Thursday, July 28, 2011

Copa America 2011

Copa American 2011 Book & Film Spotlight results

On Sunday, July 24 2011 Uruguay won their 15th Copa America title with a 3-0 win over Paraguay. Also on sunday, I finally finished reading the last remaining book from my Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival. All the individual country posts are up so now it is time to reveal the winning entries. But a quick listing of all the titles that were read and seen:

Country: Book, Film, [Bonus Film]

Argentina: Hopscotch, Crane World, Lion's Den
Bolivia: Aurora, Cocalero
Brazil: Zero, Black God White Devil
Chile: The Secret Holy War of Santiago De Chile, Tony Manero
Colombia: The Armies, Crab Trap, The Wind Journeys
Costa Rica: Cocori, Cold Water of the Sea
Ecuador: The Ecuador Reader, Cronicas, Ratas, ratones, rateros
Japan: Kafka on the Shore, Tokyo Sonata
Mexico: The Underdogs, Duck Season
Paraguay: I, The Supreme, Noche Adentro, I Hear Your Scream
Peru: Conversations in the Cathedral, Milk of Sorrow, Madeinusa
Uruguay: Body Snatcher, A Useful Life
Venezuela: Chronicles of a Nomad, El Don, Araya

Top three books

3) Chile: The Secret Holy War of Santiago De Chile by Marco Antonio de la Parra

Tito Livio has no idea how bad his day is going to get. He finds out that his father was a double agent for both God and the Devil, La Maga and Devil’s agents are after him and the fate of the World rests on his shoulders. A fun book that moves at a rapid pace and manages to pack in plenty of intelligent ideas, fascinating characters and even a political layer.

2) Peru: Conversations in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

Past and Present beautifully flow together throughout the book, which jumps decades in a span of a few sentences. A few beers opens up a can of memories which still hurt and haunt the two main characters.

1) Brazil: Zero by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão

Incredibly creative and brilliantly paced account of life under a brutal military regime. The short segment chapters work like jump-cut scenes in a film by keeping the rhythm and tension moving along.

Top three films

3) Argentina: Crane World (1999, Pablo Trapero)

A touching portrayal of a man trying very hard to make ends meet. The grainy black and white along with the use of non-professional actors adds to the realism.

2) Uruguay: A Useful Life (2010, Federico Veiroj)

A beautiful tribute to cinephilia. A pure delight.

1) Chile: Tony Manero (2008, Pablo Larraín)

An incredible portrayal of a man’s transformation into a serial killer under the nose of a brutal dictatorial regime. Raúl Peralta (played wonderfully by Alfredo Castro) is certainly one of the most memorable characters to have been portrayed on screen in the last decade.

Books vs Films

Only Chile managed to overlap in both the top three book and film entries. Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay all managed single mentions.

Books vs Films vs Soccer

The top three teams in the Copa America soccer tournament were:

1) Uruguay
2) Paraguay
3) Peru

So stacking this with the top 3 books and film entries produces three countries with two mentions each:

Chile: 1st place film, 3rd place book
Uruguay: 1st place Soccer, 2nd place film
Peru: 2nd place book, 3rd place soccer

Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay round off with a single nod each. The most incredible thing is that both Brazil and Argentina failed to make the top 3 in Copa America, something that was unimaginable a month ago when both were expected to make the final of the tournament.

Final comments

This was a much more time consuming and draining spotlight than I had originally expected. A dozen entries would have made a film only spotlight quite easy, like the Copa America 2007 spotlight. So I added books to add a bit more challenge but I did not select books based on length or style. In the end, a handful of books required a good deal of investment because of the complex and imaginative writing style. Overall, reading all the books was a great experience and it proved that even the most difficult cinema does not come close to providing as many hurdles as a complex book.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Copa America 2011: Paraguay

Entry #13 (final entry) of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: I, The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos

Augusto Roa Bastos’ I, The Supreme is an incredible book that manages to convey a dictator’s egoistic personality while detailing the jostling for power that took place following Paraguay’s independence. The book is a fictional account of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia, the dictator that ruled Paraguay from 1816 until his death in 1840. However, the book is not presented as a straight forward portrayal but is a richly layered work that combines many voices as part of the narrative. The book is presented as a compiled work which contains the dictator El Supremo’s personal diary notes, excerpts from fictional books written by people who personally met the perpetual dictator and conversations between the dictator and his secretary. This tactic lends humor to the narrative and allows the reader to step back and judge for themselves the validity of some facts dictated by El Supremo.

Carlos Fuentes’ excellent NY Times article describes how Augusto Roa Bastos’ book came to be published, the author’s life and insightful critique of I, The Supreme.

Film: Noche Adentro (2009, Pablo Lamar, 17 min)

Pablo Lamar’s film manages to turn one of the most memorable nights in a couple’s life into an unforgettable nightmare. The wedding party is still going on even though the newly married coupled have retreated to their bedroom. The delightful music is playing and the guests are dancing.

Fade to Black.

When the blackness ends, a hazy image of a blood covered vagina comes into focus. As the camera moves over the dead bride's body, we hear footsteps being dragged. The camera reveals a groom covered in blood as well. The groom then drags the bride's body down the stairs and into the alleyways. All is quiet on the streets and the only noise we hear is the groom struggling to move his bride's body.

Noche Adentro is a tragic poem that effectively utilizes every minute. There are some words spoken in the opening minute after which the film lets the natural sounds of the surroundings fill the screen.

Bonus Film: I Hear Your Scream (2008, Pablo Lamar, 11 min)

A long shot of a solitary man opens I hear your scream. The man heads into the house from which a crowd emerges. Eventually, the crowd empties out carrying a coffin while the solitary man stays behind. His silence speaks volumes as he watches the crowd disappear with the coffin. I Hear Your Scream is thoughtful and touching without using any close-ups.

