La estrella vacía (1958)

I am continuing my occasional posts about films starring María Félix with a short post on La estrella vacía [the empty star] (Emilio Gómez Muriel, 1958). The film is adapated from the eponymous 1950 novel by Luis Spota, a well-known chronicler of twentieth century Mexican urban life and, in the words of Sara Sefchovich a “fenómeno sociológico-literario” [sociological-literary phenomenon] (1979, 839), because of his attention to Mexican politics and society. A bestselling author whose work has been given little attention by scholars, Spota’s novel is indicative of his interest in exploring the “abuse by the powerful” of those less powerful in society (Pouwels 1994, 424-5). This is reflected in the adaptation.

Olga and Luis wander through the city

María Félix stars as Olga Lang, a young woman of modest means who has moved from her village to Mexico City to become a film star. It soon becomes clear that she is ruthless in her pursuit of fame aligning herself with powerful men in order to fulfil her ambitions. Whilst this could be a simple story of a glamorous femme fatale, the plot is not concerned with Olga as a seductress. Instead, it is centred on everything she endures and the great sacrifices she makes in order to become rich and successful. The challenges are multiple and mostly inflicted by the powerful film industry men who have a say over her career and life. The hardships range in difficulty and include controversial issues that receive little attention in mainstream melodrama. These include being forced to undergo a botched abortion that leaves her unable to have children; missing her mother’s funeral; being subject to sexual harassment by the studio executives; and experiencing domestic violence and controlling behaviour by multiple partners. This exploration of the costs of fame has elements of what has been revealed through the MeToo movement campaigns. La estrella vacía foreshadows these revelations and suggests that such abuses have been a long-kept open secret. The studio bosses, Raúl Tovar (Ramón Gay) and Federico Guillén (Carlos López Moctezuma), are particularly prone to abusing their power. While the lowlier men, such as the novelist Luis (in what could be an allusion to Spota himself), Arvide (Ignacio López Tarso), Olga’s driver, Tomás (Wolf Rubinskis), and Olga’s father (José Luis Jiménez) are all more noble allies to Olga. Nonetheless, none of them shield her from the abuse.

Ambition has its challenges, but so too has a quest for independence. It is clear that life for a woman in the city is difficult, as evidenced in her friend, Teresa’s (Rita Macedo), struggle with her alcoholism, which is understood as a consequence of the challenges of city life rather than addiction. As Olga reflects after visiting Teresa in a psychiatric hospital, “hay que hacerse dura…muy dura”, implying that Teresa has that quality and, whilst Olga does, it has come at a cost.

Olga a prisoner in Guillermo’s splendid house

I’m not interested in a like for like comparison with the novel, but what is retained in the adaptation is structural experimentation, flashbacks are a framing device of both the novel and film (Pouwels 1994, 425). The film begins with Olga’s departure from the airport to Madrid which cuts to a news headline of her death in a plane crash. This then cuts to a modernist mansion and a panning shot of an open-plan room inside with men in different poses. Over the course of the narrative it becomes clear that these are all men who had a relationship with Olga as her parent, lover, friend, or employee. There are several flashbacks to this scene in the film to remind us of their significance and her death.

The men contemplate Olga’s life

It would be easy to classify this film as a conservative lesson in punishment for female ambition. Whilst some of that is present in the film, that reading is simplistic and ignores the cruelty of the powerful that is being revealed to us over the course of the narrative and the significance of Félix’s star text that can be read as both sub-text and text in the film. As someone with insider knowledge of the film industry, Spota claimed that Olga was inspired by Félix, Dolores del Rio, and Gloria Marín (Taibo I 2004, 347). In part, this is Félix’s story. There is some moralising about women’s ambition, but this is not a cautionary tale about being ambitious, it is a warning about how power is abused by those who wield it.

Works Cited

Taibo I, Paco Ignacio. (2004), María Félix: 47 pasos por el cine. Mexico: Ediciones B.

Pouwels, Joel B. 1994. “Luis Spota Revisited: An Overview of His Narrative Art.” Revista Hispánica Moderna 47 (2): 421-435.

Sefchovich, Sara. 1979. “Luis Spota, La Costumbre Del Poder.” Revista Mexicana de Sociología 41 (3): 839. doi:10.2307/3540092.

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A Controversy in Tweets and Links

This post is about the American Dirt Controversy. It is as much archive and tracking an online news piece in my corner of the Twitterverse as it is about giving an account.

In a previous post I wrote about the opening salvo that has grown into a fascinating conversation about who the publishing industry supports, who it deploys to market a book, who are the key tastemakers in the industry, and, most importantly, why certain truths really matter.

