A Third Western(?): Genre and the Popular/Political in Latin America

By Chelsea Wessels

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To discuss genre and New Latin American Cinema (NLAC) initially might seem like a counterintuitive comparison, as much of criticism surrounding NLAC emphasizes its resistance to the dominant forms of European and Hollywood cinema. However, viewed as a global genre, the western, like NLAC, creates dialogues across disparate regions through shared characteristics and meaning. To make this comparison also brings the importance of the politics of the western to the forefront, as NLAC is a deeply political film movement and the western genre is often used globally as a form of political critique. In this article, I will examine some examples of the western in NLAC, and the ways in which these films grapple with both the politics of their local state as well as that state’s position within the larger geopolitical order. In looking at the western in the Latin American context, I argue that the transculturation of the dominant genre renders it nearly unrecognizable when viewed through western analytical frameworks but, when examined within the tenets of NLAC, demonstrates the possibilities of drawing on genre for political ends.

Mary Louise Pratt borrows the term “transculturation” from Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, who first used the term in the 1940s as an alternative to the reductive ideas of acculturation and deculturation when describing cultural transfers. 1 While acculturation implies a move towards the dominant position, and thus away from a marginal one, Pratt uses transculturation to describe how “subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture.” 2 The process of “selecting and inventing” from dominant cultures through transculturation clearly suggests the western’s continual relevance in different political and historical moments through the way it offers a dynamic model of borrowing and adapting genre. 3 In Latin America, the western functions as a way to address the power and wealth disparities brought about by what was then commonly referred to in Latin America as American neo-imperialism. At the same time, however, we might question whether or not the western can even be relevant in the Latin American context: if it is traditionally a genre about conquest and the imperialist drive, can it be made to speak for the oppressed, for those impacted by conquest and imperialism? And, perhaps more importantly, can we think about the western in Latin America without treating it as a marginal variant of the Hollywood western? First, the western in Latin America provides an important case study for thinking about how the western must be considered without the constraints of of the US as an origin. But even beyond questions of origin, the western is both a political and popular form, and its use in Latin America reveals the way its popular appeal is crucial to its use in local political frameworks.

But what does it mean to talk about the western as “popular” and “political?” As I will discuss in more detail later, “popular” is defined in two ways: first, as popular film meant to entertain and distract the masses (and in this sense, seen more negatively in NLAC), and, second, as popular for the people in the revolutionary sense, which is a positive definition. This second definition can be aligned with the political aspect of NLAC, but the first definition, which is where the western would typically be placed, is seen as being at odds with the ideas of NLAC, particularly Third Cinema frameworks. This article will examine these terms through an analysis of two films, Glauber Rocha’s 1968 film Antonio das Mortes and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo from 1970, in order to argue that the global western utilizes the popular appeal of the genre in conversation with critical political frameworks to encourage viewer engagement.

Genre and Third Cinema: The Politics of Antonio das Mortes

Third Cinema and the western seem initially to be at odds: the western traditionally hailed as a popular genre while Third Cinema is constructed in opposition to dominant systems, particularly Hollywood, in order to reclaim film’s revolutionary potential. The term comes from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s essay “Towards a Third Cinema,” first published in 1969. Solanas and Getino define first cinema as Hollywood – films that use dominant cultural forms to promote and enforce capitalist systems and values to passive spectators – and second cinema as European or ‘art cinema,’ where the emphasis is on auteurs and aesthetics, rather than politics. Third Cinema, on the other hand, rejects the practices of these two cinemas in terms of both production and consumption: films are not the artistic vision of the director or made as part of a bourgeoise studio system, and they are screened outside traditional viewing spaces in order to provide a “risk” for viewers that seek them out. Solanas and Getino argue it is

the cinema that recognises in that [anti-imperialist] struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point – in a word, the decolonization of culture. 4

This need for the “decolonization of culture” comes from what Solanas and Getino identify as an imposed dependence on the mass culture of neocolonialism, which seeks to promote and disseminate bourgeoise values to the oppressed in order to further imperialist expansion. To fight this expansion, Third Cinema seeks to become emancipated from the binary of “their” and “our,” which means developing a cinema that cannot be incorporated into the dominant cinema. At the same time, what I am arguing here is that the process of transculturation allows Third Cinema to utilize the western genre (from first and second cinemas) for revolutionary purposes.

