Mock Classicism: Latin American Film Comedy, 1930-1960

Mock Classicism: Latin American Film Comedy, 1930-1960

by Nilo Couret

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In Mock Classicism Nilo Couret presents an alternate history of Latin American cinema that traces the popularity and cultural significance of film comedies as responses to modernization and the forerunners to a more explicitly political New Latin American Cinema of the 1960s. By examining the linguistic play of comedians such as Cantinflas, Oscarito and Grande Otelo, Niní Marshall, and Luis Sandrini, the author demonstrates aspects of Latin American comedy that operate via embodiment on one hand and spatiotemporal emplacement on the other. Taken together, these parallel examples of comedic practice demonstrate how Latin American film comedies produce a "critically proximate" spectator who is capable of perceiving and organizing space and time differently. Combining close readings of films, archival research, film theory, and Latin American history, Mock Classicism rethinks classicism as a discourse that mediates and renders the world and argues that Latin American cinema became classical in distinct ways from Hollywood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296855
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/16/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Nilo Couret is Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan.

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Cantinflismo and Relajo's Peripheral Vision

In 1967, Jacobo Zabludovsky interviewed the Mexican comedian Mario "Cantinflas" Moreno, then approaching the end of his career, in the television news program Efemérides. Pioneers in their fields — television journalism and film, respectively-the two men discuss the origins of the comedic persona el pelado. A foreign cousin to Chaplin's tramp, Cantinflas's beloved pelado — his haggard hat, his strip of gabardine draped over his shoulder, his awkwardly groomed mustache, and his pants below the waist — dominated Mexican box office receipts for several decades and became a leading export of this national cinema. Zabludovsky asks the older Cantinflas about the inspiration for the pelado. The interview yields a much-referenced reflection on the provenance of the archetypical character:

Entonces, todo lo que yo he hecho ha sido observación y ha sido extraído del pueblo. Porque yo, Jacobo, en cualquier condición que esté, soy pueblo. Y lo seré toda mi vida porque, porque muchos años y hasta la fecha, convivo con el pueblo y sé lo que es el pueblo, porque yo, si usted sabe algo de mí, mi extracción, en el aspecto social, fue muy humilde. ... Entonces sé las necesidades del pueblo, conozco el pueblo y soy pueblo.

So, everything I have done has been through observation and has been drawn from the people. Because I, Jacobo, in whatever condition I may be in, am [of] the people. And I will be my entire life because, because for many years and to date, I live with the people and know what the people are, because I, if you know something about me, my upbringing, in the social aspect, was very humble. ... So I know the needs of the people, I understand the people and I am [of] the people.

Cantinflas credits his persona to observation, a creative fashioning of real life drawn from the everyday. The conflation of Cantinflas and the people (and arguably the Mexican film industry) means that writing about Cantinflas has meant also writing the history of the golden age of Mexican cinema and even the broader cultural history of statist postrevolutionary Mexico. Being attendant to this star text allows us to trace the construction and reconstructions of this so-called classical period of Mexican national cinema. The progressive liberalism of cardenismo is yoked to Cantinflas's restive early film appearances, and the nationalist designs of President Ávila Camacho and the centralization of political power and economic developmentalism of alemanismo are articulated both to Cantinflas's involvement in labor and syndicate disputes as well as his new production company and its distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. His becoming establishment augured the escalating authoritarianism of single party rule in the following decades.

The pelado has a specificity unlike that of Chaplin's tramp, less an everyman than an urban peasant from a particular neighborhood in the growing capital city. The term pelado, originally invented in the 1920s, described a certain class of dispossessed urban lumpen: he "belongs to a most vile category of social fauna; he is a form of human rubbish from the great city. He is less than a proletarian in the economic hierarchy, and less than a primitive man in the intellectual one. ... He is an explosive being with whom relationship is dangerous. ... His explosions are verbal and reiterate his theme of self-affirmation in crude and suggestive language ... so crudely realistic that it is not possible to transcribe many of his most characteristic phrases." How did a dangerous social outcast become beloved national icon? Although Cantinflas was the pelado par excellence, the earlier success of the popular comic strip Las aventuras de Chupamirto by Jesús Acosta led to pelado characters featured in comedic skits at many carpa shows — a form of popular theatrical entertainment that combined elements of vaudeville and circus, taking place in tents, or carpas. These forms of popular culture were responsible for the transvaluation of the pelado to the peladito, from a sign of urban poverty to a stock picturesque and picaresque type: "Thanks to a comedian, he is rebaptized with the diminutive, the peladito, the smiling suburban [arrabal] rogue." Cantinflas and his film success would decisively tame the explosive lumpen figure and make him an irreverent rogue and profitable commodity in the hands of an ascendant culture industry.

