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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Arm in Arm Down the Street (Del brazo y por la calle) - (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1956) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 2

Juan Bustillo Oro’s film, Arm in Arm Down the Street  (Del brazo y por la calle) (1956) is the story of a young married couple, María and Alberto, who have great dreams, but who live in grinding poverty in the harsh, noisy, industrial neighborhood of Nonoalco / Tlatelolco, which is slowly robbing both of their human dignity and, in the case of María, her sanity. What makes this film unique is the fact that Bustillo Oro uses the Expressionistic techniques he employed in his earlier works of Mexican Expressionism and film noir, to create the sensory conditions of the experience of the living in an industrial part of Mexico City (Tlatelolco) near a huge train terminal and the Nonoalco bridge, and the psychological consequences. María, who hails from a family from the wealthy (and snobbish) Mexican elite, married the impecunious but ambitious artist, Alberto. They are intensely in love, and both have the best of intentions to make their marriage a success. However, the grinding monotony of poverty, the bill collectors, and the invasiveness of the city with its noise, heat, smoke and grime are pushing María into a state of anxiety, despair, and paranoia. 

Trapped at home, she comments that “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry” (from Del brazo y por la calle). Alberto’s pride and ambition push him to make rash and ultimately selfish decisions, and above all, make him blind to the consequences of his selfish point of view. The film is emotionally difficult to watch, but as opposed to the films based on plays by Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, Bustillo Oro’s film, like most of the great films from Mexico’s Epoca de Oro del Cinema Mexicano, has a life-affirming ending with a message of hope, strength, and salvation.

While many of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age films are melodramas, comedies, film noir, or westerns, Arm in Arm Down the Street is an example of Naturalism.  In a literary sense, the film is in a direct line of descent from the novels and novellas of the naturalist writers, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and George Gissing in that it shows the inner workings, dreams, contradictions and vulnerabilities of people in a state of relative powerlessness.  In the case of George Gissing, his female protagonists are often ones driven by poverty to degrading behaviors; but it shows (as Jane Austen was at pains to always point out), that women had to muzzle themselves with respect to frankness and honesty in order to have any chance whatsoever at survival (aka, a “good match”).  Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s female characters also tend to fall to that level as well. Without a “good match,” there was essentially nothing to keep you from falling into a pit; a veritable hell on earth. In that sense, many of the naturalists and sensationalists (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Ellen Wood), are in essence writing cautionary tales about what fate will be befall you if you marry badly.  Although they write to question and undermine the practice of “The Season,” there is a sense that they can’t change reality, and so the novels become normative in the sense that they simply equip people with knowledge and a cold-eyed stare at the practice to arm themselves to play the game to win.

Del brazo y por la calle is really no different. While its super-realism / naturalism engenders comprehension and sympathy (and perhaps even self-knowledge) in the viewer, in the end, most viewers will look at María and think, “Look what you could have avoided if you had not been dumb enough to marry an artist!” In terms of the clichés surrounding “artistic temperament,” one can argue that María is even more temperamental than Alberto. He is unflappable. However, that is primarily because he has learned to insulate himself a bit from reality. It is only when reality intrudes does he face his own part in the drama that resulted in such profound alienation and emotional agony for his wife. 

MAIN CHARACTERS

Maria                Beautiful young woman from a wealthy family in the Mexican elite

Alberto             Poor, idealistic painter who is passionately in love with María

Mexico City       Credited in the credits as the third main actor

SYNOPSIS

Del brazo y por la calle the story of María and Alberto, who marry in spite of María’s parents’ exhortations to the contrary.  Wealthy parents never want to see their daughters marry impecunious artists, and it is even more the case in highly stratified Mexico where social hierarchy has been so rigidly enforced it amounts to a caste system. But, love will be love, and all it takes is a little bit of Puck’s pansy juice in the eyes, and the beautiful society debutante falls in love with the penniless artist who lives in a noisy apartment that is falling apart at the seams and inhabited by carousing neighbors and sexual predators. The film is about the how the once utopian part of the city that housed the hub of President Porfirio Diaz’s immense railway network evolved into a dystopian, Hephaestian inferno around the Nonoalco Bridge, and how that environment slowly chipped away the sanity of the residents. In the end, the strength of their love prevails, but it is not without deep challenges and introspection. The clanging, shrieking, hoarse-throated city breaks down, but in doing so, it reveals the gold within.