Third Cinema, more broadly, coalesces around questioning and resisting dominant power structures enacted through colonialism. Film becomes not only a revolutionary act, but also opens a dialogue to challenge viewers in considering oppression in all forms, as well as ideas of community and nation. These key interests, in oppression, colonialism, and nation, are also central to the western, but usually imagined in very different ways. So can the two be reconciled? The western, as a genre often recognized for celebrating colonial advancement and capitalist nationalism, might seem antithetical to ideas of Third Cinema, but by re-positioning it within those critical frameworks rather than conventional, comparative, western readings, I will argue that the genre can be aligned with the project of Third Cinema.

Released in 1969, Antonio das Mortes (original title O Dragão da Maldade Contra o Santo Guerreiro or The Dragon of Evil Against the Warrior Saint) received attention both in and out of Brazil. Following the domestic and international success of Barreto Lima’s 1953 “nordestern” O Cancageiro, it was clear there was an audience for genre films and Rocha built on this interest to develop his own use of the cangaceiro story. Commonly associated with Cinema Novo – a Brazilian movement influenced by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave and aligned with Rocha’s “esthetic of hunger” – Antonio das Mortes follows Rocha’s previous film Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1966), where the titular character appears as well. The events of Antonio das Mortes pick up after Antonio has killed Corisco, “the last cangaceiro 5” at the end of Deus e o Diabo na Terra do So, and he has become overwhelmed by guilt surrounding his actions. However, when the “Colonel,” a powerful corrupt landlord, sends Dr. Matos (his right-hand man) to hire Antonio to kill Coirana, another cangaceiro, he accepts the assignment without pay. Believing he had already annihilated the cangaceiros from the area, Antonio goes to kill Coirana largely out of a twisted sense of duty. During his fight with Coirana, Antonio inflicts a fatal wound, and ends up taking Coirana to die amongst his followers in the mountains. However, when Coirana’s followers are subsequently massacred, Antonio is forced back into action against Mata Vaca, who was hired by the Colonel after Antonio to eliminate all possible rebels from the area. After a few more twists and turns, Antonio teams up with an alcoholic professor to fight the Colonel and Mata Vaca’s men in a final shoot-out heavily reminiscent of spaghetti westerns.

This fairly straightforward description of the narrative ignores much of the often surreal elements and it is worth noting that Antonio das Mortes is often read, particularly by western critics, without acknowledging this aspect of the film or simply by expressing bewilderment at its appearance. For example, Ernest Callenbach compares the film to Michael Curtiz’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, focusing on the use of folk myth in both films to argue that Antonio das Mortes is, essentially, a conservative film. 6 Thomas M. Kavanagh, on the other hand, takes approaches such as Callenbach’s to task for forcing the film into a western critical framework, and claiming ignorance in regards to anything else. For Kavanagh, Callenbach’s attempt at “objectivity” becomes a form of cultural imperialism, which fails to consider the film as anything but “radically other.” 7 The issue with this, for Kavanagh, is that once a film is labeled as “revolutionary,” then the primary focus for reading the film is always in terms of the “adequacy” of its revolutionary representation on a universal level. 8 This move to the universal is dangerous in both its potential for homogenization as well misreading the film entirely.

To support his reading, Kavanagh turns to Rocha’s statements on the film in order to show the impossibility of separating the film from its historical and cultural contexts. For Rocha, “The mysticism of my film is a part of everyday reality, a part of the people in the northeast of Brazil whose everyday realities, whose everyday way of life, is involved in mysticism…” 9 Kavanagh thus argues that the folklore Rocha draws on in the film, ranging from the use of St. George to the mysticism he refers to here, is not antithetical to its revolutionary purposes, as Callenbach claims, but rather a way of accessing the social reality of the people, drawing the film in line with Third Cinema. So in Antonio das Mortes, the violence becomes a way of connecting the mysticism entrenched in everyday reality to politics, as well as the crucial connection between the western genre and Third Cinema.

