This week RCTV Internacional premiered La Trepadora, "a free adaptation" of Rómulo Gallegos's classic novel, written by Ricardo Hernández Anzola. As it's common with telenovela premieres, both the press (see for example, El Universal, Meridiano, El Nacional (video of the premiere to the press) and the audience (see for instance 1, 2, 3) have commented extensively the three episodes that have been broadcast at the time I write this post. 

Two topics seem to dominate these comments: actress Norkys Batista's presence (both her beauty and peformance) as Victoria Guanipa and the telenovela's script. 

The first topic brings to the fore the unresolved debate/issue of talent v. beauty in telenovelas. From its first episode, La Trepadora underscores physical beauty by capitalizing over and over again on Norkys Batista's perfect body and sex appeal. The end of episode one includes a nude Batista in a river. A sequence that's visually beautiful, but relatively empty of dramatic pertinence and dialogue consistency:





It should be noted that Venevisión's next telenovela, Torrente, which will air its first episode on April 2, has already presented its materials (first episode and official photographs) to the press. We can see Torrente's protagonist, Maritza Bustamante, showing a similar image to that of  Victoria Guanipa in La Trepadora.


And we already know that the first episode includes two "waterfall scenes." (Since Venevisión is on open TV and, therefore, subject to the Venezuelan restrictions of the Ley de Contenidos, those scenes will be less graphic than the river sequence in La Trepadora). We will have to see whether Torrente also gives undue priority to physical beauty over other aspects of the audiovisual text. 

Regarding La Trepadora's script, it's a pretty free version of Gallegos' classic. And a big contrast with the way José Ignacio Cabrujas adapted other novels by Gallegos for RCTV in the 1970s. Following is my translation of a text written by professor Alí E. Rondón that was published in 2006 in which he analyzed the key to Cabrujas' success adapting Gallegos for telenovelas: 
In any case, as José Ignacio Cabrujas demonstrates with his fraternal looks at the scripts of Doña Bárbara, Canaima y Sobre la misma tierra and in the performances and characterizations of Arturo Calderón (Juan Primito), Miguelángel Landa (Marcos Vargas) or Marina Baura (Cantaralia Barroso, Remota Montiel), what is imposed is the dramatic, even tragic, cloak of the half-real, half-fictitious anecdotes. Each and every one of the tv presences excel as the aggregation of the ethnic and individualized values that still resonate. Behind the masquerade of their mistakes and problems, they show us the secret streams of a soul that keeps on transforming until becoming the ethos that we, Venezuelans, are.  We are not talking, however, of the mere filming of what was written. Cabrujas has increased and enhanced the dialogues. At other times, he takes the bare bones outline of a situation, re-processes it and returns it to us with the nostalgia of those images and dialogues where we can breath the essence of the ouvre. In this journey, the writer has provided the script with much more than the weaknesses, smiles, disappointments, injustice, hate and love originally resolved in the narrative realm. He has dialogued with Gallegos' work.  He has been able to read in those texts the latent proposal that allows him to re-write the drama as he touches the essence of the I of every character.   (My emphasis, Alí E. Rondón (2006), Medio Siglo de Besos y Querellas, pp. 54-55).

And in this assertive analysis, Rondón gives us the key to the uncomfortable feeling some of us have regarding the script of  this modified  Trepadora.

When this blog turned six months old, I made the resolution to change its visual look. It's taken me almost six more months to do it since it isn't easy for me to find time for such a task. Finally, it's done! (Hence my wide smile as I look at my computer's screen). And it was possible thanks to the amazing help of my friend dRAGOONS. If you can read Spanish, I recommend you visit his blog, Utópico Real, where you will get to know this bioanalysis student, who moderates the Internet message board TVVI, and who has a real talent for visual communication.

The change in the blog's look comes at the same time as I arrive back to Athens after two intense weeks of research in Caracas, where I documented the current state of the telenovela industry, ten months after the closing of RCTV and its transformation into RCTV Internacional. I still have much analysis to do, but the panorama isn't particularly sunny for actors, writers and the Venezuelan public. Both RCTV Internacional and Venevisión have shifted gears and now privilege the international market over the local one. This will probably mean more remakes of old telenovelas and more telenovelas that follow the traditional model of the telenovela rosa. It isn't a good time for creativity and talent. In addition, the work sources for actors have significantly dried up.

This trip also included several media interviews about my book Venezuela es una Telenovela. It's always both surreal and fascinating for me to talk about my book. Interviews usually center in either or both aspects of my research: telenovelas and Venezuela.

There was an element of serendipity in my visit to my birth city. Two events coincided with my stay. I've commented already about the first one: the premiere of Caramelo e Chocolate, the first telenovela broadcast by government network TVES.



