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Public Spectacles of Violence
Sensational Cinema and Journalism in Early Twentieth-Century Mexico and Brazil
By Rielle Navitski
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
STAGING PUBLIC VIOLENCE IN PORFIRIAN AND REVOLUTIONARY MEXICO, 1896–1922
Often considered the first major commercial success of Mexico's cinema, the 1919 film El automóvil gris (The Grey Automobile, Enrique Rosas) is a curious hybrid of fictional and nonfictional conventions that contains a deeply unsettling sequence: a series of seemingly unstaged images showing the execution of several members of the "Grey Automobile Gang," who were accused of committing a series of violent robberies while disguised as soldiers during the military occupations of Mexico City (1914–1915). Building on press discourses that framed the Grey Automobile Gang's crimes as both a distinctly national problem and as a sign of local modernity, since they recalled infamous cases that scandalized Paris, New York, and other industrialized capitals, El automóvil gris capitalized both on public curiosity and a local craze for imported serial films. Evoking serials' criminal themes, daring stunts, and episodic structure, most of the film's sequences make skillful use of the continuity editing codes dominant in most imported fiction films by the late 1910s. Yet the visual conventions of the execution scene strongly evoke the early genre of the actuality, which blurred the distinction between the spontaneous recording and the reenactment of topical events.
Composition, camera movement, and movement within the frame evoke the fortuitous capture of an event unfolding in real time. As the sequence opens, a rapid pan left, then right, shows a group of soldiers in medium shot, apparently posing with one of the accused. Following a brief shot of the soldiers milling about as they prepare for the execution, a slower pan along an exterior wall displays the line of the criminals facing the firing squad. A wide shot of an expectant crowd is followed by a reverse shot of the criminals; suddenly, we see puffs of gunsmoke and a line of falling bodies. Soldiers approach the prone figures to give each the coup de grâce, onlookers stream past the lens, and the scene abruptly ends. In this sequence, the execution is staged as a ritualized public event: the bodies of the accused are held up for display to spectators both inside and outside the film by means of the panning camera movements. These pans, like the wide-shot scale and the chaotic flow of figures past the camera, avoid a close focus on individual criminals. Instead, the execution scene orchestrates a mass spectacle of violence and politics, a tendency that pervaded Mexico's sensational visual culture during and after the militarized phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920).
While this scene's visual language evokes a real-life event recorded on the fly, it is impossible to verify whether these images captured an actual instance of capital punishment. It is known that the film's director, Enrique Rosas, had close business ties to Pablo González, a general in Venustiano Carranza's forces and later a presidential hopeful, who ordered the execution. (González is perhaps best known for orchestrating the assassination of Emiliano Zapata in April 1919.) A veteran cameraman of the revolutionary conflict, Rosas had advertised images of the Grey Automobile Gang's execution as part of his compilation film Documentación nacional histórica 1915–1916 (National Historic Documentation, 1915–1916), which reviewed recent events of the revolutionary conflict. This footage took on renewed commercial value in 1919 after developments in the case of the Grey Automobile Gang, including the deaths of two suspected members in prison, sparked a series of exposés in Mexico City newspapers. The press coverage seems to have inspired the production of El automóvil gris, as well as a competing film financed by the exhibitor Germán Camus, La banda del automóvil (The Automobile Gang, Ernesto Vollrath, 1919). Even as it capitalized on the scandal, Rosas's film appears to have been designed to repair González's public reputation in the face of rumors that he and other high-ranking military officials were complicit in the gang's crimes: González announced his candidacy on the day of its premiere in December 1919.
El automóvil gris's execution scene evokes the intimate connections between political power, military force, and visual technologies in Mexico during and after the Revolution. Most immediately, the inclusion of the footage signals a collective fascination with real-life spectacles of violence during the extended hostilities, which resulted in a death toll estimated at over a million in a country of 12 million. Over the course of a civil war marked by fleeting alliances, betrayals, and conflicting claims to political authority, the militarization of public life further destabilized the government's historically precarious "monopoly of legitimate physical violence." As Paul Vanderwood has argued in his study of bandits and rurales (mounted police), in Mexico "brigands and lawmen" have frequently swapped roles, functioning "as double agents of order and disorder." The events of the Revolution spilled across the pages of the illustrated press, which had expanded considerably in the latter years of Porfirio Díaz's regime (a period referred to as the Porfiriato), and became the principal subject of Mexican films produced between 1911 and 1916. Visual records of death and injury — irreversible, unrepeatable happenings — attested to mechanical reproduction technologies' unique capacity to capture the ephemeral. At the same time, unpredictable and disruptive events like combat and murder stretched this capacity to its limit. Olivier Debroise argues in his history of Mexican photography that the chaotic conditions of the Revolution's documentation highlight dilemmas specific to the medium of photography (and by extension, film): "To anticipate and understand and then halt the destruction for a given moment, just before its irrevocable disappearance, is a special kind of photographic exercise — an exercise in limits."
