Mediático – Dara and Ed’s (Not So) Great Big Adventure

My recent contribution to Mediático, “Dara and Ed’s (Not so) Great Big Adventure”, reflects on Irish comedians, Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne’s journey from Arizona to Panama City, which was recently broadcast on Irish and British terrestrial television. They follow a similar trail made in the 1940s by Sullivan C. Richardson and two of his friends, which frames the journey using a deeply troubling model. Despite evidence of some reflection on their behalf, I consider the programme’s repetition of tired tropes about the countries they travel through without contributing to any greater understanding.

 

Who is Elena Garro?

Elena Garro (1916-1998) is a writer whose career has been over-shadowed by her tumultuous relationship with her one-time husband Octavio Paz. I wrote about her novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (first published in 1963 and translated into English by Ruth L. Simms as Recollections of Things to Come) in my first book. Los recuerdos del porvenir is an experimental novel set during the Cristero Rebellion (1926-9), an armed conflict between radical Christians and the Mexican state.  The town as narrator opens the novel, as follows:

“Aquí estoy, sentado sobre esta piedra aparente. Sólo mi memoria sabe lo que encierra. La veo y me recuerdo, y como el agua va al agua, así yo, melancólico, vengo a encontrarme en su imagen cubierta por el polvo, rodeada por las hierbas, encerrada en sí misma y condenada a la memoria y a su variado espejo. La veo, me veo y me transfiguro en multitud de colores y de tiempos. Estoy y estuve en muchos ojos. Sólo soy memoria y la memoria que de mí se tenga”

 

Garro was brought to mind when I came across this interview by Tanya Huntington with Sandra Messinger Cypess, discussing the latter’s monograph, Uncivil Wars: Elena Garro, Octavio Paz, and the Battle for Cultural Memory. I have yet to read it, but have found Messinger Cypess’ other contributions to the field to be significant and insightful. For those who are interested in getting a sense of Garro and Messinger Cypess’ scholarly research, here’s the link to the interview: http://www.literalmagazine.com/english_post/elena-garro-octavio-paz-and-the-battle-for-cultural-memory/ It is an excellent taster of what was a very complicated relationship between two very significant figures in Mexican literature.

A brief introduction to Jean Franco

At the Latin American Studies Association last year in Washington I met Jean Franco. Born in Manchester, she was a pioneering scholar who has become one of the foremost cultural theorists in Latin American Studies. She has written on multiple literary forms (poetry, short story, testimonio, novels, etc), television, journalistic writing and multiple other forms that fall under the broad title of Latin American culture. She laid the groundwork for English-language studies of women’s literature in Mexico. The fact that most of her books are still in print is testimony to their relevance. I turn to her work, repeatedly. What prompted this post was an interview with her by a Mexican media outlet accompanied by a brief biography. Nearly 90, She is still writing books, travelling, and actively engaging with other scholars. In her most recent book, Cruel Modernity, she considers the conditions that led to cruelty and torture being used in Latin America in the last 80 years. She is currently professor emerita at Columbia University, New York. Lively, friendly, and interested, she is also very good company.

*As an addendum to this post I want to add a profile of Franco by Elena Poniatowska. It is a speech given in 2014 to launch a translation of a book of essays and to celebrate her work: https://regeneracion.mx/ensayos-impertinentes-de-jean-franco-por-elena-poniatowska/ .

Screen Violence: A Conversation

 The following conversation took play via Skype instant messaging on the 7th February 2014. This took place as a way of expanding on our blogs on screen violence.

[09:42:41] Niamh: In your blog I was really interested in the shared use of the media as a motif. In Pacific Rim TV news is used as a form of commentary and economical mode of storytelling. In Bordertown and the Virgin of Juarez the female protagonists are both journalists.

[09:45:12] Fiona Noble: It’s really striking that this is a feature shared by the films we are both working on – and I don’t think that this is exclusive to these films.

[09:45:43] Niamh: Do you think that it’s about telling stories about disenfranchised others in the films you are writing about?

[09:46:14] Fiona Noble: I can think of other examples in the Spanish context which include media reporting/representation as a visual motif – Las cartas de Alou springs immediately to mind but there are many others.

[09:47:29] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think on the one hand there is as you say the need to tell the other’s story.

[09:47:38] Niamh: In films and literature about Juarez it is a repeated trope. Frequently, they are journalists from outside (US, Spain, UK…).

[09:48:23] Fiona Noble: So, it is the external other who tells the story, who has the voice?

[09:48:54] Niamh: Yes, and the power to go above the local strictures.

[09:49:42] Fiona Noble: I think this provides a point of contrast then between the films/contexts we are working with – it is usually the Spanish characters who are journalists in the films I’m working on.

[09:49:58] Niamh: There is an important Mexican female journalist character (likely based on a real individual) in Bordertown who provides valuable information. But, the film is still focused on an Other as victim.

[09:50:43] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is the perfect example of this – protagonists Luis and Sofia are a journalist and private inspector, respectively.  The plot places them in a position similar to that of an illegal immigrant, and so seems to expect us to empathise.

[09:51:28] Niamh: Is the assumption that we wouldn’t empathise if we followed the story of one of migrants?

[09:51:55] Fiona Noble: It seems that way – at least that is how the film has been read by others (i.e. Santiago Fouz Hernandez).

[09:52:36] Niamh: There are films that do take that position, though. Is that not the case?

[09:52:57] Fiona Noble: A more empathetic/sympathetic portrait of immigrant experience, you mean?

[09:53:12] Niamh: A more subjective one

[09:53:32] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think that’s what I was trying to map out in my original post.