To recap, the writer, activist and teacher, Myriam Gurba was commissioned to a review for Ms that they decided not to publish on the basis that it was too negative. On the 12th of December 2019 Gurba wrote about her review and her reflection on the magazine’s refusal to publish it on the academic blog site Tropics of Meta, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature“. At first this got little attention. In the lead up to the publication date of the novel on the 21st of January 2020 and its endorsement by Oprah for her book club, Gurba’s post went viral and the Twitter discussion really took off. This was further fuelled by a number of seriously mis-guided publicity moves including, barbed wire decor for the launch party that led to accusations of “using migrants as props” and of bad taste when the author re-tweeted (later deleted) a fan’s nails painted with the barbed wire of the book’s cover.* Some of these posts, including those linked already from Mic and Vice, as well as this Buzzfeed article, give an account of the initial controversies. These look at the cover, the content, the industry, the author (to use and extend Buzzfeed’s helpful subheads), as well as the money, and more importantly, who tells whose story.

There have been a number of pieces on whether non-Mexicans can write stories about Mexico and Mexicans. Some of this has been an exasperation with white privilege, although not generally expressed in this way (given how frequently this phrase is wilfully misunderstood). In this case it means that if you are white the struggle to publish may be real, but the odds are stacked in your favour especially when contrasted with anybody else. These stats give a sense of the problem:

Retweeted by Gurba (@lesbrains). Original Tweet by the congressman Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrox), chair of the Hispanic Caucus, 30 January 2020

Other takes have been about class and how New York centred the publishing industry still is, which means that it seems to struggle to include voices outside of that elite. Daniel A. Olivas makes the case in The Guardian when he says,

“​Yes, we are angry. But we will not be silenced. We are Latinx writers – with the support of our allies – who have been fighting too long to stop now. Radical change is needed in the publishing industry, not simply with respect to Latinx writers, but all marginalized writers who have important stories to tell based on their own lives and experiences.”

Who gets to tell stories is important and this is not a new fight nor unique to Chicanx or Latinx communities. For example, in the UK, Kit de Waal (amongst others) has called for more inclusion of working class voices. She makes a powerful case for this here. The challenge within this debate has been that vital voices who have been speaking about this for years, are having their voices heard and then silenced again as if there is an economics of scarcity in all of this which presumes that there isn’t space for a range of voices. De Waal finishes her article on that point, championing the voices of those from a wealthy background who have enriched culture and making it clear that,

“[t]his isn’t a plea to take them off the shelf. It isn’t a case of us or them; it’s a case of us and them. Shove all those other books up a bit and make room on the shelf for stories from all of the communities that make up the working class. We do literature and ourselves a disservice if we don’t.”

Olivas makes a similar point in his article when he says,

“it’s not that we think only Latinx writers should write Latinx-themed books. No, this is not about censorship. A talented writer who does the hard work can create convincing, powerful works of literature about other cultures.”

Similarly, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, in a Twitter thread turned Washington Post article, challenges the premise that Mexicans are an ethnicity and that only Mexicans can write about Mexicans. To that end, he gives a list of books about Mexico by Mexicans and non-Mexicans as alternatives to American Dirt. Many of these lists have been put together as a direct response to Cummins assertion that she is speaking for a “faceless brown mass” of Mexican humanity as if there aren’t Mexicans and Latinx writers.

Elsewhere, other lists of alternative books have emerged. There have been a number of repeated names, such as Luis Alberto Urea**, Yuri Herrera, and Valeria Luiselli, as well as mention of books by other notable and, perhaps, less well known authors. Here are some examples, The Texas Observer, Vox and The Guardian. As Reyna Grande asserts in The New York Times, the upside of the publication of the novel has been that “American Dirt has us talking”.

Thus far, the novel has led to two separate hashtags. The “writing my Latino novel” meme that parodies the novel’s missteps in code-switching and the clumsy ways it deploys Mexican stereotypes. The first meme is deliberately humorous and satirical, whilst the second, #DignidadLiteraria, has emerged from an activist demand to be heard and read.

The related ere call to action, as shared by author and journalist Roberto Lovato (@robvato), reveals the clear intentions of the hashtag:

As a result of this activism and controversy, readings have been cancelled and celebrities have withdrawn their endorsements, whilst authors, such as Sandra Cisneros, have been criticised for continuing to support it.*** More worryingly, Gurba and others have received threats. An open letter signed by 137 writers has been published on LitHub asking Oprah to withdraw her endorsement asserting that,

“in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.”

We need to ask the same of the BBC. American Dirt is still slated to be Book of the Week in April 2020****. They should reconsider their endorsement.

