Y Tu Mamá También, “Third Cinema,” and Imagined [Cultural] Communities

Towards the beginning of Y tu mamá también, Tenoch and Julio indulge in one of the most privileged displays of grossness (or gross displays of privilege, you choose) I can imagine: a day at the pool at the country club Tenoch’s father is part-owner of, sans other visitors, rules, or oversight. (And, well, we’ll just leave it at that.) In this scene, as in other early parts of the movie, the class differences between the two characters are not yet evident. Julio can imagine (as do we) that he and Tenoch are equals. But as we shortly see, Tenoch—the wealthy boy whose parents appropriated an indigenous name for him to demonstrate their nationalism—and working-class Julio represent a contestation of inequality rather than an ideal of cultural unity.


Y tu mamá también thus illuminates and complicates the relationship of national imagined communities and “national” cinema. Benedict Anderson’s 1983 Imagined Communities notes that “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3), by which he means the 80s and 90s. While Anderson characterizes the nation as fundamentally political, he also notes that “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts” (4, my emphasis), a nature that is not explored in the excerpt we read. But it is just as useful, when talking about film, to conceive of “imagined communities” as imagined cultural communities, and nationalism as cultural nationalism, again both limited and sovereign (in an abstract sense). To follow Anderson’s breakdown (nb., the following has absolutely nothing to do with whatever he may say about cultural nationalism in the rest of the book; it is solely my speculation):

  • The imagined cultural community is imagined because, as Anderson writes, its members were largely never know each other (6), and also because it constructs a culture that is supposedly for everyone in that community—for example, in which cabinet ministers’ sons should be given names from the language of an oppressed minority
  • The imagined cultural community is limited because of its finite-but-elastic boundaries, and also because there’s only so far the construct of shared cultural heritage can stretch. Eventually, it thins to the point that appropriation, inequality, and artifice become transparent.[1]
  • The imagined cultural community is sovereign because participation requires buy-in. The rhetoric of shared culture constitutes power. (Also, Foucault.)
  • And as Anderson says, it’s a community because of the ideal of “horizontal comradeship” (7), which is, of course, a window-dressing.


I’d argue that all of these things become evident in YTMT as Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa get further and further from Mexico City and the glass floor of imagined equality they’ve built their friendship on, but in the opposite way from how Hind suggests the provincia usually works. Acting as though they’re traveling into a rural landscape without constraints, the teens are eventually faced with glaring inequalities that contribute to the end of their friendship.[2] But this synthesis is not of YTMT or Hind’s article, so I digress.


So if we accept (if only for a moment) that the above describes somewhat the aims and limitations of cultural nationalism, and that YTMT illuminates its problematic nature, what then are we to make of the film as “national” cinema? Crofts’ second category, the “Third Cinema,” is helpful here. Third Cinema explicitly seeks a non-Hollywood aesthetic and takes an anti-imperialist stance (856), “offer[ing] a particular reconceptualization of national cinema” by revealing “ethnic, gender, class, and regional differences” within the imagined community of the nation (857). The “nation” of Third Cinema is not necessarily Anderson’s imagined community (political and cultural), and may—as YTMT does, at least to some extent—offer some deconstruction of nationalist ideals.


I am uncertain, however, whether YTMT and other films that have “crossed over” from the developing world completely fit the category of Third Cinema. Crofts writes that they do not compete with Hollywood, but do critique it (854). I’m not sure how viable that characterization is for a film that was nominated for an Oscar and made by a director who now regularly crosses into Hollywood blockbuster territory (e.g., The Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, Gravity). Cuarón does not lack connections in the American film mainstream. It’s hard to consider his work radical or anti-imperialist in content or context, even when the material pushes the envelope of what’s socially acceptable. Where, then, do we classify films like this that wrestle with some of the issues of the Third Cinema, but are also clearly connected to the American film mainstream (and if not to that, then to the “highbrow” international festival system)? Are they nationalist? National? Critiques of the nation? Or what?



