Monday, September 17, 2007

Consumed by a Fever: The Small-Gauge Cinema of Orizaba's Sergio Tinoco Solar

As a movement, Super 8 filmmaking in Mexico was a largely a counter-cultural affair. Though the format was marketed to the hobbyists of the emerging middle class, as a rule its most impassioned practitioners were not well-appointed families intent on documenting babies' birthdays, vacations at the beach, and so on. It was, in contrast, from the ranks of the anti-establishment youth movements of the 1970s that the format took on another life, and became the vehicle for a movement, with its own film festivals, polemics, manifestos and politics. Although the means of production used by the superocheros (as these small-gauge practitioners of Third World cinema of liberation called themselves) was more amateur than industrial, their ambitions were great. They saw Super 8 as a tool for social struggle, an expressive vehicle for activist filmmaking out of the censor's purview, a forum for playful, irreverent experimentation and radical politics that was at once potent, direct and accessible.
In this broader context, then, the work of Sergio Tinoco, one of the most prolific and tireless practitioners of Super 8 filmmaking in Mexico, must be understood as the exception. In contrast to the hundreds of participants in the competitions for the Luis Buñuel Prize, the filmmakers who produced their Super 8 works collectively as a way of rejecting the "bourgeois idea of authorship," and the bohemians who, along with Buñuel, signed the manifesto called "8 millimeters versus 8 Million," stating that "film ought to be in service of the collective," ["cine debe estar al servicio de la colectividad"], Tinoco saw film as vehicle for home-grown, unpretentious entertainment. Ignored by the archives and historians that define the national film history, isolated from the Aquarian Age experiments that characterized Super 8 as a movement, and viewed as little more than a curiosity by the few media professionals with whom he crossed passed, Tinoco has disappeared from all but the most emphatically regionalist accounts of Mexican filmmaking. What follows outlines his accomplishments in film, and to draws some tentative conclusions about what his admittedly idiosyncratic and atypical film practice might suggest about the nature and significance of amateur filmmaking in Mexico.
In one sense, Sergio Tinoco Solar was a media professional all of his life. From 1942 onwards he made his living as a radio host for XETQ, a local station in Orizaba, Veracruz. Through his work he became well known to most of the people in his hometown, and apparently he had many friends. He made films on his own time, principally on weekends and holidays. Between 1967 and 1988, consumed by what he characterized as a "fever to bring stories to the screen," he directed three productions using regular 8mm stock, an amazing 46 in Super 8, one in 16mm, and three on videotape. To maintain this level of productivity, he often made three films a year. The majority of these were feature-length.
Tinoco's movies were emphatically homegrown affairs. Although he traveled as far as Mexico City and Guanajuato for locations, his cast and crew were comprised of residents of Orizaba, and a good deal of local pride pervades the work. Tinoco positioned himself as heir to a significant (if minor) Orizabeño filmmaking tradition, artistic descendent of Gabriel García Moreno, and Carlos Villatoro, who made films in their home town in the silent era (e.g. El tren fantasma, 1927; El puño de hierro, 1927) and his contemporary José Luis Ibáñez, who left as a youth for Mexico City, where he became a director (e.g. Las dos Elenas, Las cautivas). At times local history would enter into the films, as when he chose to make a fiction film based on the clash of 1907 in nearby Río Blanco, regarded as one of the important precursors, if not the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. A network of Orizaban friends and neighbors provided access to locations, key props, and costumes. His daughter, Silvia Angélica Tinoco, wrote most of the screenplays.
Tinoco's films, domestic in their mode of production and firmly rooted in a sense of a local community, did not reject or ignore the norms of commercial cinema so much as they mimicked them, albeit on a much more modest scale. Though for many years he called his production group "Cine Experimental de Orizaba" ["Experimental Cinema of Orizaba"], this was something of a misnomer, as his films are firmly in a classical narrative tradition. His autobiography makes clear that the models provided by commercial genres were never far from his mind, as he proceeded to replicate these one by one: "We had already filmed many themes," he writes, "but we had not yet touched upon one tradition in cinema, the one which the common folk know as 'cowboy films.' It would be exciting to make one. . . .”
In this manner, over time, Tinoco tried his hand at a wide range of genres: space alien invasion thriller, hospital melodrama, romantic comedy, desert island drama, sci-fi for Children, Gothic horror, a bullfighting drama, a children's musical, a colonial costume drama, a Pre-Columbian "Sword and Sandals" spectacle, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, a parody of the spaghetti Western, historical epics of the Conquest and the Revolution, a religious drama of the life of Jesus, an anthology of shorts, a modern literary adaptation, a work of social protest condemning the mistreatment of Mexico's Indians, and so on. In addition to replicating the diverse genres of the commercial cinema, Tinoco also reproduced their most self-congratulatory ritual, creating his own Veracruzano version of the Oscars or the Ariels (the Mexican film industry's version of the Academy Awards), a gala evening event during which he would give out what he called the "Silver Masks" [Las máscaras de plata]. At the annual awards ceremony, starting early in his filmmaking period (June 2, 1973), Tinoco would typically premiere his most recent production, and then distribute these tokens of recognition to the individuals who had made outstanding contributions to his filmmaking efforts.
Sergio Tinoco's relation to the more commercial film world involved more than simply the replication of the industry's genres and rituals. On one occasion, a professional screen actress, Pilar Pellicer, better known for her work in 35mm films such as Tajimara, appeared in his film entitled La cruz de sorcia [The Cross of Sorcery]. The television comedian Manuel Taméz "Régulo" likewise appeared in one film (Para ti una rosa). Other professional entertainers from Orizaba also participated in the films: musical groups like The Twings and Grupo Cuervos, and Bony the Clown, who appears in two of the movies for children. Others, though certainly not many, moved from working with Tinoco into a more professional milieu. Two of the actors, Miguel Angel Alvarez and Hector Cruz Teista, who appeared in several of his films were later hired as extras by the feature director Ismael Rodriguez to work in the 35mm film Mi niño Tizoc. On rare occasions Tinoco's films circulated outside of Orizaba in a larger exhibition circuit. La Insepulta was broadcast nationally on Televisa. His work was also written up in a national newspaper, El Heraldo de México, and featured on a national news program. But there were real limits to the extent that Tinoco succeeded in converting his filmmaking hobby into something more professional. Tinoco's one experiment with 16mm filmmaking is suggestive of his technical limitations. Tinoco would edit his camera originals and, following the introduction of Super 8 sound in 1968, recorded sound directly onto the magnetically striped film stock. Working in 16mm provided a different sort of a challenge, as he relates in his autobiography.