From my place online, the consequences of this controversy have led to an exciting conversation around literature and its significance, fascinating reflections on the importance of truth in storytelling, and a brilliant sharing of names and voices that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. For Cummins and her publisher the consequences are less clear. The book is number one on Amazon’s bestseller list, so something is working for them. We will have to wait and see whether there are any long term changes in the publishing industry.

Some notes

*If you want more on barbed wire’s iconography, go to María Herrera-Sobek’s chapter, here.

**Suggestions have been made that some of the novel may have been “cribbed”.

***For those who want to listen to Gurba, Urea, Cisneros, and Cummins speak about this controversy NPR’s Latino USA have put together a great program.

****Addendum: it was aired from the 6th-16th of April 2020.

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We Need (More and Better) Reviewers

Normally on these pages, I write about what I’ve been researching. Today, I want to write about why I would love others to write more and better reviews.

There are two prompts to this post. This past weekend I watched First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017) a Netflix film about a child soldier in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There were things that I wondered about the film that led me to look up reviews and comments on the film. I had read some promotional material about how Jolie had come to the project through her role with the UNHCR and her interest in supporting her adopted child in understanding his heritage. Beyond that, I was particularly interested in her collaboration with the filmmaker Rithy Panh, how the film was received, and I had a feeling that the US framing of the film must have provoked some reaction. This is a film told from the child’s perspective thus flattening out the fact that her father was in the army (pre-Khmer Rouge) and what that might mean. I hoped for some comment on context from reviewers. Some, but not all of what I hoped for emerged, as I will get to later.

The second prompt was a detailed and negative response to a review of American Dirt in The Observer.

I came across Myriam Gurba’s take down of American Dirt, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”, while scrolling through Twitter. It’s a lively, detailed, and angry reflection on whose perspectives are privileged and the power of literature to reinforce negative stereotypes.

I have not read American Dirt which Gurba describes as “a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle” (2019), and may not because it seems like a number of other books about the drugs trade in Mexico that pick up tired tropes and reinforce a single story about what is a complex, messy, and ever-evolving situation.

I don’t want to get into a debate around a book I have not read nor pick on an individual reviewer, but central to Gurba’s piece is a critique of what can be found in reviews like the one in The Observer. It is likely that the reviewer will have been curtailed by word count and will have been prompted by the editor to write a particular type of review. This resulted in a review that is just under 450 words and focuses on plot with brief allusion to issues on migration. What The Observer review lacks is a sense of the wider significance of this book, how it compares to (the many, many) others of its ilk, nor does it provide any detail on the author. In part, these gaps can be explained through word count, they also are because it’s not a book that will have the same impact (culturally or in sales) in the UK as the US. The review can also be explained through a wider reflection on the decline in criticism. There are fewer critics, fewer professional venues for review, less space for reviews, and, consequently, fewer applied reviews.

As a powerful platform, The Observer has done a disservice in this review. By endorsing a book without situating it, Gurba’s assertion that it “perpetuates harm” resonates for me. I have read reviews of other books that function as mere brief signalling of the existence of a book (or film) without saying much else. It is not unusual practice and provides some press presence. But, it has serious limitations when work has political implications. The polemic around American Dirt prompts me to reflect on the purpose of reviews when fewer works get reviewed and brings me back to what I wanted from the reviews of First They Killed My Father as opposed to what I found.

In my Saturday search on my phone (I include this detail as a probably typical second screen scroll), only two reviews popped up. Not sure why it was so limited. The first was a typical Hollywood Reporter review which was a mix of industry information and brief assessment of its positive qualities and the second was a negative review by Emily Yoshida Vulture frustrated by the child’s performance and the pace of the film.

Subsequent searches on my laptop reveal more reviews from a range of sources including one from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian and another by Peter Debruge in Variety. Bradshaw’s alludes to some production issues, but mostly focuses on his assessment, while Debruge’s is more complete in its comparison to other films centred on children and considers the significance of the contribution of some above the line workers (DoP and Producer). The space given over in Variety is greater than The Guardian and greater still in RogerEbert by Matt Zoller Seitz. As a consequence, Zoller Seitz’s is by far the most informative placing the film in a a wider historical context as well as covering much of what Debruge and Bradshaw do. This is made possible through having 1,620 words as against Bradshaw’s 612 and Debruge’s 1,046. Space matters. Word count costs more, but it allows for more detail and nuance.

