El Imagen Vive
By Charles Nafus
JULY 20, 1998: I have just escaped from a dangerous area of a large city, my rumpled clothes reeking of spilled whiskey, cigarette smoke, and cheap perfume. Flickering images flood my memory - tired women on barstools, world-weary piano players barely visible through the tobacco haze, sleek young men in sharp suits and bulges beneath their breast pockets. Outside, leaning against lampposts and shadow-drenched walls, women of all ages, their dresses slashed up beyond stocking tops, their lips parted and inviting. A man with a gun running down an alley. Cars parked haphazardly on sidewalks. But it's especially eyes that I remember, virginal eyes full of terror, experienced ones gliding between hope and disgust, and the most frightening ones, those devoid of any feeling for anyone, including themselves. Spending two hours deeply immersed in a semiotic jungle, I have been savoring the poster world of the cabareteras, the female barflies/singers/dancers/whores with their own genre in Mexican movies of the Forties and Fifties, the closest Mexico got to film noir. This trip was provided by Charles Ramirez Berg and Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr., who have created an extensive study of 200 movie posters from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (1936-1956) in their recently published bilingual book, Carteles de la epoca de oro del cine mexicano/Poster Art From the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. It is a beautiful book full of fascinating images that reveal so much about the dreams and fears, joys and sorrows of 20th-century Mexican culture. It conveys sociology, psychology, and mythology in full color and arresting designs. The authors have proven that the celluloid treasures of the Mexican cinema were accompanied by equally fascinating artwork.
Until this decade movie posters have generally been the butterflies of the art world, an ephemeral art form serving a commercial need, worthless after the advertised movie has left the theatre. In every country these large paper rectangles have the same general purpose: to make us stop, look, fantasize, and desire to buy a 90-minute dream. In France, home of 19th-century poster artists Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha, colorful ads for movies began with the birth of cinema itself in 1895. Initially only a program of short movies or just the latest manifestation of the cinematic invention itself was advertised via poster. In practical-minded America stock posters, with some theatrical allegory/cliché embellishing the upper half, contained a bare lower half where movie titles could be changed as needed. By the early 1900s the Edison company and various copycats printed small posters/lobby cards that featured photographs from their selection of one-reel films. With the advent of feature films in the 1910s the American movie poster became standardized as a "one-sheet" measuring 27 by 41 inches, with larger sizes available for theatre lobby displays, walls, fences, barns, and subway stations. Some of the illustrations for these posters were quite striking, usually covering the entire space, similar in style and content to illustrations for books or paperback covers. A critical moment, snatched from the content of the movie and often exaggerated, became frozen in a large colorful lithograph with text (title, production company, stars, director, and a few other important names) superimposed. As the star system reached full flower in the 1920s, "portrait posters" emerged featuring a large painted image of the well-known actor or actress in their latest movie. By the Thirties some posters contained large airbrushed photos of the principal stars, simply featured as floating heads or busts. In too many examples the overall design became cluttered, artistic decisions seemingly made by committee or union contracts, mixing original art work depicting the stars in a narrative moment with photos incoherently interrupting the overall design. With numerous exceptions, the American movie poster was moving into a period of less artistic coherence at the same time that Mexican poster art began to flourish.
The most creative Mexican poster art appeared during the 20-year film production period (1936-1956) known as El Cine de oro, The Golden Age of Cinema. Eschewing photographs, the poster artists painted illustrious star portraits and frozen narratives promising grand emotions. These posters descended from Mexico's staggering history of image-making, stretching back millennia to pre-Hispanic temple murals, bas-reliefs, and statues. In the early 16th century Spanish conquistadores introduced canvas paintings of religious images, wealthy notables, and epic events. Through the centuries, artists born in Mexico continued Spanish traditions and styles in their paintings, but in the 20th century Mexican art exploded along with the Revolution. Radical muralists such as Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros celebrated the indigenous roots of Mexican culture and attacked the European and American intrusions. As the 19th century became the 20th, Jose Guadalupe Posada lay the foundation for a vibrant graphic artistry through his uniquely Mexican woodcut and zinc illustrations for newspapers and broadsides. Thus, Mexico was awash in bold images at the time the movie poster came into its own.
