Life carnival but should film

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By starting with the issues that are at stake in the discussion of minority filmmarking, this study takes a look at Michel Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque and explores its relation to a medium that it is not often applied to, filmmaking. Within the context of this study, the carnivalesque is explained as a change of the storytelling focus from that of those in power to those who are powerless. In its conclusion, the study found that while not perfect, the carnivalesque can dramatically change the way that filmmakers can create texts that break from the typical to the topical.


Issues raised by minority film resonate through current literature relating to film studies. In work that I have presented at other venues, I have explored the complicated relationship between the Chicano/a community and political agency within the American film industry (Gallagher, 2008). Within this context, I want to build a case for the carnivalesque as an important concept in the realm of the creation and analysis of fictional media with the specific intent of helping minority groups achieve greater agency. At the heart of issues of representation is the human need to categorize things, even other humans. You must be black or white, Anglo/a or Latino/a, male or female, American or a citizen of another country. Often, Chicanos/as do not want to be defined by these dualisms, which leads to problems. In turn, the way that Chicanos/as represent themselves in film does not correspond to the group's experience. This often leads to inaccurate portrayals when that group does not have control of the means that produce those portrayals; they are not often the creators of those portrayals; and they are defined by the dualism that they do not want to be defined by, thus being seen as the "Other".

As the "Other," Chicanos/as are exotic; therefore, they are interesting enough to be used as stock characters in films. However, as exotics, the stories they are able to have told about them, when not created by Chicano/as, fall into identifiable categories. Their exoticism coupled with economic, artistic and ideological constraints, force Anglo/a writers and directors to create representations of the Chicano/a population that are not true to their experience. The Angelo/a control leads to disenfranchisement within the film industry of Chicanos/as. Furthermore, no matter if a Chicano/a or an Anglo/a create a film, it usually placates the dominant non-Anglo audience the film is marketed to.

One would think that this type of experience would force a group into wanting to shake a racial or cultural label that has been self ascribed in order to form group identity, the case of the creation of the term Chicano/a. Yet, the act of being labeled a Chicano/a is important for those who want to have the opportunity to self-identify. Acts of self-identification are important for the creation of a sense of self in society as well as a basic psychological need. Since Chicano/a is not only a person's definition of his or her political nature, but also, an ethnic marker one should not be criticized when evaluated in this way. Whether or not someone is political or apolitical, however, should not relate to the labeling of art. The creation of art usually involves creating a political statement, even by trying to be "apolitical." According to Vietnamese filmmaker Trihn T. Minh-ha, "There are no apolitical works, but some works politicize the daily realms of our lives and other works simply look at these daily realms without offering the viewer a critical space in which the tensions between the political and the personal are played out."

However, the application of the label Chicano/a can be problematic as even the broader term Latino/a has proven to be. Defining a Latino/a population seems to be a problem because, among other reasons, the term disappropriates the population it refers to from the indigenous origins and histories that many Latinos/as have. Latino/a is considered a racist, Eurocentric term that associates people of different races, including the Spanish colonizers and those that were colonized as being equal (i.e. from a social, economic and power perspective). Given the term Latino/a's contentiousness, the term Chicano/a has been even harder for people to define and accept. The underlying problem of Chicano/a film is it is often labeled as Latino/a film. As Charles Ramirez Berg points out in the introduction to his monograph, Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance, "As far as Hollywood [is] concerned, U.S. Latinos/[as] and Latin American, (the author of this paper would say Chicanos/as as well) could all be lumped together as people with identical characteristics; as such, they could all be uniformly depicted stereotypically as bandits, harlots, Latin lovers, and so forth" (2002, 6).

The Latino/a population includes the experience and folk traditions of nationalities as varied as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Venezuelans, as well as people of Mexican descent. With the conflicting influences of Mexican, American, Spanish and indigenous traditions within their community, the term Chicano/a was created to eliminate the singular or at best dual nature of other labels. Today, with an estimated population of twenty-two million Americans, Chicanos/as are 7.3% of the total population of the United States. Since the Chicano/a population is essentially one voice within an almost voiceless community, Chicano/a voices run the risk of being silenced. This subversion masks the unique aesthetic of the Chicano/a population.

