IT'S A HOT WET NIGHT but we're cool and dry in our flying lounge furnished with voluptuous chesterfields and easy chairs upholstered in moss green and taupe plush, elderly brass lamps with vellum shades, and mahogany end tables, each featuring an immense cut glass ashtray, which Jesse, a veteran of numerous Little Rock bar fights, calls a "noggin popper." There are five of us --- a small film crew --- half asleep in this carefully embalmed corporate aircraft. The interior resembles a swarthy 1946 theater lobby designed by Edward Hopper and reconfigured to fit a DC-3 tail-dragger operated by Pottery Barn International Airlines. We're in Brazil shooting a documentary film for a big U.S. company. Through no fault of my own, certainly not because I am especially qualified, I was hired to record sound. We were a week in Mexico, another in Argentina, a few days in the megalopolis of Sao Paulo and we make our last stop --- Rio de Janeiro --- momentarily.
There is a laid back rivalry between the Paulistas (as the inhabitants of Sao Paulo are called) and the Cariocas (as the people of Rio are known). The Paulistas consider themselves diligent and industrious (which is mostly true), and see the Cariocas as principally interested in hedonism and frivolity (which is even more true). When the Paulistas we were working with heard we were going to Rio, we were told this joke:
"You know the Cristo?" they asked, "The big statue on Corcovado with his arms extended to each side in blessing?"
"Well, it's said that the first time the first Carioca does a full day's work, the Cristo's hands will come together and applaud. He will applaud!"
Jesse laughed until he couldn't breathe. "When they say 'Cristo,'" he asked me later, "do they mean Christ?" Jesse, the assistant cameraman, has kept me entertained since we met at LAX. He grew up in Arkansas, though he's been working in the movie business in L.A. for nearly a decade, which has turned him into a winning blend of clueless country boy and film business hipster. He was a riot in Buenos Aires. One day when he was setting up the camera on the tripod he draped the battery belt over the top, causing a jeep filled with fifteen year old machine gun toting soldiers to screech to a halt right in front of us. The boy-soldiers had mistaken the camera and tripod for a machine gun with a belt of bullets. Fortunately there was a policeman with us who explained everything. Still, Jesse seized the opportunity to bellow "Viva la revolución" a couple times, which neither the policeman nor the soldiers found particularly amusing. "No sense of humor," Jesse grumbled.
Being part of a small film crew on the road is much like touring with a rock band, minus the glamour, money, sex, limousines, drugs, free-flowing liquor, opulent hotels and rock 'n' roll, but with nearly as much equipment to be carted around and no roadies to cart it. And little in the way of VIP deference --- when we entered Brazil even the nattily dressed, cash in hand, ad agency representative who met us couldn't grease our way through customs. We were ushered to a special room set aside for travelers with odd or abundant baggage. We waited in that sauna for more than an hour while they processed a woman with a suspiciously extravagant collection of jewelry, another carrying eight fur coats (fur coats in Brazil? an ice sculptress perhaps?), and a man holding a small plastic box labeled "Human Eyeballs."
In Rio things are simpler. Once we get to the hotel, we merely have to unload the gear in what has become a tropical downpour while a dozen or so fast-talking adolescent boys with sparking eyes, darting hands and flickering fingers dance around our $350,000 worth of technology. Four of us carry the black cases into the hotel lobby while the production manager keeps the urchins at bay by handing out fistfuls of reais (pronounced hey ice) and, when the cash is gone, demonstrating a couple of magic tricks. The boys take an unwholesome interest in the sleight of hand.
I hike to my room and immediately get in the shower. After a lukewarm twenty minute soak, I open a small bottle of Chivas Regal and find a radio station playing Martinho da Vila's "Vai Ou Nao Vai." Just as I lie down on the bed, the phone rings. It's David, the production manager, a nervous, Cagneyesque character who could sell parkas in Tahiti. He's had a call from L.A., from the producer of one of those magazine shows. They're doing a segment on Brazil and they'll pay big money for footage of a samba club in Rio. Will we do it? The money they're offering is outrageous --- we each stand to make more for a few hours of work than we're making for an entire week on the documentary. Only problem is we'll have to work all day on the corporate film then shoot at the samba club through the night --- the place doesn't start simmering until 11 PM and doesn't break into a boil until around 3 AM. And then we'll have to work for at least twelve hours the following day.
Of course we'll do it.
I pour more Chivas, lie down again on the bed and shut off the light. A hot breeze comes through the tall louvers covering the windows. As I sip the whiskey I hear live music --- steel drums --- far away, down the street. Boys' voices are coming from the beach. They sound drunk. Maybe they got that way with the money we gave them for not making off with a tape recorder. Maybe they're practicing sleight of hand on a tourist reckless enough to stroll the beach at night. The sound of the boys fades as they walk down the Avenida Atlantica. Now I can hear the people in the next room. They're making love. Exuberantly.
