Alejandro G. Iñárritu Day at Sussex

I was invited to participate in a one day symposium on the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu (as he has now taken to naming himself). Alongside Paul Julian Smith, Geoffrey Kantaris, Deborah Shaw and Dolores Tierney who gave fascinating papers bringing new approaches to this well-studied director, I gave a talk on melodramatic masculinity in his films. The talks were recorded by Catherine Grant and posted on Mediático and and can be found here. I really enjoyed the talks and discussion the first time around and look forward to catching some more of the detail on further listening.

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Journeying into Peru: Ayahuasca, Comedy and Authenticity

I recently published a post in Mediático: “Peru as a New Site of Authenticity in Cooked and Chelsea Does”. Part of me noticing this phenomenon preceded these two TV series. The first time I heard mention of the ayahuasca ceremony was in a podcast that I occasionally listen to, “You Made it Weird” , in which the comedian Pete Holmes interviews comedians and writers touching on their creative processes, their family lives, their mental wellbeing, and spiritual issues. In amongst all that, recreational drug use pops up from time to time. Linked to this and their search for higher meaning in life, in the occasional podcast the guest mentions either how they have been or would like to go to Peru and experience the Ayahuasca ceremony for the spiritual or creative experience that it would entail. Holmes is likeable and well-meaning, and also interested in discussing spiritual and psychedelic experiences, and has expressed an interest in going, just as he goes to gurus, therapists, and mystics to help him on his personal journey. I do not think that he and others are aware that they are carrying out crass spiritual tourism that can have a negative impact on those in the Global South dependent on the income it might generate. But, they should be. Primarily, I like this podcast for the discussions of the creative process. But, I have listened with unease to these conversations. These are creative individuals who are powerful influencers (in Internet marketing parlance) and are not complicating their actions with more than questions of personal wellbeing and the difficulties in knowing how to take time out.

Luisa on her return from Peru

Another mention of the ayahuasca ceremony takes place in the US version of Jane the Virgin (2014-present). In series 1, Luisa Alver (Yara Martínez), after various mishaps including (*spoiler alert) falsely impregnating Jane, the death of her father, finding out her stepmother and lover is a criminal mastermind, goes to find herself in Peru and, whilst on a retreat, she partakes in an ayahuasca ceremony. This series uses a particularly ironic humour, especially in relation to Luisa, so her self-discovery is mocked as having involved little real self-revelation and is indicative of her lack of real self-awareness. What both of these instances and the further two journeys to Peru in Cooked (2016) and Chelsea Does (2016-) show (that I considered in my Mediático post) is that, currently, Peru is positioned as an exotic other where individuals from the Global North – in this case all travellers are from the US – can go to in order to seek out wholeness, spiritual awakening, and a more authentic self. Only the comedies (Jane the Virgin and Chelsea Does) suggest that this is anything but a good thing or, at least, allow for some critical space for thinking this. The recent trope of the journey to Peru provides an interesting intersection of the persistence of colonising attitudes, the potential negative impacts of the growth in spiritual tourism, and reveals how particular cultures become sites of authenticity, fixed with millennial knowledge, and assumed to be inheritors of a static cultural baggage alongside the contingent and sometimes infantilising judgements that go with this.

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War Narratives: Seeing Through a Different Lens

There are times when I watch something that I know intersects with my interests but do not expect it to move my own work along, because it appears too tangential. Sometimes, these are the very things that inspire fresh thinking and prompt new perspectives. This happened for me on watching a documentary about the photographer Tim Hetherington (1970-2011), Which Way is the Front Line From Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (2013). He spent most of his career photographing and shooting video in war zones. The documentary focuses on two of these, Liberia and Afghanistan, and a brief account of the events that led to his death by shrapnel fire in Libya. There are talking head interviews with Hetherington and others about him and his life intercut with footage from the field. These interviews with Hetherington exist, in part, because he decided to reflect on this with his colleagues and, also, because he was deeply affected by war and took pause to record this in a variety of ways. Hetherington and the US filmmaker, Sebastian Junger, made the Oscar-nominated film, Restrepo (2010), which resulted in many questions and recorded interviews about the nature of his work. From these interviews, it is clear that he and his colleagues do reflect on and have clearly articulated positions on what it means to work in these conditions. Two issues that resonated with me from the documentary are the reflections by Hetherington and Junger on masculinity and war, and how ethically compromised many of these photojournalists and war reporters feel. This post is just a brief reflection on these that are part of my on going writing on the representation of war, in order to help me work through larger ideas for my current project.

