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About the Author
Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Latino & Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research at The Ohio State University.
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Mexican Filmmaking, Production, and Consumption in the Twenty-first Century
By Frederick Luis Aldama
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
Lights, Camera, Action
With a few nods to earlier moments in Mexico's film history, the discussions in the following pages focus entirely on the twenty-first century. In many ways (and journalists have been quick to notice this), the first decade of this century marks a massive rebirthing moment in the making of Mexican films. Some argue that this moment involves not only increased production and distribution but also the emancipation of form and content. With respect to content, such emancipation shows up not just in films that run counter to Catholic ideology, such as Carlos Carrera's El crimen del padre Amaro/The Crime of Padre Amaro (2002), but also in the nascent rise of a queer art-house and mainstream Mex-ciné, as exemplified by Rene Bueno's bubblegum 7 mujeres, 1 homosexual y Carlos (2004; Seven women, one homosexual, and Carlos); Julián Hernández's black-and-white queer odysseys set in Mexico City and rooted in indigenous culture, El cielo dividido/Broken Sky (2006), Rabioso sol, rabioso cielo/Raging Sun, Raging Sky (2008), and A Thousand Clouds of Peace (2002); and Leopoldo Laborde's Buñuel-influenced Sin destino (2002; Without destiny).
There are many reasons for this rebirth, and Mexico is not alone in experiencing such a renaissance. Both Argentina and Brazil have enjoyed a filmmaking boom in the twenty-first century, as have other Latin American countries. A report in the February 23, 2009, issue of Variety reads, "Powered by government funding and co-production, pic productions and investment tripled over the past decade in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil — to 267 films made with $358.3 million in financing." This boom resulted partly from shifts in the way films have been funded, as well as from pressure on various governments to loosen hitherto tight restrictions on the kinds of films they allowed to be made and exhibited.
I will discuss this boom at greater length later on, but for now it suffices to note that by the mid- 1990s the state-funded Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE, established in 1983), which sponsored the production and distribution of Mexican films, had trimmed its funding of filmmaking from an already slim dozen or so films a year to only five. Under the directorship of Ignacio Durán (1988–94), IMCINE had moved increasingly toward privatization, and it continued to demolish its protections for the industry's workers, from directors, cinematographers, and costume and set designers to carpenters and janitors, leading to a violent standoff between workers and higher-ups in 2003, under the Vicente Fox administration. Filmgoers and filmmakers attending the seventh Morelia International Film Festival, in October 2009, were more than agitated when the director of the El Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (Conaculta) declared that the Calderón administration was supportive of the Mexican film industry, claiming that it had doubled the budget for IMCINE.
Despite this tension between the state and the film industry in Mexico, directors have managed not merely to maintain, but even to increase film production. During 2000, for instance, only a handful of films were made. A decade later and we see over a hundred films made. (For a better sense of this upswing trend, see the filmography at the end of this book.) Similarly increasing is the number of films in genres and storytelling forms atypical for Mexican cinema, including animations (e.g., Juan Manuel and Figueroa Vega, La prepa/The High School ; Ricardo Arnaiz, The Legend of Nahuala , and Gabriel and Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste's Una película de huevos y un polo/A Movie About Eggs and a Chicken  and Otra película de huevos y un pollo/Another Movie About Eggs and a Chicken ), science fiction (e.g., Carlos Salcés's Zurdo  and Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer ), and fantasy or horror (e.g., Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth ; Andres Navia's La llorona/The Wailer , and Rigoberto Castaneda's KM31: Kilometre 31 ). In sum, the twenty-first century's first decade saw the Mex-ciné film industry begin to rise from its own ashes, producing films for audiences both at home and abroad.
Of course, this and any other justification for my focus are on another level rather arbitrary. To study Mexican cinema of this particular period is to carve a scholarly slice out of reality. My slice does not include Mexicans who make other kinds of cultural objects for consumption, such as literature, sculpture, comic books, and the like. It does not include Mexican American (Chicano) directors working in the United States. It does not include films by Mexican directors from periods before 1999. It does include films from today's Mexican directors making films by and about Mexicans. It does include Mexican directors who live part- or full-time in other countries but continue to make films set in Mexico. (e.g., Alfonso Cuarón lives full-time in Italy, Guillermo del Toro lives full-time in the United States, and González Iñárritu splits his time between Los Angeles and Mexico City). It does include Mexican directors who make films set in other countries.
More specifically, I delimit my territory by asking several questions.
1. What is a Mexican film? What, for that matter, are the ingredients that make up an essential Mexicanness, or mexicanidad? Should we buy the definitions offered by Octavio Paz, José Vasconcelos, José Gaos and his disciple Luis Villoro, and Sam Ramos, who variously turn psychological categories into ontological ones, such as an ostensible Mexican fixation on death and an inferiority complex as a bastard (hijo de la chingada) race?