Paraguay’s Copa America Campaign

Paraguay set a new record at this year's Copa America by becoming the first team to reach the final without winning a game in regulation time. Paraguay also experienced both good fortune by avoiding defeats in games they were outplayed in and bad luck when they drew games they should have won. After an opening 0-0 tie with Ecuador, Paraguay should have won their next two group games but gave up leads in the final minutes. Against Brazil, Paraguay were comfortably 2-1 up and looked in no danger as they dealt with every single Brazilian move through the middle with relative ease but in the last minute, they let the ball reach Fred who turned and tied the game up. In the next game, Paraguay incredibly let a 3-1 lead slip in the 90th minute as Venezuela tied the game 3-3. That result meant Paraguay finished as only the second 3rd best team and had to face Brazil again in the quarters. This time it was Paraguay's turn to have luck on their side as they saw Brazil waste chance after chance. In the penalty shoot-out, the Paraguayan captain and goalie Justo Villar saved a penalty from Thiago Silva but his save did not matter as Brazil took three of the worst penalty kicks in the history of the game including blasting two efforts well over the bar. Elano and Santos blamed the turf but Paraguay converted two kicks from the same spot to win 2-0 on penalties. In the semis, Paraguay once again rode their luck through 120 minutes of extra-time and in the penalty shoot-out Villar's single save was enough for a 5-3 Paraguay win over Venezuela. All the other 8 penalties taken by both sides were some of the most perfect penalties ever dispatched in the high pressure situation of a shoot-out. After two back-to-back tiring games, a host of injuries and suspension of their influential coach Gerardo Martino, a weakened Paraguay took to the field against Uruguay in the final. Paraguay never stood a chance and were under severe pressure from the opening minutes when Uruguay earned corner after corner. Suarez made the pressure pay off by scoring a wonderful goal in the 11th minute and Forlan's precise strike before half-time basically settled the game. Forlan added a late goal to seal a record 15th Copa America for Uruguay. Paraguay might have offered more in the final if they did not have their injury problems (specifically to Roque Santa Cruz) which resulted in some of the tactical changes that Martino made but still their campaign was a success. Also, the current Paraguayan goalkeeper Justo Villar has shown some of the leadership that Jose Luis Chilavert once displayed.

Paraguay's performance this year and at last year's world cup certainly means no team will fancy taking them on in the future. Their results from the 2010 World Cup and this year's Copa include five 0-0 draws with Paraguay winning all three 0-0 games that went to penalties.

Paraguay @ 2010 World Cup

1-1 Italy
2-0 Slovakia
0-0 New Zealand
0-0 Japan, Paraguay won 5-3 on penalties
0-1 Spain, with David Villa getting the goal in the 83th min

Paraguay @ 2011 Copa America

0-0 Ecuador
2-2 Brazil
3-3 Venezuela
0-0 Brazil, 2-0 win for Paraguay on penalties
0-0 Venezuela, 5-3 penalty win
0-3 Uruguay

On top of that Paraguay have qualified for four straight World Cups from 1998 - 2010 and were almost always tough to breakdown. In 1998, Paraguay had two 0-0 draws against Bulgaria and Spain in the group games. A 3-1 over Nigeria put them through to the round of 16 where eventual World Cup winners France needed extra-time to beat Paraguay 1-0. 2010 World Cup winners Spain also only managed a 1-0 win over Paraguay with a late goal in a game where both opposing goal-keepers saved a penalty.

Copa America 2011: Peru

Entry #12 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Conversations in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

A few years ago, I came across the 601 page Conversations in the Cathedral, a book that I had not seen mentioned in the few critiques of Mario Vargas Llosa's works that I had read. Since I had previously enjoyed reading two books by Llosa, I bought Conversations in the Cathedral. Although I should point out that the book's back cover description played no part in my decision:

Conversation in The Cathedral takes place in 1950s Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría. Over beers and a sea of freely spoken words, the conversation flows between two individuals, Santiago and Ambrosia, who talk of their tormented lives and of the overall degradation and frustration that has slowly taken over their town.

Through a complicated web of secrets and historical references, Mario Vargas Llosa analyzes the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it. More than a historic analysis, Conversation in The Cathedral is a groundbreaking novel that tackles identity as well as the role of a citizen and how a lack of personal freedom can forever scar a people and a nation.

However, I never got around to reading the book and it sat for years on my shelf. Then a chance encounter with an acquaintance last year at a cafe suddenly brought the book back in my memory. Over coffee, I chatted with him about his journalism days back in Peru. After he mentioned that he covered the 1982 World Cup for a local newspaper, I remarked that Mario Vargas Llosa also covered that Spanish World Cup for a Peruvian newspaper. He then said something along the lines of “yes we were there together for the same paper.” His causal remark left me stunned and after a few queries, he revealed that he and Llosa were good friends as well. I could not resist asking him what his favourite Llosa book was. Without any hesitation, he replied Conversations in the Cathedral. I finally had to read the book so it naturally become the first book choice for my Copa America spotlight.

Conversations in the Cathedral is indeed remarkable but more than the story the book’s writing style is what stands out. The book dives into the past at various points in the story but there are no real markers which indicate when the story has left the present and has entered the past. When new characters first enter the story, it appears that these new characters are in the same room as Santiago and Ambrosia or that the story has shifted focus to a different location in Lima. However, after a while it becomes apparent that the present story mostly involves only a series of conversations between Santiago and Ambrosia in a bar named The Cathedral (hence the title). As beers loosen up their tongues, their memories dig deep into the past to uncover the corruption, crime and violence that enveloped their lives. So everytime other characters are mentioned, they are in the past (with some exceptions). The past and present is beautifully woven and once a reader figures out the pattern, it is a pleasure to sit back enjoy the gripping narrative which gives an insight into sinister political games and how those political decisions can lead to a revolution.

Film: Milk of Sorrow (2009, Claudia Llosa)

As the film’s opening credits appear, a soothing voice sings. However, the lyrics do not convey happiness but instead describe a horrible act of rape and violence committed against the singer. As the credits fade, the singer’s face becomes visible and her daughter Fausta (Magaly Solier) slowly leans over her, singing as well. As the camera follows Fausta against the backdrop of an open window, the mother passes away. The film’s title then appears. Very films manage such a contrasting set of emotions in such a short time. The soothing voice calms a person while the lyrics are shocking.

The film turns up another surprize shortly afterwards when Fausta has to go the doctor for a check-up. And questioning by a doctor reveals the meaning of the film title which refers to a belief that sorrow is an illness passed on from a mother’s breast milk to the child. In this regard, tragedy is given through an essential nutrient necessary for nourishing a newborn. Can a person recover from such an illness that is flowing through their veins? Claudia Llosa’s incredibly shot and thoughtful film tries to answer this question by following Fausta’s attempts to uproot her past and plant new roots elsewhere. The film allows enough time and space to observe not only Fausta but all the characters against eye-catching surroundings.

Bonus Film: Madeinusa (2006, Claudia Llosa)

Claudia Llosa’s stunning debut takes place in a Peruvian town literally at the end of the road, thereby signifying a location cut-off from the rest of Peru and even the world. Occasionally, visitors arrive but those arrivals are so few that their presence become a major town event. The town residents are eagerly awaiting the Easter weekend celebrations because the residents believe they can commit whatever sin they want in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday because the Lord is asleep during this time and won’t see the resident’s indiscretions. No one is awaiting this sin-free time more than Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman), the town’s mayor and father of two girls because he wants to deflower his youngest daughter Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) during the holy weekend. Cayo’s plans are in danger of getting ruined when Madeinusa falls for the lone visitor trapped in the town. The visitor, all the way from Lima, opens up a new world for Madeinusa, including telling the young girl that her name is not really a name but instead something one finds on product tags "Made In USA". The fact that the film is set outside of Lima means we get to see a different side of Peru than normally seen on cinema. Also, the film has a keen eye for the town’s rituals (minus the sins, of course) and celebrations.