[09:54:03] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is now ten years old – the more recent Retorno a Hansala seems to gesture towards a more subjective representation of immigrant experience.

[09:54:35] Niamh: Do you think that this trope of outsider experiencing/witnessing these events is successful?

[09:55:01] Fiona Noble: I think it can be.

[09:55:24] Fiona Noble: In the Spanish case, most films about immigrants/immigration are not made by those who have direct experience of this phenomenon (Santiago Zannou is the only director I know of who is a second-generation Spaniard, whose parents were African immigrants). So, I think to have this outsider framework can show a certain degree of respect for the distance between director/production team and topic.

[09:56:39] Niamh: Necessarily?

[09:56:54] Fiona Noble: That said, I think it can also be an extremely risky strategy – as in Ilegal where the immigrants are mere secondary characters, barely glimpsed in the background, while the Spanish protagonists take centre stage. What are your thoughts on this?  How does it play out in the films you are working on?

[10:01:45] Niamh: I agree. That is often the case with Juarez. In the films on Juarez the victims are often multiply marked as others: working class, indigenous, country girls vs urban, cosmopolitan, middle class journalists. Also, the victims are to be read as “good” victims i.e. religious (sometimes to the point of superstition), virginal and innocent. They have none of the messiness of “bad” behaviour of real life. How does that play in terms of the immigrants you consider?

[10:06:32] Fiona Noble: It varies.  In Ilegal we are offered next to no information about the immigrants who are the victims of persecution/ill treatment/death. They are illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the country. This is all we know. Retorno takes a slightly different approach: it begins with an unidentified illegal immigrant drowning. The film then follows legal Moroccan immigrant Leila and her attempt to come to terms with the death of her brother Rachid while attempting to make the crossing to Spain from Morocco.

[10:08:51] Niamh: In both films about Juarez the women survive being left for dead and arise from the grave in ways that are reminiscent of horror films.

[10:09:59] Fiona Noble: And, is it indicated that their “good” characters has something to do with their survival?  Is this a sort of triumph over evil?

[10:11:26] Niamh: It does appear to be. They are deserving of re-birth/second chance. But, their “goodness” and naïveté means that they must be protected by these stronger US women.

[10:12:13] Fiona Noble: So, we’re back into the hegemonic conceptualisations of self/other that we spoke about before.

[10:12:30] Niamh: Yes, no doubt. I suppose, now the question arises whether we are comparing like with like? Is there something unique about the migrant story and its tropes and can we talk about violence and its ethics alongside films about other themes? That being said, the border looms large in the Juarez film and there is some crossing of it by the privileged journalist and the victims. This might take us back to thinking about violence and how we write about its representation on screen. Can we have common strategies when writing about violence?

[10:16:08] Fiona Noble: I think this is an excellent point – one of the things I’ve been thinking about in response to our dialogue has been about the cultural specificity of violence. In your post you talked about having to make ‘multidisciplinary borrowings’, and, I wonder, to what extent we can compare the films/contexts we are working on?

[10:18:33] Niamh: Considerably, it would seem. But, also, it’s necessary to return to context and specifics.

[10:19:43] Fiona Noble: It certainly seems that our films share a similar visual grammar.

[10:20:39] Niamh: Yes. It can be useful to have tools from other contexts to use. Do you think that Spanish filmmakers pay much attention to the Mexican-US border narrative?

[10:21:33] Fiona Noble: That’s a really interesting point.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific examples where other border discourses come into play in Spanish films about immigrants/immigration.

[10:22:18] Niamh: I suppose it’s difficult to tell unless a filmmaker expressly lays claims to influences.

[10:22:41] Fiona Noble: I guess.  The example that springs to mind is Inarritu’s Biutiful.

[10:23:15] Fiona Noble: This film does situate contemporary immigration in Spain within a wider, global context. Although the link to Mexico is more historical than current – indexing Republican exile to Mexico in Spanish Civil War through Uxbal’s father.

[10:24:25] Niamh: Yes. There is that film which has 3 stories: one in Mexico-US, the other in Cuba and the third in Morocco. I can’t remember the name.

[10:24:39] Fiona Noble: Babel?

[10:25:27] Niamh: No. But that is an interesting example of the wider context and linked global experiences

[10:26:05] Fiona Noble: I’m not sure of the one you mean.

[10:26:28] Fiona Noble: But, it sounds like it would be an interesting one for both of us.

[10:27:29] Niamh: Just found it online, Al otro lado. Yes, because one of the stories is about a child going from Morocco to Spain. All of the migrants are young children and therefore necessarily sympathetic.

[10:28:05] Fiona Noble: Title sounds familiar – will check it out. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made when events are based largely/primarily on fictional narratives (Pacific Rim) and when they are based on real events (such as the Juarez films).  How does the treatment of violence differ in these contexts? You did talk about this in your post, but I wondered if we should elaborate on this.

[10:29:16] Niamh: It’s interesting because the distinction is about intention, but not necessarily about visual grammar. For example, Pacific Rim is very deliberately about spectacle in a way that would be tasteless if it were about a real event.

The violence inflicted on the women in Bordertown, for example, is ridiculous, because it seems that the director fails in making it convincing although his intention is to be sensitive. In the key attempted murder scene the woman is being strangled by a man who is raping her. He has his face contorted in ways that are exaggeratedly grotesque, while her face is acting “real” anguish. The problem is that a woman’s body on screen is always already objectified, so in an attempt to avoid this we are shown the violence either in long shot or the camera lingers on her pained and tearful face, and his grotesque expression, but the contrast between their performative styles in this one is jarring. Consequently, for me, it is unsuccessful.

[10:36:07] Fiona Noble: Which brings us back to the points you made at the beginning of your original post – about the difficulty of representing/writing about onscreen violence. That is, in spite of its prevalence.

