Thursday, July 21, 2011

Copa America 2011: Uruguay

Entry #7 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Body Snatcher by Juan Carlos Onetti

The opening of a brothel in the fictional town of Santa Maria requires a few political favours to be called in to get approval from the city council. Once the project is approved, Larsen (aka the Body Snatcher) is on the verge of realizing his dream of becoming the perfect pimp. However, the brothel’s opening causes the town’s moral compass to spin out of control and results in the church stepping in to prevent things from getting ugly. Santa Maria contains many miserable characters who are clinging on the last shreds of sanity and the brothel ends up pushing them over the edge. Juan Carlos Onetti has used similar characters of Larsen and Diaz Grey in other novels while setting his books in the same town of Santa Maria. This appears to have allowed Onetti to explore each character fully and follow a character’s arc through multiple novels. Petri Liukkonen of the Author's calendar discusses Onetti's "Santa Maria trilogy":

The three-volume cycle of novels and stories, often called the 'Santa María Sagas', appeared in the 1950s. In La vida breve the narrator is Juan María Bransen, an employee in a publicity firm and a writer, who invents a fantasy existence for himself as Dr. Díaz Grey, the protagonist of a screenplay he is writing. Grey is usually a neutral observer, as grey as his name implies.  Los adioses (1954) had  a beginning, middle, and end, but also an unrealiable narrator, typical for Onetti fiction. In La cara de la desgracia (1960) a guilt-ridden nameless narrator accepts responsibility for the deaths of his brother and a deaf girl, whom he met at a seaside resort. The narrator is accused of her murder. 'El álbum' (1953), later collected in Para una tumba sin nombre, tells of Jorge Malabia, the son of a prominent Santa María family. Towards the end of the story he visits a brothel, but he is not the central character in his own tale: the prologues to his  sexual initiation occupy the greater part of the narrative. Díaz Grey, the listener of Jorge's confessions, claims that he is a bad storyteller, he is too slow.

El astillero (1961), also set in Santa María, focused on the life of Larsen (alias The Bodysnatcher), the ex-owner of the illfated brothel, who works in a rusting shipyard. He plans to marry the daughter of its owner, but the shipyard becomes a symbolic landscape of his own ruin: "Erect, exaggeratedly strutting, he avoided pieces of hanging iron with shapes and names which rested imprisoned on a confusion of wires and penetrated into the shade, into the distant cold, into the reticence of the shed. He reviewed the desks, the threads of rain, the nets of dust and spider webs, the reddish-black machines which continued simulating dignity." Larsen appeared first time in Onetti's second novel, Tierra de nadie (1941). Juntacádaveres (1965) took Larsen back to a time when he was called to set up the whorehouse. Despite official support by the town councillor, the project is defeated by public opinion. The brothel is a threat to the values of Santa María and Larsen and the girls are expelled from the town. Noteworthy, Larsen is not the protagonist, Díaz Grey and Jorge Malabia are more important characters.

The Body Snatcher is a good stepping stone into the creative world of Juan Carlos Onetti and it will be interesting to explore his other works.

Film: A Useful Life (2010, Federico Veiroj)

The opening credits of A Useful Life mention that the film is a work of fiction and not a true depiction of a Uruguayan cinematheque. However, this brilliant feature does not feel like fiction at all but appears to be a documentary depicting the sad state of our times when cinephilia culture is on the verge of getting lost. The story centers around the closing of a cinematheque and how it effects people, especially Jorge (Jorge Jellinek), whose entire lives revolve around such a venue. Cinephiles and film lovers can certainly identify with some of the rituals and characters shown in the film. Also, one can associate the fictional shutdown of the cinematheque with real life closing down of art-house cinemas or places where film festivals took place. In a brilliant interview with Michael Guillen, Federico Veiroj indicates some reasons why audience might draw a familiarity with the film:

