1a. Alberto Fischerman’s forgotten film, The Players vs. Ángeles caídos/The Players vs. Fallen Angels
1b. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s revered documentary, La hora de los hornos/The Hour of the Furnaces
Two well know production stills from films made in Argentina in 1968. The immediate similarities and subtle differences between the two images are emblematic of the film-historical legacy of each work. The low-key lighting of the still from The Players here accentuates the hedonistic languor of the characters jumbled pell-mell into the frame, an evocation of the film’s sense of anarchic play and creative invention. By contrast, the image from The Hour pushes the chiaroscuro to abstraction—a visual corollary to the film’s Manichaean rendition of political militancy—while the equally crowded mise-en-scène captures the shouting faces of the filmmakers’ implicit protagonist: the revolutionary Argentine masses.
2a. Throw a Dime, dir. Fernando Birri (Argentina, 1958).
2b. Black God, White Devil, dir. Glauber Rocha (Brazil, 1963)
2c. Memories of Underdevelopment, dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Cuba, 1968)
2d. Blood of the Condor, dir. Jorge Sanjinés (Bolivia, 1969)
The four films above are customarily associated with the New Latin American Cinema of the Sixties, which film scholarship has long construed as a coherent pan-Latin American film movement. In reality, each was forged within a specific national context, and in essential isolation from the others. Birri shot his film with the help of students at a provincial university film school he founded; Gutiérrez Alea worked wholly within the Cuban government’s national film system; Sanjinés filmed independently, later forming a production cooperative that relied on collaboration by indigenous peasants. As a leading figure of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, perhaps Rocha alone among the four shown here can truly be seen to have operated within an actual new cinema movement… albeit an entirely national one.
Just as much as The Hour of the Furnaces, Alberto Fischerman’s The Players vs. Ángeles caídos offered a radical response to the political conditions in late-1960s Argentina. In June, 1966, the armed forces ousted President Arturo Illía in a military coup and installed General Juan Carlos Onganía (a) as head of state. Trumpeting what he cynically called a “real revolution”—“una verdadera revolución,” reads a headline from the time of the coup (b)—Onganía immediately restricted all alleged “subversive” activity in Argentina. Among the first acts of his administration: the violent removal of faculty members from the University of Buenos Aires (c), in an event known as “La noche de los bastones largos” (“The Night of the Long Sticks”). The Onganía regime promptly took full administrative control of the country’s university system.
As political radicalization intensified in Argentina in the wake of the Onganía coup, the internationalism of the Di Tella grew increasingly susceptible to attacks from both extremes of the ideological spectrum. At top, a frame from Solanas and Getino’s Hour of the Furnaces (a), shot at a Happening at the Instituto Di Tella, with its famed Director, Jorge Romero Brest, in attendance. The ensuing sequence culminates in a moralizing indictment from the perspective of the militant Left, which here casts the Di Tella as a cauldron of bourgeois privilege and politically alienated frivolity: the very picture of neo-colonialism. Above, the vandalizing, in 1968, of the Di Tella’s downtown headquarters (5b), carried out by the right-wing, ultra-nationalist Tacuara Movement, for which the Institute symbolized the moral corruption of Argentine culture: a poisonous seedbed of decadence, subversion and, even worse, communism.
7. The latent contradictions of the Jockey ad are nowhere more salient than in the presence of one of its central characters, played by Franco-Argentine model Marie-Anne Erize Tisseau. Already involved in political activism at the time of the commercial’s production, Tisseau would later count among those brutally “disappeared” by the Argentine military junta installed in 1976.
by Greg Cohen
There is a tale ripe for the telling of one of the greatest works of avant-garde cinema nearly no one has ever seen. Alberto Fischerman’s iconoclastic feature, The Players vs. Ángeles Caídos/The Players vs. Fallen Angels (1968), was shot in Argentina in the volatile twilight of a tempestuous decade. [open endnotes in new window] By a fateful stroke of historical coincidence, Fischerman’s masterful first film debuted in the same year as that juggernaut of agit-prop documentary familiar to all (if only by name to some), La hora de los hornos/The Hour of the Furnaces (Agentina,1968), by Fernando “Pino” Solanas and Octavio Getino [Fig. 1a-b]. Yet, whereas The Hour is by now as firmly enshrined in the patrimony of Latin American political cinema as it is in the broader (if more nebulous) heritage of so-called World Cinema, The Players endures in near perfect oblivion outside Argentina, although at home it enjoys a certain hallowed obscurity, remembered mainly by the artist-intellectuals who worked with Fischerman in the 60s and 70s, were inspired by his dynamic opera prima, and formed with him an ephemeral independent alliance know as “The Group of 5” (el Grupo de los 5).