[10:37:27] Niamh: Yes. Do we have new conclusions from today’s discussion, I wonder?

[10:37:45] Fiona Noble: Or more questions?

[10:38:15] Fiona Noble: I think we have ascertained that the films we are working on, in spite of their distinct production contexts/subject matters, share a certain visual grammar.

[10:38:18] Niamh: Which can be more productive in ways…

[10:38:28] Fiona Noble: Absolutely.

[10:38:57] Niamh: This is true. Also, we are still convinced that multiple tools are required to analyse these. Context can never be forgotten, but should not limit comparisons.

[10:39:41] Fiona Noble: I agree. And, we’ve also talked about the relationship between subjectivity and mass media across the distinct contexts, and the various possibilities/problems that this framework offers.

[10:40:39] Niamh: All worthwhile. It’s been good chatting about this. I certainly find it useful to know the commonalities and differences between our approaches.

[10:42:51] Fiona Noble: I completely agree. Much definitely remains to be said not only about the complexities of representing violence onscreen, but also about scholarly approaches to the topic. The fodder of future blog posts and Twitter exchanges, I’m sure.

 

Screen Violence: A Reflection

I recently blogged about how war photographs are used as a way of efficient storytelling in a Portuguese film (http://www.niamhthornton.net/death-on-film-how-far-can-you-go/). In response to that I had some interesting discussions on Twitter and a decision with Fiona Noble to write blog posts on our shared interest in screen violence. In the process of writing we have read drafts of each others blogs and, therefore, this post is written in dialogue with her post.

Surprisingly, despite the prevalence of violence on screen there is relatively little written about it in academia and popular discourse tends to engage with violence on screen in relation to its explicitness or appropriateness for particular audiences. It is impossible to speculate on why there’s such an absence. As a consequence, it is a difficult topic to approach.

Recently, at a departmental presentation on my research I mapped out some of the theories and methods I have found that have helped me write about film violence and, more recently, the challenges I have encountered when reflecting on the topic of the representation of rape on screen. I share the link here: http://prezi.com/ye6vp7kxewvx/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share. This gives a sense of what is available and the multidisciplinary borrowings that I have made in order to approach the topic, specifically in relation to Mexican film. It also points to a strange and curious aspect of writing about screen violence, it is often viscerally present and demands attention, yet is often overlooked in favour of other elements of the film’s aesthetic, technical and narrative concerns. For that reason I called my talk “The Ineffability of Violence”.

This semester I am completing two pieces of long form writing, one a chapter and the other an article. The first is on Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), the second on two films set in Juárez, northern Mexico, The Virgin of Juarez (Kevin James Dobson, 2006) and Bordertown (Gregory Nava, 2006). All are violent films, but in very different ways.

Battle of Hong Kong, Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is a summer blockbuster intended for a family audience and the violence is as spectacle, mostly played out between large dinosaur beasts called Kaiju and equally large robots operated by people, called Jaeger. There are some deaths, human and Kaiju. The Kaiju deaths are successes and the human deaths are not dwelt upon as spectacle, they are part of the collateral damage and sacrifice necessary to protect the earth, although there is often a sense of loss. The dead disappear into the depths of the ocean or amidst the wreckage of the machine or city. We do not see much blood except on some of the wounded. This is violence used create a sense of drama and peril, and, most importantly to thrill and entertain.

In both The Virgin of Juarez and Bordertown death is central to the narrative, as they focus on the stories of two of the thousands of women who have been raped, beaten and left for dead in the border city. As a result, the violence is shown in a way that is intended to shock and appall the viewer, to incite action and a visceral response. We see the victims’ bodies, their resistance to attack, the violence directed at them, and their terrible injuries. There are also other elements in the narrative whose function it is to build on this sense of horror and righteous anger at what is taking place, which I shall write about in my article. But because the violence is there as self-consciously representational and is enacted against women, it has a very particular place in film language and has a very different function to that which can be seen in Pacific Rim. This violence is clearly not intended to entertain.

Attack scene in Bordertown

It is for this reason that it is difficult to talk about film violence as if it were something homogenous and coherent as a label, and often why it’s necessary to approach each film from a new place. There is still a need for greater discussion of film violence to help map out the terrain and build up a language in which we can move beyond thinking about it in terms of pure spectacle and only engaging with it at its extremes.

 

Death on Film: How far can you go?

I rarely blog about non-Mexican or non-Mexican-related films except when really moved to do so. I recently saw a film whose opening sequence has haunted and disturbed me and need to write down my thoughts. Capitães de Abril [April Captains] (2000) is by the well-known Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros. Her long career has included roles inside and outside Portugal. She has seven other directing credits to her name including three shorts and two documentaries. Taking the international awards as an indication, Capitães de Abril is her most significant and respected directorial film. As well as directing, she also stars as Antónia, in Capitães de Abril as a lecturer and journalist who has connections with an anti-fascist movement. She is married to an army captain, Manuel (Frédéric Pierrot) who (unbeknownst to her) is one of the instigators of a bloodless coup, entitled the Carnation Revolution, which overthrew the then dictator Antonio Salazar in April 1974.

Antónia and her husband Manuel

The narrative centres on Captain Maia (Stefano Accorsi), who is one of the leaders of the coup/revolution and some characters connected to him either personally or professionally. I’m not familiar with the details of this historical moment so cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it is a film that feels like it is very respectful towards the detail of the moment and aware of the need to both entertain and draw in the audience through sympathetic characterisation and attention to intimate relations between key characters. This is history told in broad brush strokes with little nuance or ambiguities. In writing this I am not judging it for this decision, merely observing. There are plenty of films that take this approach and Capitães de Abril is a good example of these.

