Manda Bala (2005) – Put down that frog and step away

Before dealing with the end of the world as we know it, which this movie does not explicitly mention but which is lurking there in the unspoken background – before dealing with that, it being a pet peeve of mine, let me mention first an equally annoying pet peeve: many podcasters, the Spout podcasters occasionally among them, use the expression “begs the question” when they actually mean “raises the question.” This error of diction has become so common in the U.S. today that it’s probably useless to even mention it here, but since I heard it again on FilmCouch recently, let me remind those who might be unaware of it that “begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without evidence other than the argument itself. Thank you.

Meanwhile, back in the day, if you hated documentaries but had to write a paper on one, you could head down to Ninth and Trawler and catch The Nudist Story at the Jewel Box. The Nudist Story is the film where everybody plays volleyball with their backs turned to the camera. Otherwise, you were stuck with “Hemo the Magnificent” or “Our Mister Sun” or a training film explaining how to avoid the clap and why you ought to do so instead of chasing around after the girls at school who were reputed to be the biggest pushovers. These days, in addition to naked flesh, you can find lots of other quite acceptable entertainment in nonfiction films – crime and corruption in its multivarious forms, incest, child abuse, pedophilia, perversions both common and obscure, the apocalypse, and George Bush. Manda Bala, for example, will get you through the night quite agreeably, with a laugh or two, when you can’t count on slipping a review of Hostel II past your Remedial English 2B class instructor.

Manda Bala executive summary: That’s all you got?

But stand by while I rethink that.

Manda Bala Cliff Notes: Frog farm launders money for massively corrupt president of the Brazilian congress; kidnappers are mean; a guy worries about getting mugged in Sao Paulo; bulletproof cars (if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me); plastic-surgery surgery, with blood and music that has a cutting edge; using a helicopter to avoid carjacking; no helicopter-jacking, sadly; and the clincher: politicians can be corrupt.

“Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”) is an expression common in Brazil but hard for me to explain in English, at least as I understand it (feel free to correct me). Imagine a situation like Iraq, for example – sixth year of the war, unrelenting violence, little water or electricity in Baghdad, a sense of inevitable disaster – you might look at that and just say “Manda Bala,” meaning “What the hell, go ahead and pull the trigger.”

I checked out a few reviews of Manda Bala while awaiting my screener, just to pick up on the buzz. The temperature ran hot (except for Stephen Holden): “rich vibrancy of threat,” “inexcusable violations of political faith and public safety,” “hauntingly mounted voyage,” “shocking and scary,” “mesmerizing, tense, exciting,” “a country and a society entirely out of control,” “black humor and stomach-churning detail,” “the ravages of political graft and unchecked crime.” Documentary Grand Jury prize winner at Sundance. Cleaned up at the Cinema Eye Awards. “A film that cannot be shown in Brazil.” Wow.

Well, Manda Bala can’t be shown in Brazil because one of the guys appearing in the movie told the young men who made it that he’d sue their asses three ways from Sunday if the film ever opened in a theater in that country. Always some sorehead out there with his hand in your pocket.

So is it true that if the filmmakers have particular interests, a design, and a message in mind, but I don’t share those interests, don’t apprehend the design, and misunderstand the message, then how blame is apportioned between maker and viewer for the disconnect will determine whether the movie is good or bad? Because my executive summary above is not in exact accord with the thoughts and intentions of the filmmakers.

