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Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema

Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema

How recent Mexican cinema has focused on Mexico City as a protagonist in its own right.

June 2002
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196 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w illus. |

Just as Mexican national life has come to center on the sprawling, dynamic, almost indefinable metropolis of Mexico City, so recent Mexican cinema has focused on the city not merely as a setting for films but almost as a protagonist in its own right, whose conditions both create meaning for and receive meaning from the human lives lived in its midst. Through close readings of fourteen recent critically acclaimed films, this book watches Mexican cinema in this process of producing cultural meaning through its creation, enaction, and interpretation of the idea of Mexico City.

David William Foster analyzes how Mexican filmmakers have used Mexico City as a vehicle for exploring such issues as crime, living space, street life, youth culture, political and police corruption, safety hazards, gender roles, and ethnic and social identities. The book is divided into three sections. "Politics of the City" examines the films Rojo amanecer, Novia que te vea, Frida, naturaleza viva, and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas. "Human Geographies" looks at El Callejón de los Milagros, Mecánica nacional, El castillo de la pureza, Todo el poder, and Lolo. "Mapping Gender" discusses Danzón, De noche vienes, Esmeralda, La tarea, Lola, and Entre Pancho Villa y una mujer desnuda.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Politics of the City
    • Rojo amanecer
    • Novia que te vea
    • Frida, naturaleza viva
    • Sexo, pudor y lágrimas
  • 2. Human Geographies
    • El Callejón de los Milagros
    • Mecánica nacional
    • El castillo de la pureza
    • Todo el poder
    • Lolo
  • 3. Mapping Gender
    • Danzón
    • De noche vienes, Esmeralda
    • La tarea
    • Lola
    • Entre Pancho Villa y una mujer desnuda
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Filmography
  • References
  • Index

David William Foster is Regents' Professor of Spanish, Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Women's Studies at Arizona State University.


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It is difficult to speak about Mexico City without being hyperbolic, whether in terms that are negative (its size, its population, its pollution, its infrastructure problems) or positive (its dynamism, its variegated street life, the intensity of its cultural production, the sheer originality of so much of Mexican culture on any level). However, this study has no interest in confirming any of the standard images of Mexico City, not those of the multiplicity of guidebooks, not those of the glossy photo albums, not those of the city's array of social chroniclers, and not those of the writers of dirty realism or sociopolitical testimony.

Rather, this study examines a highly selective inventory of Mexican films of the last thirty years. Mexico City is at the height of its geometric growth in the 1970s, and it is the period, which began in the 1960s, of the emergence of a filmmaking that breaks definitively with the codes of Mexico's golden age of filmmaking, codes set in the decades following the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the institutionalization of a unified definition of the Mexican nation. With the profound changes which begin to occur in Mexico in the 1960s, and which are too widely known to be commented on here (see Ward; Davis; Schteingatt), there is also a profound change in Mexican cultural production, including filmmaking, a change that challenges both the understanding of Mexico that institutional officialdom wishes to hold in place and the strategies of opposition that have, in a very real sense, become congealed in their own understandings of Mexican society. (The single best source of material on Mexican filmmaking is The Mexican Cinema Project [Noriega and Ricci].)

The majority of the films selected are drawn from the decade of the 1990s, and I include only a few films from the previous two decades. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that there is confluence in the 1990s of an intense social preoccupation with the Mexican capital, the consequence, in part, of the 1985 earthquake but also of the geometric demographic explosion of the city, a preoccupation that quite understandably finds its reflex in the country's cultural production and the notable increase in the quality of Mexican filmmaking. The international recognition that has been coming to Mexican filmmaking, especially since Alfonso Arau's 1992 megahit, Como agua para chocolate, inaugurates a decade in which Mexican independent filmmaking actually begins to compete with commercial products and foreign imports. As Maciel points out in his study on the last two decades in Mexican filmmaking, production in the 1980s, in terms of artistic merit and interpretive content, is nothing short of dreadful, and few products from the period hold more than passing interest for in-depth analysis. Thus, the films I have included prior to the 1990s stand out as exceptions to a very poor harvest, which is even more the reason that the films I have included are either something like cult classics (Arturo Ripstein's 1973 El castillo de la pureza and Luis Alcoriza's 1971 Mecánica nacional) or outstanding exemplars of other sociocultural issues: Jorge Fons's 1989 Rojo amanecer is the only full-length narrative film on the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, while Paul Leduc's 1984 Frida, naturaleza viva corresponded to the international rise of fascination with the life and work of Frida Kahlo.