What disturbed me about the film was the opening sequence. Not the one that you can find described in the Wikipedia site (see below a shot taken from it), but one that appears completely at odds with what follows.

For this I will spare readers any images, but will provide some descriptions. The sequence is in black and white, giving it a heightened sense of realism, but also being simultaneously grotesque and explicit while holding back a little from the shock of showing blood in colour. It is of a series of bodies in long shot by a camera so static that, at first, it appears to be a series of photographs. We are shown footage of naked black bodies, mostly male, with bloated stomachs and genitals, missing limbs, and with swollen tongues hanging out of their mouths. Around some, there are birds (a duckling in one instance) or insects. These are evidently bodies found some hours, or, more probably days, after they were killed. The footage is shown immediately after the opening credits and before the film narrative begins. Lasting a little over 25 seconds, it is documentary footage credited as taken from the RTP Rádio Televisão Portuguesa archive. It is not clear where it was captured, but the narrative would suggest that it is from one of the colonial wars Portugal was engaged in at the time in Angola, Portuguese Guinea/Guinea Bissao and Mozambique (1961-74). I would be interested in knowing their provenance, however, here, I merely want to comment on the effect/affect they had on me and some thoughts I had on viewing them.

The primary function of the brief sequence is by way of back story. It explicitly displays the horrors of war that the soldiers had experienced (Maia, Manuel and the other instigators of the coup are veterans of these wars), and concisely tell us why they are so reluctant to kill. This determination not to shed blood again after their wartime experience is repeated several times through dialogue and speeches. Whatever its narrative efficiency, this sequence is deeply troubling in its horrific, explicit nature. It is worth noting that the killers not the dead are given the privileged place of victimhood of the atrocities of war, a point that is resonant with multiple readings that I have no space for here. Look at what they were made to do, is one of the integral messages of the sequence.

The use of actual footage of death, of bodies strewn about and dismembered for narrative coherence seems to me to be both exploitative and ethically dubious. The usual intention of such footage is to report. The images or footage supplement the reporter’s account, thereby providing a visual shorthand and creating greater impact. At times, the image or sequence has primary importance and the words provide context or information (photographic theory, in particular, is full of discussions of this inter-relationship between image and language). How explicit the images are varies according to governmental policy, the perpetrator, propaganda, censorship, and attention to sensibilities of the victims and their families. Susan Sontag has written very cogently on this in Regarding the Pain of Others (London & New York: Penguin, 2003). Rarely would footage this graphic be shown in current television reportage in the UK and Ireland (the two I’m most familiar with), but can be found in photographic form in some graphic tabloids in Spain and Mexico or, some spaces online. My lack of knowledge of the Portuguese context means that I cannot tell where, how or with what frequency such imagery is used. Again, I’d welcome feedback on this.

As a film which was shown in Un certain regard at the Cannes film festival, funded by Ibermedia (an Iberian & Latin American funding body), had Italian producers, backing from the French television channel Canal+, amongst others, this can be read as a transnational film and, therefore, the opening images as intended to be circulated amongst a (probably arthouse) international audience. Consequently, the lack of information, subtitles, intertitles or credit for these dead bodies is not about what it invokes in a knowing Portuguese audience, but what they suggest to this transnational audience. What are we to make of the use of this undignified awful death as a way of achieving narrative efficiency? For me, a person well used to watching death on screen, they were shocking and upsetting images. I felt that the director was exploiting these black (race is significant here) bodies to serve her narrative. The tenor of this sequence sets a much darker tone than that of the remainder of the film. It is my conviction that Medeiros went too far. The use of these bodies is exploitative and obscene (I say neither of these lightly) and I cannot see the justification. Her shorthand is nasty and irresponsible. She has used the horror of war and these unnamed others’ deaths in a way that goes too far.

Music, stars and racialised bodies

Today, I am going to Maynooth to give a paper called “Who Made You the Centre of the Universe? Stardom and Racialized Bodies on the Borderland” to a group of Masters’ students and staff at the Hispanic studies department. The title is inspired by a line from a Laura Mvula song, “That’s Alright”. In this song, she says: I’ll never be what you want/and that’s alright,/cos my skin aint light and my body aint tight”. This is very pertinent to my discussion which compares the star performances of Minnie Driver in The Virgin of Juarez and Jennifer Lopez in Bordertown. Both were released in 2006, are set in Juarez, Northern Mexico and have feminicide/femicide as central elements in their respective plots. Mvula is explicitly drawing attention to the racialised discourse around bodies, where white bodies are contained and having “a sense of separation and boundedness” (Dyer, 152) and black and brown (read Latina, here) bodies bear a thrilling, exotic excess. Mvula is owning her curves, the indicators of this lack of boundedness. This is a project I’ll be writing more about over the next few months.

In addition to Mvula’s song, I have also come across other apposite songs which resonate with this project. They are by Mexican female rappers responding to the drug-related violence in Mexico. These are, “Puta guerra” [Fucking War] by Zapatillas de la calle and “Ninguna guerra en mi nombre” [No war in My Name] by Batallones Femeninos. Some information in Spanish about the Batallones Femeninos and the lyrics for this song can be found here. These songs are powerful responses to the recent violence and act as valuable counterpoint to the narcocorridos which are often celebratory of violence.

The “War on Drugs” and its victims

The “war on drugs” gets inverted commas because otherwise it becomes normalised and this phrase, burdened by a terrible history tainted by the blood of many, can be in danger of sounding neutral and even positive otherwise. It has largely been played out in the US and Latin America but can be glimpsed in the different ways it spills out over here. This post is a series of vignettes of interconnected encounters with this so-called “war on drugs” and its victims.