Truth be told, it can be difficult to discuss Fischerman’s film today without conjuring up its obverse in Solanas and Getino’s. Indeed, despite their divergent legacies within film history, both works issued from the same crucible of political and cultural discourses in the Argentine 60s, marked above all by the ideal of liberation, to which Latin American cultural scholar Diana Sorensen (channeling Raymond Williams) has pointed as “the ruling force in the structure of feeling that informed the decade” in Latin America as a whole.
Understood in hindsight as a third-world inflection of the global revolutionary moment, the discourse of liberation in the Americas may have operated on a level more rhetorical than programmatic; as a utopian construct, it offered an expedient for sublimating the most disparate national political specificities into a single, abstract, pan-continental ideal. In the cultural field, by contrast—especially as the “long decade” of the 60s waned—the principle of liberation often worked in conspicuously prescriptive ways, defining what kinds of art were either properly revolutionary or inadequately political, and thus either historically relevant or worthy of disregard.
Perhaps inevitably, then, liberation would also come to represent a “ruling force” in the structure of 1960s Latin American film discourse. Early on it established the unwritten protocols of inclusion in the canon of films we designate for study and preservation to this day, for which the obscure fate of The Players offers an instructive example. By the same token, the underpinnings of liberation discourse have proven decidedly tenacious in their modulation of the rules for scholarly engagement with films made in Latin America between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s. This has often been a matter of upholding an opposition (now anachronistic) between the “political” and the “aesthetic” avant-gardes, a distinction that likewise governed the contemporaneous discourse of political modernism in Anglo-American and European film theory and practice.
Hence, even now, when we speak of the Latin American cinema of the 60s, we rarely look beyond a circumscribed lineage of works ostensibly identified with explicit, Left-radical political programs in the region, never mind the many forgotten films like Fischerman’s that, while arguably just as radical on both the political and aesthetic levels, were deemed in the end too formalist to have landed on the right side of political art. Hence also, a certain evaluative dogma (sometimes tacit, more often overt) still seems to preside over a considerable amount of scholarship on what is known by convention as the “New Latin American Cinema.” According to such a position, the historical significance of a given Latin American film from the 60s—that is to say, its revolutionary-political pedigree, irrespective of its formal innovations—must ultimately emanate from its putative commitment to a pan-continental project of liberation. The politics of film scholarship, in other words, have advanced and sustained the notion of the New Latin American Cinema as a viable film-historical designation mainly by tethering it to the discourse of liberation in the Latin American 60s.
It should come as no suprise, then, that experts in the field of Latin American film studies have also long construed the New Latin American Cinema as a coherent and self-aware, pan-Latin American movement of political filmmaking, with a well-established geneaology and its discrete corpus of sanctioned works. From the vantage of the present, though, we might question whether the existence of such a movement was ever more than an invention of film scholarship itself. More tenable, it seems, is to understand the New Latin American Cinema—like the concept of liberation from which it derives—as a largely symbolic ideological construct, a “structure of feeling” capable of subsuming an otherwise motley array of auteurist films, whether from largely national if not regional new cinemas, or from directors working in relative isolation, in the general absence of any autonomous film movement. [Fig. 2a-d]
Such, undoubtedly, were the abstract ideological grounds on which Solanas and Getino themselves erected the framework of their quasi-theoretical manifesto of 1969, “Towards a Third Cinema.” Written one year after the production of their documentary, the text famously projected film history in teleological, historical-materialist terms as a tripartite development that originated with the illusionist “First Cinema” of Hollywood and its industrial avatars, then passed through the independent but elitist, bourgeois “Second Cinema” that superseded it, before culminating with the ideologically superior—because truly revolutionary—“Third Cinema” of militant, oppositional, and categorically political film practice.
