Framework Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2003)


Framework Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2003)
The Journal of Cinema and Media

Framework is an international, peer reviewed journal dedicated to theoretical and historical work on the diverse and current trends in media and film scholarship. The journal’s multicultural coverage, interdisciplinary focus, and the high caliber of its writers contributes to important interconnections between regional cinemas, practioners, academics, critics, and students. Framework is committed to publishing articles from interdisciplinary and global perspectives.

Table of contents:

Stephanie Dennison, Lúcia Nagib and Lisa Shaw

Michael Chanan
Interior Dialogue in the Work of T. G. Alea

Andrea Noble
Sexuality and Space in Jorge Fons' El callejón de los milagros

Rob Rix
Women of the Waterfront in River Plate Cinema: Jana Bokova's Harbour

Tamara L. Falicov
Los hijos de Menem: the New Independent Argentine Cinema, 1995-1999

Walter Salles
Interview with Four Argentinian Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Reyero, Daniel Burman and Pablo Trapero

Lisa Shaw
The Brazilian Chanchada and Hollywood Paradigms (1930-1959)

Stephanie Dennison
A Carioca Belle de jour: A dama do lotação and Brazilian Sexuality

Lúcia Nagib
Black Orpheus in Color

Esther Hamburger
Politics of Representation: Television in a São Paulo Favela

Freya Schiwy
Decolonizing the Frame: Indigenous Video in the Andes

The point of departure for this issue was the ‘Latin-American Cinema: Theory and Praxis’ conference that took place at the University of Leeds, England, in June 1999, with the support of the University and the British Academy. This conference was significant as an indicator of the importance Latin-American cinema has been acquiring within Film Studies in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in her report on the conference forScreen, Andrea Noble (2000, 238) states that the fact ‘that Latin-American cinema is now able to sustain its own conference circuit... would seem to suggest that it is on the up and up in the UK.’

This phenomenon, noticeable in other parts of the world as well as in Britain, is certainly connected to the ‘cinematic revivals’ that took place almost simultaneously, from the mid 1990s onwards, in Latin-American countries, notably in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. These revivals occurred for different reasons in different places. These included the film school boom in Argentina (well explained in Tamara Falicov’s article), a new law creating fiscal incentives for films in Brazil, and the privatization of film financing in Mexico. In all three countries, however, the revival in film production had to do with socio-political changes that brought ‘democratic’ (and neoliberal) governments to power. It is common knowledge that neoliberalism has been harmful to Third World countries, deepening the chasm between rich and poor and crushing local cultures (an issue on which Freya Schiwy elaborates extensively in her article). Yet the economic reforms that took place in the 1990s in several Latin-American countries provided young filmmakers with the (often illusory and ephemeral) feeling of belonging to a global community, in which their films could be placed on equal terms, if not with mainstream American film, at least with European art cinema.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of new Latin-American film production is the absence of an inferiority complex towards American and European productions (in the past, often expressed by clumsy imitations of mainstream Hollywood cinema), and even of that sense of injustice that gave rise to the most celebrated theories of Latin-American film history: Glauber Rocha’s ‘Aesthetics of Hunger,’ García Espinosa’s ‘Imperfect Cinema,’ and Solanas’s and Getino’s ‘Third Cinema.’ In the 1960s, Latin-American filmmakers were in tune with one another, in their anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist stances, as they are now in their belief in the relevance of their own cultural characteristics to the international scene. Some of them even feel free to go to Hollywood, to make commercial movies there, only to return home and make films according to other, more independent and auteurist imperatives. This is the case, for example, with Guillermo del Toro, who recently declared that ‘if I want to make big, flashy movies, I’ll make them in Hollywood. If I want to do something more exotic and personal, then I’ll go home to Mexico’ (Brooks 2002, 4).

True enough, Latin-American films are far from having conquered the market and only a few of them, despite the increasing production figures, manage to break through the hegemony of Hollywood and be distributed internationally. But undeniably the Latin-American audio-visual presence is increasing in North America and in Europe, especially in Spain and France (often their co-producers), on TV, at film festivals and on commercial cinema screens.

This said, it is necessary to address the concept of a ‘Latin-American cinema’ itself. John King, in his groundbreaking history of cinema in Latin America, already struggled with the difficulty of classifying ‘such a wide-ranging and amorphous subject as Latin-American cinema’ (King 1990, 1). Indeed, any attempt at an all-encompassing overview is doomed to failure. ‘Latin-American cinema’ is itself an abstraction, for it stems from many diverse countries, with a total population of over 450 million and with widely different histories and cultures. This is why the conference in Leeds, despite its pioneering relevance, was unpretentious and necessarily gave prominence to certain regions and themes at the expense of others.