I believe that in the last analysis, the principal interest of Jason Kohn (the director and principal producer – that is, the guy who made the movie) was to make a feature-length theatrical documentary with the film values of a mainstream motion picture – the values of a Hollywood action flick, for example. Like Errol Morris, and maybe because of Morris’ influence, Kohn’s aesthetic here represents the flip side of cinema verite, handheld video cameras, minimalism, and made-for-TV documentaries. For example, Morris prepares sets before shooting, recreates scenes, and uses the “Interrotron” – his invention – when interviewing (a device that, when used correctly, lets viewers make eye contact with subjects in the documentary). A Morris quote has it that style doesn’t dictate truth, so that the handheld camera should not be a prerequisite these days for making documentaries. Kohn hates (his word) the common belief that content will always win out over form; that form is a slave to content. Cinematic effects can be used to make a point with style (vide The Thin Blue Line). There is a provocative element in this idea. Kohn invokes Robocop and Lethal Weapon as film models and Verhoeven, Ridley Scott, and Terry Gilliam as major influences. He wanted to use film rather than videotape in Manda Bala and was able to obtain 35mm lenses adapted for a 16mm camera. Manda Bala is shot in anamorphic Super 16; at 2.69:1, it’s wider than Cinemascope. Kohn says that he made the choice in part as an anti-TV statement. At the time, HBO, the most profitable channel for documentaries, had announced that they wouldn’t letterbox. Kohn also is bugged by TV documentaries that add footage to find a theatrical release. He wanted to make a film that delivers visually in the theater. He wanted to light sets, use dollies, and try out filming techniques used in action flicks. He said that film makes everyone look great, like an actor. He didn’t want to go down to South America, a rich kid by Latin standards, and stick a handheld camera in the faces of the poor. (In the event, the poor onscreen are few and far between. In an odd turn, most of those interviewed about a country gone terribly wrong appear themselves to be saints.) As Kohn expresses it, he wanted to make a documentary Robocop. To him, documentaries aren’t a separate form; they’re just another genre. For example, Morris borrowed from noir when making The Thin Blue Line. Heloísa Passos won the Cinematography Award at Sundance for shooting the movie.

I, on the other hand, received Manda Bala on DVD in the mail and watched it letterboxed on TV. I might as easily have watched it on a laptop or even on an Ipod. So while I can sing the praises of Lawrence of Arabia or a Terrence Malick flick as seen in the theater, I was never going to be watching this one there. So the sad fact is, I’m not in a position to comment on this aspect of the movie, perhaps the most important to its director. Besides, isn’t this supposed to be a golden age for documentaries? Seems like most of the Rotten Tomatoes 90+ movies are documentaries, and there is quite a list of them. And if the theatrical version of a documentary is made with TV values and 30 minutes of extra footage, it might bug Kohn but it doesn’t matter to me because I won’t be paying $10 to see it in the theater anyway. And with the current lively DIY movement and mumblecore and me having just reviewed LOL for example, I’m not especially focused on the photographic values of a film, documentary or fiction, anyway. Although Ten Canoes did knock me out.

So watching the film on my couch without knowing anything about what I’ve said so far, Manda Bala looked ok. It looked good.

In addition to these theatrical and cinematical considerations, Kohn wanted to investigate several interesting subjects. In particular, he wanted to go to Brazil and shoot some footage of a frog farm that he knew about and of matters pertaining to a plastic surgeon that he had heard about. And in the process, he wanted to avoid polemics. In Kohn’s opinion, feature documentaries are a poor way to push political agendas. With Bush getting elected in spite of Fahrenheit 9/11, maybe I agree with him. And Kohn wasn’t interested in documentary filmmaking as journalism. Viewers expecting an expose or other newsworthy story will not find it here. Kohn wanted to go expressionistic, not journalistic. He wanted to experiment and discover what could be done with a documentary, not set out with digitized video in mind. Maybe do something like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

I, contrariwise, am not intrigued by frog farms or plastic surgery and I don’t have a problem with, and in fact might lean toward, polemical documentaries that observe high journalistic standards and push agendas. So that’s another strike against me vs Manda Bala, going in. And the Sundance prizes perturbed my attitude as well. I mean, this is a film made by three very young and inexperienced filmmakers and needs to be, must be, approached and appreciated that way, which in my case, because of the buzz, sadly wasn’t.

Finally, Kohl learned that he needed a story. He needed to tell a story and make it look good. His second of three editors, Doug Abel, taught him what that meant. Kohn credits Abel with cutting the film into a coherent story. I could be interested in a story. A story, that I could go for.