Masculinity and War

For Restrepo, Hetherington and Junger spent some time embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan. In Which Way is the Front Line From Here there is footage (some of these are labelled as ‘outtakes’ from Restrepo) of Hetherington hanging out with the men, joking, cooking, trailing them when they go into action, and recording and photographing them on their return and in their downtime. It’s commented upon in the documentary how suited he was to getting along with the men as he met their idea of masculinity. He was tall, fit, and had an easy rapport with the soldiers, also, in part, because he did not bring up any awkward political discussions. As is the case in the rest of the documentary, this segment includes still images taken by Hetherington. The still and moving images show the soldiers wrestling, sleeping, fighting, dying, and getting emotional over the death of members of their platoon. Sometimes, played over these images, and at others, speaking to camera, Hetherington and Junger talk about how war provides men with unique opportunities to be intimate with each other, to share bonds and to behave in ways that are outside of societal norms. This is an instance of the homosocial expressed through the normalisation of a masculine instinct for war and a need for intimate friendships with other men, which suggests that death and violence are natural states for men. To the extent that Hetherington named the series of photographs of this platoon “The Man Eden”. Associating men with violence in this way naturalises war as something that young men need as an escape valve from the civilizing (which implicitly could be read as feminising) force of society and reinforces strict binary male/female active/passive gender roles that are reproduced in everyday life. A concurrent conceit implicit in this is another common trope in representations of war as something that happens elsewhere, beyond everyday life, and in an imagined masculine non-space, despite the fact that the theatre of war is more likely to impinge on urban spaces, and women are increasingly likely to be victims as well as warriors in contemporary conflict.

 The Ethics of War

The second issue that drew me in is touched on more briefly towards the end of the documentary: the ethics of war (photo)journalism. After making Restrepo, Hetherington decided to step away from photographing conflict for a brief period. He made a video essay Diary (2010), some of which is shown in the documentary. It is made up of a montage of footage from places he calls home, such as New York and London, and “work”, that is several of the war zones he has shot. In the documentary, Diary is described to be a reflection on how he found it difficult to escape the images and memory of war in his words the “different realities I flip between”. This is the trauma of war interrupting apparently peaceful spaces that act as shadows and as a possible imminent threat.

In the documentary, Hetherington describes how as photo-journalists he is part of a war machine. This bald statement recalls the opening sequence of the documentary where we see four takes of Hetherington choosing his words carefully in trying to express his reasons for working as a war photographer before finally landing on, “to connect with real people” and to show that “there aren’t any neat solutions” in war. The multiple takes reveal the constructed nature of documentary, but also in his faltering need to rehearse a correct and careful assertion, it reveals an ambivalence about the representation of war as simultaneously capable of being critical of and reproducing the machinery of war. This is a poignant note to end on, but reminds me why I am fascinated by the representation of war in different media.

Conclusion

I do not believe in rigid binaries in gender, but gendered scripts are reinforced in war narratives (in fact and fiction) and this documentary is another instance of this in the ways it articulates gender roles. However, in the foregrounding of the affect and trauma of war, not least in the numbers of times men are moved to tears or patently upset by their experiences of trauma or loss in the documentary, as well as the need for Hetherington to find coping strategies and creative outlets for his trauma, it is evident that men are not inured to the emotional impact of war. The strength of the documentary lies in the potential to reflect upon a construction of masculinity that does not rely on an experience of violence that precludes emotions. Also, Which Way is the Front Line From Here opens up spaces to consider the role played by (photo)journalism in war, and reveals some of the affect and trauma it has on individuals who witness conflict. It has provided me with another means of reflecting on an issue I am constantly coming up against in the study of the representations of war: the ways in which I could be complicit in reproducing, celebrating, or trivialising the war machine. I welcome the perspective of the war (photo)journalists and share some of their ambivalences and misgivings.

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Latin American Cinemas, European Markets

Looking forward to this event in Manchester at the end of April. For more details on booking and attendance, click here. I’m going to be talking about this project I have been working on.

