MUSICAL INTERLUDES IN 1960S MEXICAN MELODRAMA: CRAFTING A SONIC SPACE OF EXCLUSION.
Contemporary usage of the term "melodrama" invokes sensationalist theatrics, moral polarization, and emotional excess. Peter Brook's influential study, The Melodramatic Imagination, argued that this aesthetic of exaggeration functioned to transform the ordinary into something so entertaining that the audience would pay attention to the stakes of everyday life (10). In eighteenth-and nineteenth-century theater, melodrama referred to the pairing of theatrical drama with musical accompaniment--melos, the Greek word for music. This structural coupling of narrative with music became central to early Hollywood and Latin American cinemas. Musical numbers interrupted the unfolding narrative in order to reinforce character development and emotional texture, or simply to entertain through tone and rhythm. While the centrality of music has largely died off in twenty-first century iterations of Latin American melodrama, in the twentieth century, diegetic music played a fundamental role in what Darlene Sadlier describes as the region's "populist mode par excellence" (15).
In Golden Age Mexican cinema, musical performances punctuated and reinforced narrative development; they revealed characters' intimate feelings and unexpressed emotions. Or alternatively, the musical interlude was nonnarrative in function; it paused the plot to provide filmgoers the pleasure of experiencing familiar tunes by renowned performers, and strengthened the feeling of shared cultural ground, not only on-screen but off. It was a crucial diegetic space in which the audience's identification with national rhythms was consolidated.
Ana Lopez explains that while music is present across all genres of Mexican Golden Age cinema, it is always "deployed within melodramatic scenarios" (121). The melodrama rose to prominence in Mexico in the wake of the massive popularity of Alla en el Rancho Grande (1936). This film gave birth to the comedia ranchera, a genre that married identifiable icons of mexicanidad with romantic intrigue and exuberantly melodious performances of genres like the bolero, mariachi trio, and ranchera. Importantly, the musical interlude in the comedia ranchera codified these musical genres as indicators of national community. Interrupting the narrative diegesis, the breakout into song operated to "produce a sense of the cohesiveness of a community linked explicitly to national ethos," a way for the viewer to feel like they belonged within the screened musical exuberance of mexicanidad (Lopez 126). As Desiree J. Garcia notes in her analysis of Alla en el Rancho Grande, the songs performed on screen in folk musicals are not necessarily performed for the audience, but with them. The singer acts as the audience's emotional conduit; the performance is collective, and fosters a sense of homogeneity and togetherness (77).
Musicality was not just confined to the cinematic setting of the rural hacienda in Golden Age Mexican cinema, but also flourished in films of the cabaretera or rumbera genre. Set in urban cabarets and starring a working-class prostitute or dancer, cabaretera films include artfully choreographed dance sequences that highlight the rumbera's costumes and rhythmic prowess. According to scholarship, the musical dance interlude functions in two ways. First, following Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, as a way to compensate for holes in the plot (168). And second, as a vehicle for erotic expression at a time when most films were ideologically conservative. In contrast with these films' conservative messaging, exemplified through the heroine's inevitably tragic demise, Laura G. Gutierrez argues that their musical numbers "fracture the narrative" and create "different horizontal (usually pleasurable) planes of recognition between the singers/dancers and the spectators" (114). Again, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the diegetic audience, who appreciates the singer or performer on stage/screen, instead of condemning her for her sexuality, as does the narrative conclusion. The contrasts between the conservative denouement and liberatory performative elements of these films "open the possibility for different social, cultural, and national identities to be constructed outside the purview of the nation-state's doctrines" (Gutierrez 114).