But to back up a little: Jason Kohn graduated from Brandeis in 2001 and got a job as a researcher for Errol Morris. He visited his dad in Brazil at Christmas, 2001, to look into the filming of the frog farm and the plastic surgeon. His dad knew a lot of folks down there and had some influence in the community; Brazil has a lot of poor people, and a collection of the super rich, but the middle class isn’t so big. Then, in the summer of 2002 at the age of 23, Kohn flew down to actually shoot some film. He called a friend, Joey Frank, and asked him to come down for a couple of months too, to help in Sao Paulo. Kohn knew Frank from Brandeis, but Frank had transferred to Brown, where he was scheduled to graduate in 2003. When Kohn called him he was 21.

Kohn’s father is Argentinian, his mother Brazilian. His father had been robbed in his car four or five times in the past seven years and talked about it a lot, and also complained continually about the rampant corruption in Brazil. Jason knew that the frog farm was used for money laundering and that the plastic surgeon specialized in rebuilding the ears cut off kidnapping victims, and he thought that he might make a short film dealing with corruption and the country’s concomitant street violence and how they might interrelate, with the farm and surgeon serving as framing examples for the central idea of the film.

Frank joined Kohn in Sao Paulo and they asked a third friend, Jared Goldman, who was working at Miramax, to provide backup from the States. Kohn, Frank, and Goldman are credited as Manda Bala’s producers. Kohn is also the director, Frank the assistant director. Kohn and Frank spent two and a half months doing preproduction work in Sao Paulo. They used Kohn’s dad’s house as one office and his mom’s house in the States as the other for the duration of the project.

Kohn had sold his car and saxaphone to raise money and had otherwise managed to raise 10K or so. Frank brought 10K too. The film began with a summer budget of 25K. Kohn talked Heloísa Passos into shooting the movie. Then they filmed the frog farmer and surgeon, and a detective on kidnapping detail, a paranoid businessman, a microchip salesman, an assistant attorney general, and a kidnapping victim. They came home with 25 hours of film, cut together a trailer, got grants from Sundance and Brandeis, and found an investor.

As they worked on their thesis that corruption at the top breeds violence at the bottom, they came to realize that they needed more than the frog farm and some ear surgery to make a decent Robomentary. They went back to Brazil the next summer and shot 25 more hours of film. With that they had a feature film without an ending, as they put it. In fact, “ending” here might be code for “story,” “arc,” “compelling narrative.” They decided that they needed a kidnapper in the film and waited around with 10K in bribes to interview one that they had found in prison. However, a bookkeeping error dealing with the exchange rate meant that they were 20K behind, not 10K ahead. And, the kidnapper was transferred to a different prison. The interview never happened.

After finding, finally, funding for a third phase, Kohn went back to Brazil, hung out for six months until a taxi driver taking him to the dentist told him that he could hook him up with a kidnapper. Kohn met the kidnapper at a McDonald’s, handed over some money, was taken to the kidnapper’s home, interview him multiple times, and also got a brief interview with the corrupt politician at the center of the film. A final version of Manda Bala was cut together and finally, after five years of effort, the filmmakers had their film. Six months later it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

So, young men make a movie and it is what it is. No, it isn’t what it is; it’s something else. It isn’t what Kohn says it is, exactly, and probably not what I thought I saw it was, but it’s in the neighborhood of what it is.

It really struck me how young these fellows were when my daughter, in her last year at Brown, mentioned that one of the boys from her high school, who is also at Brown, was friends with Joey Frank. Frank’s Facebook page is not exactly that of a graybeard, either.

After Manda Bala was released, Kohn and Frank in commentary and interviews seem to be finding their way a little toward an explanation of the movie that they had made. They represent Manda Bala as an impressionistic collage of scenes that, taken together, recontextualize the relationship of political corruption to street violence.

I, however, took the movie to be telling me, as if I might not know it already, that kidnapping is currently a growth industry for the poor in Brazil.

