Personal Stories of Film Spectatorship

My virtual presentation at the University of Iowa the other day led me to think about the personal reasons behind my film research. I have never quite felt that my film experience, and the experience of my mother and grandmother, two consummate cinephiles, is ever really considered when scholarship looks at the films of nations other than the United States, or perhaps other dominant industries. I do not know how often this sentiment becomes a motivation for film scholarship and perhaps it would be worth thinking about it more collectively. When I wrote my book Screening Neoliberalism, I was frustrated about the fact that the release of films like Amores perros or Y tu mamá también was treated like a new wave coming out of nothing. I knew it was not true. I was twelve years old when another “New Mexican Cinema” (a term that recurs every so many decades) was booming in Mexican screens, and films like Sólo con tu pareja, La mujer de Benjamín and Como agua para chocolate rocked the boat of a film industry that was otherwise defined by the collapse of the exhibition structure (which would later be privatized) and the hegemony of a film production that many intellectuals deemed as trash (sexycomedias, Televisa vehicles) but that nonetheless had a following in Mexico’s working classes.

And yet, the other day, in an otherwise excellent oral history of Y tu mamá también in the New York Times by Carlos Aguilar, the lede repeats once again the tireless cliché of a cinema that did not exist before the so-called three amigos: “Mexican cinema was just emerging from decades of obscurity when Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también a voyage of self-discovery and the study of a country in flux, was released there in 2001, instantly achieving landmark status.” To be sure, I love this film, and I was very excited when it came out. I still consider it the best Mexican film of the 21st century and a bar that is very unlikely to be surpassed in a long time. But it was definitely not surprising to anyone like me, who lived the revival of Mexican cinema in the 1990s. Sólo con tu pareja, Cuarón’s debut a decade before, was a unique and refreshing work, which I loved even if I was maybe a couple of years too young to fully grasp it. It was a bold, sexy and dangerous film, a beautiful rendering of the Mexico City I love, and a remarkable yet sometimes unheralded visual piece, one of Emmanuel Lubezki’s first. In any case, you can read my pushback to this in Screening Neoliberalism, maybe not the personal, but definitely the process that could no longer be considered a time of obscurity.

What troubles me about Aguilar’s lede is the erasure of film spectatorship in Mexico when we elevate Mexican cinema to the terms of the often provincial and reluctant embrace of Mexican filmmakers in the United States. It unwittingly disavows the experience of a nation of filmgoers who have embraced American and other forms of foreign cinema over its own, in part because Mexican cinema struggles to reach its audience, and also struggles to deliver works meaningful to it. Nevertheless, having spent my teenage years in theaters, the excitement in the air with a Mexican film contesting its institutional limits, even amidst its near-extinction in the wake of the 1994 economic crisis, was palpable. Every year in the mid-decade there were films worth watching, and that I enjoyed alongside the people who gave that cinema a chance: the endearing romantic comedy Cilantro y perejil, the bold Ripstein remake of The Honeymoon Killers, Profundo Carmesí and Sabina Berman and Isabel Tardan’s Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, an adaptation of Berman’s very successful play. When Antonio Serrano’s Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, an example of intelligent yet culturally iconic cinema that is hard to make even today, launched the Boom of the turn of the century, there was a very respectable body of work that many of us came to see. That canon and a loyal audience were the true conditions of possibility for Amores perros and Y tu mamá también to emerge.

My popular cosmopolitanism project embraces another experience of spectatorship, one that is not mine but that I know as my legacy, that of my mother.

My mother was a secretary in the government during her working life, a job she secured regardless of the fact of only completing elementary school and a couple of years of secretarial training. She was a member of the bustling working class which became the target audience of Mexican national cinema, and of Hollywood and European imports in mid-century Mexico City. Cinema was her culture.

Even though I do not think she ever read a work of literature, she could narrate entire passages of Le Miserables because she had seen  as a teenager the French film version starring Jean Gabin. She knew The Count of Montecristo out of a history of adaptations, as successively played by Arturo de Córdova, Jean Marais, Richard Chamberlain, Gerard Depardieu and Jim Caviezel and could appreciate the humor in Germán Valdés Tin Tan’s comedic version. She loved the lush adaptations of Shakespeare by Lawrence Olivier, Franco Zefirelli and Kenneth Branagh, and even the reflexive comedic version of Cantinflas, but scoffed at the postmodern renderings of Romeo and Juliet by Baz Luhrmann. 

In the many years I have spent as a scholar of film and media studies, a field to which I arrived through self-training and autodidacticism and with no formal contact with the field in college or graduate school, I have always felt that her experience as a film lover was never fully represented in the discipline. She had encyclopedic knowledge: at the moment of her passing she owned an impressive library of nearly two thousand original DVDs, which she had watched religiously, alongside the offerings that came with cable television and streaming. She was not the kind of cinephile we often hear about. She found filmmakers like Godard or Ozú pointless and boring, refused to watch Mexican films made after 1965, and had little interest in slow cinema. But she was undoubtedly an erudite, and cosmopolitan, and the practitioner of a mode of culture that is never fully afforded to a woman of working class origins: that of a citizenship of the world in a modern megalopolis, without much interest in the identities taught to her generation by post-Revolutionary cultural nationalism. She was the kind of working-class Mexican whose love for cinema embraced an aspiration of modernity that was not embodied in the signs and symbols of cultural nationalism. The kind of cultural agent that one does not know much about when we idealize specificity and identity as the sole objects of cultural inquiry in the study of the bustling film cultures that arose in Latin America and other sites of the now called Global South.

It has been very exciting to reconstruct this filmgoing, and to think of the ways in which going to the movies in Mexico in the 1950s, when she went with her mother as a child, or the 1960s, as the bold young woman struggling to emerge out of poverty that she became, felt like. Maybe one day I will trace back to my grandmother’s generation, and think about the experience of going to carpa theaters on Friday while seeing films like Casablanca on Sunday.

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