Not only are the categories of Latino/a (i.e. Haitian, Puerto Rician, Chicano/a et. al) difficult to escape, but also, they place the multiple "ethnicities" of the Latino/a umbrella grouped together within a "hierarchy[1]" of "minority[2]" cinema. Within "minority" cinema, writers and directors who are white women and white homosexual men often have the opportunity to make films before other "minority" groups. Frances Negron-Muntaner expands on this point in her article, "Drama Queens: Latino Gay and Lesbian Independent Film/Video." "[Underrepresentation of Latinos/as or Chicanos/as in higher relationship to that of white homosexual men and white women is because Latinos/as and Chicanos/as] tend to be homogenized under a generic 'black [or/] and Latino' experience without critical attention to difference and specificity" (brackets Gallagher, 1996, 59). Their status as white gives "white" "minorities" (i.e. women, the GTBL community, Jewish Americans[3], Italian Americans) better leverage when seeking funding from big production companies. Diana Taylor puts this divisive representation in a different light in her review of the anthology, Cultures Across Borders: Mexican Immigrants and Popular Culture. "[The Latino section of New York's largest Barnes and Noble is] between Asian and Native American...[for every] three walls [of] African American [and women's] studies, I [found] two shelves housing books on Latin America, U.S. Latino studies, plus the odd glossy coffee table guide to Mexican title and a book on [the] Iroquois [sic]..." (1998, 154).

Yet, acts of labeling do not change these issues of representation though they make for great ways to search for media content making that content marketable to members of these labeled groups or individuals interested in issues related to these groups. As mentioned above the term Chicano/a is for a politicized way of understanding Mexican American culture. Therefore, film created by Mexican-Americans, as an art form and art being viewed as a political statement, should be labeled as Chicano/a filmmaking. To summarize, filmmaking is political; Mexican-Americans make film, so therefore, those films are Chicano/a films. The political nature of film creates the need for Chicano/a film to be a libratory popular culture genre. The research question then is:


The discipline of textual studies developed as a way to expand the theories and terminologies of literary study into the realm of other story telling forms: film, television, comic books, the lyrics of popular music, etc. While it would not seem that the ideology and process that are used in the analysis of the seemingly static form of books would naturally convert to an itinerant form like film, literature has changed over the last one hundred years as has the way that literature has been talked about, leading to the creation of theory and concepts that are more accommodating of the fluidity that texts have incorporated in recent history (Owens, 1998).

Film establishes a voice for a people that have been subjugated and muted by the dominant culture. Film theory has aligned itself with libratory experiences from its inception. For instance, film theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1947) connected film with liberation in terms of how the medium documented the surroundings through framing when writing in the 1940s. He said that film is at its heart a controlled version of the events presented. While what is on the screen is a contrived version of reality, for the 100 minutes or so that the audience is viewing a film that reality transforms from the characters' reality to the audiences' reality. When viewers are presented with this reality, they believe what they are seeing is real. This transference of reality can also transfer experience and emotion from a character to a viewer. Therefore, film can make important political statements by making an audience empathize, or understand, a position through visual rhetoric.

However, this type of exploration has not remained as being germane to film theory today. One of the limitations of film studies that expressed itself early in the development of the discipline was whether or not it should be concerned with the technical aspects of filmmaking or in the creation of a "text" that involves the creation of a written "story" with visuals that correspond with that "story." While many concepts related to the jargon of technical filmmaking, text and story should be explicated, the development of the concepts that have arisen from the world of textual studies that are often being applied to filmmaking are the most needed of explication, as they seem to be the least clear in their relationship to film itself. In light of the discussion above of political filmmaking and Chicanos/as, the relationship between concepts in textual studies and political filmmakers needs to be further explicated.


