Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, November 30, 2009
Connections in the U.K.
Over on the ever-sharp, ever-lively Putney Debater blog in the U.K., film scholar Michael Chanan has mentioned our on-going discussions here with Lauro Zavala and James Ramey on Open Spaces about Mexican film and film theory. He's a leading scholar of Cuban and Latin American cinema.
His most recent post reports on a recent conference on cinemas in Brazil and Argentina called "Reality Effects." In watching some of the films from these countries screened at the conference, he notes an emergence of what he terms a "critical realism" that evokes Brechtian strategies. I've noticed some of these same strains emerge in films I've seen in Mexico. We're delighted to expand our dialogue on Mexico and film theory to the UK.
James Ramey is a film and literature scholar based in Mexico City who is also involved with the Morelia International Film Festival. He is a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. He has also been involved in Sepancine, the organization for film scholars in Mexico. For more on his background, scroll down to Part 1 of this interview.
The Interview Continues
Patricia: How is film theory and analysis in Mexico distinct from film theory and analysis as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last four decades? What are the major theoretical models? What films and topics have emerged as important areas of inquiry?
James: The answer to this question is a bit long, but having made the transition from U.S. academia to Mexican academia over the last 18 months, I have slowly gleaned a few insights.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
James Ramey and Morelia
I first met James Ramey when I was invited to attend the Morelia International Film Festival in 2005. It was an absolutely heady experience: explosive filmmaking talent in fiction and nonfiction, an entire conference within the festival with Mexican indigenous filmmakers, and international players from the film industry.
When I returned this year with NAMAC codirector and documentary director Helen De Michiel to present at the Sepancine Conference, connected to the Morelia International Film Festival, that same eye-opening, attitude-changing intensity pulsated throughout. In both Mexican cinema and Mexican intellectual life, the stakes are high and the terrain is new and somewhat rocky. Ideas and people seem to connect in ways that makes new insights burst through the high desert like cactus flowers in spring.
Film scholar, festival organizer, colleague
Bilingual and living in Mexico, James Ramey was one of the Americans I met who helped to mount the festival. Gracious and collegial, Ramey is one of those people who you feel you have known forever. He always seems to be asking questions about research, about films, about filmmaking around the world, about creative economy best practices, about film theory.
James Ramey holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Film Studies from UC Berkeley, and is a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Among his publications are the anthology Mexico imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional (CONACULTA-UAM, 2010) and journal essays in Comparative Literature Studies, James Joyce Quarterly, and Comparative Literature. His current book project is entitled Micro-Modernism: The Pleasures of Parasitism in Joyce, Borges, Nabokov and Buñuel. He has been Academic Adviser to the Morelia International Film Festival since its inception in 2003.
Let me add one little footnote here to James' impressive credentials. I've taught Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou probably 100 times; each shot is tatooed on my brain. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to read that film in any new way. That is, until I heard James' conference presentation where he literally dissected the film, demonstrating irrefutably its links, allusions and inscriptions to insects.
Patricia: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and analysis? What are its goals?
James: Lauro Zavala and several colleagues started "Sepancine/Mexican Association of Film Theory and Analysis" in May 2005 as part of an admirable effort to solidify an academic field of film studies in Mexico and open a space for dialogue between Mexican film scholars and people working on film in other parts of the world.
It has organized five annual conferences, published several collections of articles, and has helped to create a network of national and international working groups on film studies. Main goals for the future are to start a scholarly journal of film studies and convince academic institutions in Mexico to open Film Studies departments.
Patricia: What is the role of film theory and analysis in Mexican universities? How is it developing? How is film education in film theory and analysis organized for graduate students and undergraduates in Mexico? Why is film theory and analysis necessary and urgent in Mexico?How does film theory relate to preparing the next generation of Mexican filmmakers, and the next iteration of the Mexican film industry?
James: Film scholarship has existed in a limited form for many decades in Mexico, focused chiefly on film history and historiography. Indeed, Mexican academia has produced some excellent film scholars, such as Aurelio de los Reyes, Jorge Ayala Blanco, and Lauro Zavala, who is the leading practitioner of film theory per se in Mexico.
But Mexican university administrators still tend to view the study of film as a minor subdivision of other disciplines, like communication, art history or literature. Film is also studied in an academic way (including some theory and analysis) at major Mexican film schools such as the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfico and the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos. But while those are very good film schools, they do not offer their graduates the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (licenciatura), which means they cannot generally go on to study an M.A. at a major international film school, which is an important step in the careers of many filmmakers at that age (apparently the CUEC is seeking to grant a licenciatura, but it hasn’t happened yet).
It is my understanding that until this year there were no undergraduate or graduate programs in Film Studies per se, though students and faculty at many universities have skirted this problem by allowing students in related fields to focus on film in their thesis or dissertation projects.
My understanding (and I would be happy to be corrected) is that the first undergraduate program in film studies was opened October 2, 2009, in Morelia, during the Sepancine conference, at the new Instituto Mexicano de Investigaciones Cinematográficos y Humanísticos (IMICH). This government-authorized institution, headed up by the talented Dr. Alba Estrada, offers the equivalent of a U.S. liberal arts degree with a major in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production, and has a very good, ecumenical course program (disclaimer: I helped design it). It also offers a master’s degree in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production.