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La mujer de todos [Everybody’s Woman]

Media Type: Film

Year: 1946

Who wrote / made it : Julio Bracho

Plot summary: Set in 1912 during the brief presidency of Francisco I Madero (1911-1913), the Revolution does not feature in the plot. However, it casts a shadow as it is centred around military men. María Félix gets first billing as María alongside Armando Calvo as Jorge. The story is a love triangle between María (‘la mujer más bella de Europa’), Jorge, and Juan Antonio (Alberto Galán), his older half-brother. María and Juan Antonio meet in Spain. It is implied that she is a courtesan and we are shown that she has a cruel sense of humour. A tragic suicide impels her to leave and go with Juan Antonio to Mexico as his lover. On arrival, she meets Jorge by chance whilst on her way to the house Juan Antonio has set up for her. After some flirtation and chance encounters, Jorge and María fall in love. Both Juan Antonio and Jorge’s fiancée, Angélica (Patricia Morán), find out and are heartbroken. At first, Jorge nobly leaves Mexico City for Veracruz unhappy, but unwilling to interpose between María and Juan Antonio. María travels to Jorge and declares her love for him and they become a couple. Shortly after his return to Mexico City, Juan Antonio challenges Jorge to a duel. María tries various ruses to avoid either being killed. She fails, loses the love of both men and leaves Mexico.

Various modes of transport feature in this film: boat, rail, and carriage. The railway is of particular significance to the Revolution and has been written about largely in relation to literature of the Revolution. Unlike the usual film of the Revolution, the train is a convenient and high-class mode of transport in this film.

As this is set in a period during which there was relative peace much could be made of the high society and wealth of the characters. Perhaps with reference to the source text and to underline how the characters belong to a historic past, the costume has more in common with late-Nineteenth Century Mexico than the 1910s. The film is adapted from a play by Alexandre Dumas fils. The script was written by Robert Thoeren (it’s absent from this list: http://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2ba9ef1523) with dialogue by the Mexican poet, Xavier Villarutia. It is a neglected text and is of interest to me as a film starring Félix, but could also serve as a good example of the transnational flows in narrative and source texts as well as an alternative representation of the bellicose period of the Revolution.

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Streaming Mexican and Cuban Film

I have just finished writing a chapter on streaming Latin American film in Ireland and the UK. This has involved reading right up to the last minute on how data and algorithms are used to determine what is shown and trying to keep up with controversies, such as the one that blew up in January about the possibility that Netflix will pursue subscribers who use unblockers or proxies. I kept my search to the bigger providers in the market: Netflix, that has considerable cross-market appeal, and MUBI and Curzon Home Cinema, because they appeal to the art house viewer, which is the usual means of distribution for non-Hollywood cinema. I focused my attention on Mexico, a country with a long and highly productive output, and Cuba, which has a more variably output and hasn’t had the same access to international film markets.

I originally looked at MUBI in 2012 and compared their offering to early 2016. The other two were not established as streaming services in 2012, so I only looked at their 2016 offering. The more in-depth discussion happens in the chapter, but what I want to share, here, are the screen shots for 2012 and 2016 for those of you who want a quick insight into the patterns and trends, and who may like it to supplement the chapter when it is published.

In 2012, MUBI followed a pay-per-view model. According to the founder, Efe Çakarel he set up the service when on a visit to Japan he wanted to watch In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000). Finding it unavailable he realised there was a market gap for curated arthouse cinema. Here was how it looked in March/April 2012.

General view

Cuba

Mexico

As you can see, there is a variety of films that can be viewed instantly and indefinitely. I highlight the film, Revolución, because it was released on MUBI in an unusual streaming first release.

MUBI has subsequently changed its streaming model and now only releases 30 films a day as a carefully curated cinema club. This loses the unlimited on demand access to films. It is possible to see what has been shown previously according to country searches and through film lists curated by subscribers. This is what it looks like in 2016:

Cuba

Mexico

By lists Cuba

By lists Mexico

Interestingly, if you search for ‘Mexico’ or ‘Cuba’, these mostly show films with these country names in the title,

‘Cuba’

‘Mexico’

Curzon Home Cinema is attached to the Curzon Cinemas and is an extension of the cinema chain’s offerings to online audiences. It shows recent releases and some older films on demand. The Latin American film offering is dependant on high demand films for which Curzon and its affiliate Artificial Eye has distribution rights in the UK and Ireland. Look for Cuba and there is a thumbnail with an image of  Buena Vista Social Club (1999) by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, but no films are available to view when you click on the image.

 

 

The Mexico offering is wider, but nothing near the 100+ films made in 2015 alone.

 

As you can see some of these are made by Mexicans, are about Mexico or, have a Mexican focus. Therefore, they do propose a challenge to what we understand to mean Mexican or ‘Mexican’ cinema. Elsewhere, Rob Stone (2015, 424) has written about the need to put inverted commas around ‘Spanish’ cinema to complicate how the national category is to be understood. The above examples suggest that a similar strategy should be used for ‘Cuban’ and ‘Mexican’ films. This is central to the discussion in my chapter.

Netflix does not purport to offer arthouse cinema in the way that it is understood by Curzon or MUBI. It has a wide offering – to the extent that it has been accused of being bloated.