As someone circling around how key individuals and institutions (I include publications in this) determine what gets attention and how, I am interested in how reviews help us (me) navigate the range of content that is available. This means that reviews can be short. I don’t necessarily want plot, I want to know what form of entertainment/experience it will be and whether that is something I want to spend time with. Coupled with that I would like to know something that only a specialist would know: what I would miss had I not read the review. Brevity rarely allows for that. I want more detail from reviews and I want more perspectives. I want nuance and range. I know newspapers are financially squeezed, but less (and shorter) content will not improve their positions. At a time when we need cultural guides more than ever, I want more reviewers.

Even more urgently, when literature, film, and television can be touchstones for attitudes towards others -whether they are minority populations within a nation or peoples from other nations – we need better reviewers who take a big picture perspective when reviewing work. Tell us where this work fits in the pantheon of work of this type, what does it contribute, and why we should care.

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A chapter in screenshots

I recently tidied up the desktop of my computer. Whilst sifting through the numerous folders I gathered related to my project on curation and tastemaking in Mexico, I found a number of images that I had compiled in 2010 when carrying out early research. This is a mini-archive that creates digital material traces of the work I needed to do before I got the physical copies in the archives of the monthly programme produced by the Cineteca. This digital find gives some inkling of my preliminary process and virtual discoveries.

Screenshot from November 2010

The screenshots trace how the event was framed online from links that are now lost. The background image gives some context to the specific programme of films around the theme of Independence and Revolution. Figures from Mexican Independence are foregrounded in the imagery visible (above) with the official logo of the commemoration also evident. The thumbnail on the bottom left hand is a copy of the cover of the programme and is a screen shot from the featured film of the Revolution, El compadre Mendoza.

The ciclo de cine [film cycle] Dos siglos de libertad vistos por el cine [Two Centuries of Freedom as Seen on Screen] was a carefully curated selection of films of the Revolution and Independence from Mexico and elsewhere. I discuss these choices in my forthcoming monograph. The programme is a fascinating way of understanding Mexican film studies, the canon, arthouse tastes, and I argue that institutions and those working for them are tastemakers. Predictably, films from Mexico were largely canonical whilst those from elsewhere were an unexpected mix thematically and temporally.

Here are two examples of the unexpected global arthouse films.

Screenshot from November 2010
Screenshot from November 2010

My focus is on the Mexican films, but the global arthouse films create unexpected meanings and the film cycle is a wide-ranging commentary on independence and revolution.

Finding these screenshots is a reminder of the transience of online research and the digital traces we gather when we have a hunch that there is something of interest, but not knowing quite what will emerge. For me, these images evoke the spark that thrill when you know that something is worth pursuing but don’t yet know where it will lead.

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Jennifer Lopez and Bordertown

I get regular updates on Jennifer Lopez in my email because I’ve been writing about her as an actor and star/celebrity. What is very clear from the daily coverage is the level of scrutiny and speculation she, her partner, and family lives with which she navigates through carefully curated media appearances and regular updates on Instagram. In my forthcoming book I discuss Bordertown (Gregory Nava, 2006) starring Lopez as the investigative journalist, Lauren. It is a film that addresses the disappearance, assaults and murders of women in Juarez. Part of my discussion is focused on how the film tries to explore how women’s bodies have been considered disposable and consumable. Woven into this is Lopez’s star text and the ways her body is fashioned in the film. This is informed by an understanding of her star persona.

Much is made in the popular press and fashion magazines about Lopez’s curvaceous figure. There is considerable emphasis, in particular, on the roundness of her buttocks. Great work has been carried out by Molina Guzmán and Valdivia (2004) and Mendible (2007) on the history and meaning of such treatment of the Latina body. Specifically, Lopez’s physique has had an appeal for the largely white press who have praised her body for characteristics most usually associated with the black body. The focus on her buttocks was a predecessor to what is written about Kim Kardashian and the ways her white black body is read (Sastre 2014). Therefore, Lopez, like Kardashian, has considerable agency in the performances of her self, but is also imbricated in a long history of the othering of non-white bodies.

From the early days of her fame, Jennifer Lopez has asserted considerable power over her star persona. She plays up to the attention given to her curves. For example, the clothing she wears at many events knowingly not only emphasized these, but so too have her poses. Her clothing at these events is about asserting a glamorous persona as well as providing a brief shorthand of her cultural capital and identity.

