- Mexican Melodrama: Film and Nation from the Golden Age to the New Wave by Elena Lahr-Vivaz
Elena Lahr-Vivaz, Claudia Schaefer, melodrama, patriarchy, nationalism, identity, mise-en-scene, cinematic conventions, genres, spectatorship, transgression, excess, aesthetics, golden age mexico, new wave, narrative structure
For most film scholars, Mexico and melodrama have been joined metonymically for decades, a bit like the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and Los Pinos presidential palace. Offering a readily recognizable narrative structure and cinematic mise-en-scène conventions—with more emphasis on the former in most studies than the latter—melodrama provides a certain shorthand for discussions of nationalism and identity that, after a while, reiterate comfortable phrases which seem to change little, even as Mexico undergoes monumental shifts in economics, legal debates, and educational reform.
So what might a reader find in the promise of an innovative vision of Mexican cinema in the subtitle of this slim volume, “Film and Nation from the Golden Age to the New Wave”? Condensed into 166 pages of text, followed by the Notes and Works Cited, Elena Lahr-Vivaz has formed what she terms “pairings” of films from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s with case studies of what has been called the “new wave” fare of the 1990s and 2000s. Designating the work of directors such as Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González-Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro as implicitly recovering the emotional tenor of previous productions but then recontextualizing “national concerns to different ends” (9), the author finds the critique of patriarchy and state the most prominent feature of the new wave. This is the first extended study of such a coupling of melodramatic models and their “sequels” in which the author proposes to recycle these various “modes,” “genres,” “sub-genres,” or “meta-genres” (11–13) into denunciations of excess (8), rather than fulfilling spectators’ absorption of the familiar “stasis–imbalance and instability–recovered equilibrium” conventions. If one agrees with the midcentury passivity [End Page 495] of the audience, at least, this functions as a useful tool to restudy some recent films that have been explored singularly in quite a lot of detail by various critics. Yet what has become of the “pleasures” Laura Mulvey has described when we look at gender and spectatorship? Do they lie in recognition or contravention? Lahr-Vivaz’s is a challenging proposition, one taken on using a total of sixteen films over the course of five chapters.
She begins by framing her argument with a set of polar opposites: the official manufacturing of consensus through film (nosotros) versus the dispersal of the myth of national unity (nosotros no more) into a fragmented society seen through the eyes of directors including Dana Rotberg, Carlos Reygadas, Alfonso Cuarón, and Carlos Carrera, each and every one a global star in their own right. Deploying an immense variety of theoretical material from Benedict Anderson to Walter Benjamin, from bell hooks to David Bordwell, from Deleuze and Guattari to René Girard, from Fredric Jameson to Claude Lévi-Strauss, from Carlos Monsiváis to Octavio Paz, from Andreas Huyssen to Peter Brooks, from Kaja Silverman to the World Bank, not including film critics from Mexico and the United States, Lahr-Vivaz foregrounds what she finds perverse (83), off-balance, unresolved, rebellious, unedited, and “transgressive” (126) in the more recent productions, establishing a hereditary link from source narrative—Enamorada, for instance—to heirs like Como agua para chocolate or Entre Pancho Villa y una mujer desnuda (chapter 2). While acknowledging the establishment of links between similar aesthetics, one wonders whether there are not additional factors influencing production, distribution, and expectation of what “Mexican” films look like. Perhaps one impetus to seek such a trajectory of continuity—that the nation will never escape melodrama, just recover and reprocess it—owes a debt to Roberto González Echeverría’s notion of the archive referenced in chapter 1 (28) that weaves and unravels the same strands of history and identity under new guises. Will the cinematic narratives...