At Sepancine, a group of professors from the University of Guadalajara announced that they are starting a similar degree program, and I know Lauro Zavala is proposing to create an M.A. in Film Theory and Analysis at the UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City. It is our hope that this new trend will catch on, since that would enable the academic "supply" in Mexico to meet the strong demand.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
If you think Scottish actress Tilda Swinton can be summed up by the Academy Award she won in 2008 for her role opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007), then maybe it’s time to redo your Netflix queue and dive into more of her films.
Winnowy and six feet tall, stunningly analytical, and fiercely political, Swinton is one of those actresses who utterly outwits the words acting, gender, and cinema. She migrates deftly and effortlessly between two completely different universes: mainstream and independent media.
Swinton is the world’s leading gender-bending actress. Her landmark performance as a woman and man in Sally Potter’s landmark feature Orlando (United Kingdom, 1992)rerouted feminist cinema—permanently.
Commercially, Swinton starred in The Beach (2000) and was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. On the independent side, she’s collaborated with British queer avant gardist Derek Jarman and feminist media and digital artist Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Swinton rejects the smooth rhythms of seamless narrative acting. Instead, she proffers what she terms an “arrhythmic style,” one where the character is simultaneously imbedded in the narrative and edging out of the narrative, working the jagged edges of the story to install ambiguities and questions. It’s exhilarating to watch. And it’s as inviting as it is intriguing.
When I was a graduate student in the late 1970s at the University of Wisconsin, lots of us feminist film mavens talked about the performances, video, photographs and films of Lynn Hershman Leeson. She had an underground, almost cult-like following then that continues in new ways and in new generations to this day.
Jamming the personal and the political against each other, Lynn opened up a feminist embrace of new technologies, cracking open their possibilities to invent new futures beyond patriarchy. At a time when we were all debating feminist psychoanalysis versus a more materialist Marxist historiography, Lynn’s work offered guts, clarity and new way to get your head beyond these often safe academic debates. Her work simultaneously unsettles and engages—rare in any artist.
Working across a dizzying array of media including photography, video, film, performance, sculpture, painting, interactivity, Lynn pioneered interactive digital and net based art infused with a deep and gutsy feminism. She’s been producing breakthrough feminist work in new technologies for nearly five decades.
When I asked Lynn how she manages to make high end, complicated technologies seem accessible, something one notices in spades in a film like Teknolust that mines science, biotechnology, viruses, and computer code, she registered surprise--and delight. She explained that we should just dive into technology. It’s simple, she said. “You just do it.” Teknolust was one of the first films shot in HD, and an example of a digital mise-en-abyme, screens within screens within screens.
The history of cinema has a turbulent river of collaboration running through it, where directors hook up with actors to produce something beyond both. Think Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz. Male directors. Female actresses.
Collaborations between female directors and actresses are rare. Very few features around the globe are directed by women. Very few screenplays give actresses much to work with beyond the femme fatale, the action star, the iconoclastic social misfit, or the maternal figure.
The collaboration between Tilda and Lynn is palpable. They’ve done three films together, all significant feminist works. Most are canonical, taught in feminist film classes. All wind together politics, feminism and technology: Conceiving Ada, Teknolust and Strange Culture.
During our interview, I probed Tilda to reveal the working strategies of this powerful collaboration. “Lynn makes a kindergarten for all of us to play in and to explore,” Tilda said. “it’s about play.” Lynn added that these films could not be made without Tilda.
Teknolust (United States/Germany/United Kingdom, 2002) is a feature length feminist sci-fi narrative film. A comedy that had the audience at the festival completely engaged and laughing, it’s the story of biogeneticist Rosetta Stone who concocts a recipe to download her DNA into a live brew growing in her computer. She breeds three Self Replicating Automatons—S.R.A.s, part human, part intelligent machine. All four roles—Rosetta, Ruby, Marine and Olive—are played in a quirky, loving, assymetrical style by Tilda.
To survive, the SRAs need to inject Y chromosones only found in spermatozoa. Dressed in red, SRA Ruby is programmed to seduce through images and dialogue from classical Hollywood movie seduction scenes. The men she has sex with get infected: they become impotent and barcodes appear on their foreheads. Health investigators come on the scene. Quarrantines and love ensue.
Female machines gone amok have a long pedigree in cinema. From Metropolis to Blade Runner to Battlestar Galatica, female robots are monstrous femme fatales. I asked Tilda if her gentle yet Brechtian acting strategy in Teknolust was making an intervention into this history. She replied “I am always an alien.”
Teknolust has garnered an enormous cult following as a feminist sci-fi classic. It’s more popular now than when it came out.
When I asked Tilda and Lynn what it felt like to watch the film in 2009 during a time of cyberwarfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the H1N1 pandemic, and the explosion of Web 2.0, they shared it felt more accessible now than it did seven years ago.
To satiate this new user-generated international demand, Microcinema will rerelease Teknolust in 2010. It will include a DVD extra featuring our post-screening discussion from the Cinema Arts Festival Houston.
There we were, the actress, the director, and the academic, all dressed in black, SRAs of a different order, discussing technology, art and feminism, on the stage in the beautiful white stadium theater of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Lauro Zavala on Mexican Narrative Films
To continue our exploration and conversation about Mexican cinema, Lauro Zavala, cinema studies and literary scholar and the head of Sepancine in Mexico, has provided a list of ten must-see Mexican films produced in the past 20 years.
