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Argentinean Cinema and Visual Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century

The enthusiastic revival of Argentine cinema in the 1960s was brief, but it gave birth to two major filmmakers: Leonardo Favio and Hugo Santiago (Oubina 2000). Several years had to pass, however, before this legacy could be built upon. First, the 1976 military coup put an end to any chance of making films. Then, after democracy was restored in 1983, most new films chose to flatter people’s good consciences.

This soothing, opportunistic genre was epitomized by Luis Puenzo’s The Official Version (1984), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and tells how a woman begins to suspect that her adopted daughter is one of the children of people killed by the military. The story is not about the girl or her tortured and murdered parents or about her grandmother who searches for her, but about a woman filled with doubts about herself. Some films, nevertheless confronted the grisly events of the military regime (Oubina 2000). They included Alejandro Agresti’s Secret Wedding (1988) and Hugo Santiago’s The Pavements of Saturn (1985).

In a period when a deep economic crisis has profoundly affected all sectors of the Argentine economy, filmmakers face a grave challenge in financing films and keeping the national film industry afloat (Falicov 2003). Although the current financial crisis is not the first of its kind (Argentina has suffered a cycle of booms and busts over the last 70 years or so), it is particularly sad to see filmmakers struggle after the upsurge in dynamic, innovative and unusual films to come out of Argentina in recent years (Falicov 2003).

Films such as La cienaga (2001), Nueve reinas (2000) and Bolivia (2000) were enthusiastically received at home and abroad and won awards at film festivals. Film violence can be seen as an especially telling manifestation of the struggles of popular cinema to balance at any given time the forces changing society and those controlling it (Slocum 2000). Among the norms of cinematic production and reception that clarify and mark changes in the popular cinematic representation of violence are narrative, genre, and (often gendered) viewing practices.

We might begin to discuss these by considering a capsule view of narrative filmmaking practices during the classical period. It is a cinema of linear narratives, typically centered on individual, white, psychologically well-motivated male protagonists who move toward the resolution of public conflicts (Slocum 2000). The resolution, furthermore, is a dual one involving both a social integration and heterosexual coupling, which together reaffirm prevailing ideological currents and are usually grounded in national cultural myths.

Narratives are presented visually through well-focused compositions, continuity editing, realistic settings, naturalistic lighting, and frequent reliance on generic story forms and recognizable star performers. As outlined by film scholar David Bordwell, these tendencies function to establish the parameters of images of conformity and nonconformity alike. Breaks from these norms, including images or suggestions of violence, thus frequently represent nonconformity, deviance, and transgressive behavior (Slocum 2000).

The images may show violent actions deemed illegitimate but still acceptable as part of a mainstream cultural production (Bordwell et al, 1985, 70-84; Bordwell, 1985). Narrative norms are important because narrative represents nothing less than popular cinema’s fundamental mode of organizing social, cultural, and psychological experience (Slocum 2000). The structure, development, and coherence of popular narratives are standard means through which dominant ideology perpetuates itself and recapitulates its guiding myths (Branigan, 1992; Gaines, 1992).

Narrative conventions in cinema strongly inscribe and code representations of violence, creating ideological and formal frameworks for spectacles of destruction and death. Instances of violence in this way punctuate narratives and highlight their structural conflicts and resolutions (Slocum 2000). Also, when depictions of violence fall outside, run counter to, or exceed those normative frameworks, the acts mount cultural challenges.

Film noir, for instance, brings together the convoluted plots, frequent flashbacks, temporal ordering of events, and uncertain, often unredemptive closures with the altered gender roles, expanded and depersonalized consumer society, and repressive and reactionary politics of the postwar years. The brutish acts in many of these films accordingly become markers and symptoms of these layered challenges to previous, culturally-inflected narrative norms.

By extension, as suggested earlier, they might also betray changes in the historical relationship between cinema and society (Kaplan, 1999; Naremore, 1998). Generic norms, too, are crucial to the organization and experience of cinema. Film genres “represent an aesthetic and social contract between audiences and filmmakers,” and provide, in Matthew Bernstein’s pointed formulation, “the most revealing link between film and society” (1999, 3). Yet genres are, by nature, subject to revision and subversion (Slocum 2000).

They require ongoing revision to remain culturally relevant; it is precisely the tension between normative structure and variations that enable genres to exist and evolve. The question is to what degree individual films or periods alter the norms that are perceived to constitute a given genre (Slocum 2000). Writing in 1978, at the end of more than a decade of far-reaching revisionist filmmaking, John Cawelti observed that the significance of genres persists even when the cultural myths underlying them are inverted nostalgically, or revealed as inherently inadequate and destructive.