THEMES

Naturalism in cinema.  As perhaps one of the most innovative and daring films of the entire Epoca de Oro del Cine Mexicano (Golden Age of Mexican Cinema), Del brazo y por la calle .  Its subtlety and relative obscurity have resulted in the fact that it seems to be an underappreciated film. And yet, there are aspects of the film that make it unique, not only for being an intensely innovative example of Naturalism in cinema that brings in the city itself as perhaps the main protagonist, but for functioning as a time capsule.  The film was shot in the Mexico City industrial areas of Nonoalco and Tlatelolco, which, at the time of the filming in 1955, was an industrial area criss-crossed by train tracks and busy elevated bridges and highways. It was an ugly agglomeration of Bauhaus-appearing multi-story stucco buildings, plazas with low-rent businesses (pool halls, etc.), cheap hotels, incessant construction, and pockets of grinding poverty where poor children did not get the nutrition or medical attention they needed.  There were also vestiges of the past – a small church dating back to colonial times, constructed over the old Tlatelolco city-state that once rivaled Tenochtitlán. There was also a charming lake, Lake Texcoco, which rivaled Xichimilco, but unlike Xochimilco, Lake Texcoco was drained.  It is interesting to note that Bustillo Oro filmed in Nonoalco, the same location as Buñuel’s classic (but immediately banned) film, Los Olvidados (1950) which incorporated the story of juvenile delinquents. The scenes of the trains and the tracks upon which María trips as she returns from the market are reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s stunning photographs of the trains of Mexico City which he published in 1955. In Rulfo’s photographs, the trains simultaneously evoke the rapid leap to modernity of Porfirio Díaz’s presidency, along with a sense of its impact on people’s ways of surviving against all odds.

Costumbrismo urbano:  One can consider Bustillo Oro’s film an example of “costumbrismo urbano” (to coin a term), because the Tlatelolco of 1956 (as in the case of the pre-Conquest Tlatelolco) no longer exists. Much was demolished in order to make way for utopian urban projects – a utopia that never arrived, given that Tlatelolco was the site of a massacre of students by the military in 1968, and then the site of mass death in 1985 when the relatively new buildings collapsed during the 1985 massacre.

This is a brief excerpt of the full article by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.. Click here to read the article with additional details about plot elements, themes, character analysis, illustrative scenes, and review questions. 

In the opening scenes, the narrator takes the viewer on a tour of Mexico City and its wide and diverse array of neighborhoods and communities. This is a few of the Polanco district, renowned for its leafy trees, wide avenues, and prosperous businesses. 

As we progress through Mexico City, the camera angles become more pronounced and the views of Mexico City are askew, suggesting that the city itself can cause disorientation and alienation. 


Alberto and María kneel inside the small, colonial-era church located in the poor, industrial Tlotelolco District of Mexico City, where Alberto lives. 

Working by the light from below, María huddles near the skylight, still mending clothing.  She is still on the azotea (rooftop patio), and in the distance one can see the neon lights, demonstrating that artifice and human constructions have completely overwhelmed / negated nature. 

María observes poor children playing in the dirt and trash in her neighborhood of Nonoalco, just past the train tracks and under the elevated highway bridge. She notices one boy is disabled. All seem to be hungry. She leaves her paper bag containing bread for them. “Every day I must endure the only view I have: the terrible human misery that surrounds me: naked children, totally insensate women, men turned into beasts by alcohol, and in all, everyone is hungry.”


The bridge at Nonoalco where Alberto considers suicide. The chiaroscuro treatment by Bustillo Oro gives it a feeling of being in an inferno. 

