Tuesday, November 15, 2005


It's an oft-heard reproach that Americans (that is, people from the United States) don't know or don't care enough about the rest of the world. Frequently, indeed, this is a self-reproach, as with Morgan Meis's "Monday Musing" over at the fine blog 3 Quarks Daily.

But surely the very frequency and ease of this (self-)critique should induce some second thoughts.

Hollywood particularly is lambasted for its role in a "cultural imperialism" that Americanizes the world without reciprocally taking sufficient notice of otherness. But this critique of the film industry ignores the vast number of movies that place otherness, and the problem of otherness, squarely centre-screen.

It also passes over the way in which cinema itself has been dedicated, since its inception, to the exploration and inhabitation of difference--albeit, it is true, from the safety of our more or less plush movie house seats, and nowadays our more or less plush armchairs and sofas from which we watch our DVD rentals.

There's no need to turn to "independent" or non-mainstream cinema to search for images of Latin America, for instance. As this blog is dedicated to showing, Latin America has figured at the heart of the movie industry since, well, at least since Edison sent his cameras to Cuba and Puerto Rico to document the 1898 war against Spain.

And from 1898 to the present, there's hardly a major director (from D W Griffith to Orson Welles to Hitchcock to Peckinpah to Soderbergh) who hasn't shot at least one film, often many more, in or about Latin America.

One might object that this isn't the "real" Latin America, but it's worth saying once again that to lament the distance between stereotype and reality is to miss the point entirely.

We are left then with the rather interesting observation that Hollywood's obsession with Latin America functions in such a way that it can leave its audience with the impression that still, somehow, they have learned nothing about what is presented to them. Which is a much stranger and more intriguing fact to be explained than the (counter-factual) assumption that somehow difference was never there in the first place.

Does Latin America on Screen then function somewhat like Poe's famous purloined letter? So clearly before our eyes that we cannot really see it at all.

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