Third Cinema, in effect, was to signify a new mode of production that would liberate global film discourse from the capitalist and neo-colonial system to which it had been historically bound; its aspirational reach thus not only traversed the Americas, but presumably extended to militant filmmaking subjects the world over. Yet in practice and in rhetoric, to say nothing of style, most of the Latin American films of the 1960s and 70s that have come to exemplify either Third Cinema or the New Latin American Cinema—generally on the basis of Solanas and Getino’s writings—were almost always conceived in response to resolutely national circumstances, rather than to patently Latin American ones. To my mind, Latin American film scholarship has yet adequately to confront this basic paradox.
There exists, meanwhile, at least one other vital facet of the larger discursive formation in the Latin American 60s that scholarship on the so-called New Latin American Cinema has seemed equally given to overlook. I refer to the theoretical critique of the popular mass media that was emerging in the 1960s and 70s, above all in relation to the medium of advertising, a veritable growth industry in post-war Argentina. Indeed, given just how many critical theorists at the time were turning their attention to the ideological dimensions of mass communications, such disregard for the place of advertising in Latin American political cinema in the 60s is all the more curious.
It is a lack that also invites an important observation: if Latin American film historiography, operating on notions of (properly) political and (irredeemably) aesthetic modes of cultural production, has tended to locate works like Fischerman’s at the irreconcilable antipodes of those like Solanas and Getino’s, in fact The Players and The Hour of the Furnaces strike a notable if awkward truce on the terrain of advertising discourse, to which each work shares a decisive, even constitutive critical relation, however divergent the one from the other in method and inflection.
To begin, it was not merely Fischerman and members of his avant-garde cohort, but also Solanas who came by his cinematic training as a professional director of of advertising films (notably, Fischerman’s first employer in the business was none other than Pino Solanas). Both artists, moreover, ran their own advertising production companies and financed their films with the proceeds, a fact that existing analyses of Fischerman and the Group of 5 routinely underscore, while scholarship on Solanas and Getino’s documentary tends to excuse it, despite the obvious dissonance between Solanas’s chosen métier and the vociferous denunciation of advertising and imperialist mass media he would deploy in The Hour of the Furnaces.
More important for my purposes here, however, are the very deliberate critical uses of advertising discourse that anchor the aesthetic programs of both films, though to my mind it is The Players that engages with advertising in more complex, even prescient ways than its counterpart. In so doing—if I may invoke Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas at this point in the 60s were very much “in the air”—Fischerman’s film betrays a subtle critical understandingof advertising media in the abstract, in ways distinct from (though not entirely incongruous with) the ideals of “militant” cinema espoused by Solanas and Getino. In turn, The Players may just tell us something that liberation discourse—by way of Third Cinema and the New Latin American Cinema paradigm—has largely overlooked about the broader nexus of art, politics, and mass media at the end of the Latin American 60s.
A match made in misery:
To be sure, neither Solanas and Getino’s nor Fischerman’s film was exempt from the parade of contradictions that traversed political and cultural life in late-1960s Argentina, a time, incidentally, during which ever more galvanized calls on the Left for all-out revolutionary violence coincided with a sharp ebb in the early euphoria inspired by post-Revolutionary Cuba, which by then had begun to exert blatantly repressive restrictions on the activities of artists and intellectuals.
Still, in Argentina, national liberation seemed perhaps as inevitable as it did elusive. In 1966, right-wing General Juan Carlos Onganía had ousted President Arturo Illía and taken power in a military putsch, under the cynical banner of the “Argentine Revolution,” and proceeded to abolish all political parties, intervene (violently) in the administration of national universities, and establish draconian censorship regimes aimed at eradicating society of political and cultural “subversives” [Fig. 3a-c]. Matters only worsened when dissenting factions within the military itself toppled Onganía in June of 1970, supplanting his junta with their own under the rule of General Roberto M. Levingston, who presided over a precipitous economic contraction, a growing labor crisis, and massive anti-government rioting around the country. Yet another military coup within the junta deposed Levingston just nine months later and replaced him with General Alejandro Lanusse, who served as President of the Republic until the return to electoral politics in 1973 that would ultimately reinstall Juan Domingo Perón to power after nearly two decades of exile.