This issue gathers together selected papers from the Leeds conference, to which others have been added, that discuss the audio-visual production of a number of Latin-American countries. As at the conference, justice has been done to Brazilian cinema, which ‘tended to be a neglected area in terms of both conferences and publications’ (Noble 2000, 238), perhaps because it is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas. Unavoidably, in this issue, the privileged countries are the ones which have, or had in the past, an influential film industry, such as Argentina and Brazil, to which a good number of the articles are devoted. Cuba and Mexico are featured for the same reason. The Andes – particularly Bolivia – are represented by an in-depth study of video production in the region. Unfortunately, because of lack of space in the face of the vastness of the subject, other countries with exciting audio-visual production and recent hit films, such as Chile and Peru, were left aside – and we hope that a second Framework issue on Latin-American film and media will soon fill this gap.

The approaches of the papers are varied, but a significant trait unifies all of them: the historical method, derived in its substance from cultural studies, through which context is appreciated as much as text and cinema is seen as a multidisciplinary medium closely connected with social change. Questions of sexuality and ethnicity are, in this sense, an obvious presence in several articles, even when they are not the main focus. As a result of this historical approach, the boundaries of national identities expand to encompass the modern nature of the moving image, which is always part of a global system of circulation and is in constant dialogue with other images across the world.

Michael Chanan’s article on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, based on an interview with the Cuban film director, is exemplary in that sense. Chanan intertwines Alea’s cinematic career, film by film, with Cuban political history. At the same time, based on Derrida’s ideas about the politics of friendship, he shows how Alea, with all his auteurist and Cuban profile, was, in each phase, under the spell of foreign films and filmmakers. First, it was the Glauber Rocha of Deus e o diabo na terra do sol/Black God, White Devil (Brazil, 1964), then Antonioni and Resnais, and later even Hollywood’s ‘anarchic’ comedians, such as Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis, who had already been assimilated in the past by traditional Cuban comedies. According to Chanan, Alea’s ‘turning away from neo-realism to acknowledge that Hollywood is also part of Cuban film culture’ is ‘an affirmation that such anarchism is also revolutionary.’

Chanan proceeds to describe how the fight against the isolation Cubans have been subjected to is a key feature of Alea’s oeuvre as a whole. ‘Isolation,’ says Alea to the author, ‘produces involution, and the isolation that we witness within a bourgeois family [in the film Los sobrevivientes/The Survivors, Cuba, 1979] can also be translated into the isolation suffered by the whole country, which is condemned to involution to the extent that it cannot find a way back into contact with the rest of the world.’

Andrea Noble’s study of Jorge Fons’ El callejón de los milagros/Midaq Alley (Mexico, 1994) provides another Latin-American example of the international circulation of signs and meanings. The film is an adaptation of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Bayn al-Qasrayn. Noble praises scriptwriter Vicente Leñero’s extraordinary skills at transporting a street of central Cairo, with all its peculiarities, to the heart of Mexico City. However, she argues that the film’s huge success is owed in equal measure to the fact that the subject of prostitution and homosexuality found resonance both in Mexican traditional cinematic melodrama and in current social reality. In her conclusion, which draws from Octavio Paz’s ideas on the dialectics of the ‘closed’ (the male body) and the ‘open’ (the female body), Noble echoes Alea’s rejection of isolation, stating that El callejón ‘is linked to the intense ideological crises that convulsed Mexico in the 1990s and turns precisely on the possibility of apertura[opening].’

Rob Rix’s analysis of Harbour (2000) is another accomplished example of a cross-cultural approach. The film, an adaptation of a Julio Cortázar short story, was made by Czech director Jana Bokova, in Argentina, with an Argentina/Spain/France co-production. Rix’s article evolves via a stroll through Argentine and Mexican film histories, connecting both through the prominent figure of the prostitute or the cabaretera tradition. Nevertheless, as the author insists, the film, a late 1990s’ Argentine co-production with Spain, cannot be analysed from the perspective of a national cinema industry of the 1930s or 1940s. For him, ‘the film and its characters live in the hybrid space of what could be termed an international art cinema.’ ‘As a hybrid product,’ he continues, ‘combining Czech, British, Spanish and Argentine nationals in its direction, cast and crew, Harbour itself reproduces Cortázar’s cosmopolitanism and its consequent problematic.’

Tamara Falicov’s wide-ranging overview of what she calls ‘The New Independent Argentine Cinema’ also points to the desire for integration on the part of young Argentine filmmakers. Although made with very low budgets, the new films are showing a surprising vocation for commercial success, both at home and abroad. One of the reasons for this, according to the author, is that they are developing a ‘realism that exposed a side of Argentina that most medium-budget, middle-class dramas had not.’ Complementing her study, Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, known worldwide for his award-winning Central do Brasil/Central Station (Brazil, 1998), and certainly the most ‘international’ among contemporary Brazilian film directors, interviews four new Argentinian directors: Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Reyero, Daniel Burman and Pablo Trapero.