Film star texts often map on to their public persona. Where constant attention is given to women’s bodies in gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, and online spaces, Lopez and her publicity team use these means of communication in deliberate ways Her regular posts on Instagram attest to this. As well as her carefully curated social media accounts, to get a full understanding of the star text of Lopez, there are a multitude of images to consider including, the photographs that are taken at official events (album launches, film screenings) in which the star and their publicist are complicit and have a great deal of power, as well as the photograph taken while the celebrity (I’m using this term in its broadest definition here) is papped, that is photographed unawares whilst on holidays, at private events, or going about their daily lives in public spaces (streets, restaurants, beaches, etc). For example, the fashion magazine, Grazia, under the caption declaring: “It’s the Return of J-Lo! Jennifer Lopez Brings Her Best Asset Back to the Red Carpet”, the article asks: “So is La Lopez on a raunchy red carpet rampage to prove her ex-husband(s) that she’s still got what it takes? Is this her way of proving to the world that she’s just as bootilicious as ever” (Dijkstra 2013). There is an obvious allusion to her buttocks in using the words, ‘asset’ and ‘bootilicious’, and through the accompanying image of her now infamous over the shoulder pose. Whilst, she still poses looking over her shoulder to emphasise her rear (MTV awards 2019), there have been changes in the focus from her bottom to her carefully sculpted physique as she enters her fifth decade.

As a way into understanding the evolution of her star text, a look at a recent Vogue magazine compilation of 22 photographs spanning from her 1997 appearance as Selena up to the 2017 Macy’s fourth of July fireworks show reveals that only three emphasise her buttocks. Two are shot from the rear: a red-carpet outfit that is both figure hugging and designed to emphasise her waist and buttocks, and the other is a concert costume that includes a short silver top and miniskirt. The third is shot from the side. She is wearing a skin-tight dress with revealing transparent material and ornate embroidery. The rest of the outfits emphasise different parts of her body: high slits at the front to show off her thighs, low cut or peephole elements to draw attention to her breasts, or belly tops to draw the focus to her abdomen. The repeated press emphasis on her buttocks are, clearly, a question of race. Her physiognomy is often read as an integral feature of her Latinness, which is very much part of her star text as a singer, while in her acting career she has often mixed acting as Latina and Anglo characters. 

Vogue is a high status fashion and beauty magazine that acts as an arbiter of taste. The specific selection they have made in this series of photographs is an indicator of value ascribed by the magazine to Lopez’s clothing and style. It is an instance of fashion as translation, as described by Patrizia Calefato, where “fashion is a system that goes beyond the mere dimension of an individual’s dressing habits: it is ‘costume’, in other words a social institution that regulates and reproduces the clothed body” (2010, 345). She proposes the term “cultural translation” to describe when “a subordinate culture [is] being forcedly transferred into a dominant culture and in the sense of a space of interaction” (2010, 345). Within this system, Vogue is a powerful actor in that their approval of her translation is significant to star status, and so too is Lopez in choosing clothing that simultaneously communicates her alterity and attains that approval. In Bordertown fashion is used to indicate shifts and changes in Lauren from Anglo to Latina as a form of gradual assimilation and translation for the Anglo viewer. The display and concealment of her body is integral to her character’s development.  

References

Calefato, Patrizia (2010) “Fashion as Cultural Translation: Knowledge, Constrictions and Transgressions on/of the Female Body”, Social Semiotics 20.4: 343-355.

Dijkstra, Maaike (2013) “It’s the Return of J-Lo: Jennifer Lopez Brings her Best Assest Back to the Red Carpet”, Grazia, 25 January. http://www.graziadaily.co.uk/fashion/news/its-the-return-of-j-lo-jennifer-lopez-brings-her-best-asset-back-to-the-red-carpet

Mendible, Myra (2007) From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Molina Guzmán, Isabel and Angharad Valdivia (2004) “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture”, The Communication Review, 7: 205-221.

Sastre, Alexandra (2014) “Hottentot in the Age of Reality TV: Sexuality, Race, and Kim Kardashian’s Visible Body”, Celebrity Studies, 5:1-2, 123-137, DOI:10.1080/19392397.2013.810838

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Film Festivals and Film Cycles

Whilst writing my chapter on institutions and tastemakers I carried out research into Film Festivals. This has been invaluable in helping me describe and analyse film cycles and commemorations in Mexico, which I explore in-depth in my forthcoming book. I want to share some material that touches on what I have been researching, but will not be included in the monograph.

