Mark Myslín Mark Myslin
Latin American cinema and images of modernity have been intimately related since the arrivals of the Lumière apparatus and the Vitascope in Argentina in 1896. Cinema quickly became the “urban instrument par excellence,” asserting the modernity of Latin America through glorified images of sophisticated cities and new technologies. A full century later, assertions of modernity persist in full vigor in many Latin American films’ visual style but with a much more ambivalent reading of that modernity. The stylistic elements of the ultra-urban films Pizza, birra, faso (Adrián Caetano, 1998) of Buenos Aires and Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) of Mexico City, while continuing the tradition of a forcefully and unequivocally modern aesthetic, recast it in the light of deeply rooted urban anxieties in Latin America, calling into question the early films’ view of the modern city as the pinnacle of humanity.
In Latin America at the turn of the century, modernity’s status as still “a fantasy and profound desire” informed cinematic representations of the city and new technologies, as Ana López outlines. In response to Lumière’s Arrival of a Train at the Station (1895), for example, Brazilian and Argentine filmmakers quickly asserted their own modernity with three films documenting “the arrivals of our trains” (original emphasis). The novelty of cinema easily lent itself to a “highly conscious awareness of the film image as image,” with the thrill of the formal elements rivaling the thrill of the content. For example, Eugenio Py’s extravagant mobile shots from inside the monorail at Pão de Açucar heralded a decidedly self-conscious modernity-asserting visual style that both Pizza and Amores would inherit. Cinema in many ways reflected the “triumph of positivism,” with traditional rural figures such as the gaucho already “nostalgically obsolete” and “relegated to myth.” Urban anxieties found their best expression not in film but in more quaint media such as poetry: José Martí’s cryptically titled “Amor de ciudad grande,” for example, laments the modern city in which “se ama de pie, en las calles, entre el polvo / de los salones y las plazas.” At the inception of cinema, Latin American dreams of ‘Order and Progress’ were embodied in the cinema’s grandiose urban aesthetic.
Latin American cinema at the end of the 20th century is certainly no less forceful in its modern aesthetic. Amores presents “a modern Mexico of cell phones, boom boxes, and fast cars,” with no trace of a “clichéd Mexico for tourists,” in the words of Marvin D’Lugo. Daniel’s high-tech graphic design firm, Gustavo’s brother’s shiny black BMW, and Valeria’s stylish loft with its hardwood floors and pastel-colored walls, are a vehement refutation of images of Latin America as a third world of “impoverished peasants and shacks.” Pizza achieves a similar effect, with its colorful and energetic nightclub and early deep-focus shot of a trendy open-air mall. Megabom even likens one of his capers to the US television series Miami Vice—in a sense a continuation, one hundred years later, of the “these are our trains” mentality. The films, however, are far from committing themselves to the orderly and idyllic understanding of modernity that defined their century-old counterparts.
The opening sequences in both Pizza and Amores instantly establish a chaotic and largely unglamorous view of the city, unequivocally asserting its modernity but suggesting it may be “una modernidad fuera de control.” Pizza’s opening is a series of two-second shots punctuated by the black of the opening credits that creates a fast eye-blink rhythm of mobile urban images: an angry and strident demonstrator, sidewalks crowded with anonymous urbanites, youths negotiating a labyrinth of traffic, the blare of sirens and construction machinery, a homeless person with a massive cart bearing down on the camera. It is an establishing sequence of Buenos Aires that does present impressive buildings and vistas but does not shy away from scrap yards and seedy undersides of bridges. Amores opens even more dramatically on a close shot of lane dividers streaking past, set against the jumbled sounds of city traffic, feverish panting, and a frenetic “¡¿Qué hiciste cabrón?!” Subsequent shaky, rapid-fire shots of the crowded metropolis zooming by reveal the scene to be a high-speed car chase, which culminates in a fatal accident with accompanying fiery explosion. Such chaotic sequences are the antithesis of urban ‘Order and Progress’ and set the tone of the films’ brutal and honest re-examination of the modern city—an “interrogation of the illusion of modernity” that refutes the unequivocal glorification that characterized the first Latin American films.
