Reel Revolutions in Mexican Film

When Mexican writer and director Carlos Cuarón visited the Twin Cities for the premiere of his film "Rudo y cursi" (2008) at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in 2009, he rode a tide of swelling international interest in Spanish-language cinema. I was teaching Hispanic Cinema Studies at the University of St. Thomas and thought…

When Mexican writer and director Carlos Cuarón visited the Twin Cities for the premiere of his film "Rudo y cursi" (2008) at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in 2009, he rode a tide of swelling international interest in Spanish-language cinema. I was teaching Hispanic Cinema Studies at the University of St. Thomas and thought that while my Spanish majors already showed healthy curiosity about films from the Hispanic world, in the broader Twin Cities community Cuarón's visit would open doors beyond commercial success, toward intercultural exchange between spectators of international cinema and its creators. Seeing a need to fulfill a role as a cultural, geographic and linguistic cipher, Cuarón took to heart the urge to portray as lifelike a Mexico as possible on film, evidenced when, speaking in an interview with Twin Cities Daily Planet, he said, "I wanted to show my country just as it is. In portraying that, you make a social comment ... showing all the social classes and strata."

While the relationship between art and reality may be tenuous and Cuarón's opening door is metaphoric, each reminds me that all of us confront cultural blind spots: blocked views that multicultural education and cultural criticism help illuminate. This illumination is akin to moving from a blocked view behind a pillar in the balcony to a seat in the front row where the full story unfolds before you and is more intimately comprehended. Like a footnoted text, an understanding of the history of Mexican cinema relays a variety, depth and breadth that spill as if from the cornucopia to which Mexico's horn-like shape often has been compared.

History and nationalism in Mexican film  Mexico has a long history of cinema produced concomitant with a national image that was disseminated in state-funded films made for mass consumption by an uncertain post-Mexican Revolution public. But cinema began as elite fare. The first short movie was shown in Mexico City in August 1896, just eight months after the Lumière brothers gave the first public showing of short films at the Grand Café on Paris' Boulevard des Capucines.

There soon followed the opening of Mexico City's first cinema exhibition space, the Salón Rojo, which projected some of the earliest images ever filmed: more than 35 shorts that Lumière company agents Fernand Bon Bernard and Gabriel Veyre captured in Guadalajara, Veracruz and Mexico City. Like early European short sequences of the era, the Mexican images represent local flora and fauna and people engaged in the activities of daily life. That novel year's cinema even produced one of moving pictures' first stars: then president Porfirio Díaz, whose moving images still can be viewed online. The austere military general and president from 1876 to 1911 commissioned short films of himself riding horseback in Chapultepec Park, talking to Thomas Edison, and fulfilling state duties.

During the teens, with the novelty of moving pictures still fresh, the Mexican public thrilled to some of the most captivating imagery in the history of the screen: Mexican Revolutionary footage of galloping horses and gunplay. The 1910 to 1921 conflict was filmed in action sequences by what would now be called "embedded" photojournalists. Its black and white, soundless reels included spectacular – some detractors thought staged – battle sequences and such famed moments as "Villa's and Zapata's Troops Entering Mexico City" in 1914. Soon after, silent film stars like Lupe Vélez ignited the screen in films that showcased revolutionary political ideals in an atmosphere of censorship imposed by President Victoriano Huerta.

The Mexican Revolution was the first historical event thoroughly documented on film; its panoramic action shots captured by Salvador Toscano Barragán, who also created Mexico's first narrative film, "Don Juan Tenorio" (1898), based on the 1844 Spanish play. The revolutionary footage's impressive content was followed by the introduction of sound; the first feature-length film made in Mexico, "Santa" (1932), was adapted from the novel by Federico Gamboa and featured a soundtrack made possible by Joselito and Roberto Rodríguez's technical innovation, "The Rodríguez Sound System."

