Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 13. Pageant Cities |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 13. Pageant Cities


Rio de Janeiro was tricky too but for a different reason. A water city whose beautiful setting ranked with Sydney and Venice, with overtones of the Himalayas, it looked majestic in a wide shot but when the camera got closer it was a meat market. Such was the cult of the female body that I looked like a sex tourist just for being there. There was certainly no need to jazz up a tea ceremony with a pretty woman. Pretty women were wall to wall even indoors, and out on the beach they were sitting next to each other for miles as they slaved at the endless task of polishing their fingernails. When they were sitting down, their shapely breasts, only notionally contained by bits of coloured string, were sometimes masked by their arms as they bent forward to get started on their toenails, but when they walked, darkly outlined against the sunlight, every one of them, of whatever age, sported a pair of polished, pointed nacelles like the bumper bullets of a 1956 Cadillac. This was the home city of plastic enhancement for the female chassis, a craze that was later to conquer the world. The top surgeon was on our list of interviewees, but first we had to knock off the exterior footage in case it rained. This time Richard was with us in person and he was very strict about that. If we didn’t get the beach life we wouldn’t have a movie. He was a bit irritable because of what happened at the Copacabana Hotel when we moved in. We dumped our stuff in our rooms, changed into swimming costumes and gathered around the pool to make our plans, sipping at caipirinhas as we contemplated the same stretch of cool water in which the Hollywood stars had once recovered from the heat of secret trysts in the days when the media couldn’t afford to fly. It was balm to our jet-lagged eyes, but after an hour the sun was too hot to bear, so Richard went back to his room, there to discover that it had been turned over: wallet, credit cards, return ticket, all gone. It was hard not to suspect the staff but when the cops arrived even they looked like crooks.

One of the immediately apparent things about Rio is that whereas most of the women are out of a good American surfing movie, all the men are out of a bad American gangster movie. The level of crime was doubly unsettling for being instantly obvious. I already knew something about it because I had been there before, to cover the Brazilian Grand Prix for the Observer. One of the drivers, as he walked along the esplanade in broad daylight, had been hauled down onto the beach and mugged not only for his watch and wallet but for most of his clothes. Laurence Rees, rewarded for his success in Paris by being invited to direct the Rio shoot, had arrived equipped with a theory that muggers could be deterred if you walked with sufficient confidence. On the morning after Richard got robbed, Laurence walked confidently out of the front door of the hotel and straight into a pack of teenage thieves who kindly left him the clothes he stood up in but took his watch and everything in his pockets. The doorman looked calmly on. After that, Laurence abandoned the confident walk and adopted the same nervous slouch as the rest of us. You just had to get used to the idea.

Laurence was good at the coverage, though, and while the sun shone there was a lot to cover. I cleverly decided that the reverse shots on my face would look funnier if my head didn’t turn. We could just shoot a few hundred feet with my head still and my eyeballs swivelling. Back in England, I could do a voice-over line about the strain of not looking, while the cutaways searched all over the place among the sun-kissed lovelies. There was just no end to the supply. Until now I had never supposed that my libidinous imagination could die of an overdose, but it happened. This was going to be as boringly predictable as a saturnalia, or, as we might say now, a successful suicide bomber’s first afternoon in Paradise. Actually we can’t say that now, lest we attract the bristling attention of some lethal maniac out to demonstrate the infinite mercy of Allah. But these were more innocent times, when a semi-naked female had nothing to worry about except being microwaved by the lustful glances of slavering males, and nobody bothered about the wrath of God, even though He, too, was supposedly a Catholic.

The body worship of Rio took on a more interesting perspective when we did our first night-shoot. There was a fashionable party in one of the old Portuguese colonial buildings and every colonnade was jammed with glamorous women, but these were the social elite and often of a certain age. Even the most ancient, however, had unlined faces joined to trim bodies by uncannily wrinkle-free necks. One of them didn’t balk at telling me that she had been worked on by the top surgeon I referred to earlier. Then she started to point out all the others who had been to the same repair shop. Here was a revelation. There was a sorority of the surgically altered. The women of Rio not only looked on perfect beauty as their birthright, they looked on eternal youth the same way.

Up on the favelas above the city, where the destitute lived in hovels loosely plugged into an incipient mud-slide, we paid a guy in white patent-leather shoes — a defiant gesture in a universe of pig excrement — to tell us about the gangs that plagued the poor. He got us into a voodoo ceremony taking place in one of the rare huts that were made of cement instead of scrap. A hundred people rocked and clapped to a slow rumba. There was an altar decked with votive symbols: a shell-encrusted cross, a barbershop mirror painted with the image of Elvis Presley, a plastic Kewpie doll, a broken blender. Tedious chanting took place while a chicken was sacrificed. The commentary was writing itself in my head all the time. Rich people were paying to go under the knife of a mad scientist while poor people were getting carved up for free. That latter part was underlined later when our guide to the favelas turned up dead. It wasn’t our fault that the news had got out about what we had paid him. Perhaps it hadn’t, and they nailed him just for his white patent-leather shoes.

