Thursday, 9 February 2012

My first Spanish film: Jamón, jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992)

Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Jordi Mollá on set in 1991

   I wanted to write something to mark the first anniversary of the blog. I was in half a mind to write about the film that this blog takes its name from (Mateo Gil's Nadie conoce a nadie), but on balance decided that writing about the first Spanish film I ever watched was a better fit to the occasion. By happy coincidence, Jamón, jamón also celebrates a significant anniversary this year: it was released twenty years ago in Spain (in September 1992).

   But I didn't see it in 1992. I saw it in 2001 as part of a final year undergraduate module on 'Recent Spanish Cinema'. My degree was made up of a combination of literature and film studies modules, but most of the film modules concentrated on Hollywood or British cinema; it was only in the final year that I took courses in other (foreign language) cinemas. Having not seen any Spanish cinema at all, I wasn't sure what to expect -my ignorance was such that I only had a vague awareness of who Pedro Almodóvar was (and was incapable of pronouncing his name correctly)- and I didn't really know that much about Spain or Spanish culture either (I had studied French and Russian at school -Spanish hadn't been an option). The films included on the module at that time were: Jamón, jamón, Amantes / Lovers (Vicente Aranda, 1993), Kika (Pedro Almodóvar, 1993), Tierra / Earth (Julio Medem, 1995), and Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997). 
   The course booklet (I still have it) tells you that you need to watch the films before the corresponding session. It then says: 'WARNING: THERE ARE EXPLICIT SCENES OF SEX AND/OR VIOLENCE IN ALL THESE FILMS WHICH MAY EMBARRASS YOU IF YOU ARE VIEWING IN SIGHT OF OTHERS". With hindsight (and particularly in relation to the above list of films) this seems a sensible (and thoughtful) thing to point out. However, at the time we assumed that it was an exaggeration -'how bad can they be?', we thought. So two of us headed off to watch Jamón, jamón in the university library. There were no viewing rooms in the library, just televisions dotted around the place with headphones attached. Mindful of the warning we chose one that was in a corner, not in the direct line of sight of the study desks, but next to a row of photocopiers. I quickly became engrossed in the film. So engrossed that I didn't notice that the photocopiers that had been deserted became increasingly busy. But part way through the epic sex scene between Raúl (Javier Bardem) and Silvia (Penélope Cruz) I had the sense that someone was staring intently at the back of my head. I turned around. The photocopiers had become so busy that there was now a queue of around half a dozen people waiting to use them. All of whom were staring at our television screen, mouths agape. If they'd been able to read the subtitles, would it have 'helped'? Probably not. We continued to watch the film and at the end silently agreed that we would not be watching any of the others in the library (small mercies -the next film was Amantes, the type of film for which the term NSFW was invented). So there we have it: my first experience of Spanish cinema welded into my psyche by very English mortification.
   In the video liner notes (a marker for how long ago this was), Bigas Luna says that:
'The first time I had occasion to observe Spain was thanks to an English friend who was visiting here. One of the things that most surprised him was that we had "animal legs hanging from the ceiling in bars". I was just twenty. I began to realise that I was living immersed in a reality which was very close to surrealism and I started to develop a deep fascination for everything which our culture represents. [...] I decided to make a portrait of Spain, with everything I like, love and hate and which is undoubtedly where I come from myself.'
I think that part of the reason that Jamón, jamón works so well as an introduction to Spanish culture and cinema is that it ostensibly celebrates Spanishness but it is also a celebration of ‘otherness’ (the stereotypical perceptions of Spanishness from outside of Spain); it ‘addresses its European spectatorship through a series of familiar cultural stereotypes while engaging its Spanish audience in often playful self-referential reflections on the process through which their identity as Spaniards has been reshaped’ (D’Lugo 1995: 67). Jamón, jamón was released in 1992, at a time when Spain was examining its identity very publicly (it was the year of the Barcelona Olympics, Madrid was the European City of Culture, it was the 500th Anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the New World, and Seville was hosting the International Expo), and the film clearly questions and plays with mythical aspects of Spanishness: the film suggests that by 1992 Spain had arrived at a juncture when it had to decide what it wanted Spain and Spanishness to mean and represent, and how much influence the past was going to be allowed to have over Spain’s future. Perhaps that is why the film has endured and is now seen as emblematic of that era of Spanish cinema; it manages to be both of its time and also timeless.
   The film has endured for me as well; it was one of the keys films examined in my PhD thesis because of the way that it engages with ideas of national identity and Spanishness. My thesis looks at the reflection and projection of the national in contemporary Spanish stardom and I took 1992 and Jamón jamón as starting points because of the importance of the year to Spain in terms of national identity, and the careers that the film launched. The cultural and historical specificity of the national is a possible foundation for certain star images: although there appear to be elements within stars that ‘touch on things that are deep and constant features of human existence, such features never exist outside a culturally and historically specific context' (Dyer 1986: 17). Richard Dyer also argues that stars effectively embody the hegemonic struggles within a given culture ([1979] 1998: 2), which means that certain stars could gain prominence because of their closeness to certain ideals prevalent at a given time. This is particularly relevant to Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem because their stardom started in 1992 (a key year for Spanish identities, as already outlined) with a film that consciously deconstructs ‘the national’ in relation to Spain; their prominence in the firmament of Spanish stardom could in part be because their roles in Jamón jamón (when they first entered the public consciousness) coincided with the questioning of Spanish identities that was occurring at a national level. At the same time, the role that ‘creates’ a star, that transforms them from a mere actor, often becomes the foundation of their star image (Morin [1960] 2005: 29); although later roles may inflect this original image, it is usually still present in some form. This combination of content and timing perhaps explains why ‘the national’ has come to have a key place in Cruz and Bardem's respective images; Bigas Luna indelibly connected the two of them to his discourse on the nation and placed them at the vanguard of a generational shift in Spanish cinema.*
   One further example of how the film has followed me around, and of the circularity of life: while doing the PhD, I was given the opportunity to assist on the very module that had kickstarted my interest in Spanish cinema. By this time the module had changed considerably (it now incorporated Mexican cinema) and so too had the list of studied films -the two Almodóvars and the Aranda were out and replaced by Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1992), El día de la bestia / The Day of the Beast (Álex de la Iglesia, 1995), Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997), and Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000), leaving just Jamón, jamón and Tierra from the original line-up. As the assistant, my role was to lead the seminar sessions but I was also allowed to deliver two lectures connected to one of the films -guess which film I chose?