It could have something to do with the fact that I'm listening through headphones most of my waking hours, or perhaps it's nothing more than the solitude of being on location. But on this trip it seems that one of the best things about the hotel nights is the possibility of overhearing the people in the next room making love. In addition to my purely lurid fascination, there is something peculiarly intimate --- even comforting --- about being the silent partner in passion. And of course the torrid, sensory lushness and fecund ambiance of Rio de Janeiro heightens that feeling. Everything seems perilous or illicit here. When I take a drink of whiskey or pull open the shutter I feel like I'm getting away with something wicked. The sad delightful boys are both sweet and dangerous ("Most of 'em are packin' heaters," Jesse informs me. "One had a side buster the size of a carvin' knife tucked in his belt --- I seen it when his shirt blew back.") And then there are the dark, flirtatious girls on their way home from the beach, and the obsidian-eyed women in sleeveless blouses and breezy skirts. Just pronouncing their names is like softly chewing rum-soaked velvet. It now occurs to me that "The Girl from Ipanema" --- a song that I've never given much thought --- is not merely suave, hopeful incantation, nor cocktail party make-out music, but more like celebratory journalism printed on the honey breath of bossa nova.
Morning in Rio is a hangover. Not just me, but the entire city. It's a groggy golden dawn. In truth the cloud ceiling is at about thirty-five feet so I can't really be sure, but I am sure that looking at the mosaic swirls washing over the sidewalk makes me nauseous. No one else seems to feel much better. Even the boys are more sedate today, halfheartedly soliciting reais, helping us load the cases in return for a few sips from my coffee and a couple of sweet rolls I've brought from the room. One kid even steals my fountain pen and then returns it a few minutes later. Apparently Rio's pickpockets have adopted the catch-and-release policy so popular among fly-fisherman.
Twenty minutes later we're back in our airplane --- the shadowy theater lobby of the sky --- being flown to a cattle, coffee and sugarcane plantation. After an hour or so we descend over rolling savanna to a stripe of red dirt bordered by chest-high grass. Ant hills fifteen to twenty feet tall stick up out of the foliage like enormous rust color baguettes. Giant hedges of bamboo too dense to walk through border the fields.
The ranch foreman, a dark man dressed all in khaki, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, meets us as we disembark. "Now don't go beyond the clearing here," he says, indicating the airstrip. "Don't go into the grass."
"An anaconda ate my calf last week, swallowed it whole. He's probably still in the area. The snakes, you know, it takes them a long time to digest."
"Yeah, I imagine it would," I say with a gulp.
"Snake cain't eat a cow," Jesse whispers to me as the foreman drives us out to the cane field to film the cutters.
"Really, now," he says. "I might go for a chicken, but a cow. Next thing he'll be sellin' us mule eggs."
If it weren't that it's brutal work performed in muggy, sweltering weather for disgraceful wages, cane cutting could be looked at as rather marvelous agrarian choreography. The cutters' appearance is dramatic. They look like disheveled Bedouins who've been sprayed with red ochre, their heads wrapped in sweaty rags to keep the fine dust and cane fiber out of their hair, nose and mouths. Their arms are deep brown, muscular, polished with perspiration. In one fluid movement a cutter grabs a stalk of cane at eye level, swings the machete through the thick stem near the ground, spins the cut stalk one hundred eighty degrees and shoots it backwards. As it flies over his head, the cutter somehow reverses the direction of the machete and trims the stalk's leafy top at the same time he almost gives himself a nose bob. The entire process takes a fraction of a second and a field full of these sugarcane samurai, advancing twenty or thirty abreast in one unified, ritual movement, is a singular sight.
We film around the plantation until sunset. I have a beer and a sandwich on the flight back to Rio and sleep for awhile. When I awake we're on final approach and I'm ready for the samba club. But it's not yet ready for us. It's too early. Instead we will get one of the night shots we need for the documentary --- a view of Rio from Corcovado, the city's highest point and the pedestal for the great Cristo. The Cristo --- Christ the Redeemer --- weighs more than 1000 metric tons and stands about ten stories high, though being mounted atop Corcovado, with all of Rio spread below, makes it seem more like one-thousand stories. At the statue's base massive mercury-vapor lamps point almost straight up, washing the monument with a hard lavender light. It's warm and humid so we're all stripped down to our white T-shirts. The spill light makes our torsos glow. As we get closer to the lamps we glow more and our luminescent shirts become targets for the thousands of moths, known as nighthawks, swarming in the pillars of light angling up at the Cristo. The moths are the size of an average butterfly, but their wings are shaped like Isosceles triangles. Their furry bodies look like short, fat cigars. They crash into us and fall to the ground at an alarming rate. First two or three, then twenty, thirty, fifty. To avoid them we have to retreat into the shadows and as we do we crunch the small kamikazes underfoot. It's not pleasant, but it can't be helped, they're everywhere. At the same time the fog boils up around the statue. Sometimes we see the Cristo's head and other times it disappears in a cloud of nighthawks and vapor. "Fellini," I think, "Fellini would have loved this." Jesse runs back and forth trying to find a clear view before he calls the cameraman over, but every time he gets the tripod set up he, or the Cristo, is swaddled in mist, or a squadron of moths thumps against his chest and he has to bat them to the ground. Jesse sums up the moment with his usual precision: "I must look like a monkey trying to fuck a football." We never get the shot. Just after 1 AM we head back down the mountain.
