New Film, Reaching for the Moon, Traces Life of Poet Elizabeth Bishop and Architect Lota de Macedo Soares

New Film, Reaching for the Moon, Traces Life of Poet Elizabeth Bishop and Architect Lota de Macedo Soares

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.*

At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Reaching for the Moon by Bruno Barreto, one of the most celebrated filmmakers from Brazil (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) was originally titled “The Art of Losing.” That is the refrain of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art” which chronicles ever-increasing losses—keys, names and places; then personal mementos; escalating to homes, cities and continents; and finally love. The love and then loss of this film is Bishop’s affair with self-taught architect Lota de Macedo Soares, the woman behind Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.*

Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s 2002 book, Rare and Commonplace Flowers, Bishop, having finished a stint as U.S. poet laureate, set sail for Brazil to get out of a writing rut in 1951. Visiting a friend from Vassar who is living with Lota in a spectacular modernist apartment in Rio and an estate in Samambaia outside the city. Here, Lota is constructing a new, modernist house of glass and stone of her own design. (Lota proudly says she’s left the moss on the stones.) The film’s location is actually the Cavanelas House (1954) in nearby Pedro do Rio by Oscar Niemeyer and landscaping by Roberto Burle Marx. (Lota’s actual house was too run down to be used.) Rectilinear in plan, the roof is hung from four corner triangular pylons like a handkerchief, using lightweight steel trusses like ropes. The landscape works with with large splashes of contrasting green and red plantings, like great brushstrokes. Inside and outside are conflated.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.*

An actual abstract painting in black, red, blue by Maria Leontina, Lota’s favorite artist, is seen as we first enter the house, and Mies chairs are stacked in the new structure waiting to be placed.

What Bishop does with words—phrases about constructing lines of poetry, dissecting sentences, precisely matching words to ideas—is parallel to the architecture being created by Lota. “Observations broken into lines,” she says.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.*

When the romance heats up, Lota creates a writing studio for Bishop. Lota starts by dynamiting a mountain to preserve view from the studio, which has large vertical windows with clerestory panels above, and a slightly angled roof. A large wooden deck built around trees. (The actual studio had a brick wall with circular window, a stone wall, wooden slat-walled ground floor, and a flat roof.) A custom-made amoeba shaped wooden table of blonde wood is contrasted with two dark legs, one a large oval, the other a smaller triangle, which pierce the surface creating dark geometric patterns on on tabletop. Bishop wrote most of her great poems and won a Pulitzer Prize here during the 15 years she lived with Lota.

Even the clothing is of note, particularly a custom-made dress for Bishop designed by costumer designer Marcelo Pies of hand-painted silk. The print was inspired by a contemporary painting by the Brazilian artist Alfredo Volpi using the colors of the Brazilian flag: green, yellow, blue and black and white. The film’s inspiring production design is credited to José Joaquim Salles.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.*

When close friend Carlos Lacerda was elected governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Lota lobbied to take a landfill on the waterfront and make it into a the largest public park in Rio, equivalent to New York’s Central Park. The result was Flamengo Park (1960-66), 300 acres of greenery, sporting grounds, amphitheater, restaurants, marina, the Museum of Modern Art and the Carmen Miranda Museum. Roberto Burle Marx, the botanist Emygdio Luiz de Mello Filho and architects Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Jorge Moreira and Sérgio Bernardes all worked under Lota’s direction. A vast undertaking, Santo Antonio Hill in the center of Rio, was taken down with water jets to gather enough earth for the park. The same machine that dredged the Panama Canal took sand from the sea to create the park’s beach. Lighting towers, with six globes circling the crown, are set extra-high to shed light like a full moon, and enable the park to be used at night, even for sport—and inspiring the film’s title. (The park’s facilities will be used during the 2016 Olympics.) But Lota was demanding and exacting, and frictions ensued. Today, most contemporary citizens of Rio think Flamengo Park was created by the landscape designer she hired, Roberto Burle Marx (who also created the actual garden in the estate which stands in for her country home in the film).

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.*

* From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, 1976