The so-called Revolution inaugurated with Onganía touted the restoration of order (and centralized, military-oligarchic control of the state and its economy) after the vicissitudes of the preceding decade, which had witnessed successive, nominally democratic administrations from various ambits of the political Left (punctuated by brief military interregna). The presidencies of Arturo Frondizi (1958-1962) and Arturo Illía (1963-66) were by turns progressive and ineffectual, each straining to steer the country’s unwieldy ship in the wake of Perón’s own military ouster in 1955. Throughout this period, Argentina saw a mixture of conciliatory policies meant to appeal to working-class Peronist sympathies (despite Frondizi’s total ban, until 1962, on Peronist political parties), coupled with programs of economic liberalization and development that initially generated considerable growth, though results grew more anemic as the decade wore on. Concurrently, however, in the wake of what numerous artists and intellectuals viewed as the dark ages of the first Perón administration, the Frondizi-Illía period also heralded a truly dynamic cultural awakening among the middle classes, mostly in Buenos Aires and largely internationalist and cosmopolitan in spirit.
The principle engine of avant-garde art in Argentina by the dawn of the 1960s, the Di Tella also doubtless stood among the most important nodes of artistic activity in the Americas as a whole. Through vigorous and eclectic programming, the organization not only generated and hosted traveling exhibitions of international art, but also sponsored international juried competitions, awarded prestigious prizes, and administered scholarships for artistic study abroad. Meanwhile, both at home and overseas, the Di Tella promoted cutting-edge production by national artists who worked in every conceivable medium, from painting and sculpture to music and theater, and from film and photography to installation, performance, and new audio-visual technologies. Most importantly, the Di Tella was a crucible of creative community and alternative forms of social interaction: its legendary Happenings and “Experiences” were steeped in the spirit of social freedom and experimentation that characterized so many ambits of the 60s globally.
The efforts of the Di Tella were thus instrumental in repositioning Buenos Aires as a global center of avant-garde art in the 1960s. David Lamelas, Marta Minujín, León Ferrari, and Julio LeParc were but a few of the Argentine artists of international stature to fill the Institute’s ranks. Indeed, to the same degree that its aesthetic and intellectual ambitions rested on the value of rupture and innovation, the Di Tella’s declared mission was adamantly internationalist in thrust. As such, it benefited directly from initiatives like the Alliance for Progress, a program of cultural diplomacy in the Americas spearheaded in the United States by the Kennedy administration. In turn, crucial financial support arrived from American philanthropic foundations like the Ford and Rockefeller, as well as numerous, highly publicized collaborations with the likes of MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Simply stated, the Instituto Di Tella was inseparable from the broader processes of modernization and internationalization in the Argentine 60s. It is no wonder, then, that for some it could so readily signify the country’s intellectual vitality and cultural legitimacy on the global stage, while for others—particularly the growing cadres of political militants as the decade progressed—it conjured nothing less than the neo-colonization of national culture by a small domestic elite in league with foreign interests [Fig. 5a-b]. An easy target of virulent criticism from both extremes of the political spectrum in Argentina at the time, the Di Tella in fact crystallized all of the complex yearnings and contradictions of the Latin American 60s, in much the same way as Solanas and Getino’s Hora and Fischerman’s Players.
In response to these impulses of modernization and rupture, along with their underlying internationalism, the right-wing Revolución Argentina imposed autocratic economic development schemes favorable mainly to the country’s landed classes and traditional agro-industrial oligarch families. At the same time, it redoubled its political marginalization of nearly all Peronist elements in society (that is to say, the powerful labor unions and, by extension, most of Argentina’s immense working class), proceeding meanwhile to invoke deeply reactionary and nationalist cultural discourses that were entirely unsympathetic to either the cosmopolitanism of organizations like the Di Tella (as well as artists like Fischerman) or the overt political militancy of filmmakers like Solanas and Getino.