Last night, as I was walking home I passed a woman in sports gear. Initially, I thought she was out on a run, like other women similarly dressed who I had passed earlier on my walk. As she neared me I saw the fierce glare, clenched fists, blackened teeth grinding away indicative of meth addicts. She payed me no regard. I was obviously (thankfully) of no interest to her. Crystal meth is not a major problem in this area, but it has seen a slight increase in recent times. As with all cities in the UK and elsewhere, Liverpool has its drug users. Most of these are not visible, while the poorest addicts can be seen occasionally in the city streets. This post isn’t just about that unknown woman, or Liverpool’s other drug addicts or users, but about how she forms part of the multiple layers of the fight over drugs. She is a person whose life I can only imagine and about whom I only know superficial things, some of which are wrapped up in my own concern for my personal safety. But, I feel that I need to keep her in mind to remind me that this is not just an intellectual reflection or one purely concerned with cultural outputs, it is an issue with a human face.

This weekend I finished watching Breaking Bad, a series I found compelling, fascinating and, at times, troubling. It is exemplary of the new long-form television series that is carefully crafted and beautifully plotted, and creates powerful male and female characters. It was entertaining and all the while wove in critiques of the US, particularly of its (lack of) a healthcare system. Yet, as I have blogged before and hope to write more about in the future, its representation of Mexicans was troubling. Part of the premise is that the protagonist is an average, even boring, teacher, who is not the sort of person we normally associate with drug dealing, whereas only easy recourse to audio-visual shorthand was required for them to show Mexicans doing the same.

I’ve recently completed reading Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda (London & New York: Zed Books, 2012). Whilst the book is evidently concerned with Mexico and its recent (and ongoing) bloody 12 years long “drug war”, and the complex layers of political and legal complicity in the trade, it also traces how US operates as a primary market for the drugs as well as critiquing successive US governments’ interference in Mexico which have deepened the problem rather than helping to resolve it. Watt and Zepeda provide a detailed overview of the history of drug use, its consumption, the complex trade and clearly lay out the primary Mexican actors in the area as well as establishing how necessarily transnational the marketplace is. They argue for the legalisation of drugs to better control and contain its criminality. One particular fact that stands out for me and that runs against the frequent suggestion in US television shows is how low consumption of drugs is in Mexico. This is for several reasons: the profit motive, that is, more money can be made from sales in the US than in Mexico, and, far from being a haven of excess and wild parties, Mexico is a highly conservative society where drug use is proscribed by tight knit communities.

Today, on BBC4’s PM programme there was an interview with wealthy women in California who are calling for an expansion of the legal use of marijuana for health reasons. They were confident that their privilege would aid them in their campaign.

Tonight, I watched The House I Live In (Eugene Jorecki, 2012), a powerful documentary describing the effects of the “war on drugs” domestically on the US. Its central thesis was that politics and what is often called the prison-industrial complex have been complicit in creating what David Simon (of The Wire fame) calls a “Holocaust in slow motion”, that is, a class-based destruction of human life. Drawing on interviews with dealers, prisoners, addicts, their families, police, lawyers, judges, prison officers, academics, authors, and spokespeople for NGOs, the film considers how the war on drugs has been differently racialized over the centuries leading to disproportionate levels of Afro-Americans in prison. This has been largely as a result of: the ghettoisation of the urban (largely black) poor; the decrease in employment opportunities in the cities; poor schooling; inadequate reintegration of prisoners; the demonisation of crack cocaine over its powdered form (according to the film there’s a 1:100 disparity in sentencing of the former over the latter); and the cyclical nature of the problem. It points to the origins of the phrase “war on drugs” to the presidental term of Richard Nixon, who used it productively for political gain. This then morphed into a more destructive form under president Ronald Reagan who described it as the “dark evil enemy within” and laid the foundation of the way the “war on drugs” is currently played out in the US. As a film that focused on the domestic it didn’t explore the external “war on drugs” and how this was used as a tool during the “Cold War” to fight an ideological war in the Americas, but did provide a depressing vista of the domestic picture.

This does not lead to any specific conclusions, here, it is merely intended as a snapshot of what I have seen, read and glimpsed in the last few weeks and is intended as an insight into how densely packed and multi-layered this “war on drugs” is.

Remember Them Exhibition and 5TH E. ALLISON PEERS SYMPOSIUM. Remember Them: Artistic and Academic responses to Femicide in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

I have been wearing pink for a week. Often considered a weak colour, condemned as symbolic of the rigid gender binaries being fomented by the marketplace to sell consumer goods to young girls, when thinking about Juárez it means something else. It was first used as a warning sign for women that certain areas were dangerous. Pink was painted on telegraph poles with a black cross over it. Later, this symbol became a pink cross which was used by campaigners at protests demanding justice, marking (sometimes mass) graves also known as body dumps, and at sites of memorials. Therefore, when the organisers asked those attending the opening to wear pink, it had a very particular resonance. I decided to wear pink in the week leading up to the event. I continued to wear pink for a few days afterwards, to keep the women and the event in mind. My conscious wearing of pink stops today. But, it has been instructive for me to think about what it means to be reminded of these women persistently and in a type of talismanic way through the colour of my clothing. I don’t need to wear pink to think of them. They do come to mind a lot, but not on a daily basis. It is a gesture, one that bears little (probably no) weight for anyone there, and one that requires no hardship on my part. To carry someone (or a group of people) in mind has a type of religious resonance that can have the power to make you reflect, think, and act in whatever ways are possible. It draws on this, but is not motivated by religion in any way. It was also a way of reflecting on my paper in a personal, tactile and visible (to me) way that has helped me to work through what it means to talk about surfaces and the body when both things matter in this context and neither are the most important part of what happens to these women.

