JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Illicit Sex: Ceci’s parents don’t want her sleeping with Julio, and neither does MGM.

More than anything else, what’s missing from the R-rated versions of Luisa’s sex-scenes with Tenoch and Julio is the boys’ incompetence.

In the unrated Y tu, the viewer can see the full extent of the boys’ competition.

However, in the R-rated Y tu such shots are discreetly removed from the race. Only shots in which the murky water intervenes in our access to the boys' bodies remain.

Sex is more awkward than erotic for most of Y tu, which only emphasizes the utopian uniqueness of the boy’s one night together.

The narrator also often uses his commentary to reveal elements of the protagonists’ experience that they hide from each other. In this case, passing the city of Tepelmeme allows Tenoch to reflect on how little he knows about his nanny, Leo, who was born there.

When Julio attempts to spit on Tenoch during their fight, the formerly implicit classism in the boys’ insults becomes explicit.

Later the police provide the backdrop for a discussion of the boys’ sexual abilities…

... and how Tenoch’s girlfriend must “beg for mercy.”

The narrator turns the camera from Tenoch’s car to take a wider view of the traffic fatality that slows the boys’ progress to their party…

… then returns to the car to examine the body from the context of their frame tale.

Luisa discovers the shrine for a little girl with her name who died of thirst trying to cross the US-Mexico border. The girl’s grandmother gives her the mouse, which becomes a rearview mirror memento mori for the rest of her voyage.

Julio accepts a hat from the mechanic who will fix his car—an economic oddity to which he seems oblivious.

When the boys’ meet again one year later, their reunion is aurally (and with subtitles also visually) obscured by the narrator’s announcement that in the summer of 2000, the PRI lost the Mexican presidential election for the first time in seventy-one years.

Whereas Julio now wears a collared shirt and sweater...

... Tenoch has taken to greasing his hair back and approximating a working-class appearance.

Throughout most of the road trip, Y tu frames Julio and Tenoch in two-shots, emphasizing their unity and fraternity.

The prevalence of these two-shots thus emphasizes their distance when they meet again at the coffee shop, when they literally cannot face one another.

 

Censure and narration:
unpacking (the loss of) the
queer allegory in Y tu mamá también

In the unrated Y tu, the boys’ concluding alienation provides a tragic note crucial to the film’s political allegory, and without it, the narrator is unable to clarify properly the political tensions he has hinted at throughout the film. Yet in order to appreciate the mechanics of this allegorical resolution and its failure in the R-rated Y tu, a few more observations need to be made about the specific scenes censored in Y tu. Many scenes of sexual content were cut from the R-rated version, including all of the pre-orgasmic thrusting between Tenoch and Ana in the film’s first scene, Julio and Ceci’s quick consummation while searching for her passport, the majority of Tenoch and Luisa’s and Julio and Luisa’s love scenes, and many passing glances at the boys’ penises.[9] [open endnotes in new window]

Even the movie’s subtitles help to obscure its sexual content, for in the R-rated Y tu several lines of dialogue are intentionally mistranslated. When Luisa tries to advise the boys on how to make love to their girlfriends in the unrated Y tu, she asks, “You ever wiggle your finger up the ass?” whereupon they scream, “Ass?” and the car’s radiator explodes under the pressure of the anus’ potential as a site of pleasure. The R-rated Y tu reinterprets Luisa’s question as, “You ever touch her softly from behind?” which enables the preposition “from” to recode “behind” as the place where the boys might be in relationship to their girlfriends rather than the place where their girlfriends might enjoy being touched. When the boys then scream, “Behind?” and the radiator breaks, a clever viewer might still catch an allusion to anal pleasure, but syntactically it has been removed from the film.

