Without Sin


    One of the pleasures Netflix threatens by its streaming-only service is discovery and enjoyment of obscure films. Oh, certainly, the Emmanuelle series and the Adam Sandler/Jack Black/Will Ferrell oeuvres will always be among us.

    Those as well as loud expensive action movies that emerge from games played by arrested adolescents under sugar shock are also safe. Present-day Hollywood is at it’s most creative when it comes to sequels, tie-ins, spin-offs, no?

    Dispute that? Okay. The last engaging character driven film you watched which lacked a telephone directory long special effects end credits was … ?

    The emphasis in streaming video will pluck fresh product, regardless of how insipid. As years proceed, “classics,” or should you prefer, mostly black & white code movies which relied on clever dialogue, suggestive camera angles, moody lighting, and smarter-than-today’s audiences, will be dispensed in eye-dropper fashion.

    This constriction will further burden and limit foreign language movies. (Americans can’t be bothered with subtitles. Machete don’t text and Americans don’t read. All that lip moving gets noisy in theaters.)

    If next-generation foreign directors displaying skills rivaling those of Francois Truffaut or Luis Bunuel should grace future screens, either might be lucky to receive arid, not avid, welcomes here. Of course one more Tinto Brass would be accepted unflinchingly. Movies showcasing bouncy, large-breasted, fat-bottomed girls are universal attractions.

    So before Netflix and competing digital purveyors consign vast swaths of cinematic output to irretrievable and inaccessible, I’ve broadened my viewing pattern. Besides popular selections, I’ve made conscious efforts to watch titles I suspect won’t convert into streaming options.

    There are so many. Western and Mexican movies specifically.

    When I resided in the desert Southwest I must’ve been too busy being on the alert for rattlers, scorpions and black widows, as well as wondering whether the general kindness I received from strangers was a put-on, to watch the aforementioned genres. After all, it seemed pretty unnecessary to gawk at shoot ’em ups when wind shifts pushed nearby stockyards past living room windows or become engrossed in south of the border life when merest hint of “la migra” could evacuate a cantina of its staff in no time flat.

    Since those hours I’ve come to appreciate an understated Randolph Scott and the outsized character actors and actresses animating modern recreations of the Old West. Having seen and understanding them better now than inside an era still tender from tumult and radical change, I see better how gruff expressions punctuated by harder gunfire appealed to certain kinds of American men distant from their feelings and sentence structure. Fortunately, our society has advanced far enough to know strong silent types are repressed boys.

    About the other, Mexican movies, they are revelations. Back on local Spanish-language TV stations or when Mexican broadcasts drifted into the United States, both snowy visions on my portable black & white tube, I ignored them. Too frenetic, I thought then. Too many hard-sell commercials.

    Today, given widescreens and clean uninterrupted transfers, stories I couldn’t decode earlier now bloom. They flower like time-lapse photography.

    Recalling the predominant Anglo attitudes of 30 years ago, much less 60, perhaps the heyday of Mexican cinema, it’s no wonder ma, pa, and the parson demanded such entertainments remain on the Mex side of town.

    Life in those Mexican movies, like Latino Catholicism itself, is closer to human frailty. The faith is monolithic; how it’s worshipped isn’t. Sin, as in joy, is not allotted but lived. Therefore, its excesses are wallowed in thoroughly, its degradations made clearer.

    Attributes are presented boldly. Skip virtues and homilies. In them, the wealthy have tossed aside all but the shallowest Christian kindnesses. They demonstrate belief in God having deigned upon the elect a special providence. Of not only lording it over lower orders, but grinding their faces in misery.

    In Anglo liturgy the privileged are obliged to care for the poor, right?

    Celluloid Mexican landowners and magnates, abetted by complaisant clergy, on the other hand, are to humiliate, denigrate, and exploit peons and servants. Of course the cynical view would be the high and mighty had literally accepted the humble below them will find full reward in Heaven. So however they were tasked on earth was immaterial.

    Hey. I said it was cynical.

    Were mercilessness from above insufficient (or depending on viewers’ backgrounds, incessant), behavior of the put-upon could’ve been just as discomforting. Or too real life. Either way more active. None of that noble poor who suffer meekly stuff for them.

    South of the border squalor wasn’t prettified. Characters existed under the harshest plainest light. Hand-to-mouth depictions stank of veracity. While watching some of these movies, I considered how Mexican audiences received them. That is, opposed to, say, The Grapes of Wrath‘s initial receptions in agricultural California.

    Most Mexican crowds wouldn’t have been far removed from those onscreen portrayals. Empathy would’ve been raw, sympathy naked. Maybe it’s legend, but when the 1939 film version of John Steinbeck’s novel previewed, allegedly those audiences, predominated by Anglo gentry, laughed disbelievingly at the screen Okies’ plight. Apparently too few watching had ever worked the land, lived rough in camps, and were unaware of field hands and their families Dust Bowl desperations.

    Eras pass in America but our ignorance remains constant.

    Aside from the Mexican offerings’ distasteful societal aspects, what must’ve had plenty of decent women suffering vapors and strong men outraged was the utter lack of sexual hypocrisy. Conditioned as Anglo moviegoers were to married couples sleeping in separate beds, panning through open bedroom windows signifying carnal congress, the ritual of men offering and lighting women’s cigarettes substituting for foreplay, and births abrupt rather than blessed events, commingling in Mexican films doubtlessly answered a lot of questions that had left nervous parents red-faced and stammering.

    For their time, and probably for a great many of us decades later, Conchita, Don Jose, Inez, Ignacio, the rest, shamelessly conducted frank adult lives.

    From what I’ve sampled, two of the liveliest Mexican movies produced must be Aventurera and Victimas Del Pecado. What wasn’t in their respective running times? Kitchen sinks were often thrown.

    Both happened to star Ninon Sevilla, a Cuban actress who later gained renown in telenovelas. In each feature she is a wronged woman who responds by lashing out. Palm. Bottle. Pistol. Whatever was handy.

    As in most efforts filmed during this era, the script skips through exposition. More like all involved are dropped in spots and hit the ground running.

    These productions never lack action. Or pageantry. Pathos quickly yields to dance numbers whose unfettered sensuality could’ve had a closeted Busby Berkeley swooning.

    Cat fights abound. Subtleties are smothered. Yet simply constructed as these productions are, many scenes rise to art. In Victimas a sequence unfolds throughout a rail switching yard that combines Eisenstein-like cutting with compositions the railroad photographer O. Winston Link could’ve framed and snapped.

    Watching Sevilla steer her heroines inevitable downward arcs before their truly gratifying redemptions, I couldn’t think of a comparable English-speaking actress who’d allow her image to undergo such exhaustive pummeling. And as we well know image is everything regarding celebrity.

    For the longest, Stateside producers gently referred to licentiousness, if at all. Having read Peyton Place, From Here to Eternity and The Blackboard Jungle, three novels that became well-regarded 1950s films, the screen versions pale significantly against their sources. If that era’s Mexican literati had produced similar bestsellers, little off those pages wouldn’t have reached movie theaters.

    Down Mexico way, vices were acknowledged as necessary and often pleasurable pursuits. Violence, too, was almost sated as immediately as passion. Driven by the same impetuses, aren’t they?

    While it’s acting, the fury sloshing around Aventurera and Victimas Del Pecado emerge from some deep cultural places. There is the Method, then there is continuance after a meal break or the previous night.

    Convenient as streaming is, its intentional limits may conceal from us a good deal of long-ago wild-style artifice.

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