Monday 15 April 2013

Latsploitation, Exploitation Cinemas and Latin America

The obvious question that comes to mind with this 2009 collection is what is within it for the fan of European exploitation cinema here?

Well, for one thing you may also be interested in the likes of José Mojica Marins, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Rene Cardona Jr., Emilio Vieyra, Isabel Sarli, and the Brazilian pornochanchada, each being the subject of one of the essays contained herein.

For another, some of the other essays more directly address European exploitation cinema and its relationships with its Latin American counterpart.

Perhaps most important, however, some of the essays are exemplary in the ways they investigate aspects of exploitation cinema in general, whilst remaining attuned to national and cultural specifics. Indeed, as the volume’s editors Victoria Ruétalo and Dolores Tierney explain in their introduction, their coining the term Latsploitation is a conscious decision intended to convey that Latin American exploitation cinema cannot and should not merely be subsumed within more familiar US and European frameworks.

Taking Mexico as a case study, Ana M. López highlights how the framework provided by Eric Schaefer with reference to the US does not apply, as Mexican cinema lacked the industrial infrastructure required. This said, however, the reader will likely also identify their own points of connection to their own particular areas.

The first of the essays with a stronger European dimension is by Antonio Lázaro-Reboll and looks at the reception of Latin American exploitation cinemas by Spanish fans, with specific reference to the fanzine 2000 Maniacos and the San Sebastian Festival of Fantasy and Horror films. Lázaro-Reboll emphasises the benefits of a crossover between fans and academics and their respective areas of knowledge.

The second is by Andrew Syder and examines the use of Latin American locations in Italian cannibal and zombie films, with particular but not exclusive reference to Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Zombie and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. Syder identifies that there are two curious absences in these and other films. First, cannibalism is always situated in Latin America or Asia, but never Africa. Second, the characters within the films are never Italians, instead usually being Americans. Indeed, each of Syder’s four key films begins and ends in Manhattan, in addition to presenting images of it and New York that are recognisably distinctive when compared to US films using these same locations. Syder posits that these two structuring absences relate to Italy’s particular colonial history and allow its discussion to be elided and displaced. Here Snyder also makes reference to some earlier films, including Africa Addio and Grand Slam. Prosperi and Jacopetti’s mondo film is critical of British and French colonialism but also adopts a paternalistic attitude towards the colonised Africans, by suggesting that they were not ready for independence. Giulio Montaldo's film characterises the Italian approach to Latin America in 1960s films, one that contrasts point by point with those of the 1970s. In the earlier decade Latin America was a dynamic, modern, fun place. In the latter decade it was backwards, atavistic and deadly.

The third of the essays with European connections is by Andrew Willis and looks at the career of Leon Klimovsky in both his native Argentina and in Spain. He suggests that Klimovsky may have left Argentina for political reasons. Having been associated with the Peron regime, it was possible that Klimovsky feared a backlash from the new regime. Willis contends that Klimovsky found Franco-era Spain to be more in accord with his reactionary world view. As support of this Willis notes, for example, how The Devil’s Possessed presents an evil nobleman but then has him defeated by a good nobleman espousing Christian values rather than by the oppressed peasantry themselves. At the end of the film, that is, the peasantry have not been liberated nor liberated themselves, as these alternatives would have been too radical and subversive. All that has changed is that they now have a more benign aristocratic ruler.

While I would agree with Willis’s central point, that we should not automatically assume exploitation films are progressive, I felt that his reading of Klimovsky’s career failed to address one major biographical factor. This is the fact that Klimovsky’s own religious background was not Catholic but Jewish. It seems an important omission given the importance of Catholicism to Francoism.

Of the other essays in the collection, the one on José Mojica Marins is also worth noting. Author Tierney identifies a central contradiction in the canonised Cinema Novo movement that dominated discussions of Brazilian Cinema in the 1960s. This is that the movement’s theorists were nominally in support of filmmakers from marginal backgrounds, but were themselves often from privileged ones. Whereas, for example, Nelson Periera Do Santos undertook formal studies at the Italian state film school Centro sperimentale, Marins left school at 13 and was an entirely self-taught filmmaker. Despite these proletarian origins, the considerable aesthetic challenges posed by his films, and the blasphemous qualities of his Coffin Joe character, he was not championed by the critics.

Here I would also make a couple of personal points. First, I remember seeing in a documentary about Marins how he ran an acting school and as one of his teaching methods had a series of numbered photographs of himself performing particular facial expressions. He would use these in drilling his students and when working with them on his films, asking them to give him a number seven, a number thirty-one, or whatever. It seemed like a technique that had unconscious affinities with Soviet and Brechtian avant-garde practices, and thus something that a filmmaker with more cultural capital could have represented as directly political. Second, when doing a MSc in European Film Studies just under a decade ago, one of my fellow students was from Brazil. One time we got talking about the then topical City of God, a film which he characterised as a somewhat touristic exploitation of the underclass by privileged filmmakers.

Overall an impressive, stimulating and wide-ranging collection that is well worth a look for fans and scholars of exploitation cinema whether specifically interested in Latin America or not.