Salles is now on a similar mission to that which once stimulated Glauber Rocha’s pan-American dream. His current project, another of his road-movies, is a biography of Che Guevara, based on Guevara’s book Diarios de motocicleta: un viaje alrededor de Sur America (Motorcycle Diaries: A Trip around South America), and will be shot in Argentina, Peru and Chile. During the preparation work for his film, Salles interviewed the Argentinian directors in Buenos Aires. In their statements, independence is indeed their main concern, as echoed in Noble’s article. However, a new sense of belonging seems to be connecting them to their Latin-American colleagues, if not for political reasons as happened in the past, then out of common interests in being integrated into the international market. As Daniel Burman puts it, when asked about the international success of Mexican films such as Amores perros and Y tu mamá tambíén: ‘...their greatest value is that they blaze a trail for others to follow. They are reference points, ...that make it a lot easier for you when you want to propose a new project. For this reason, there is an element of solidarity inherent in cinema, a type of involuntary solidarity. Mundo grua [Crane World] (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 1999) opened doors everywhere. Amores perros and Y tu mamá también showed the Anglophone world that films like these could make it beyond press reviews and film festivals.’

Lisa Shaw’s study of the chanchada, the Brazilian musical comedies of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, embraces the historical method to describe the international exchanges that took place in the most successful period of Brazilian popular cinema. Following a careful analysis of Brazilian film and political history, Shaw argues that Hollywood paradigms, including the stereotype of exoticism represented by Latin-American beauties in American musicals, were imitated in a parodic manner as a way of ‘questioning Brazil’s place in the world, particularly in relation to the USA,’ and that ‘the overturning of established hierarchies of authority and power on screen represented a more adequate use of the carnival metaphor as a means to contest the USA’s cultural and economic might.’

The motif of ‘opening’ (or, in the Brazilian case, abertura) returns in Stephanie Dennison’s analysis of Neville d’Almeida’s A dama do lotação/Lady on the Bus (Brazil, 1978). Here, the term refers more specifically to politics, to the period when Brazil was slowly coming out of the repressive years of military dictatorship. Sexuality was then flourishing in popular cinema, in a genre called the pornochanchada, with which d’Almeida’s film can be partly associated. The film’s particular interest in this context, according to Dennison, is its ambiguity towards traditional patriarchal sexual myths. Here, again, a cross-cultural approach – a comparison between A dama do lotação and Buñuel’s Belle de jour (France/Italy, 1966) – is the main framework for the analysis. The cold and ordered world inhabited by Catherine Deneuve’s character, Séverine, in the latter, could not contrast more sharply with the sexually charged, chaotic Rio de Janeiro that is home to Sônia Braga’s character, Solange, in d’Almeida’s film.

Lúcia Nagib’s study of Carlos Diegues’s Orfeu (Brazil, 1999) offers a panorama of how a given subject, in this case the black population of Rio’sfavelas (slums) and their music, has been viewed through different perspectives during the course of film history. Diegues’s film is in fact a reinterpretation of Vinícius de Moraes’s theater play that gave rise to Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, France/Italy, 1958), ‘which made Brazil known worldwide as a black musical country.’ It is also a re-reading of a time when it was fashionable in the arts to compare Africans and their descendants with Greek myths in order to raise them to a higher, spiritual plane. In his film, Diegues combines mythology, the foreigner’s gaze at Brazil and elements of Brazilian film, theater and music history, in order to paint a realistic portrait of today’s favelas, still with their musical and cultural richness, but dominated by drug dealing and violence.

The two last articles provide complementary perspectives on Latin-American audio-visual production, and discuss television and video respectively. Esther Hamburger details her fieldwork in a São Paulo favela, where it became clear that television, and above all telenovelas(soap operas), are the main cultural references for the poor population of the country. The figures she quotes show how important television sets are (nearly 90 per cent of the population own one), in comparison, for instance, with washing machines, available to a minority of the favelainhabitants. She then elaborates on how TV functions as a provider of patterns of behavior.

Closing the issue, Freya Schiwy’s article is a detailed study of indigenous video production in the Andes. Basing her arguments on a rejection of neoliberalism and colonial legacies, she lucidly illustrates how indigenous videos in Bolivia, ‘achieve a decolonization of audio-visual technology by “indianizing” the medium’. On the part of the videomakers, it is again a question of belonging and of involvement in a national and international context.

The articles collected here, that cannot but be a small, fragmentary sample of Latin-American audio-visual production, try to answer precisely the difficult question of how this rich but peripheral art form manages to survive in such a merciless, globalized world. -Stephanie Dennison, Lúcia Nagib and Lisa Shaw