A Family Affair

All the three Peruvian entries originate from one family tree as Claudia Llosa is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa. The selections were not designed as such because the film and book entries were picked separately. Still, Peru was well represented by the Llosa family for this particular spotlight.

Peru’s Copa America Campaign

Peru’s third-place finish at this year's Copa America is remarkable given that less than two years ago they finished bottom of the South American 2010 World Cup qualifying group registering only three wins and four draws out of 18 games to earn just 13 points. One of those wins came on the final day of qualifying against Bolivia who finished just two points ahead of Peru in 9th place with 15 points. Peru earned all their points at home and lost every one of their nine away games. Basically, they had hit rock bottom so last year’s hiring of Sergio Markarian has certainly aided in the Peruvian national team’s transformation. The Uruguayan Markarian has given the Peruvian team a new belief by infusing them with enough tactical intelligence so they can organize themselves to get results. Peru started off the Copa America in impressive fashion with a 1-1 tie with Uruguay and a 1-0 win over Mexico as Paolo Guerrero got both goals. Their final game vs Chile was meaningless but Peru were unfortunate to score an own goal in the 92nd minute thereby handing all three points to Chile. Peru had a tough task against Colombia in the quarters and were lucky to get to extra-time 0-0 when Falcao missed a 65th minute penalty. In extra-time, Peru truly shone and scored two amazing goals to set up a rematch with Markarian's native Uruguay in the semis. The Peru-Uruguay semi was pitched as a master vs pupil game because Markaian had once coached Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach only two years younger than Markarian. The first half was as tactical as expected with no goals but Uruguay wrapped up the game with two goals five minutes apart early in the second half. Peru's high defensive line was always risky and Uruguay exploited that for the second goal as Suarez ran free after a long ball from Alvaro Pereira. The Peruvian captain Vargas got himself sent off for a silly elbow but amazingly 10 men Peru played much better in the final 20 min and came close to grabbing a goal that might have led to a tense finish. However, that Peruvian goal never came and Uruguay reached the final. Still, Peru secured third place with a 4-1 win over Venezuela. The score-line was a bit flattering because Peru got two goals in the final 2 minutes. The Third place game meant a lot to Peru especially to Guerrero who notched a hat-trick to end as the tournament's top goal-scorer with 5 goals.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Copa America 2011: Ecuador

Entry #11 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: The Ecuador Reader, edited by Carlos De La Torre

For many living outside Latin America, Ecuador is not on the geographic or imaginative map. Colombia, Ecuador’s northern neighbor, is well known and misrepresented as the land of violent narcotraffickers and happy coffee farmers (à la Juan Valdez). Peru, to the south, seems reduced in popular imagination to a source of raw coca or as a mystical land whose Andean mountains (Machu Picchu) and Amazonian jungle are waiting to be discovered by adventurous travelers. For better or worse, fragmentary images, stereotypes, and fantasies about Ecuador are less readily available.

The above words found in the opening paragraph of The Ecuador Reader are certainly true. For a variety of reasons, Ecuador does not seem to draw as much interest as other South American countries. Soccer also has not helped Ecuador get much exposure on the global stage. They have only qualified for two World Cups, both recently in 2002 and 2006, with their best result coming in 2006 when they finished second in their group behind Germany and advanced to the round of 16 where they lost 1-0 to England. Ecuador are also one of three nations to not have won a single Copa America (Chile and Venezuela being the other two). However, the country has plenty to offer and has a rich history/culture as well. That is why The Ecuador Reader is a welcome book because it contains a wonderful collection of essays, articles and book excerpts which helps to give some insight into Ecuador’s history, culture, politics and literature.

Note: A real surprize for me was that this book contains an excerpt from Jorge Icaza’s Huasipungo, a novel that was originally the Ecuador book choice for this Copa America spotlight. However, I could not acquire an English translation of Huasipungo in a timely manner and opted for The Ecuador Reader which is why I was delighted to read a few pages of Jorge Icaza's famous book.

Film: Cronicas (2004, Sebastián Cordero)

Cronicas starts off by poking fun at the media circus associated with 24 news channels and ends up becoming a serial killer hunt film. Manolo (John Leguizamo) travels to Babahoyo to cover a story about a serial killer targeting little children. After filming the funeral of one of the victims, Manolo chances upon another story when a young boy is run over by a pick-up truck. The driver, Vinicio (Damián Alcázar), accidentally hit the child and in a panicked state tries to back his truck. However, people think that Vinicio is trying to escape and beat him up. The mob's mood escalates into calls for blood and someone pours gasoline over Vinicio. While all this is going on, Manolo & his cameraman do nothing but film the violence. Vinicio is only saved by the arrival of the police who take him into custody. Manolo senses a story and visits Vinicio in jail where Vinicio tries to cut a deal with Manolo by claiming that he has inside information about the serial killer. In exchange for that information, Vinicio wants Manolo to film an interview which will help him get out of jail. Manolo does not want to pass over a possible exclusive scope so he begins to dig for the truth but finds himself being played by Vinicio. On top of that, Manolo is also under pressure from his boss (played by Alfred Molina) who wants Manolo to fly to Colombia for another breaking story. Cronicas tries to juggle two separate stories of media satire and serial killer hunt and that results in a lackluster final third when events follow a very predictable path. Still, a decent watch.

Bonus Film: Ratas, ratones, rateros (1999, Sebastián Cordero)

Salvador steals and cons people for a living but his small time criminal life gets jolted with the arrival of his cousin Angel. Angel is on the run from thugs and drags Salvador into his mess. Rodents marked Sebastián Cordero’s directorial debut and while the film is not as polished as Cronicas, Ratas, ratones, rateros’ look and mood perfectly captures the street life that the story requires.

Ecuador’s Copa America Campaign

Ecuador had a disappointing Copa America campaign as they finished bottom of Group B although they still went into their final group game with a chance to advance to the quarter-finals. Ecuador drew their opening game 0-0 with Paraguay, a result that was not bad because the other two teams in Group B, Brazil & Venezuela, also tied their opener 0-0. Ecuador fell to a 1-0 defeat against Venezuela in the second game but could have advanced to the quarters with a win in their last game against Brazil. That task did not seem too daunting because Brazil were quite awful in their first two games and were under tremendous pressure going into the final game. Ecuador did find ways to trouble Brazil and Felipe Caicedo twice leveled the game for Ecuador but in the end, Brazil ran away as 4-2 winners.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Copa America 2011: Chile

Entry #10 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: The Secret Holy War of Santiago De Chile by Marco Antonio de la Parra