"I should point out that I made this list having non-festival Mexican films in mind. By that I mean to say that these are some of the films that any viewer (anywhere) would surely be able to relate (intensely and personally) to," explains Zavala. " So I didn't include in this list any avant-garde or experimental film. Actually, some critics would think that the New Mexican Cinema is precisely this batch of movies that have attracted Mexican middle class viewers to movie theaters during the past 20 years, after a gloomy period of terrible bad taste, freezing violence, and weird characters."
Mexican Films and Genre
According to Lauro, this list features well-crafted film, with strong stories and commentary about current daily life in Mexico. Some are historical (La ley de Herodes or Arráncame la vida). Some play with humor or irony (Sólo con tu pareja, Entre Villa y una mujer desnuda, La ley de Herodes, or Sexo, pudor y lágrimas). Some are metafictional (Danzón, or Romelia), while others are poetic (such as Esmeralda, Arráncame la vida, Danzón, or Amar te duele). Many of them are opera prima (first movie made), and opened new routes for Latin American films.
For US based readers of this blog, all of these titles are available on DVD with English subtitles. Some of these films are actually produced and distributed in the US, so they are, ironically, exported from there to Mexico.
“More than half of these films (6 out of 10) are comedies or satires, because we Mexicans are very good at laughing at ourselves, “ Zavala points out. “All of them are feature films, and have had a wide distribution and audience. Some of them are metafictional. All in all there seems to have a mixture of politics, comedy, and some romance. But all characters and situations are unmistakably Mexican.”
Look for future postings with Lauro’s suggested titles of experimental and documentary works, as well as an interview with James Ramey, who not only works on the Morelia International Film Festival, but is also a cinema studies scholar currently a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City
The Top Ten Must-See Mexican Narrative Films
Complex comedy about aids with a sort-of happy ending
A political allegory about the roots of recent changes in Mexican society
A somewhat romantic film with experimental POV and traditional music
Comedy about an intellectual and his feminist wife
Metafictional romance about a woman with five loving husbands
Nontraditional Romeo and Juliet through grafitti, comics, and urban violence
A documentary filmmaker travels worldwide in search for the lost reels of Villa
Political satire about the Mexican way to make politics
Sexual comedy about three young yuppie couples
(Brazil made a local version of this movie the following year)
Spectacular recreation of Mexico City in the 40s (politics, marriage, and music)
And...if you have other must-see Mexican films, please join the conversation in the comment section of this blog and add titles or links to film sources!
Monday, November 16, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
November 11-15, 2009
Houston is one of those places that sprawls bigger than the Texas plains in the national imaginary: big oil, big energy, big medicine, NASA, high technology, and a lot of plastic surgery.
But Houston, the fourth largest and perhaps fastest growing city in the United States, is also something more: a percolating arts community, with a world class opera, ballet and symphony, major museums, and an alternative arts scene. Everywhere you look, some arts event, festival or performance unfurls somewhere in the city, with a can-do Texas style that yanks away Yankee stereotypes about oil rigs, barbeque, and superhighways.
Almost unimaginable to launch a new major film festival in the middle of the worst recession in history, it seems to make perfect sense in sunny Houston. Curated by Richard Herskowitz, formerly director of the Virginia Film Festival, The Cinema Arts Festival Houston unspooled with over 40 films and events. It conjured the interweavings and cross-fertilizations between the arts and cinema.
“It's the only U.S. film festival devoted to films by and about artists of all stripes. The closest equivalent is the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal. Ours is also conceived as a multimedia arts event surrounding its films with live performances, installations, and outdoor projections,” says Herskowitz.
A city-wide celebration at eight venues (including the historic Alabama Theater, Rice University, the outdoor Discovery Green and the Museum of Fine Arts) the Cinema Arts Festival Houston mischievously torqued preconceptions about films about the arts, a genre typically associated with flat, preachy films explaining paintings in monotone you watch on hard benches at museums. The rigorous, surprising programming jolted audiences to consider the migrations, flirtations ,and infiltrations between novels, painting, sculpture, music, performance, acting, photography, drawing, architecture, dance, writing, digitality.
Herskowitz brewed up one of his trademark, eye-opening heterogeneous programs, featuring narrative, documentary, experimental, performance, and installation. The guest list exemplifies this journey into the interstices between the arts, and between commercial and public media cultures: Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, photographer Susan Meiselas, experimental filmmakers Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves, musicians Dengue Fever and Donald Sosin, feminist techno-director Lynn Hershman Leeson, prankster Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, commercial narrative film director Richard Linklater.
The festival opened with two sold-out screenings of films adapted from novels. Houston native son and Texas leading maverick filmmaker Linklater presented Me and Orson Welles (United Kingdom, 2008), based on a Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, the fictionalized story of Welles’ production of Julius Caesar on Broadway in 1937.Winning three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the other opening night film, is the story of a Harlem teenager who overcomes enormous obstacles to discover her own beauty and potential.
Arriaga screened his landmark Mexican New Wave film, Amores Perros ( Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2000) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, USA/France, 2006), shot in Texas. Warm, welcoming, and wry, Arriaga, also an established novelist, shared that his non-linear narrative structures emerged out of his ADHD symptoms: “You are unable to understand logic but it develops intuition.”
