|Elis Regina singing in 1973|
In Jean–Luc Godard’s Breathless, the director Jean-Pierre Melville, playing a famous director very much like Jean-Pierre Melville, disembarks from an airplane and is surrounded by reporters shouting a barrage of questions at him. In the distance he catches sight of Jean Seberg—who wouldn’t? We first see her selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysees, but here she appears to work for some culturally minded international news network. The range of her journalistic activities is quite impressive, absurdly so, but none of that matters. Whatever her actual duties, she is finally whatever Godard needs her to be, which is a beautiful way of approaching character. Continuity is an ugly virtue and Godard knows that and so he chooses feeling, flux and life every time, or at least in most of his films up to 1967, when he was both fun and important.
So Melville sees Seberg and allows her to ask a question and she comes up with a perfect one: “What is your greatest ambition in life?” Melville does not hesitate: “To become immortal and then to die.” His answer is so perfect, definitive, that it becomes in all its paradoxical glory, the truth. Here is a philosophy to live by, but as Godard will prove by the end of this, his first full feature, that truth is hard to achieve and always bitter.
Elis Regina has now been dead for thirty years. She was one of Brazil’s most popular singers, a country that excels in two effervescent acts: the playing of soccer and the singing of songs. She was called “The Hurricane” and her live performances were supposedly, to mix a couple of nature metaphors, volcanic. Maybe she was hot and fiery or wet and explosive. Whatever the case, her presence along with her talent was electric and felt to be so. You didn’t need to explain Regina in the way aesthetes try to sway the tastes of the masses. No one needed an explanation. Greatness is obvious and we fool ourselves when we think it’s not.
I have always wondered what it must feel like to be a God and have dreamed that when I die I might one day become one. But to actually live and be a God, that I can’t imagine, to exist, feel, create in a realm comparable only to nature, well, it’s not even a Godardian paradox, but simply unthinkable. The closest approximation I can come up with is constant, unending pain, Prometheus cursed to forever live on the brink of death—that is what it must mean to be immortal.
I have watched Regina sing Juan Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” on YouTube close to three hundred times. The three minutes it takes feels as if the world has passed a thousand times over. For a woman often described as “volcanic” she is precise, almost without affect. Her singing is light, controlled and yet it is the density of time and space that catches you. Most art is too long and too large and what you remember is little, bits and pieces of ideas here and there, where here her brevity is the world and for once its unaccountable fullness is clear and present.
She begins as if she’s waking up, her eyes cast downward and closed. You catch sight of them here and there, but she is not showing herself. This is the sneakiest hurricane that’s ever blown in, a hurricane on cat’s paws. And yet with each passing moment she becomes more insistent. Of course, this is a deep part of her genius, she has a thousand ways of feeling her way through a song and that’s what we are here for, that’s what we are listening to, feeling-in-motion, captured moment-by-moment, note-by-note, present and completely elusive. We aren’t quick enough to ever catch the whole gist of her singing, but not because she’s lost us in over complication, but that she sets us adrift in a dazzling simplicity.
Jobim’s song has been sung so many times that we forget its complexities and that it is hard to sing. Regina doesn’t try to hide this and embraces what amounts to failure. Listen to her work to find the rhythm about half way through—that’s what we need: to watch a deity struggle and then everything else becomes the more astounding for it. The Greeks loved demi-Gods such as Achilles exactly for their grotesque mistakes, the marshaling and squandering of their abilities, their greatness slipping away before us and we’re aghast. Yet, our world becomes bolder, more alive when an immortal fails and we are thrown into relief with them and for once everything is still and there is order.
If you were to give up on Regina’s performance, and that would be your failure, you would think that this is a depressive’s version of “The Waters of March.” She hardly smiles. It seems that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, but knowing what you’re doing is a fool’s game. She is living while she sings and she is defiantly not performing or enacting a set of gestures to signal the joy and happiness of Jobim’s music. She becomes his song and refuses to give it false signs of comfort that it does not need or ask for. After her version, everyone else’s is overwrought and undercooked.
When she does smile (and eventually laughs!) it is so overwhelming and perfect that she erases all that has happened before. She catches you in the swirl of experience and you forget everything but the moment—the moment of that smile, that laughter, the arch of her eyebrows and finally her eyes. They are open! This is not art as we’re used to it, but the justification of what it means to be human, to be alive. And the director, Dorival Dellias, who captured her performance, understands this: he films her as an instrument among other instruments, not consciousness, but music. We barely see her band and yet her presence brings their absence to life. They are not anonymous, but play with and within her and she is kind enough never to exceed them. In turns out that the God’s demand equality, that when we are in their presence we too are perfect.
Regina died of a cocaine overdoes at thirty-seven. Apparently she had a problem going back some years. That’s rather mundane, but I prefer this slightly different story that I heard the first time I knew of her and the story that many Brazilians believed. She was not an addict, in fact she did not even drink, but she was at a party and someone, probably some ugly man or crass patroness of the arts, offered her cocaine and in a moment of extreme politeness—and isn’t politeness always extreme—she took a blow. Her body was not accustomed to such banalities and so she died. This is the way a God should go. This is the way the immortals fall, a mistake, politeness, trying to help those who do not deserve their kindness, who destroy the beautiful, snaring them in their small, soulless worlds, and, in the name of fun, killing them.
©John Wilkins & CCA Arts Review
©John Wilkins & CCA Arts Review