Marco Antonio de la Parra’s book starts off in a flash and it does not slow down through its 317 pages while constantly moving in unexpected directions. Tito Livio thinks he is just having another bad day and is baffled why strange things are happening to him. The truth floors him and sends him on a wild ride through a marvelous hidden world in Santiago where the battle for mankind’s fate is taking place between God & the Devil. Tito is caught in the middle of this battle because he discovers his father was a double agent for both God and the Devil and that he carries the key which will determine the fate of mankind. Numerous fascinating characters turn up to help Tito while others try to distract him from his path, including the fictional La Maga straight out of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. The book contains many memorable elements but one particular section stands out in which Tito encounters various Chilean intellectuals and authors who remained unknown from the world because others in the west published similar ideas and words before the Chileans could do so. As a result, when the Chileans let their ideas be known they were not given any credit but were instead nicknamed after the Western intellectuals. So Roberto Romero became the Chilean Sigmund Freud. Tito is surprized to learn this and Romero explains to him how he got his nickname:

My name, that’s what they call me. I’m not a demented person who thinks he’s Napolean. The fact of the matter is that my name was lost in the shuffle because of my nickname. That’s the tragedy of Chile, being almost a country, an imitation, a pastiche, a parody, an eternal internal vision of the exterior world, a microclimate. When, inspired, I finished my best work, they negotiated with me and they told me to wait, because of this, because of that. When I managed to get the word out, forcing myself through the official channels, I found them praising a Viennese who was saying the same thing as I was. What I wrote was already written, what I thought he immediately thought, in unison, a European author, where things that are important to historians happen, where images are emitted of which we are only a reflection, the northern hemisphere which gives names to peoples, authors, and things. They read my work and as a great honor they nicknamed me the Chilean Freud, apocryphal Freud, Sigmund Freud Romero, and now simply Sigmund Freud, immortal of mediocrity like all these souls who have written the past and future of the West. Ignored forever, our souls are condemned to wander in this nightclub as a testimony to the other side of history, the night side, the one your father knew in all its glory, and that now is nothing but a shadow of its former heyday. It’s a sign of the times. Do you want to come with me?”

These words can also apply to talented writers and film directors from various countries who are unknown in the West because their works were not championed by an influential critic or their works did not get the right award.

Overall, The Secret Holy War of Santiago De Chile contains many intelligent ideas packaged in a very accessible manner. A truly fun read.

Film: Tony Manero (2008, Pablo Larraín)

Pablo Larraín’s chilling film shows that sanity cannot exist under a brutal dictatorship which causes some people to throw their co-workers/neighbours under the bus to pursue their selfish goals. Such selfishness is personified by Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro, excellent) who is easily one of the most memorable characters to have graced the silver screen in the last decade. Peralta will do anything to win a Tony Manero impersonation contest and he manages to use the repressive rules under the Pinochet regime to his advantage. A truly fascinating film that places the viewer alongside Peralta to witness his transformation into a menacing serial killer.

Note: Jonathan Romney’s film review is a must read.

Chile’s Copa America campaign

Chile started the Copa America in a coherent and flowing fashion with a 2-1 win over Mexico and a 1-1 draw with Uruguay. Even though Chile didn’t win against Uruguay, they dominated the game with their fluid passing and pressed Uruguay throughout the second half. After 4 points from their first two games, Chile were in a comfortable position to advance and their final game against Peru was a non-event but Chile still registered a 1-0 win thanks to an own goal in the 92nd minute. Chile and Colombia were the two best teams of the group phase as both registered seven points. Expectations were high when Chile were paired against Venezuela in the Quarter-finals, but Chile’s match-up was the last of the four quarters and that meant there was an air of inevitability about their fixture. By the time Chile took to the field, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil had all lost their games, so it seemed natural that Chile would also lose and complete a clean sweep of defeats for all the four favourite teams in the Quarter-Finals. Venezuela frustrated Chile in the first half as Chile could not find any rhythm. Then in the 35th minute, Vizcarrondo gave Venezuela a 1-0 lead after he exploited Chilean’s defensive weakness and scored from a free-kick. Chile reorganized in the second half and pressured Venezuela and eventually tied the game up in the 70th minute with a remarkable turn and shot by Suazo. Chile also hit the woodwork a few times in the second half and were finding their groove but once again Venezuela took advantage of Chile’s defensive problems and scored after Chile failed to clear a free-kick in the 80th minute. Venezuela hung on for a famous win and a promising campaign for Chile failed to produce anything.

Copa America 2011: Argentina

Entry #9 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) comes with a table of instructions which offer two reading methods:

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.

The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.

The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list:...

The hopscotch chapter sequence starts with 73 and ends with Chapter 131.

I decided to follow a third path and instead read all the 155 chapters in sequence. Such a third path is entirely possible because after reading the first few chapters, one can judge the cut-up nature of the book and get an idea about how the chapters would slot in the overall structure. The first portion of the book takes place in Paris and follows the carefree life of Horacio Oliveira as he wanders the city and has stimulating conversations about life, philosophy, art, jazz and literature while being under the spell of La Maga, the ultimate temptress. This section of the book emits the feeling of an era when a person could spend an entire day doing nothing but wandering around Paris and feel truly alive. Horacio certainly emits that zest for life in Paris but his life loses a little fluidity and gets a bit more rigid structure when he moves back to Buenos Aries. Horacio’s magnificent conversations don’t disappear in the Argentine capital but the wear and tear from a variety of jobs and the memories of La Maga cause Horacio’s life to get fragmented slowly, mimicking the book’s structure.

Overall, certainly a book that deserves to be read more than once and one that allows multiple reading manners because the flow of the chapters allows a person to construct their own table of instructions.

Film: Crane World (1999, Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero’s wonderful debut film follows the life and travels of Rulo (Luis Margani) as he attempts to earn a living by taking up whatever jobs he can find, no matter the location. Rulo tries his luck as a crane operator but he is let go from his job after his boss has concerns about Rulo’s health. Rulo drifts to the Argentine countryside to find a job in the construction industry but things don’t work out there because of other workers dispute with the owners over a missing lunch. Rulo’s charming and easy going personality certainly helps him overcome any hardships, be it with his job or with his son. Over the course of the film, it is uncovered that Rulo was once in a band and this revelation helps open some new doors for him.

Crane World is certainly a key film of the new wave of Argentine films ushered over the last decade. Trapero’s use of non-professional actors and grainy black and white footage adds a level of realism to the story.