Immortality was expensive but life was cheap. Clean-up squads of off-duty cops were kidnapping pavement children even as we set up for the interview with Yves Pitanguy, the pioneer plastic surgeon who founded the trade with the knowledge he acquired when he was rebuilding the burned faces of RAF pilots during WWII. His humanitarian credentials were excellent, and even in his later years he still spent some of his time correcting deformities. But he spent most of it keeping those society women young. His argument that he could never have paid for his charity work without giving rich women what they wanted was hard to refute. But a television interview is always about the general effect, not the logic, and even as the camera turned I knew that the doc’s own face was telling the essential story. He didn’t have a wrinkle. Some of his colleagues had been turning back his clock. The skin around his eyes gleamed like his teeth. Why, then, did he look like death warmed up?

Because plastic surgery, when its only aim is to stop time, is death warmed up. I could hear my voice-over deepening already. There are no empty subjects, there is only empty treatment. Back on the beach, I talked to the granddaughter of the Girl from Ipanema, subject of the immortal song written to a lyric poem by Vinicius de Moraes, whose poetry I later learned to love. He was a great lyricist, Vinicius, and he had been mad for the ladies. Nut-brown in her pale-green bikini, the granddaughter looked heaven-sent. The society women could never look like that again, but you couldn’t blame them for trying, because young beauty was the only local currency that could keep pace with the dollar. Such was the inflation in Brazil that they wouldn’t take their own money at the airport. It was a barter economy, and bartering began with the body. Or perhaps you could blame them. One of the old-time aristocrats, a member of the Betancourt dynasty, still lived in the family mansion, and no scalpel had ever touched her. Barely mobile any more, she was the voice of sanity, and she could say it all in English, not Portuguese. Untouched by rancour but embodying the sadness of time, she told the story of the old colony becoming a modern ruin. Within the first five minutes of the interview I knew that she would clinch the movie. I was beginning to learn that a documentary special must be built like a poem, first planned, then modified as the texture emerged. Rio was a lyric poem, but all great lyric poems are tragic underneath, because they are inspired by human beauty, and beauty will die from the same force that made it live.

In my downtime I met a woman whose very existence dramatized the whole modern history of Brazil. Her name was Silvia Nabuco. One of her ancestors had been instrumental in the freeing of the slaves, and now her beloved nation was drowning in the chaos of its own liberty. In Rio she had a house like a fortress, and in the green floresta of Petropolis she had an estate surrounded by the walls of a valley. When she was a child the great poet Manuel Bandeira had written a poem for her. She was the one who told me where to look first in the Brazilian wing of the treasure house of Portuguese poetry. She was also the one who told me just how far and wide the voodoo cults still spread. To go with her beauty she had a melodious voice, from which it was disconcerting to hear that Brazil’s current Minister of Education had been present the previous night at the ritual slaying of a cow. As we sat talking on the terrace of her fazenda in the early evening, men with shotguns patrolled the valley, her safeguards in a country where kidnapping was a recognized profession. What a story Rio was. But our movie would have been merely picturesque without the history. Matching that to the pictures was my job, and I was getting better at it because I had to. Otherwise we would have been making nothing except a travel brochure plus a dead chicken. Unless you are content to use a phrase like ‘land of contrasts’, you need to put some background over the foreground if you are to make any sense of the shot in which you walk away from the beach and trip over a rotting corpse.

The capacity to dig for the meaning behind the spectacle was essential even in the USA, where everyone walked around with the ostensible message blazoned on their T-shirts. In Louisville, Kentucky, a hundred spherical mothers were crammed into the Holiday Inn so that their children could compete in a pageant, one of the hundreds of pageants running somewhere in the US in any given week. Once they had all been beauty pageants but now, after too many scandals, they were just pageants, focusing on Talent. They are still running even as you read. All the children have at least one Talent and they are all destined to win a trophy. Everyone involved in our pageant, whether at organizational or competitive level, wore a shirt marked Louisville Pageant. If it had been a serial killers’ conference in Detroit, the shirts would have said so. We had chosen the subject precisely because it seemed so trivial but there were occasions early on when we thought we had overdone it. One girl’s talent was to march up and down dressed as Uncle Sam. The disc she marched to was Barbra Streisand singing ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’. Her actual Talent was hard to detect at first glance, but perhaps she earned points for not looking like her mother, who, like so many of the mothers, was a rolling sphere.