While Hollywood began trying to make movies in Spanish for Mexican consumption in the 1930s, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein visited the United States' competition south of the Río Bravo. He found a cinema in full swing and entering its golden age in which it produced films that found commercial success based on rampant production and a formula of presenting character types, static gender roles, and themes of guilt and redemption, family integrity, nationalism, and often leftist ideals in films about the revolution. Adding romance, comedies – including Cantinflas films – and other genre films, the golden era of the 1930s to 1950s produced luminous stars such as actors Dolores del Río, Pedro Arméndariz, actors/crooners Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, and Maria Félix. They worked with creative geniuses like scriptwriter Mauricio Magdaleno, actor-director Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, whose work can be admired in "Los olvidados" (1950) and "The Night of the Iguana" (1964).

Gems produced during the golden age entertained audiences with high-quality, formulaic fare that asserted national identity by vindicating the good guys of the revolution, rewarding strong men and honorable women, and demonstrating the values of family, church and nation. Spaniard Luis Buñuel moved to Mexico at age 50 and filmed half of his total filmic production there, including "Los olvidados" (1950) and "Nazarín" (1958). But in 1957, Pedro Infante's death marked the golden age's symbolic end and, even though the National Autonomous University opened the country's first film school, the University Center for Cinematic Studies in 1963, Mexico's cinema experienced a severe crisis. The quantity and quality of films plunged with successive economic crises and nearly nonexistent public and private funding for films in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Curiously, the loosening of regulations for distribution resulted in the rise of low-cost, relatively low-quality feature-length films, including "spaghetti westerns" filmed along the Mexico-U.S. border, melodramatic romances and other genre films. (The largest collection of Mexican wrestling pictures outside of Mexico is housed in the French archives and has a sort of cult following.)

Genre films like the wrestling pictures and campy horror pics rose in the 1960s, and the 1970s-produced film versions of television soap operas. During the 1970s, quality fare from directors Arturo Ripstein, Felipe Cazals and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo also received positive audience responses, although Ripstein's psychological, family dramas were always more popular outside of Mexico, especially among intellectuals and film critics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the viewing public kept coming to see movies, and the cinema's relative profitability attracted interest. In 1980, a state-sponsored film festival began in Mexico and in 1983, the public, decentralized Mexican Cinema Institute was the first of several institutes of the era dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Mexican film. Quality productions in narrative cinema increased, building up to one of the most sustained phenomena in commercial cinema: the crossover success of "Como agua para chocolate" in 1992, adapted from the novel by Laura Esquivel. It has been an uphill road for a handful and then a steady flow of talent in writing, acting and directing since then.

The internationalization of Mexican cinema  If we look at the history of diversity in Mexican cinema, we see that Mexico has represented ethnic minorities, social misfits and various social class demographics on film throughout its long cinematic history. But when Emilio Fernández, the brilliant actor, screenwriter and director who had worked with John Ford, went to Hollywood to make his mark, and Mexican stars ventured northward, they found themselves trapped in stereotypical parts. Their roles were far more limiting – and xenophobic and racist – than anything presented in the innocuous Mexican family drama or romantic revolutionary drama, which at least were told from Mexican perspectives! Partly, Mexico's exportation of a managed, massproduced image for tourism beginning around the 1940s can be traced as one influence on the United States' skewed image of the country's inhabitants. Massive advertising campaigns targeted the United States as a lover who must be courted by Mexico, which was presented as an exotic land filled with soporific beaches, peasant girls with braids and long skirts (la china poblana), siesta-taking charros, tequila, and exotic regional clothing, food, music, etc., all waiting to seduce her touristic "lover" in a mutual embrace and cash flow. 

By the 1990s, the 1980s Mexican films of melodrama and social protest – which were squelched by government and military pressure – ceded to sophisticated films about everything under the sun. And they were popular abroad – in the United States and in Europe. Stars were exported or formed after emigrating: many know that Dolores del Río acted in Hollywood films, that Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca (Anthony Quinn) was born in Oaxaca of Irish-Mexican-Aztec descent during the Mexican Revolution, or that Ricardo Montalbán came from Mexico City, and everyone knows who Salma Hayek, from Veracruz state, is. Female directors like María Novaro made "Danzón" (1992) and "Sin dejar huella" (2000) and a future star named Guillermo del Toro released "Cronos" (1992).