Bonus Film: Lion's Den (2008, Pablo Trapero)

Trapero once again used non-actors for Lion’s Den and the end result is yet another engaging film that does not look like scripted cinema at all. The real force of the film is Martina Gusman who turns in an incredible performance as Julia, a possible innocent woman trapped in prison. After waking up dazed and covered in blood, Julia showers and heads off to work. Upon returning home she finds her boyfriend Nahuel’s dead body and a wounded Ramiro, who was also living with them. Julia is arrested and put in prison where she learns of her pregnancy. That discovery lands her in a ward for pregnant and young mothers. The special ward is not any easier in coping with prison life and consists of a shared space where young infants can play. However, the shared space has limited hours and the rest of the time is still spent behind closed bars. The close proximity to other mothers helps Julia raise her newborn while trying to survive in prison. As per the film, a child born in prison has to given away to a relative or a destination chosen by the court at the age of 4. Julia fights to keep her son and she is given hope when Ramiro is looking to reveal the truth. But after Ramiro backs out, the truth never arrives and Julia decides to take matters into her own hands so as to secure a better life for her son.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Copa America 2011: Brazil

Entry #8 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Zero by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s incredible Zero controls its pace in a remarkable manner thereby taking its readers on an unforgettable ride through a Brazilian state under a military regime. The book starts off slowly with abstract stories, including newspaper clippings, but gradually a narrative emerges and the book accordingly picks up pace to reflect various moments of high tension. Jose and his wife Rosa are the main characters whose lives take a variety of turns because of their need of money to build a better future. However, that money is always elusive and quest for it turns Jose into a wanted man. Zero depicts details of police torture, the “death squads” and life under a repressive regime, so it is not a surprize that Brandão’s book was rejected for publication in Brazil. The book was first published in Italy (1974) after a translation was done by the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi. The images of violence & torture that Brandão’s book creates can now be associated with films such City of God and Elite Squad but Brandão started writing his book in 1964 and completed it in 1973 decades before those films. As it stands, I have never come across any article discussing Brandão’s book and only chanced upon it at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, something which highlights the importance of excellent bookstores.

Overall, Zero has been the real literary discovery of this Copa America spotlight because of its incredible writing technique which controls pace and tension.

Film: Black God White Devil (1964, Glauber Rocha)

Rocha’s raw and savage Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol does not loosen its grip from the first frame until the last. In fact, the final images of the film depict rapid movement and as a result, even after the film has ended it takes a while for the images to settle in one’s memory. A corrupt lawless world is shown, where landlords, religious figures and outlaws jostle for power and control of over the souls of innocent workers. As a result, innocent men and women are forced to choose one corrupt figure to align with and that choice governs how long they will be able to avoid death. In the film, the married couple of Manuel and Rosa are forced on the run after Manuel kills a rancher who was taking advantage of Manuel. The couple believe they have found salvation under a powerful religious figure but they are forced into a much more violent life because of that meeting. The usage of black and white for the film prevents any distractions from observing the plight of central characters and is something which heightens the violent struggles, aided by the musical score as well.

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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Copa America 2011: Costa Rica

Entry #6 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Cocori by Joaquin Guteierrez

Cocori is a thoughtful children's book set in Costa Rican locales of a lush jungle and a beach. Young Cocori’s life is changed when he comes across a young blond girl who presents him with a rose. Unfortunately the rose withers after a day leaving a sad Cocori to question its quick demise. In order to seek an answer, Cocori leaves home without telling his mother and heads deep into the jungle. Along the way, he befriends animals who are willing to accompany him in his quest and who suggest that an answer for the short life of the rose might originate from two of the oldest animals of the jungle, the alligator and the snake. But those two aged animals have no answers for Cocori who instead finds his answer closer to home. There are a few illustrations in the book which are useful in portraying the main animal characters but there is no illustration of the little girl. Overall, a change of pace from the remaining books read as part of this spotlight.

Film: Cold Water of the Sea (2010, Paz Fabrega)

The film contains parallel stories of seven year old Karina (Montserrat Fernández) and a woman Mariana (Lil Quesada Morúa) going through a difficult time in their lives. The two are separated by a few decades in age but both are misunderstood by those around them and in a way are suffering a slow death. When Mariana first encounters Karina, the young girl tells Mariana that she has run away from home and claims she was abused by her uncle. Mariana and her companion Rodrigo (Luis Carlos Bogantes) are concerned about Karina and want to look after her but the following morning, they are surprized to find Karina missing. Mariana cannot get Karina out of her mind and those thoughts unhinge Mariana. After this point, the film is depicted in a manner which makes the two females appear as reflections of each other. One can imagine Karina would grow up as Mariana, and looking at Mariana one can see shades of Karina.

Paz Fabrega’s camera shows the natural beauty of the ocean but also points at the danger that the beach can contain like in the form of snakes. The title refers to the fact that the cold water causes sea snakes to leave their water habitat to instead seek warmth in the sandy beaches. The snakes are not shown to bite Karina or any of her friends but in one scene, Karina mentions she was bit by a snake only for her claim to be dismissed by her uncle. The snake bite could be another story made up by Karina like the abuse claim because no scenes are shown to verify her words. Instead, the young girl’s expressions lay a seed of doubt in viewers. Such scenes of doubt are common place in Cold Water of the Sea as are scenes which don’t fit in with the story of either female such as those that point to the changing landscape of Costa Rica’s coast, such as the selling of land to foreigners for building hotels or resorts. Overall, the film leaves plenty of contemplative room for audience to make up their mind regarding what is going on but there are some ideas which could be better etched out. Still, the film is worth a look and Paz Fabrega is a director to keep an eye out for.

Copa America Campaign

Costa Rica decided to send a young Under-23 aged team to the Copa because of the senior team’s commitments in the Gold Cup. So that meant the entire purpose of Costa Rica’s presence in Argentina was to give their youngsters much needed experience for future tournaments. In that regard, the young Costa Rican team gave a good account of themselves by narrowly losing 1-0 to Colombia before running circles around Bolivia with a wonderful 2-0 win. Jole Campbell was a real discovery for the Ticos in the Bolivia game and scored the second goal. Campbell’s pace was also on display for the final group game against Argentina but Costa Rica never stood a chance against a Messi inspired Argentina team who won 3-0 but could have scored more goals. Still, Costa Rica narrowly missed making the quarter-finals and were only edged out on goal difference by Paraguay for the second of the best third team spots. Costa Rica can call their participation in the Copa a success and Campbell’s display is already drawing interest from both Arsenal and Manchester United.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Copa America 2011: Japan

Entry #5 of the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

15 year old Kafka runs away from home and finds himself in a new town absorbing the treasures found in the Komura Memorial Library. Nakata can talk to cats and this ability makes him a great cat hunter and he manages to earn some money from these activities. The two have nothing in common but as in other Murakami novels such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World & The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, two seemingly unrelated threads are destined to cross paths. As Kafka’s story starts to wind down, Nakata’s story picks up pace and progresses to a pivotal moment only to suddenly pause before the action switches over to Kafka’s tale, which starts building up pace again. This start-pause method continues until both stories’ path converge. In between the pages are many other sub-plots and fascinating elements of psychic driving, World War II lost soldiers, ghosts, time travel, dream navigation, undying love, graphic sex, incest, oedipal complex, prophecies, fish falling from the sky and characters such as Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders. Near the end of the book, a scene right out of a horror movie makes an appearance when a slimy creature attempts to enter the human world. All the diverse elements are neatly put together in the overall framework of the story. A trademark of a good writer is the ability to spin fantastical tales in a smooth easy flowing manner. There is no doubt about Murakami’s talent as he is one of the best writers out there. However, there is no real need to infuse the book with all the minor sub-plots. If some of the elements were chopped out of the 615 pages, the book would not really lose anything. Editing is a useful necessity but it appears that famous authors are allowed a lot more leeway when it comes to getting their works edited. If the same freedom were allowed to filmmakers, then most films would easily be between 4-5 hours in length as directors would find every single shot perfect and something worthy of inclusion. Still, Kafka on the Shore is an engrossing read despite being jam packed with elements of sci-fi, sex, comedy, WWII, coming of age, romance, ghost & horror.