These elisions all work to straighten and sanitize Cuarón’s movie, but the excision of Tenoch and Julio’s love scene nonetheless represents an important special case in motion picture censorship, since a priori one cannot cut a shot that was never filmed. That is, while the R-rated Y tu mamá también deletes a few heterosexual love scenes and brief glimpses of the boys’ penises, it cannot actually remove the queer sex, because it was never really there to begin with. The boys never have (simulated) sex on-screen in either edition of Y tu, which makes MGM’s censorship of that scene essentially theoretical and therefore the key to the movie’s political dismemberment. Remember: the last time we see Julio and Tenoch on the (unrated) night in question, they have only just begun to kiss, even if the proximity of their bodies and the increasing passion of their embrace imply that they are going to have sex. So although the R-rated Y tu leaves the love scene while Luisa is still positioned between the two boys, the content it is repressing, i.e. homosexual sex, is repressed in the unrated movie as well. Gay sex is thus Y tu’s impossible dream; it represents the film’s allegorical ideal of mestizaje, its utopia, Heaven’s Mouth.

This queer allegory matters, because MGM would not have spent its money, nor Alfonso Cuarón his time, to rid Y tu mamá también of a scene that was never present anyway unless those changes would have significant effects on the movie’s marketability. Indeed, the effects were significant, because MGM did not just cut sex. Because Julio and Tenoch have sex within a politicized, quasi-allegorical narrative, their sexual connection has a radical tenor that even exceeds its homoerotic significance. By ridding the movie of its queer utopia, it undermined the tragic note of the film’s denouement and so cut (potentially unmarketable) politics. When MGM eliminates their culminating embrace, therefore, the studio does not simply undermine the movie’s conclusion. It destroys Cuarón’s indictment of neoliberalism, NAFTA, and their effects on Mexican mestizaje, because it compromises the narrator’s ability to make sense of Tenoch and Julio’s relationship. We must return therefore to the nondiegetic narrator, to his role in and structuring of Y tu, in order to appreciate how he works throughout the film to tie the boys’ sexual journey to Mexico’s national politics and create a cohesive political allegory around their homoerotic union.

From his first interjection, Y tu’s narrator explicitly relates his interest in class to the boys’ sexual relationships:

"Ana’s mother, a French divorcée, taught at the Learning Institute for Foreigners. She did not object to Tenoch sleeping with her daughter. For Julio it was different. He could only stay with Cecelia until dinner and had to come back in the morning for the trip to the airport. Cecelia’s father, a pediatrician specializing in allergies, thought his daughter’s relationship with Julio had gone too far. Her mother, a Lacanian psychologist, saw it differently. She believed their relationship was innocent."

This introduction must be quoted at length, because it demonstrates why the narrator has chosen to follow Tenoch and Julio’s story. If, as Hester Baer and Ryan Long suggest, “the disembodied voice-over—sometimes referred to as the ‘voice of god’—possesses absolute authority and mastery over the narrative,” then the narrator must be credited with selecting the story he presents as well as the manner in which it is presented (158).

The above introduction teaches us why the narrator is interested in Julio and Tenoch, because it asks us to read the boys’ sexual exploits as class narratives: Ana’s mother does not mind Tenoch’s relationship with her daughter because she is a divorced school teacher while he is the son of an under-secretary of state, but Cecelia’s professional parents either object to or are in denial about Julio’s relationship to their daughter because, as the narrator will soon reveal, Julio’s mother is only a secretary. Class is thus a determining factor in the boys’ sexual narrative, just as it is in all the extradiegetic anecdotes the narrator relates. The narrator thus appears to be intrigued by the boys’ story because class affects their access to sex, the barometer of social power and prestige in their peer group, and so can render their world a microcosmic allegory for Mexican national politics.

The narrator’s introductory emphasis on class also contextualizes his first turn away from the boys a few minutes later. As Tenoch and Julio drive home from the airport, exchanging jokes about farts and the sexual charms of “left-wing chicks,” they find themselves caught traffic jam, which they attribute to a political demonstration but the narrator associates with a pedestrian fatality:

"On that day, three demonstrations took place across the city. Nevertheless, the traffic jam was caused by Marcelino Escutia, a migrant bricklayer from Michoacán who was hit by a speeding bus. He never used the pedestrian bridge, because its poor location would force him to walk two extra kilometers to his worksite. The Red Cross took his unidentified body to the city morgue. It took four days for the corpse to be claimed."