María and Alberto recommit themselves to each other. Morning has broken, and the light of day is shining into their home and their hearts. Bustillo Oro uses light to represent calm optimism and a transformation. The cross-beams are clearly visible, also connoting stability

Alberto and María walk hand in hand down the street. They are together, and the sky is clear. There is very little traffic, and the weather is calm. The viewer has a sense of optimism and restored balance. 


Sunday, April 04, 2021

El Angel Negro (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1942) - Why I Love Mexican Cinema: 1

 In El Angel Negro (The Black Angel), Juan Bustillo Oro takes his desire to experiment with lighting, shot sequencing, mise-en-scene, and camera angles in order to achieve expressionistic effects that represent hidden, chthonic places in the mind and the heart, and a psychological experience that explores perception and beingness, and asks what happens when you represent ontological uncertainty. He also creates what may be the most evil femme fatale in film noir with Cristina. (For a full plot summary and character analysis, click here).

In his earlier films, Dos Monjes (Two Monks) and Cada loco son su tema (Every Madman with His Theme), Bustillo Oro explores the deterioration of mental state due to guilt (Dos Monjes) and due to an excessive exposure to hyperbolic, sensational narrative, similar to the notion that young women could be negatively influenced by reading gothic novels or romances (Cada loco con su tema). In those cases, the audience’s gaze was directed to a particular character whose mental stability was the primary focus. However, in the case of El Angel Negro, the issue of mental illness is not in question; the person who is obsessive and potentially mentally ill has already arrived at that state. Instead, Bustillo Oro explores the kind of emotional impact that he can create within the world of the film; how a world becomes suffused with danger and menace because of a combination of past sinful criminality and a tacitly present sense of invasive, engulfing desire.  Specifically, Bustillo Oro brings his expressionistic cinematography to show how the murderous obsession of a deranged, illegitimate half-sister and the murky worlds of possessive desire, echoes of past violation, and an unwholesome attachment spill out into the audience who perceives the way that the fabric of the daylight, polite world can be ripped asunder.  The audience feels the vulnerability, not only to their person, but also to the potential of being classified as an outcast, or shunned due to one’s origins. In this case, the emotions are not created in order to feel compassion or empathy, but to intensify the sense of revulsion and menace.  The danger is palpable; the assault on one’s values is recognizable. The audience feels relief when the evil woman kills herself and order is restored to the world. And thus it is that horror serves a normative purpose and could be viewed as a kind of “rhetoric of conservation.” Bustillo Oro’s excursion into the depths of depravity end as the holiest and most revered of religious figures, the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, essentially breaks the evil spell and reunites the family, and re-illuminates the sin-darkened world.

In El Angel Negro (1942), Bustillo Oro creates a psychological drama that pushes the envelope on earlier films that established the horror genre, such as such classics as The Mummy or Frankenstein. It is the story of a failed attempt to protect an innocent new bride and her new baby from the jealous intentions of another woman. The fact that the woman was the half-sister of the new wife, and that the man’s previous wives had mysteriously died of poisoning, and that the half-sister lived with the burden of a shameful secret of origin (her mother was raped by a man working in the home) and an unwholesome love for her half-brother add not only a sense of the taboo, but also the experience of vicariously stepping outside the norms and order of the polite world.

In looking at Bustillo Oro’s oeuvre, while on the surface, El Angel Negro may seem rather simplistic, it represents an important aesthetic bridge between his Expressionistic works: the gothic Dos Monjes and the campy satire, Each Madman with His Theme, and the nostalgic, romantic world of ornate architecture, expansive growth of wealth for the upper class, and intricate social rituals of the time of President Porfirio Díaz (In the Time of Porfirio Diaz (1942) and My Memories of Mexico (1944)).