This was not Kohn’s intention. He well knows that street violence in general and the kidnapping industry in particular in Sao Paulo are not expose-worth in 2008. City of God was released in 2002. In Kohn’s view, while City of God (one of the great Brazilian films in his estimation) is a pretend documentary, Manda Bala is a pretend fiction. They make a nice pair. In fact, Manda Bala crew members claimed to belong to the City of God crew a time or two. Opened some doors.

So kidnapping for profit isn’t popular in the U.S. because there is too much risk for too little gain, penalties too stringent, and a strong law-enforcement focus on the crime. For example, my parent’s house was robbed twice before the two addicts across the street decided to go for a bigger payday and were immediately arrested for kidnapping a kid down the block and botching the ransom pickup. But on the other hand, kidnapping for ransom is now common in many parts of the world. In 2007, Baghdad was dubbed kidnapping capitol of the world by whomever it is that does that dubbing. Previous title holders include Mexico and Colombia. You’re also a high snatch risk in Haiti, Moscow, and parts of Africa. And in Sao Paulo. Manda Bala does get a little breathless over this fact.

In the U.S., selling drugs provides the standard entry-level employment opportunities for some of the poor who can’t get a job at Wal-Mart. We’re just not into kidnapping-as-a-business yet. I was visiting in Bogota last year and my friend’s daughter was crossing from her parked car to the front door of the apartment building one night and got grabbed on the sidewalk. A flash kidnapping. Her abductors drove her to a bank machine where she withdrew the max allowed. This was at 11:55 PM. They drove around for six minutes and then had her do it again. Then they drove her out to a dump on the outskirts of the city. She told them that she was a doctor working with the poor (which was true). Whether or not that was the reason, they let her get out of the car and drove away without shooting her. When the police brought her home, she went into her room and closed the door and didn’t come out for three days.

Meanwhile, the ear-cutter-offer in the movie tells us that his ill-gotten gains are spent helping the poor in the slums where he lives. A Hezbollah/Hamas/Sadr militia model of social welfare.

I’m guessing that the vogue in kidnapping in the past decade has something to do with technology: the spread of cell phones, the Internet, and the availability and affordability of an arsenal of new, powerful weapons. In Sao Paulo, kidnappings are running at a rate of one per day. In Manda Bala we see, first, evil faceless kidnappers. Then, the tough cops who hunt them down like dogs (81 cops in a city of 20 million, poorly paid and prone to accept bribes). As mentioned above, the filmmakers try to find a kidnapper to interview. They learn about one in prison but the bribes necessary to get to him would have busted the movie budget, so eventually, by luck, they hooked up, through that traditional source of connections, the cab driver, with a kidnapper in a ski mask. (Hard to find a ski mask in Brazil? Couple of the classic ski resorts in the Andes have closed because their glaciers have melted.) This man in the mask had killed and would kill again (but as he tells us in his defense, he’s mostly just killed policemen). He has robbed. He has kidnapped. He’s done ears. He’s probably instantly identifiable in that mask to anyone who already knows him, cop, neighbor, or victim, from his eyes, mouth, and voice. This is a man who has lived his life in the slums. Gives freely of his ill-gotten gains to his needy co-slum dwellers. Nine kids. Wife pregnant with number 10. For me, him talking about his family is the most affecting moment in the film. As he is interviewed, police snoop around nearby and the filmmakers are wishing that they had worn Kevlar vests for the occasion. Later, after the movie was completed, the police caught up with the man. He killed two of them and they shot him in the stomach and shoulder. On the way to the hospital, he acquired a third bullet hole, this one in the head.

Juxtaposed with the kidnapping material are scenes documenting a serious case of political corruption. That juxtaposition is the point of the movie, not the fact of the corruption itself, which has been endemic in Brazil from the jump in 1500. Europe’s relationship with the country was exploitive for centuries, as wood, gold, sugar, and coffee were carried off across the Atlantic. (And if memory serves, the pre-Columbian Native Americans were a shifty-eyed lot around those parts as well.)