By the late 1950s, the melodramatic formulas established by genres like the comedia ranchera and the cabaretera had become fully entrenched in Mexican filmmaking. Producers knew that these films would draw demand, and did not see a need to trouble established templates. As Carl J. Mora writes, by the end of Golden Age, "quality plummeted but production increased" (103). Films had become more expensive to make, demand from foreign markets for Mexican films had dropped, (1) film unions denied entry to fresh talent, and filmmakers were increasingly reliant on state institutions such as the Banco Nacional Cinematografico (and its distribution corollary Peliculas Nacionales) for funding and distribution. Additionally, television's rise in popularity was seen as a threat by producers, who further pushed down the cost of production (de la Vega Alfaro 176). Mora explains that in the search for profitability, filmmakers turned to what worked: "timeworn formula movies" (106). Therefore, unlike other Latin American countries where young leftist filmmakers (such as Brazil's Cinema Novo) were increasingly attacking the musical comedy for its predictable interludes and cliche folkloric performances (Sadlier 11), in Mexico the melodramatic formula prevailed. The genre was not limited to the comedia ranchera and cabaretera, but included other subgenres such as the family melodrama, youth melodrama, and gangster melodrama, as well as genres outside of or adjacent to melodrama like comedy, horror, the western, and wrestler films. Nonetheless, due to issues of cost and changing generic norms both domestically and abroad, by the early sixties, most Mexican melodramas pared back the number of musical interludes incorporated into each film. Musicality outside of the melodrama migrated to the dance-fad genre, which immersed viewers in the steps and ebullience of styles such as the cha-cha, Charleston, and rock 'n' roll. As Eric Zolov argues in Refried Elvis, by the sixties, the Mexican film industry renewed its strong tradition of the musical drama by blending it with the "marketing success of rock 'n' roll" popularized by Hollywood (30).
While scholarship has treated the centrality of the musical interlude in Mexican Golden Age cinema, outside of Zolov's extensive study of rock 'n' roll youth culture, less has been said about the following period, during the decline and crisis of the industry in Mexico. Traditionally, critics have eschewed this period, which Emilio Garcia Riera describes as composed of "un cine cansado, rutinario y vulgar, carente de inventiva e imaginacion" (210), and whose melodramas are labeled by Mora as "lacrimogenic" and deemed by de la Vega Alfaro as characterized by "outdated aesthetics and subject material" (176-177). Nonetheless, as Zolov pointedly argues, just because such films were formulaic or denied critical prestige does not take away from their popularity and influence at the time (31). Following Zolov, in this article I examine two cases studies that exemplify trends in the functionality of the musical interlude in 1960s Mexican melodrama.
In order to think through the changing role of the musical interlude in the sixties, I turn to two low-budget Mexican melodramas directed by Mauricio de la serna and adapted by Josefina Vicens. (2) The two films under consideration, Rumbo a Brasilia (alternatively titled No importa mi color, released in 1961) and Pecado de juventud (1962), were the fourth and fifth movies resulting from de la serna's collaboration with Vicens and reflect the pair's leftist ideological leanings. Although these films were released in rapid succession, they articulate divergent models of music's role in low-budget sixties melodrama. On the one hand, Rumbo a Brasilia features famous singers and includes a total of six musical numbers, exemplifying the continuation of the predominant Golden Age model of musical melodrama into the sixties. I argue that in this film, de la Serna reconfigures the prevailing model such that the performative interlude not only strengthens the transnational imaginary linking Mexico to other Latin American musical traditions, but also indexes previously ignored intersections of race and class, illustrating that musical numbers can express things that a narrative cannot. On the other hand, films like Pecado de juventud increasingly set aside traditional diegetic on-screen performances in favor of narrative drama, featuring actors, not singers, and recorded, not live, diegetic music. However, the film expresses a deep ambivalence about this displacement, which was brought about by the increasing centrality of technology and was transforming musical consumption from a collective, community-building enterprise to a private experience. This in turn reflected both the fragmentation of the imagined national collective as well as the emergence of individual taste. Examining these films in conjunction sheds light on the evolving utility of the musical number in the sixties, not only as a pleasurable ritual of solidarity, but also a vehicle for staging non-discursive corporeal dynamics of exclusion and alienation in Mexican society. A close examination of both films' first musical interlude illustrates this phenomenon.