Documentaries included What If, Why Not? Underground Adventures with Ant Farm(Beth Federici and Laura Harrison, USA 2009), the first film to chronicle the radical Ant Farm architectural group that made the land art piece Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas, La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opera de Paris (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA 2009), Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (Arne Glimcher, USA, 2008), and The Yes Men Fix the World (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, France/USA, 2008). Most intriguing, the festival featured a retrospective of both photographer Susan Meiselas, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), and her deceased partner, experimental diary filmmaker Richard P. Rogers, with The Windmill Movie (Alexander Olch, 2008) and Remembering Dick Rogers, a selection of key works by the filmmaker.
The experimental work maneuvered as palimpsests, layering differing artistic practices to open spaces for audience involvement. They provided some of the most powerful, jolting festival experiences. Holly Fisher screened Everywhere at Once (France/USA 2008), an entrancing, poetic meditation on aging, memory and female psychic landscapes. It featured the images of fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh and a voice-over read by iconic French new wave actress Jeanne Moreau.
Jennifer Reeves’ stunning, gorgeous and hopeful dual projection, baroque celebration of nature and 16mm film, When It Was Blue, was accompanied by live music by Icelandic electronic composer Skuli Sverrison. Organized around the four seasons, the hand painted, bleached, scratched, and chemically altered images suggest that a truly ecological mindset finds life emerging from decay.
Lynn Hershman Leeson presented a reprise of her feminist cult classic film, Teknolust (US/Germany/UK, 2002) with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays scientist Rosetta Stone and her three half human, half computer, Self Replicating Automatons. Their deeply collaborative process combined high end HD technologies, improvisation, and an arrhythmic acting style to splice together science, viruses, machines, digitality, sexuality, and artificial intelligence. A mobile cinema constructed from aerospace honeycomb aluminum and designed by Didier Fiuza Faustino, H BOX screened 10 international shorts. Audiences jammed into the small space. The Birth of RMB City (2009), by Chinese digital artist Cao Fei, composed with Second Life machima, was a highlight.
As festival curator Herskowitz observes, “Houston has some of the best arts institutions in the country-- the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Aurora Picture Show, the Alley Theater, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, FotoFest, etc. It's been a revelation to me on my many trips here this year. So the festival has involved the collaborative participation of eighteen arts organizations who have had a hand in the conception and execution of our programs. I think it will alert the world that Houston has more than NASA and rodeos going on.”
Friday, November 13, 2009
"It's more about a kind of structuring, where the viewer is at the center of the piece," offered experimental filmmaker and editor Holly Fisher. She described her improvisational process in dealing with images and editing strategies: "It's a weave."
I am sitting in the art deco Alabama Theater in Houston, Texas, at a workshop on Experimental Cinema and the Visual Arts on day two of the newly launched Houston Cinema Arts Festival, curated by Richard Herskowitz. Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves are discussing their films and their digital arts practices. They jettison narrative for layers of psychic and emotional immersion, for a sense of liveness and tactility that transcends the image as representational. They conjure the image as a threshold into sensual and psychic experience.
Last night, Fisher, an influential figure in American experimental and documentary cinema (she was the editor of the landmark documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? in 1989 and is the director of Bullets for Breakfast made in 1995), screened her new work Everywhere at Once. It's what I would call a cinematic portrait of how women are visualized and idealized in what the festival program says is a "sumptuous" film reflecting on love, beauty and mortality. It felt like one of those only-in-Texas-bigger-than-life-screenings: a difficult and demanding experimental work in a multiplex theater in downtown Houston, with an image as big as the Texas sky, with great sound to boot. In this context, the film had an epic quality few experimental films can sustain (so epic and operatic for the audience that none of us knew until after the screening that the digital video had been mistakenly screening in 4 x 5 format rather than the more horizontal 16 x9). All of the audience stayed for the discussion, utterly entranced.
Repurposing and conjuring the photographs of arts and movie stars by sophisticated fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, Everywhere at Once features an evocative voiceoiver written by poet Kimiko Hahn. The voice over is read by Jeanne Moreau, a major iconic figure of the French New Wave. Her gravely voice contrasts with the sleek modernist fashion images. The film is an opera of the everyday and the psychic labyrinths women inhabit. It's a film about dreams, about feelings abandoned, inaccessible and lost. The first image of the film provides a clue into its visual strategies: a woman is photographed from above in a fetal positon, a spiral into the self where leg and hand and back transform into a spiral.
In the stunning Everywhere at Once, the interiority of the mind scrapes against the balanced compositions of the photographs of women posed for glamor shots, modeling fashions, selling films. A close up of Moreau's craggy, aging face repeats throughout. Is this a biography of Moreau's psychic landscapes over time? Is this a fiction about aging, about the small moments of life like hotel rooms and the textures of fabric on skin? Is it a film about memories floating down the rivers of the mind and then bubbling out in the small details of life? The film functions as a series of transformations and layers: photographs are spun and lit with shadows, clips for Moreau's films waft like apparitions, post minimalist music comes and goes. It's exquisite.
As Fisher shared in the post-screening discussion, the film dances on the "edges between biography and fiction." After seeing Lindbergh's photos (who shares a codirector credit with Fisher on Everywhere at Once), she told him she wanted to rip the coffee table books apart--- the images where too pretty. With a skilled animator, she played with light and shadows over the images in the studio, and plotted complex moves across the photos that exorcise the images. It couldn't be further from Ken Burns, whose style treats images like holy relics.
