brightest signs of life (and biggest glimmers in the director's eye) are musical expressions that are as at home in the fado as Austin Powers would be behind real enemy lines.

The central conceit of the film is the Afro-brasilian hypothesis for fado's origin, which provides Saura with just enough fuel to open his film with a booty-shaking, drum beating affair. Next is a very respectable guitar duet which, not unsurprisingly, sounds nothing like what you just heard. Mariza, one of fado's current cultural emissaries, follows with the song "Transparente", arranged with electric guitars and drums. Toni Garrido next sings a pop song accompanied by piano and percussion, with a few cloying dancing girls in the background to butter up the visuals.

It is worth noting at this point that the typical musical setup for the fado consists of one singer, one player of the Portuguese guitar (12-strings) and one player of the viola (6-strings), as shown in the next performance: a fado menor do Porto, sung by Camané in fine form. While the music is great, Saura removes all other traces of life and vitality from the scene. This is the blueprint all but a few minutes of "real" fado in this film: actual fado singers and musicians are injected into bleak, cold, monochrome boxes, stripping them of the life force that has sustained the form thrive through wars, fads and, now, wrongheaded directors.

"I'll take it from here."
The next major movement in the film is centered on Maria Severa, a fadista of the early 20th century, in which the "Fado da Severa" is reimagined as a schoolroom lesson on her mythology. But perhaps this scene is better read as a war room briefing, with Saura collecting intelligence on the enemy in order to plot his next move.

The next fadista into the antiseptic box is Cuca Rosetta, here singing "Rua de Capelão" with Mário Pacheco on guitar. As with Camané, the visuals of the scene convey a clear message: if you want to see the life in the fado, look beyond this archaic arrangement.

The first man on Saura's hit list is the great Alfredo Marceneiro, a deeply influential figure in early 20th century fado. The film shows a snippet of video of Marceneiro singing, which is just enough to merit putting Marceneiro's name on the credits, then offers a new take on his heritage: the Marceneiro rap. Turntable, rhymes--it's all there. I think the fist-pumping that follows the rap is of approximately the same duration as that of Marceneiro's singing. I can say with complete confidence that this is not a scene that you will ever see in any place where the fado "happens".

Carlos do Carmo appears to sing "Um homem na cidade", a classy song that is, curiously, filmed with a respect for the music: there is no dancing, no rapping, and the visuals are lush scenes of Lisbon projected all around the singer. The contrast between this presentation and the one made of Marceneiro's work (and indeed of nearly all the other fadistas in this film) is striking for the mockery it makes of fado history.

The veteran Argentina Santos is the next to enter the operating room, here to sing "Vida vivida." Despite the frankly brutal staging of this scene, Santos triumphs. I don't think there is anything that Saura (or any one else) could do to topple this woman's FADO.

The remainder of the film hunts down all the remaining suspects. To help you forget Argentina Santos, Saura invokes the so-called fado batido (i.e., the beaten fado). And beat it he does, with accordeon and piano, and dancers tumbling through a fire.

The penultimate section of the film is organized around perhaps fado's greatest exponent, Amália Rodrigues. Amália, more than any other singer, brought traditional and new fado to the world, traveling incessantly throughout her career. Despite her forays into other musics (Portuguese and other folklore, even pop), the fado remained central to her repertoire. Here, she is shown in recital, with Alain Oulman on piano. As with Marceneiro, Saura here presents a film of a film: why so distant, Amália? Even more tellingly, the two are shown working through one of Oulman's compositions: Amália did not read music, so here she is not actually singing words--just sounds. And this is the best that Saura could do? For a "documentary" on the fado?
One singer, Two guitarists

One of Amália's better-known fados, "Estranha forma da vida", is given to the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, here playing solo guitar. Chico Buarque, also Brazilian, follows with "Fado Tropical", as images of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal play out behind him. This is a legitimate point: "Fado Tropical" was written by Buarque in direct response to the Carnation Revlution, and in part to make a parallel between the political situation in Portugal and that in Brazil. This is an oblique method of referring to the role of Portuguese music--including the fado--in the revolution.

Next is the fado flemenco (not listed on liner notes). Fado flamenco is flamenco, not fado. If you have any doubts about Saura's intentions, they are addressed during the next song, Meu Fado ("My fado"), by Mariza. As a lonely man dances in the background, Mariza sings the words "meu fado", to which the flamenco singer replies "Mi fado!"

The next nine minutes of the film are the closest Saura gets to the fado: nine minutes, during which he crams in many singers and musicians who deserve much better treatment than they have gotten here, among them the fadistas Carminho, Ricardo Ribeiro, Vicente da Câmara and Ana Sófia Varela. The scene is a stylized fado house, populated by singers, musicians and actors who were obviously not told to do anything other than to look pretty and clap at the end. Each singer gets the rough equivalent of one or two stanzas then sits down. Mariza then sings "Ó gente da minha terra", and the film is done.

With all but a handful of exceptions, together with the last nine minutes of the film, the music you hear in this film is not going to make it into the fado, the singers are not going to be found in fado houses, and the dancing and instrumentation are never going to become part of any fadista's "act". The whole notion is patently absurd: those practices are part of other traditions.

None of this is to say that there is no room for innovation in the fado: there is plenty, as shown by Amália's experiments with Alain Oulman, Fernando Maurício's modernization of singing style, and--perhaps most crucially--the continually expanding set of poetry and music that occurs within the tradition. All of this creativity happens, indeed must happen, within the confines of the fado. That's the nature of the game: trundling miscellaneous stuff into the fado does not count as innovation.

Finally, I feel it's incumbent upon me to offer a few pointers to films that treat the fado and the people within it with the respect they deserve. I wrote an article recently on some of these films for the Luso-Americano newspaper. The short (5min) film "Fado das Horas" by Diogo Varela Silva is pure visual poetry. Watch it here.

There are some longer documentaries that are easy to obtain in the US through Amazon: I would recommend anything in the series "Fado Today", along with "The Art of Amália". Additionally, you can try to find "Heaven's Mirror",  a film about the journey of a non-Portuguese--the film's director, Joshua Dylan Myers--to the fado. It does not yet have a distributor, but is being shown at certain film festivals.

Harder to find--but worth seeking out--are the following actual documentaries. Some are shown at various times on Portuguese television, though the transmission is not always available outside of Portugal.
  • "O Rei Sem Coroa" is a long overdue film about Fernando Maurício, made by Diogo Varela Silva.
  • "Vida vivida" is a film about Argentina Santos, made by Gonçalo Megre. 
  • "Não sei se canto se rezo" is a second film about Argentina Santos, director unknown (to me).
Here are some words from the great fado poet Carlos Conde:
"The fado is a music of the street that doesn't owe anything to anybody. There are many who owe everything they are to the fado, and even everything they judge themselves to be."

"O Fado é uma cantiga de rua que não deve nada a ninguém. Muitos é que devem ao Fado tudo o que são e até o que julgam ser." --Carlos Conde.

Note: I am actually a fan of just about all the non-fado singers in this film. I've been listening to Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso for about 15 years and own many of their records, along with many other recordings by other Brazilian artists. I've been listening to rap for twice as long. I bought my first flamenco record in 1992, and have been enamored of the music ever since. 

No comments:

Post a Comment