Understanding the making of the peladito in relation to the centralization of political power and the expansion of capitalism makes the above transformation a marker for shifting relations between state, people, and mass culture. Both the pelado and the peladito represent the tendency of capital to create surplus labor in the context of a growing capitalist regime in the 1930s. For Gareth Williams, this transformation functions less as a defusion or cooptation of explicit political content than as a marker of "an emerging nexus between politics and mass culture industries." The pelado is a social anomaly whereas the peladito designates a representative subject of and from the people (pueblo). The production of the peladito becomes a narrative about the production of cultural apparatuses. Cantinflas's senescent reflection calls attention to the formation of the "people" and how the people come to be intelligible. The comedian's central conceit is "Yo soy pueblo," which translates loosely both as he is of the people as well as he is the people. The statement functions both as synecdoche and metonymy: he is literally part and parcel of the classed (and loosely nationalized) people. Although this narrative of transvaluation helps us understand the specificity of the Cantinflas character, it reinforces Moreno's own notion of himself as (of) the people. Because Cantinflas was establishment, most read his films to locate his becoming establishment (often nostalgic for the moments of critical potential before this came to pass). We know the end point and so our reading plots the star text along a predetermined narrative. We risk ignoring how a people become represented and representable through cinema, how a viewing subject was fashioned, and how a metonym came to be.

In articulating state, people, and cinema, these Latin Americanists often leave the last term unexamined. And yet a study of the shifting conceptions of subjectification and publicness that pivot on a screen image should bear in mind how cinema renegotiates the horizon of public experience — this "people" (become mass) is first and foremost a viewing public. Parsing out how cinema shapes this viewing public means returning to the film text but not with a view to assessing the explicit political content of the comedian's quips. Moreno's interview already suggests some lines of inquiry. He insists that his character is drawn from direct observation, a claim to a type of realism that might surprise given the stylization of the archetype. Further, the longwinded response performs the type of baroque verbal spiels that would makes Moreno's character so popular. All the devices used by the pelado to mock officious speech — the chain of subordinate clauses, the asides addressed to an interlocutor, the redundancies, and the dangling modifiers — are here deployed, perhaps an earnest response that functions as ironic rebuke of the status quo Moreno had become or perhaps a slippage of persona and performer. More likely both. Y ahí está el detalle (And there's the rub).

Starting with Cantinflas's first successful film, Ahí está el detalle (You're Missing the Point) (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1940), this chapter examines the comedian's quick verbal play in addition to formal devices, editing techniques, and doubled narrative structures that "sidestep" on multiple levels. A close analysis of this foundational film examines the operations of cantinflismo in multiple registers, from linguistic play to textual instability and from denotative equivocation to spatial practice. Rather than periodize Cantinflas in relation to production histories, sociocultural context, or the evolution of his pelado character, I consider Cantinflas's films in relation to their use of formal and narrative devices that capitalize on his play with referentiality, particularly the (ab)use of proper names that no longer denote, and that foreground the maximal specularity of a star famous for dodging (denotative) representation. Although this sidestepping wanes over time, I understand this erosion as a function of spectatorship becoming classical in a mode I contend is different than classicism figured in Hollywood. In the Hollywood context, the transition from early cinema to classical cinema was not simply a function of narrative devices becoming convention but rather the codification of the proper relations among viewer, projector, and screen. Becoming classical meant changing the spatial arrangement of the cinema experience. Cantinflas's antics, considered at the level of narrative strategies, aesthetic or affective devices, and material practices, gesture toward a different model of spectatorship where the segregation of film and theater space and the normative pleasures implied are different. Cantinflas's films present a mock classicism particular to Latin America that harnessed these "other" pleasures, where the spectator derived pleasure from (mimetic) recognition and from the proximate (or at the very least related) spatial arrangement of theater space and screen space.