Fisher's oeuvre hovers between rigorous structure and improvisational plays. Resonating with her other works, Everywhere at Once is composed of layers: music, poetry, photographs, archival images, movie clips, and the everyday. It's a film that takes large iconic images ladened with cultural associations (images of Isabella Rossellini, the model Verushka, Moreau) and scrapes them down and washes away their overderterminations.
In the question and answer period, Fisher shared that when Jeanne Moreau saw Everywhere at Once in Paris, she turned to the director and said, "You are a witch." Indeed, Fisher brews up the most complex yet evocative order. She creates palimpsests, those scrolls where words and images are scraped and reused and layered. Fisher is a sorceress of the palimpsest, that space that is comprised of many spaces, many feelings, many journeys, many voices, many dislocations.
Monday, November 9, 2009
More on Film Theory in Mexico
As several commentators both on this blog (thanks, Ruby, for reminding us about the importance and urgency of conversations beyond borders )and in private emails have pointed out, the discipline of cinema studies in the US could be enriched and truly internationalized through exchanges and dialogues with scholars in the rest of the world--especially Mexico and Latin America.
To continue the conversation, this blog features Part II of my interview with Dr. Lauro Zavala, where he further explains some of the issues in cinema studies in Mexico.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the author of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult. Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields.
The Interview: Part II
Patricia: What is the role of film theory and analysis in Mexican universities? How is it developing? How is film education in film theory and analysis organized for graduate students and undergraduates in Mexico?
Lauro:In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, cinema studies have been a small field that belongs in communication studies, which in its turn belong in the social sciences. That is why cinema studies have been oriented here only towards the study of film as a cultural industry and as a tool for History, Anthropology or Psychoanalysis. Therefore, there is not a strong tradition in the humanistic approach to cinema studies, that is, in studying film from the perspective of semiotics, aesthetics, or philosophy.
Sepancine is creating the first graduate program in Latin America that will be devoted to film theory and analysis. It will be held at Metropolitan University (UAM), Xochimilco campus, and we hope it will start in a year or two. By the way, it will be the first academic program in Humanities in our campus.
I think what is at stake in cinema studies, both locally in Mexico and globally, is establishing its relevance to humanities, considering the place of audiovisual language in traditional and digital media. In Sepancine we are focused on Formal Analysis (that is, the analysis of film as film, as V. F. Perkins would say), but we are well aware of the relevance of Instrumental Analysis (that is, the use of cinema for pursuing any personal, disciplinary or professional ends). We believe both kinds of analysis should not necessarily be opposed to each other, but they might have a productive dialogue, as it is the case in the historical approach to cinema studies in France and the US.
Also, in Sepancine we are aware that 85% of all humanities freshmen have the intention to study film during their career, but practically none is able to do so, simply because there are not enough researchers in their campus (if any). We hope that in the near future film theory and analysis become as important in the main universities in Latin American cities as they are now in Paris, Madrid, London, San Francisco, or New York. We hope our specialized libraries on cinema become as complete and actualized as those at NYU, Stanford, the BFI, Cinématéque Francaise, or Filmoteca Española.
Patricia: How is film theory and analysis in Mexico distinct from film theory and analysis as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last four decades? What are the major theoretical models? What films and topics have emerged as important areas of inquiry? (please specify so our readers can learn more about these ideas and specific works)
Lauro: Film theory and analysis in Mexico is a very young field of study. In the past four decades there has been a prevailing interest in film history. In this period there have been published near 500 books on film, of which only 5 titles are related to film theory and analysis (all of them published in the past 5 years). Therefore, we do not have any pre-established agenda about studying specific theories. We give absolute priority to films themselves, and to our questions towards them.
Also, we are still in awe when we discover this or that theoretical debate, most especially when we are able to study some canonical films that have never been screened and studied here before. Being newcomers is also a guarantee of having a new look at things, and I hope in the long run this becomes also a fresh look at film theory, and the production of new models of film analysis.
Traditionally, the international community has identified film scholarship in Mexico only as the field of film historians, and historians who use films to illustrate Mexican history. Therefore, whenever there is a museum exhibit of pre-Columbian art, foreign institutions invite a Mexican historian to give a series of talks about the presence of Pyramids in Mexican cinema. But Mexican scholarship about film is not reduced to what historians do. As we are entering the international community of scholars, we want to emphasize our interest in fields other than history and social sciences in general. This is why Sepancine is oriented to the humanities.
Another very important difference with European or US film scholars is that all of us (film scholars in Mexico) are not only working on cinema studies. Considering our personal background, and also the institutional absence of Cinema Studies in our universities, all of us are also working on literary theory, philosophical theory, media theory, translation theory, or image theory. Film theory, to us, is a field of synthesis, dialogue, translation and encounter with many other theories.
I think this approach to film theory and analysis (that is, this inter, multi, and transdisciplinary approach) is the main profile of Mexican film scholarship. This is its distinctive voice.
Patricia: What is the relationship of film theory and analysis in Mexico in relationship to what many scholars and programmer's have called "the Mexican new wave" of exciting new cinematic works emerging in documentary and narrative film in Mexico in the last ten years?
