IL: Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

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IL: Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil

  • Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life

Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwarz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern life, the cinema – invented in 1895 - is foremost among the familiar "talismanic innovations [or] emblems of modernity” (1).

The cinema in Europe and the US emerged from and developed parallel to other large-scale transformations resulting from the processes of modernization:

  • industrialization

  • rationality

  • the appearance of new technologies, like the telegraph and railroad.

Film, a new technological invention, was part of this modern landscape, and for Charney and Schwarz it epitomized the modern era
In Latin America and Spain and Portugal, however, modernization was “still a fantasy and a profound desire (López 100)

  1. Examine modernity in the Brazilian (and Ibero-American) context. How can we speak of modernity in Brazil and Spanish America?

  2. Explore early cinema as a critical category in film studies – what do we mean by early cinema rather than silent cinema? New reading practice.

  3. Look at the relationship between early cinema and modernity in the Brazilian context.


  1. Rethink modernity in a Brazilian context

  2. Examine how film is part of the desire for modernity in Latin America by looking at Brazilian case study

  1. On Modernity

  1. Marshall Berman’s Universal and Developmental (and European) Theory of Modernity

There is a mode of vital experience—experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils—that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience “modernity”. To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air. (All that is Solid)

  • Destruction/ Transformation/ Disintegration of the Past

Caused by: scientific discoveries/ industrial upheavals/ demographic transformations/ urban expansions/ national states/ mass movements/ all propelled the ‘ever-expanding capitalist world market.

In other words caused by political and socio-economic modernization.

  • Modernization marks a shift from a traditional feudal and agrarian society towards capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, secularization, rationalization and the emergence of the nation-state in which all people are to be equal under the liberal ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity (Barker 2005, 444) :

  • Modernity is the cultural expression of modernization and is associated with artistic movements or intellectuals.

  • Charles Baudelaire: "modernity" (modernité) designates the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis of the individual in the rapidly changing city, and how culture captures that experience.

  • For Berman Development links modernity and modernization

  • Economic development - transformations caused by capitalist world market.

  • Social and political development –subjective transformations of everyday life

  • liberation from past is key and development for Berman is universal.

  1. Modernity in Latin America: An Out of Place Idea?

  • Nestor Garcia Canclini:

  • compared to Europe modernization was deficient in Latin America.

  • Economic changes Berman highlights were not large scale or universal there

  • Old forms and structures rather than evaporating and being replaced with modern ones were often still in place co-existing with new changes.

  • Roberto Schwarz:

  • Brazil: modern liberal ideas taken from French and North American constitution (fraternity, equality and liberte) were imported in the 1822 constitution, while slavery still in place.

  • Modern ideas and cultures part of Brazil, without modernization (development) – i.e. social and political structures not transformed.

  • Modernity as misplaced or out of place in Brazil – modern ideas and culture do not quite correspond to a social reality or basis.

  • Hybrid Modernity as opposed to Berman’s developmental (unilinear) modernity.

  • Anibal Quijano; what is sequence in other countries in Latin America is simultaneity” […] Rather than a devastating process that plows over the traditional bases of a social formation – all that is solid melting into the air – Latin American modernity is produced via the ambiguous symbiosis of traditional practices and experiences and modern culture and innovations, like technology (ctd in Lopez 100).

  • Modernity in Brazil imports modern western culture and models and translates them according to local needs or desires

  • Early cinema in Brazil and Latin America arrived as a fully fledged manufactured product imported from Europe not as the result of socio-economic transformations (López)

2. Early Cinema as a Critical Category

  • 1980s: New Film History

  • Early cinema no longer primitive

  • Has own aesthetics

  • Also has intertexts and specific context that must be explored

  • Contextual approach is vital to silent film– absence of texts

  • Especially in Latin America:

the early years of the silent cinema in Latin America, roughly 1896 -1920, are the least discussed and most difficult to document in Latin American media history. Studying the period is made daunting by the paucity of available material. Most of the films produced before 1930 have disappeared, victims of the inevitable ravages of time (and fires) and the official neglect of cultural preservation (Ana M. López 100)

  • Cinemateca brasileira: only 3% of films known to have been made survive today for examination

  • See Resgate de Cinema Silencioso

  • Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes: Early Brazilian films marked by Berço esplêndido (splendid cradle)

The Splendid Cradle is the worship of the country’s natural wonders, namely the landscape of the Federal Capital, a collective psychological mechanism that for so long served as paltry compensation for how far behind we were. Sugarloaf-Mountain-Corcovado-Peak-Tijuca-Forest backdrop of the colonial and pestilential Rio of the beginning and end of the century was documented exhaustively.

  • First documented film: Bahia de Guanabara (Afonso Segreto, 1898)

  • Visions of tropical landscapes soon give way to images of modern scapes

3. Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil

  1. The Arrival of Film

  • First Republic: 1889-1930

  • Abolition of Slavery: 1888

  • Imperial Monarchy Ousted: 1888

  • New Republican Regime: 1889

  • Republicanism = modernizing mission.

  • Colonial identity to be a thing of the past – progress is order of the day

  • First Screening: Rio de Janeiro 8 July 1896

  • Only seven months after first screening in Paris

  • Rapidity stimulated by regular routes of transatlantic trade

  • Trade routes increased with start of Republic – new regime embraces economic policy of exporting raw materials (sugar, coffee) in exchange for imported manufactured goods

  • Neo-imperialism/ neo-colonialism

  • A political and economic system dominated by a landed oligarchy and an agro export economy continued to sustain a rigid hierarchical patriarchal society (Johnson 189)

  • Film and Mundanismo

  • People (elite) able to experience global imports – changes way they see themselves

  • Imports and climate of mundanismo

  • Film arrives as another import “on board the same ships that brought other foreign goods into the country” (López 100)

  • Films characterized by a Cinema of Attraction (Gunning)

  • Not story telling forms but attraction is display

  • Attraction in Brazil is mediated by foreign/ imported nature of the medium – its mundanismo

  • Globality part of reception of films, including exhibition, e.g. Paschola Segreto’s Hale’s Tour

  • Travel and Transport and Film

  • Travel key subject

  • Lumière’s Arrival at the station -> Di Maio’s Chegada de um Trem a Petropolis

  • Display of modern modes of Transport and mobility

  • National Journeys

  • Featured Republican statesmen and the political elite

  • Ritual de Poder: From the first civil president to the last military president of the First Republic, Brazilian cinema has not missed a single one: Prudente de Moraes, Rodrigues Alves, Campos Salles, Afonso Pena, Nilo Peçanha, Hermes da Fonseca – all are filmed presiding, visiting, receiving, inaugurating and, eventually, being buried (Salles Gomes)

  • the cinema was, from its earliest moment closely aligned with those in power, be they wealthy and socially prominent or simply in government, and this alignment was a first step to national projects (López)

  • Few images of workers, unlike Europe (e.g. Mitchell and Kenyon’s Factory Gate films)

  • Factories abstracted bodies of laborers

  • Film and Rio de Janeiro’s modern makeover

  • Starting in 1902 Rio remade into a modern capital city, modelled on Paris

  • The new city is an object of visual attraction in culture – an object to be looked at

  • This visuality is translated by filmmakers

  • Films project the new attractions of the city – its new streets and modern-looking peoples

  • In doing so they visually exclude ‘non-civilized’ peoples

  • Foreign Journeys

  • Films shown abroad

  • Foreignness is key – filmmakers all immigrants from Europe

  • They mediate foreignness of the medium with their new national affiliations

  • Epitomizes hybrid dimension of relationship between early cinema and modernity in Brazil

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