Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 4: El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Francisco Pierrá, Luchy Soto, Lina Canalejas, Esperanza Roy, Charo Soriano.
Synopsis: Antonio Cano (López Vázquez), an important businessman, is left partially-paralysed and an amnesiac after a car crash. His family and friends try to recreate key moments in his life in order to give him an emotional jolt and aid his recuperation. He spends each day sitting in his garden, accompanied by memories and ghosts of the past.

Warning: contains spoilers.

   After the relatively straightforward linearity of Peppermint frappé (and skipping Stress-es-tres-tres and La madriguera due to their unavailability) comes El jardín de las delicias, in structural terms by far the most complex film Saura had made. The film operates in five planes, identified within the shooting script (D'Lugo 1991: 101), which we move between without transition (although Pavlović notes that Antonio's amnesia 'links all five continua' (2006: 151)) - Kovacs (1981) has labelled the planes thus: 'the recreated past', a series of scenes staged by Antonio's father (Pierrá) of key moments in his son's life, but which parallel key moments in Spanish history; 'the present day frame', Antonio being taken care of by his wife (Soto) and father, and being pushed to remember via memory tests with collections of old photos, or a staged reencounter with his mistress (Roy) who was in the car crash with him; 'evoked past', Antonio's own independent memories of the key moments in his life; 'the "oneiric" world', threatening hallucinations that Antonio suffers while sitting in the garden; 'a future plane', as Antonio starts coming back to himself, he begins to '[resist] the pattern of existence his family has thrust upon him' (D'Lugo 1991: 102). This intentionally intricate structure was to act as a kind of smokescreen, or a least a counterbalance, to the more political aspects of the film in an era when censorship by the Franco regime was becoming increasingly arbitrary. The original script was passed by the censors, with one writing in his evaluation that 'the advantage of such an intellectualised plot is that nobody can grasp the key to it, and the set-ups are so extremely limited in meaning that nobody can identify with anything' (D'Lugo 1991: 106) - although specific cuts were then made to the film by the censors (but unlike the case of Llanto por un bandido, those cut elements seem to have been reinstated in the version I watched).
    Despite the structure appearing complex when laid out as above, it is comprehensible when watched onscreen (although some confusion/disorientation is intentional - it is a point of connection between Antonio and the audience), with differing levels of theatricality being utilised in the different planes (for example, there is some wonderful over-acting by the actress hired to impersonate Antonio's late mother in the scenes from his childhood, whereas his wife Luchy is more subtle in her manipulation of 'reality' -we see that she is playing 'mood music' on a cassette player when she takes Antonio for a walk). Also, you don't have to be aware of all of the references to know that a point is being made - I didn't know that Antonio's car crash was inspired by the 1962 death (in a car crash) of Juan March, an industrialist who had helped bankroll the July 1936 military uprising against the Republic (there are enough parallels to see Saura as deliberately baiting the censors), but the moments of historical significance that parallel (and interrupt) the restaged moments of Antonio's life clearly indicate that 'Antonio's identity is inseparable from a broader historical context. [...] These national "traumas" give rise to personal ones, showing how the individual is an inscrutable product of the nation' (Pavlović 2006: 156).
    Likewise, Saura uses the institution of the family to equate with the state apparatus: the film 'insistently identifies the Francoist family as the social apparatus that replicates on the personal plane the ideology of the state, constructing the prismatic frame of reference through which the individual's consciousness of himself takes place' (D'Lugo 1991: 102). The 'ideal' family, so deified by the state, is shown to be anything but: not only are they collectively a suffocating and repressive force in Antonio's life, but we eventually find that their interest in his recuperation isn't entirely motivated by love and affection (his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom). [side-note: some of the events that they chose to recreate to jog Antonio's memory include childhood traumas - being locked in a dark room, aged 5, with an enormous pig that you've been told will eat your hands off, seems an horrific thing to inflict on someone twice in their lifetime]. D'Lugo suggests that the final sequence of the film, another of Antonio's hallucinations - this time of each family member in their own wheelchair on the vast lawn, is a tableau 'approximating a contemporary version of one of Bosch's panels in his "Garden of Delights"' (1991: 106), while Pavlović suggests that it 'points to the endless proliferation of cruelty in a system where both victims and victimisers are irreparably crippled' (2006: 158). But with his family in a similar state to Antonio (who having made progress, is now regressing) I read it as representing the wilful amnesia of people avoiding their own culpability, and also (as they are all facing in different directions) unable to see things from alternative viewpoints.
    The impression that we get of Antonio as he recovers what he was (before seemingly rejecting that vision and sliding back into oblivion) is that he was not a particularly likeable man (he is 'a prototypical product of dictatorial structure, an embodiment of Francoist zeitgeist' (Pavlović 2006: 156)). But when we first meet him, he is a blank slate (and as confused as we are by the events being staged in front of him) and I think that the audience remains on his side because of that initial blankness (the innocence of a child) and also because of the associated affability of López Vázquez, who is quite brilliant in the role. The film is also darkly funny (Colmeiro points to the film following in the tradition of Buñuel, Berlanga, and the esperpento of Valle-Inclán (2001: 284)) -alongside Peppermint frappé, this is the film that I have most enjoyed watching so far in the challenge.