The contestatorial voices of the New Left in Mexico, the internationalism of the Onda writers, and the emergence of a host of subaltern voices have been extensively detailed (for an excellent analysis of Mexican counterculture of the 1960s, see Zolov). But there is one thing that they had in common that merits underscoring here: almost all of them had Mexico City as their point of reference. This is because of the meteoric growth of the metropolis and its conversion into a postmodern megalopolis; it is because of the ways in which new forms of political opposition, inspired in part by international student and protest movements, necessarily addressed themselves to the seat of national government; and it is a consequence of how subaltern identities (women, lesbians and gays, slum dwellers, sex-trade workers, ethnic groups, to mention only a few that have come to prominence in recent Mexican culture), while they may not be confined to metropolitan centers, have fundamentally seen themselves identified in relation to those centers, whether it be because of the opportunities for visibility, the possibility of appropriated spaces, the contact with international points of reference through tourism and world trade, or the opportunities for social action those centers have to offer. Precisely, the sensation that Mexican cultural production is all over the map, is so variegated in its dimensions and manifestations, so dynamic in its alternative constructions to the interpretation of life in Mexico, and so insistently urban is what contributes to the complexity of studying contemporary Mexican culture: it is often, quite simply, impossible to know where to begin.

I do not know what an inventory of images of Mexico City in contemporary Mexican cultural production might look like. Certainly, one can think of the novels of Carlos Fuentes, the essays of Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsiváis, and the theater of Vicente Leñero as some places in the recognized canon with which to begin constructing such an inventory. Nor do I know what such an inventory might look like if we limit attention to filmmaking. To be sure, during the golden age of film in Mexico, so much effort was concentrated on an allegedly authentic rural Mexico that Mexico City did not get much attention, and when it did at the hands of Luis Buñuel with Los olvidados (1950), unquestionably the founding text of a Mexican urban filmmaking, it was only to generate intense criticism because of the deviation—and, moreover, at the hands of a foreigner, an invited guest in Mexico—from official myths: Buñuel's images of lost and forgotten youths who become part of the rubbish of urban landscape could hardly have set well with ideas of beneficent paternalism held by the ruling party (see Buñuel's comments in Colina and Pérez Turrent [60-63] on the controversies his films provoked; for an overview of Buñuel's Mexican films, see Wood; also Mahieu).

However, in the same way that contemporary Mexican cultural production in general makes insistent reference to the city, the same can be said of contemporary filmmaking. While films that do not reference the megalopolis continue to be made in Mexico, the vast majority do take place in Mexico City, describe the relationship that individuals enjoy with the city, provide a slice of urban life, or establish some measure of pathetic fallacy between the city and the lives of its inhabitants. It is not so much a matter of the way in which the city is a protagonist of these films, but rather of how the city is a locus for human lives and how those lives necessarily involve interaction with the dimensions, parameters, and convolutions of the city in whatever literal and metaphoric ways such terms may be understood.

The films that have been chosen for this study are all independent texts that have received some degree of critical acclaim, distribution, and notoriety; in a few cases, they can even be said to constitute classics or paradigms of contemporary Mexican filmmaking; many of them have won national and international prizes and have been distributed internationally: Danzón, La tarea, Frida, El Callejón de los Milagros, Rojo amanecer, all fall into one or more of these categories. While I have not chosen the dozen or so films to be analyzed in depth, from among the several hundred available for the thirty-year period in question, for particularly idiosyncratic reasons, there are a number of special reasons having to do with some outstanding feature concerning how Mexico City is represented. My goal has not been simply to talk about an "image" of the city being conveyed in/by the film. On the contrary, eschewing the facile notion that the city already exists as a given, awaiting only to be "reflected" in the cultural text, my interest lies with how the city is created, enacted, and interpreted as part of the process of producing cultural meaning through semiotic texts (it should be clear that I am taking my cue from concepts of human geography as formulated by Edward Soja and developed by Doreen Massey, Steve Pile, and Rob Shields, and from my own work on the city of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production; and I have found useful collections of essays on the body and the city, such as Mapping Desire, edited by Bell and Valentine).