The cangaceiro figure provides a clear example of this relationship through connecting folklore to politics through violent action. Throughout history, rural populations in northeastern Brazil faced violence perpetrated by large landowners and the police. The cangaceiros were the figures who rose up against these violent forces of colonialism/neocolonialism, and in Antonio das Mortes, the cangaceiro is treated as both a mythical figure as well as a revolutionary force responding through violence to the hunger and repression they suffer at the hands of the landowners, such as the Colonel. The violent relationship between the cangaceiros and the landowners then provides a way of thinking about representation (critique) of government that the film provides through its use of the western genre. In Latin American westerns, the critique of the state is directed at a government that cannot be addressed, often because of strict censorship.

What is important about reading Antonio das Mortes as a western is the way that Rocha destabilizes generic tropes through adapting them to the Brazilian context. Here, the critical absence of the state creates a dialectical violence, as Terence Carlson argues, where “death involves every character” and there is little resolution from the bloodshed. 10 In this case, then, the opposition between the western as a popular genre and its use in Third Cinema frameworks goes beyond simply critiquing the state directly – an impossible project anyway because of censorship – and instead focuses on local elements from folklore and Brazilian history to develop its political project.

One of the key ideas of Third Cinema is that of a collective – a collective filmmaking process, films made for a collective people, and narratives that promote a collective, rather than individual ‘hero.’ For Jorge Sanjinés, “revolutionary cinema cannot be anything but collective in its most complete phase, since the revolution is collective.” 11 The individual story is only meaningful, then, if it has meaning for the collective, and this focus on the collective results in changes in form and content. This emphasis is in stark contrast to the view of community and the hero often associated with the western, which is one way that Antonio das Mortes offers a departure from the genre. In this case, the subject is constituted differently than Western ideas of the individual/hero. As Teshome Gabriel argues, in Third Cinema, there is an “emphasis on collective social space rather than on transcendental individual space,” which helps differentiate the journey of Antonio das Mortes from that of a typical western hero. 12 This idea of the collective plays out on several levels in the film, beginning with the narrative, which moves amongst characters and groups and often fragments between elements of history, politics, and genre.

This is illustrated at the very beginning of the film, when the visual of Saint Jorge appears as a backdrop during the opening titles. The image is fragmented into three parts, which draws the eye away from the singular act of killing the dragon and emphasizes the explanation of what will become the main “characters” of the film: the cangaceiro, colonel (landowners), beatos (peasant communities), jagunço (mercenary, or hired killer), and Sante (Santa), the spiritual leader of the community. The film then cuts to an empty landscape, which is first entered and exited by Antonio, firing his gun, and then his victim, a cangaceiro. While the opening seems almost medieval, the first scene is very much a western: the dusty landscape, the lone gunman, the hat and duster Antonio is wearing, and the drawn out death of the cangaceiro. However, the next cut reveals the Professor lecturing his young students on Brazilian history, including the year of the country’s independence. The static camera avoids drawing attention to Rocha’s directing, and the fairly short scenes (the whole introduction takes less than four minutes) move from one context to the next too quickly for a first-time viewer to even identify Antonio. These three early moments serve to establish the context for the film in terms of history, genre, and politics.

In Antonio das Mortes, the violence of the western is used not to pacify viewers through simple spectacle, but rather, is drawn along the lines of class struggle through the cangaceiro/landowner conflict. In this way, the film connects with Rocha’s “esthetic of hunger” through its use of violence to emphasize the repression of the people (who are shown to be Coirana’s followers) and their need for someone to fight on their behalf. This reading of violence in response to power dynamics might not be unfamiliar to the western genre, but the film destabilizes comparative readings in the way Rocha aligns the his use of the genre with Third Cinema and Brazilian history. The generic characters of the western here are filtered through Brazilian folklore and placed in a narrative that visually and thematically plays with genre in a way that demands active spectatorship. To read the film alongside dominant conceptions of the western, de-emphasizes these specifically local (political) elements but reading the film through Third Cinema offers a way to recover the revolutionary potential of the western in a global context.

