10 September 2012

The Obligatory Mention

No question but that nowadays Mark and I are very alert to any mention of Brazil in movies, books or magazines, or in any other medium, since Brazil is now our personal reality show. Maybe if we lived in Thailand we'd be sensitive to all the references to that country ("Hey, Mark, The King & I is on TV again.") But let's face it, what we've come to call the "Obligatory Mention" of Brazil is so pervasive that half the time most people don't know it's there. Walk into any restaurant in New York, Los Angeles, Vienna or Tokyo and I promise you, you're likely to hear Bossa Nova playing in the background. You may not know that's what you're listening to, but it is. After all, Bossa Nova is great dinner music. It's also great elevator music, and you've heard it there, too, many times.

We've lost count of the number of times we're watching a movie and there's a sudden, unexpected mention of Brazil. A few months ago we were watching Alain Resnais's La Guerre est Finie, a movie set in France and Spain, with lots of talk about Italy. I was dozing off when out of nowhere came the throwaway line, "Bill's going to Brazil." Mark and I looked at each other in solemn acknowledgment of the Obligatory Mention. And just last week we were watching Howard Hawkes's To Have and Have Not. At one point, Lauren Bacall's character, "Slim," explains how she washed up on the shores of Martinique into the arms of Humphrey Bogart. She lists one, two, three countries before pausing dramatically . . . here it comes . . . "and before that I spent a few months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil."

Read Annie Proulx's Shipping News and you'll find one of the characters at the end of the book say, "No, I've decided to smile, forget and fly to Brazil. Warm. No fog . . . balmy breezes." In Chester Himes's All Shot Up, a detective potboiler set in 1950s Harlem, a character who has to get out of town fast follows the usual route in such cases: "At eleven o'clock that morning Roman Hill shipped out on a cargo vessel bound for Rio de Janeiro." Here's a more subtle reference, in Tony Parsons's Man and Wife: "She seemed to be in high spirits, blasting a plastic football . . . claiming against all the evidence that she was Pele." And then there's a strange, if not wholly incorrect, reference in Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire: "Matilda is a hurricane that formed off Brazil a few weeks ago." Gee, when was the last time any hurricane formed off the coast of Brazil? For that matter, when was the first time? A second reference in the same book ran truer to form: "‘Maybe he got on a plane to Brazil after shooting two people in Enskede,' Bublanski said." (By the way, there's a recurrent theme here, the Escape to Brazil after Committing a Crime, and I'll be talking about it in a future blogpost.)

There was a great Obligatory Mention in an August 28th Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by David Brooks, titled "The Real Romney." With delightful irony Brooks wrote, "Mitt grew up in a modest family. His father had an auto body shop called the American Motors Corporation, and his mother owned a small piece of land, Brazil." But my current favorite Obligatory Mention came on the last night of the Democratic National Convention. Thirty minutes into President Obama's acceptance speech the cameras panned the audience and stopped on a woman carrying a huge sign proclaiming: "Brazilian-Americans for Obama." That's not just an Obligatory Mention, that's plain smart.


  1. Another day I watched a comedy called "First Daughter" and the young kate Holmes and Marc Blucas play a passtime in which he asks her "What is the only country named after a tree?" and I was also surprized listening to Brazil being mentioned there.

  2. Rent the movie "Never on top" with Penelope Cruz and enjoy the sound track.

  3. In the middle of the original "Mildred Pierce," the one with Joan Crawford, her youngest daughter dresses up as Carmen Miranda and sings a few lines of "South American Way."

  4. Here's a real obscure one: in the movie The Dancer Upstairs, with Javier Bardem, he goes over to look at magazines on a table at one point. As the camera pans the magazines, there's Gisele Bundchen on the cover of the one on top.

  5. In the novel Tick Tock by James Patterson: "His new roommate, Javier Souza, a diminutive boy from a wealthy Brazilian family . . ."

  6. Then there's a line in the movie Bernard & Doris, when Doris, speaking about one of her prized orchids, says, "this is my newest baby, came all the way from Brazil . . ."

  7. And there's more! From the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a main character, suspected of murder in New York City, finally turns up in Brazil (Manaus). New York detectives set off to follow up on extradition, and one of them (an opera buff) is delighted to find the famous opera house in Manaus.

  8. Speaking of a murder suspect, in Ruth Rendell's Shake Hands Forever, we find the following: "But, my God, Reg, he must be dead scared if he's prepared to throw up his job and flit to Brazil or somewhere."

  9. Hahaha! Wonderful.

    For some reason I am always tuned and mindful for references to Brazil. Maybe because I am that kind of Brazilian afraid to be forgotten by the rest of the world? Hmmmm...

    In fact, as you said, maybe I would spot Thailand all the time if I was sensitive to it. But I suspect that Brazil is indeed referred to more often than other countries.

    I am here trying to think of reasons why. One of my hypothesis is this: Brazil has some surprising numbers. It had the biggest power plant in the world for a while, and the biggest soccer stadium, and one of the biggest number of cars and trucks in the streets, and a massive number of lightnings, massive territory... and it has a one-off language for its continent, and it has a funny way of flirting between monarchy, republic, dictatorship, far right, far left governments, and it has given rise to quite a few musical styles...

    ... what I am saying here is that this country is so big, and so full of people, and has such surprising numbers for this region in the world, and so many interesting things happen here and are amplified, that maybe it gives creative writers a good problem solving scape. Like "where will the incredibly complex mainframe that controls this artificial inteligence be based? Brazil! It could well be there in real life!" (that´s William Gibson in Neuromancer). In a more summarised way, "where could this absurdity take place and still sound believable?"

    I think it also adds to the phenomena that it is a famous country. It has been in the spotlights for a while, and once you are in, it is hard to get out.

    On a similar stream: have you ever noticed an Obligatory Mention to the month of October? Like in The Hunt for Red October, or the night when Bongo becomes the father of many puppies in 101 Dalmatians, or in the travels through time in Back to The Future, and many others?


    1. So glad you enjoyed the blogpost, Renan, my husband and I are still finding "obligatory mentions," as we call them. But the October references, well, I'm going to have to atune myself. It's an interesting theory!