In this sense, then, the city is an integral part of these films, not just someplace for the narrative of the film to take place. The city is not a setting, but part of the overall effect of meaning for the film, and as such it is brought into being as much as the characters and plots. Of course, there is a real Mexico City, but that real Mexico City has no meaning in and of itself. It has meaning only to the extent that its materiality is inserted into a semiotic process for the substantiation of meaning. As Julio Cortázar said about Buenos Aires, "Buenos Aires, como toda ciudad, es una metáfora" (Buenos Aires, like all cities, is a metaphor).

For this reason, there is no foretelling what that meaning will look like in any one of the films examined here: there is a different and very particular Mexico City to be found in each one of these films. In some cases, it may be the more directly verifiable Mexico City that one can identify in conjunction with other established paradigms, such as tourist images, official paragons, or, generally speaking, overdetermined sites of cultural interpretation (such as provided by a glossy but nevertheless extremely valuable tourist guide like the Insight Guides volume on Mexico City [Schütz]). In Danzón, for example, some basic primes of Mexico City are surveyed, in order to establish the juxtaposition with Veracruz, in the interplay between traditional and commercial culture in Mexico. In El Callejón de los Milagros, a tiny segment of the vast megalopolis stages the complex interactions between individuals thrown together by the circumstances of urban dwellings. And in Rojo amanecer the city is never seen, but rather the life that it generates—the social, political, and economic conflicts played out in the city—irrupts into the refuge of family life.

In most of the cases of the films examined here, there is not the sweeping view of the city one might associate with films in which the narrative is the pretext to showcase a city, as in the countless films made about New York or Paris, nor is what is involved here a slice of urban life, the portrayal of melodramatic urban lives, or an object lesson in how to survive in the belly of the megalopolitan monster: television soap operas and sitcoms do pretty much the trite and superficial work with which such views of the city are content to satisfy themselves. Indeed, in many of these films, those who may already have seen them may wonder what there is to say about the city in their regard: the city is there, but that is only a function of the way in which the greatest interest in Mexico now lies with life in the city; and for that reason, so much cultural production, therefore, simply takes place in the city. The challenge, then, becomes the demonstration of how individuals create the city through their lives and how their lives are circumscribed in significant and often violent ways by the city: this is particularly true in interpretations of how the city impacts on minorities groups or the defenseless, such as young people (Lolo,El castillo de la pureza) or women (Lola,Frida). The result is not necessarily a greater understanding of the nature of Mexico City, and no pretense is made that these films constitute in any way a secondary bibliography that would contribute to a social science knowledge, properly understood, of the city. Of course, information is there obliquely, and it is possible to obtain a sense of the size of the city and some of the ways in which people live in the city through viewing the films analyzed here and the larger filmography they represent. Yet, the understanding that this study wishes to provide of Mexican filmmaking and Mexico City is how film is a cultural genre that can privilege, through its visual nature, encodements of the city in personal lives and narratives. Lived human experience takes place in places (hence the possibility of this verbal redundancy), and vast segments of modern lives take place in cities, while vast segments of Latin American lives—and, notably, Mexican lives—take place in large metropolitan centers. But how those lives take shape and assume meaning as a consequence of their interaction with and mutual imbrication in the city is the task that so-called urban human geography has set for itself. To view that process as it is interpreted through Mexican cultural production—specifically, one set of contemporary films—is the interest of this study.

No attempt is made to provide a history of Mexican filmmaking: this has been well covered by others (Carl Mora; Ayala Blanco, Búsqueda del cine mexicano; Ayala Blanco, La aventura del cine mexicano; Ayala Blanco, La condición del cine mexicano; Paranaguá; García Riera; García and Aviña's scrapbook on the golden age of Mexican filmmaking is of particular interest). Yet many of them provide little more than a name-and-title catalog and some brief comments on theme or production history, with little, if any, in the way of interpretive analysis of either film language or the ideology of the filmic text. And since my emphasis lies with close readings of the ideological structure of each film (my inspiration in this and previous studies on Argentine and Brazilian filmmaking continues to be the work of Zavarzadeh), in the attempt to bring out the ways in which the city is interpreted through the medium of film, no attempt is made to survey the film career of any particular director, actress, or cameraman. Although there is some good specialized research on Mexican films (e.g., Julia Tuñón's and Joanne Hershfield's monographs on the representation of women during Mexico's golden age of film; Beck's work on the independent films from the 1960s on), there is still a dearth of scholarly bibliography on what is, without question, the largest national filmmaking enterprise in Latin America.