I risk being classed as a Body Fascist by saying this now, and I certainly didn’t say it in my commentary to the movie, but the time comes when the truth can no longer be dodged. This wasn’t the first time I had seen clinical obesity in America but it was always a shock to watch a family arguing about how many elevators they would need to get to where they were going, which usually meant downstairs to the dining room. Their talented children were occupying the brief window of life in which they would not be physically enormous. We were careful to avoid getting the shots which would emphasize this fact. I would indeed be evoking a story about a logical development of democracy, in which everyone must be special, a uniformity of uniqueness. Another logical development of democracy is that the poor get fat, but that would have been a less interesting story, and anyway it wasn’t my natural slimness that sent me out jogging every morning. (Every morning I jogged several times around the vast Holiday Inn, which was surrounded by miles of nothing except an approach road to the interstate highway. Families who filled their cars to the brim struggled for room to point me out as they sped by.) Out of my sweats and into my blue suit after a breakfast of blueberry pancakes with extra cream, I sat at the back of the function room working on the plot-line while the camera was getting footage of a bespectacled ten-year-old boy called Elwood who sang a song about his rubber duck as he jumped in and out of a small plastic paddling pool. He clutched the rubber duck while he sang about it. Compared with what we had been getting for the previous two days, he was a highlight.

Elwood’s rubber-duck number started looking like a prize sequence when the message came through from London that there was something wrong with the footage. Not some of it, all of it. Mike, our good man in Africa, was in charge of the camera and no one was more distressed than he was to find out that he had been shooting unusable stuff. The pulse of the fluorescent tube lighting in the hotel had been creating a ‘bar’ on the exposed film stock. I won’t go into details because I still don’t understand it myself, but you can take it for granted that we were in a bad spot, because everything we already had in the bank would have to be shot again. Cameramen have been known to drink themselves silly in those circumstances, so it was generous of Mike to buckle down and start shooting all the same numbers for a second time, but it’s a rule of filming that the boy with the rubber duck will not be quite so enchanting when asked to repeat the same routine. Elwood concentrated hard but his genius was under strain. There was something mechanical about the way he clutched the duck. Two entire days of my life disappeared as we laboriously went back over the same ground. The little girl who marched to Barbra Streisand marched again. As an impatient man, I tried to tell myself that I was getting only a fleeting taste of what it would be like to be in jail. Why had we persuaded ourselves to come here in the first place?

Richard reminded me. We were sitting in the bar one night listening to the cocktail piano player sing ‘Desperado’. She was a good-looking woman but no great beauty, and she sang quite well but she wasn’t Blossom Dearie. In her quiet way, however, she was giving it everything. ‘This is the story,’ said Richard. ‘They all want to make it.’ Right there I had my big idea. In another week or so, at the end of the pageant, the trophies would be given out. There would be hundreds of them. Everybody would get one. There would be a trophy for Best Holder of Rubber Duck Jumping In and Out of Plastic Pool. The trophies must all be in a room somewhere. Why couldn’t we snatch a preview? The women in charge of the project were delighted by the idea, and next day we were filming in the trophy room. Standing on the floor with their plinths touching, the trophies were in there like a tinsel forest, trembling gently to the chug of the air conditioning. The women handed me trophy after trophy, explaining what each one was for. The women, however, were not, in this case, the story that mattered. It was the trophies. They didn’t weigh anything. They were on the scale of small skyscrapers but they were made of some intermediary substance between metal and plastic that gave you about a hundred cubic feet of material to the ounce. A trophy whose pinnacle came up to your chin could be picked up with one finger. Suddenly the whole movie snapped into focus. It was a movie about a world of symbolism, where everyone could possess the signs of privilege, because signs were all they were. All I had to do was find a snappy way of saying that.

Thus it was that the Louisville Kentucky Holiday Inn, a tritely veneered breeze-block building parked out of town beside the interstate, proved to be the setting of one of our best movies. We had made something out of nothing. There were no trophies for making something out of the big American cities, although sometimes you could be led into trouble by the obligation to dodge the obvious. Chicago was like that. I wanted to avoid following the gangsters down memory lane to be blasted by a phantom hail of lead. ‘But time was running out for John Dillinger ...’ I preferred to concentrate on the architects, but I soon found out why there are so many movies about John Dillinger and so few about Frank Lloyd Wright: even the memory of action is more gripping than no action at all. I was also determined to tell the story of how the industrialists of the nineteenth century had not only turned millions of head of cattle into a river of fat that stunk up a whole corner of Illinois, they had also turned Chicago into a world centre of contemporary art by purchasing the best of Lautrec and Seurat straight off the easel in Paris and bringing it home to their houses. Eventually their well-chosen treasures were bequeathed to the Art Institute, where the masterpieces lining the wall of a single great room are a permanent demonstration of just how awesome American financial power can be.