Charles Ramirez Berg's text provides a concise overview of the history of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema which began in 1936 with the release of Alla en el rancho grande, a nostalgic look at a prerevolutionary past, which introduced Mexico's first cinematic superstar, Tito Guizar. This film also created one of the nation's principal film genres, the comedia ranchera, a combination of singing, ranching, fighting, and romancing interspersed with comic moments provided by mentally challenged sidekicks. Following quickly on Guizar's spurred heels, Jorge Negrete burst into films and soon epitomized the singing macho. Cantinflas, Mexico's uniquely talking answer to Chaplin and Keaton, created a sympathetic pelado, a fellow with holes in his pockets but not in his head. In the Forties, Dolores del Rio, Mexico's ethereal beauty, returned from Hollywood to star in exquisite dramas and emotional melodramas. Maria Felix proved to be Del Rio's principal competition as beauty queen and grande dame of the screen. Pedro Infante competed with Negrete for the "mas macho" prize, eventually winning with an urban trilogy about the rich and poor, never too far from one another in Mexico City. Family melodramas provided an idealization of the tightly woven family, while the cabaretera films showed what happened to women who left home without a husband. Hundreds of stars, dramatic beauties, comics, strong women, men's men, singers, and lovers parade through the national cinema, supported by a wonderfully talented group of writers, directors, cinematographers, set designers, and composers who are still spoken of reverentially. Genres and themes, both international and culture-specific, were explored in over 1,000 films during the Golden Age.
Advertising this rich body of work were the Cine de Oro posters, 840 of which reside in the Agransanchez Archive of Mexican Cinema founded by Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. in Harlingen, Texas. His father was a movie distributor/producer in Mexico and Texas from the 1960s through the 1980s. When the government made independent film production in Mexico nearly impossible, Agrasanchez Sr. became interested in preserving the treasures of Mexican cinema. He acquired original negatives and nitrate copies of many of the movie classics which he transferred to video for Spanish-language television throughout the Western hemisphere. Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr., who was working on a Ph.D. in Latin American studies at the University of Texas in the late Eighties, began to appreciate what his father was accomplishing as he watched the initial video copies. Some of the films had not been seen for decades, others were even thought to be forever lost. He realized that his father was preserving a goldmine of cultural research material. About the same time, his youngest brother, Julio, a child actor in many of the wrestling superhero films produced by their father, brought him some old movie posters given him by film distributors in Mexico. Rogelio thought they could be photographed and then discarded. However, when he got the photos back, they looked so good that a second viewing of the original posters made him decide they should be kept. As his brother brought him more posters, some quite old and rare, from distribution warehouses in Mexico City, Mexican movie posters became an obsession for Rogelio, especially once he discovered that scarcely anyone collected or even cared about them.
He decided to search for publicity images for all the films ever made in Mexico, an immodest goal considering that not even his father had kept the publicity for his own 90 productions. Rogelio went to the Cineteca Nacional (national film archive) in Mexico City to view their poster collection and to uncover the history of publicity techniques, the poster artists, and the printing process. Unfortunately a 1982 fire had destroyed many films and supplementary materials in the Cineteca, and what remained was virtually uncatalogued. As in all valuable quests, Rogelio found himself entering virgin territory. The few artists who were still alive were surprised at the young man's interest in what they considered throwaway art, but told him about the design and production process. And when international Mexican film distributor Azteca Films closed their various offices in the U.S., tons of publicity material were discarded or returned to Mexico City. Rogelio saw mountains of posters, lobby cards, still photographs, and scripts in the vaults of Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, all considered trash to be discarded. Told he could take what he wanted, he tried to rescue as much as possible.