Both Rumbo a Brasilia and Pecado de juventud are at their core dramas of class. Following generic convention, the films optimistically resolve class conflict through happy endings that project social cohesion. Prior to this narrative absolution, however, class alienation is crucially staged in the initial musical interludes, rendered palpable in the sonic space. While musical numbers are generally theorized as interruptions that invert cinema's traditional hierarchy of image over sound (Altman 100), in both of these diegetic numbers, sound and image contest each other, existing in entangled tension. The ritual of collective cohesion associated with performance is staged in conflict with on-screen images of estranged and excluded bodies. This tension excavates the perimeters of community and affectively aligns the audience with de la Serna and Vicens' ideological critique of the bourgeois.
Although in many ways a formulaic low-budget melodrama, Rumbo a Brasilia is also a fascinating snapshot of the international excitement surrounding the inauguration of Brazil's new capital Brasilia in 1960, the architectural wonder erected by President Juselino Kubtischeck on an empty plateau in just 41 months. Premiering in 1961, Rumbo captures a moment in the Mexican imaginary that figured Brazil as a model of modernity and development, before that illusion was shattered by the military coup in 1964. Produced by Cinematografia Grovas, Rumbo was filmed in Brazil, a common practice in the early sixties, when Mexican movies were filmed abroad to take advantage of lower production costs and in order to appeal to broader transnational audiences (Mora 103). Rumbo can be considered a road movie since it depicts a trip across Brazil from the impoverished northeast to Brasilia (a route later similarly traced--albeit with a more critical eye--in Carlos Diegues' Bye bye Brasil (1979)), (3) a trajectory that symbolically integrates tradition with modernity, and popular rurality with industrial innovation.
The storyline follows Paulinho, a young black boy (Antonio Carlos Pereira) from Northeastern Brazil, who travels to Brasilia to meet the President and request help for his flooded hometown village. Nested within this narrative frame, a subplot depicts the romance between a Mexican engineer (Antonio Aguilar) and a Brazilian woman he meets on the road (Angela Maria). This pairing of Brazilian megastar Angela Maria, a singer-actress who appeared in dozens of Brazilian films in the fifties, with the immensely popular Antonio Aguilar, nicknamed "El charro de Mexico," is one of the film's biggest draws. The interludes combining their talents alternate between Brazilian and Mexican musical genres, offsetting Brazilian numbers that would have been less known to the Mexican domestic audience with classic melodies of mexicanidad including "Cielito lindo" and the huapango "Tres consejos." The diegetic Brazilian audience enjoys the Mexican songs, just as the non-diegetic Mexican audience would have enjoyed the Brazilian songs. This constructs an idyllic representation of transnational intercultural exchange, which is consolidated in the plot's successful romantic pairing of the Mexican and Brazilian stars.
The latter half of the film cements de la Serna's vision of Brasilia as racial and democratic ideal. After the bus transporting the characters arrives in Brasilia, images of the city's hypermodern architecture and the presidential palace dominate focus. With its modernist architecture and utopian city plan designed by Oscar Niemeyer to look like an airplane, Brasilia was intended to be a fresh start free of slums and colonial legacy, spatializing the promise of democratic development. This utopian promise is evident in de la Serna's rosy depiction of Brasilia and the Brazilian government. In the final scene when the president receives the black boy in his office, he didactically explains that he doesn't need a sword to lead, indexing Brasilia's post-racial, democratic possibility. Rumbo doesn't linger on scenes of poverty: outside of the opening scenes of Paulinho's flooded village and the brief mention of Brasilia's satellite cities, the Mexican cinematic imaginary of Brazil is celebratory, and the experience of rural-to-urban migration within Brazil is not fraught with anxiety but seamless and enjoyable.