The second event was the end of the production of Arroz Con Leche, a telenovela that's entering its final broadcast week. In all the years I've been studying telenovelas, I'd never been able to witness that moment in a telenovela's biography. Once again I was reminded of the importance of vantage point for the construction of our perceptions, and the immense distance that exists between what people "know" about a telenovela's production and what actually happens behind the heavy doors of every television studio and inside the network's boardrooms.


While I was in Caracas there was an episode of Arroz Con Leche that garnered 15 points of rating, a true feat...even in the current no-internal-competition environment. In this particular episode the character Tomás Chacón beats his wife Amanda. (We don't see him actually hitting her because such scenes are prohibited by the Venezuelan Ley de Contenidos). What does this peak in the ratings mean under these circumstances? Is it because there's a fascination with violence and/or drama? Or is it that Venezuelans can identify with and/or recognize this issue as one of the country's most pressing sociocultural problems? It's worth analyzing since those numbers and the content of that episode provide us with a trap door through which we can examine the social formation.


CARAMELO E CHOCOLATE

Mar 13, 2008



There's an interesting coincidence during my current stay in Caracas. Last Monday, TVES, the government network that stands on the spoils of the closing of RCTV, premiered its first telenovela Caramelo e Chocolate (Candy and Chocolate or Chocolate candybar). Written by Carlos Pérez, a writer who handles well humor and colloquial language, the telenovela's topic is racism in Venezuela. Ironically, RCTV had already tackled this issue in telenovela Negra Consentida without much success.

In Venezuela racism and class-ism are linked in such a way that they aren't easily differentiated. Both are evident in popular culture, daily conversations, jokes and in the disdainful expressions used in colloquial language when referring to people of darker skin. Racism in Venezuela also hides behind the permanent comparison with the manifestations of racism in the U.S.

For all these reasons I was very interested in watching the first episode of Caramelo e Chocolate, which was preceded by positive press critiques However, I must acknowledge that I couldn't see much of the telenovela's thesis in its first episode. Only a small glimpse in the first scene. The episode had more content related to the topic of esoteric beliefs than to racism. The writing did not surprise me in a positive way. It has very short scenes that don't allow the spectator to really "feel." (In telenovelas, the spectacle of emotions, feeling is very important). Transitions between scenes are underdeveloped, and the direction is a bit on and off.

Production also needs some fine tuning. There's a lot of background noise that needs to be cleaned up in post-production, and the music is not incidental but continuous; therefore, it doesn't add to the story.

There weren't any performances that captured my imagination. Most are average or frankly deficient. I will give it more time, but I must admit I'm quite disappointed.

COMING AND GOING, BEING CLOSE AND FAR AWAY

Mar 7, 2008



These days it's difficult for me to write in my blogs. I'm in Caracas doing fieldwork, trying to document this particular moment in the Venezuelan telenovela industry. It's a job I love to do, but it requires an immense amount of time and concentration. Additionally, this trip has included several media interviews about my book.

My reflection today is about what it means for me to get physically closer and farther away from Venezuela. Coming and going, being inside and outside, isn't easy. There are difficulties related to logistics (leave the semester for a few days, never have enough days in Venezuela), transitions to go through (from a U.S. college town to a Latin American megalopolis, from being among students and professors, to hanging out with actors, writers and producers), and its pain (I'm always missing something from one of my two cultural homes). But coming and going, getting closer and farther away, is a productive moment that allows me to fine tune my perspective about my object of study and understand it much better.



Thanks to the invitation of LACSA (Latin American and Caribbean Studies Association), I did a presentation in honor of Women's History Month titled: Beyond Cinderella: The Representation(s) of Women in Telenovelas.

Preparing this presentation challenged me. First, I never know how much information my audience already has about telenovelas. Second, the presentation should mix description and analysis.



I decided that the best way to explain the many Cinderellas that have populated telenovelas was to show examples. Therefore, I showed clips of famous telenovela Cinderellas: different versions of Simplemente María, La Zulianita, Marimar, etc. Later I showed some recent variations on the Cinderella theme: Todos Quieren con Marilyn and Juana La Virgen. I also commented on telenovela women who broke the Cinderella mold, such as the protagonists of El País de las Mujeres. Finally, I reflected about the possible reasons for the global success of Cinderellas.



The presentation was a gratifying experience. The room was full with members of the University community: students, faculty and staff members. I was asked interesting questions that centered on the enigma of the continuous success of telenovela Cinderellas around the world. This is an important question. Its answer isn't easy to pinpoint in a genre with as many paradoxes as the telenovela has.