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Moviegoing in São Paulo in the 1920s
By Sheila Schvarzman
Moviegoing is a dated and codified practice. Even if based on foreign models, viewing practices reveal each country’s unique social and cultural characteristics, showing, among other things, the role that each society gives to women. In the early 1920s in Brazil, young journalists from Rio and São Paulo tried to encourage national film production and the improvement of motion picture theaters (Schvarzman 2004, 33). Cinearte magazine was first published in 1926, by the commitment of Adhemar Gonzaga. Mainly dedicated to American cinema, Gonzaga, together with Pedro Lima, wrote about Brazilian cinema. Observing, encouraging, and criticizing the national film production, they started the “Campaign for Brazilian Cinema” and tried to introduce a stable film production, encouraging exhibitors to show national films, censoring propaganda or documentaries about the country made by immigrants who, in their opinion, were projecting a negative image of Brazil. For this reason, they tried to indicate the right way to register Brazil on film: with adequate cinematographic techniques, and urban and modern standards, cutting off local and rural characteristics, as well as the images of poor and black people. Octávio Gabus Mendes promoted Cinearte’s concept of the Brazilian film industry in his column “De São Paulo.”
Those who wrote about Brazilian cinema defined the image of Brazil that they hoped films would depict–modern, urban and filled with the young and wealthy. This meant avoiding the typical, the exotic and, more importantly, the depiction of poverty and the presence of Black people. Women should be beautiful and sensual, and actresses with exotic characteristics, as well as Black and mixed race girls, should be ignored. It was in the representation of women that the ideal image of a rich class was imposed over the reality of a country in which slavery had been abolished as recently as 1888.
Motion picture theaters became extensions of this same“civilizing” project. Because popular cinema was not well regarded by the writers of Cinearte, theaters were designed to reinforce the idea of cinema as a “noble” art, becoming places of comfort and opulence. While Americans were popularizing movie going to make it more profitable and viable, the young middle class in Brazil considered cinema production to be a dignifying activity for the country and movie attendance to be mode of social distinction. “The progress of a country is measured by the number of cinemas,” claimed Cinearte in May 1926 (2). According to Gabus Mendes in the pages of Cinearte, cinema was a high artistic expression to be enjoyed by the cultured elite and not to be regarded as popular entertainment. Motion picture theatres should be suitable places, well located, and attended by the best people, including women (1928, 30). The presence of women as a marker of social class is significant. Elite women were distinguished by their education, social standing, and, above all, by their fragility, that is, a fragility that should be protected by men. Thus, the increasing female attendance in cinemas resulted in more censorship because films which endangered a respectable women’s purity were considered not proper for young ladies and wives, a designation that was kept until 1934. The specific reference to a female audience appears every time Mendes discusses in his column the distinction, comfort, and safety that movie theatres should offer. Through their Campaign for Brazilian Cinema, Cinearte attempted to elevate national cinema through fiction feature films, avoiding images of poor and Black people, native Brazilians, and the natural landscapes usually shown in documentaries. This way, screen and audience would finally be in consonance with the white, sophisticated and cosmopolitan image of Brazil. Journalists brought to the screening room and to cinematographic images their prejudices against the working class, immigrants, and Black people. Mendes’s articles shows a clear aversion to the connection between the popular layers of society and cinema since his main concern was not to increase the quantity of people in film theatres but the quality of the audience (1926, 30). He was not able to formulate or even to perceive the economic possibilities of a cinema attractive to a large popular public. Heirs to the Iberian mentality opposed to manual work, the literate economic elites of the 1920s, as represented by Cinearte, looked down on common people even as consumers.
Cinearte (5 May 1926): 2.
Cinearte 12 (19 May 1926): 30.
Cinearte 138 (17 October 1928): 30.
Schvarzman, Sheila. Humberto Mauro e as Imagens do Brasil. São Paulo: Edunesp, 2004.
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