Rumbo's first musical interlude is "Meus Canarin," a baiao, or Northeastern Brazilian rhythm. (4) The choice of genre is of strategic importance. The Brazilian Northeast was historically overlooked and excluded from the broader national imaginary, which situated Brazilian cultural hegemony in Rio de Janeiro. (5) Rumbo redresses this privation by dramatizing the baiao's literal transportation by bus from Brazil's cultural margins to the capital. Thus in spite of the film's enchantment with Brasilia's modern aesthetic, it does not advocate the eradication of tradition, but rather favors its coexistence with modernity. Additionally, by using a lesser-known Afro-Brazilian genre, de la Serna piques the interest of his Mexican audience, eager for the consumption of localized difference. The first interlude thus invokes the two qualities that Richard Dyer associates with utopianism in entertainment: escapism--because of the baiao's fetishistic exoticism for Mexican audiences--and wish fulfillment in its projection of Afro-Brazilian music as unifying the pan-racial traveling national community. For Dyer, utopianism is embodied in moments of energized abundance and collective intensity that address social failings like inequality and monotony (26). The musical interlude does just that by staging the sonic unification of a diverse traveling group but also revealing the bodies that are excluded from that community, an alienation that is ultimately repaired by the advent of the second interlude.
This first musical number is stitched into the narrative so that it appears to be organic and spontaneous. Rather than diegetically justify the performance by situating it in an innately performative space, the song transforms the utilitarian means of transportation into a site of performance. Up until to this point, the film's narrative has been primarily expository. The young black protagonist Paulinho's village is flooded. He decides to travel to Brasilia to ask the President for help. But since he has no money, Paulinho secretly hitches a ride on top of the bus. The explosion into song injects the film with renewed vitality and interest, and is the first scene where the passengers interact as a group. The camera increases the sense of community by filming from the front of the bus to include all travelers in one shot. Rather than use rear projection (where the actors are in front of a blue screen with a projected image behind), this scene is filmed in a moving bus, evidenced by the visible jiggling of the mounted camera.
Zooming in on Angela Maria, the two-shot shows her next to an unenthused seatmate, the only passenger visibly displeased by the melodic interruption. The two-shot establishes the relationship between singer and unresponsive audience by simultaneously capturing her emotive performance and his irritated body language. Wedged on-screen between singer and pandeiro drummer, the reluctant passenger is physically enfolded within the musical space, but visibly disengaged. His refusal to be entertained is played for comic effect: the disgruntled rider rolls his eyes while Angela Maria winks and smiles to charm him. This drama of engagement injects spectacle into an otherwise non-narrative scene and encourages the audience to identify with the popular music, not the man's distaste. More crucially, the man's estrangement is what leads to the bus driver's discovery of Paulinho, who had previously gone unseen by the traveling community. When the grumpy passenger insists that the song stop, the passengers hear continued drumming emanating from outside the bus and uncover Paulinho playing a steel barrel. The subsequent high-angle shot is the first that frames all travelers in one image: Paulinho atop the bus, the driver attempting to get him down, and the riders below.
The racialized class dynamic propelling the film's ideological arc is thus established in the first musical interlude. Paulinho occupies a separate, precarious space, invisible to the lighter-skinned middle class passengers. Music both contracts and discloses exclusions of race and class from the collective fold: Paulinho's unseen rhythmic participation renders him part of the sonic community, while financial lack circumscribes that inclusion. Thus while the rest of the film effaces the complexities of race relations in Brazil, projecting instead a harmonic vision of Brazilian diversity, the first melodic interlude problematizes this comforting fantasy of Brazil as a nation that has solved its racial and social problems through development. Visually staging the fissures underlying the sonic community through Paulinho's exclusion, this interlude reveals our consumption of popular culture to be an enjoyment that is ignorant of socioeconomic limitations. The bodies that reinforce the beat, so to speak, are concealed in the transnational desire for exotic, "authentic" cultural difference.
