By Abel Muñoz Hénonin
Translated by Gabriella Munoz
In Mexico, cinema is not something that is thought of in terms of present and future. This is a curious phenomenon, to say the least, if we consider that one part of the overall production is constantly exhibited in commercial cinema screens and other has gained a place in the global circuit of art houses and festivals. Our cinema has a present, and unless there is a radical and improbable twist in the public policy that supports it, it has a future.
The legend of the Golden Age, which gallops like a ghost sporting the glitter of typical charro suits and the beautiful eyes of our divas, looks even more alive than our present. In Mexico, then, when we think about film, we think about it in past tense; a brief past, glorious and explosive, such as the Mexican Revolution, to which it would be ideal to go back, even though it’s impossible to do so. Dreaming with its own past, the film industry has become a myth more powerful than any other datum or report of our reality because we are talking about a retrospective conservative utopia: a past where everything was better for the conservatives and has great social and political roots. The myth is a construct similar to this:
There was a time when Mexico had an extraordinary film industry because of its quality, its production numbers and its closeness to the public. In this epoch, notable creators, surrounded by a star-system comprised by outstanding thespians, created a vision of Mexico and its cinema so potent that it dominated not only the Mexican box office but also the screens of all Hispanic countries, until the local bureaucracy and the implacable power of Hollywood finished it.
And, like in every legend, this bears some truths and a few fables.
Indeed, Mexican cinema had a Golden Age, in a period more or less situated between the 1930s until the mid-1950s. The production during that period was between 29 (1940) and 122 (1950) films, but the majority of the time it was above 50 per year. 1. Its formal quality, like Charles Ramírez Berg argues, was similar to Hollywood’s because “most Mexican films adopted as well as adapted the Hollywood model, giving the Hollywood paradigm a decidedly Mexican inflection”. 2. In general, it was about three act comedies or melodramas that followed the audio-visual guides established in the United States to portrait the most realist side of quinceañeras (15-year-old girls) and vecindades (housing projects), or a mixture of charros (from Jalisco) and chinas poblanas (an encounter between the Philippines and the Mexican region of Puebla) 3, in maguey fields (Hidalgo), in its propagandistic, national revolutionary, version.
Although, naturally, it is impossible to know exactly what made, and continues to make, this cinema so appealing both in Mexico and the Spanish-speaking world at large, we can assume that its international quality as well as Latin sensibility, more than specifically Mexican, and many times, like in María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) o Una familia de tantas (Alejandro Galindo, 1949), its social criticism, echoed in the audiences. Often the films dealt with class division or the encounter between modernity and tradition, including women who rebelled against a type of masculinity that, in appearance, dominated the cinema of the epoch. 4 Sometimes the tension between mestizos, whites and first nations people was also highlighted, specifically in the oeuvre of Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández.
Indeed this cinema, as part of its appropriation of the Hollywood model, gave birth to a star-system and carved for itself an international market. However, with the little information we have, and contrary to the myth, we can argue that it never dominated the Mexican box office 5 For years, people went to see films made in the United Stated, Mexican movies and other cinemas as part of a whole universe of spectatorship. And if indeed no one stopped watching The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) or Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952), the local imaginaries are built both by ‘Hollywood’s globality’ and by the local star power of Pedro Infante, Cantinflas, María Felix or Dolores del Río. Few countries can boast that their cinema has competed with Hollywood’s and Mexico is one of these.
But the most crucial part of this mythical narrative is in a binomial assumed without much real grounding, implicit more than exposed: that Mexican popular cinema disappeared when the first great authors were past their prime. It is indeed true that when artists of the calibre of Indio Fernández had to make movies in three weeks given the lack of funding their oeuvre’s quality fell. And it’s indeed very true that when the lack of government funding, the poor conditions of the Mexican union, and the producers’ decision to lower costs by trying to compete with the United States translated into the impoverishment of local cinema. What is a lie is that popular cinema disappeared. Instead, it became a series of phenomena that travel in the underground webs of our historical narrative: luchador cinema, sexicomedias (sexy-comedy), the slapstick of Capulina and the India María, the telenovelas and video-home (narco-themed straight-to-video extravaganzas). The majority of film critics and academics belonging to the most Westernised sector of society are unfamiliar with the true dimension of this type of post Golden Age popular cinema, just like music critics are uninterested in the dimension of truly Mexican music.