Together again at the Goya Awards in 2010
*There is a link to my thesis here - if you're interested, the main discussions of Jamón, jamón in relation to the star images of Bardem and Cruz are on pages 88-99 and 119-129 respectively.
Further reading:
Angulo Barturen, J. (2007) –El Poderoso Influjo de “Jamón, Jamón”, Madrid: El Tercer Nombre, S.A.  
Bigas Luna (2007) – ‘El descubrimiento de una estrella’, Magazine, La Vanguardia, 14th January, p.48.
D’Lugo, M. (1995) –‘Bigas Luna’s Jamón jamón: Remaking the national in Spanish Cinema’, in Spain Today: Essays on Literature, Culture, Society, edited by J. Colmeiro, et al, Dartmouth College, pp.67-81.
        (2002) – ‘Recent Spanish Cinema in National and Global Contexts’, Post Script, 21:2 (Winter/Spring), pp.3-11.
Deleyto, C. (1999) – ‘Motherland: Space, Femininity, and Spanishness in Jamón jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992)’, Spanish Cinema: The Auteurist Tradition, edited by P.W. Evans, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.270-285.
Dyer, R. ([1979] 1998) – Stars, with supplementary chapter by P. McDonald, London: BFI Publishing.
        (1986) – Heavenly Bodies, Film Stars and Society, London: BFI Publishing.
Evans, P.W. (2004) – Jamón, jamón, Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós.
Fernández-Santos, Á. (1992) –‘Bigas Luna y su Jamón, jamón provocan una intensa división de opiniones’, El País, 12th September. 
Graham, H. and A. Sánchez (1995) –‘The Politics of 1992’, in Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction, edited by H. Graham and J. Labanyi, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kinder, M. (1993) –‘Review: Jamón jamón’, Film Quarterly, 47:1 (October), pp.30-35.
Lindo, E. (2008) –‘Del jamonazo al oro de la estatuilla’, El País, 26th February. 
Marsé, J. (2004) – ‘Javier Bardem, un actor que inspira’, El Pais, Revista, 7th August, pp.34-35. 
Martínez, L. (2008) –‘Bardem, el “Marlon Brando de los Monegros”’, El Mundo, 26th February, p.53. 
Moreiras Menor, C. (2002) –Cultura herida: literatura y cine en la España democrática, Madrid: Ediciones Liberatorias.
Morgan, R. and B. Jordan (1994) –‘Jamón jamón: a tale of ham and pastiche’, Donnaire, 2 (1994), pp.57-64.
Morin, E. ([1961] 2005) – The Stars, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. Translated by R. Howard.
Perriam, C. (2003) – Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: From Banderas to Bardem, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
        (2005) – ‘Two transnational Spanish stars: Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 2:1, pp.29-45.
Ponga, P. (1993) –‘Penélope Cruz: dulce pájaro’, Fotogramas, December, pp.80-85.
Torreiro, M. (1992) –‘De pura raza: Jamón, jamón’, El País, 6th September.