Cawelti concluded, in fact, that even when films express a “dark awareness” such as the “mythical simplification” that occurs in the inverting of oppositions between criminals and society or family in Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather they nevertheless reconfigure and extend their respective genres (Cawelti, 1978, 517). In both films, violence is centrally involved in this complex generic transformation.

Exemplary are the symbolic invocations of genre offered in the balancing of family life and business at Connie Corleone’s wedding, the reversal of traditional roles evident in the lighthearted treatment of the Barrow gang’s destructive encounters with the law, and the serf-consciously ritualized narrative closure afforded by the series of violent spectacles intercut with Michael Corleone’s becoming his nephew’s godfather.

If genres are assemblages of cultural forms dependent upon longstanding cultural myths and reshaped by historical imperatives, these productions from the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, like the Western, suggest that violence marks both coherencies and changes (Dixon, 2000; Neale, 2000). Traditionally, one strategy that has given producers an opportunity to pool funding and gain access to other markets has been the bi- and multilateral agreements known as film co-productions (Falicov 2003).

More generally, the use of co-production financing vis-a-vis (typically) wealthier countries is an important outlet for films to be made, exhibited and distributed throughout Latin America. Argentina historically has had many co-production agreements with countries in Europe (principally Spain, France and Italy), the United States and other Latin American nations. The majority of films made in this fashion have an art house sensibility; for example, Subiela’s ArgentineSpanish co-production, El lado obscuro del corazon (1992) and Solanas’s Franco-Argentine Tangos: el exilio de Gardel (1986).

Co-proauctions are generally founded on an agreement in which a film is made and marketed for all countries involved. During the 1980s financial crisis, however, Argentine filmmakers were willing to appeal to any source of foreign investment to keep the national film industry alive. Enter Roger Corman’s “schlockbuster” movies (Falicov 2003). Most of the film content had little bearing on Argentine culture. In addition, these films, unlike typical co-productions, were made principally for export. In the 1980s, Argentina was the site of nine commercial releases produced in part by Corman, the master of the low-budget film (Falicov 2003).

He teamed up with Hector Olivera, one of the most successful producers in Argentina, on entertainment films such as Death Stalker, Barbarian Queen, Two to Tango, and Cocaine Wars (Falicov 2003). Communications scholar Octavio Getino has argued that the production of these films was a boon to the Argentine film industry, providing employment and giving technicians the experience of working on low-budget genre movies (Falicov 2003). Yet most of these films did not represent Argentina or its culture in any way, and when they did, it was in a stereotyped and distorted fashion.

Most were shot in English and destined for the English-language market. Unequal power dynamics, described in interviews with Argentine members of the crew, plagued each film’s production process (Falicov 2003). As repeatedly referenced in the historical survey above, the refiguration of genres has been especially pronounced and active in times of national crisis or social transformation (Slocum 2000). That refiguration has consistently relied on the dynamic, shifting presence of on-screen violence.

To follow Bernstein, both the aesthetic and social terms of the contract they represent between viewer and filmmaker likewise remain subject to revision. Genres evolve, in other words, in ways identifiable from changes in the relationships between viewers, film industry, and the broader society (Slocum 2000). Part of the function of violence in genres is to produce and maintain social cohesion (Schatz, 1997). Popular filmmaking has adapted the sacrificial act long central to American literature and social theory. The sacrificial mode is one in which “the social is defined by what is given up in order to produce it” (Mizruchi, 1998, 23).

During World War Two, film productions dwelled on the peculiarly American negotiation between individualism and group interest as the basis for a heroic sacrifice to the greater values of defending the nation and preserving democracy (Slocum 2000). In the midst of actual war, these films depicted the brutality of combat with unprecedented directness. Deaths, it should be added, that are consistently sacrificial that is, those serving as an underlying modality or logic through which violence on the battlefront and homefront alike occur frame the redemptive narrative and affirm the values of the larger society (Left, 1991).

An early film of the new cinematic wave is Nueve reinas [Nine Queens], the first feature film of Fabian Bielinsky and winner of the New Talents contest for 1998, organized by Patagonik Films and Kodak Argentina (Rangil 2001). The story is appealing for its simplicity and intelligence: a pair of second-rate swindlers are carrying out their daily criminal activities when fate places them face to face with the deal of a lifetime.