In the meantime, Charles Ramirez Berg, film professor at the University of Texas at Austin, continued his never-ending search for copies of classic films to use in his Mexican film history class. Fortunately, he met Rogelio, who informed him of his father's movie preservation business. When Ramirez Berg discovered the existence of the posters and publicity material as well, he convinced Agrasanchez Jr. to rename his collection an archive, which it truthfully is by virtue of being the largest private collection of its kind in the world, now comprised of numerous Mexican films and videos, scripts, 2,000 posters, and other publicity materials. It is amazing that any of the posters have survived the decades. Printed on even thinner paper than American posters of the same era, with press runs of around 500 in the 1930s and only up to 3,000 in the Forties and Fifties, these posters provide invaluable glimpses into the iconography of a particular country and industry.
Soon Ramirez Berg and Agrasanchez realized that a book of several hundred pictures would be the most appropriate way to let an even larger public know of the existence of these visual treasures. They began the heartbreaking image selection process in 1992 and by 1995 Ramirez Berg had a draft to submit to the original publishers, the University of Texas Press and IMCine (the Mexican Institute of Film). Initially they chose 200 posters from the archive's then total of 600 Golden Age images. The publishers insisted on illustrations of 100 posters in color and 100 in black and white to save money. However, Charles had realized that the only way to do justice to their pictorial beauty was to print all in color. Rogelio and he also decided on a very eclectic mixture, selecting both famous stars like Maria Felix and totally forgotten ones, as well as both treasured and unknown titles in order to show the broad scope of Mexican cinema during the 20-year period. What initially seemed to be a tragedy turned into a blessing as the original book deal fell through. Offering to pay for the majority of publication costs two years later, Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. persuaded IMCine and the University of Guadalajara to join him in publishing 2,000 copies of the poster art book. The frustration and long wait have allowed an even better, more richly illustrated book to come into being.
Ramirez Berg and Agrasanchez reviewed their choices of 200 images. Criteria for entry into the pantheon were pictorial beauty, striking graphic design, known poster artists, star career trajectories, genres, and the diversity of classical Mexican cinema. Free of the earlier publication agreement that insisted on a chronological presentation of the posters, both authors decided that a generic and thematic approach would tell the reader/viewer far more. To deal with collectors, Rogelio had already come to think of his archive as divided into genres, themes, and similarity in images. He realized that some posters had their own genre, not always accurately reflecting the related film's genre. For example, collectors of "Bad Girl Art" (hmmmmm) made him think of grouping images into the "cabaretera" poster genre, which could include both musicals and noirish melodramas. Such a classification system determined the visual structure of the book: comedy, cabareteras, charros and folklore, social drama, history and religion, mystery and adventure, and melodrama.
Once the posters had been chosen and divided into seven groups, Charles Ramirez Berg had to begin the difficult process of analyzing the content of the posters themselves. After looking at design manuals, which he found useless, he talked with a Hollywood designer, who provided no lightning-bolt explanation of the particular structure of poster art. He came to think that European-based aesthetic principles might not be the most valid approach for studying Mexican popular art, a delicious salad of ancient indigenous, old Spanish, and other European and American elements, mixed in a 500-year-old bowl.
So he returned to the art itself. Looking at the posters, he hoped they would reveal their structural secrets. He has told me that he looked and looked for months before the clues slowly emerged. Taking a simple inventory of the four basic elements (film title, star name, star image, film image), he observed where they were usually placed on the large rectangle and how they intertwined and complemented one another. The standard Mexican poster size was 27.5 inches wide by 37.5 inches tall, just a bit smaller than Hollywood's 27x41. Often the production company's name appeared at the top, not necessarily of interest to the potential viewer unless it was a well-respected dream purveyor. The true selling points, the image and names of the star(s), a narrative image, and the title, were arranged by order of importance according to the film producer's input. Much of this was in the upper half or three-quarters. The lower half or one-quarter contained less important visual and textual information - the remainder of the narrative image, names of co-stars, and key filmmakers such as director and photographer. These elements follow the standard Western way of reading a visual image, left to right, top to bottom, rather easy to comprehend.