Film Festival studies has grown considerably since the early 2000s. The European-based Film Festival Research network founded by Marijke de Valck and Skadi Loist in 2008 with its comprehensive website has helped nurture and promulgate much of this work (see, filmfestivalresearch.org). It is a model of how to share research and provide a helpful guide for others. The research being carried out varies from the attention given to film festivals to following the influence and effect of A-list film festivals on global arthouse cinema to more niche festivals and their functions for local audiences and cities. The A-list festivals are a distinct category of festivals which have established reputations and can guarantee high profile boosts for films given premieres or awards. These include Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, and Venice and the most well-known festivals. The paradigms used for their analysis are helpful in understanding small sequences and curatorial practices, but there are two strands of research that provide more insight into the Mexican context: the Latin American festival film and the festival as curator of national, regional, or continental spaces. The particular supports given to Latin American film and filmmakers at festivals such as Rotterdam, Sundance, and San Sebastian have gotten particular attention from academics such as Miriam Ross (2011), Tamara L Falicov (2013), Stephanie Dennison (2013), Deborah Shaw (2013), and Nuria Triana Toribio (2013). Informed by the shift towards transnational film studies these scholars have examined film funding, supports for script development, distribution deals, and other practical backing given through film festivals and the inter-relationship between arthouse audiences and narrative focus.* For example, Ross (2011) traces the emergence of particular styles of issue-driven films and Shaw (2013) considers the growth of the Latin American Queer film as direct results of European film festival financing. Paul Julian Smith’s journalistic, social media, and academic accounts of film festivals in Mexico and Spain are a great way of keeping in touch with recent patterns and developments in Mexican film, even as his work moves towards TV.

Curiously, for my chapter the non-Latin American focused analysis have proven more useful. In general, I cite my Latin Americanist colleagues. But, because they are looking at specific festivals and funding flows, they are not relevant to my current chapter (with the exception of Falicov). However, I use their work extensively for teaching and in other outputs.

*References for all of these can be found on the Film Festival Research web page.

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What Elena Poniatowska and Ayotzinapa can tell us about subjectivity and violence

I have been writing about violence and subjectivity for my forthcoming monograph. This led me to reflect on the value placed on a life and how significant a fully realised representation is. It may seem obvious to say, but individual lives can become invisible when the numbers of victims grow. Therefore, acknowledging the subjectivity of victims of assault and murder is fundamental to comprehending violence and apprehending lives (see, Butler 2009). Providing salient features about individuals that reveal something about their characters and the known details about their deaths humanises them. An example of this can be found in Elena Poniatowska’s (2014) speech at a protest demanding the return of the missing 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Consistent with her attention to those often glossed over in historiography, she provides details about the students’ ambitions, interests, and interpersonal relations in order to challenge the logic of forgetting and elision that renders victims invisible (Poniatowska 2014 and 2018). Even where details are shown, other factors can mitigate against apprehending lives. Nonetheless, Poniatowska demonstrates one of the ways loss can be articulated especially when the numbers of dead are large.

References

Butler, Judith (2009) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable London & New York: Seagull Books.

Poniatowska, Elena (2014) “Ayotzinapa”, 13 November, translated by Juana Adcock, Words Without Borders https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/ayotzinapa

—. (2018) “Poniatowska compara los 43 de Ayotzinapa con matanza del 68”, 6 September, Agencia EFE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0J87E21DPA

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Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio: (Non-)Professional Acting and Authenticity in Mexico

I have been thinking a lot about performance – of the self, gender, on screen, online – in recent years. Most recently, this led me write about performance and authenticity in Amat Escalante’s films, Los bastardos (2008) and Heli (2013), as a way into thinking about his work as prestige productions. To situate this discussion and to give a sense of typical/atypical careers for actors in Mexico, I looked at Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio. He is a well-established actor, whilst she falls under what is called a non-professional actor.

Although particularly successful in that his trajectory is representative of other, perhaps less well-known actors, Luna crosses over between commercial and arthouse cinema. He began with small parts in Mexican television telenovelas (soap operas), such as, Ángeles sin paraíso (1992), El abuelo y yo (1993), and La vida en el espejo (1999), alongside occasional small parts in low-budget Mexican films.  Mexican telenovelas tend to be of fixed duration and are produced quickly with an emphasis on exaggerated gestures and close-ups on the characters’ emotional responses. With Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) Luna took his first English-language role and shortly thereafter took a lead role alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Gael García Bernal, in Y tú mama también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001). Subsequently, this has led to numerous film and television roles in Mexico and abroad including arthouse films such as, Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), high-profile roles in the Star Wars franchise film Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and a lead role in the Netflix TV series Narcos: Mexico (2018-). Luna’s performances cross-genres, media, and platforms. He is a highly mobile translational star acting in Spanish and English and has worked as a director and producer. Across his multiple roles, his acting style conveys a “realistic portrayal of characters through in-depth psychological analysis and bodily transformation” that demonstrates he has acquired the cultural capital to conform to Hollywood and arthouse acting styles (Leung 2009, 20). However, his tendency to be stereotyped in English-language roles that require him to act Latino encourage excessive movement “focused on the surface such as facial expressions that look[ed] good in close-up” typical of television acting (Leung 2009, 21). An example of this can be seen in the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018). Luna’s move between styles of acting and across genres is a particularly successful iteration of what it means to be a Mexican transnational film star. He demonstrates range and a capacity to adapt his style as required with a primarily realist approach.