In turn, starting in the 1960s, and this is the reason why I keep coming back to Indio Fernández’s oeuvre, the narrative of the Mexican cinema has been branded as an adventure d’ auteur. Like it happened first in France as a result of the auteur policies of Cahiers du Cinema, the criteria were applied both in retrospect and prospectively: we had to name the great auteurs of the past (Fernández, Buñuel) while the new generation appeared (the first in Mexico was Juan Ibañez in 1967 with Los caifanes). Since then we have seen the ‘great geniuses’ of the Golden Age as precursors of an important cinema d’auteur that the masses ought to watch, although it belongs to a different historical period. What’s worse is that in this utopia, derived from the myth we have been analysing, the true weight and dimension of recent box office hits are lost. Sometimes these are unappreciated simply because of their commercial success, such as Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2000), or are disparaged for being funny comedies, such as the films of Luis Estrada and Jaime Sampietro, or considered only temporary economic successes such as Nosotros los Nobles (The Noble Family, Gary Alazraki, 2013).
Beyond the myth, what is the situation of Mexican cinema today?
It’s a very competitive landscape. Few Western cinematographies compete with Hollywood’s cinema (Asia and Africa have different historical and cultural dynamics), but Mexican films do it constantly. In 2013, even the most viewed film, No se aceptan devoluciones, with 15,199,633 registered viewers was local 6. If indeed no other films have had such success, many, mostly comedies, have managed to acquire very large audiences, perhaps just because they are easy to access, just like the most viewed American films.
Both No se aceptan devoluciones (Instructions not Included, Eugenio Derbez) and The Noble Family, the two more successful ones so far, have a tie with the Golden Age. Their script, openly or not, derives from classic pieces, Nosotros los pobres (Ismael Rodríguez, 1948) and El gran calavera (The Great Madcap, Luis Buñuel, 1949) respectively. In both movies comedy flirts with melodrama, there is clear class struggle combined with an specifically Mexican racial component and the quality of the production is of ‘global standards’. These two pieces stand out in a sea of very minor comedies, which are characterised, according to José Felipe Coria, by
Its simple exposition and uncomplicated linear plots. Also because of their high use of puns that work in every level, from the pie in the face to the now obligatory Donald Trump reference; from ironic sentimentality to the obliged semi-vulgarity with scatological jokes; from the obvious situation that exists in love clashes, to the absurd of a persecution within a persecution; from the mediocre romanticism forced by the circumstances to the defense of the most traditional family values; from junk humor vis-à-vis cultures and social classes seen as clash of mentalities, up to the ultra-tacky, infinite love reconciliation.
They work, he continues, because the Mexican comedy that dominates today’s box office is “predictable, honest, simple (and) agreeable” and because it manages to linger in a middle point that is “not too deep or transcendent”. 7 The clearest exception to the rule is found in the collaborations between Luis Estrada and Jaime Sampietro, who have managed to create political satire that is caustic, appealing and, in most cases of high quality. Here, contrary to what happens in the real Mexico, politicians and drug lords get what they deserve.
But the backbone of all films made in Mexico is an auteur cinema inserted in the festival and art-house circuit. Internationally their most well-known representatives are Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante and Michel Franco, perhaps because besides their formal quests, they have built an oeuvre that in a way fulfils the expectations of what the globalised establishment expects from Latin America. Richard Taruskin, a music critic, suggested, when he was dealing with Russian concert music, a paradox for all national music of the 19th century that can be overlapped to today’s cinema. He argues that in the
conventional ‘canonical’ historiography Russian (or Czech, or Spanish, or Norwegian) composers are in a double-bind. The group identity is at one the vehicle of their international appeal (as ‘naïfs’) and the guarantee of their secondary status vis-à-vis the unmarked ‘universal’. 8.
For Taruskin the universal without particularities, in music, derives from the German romantic model of being an artist. Similarly, universal cinema without particularities, built according to the French auteurs’ model, is a phenomenon seen in only a handful of European countries to which we can add the most indie side of the Unites States’ production. Everyone else, including the great Russian and Japanese directors, require a tad of folklore that brands them as similar yet different at the same time 9. In this sense, Latin America is a series of touristy postcards. Mexico, in particular, required sordidness and violence. The faces of the mestizos and indigenous peoples aren’t indispensable: they can always be substituted by darker skinned people of Mediterranean look, who fit better within the aesthetic values of European festivals, and that belong to the same national dominant class, still Western after 200 years of independence, the same class that the majority of these filmmakers belong to.
