JMM and the Cultural Politics of Marginality in 3rd World Film Criticism (Dolores Tierney 2004)

Dolores Tierney, 2004. José Mojica Marins and the Cultural Politics of Marginality in Third World Film Criticism. Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Vol.13, No.1, (63‑78. pp).

In her article Dolores Tierney seeks to analyse the historical constructions which led to the establishment of Latin America film canons. Her investigation encompasses the ‘imperfect cinema’ of Cuba and the ‘third cinema’ in Argentina but focuses the main argument on the relation between Brazilian avant-garde production, called ‘Cinema Novo’, and the psychotronic/exploitation/trash work of the also Brazilian filmmaker, José Mojica Marins. Tierney’s objective is to defy the underpinning assumptions built by early Latin American 1960s’ criticism which tended to consider the art films of Cinema Novo in opposition to Mojica’s commercial cinema, influenced by Hollywood standards. The author starts by explicating the strategies adopted by former Latin America film critics and their frames of analysis, largely grounded on Dialectical Materialism. It was a common practice and perhaps a dominant preferences among early Brazilian film critics to bring into discussion exclusively films that had an explicit anti-imperialist content and, in doing so, they neglected other types of productions which circulated at the same period of time. The author then uses History to justify the option for such critical point of view on behalf of Brazilian critics. Although no names are particularly quoted, it is claimed by Tierney that those critics were then moved by the wish of standing up against the colonialist domination imposed by Europe and especially by the United States. It was in this specific 1960s’ ethos that the options for such frame of study influenced (and were influenced by) the delimitation of a film canon. In this context the engagé position by Latin American critics generated an aesthetic selection (and consequently the formation of a canon) based on political preferences. That is to say avant-garde, art movies of Glauber Rocha, Cacá Diegues and other were chosen by the Brazilian critics to represent the national canon and the ‘ideal’ national cinema rather than the commercial productions embodied by Mojica.

Having established her objectives and set the way into her argument, the author then claims that the present shifts in the world conjunctures, such as globalization and also that which Appadurai calls ‘cultural flows’, demands a review of those early critical positions. Still according to the author, with the emergence of new fields of study, such as Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Theory, stems a necessity of reviewing earlier assumptions accompanied by an inclination for a re-evaluation of the material which has been left out of the Brazilian canon. Those films which were then regarded as second-class, worthless commercial productions, due to their popular appeal and features usually drawn from Hollywood cinema, actually displayed ‘militant’ material beyond the obvious agenda thematised by Cinema Novo. The author says that: ‘Latin American film scholarship is expanding to include different kinds of imaging practices produced in and beyond national and continental geoaesthetics boundaries’ (p.64). Mojica’s films would be part of this ongoing re-evaluation, especially those films in which some aspect of Horror is celebrated, as they would have been misinterpreted in their own time despite the many coincidences with the features/techniques which were being proposed by Cinema Novo.

It is the author’s assumption that Mojica’s films represent a link between the avant-garde and the commercial/trash cinema. Mojica’s cinema would be art and trash at the same time, says Tierney that his films ‘actually share many characteristic with Brazil’s avant-garde’ (p.66), furthermore, that they can be brought together through the idea of ‘aesthetic of poverty’. Proposing a break in the ‘binary oppositions’ between avant-garde and commercial films the author says the work of ‘Brazilian exploitation director José Mojica Marins, a star in the global psychotronic field’ offers a way of re-situating ‘the coordinates of Latin American film criticism in line with shifting cultural and discipline related imperatives’ (p.64). It was a general belief among the Cinema Novo group and their enthusiasts that a ‘third world’ cinema should convey its poverty through images. In seeing their people’s misery on the screen (conveyed both by the theme and technique), the audience would gain consciousness of their appalling situation and step into revolutionary action. Tierney has brilliantly spotted a crucial contradiction on behalf of the critics which they rejected Mojica’s films on the very argument they used to praise Cinema Novo. She picks on an important word: subdesenvolvimento, very concept of underdevelopment Cinema Novo was thematising is blatantly found in the themes and even in the technique employed by Mojica. The author then quotes Cuban critic Espinosa who suggests that in a revolutionary society the artist would be precisely the proletarian (Mojica? she asks) and that his art would be an extension of his work. Her main thesis advocates that early Brazilian critics overlooked the precise terms on which Cinema Novo was praised and the cinema of Mojica put down, after all, the exploitation elements and the discursive strategy out of the material condition of poverty and underdevelopment (albeit the different purposes) were the same. Says the author: ‘What is also interesting is that it points out an initial inconsistency in 1960s’ accounts and their criteria for inclusion and exclusion of filmmaker’ (p.67). But she amends that given Mojica’s roots ‘in Universal Horror films and borrowings from US comic traditions’ (p.69) his films presented some problems to the Brazilian scholarship, she is aware that the kind of critical observation she is proposing has the privilege of speaking from a historical distance that can put certain issues in perspective.