Revolutionizing the popular in El Topo

In turning to El Topo (1970), I would like to continue to examine the revolutionary potential of the western through the localized frameworks of NLAC, by returning to discussing the “popular” and “political.” Julio García Espinosa, in writing about “imperfect cinema,” and Solanas, and Getino argue that the hegemony of Hollywood products establishes a passivity in the viewer, increasing their acceptance of the dominant, often (neo)colonial cultural narratives. Without alternatives, such as the films of Third Cinema, that open spaces for resistance and questioning, the cycle of distribution and consumption continues unchecked. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea offers a way in for considering the popular in terms of this framework, as he believes that cinema can be both. In “The Viewer’s Dialectic,” Gutiérrez Alea argues that film:

…should contribute in the most effective way possible to elevating viewer’s revolutionary consciousness and to arming them for the ideological struggle which they have to wage against all kinds of reactionary tendencies and it should also contribute to their enjoyment of life.

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Gutiérrez Alea contends that film can be both entertaining and serve to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the viewer; this relationship between “show” and “spectator” is the viewer’s dialectic. Through this relationship, Gutiérrez Alea offers a consideration of both the capitalist underpinnings of popular film and its effects on the viewer.

Gutiérrez Alea first distinguishes between “popular” film and “people’s films,” where popular films are made to appease and entertain the masses rather than transform their consciousness – which is the goal of people’s films. Film became popular through its bourgeoisie origins, Gutiérrez Alea argues, because it was a form of entertainment that could “attract a heterogeneous public, the majority, avid for illusions.” 14 In this way, film was popular not as “an expression of the people” but for its appeal to the masses as distracting spectacle, turning them away from the harsh realities of everyday life. Gutiérrez Alea is particularly critical of genres in this respect, which he associates strongly with Hollywood:

[Genres] became empty stereotypes. They were the most effective expression of a culture of the masses as a function of passive consumers, of contemplating and heartbroken spectators, while reality demands action from them, and at the same time, eliminates all possibilities for that action.

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These bourgeoise conventions work to condition people to the interests of capitalism, to situate them as consumers, but also create a cinema that is more appealing to the masses than what Gutiérrez Alea defines as the “people’s” cinema. Gutiérrez Alea points to the trouble with using terms like popular with an inability to define “the masses” – that is, he argues that in order to understand how to appeal to the masses, we need to identify “that which best suits their most vital interests.” 16 To appeal to the people, then, it is important to define them beyond broad groupings – to pay attention to the context of geography, history, and class. (In this way, Gutiérrez Alea’s approach to defining the popular echoes my own approach for defining the western genre.)

Following this, Gutiérrez Alea claims that popular cinema can be made revolutionary if it can respond to not only short-term needs (for entertainment and distraction) but also larger objectives: “transforming reality and bettering humankind.”17 Ideally, this change would happen in terms of the state: popular cinema can become “people’s” cinema only when through the transition to a socialist society. However, Gutiérrez Alea also believes that popular cinema can achieve this potential through creating a shift in the viewer from passive to active spectatorship. This is done by developing “open” films, where viewers are forced into active spectatorship through a lack of “happy endings” or clear solutions. For Gutiérrez Alea, films should show enough of the issues of viewers current social reality to illuminate the need for change, but not offer neat explanations or potential answers in order to instigate post-film participation in change. The most important aspect of making this change, however, comes from rethinking spectators within their historical and social contexts:

We must not forget that, in practice, spectators cannot be considered abstractions, but, rather, people who are historically and socially conditioned, in this way, the show must address itself first of all to concrete spectators to whom it must unfold its operative potential to the fullest.

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In order to make popular films that are also political, and revolutionary, the “people” must be considered in terms of instigating action by appealing to the specific social and historical contexts.

This framework provides a way to look at El Topo. The heavily surrealist film, which plays with the western genre significantly, especially in its first half, has been the recipient of mixed reviews – usually falling into one of two lines of thinking, summarized by Roger Ebert in his 1972 review:

El Topo is a movie it’s very hard to be sure about after a single viewing. It weaves a web about you, and you’re left with two impulses. One is to accept it on its own terms, as a complex fantasy that uses violence as the most convenient cinematic shorthand for human power relationships. The other is to reject it as the work of a cynic, who is simply supplying more jolts and shocks per minute than most filmmakers.

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To reject the film completely, however, seems to ignore both its roots in the Panic Movement and the potential for reclaiming the film as a revolutionary western through its insistence on active spectatorship through the use of surrealism. The Panic Movement, formed by Jodorowsky with Fernando Arrabal and Roland Torpor in Paris during 1962, sought to go beyond what they saw as a confined view of surrealism to provide a kind of release through shock and ultimately propel viewers, who were more like participants in the “happenings,” towards positivity and peace. In light of this, the violence of El Topo, in its over the top surrealist presentation, might be re-read as a seeking to incite a desire for change in the viewer through feelings of frustration.