Since the 1990s Juárez has been a very dangerous place to be a woman. There have been thousands raped, tortured and murdered and few have been convicted of these terrible crimes. From 2006 up to very recently, Juárez has been caught up in narco-related violence. I have previously blogged about both of these and the terrible consequences they have had on many lives.

Exhibition at the VG&M

Organised by Chris Harris of the University of Liverpool, the exhibition Remember Them opened on the 26th of September and the symposium took place on the 27th. Both were held at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, at the University of Liverpool. The exhibition continues until the 1st of February 2014.

I would heartily recommend attending the exhibition. It includes the works of four artists: Julián Cardona (Mexico), Brian Maguire (Ireland), Lise Bjørne Linnert (Norway), and Teresa Margolles (Mexico). It merits separate attention. I’ll just mention the work in brief.

Cardona’s work is in the style of press photography. That is his profession. The black and white images have both the immediacy of the press shot and the stylised framing and composition of an artist. They are slightly abstracted from the message of pure reportage and evoke an emotional response through capturing the tragedy of the families’ loss. Family photographs recur in many of the images and are held by subjects either as part of a campaign or to show the absent loved one. There is considerable power and emotion in these.

Maguire’s subjects are women and girls who were killed. His paintings recreate family photographs using his characteristic broad brushstrokes. The paintings are both evocative and flat. There is the absent girl or woman who is known to the artist only through the photograph and the family’s (mostly mother’s) stories. This absent presence is an intangible thing that reminds me of where I stand in relation to these women and girls. They are knowable and unknown. The account of abuse and violent death accompanying the paintings provide individual horrific detail that has become the most salient thing about them, ignoring the particularity of their lives. The paintings bring you somewhere closer through the textured slightly abstracted and colourful recreation of a beloved portrait or snapshot.

 

Bjørne Linnert’s work uses embroidered nametags to personalise the women and girl’s deaths through getting participants to sew their names alongside the word “unknown” in all of the languages of the places the artwork has toured. Clothing and these nametags are often the only way of recognising long abandoned bodies. But also, the act of sewing the tags, which she gets people at the places where the work is exhibited to do, is a meditative process and a way to connect the public to the victims. The piece is exhibited in Morse code. Those familiar with Morse can read lines from the Mexican anthem and US anthem alternated to indicate the implication of the governments from both of these nation states in the fates of the women. Her installation is accompanied by a postcard campaign. Note that the former president’s name has been struck out and replaced with a new one. This isn’t careless or money saving, but a reflection of the depressing lack of action.

 

Margolles video piece is shot from the point of view of someone following behind a water truck, those that clean the highway. She has laid cloth down on ground where victims were found and then rinsed these in water which is then spread on a road in Presidio, Texas. Again, she is demanding that the US take responsibility for its part in the deaths. Through onscreen text, the video clearly places this blame on US drug consumption and illegal sales of arms to Mexican gangs by individuals from the US. The slow pace of the film is meditative. The cleanliness of the road, the clean trucks and cars that pass contrast with the water truck lightly smeared with dust from the water it is spraying.

E. Allison Peers Symposium: Artistic and Academic responses to Femicide in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

The symposium was divided into two parts. Before lunch there was a viewing of Blood Rising (Mark McLaughlin, 2013), a film made accompanying Maguire on his work as he spoke to mothers and worked on the paintings in Juárez. This was followed by a Q&A with the director. Maguire also actively participated in the discussion reminding the audience that Juárez may seem many things (dangerous, threatening, sensational), but it is also people’s homes, and confessed to feeling “ineffectual” unable to do anything with his “pictures”. McLaughlin and Maguire discussed the limitations on filming because it has been banned in Juárez, their desire to be respectful towards the families, and their awareness that they didn’t want to create another film that simply sensationalised the story. There was a lively discussion about the value of making a film that could be accused of merely telling a story of some terrible distant land that didn’t impel people to campaign or change. This was defended through their assertion that the film is merely one part of a multi-layered campaign (including the paintings, discussions at the EU parliament, cooperation with NGOs, and talks) that they hope will lead to change.

Bjørne Linnert then spoke. She started by asserting her belief that the artist’s role is different from that of a politician and activist, although all can effect change. She quoted a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt to the UN Committee on Human Rights in 1948, who asked, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world,” and it was, in part, from this that she drew her inspiration. She described her process and stated that the project will not end until the situation changes. She currently has 6,700 nametags made by members of the public from around the world. There are 3,100 exhibited in Liverpool some of which were made by local school children. She also described the performance she gave at the opening night, called “Presence”, where she uses her voice to make a loud, declaiming sound that is somewhere between a song and a shout. Each is different in length and pitch, and is followed by a brief pause, again of distinct duration. For her the silence is as important as the voice. Her aim in this is “to connect to the strength and vulnerability in all of us”. It undoubtedly conveyed powerful emotion with the indeterminacy an absence of words can create.

Maguire provided a subjective, non-linear, and both moving and entertaining meander through his creative process. It was practical, personal, and fluid in nature. He started with a list of books which inspired him to create this work, most significantly Daughters of Juarez and mentioned a quotation from the Irish socialist thinker James Connolly that rings true for him that “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”. He connected his prior experiences in Ireland with what he heard about and witnessed in Mexico. He compared this with his work in prisons in both Dublin and the Long Kesh in Northern Ireland, and drew on his knowledge of people and places in power and criminality in both countries. He clearly stated that what has been happening in Juárez can and is happening elsewhere. His talk echoed that of others earlier and later in the afternoon, that we cannot countenance an us and them we must think of solidarity with others. He also spoke of the practicalities of moving in a space like Juárez where both he and McLaughlin were conspicuous as well as the respect he has for the women he met who campaign for justice for their dead children.

