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How a Little-Known Mexican Film Mirrors the Labor Struggles of Today

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Stills from “Redes” (1936) (Creative Commons)

LOUISVILLE — In March, the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts in Louisville hosted the first of what will be four nationwide presentations of Music Unwound: Copland and Mexico, a multimedia project that infuses live performances with cultural and historical content. The title, clearly meant to hook new audiences, set the tone for a program that included a talk about composer Aaron Copland’s life and time in Mexico in the early 1930s, a slideshow of the period’s popular culture and political muralists, and a screening of the rarely-seen Mexican film Redes (1936), a moralistic tale of workers’ struggle that was accompanied by the Louisville Orchestra (LO). Concert posters from the time Copland was in Mexico were also shown. Depicting a Socialist-inflected idea of “music for the people,” they had a great impact on the composer’s political views and work.

However, it was a surprising choice to present this event when Louisville’s own orchestra had recently been embroiled in labor disputes. More on that in a moment.

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The score for Redes (meaning “nets”) was written by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. When it screened in the United States in 1937, Copland enthusiastically reviewed the film and its musical score for the New York Times, stating that Revueltas (and fellow composer Carlos Chavez) understood that to make a “purely indigenous movement in music they must find a musical background in their own country, just as the painters have found their roots in the Mexican landscape.”

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Poster for “Redes” (1936)

Redes argues for organized resistance through a classic tale of a Mexican village of exploited fisherman attempting and failing to correct the monopoly control of their market. Long, dark, shadowy takes of men casting nets and vigorously paddling out to sea, shots of the sky, or towards palm fronds and thatched huts strike poetic tableaus. Early on, a child dies because the family could not afford basic medicine and the “Patron” refused to aid his dedicated and longtime workers. Cinematographer Paul Strand’s expression of the funeral contains the entire lexicon of visual forms found throughout Redes: the weighted effect of the diminutive coffin’s satin skirt, the strength of limbs carrying the coffin, the mother exuding profound pain and helplessness.

Directed by Emilio Gómez Muriel and Austrain émigré Fred Zinnemann, Redes was the first of ten Mexican films Revueltas scored. The style of this epic human drama emerged right out of Soviet Constructivist film techniques, but is also considered a precursor to neorealism. American cinematographer and photographer Paul Strand had been drawn to Mexico by its revolutionary government and dedication to reform, and created a series of sensitively interwoven scenes pregnant with metaphor.

It was a period of immense change in Mexico, during which a new government came to power and with it rose Revueltas, who, with his humanistic, socially progressive stances and loyalty to indigenous Mexican culture was the perfect choice for Redes. His score became a celebrated example of film music, exuding drama and pathos, and affecting tension and release as fit each scene.

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The program for Music Unwound marked a noble attempt at cross-pollinating local cultural audiences with the hope of building up interest in orchestral music. Institutions like the Speed Art Museum and University of Louisville plugged in as partners, as well as local galleries that organized related events and exhibitions. But projects like this also require the labor of artists, and in this case that meant the trained and practiced players of a professional orchestra.

Louisville’s Orchestra has been at war in a widely published series of battles between management, the board and the players that now rests in court. As expected, the root issue is fair compensation. (The proposed salary agreed upon by the board would have qualified the musicians for welfare). Players are paid by the week; during the dark periods when the orchestra is closed they typically find other work or collect unemployment.

When negotiations between management and the players were at a standstill, concerts stopped for the 2011–12 season. The community of orchestra attendees, the LO management, and city government were aggravated and embarrassed. Louisvillians have trouble accepting this city might not have the patrons or public to support a vibrant orchestra; that idea flies in the face of its self-conception as a sophisticated small city. By fall 2012, the players had gone back to work and an outside consultant was brought in to restructure the board and management.

While change is afoot, Music Unwound remains a provocative commentary on the history of music, politics, and performance — specifically the role of human capital in the creation and consumption of culture. Given this layered content, it seemed very contentious to present it here in Louisville. It made me question whether the LO’s musicians were being force-fed a message from management that they are replaceable.

The whole event left me unsettled. The rich imagery, historical references, and dynamic shift among media could not dispel my discomfort with the overarching message: the film is treated as a relic, and its ideas about labor outmoded. This is upsetting in a city that repeatedly claims to want the highest quality in visual arts and music, an aspiration that, like it or not, is contingent on the boots-on-the-ground artists. And they require living wages.

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