Predictable enough, but Ramirez Berg felt there had to be more. With continued viewing and analyzing, he joyfully made his discovery: Most of the posters were divided into four equal rectangles of varying significance, the upper left quadrant the most important (I), followed by the upper right (II) and the lower left (III), culminating in the least important, the lower right (IV). At last, he had found the key to deciphering the vast majority of the posters. Once the approach was mastered, Charles was able to comprehend even the aberrant poster designs that set their own course.
As with many national cinemas of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, the popularity of Mexican films was based on recognized and rising stars. Consequently, the star's image was often the most important poster element. In a country with a rather large proportion of illiterate citizens, the construction of national icons was essential. Just like the trademarks so jealously guarded by corporations, successful star images could be translated into money for the film studios. Portions of a star's face generally leaped out from top quadrants I and II. Sometimes they overwhelmed all four quadrants. If their image was not in the upper half, their names certainly were, usually in large type, the last name perhaps the largest of all. By the time of Rio Escondido (1947), Maria Felix's name was in a larger font size than the title of the film and her image was dangerously larger than the crucified Christ of the background. A delicate problem arose when several stars of equal stature had to share the rectangle. For tempestuous actresses and actors, the order of the names in the text was often reversed in the visual representations so no one felt slighted. The placement of the two star names in an "X" crisscrossing one another was a frequent but awkward solution. These were not just matters of ego, for salaries depended on popular stature. Such problems were left to the artists to solve visually. Cantinflas, the comic, never had to share star billing and his caricatured image was as recognizable as Chaplin's.
A rising star could be tracked through his/her posters by looking at the placement of image and the size and typography of the name. The vertical trajectory of the singing radio star turned movie star, Jorge Negrete, can be observed by studying the two versions of posters of his film debut in La Madrina del Diablo (1937). In one he is simply a distant horseman clutching a woman to his chest. In the other he is relegated to quadrant IV although his name is in large text across the top of the poster. His real success can be gauged by his appearance the following year in El Fanfarron, whose poster features a sensuous-lipped Negrete taking up two-thirds of the space. No other image competes with his. The codification of the Mexican charro embodied in Negrete continued through the Forties with beautiful horses and women, guns, guitars, large sombreros, and cocks (the fighting feathered kind) always associated with the star in his posters. What Clint Eastwood did for the Western male icon, Negrete did for the charro.
For the poster artist, a different set of problems arose when dealing with a falling star. By the time of Tal para cual (1952), Jorge Negrete had been relegated to the hell of quadrant 4, but Ramirez Berg discovered intriguing ways that the artist still gave the aging star primacy: a foregrounding and slight enlargement of his face, a sombrero forming a halo over his head.
The setting provided for images of the actors, stars or otherwise, was often uniquely Mexican. In a land of many ancient pyramids, that form found its way, perhaps unconsciously, into poster designs. An astounding example, La Mulata de Cordoba (1945), creates the pyramid's base with a pair of lovers about to kiss, continues the upward thrust with a large black and white blood-drenched hand, reaching the peak formed by silhouettes of palm fronds. Ramirez Berg points out how the potentially relentless symmetry is interrupted by an offset moon and tree trunk. That poster is a beautiful, surreal work of art.
In the same year, the poster for Maria Magdalena continues the pyramid motif through a veil covering the head of the bad-girl Mary. In a land of head-covering rebozos, such an image would convey multiple meanings from the national psyche, mixing Catholicism with pre-Hispanic religions.
Besides the images of actors and the placement of text, many artists tried to introduce a slice of narrative into their compositions. They had centuries of other artists' techniques to draw on. As far back as the Egyptians and Mayans, artists had discovered how to imply action in a painting or mural. Epic art often concentrated on the moment before an event happened: a battle about to commence, a treaty about to be signed. Or the artist might leap to the other side of time to a finale, such as a battlefield strewn with dead bodies. But there was always the problem of how to freeze an important moment of a story. The poster artist had the same dilemma of introducing narrative, action through time and space, into the static medium of the poster, which was supposed to draw the viewer into the theatre to experience the ultimate time-based art, the film.