Public interest in the events of the conflict, combined with the inherent challenges of documenting them, prompted photographers and camera operators to stage and reenact violent events and to impose a narrative organization on topical happenings. This impulse is already evident during the Porfiriato, when the illustrated press cultivated a public fascination with images of revolts, executions, and murder victims. As early as 1907, police and journalists staged and photographed reconstructions of crimes and accidents, producing visual documents with both forensic and commercial uses. El automóvil gris extended these practices by reenacting criminal violence on location and featuring real-life participants in the events. According to advertisements, the lead detective in the case, Juan Manuel Cabrera, appeared as himself, and the serial featured "scenes filmed in the precise places where the events took place." Press coverage also noted that journalist Miguel Necoechea, who worked extensively on the police beat, had collaborated on the script.
By combining narrative sequences with images that purport to show real death, El automóvil gris recalls the representational strategies of early actualities, which created a sense of topicality by capturing current events as they unfolded, restaging them, or combining both approaches in a single film. The actuality's ambiguous relationship to topical events is exemplified by the early subgenre of the execution film; Miriam Hansen argues that execution films' "sensationalist appeal ... cuts across documentary and fictional modes of representation and overtly caters to sadistic impulses; later films could do this only in the guise of narrative motivation and moral truth." If narrative helped curtail the disruptive force of violent images by attributing them with clear moral meanings, the shift to the production of narrative film in the United States and Europe around 1903 also helped limit moving images' privileged, yet ultimately ambiguous relationship to historical time. Mary Ann Doane argues that even as reenactments capitalized on a sense of timeliness and topicality, "the very acceptability of the reconstruction of an event constituted the acknowledgment of the atemporality of the image, the fact that it did not speak its own relationship to time. ... What came to be known eventually as 'deception' in the reenactment was made harmless as 'illusion' in the narrative film." She contends that the shift from the dominance of "the actuality, with its allegiance to the ephemeral and the contingent, to narrative as a tightly structured web of manufactured temporalities" worked to domesticate moving images' inherent indeterminacy.
The unique trajectories of Mexican cinema's development shaped historically specific understandings of the ontology of the moving image, leading to unique configurations of documentation and fictionalization. Nonfiction compilation films dominated domestic production through 1917, when the first feature films were produced in Mexico City. El automóvil gris's juxtaposition of apparently unstaged footage, reenactments, and fictionalized scenes that deviated from the facts of the case as reported in the press marks it as a transitional text in this shift. In its selective use of ostensibly authentic and overtly fictional elements, El automóvil gris highlights the political uses of cinema's and photography's privileged yet uncertain relationship to topical events in light of an acute crisis of political legitimacy during the Revolution. The film's narrative sequences elaborate a convenient political fiction, working to deflect suspicion about the complicity of high-ranking officials in the Grey Automobile Gang's crimes. By contrast, the execution scene's demonstration of the military's repressive power is framed as authentic and thus irrefutable. El automóvil gris demonstrates how images of a violent present could be strategically framed to reinforce or critique the exercise of physical force, presenting it as either criminal or legitimate (state) violence.
El automóvil gris's visual codes and production history suggest how the conventions of popular crime narratives, both literary and cinematic, could be used to package violence for public consumption, rendering it pleasurable and profitable. By drawing on a cosmopolitan imaginary of crime cultivated by French and North American crime serials, popular literature, and scientific and journalistic discourses, El automóvil gris recasts violence as a threatening yet thrilling sign of local modernity. The film exemplifies the visual culture of violence that flourished in early twentieth-century Mexico, at once intensely national in its preoccupations and conditioned by foreign journalism and cinema, a visual culture that marshaled the "reality effects" of mechanically reproduced images in the service of both popular entertainment and social control.
El automóvil gris holds both an exemplary and exceptional status within histories of Mexican cinema. The serial is one of the only silent-era Mexican films from which considerable portions have been preserved, albeit in an altered form; it owes its survival to its re-release in 1933 in a shortened version with an added soundtrack. Few fiction features from the era have survived, and the structure of nonfiction compilation films has been lost as they were cannibalized for use in later films. As Rosas's repurposing of the execution footage in El automóvil gris suggests, during and after the Revolution actuality footage was frequently bought, sold, and reused in other works, such as the multiple versions of Historia completa de la Revolución (Complete History of the Revolution) assembled by the cameraman Salvador Toscano beginning in 1912. In later decades, these images were reworked in documentaries like Memorias de un mexicano (Memories of a Mexican, Carmen Toscano, 1950) and Epopeyas de la Revolución (Epics of the Revolution, Gustavo Carrero, 1961/1963). Although its survival makes it unique, El automóvil gris's strategy of framing violent events through a popular imaginary of criminality exemplifies a broader tendency in Mexican cinema of the period: to narrate and dramatize public violence.