Making a 16mm film isn't as easy as making a super 8; here one must work like a professional with a negative, and make a copy in the laboratory once the material is edited, and all this cost a lot of money. We went to Mexico City and investigated and a laboratory committed to doing the work though the day of the premiere the public had to put up with out of sync sound.

After this unsatisfactory experience Tinoco returned to working in 8mm.
The exhibition of Tinoco's films was largely through what distributors call "four-walling;" the maker borrowed or rented local venues, some of them movie theaters (e.g. the Teatro Llave), some of them designed for other functions (e.g. the Club 600, a nightclub, or the auditorium at the Railway Workers' Union Hall) for the evening's presentation. Most of the films were not exhibited outside of Orizaba. Though admission was collected at these screenings, Tinoco reports that he was only able to recoup less than 45% of the production expenses.
Although Tinoco shared a passion for small-gauge filmmaking with the countercultural media artists who called themselves superocheros, that was likely the full extent to which their interests coincided. Church and State were two of the superocheros' favorite targets. Tinoco thanks Jesus Christ repeatedly in his autobiography and dedicates the text to -- among others --Miguel Aleman Velasco, governor of Veracruz and the president's son. Tinoco was a not of the generation of the superocheros, but rather was closer in age to their parents. He did not share their politics, their formative experiences in the 1968 student movement, their interest in filmmaking as politicized weapon of the weak. In his autobiography he mentions entering one of the competitions that took place in Mexico City. Que dios los perdone won the PECIME foundation prize for Super 8 filmmaking.
The avant-garde's small-gauge film practice, both in Mexico in other parts of the world, could be thought of having one leg in home movies and the other in fine arts traditions, often linked to other media. This is not the case for Tinoco. Though home movies are certainly a relevant reference here, the ambition is to tell Hollywood-style narratives (or in the case of Tinoco's films of the Conquest, the Aztecs, the Revolution, and other explicitly national themes, Estudios Churubusco-style narratives) using home movie talent, locations, technology and mode of production. Although the roughly-drawn posters advertising the local screenings of each new film conjure up the image of a cinematic naïf, Tinoco was anything but an innocent, untouched by the commercial film industry. His films, on the contrary, affectionately mimic the industrial product, while the impecunious production values constantly announce that they are something altogether different.
Within the context of "orphan films," Tinoco's body of work occupies a peculiar position. A host of factors place him outside, or, at the very best, at the margins of film history: his choice of small gauge film stock, his failure to distribute his work outside Orizaba, his position in the "developing world," and within the provincial margins of that. Yet the films themselves forever strive to be the sort that does enter into film history, the feature-length narratives that have been used to define the medium's past. If Tinoco has every thing to gain from a more inclusive view of cinema history that leaves some place for his unique contributions, then what, one might ask in all fairness, does film history have to gain from, say, a feature-length Super 8 of teenagers in rural Veracruz who make contact with alien beings in flying saucers? Above all, it is a new-found appreciation for the artificiality of narrative film conventions, conventions so often repeated that they come to be mistaken for "realist" or "natural". In Tinoco's appropriation of these conventions, the awkwardness of the technology and the performances, the devices of film narrative gain anew an uncanny quality that is absent from most commercial film. This quality, which highlights industrial cinema's codes, allows the films of Tinoco to surpass the original models that they mimic.


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