The '90s initiated an exciting time that has only gotten better with the rise of directors Alfonso Arau ("Como agua para chocolate"), Carlos Carrera ("El crimen del Padre Amaro"), Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores perros," "21 Grams," "Babel"), writers and directors Alfonso and Carlos Cuarón ("Y tu mamá también"), del Toro ("El espinazo del diablo," "Pan’s Labyrinth"), and actors Gael García Bernal ("Motorcycle Diaries") and Diego Luna ("Y tu mamá también"), who star in "Rudo y cursi."

Along with Spain, various Latin American countries such as Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Brazil and Mexico have long cinematic traditions and often, state apparati for education in cinematic arts and film preservation and promotion. But films today are increasingly internationally produced and distributed, and feature local talent. Directors train both in their home countries and at the NYU and UCLA film schools; they develop projects at the Sundance Film Festival, find producers and distributors in Spain and the United States, and exhibit at festivals in Argentina, Cuba, Canada, France and Australia and at universities, where their films find their way onto course syllabi. While Perú, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia develop exciting new directors and collaborative projects, southern Mexico and Guatemala are areas of great documentary cinema projects, and Costa Rica finds itself in a stage of development, as do other nations in Central America and the Caribbean basin.

Teaching diversity through Mexican cinema  So many Latin American countries have produced crossover successes, that often directors like Brazilian Walter Salles ("Central Station," "Motorcycle Diaries") and Cuban Humberto Solás, who made "Barrio Cuba" (2005) make us forget predecessors like Glauber Rocha (Brazil) and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Cuba). Alea, called "El Titón" because of his importance to cinema, not only made the excellent 1968 film "Memorias del subdesarrollo," he also collaborated on the Cuban-Mexican-Spanish production "Fresa y chocolate" (1994), followed by his "Guantanamera" in 1995.

When asked recently about his international success, Carlos Cuarón stressed the need to think globally instead of nationally, saying that the accident of one's birthplace determines an arbitrary nationality and that "We care about humanities and not nationalities." The historical continuities and international relationships among films, scripts, actors, production and distribution are inevitable. When students begin to understand the history of production, the directors' and scriptwriters' styles and messages, cinematic techniques, and the linguistic, geographic and cultural specifics behind a feature-length narrative film, they begin to engage in acts of cultural pluralism through reacting to and engaging with cinematic language and content.

Some intriguing Mexican films  There are several Mexican films that, while they form a micro-history of Mexican cinema, also teach of diverse directorial styles and themes of gender, social class, ethnicity, and rural and urban identity. As just a few are annotated here, I hope that the reader will seek out some of them to watch while thinking about our parallel development and now, collaborative productions with our neighbors to the south.

"Vámonos con Pancho Villa" and "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (both 1936) and both directed by Fernando de Fuentes. The former is a bold film about the Mexican Revolution and is considered by many one of the most important Mexican films ever made. The latter was one of the original "comedias rancheras" (ranch comedies) and was shot by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.

"Doña Bárbara" (1943) directed by Fernando de Fuentes and starring María Félix. Based on the novel by Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos, the film traces the trials of an independent, land-owning woman who rises to economic independence in a patriarchal rural sphere. It's a sort of Mexican precursor to "Johnny Guitar" (1954), but with a more ambiguous ending.

"Los olvidados" (1950) directed by Luis Buñuel and starring Roberto Cobo. Social realism and touches of surrealist imagery characterize this film, which portrays with brutal realism the poverty and destitution plaguing Mexico City's "forgotten ones."

"El imperio de la fortuna" (1986) directed by Arturo Ripstein and starring Ernesto Gómez Cruz. This remake of "El gallo de oro" (1964), based on a Juan Rulfo story, uses a melodramatic hero's failed business prospects as an allegory of the transition from rural, cooperative, domestic life to increased urbanization and mercantilism in mid-century Mexico. In a feminist critique of circumscribed female roles, two generations of women are shown mimicking, performing or mirroring inherited gender identities.

"Amores perros" (2000) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Gael García Bernal. This film uses a car crash and a ripping soundtrack to tell stories of familial and economic insecurity in the wake of the mid-1990s economic crisis in Mexico.

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