The violence of El Topo is an important place to begin any reading of the film: it is the most intense and provocative aspect. Whereas Rocha utilized violence as part of the “esthetic of hunger” to show the need for change at a fundamental level, Jodorowsky uses surrealism to shock viewers into active participation. Robert Neustadt argues that the body of his work coalesces around ideas of “place” and “identity,” and when read through the lens of postmodernism, Jodorowsky “repeatedly reconstructs narrative quests for an origin.” 19 However, ultimately, the epiphanies Jodorowsky illuminates are revealed as ironic and the quest itself becomes so fragmented that it is clear there is no origin to be found. Despite the constant fragmentation and heavy irony, the film ultimately uses the western genre as a way to actively engage the viewer through its constant subversion.

This is revealed in the narrative structure of El Topo, which focuses during the first half on the titular character’s quest to defeat the Four Masters to become the greatest gun master in the land. Of course, upon killing all four masters, El Topo is shot and left for dead by his female companions, ironically emphasizing that he has not, in fact, become the ultimate gun master. The film also uses this moment as a kind of break before shifting to the second half of the film, which follows El Topo trying to free the deformed outcasts who saved his life from the caves they are trapped in, while also battling a group of depraved religious fanatics in the nearby village. This half also reintroduces El Topo’s son, abandoned at the beginning of the film, as an adult performing his own “quest for origin” by finding and threatening to kill his father. To try and describe the film narratively, however, ignores the fragmentation that subverts linearity at every turn. This fragmentation is crucial to the way the film, like Antonio das Mortes, demands constant spectator engagement.

In looking at Jodorowsky’s work, Neustadt contends that he maintains a “dialectical relationship with industrial culture,” where Jodorowsky is both aware of, and utilizing, techniques of the very mainstream he is also critiquing. 20 El Topo uses the popular genre of the western as a departure point for the film. What I mean by this is that the use of the western implies a certain level of repetition and familiarity with genre codes: Jodorowsky is fully conscious of his use of the western – it is not randomly included. He is also blatantly playing with these genre codes and superficially subverting them at every turn. However, this surrealist use of the western actually demonstrates the genre’s revolutionary potential, by both continually engaging the viewer in active spectatorship and critiquing the view of genre as a “distracting spectacle.” The difficulty of El Topo, and perhaps why it has divided critics, lies perhaps partially in Jodorowsky’s often frustrating non-linearity, but more prominently in the fact that the film is rooted in genre only to subvert viewing expectations. This subversion, however, serves to encourage active viewership, as the surrealism in the film critiques dominant film codes.

El Topo develops political potential through identifying a particular audience, to return to Gutiérrez Alea. For example, the second half of the film deals with the totalitarianism of Mexican politics: the ubiquity of the Revolutionary Institutional Party’s (PRI) “el tricolor” is echoed in the cultist logos plastered on everything (and everyone) in the village. While the name of the party changed multiple times, some version of the PRI held power in Mexico for over 70 years, drawing on the rhetoric of the Mexican Revolution while controlling the state through corruption and electoral fraud. When villagers are rounded up, branded, ridden as horses, and shot in the streets by the city marshal, it is difficult not to connect the film to governmental violence such as the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. But to make these connections requires a specific audience: the spectator needs to have an awareness of Mexican politics. However, that raises a second possibility, through the use of surrealism: the film almost requires the viewer to apply their specific knowledge and experience to the images and narrative. So, a Western viewer might make the connection between totalitarianism in general and the village cultists, but the surrealism requires an active spectator in order to create meaning. In this way, El Topo uses the popular genre of the western not as a distracting spectacle, as Gutiérrez Alea criticizes, but as a way of forcing active spectatorship from one (or many, due to the openness of surrealism) audiences.

Conclusion

While too close a comparison of El Topo and Antonio das Mortes might undermine the specificity I’m arguing for in terms of critical frameworks, I would like to briefly emphasize some of the connections in thinking about these films more broadly as part of the NLAC. In terms of production, both films were made independent of national industries controlled by repressive regimes. Both films also came out of specific critical traditions that emphasized the creation of counter narratives and active spectatorship to encourage revolution.