After lunch the academic programme began. Nuala Finnegan, University College Cork, provided a clear overview of the current state of play in Juárez and the multiple debates surrounding important details such as, start dates, numbers dead, reports issued, laws passed and the subsequent inaction, as well as the terminology employed (some use femicide, others feminicide). As she discussed, there has been a proliferation of theories which have led many authors and filmmakers to approach the events with whodunit style narratives. She considered how the victims were painted as sluts in the past and how Juárez has become a feminised space of violent death with a subsequent Juarezisation of Mexico abroad. In other words, the perception that this violence becomes the dominant narrative. Drawing on anthropologist Rita Laura Segato’s consideration of Juarez; Emmanuel Levinas theorisation of the value and meaning we give to the human face; Judith Butler’s response and expansion of his work; a consideration of how “suggestive relationships” and “empathic encounters” can be created; and reflections on how there can be a valorisation of worthy victims and immediacy in much of the artistic production. Focused on artistic creation she too wondered at how we can make the “elsewhere of the world” closer to the viewer, to the here.

Julia Banwell, University of Sheffield, considered the “filthy physicality” of Margolles’ work. Providing examples of Margolles’ installations at several events that reference Juárez, she considered Margolles’ use of pollution and contamination. Margolles often uses traces left behind by bodies, such as the dirt from the body dumps washed through water carried by the truck in the film in the exhibit. At times her use of bodily matter is more visceral. For Banwell, the absence of the bodies in the way that Margolles deploys these traces forces the viewer to look. Margolles’ art always provokes controversy and much of the discussion afterwards was about consent and the ethics of producing work using remains of those who have been brutally and violently killed. Banwell was careful to emphasise that the families consent to its use. I always find Margolles work to be deeply disturbing and sometimes, for me (although not the work in this exhibit), it can cross the line into a kind of bad taste and a violation of bodily integrity that I cannot reconcile myself with.

Sarah Bowskill, Queen’s University Belfast, spoke about fiction and femicide/feminicide in English, If I Die in Juarez, The Vampires of Ciudad Juárez, Desert Blood, and The Dead Women of Juarezas well as 2666, which, although written in Spanish by a Chilean, has had considerable reach in its English translation. Many of these are of the type that use the whodunit format referred to by Finnegan, drawing on the generic tropes of detective fiction to variable success. She provided examples of a type of pattern that is apparent in the paratextual elements of the novels, that is, those parts that are not integral to the narrative proper (blurbs, forewards, afterwards, etc). These attest to the facts of what is taking place and express a wish for change. She navigated the differing tone, style and characteristics of the novels, and assessed how successful they were in constructing a convincing and empathetic account of Juárez and of “the poor brown women” (in Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s words) who live and are killed there.

My paper came at the end. I spoke about two films which were released in 2006: Bordertown (Gregory Nava) and The Virgin of Juarez (Kevin James Dobson). Again, both involve whodunit narratives and follow US-based journalist protagonists who cross the US-Mexican border to write stories about the murdered women of Juárez. Renowned female performers play the protagonists of the films, Jennifer López and Minnie Driver, respectively. My paper was concerned with what their star bodies mean, with all the glamour and obsession with surfaces that can imply. Particularly, I consider the significance of their racial subjectivity and how it is integral to the plots of the films: López who is read as Latina (read curvaceous, sensual, and passionate) and Driver as white (therefore, she is to be understood as contained, and controlled). I traced how López’s character reflected this conceptualisation eventually leaving behind her learned whiteness and returning to her authentic Latina self, whilst Driver in this particular conceptualisation of race, as a white woman could only ever be an outsider.  I drew from Richard Dyer’s White in my discussion, but also work by those who have discussed the Latina body (here, I must emphasise that there is no such thing as a singular Latina/white/black/etc body, but just ways that such bodies are “constructed and mediated through discourse” [Mendible, 5]), for example, Myra Mendible, Suzanne Chávez-Silverman, amongst others.  My concern with this work can be that it deals with the superficial, something that is far removed from the immediacy of the horror of torture and death. However, these women are killed precisely for how their bodies are controlled and dominated, they are adjudicated as valueless, objects to be traded, lacking in power, mere things to be toyed with, and discarded in dumps. To consider what these bodies mean on screen and to consider the power and value ascribed to women’s bodies is to reflect on what it means to be human and a woman there and here. It is a subject I will reflect on further in the future.

This all brings me back to why I wore pink. It is pure surface, a pigment with particular light-reflective qualities. Despite that it had significant meaning for me last week. It is also a colour that resonates for the campaigners. For some, art is just surface, even when it entails spreading water across a space that may penetrate surfaces. I think the exhibition, and the artists’ and academics’ discussions showed that these surfaces have considerable power and weight. They may not effect immediate change. They will hopefully shine a light on what is happening and challenge us to think beyond a them and us and realise that to remember them is to remember the us who are looking, buying the goods they make, and participating in a system that divides them from us.

Monkey Business in Hollywood and Mexico

Me Cheeta: The Autobiography James Lever London: Fourth Estate (2008) 2009.

