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book review: MAKING CINELANDIA: AMERICAN FILMS AND MEXICAN FILM CULTURE BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE

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MAKING CINELANDIA: American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age. By: Laura Isabel Serna. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2014.

In the 1920s American films dominated Mexico’s cinemas creating the fear in its cultural elites that Mexico would become a cultural dependent of the United States. In Making Cinelandia American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age Laura Isabel Serna compellingly argues that rather than acting as a “form of cultural imperialism” (1), American films and film culture engaged city dwelling Mexican moviegoers (on both sides of the border) in ways that ultimately molded their identities as modern Mexicans beyond the cinema. Borrowing the title of a popular Mexican film magazine from the time, Cinelandia, Serna develops the idea of Cinelandia as a “distinctly Mexican cultural space” of “American film culture as seen through Mexican eyes.” She suggests that the Mexican audiences in Mexico translated, appropriated and adapted American cinema (its films, its characters and its narratives) in the service of not only Mexico’s post-revolutionary nation-building project, but also in the production of Modern Mexican subjectivities (7, 217). Additionally, she suggests, Mexican filmmakers used U.S. cinema’s stories, technologies and films in the push towards Mexican modernity (215). For migrant Mexican audiences in the U.S., who were still bound “by affective ties to the nation,” “moviegoing became a central part of their experience of modern life and its new models of gender and social relationships” (183).
This was despite the fact that, as Serna points out, pre-sound American cinema was profoundly racist both in its depictions of Mexico and Mexicans and in its casting of extras “of color.” She notes that Mexican extras were hired to play a range of “darker” and “naked” ethnicities and also for specifically risky roles (212). She also argues that just because Mexican audiences on either sides of the border “loved American serials, dramas and comedies” does not mean that they viewed these films “uncritically” or were not aware of the racial hierarchy of American silent cinema (11). She suggests Mexican audiences were on the whole resistant to images which denigrated Mexico.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part “The Yanqui Invasion” follows American cinema’s “invasion” into Mexico—with chapters that explore in turn: how U.S. film companies took control of the Mexican market; the role of movie theatres and exhibition and the social practice of going to the cinema in the post revolutionary nation-building project; and the ways the press disseminated American film and fan culture that addressed a largely (conceived to be) female audience. The second part “Border Crossings” looks at changes in Mexico as a result of the popularization and diffusion of American film culture including chapters on: the appearance of the pelona who defied traditional gender and class norms, attempts to censor Hollywood’s “racist representational practices” in its depictions of Mexico and Mexicans, and how racism shaped Mexican migrants’ experience of moviegoing in the United States (including segregation and discrimination at movie theatres) encouraging migrant audiences to identify with Mexico.
Making Cinelandia makes a highly significant contribution to current research that takes into consideration how transnational influences shaped both Mexican (Tierney, 2007; 2011) and other national film cultures in Latin America (Karush, 2012). Serna’s book is also a welcome addition to the English language bibliography on film and film culture in Mexico. But it also makes an important new contribution to the field by filling a significant lacuna. While Mexican Golden Age Cinema, from 1936 to 1955 has been the object of numerous recent studies, the silent era has received much less attention. And, as Serna points out, English language scholarship that does exist on this period tends to focus on the few films which survive rather than on the “popular experience of Mexican audiences” (xiv). She also suggests that the silent era, the period between the end of the revolution and beginning of the Golden age is often looked at purely in production terms as a “moment of anticipation” where films like El automovil gris (1919) look forward to the future greatness of Mexican cinema. Serna’s book counters the idea that this period in Mexican film history did not have its own valid film culture, and makes the argument that across Mexico in both urban and rural areas the act of going to the cinema itself (and other practices around the cinema) generated a national film culture that was perceived as being a part of Mexico’s own modernity.
Making Cinelandia is a ground breaking cultural history. It is admirable for the attention it pays to the performative, promotional, and cultural practices that were a part of moviegoing and for its extensive archival research across Mexico and the United States. It is original, thoroughly readable and accessible and, most significantly, it changes how we think about Mexican film culture in the twentieth century.

Dolores Tierney (University of Sussex, United Kingdom)

 

This book review also appears in print in American Studies 55.1 (2016) and is available online via Project Muse.

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