One of the theorists whose ideas can easily be applied to the world of film is the Russian philosopher, linguist and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Unlike his contemporaries in the fields of philosophy, linguistics and literature during the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Umberto Eco, or Jean Baudrillard come to mind, Bakhtin never explicitly wrote about film. However, many of the concepts he first formalized can be transferred to the world of film. For example, the chronotope, the documentation of the moment-to-moment changes that we experience in real life, is one such concept. Through the chronotype, Bakhtin elaborates on the understanding of how images can lead to unifying action based on representations. Film theorists believe that the medium captures the chronotope. This idea, also known as time-space, is the moment-to-moment changes that we experience in real life. There is no better medium than film to see existence as moment-to-moment. Using the chronotope in terms of film gives film multiple layers of content to the lives and voices of Chicanos/as by showing the viewer what a Chicano/a day is like. Film's goal because of the power of the lens is to be both a narrative and pictorial art form. By showing the viewer the details, the viewer is more likely to relate to the protagonist on a human level. Bakhtin believes that one of the most important steps toward art that is successful and liberating is expressing commonality.

Good filmmaking, then, is control of the pictorial representations of a community as well as a storytelling medium. Liberation is achieved through a visual language of like-mindedness. The viewer can relate to the protagonist through the way the protagonist's life is similar to the life of the viewer, using commonality. Besides chronotope, Bakhtin's concept of dialogism, the creation of a dialogue between the author of a text and those who traditionally interact with a text passively, has already been extensively used in film theories and has been unbelievably influential in the field of film studies, one of his most influential concepts in the discipline of literary studies has not really transferred to the domain of film (Flanagan, 2009). Bakhtin says that there are more important concepts than chronotope and dialogism to be used to explain the political nature of texts.

The more important concept, the carnivalesque, relies on the carnival of Roman Catholic tradition to show when there are occasions where there is an inversion in the traditional social structure of a community in order to "change and renew" the community at large (Bakhtin, 1968, p. 10). Other than Martin and Renegar's (2007) use of the carnivalesque as a lens when analyzing the Coen brothers 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, and Flanagan's (2009) brief use of the concept when talking about action films, the carnivalesque has only really been used as a film studies lens in the work of two "ethnic" film studies scholars: Louis Owens and Jacquelyn Kilpatrick (1999), both of whom were looking at film from the perspective of framing the representations of members of indigenous communities. However, the use of the carnivalesque in relationship to minority communities comes with its own set of problematic issues, as Bakhtin described the carnivalesque as being an important component of the art and social understanding of pre-industrial societies. By claiming, as Owens and Kilpatrick do, that indigenous filmmaking is more likely to engage with the carnivalesque when making a film than "mainstream" filmmaking does, they are making a claim that uses an Eurocentric perspective like the carnivalesque in an ethnic media form establishes a sense of cultural within the Anglo-European community superiority that locks indigenous communities in language that describes them as pre-industrial, while ignoring the complexity of "modern" life.


The carnivalesque then needs to be related to issues of political understandings in film; examine its importance within the language of film studies and textual analysis; and place the carnivalesque within the discussion of "ethnic" media creation and representation.

In short, by relying on the carnivalesque, a filmmaker advocates resisting commodification by creating art about the subjects the artist wants to while using any method of storytelling, story construction and media available to the artist. This resistance creates an artist in dialogue with personal liberation, which in turn will influence the liberation of the artist's audience.

Although Chicano/a films have many obstacles to overcome before they can become truly representative, film is an ideal form in which to take those very obstacles and contextualize them. This contextualization does not have to be for the sake of an Anglo audience. It, also, does not have to be for a Latino/a audience or an audience that is specifically Chicano/a. Rather it should, through its libratory aspects, become a tool. Personal connections are derived from exploring political and social liberation through film.