The following intellectual principles sustain this study:

1. Contemporary independent filmmaking in Mexico has directed a sustained gaze on Mexico City, as Mexican life becomes more and more an urban phenomenon with the geometric growth of the Mexican capital and other major Mexican metropolises. After decades of continuing to emphasize the alleged greater authenticity of a rural or provincial Mexican life, as promoted by a dominant ideological stand of postrevolutionary culture, Mexican culture—and, along with it, filmmaking—began slowly to place greater emphasis on the city, until, at the present, the city is virtually the dominant venue of independent filmmaking. It is this emphasis on the city in recent Mexican filmmaking, especially evident in the production of the 1990s, that this study wishes to represent.

2. Mexico City has been insistently studied from any number of historical, sociological, and anthropological perspectives, and there is no dearth of research publications on the city, whether as the center of Mexican society or as a laboratory of urban development. This study neither intends to duplicate the knowledge provided by such studies nor pretends to illustrate them by confirming images drawn from film. Cultural production is, if not an independent domain of knowledge, a significantly different formulation of it: culture constitutes a practice of the interpretation of lived human experience, an interpretation that may supplement or enhance other forms of knowledge, but it conforms to its own principles of internal coherence and verification, and it cannot be surprising, to any important degree, that the interpretations provided by cultural products do not always conform to those available in other domains of knowledge. Because of its emphasis on the visual, film has an immediacy that may give the impression that it is more verisimilar and less mediated than other forms of interpretive analysis or, indeed, other forms of culture. However, as the analyses put forth by this study wish to demonstrate, film is a highly complex genre that requires careful and detailed scrutiny in order to grasp (in the case of these films focusing on Mexico City) exactly what dimensions of the city are being presented, how they correlate with the human lives enacted in them, and how those dimensions are part of an interpretive project rather than just a backdrop for human events.

3. Many of the sources on Mexican filmmaking are essentially historical accounts, or they are surveys of prominent themes in film; rarely do they constitute ideological analyses of how meaning is created in the filmic text. My goal here is to model how such ideological analyses may be undertaken with regard to films dealing with the city. It is for this reason that I will emphasize repeatedly, if only by implication, that such analyses must concern themselves with much more than what aspect of the city is represented and what social or historical theme is being covered. Human lives take place within specific geographic spaces, and the events of those lives characteristically have meaning in terms of the interaction with the spaces that enclose them. If one of the features of contemporary Mexican filmmaking is what life is like for the contemporary citizen of Mexico City, one proper ideological analysis of how a film creates meaning with respect to that life will necessarily involve a detailed examination of how one lives in and through the city and how the material qualities of urban life circumscribe and intersect with individual and collective stories of the urban experience.

4. For this reason, Mexico City cannot be taken as an unanalyzed given. To be sure, there are some statistical and demographic givens that can be consulted in various sources regarding the city: its extension, its population, its political divisions, its services and infrastructure, and its political conflicts. Lived human experiences interact with these givens (which, to begin with, are neither stable nor unimpeachably ascertained). It is in this interaction that the city becomes a human geography, an interpretation of which underlies, sustains, and gives dense texture to texts of cultural production about those experiences. As film is one such genre of cultural production, film becomes available for examination in terms of how it serves to create unique or particular meanings through its visualized portrayal of the interaction between individuals and their urban spaces.


“David William Foster's elegantly concise book offers many perspicacious insights about trends in Mexican cinema over the last three decades, especially since 1989. Its sound summaries of plots and themes will be of value to all those seeking an English-language synoptic introduction to internationally well-regarded recent Mexican films. ”
The Americas

“As a collection of readings of major contemporary Mexican movies, this book is superb and unprecedented.”
Cynthia Steele, Chair, Spanish and Portuguese Studies, University of Washington


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