2. Does Mexican cinema differ from, say, that of the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, France, Germany, Britain, or India, and if so, how does it differ?
3. What qualifies a film to be Mexican? Are we to include in the Mexican cinematic canon Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of Great Expectations or Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy because the directors are Mexican? Do we include films that star Mexican actors and are set in Mexico but are directed by Spaniards (Luis Buñuel), Britons (Alex Cox), or North Americans (Cary Joji Fukunaga)?
4. How do Mexican audiences differ from, say, audiences in other Latin American countries, North America, and Europe? Do Mexicans respond differently to Mexican films than do U.S. filmgoers?
5. Do some Mexican films have, built into their blueprints, specific cultural and historical information that draws lines between audiences: Mexican mainstream versus Mexican art-house audiences, for example, or non-Mexican mainstream versus non-Mexican art-house audiences? If so, how do we identify the type of ideal audience for any given film? And is it a zero-sum game, that is, does a film aimed at the mainstream necessarily mean it cannot use an art-house style or content, and vice versa?
6. At what point do Mexican films operate on a deeper level of narrative prototypicality? Does a film lose its ideal audience when it includes a high degree of cultural specificity yet follows story structures that are universally recognizable as comic, heroic, or tragic?
7. Do some Mexican movies appeal to non-Mexican audiences more than others do? If so, how and what kind of audience — mainstream or art-house?
These are the kinds of questions I ask when slicing reality to identify this entity called contemporary Mexican cinema.
I acknowledge the artificiality of these questions. After all, I am cutting a slice out of a much larger pie, one that is global in scope. This is a scholarly slice — and we will learn much about what constitutes this slice — but a slice always seen as a part of a larger, planetary whole. This is why, even as I carve out my particular piece, I pay attention not just to the way Mexican cinema is always idiosyncratic and particular (a specific expression of faculties used to imagine and create an aesthetic form in time and place) but also to the way it is a particularized expression of our universal capacity to think, feel, and symbolically represent our experiences in our one world.
Other Ways to Slice
I am by no means the first to characterize Mexican cinema. Other scholars writing in both Spanish and English have been doing this for quite some time. Each of these scholars has used specific criteria for defining the contours of Mexican cinema, and, although the criteria differ, they often overlap. I'm including a sample (available to English-reading audiences) of like-minded approaches to sketch the lay of the scholarly land.
Some scholars try to construct the genre of Mexican cinema around Mexican film archives and contemporary canons. Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, for example, seeks to archive the Mexican cinema of yesterday; in his edited volume Mexican Cinema, he offers a series of critical film histories of early Mexican cinema, from the early sound cinema to the studio system and the ever-popular genre comedia ranchera.
The archivist Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr. examines the distribution, exhibition, and reception of Mexican films across the northern border in Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters, and Audiences, 1920–1960. By 1951 there were 683 screens (100 in Texas alone) in 443 U.S. cities playing Spanish-language films. Agrasánchez discusses how these establishments included venues designed as theaters, as well as those converted to the purpose, with some devoted exclusively to Spanish-language entertainment and others integrating Mexican films into their programs with varying frequencies; how Spanish-language films in the United States fostered both ethnic pride (in most cases, a sense of mexicanidad) and "Americanization"; and how many theaters offered hybrid programs, with Mexican films sharing their screens with Hollywood features. Doyle Greene's Mexploitation Cinema attends to the way shifts in the industry and Mexican filmgoing culture generated a flood of luchador (masked wrestler) films with no aesthetic pretense.
Jason Wood's The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema and Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview, as well as Jethro Soutar's Gael García Bernal and the Latin American New Wave, focus on today's Mexican film industry and canon in various ways. Soutar writes, for instance, that "recounting the tale of Gael García Bernal introduces and encourages the telling of the Latin American New Wave. ... It also charts the course of the twenty-first century's first major film movement and puts it in its historical and cultural context."
In Splendors of Latin Cinema, R. Hernandez-Rodriguez engages the film traditions that make up the cinema of Latin America generally and Mexico specifically. For Hernandez- Rodriguez, this is especially important today with the "emergence of a new, exciting, more sophisticated cinema." And Paul Julian Smith's regular contributions to film journals, as well as his book-length study of Amores perros, focus on contemporary Mexican cinema. In the prologue to his book Amores Perros he states, "A place of extreme contrasts, Mexico City is also a prize location for a cinema of extremes."
Some scholars who pursue a Mexican film archive see it as tied directly to political or historical contexts. These scholars tend to link periods of Mexican filmmaking to the policies of particular administrations and their cycles of six-year (sexenio) terms, as well as to trade and tax policies and nation-state agendas generally.
