Que viva Mexico | Bleader

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Que viva Mexico

Posted By on 04.09.08 at 09:26 PM

Schlepped out to the U. of C. last Thursday for the opening-night screening in Doc Films' new "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema" series. Not that there's anything remotely new about it, since the films are all venerable antiques, dating from the 1930s through early '40s—also, based on a handful of viewings (and leaving Emilio Fernandez "poetically" aside), relatively unwatchable, at least in the narrowly modern sense of narratives that cohere, of cinematography, blocking, performances, etc, that conform to fussbudgety notions of cinematic excellence. But who cares, it's all marvelously seductive, a raw celluloid rush ...

Also terra incognita for at least one viewer, since I'm hardly familiar with this period ethnicity at all. Like an archaeological dig in a forgotten corner of the planet, where even the lowliest potsherd becomes a vehicle for transcendence, the rapt "illumination" of the gods, exploring cross-cultural mind-sets and ad hoc vizualizations that may never see the light of day again. So when a crowd scene swallows its own visual cues and actors declaim with their backs to the camera—as happened a couple of times in the first-night's program—it's almost like reconnecting with the Lumieres: cinema language in its baby-steps phase, which more often than not leads to an evolutionary dead end. When Hou Hsiao-hsien does it, of course, it's genius. But in 30s Mexico it's just filmmaking on the verge ...

But opening night did yield a fascinating relic—not the film originally scheduled (La Llorona, a pioneering entry in the indigenous "crying woman" genre, which never showed at all) but Adolfo Best Maugard's La Mancha de Sangre (1937), an exotic combination of professional Hollywood savvy (multiple camera setups, haphazard bursts of soft-focus expressionism, etc), vanished reels, and pure howling ineptitude. Its claim to notoriety, both then and now, is a full-frontal nude striptease that aroused the Mexican censors' ire (try imagining that even in precode Hollywood!), though a later scene with Estela Inda (the mother in Buñuel's Los Olvidados) dusting her apartment in a negligee is, if anything, even more inspirational. Or maybe I should say mystifying—shot apparently for the cleavage (except the camera's set back too far for that), it's a time-and-motion study of domesticity run rampant, filmed in literal duration without significant breaks or edits. Like Jeanne Dielman before the fact, you could argue—or maybe it's just a bizarre "film grammar" experiment gone horribly/deliciously wrong.

Among series highlights to come: El Fantasma del Convento (April 10) and Dos Monjes (April 17), both exploring the perennial Mexican theme of haunted clergymen on the loose, and a trio of groundbreaking westerns cum rancherasVamonos con Pancho Villa (May 1), Alla en el Rancho Grande (May 8), La Zandunga (May 22)—by Fernando de Fuentes, aka the "Mexican John Ford" (an opinion I don't share, but what the hell, it's what he's sometimes called). Also, more or less inevitably, Emilio Fernandez's Maria Candelaria (May 29), our southern neighbor's gift to American art-house tastes, plus an encore screening of La Mancha de Sangre (tentatively May 15) and a selection of titles/filmmakers I barely recognize that seems pretty inviting anyway (for complete schedule with times, click here).

And maybe La Llorona will show up yet. When I asked Doc Films about it last week, they promised they'd give it a try ...

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