On my computer – some TV apps have a different interface – I looked for Mexican and Cuban films by going to the ‘International Movies’ in the ‘Browse’ area, then to the ‘Latin American Films’ under ‘Sub-genres’. The shift between movies and films is interesting so too is the erroneous labelling of films of any region as a sub-genre.

In the Irish and UK site there are only 18 ‘Latin American films’, of which only 4 are Mexican and none are Cuban. The 4 Mexican films are: Days of Grace (Everardo Valerio Grout, 2011), a fiction film about three violent kidnappings during pivotal football World Cup games; a story of a beauty pageant winner caught up in drug violence, Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011); a horror, Here Comes the Devil (Adrián García Bogliano, 2012); and Instructions Not Included (Eugenio Derbez, 2013), a comedy that had the biggest box office earnings in Mexico to date and is currently the highest grossing foreign language film in the US (Cervantes 2016). Miss Bala is the only one of these that got festival and art house distribution, and has received academic attention. The others have gotten little distribution or academic attention, as with many genre films from Mexico. This has much to do with the hierarchical nature of knowledge consumption and the tendency by academics to write about films that appear on curricula, few of which are conventional nor high grossing genre films.

 

Search for ‘Mexico’ in the search field and this is what appears:

Only Instructions Not Included overlaps with the previous category. Search for ‘Cuba’ and this curious selection turns up:

Some are Cuba Gooding Jr films and the others have tenuous links to Cuba. A change to the dates of my research is the addition of Whatever Happened, Miss Simone? that typifies the transience of research online and the ways content can change within hours or days.

There are two broad conclusions from this search and review: firstly, researchers cannot rely on these streaming services to provide on-demand material, and, secondly, the categorisation and curation can provide an opportunity to re-think how us scholars label Latin American and, more specifically, Cuban and Mexican (or ‘Cuban’ and ‘Mexican’) film. What these streaming services provide could be a new way into thinking about national and transnational film.

Reference

Stone, Rob  (2015) “The Disintegration of Spanish Cinema”, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 92:3, pp423-438.

Follow the hyperlinks for online references.

 

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María Félix – on happenstance and segueways in online research

I am writing a chapter on women in world cinema taking Mexico as a case study. No doubt, I will write more on this anon. Here, I want to post a short reflection on a brief segueway in my research.

In the chapter I am planning on including an analysis of the actor Diana Bracho and her performative style (this may change in the edit). While quickly scanning her imdb page to check the English title of a film, I spotted an entry that says she plays María Félix in a short called “María Bonita” that purportedly was released in 2015. As I have carried out considerable work on Félix, I was intrigued. I set about trying to see if I could source it. According to reports online the film is about an episode in the director, Amanda de la Rosa Frisccione’s life, when Félix stayed in her parent’s house in Veracruz in the 1990s. At the time, the former was in her mid-teens and the latter in her 80s. Unlike what the imdb page says, in the reports the 20 minute short is called “Belleza eterna” [Eternal Beauty]. I tried to find the film online and came across an interesting interview with Bracho who discusses taking on the role of Félix and bringing to it her own recollections of who Félix was. I also came across two short videos made of the shoot, that are both under 30 seconds. Their brevity reveal little about the film and could be counted both as teasers, because of the brief glimpses of Bracho as Félix in the recognisable wardrobe of late-period Félix, and as paratextual ephemera typical of YouTube.

In part, I am writing this as a way of logging a short deviation from a project I am working on and my delight in how apparently disparate routes can take me somewhere new with ongoing long-term projects. It is also a way of briefly describing how the Internet is a productive, if flawed, research tool, and can lead me towards work that exists but I cannot access. Knowing what is out there is great, not being able to watch it is a constant frustration. This is not a full stop. I will pursue this and see what can be uncovered by other means. If I’m successful I will update my discoveries here. In the meantime, I must get back to the chapter at hand.

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Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking: the case of Marcela Fernández Violante

I have recently completed editing on a chapter entitled, “Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking:  the case of Marcela Fernández Violante” that will come out in 2016 in Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw edited collection of essays, Latin American Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics (I.B. Tauris).