Further ahead, Tierney argues how Mojica addresses political issues in his films and how they were ‘perceived as a radical threat to the military authoritarianism’ (p.70), however, when it is time to demonstrate how Mojica defied the dictatorship the author deceptively resort to other critics and let them do the work. It is by the quoting and examples of Peter Tombs, Joan Hawkins, John King and Robert Stam that we understand how defiant and subversive Mojica really was. In conclusion, Tierney has a splendid sense of the work she has written, it propositions and the implications of her critical position. She attacks Stam’s argumentation which claims that Latin America’s modernism and postmodernist was fully formed before the birth of these movements in Europe, Tierney does not agree with the fact that Stam ‘in order to argue for cultural legitimacy on a world stage, the cultural politics of Third World Film criticism’ has to emphasize first ‘the developing country’s similarities with the ‘First World’ and second its relationship to what is easily translatable as cultural prestigious – avant-garde aesthetics’ (p.73). She also claims this approximation and she knows that it disavowals important differences. ‘Even this article written for an academic journal potentially compromises Mojica’s counter-cinema credentials’. (p.73)

It is my opinion the article raises some excellent points and has insightful observations about Latin American film criticism and about Cinema Novo vs. Mojica’s production. However, the thesis is grounded on some debatable assumptions. It cannot be forgotten that in the so-called ‘cultural flows’ the tide is not the bonanza it is made look like. On the contrary, the tide still very much unequal and flows primarily from the cultural centres represented by Europe and the USA into the peripheral parts of the world rather than the other way round. That is not a minor issue. If Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Theory have widened the scope of investigation, broadening the angle and objects of theory and embracing new material, they still have not satisfactorily addressed the important issue of Power in these relations. In other words, previous Historical Materialism should not be disregarded completely, the new theoretical tools are excellent for discussing matters of ‘alterity’ but do not tackle frontally Power issues which are deeply embedded in the world current affairs. It still matters which way the flow in going. Tierney could have taken her analysis a step ahead, she could have claimed that the films produced in the peripheral areas of the world are only incorporated by the central cultures if they can be turned into a profitable asset. Some form of legitimation of the values represented by the central cultures is always essential for the assimilation of peripheral films. Transforming these peripheral productions into cult movies, for example, is an excellent way of assimilation and it has been used both as a profitable enterprise and a strategy to renovate a rather ‘exhausted’ central tradition. The cultural flow is attached to a financial flow. Although the author has come up with an insightful view of the Brazilian historical criticism, pointing to its inherent contradictions, she does name any critic in particular, does not give actual examples to support her ideas or pinpoint her argument in a particular film or scene. I would like to have seen some engagement in actual film analysis contrasting and approximation Mojica and Cinema Novo. Furthermore, Tierney does not explain what she understands for ‘trash’ and ‘psychotronic’, why Mojica could not be regarded as ‘naïf’ or ‘camp’? If the American market and criticism uses these concepts to address his work, the two latter definitions are closer to his image in Brazil. It would have been equally easy to have drawn an explanation for these definitions.

Obs: Núria adds to this review the observation that this article is based on the “challenging of the Canon” trend that became very popular in Britain in the 80s. So the work is based on the strategy of troubling the canon. Also ‘naïf’ is not a category in Film Studies. She also points out that the term Camp has very specific meanings within Film Studies (distinct way of behaviour, a kind of sensibility). She suggests reading Richard Dyer, ‘Only Entertainment’, and Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’.

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