Vol. 3, No. 1 (2023)
This issue of FORMA brings readers a collection of essays focused on cinema in Latin America. In addition to essays on Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso, and Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the issue features an exploratory essay on an emergent AI cinema in contemporary Latin America as well as translations of selected essays by Alfonso Reyes on films from the earliest era of cinematic production.
As important as what Kleber Mendonça frames on screen through genres like sci-fi and horror is what happens off screen, such that his films might be characterized as staging the problems of the overspill or fallout of all that we cannot see or that is beyond our sensory ken. In his early short Recife Frio [Cold Tropics] (2009), an off-screen or invisible element abruptly invades the diegetic world, reframing the genres that seemed to be staging that world and raising questions about the carrying capacity of our narrative forms and the way intelligibility is plotted. The eruption of an off-screen element into the frame of a particular genre points not to the sudden capture of what was previously unknown or unknowable, but instead to something closer to the figure of subalternity.
Alonso’s films have often been read as expressing the isolation and alienation of the neoliberal subject, but my reading of La libertad as, at least in part, an homage to Juan José Saer’s dilatory poetics suggests that Alonso’s long takes and subtly estranging camera work also serve to confer plentitude upon the temporal fragment. The past and future may not be directly accessible from within the film, but they nevertheless immanently inhabit the present. Similarly, the socio-economic relations that bind seemingly isolated places and individuals to a broader sense of history are rarely depicted and most often evoked negatively. Nevertheless, Alonso, like Saer before him, suggests that such relations are never absent; rather, they animate and inform the most minute and banal interactions with one’s material surroundings. In both cases, description, rather than narration or interpretation, is what suggests the presence of that which cannot be directly perceived: social, economic, and historical ties that have been attenuated but that are never completely broken, for better or worse, even for the most aloof individuals in the most remote locations.
The accident at the center of Amores perros is not just the crash uniting the three narratives in the triptych, but the crash of three mediums. At the end of art, painting, like film and photography are all ailing from what Michael Fried calls “the expression of a general and pervasive condition” characterizing those arts: literalism. Where for much of its history a medium like painting was grounded in producing illusion, as it approached the condition of flatness and its literalist death in the late sixties, ambitious painting like abstract expressionism would increasingly shift to an emphasis on causality and indexicality, qualities already intrinsic to photography and film. Thus, artists like Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis (revoking drawing or painting) emphasized the literal qualities of materials on canvases that came to look less like paintings and more like what Fried calls “the manifestation of natural forces.” While inherently separate, it’s in film, I argue, that the problems raised by literalist painting and photography conceptually meet in the middle. Pollock’s stick “dripping fluid paint” and Louis’s mobilization of paint’s gravity in the unfurleds rely on forces and movement, which are qualities already intrinsic to film. I assert that these paintings find a counterpart in Iñárritu's first feature.
This essay represents an exploratory entry point that seeks to spur further investigation into this emerging cultural practice: at once a cautious dipping of the toes and an exhortation for others to follow into the unexplored waters of AI cultural scholarship, to untangle the implications of what could be a nascent avant-garde. Indeed, AI cinema resonates as a new avant-garde practice, one whose revolutionary potential remains as of yet untapped. Capturing the present instant and its purported avant-gardism, my essay maps some of the contours of the earliest stage of AI cinema (maintaining a specific focus on Latin America), providing historical parallels that can guide our inquiry by suggesting analytical tools and frameworks for in-depth future studies, as critics engage with artificial intelligence cinema going forward.
The translation of these columns into English seeks to aid scholars who do not work with the Spanish language but have an interest in the international circulation of early cinema. More importantly, these translations make Reyes’s views on what was a nascent artform available to a broader scholarly audience. Reyes reflects at length on the relationship between the economics of film production and its aesthetics. He makes the case for a kind of medium specificity that pushes critics and movie-goers to take cinema seriously as an artform, something that was certainly not a given in 1915 and 1916. His reflections on aesthetic form in specific works of cinema in some of the earliest years of its emergence as an artform are relevant as scholars consider the formal problems presented by other kinds of emergent artforms, which, like cinema in its early years, should also be taken seriously.