Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
More with James Ramey
Mexico-based film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey lives in many worlds--literature, film, teaching, festivals. In my conversations with him, he always seems to be moving across, between, through and around all those somewhat different terrains. He's the ultimate ambassador of intellectual goodwill and comraderie.
Today I continue my interview with him. The Mexican New Wave, with filmmakers like Inarritu, Cuaron, del Toro and screenwriters like Guillermo Arriaga is one of the most exciting cinemas to emerge in the last ten years. It's a cinema that cuts the jugular vein of popular culture. It boils up with energy: violence, realism, aggressive editing, pulsating acting. It generates debate.
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?
James: This is where I have to mention that until recently, most Mexican departments of literature, art history and other areas hospitable to students and faculty working on film, were relatively indifferent, or antagonistic, to theoretical humanistic discourse.
That has changed somewhat recently, and the two conferences we have done in Morelia showed some truly excellent theoretical work being done on film, but in general there has been very little communication between film theorists, film critics and filmmakers in Mexico. The mission of the Morelia International Film Festival is to promote and nourish a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, so we thought it would be relevant to put these communities together and see what would happen.
Moreover, as we all know, successful artists, including filmmakers, seldom have much truck with the contemporary theoretical discourses of their time. However, before the film festival included a formal academic conference, we also organized some very stimulating panels and master’s classes, some of which showed evidence of interest in theoretical topics among filmmakers.
In one example, at the 2007 festival, Shannon Kelley and I organized a “First Nations Forum” with the Cameras de la Diversidad program of UNESCO, which was attended by 10 or 12 Mexican indigenous filmmakers. In addition, that year the festival offered Master’s Classes by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón in the beautiful 16th century painting gallery of the San Agustín Church.
González Iñárritu’s excellent talk on the making of Babel was attended by dozens of the young Mexican filmmakers at the festival, among whom was Pedro Daniel López, one of Mexico´s finest indigenous makers. In the Q & A, López asked González Iñárritu about his rapid-fire editing technique, and wondered what it implied about the intended audience of Babel. González Iñárritu was perplexed by the question, so López explained when he had done documentaries about religious ceremonies in his Tzotzil village in Chiapas, he had to produce a 20-minute version for the international film festival circuit, and a 5-hour version of the same ceremony for his village community. The 5-hour version had to be done because community could not bear to watch a representation of their ceremony with even the smallest detail edited out.
González Iñárritu gave a stumbling answer, saying something to the effect that his editing style matched his rapid-fire personality, but he was clearly beguiled by López’s question.
The next day, when Alfonso Cuarón gave his own Master’s Class in the painting gallery, he began by giving an amazingly erudite history of cinematic editing techniques, from the earliest short films through Griffith’s Intolerance, to the regimentation of the Hollywood feature at 90 minutes, to today’s more variable lengths.
Cuaron also compared Western cinema to contemporary Bollywood, which has a radically different editing paradigm, in which narrative elements are repeated four or five times so that people in crowded dining halls can watch, eat and socialize at the same time, without losing the plot. He then explained that his comments were spurred by a long debate he he’d had the night before with González Iñárritu about López’s comments regarding indigenous vs. international editing techniques.
The audience was truly fascinated by all this, as evidenced by the questions that followed, and it certainly felt like a powerful “moment.”
So I would say that there is indeed some intellectual feedback going on between different film constituencies in Mexico, and that this reflects a growing appetite for theoretical approaches to film, including among the major Mexican New Wave makers.