a blank slate
Colmeiro, J.F. (2001) - 'Metateatralidad y psicodrama: los escenarios de la memoria en el cine de Carlos Saura', Anales de la literatura española contemporánea, 26:1, pp.277-298.
D'Lugo, M (1991) - The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kovacs, K. (1981) - 'Loss and Recuperation in The Garden of Delights', Cine-Tracts, 4:2-3, pp.45-54. [I haven't managed to get hold of this yet but the outline of the narrational planes is quoted in D'Lugo]
Pavlović, T. (2006) - 'Allegorising the body politic: Masculinity and history in Saura's El jardín de las delicias (1970) and Almodóvar's Carne trémula (1997)', Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3:3, pp.149-167.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 3: Peppermint frappé (1967)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura, Angelino Fons, and Rafael Azcona
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Mayo.
Synopsis: Julián's (López Vázquez) childhood friend Pablo (Mayo) returns to their hometown with his new wife, Elena (a blonde Chaplin). Julián becomes obsessed with Elena, who reminds him of a woman he saw beating a drum during the famous Holy Week ritual in Calanda (also Chaplin). Although rebuffed by Elena, Julián continues his pursuit while simultaneously remodelling his assistant, Ana (a brunette Chaplin), in her image.

Warning: contains a spoiler

    As I've mentioned previously, part of my reason for doing the challenge is that I've seen very few of Saura's films (mainly because of their lack of availability in subtitled form -none of the films I've covered so far have been subtitled), but his career also covers eras of Spanish cinema that I'm unfamiliar with, so I'm hoping that this will broaden my field of reference. What's funny about this is when, watching a film you know next to nothing about, you suddenly see a links to another (more recent) filmmaker. Peppermint frappé is dedicated to Luis Buñuel (who Saura considered a mentor) and there is a lot of Buñuelian sexual fetishising going on -apparently there are many parallels with Buñuel's El (1953), but I haven't had time to watch that film before writing this. But the director who most sprang to mind from the opening credits (Julián assiduously cutting out images from women's fashion magazines and pasting them into a scrapbook) onwards was Almodóvar. Except, of course, Pedro came along more than a decade later. Obviously Buñuel also had a strong influence on Almodóvar, but the central conceit of Peppermint frappé -a man goes slightly mad through jealousy and sexual obsession, and attempts to mould one woman into the image of another, before moving on to murder- and the way in which the women are effectively reduced to the accoutrements of femininity (false eyelashes, lipstick, lace stockings), just struck me as being particularly Almodóvarian and certainly not that far away from some of the films he has made (I had a moment of thinking that La piel que habito is set in the same locale as Peppermint frappé, but it isn't). I guess I wasn't expecting to see any connections between Saura and Almodóvar because they've always seemed to me to be very different filmmakers in both style and content, but it would appear that their common influences allow for some crossover.
    For me, the main element of interest in Peppermint frappé was seeing Geraldine Chaplin play three characters within the same narrative - the woman in Calanda (Buñuel's native town and somewhere Saura visited with him (D'Lugo 1991: 69)) who made such a powerful impression on Julián is only seen in a very brief flashback (although she is 'performed' by both Elena and Ana, in different contexts), but Elena and Ana are clearly differentiated in terms of personality, appearance, and Chaplin's performance(s). If I come back to the film later in the year, I think that would be the aspect I look at in a bit more detail - although if I get around to watching El, then that may be another angle to take.
    Peppermint frappé is said to form a trilogy of sorts with Saura's next two films - Stress-es-tres-tres / Stress is Three Three (1968) and La madriguera / Honeycomb (1969) (both of which also star Geraldine Chaplin) - but neither of them are available in any format, so the next post will jump forward to the 1970s and El jardin de las delicias / The Garden of Delights.

The woman in Calanda

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 2: La caza / The Hunt (1966)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura and Angelino Fons
Cast: Ismael Merlo, Alfredo Mayo, José María Prada, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba, Fernando Sánchez Polack, Violeta García.
Synopsis: Old 'friends' José (Merlo), Paco (Mayo), and Luis (Prada) reunite after eight years for a day's hunting on José's country estate, with Paco's brother-in-law Enrique (Gutiérrez Caba) also enthusiastically tagging along. But as the day wears on, old tensions and fractures in their relationships become apparent and violence bubbles to the surface.