I’ll explore Carlos Reygadas’ oeuvre because he is, most likely, the only relatively young filmmaker interested in Mexico or, better said, in exploring mexicaness as a theme. Although an obvious statement, Reygadas’s cinema is a clear heir of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson in terms of form. When we talk about his themes, however, besides an interest in a sexuality that scandalises conservative sensibilities, we can see the clash and flow of Mexico’s social configuration, an oscillation between the whiteness of the Western elites and the physiological and cultural melange of the pueblo, the commoners (so far Reygadas hasn’t explored any of the many realities of the first nations people in an unambiguous way). Este es mi reino (2010, part of the collective film Revolución) is a key example. The short film, almost without narrative drive, takes place in a party that ends with the burning of a car. The characters range from rich Ukrainian-type blonds to Indigenous-looking peasants (but, again, never undoubtedly indigenous). The event, the party, causes an inevitable fluidity in the relationships and at the same time a division between the house and the patio becomes visible. The fluidity in the relationships heralds the violent break, ritualised through the burning of the automobile. Mexico is both a possible and impossible country, a space where one can coexist happily but always on edge. 10 To portray this complexity, Reygadas has resorted both to festival-validated aesthetics and a folklorization critical of our country. Notably he is an heir, perhaps the formal heir, of El Indio Fernández, although Reygadas is also a member of the most dominant sector of the dominant class.
Contrary to The Three Amigos (Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón), who have chosen universality without total particularities (except in terms of style) when they became the migrants who assumed themselves heirs of the American auteur tradition of the 1970s, Reygadas has chosen a globalization from the local. The case of the Three Amigos has no room in this space because it is a chapter that belongs to a different cinema. In turn, the collision of violence and sordidness that characterise the films of the vast majority of filmmakers of authorial fiction may be the entry point to the extremely complex world of the Mexican documentary, distributed also via the small circuit of festivals and art houses.
The topic that reigns in these imaginaries, without constituting the majority of documentary production, is the violence generated by drug trafficking. Two recent films deal with this in opposed ways: La Libertad del Diablo (2017), by Everardo González and Diego Enrique Osorno, and Tatina Huezo’s Tempestad (2016). González and Osorno chose to use burn masks on criminals, members of the military, victims of organised crime and some citizens to ‘disfigure’ them. They disfigure those who appear on screen sharing their testimony, which makes them equal and suggests, perhaps, that violence is a difficult thing to untangle, but, at least to me, this seems both a rather spectacular solution (it has in impact on the viewer) and an unacceptable one: it is not the same to commit a crime (even if one was kidnapped in a narcoleva or is forced out of extreme poverty and desperation) than being a victim, directly or indirectly.
Filmmakers can reach more sensible solutions, such as Tatiana Huezo did in Tempestad. Huezo listens, and makes us listen, clearly and for a long time, to two testimonies of women who have been victims of organised crime, a dark organised crime that lurks with its tentacles, much ampler that drug cartels, but entrenched in them and sometimes involved with the government. The stories these women tell are powerful both because of their content and what remains implicit in their narratives. Organised crime’s violence has an unnarratable dimension that Huezo manages to expose through the reticence between the testimonies and landscape, timed through notable plastic imagery, in which the cameraman, Ernesto Pardo, plays a crucial role.
Minding just one topic, the most popular one in Mexican documentaries inside and outside the country, these two films work as extremes to position the complexities of the narrative. La libertad del Diablo is expositive, journalistic and spectacular; and Tempestad is observational (even in a film one has to know how to listen), argumentative and lyrical. Between these two extremes there are hundreds of pieces that tend towards journalism, many films that tell family or personal histories, anthropological films generally focused on indigenous groups (the most photogenic, with the Huicholes being the most photographed) and a small but hearty group of films of complex poetics, where besides Tatiana Huezo, Eugenio Polgovsky shines.