Film: Tokyo Sonata (2008, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s beautiful film depicts the breakdown of a family and eventual rebirth. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job and instead of telling his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), continues to leave home everyday dressed for work while spending time on the streets or at a free soup kitchen. Megumi is slowly inching her way to independence but yearns for full freedom. Their elder son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) is disenchanted with his life and believes his life would be better served by joining the American military. The youngest son Kenji (Kai Inowaki) also rebels against his parents by skipping school and using the money from his school fees to pay for secret piano lessons knowing full well that his father is against him learning music. Each character goes through a transformation after reaching a breaking point before awakening to a new dawn. Some of the family’s tender moments and even tensions share a bond with the cinema of Ozu. Overall, a quite sublime film.

Japan & Copa America

Japan first announced they were pulling of the Copa America in April citing the earthquake and tsunami as the reason. However, they changed their mind after a few weeks and decided to send a team to Argentina before officially pulling out again after a backlog of J-League fixtures would have hindered the Japanese national soccer team’s preparations. Japan’s absence at the Copa America has been a loss for sure because their national team showed plenty of technical promise at the 2010 Soccer World Cup. A redeeming aspect is that Japan have been invited to the next Copa America in four years time so that will provide another chance to monitor the progress of the Japanese team.

Copa America 2011: Mexico

Entry #4 for the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela

Mariano Azuela’s book gives a ground level view of the Mexican Revolution, a landmark historical event that continues to be a source of inspiration for literature and cinema. Revolutions are often messy and sometimes very bloody. Over time, the graphic details of a revolution are softened in favour of the legacy of the revolution and impact it had for the nation and its citizens. Azuela’s book, originally published in 1915, etches out such vivid characters and situations that ensures one will never forget the blood and sacrifice that went into the revolution. The book uses the character of Demetrio Macias as an anchor to depict the revolution and blood letting that occurred. At the start of the book, Demetrio is just a peaceful man but he is thrust into the struggle after his house is burnt down.

“Why didn’t you kill ‘em?”
“Their hour hasn’t struck yet.”
They went out together; she bore the child in her arms. At the door, they separated, moving off in different directions.
The moon peopled the mountain with vague shadows. As he advanced at every turn of his way Demetrio could see the poignant, sharp silhouette of a woman pushing forward painfully, bearing a child in her arms.
When, after many hours of climbing, he gazed back, huge flames shot up from the depths of the canyon by the river. It was his house, blazing....

The above lines come just four pages into The Underdogs and the book does not ease up after that but dives deeper and deeper into the eye of the storm. The Underdogs paints a stark picture of how some people break free from their principles when dealing with survival, poverty or power. The book is made up of quickly paced short chapters akin to scenes in a film. The words are carefully chosen and properly convey the sentiments of the characters without ever feeling dramatic or un-needed. Azuela’s book is a combination of his personal experiences and fictional recreation based on accounts he heard from soldiers and people effected by the revolution. The end result is a work that depicts many powerful scenarios that stay long in the memory.

Film: Duck Season (2004, Fernando Eimbcke)

Best friends Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Cataño) have a fun afternoon planned out involving video games and pizza. Their video game duel is first interrupted by the young girl next door, Rita (Danny Perea), who wants to borrow the oven for some baking. The boys let her in and resume their gaming only to get hungry. They order pizza from a shop that promises the pizza will be free if it is not delivered under 30 minutes. The delivery man Ulises (Enrique Arreola) manages to arrive a shade under 30 minutes but the boys don’t open the door and count down the seconds until the 30 minutes are up. They then refuse to pay because they claim Ulises missed his deadline. Ulises refuses to leave until he has been paid and a showdown emerges between him and the two boys. Eventually the stalemate is broken when it is agreed the pizza money fate will be decided by a soccer video game. The game is in on the verge of completion when the electricity goes out, something which even disrupts Rita’s baking, a baking task that never seems to end. The four lay around on the couch and new friendships are developed and their personalities are altered due to the presence of some marijuana brownies. Ulises is not happy in his job and not pleased with the direction his life has taken and the brownies only help bring him clarity.

Fernando Eimbcke’s film is shot in Mexico but it has a universal theme and could take place in any city where a combination of video games, pop, pizza and hormones has the power to alter an otherwise average day. The film also raises some other issues, merely by its absence such as the issue of parenting and how it has an effect on young children. The film’s title comes from a painting of ducks in the living room and as per picture, the lives of the four characters undergoes a migration of sorts even though neither of them physically leave the apartment.

Copa America 2011 Campaign

The Mexican team that arrived at Copa America was not the goal scoring machine that won the Gold Cup but instead a younger team, with many talented prospects. A combination of a doping and off-field scandal left Mexico without more than half their senior squad so an U-23 Olympic level team took to the field in Argentina. For such an inexperienced squad, Mexico looked dangerous at times in their 2-1, 1-0 and 1-0 losses to Chile, Peru and Uruguay respectively. Still, a lot is expected from the Mexican national team no matter which age level team takes part because of the immense following of the game in Mexico and also because of the skillful talented players that are present. So it was surprizing to see Mexico finish not only bottom of Group C but also as the only team who did not earn a single point at Copa America. The three games surely provided a valuable lesson for the young players, some of whom will most likely play a part in the senior team’s qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Copa America 2011: Bolivia

Entry #3 for the Copa America 2011 Book & Film Festival.

Book: Aurora by Giancarla de Quiroga

Giancarla De Quiroga’s Aurora uses a cinderella like romance story as a springboard to examine political and social changes that played a part in the Bolivian revolution of 1952. The wealthy landowner Alberto returns from Europe to find no shortage of suitors seeking to marry him. However, he ignores all the flashy girls and is instead smitten by young innocent Aurora at a party. He seeks her out and wants her to run away with him without getting married. At first, the thought of running away without marriage terrifies Aurora who proclaims it a sin. But her feelings for Alberto take over and she leaves her life behind to join Alberto at his hacienda. Their love blossoms and allows them to weather economic hardships to turn the hacienda into a profit making enterprise by using the land to grow and sell vegetables. At the peak of the hacienda’s profitable ways, Alberto starts to get disenchanted with his Bolivian life and yearns to return to France where he thinks his true joy resides. He wants to sell all his land and begins to neglect his surroundings just as Aurora opens her eyes to life around her. She begins to teach the native Indian peasants and workers to read and her act is in direct defiance to Alberto and society. Alberto’s health gets progressively worse but he is preoccupied only with escaping to France. Their love is on the verge of extinction but things take a dramatic turn when the revolution reaches their land forcing them to turn to each other for safety.

