Art Plus Obscenity is Eroticism
Though Carlos Drummond de Andrade never intended his erotic poems to be published, they were, and Heddy Honigmann takes them back into the public arena again with her documentary O Amor Natural. I don’t think she can be accused of any impropriety by doing this. Firstly, the poems have been available in print for some time. Secondly and more importantly, by doing so, she has restored some of the personal passion to the pieces. Free from stifling theory, the poems resound with life on the boulevards and beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
This is largely due to the collection of honest and frank elderly people she was fortunate enough to convince to read for this film. It’s not stated how many people Honigmann approached, but those who agreed to read for the camera seem to strongly identify with the eroticism of the works despite their years—this is wonderfully conveyed in the verve of their impromptu performances. So as to appear balanced, the film includes people who have never heard of Brazil’s most celebrated poet, along with those familiar with his work.
Born into a farming family in 1902 and raised in the small village of Itabira, De Andrade is probably better known to his English-speaking audience for his poetic rendering of the quotitdian and minutiae with such poems as “In the Middle of the Road”. Though he worked for the government service for most of his life, his poems never lost their connection or appeal to common people. His erotic poetry, however, was not made public until five years after his death in 1987.
“Love, being an Essential Word”, is read by an elderly gentleman who is familiar with de Andrade’s work, but not these particular poems. As he reads, he exhales deeply with each line, seeming affected as though these were his own words and his feelings. He lingers on the trilled Portuguese fricatives and forms vowels tenderly and fully. The eroticism of de Andrade’s work is conveyed in the sounds of his words, as much as the conveyance of their meaning. When this reader finishes, and stares quietly and a little bashfully into the camera, he silently confirms the effect such poetry can have on a man.
Many readers venture opinions, in a spontaneous and unpretentious manner, on the artistic qualities of the poetry. Absent is the over-intellectualisation familiar to most students of literature. This approach is refreshing and beguiling.
One such spontaneous analysis occurred on a tram. Two women read the poem “Without Me Expecting”, which praises his lover’s buttocks and celebrates sodomy. Certainly some readers would be uncomfortable with this subject, and it could be construed as misogynistic. Yet one of the readers instead interprets this sex act as a form of fidelity, as if de Andrade is able find many women in one woman, and therefore only loves her.
Members of a women’s theater group respond with much the same openness. This time the discussion is about the true nature of erotica. One proposes an interesting formula that “art plus obscenity is erotica”. She contends that de Andrade’s language elevates his work above smut. The formulation is as handy as it is perhaps debatable, but this isn’t the point. Honigmann is trying to show that eroticism resides in the most surprising people.
For example, an 84-year-old TV actress seems much more reserved than the other readers. She gives a stilted reading of “One Morning in September”, a poem about fellatio. Her voice is weak and she doesn’t have her glasses with her, so she falters over the closing lines, “My time as a boy / My time yet to come”. Nor does she have any opinions about poetry or erotica. Because of her upbringing she claims that she never enjoyed sex.
Yet when Honigmann asked about her fantasies, the woman confesses that her “head pulsed with fantasies” she clenched her, small thin fists and said she wanted “an unknown man who took me with violence. That he forced me and taunted me. I needed that. None of that softy crap. It had to be violent because I am violent.” To see a frail old woman with her hair pulled into a schoolmistress bun exclaim this can be disconcerting. However, Honigmann doesn’t intend to shock. Rather she wants to show the perseverance of desire.
Honigmann avoids delving further into the controversial point of violence and sex. Perhaps partly out of respect for this particular woman; it would be quite rude to expect this woman to open up only to criticize her. Moreover, Honigmann is providing an opportunity for these people to express themselves. The poems are springboards for thoughts and memories. She certainly asks searching questions of a personal nature, but she rarely challenges the answers she receives. Honigmann is happier to patiently capture what the poems inspire, in the form of these unrehearsed, open responses.
One exception is when she questions an old man about his infidelity. We are introduced to him when he is asked to read “What Goes On in Bed”. He demurs in favour of his daughter because he can’t read. In this instance I think Honigmann’s challenges to the reader are justified. While fantasies or interpretations have the gloss of private thoughts, his unfaithfulness affected others, not least of all his daughter, who stands by his side throughout the interview. He was unapologetic about his affairs. To him they were an expression of his masculinity. His daughter justified it in the same machismo as her father.
This chauvinism no doubt shocks many people, as much as the elder woman’s attraction to violence. Yet as in her case, the point is to provoke his honesty, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how despicable, by another’s standards. Perhaps ironically, given this last example, men were much more reticent than women to participate in this project.
Of all readers, Donna Neuma, who also read “Love – Being an Essential Word”, has the most lasting impact on me. She was introduced to us by a dance instructor who was happy for this loquacious woman to take over the interview. She starts by singing a samba about de Andrade, while the dance instructor keeps rhythm on the outdoor table. After she reads the poem she declares enthusiastically to de Andrade, as though he were there, that his poem is a description of perfect sex. Most memorably she stops on one line, “After the delicate touch of the clitoris” and says that she doesn’t know what that is. The dance instructor doesn’t know, either. Honigmann interjects to explain and Neuma again addressing de Andrade says, “Ah, Drummond, you gave the clit a surname. That I understand.”
When Neuma finishes the poem, she gives one of the most memorable comments of all. It combines an understanding of poetry with a devilish glint “Who isn’t nostalgic for those wonderful nights? When the children were awake, the yard was our bed. And it happened on the floor. I couldn’t stop . . .”
However, by relying on confessions it can only include those who are willing to confess. Only those comfortable with their sexuality will speak about it. It is certainly refreshing to see older people, particularly older woman, express their desires and show themselves as capable of enjoying and fantasizing about sex. If nothing else it’s a counterbalance to the airbrushed choreographed sexuality in magazines and television.
Furthermore, by relying so much on her participants, the documentary is steered too much by them. Of course it’s very liberating and empowering to get a range of opinions, but the documentary was also limited by this same material. Sometimes it was about de Andrade and his works. Other times it was more about sex and desire. On still other occasions the film was concerned with memory.
I certainly relished the range of ideas but, the focus of the film changed with each participant. It was clear that Honigmann wanted to avoid guiding the readers in one direction or another. She wanted to give everything a feeling of spontaneity. This may have worked for a much shorter documentary or a series of readings, but given the scope of the documentary it invited too much confusion. This was compounded by an inconsistent approach to the photography. At times still shots of the participants were used. In other cases the cuts were short and abrupt. So while the film could be authentic and touching, it could also become sloppy and unfocussed, at times.
This documentary is an interesting and entertaining addition to the discussion of sex, aging, and poetry. It challenges stereotypes about the elderly and takes an honest look at our desires while reminding us that one of the most erotic instruments we have is language. But I feel that there were two films struggling with each other, neither of which could be fully realized.