The success of Ahí está el detalle marks a turning point for a Mexican cinema that tripled its production of comedies with the arrival of sound in the late 1930s. García Riera credits Ahí está el detalle as legitimating the market position of comedies and the growing star discourse around comedic actors that had previously been relegated to supporting parts. Ahí está el detalle presents an intricate comedy of errors where our unnamed protagonist becomes embroiled in a series of escalating misadventures and misunderstandings. By way of synopsis, Cantinflas courts the maid, Paz (Dolores Camarillo), from an upper-class couple's residence. The couple's relationship is tumultuous because the husband, Cayetano (Joaquín Pardavé), suspects his younger wife, Dolores "Lola" (Sofía Álvarez), is having an affair. Lola's former lover, Bobby "The Fox Terrier" Lechuga (Antonio Bravo), threatens to blackmail her with undated love letters meant to incense her jealous husband. At the same time, Cayetano wants to preserve his marriage because of an inheritance his wife is expecting but cannot collect because of the disappearance of her biological brother, Leonardo del Paso. In a complicated play of upstairs-downstairs high jinks, Cantinflas is mistaken for Leonardo. Cantinflas takes advantage of this case of misrecognition until the real Leonardo's partner, Clotilde, arrives with a gaggle of illegitimate children. Cantinflas's subsequent attempts to extricate himself are frustrated when the real Leonardo commits murder, and Cantinflas must use his natural gift — "la facilidad de palabra" (a way with words), as he explains in the film — to keep himself out of jail. The film ends with the real Leonardo arriving at the courtroom in the nick of time to confess his crime and recognize his partner and children.

The film provides one of the earliest examples of Cantinflas as a leading man who cannot be followed. Cantinflas's periphrastic comedic riffs are a function of the circumscribed intelligibility afforded by contingent linguistic markers and the sociocultural specificity of his language. The film's title offers an idiomatic expression that suggests how the film's literal and figurative registers are necessarily inflected by strategic unintelligibility and audience location: Ahí está el detalle literally translates to "There is the detail," but its variable meanings are a function of the contingent shifter (i.e., ahí [there]) and the idiomatic use of detalle. Throughout the film, detalle refers to a significant detail, an overarching point, and a casual romantic partner. The comedian's linguistic contortionism-cantinflismo — relies on the circumlocution afforded by a steady chain of shifters indicating a space that never materializes, a circumlocution that produces always-contingent positions to an ostensibly stable referential relationship. Regarded in this light, the English-language title packs an additional sardonic element: You're Missing the Point gestures toward some significance that is always already missing. Drawing on the film's spoken dialogue, narrative structure, and form and style, I demonstrate how the comedian's appeal relies on the evasion of intelligibility and argue that this film comedy more broadly complicates the denotative nature of classical film language and frustrates narrative-cognitive approaches to spectatorship.

Cantinflas's most amusing verbal encounters in the film often position his pelado character opposite the Romantic and polished language of Paradavé's Cayetano. Cantinflas's verbal dexterity undermines Paradavé's attempts to appear grandiloquent, revealing the latter's criollo hypocrisy. In their first encounter on screen, Cayetano searches for his wife's presumed lover and finds Cantinflas raiding his pantry of luxury goods. Cayetano confronts Cantinflas at gunpoint, interrogating the comic and threatening his life. Despite his innocence, Cantinflas eludes questioning not by physically avoiding detection or by denying his complicity; instead, he relies on the vacuity of polite convention to disarm the cuckold:

Cayetano: ¡Sálgase de ahí!

Cantinflas: No, aquí estoy bien muchas gracias. ¿Por qué no entra usted? Aquí hay galleticas, cognatico y puritos.

Cayetano: Gracias, gracias. Acabo de cenar.

Cantinflas: Pues si yo también acababa, pero pues —

Cayetano: Sí, sí — ¡sálgase usted de ahí le digo!

Cantinflas: Bueno, así de buen modo, sí salgo. Y me va usted perdonar que me retire pero ya se me hizo tarde. A ver en qué día vuelvo. Con permiso.

Cayetano: Sí, sí. Pase usted ... ¡Alto allí!

Cantinflas: ¿A dónde?

Cayetano: ¡Allí!

Cantinflas ¿Allí?

Cayetano: ¡Aquí!