Lauro: None. In Mexico, universities and industry have been completely away from each other. Film production and cinema studies are two professional fields that have never had any connection between them. University research on film has always existed with no relation to any institution (or person) in film production or film schools. For example, the members of Sepancine belong in the Departments of Philosophy, Literature or Communication, and basically we relate to our colleagues in these Departments, here and abroad.
Patricia: As a film scholar, can you share with us historical movements or works in Mexican cinema we should know more about to expand our knowledge of Mexican cinema? What new and emerging works in documentary, narrative and experimental film interest you at the moment as works that are provoking new questions in Mexican film theory/analysis?
Lauro: Most observers of contemporary Latin American cinema are aware of a sort of tendency to produce a very modern film language during the past ten years or so. When studying these films (either documentary, narrative or experimental), we find in them a radical distance from what Rudolf Arnheim would call the power of the centre, that is, a transparent, classic, and stable story.
This new cinema belongs in what Paul Julian Smith, in Cambridge, ironically calls Mexican Festival Films. These films are provoking questions about the formal stakes of this kind of postmodern aesthetics, where narration seems to be at once didactic and dissolved (that is, at once direct and disguised). It is an Aesthetics of Paradox, well worth noticing (not only in feature films, but also in short and short short films).
Patricia: Why was Sepancine connected to the Morelia International Film Festival? What were the advantages of connecting the conference to the festival? (this is highly unusual in the world, and for me, quite wonderful and eye opening)
Lauro: The Morelia Film Festival is now one of the most important film festivals in Latin America. We are proud that last year they (the Festival organizers) approached us (Sepancine) to have this collaboration. The obvious advantage of this connection is the amazing national and international resonance that a prestigious festival has, which is something no scholarly conference will ever have, no matter what field it belongs to.
Nevertheless, all the educational and cultural institutions that would otherwise collaborate with us for free, as soon as they learned that we were connected to the Festival, immediately tried to take a financial advantage that we, as a scholarly association, were absolutely unable to satisfy. I think this explains why there is no film festival connected to any film conference in the world. In our case, this experience has been unique in metaphorical and literal terms.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Rerouting Our Vectors
The Sepancine Film Theory and Analysis Conference at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico underscored for me in very bold and startling ways just how euro-centric and global north-located so much of what we consider film theory has become, despite its embrace of interrogations of :
While sitting in the Palacio Clavijero lecture hall with the elegant, sweeping, baroque fountain sprouting water outside the door, I heard brilliant analyses about films I didn’t know about. I listened to debates that never migrate el norte. I met passionate scholars mining the theoretical complexities of Mexican and Latin American cinemas beyond the confines of national identity formation. It was exhilarating. I loved being thrown into a place where I didn't have any of the usual coordinates.
Larger Conversations beyond El Norte
Sitting there drinking endless limonadas (a mix of freshly squeezed lemon, seltzer, salt and some sugar—organic , non-corporate Gatorade!) to fortify myself against the high altitude and dry desert climate, I realized how vitally important it is to reroute our vectors as intellectuals, programmers and cultural activists to enter into larger conversation.
This strategy is especially urgent when we as film theorists and historians are located deep in the intestines of the most powerful transnational film industry the globe has ever seen. It rules the world through the soft occupations of this mega-industry called:
In the open air café where strolling guitarists played at my table while I furiously typed notes and ideas on my blue Asus netbook, I thought about how urgent it is at the current moment of panic and fear to open our own spaces to debates and ideas beyond our own training and comfort zones.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala, Universidad Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City and Sepancine
And I wondered, who is behind this gathering bringing together film scholars from Mexico with scholars from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa? Someone had the vision to pull this off.
I searched. The answer: Lauro Zavala.
So I contacted Dr. Zavala in the hopes he would share his ideas about Mexican film theory with a North American audience, so that those vectors could bend, shift, and maybe point in another direction. And open up space for some transnational dialogue between scholars, film programmers, and students.
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the autor of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Of Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. He holds a Ph.D. in literary theory from El Colegio de México. He serves as editor of El Cuento en Red, a refeered scholarly journal focused on short story theory, created 10 years ago. http://cuentoenred.xoc.uam.mx
Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult.
In 1998, Dr. Zavala initated the International Conference on Short Short Fiction (Minificción). This compelling conference is held every other year in European and Latin American universities. Minifiction is the most recent genre in literary history, and its extraordinary growth in Latin America (in the writings of Borges, Cortázar, Arreola, etc.) has produced the first literary theory in the Spanish language. As an extension of this theorizing, he is also working on a semiotics of audiovisual minifiction (trailers, spots, credits, videoclips, etc.).
Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields. Some of his books are devoted to the theory and analysis of irony, metafiction, short fiction, post-modern narrative (from a formalist perspective), and intersemiotic translation. As measure of his influence, he has supervised over 200 dissertations on film and literary analysis.
The Interview, Part I
PRZ: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and? What are its goals?
LZ: Sepancine is the Mexican Society for Film Theory and Analysis. Its name means Seminario Permanente de Análisis Cinematográfico. It was created last year (2008) with the purpose of promoting the construction of a strong humanistic scholarly tradition on film theory and analysis in Mexican universities. Whereas the prevailing approach in cinema studies in Latin America is focused on social sciences, Sepancine holds a humanistic approach, focused on the viewer and his/her aesthetic experience.