There are unclassifiable directors such as the duo comprised by Ricardo Silva and Omar Guzmán. Their two movies, Navajazo (2014) and William, el nuevo maestro de judo (2017), are a type of map of Tijuana’s complexity. Going from one character to the next in the more sordid corners of the frontier city, they have traced a plane of the pariahs settled in a city that tends to be a bit more than a station for the migration of the marginalised towards the United States, a country that still awakens dreams of prosperity. Vagabonds, street musicians, forgotten ex-stars, street boxers, pornographers and chichifos (male prostitutes) draw a narration of what constitutes the border of Tijuana, from where we can see the other city, dynamic and potent, meanwhile, from afar. With an almost aleatory montage that forces the viewer to construct the stories just with fragments, Silva and Guzmán have built a weird, experimental and anthropologic poetic that often uses techniques close to fiction, such as the protagonist Edward Coward in William, el nuevo maestro de judo. Coward celebrates his fiftieth birthday, at least he seems to celebrate, with what was supposed to be a gay orgy with chichifos (two real ones and one actor), but the orgy ends up as a confession that the viewer cannot determine as real or staged. Perhaps next to Nicolás Pereda, also extremely close to contemporary art in movies which are pegged through repetitions and absurd comedy, Silva and Guzmán are the filmmakers who have explored more radicality the lability that films have between reality and fiction, so common in today’s global cinema.
The middle class becomes the star
But perhaps the true innovation of 21st Mexican Cinema is the representation of the middle class on screen, whose key representative is Fernando Eimbcke. Eimbcke, in his extreme normality, is a strange entity of Mexican cinema. His oeuvre is made of, in general terms, absolutely normal families who go through totally normal events. One keyring, one painting, one deodorant bar indicates their normality, always framed in a contained but solid formal quest. And in this lack of exception and fuss there is something exceptional: middle-class families have been pictured as middle-class families that divorce, experiment the death of a loved one and watch their children grow while they are on holidays, move houses or fix a car. In Mexico, there were no tales about the calm quotidian until the release of Temporada de patos (Duck Season, 2004). Turn off the light, make breakfast, life happens while one makes the bed, without tears because one can’t pay the rent or without philosophical rambles about life’s meaningless rhythm. This type of everyday narrative was unthinkable from the point of view of the telenovela teary show or the great Dostoyevskian art of the 19th century. However, the trivial, the domestic, the middle-classness, as a terrain to be explored in the Mexican cinema of the 21st century has notable potency. Perhaps this is the terrain that has given the most valuable movies, from different authors. As I have previously stated:
Eimbcke opens up the possibility of something new and those who have followed in way or other his modus operandi (emotive and humorous middle-class stories) have little resemblance to him because they have very personal aesthetics. I think immediately about Claudia Sainte-Luce (Los insolitos peces gato, 2013), Alonso Ruizpalacios (Güeros, 2014), Samuel Kishi and his team (Somos Mari Pepa, 2013), and I feel tempted to draw the line all the way to Costa Rica to include Neto Villalobos’s Por las plumas (2013). Listing them is worth it because, besides the quality of their movies, they have opened up the possibility of a new inflection in the history of Mexican cinema, one which is quotidian, warm and melancholic. 11
Now, not the comedy, not the radical nor contained auteur cinema, not the documentary about violence nor the interplay between fiction and non-fiction give us a real account of the complexity of Mexican cinema with a production of between 14 (2002) and 176 (2017) films. There are many creators that have a modest ambition to tell stories, sometimes genre stories, who cannot find a place in the festival and art-house circuit nor in the multiplexes that control and guide audiences in all the country 12. I think, for example, of Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos lo que hay (2010). The movie tells the story of a family of cannibals that have lost their hunter, the father, and bestow such title in the eldest and inexperienced son. The young man has to learn the art of hunting and at the same time guide a family that now experiences power conflicts. This is done in the context of a genre piece with notable technique and an accessible argument that is brilliant and profound. Well then, Somos lo que hay, which the critics and its target audience received quite well, didn’t have an impact even in those who are not fans of the horror but are interested in it 13. At a first glance, we could simply argue that the audiences didn’t connect with the film, but if we take into consideration that in 2010 it was palpable that cinema consumption was starting to change because of the crisis that Hollywood continues to face, this situation acquires a new dimension.
