The Revolutionary Task of Cinema: Modernism and Mass Culture in Shanghai and Buenos Aires

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The Revolutionary Task of Cinema: Modernism and Mass Culture in Shanghai and Buenos Aires

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This dissertation reconstructs the interconnected cultural histories of film and literature in Shanghai and Buenos Aires in the period 1927-1937. Through readings of previously untranslated texts on film form and film technology by Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938), Roberto Arlt (1900-1942), Mao Dun (pen name of Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981), and Xia Yan (pen name of Shen Naixi, 1900-1995), I identify a movement in cinepoetics common to Latin America and East Asia that mobilized local popular culture for global working-class political goals. My research investigates into key points in the history of the encounter between cinema and literature in these two cities and links internationalist movements in revolutionary politics with the vibrant film cultures emerging in these two cities—as seen through the eyes of each writer. Through a close textual, visual, and auditory analysis of film clips, film reviews, film-poems, reportage, film-inspired fiction narrative, screenplays, and soundtracks, each case study tracks the work of these writers as they participated in a transpacific intellectual network of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist politics during the period of rising fascism, class conflict, socialist solidarity, and political upheaval in the years prior to the Second World War. My study finds that their experiments with film pushed the boundaries of traditional writing forms. Moreover, in developing new critical practices of viewing and listening to cinema Storni, Arlt, Mao Dun, and Xia Yan each contributed to a politically engaged internationalist current of cinematic modernism. During this brief period of resistance to the globalized dominance of Hollywood entertainment commodities, each of these writers exemplified the strengthening of cultural movement based in cinema, which presented the cinematic experience as grounds for a renewed modern social experience with the potential to radically disrupt sociopolitical formations of class, nation, and state. As a collaboratively produced and collectively consumed cultural form, cinema presented each of these writers with a means for reinventing political thought in ways that embraced the intricacies of urban life in cities on the periphery of globalized circuits of capital. Linked by an attention to film as a politically volatile fusion of mass art and mass spectacle—an attention that, at key moments, gave these writers common cause in resisting cultural exports that extended the reach of European and American empire—my study discovers these radical intellectuals as leaders in a transpacific cultural front that ultimately aimed at establishing cinema as a mass art that could unify worldwide movements against the capitalist exploitation of the working classes.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.May 2019. Major: Comparative Literature. Advisor: Paula Rabinowitz. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 321 pages.

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Sedzielarz, Aleksander. (2019). The Revolutionary Task of Cinema: Modernism and Mass Culture in Shanghai and Buenos Aires. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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