Regrettably, as I did with the kidnapping segments, I took Manda Bala to be informing me of something that I already knew, not recontextualizing the facts being presented. As I watched, I had the thought that finding corruption in Brazil is like finding penguins in Antarctica. You can make an interesting documentary about your discovery, but the basic fact of it is not surprising. Just to say again, Kohn wasn’t finding penguins in Brazil, because he knows a hundred times more about corruption in that country than I ever will, for sure; just that it seemed that way to me as a first-time viewer of the movie.

The politician highlighted here, Jadar Barbalho, President of the Senate (or something), took millions – make that two billion, so greedy – from the government via public works programs, and sent it out of the country while in the process created over 400 businesses to wash the money, employing the poor of his state. Who knows how much he kept for himself, but enough trickled out into the community to get him re-elected. Naturally he never paid for his crimes. Compare and contrast this with a president of our own who takes a trillion or so for a bogus war, most of which finds its way into the pockets of the corporations of his buddies. Would he have been reelected in Brazil as he was in the U.S.? But no more snark. I’m just sayin. An oil man becomes president and the oil companies make more money than any business in history. As someone asked the other day, if Colonel Sanders were elected and the price of fried chicken went up 500%, would anybody ask why? But no more snark. Those of us who are Americans (as we blithely call ourselves in the U.S.) live in an environment that fomented the savings and loan debacle of the 80s, the tech collapse of the 90s, energy deregulation and Enron, and the current mortgage crisis. What do I care about a corrupt official in Brazil when the government here has turned me and my 401K over to a global business culture as immoral and rapacious as any fallen angel let loose in the Sacred Heart girls dormitory on the Night of the Dead? Nah, I’m just kidding. But there is a reason to care about corruption in Brazil, in addition to simply exercising our basic humanity, a reason which I’ll get around to in a second.

Brazil wants and needs foreign investment, but the country’s reputation for corruption is a problem for it. Lula da Silva ran on a platform to clean up the government, but whether he really meant that or not, he has encountered a bureaucracy designed, built, and endlessly refined over centuries to encourage and nurture bribery and all the other time-tested methods of fiscal chicanery specific to the human species. Voters hoped that Lulu’s election would bring change, but money laundering and manipulation of large government contracts in thousands of cases like the frog farm have continued to be reported. Public trust in the political system is poisoned. Although Lula da Silva himself seems to have remained clean, some of his closest political allies have been or are being investigated. He governs by coalition, and coalition means political bribery. A mensalão (‘monthly pay-off’) bought votes in Congress; scandal resulted in 2005. Polls indicate that a majority of Brazilians still believe that Lula is honest, but only 16% trust the political parties to be honest. The government may be one of the most corrupt in history and that corruption interferes with the government’s attempts to control the imbalance in economic status and the unrest and crime that it causes.

If it were just a matter of humans preying on humans, the situations in this movie could be applied to many different countries. But unfortunately, Brazil happens to be home to most of the Amazon rainforest. I’ve already pointed out once, when reviewing Out of Balance, that the world is going straight to hell. But since that is sort of a trippy concept and there are infinite engaging examples that adumbrate the approaching darkness and chaos, a few more words on the subject might not come amiss.

That is, forget about the kidnappers and their predilection for de-earing their captives. Brazil is busy tearing out the lungs of the world and has been for years. While Brazilian engineers tout the use of satellite technology to save the Amazon rainforest, loggers, miners, and farmers keep on cutting. 20% of Earth’s oxygen is produced by the rainforest (soon to be remembered only as that place down there that gave its name). Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister and an Amazon native, has developed a plan to stop deforestation, which is currently progressing at 1.3 million hectares a year. She breaks the problem down geographically into specific areas. However, in spite of Brazil’s struggle to implement her plan, the country remains the fifth-largest global contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s up there with the big boys: the U.S., China, and India. Deforestation is the second most significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the world, contributing 25% of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. In a major operation in 2005, nearly 90 public officials, businessmen, and loggers were arrested. Environmental protection agency (IBAMA) employees charged with protecting the forests from illegal loggers had been accepting bribes from logging companies in return for falsifying permits to transport timber to markets within Brazil and abroad. The illegal logging takes place primarily in Mato Grosso, where environmental organizations estimate that two-thirds of all logging was being carried out illegally. IBAMA has been reorganized in an attempt to eliminate corruption, but it’s too early to see if that’s doing any good. (Care to hazard a guess?)

