Notes on “Cantinflas and World Literature”

One of my goals in this blog is to accompany my publications with some supplemental commentary and material. My first entry in this series is on my article “Cantinflas and World Literature. Popular Cosmopolitanism and Comedic Adaptation in Mid-Century Cinema.” The piece is part of a special issue of Journal of World Literature on World Literature and cinema co-edited by Delia Ungureanu and Michael Wood. If any reader of this post wishes to read the piece but lacks access to an academic library or an interlibrary loan system, feel free to use the contact form to request it.

The article is the second publication coming out of a research project that I have been pursuing since about 2013. The project, tentatively titled “Popular Cosmopolitanism,” is a revisionist history of Mexican cinema and the narrative that presents a progression between the Golden Age and its decline. I am not completely aligned to this narrative, and, separately, I would recommend the forthcoming book The Lost Cinema of Mexico. Edited by Brian L. Price and Olivia Cosentino, this book challenges this narrative, and a piece on mine on Felipe Cazals is included. But that is for a future post.

For the time being, the idea of the book is to read Mexican cinema and its work with genre between, roughly, 1940 and 1990 through specific practices that exist parallel but are distinct from the nationalist cinema canonized by critical discourse. The book will focus on literary adaptations, noirs, thrillers and horror films. I do not intend to perform close reading of films, but rather I seek to develop a critical and theoretical argument about the ways in which we can think about Latin American (and, I presume, Global South) cinema away from two narratives: the presumption of resistance and the fetishization of specificity.

To achieve this, the book will rest, at least as I conceive it right now, on both an understanding of a cinematic infrastructure of world cinema as a social practice of consumption in Mexico, and an idea of Mexican film as a form of mediation of capitalist modernity. My first essay resulting from this research was published in a book entitled Cosmopolitan Film Cultures of Latin America, edited by Rielle Navitski and Nicolas Poppe. This essay, entitled “The Golden Age Otherwise,” looks at the showings in Mexico City in a particular week in 1950, addressing the diversity of cosmopolitan films and the way they reflected ideas and anxieties of modernity at the time.

As the project advances I may disclose more theoretical background, but in this particular piece on Cantinflas I sought to lay out the seeds of a debate with Miriam Hansen’s influential idea of “vernacular modernism” to re-center the concept of the popular as part of a practices of modernization in Mexican film.

The piece at hand advances a reading of Cantinflas as part of a very large constellations of films that adapted works of European and, sometimes, South American, literature to the screen. I have found dozens of these, but the comedic adaptations starring Cantinflas, as well as the many more starring Germán Valdés, are the crown jewel.

In “Cantinflas and World Literature,” I discuss two of them, his adaptation of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At the time of this post, Romeo and Juliet is available to watch with English subtitles in Amazon Prime. My original essay was, alas, too long, and it addressed films that were cut completely, including Cantinflas’s participation in Michael Todd’s production of Jules Around the World in 80 Days, his filming of an adaptation of Don Quijote in Spain, under the direction of Roberto Gavaldón, and the cartoons he made in the 1970s and 1980s for the US and Mexican market, where literature figures more prominently. All of this will be in the book, I hope, or may be worth spinoff articles. If you read this right on time, you may have a chance to hear my more full-fledged virtual talk at the University of Iowa, on September 23, 2021. You can register for it in this link.

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