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Sensationalism, Cinema and the Popular Press in Mexico and Brazil, 1905-1930


This dissertation examines the role of new visual reproduction technologies in forging public cultures of sensationalized violence in two rapidly modernizing nations on the periphery of industrial capitalism. I trace parallel developments in the production and reception of silent crime and adventure film in Brazil's First Republic and in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Mexico, at a moment when industrialization and urbanization were reshaping daily experience without eliminating profound social inequalities. Re-evaluating critical frameworks premised on cinema's relationship to the experience of modernity in the industrialized U.S. and Western Europe, I argue that these early twentieth-century cultures of popular sensationalism signal the degree to which public life in Mexico and Brazil has been conditioned by violence and social exclusion linked to legacies of neo-colonial power.

In the first half of the dissertation, I examine cinematic re-enactments of real-life crimes filmed in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Mexico City between 1908 and 1919. Combining an emphasis on location shooting with melodramatic tropes inherited from popular literature and theater, these true-crime films grapple with representational problems at the heart of the cinematic medium: its potential for both documentation and dramatization and its indeterminate relationship to topical events. Incorporating analysis of locally produced crime serials, I focus on the dynamics of unequal cultural exchange between Mexico and Brazil and industrialized nations, particularly France and the United States, which acted as exporters of cultural products. Addressing the economic polarization of metropolitan centers and rural areas, the latter half of the dissertation analyzes fiction features produced outside the two countries' principal cities in the 1920s, where economic development lagged behind that of urban centers. These productions drew on the conventions of imported serial films and westerns (particularly location shooting and dynamic action sequences) to display local landscapes even as they asserted mastery over cinematic technology's viscerally thrilling effects. In constructing violence and risk as markers of local modernity, early Mexican and Brazilian crime and adventure films rendered spectacularly visible the social tensions of national modernization projects.

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