Playing at the margins


John Gibbs and Suzana Reck Miranda


Published on/by



Accompanying text

This audiovisual essay looks at the work of two musicians ­­– José do Patrocínio Oliveira and Nestor Amaral. The two had successful careers in Brazilian radio and musical performance and also appeared in a number of Hollywood films of the 1940s – many of which were well-known to audiences of the day, and to scholars and enthusiasts of the present – though with little acknowledgement (and certainly few credits).
The video begins by quoting Ian Garwood’s video essay ‘How Little We Know: An Essay Film about Hoagy Carmichael’, published in [in]Transition1.3 (2014), which looks at another musician’s tangential position in relation to the action, before extending Garwood’s investigation of the musicians who make up Hoagy’s Band. Our essay then explores José and Nestor’s appearance in a range of films, many of which were products of the Good Neighbor Policy, the foreign and domestic initiative which sought to build diplomatic, economic and cultural relationships between the United States and its Latin American neighbours.[1] The opening long take of The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1943), much of which appears in the essay, emphasises the commodity value of a number of Brazilian exports, from coffee to musical performers. Indeed, the film makes explicit reference to the Policy, at the end of the following number, when Phil Baker extracts the bag of coffee beans that Carmen Miranda has dropped into his top hat and ushers her to the front of the stage to take her curtain call with the words, ‘Well, there’s your Good Neighbor policy. C’mon, honey – let’s Good Neighbor it!’.
The essay’s strategy is to collect a number of José and Nestor’s marginal appearances and through juxtaposition, and in relation to a series of on-screen titles, to draw attention to the formal and political dimensions of the deployment of the pair. The intention is also playful, and unpicking the transnational trajectory of the two musicians uncovers surprising elements to this hidden history; a coda involves engaging with Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936, 1963) the avant garde film which has become a key reference point for videographic film studies, and especially audiovisual essays dealing with screen performance. Cornell’s film foregrounds the performance of a leading actor by re-cutting a Hollywood movie – this video makes an assemblage of performances that go on behind the shoulders of the leading players, and even behind the shoulders of the first level of supporting players.[2]
As the two musicians stroll through different films, their performances shuffle opposed terms: visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, local and transnational. In Brazil, they were celebrated by magazines and newspapers as ambassadors for Brazilian music and culture; however, the films they appear in keep them in anonymity – sometimes relocating their musical qualities and nationality. Paying attention to these supporting musicians reveals intermedial encounters and transnational dialogue, tracing historical, ideological and aesthetic interactions in ways that extend our understanding of the films of the period and aid further enquiry into the relationship between film and music. The Good Neighbor Policy’s impact on motion pictures was both to highlight and to hide the skills and national identity of Latin American musicians who performed in Hollywood films, and this essay explores ways in which an intermedial approach may assist an analysis of this process.[3]


This audiovisual essay, and the collaboration that made it possible, result from the AHRC-FAPESP funded project ‘Towards an Intermedial History of Brazilian Cinema: Understanding Intermediality as a Historiographic Method’. We are grateful to our colleagues at the Federal University of São Carlos and the University of Reading, and to the funding bodies which have supported this work.
[1] The context of Second World War gave the Good Neighbor policy new impetus, and in 1940 Roosevelt appointed Nelson Rockefeller to the office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs; Rockefeller invited John Hay Whitney to lead the CIAA’s Motion Picture Division. Dale Adams, (2007) “Saludos Amigos: Hollywood and FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24: 3, 289-295.

[2] Thanks to Ian Garwood, in his review, for encouraging us to be more explicit about the the ‘behind-the-shoulder’ quality of these performances, and about the resonances between Cornell’s approach and our own.

[3] Although we had seen neither film before making the essay, the recent season Tropicália and Beyond: Dialogues in Brazilian Film History at Tate Modern (November 2017), curated as part of the IntermIdia Project by our colleague Stefan Solomon, included two Brazilian found footage films that have a relationship to this video essay: Carlos Adriano’s film on the samba singer Vassourinha (A voz e o vazio: a vez de Vassourinha, 1998), who died at the age of 19, which animates the archive to bring him back to prominence, and Joel Pizzini’s film on Glauce Rocha (Glauces: Estudo de um rosto, 2001), which constructs a film from a range of the actor’s screen performances.