Trans national Cinematic Musical Discourse

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By 2017-04-16

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By Indeewara Thilakarathne

In this last segment of the series on Latin American cinema and the pivotal role that music plays in it, particularly, in establishing cultural identity, we explore the lasting influence that music has on cinema.

In "Aural identity, genealogies of sound technologies, and Hispanic trans nationality on screen", Marvin D'lugo observes how music has been effectively used to evoke nostalgia. As Carlos Monsiváis begins his 1997 essay on the history of the bolero with what he calls a 'postmodern prologue', he evokes a moment in Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish melodrama, Tacones lejanos (High Heels, 1993) where Marisa Paredes, a torch singer returns to Madrid from a long sojourn in Mexico, and makes her triumphant return to the Spanish stage by singing Agustín Lara's Piensa en mí (Think of Me).

For Monsiváis, the moment is intended to underscore the temporal displacements that are woven into the cinematic musical conjuncture at the heart of the bolero and of Latin American musical cinema generally. "We know immediately that the bolero has become the essence of the past, not of the real past, not even of the idealized past, but of everything that was before progress destroyed sentimentalism ('cursilería')".

His observations may well have been inspired by a series of films of the 1980s and early 1990s that not only recycled the Latin American melodies that underscored earlier trans national cinematic musical discourse, but which dramatize within their plotting and stories, the central narrative of aural migration. Fernando Solanas's French-Argentine co-production,

Tangos: el exilio de Gardel (1986), set entirely in Paris, opens up a new wave of tango cinema that recalls the past as a way of reshaping contemporary Argentine and Latin American politics. The neo-tango craze is eventually picked up in another international co-production, Carlos Saura's Tango (1997), a film whose Argentine-Spanish-Italian funding suggests the extent of this transnational genre. In Mexico, María Novarro's Danzón (1991) evokes a new feminist cinema that is rooted in the shadows of the fichera film's dance hall, in which the heroine's pursuit of a dance partner inevitably becomes a broader nostalgic exploration of musical and cultural origins for Mexicans who, over recent decades, have come to see themselves as a largely urbanized nation.

Saura's countryman, Pedro Almodóvar, brings ever wider audiences to rediscover the bolero as a new version of trans national Hispanic cultural identity, now closely tied to a gay sensibility. In Almodóvar's filmography,

Latin American boleros sung by Lucho Gatica, Chavela Vargas, Lola Beltrán, and La Lupe, precede the Augustín Lara song Monsiváis describes. Notably, in the Spanish filmmaker's appropriations of Latin American song, music becomes the pervasive strategy through which protagonists reshape their emotional and even social identity.

Interestingly, the emotional and social identity has at a subliminal level been established through the strategic use of and appropriation of Latin American song and music.

He further observes; "That extraterritorial use of Latin American songs refigures the trans national trajectory of Latin America's musical past some forty years earlier and gives evidence of the broader aural identification that belies that tradition. At the same time, as Almodóvar's cinema reflects, it becomes an essential part of the postmodern aesthetic made all the more politically pressing in the face of encroaching globalization.

What is striking about these 'translations' of musicalized Hispanic cinema in recent decades, is their insistent linkage to the cluster of musical motifs identified with urbanization and modernity into what García Canclini now terms Latin American postmodern identities. In the face of globalized market culture, with its denigration of communities on the margins as aural identity and Hispanic trans nationality cheap labor, this resurgence of older cultural formulas responds to political forces much deeper than mere artistic style. For contemporary Hispanic filmmakers, those now classic musical tropes become a lingua franca through which filmmakers attempt to address a geographically diverse and imagined community of Latinos. This form of musicalized cinema (as opposed to the Hollywood genre of the 'movie musical') foment in audiences a sense of cultural affiliation, expressing through the symbolic migrations of sounds and images from the nostalgic and sentimental past, a newly emerging political sense of the Hispanic community that resists homogenization by multinational commercial interests.

A cluster of trans national meanings has privileged certain types of Latin American music and has been used precisely in that slip zone between political action and cultural solidarity. In the wake of the multiple economic crises and social instability that plagued the region and decimated the once stable 'natural' audiences of Latin American cinema in the 1980s, the appeal of the musical sounds of a trans national identity is rekindled in a series of films that effectively refigure the musical genealogies of the early sound decades in new contexts.

The exotic music of the tropics is recaptured in a work of artistic preservation in Wim Wenders and Ry Cooter's Buena Vista Social Club which, far from fossilizing African Cuban jazz, has had the effect of promoting a similar migration of sounds of identity through a series of other diasporic Caribbean-based musical documentaries. These include Fernando Trueba's Calle 54 (1993), Alex Wolfe's Santo Domingo Blues: Los tígueres de la bachata (2004), and, among fiction films, Benito Zambrano's Spanish-Cuban-French co-production, Havana Blues (2005).

To some degree these films, not unlike their 1930s predecessors, are works of nostalgic recuperation. They evoke the disembodied past as a form of reassurance in the face of profound cultural and economic displacement. It would easy to dismiss these productions, therefore, as efforts to exploit marketing strategies, not unlike the original films hispanos. At the same time, they express a deeper problematic within which the consumption of popular culture operates as a dynamic activity that reaffirms an otherwise fragmented and dispersed cultural identity.

In its contemporary resurgence, the special privilege of musicalized cinema does not lie in the cinematic medium's appropriation of the sounds of the trans national Hispanic identity, but rather conversely, the Hispanic trans national community's embrace of cinema's construction of identity, 'its artistic, folkloric, and media narratives that shapes it [as these] are realized and transformed within socio historical conditions that cannot be reduced to their mise-en-scène.' As the cliché has it, musicalized cinema becomes the eyes and ears of newly emerging cultural and political identities. Beginning in the early sound era, with the transformation of musical folklore into the product of mass media, cinema came to occupy a crucial space of circulation that enabled its move within national borders and also across the transnational space that traced the routes of Hispanic migration culture. Precisely because of its status as mass media and mass culture, musical cinema has been able to evolve through a mode of address that ultimately proves ideal for the articulation of the Hispanic trans national communal identity in the continual process of transformation and adjustment to modernity.

It is obvious that musical cinema has evolved as a mode of circulation of cultural roots. What is pertinent for us, is whether or not Sri Lankan filmmakers have realised this viral aspect in cinema and are able to utilize it.

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