Aural culture

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By 2017-03-12

By Indeewara Thilakarathne

In this week's column, I would like to further explore the vital role that aural culture plays in shaping early Latin American cinema and its cinematic signature.

In an academic article titled 'Aural identity, genealogies of sound technologies, and Hispanic transnationality on screen', Marvind D'lugo observes this seminal evolution thus: " Gardel appeared from various perspectives to be the Spanish-language Jolson, an apt analogy since, like Jolson, he came to sound cinema with an already-established celebrity persona. Just as Warner Brothers created the cinematic Jolson through its promotion of The Jazz Singer, so too, was the cinematic Gardel really the invention of Paramount Pictures as it exploited and expanded the dense network of repetitive aural culture that live performances, sound recordings and radio had forged around him and other popular singers. Latin American cultural commentators like to emphasize Gardel's mythic or legendary status, the broad appeal of his biography, a rags-to-riches scenario of a poor boy from the slums whose talent led him to embody sophisticated high culture.

The singer's exceptionalism, however, probably did not lie in any intrinsic aspects of the star's biography or magnetism, nor even his singing voice, but in the accumulation of elements that helped shape and mobilize the Gardelian aural and visual discourse. Like Jolson, and Paramount's first effort at a transnational singing star, Maurice Chevalier, Gardel's movie successes were preceded by his successful music hall career as a charismatic singer. After a debut as a cabaret singer, Gardel joined José Razzano in 1917 to form a musical duet that performed tangos in a Buenos Aires movie theatre in the intervals between silent film screenings.

The Gardel-Razzano performances were so popular with local audiences that the baritone was contracted by Max Glücksman, an Austrian-born businessman and owner of the recently established Argentine recording label Nacional-Odeón. Gardel's subsequent triumph as a recording artist for Columbia, Victor, and Odeón, with a recorded repertory that would eventually number close to 800 songs, reinforced the tango as a form of popular musical expression identified primarily, but not exclusively, with the urban culture of Buenos Aires.

During the critical decade of the 1920s, Glücksman, as a multimedia impresario, would serve as an influential bridge figure for Gardel and the diffusion of the tango through the singer's recording, radio and eventual cinematic performance. In 1922 Glücksman set up an experimental radio broadcasting station in Buenos Aires called TFF Radio Grand Splendid. The station, located in the same Buenos Aires building as the movie theatre of the same name, which Glücksman owned, would transmit live performances from the theater. Over time, a group of musical performers would obtain recording contracts and their voices would become part of the expanding tango repertory. By the mid-1920s, and following the pattern common around the world, the critical synergy between performance, recording and broadcasting was well established in Argentina as radio and theatre reinforced the appeal of cinema for increasing numbers of Argentines. Gardel made his radio debut on Glücksman's Radio Splendid in 1924 and the next year embarked on the first of a series of successful European tours.

He appeared to large and enthusiastic audiences in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. On one of these tours to France in 1929 he was contracted by Paramount to appear in several sound films that were specifically tailored to play on his already established celebrity persona. This was also about the time Maurice Chevalier was 'discovered' in Paris by Irving Thalberg and embarked on his own cinematic 'conquest of America'. The Paramount strategy was by now apparent: to find rivals to Warner Brothers' star property, Al Jolson. With such strong parallels to Jolson's career and image, Gardel must have seemed to Paramount an ideal candidate for the role. To some degree the Gardel films may be seen simply as Spanish-language imitations of a recognizable Hollywood musical genre. Unlike the Busby Berkeley-choreographed cinema that was increasingly Hollywood's evolving pattern, as Paranaguá argues, Gardel reinforces a formula in which the singer and his performance become the central elements.
In this, Gardel's films frequently follow a cinematic-narrative formula identified with Jolson, that is, as a self-conscious stage performance in the middle of the filmic action that recalls for audiences 'the 'documentary' impact of a radio broadcast . . . offering the sort of 'almost documentary presentations' of musical hall performance' Beyond these features, Gardel's exceptionalism is built on the way in which, as a lyricist, an authentic musical 'author,' he intervened in and transformed the historical trajectory of the tango, presenting new lyrics, modifying the themes in his repertory which now include a strong element of nostalgia.

The cycle of nine feature-length films Gardel shot in Paris and New York between 1931 and 1935 were not adaptations from English-language Hollywood productions but films written and produced expressly as vehicles for Gardel. Although all but one of these was a full-length feature, according to Natasha Durovicová, these films fall into a category more structurally akin to Paramount's serially produced shorts, 'Paramount on Parade,' which were made to supplement US-made films for the local audiences in a local language."

At this early stage emerged the authentic movies that were intended to supplement US-made movies in local language for local audience. It is clear that one of the most significant roles at the early stage of the evolution of Latin American cinema was played by aural culture, often represented by a personality of transnational stature.

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