Reflecting de la Serna's ideological projection of Brazil as a utopian nation of democratic racial harmony, this class-based exclusion is rectified by the passengers, who pay Paulinho's fare. Angela Maria takes him under her wing and the next interlude, the Brazilian lullaby "Os olhinhos do menino," erases the alienation staged in the prior number by including racial difference within the frame. As Angela cradles Paulinho, the grumpy passenger changes his expression to one of approval. The complexity staged in the prior scene is effaced by the absorption of racial and social difference within the soundscape. This affective change is also produced by Angela Maria's transformation from coquette into motherly figure. The pan-racial ideal that gives the film its alternate title No importa mi color is consolidated by the maternal adoption of the black child, who is no longer invisible to the camera but front and center, protected by the performer's embrace, an image that is replicated in the film's promotional materials. Rumbo thus argues to its Mexican audience that racial difference is integral to economic progress by using Brazil as a utopian model in which hypermodern spaces and diverse cultural practices coexist as integral components of the national imaginary.
In contrast to Rumbo, the second de la Serna/Vicens collaboration under consideration, Pecado de juventud, is a domestic Mexican melodrama that takes place in Mexico City. Similarly grounded in a Marxist ideology of progress, this adaptation of Carlos Prieto's play Atentado al pudor (1953) plots the aftermath of the rape of the beautiful maid Rafaela (Ana Bertha Lepe) by her young boss Luis del Valle (Alonso de Cordova). Upon finding out that Rafaela is pregnant, Luis' mother summarily fires her. In this updated version of the fallen woman, Rafaela doesn't seek to rehabilitate her dignity through marriage, but through legal recourse. She turns to the law to obtain funds from Luis' family to compensate her wages and raise the child herself, without becoming part of the morally bankrupt bourgeois. The lawyer that helps her, Licenciado Duran (Arturo de Cordova), is presented as the film's hero for his work representing the interests of the poor and exploited. At the film's conclusion, Rafaela rejects monetary recompense, and instead accepts the Licenciado's offer to give her son his last name. Thus the conservative Catholic social order that values patriarchal lineage is upheld, while simultaneously rejecting capitalist values. Unlike Rumbo's comforting projection of Brazilian social unity, Pecado depicts Mexican class struggle as irreparable. The rich family is unsympathetic; overly concerned with reputation, they misguidedly blame Rafaela for "seducing" Luis. However, although class friction is represented as insurmountable, the Licenciado's successful navigation of these tensions projects a comforting resolution that Mexican law protects marginal individuals from exploitation.
The first musical interlude in Pecado contrasts with that of Rumbo in many ways: it takes place in the private domestic space of Luis' living room and is diegetically played on a record player. The prerecorded big band music is instrumental and Luis listens to it alone, becoming progressively drunk while looking at suggestive images of women. This scene establishes Luis' alienation from society, and culminates in Rafaela's rape. Because this non-narrative interlude contains no on-screen performer, there is a heightened focus on the diegetic listener's bodily response to the music. As the music plays, the camera shifts between shots of Luis's disaffected expression and subjective shots from his point of view that depict the chandelier swimming and pulsing, indicating inebriation. This is the sole instance when the camera inhabits a character's mind in the film, a technique that is surprisingly used to increase the audience's identification with Luis prior to the rape. This subjective camera problematically encourages spectators to see Luis not as the villain, but as a victim himself of bourgeois vice and moral decay. Alcoholic drink and pornography, combined with the absence of familial accountability, are the causal elements that erode social codes. This message is reinforced by the film's conclusion, in which Luis successfully escapes the destructive bourgeois home, framing him as equally victim to his parents' materialistic corruption as Rafaela herself.