The main goal of Sepancine is contributing to the creation of film theory and analysis in the region. This means the creation of graduate programs, scholarly journals, international conferences, collective books, public film archives, digital video discs with simultaneous comments from experts, and other similar projects.
Sepancine holds a permanent seminar for the discussion of film theory, which meets every month since 4 years ago. So far we have produced three journal issues, four collective books, and five scholarly conferences. Also, we have been participating in institutional projects, such as the creation of the National Museum of Film (Museo Nacional de Cine en México, to be opened in 2010), and the creation of a national and international net of research groups, especially with our colleagues in Argentina (ASAECA), Brazil (SOCINE), Spain (AEHC), and France (AFECCAV).
During the Morelia conference (held in October 2009), we presented the translation into Spanish of the most recent book by Robert Stam, The Theory and Practice of Adaptation (a coedition between Mexico National University and Sepancine). Now we are translating the most recent book by Michel Marie, about cinema studies in France. Last year we had Warren Buckland as our conference keynote speaker, and we produced a subtitled DVD with his lecture and film clips.
PRZ:What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
LZ: I am the founder of Sepancine, and have been the president since its creation. Of course, there is also a directive committee, and we have an assembly every year. I usually make the calendar of activities for the following year, and I organize the working sessions at the international conference. At this moment there are over 50 active members of Sepancine, most of them holding a Ph.D., or preparing a dissertation on cinema studies.
In 1996 I organized a national conference on film teaching and research, as a celebration for the first 100 years since film arrived in Mexico. Ten years later I created a national conference on film theory and analysis, which has been held every year since then. Last year (2008) the conference became international. In 2009 we had papers from a dozen countries.
PRZ: What are the major debates in film theory/analysis in Mexico and Latin America? How do these debates and their contexts differ from the debates in film theory/analysis in Europe and the United States?
The main debates in film theory and analysis in Latin America are related to the overall project of having cinema studies acknowledged as a relevant field worth being taught from elementary to grad school. I understand this is not necessarily so in the US or in Europe, or even in some Asian universities. We are involved in what we call an audiovisual alphabetization process, which enables every citizen of a democracy to be able to read critically the products of audiovisual media. And this involves not only the perspective of social sciences, but the semiotic, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions of watching a movie. This is the main debate.
Another important difference with film research in Europe and the US are our working conditions. There is no Mexican university holding a Department of Cinema Studies. There is no Mexican (or Latin American) Institute of Film Analysis, or even a scholarly journal devoted to cinema studies. In contrast with this, every university in Latin America holds a Department of Literature, and there are magnificent centers for literary research. Many of us hold a Ph.D. on Literature (or on any other field), because there are no graduate programs on Cinema Studies in any Latin American university.
Finally, film research is based on film archives. Here we have an important difference too. There is an urgent need to promote the creation of public film archives available in every city in Latin America, and a need to have access to films that are being produced. We do not have access to films produced in the rest of Latin America at all. Over 90% of all Mexican screens are showing US movies. This was stated by Sepancine during the recent Iberoamerican Cultural Summit, held in Mexico in October 2008.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Social, Viral, Buzz
Social media, viral marketing, buzz marketing, social networks: these four archetypes of a new world jack in to the neural WiFi system of postindustrial capitalism in recession and collapse. The new digital snake oil, Web 2.0 and its social media offspring promise visibility, relationship seeding with proactive consumers, fast cash, reconfigured jobs, and a new world of engagement and fun with products.
It's digital vaudeville where all that is messy, conflictual, problematic, unresolved, liminal, and non-consumerist, is yanked off the stage with a free new app rather than a cane. It's a place where mobile no longer implies mobilization, but now means having something in your hand so you can consume 24/7 and never be away from work.
Let’s face it. We’re all scared about the future here in the empire in decline that is the United States post Madoff, post Lehman Brothers, post AIG, post bailout. Everything is precarious. The economy and our jobs--if we still have one-- feel ambiguous, despite New York Times reports that recovery is sprouting up here and there. It’s hard to fight back and organize when everything is diffuse and vague and ephemeral, like a cloud that spreads across an upstate New York valley but disappears once the sun rises.
Better than Xanax, the hype and hucksterism of social media smoothe over the edges of panic and anxiety to pave the way for excessive consumption and easy PayPal to snap up slap happy credit cards for infinite upgrades and premium services after free software and free everything is exhausted. Search engine optimization replaces the messiness of meet ups where argument, discomfort,conflict, a perpetual state of open space relationships, and unconferencing are for all intents and purposes normative—but currently disparaged and maligned.
Networks, Newness, Niceness and Naughtiness
In the last year alone, a plethora of books and webinars from the left, the right and the wired have surfaced like submarines in the Arctic, breaking through the unknown, frozen depths of Facebook and Twitter and cracking through the ice-locked lands of Digg and D.e.lic.ious. For those not anointed digital natives, these mighty tomes promise a world of networks, newness, niceness and some naughtiness, like playing World of Warcraft with Chinese goldfarmers to recover from the work speed ups and job panic at your corporate job or cruising Second Life for extra marital affairs with avatars while on furlough from your university or government gig.