To circle back to the connection between politics and the carnivalesque, Babe and Adorno need to briefly be mentioned. Babe lays the connection between politics and media in an extremely clear and concise way through the work of Theodore Adorno. Adorno claimed that commercial media imposes a "civilization constraint" on culture by removing the rebelliousness or calls to dissent that had previously characterized popular culture. While not addressing the issues that Bakhtin raises in his own work, Adorno speaks to what Bakhtin believes saying that compared to industrialized popular culture, pre-industrialized popular culture embraced the carnivalesque, "[T]he peculiar festive character without any piousness, complete libration from seriousness, the atmosphere of equality, freedom, and familiarity, the symbolic meaning of the indecencies, the clownish crowning and uncrowning, the merry wars and beatings, the mock disputes [...]" (Babe, 2009, ). Bakhtin continues by claiming that in the carnivalesque text "the people as a whole, but organized in their own way, the way of the people stand [...] outside of and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socioeconomic and political organization, which is suspended for the time of the festivity [...]" (Bakhtin 1968, 255-256).

Here would be a good place to briefly explain the three ways that the carnivalesque suspends the current cultural landscape: 1.) the use of bawdy language; 2.) the showing of situations where those in control are belittled by those that have been without power, not those out of power but those that have never been in power to begin with; and 3.) the depiction of the human body, especially genitalia. Through these distinct requirements make [t]he individual feels [sic] that [s/]he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people's mass body. In this whole the individual body ceases to a certain extent to be itself; it is possible, so to say, to exchange bodies, to be renewed [... the carnivalesque] with all its images, indecencies, and curses affirms the people's immortal, indestructible character. In the world of [the carnivalesque] the awareness of the people's immortality is combined with the realization that established authority and truth are relative [...The carnivalesque] is the victory of all the people's material abundance, freedom, equality, immorality [creating a world where people can see themselves and in turn see freedom. ...The carnivalesque creates a world, both in the text and through the way that the 'reader' of the text understands it where] there is no room for fear. For fear can only enter a part that has been separated from the whole, the dying link torn from the link that is born. [In the carnivalesque, t]he whole of the people and of the world is triumphantly gay and fearless" (Bakhtin 1968, 256).

The carnivalesque creates a setting where the usual order and way of life, and especially the social hierarchy are suspended. Therefore, the rules of politeness among equals and of respect for the hierarchy among inferiors are canceled during the carnivalesque. Conventions vanish, the distances between people disappear, and the right to strike, both physically and metaphorically, at one's important and esteemed neighbor, the bourgeois, symbolically expresses all this. Bakhtin continues by saying that, "while the usual world order is suspended, the new utopian order which has come to replace it is sovereign and embraces all" (1968, 256).

Adorno agrees with this point by contrasting working class songs and cultural artifacts, mentioning that "commercial media rarely call for picketing or boycotting; rather, voting [...] is set forth as the hallmark of democratic expression" (qtd. in Babe, 2009, 26). Since contemporary popular culture has the underlying means of promoting conformity, Adorno and Horkheimer believed that humanity's relationship to itself had been separated from its understanding of reality and dialogue. Adorno explains that popular culture can create a textual representation that, expresses the "rebellious resistance inherent within [ourselves...] as long as social control" does not impede this creation (qtd. in Babe, 2009, 26).


This rebellion is the heart of the carnivalesque. And the carnivalesque, as defined by Bakhtin, is not "simply the upturning of two things, which remain locked within their oppositional frameworks," but two things, which are also in dialogue, crosscutting two seemingly, unrelated camps (Hall, 1992, 32). The political release that comes from the carnivalesque is the intermingling of elements of "high" cultural with "low" culture. The carnivalesque "acquir[es] a new meaning, absorb[ing] the new hopes and thoughts of the people" (Bakhtin, 1968, 211). It transforms the crucible of the people's new experience and it becomes a powerful means of grasping reality, serving as a basis for an authentic and deep realism (Bakhtin, 1968). The carnivalesque is only really the carnivalesque when the people experiencing the carnivalesque try to redefine their social positions hence the reason I propose the carnivalesque in the creation of something like Chicano/a film.