I’m sure that you’ve read or heard factoids like “One square mile of rainforest can contain more than 50,000 insect species” or “One hectare (2.47 acres) of land can contain more than 480 species of trees” or “Amazon rivers contain over 2,000 species of fish.” 1.5 acres of rainforest is lost every second in the world – 78 million acres a year. At this rate, 85% of Earth’s remaining rainforest will disappear by the year 2020. 137 species of plants and animals go extinct every day.

Every so often, a ray of light gleams out, such as a recent conference of 11 Latin American countries in Brazil, with Indonesia and Congo as observers, held for and attended by leaders of indigenous groups in those countries. They explored carbon-trading policies that would compensate thier governments for conserving rainforest. In Brazil, indigenous tribes currently retain permanent rights to 12% of the country and 21% of the Amazon, plus 49 million acres of “extractive reserves” for rubber tappers, brazil-nut gatherers, and river communities. They pressure the government, which promises to get tough on logging. Deforestation rates in the country have been declining for several years (with a spike a couple of years ago). But the good news doesn’t stretch much farther than that.

So while Manda Bala doesn’t say much on the subject, here’s a toast to that ticking end-of-the-world clock. Brazil is another of America’s crazy brothers. When the awards are handed out for biggest environmental f**k-up, Brazil, like the U.S., could be jumping out of its seat to accept a gold statue in the shape of a dead planet. The sanctimonious super-rich in both countries are on their easy ride straight down to the hottest chambers of hell. Brazil, entrusted with the largest, most diverse, most important stretch of biosphere on the planet, contains the struggling yet increasing armies of the poor who are systematically reducing the country to barren baked red mud, so that “Amazonia” will in due course become a synonym for “Martian landscape.” Governmental corruption, taken to a degree that proves without doubt that humans, who learned to walk long before learning to think, are true experts at f**king up the world and each other with no hope for the obverse in sight.

A Brazilian friend told me the other day that at one point she was worried that the U.S. would send down troops and attack her country because of the way it is destroying the rainforest. I explained to her that we’re happy to attack a desert country with oil under it, but that the current E.P.A. wouldn’t know a rainforest if it found itself staggering around in one, or care.

Another angle to this is Brazil’s use of sugar-cane waste to produce ethanol, and the concomitant questions raised about the effect of this production on the environment – encroachment on the rain forest, the practice of burning the fields at harvest time, insecticide and fertilizer runoff, etc. We’ll save this for another time.

Anyway, do you believe that the Amazon will be saved? We can now see the scars on it from space.

But I digress.

In addition to the kidnapping and corrupt-politician threads, there are threads for the frogs and Mr. M. I know that the frogs are part of the corruption story but as I watched I just took them to be frogs. I know that they are an in-your-face unsubtle metaphor for the Brazilian people or the Brazilian poor or the Brazilian rich, or whatever, at least until they get eaten, but I remained oblivious to this idea while watching the movie. The frogs remained frogs. At what point in the making of the movie did Jonah, Joey, Jared, and Doug appreciate the metaphorical character of the frogs? Surely not before Jonah and Joey went down to shoot them for the first time?

Mr. M, I know now, was meant to show how the current social situation in Brazil can engender a kind of paranoia in its citizenry but unfortunately, while watching the movie, I took Mr. M (originally from Tel Aviv) to be a sort of spokesman for the film’s theses. Given my mindset, his exposition of the dire situation in the country went over the top to the detriment of the movie.

So is this user error? Missing the expressionist vibe? Merging instead of contrasting the frogs and Mr. M with the kidnappers and the corrupt politician?