Luna’s professional career trajectory contrasts with that of the non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. In February 2019 Luna interviewed Aparicio, the protagonist of Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). She is someone whose foundational narrative resembles that of many of the actors in Escalante’s films. She is a non-professional who expresses a desire to return to Central Mexico to fulfil her previous ambition to become a teacher (Luna 2019). Although, she often mentions it in interviews, it is seldom commented that she comes from a family of performers and has had experience on stage. This gives her invaluable experience and understanding of performance. Her responses in the interview are the insightsof someone with this awareness. Aparicio explains that Alfonso Cuarón’s did not show her the screenplay, a decision which was intended to provoke instinctive responses to other (non-)actors (Luna 2019). A similar approach was taken by Escalante.

In interviews, Escalante has discussed this process with the non-professional actors in Los Bastardos and Heli. Considering how this method changed in the making of the horror film La región salvaje (Amat Escalante, 2016) reveals much about his previous approach and his different attitude to professional actors. Escalante states that La región salvaje “was the first time I gave my actors a screenplay. In previous projects, since the cast were not interested in being actors, we would work in the moment and they wouldn’t read the screenplay because I didn’t want to confuse them with a lot of information” (Aguilar 2017). For him, this directorial style results in spontaneous performances born of minimal knowledge of the narrative arc and is integral to working with non-professional actors. It will take a longer piece to unpick the variations in acting style and the mix of professional non-professional performers in his film. What is clear is that in Los bastardos and Heli Escalante elicited subtle low-key realist performances that, combined with an audio-visual style using long wide shots and close-ups conform to the aesthetics of arthouse cinema aiming to convey authenticity.

In my book, I will be looking at Escalante and how his work is read in terms of taste and consider the idea of the authentic and natural in relation to the non-professional actor. For me, the non-professional actor as a concept is under-explored, in particular in relation to recent thinking around authenticity. What’s here is a working through of something I have needed to think through before getting to the substantive issues I do tackle in the book. Further updates on the book to be announced soon.

Reading

Aguilar, Carlos (2017) “Pleasure and Pain in Guanajuato: Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is an Unusual Sort of Creature Feature” Movie Maker, 1 August, https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/tentacle-love-amat-escalante-on-creating-the-creature-in-the-untamed-and-filming-in-his-native-guanajuato/

Luna, Diego (2019) “Diego Luna Interviews ‘Roma’ Oscar Nominee Yalitza Aparicio — Exclusive”, Indiwire Feb 13, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/02/diego-luna-roma-interview-yalitza-aparicio-1202043684/

Leung, Wing-Fai W. (2009) “From Wah Dee to CEO: Andy Lau and Performing the Authentic Hong Kong Star”, Film International(40): 19-28.

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Review: Los cárteles no existen – Oswaldo Zavala

Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.

Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.

For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile.  This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).

Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.

Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).**  However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.

*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.

 

 

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Presentation Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria

This is the presentation I gave at UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies in advance of the screening of Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria, 16 October 2018.

I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the events leading up to the massacre on the 2nd of October 1968. So, you will not need me to rehearse the frequent marches, the long history of workers protests, the student dissatisfaction with failed government promises, the international context which empowered young people to stand up and demand civil rights and a fairer future. From Derry to Prague, Paris to Chicago, London to Mexico City, young people, often supported by a wider movement stood up and marched for a better life.

The Mexican armed forces acting against those students were not uniquely violent, but their response was under scrutiny as a consequence of being on a world stage because of the Olympics held that October in Mexico City. The subsequent vilification by the government of the protestors is also not unique, but the continued silence over the exact events is now an outlier. There are still only guestimates (anywhere from 44 to 400) about how many were killed and how many disappeared. This is where the visual archive matters. The image of shoes left behind at the scene and the bloodstained Tlatelolco Square of the following morning retains its poignancy and emotional weight because they evoke absence and loss.

https://aristeguinoticias.com/0210/kiosko/5-peliculas-sobre-el-2-de-octubre/

There is an extensive audio-visual archive that runs to 8 hours of film and has been reproduced repeatedly. The first and most famous use of the footage was El grito (1968) directed by Leobardo López Aretche. Collectively made by the students who were given lightweight cameras from the recently founded Film school, they shot what they witnessed. This audio-visual material has helped recall the events. They are a testament to the gaps in history.