In 2010, the magazine Sight & Sound was already analysing a double crisis in the United States, punctuated by the fall of the star-system and the increase in costs for the majors. Eight years later, in 2018, we are trapped in a world were the only films that make a profit, in terms of idiotic capital flow for the producers, in the popular billboard are children’s films and filmic universes, both often times spliced into sequels and prequels. And in countries such as Mexico, besides the type of comedy which we have already discussed, films that a few years ago were perfectly viable, such as Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017), usually have small audiences. All this without taking into consideration streaming platforms. The phenomena, as we can see, must be global, or at least Western in the amplest of term, i.e. in the spaces where Hollywood cinema dominates.
Such situation has little impact in festivals and art-house circuits because they belong to cultural institutions. Their educated public, conservative when it comes to cultural traditions, will continue to go to the cinema in exchange of symbolic capital and aesthetic experiences. This audience is small by nature and what’s best is to stop thinking that it is possible to achieve what hasn’t been achieved in three hundred years of Enlightment, i.e. that the masses adopt the taste of the elite, to be able to determine the possible reach of the oeuvres in this symbolic and economic milieu.
Here there is no crisis but robustness. The crisis is in the institution and its economic milieu. Because the phenomenon is happening, we can’t foretell which places it’ll reach, but we can argue that if it doesn’t disappear under the Netflix logic, it will remain as merely blockbuster terrain. In the meantime, we can predict that our most popular comedies will continue to be highly consumed.
Now, Mexican Cinema as dreamed from its Golden Age, is a cinema that is seen as a unit, not as two separate phenomena. The Golden Age was anterior to the division between ‘cult cinema’ and ‘cinema of spectacle’. Perhaps this is enough reason to think it was both cult and spectacle, and this past would need to be replicated in a status quo that does not correspond culturally or economically to our present. And that the ideal future for Mexican Cinema would be one where large mass would go to watch the movies made by our great creators. There is no turning back.
Mexican Cinema has a future, but only as long as we wake up from our Golden-Age dream to start looking out for an unstoppable transformation that right now is incomprehensible.
- Emilio García Riera, Historia documental del cine mexicano (1950-1960), volume X (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1994), pp. 13-14 ↩
- Charles Ramirez Berf, The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), p.7 ↩
- Although it’s not well known, even for many Mexicans, the Philippines were part of the New Spain, the Spanish Viceroyalty that occupied most of North and Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. ↩
- See Andrea Noble, ‘Melodrama, Masculinity and the Politics of Space’ in Mexican National Cinema (Abingdon-on-Thames & New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 95-122. Noble owes a lot to the studies of Julia Tuñon and Julianne Burton-Carvajal. ↩
- The lack of box office data makes the calculations of María Luisa Amador and Jorge Ayala Blanco the best reference. They suggest the Mexican film industry occupied 6.5% of the box office/screens in the 1930s, 15.1% in the 1940s and 20.5% in the 50s. María Luis Amador y Jorge Ayala Blanco, Cartelera cinematográfica 1930-39, 1940-49 y 1950-59 (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, no date, 1982 & 1985), pp. 276, 378 and 364 respectively. ↩
- Anuario estadístico de cine mexicano 2013, Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía, Mexico, 2014, p. 41 ↩
- José Felipe Coria, ‘El cine mexicano frente al público’, Icónica, Mexico, May 17, 2016, http://revistaiconica.com/el-cine-mexicano-frente-al-publico/ ↩
- Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays, Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 48, cited by Matthew Gelbart in The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 239 ↩
- It would be interesting to learn if a Provence or Breton filmmaker shooting in their almost extinct tongues would be part of this picturesque space. However, given the lack of French tolerance towards its own differences it would be very difficult to even raise funds to do so. ↩
- This paradox, if taken the time to think about it, is immediately Latin American, the region where relations are not defined by white-mestizos-indigenous. It is also an American paradox in an ampler sense, perhaps with the exception of the Minor Antilles. ↩
- Abel Muñoz Hénonin, “Fernando Eimbcke y una nueva historia del cine mexicano”, Icónica, 24 May 2016, http://revistaiconica.com/fernando-eimbcke-y-una-nueva-historia-del-cine-mexicano/ ↩
- I owe this idea to filmmaker Iria Gómez Concheiro, who shared this point of view after a work meeting in the Escuela Superior de Cine, while she was in the Fundación Pedro Meyer, in Coyoacán. Mexico City, February 2018. ↩
- This film didn’t even make it to the national top ten during its exhibition year. Anuario estadístico del cine mexicano 2010 (Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía, Mexico, 2011. ↩