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The Extreme Act

by Michel Laub* – Folha de S. Paulo 5/5/2013

Two myths of our times help us see how Romanticism continues influential.

The first of these, adapted from Rousseau’s writings, is of an original goodness: within such, culture corrupts more than improves man and the environment.

The second is of the tortured artist, who sacrifices the gift of the body for the eternity of the artwork. A famous phrase of William Blake’s, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” explains quite well the fascination surrounding names like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and more recently, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain.

Cobain, who died 19 years ago, is an example that helps better understand the uniqueness of ELENA, Petra Costa’s documentary released this May in Brazil, and showing in various festivals throughout the world. Both the ex-singer of Nirvana and the sister of the filmmaker committed suicide, the most extreme act in real and symbolical terms.

Elena was a Brazilian actress who was trying her luck in New York, in 1990. The documentary retraces her steps through photos, home videos, recordings, personal accounts and a very sensitive play of light, rhythm and sound track. It is a story of family and personal suffering, which on the surface evokes facts, people, places. It is also a story of silences, which makes the spectator imagine what is and could be in its gaps. An attempt at communicating, perhaps, what language little allows: the perplexity of those who survive, which, before fading into memory, is a mixture of affection, guilt and an inevitable sense of betrayal. This perplexity is always present in suicide, no matter how many the factors that seem to justify it. In cases like Kurt Cobain’s, it is tempting to transfer these to the realm of culture, transforming a shot in the head into a kind of response—to the greed of the industry of culture, the media and public circus, as if it were society who killed this “good savage” millionaire and heroin addict.

In the case of Elena, who was an actress but not a celebrity, the pressures were of another order. This does not keep their consequences from also being culturally contextualized. That is, in times when body health and fitness are over-emphasized and even mandated, with diet prescriptions, anti- smoking campaigns and the promotion of physical activities, where the mind/body is concerned, there is a certain glamour surrounding non-conventional behavior.

As such, it is hard to come across a film, series, soap opera, publicity piece or post on the social networks calling for a discreet, balanced life. Nothing is more popular than to look intense, rebellious, even neurotic and obsessive, a lighter form—while no less egocentric—of the cliché that genius goes hand in hand with madness.

Petra Costa’s film does not fall into this simplistic discourse. The first of its many merits is not having related Elena’s depression—which undoubtedly influenced her final choices—to her talent and sensitivity. The actress is remembered in all her generosity and charisma despite and not because of her problems. ELENA celebrates what comes before and outlives death: the harsh beauty of love which has undergone the hardest of tests.

Along the 20 years of varied interpretations of Kurt Cohain’s death, few works managed to do this. An exception is “The Last Days,” by Gus Van Sant. With another register and intent, a lead not by chance called Blake and the anaesthetized routine of his last moments, the feature discards outside motives to shed light instead on something essentially internal.

It is not an approach easy to digest. Myths are not myths for nothing. As with all aesthetic and political theories, Romanticism offers some sense to what seems to us unbearably senseless-in this case, to go against the instinct of the species, leaving behind a trail of suffering and nothing in return-neither wisdom, nor strength born of pain, nor any sort of symbolism.

As Van Sant, Petra Costa chooses to confront this emptiness, in the attempt ever in vain, to understand, rather than judge. But unlike “Last Days,” “Elena “ celebrates what comes before and outlives death: the harsh beauty of love that has undergone the worst of tests.

*Michel Laub is a writer and journalist. He published five novels, amongst which Diário da Queda (Diary of the Fall)

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