Tasty Frenchman

August 14, 2011

How Tasty was My Little Frenchman (1971) is classed in many reviews as a black comedy, but except for the first few scenes, that is totally off the mark.  It takes place on the coast of Brazil when the French and the Portuguese were fighting for dominance of that part of the New World.  The Frenchman, fed up with life as a member of the French force, rebels and is put in chains.  The narration tells us he was given a hearing and allowed to speak in his defense while we see him summarily pushed off a cliff to drown.  That was black comedy.

He survives, and is taken prisoner by the Portuguese.  Shortly after that, they are attacked by Indians allied with the French, and he is taken prisoner.  The Indians assume he is Portuguese, and the chief makes him his personal slave to be kept in the community for eight  months, then eaten.  An amoral French trader who periodically visits the tribe meets the slave and tells the Indians that he is indeed Portuguese – he has his own uses for the man.  He gives him an axe and a lot of hints on how to make himself useful in gathering material to trade – maybe he will escape, maybe the Indians will change their minds, maybe not…

The film is shot in a verite style, and the native dialog is in a local dialect.  Everyone is naked (recall the naked-nude distinction), i.e, unclothed, as people actually lived then.  (Many reviewers refer to this as National Geographic realism, which says a lot about a lot of cultural attitudes and histories.)   Given the date of production, there must be a political subtext here (Brazil was under a military dictatorship) in addition to the unsettling questions it provokes about the nature of The Encounter between the civilizations of the New and Old Worlds.   It would make a good double-feature with Black Robe.

Beat the Donkey

March 28, 2009

I saw these guys again last night – Cyro Baptista and his band, Beat the Donkey.  The show conveys  pure joy at the wonders of sounds, rhythm, music, and cultures of the world.  Lisette Santiago and Clay Ross did a mean guitar-theremin duel on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

This video, older and too dark, and also spelling his name the wrong way, conveys only a little bit of the energy of their performance.

The Trial – Cliché and Not

November 4, 2008


I just finished reading The Trial, by Franz Kafka.  When I read it many years ago, it did not make a big impression, but this time I am floored.  Kafka has been a victim of his posthumous success in a way.  Consider this passage from the blog where I found the film still shown above:

When people use the word ‘Kafkaesque’ they are referring to a kind of powerlessnes in the face of a faceless bureaucracy, with vague suggestions of impending doom- marked by a ‘senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity’ (Wikiman)-as in a ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ or as indeed in Kafka’s posthumously published masterpiece ‘The Trial’  Everybody can identify with his chilling tale- with its surreal ending and dark humour. ‘He sounds like my kind of guy!” said Bill Gates on being told his corporate trials (Microsoft’s monopoly) were like the ordeals of Joseph K. Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie ‘Brazil’ is all Kafka–starting with a Joseph K type arrest.

Well, this is all a bit too easy, although it is clear that there is a connection. [I guess this writer has not read The Trial: there was no mistake in his case, as there was in “Brazil,” and there was no violence.  Everything was in order…] Personally, I like the way R. Crumb, in his biography/adaptation of Kafka lampoons the literati as they throw around the term “Kafkaesque” in their cocktail chatter.


What struck me about the novel was the metaphysical nature of the situation.  The religiosity of it.  K’s execution is like Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac, without the saving intervention of God!  And we know that Franz had issues with his father, not to mention THE father.

As George Steiner points out in his introduction to the Everyman edition, what is the sense in taking The Trial to be a premonition of the Nazi death-bureaucracy, Stalin’s NKVD, or other state organs.  The people in The Trial are too ordinary, and they act that way.  They don’t beat people.  They don’t torture.  They all try to do their job.  And most importantly, K is totally complicit.  Why doesn’t he flee – he never even tries to determine the nature of his charge.  He ACCEPTS the system totally.  No, this is a religious parable we are being treated to, one in which the “hero” is irredeemably lost from the start.  Not by accident does the climactic episode with the story of the door to The Law happen in a cathedral, related by a priest, and followed by a rabbinical discourse on the varieties of possible interpretations.  The Old Law meets the New Law, and it ain’t pretty.

The other element of the story that surprised me was the contant sexual element that runs through it.  K moves from one attentuated erotic encounter to another, always unfulfilled of course.

brazil And since I brought it up, I might as well rant on about it – this movie!  I love Monty Python, and I think Gilliam’s animations are funny.  I think 1984, Brave New World, and Zamayatin’s We are literary masterpieces!  But I thought this film was trash.  The look of it was pretty cool, but that’s about how far it went.  The praise that is heeped upon it as a “cult-classic” ignores the fact that is waaaaaay too long; utterly hackneyed in its themes and plot; and positively boring at times.  Cult-classic indeed.  I guess that’s the tip-off.