Ramirez Berg points out the two principal ways in which narrative was introduced into the poster: the suggested and the arrested. In the former, genre associations would suggest an already familiar narrative path. The poster for a 1941 family melodrama, Cuando los hijos se van/When the Children Leave, depicts a grieving elderly couple. In this static image, time is implied; we are looking at the couple apparently at the moment after their children have walked out the door to seek their own lives separately from their parents, certainly a socially unacceptable move in the Mexico of the early 1940s. Artists who employed the arrested narrative technique painted a principal dramatic moment from the film's narrative, often, according to Ramirez Berg, at the moment when "the (usually) male protagonist is at his weakest, the pre-climax moment of crisis." The poster protagonists are stuck in their dilemmas and never achieve the resolution that their cinematic counterparts do. One taboo to be avoided at all times in poster narrative was to reveal the ending, perhaps the death of the star, a severe resolution which occasionally happened in melodramas. That snippet of time could be in the movie but not in the poster.
Through selection, placement, juxtaposition, and text, Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. and Charles Ramirez Berg guide the reader/viewer through fascinating cinematic worlds. I am doubtlessly revealing too much about the deepest recesses of my unconscious, but the images that drew my attention immediately and extensively are those in the section entitled cabareteras. My personal overview of just one of the seven sections in the pictorial part of the book will have to serve as an invitation to find your own favorite section. Out of 200 images you will easily discover some that speak intimately to you.
Every film genre (e.g., Westerns, musicals, sci-fi) is defined and refined through the manipulation of certain signs that film audiences learn and come to expect with each new example. The genre of las cabareteras (the fallen women of the nightclub scene, the barflies in revealing dresses clinging to a higher social scale than the cantineras) produced some amazingly rich posters that often featured a provocatively postured woman in a dress that emphasized, or even barely restrained, breasts, hips, and legs. Pedestrians walking by movie theatres had only to see the film titles and the iconography to understand what was promised within the dark theatre. The poster for Cortesana/Courtesan (1947) features a woman in a black belly-dance skirt and halter top, below her a man with a recently fired pistol whose smoke makes a loving trip up her exposed leg. Trotacalles/Gadabout (a more intriguing definition would be Street-trotter, a go-get-him streetwalker) says it all with a woman in a green dress that tucks right up to her waist, implying quick and easy untucking. A cigarette clenched within her red-lipped mouth and the large shadow she casts complete the message.
La Mesera del cafe de puerto/The Waitress of the Port Cafe, Coqueta, Humo en los ojos/Smoke in the Eyes, and Amor perdido/Lost Love, titles that seem to have leaped off the covers of cheap novels, are all movies made in the late Forties and early Fifties. Their posters balance representations of hopefulness and loss, strength and decay. Amor de la calle/Street Love promises a great deal with a woman in a red dress slit up almost to la mera mera, leaning against a solid lamp, a not so grand hotel sketched in behind her, musical notes hinting at the possibility of some songs once the viewer finds himself immersed in bliss or agony. The rather useless man of quadrant III stares at her stocking top.
Cuarto del hotel/Hotel Room shows a woman sitting on a bed rubbing her tired feet, but there is a jarring note. Her hairstyle, unlike the very Forties wavy long hair of her poster sisters, consists of braids, often the sign of an indigenous woman from a small town, more the look of a young girl who comes to the big city with the idea of getting a job as a maid. The poster makes a very conscious class distinction through her hairstyle and "peasant" dress. She sits on a hotel bed, rubbing a tired foot, doubtlessly unaccustomed to heels. In the background is a sign for "Paradise Hotel," evil mockery in neon. An insert of the principal male actor has him looking where he shouldn't be but where he can go for the right price, sadly cheap in this case. An entire life history is captured in this one poster.