[1] I’m not going to try to defend this point very well here, but I’m sure we can think of many examples, and plenty of folklorists and others have critiqued the notion of world heritage, national heritage, and (my favorite) “intangible cultural heritage” for similar reasons.

[2] My interpretation of YTMT is colored by having previously seen it for a WGSS class and reading it as a contestation of political, social, and masculine power in which Tenoch increasingly treats Julio as his inferior, a dynamic that gets upended somewhat in their sexual encounter. More digression!

Into the West: Landscape Rhetoric in Stagecoach

Our readings on classical narration this week seem focused on character, particularly in Browne. Bordwell makes a strong case for character as the central cause of action in classical Hollywood, but I see a gap, perhaps one particularly important for Westerns: what is the rhetoric of the landscape or location? Thus the rabbit hole I want to go down is minimally related to the themes Bordwell and Browne focus on, but might illuminate some gaps in their essays.



I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Stagecoach that begins at about 0:15:00 (at least in this YouTube version of the film)—the long shot/take of the western landscape as the stagecoach departs, followed by the column of cavalry. It’s remarkable (IMO) for the length of the take, which extends well after the cavalry has passed as the coach and soldiers diminish into the landscape, and for the stationary camera. Most other long takes in the film seem to be tracking shots (as in several cases of people walking and talking) or possibly-faked tracking shots (like those of the coach traveling).

The landscape shot is also notable for its depiction of space. There are also shots during the chase scene that emphasize the expansive landscape, but none quite like this one. The depth of landscape is striking, recalling the Hudson River School of painting, which places humans in the “middle landscape” and is tied to exploration and expansionism in 19th-century American culture.


Asher Durand, “Progress” – note the title and the wagon train in the middle landscape


Much could be said about the cultural connotations of such a shot in an American movie, and I’m sure someone better informed than I would have even more comments on the landscape shot and the western genre. But I want to touch on two things: the rhetoric of this bit of landscape in Stagecoach, and (at least briefly) the contrast between it and the way space is depicted in Deadwood.

Bordwell looks at narration as the meeting of fabula, syuzhet, and style* (156). In classical film narration, he writes, syuzhet is generally linear and fabulae are character-driven. Narration tends to be covert once the situation is set up, particularly when the action is driven or information conveyed by characters (something Browne also dwells on). However, the “communicativeness of classical narration is evident in the way that the syuzhet handles gaps” (160). The primary gap-handling strategy he’s interested in is the montage and its ability to facilitate a skip in time.

But what are we to make of this landscape shot? As a simple statement of plot—the coach has left town—it’s too long. There’s a sense of digression from the main course of events, as in a montage. But it’s the opposite of a montage in a technical sense, even though it also facilitates a skip in space and time, by transitioning to scenes in/on the coach and implying that a great deal of space has been traversed. At the same time, the implied observer is stationary at the edge of town. We take the position of civilization at the edge of the wilderness, our attention split between the column of riders and the seemingly limitless landscape.

I’d argue that the film is using the viewer not so much to re-enact the work of the narrator (as Browne suggests, 140), but to reconstruct/narrate Stagecoach’s ethos—nostalgia, American exceptionalism and the frontier, a particular vision of heroic-but-untamed masculinity (e.g. Ringo). This isn’t far off what Browne’s arguing, but transposed to the level of ideological identification rather than character identification.

Deadwood diverges from Stagecoach (and presumably other classic westerns) ideologically as well, in addition to obvious aesthetic differences. Deadwood rarely features these sorts of wide landscapes, favoring grit, as we’ve discussed before, and close spaces that conceal all manner of sins. (This week’s episode contained an exception: Jane’s view down the hill of Wild Bill’s burial.) The difference is so noticeable as to seem a repudiation of both the aesthetics and ideology of the classic western. The landscape has been dramatically constrained, and within four episodes the western frontier hero—Wild Bill—is dead. It would be incorrect to say that this is a farewell to American exceptionalism, but it’s hardly a story driven by the nostalgic optimism of the endless landscape.


* Where fabula is the events of the story and syuzhet is the way they’re arranged in the storytelling.