Cantinflas: ¿Por fin?

Cayetano: ¿Qué?

Cantinflas: ¿Allí o aquí?

Cayetano: Aquí y conteste pronto.

Cantinflas: No puedo.

Cayetano: ¿Por qué?

Cantinflas: Pues, todavía usted no me pregunta nada.

Cayetano: De veras. ¿Qué hace usted aquí?

Cantinflas: No, pues usted me dijo que me parara aquí.

Cayetano: ¡Le pregunto usted qué hace usted aquí en mi casa!

Cantinflas: Pues si es lo que yo digo. ¿Yo qué hago aquí en su casa? De manera que aclarado el punto con permiso me retiro.

Cayetano: ¡Párese allí!

Cantinflas: Otra vez. ¿Está usted jugando?

Cayetano: No se burle. No se burle y conteste antes de que le pegue un balazo.

Cantinflas: Será mejor antes.

Cayetano: ¿Qué hace usted aquí?

Cantinflas: ¿Y usted?

Cayetano: Eso a usted no le importa.

Cantinflas: Con usted no puede uno entenderse, señor. Si a mí no me importa, ¿por qué a usted le importa lo que a mí no me importa?

Cayetano: ¿Qué no se ha dado cuenta que yo soy el marido?

Cantinflas: ¿Cuál marido?

Cayetano: ¡Su marido!

Cantinflas: ¿Mi marido? ... No diga usted esas cosas que a lo mejor lo están oyendo y mi reputación ...

Cayetano: No disimules. Soy el marido de mi mujer.

Cantinflas: ¿También?

Cayetano: Sí.

Cantinflas: Bueno, y ¿eso qué? ¿A mí qué me importa? Yo nunca me meto en cosas privadas.

Cayetano: ¿Qué no? Yo le voy a decir a usted lo que usted está haciendo aquí en mi casa.

Cantinflas: Pues si me hace el favor y es tan amable.

Cayetano: Come out of there!

Cantinflas: No, thanks. I'm fine in here. Won't you come in? There's cookies, brandy and cigars.

Cayetano: Thanks. I just ate.

Cantinflas: I just did too, but you know

Cayetano: Sure, I know. — Come out right now!

Cantinflas: Now that you put it so nicely. Sure, I'll come out. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really have to go. I'll come back soon. Excuse me.

Cayetano: Sure. Go ahead. — Stop right there!

Cantinflas: Where?

Cayetano: There!

Cantinflas: There?

Cayetano: Here!

Cantinflas: Make up your mind.

Cayetano: What?

Cantinflas Here or there?

Cayetano: Here, and answer me quickly.

Cantinflas: I can't.

Cayetano: Why not?

Cantinflas: You haven't asked me a question.

Cayetano: You're right. What are you doing here?

Cantinflas: You told me to stand here.

Cayetano: I mean what are you doing here in my house!

Cantinflas: I've been asking the same question. What am I doing here? So I guess I'll leave now.

Cayetano: Stop there!

Cantinflas: Not again. Are you joking?

Cayetano: Don't mock me. Answer me before I shoot!

Cantinflas: You better ask before [you shoot].

Cayetano: What are you doing here?

Cantinflas: What about you?

Cayetano: None of your business!

Cantinflas: I don't understand. Why is it my business if it isn't your business?

Cayetano: Because I am the husband.

Cantinflas: What husband?

Cayetano: The husband!

Cantinflas: My husband? Don't say that. People might hear you, and my reputation

Cayetano: I am my wife's husband.

Cantinflas: Hers too?

Cayetano: Yes.

Cantinflas: So? Why should I care? I never meddle in private affairs.

Cayetano: You don't? I'll tell you what you're doing in my house.

Cantinflas: If you'd be so kind.


Excerpted from "Mock Classicism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nilo Couret.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Cantinflismo and Relajo's Peripheral Vision 22

2 The Call of the Screen Niní Marshall and the Radiophonic Stardom of Argentine Cinema 68

3 Timing Is Everything Sandrini's Stutter and the Representability of Time 111

4 Fictions of the Real: The Currency of the Brazilian Chanchada 153

5 Comedy Circulates Circuitously: Toward an Odographic Film History of Latin America 192

Notes 235

Selected Bibliography 263

Index 273

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