The book mirrors the political and economic change in Bolivian rural life from the 1930’s until the early 1950’s with the emergence of peasant uprisings. By placing the character of Aurora as a teacher of the peasants, De Quiroga has created a character that is in tune with the suffering and needs of the workers. On the other hand, the detached Alberto represents a rich land owner oblivious to the needs of his workers. Even when the truth about the worker’s condition is revealed to Alberto, he ignores facts and turns the other way. Eventually, his ignorant ways result in a fiery finale.

Film: Cocalero (2007, Alejandro Landes)

Bolivian films are not frequently seen in international cinematic circles but that does not mean that Bolivia is absent in cinema. In fact, the last few years have seen plenty of documentaries set up shop in Bolivia centered around Cochabamba (regarding water & privatization) or the Potosi mines while many books and articles have mentioned either the changing political face of Bolivia or coca leaves farming. So it seems very appropriate to view a film that manages to cover both political and coca discussions. Alejandro Landes’ Cocalero highlights the rise of Evo Morales and sheds light on the grass-roots movement that supported his election. The debate about coca leaves and farming is certainly forefront in the film as is the clash between the different classes in Bolivian society. As per the film, media bias certainly fueled hatred and fear of Morales. Landes’ camera does not shy away from depicting some of this bias and even shows some of the abuse heaped on Morales in the cities. Such documentation helps show the fine line between a person been treated as a hero by some and a villain by others. Basically, if a political candidate does not have the same governing principles as a group of people, he is demonized and represented as evil by the group.

Note: Interestingly, the film follows Morales to Mar del Plata for a conference attended by both Hugo Chavez and Diego Maradona. This is the same conference that Emir Kusturica filmed for the 2008 documentary Maradona by Kusturica. No doubt there were hundreds of cameras at the conference but it is fascinating that footage of one event shot from two different angles have been used in two separate films. In a sense, Landes' & Kusturica's films form a documentary version of the film Vantage Point.

Copa America 2011 Campaign

Bolivia started the Copa America in incredible fashion by holding hosts and favourites Argentina to a 1-1 draw. The tie gave Bolivia a reasonable chance of making the Quarter-finals especially since their second game was going to be against the U-23 Costa Rican team which only had 5 overage players. Surprizingly, Bolivia were brought crashing down to earth. Not only did they lose 2-0 to Costa Rica but also had two players sent off in a largely one-sided game where Costa Rica ran circles around Bolivia. Costa Rica found plenty of space behind Bolivia’s non-existent defense and could have had more than just their two goals. Bolivia’s elimination was complete even before the 30 minute mark in their final game with Colombia when Bolivia’s defensive weakness were exposed by Colombia as they raced to a 2-0 lead. A neat through ball by Colombia found Falcao behind the entire Bolivian line and he duly finished the chance in the 14th minute. He tucked away a penalty in the 28th minute after another defensive mix-up forced Bolivia to concede a penalty. In fact, Colombia did not have to exert themselves too much in the first half as Bolivia’s only chances to get a goal appeared to be via set-pieces. Overall, Bolivia could not muster a decent response and Colombia calmly progressed to the Quarter-Finals as Group A winners, while Bolivia finished bottom of their group.

Note: Evo Morales is a soccer fan as evidenced by Oliver Stone’s South of the Border so it was not surprizing to see him in the stands for Bolivia’s game against Colombia.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Healthy Cinematic Nourishment

David Bordwell has written a perfect response in defense of slow & nourishing cinema. Bordwell's entire article is an essential read but the final line in this paragraph is a fact that most film critics and film magazines regularly ignore:

Still, Kois’ complaint touches on something important about film history. We have a polarized film culture: fast, aggressive cinema for the mass market and slow, more austere cinema for festivals and arthouses. That’s not to say that every foreign film is the seven-and-a-half hour Sátántangó, only that demanding works like Tarr’s find their homes in museums, cinematheques, and other specialized venues. Interestingly for Kois’ case, many of the most valuable movies in this vein don’t get any commercial distribution. The major works of Hou, Tarr, and others didn’t play the US theatre market. Sátántangó is just coming out on DVD here, nearly twenty years after its original appearance. Most of us can’t get access to the most vitamin-rich cultural vegetables, and they’re in no danger of overrunning our diet.

In New York on any given night a film lover has atleast half a dozen worthy healthy cinematic options but the average cinephile living outside of New York has limited access to seeing rich cinema in theaters. So it is not a surprize that a put down of slow cinema would originate in a New York publication. The rest of North America, including Canada, has mostly cinematic junk food options.

The foreign film theatrical & DVD rental options in Calgary have gotten worse in 2011 when compared to 2007-08. The city still has three art house cinemas but the selections are not as diverse as a few years ago. The three cinemas have to regularly program Hollywood fare as the foreign distribution of films in Canada appears to have slowed down, especially outside of Toronto. On top of that, Calgary now only has one DVD store (Casablanca Video) where one can rent foreign/indie films. A few years ago, there were 3 excellent DVD stores (Video & Sound, Bird Dog Video and Casablanca) which carried the newest foreign films from around the world. Also, VHQ (owned by Movie Gallery) carried some foreign films titles as did Blockbuster & Rogers Video. However, all VHQ stores shut down as of last year and a handful of Blockbuster & Rogers Video stores have closed as well. Elsewhere in Canada, things are not that optimistic for DVD rentals either. In Edmonton, Sneak Preview closed up shop after nearly 30 years in business and Vancouver's Videomatica also announced plans to close up at the end of summer. Videomatica is still one of the best DVD stores in Canada and their DVD mail rental service is exceptional (majority of my film spotlights from my 2007-08 were possibly only because of Videomatica). Plus,'s foreign DVD rental selection has drastically gone down in the last few months leading one to question how long they will be able to hold on.

However, there is no shortage of Hollywood films in any Canadian or American city. If one wanted to gorge on the latest robot transformation exercise, then one can stumble into a multiplex near one's residence. If the off chance that someone missed the theatrical release of this Hollywood film, then the DVD, special edition Blu-Ray, special special director's cut with more noise edition DVD/Blu-Ray combo of the film will be available in every big chain grocery story in every city. Basically, one can never be short of junk food. And one cannot go too long before someone defends the virtues of cinematic junk, both here in North America and in India as well. Last week's tragic news of Mani Kaul's passing brought out plenty of remarks from a few Indians who said Kaul's films were difficult to follow. In fact, the late Manmohan Desai, famous for his Bollywood action/revenge films with Amitabh Bachchan, once remarked that it was harder to make "masala films" (popular commercial films) but anyone cold make an art film like Mani Kaul's debut feature Uski Roti. A variation of those words were repeated online last week when some people defended the junk of Bollywood over Indian art cinema.