Whilst researching for a monograph (2013) on political violence in Mexican cinema I encountered an anomaly in the critical assessment of 1970s history: Marcela Fernández Violante (1941-). For that project I was interested in what is called the independent period of filmmaking, and why, in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests, filmmakers chose to make films about the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Films like Reed, México insurgente (Paul Leduc, 1972) garner considerable critical attention, yet I was the first to write about Fernández Violante’s Cananea (1976). This is despite Fernández Violante’s film being technically skillful, reflecting political concerns, and returning to an originary story of the Revolution related to a key historical figure, like that of Leduc. Unable to find much about her in histories of the 1970s, I searched for analyses of her work in the histories of women filmmakers in Mexico and she is mentioned, but with little attention to her work. This is despite the fact that she is a formidable and noteworthy presence in Mexican cinema and a woman of many firsts. In 1969, she was one of the first graduates from the film school, the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográfico (CUEC). In 1977, she was the first woman admitted into the film director’s union, and was the director of the CUEC from 1984-8. She had a notable start to her career, her first film, Azul (1967), a short about Frida Kahlo, won her an Ariel –a Mexican industry award- while still at film school. She has subsequently made 8 features up to her 2002 film, Acosada: De piel de víbora [Accosted: snakeskin], as well as a 30 minute episode on one of the pioneering Mexican female directors, Matilde Landeta (1910-1999), as part of the television documentary series, Los nuestros [Our Own] (1987). Despite this body of work and her influential position in central roles, I could not help wonder why there is so little critical analysis. Then, I read the interviews. There are a number of them and they are forthright assertions of her career goals, where she feels she belongs, and who and what came between her and greater success. This is not the usual diplomatic language of someone in filmmaking, a field that relies on goodwill, teamwork, and where it is rare to get a full account of what went wrong in a project.

Her direct, sometimes spikey, approach in interviews makes her voice a fascinating source for Mexican film history, and as a woman she is perforce a marginal figure, which makes it an act of recovery in alternative history telling and a challenge to conventional narratives. Therefore, I make extensive reference to what she has to say. My chapter is about recovering the untold by looking at two of her feature films, De todos modos Juan te llamas [General’s Daughter/Whatever You Do It’s No Good] (1975) and Misterio (1980). The first is a personal project that was supported by the university and she was a hired director for the latter. Both of the films analysed here are individually significant because they mark different modes of filmmaking and exemplify the developments both in her career and in the Mexican film industry. My chapter is also about asserting the need to reconsider how Mexican film history is told. Inserting Fernández Violante into the history of Mexican cinema shows that the current models merit revision.

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Magical Realism or, Is TV the new Baroque?

I  read two pieces today that resonated with each other. Firstly, this article from The Atlantic, “The Key Things Missing from Narcos” by Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez in which, amongst other issues, he challenges the use of the word ‘Magical Realism’ to describe the Colombia of Pablo Escobar. I agree with his assessment. The second is a chapter by B. Ruby Rich, “An/Other View of New Latin American Cinema”, which I am re-reading. Originally published in 1995, by her own assessment she is carrying out a revisionist history of New Latin American Cinema, which lasted from the 1960s to the late 1990s. It is a largely optimistic survey of a range of films from the popular to the experimental that ends on a pessimistic note on the “less salutary effects of a certain kind of individualism at the level of auteur” (1995, 188). The example she gives of the auteur is Gabriel García Márquez, whose project Amores difíciles (1987) was a Spanish and Latin American co-produced TV series that she treats with a negative foreboding,

“The threat of such packaging [of the series as originating from García Márquez] under the sign of a single personality is that, should its success and the concomitant lack of financial alternatives lead to a proliferation, the New Latin American Cinema could enter a baroque phase: historical subjects would no longer be chosen for their particular ideological implications for a particular country at this juncture, contemporary fictional themes would no longer arise out of the specificity of an identifiable set of national circumstances, documentary would be decisively marginalized and no longer inhabit any place at all, and the very real heterogeneity that has always made ‘Latin America’ itself such a near-fictional construct would vanish under the homogeneity of brand-name magic realism flying a multinational banner” (1995, 189).

To describe it as Baroque is hardly accidental when referencing Magical Realism. The Cuban writer and ethnomusicologist, Alejo Carpentier made links between the European Baroque and what he called ‘lo real maravilloso’ [the marvellous real] – his label for Magical Realism. Maybe the full force of the baroque phase that Rich predicts has not come to pass, but the brand elision with magic realism was realised in Narcos and rendered a signifier emptied of meaning except as an exoticising label of otherness.

Rich, B. Ruby (1995) “An/Other View of New Latin American Cinema” in Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri, eds., Feminisms in the Cinema, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana U.P.

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Narcos and Cartel Land

I recently published an article in The Conversation on the Netflix series, Narcos (José Padilha, 2015-) and the documentary film, Cartel Land (Mathew Heineman, 2015). You can read it by following this link.

 

Cartel Land

Cartel Land Trailer

Narcos Trailer

Narcos Trailer

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