In the case of Antonio das Mortes, this is reflected thematically in the way the film uses the western to challenge the dominant generic tropes of the Hollywood western and the hegemony of the American narrative. For example, the binary of civilization and the wild, inhabited by savages, is commonly used in Hollywood westerns to emphasize the narrative of progress and the necessity of manifest destiny as people move across the frontier. In Antonio das Mortes, however, this idea of modern progress is challenged throughout the film but most specifically at the end, as Antonio is shown walking along a highway filled with trucks. The sudden intrusion of the modern world in the narrative is jarring, and sets up the emergence of a new conflict: “Antonio versus the enormous foreign corporate dragons.” 21 We have seen Antonio make a political conversion, of sorts, throughout the film as he seems to join the side of the “old” – the cangaceiros and the spirituality of Santa – and so the shot of him walking on the highway at the end visually puts him at odds with modern progress. He can create change on a local level, but is still powerless in the face of global capitalism. In terms of the western, this opposition destabilizes the generic satisfaction of the final shootout (where the ‘villains’ met their end by Antonio’s gun) by implying that the bloodshed has not, in fact, created a new “order” through the survival of the Santa and Antão, but instead created more conflict as the “old” will now face the “new” in the form of modernity. Civilization and progress are not the answer, it seems, but the “savage” (aligned here with the old) isn’t necessarily represented more favorably. Antonio, then, becomes a kind of hero for his in-betweenness and a new, liberated, space is created that runs counter to binaries of civilization and the wild promoted in dominant forms of the western.

In El Topo, as well, the binaries of civilization and the wild are subverted throughout the film. From the very beginning, the ridiculousness of El Topo riding into the frame with a sun umbrella (clearly an ironic nod to stereotypes of being “civilized”) is juxtaposed with the vast, empty desert space, of which El Topo is clearly a comfortable occupant. And when the film moves to the village in the second half, the “wild” becomes the camp of dwarves, which is repeatedly shown to be more civilized than the zealot villagers. For example, the religious elements of the two camps are both tinged with surrealism, seen in the rebirth ceremony performed by the old woman for El Topo and the deadly game of Russian roulette played in the cultist church. However, the scene in the church ends with the death of a young boy, while El Topo is, at least physically, transformed when he leaves the cave – shorn of his bushy hair and beard, he has visually been reborn after his twenty year “death” after being shot. The villagers, on the other hand, despite being dressed in fine clothes and looking the part of “civilized,” are connected with a savage violence – first in the street shooting, then while casually watching two men fight to the death, before entering the church and passing around a loaded gun with the same fervor as a religious relic. Jodorowsky undermines these binaries of civilization and the wild through surrealism, but the result is comparative to Rocha’s in that the ending is ultimately left open to encourage viewer engagement.

The rejection and subversion of genre tropes here is also a result of Brechtian distanciation, something we see in both Antonio das Mortes and El Topo. By challenging viewer expectations – narratively, generically, and visually – the films prevent viewers from mindless identification and absorption. In both cases, this estrangement is meant for political effect: in El Topo, to comment on totalitarianism in Mexico, and in Antonio das Mortes, to encourage revolutionary thinking in Brazil. However, the films use different methods to achieve distanciation, each retreating from mainstream codes and conventions towards mythology, for Rocha, and allegory, for Jodorowsky. Through distanciation, and rejection of mainstream generic codes, the political motivations of Rocha and Jodorowsky are developed in the critical use of the western. By seeking to change the relationship between the viewer and genre, these films demonstrate that the western takes on a particular political coloration in the way these filmmakers draw on genre within their respective critical frameworks.