As the media landscape has evolved over time, Bakhtin would argue, the bourgeois have suppressed the carnivalesque. While suppressing the grotesque and working class interests of later creative work, the bourgeois project their sense of otherness to any action that they view as taboo and reinforce stereotypes. While Adorno and Horkheimer would argue that the change of culture product reflects the change from issues of high culture to low culture is something we should be fearful of, Adorno and Horkheimer agree with Bakhtin in saying that acts of perversion do not act as an apotheosis but as a critique of the way that authority establishes and maintains control over people. The majority of humanity, according to Adorno and Horkheimer as well as Bakhtin, need to create culture that expresses their rebellious resistance. Carnivalesque practices retain the critical and cultural tools of the dominant classes while utilizing these very tools to degrade and mock forms of high culture. Revealing in the contradiction implicit in high culture, Chicano/a cultural, or any minority cultural, can use the carnivalesque to invert this paradigm.

The problem as outlined by Bakhtin came when the festival period is over and for one is away from the carnivalesque locale, bourgeois norms and standards will be reinstated. The carnivalesque encodes all that the proper bourgeois neutralize. Through the carnivalesque laughter is a force that needed to be universalized and set the world free from the confines of existence as demanded by mainstream culture. The underlying means of control for those in charge are fear and intimidation. Through the carnivalesque's invocation of laughter, fear was overcome by establishing a form of existence that privileged limitlessness and open-endedness over the prevailing fear and intimidation. By inverting the social order, the carnivalesque is victorious over the power structures that control the masses. It is the art of the masses, liberated to become the carnivalesque that Bakhtin is most interested in.


Popular culture, in Bakhtin's view represents the world as a whole in opposition to the majority perspectives of the world as dry and gloomy. The carnivalesque is an important type of storytelling then, as it is self-conscious and satirical with the goal of not taking itself seriously even before the central concerns of the narrative take place. The carnivalesque is not a genuine art form, but a form that lies on the borders between reality and art. It embodies both death and birth. The logic of the carnivalesque "unsettle[s] the 'given' social positions and interrogates the rules of inclusion, exclusion and domination which structured the social ensemble" (Stallybass and White, 1986, 43).

The goal of the carnivalesque results in open and honest communication between individuals who have been stripped of all social rank, which is an artificial designation to begin with. It is more than storytelling with an emphasis in irony, creating a story in which the complete notion of hierarchy is destroyed. Bakhtin believes that carnivalesque storytelling creates a type of dialogue between the "audience" for a text and the text itself. In the end, the carnivalesque tells the "audience" that there is no purpose in hierarchy and therefore, the "audience" questions the hierarchies, both political and ethical that surrounds them. It is important to realize that Bakhtin believed that the most successful type of "text" is anything that parodies or satirizes the dominant culture. However, Bakhtin cautions that satire and parody that only poke fun of everything in the world without establishing something as a positive example of what should be venerated does not align itself with the carnivalesque and will liberate the group, or individual, watching it.

At heart, in the Bakhtian carnivalesque, texts talk about the relationship between people thus establishing a carnivalesque aesthetic. As Bakhtian explains, "a special idiom of forms and symbols [is created] -an extremely rich idiom that expressed the unique yet complex experience of people. This experience appeared to all that [is] ready-made and completed, [is unable to change the act of pretending it is related to, seeks] a dynamic expression; its [demands] ever changing, playful, undefined forms" (1968, 11). All the symbols are filled with pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the relativity of prevailing truths and authorities. The carnivalesque features characters that blaspheme, deal with the world with cunning, and are coarse, dirty, physical, alcoholic, gluttonous and lecherous. It degredates all that is spiritual, ideal and abstract, transferring all that is material into all that is ethereal and vice versa.


In the end, Bakhtin is asking for the creation of texts that unite the political with the artistic. Characters should not hide their true motivation. Instead, the truth behind an individual's actions must come to the surface with this truth becoming the way that the audience interacts with the world around them. This creates a tension between order and disorder, the presence of anarchy within an already existing hierarchy. The carnivalesque creates a relationship, one that had not appeared previously between elements within society.

