While post-war popular cinema has traditionally been excluded from accounts of national cinemas, the last fifteen years have seen the academy’s gradual rediscovery of cult and, more, generally, popular films. Why, many years after their release, do we now deem these films worthy of study? The book situates ‘low’ film genres in their economic and culturally specific contexts (a period of unstable ‘economic miracles’ in different countries and regions) and explores the interconnections between those contexts, the immediate industrial-financial interests sustaining the films, and the films’ aesthetics. It argues that the visibility (or not) of popular genres in a nation’s account of its cinema is an indirect but demonstrable effect of the centrality (or not) of a particular kind of capital in that country’s economy. Through in-depth examination of what may at first appear as different cycles in film production and history – the Italian giallo, the Mexican horror film and Hindi horror cinema – Capital and popular cinema lays the foundations of a comparative approach to film; one capable of accounting for the whole of a national film industry’s production (‘popular’ and ‘canonic’) and applicable to the study of film genres globally.
A brief historical overview of the discourses by which in Britain, until the late 1990s, popular genres were excluded from accounts of national cinemas, and of the gradual but very slow recognition, from the late 1990s, of these genres as worthy objects of film studies.
This chapter revisits the global economic, social and cultural dynamics that characterised the period from mid-1950s to the late 1970s, when places as far apart as Japan and Mexico, South Korea and Italy embarked on ‘economic miracles’. While social movements forced governments into important political concessions, a popular ‘youth culture’ took shape – simultaneously a new market for commodities and a mode of renegotiating the boundary between the public and the private. In Europe and in the United States these changes took place under the aegis of Keynesian economic policies that favoured controlled approaches to industry and restrained the kind of short-term speculative capital that was responsible for, among other things, cheaply produced popular films. But neither were Keynesian economic policies adopted uniformly across the globe, nor was this situation to last into the 1980s.
The first part of this chapter looks at how the global changes described in the previous chapter manifested themselves in Italy and offers evidence that there the kind of capital typically associated with popular genre films, short-term speculative capital, was a minor and strictly contained player within the country’s economy. Mario Bava’s cult thriller La ragazza che sapeva troppo was produced under these conditions. The second part of the chapter examines Bava’s film in its broader context, where small productions seeking to make a quick profit by monetising well tested sales points such as nudity and suspense where, at best, tolerated always critically ignored, in spite of their experimental and innovative character.
This chapter presents the reader with an entirely different formation: Mexico between the late 1950s and early 1960s, where, unlike in Italy at the time, highly speculative capital interests were at the top of government policy. The chapter traces the rise of Fernando Méndez from an obscure maker of generic films in the 1940s to one of Mexican cinema’s most prominent figures. Méndez’ rise coincided with the film industry’s integration into the Mexican state’s proto-neoliberal agenda. An analysis of Fernando Méndez’ horror films shows that the films stage dimensions of this process. Mexican film historians, in line with their country’s circumstances and dominant interests, have, as a result, always included Fernando Méndez in the history of their cinema, as an auteur of a certain kind of popular films.
This chapter offers the first academic account of one of Indian cinemas’ largest cult phenomena: the horror films of the Ramsay brothers. The Ramsay brothers were most prolific and popular between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, when India experienced the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. During this decade, as before, the Indian state sought to maintain strict control of the economy – a strategy which has historically enabled the film industry to function as a parallel (and not always legitimate) channel for the circulation of money. In this context, small, short-term speculative capital thrived, and the Ramsay brothers were one instance of it. The second part of the chapter examines the ways in which the Ramsay brothers’ horror films capitalised on ingredients that, while borrowed largely from the Hindu and Christian religions, staged new, secular and forward-looking dimensions of Indian subjectivity.
The invisibility of Bava’s and the Ramsay’s cinema in film historiography is a symptom of the marginality, in Italy and India at the time, of the kind of capital that sustained these films, just as the visibility of Méndez’ work in the history of Mexican cinema reflects the centrality of speculative capital in 1960s Mexico. Similar connections can be traced in other countries. The end of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and the rise of financial capital marked also the end of Keynesian policies. New priorities began to be adopted that we now know, globally, as neoliberalism. The conclusion suggests that scholars are now rediscovering cheaply produced generic films because the marginal interests that formed these films’ conditions of possibility now confront us as a dominant force. Popular films staged the tensions brought about by its rise, and it may well be for this reason that they appear to us to be of great interest today.