This shift manifests itself in the varied applications of the documentary aesthetic in urban film in Latin American over the past century. Early films, many of them actualities, had both a documentary-style “veneer of scientific objectivity” and a definite, escapist agenda: while gleeful nationalistic filmmakers thoroughly documented technological and infrastructural advances such as “veritable melees of mobility as cars, electric streetcars, and horse drawn carriages paraded in front of the cameras,” they ignored the ills of urban ghettos and the violent strikes in Cananea in 1906 and Río Blanco in 1907, for example. Pizza and Amores, of course, were not pioneers in exchanging this propagandistic documentary style for one that was more candid. Buenos Aires has long been the subject of documentary-esque films questioning urban modernity, for example giving rise to the ‘generación del 60,’ a movement of young filmmakers including Rodolfo Kuhn, David Kohon, Simón Feldman, and José Martínez Suárez, who produced “documentary-like depictions of street society and [...] the urban loom hostile to the needs of [young protagonists].” Pizza inherited this “estilo más cercano al realismo sucio y cotidiano” with its candid handheld-camera aesthetic and unattractive, realistically abrasive characters. What most distinguishes it from other Argentine street films, in Santiago García’s view, is the authenticity achieved by “actores [que] hablan como personajes de la calle y se ven como personajes de la calle.” Pizza’s unglamorous documentary aesthetic is in a sense a mark of respect for difficult urban themes “too somber to submit to the manipulations of a well-honed script,” according to Jonathon Kipp in his review of the film. Amores, although perhaps difficult to envision as a documentary because of its narrative’s polish, does feature a number of self-conscious documentary-style techniques. Like earlier films depicting Mexico City’s discontents, most notably Los olvidados (Luís Buñuel, 1950), Amores is careful not to sugarcoat urban realities. According to José Arroyo’s review, the film’s “slangy vernacular, handheld camera work [and] real locations achieve a spontaneity that obscures the care and skill behind the mis-en-scene.” Perhaps the most striking documentary-style feature in Amores is the recurring voyeuristic aesthetic: the handheld camera presents one of Octavio and Susana’s quiet discussions with a doorframe obstructing the view, Daniel’s night on the couch through obtrusive window blinds, and El Chivo’s private moments of emotion from a high-angle shot through a window. The documentary feel in both Pizza and Amores, unlike the propagandistic positivist applications in the earliest Latin American films, is candid and unglamorous, resigned to the spontaneity of modern reality and, in the opinion of Rebecca Biron, giving that sense that “no mastery over urban representation is possible.”
Neither Pizza nor Amores, however, gives itself completely over to pure documentary reality at the expense of formal manipulations. Purposefully fast editing and self-consciously frenetic camerawork, for example, characterize both films and are not limited to the opening sequences. In Pizza, for example, the gunpoint taxi-robbing scene employs lightning-fast cuts and nauseating shots as well as a dizzying tennis-match style back-and-forth between two taxis with arguing drivers. This chaotic editing and camerawork, so characteristic of Amores, led Jorge Ayala Blanco to sum up the film thus: “Un frenético choque automovilístico desencadena frenéticos choques entre chocantes protagonistas que chocan en nombre de sus nombres a cada achacoso episodio shocking.” It has in fact “been said” that no take in Amores lasts longer than ten seconds, but this is demonstrably false: a seemingly never-ending 67-second take follows Octavio carrying his wounded dog down a narrow passageway to his car, walking back to the ring to stab the murderer of his dog, and running back outside to flee in his car. Here fast editing is supplanted by purposefully tense handheld camerawork to give an even greater sense of urgency and impending danger. Editing and camerawork in both films are specific stylistic choices that contribute to a dangerous and out-of-control urban modernity.
Soundtrack also captures the recent films’ ambivalence toward the modern city: the mostly rock en español tracks have a certain celebratory urban prestige but are often juxtaposed with the more disturbing phenomena of the city. On the one hand, the films’ soundtracks fit squarely in the tradition of emphatic assertions of modernity that characterized the earliest Latin American films: rock en español undercuts conceptions of Latin America as an quaint and exotic backwater of mariachis and tango, and is foundational to what José Arroyo calls “urban hip-hop filmmaking that’s definitely fly.” Yet rock montages with violent or repulsive images lead one to wonder at what human cost this celebratory prestige comes. The first montage in Amores, set to Control Machete’s swaggering deep-base “Sí señor,” freely mixes triumphant images, such as an Leonardo counting out piles of money for Octavio and Octavio driving off a lot in his new car, with disturbing images such as Ramiro holding up a bank and a dog owner examining his mangled and lifeless dog at the end of a fight. Gustavo Santaolalla’s instrumental “Chico Groove” with its hip-hop beats and deep chords accompanies El Chivo’s prowl through the city in pursuit of the man he has been hired to kill, creating a celebratory ‘out-on-the-town’ sound with infinitely disturbing undertones. Pizza’s soundtrack also gives its most violent scenes multi-dimensionality: Rodríguez Sujatovich’s upbeat cumbia piece “Fue Su Mirada” partially covers the brutal shootout at the end of the film, suggesting an almost natural and inevitable connection between modern prestige and urban violence. Both films’ soundtracks assert a mature Latin American modernity but package it with a harsh underside, bringing to the surface the urban violence haunting much-boasted cities.