Perhaps because the narrator proceeds from this explanation to a description of Tenoch’s wealth and the drugs that he and his friends consume, critics have tended to assume that the narrator means to oppose Tenoch’s story to Marcelino Escutia’s and use Escutia’s death as a critique of Tenoch’s hedonism (Baer and Long 158-159, Saldaña-Portillo 769). However, a better understanding of the non-diegetic narrator's role suggests that their stories ought to be read holistically, as part of the same narrative. Marcelino Escutia’s narrator is also Tenoch and Julio’s narrator, and it is precisely the juxtaposition of their stories that reveals the economic framework inherent in the boys’ tale. For if the omniscient male “voice-over is an ‘undemocratic’ assertion of male authority and control,” as Kaja Silverman and others have proposed, that “functions, on a formal level, to contain and direct the film’s meaning for the viewer,” then one cannot simply dismiss Tenoch and Julio’s story as the spoonful of sugar this narrator or his filmmakers add to make the political commentary go down (Silverman 157, Baer and Long 159).

As Mariá Saldaña-Portillo points out, Y tu’s filmic asides document the struggles and untimely deaths of working and impoverished Mexican subjects. However, Tenoch and Julio’s story represents the other side of the same political situation, i.e. Mexico after twenty years of neoliberal government and five years after the implementation of NAFTA.[10] By bringing these disenfranchised characters into Julio and Tenoch’s story as asides, the narrator connects the latter’s tale of middle-class hedonism and privilege to the former’s stories of struggle, stories traditionally excluded from or silenced by dominant accounts of Latin American neoliberalism. Yet by fusing these disparate experiences, the narrator leads the viewer into a broader understanding of Mexico’s current socio-economic disparities. That said, precisely because the narrator is capable of looking away from Julio and Tenoch, every moment he chooses to stay with or in their narrative deserves to be read as a political choice. Because it too is a story of neoliberalism, the boys’ story is just as politically freighted as that of Luisa Obregón and equally as representative of the narrator’s interest in neoliberal Mexico:

"Doña Martina gave Luisa the figure of the mouse with her name on it. It had belonged to her granddaughter, Luisa Obregón, who had died of a heatstroke fifteen years ago, while crossing the border in Arizona with her parents, seeking a better life."

The narrator’s interjections thus affirm (along with the characters’ names) that Y tu

“functions as an allegory, presenting the viewer with a cinematic interpretation of the changing nature of Mexican sovereignty, subaltern positionality, and colonial fantasy in the context of neoliberalism historically represented by NAFTA” (Saldaña-Portillo 751).

Yet some critics still dismiss Tenoch and Julio’s desire as a “homoerotically charged Oedipal complex,” a mere “plot device” (Saldaña-Portillo 751). This argument ignores the narrator’s sincere interest in the boys, not to mention their allegorical value in Y tu’s filmic compilation of neoliberal Mexican experiences. The characters’ names comment on the need for a new national allegory. In that context the boys’ encounters with the lives around them remind us that their one utopian night together is part of the film’s attempt to envision a new mexicanidad, one that might heal the complex fracturing of national experience that followed Mexico’s transition to neoliberalism. Indeed, the movie’s commitment to reading the boys through an allegorical frame even extends to the way the camera films them, as Cuarón himself explains:

"In that film, social environment is as important as character. That means you don’t do close-ups because by doing close-ups you’re favoring character over social environment. So you have to stay wide, trying not only to blend your character with social environment but to create the contrast between your character and your social environment." (emphasis mine)

In short, it is precisely the narrator’s interest in Tenoch and Julio that documents NAFTA’s effects on both Mexico’s working and rising middle classes and leads us to read the former’s tragedy as part of the latter’s success and denial. Y tu literally shows us how the mestizaje of Mexico’s national mythography and the boys’ allegorical union comes at the expense of the impoverished and dispossessed that the boys pass (and to some degree exploit) during their travels.[11] As Saldaña-Portillo observes, rural

“Mexico has historically sustained political mestizaje, enabled it, served it, and enveloped it, while nevertheless remaining marginal to this allegory of revolutionary nationalism” (767).

Y tu mamá también inserts that exploitation into Mexico’s tradition of allegorical filmmaking and simultaneously uses the allegorical mode to personify the machismo, homophobia, and class bias that has kept Mexico from becoming a true mestizaje.