Declaring that he was interested in exploring the line between good and evil, morality and amorality, and crimes that involve ingenuity rather than violence, Bielinsky has Constructed a sober film with an incessant rhythm that places the viewers beside the leading characters throughout their adventures until the final turn of the screw (Rangil 2001). For his part, Juan Jose Campanella brought the new Argentine cinema into the limelight when El hijo de la novia [Son of the Bride] (2001) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

With a cast that features Ricardo Darin, who has become one of the most recognizable faces in the new cinema, Hector Alterio, and Norma Aleandro, the film skillfully combines depth of meaning with a refreshing presentation. A mature man, not exactly a fiction hero, is bereft after a divorce, left with a foundering restaurant, a few friends, and a daughter with whom he doesn’t share much (Rangil 2001). When his father asks his help in fulfilling his wife’s dream of having a church wedding (she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease), his life takes a radical turn.

Violence here is not produced by a need to release aggression but by a social imperative to overcome competition, discover kinship by confirming otherness, and affirm hierarchies of central versus marginal individuals (Girard, 1976). From Westerns and melodramas to war films and courtroom dramas, such a cultural logic has proven essential to popular narratives, especially during the classical cinema period. Identifying which individuals are sacrificed, how, and in the name of what, grants insight into the evolution of social values (Slocum 2000).

The transformation of the images in which these ritualized acts of violence appear also conveys changes in the relationship between popular cinema and the society around it (McKenna, 1991). One writer, James Twitchell, goes so far in considering the sacrificial thesis to assert “that the rise of entertainment violence in popular culture has co-opted much of the force of religion and jurisprudence. Mass media carry much the same ritualized content through culture” (Twitchell, 1989, 46) One of the filmmakers responsible for the rejuvenated look of Argentine cinema is Adrian Caetano (Rangil 2001).

His first work, Pizza, birra y faso [Pizza, Beer, and Smokes] (1997), produced by Bruno Stagnaro, portrays the life of a gang of young social misfits who survive day to day by stealing. Through well-constructed scenes shot with a camera that wanders the streets like an ever-vigilant eye, we are shown the inner world of a harsh, savage city. Among other honors, the film earned the Grand Jury Prize at Fribourg, Switzerland, and at the Toulouse, France, Latin America Film Festival; Best First Feature-length Film at the Montevideo Festival; and Best Film at the Gramado Festival in Brazil.

Caetano’s work continued with Bolivia (2001), which features the plight of a Bolivian immigrant who comes to work in a restaurant only to become the victim of intolerance and xenophobia (Rangil 2001). Boasting outstanding black-and-white photography, Caetano restricts his narrative within the walls of a bar, building the tension from one moment to the next until it explodes with deadly force. Caetano’s latest film, Un oso rojo [Red Bear] (2002), is a tough urban stow, set in a dark and violent Buenos Aires, which examines the desire to reverse past mistakes and place one’s faith in a new beginning, even when circumstances aren’t promising.

Considered by many an inspirational and seminal work, Munro grua [Crane World] (1999), is the first feature film of director Pablo Trapero (Rangil 2001). This powerful yet simple narrative presents the story of Rulo, a former rock musician with some past successes who is now unemployed and dreaming of finding his ideal job: to operate the crane for a building under construction in his neighborhood.

Even though Trapero whose last film, E1 bonaerense, deals with similar themes and Caetano both seem to aim toward some sort of social realism, Argentina’s new films are not by any means limited in their outlook (Rangil 2001). If anything, their salient characteristic is diversity, with each narrative deriving not only from an immense universe but also from the fascinating imagination of its creators. This is clearly the case with young Lucrecia Mattel.

Her first work, La cienaga [The Swamp] (2000), received a grant from the Sundance Institute, and following its premiere, it won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin Festival (Rangil 2001). Set in the hot Argentine northeast, The Swamp is a disturbing film about a series of apathetic, lethargic characters who are both physically and spiritually wounded. Marters next film, La nina Santa, to premiere this year, also takes place in the north and tells the story of a very religious adolescent who is sexually attracted to a doctor who visits her town (Rangil 2001).

Two notable names on the long list of young directors are Daniel Burmah and Alejandro Agresti. Burman, who has four films to his credit, among them Todas las azafatas van al cielo [All Stewardesses Go to Heaven] (2001), a stirring story of love between a young widower and a flight attendant, is readying for release El abrazo partido, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival (Rangil 2001). The story of a young Jewish man’s reconciliation with his father, it was written by Burmah and Marcelo Birmajer.

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