Some of the archive has appeared in fiction films, such as the docudrama Canoa (1976) by Felipe Cazals and El bulto (1992) by Gabriel Retes. Footage has been picked over and used time and again in what has become the life work of the documentarian, Óscar Menéndez in his successive films: Dos de octubre, aquí México (1968), Historia de un documento (1971) and México, 68 (1992). Another who has used this material over and again is Carlos Mendoza in films such as Operación Galeana (2000) and Tlatelolco, las claves de la massacre (2002).

The series organised by UNAM, UK focuses on non-fiction film and I want to draw attention to the fiction films, which are worth seeking out to get a deeper understanding of this moment and reveal ever-evolving attempts to understand 1968. As well as the famous first fiction film, Rojo amanecer (1989) by Jorge Fons there are two other notable fiction films: ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? (1981), a 35minute film directed by Maryse Sistach made while she was a student in London, and the Mexican-German-Spanish co-production, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? (2002) by Eva López Sánchez. All notable attempts to understand the past from the perspective of those with little power.

My work has considered these films (Thornton, 2013), but I am also interested in those films ostensibly about the Mexican Revolution, but where 1968 emerges as a means of working through this moment in films as varied as Reed, México Insurgente (1970) by Paul Leduc, the big budget Emiliano Zapata (1970) by Felipe Cazals, De todos modos Juan te llamas by Marcela Fernández Violante (1975), and the 1976 adaptation of Los de abajo by Servando González. Leduc, Cazals and Fernández Violante all merit analysis (Thornton, 2017) and have received varying degrees of attention, but I want to briefly consider the unusual case of the last of these, Servando González. His career was marked by 1968 because he was employed by the army to shoot film on their behalf. This was material he claimed to have fully handed over to them and to be innocent of its later use. His reputation never recovered and his later career was spent justifying and exploring this legacy.

To turn to Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarría. Echevarría is a filmmaker with foothold in the recent and distant past. Memorial del 68 was a film he made as a result of an invitation by the Museo Memorial del 68 in the Centro Cultural Universitario de Tlatelolco de la UNAM on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary. So, it is very fitting to look at it again in the light of the 50th anniversary. It has been played on a loop in the museum for visitors to pause and listen to the testimonies of those who were witnesses to the events. It has been distributed via festivals and shown on television. The Mexican academic, Diego Zavala Scherer, praised the film for this capacity to move across different spaces because its intention is to tell the story of what happened to the widest possible audience and to give an accurate historic account of the events.

The film makes strong use of testimonials through straight to camera interviews. There are 57 testimonials in all. Testimonials are key to events where the historical truth has yet to be acknowledged by the authorities. By speaking to notable figures and witnesses to the events, including activists Raúl Alvarez Garín, Luis Tomás Cervantes Cabeza de Vaca, Pablo Gómez, and writers José Agustín, David Huerta, Carlos Monsiváis, Andrea Revueltas, Nacha Rodríguez, and Elena Poniatowska, Echevarría is building a full picture and loading up evidence where justice is still absent.

Sergio Raúl Arroyo, director of the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, described Memorial del 68 as

“un trabajo que tiende a extenderse, cuyo sentido principal es crear una memoria audiovisual que nos permita acercarnos al 68 como fenómeno central en la historia contemporánea de México,”

[a film that pushes beyond its limits, whose primary aim is to create an audio-visual memorial that lets us get closer to 68, which was a central event in contemporary Mexican history”]

What is clear is that it is a respectful memorial that is constructed out of multiple perspectives that merit our attention.

This memorial is a radical act of remembrance and bearing witness. The late intellectual and essayist, Carlos Monsiváis, who wrote about 1968, stated that “The massacre is so monstrous that there is no way to approach it”. Echevarría’s attempt is one of pushing back and broaching an overwhelming need to tell the impossible. Memorial del 68 is born of an urgent need to gather stories before the protagonists are gone and to help uncover the truth behind a terrible event.

 

Thanks to Axel Elías for organising this event and to Adrián Guillermo Aguilar and Ana Elena González of the UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies for inviting me.

Reading

Thornton, Niamh. “Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking: the case of Marcela Fernandez Violante” in Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw eds., Latin American Women Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.

—. Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Cinema, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Zavala Scherer, Diego (nd) “El memorial del 68, (Nicolás Echevarría, 2008): Recuerdo vivo, forma expandida”, El ojo que piensa, http://www.elojoquepiensa.cucsh.udg.mx/assets/ojo01/4Elmemorial.pdf

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