The samba club is a parking garage with its rear wall open to the beach. By night it's transformed. The cars are gone and strings of colored lights are looped over the pipes on the ceiling. A bar is set up in the middle of the garage and a plywood stage is positioned with its back to the beach and the moonlit bay. While the rest of us were dodging anacondas and cane cutters, David spent the day in the plantation office making tonight's filming arrangements and consuming more Brazilian coffee than any mortal should. The club is already jammed with people when we arrive, but within an hour the crowd has doubled in size. Over the next hour the cameraman, Ron, burns through five rolls of film, I use all the tape I've brought along and by 3:00 or so we're finished. It's been a 19 hour work day. The equipment goes back to the hotel with Ron, David and the director. I decide to stay. "These ladies seem very, very friendly," Jesse observes. And he stays too.
Indeed, all through the night three or four women standing near the bar have been smiling and waving whenever we looked in their direction. We, of course, waved back. We now make our way through the crowd and introduce ourselves as best we can --- their English is about as good as our Portuguese, but we get by. The music's so loud you can barely make yourself heard so we mainly smile and buy them drinks. Jesse doesn't put up much of a fight when one of the women, who looks like Tyra Banks only more so, pulls him out to the dance floor. "These ladies got more curves than that road down Corcovado," are his parting words.
Meanwhile, I've gotten as friendly as one can in public with Anna. I know her name's Anna because she wrote it on a scrap of paper along with her phone number, but not before I'd bought her three drinks and we'd taken a prudent twenty minutes to get to know each other. Her hair is what I first noticed. It hangs down to the back of her knees in a single, thick braid secured by a purple ribbon. Her dress, a dangerous experiment in minimalism, is also purple. But her eyes are as black as blackness gets down in one of those undersea caverns. Her eyes are dark and luminous at the same time if that's possible.
Once, when I pointed to Jesse, who was dancing like a man possessed and cackling like a fool, Anna turned fast to see him and her braid quickly wrapped itself around my leg. I'm sorry to report that it just as quickly unwrapped itself. Later, we're gazing at each other in a drunken, samba-like, Rio de Janeiro sort of way when a dog walks up and licks my hand. Startled, I spill my drink. Anna thinks that's terribly funny, so funny that she keeps laughing as we walk out to the beach and start dancing in the sand. It's a nearly impossible thing to do --- sand dancing --- especially after downing several glasses of caipirinha (lime juice with sugarcane liqueur), but it's important to try. It's aerobic exercise and I believe it builds character while it strengthens the heart. It's clear that Anna feels the same way.
Our equilibrium soon gives out and we fall down on the sand next to a small overturned boat. We don't really stop dancing though. We roll around and kiss, caress each other in all sorts of fascinating ways and generally engage in intensely warm international relations. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that Anna's braid seems to have a life of its own, crawling over us, tunneling through the sand, tickling me, and at one point winding around my head like a turban. You'd be surprised the things you can do with a long black braid, a short purple ribbon and a little bit of imagination on the beach in Rio at 4AM.
I can't really tell you how we got back to the hotel. I think Jesse's friend had a car. Yes, I'm pretty sure that was it. Anyway, we did. And it's another hungover Rio morning with a cloud ceiling that now seems to be just above the bed. I painfully roll over toward the table. There is Anna's number written in the most beautiful handwriting on the most beautiful scrap of paper that you've ever seen. I know she's got a big job ahead of her shampooing the sand out of that braid. Maybe I could go over and give her a hand. I'll call and offer my assistance. What a fine and generous idea. But just as I'm about to, the phone rings. It's David.
"Plane leaves in an hour. And on the way out we gotta go by and settle up with the barkeep for the samba club. You packed?"
"What do you mean 'settle up'?" I ask from a dark corner in Stuporville.
"Seems we ran up quite a tab last night."
"I paid cash" I say. " So did Jesse."
"Remember waving at the ladies by the bar?" David asks me.
"Turns out that all night long they were telling the bartender that the film crew was buying drinks for them and their friends. The bartender took the waving as confirmation. I cooled him out --- he was a little ticked 'cause you guys left without paying. We're going to have to pony up about $380..." I say a few words of contrition and hang up. I don't care really. I know Jesse doesn't. An Arkansas boy will pay any amount of money to have that much fun in that kind of company. "Besides," he tells me later. "How often do you get to Rio?"
It all shook out, just like it always does. I regret not helping Anna wash the sand from her braid, but I guess if she'd wanted me to she would have given me a real phone number.