But Chicago’s expatriated European art would have been an unduly quiet story if it had not been offset by something noisier, and our candidate for that was the blues. Unfortunately, much as I loved jazz, I had only a limited tolerance for the kind of blues number in which the singer sings the same not very inspired line twice (or, even worse, three times) before capping it with a third (or, even worse, fourth) not very inspired line, followed by a peremptory wail from that least disarming of all jazz instruments, the amplified harmonica. I spent a long, harrowing night in a blues club where I had to look fascinated by the cacophonous remains of a famous blues shouter called something like Slow Dirt Buncombe (I remember his real name but his lawyer might still be alive) while he gave a string of examples of how a song with less than a minute of material could be stretched to thirty minutes if you made the same line and stanza sound different by mangling them a different way each time. Yelled at cataclysmic amplification, ‘Well mah woman she done leff me’ was a recurring motif. ‘No bloody wonder’ was the obvious continuation, but he never sang that. Thanks to the unnecessary volume — the sure sign of inadequate music — I was never completely clear what he was singing, but I could rely on a maximum air of drama when he pulled back from the microphone, slanted his polished ebony head to shield it from the blaze of the heavenly splendour he had created, and suddenly leaned forward again to give a long blast on his hellishly resonant harmonica. The desirable and necessary ideal of racial equality should, in my view, allow us to say that there is the occasional blues artist whose parade of desolation amounts to an acute pain in the neck. Slow Dirt Buncombe was one of these. Unfortunately Nobby, the deaf sound-man who was once again on the case, caught every line of Slow Dirt’s act with perfect fidelity, and some of the results got as far as the final cut, accompanied by cutaways of my enchanted, lying face.

The Chicago shoot was carefully planned but somehow we missed the story. On the south side, whose housing projects scared me rigid, Barack Obama was working as a community organizer at about that time, but we didn’t dig deep enough to find him. You can’t see the future: you can only hope that the present might be different, and one look at the housing projects was enough to tell you that the present was intolerable. We shot some of it, but we might as well have been in a war zone. I sat in a patrol car with a cop who told me that the tract of the Cabrini Green project we were looking at was a free-fire zone in which children regularly got shot just for target practice. We got some of that theme, but we missed its essence, and we even missed the city’s undoubted magic. I would like to be able to say that there was no magic to be caught, but there was at least one moment that we might have snatched had I been faster on my feet, or at any rate stronger in expressing my wishes. We were shooting late at night beside the lake, catching the strolling traffic as the locals, after a Friday night out, made the paseo: always a good sequence in any city, but even better when you can see water in the background. Often a good story shows up unexpectedly in those circumstances, and so it did here. A pair of preposterously lovely young women in scoop-necked tops and hot pants came rollerblading along the esplanade as if in fulfilment of some adolescent boy’s midnight fantasy. With each lazy sideways stroke they travelled another twenty yards. The laws of friction had been suspended. They were twins. It was American teenage heaven, twice. I wanted to collar them, rig up some extra lights and bring them past us again, but Helen, with arms folded, did the standard, ‘Oh, Clive, you’re impossible,’ reaction that some of the female producers tended to trot out whenever I showed an urge to go for the cheesecake. She might have had a point, but I wasn’t just doting on the jailbait, I was seeing the extravagant perfection of their skating, whose skill was underlined by the fact that they were both doing it. (The same point is made by synchronized divers.) I could have put a good line over that shot: only in America, never in Blackpool. But the possibility raced away into the dark, leaving us there with an impeccably worthy movie.

Worthy meant dull, however. Years later my friend Ruby Wax, who was born and bred in Chicago, said, ‘Boy, you really missed it with that one.’ Her remark hurt, because she herself was the supreme exponent of the documentary special. There has never been a better example of the form than her movie about Russia, which depended throughout on her ability to seize the moment. Similarly, in her special starring Imelda Marcos, Ruby might never have been able to snatch the famous scene with Imelda’s collection of shoes if there had been a producer deciding what was serious and what was trivial. Sometimes the trivial is the serious. But I fluffed the moment. It wasn’t Helen’s fault — she usually indulged my more questionable inspirations if I insisted with sufficient fervour — and I make such a song and dance now only because I never quite got over missing the shot of the twin skaters. Get the shot first and then decide. In the same way, a poet never gets over what he lost when he failed to write down that perfect line that came to him in the night. For once unarmed with pen and paper, he is sure that he will remember it in the morning. When he finds that he has forgotten it, he never forgets that he forgot.