The other thing is that—now that I have seen the film as a spectator and received feedback from enthusiasts like yourself—La Vida Útil has something that makes the cinephilic audience feel they are part of the main character Jorge as well. We all have rituals we indulge when we go see movies we like at our favorite cinematheques and moviehouses. We all love to feel emotional watching movies. That's what we all want. Even in my case, though I am a filmmaker, I am first a spectator; that's what I like more. Maybe the intimacy is my fault? I made the movie about this subject, of course, but maybe the fault—and I mean good fault, right?—lies within you because maybe my film connects you with other films you've seen, other places you've been to where you've watched films, such that you can understand the plight in the film? You understand what is happening in the film. In my case, of course, I identify with all of the characters and there are little bits of me throughout the movie and I'm talking about a subject I know and like; but, I think for the film to work there has to be some similar contact within the person who is watching it. I love having that dialogue with someone who is watching the film. I appreciate it a lot.

Michael’s interview is a must read and A Useful Life is a must see film. In the future when all art-house cinems have shutdown outside of New York and foreign films can only be found via underground film sites, Federico Veiroj’s film might be seen with nostalgic eyes. Although A Useful Life does end on a positive note when the music and lighting in the final scenes evoke the French New Wave and show that Jorge has found his spirit back, thanks to films, of course.

Uruguay at Copa America

Uruguay arrived as the third favourite team at this year’s Copa behind hosts Argentina and Brazil. However, by the time the quarter-finals were concluded, Uruguay remained as the sole favourites to land the title. Uruguay started off slowly in the tournament but displayed plenty of technical flexibility and intelligent ball movement in their games. Even in their opening 1-1 draws against Peru and Chile, Uruguay’s trio of Forlan, Suarez and Cavani managed to find each other with precise passes, something that Brazil and Argentina rarely managed. A narrow 1-0 win over Mexico gave Uruguay second place in Group C and set up a fascinating duel with Argentina in the quarters. Uruguay then stunned Argentina by taking a quick 5th minute lead after Diego Perez sneaked in a goal. However, Argentina found their rhythm and Messi delivered a perfect cross for Higuain to finally score a goal in the 17th minute. Argentina were clearly on top after the equalizer and were running the show, so much so that Uruguay were forced to commit plenty of fouls. It appeared to be only a matter of time before a Uruguayan player would get sent off and Perez duly got his marching orders in the 39th minute. However, the sending off galvanized Uruguay who dug deep and reoriented their shape, as Forlan withdrew deep to form a great link-up player between the midfield and Suarez who was left up on his own. Suarez shielded the ball quite well and everytime an Argentine player kicked him, Suarez went to ground. An Argentina red card looked imminent so it was no surprize that Argentina were also reduced to 10 men when Mascherano was sent off in the 87th minute. Still, Uruguay had to ride their luck a bit and needed some crucial saves from Fernando Muslera, especially his wonderful double save in the 89th minute. Muslera also saved Carlos Tevez’s penalty thereby sending Uruguay to the semi-finals, where they defeated Peru 2-0, on the back of two Luiz Suarez goals.

Coming into the tournament, Argentina and Uruguay were tied with 14 Copa America titles each. Now Uruguay have a historic chance to win their 15th title against Paraguay in the final, that too on Argentine soil. The soccer rivalry between Argentina and Uruguay dates back to 1928 when Uruguay beat Argentina to win the Olympic soccer gold medal. Then in the inaugural world in 1930, hosts Uruguay beat Argentina 4-2 to win the first ever World Cup. Uruguay’s second World Cup came against all odds on July 16, 1950 when they beat Brazil in a packed Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Uruguay’s defeat of Argentina at this year’s Copa America was exactly 61 years to the date from that famous 1950 World Cup win. Brazil and Argentina are powerhouses in South American and World football but both these giants have found themselves beaten by Uruguay at crucial times in footballing history. Now, it is Uruguay who are on threshold of creating their own history on Sunday, July 24.

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