Because Sao Paulo is huge. Skyscraper gardens. More money than the rest of Latin America. 20 million people is a whole lot of people, poor, rich, and otherwise. Within city limits, only Mumbai, Karachi, Istanbul, and Delhi are larger. (NYC is 9th.) For whatever reason, the sheer size and diversity of the city makes me want to take everything I’m seeing literally. The complexity seems too large for metaphor, too complicated to submit to Mr. M’s simple paranoia.

The first time in Sao Paulo, I was alone. I walked down to the edge of Paraisópolis, the city’s largest favela, and sat down and watched the activity in the street. There was a street game of some kind going one, played by a gang of young boys. One of them, small but intense, was obviously their leader. When in due course they made their way over to me, I hired that boy as my guide for a week, paying him a lot even by U.S. standards. He turned his gang over to his second in command and took control of my stay in the city. By the time I left at the end of the month I was almost dead from exhaustion.

By the way, Sao Paulo’s U.S. sister city is Miami.

Before finishing here, we must deal with the charges of sensationalism lodged against Manda Bala by various reviewers. The filmmakers dismiss the charges by pointing out that: (a) They’re exhibiting reality. Calling it sensationalism is snobbish and elitist. It’s the movie’s responsibility to portray reality. The viewer needs to know that what they are seeing and hearing about is real. (b) The filmmakers are themselves curious. They want to see how things are, what things look like. (c) Kidnappees suffer. It’s necessary for you to see that suffering, not just listen to descriptions of it.

Regarding the surgery scenes, which were storyboarded, lit, shot using a dolly, but fortunately not rehearsed, I refer you to Nip/Tuck. Regarding the ear-cutting-off footage, I refer you to Fox News any night of the week and to my Abu Ghraib album. Regarding the guns, I refer you to The Wire.

Rebuilt earlobes are hard because they’re made out of rib.

“I watched The Birds the same day they cut my first ear off. That night I dreamed the birds pecked my ear off.”

Jars of ears cut off with knives, scissors, teeth.

“I said to him, How could you sleep? You cut my ears off last night.”

The filmmakers left out the footage of a frog eating an ear.

They did not leave out the footage of a frog eating a frog.

And that frog abattoir… the slaughtering and skinning and dressing out and carving up and flouring and deep-fat frying and eating of the frogs. Is this Fast Food Nation, or what? Didn’t make me want to buy a bag of Frog McNuggets.

Car paintball.

Weener dog on pool slide.

Wait a minute. Which way am I arguing here?

Point is, the scenes in question don’t rise to the level of sensationalism, not in today’s suicide-bomber-a-day world, nevermind true docuporn. I remember sitting in Symphony Cinema II in Boston watching Mondo Cane in 1962. The guy getting hair plugs – that stayed with me.

Would it be so wrong to put in at least one scene at a topless beach?

What’s wrong with the Sundance awards? We’ll deal with that question another time.

Is the film fair and balanced? Is it too dark? Is Kohn afraid to show anything positive because it might diminish the points that the movie is attempting to make. Does the lack of good news weaken the film’s arguments? Just saw a headline in Drudge: “Global Temps Have Not Risen Since ’98.” See?

From the NYT: “Good News From Brazil. The global economy may not be the happiest of stories these days, but it would be a far more tragic one had Brazil suffered a financial implosion in the past year, as many had feared. If Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, had defaulted on its $250 billion public debt, as neighboring Argentina had done, the consequences would have been catastrophic. The resulting panic would have affected not only Latin America, but all emerging markets.” More good news. The rich are not getting poorer.

And that recent epidemic of dengue fever, causing many deaths? The good news is that it wasn’t the hemorrhagic variety in most cases, which causes a much higher death rate.

Manda Bala II: The Good Politician, The Kidnapper Who Found God, and Frogs As Pets.

The music track is excellent.

So Jonah, Joey, and Jared worked hard and did good and I congratulate them. As Jonah says, “Making the first one is about making the second one.” He’s currently working on a screenplay. Winning a big award the first time out can be both blessing and curse. Let’s hope that it’s more of the former and less of the latter for these three. And if you haven’t seen Pixote or Cidade de Deus, please do so.