La Bien pagada/The Well Paid (Woman) is a whore of a different color, to be coldly precise about midcentury Mexican class distinctions being painted along color lines. Looking like an upper-class woman of leisure, Maria Antonieta Pons, a bigger star than Hotel Room's Lilia Prado, wears a mink coat with her strawberry blonde hair piled atop her head, but her black dress naturally slit up to her thigh gives the game away. But why should she care? She is queen of quadrant I. Casa de perdicion/House of Perdition shows Ms. Pons in an even more provocative dress that not even pre-motherhood Madonna would have worn: cloth leaves attached to a transparent material which would make men pray for autumn. Since she has left off any undergarments, shadows have been drawn in to protect the innocent. She would have to have a white boa to accompany her stratospheric heels complete with the little Joan Crawford "CFM" straps. There is some of Ms. Pons in every quadrant so you can be sure that the actress had arrived at her pinnacle.
Interestingly, a number of these films feature Agustin Lara, the king of Mexico's romantic smokey lounge lizards (no disrespect intended; I love the guy). His music alone could have created the whole cabaretera genre. Such filmic piano players were often presented as blind men who "saw" the ideal woman beneath the beautiful but jaded exterior. Fittingly, they achieved their visions while caressing their keyboards.
Other posters of the genre emphasize ubiquitous cigarettes in ladies' hands, bullfighters in the background just to remind us that what happens to bulls can happen to men, city silhouettes rather than idyllic country vistas, virile men taking women as they wish or just as easily getting taken, and elderly women with liquor bottles in their hands and memories in their eyes.
The 28 posters of the cabareteras segment provide an encyclopedic look at an entire world, the demimonde of the Forties and Fifties, not so unlike the world of the American films noir of the same period. When sex once again surfaced from the repressed (Catholic in Mexico, Puritan in America), it was pretty dark.
As Mexican cinema began its relentless retreat from government-imposed censorship, the change was much more sudden and overt than in the U.S. By 1955, when the terror of nearly every husband was explored in Esposas infieles/Unfaithful Wives, the public was ready for the first Mexican film to contain star nudity. The poster follows suit with the profile of a topless woman who stares into the viewer's eyes. To make the point even clearer that the theme will be sexuality, the outline of a hand holds a cigarette whose tip is burning between her legs while the smoke travels upward to her breast at which a finger is pointing. Such a poster makes the United States of that time look prim and prudish by comparison. Not bound by anything like Hollywood's out-of-step Production Code in the postwar period, Mexico was able to join right along with Europe in the exploration of mature themes (even if such a poster now seems immature and unnecessarily exploitative). Yet along with greater freedom of expression in both films and advertising came a general decline in poster art, which shifted toward a jumbled montage of photographs. Still, there would be outstanding exceptions and we can hope those examples will find their way into a second poster book by Agrasanchez and Ramirez Berg.
Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. must be commended for his foresight in collecting the posters, his perseverance in finding information about the poster artists, his love of the medium and of Mexican film history, and his care of the archives. When I visited the Agrasanchez Archive in early June, I felt myself in the presence of a magician as he pulled poster treasures out of carefully arranged boxes and drawers. His passion is infectious.
It is obvious that Charles Ramirez Berg has spent a lot of time within the world of these posters. His magisterial knowledge of Mexican cinema carries over into his interpretation of their meanings. A wonderful bonus of the book is that careful reading and study of his interpretations can then be applied to American and European posters. The Hong Kong posters, many of which are stunning works of art, will be yet another aesthetic puzzle available for decipherment. Besides providing so many fascinating images, this book of Mexican posters will ideally lead the reader to the numerous gems of Mexican film, which Ramirez Berg sadly admits is "one of the least known and most underappreciated of all national cinemas."
Carteles de la epoca de oro del cine mexicano/Poster Art From the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema by Rogelio Agrasanchez Jr. and Charles Ramirez Berg (University of Texas Press, $40, hard). Copies also available from Archivo Filmico Agrasanchez, 3305 Lazy Lake Drive, Harlingen, Texas 78550.
Charles Nafus is a professor of Film Studies at Austin Community College.
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