I spoke at the Revisiting Star Studies conference in June held at the University of Newcastle about the online presence of Mexican male stars from the so-called Mexican Golden Age. As part of this I made reference to my article on María Félix and Dolores del Río , because what their fans have generated is in marked contrast to fans of their male contemporaries. Afterwards, a fellow conference goer came up to me and asked whether I had read Me Cheeta saying that in it the eponymous chimpanzee was very vicious towards del Río.  Intrigued, I bought it.  Del Río is, indeed, one of the victims of his bitchy, sarcastic, funny, and poignant memoir of the Golden Age of studio era Hollywood, the “Dream Factories” (73) and the dreamers who inhabit it. Del Río gets some of his ire, but is more generally cast as a victim of an attack by him that is frequently alluded to but only fully articulated in a final denial at the end of the book. There are others who are also singled out for his derision, Greta Garbo, Mickey Rooney and Charlie Chaplin, whilst some of his contemporaries get much better treatment, especially Johnny Weissmuller who played Tarzan. Cheeta obviously loves him unconditionally. Much of the sympathy for Cheeta is played out through this relationship and his mistreatment within the studio system, because in many ways he is an unpleasant and nasty chimpanzee saved only by this tragic aspect of his experiences and the clever humour of the novel.

To call it a memoir is, of course, to mistaken its genre. It is a novel that draws on many of the conceits of memoir, star autobiography and issue-driven books. It follows Cheeta’s story chronologically with some diversions over and back to the present day and his relationship with his current carer, Don. He is inclined to rant at various moments. These can be consonant with the era/person/topic he is dealing with, there are further moments where he appeals to an addressee who appears to be in his company and there are also apparently random digressions typically to talk about his desires for cigarettes or alcohol.

One of the many digressions refers to a pseudo organization, No Reel Apes, purportedly set up by Don and Dr Jane Goodall to prevent cruelty to animals by banning their use in the entertainment industry. He describes the organisation and, at first, appears to praise Don and Jane’s good work, but clearly disapproves. His scathing critique of their work is typical of the tone of the novel. At first he sets it up as a positive organization: “It’s only that I felt obliged to touch on some of the problems that Don and the attractive Dr Goodall are eager to highlight for their No Reel Apes campaign. Cruelty to apes in the name of entertainment is obscene and must stop” (85). This is by way of an explanation for his references to the darker elements of his capture and transport to the US and his treatment in captivity. So far, it appears very serious and earnest. This tone is soon upended in the remainder of that sentence: “though of course it can lead to some absolutely tremendous movies, and I personally had a wonderful time in Hollywood” (85). This is typical of the constant shifts between tones that both mimics the earnest, self-aggrandising, obsequiousness, false modesty and gossipy insider nature of many star biographies and consistently undermines these. This segment continues with a rant about CGI, which is the (for him lamentable) replacement for real animals on screen: “Does Buzz Lightyear ever suffer for his art? No, and that’s why he’s no good. Though, I do have to say, the children [he visits in hospitals] haven’t the faintest idea who I am. Well, anyhow, CGI, that’s supposedly the way forward, according to Don and Jane. Support their campaign: www.noreelapes.org or something like that” (86).  There is a snarkiness to his comments that are also filled with sadness, which underscores the whole book and is what saves it from being nasty and shallow and allows some space for empathy. In this same chapter entitled “Big Break” he talks about his arrival to Los Angeles and his “discovery” as an actor, he describes the “starving and beating [that] all formed part of Louis Mayer’s painstaking grooming process-almost exactly the same process as MGM put Ava Gardner through” (86). Thereby the author combines both an implicit critique of the mistreatment of animals and parallels it with the mistreatment of the stars by the studios, albeit in a jokey aside. Cheeta as narrator is used as a knowing ruse to draw attention to the cruelty of the studio system towards human actors.

As well as being a delightful and entertaining read, Me Cheeta also provides some interesting insights into the studio system, its heyday and its demise, albeit veiled in sarcasm and in an un-academic style. It is largely accurate, but has taken licence with the truth. It is a novel after all.

To focus on the Mexican interest, aside from the frequent references to alleged behaviour with del Río, stories of her first husband’s production roles, and mentions of Mexican actors, such as Lupe Vélez, Weissmuller’s third wife, he also recounts details about the Mexican production, Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). It was a shambolic shoot which he describes as having two big problems: “The first was that there wasn’t a script, the second was that nobody could quite make up their mind whether they were vacationing or not” (251).  The six page description of his involvement on the shoot before he was taken away for unprofessional behaviour both sums up how disposable stars are (at this stage of the novel his stardom is convincingly consonant with those of his fellow human actors) and of the malaise that the film industry was suffering at this point. It is to Lever’s credit that despite Cheeta being a largely unlikeable, egotistical and unreliable narrator this moment is deeply poignant and has echoes of the treatment of human actors.  Cheeta is dismissed and easily disposed of as is evidenced in the director, Robert Florey’s reported speech after Cheeta’s “lapse”: “‘Uh, Wait. I tell you what we can do to fix this,’ Florey said. At last, a bit of thought, a bit of direction. ‘We can get Sol to airfreight another one down this evening, right? Tell him to talk to – what’s his name? Gately. Get another one out here by tomorrow morning, and we’ll call this morning a wipe. Light’s not right anyway” (256). The aside, “At last, a bit of thought, a bit of direction”, provides commentary, keeps the mood light and reminds the reader of Cheeta as victim of their glib decisions. Mexico, and more specifically Acapulco, figures as a playground for the stars whose light is dimming and whose partying, like that of Cheeta, is impeding their performances. His easy replacement is tragic, but also indicative of a system unravelling.

Me Cheeta may not be entirely accurate in all of its details, but it does conjure up a period and impels the reader to think about the mistreatment of animals in Hollywood during the studio era. Given Cheeta’s convincingly human voice and agency, combined with his stories of those human stars around him, it prompts us to think about the brutality of the system and its tragic consequences. It is a strength of the novel that it wraps the tragedy and poignancy of this era into a highly amusing and witty yarn.