- Approaching the (Trans)National in Criticism of Early Latin American Sound Film
In the July 1931 issue of Mensajero Paramount (Paramount Messenger), an in-house publication dedicated to the interests of Spanish-speaking film exhibitors, an editorial note remarks that “Spanish-speaking audiences now have a spectacle in which they not only find their language, but something as essential in order for one to be able to speak properly of a Latin American and Spanish cinema: the spirit, the feeling, the Latin American and Spanish psychology.”1 Paradoxically, the mouthpiece of a major studio contends it is able to fulfill its Spanish-speaking markets’ desires for talkies that both literally and figuratively speak to and for local spectators. Though Hollywood would continue to dominate these markets, creative entrepreneurs in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico began building film industries in the 1930s in the shadow of the giant to the north.2 The contradictions of this note in Mensajero Paramount, as well as the rise of these domestic film industries, express tensions between two fundamental concepts marking criticism of the early sound period in Latin America historically and through to today: national cinema(s) and transnationalism.
In this commentary, I trace the ways in which recent critical studies approximate national and transnational features of Latin American cinema(s) of the early sound period (1931–1943).3 In so doing, I also [End Page 115] aim to touch on how underlying metacritical questions of national cinema and transnationalism in the period have come to be understood. That is, what does it mean to talk about the Argentine national cinema of the 1930s? How do the transnational influences of jazz, for example, shape early Brazilian film musicals? Why are particular transnational features manifested in early Mexican sound film? To be able to approach these kinds of questions, I begin by briefly discussing how scholars both inside and outside Latin America sounded out understandings of national cinemas from the 1950s to the 1990s. This criticism, which situates the early sound period within the framework of the national cinema, continues to be highly influential because of both its documentation and the ways in which it still determines lines of investigation of more recent work exploring diverse transnational elements of the period. Subsequently, I introduce a new, transnationally oriented film criticism of the early sound period that allows for deeper understanding of how Latin American film industries interacted with flows of transnational mass media, particularly those of the United States and Hollywood.
Part of a broader “transnational turn” in film studies, which is particularly evident in scholarship on contemporary Latin American film, this recent criticism also engages other disciplines like economics, geography, history, Latin American cultural studies, musicology, and politics. Keeping in mind Libia Villazana’s assertion that “transnationalism is transdisciplinary because its approaches transcend the borders of conventional disciplines and incorporate the methods of other disciplines to its subject/object of study, while maintaining as much as possible the framework of those disciplines,” recent research into early Latin American sound cinema(s) has indelibly changed what it means to study films of the period.4 Contextualizing their subjects/objects of study frequently, though not always, within other disciplinary contexts, as well as within cinema of the time, these critics discuss how early Latin American sound film industries created cinematic interpretations that brought audiences (local and beyond) to theaters by appealing to their anxieties and aspirations. Not only do these recent interventions reshape the way we approach and understand the period, but they also emphasize the importance of studying early Latin American sound film: in many ways, it gives us insights into practices and processes of transnationalism that continue to this day.
Several foundational texts on national cinemas were published in the late 1950s and early 1960s.5 Situating the early sound period within the territory of national cinema, these studies betray the practical difficulties (e.g., access to films, dearth of documentation, lack of technological resources) of early scholarly film criticism. As a [End Page 116] result of these limitations, it is unsurprising that initial works like Domingo Di Núbila’s Historia del cine argentino (1959/1960), Emilio García Riera’s...