- Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age by Laura I. Serna
The immense popularity and cultural significance of Mexican filmmaking during the mid-twentieth century has been the subject of recent scholarly investigations. While 2012 saw the publication of Carl J. Mora’s Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004, in 2013, Robert Irwin and Maricruz Ricalde published Global Mexican Cinema: Its Golden Age (Cultural Histories of Cinema). When examining Mexican cinema, scholars have primarily focused on this so-called Golden Age (roughly between the mid-1930s to the late 1950s), when Mexican filmmakers consistently produced blockbuster movies supported by an extraordinary star system. Furthermore, they have almost wholly concentrated on films produced within Mexico, rather than on foreign movies screened inside Mexican borders.
With Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age, Laura I. Serna takes a markedly different and ingenious approach to studying Mexico’s experience with cinema, both in terms of methodology and periodization. In a rigorous and nuanced manner, Serna examines the exhibition, distribution, and reception of U.S. films in Mexico roughly from the end of the Revolution until the mid-1930s. As the author explains, her work explores how the “cross-border circulation of cultural objects (films), cultural formations (fan culture, for example), and individuals (migrants) created a film culture that was at once transnational and national” (xiv). The book benefits from a well-chosen set of film stills, advertisements, photographs, and newspaper clippings—many of which the author culled from Mexico City archives— that enhance the study’s argument while making it more appealing to the reader. All told, Serna’s work, written in a concise, straightforward, yet engaging prose, constitutes a significant contribution to the study of Mexico’s experience with cinema. It will be of great interest to various scholars working in a broad range of fields: those in Cinema and Media Studies, Latin American Studies and, especially, Mexican history.
The book is divided into two parts plus a short conclusion. In the first half, Serna investigates “The Yanqui Invasion”—namely why, when, and how American production companies invaded the Mexican market. In Chapter 1, Serna shows that even while U.S. producers and distributors were gaining a firm hold on the business of movie-going in Mexico, neither Mexican audiences nor those who worked in theaters passively accepted American tastemakers or labor conditions. In Chapter 2, “American movies, Mexican Modernity: the Cinema as a National Space,” Serna demonstrates how theaters in Mexico “performed symbolic labor” (58), becoming beacons of modernity, civilization, and organized, progressive nationalism. The first pages of the chapter are dedicated to Cine Olimpia, a luxury cinema opened in Mexico City in 1921 that, according to Serna, embodied an idealized image of what movie theaters [End Page 70] could be: elegant, civil, and thus, truly modern spaces. Cine Olimpia may have enticed the imagination of the Mexican movie-going public, but it ultimately failed to lure a sufficient number of patrons due to high ticket prices. According to Serna, movie theaters became privileged spaces in which to negotiate modern and national identities, as mariachis played musical intermissions among art deco alabaster. In Chapter 3, Serna studies publications found in archives both in Mexico and the United States, and argues that fan magazines—this most popular form of popular art—provided a largely female audience a forum in which to develop, discuss, and modify their sense of national identity. This chapter is particularly compelling in its attention to detail, its serious take on the cheekiest artifacts of pop culture, and its consideration of how Mexican readers understood their attraction to American, mostly white starlets.
The second half of the book is entitled “Border Crossings,” a clever label meant to suggest figurative, identity transgressions as well as more literal journeys of both art and people across the Rio Grande. In Chapter 4, Serna describes public reactions to filmic representations of femininity. Of particular concern in Mexico was the cult of celebrity surrounding the figure of the ‘pelona’—the...