As the decade advanced and censorship and repression mounted, it was only a matter of time before intellectuals and artists of all stripes would begin to see ideological radicalization as the only path towards greater social justice, cultural freedom, and economic stability. With the advent of the 1970s, calls for armed resistance across the political spectrum coalesced into violent guerrilla activism, with both left-wing guerrillas (the Montoneros; the People’s Revolutionary Army, or ERP) and right-wing paramilitary groups (the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, or Triple A) vying for control of Perón’s renascent movement. Even still, while much artistic output in this political conjuncture tacked increasingly toward explicit Left-Revolutionary rhetoric, not all engagés artists in Argentina at the time abandoned high-modernist aesthetic concerns.
In all events, the eixgency to choose between the seething middle-class desire “to be modern” on the one hand and, on the other, the historical imperative to resist the ideological “invasion” of national culture by “Yankee imperialist” values—to invoke several catch-phrases of the day—was assuming truly mortal weight with every passing moment of the waning 1960s in Argentina. Perhaps predictably, such contradictions were also coalescing beneath the carefree surface of nearly every sixty-second advertising spot that aired on Argentine television at the time.
There exists no more poignant testimony to that fact than a prominent commercial for Jockey cigarettes made in 1971. [Fig. 6a-i, see below] This advertisement is edited in graceful flourishes of mobile framings linked in rhythmic montage, featuring smiling flocks of fashionable young men and women (all of unequivocally European extraction) gliding in an effortless choreography through the set of a cocktail party at a well-appointed, seaside vacation home. The concept that immediately bubbles to that ebullient visual surface is an identification of affluent domestic space with the experience of unfettered yet sophisticated leisure time. What is more, with its tag line—Jockey, la pura verdad (“Jockey, the pure truth”)—the commercial strongly implies that affluence itself may be the purest form of affective bond among truly “modern” Argentines. Equally noteworthy is the way the ad orchestrates these ideas within an evening-time, maritime idyll, where the exterior space serves—particularly for well-dressed, cigarette-smoking women—as but an extension of that microcosm of free society taking place back inside, in the private domain.
Such values are only further underscored by the honeyed, pop-cosmopolitan soundtrack against which all this pleasurability unfolds, namely a rendition of the über-hit of summer 1971, “Soley-Soley,” by Scottish band Middle of the Road. In the Argentine spot, the tune resurfaces in a version by Spanish rock-composer Fernando Arbex, whose translation of the original English lyrics—“Just a little bit lonely / just a little bit sad / I was feeling so empty / until you came back”—transforms their meaning in Spanish into something considerably more saccharine: “With a bit of sand / and a bit of sea / as long as you’re with me / there’s nothing more I need.” Considered in unison with the commercial’s liberated nightlife aesthetic, such a casual elision of the song’s original loneliness, sadness, and emptiness not only belies the turbulent contradictions of the political moment, but also presages the far greater darkness of the “Dirty War” about to befall the country, one that would surely surpass even the menace of Onganía’s Revolución.
This point is made manifest by a single, trenchant detail of the mise-en-scène: the left-most of the three actresses smoking and walking toward the camera once the commercial cuts to the exterior—she also enjoys a brief medium-close up of her own [Fig. 7]—was a well-known Franco-Argentine model from the far-flung northern province of Misiones named Marie-Anne Erize Tisseau. Already a political activist at the time of the Jockey ad, within years Erize would join the ranks of the Montoneros and work closely with Argentine Liberation Theologist, Father Carlos Mugica; with the coming, in 1976, of Argentina’s most horrific military dictatorship, Erize would also soon count among the thousands of young activists “disappeared” by the junta for their political opposition.
|The Jockey cigarette TV commercial|
|This 1971 television commercial for Jockey cigarettes, set in an evening-time idyll of bourgeois leisure, links gracefully choreographed mobile framings of well-heeled young Argentines in rhythmic, dynamic montage, set to the soundtrack of an imported Scottish pop song translated into Spanish. The “pure truth” of affluence it promotes not only typifies the prevailing disposition of advertising discourse in Argentina at the end of the Sixties, but also lends credence to the growing perception among the country’s increasingly radicalized middle-classes at the time that the nation’s mass media were the object of total “neo-colonial” domination.|