In a stark white bathroom, a young man wearing nothing but grey shorts, a pair of sunglasses, and a cheap monkey mask pours himself a drink. Bringing it to his lips (or rather, the flimsy monkey ones), he spills most of it into the ruddy sink below him. He is surrounded by two large mirrors: the first, on the bathroom cabinet, capturing his bizarre visage and the second, on the wall, a massive film camera. Picking up a small electric razor, the man begins to buzz away at the mask’s whiskers. Slamming the cabinet shut, he turns around and stares directly at the camera, the giant machine now reflected in the sunglasses. He begins to sing.
“I dreamed that you were so beautiful/at a party of rare splendor.
I still remember your ball gown/it was white, white, all white, my love.
The orchestra played some plaintive waltzes/I took your arms and we started dancing, both in silence.”
In a hotel lobby, three muddied bandits cavort and crawl on the floor. The first, a beefy transvestite, crams fruit and foodstuffs into her mouth in large chomps. The second, a blind man, trips over onto the ground and fires his pistol randomly at the walls. The third, a smartly dressed man in a white suit, herds them into an elevator. They head up, up, up...but to where?
On the streets of São Paulo, a man gets into a fight with a taxi driver when he keeps missing his turn. In a crammed bedroom a magician summons birds and human beings instantly with the snap of a finger. On a rooftop a woman dances to the sound of a guitar. In a bar, a drunk harasses another patron. Another fight breaks out between taxi driver and customer. Somewhere a car chase ends in death and destruction. Again the three bandits, shooting and eating. Again a man singing in a bathroom, this time sans monkey mask. A man and woman repeat the same conversation five times in a row. At long last, one bandit tries to explain the plot, but is quickly silenced by a cream pie.
As bizarre scene cuts to bizarre scene, the audience grows restless. What is the point? Who are these characters? What are they doing? Do these questions even HAVE answers?
If they do, director Andrea Tonacci isn’t telling. For these are questions borne from watching Bang Bang (1971), one of the most radical, infuriating, intriguing, and bold Brazilian films ever made. A self-described “Maoist detective comedy,” Bang Bang is a film that, for one reason or another, never quite begins. There are characters, but no motivations. There are story developments, but no explanations. There are chase scenes bereft of impetus, explanation, and resolution.
Do not make the mistake of dismissing Bang Bang as a meaningless exercise in cinematic deconstruction. There was a distinct method to Tonacci’s madness, one rooted in the chaotic maelstrom of late 60s, early 70s Brazilian society. Between 1960-1972, a new movement known as Cinema Novo swept through Brazil. Largely inspired by Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and early Soviet filmmakers, the directors of Cinema Novo sought to re-invigorate Brazilian cinema, which had become artistically stagnant thanks to Hollywood saturating the Latin American film market, and politically mobilize the public against Western cultural imperialism. Their films sought out the dark, destructive areas of Brazilian life where social and economic contradictions were most endemic. They were more than just films; they were calls to action within Brazilian society.
The poster of Nelson Pereira dos Santos' Vidas Secas (1963), one of the most important films from the early days of Cinema Novo.
However, as the 60s lumbered forward and the Brazilian government was swallowed by a military coup and a subsequent coup-within-a-coup, Cinema Novo began to evolve into a parody of its past self, adopting deliberately kitschy, gaudy stories and aesthetics in a desperate attempt to remain publicly, politically, and culturally relevant. By the end of the decade, Cinema Novo had polished itself to such a staggering extent that it had transformed into a cheap reflection of the very cinema that it had attempted to distance itself with in the first place.
Compare the poster for Vidas Secas with this poster for Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's Macunaíma (1969). Macunaíma was one of the later Cinema Novo films that deliberately tried to appeal to the masses.
Disgusted with the state of Cinema Novo, a new movement began in the city of São Paulo: Udigrudi (the Brazilian pronunciation of ‘underground’) cinema. Udigrudi cinema basked in all that was dirty and provocative. While Cinema Novo desperately tried to court the general populace into the movie theater, the Udigrudi spat in their mouths and kicked them out the door. As Udigrudi director Rogério Sganzerla announced: “I will never deliver clear ideas, eloquent speeches, or classically beautiful images when confronted with garbage.”
Compare the previous two posters with this one for José Mojica Marins' At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964), the first entry in the Coffin Joe series and one of the earliest Udigrudi films.
The most popular and enduring films of the Udigrudi movement were the Coffin Joe horror series by José Mojica Marins. But while Marins managed to court financial success with his films, the other Udigrudi filmmakers were less enthusiastic about appealing to the public. Of these remaining films, Tonacci’s Bang Bang was one of the three most notorious. The other two were Sganzerla's The Red Light Bandit (1968) and André Luiz Oliveiraʼs Meteorango Kid: Intergalactic Hero (1969). The Red Light Bandit told the story of Jorge, a criminal in Boca do Lixo who robbed and raped the rich. Comprised mostly of disjointed scenes and episodes, the film eschews what Ismail Xavier termed “psychological coherence” and functioned more as a collage of film genres and a meta-textual statement on the nature of cinema. Meteorango Kid: Intergalactic Hero, on the other hand, follows Lula, a disenchanted teenager from Bahia, amidst the political turmoil of the late 1960s via a kaleidoscopic wash of pop music, bizarre images, and abstract daydreams.
The posters for The Red Light Bandit and Meteorango Kid: Intergalactic Hero.
Like The Red Light Bandit and Meteorango Kid: Intergalactic Hero, Bang Bang abandoned traditional narrative devices. But whereas those two films did so in order to make broader examinations of the cinema and Brazilian culture, Bang Bang concerned itself with the dissection and destruction of narrative storytelling. With Bang Bang, Tonacci stripped the diegetic world of cinema of context, interpretation, and relevancy. With a mere 85 minutesʼ worth of celluloid, he forced narrative cinema into obsolescence.
So ignore the monkey mask, the bandits, the magician, the conversations, the arguments, the car chases if you can. You will find no narrative solace. Here there be dragons. With Bang Bang, Tonacci has presented the world with a cinematic Möbius strip: a story-less story, a narrative-less narrative.