It’s a world where instead of using the internet to find a date or hook up with some other like-minded souls when you move overseas (the goal being, in a quite old fashioned way, embodied messy interaction in the sensorium which is the world around us), social media ask you to have a personal relationship with a PRODUCT. In this brave new world, we’re all dating clean machines and launching romances with iPhone apps, Blackberrys, and PowerPoint. Talk about cylons…(this part is for Battlestar Galatica fans)
As Dutch digital theorist Geert Lovink argued at the recent Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities Symposium at Cornell University (mounted by Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities ), Web 2.0 necessitates an urgent need for a critical intervention as we move from MP3s to Napster, from personal websites to blogging, from publishing to participation, from taxonomies to tagging. He sees the contradictions in the current moment: we all need these social networking tools even more when the job market collapses and it’s necessary to be in touch with our professional networks, and when we no longer live where we grew up and want to remain in touch with our communities.
Yes, I admit it: I’ve devoured many of these books like Free by Chris Anderson, Viral Loop by Adam L. Penenberg, Viral Spiral by David Bollier, Fans, Friends and Followers by David Kirsner. And I’ve red- penciled and covered with neon orange Post Its books sporting lots of academic footnotes advancing more criticality: Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second lLfe and Beyond: From Production to Produsage by Axel Bruns .
Access and the Rest of the Globe
But...the definition of access changes when you move your vectors from the United States to the rest of the globe. Access in many parts of the world means access to clean water so you don’t die from diarrhea, which kills more people than AIDS. Denial of service in other parts of the world means living in perpetual fear of violence, kidnapping, floods, rape, droughts and shootings. A slow connection in many areas of the global south means a roadblock with guns and delays where you can’t ask how long it will take until service is restored because, well, you don’t speak the language or the machine guns just are too big.
Emergent social media fascinates me as a historical continuation of the promise of amateurism to extend production and self-expression and to generate new publics beyond corporations, governments and institutions. I like the idea of constantly evolving technologies that shed their proprietary matrices. I like gadgets, devices, gears,software, and machines, even though they drive me crazy.
I like and use social media. I like thinking about its possibilities for human rights work, for new forms of connection and collaboration, for new ways to invite people into big messy concepts and debates that transcend borders and nations. But this same social media perplexes me. And worries me.
For example: in early October, the FBI raided a Queen’s New York house for 16 hours, arresting a man for using Twitter at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. His crime? Tweeting to spread information on police movements he tracked through a computer and police scanner in his hotel room. Since 2004, mass texting and twittering have become valued tools of mobilization among protesters. Funny, the state department hailed Twitter as a missionary technology bringing democracy to Iran in June. But stateside three months later, well, that’s another civil liberties story all together.
Left, Right, Wired
Unlike a brilliant-younger-than-me-humanities scholar at a recent digital symposium I attended who proudly came out as a technophobe, I’m more of a techno-interrogator living in endless techno-bafflement. I like this riparian zone (to quote Helen de Michiel) between asking about and not quite understanding Twitter democracies, UGC fantasies, Iranian digitopias, and the gnarly webs of contradictions imbedded in virtually all new technologies.
Whether on the left, the right or the wired side, all of these books I've mentioned argue for a new utopia on the other end of the broadband rainbow, defined either by consumption (the business side) or by democratic engagement (the side for the rest of us in that hazy subterranean world of the insurgent and the questioning).
Obama is crowned the Web 2.0 president of the universe, the digital messiah who marshaled the power of many through YouTube viral videos, user generated websites and the promise of a rebuilt digital infrastructure. He’s the new school cool dude who beat those crotchety old school Republicans by hiring some viral marketing gurus from Facebook to translate and update hard core, Saul Alinsky, Chicago-style neighborhood community organizing into a national viral-buzz-social media marketing strategy.
Most of these books I've been devouring are penned by BWMGNs (Big White Men of the Global North). Even the corporate books need to flaunt their love of equality now that the Bush regime is reduced to a digital file on a USB stick, so they worry about broadband access, net neutrality, digital divides, data mining. For many, remedying the digital divide (which is changing at an astonishing rate as cell phones and cheap netbooks penetrate the least developed countries) is just a euphemism for UNTAPPED MARKET. Translation: Asia, India, Africa, Latin America.
And most are utterly silent about any of the gut wrenching human rights issues migrating across the globe where the messiness of race, class, genders, sexualities, ethnicity, immigration, war, torture, and oppression raises incredibly complex issues about the ethics of circulatory culture that extends way beyond the ethics of witnessing through representation. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the ethics of circulating Neda’s death in Iran. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the cell phone images of the monks demonstrating in Burma uploaded on various social media sites that were then used to put those same monks in jail.
Hillary, The State Department and Social Media
But Hillary Clinton and the State Department are talking: they are so excited about the possibilities of social media to reroute trouble in the streets into digital community engagement flare-ups in social networks that they recently sponsored a summit on social media for NGOs who work with youth in Mexico, a country on the verge of descending into civil war and becoming the next Colombia. The Alliance of Youth Movements, comprised of individuals from the private sector, the NGO community, and “some of the most successful digital movements around the world” met in Mexico City, one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous cities in the world, just two weeks ago to “explore the role of technology in connecting young people working to end violence.”
And guess who sponsored this social media confab? An A-list of the new gods of the viral and the buzz: Facebook, Google, MTV, MySpace, WordPress, YouTube, and…the U.S. State Department.
*a big shout out to Helen de Michiel for sharing research and conversation culminating in this blog posting