At the beginning of this article, I raised the question of whether or not the western had been reframed as a political genre in Latin America, speaking against the colonial tendencies typically associated with the genre. Can the western, a genre about conquest, be made by (and for) the subjects of neocolonialism? And, if so, are they still westerns? One of the issues with answering this question, which has been raised by Callenbach’s analysis of Antonio das Mortes, is that using the popular genre of the western could lead to these films ultimately end up taking on the ideologies they set out to critique. Stanley Corkin, in his analysis of Cold War westerns, argues that films drawing on the western run the risk of being “recontained by its dominant conservative ideologies,” even if the filmmaker intends otherwise. 22 However, Corkin’s argument rests on the assumption that the western is, first, a conservative genre, which vastly oversimplifies the Hollywood form and ignores the wealth of films and scholarship that complicate these basic, and derivative, formulations. Second, Corkin’s dismissal assumes that the western is American – that is, that the genre can never not represent an American origin, no matter where it is used.

This is where an alternative history of the western, one which considers its global origins, offers a different way of answering this question. If the American western is considered just one (dominant) form of a global popular genre, then it is possible to rethink these Latin American westerns as an(other) western without marginalizing them in relation to American ideology. Kavanagh, writing about Rocha, argues for just this in regards to Western readings of Latin American films:

Once again, I would say that we have first to learn an objectivity: to allow this other to exist as other and likewise to resist the basically imperialist desire to anathematize it as but a deviant and inadequate variant of the same.

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We can see this tendency in readings such as Callenbach’s, which focus only on the comparison to Hollywood, and thus reclaim Rocha’s work as falling into line with what he argues are conservative (Western) ideologies. This also crops up in some critics responses to the mysticism of Antonio das Mortes and the surrealism of El Topo: if it can’t be neatly categorized or explained, then it becomes problematic. However, the real issue with these kinds of readings is that they return again and again to comparison as an act of reclaiming these global westerns as simply “variants” of the American form.

Instead, what these Latin American westerns reveal is the importance of allowing generic frameworks to be adjusted for the specific historical and political contexts where they appear. Reading Antonio das Mortes in comparison to the themes of the Hollywood western, for example, leads only to points of difference, whereas reading the film in the Third Cinema framework it was made under demonstrates that the use of the western is, in fact, not about providing a critique of America but instead a move towards appealing to the audiences in order to incite collective action. In El Topo, the use of the popular genre works to subvert the viewing experience and this subversion, demanding an active viewing experience, becomes the political statement. This demonstrates the importance of reframing these films within a global context, where the western is a popular global genre, rather than an American one.


Frames # 4 1-12-2013. This article © Chelsea Wessels. This article has been peer-reviewed.

Notes:

  1. Mary Louise Pratt Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992) p. 229
  2. Ibid, p. 6
  3. Pratt, p. 229
  4. “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World.” Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, in New Latin American Cinema, ed. Michael T. Martin (1997), p. 37
  5. “Cangaceiro” refers to northeastern peasants turned bandits, who rebelled against powerful landlords in the area and were known for their specific style of dress (usually in leather) and weaponry, which included guns and special knives called “peixeiras.”
  6. “Comparative Anatomy of Folk-Myth Films: Robin Hood and Antonio das Mortes.” Ernest Callenbach. Film Quarterly, 23.2 (Winter 1969-1970), p. 42
  7. “Imperialism and the Revolutionary Cinema: Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes.” Thomas M. Kavanagh, Journal of Modern Literature, 3.2 (1973), p. 202
  8. Ibid, p. 202
  9. Rocha, qtd in Kavanagh, p. 205
  10. “Antonio das Mortes.” Terence Carlson, in Brazilian Cinema, ed. Randal Johnson and Robert Stam (1995), p. 172
  11. Jorge Sanjinés, Theory & Practice of a Cinema With the People, (1989), p. 39
  12. “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics.” Teshome Gabriel, Questions of Third Cinema. Ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen (1989), p. 59
  13. “The Viewer’s Dialectic.” Tomás Gutiérrez Gutiérrez Alea in New Latin American Cinema, ed. Michael T. Martin (1997), p. 110
  14. Ibid p. 111
  15. Ibid p. 111
  16. Ibid p. 115
  17. Ibid p. 129
  18. Review of El Topo. Roger Ebert, 28 Jan. 1972: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/el-topo-1972
  19. “Alejandro Jodorowsky: Reiterating Chaos, Rattling the Cage of Representation.” Robert Neustadt, Chasqui, 26.1 (1997), p. 57
  20. Ibid p. 62
  21. Carlson, p. 172
  22. Stanley Corkin. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and US History. Temple UP (2004), p. 12
  23. Kavanagh, p. 213