Mis-en-scene and framing in Amores and Pizza also communicate doubts about the perfection of urban modernity. Closed two-dimensional compositions in both films, for example, convey the stifling and suffocating effect of urban spaces. The establishing shot of Amores’ first segment is a rigidly geometrical front view of a gray apartment building pushed directly against the street, overwhelming the frame with seemingly zero depth or breathing space between camera and building. This is a recurring composition in Pizza, with perhaps the most notable instance being the shot of Pablo and Cordobés inside the pizzeria. Unable to pay for a table, they are framed eating in front of an unforgivingly bright red and white wall, and when Pablo tries to prop himself up on its ledge, an employee quickly motions him off of it. Such compositions are uncomfortably flat and close, almost as if the subjects are being squeezed between glass slides for microscopic inspection. Other compositions are similarly claustrophobic: many indoor shots in both Pizza and Amores are cluttered with unfocused obstacles on both sides of the camera: drab walls, tight doorways, dilapidated appliances. There is a constant stream of visual poetry with outdoor urban clutter: shots looking into or out of cars and chain link fenced areas are ubiquitous in Pizza, and Amores often plays with images of power lines and power poles, with the most striking instance being a shot/reverse shot sequence of an extreme low angle of a power pole with a blinding lens flare and an extreme high angle looking down along the pole to El Chivo sitting at its base, as if it were the urban version of a shady tree.
In addition to reflecting a claustrophobic and stifling vision of urbanity, the films’ framing and mis-en-scene address the problem of a “degraded humanity” in the “alienating cityscape.” The spectators of the dogfights in Amores recede chromatically into each other and the washed-out background, and even the colorful plastic toys for Susana’s baby appear muted and lifeless. Urban clutter in Pizza seems to pollute otherwise touching moments: even when Cordobés is feeling Sandra’s pregnant womb, the seedy scrap yard in the background relentlessly demands some of the viewer’s attention. In the style of the ‘generación del 60’ film Tres veces Ana (Davíd José Kohon, 1961), which sets a tender lovers’ reconciliation against a large advertising sign, Pizza’s last scene treats the immediate aftermath of Cordobés’s death in a decidedly unsentimental way: the camera zooms slowly back from the unglamorous shipyard where he expired with the crackling and mechanical voices of police officers reporting the death of an unidentified man over the radio. The film then silently fades to black. As Pablo Scholz writes, the death is “retratada casi con naturalidad,” all human emotion seemingly sucked away by the hostile modern city in which “ninguna criatura puede tener, reclamar o recibir aliento humano.”
Finally, the grandiose vistas of sophisticated urban skylines that were the fantasy of early Latin American cinema, while not absent from Pizza and Amores, are cast in a less-than-self-congratulatory light. Pizza’s occasional deep focus shots of nighttime city traffic are not slick and sophisticated but congested and frustrating. The only view of the Buenos Aires skyline after the opening sequence is inelegantly framed off center and besmirched by smog, with about half of the space in the frame given over to lurid advertising rather than clean and impressive buildings. The few vistas in Amores are similarly compromised: the skylines are usually unfocused and obscured by foreground objects, and the buildings themselves are not magnificent works of architecture but sad concrete boxes with empty black windows or dilapidated shells of churches. Perhaps the most representative vista in Amores is the final, extreme low angle shot of a mostly black and barren expanse with a few tiny industrial structures and the trademark power poles far in the distance. Although unique as one of the only shots with open space, it encapsulates the nihilistic feel that runs through the entire film. Framing and mis-en-scene in Pizza and Amores, then, reflect much of the films’ ambivalence toward urban modernity, from the conception that the city stifles and degrades human life to the revision of the grand vistas that obscure urban imperfections.
Cinema remains a key component of Latin American images of modernity. From the first, boastful actualities to the sophisticated and ultra-cool Amores perros and Pizza, birra, faso, film has been the medium most forcefully depicting Latin American cities as unequivocally modern. Yet in the contemporary films, the very aesthetic that insists on that urban modernity poses serious questions to its grandeur: documentary-style techniques now expose rather than hide urban youths’ alienation and other urbanites’ discontent; editing and camerawork reflect a dangerous and out-of-control city life; soundtrack highlights thinly-veiled cruelty and violence; framing conveys urban claustrophobia; mis-en-scene communicates the sucking away of positive human energy by the hostile cityscape. Amores perros and Pizza, birra, faso say “these are our trains” not in a game of keep-up or self-congratulation but as a candid and multi-angled exposition. At the end of a century of asserting its urban modernity through film, Latin America offers a more nuanced look at its cities and technologies, aesthetically offering a vision that is at once assertive and self-critical.