Too much junk food is not good for the human body. Neither is too much cinematic junk. But of course, the argument is that one person's junk is another person's sophisticated taste.

Slow cinema in two takes in everyday life

1) Man Shaving his face

No matter how many blades get added to a razor, shaving is an activity that cannot be done in an instant. Certain portions of a man's face (especially around the chin) require one to slow down and carefully shave lest one cut oneself. Shaving is also a boring task. I am sure no man wakes up every morning and looks forward to shaving his face. Yet, it is also an essential task. Some people do get tired of shaving and grow a beard or variations of a beard to avoid cutting their facial hair. However, the men that shave everyday are heroes in their own slow cinema.

2) Ultrasound

Every parent will talk of the thrill in watching their baby's ultrasound video. The images are not the clearest nor is there any sound but the black and white grainy video is one of the most riveting set of images that a parent can see. In fact, parents will be patient and watch carefully for the slightest movement of the baby. Sometimes, the baby moves and sometimes he/she does not. An ultrasound video might offer much slower images than any of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's or Béla Tarr's films but no parent will ever describe their baby's ultrasound in the following manner:

"It was boring. Too slow. There was not enough action. The baby just sat there not doing anything."

Emotional interest --> visual cues

So why are ultrasound videos so enchanting for parents? Because the parents have an emotional stake in the ultrasound video. They are emotionally hooked and they will automatically adjust their eyes to look only at the baby and nowhere else. They do not need any cues to help them through the video. The same can apply for cinema as well. If cinema viewers have an emotional interest in the film, they will be able to adjust their eyes automatically to pick up objects of interest. By default, most audience have no emotional interest in robots or ogres but Hollywood assists film viewers by tacking on an emotional layer to their stories. Hollywood wants audience to care for a CGI generated image so dialogues are carefully written to incite support and even some humor is added to give personality to non-humans. Bollywood is another example of cinema overloaded with emotional manipulation. On the other hand, art cinema does not generate artificial emotion so that can leave some viewers lost and they would have no idea where to look.

When tourists walk out on a foreign street for the first time, some have a map and check for directions while some just follow any path in front of them. Cinema can be tackled in the same manner, either with a map or a complete dive into the unknown. Some effort is required on behalf of the cinematic tourist but the rewards are worth it. The problem is access to foreign cinematic roads is getting limited each year and maybe in the future (say next year), the only way to access rich foreign cinematic paths might be through hidden underground portals, lurking underneath some treasure bay.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Copa America 2011, Round 2 of games

While there were some surprizes after the first round of games, the second round of games painted an even more fascinating picture.

Group A:

Argentina 0-0 Colombia
Bolivia 0-2 Costa Rica

Group B:

Brazil 2-2 Paraguay
Venezuela 1-0 Ecuador

Group C:

Uruguay 1-1 Chile
Peru 1-0 Mexico

What this means is after having played two games each, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are still without a win after they all drew their opening two games, as did Paraguay. The under-23 Costa Rican team sprung a real surprize by outplaying Bolivia 2-0 to register a win, while Colombia, Venezuela, Peru & Chile all sit comfortably on top of their groups with 4 points each. The only team without a point is Mexico but that was expected as this is not the same Mexican team that won the Gold Cup but a younger Olympic team with only 5 overage players.

On paper, Argentina and Brazil have some of the best players in the world but their games have proven that the best players cannot function in a system not suited to their strengths. Argentina's coach Sergio Batista insisted on having Messi, Tevez & Lavezzi start up front against Colombia even though the first game proved there was no understanding among the trio. Just putting three talented players on the field does not mean the three would suddenly sync up. An example of how three players should properly link up is provided by Uruguay's trio of Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez & Edison Cavani. The three Uruguayan players look like they are a team and have an understanding of where the other players are. Still, the three were not on the same wavelength for a good portion of Uruguay's opening 1-1 tie with Peru & were absent in the second half against a Chilean team that eventually benefitted from more possession. Chile's game with Uruguay was a nasty affair with plenty of fouls and play-acting but when Chile applied the tiniest bit of pressure, Uruguay fizzled away and could not muster a response.

Brazil have been plain awful and have been even worse than Argentina. Even though the Brazilian coach Mano Menezes dropped Robinho against Paraguay, his formation still failed to produce any flowing football. Jadson's opener provided relief for everyone in the Brazilian team but it merely disguised the fact that the team had no real bite. In the second half, Dani Alves fell asleep and allowed Paraguay to easily take a 2-1 lead. One would have expected Paraguay to hold on given their defensive strength and the fact that Brazil kept trying the same thing over and over again with no success. Brazil's game plan was to only go through the middle, something that played into Paraguay's hands. Brazil offered no threat from either of the wings and were poor on set-pieces. Normally, Dani Alves is known for his width play at Barcelona but he was kept expertly in check by Paraguay. Then with time running out, a ball through the middle trickled through to substitute Fred who smartly turned and grabbed an undeserved last minute equalizer for Brazil.

Of course, all these results are not as drastic since 8 of the 12 teams progress to the next round. So Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are still in good shape to advance but depending on where they finish in the standings would determine who they would meet in the next round. A Brazil-Argentina final might not happen as the two could now meet early on. However, based on the first two games, a Brazil vs Argentina game might not be an enticing football feast anymore but more of a tactical misfire with both teams coaches trying to force their squads to play a system the players do not understand.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

In Remembrance: Mani Kaul

Sad news emerged today that Mani Kaul, one of India's greatest film directors, passed away at the age of 66. His name is hardly familiar in the West and even in India, his films remain out of reach for most Indians. Kaul's features are available through various sources on the internet but DVDs of his films are next to impossible to find. As per Chidananda Das Gupta in his book Seeing is Believing hardly any film of Mani Kaul was "released in public theatres" in India. So this means a few generations of Indians have never seen anything by him. Not surprizingly, knowledge of his films is almost non-existent in the wider global cinematic sphere.

Thankfully, some articles and websites are keeping his legacy and memory alive.

  • Indian Auteur has done an excellent job in discussing Kaul's films and writing. Here are two articles on their website, with the first being an essential read because it was written by Kaul himself:
    Beneath the surface: Cinematography and Time
    Call Money or Mani Kaul

  • Srikanth at The Seventh Art has a wonderful post about Mani's films and also has a collection of writings and interviews.

  • Catherine Grant also has a nice round-up at Film Studies for Free.

  • Hopefully, a global retrospective of Mani's films is done and a clean DVD transfer of his films is finally realized.