In Magical Reels, John King uses a big brush to paint a portrait of the way in which historical, economic, and political shifts controlled the ebb and flow of Mexican films made from the 1940s through the 1980s. In Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–2004, Carl J. Mora reconstructs, for instance, how the 1990s North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trade and tax policies pulled the rug out from under Mexican filmmakers by declaring state-funded support to be an unfair trade practice. For Mora, this dammed the flow of monetary support for Mexican filmmakers from such state-funded mainstays as IMCINE, the National Film School, the Center for Cinematic Preparation, and Estudios Churubusco Azteca, a film studio and lab that the RKO studio built in the 1940s. In "Developing History/Historicizing Development in Mexican Nuevo Cine Manifestoes around 'la Crisis'," Scott L. Baugh links Mexican film with a sociopolitical epoch in his analysis of the 1960s Nuevo Cine Group's manifesto. In "The French New Wave," Timothy Dugdale links Mexican film to a given sociopolitical moment in his analysis of Y tu mamá también, interpreting, for instance, the movement of Julio and Tenoch from city to countryside as representative of "the larger existential crisis of national 'development' in a globalised economy." According to Dugdale, when the Oaxacan countryside "resists development" and "confounds the fetish of development," at the same time its presence infiltrates and destroys the lives of the two friends.
Other scholars focus on representations in Mexican cinema that reflect (critically or otherwise) the social, political, and national issues of Mexico. Such scholarship clusters around issues like modernity, the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, indigeneity, masculinity, and patriarchy, as well as the U.S.-Mexico border, as does Andrea Noble (e.g., in Mexican National Cinema). Sergio de la Mora questions essentialist notions of a macho and patriarchal mexicanidad by attending to the queer and feminist representations in Mexico's so-called Golden Age films. In Cinemachismo de la Mora argues that the highly sexualized and macho identities circulated during the Golden Age (1940s–50s) both inform a national cultural identity and offer a parodic critique of an essentialist mexicanidad.
Miriam Haddu explores how Carlos Salinas de Gortari's six-year term opened doors (wittingly or not) for Mexican directors to represent "the concerns, issues, politics, hopes, and fears of the Mexican people in an era of transition." According to Haddu, films such as Cuarón's Sólo con tu pareja (1991), Jorge Fons's Rojo amanecer (1989), Gabriel Retes's El bulto (1991), and Luis Estrada's La ley de Herodes (1999) reflect a Mexican film industry searching for a "visual identity and for the country's reassertion of a sense of hybrid national and post-colonial identity."
In Women Filmmakers in Mexico, Elissa J. Rashkin attends to more feminist-oriented films created by Mexican women directors. For Rashkin, Mexicana filmmakers critically engage with a patriarchal-based mexicanidad by making films that demand "the transformation of the existing nation into one which not only permits but actually emerges from the diverse subject positions of its constituent populations — women, religious minorities, social and sexual dissidents, indigenous peoples, the urban poor." (In one way or another, this scholarship aims to identify otro cinema that challenges stereotypes and clears, as Rashkin nicely sums up of her own goals, "a space of collective identification.")
In Cinema of Solitude, Charles Ramírez Berg traces a shift in national identity. He argues that contemporary Mexican cinema moved away from an identity based on a sense of mexicanidad as being in crisis and caught between "Old World roots and New World locations." Armed with this new vision, directors no longer represent virginal women as being out of time and place or indios as being pure repositories of a past frozen in time; rather, they put complex women at center stage and complicate the representation of indios.
Scholars have also analyzed and critiqued representational trends. In Latino Images Charles Ramírez Berg, for instance, points to a tradition in Mexican (and Mexico-based) cinema that dates back to Serge Eisenstein (¡Que Viva México!), followed by Emilio "El Indio" Fernández and Gabriel Figueroa, wherein the image of the indio mirrors Mexico's (postrevolution) official administrative policies: culturally affirming the presence of indios while instituting economic, education, and health care policies that have led to their annihilation.
In Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema, David William Foster looks at fourteen Mexican films and how they create an opposition between the urban (Mexico City) and the rural. While many Mexican films set in rural areas implicitly critique a fragmented and alienating Mexico City, Foster contends that these films simultaneously reinforce representations of the rural as primitive.
Excerpted from Mex-Ciné by Frederick Luis Aldama. Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword BY CARLOS SALCÉS,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
Lights, Camera, Action,
The Nuts and Bolts of Mexican Film,
Hecho a Mano ... Hecho por Homo sapiens,
U.S.-Mexico Crossings, Trends, and Backdrops,
Contexts, Critiques, Distribution, Exhibition, and Obstacles,
Refrito and Buena Onda Films Put to the Test,
Bubblegums That Pop; Refritos That Go "Ah",
It's a Wrap,
Afterword BY MICHAEL DONNELLY,