While a review of the relatively simple plot gives the impression that the movie is simply about the fact that truth prevails in the end, and justice is restored, the movie itself is much more than that. The non-narrative aspects of the film, namely the Expressionistic lighting and camera angles, and the visual narrative that contains shadowy evocations of evil, go far beyond the simple person of Cristina, and point to a world at least half-saturated with the forces of darkness, underworld, and the chthonic.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is suggested at times, and in visual allusions and the chiaroscuro with unusual camera angles, the idea of a world where order trembles on the brink of darkness and chaos is suggested.  Femininity and womanhood are problematized by the presence of a woman (Cristina) who is aggressively antagonistic to the social and cultural ideas of a “nice” woman. The power lies in the shadows and not in the light, which trembles and may be blown out or otherwise extinguished at any time.

Bustillo Oro has created film that revels in its triumph of the fertile, chaotic, procreative darkness over the light, and which suggests that the horror genre relies on the interplay of order and symmetry, over its ghastly, infernal counterpart. In such a world, Cristina and Elisa are in fact both the one true mother of the son, but as a fused doppelganger, the order containing its own disorder.

PRIMARY CHARACTERS

Jorge Llorente               Wealthy member of the elites; a widower who marries Elisa

Elisa                             Innocent and beautiful young woman who marries Jorge

Cristina                        Jorge’s half-sister

Don Luciano                 Elisa’s father, a prosperous but rather silly man

Doña Meche                 Mother of three marriageable daughters

Doctor Bustamente       Don Luciano’s doctor

SYNOPSIS

Set in the 1860s, El Angel Negro begins as a story about the “season” for young women of Mexico’s elite class in the mid 19th century who attend elegant balls and soirees in an attempt to attract a wealthy suitor. Elisa, the daughter of a doting (if rather silly) and indulgent father, seems to have the best of all possible chances; at least that is certainly the assessment of the mother of three daughters who will compete in the same pool of men.  Elisa, who is as innocent and good as she is beautiful, is ineluctably drawn to the wealthy, but potentially dangerous widower loner, Jorge Llorente, whose previous two (or possibly more) wives died young by sudden illnesses that look a lot like poisoning.  Elisa and Jorge are magnetically drawn to each other and their intense connection is palpable.  However, when Elisa entered Jorge’s massive, gloomy mansion, things start to become quite strange.  Jorge’s half-sister, Cristina, is the housekeeper, and although she tries to conceal it at first, she is intensely jealous of any attention toward Jorge.  Jorge does little or nothing to stop the behavior; in fact, he exacerbates the problem by keeping a life-size portrait of her in a main hall, and by letting her have access to Elisa.  When Elisa gives birth to a baby boy, Jorge is delighted and relieved.  Almost immediately, Cristina positions herself as the primary caregiver, to the point that it seems that she does not want to release the baby to Elisa or Jorge.  Eventually, Cristina’s possessiveness and erratic behavior become quite obvious to Elisa, and she complains to Jorge.  In the meantime, Cristina catches Jorge’s ear as she whispers to him that Elisa had an affair with a male friend, and that Jorge is not even the father of Elisa’s son. As a result, Elisa is forced to move away and the baby is raised as Cristina’s son.  Years pass.  Elisa and Jorge reunite, and they decide to tell Jorge who his real mother is. Cristina tries her best to block the news, but is unsuccessful. Jorge rejects the information, but Cristina believes it is just a matter of time, so she gives herself a lethal dose of poison.  Jorge remains unconvinced until a religious medal containing the Virgin of Guadalupe triggers his memory. The movie ends as the three embrace – a family reunited.

For the full article by Susan Smith Nash and her analysis of themes, character, and illustrative scenes, please visit Humanities Institute: El Angel Negro

Jorge Llorente arrives at the ball in a top hat. Elisa is wearing a blindfold, which is both physically and metaphorically indicative of her ability to see what she was getting herself into. 

The otherworldly beauty of the life-size painting of Cristina which hangs on the wall in the gloomy mansion / castle where Jorge lives. 

Cristina holds the baby possessively, and the camera angles make the baby blend into her own body, giving the impression that they are a single being. 


Cristina, the camera angle and lighting emphasizing the wildness in her eyes, tells Jorge she will never give up “her” son.



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