The movie’s dénouement pulls this critique into focus through the narrator’s nonsequiteur comment on national politics, but that critique still relies on Tenoch and Julio’s allegorical scene of homosexual mestizaje in order to register as such. Without their full embrace, the boys become insufficient as allegories, and the film ends in a muddle of unclear motivations instead of radical suggestion. As I mentioned before, the denouement begins with the narrator’s summation of Julio and Tenoch’s dating lives after the beach trip, intercut with the observation that

“the following summer, the ruling party lost the presidential election for the first time in seventy-one years.”

Y tu thus takes advantage of film’s ability

“to stage temporalized cultural contradictions not only within the shot, through mise-en-scène, décor, costume, and so forth, but also through the interplay and contradictions between the diverse tracks, which can mutually shadow, jostle, undercut, haunt, and relativize one another” (Stam 38).

The narrator uses the dénouement to bind aurally the boys’ futures to Mexican politics: they first see each other as the narrator begins to announce the 2000 victory of the Partido Acción Nacional over the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and they shake hands as his sentence becomes syntactically complete.[12] Furthermore, when they meet again, the boys emphasize their distance from their past intimacy through ironic class distinctions in their clothes. Julio now ties his hair back and wears a sloppy approximation of professional dress while Tenoch has taken to greasing his hair (ducktail and all) and sporting a stylized motorcycle jacket. Class has come between them, differentiated them, and offered them codes with which to disavow their previous naked connection (albeit codes that rely on citations of the other boy’s class status). As Saldaña-Portillo interprets the scene,

“The homophobic aversion the boys express towards each other after they have sex… is symptomatic of the revulsion that is at the heart of the PRI elite’s appraisal of the popular classes.”

However, the boys’ outfits reaffirm that Y tu means to root their homophobia in class desire as well as class anxiety (767). Indeed, the boys’ cross-class costumes sadly suggest that they can only cite (as opposed to perform or inhabit) their desires. As their clothes and demeanors suggest, class bias and homophobia have mutually directed the boys away from the queer mestizaje they created in San Bernabé, making gay union and political union equally impossible—two mythical Heaven’s Mouths (Pérez-Torres 192).

Yet this interpretation only becomes available if the boys get to have (implicit) sex. If not, if you see the R-rated Y tu, then there can be no metaphoric reading of the discomfort they express in one another’s presence at the coffee shop. Their dress now only signifies the paradoxical fashions of their social cliques, because there is no trauma, no forbidden transgression of heteronormativity and class prohibitions for it to refer to. When Tenoch leans back and crosses his arms protectively as Julio brings him up to date on their gay friend Daniel, his actions have no political significance, because they no longer suggest that Tenoch is suffering from an internalized homophobia brought to the fore by an experience of mestizaje that his culture will not condone. These absences disrupt the narrator’s ability to interpret his own story, since most voice-overs only have to mask the spectator’s castration, not the movie’s:

"The voice-over in classic Hollywood cinema, usually spoken by a film’s protagonist, is an 'ideological operation' that sutures over the 'trauma of castration' present in every film experience. As psychoanalytic film critic Kaja Silverman argues, the viewer is always on the verge of discovering this castration—his or her own lack of mastery over the filmic event—as cuts and edits reveal the artifice of the filmic experience. As an ideological operation, the voice-over disavows this lack, 'since it restores the viewer to his or her preordained subject-position and re-secures existing power relations.'” (Saldaña-Portillo 771-772)

The narrator of the unrated Y tu mamá también performs precisely this function, covering over the spectator’s lack of mastery by asserting a mastery of his own. Each time he commandeers the camera and the audio track, the narrator indicates that he has complete control of his film. The spectator can therefore assuage her lack of mastery by identifying with the narrator, although such an identification conveniently requires that she agree with the narrator’s political opinions (or at least entertain them for the duration of the film). The R-rated Y tu undermines this identification, however, because the narrator is unable to suture over the “trauma of [his narrative’s] castration” (Silverman 12). There is no longer any logic to provide closure to the movie or its argument. Although we still know “they will never meet again,” we cannot figure out why. Mestizaje failed, but it just failed, because the R-rated Y tu replaces the rift neoliberalism left in Mexico’s economy with the rift of a missing climax.

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