This interlude explicitly links modern musical technology and individual consumption of mass-produced music with social decline, a distrustful portrait of technology that contrasts with Rumbo's celebration of modern architecture and the airplane. Zolov has noted that in sixties Mexican films, youth culture and its novel modes of musical consumption was either depicted positively as the embrace of modernity and progress, or, in a totally opposite sense, as a problematic deviation from normative behavior, and thus a threat to the established social order (30). Pecado fits comfortably within the latter of these two modes; Luis is figured as part of a nascent countercultural movement, or group of youth that consciously assumes an oppositional stance vis-avis the body politic, expressed through the enjoyment of music and mind-altering substances, and interpreted by outsiders as "delinquent and deviant" (Doherty 38). Luis' consumption of alcohol, pornography, and transnational music in his home in the first interlude pointedly contrasts with the second interlude's popular, public consumption of a bolero within a cantina, a scene in which drinking and musical enjoyment is positively framed. The difference is spatial and classed: unlike Brasilia's creation of exterior communal spaces, in Pecado the Mexican bourgeois' enclosed separation from the warmth of popular collective practices of performance and spectatorship links technology with social fragmentation and passive consumption.
The melancholic absence of popular performativity coincides with the film's low-budget constraints: its musical numbers are limited due to its cast of actors who are not singers. The film's second (and last) musical number includes a diegetic performance set in a popular barrio, a scene of camaraderie that underscores Luis' alienation. In this number, a local nightclub singer is brought into a cantina to perform for Licenciado Duran as a token of appreciation by his proletarian clients. During the number, the camera switches between low-angle shots of the singer descending the stairs, reaction shots of the happy crowd, and high-angle shots of people dancing. In contrast with Luis' isolated drunken consumption of the transnational big band record, this scene highlights the communal enjoyment of live music in the cantina space. The mixing of alcohol and music is thus reframed as a positive activity, so long as it takes place within the communal proletarian space, and not the isolating bourgeois home. The narrative is propelled forward in this scene through the changing reaction shots of Rafaela, who at first enjoys the music, but then experiences nausea from her pregnancy. At the end of the scene, Rafaela flees to the bathroom to vomit, which closes the joyous interlude, and reminds the viewer that such communal enjoyment is under threat, literally and figuratively interrupted by bourgeois corruption. By staging how the bourgeois consumption of culture through impersonal mediums produces an increasingly fragmented society of individuals confined to their homes, Pecado manifests anxiety about the decline of collective urban Mexican culture in the sixties, undermined by mass media, technology, and capitalism.
In conclusion, Rumbo a Brasilia and Pecado de juventud represent two different trajectories of the melodrama's interlude and its changing role in the sixties, when filmmakers began questioning the utility of its obligatory inclusion in the genre. Both musical numbers diverge from the mexicanidad of Golden Age film, instead invoking transnational rhythms. These interludes interrupt the plot and bring the narrative to an impasse. Putting these films into dialogue demonstrates de la serna and Vicen's utopian figuration of Brazil as a nation that has come to terms with racial difference and invested in modern national infrastructure, in contrast with their pessimistic view of Mexican fragmentation and increasing stratification. The inaugural musical numbers engage the audience through fetishized difference in Rumbo and subjective camerawork in Pecado, but also alert spectators to unresolved estrangement. In these moments, the musical interruption is not just a form of pleasurable escapism or collective coming-together, but a space in which fissures within the community are revealed and the viewer is pushed to question the solidity of national solidarity, echoing Susan Dever's observation that melodrama functions as "mediator and redresser of social injustices" (8). While these melodramas conclude by repairing tensions through government and law, the musical interludes stage embodied exclusions and isolation hidden within 1960s national communities.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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(1) De la Vega Alfaro adds that the precipitous drop in regional demand for Mexican films followed Hollywood's recuperation of the international market in the wake of the conclusion of World War II (165).
(2) Josefina Vicens is best known for her work as a novelist. Her prolific career as a screenwriter has been less studied (twenty of her screenplays were filmed between the fifties and seventies), in part because she herself dismissed it as subpar. Nonetheless, as Maricruz castro Ricalde demonstrates, Vicens' scripts are imbued with complex ideas about class and family.
(3) See Sara Brandellero's reading of Bye Bye Brasil as road movie.
(4) "Meus Canarin" was originally written by Luiz Vieira and Timoteo Martins in 1958.
(5) For instance, forro was ignored by marcel camus' contemporaneous film Black Orpheus (1959).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2018|
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