Between 1919 and 1922, a number of early features and serials, most notably La banda del automóvil and the 1922 feature Fanny o el robo de los veinte millones (Fanny or the Theft of the Twenty Millions, Manuel Sánchez Valtierra), fictionalized real-life crime and military misconduct. Whereas El automóvil gris capitalized on the very criminal and political scandal it attempted to defuse, press accounts suggest that La banda del automóvil focused less on real-life crime than on a thrilling brand of urban modernity embodied by the circulation of motorized bandits on broad avenues lit by electric light, emblems of ongoing urban reforms. The presence of a female villain — a mysterious "woman in mourning" who carries out criminal acts in the defense of her son — added an additional frisson. Similarly drawing on the titillating potential of female criminality, Fanny took a more critical approach in its appropriation of the narrative and visual conventions of imported serial films. Like El automóvil gris, Fanny was produced with the help of a military patron and put a flattering spin on scandals involving the armed forces. The film's plot centered on the struggle for possession of a map belonging to the military, which would have reminded spectators of government documents compromised in a recent security breach. The twenty millions of the title referenced the amount stolen by Carranza from the national treasury when he fled Mexico City in 1920, following a contested presidential succession that resulted in his assassination. According to Fanny's surviving script, the film at once mimicked and critiqued the figure of the American "serial queen" embodied by daredevil actresses like Pearl White, Helen Holmes, and Ruth Roland. In her pursuit of the map, the eponymous villain carries out death-defying stunts. Yet she also seduces the hero out of the arms of his long-suffering wife, suggesting the pernicious effects of a sexually adventurous model of womanhood closely linked with Hollywood cinema and U.S. consumer culture.
Whereas Fanny implied that the presence of North American cinema could erode conventional ideals of feminine behavior, topical films depicting women accused of real-life "crimes of passion" played on anxieties linked to women's expanded — and contentious — presence in the public sphere in the wake of the Revolution. In a span of two years, three films sought to capitalize on high-profile trials of women in which the lawyer Querido Moheno argued for the defense: the nonfiction film El proceso de Magdalena Jurado (The Trial of Magdalena Jurado, producer not identified, 1922), the dramatic reconstruction Redención (Redemption, producer not identified, 1924), based on the case of Luz González, and El drama de Alicia Olvera (The Drama of Alicia Olvera), which was planned but never produced. Encouraging his clients to cultivate sympathy by appearing in mourning dress, Moheno also challenged the notion that the right to use physical violence in the defense of personal honor (that is, in an illegal but legitimate fashion) was an exclusively male privilege. The media spectacles surrounding these cases in the cinema and the illustrated press renegotiated the socially acceptable exercise of violence in Mexican public life, even as they tried to contain the disruptive potential of this shift by dramatizing feminine suffering and vulnerability.
At a moment when public violence pervaded everyday life, melodramatic rhetoric aided audiences in making sense of violent events, which they were encouraged to interpret through a matrix of popular narrative conventions with both thrilling and reassuring effects. Newspapers and magazines sensationalized criminality and violence by adopting narrative tropes familiar from serial literature, detective stories, and serial films. At the same time, public officials and journalists weighed whether crime films were a threat to public order. Debates surrounding the social effects of cinema in general, and crime films in particular, shaped notions of its medium specificity on a global scale, as Aaron Gerow demonstrates in his account of the reception of the French crime series Zigomar in Japan. The perceived two-way traffic between criminal acts and criminal fictions indicates how early twentieth-century urban experience in Mexico City was interpreted through the lens of popular crime narratives. Robbery and murder were simultaneously condemned as breakdowns in public order and ironically celebrated as quintessentially cosmopolitan problems that attested to Mexico City's modernity. Highlighting and discursively managing threats to the social order, popular sensationalism capitalized on the privileged abilities of newspapers, photography, and cinema to stage an eventful — and thus quintessentially modern — experience of the present.
Excerpted from Public Spectacles of Violence by Rielle Navitski. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsA Note on Usage ix
Part I. Sensationalizing Violence in Mexico
1. Staging Public Violence in Porfirian and Revolutionary Mexico, 1896–1922 31
2. On Location: Adventure Melodramas in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1920–1927 85
Part II. Staging Spectacles of Modernity in Brazil
3. Reconstructing Crime in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, 1906–1913 123
4. The Serial Craze in rio de Janeiro, 1915–1924: Reception, Production, Paraliterature 167
5. Regional Modernities: Sensational Cinema Outside Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, 1923–1930 199
What People are Saying About This
"Perhaps the most popular—and today the most neglected—genre of silent cinema was the sensational serial film portraying violent and often rebellious action. It was also the most international film form. In this highly original work Rielle Navitski shows how the cinema of early twentieth-century Mexico, with its experience of a recent violent revolution, gave the genre a unique twist, helping to shape a major emerging film industry."
"Public Spectacles of Violence is exemplary of the ground-shifting work on silent Latin American cinema of young scholars in English-language film scholarship today. Obsessively delving into archives and producing not only unknown 'data,' but thoroughly well-grounded and original hypotheses about early cinemas in Mexico and Brazil and their intermedial relationships with the popular press and popular sensationalism, Rielle Navitski's book will take its place in the canon as the must-be-referenced book in the field. It is a tour de force of scholarly rigor and ingenuity."