Because of this, there remains within the text a world that is indulgent, playful and a communal experience. In the end, it makes it difficult to trace a dividing line between symbol and reality. The carnivalesque creates a world where what is happening is a gift that people make for themselves and explains the world with texts that are not closed, completed units, but outgrows, transgressing its own limits. Bakhtin then finds himself not advocating liberal or conservative views but both at once, the will of the underrepresented people.

Representing and ridiculing each distinctive feature of an experience, the carnivalesque will lead a wider range of texts each transforming the original system; democratizing of conventions of storytelling; while keeping the public closer to the stories being created about them and making them understand the world around them. While the carnivalesque seems cleansing, it can only be cleansing when viewed from the standpoint of laughter. Bakhtin explains that the carnivalesque is of paramount importance for it takes laughter out of the hands of a social system that does nothing but constructs the individual and instead creates a world based on freedom. Laughter is as "universal as seriousness; it is directed at the whole world, at history, at all societies, at ideology" (Bakhtin, 1968, 84).

The carnivalesque is the festive aspect of the whole world in all its elements, the world in play and laughter. The carnivalesque asks everyone who sees it to participate rather than making a dividing line between what is shown and what is real. In essence, Bakhtin is suggesting a symbolic experience that is in fact reality; a reality can then convey the freedom that a group can experience through their own lives. The carnivalesque teaches that our center of gravity is transformed to something that represents the moral understanding of our existence.


Bakhtin becomes aware that during the modern era laughter and what was the carnivalesque went from a healthy expression of the social and became a representation of illness. By creating a public laughter, the carnivalesque facilitates a world were the individual and their part in society, carrying the weight of society, shirk our responsibilities to laughter and clowning. The carnivalesque, then, differs from the "pure satire" of today because modern satire is centered on an object, or person, being mocked. Therefore, it is the goal of modern political filmmaking, especially filmmaking about minority issues, must embrace a definition of the carnivalesque that helps them. The carnivalesque directs its laughter at those who are laughing. During the carnivalesque, institutional forms are revealed to be masks, power and status are shown to be acts, and the key to laying power bear in these situations is not transcendental backing but rather some combination of backstage maneuver and audience gullibility.

The carnivalesque has to act as an attention grabber so those that see it are instantiated to particular memories and associations that make the audience think about their own lives. Bakhtin described the carnivalesque as a place were the problems of the world are "work[ed] out in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play acted form, a new mode of interrelating between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of the non-carnivalesque" (Storey, 1998, 251). In essence, creating a form of public protest those defeats transforms and temporarily checks oppressive practices.


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The hierarchy of minority film production would look similar to this; however, there are places at the bottom that most likely would be even, as opposed to hierarchical: White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) Men, WASP women, German American Men, German American Women, Irish American Men, Irish American Women, Jewish American Men, Jewish American Women, the GBLT community (within this group there is a hierarchy and the placement of WASP gay men at the top does not mean that some of the groups below will not be higher than the make up of this group when trying to have a film produced), African American Females, African American Males, Latinos, Latinas, Asian American (from Eastern Asia) Males, Asian American (from Eastern Asia) Females, Non Jewish Males of Middle Eastern descent, Non Jewish Females of Middle Eastern descent ad noisome.

I am using the word minority to refer to a political minority. The definition that Richard T. Schaefer gives in his Racial and Ethnic Groups works best. "A subordinate group whose members have significantly less control or power over their lives than members of a dominant or majority group" (2007, 5). Included in this definition are categories of age, class and religion that are not included in the hierarchy mentioned earlier, but exist in the hierarchy.

Jewish Americans have historically had a strong presence in the film industry. However, along with Irish Americans and Italian Americans there is a tendency for stereotyping (both from the dominant group and in group) that often appears in film referencing them. This is true to a lesser extent to German Americans.