   Shot in crisp black and white (cinematography by Luis Cuadrado) and sharply edited by Pablo G del Amo (in the documentary about the latter, written about on here last year, the editor tells Saura that this is the only film that he revisits on a yearly basis), La caza marks Carlos Saura's first collaboration with producer Elías Querejeta (who had a preferred team of technical crew) and a stylistic leap on from Llanto por un bandido. The film is considered a landmark in Spanish cinema - 'together with Nueve cartas a Berta (Nine Letters to Berta, Basilio Martín Patino, 1966), [...] La caza is the most representative film of the mid-1960s cycle that came to be known as Nuevo cine español [New Spanish Cinema]' (Mira 2010: 71) - and won Saura the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1966 - his first international award.
   The film takes place in a location that had been a battlefield during the Civil War (D'Lugo 1991: 57), and 'the war' (the censors ensured that the Civil War is not explicitly mentioned) permeates the narrative and the relations between the men (the older three served together). The landscape, and the way it is presented onscreen, is a metonym for the psyches of those who survived the war: battle-scarred, with secrets and remnants of violence hidden in darker recesses. Alberto Mira notes that the use of metaphor and strong imagery 'went beyond narrative needs: the heat that drives characters to madness could be read in terms of the stifling atmosphere created in the country after the Civil War, and the butchery was easily read as a reference to the conflict itself [...]' (2010: 71). Hunting was strongly associated with the regime and there is also an intertextual reference being made with the casting of Alfredo Mayo:
'As a young man, Mayo built his career upon a series of forties films playing the role of the stalwart Nationalist hero fighting the Republican scourge. By far, the most influential of these was the role of José Churruca in Sáenz de Heredia's Raza. Not only did Mayo play the part of the nationalist patriot; his role was fashioned as a sanitized version of the Caudillo, replete with narrative parallels to Franco's own biography. Nowhere in The Hunt is there any overt reference to Mayo's former screen persona, yet implicitly, the character of Paco seems to represent a sequel to the earlier Alfredo Mayo, film-actor-as-national-hero. It is a shattering statement of the passage of time and the transformation of a bygone mythic hero into a venal and narcissistic old man.' (D'Lugo 1991: 57)
As an outsider to this clique, and crucially of a younger generation, Enrique is at one remove from the associations generated by the older men. He therefore acts as witness, and audience proxy, when bitter resentments and disappointments finally cause psychic breakdown and the men turn on each other with spectacular violence. The film ends with a freeze frame of his face, his panting still audible on the soundtrack, as he runs from the scene in horror.
    For the most part the film is realist in its depictions but the frequent extreme close-ups of sweating faces, of weapons and ammunition, and of rabbits in their death throes, give a slightly surreal edge to proceedings - almost a 'heightened' reality, or as if the camera is also feeling the effects of that relentless heat. It feels like a very modern film, not just visually but also in our access to the interiority of the characters:
'[...] Saura uses an experimental procedure which overlaps and contrasts with the realism: the interior monologues of the characters. They reveal their doubts, complex thoughts and passions that move them - the combination of their old friendship, resentment, envy - and it fills the silences, ellipses and insinuations of his dialogues until the final slaughter. Saura incorporates into cinematic introspection mechanisms that were being explored in contemporary literature (Luis Martín-Santos, Juan Goytisolo, Juan Marsé, Juan Benet, etc.).' (Sánchez-Biosca 2011: 117)
State of mind, or at least the animosity under the surface, is also signalled early on via the editing in the sequence where the men are preparing their weapons: a series of shot-reverse-shots show Paco in extreme close-up checking his sites facing right, then cuts to an extreme close-up of José doing the same but facing left (making it appear that they could be aiming at each other), the sequence of shots then repeats before a mid-distance shot establishes their actual positions in relation to each other (sitting alongside one another facing in opposite directions).

   Hopefully I will return to this film later in the year as I've barely scratched the surface in this short piece and many different angles could be taken -it is an incredibly rich text and a small mountain of material has been written on it (I've only read a fraction of it so far -I've found a book, La caza...42 años después [La caza...42 years later], which is a collection of articles about the film and looks really interesting but as it's in Spanish it'll take me a while to read). My intention with the future longer pieces is to draw groups of the films together, but obviously I can't start to think about that until I've watched more of them.

Cueto, R. (ed.) (2008) - La caza...42 años después, Valencia: Ediciones de la Filmoteca.
D'Lugo, M. (1991) - The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mira, A. (2010) - The A to Z of Spanish Cinema, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press.
Sánchez-Biosca, V. (2011) - 'La caza', in Directory of World Cinema: Spain, edited by Lorenzo J. Torres Hortelano, Bristol: Intellect, pp.115-117.

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Book

Labanyi, Jo and Tatjana Pavlović (ed.s) (2013) - A Companion to Spanish Cinema, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 9781405194389

    I mentioned this book at the end of last year as one that I was hoping to get hold of through the library due to its prohibitive price (£120) - I clearly timed my request well in the lull after New Year because it arrived a few days later. In fairness, although I regularly carp on about the price of film books, this one is substantial in both size (more than 600 pages) and content. The book takes a thematic approach with chapters divided into sections written by different authors - although the contents of the chapters generally progress chronologically (in terms of the history of Spanish cinema and also in their use of films as case studies), the range of authors (with distinct points of view) involved allows a multi-faceted take on Spanish cinema to develop. The editors underline that this melange of voices was part of the intention of the book, saying that:
'In keeping with the aim of showcasing different models of analysis, the essays in the volume bring together outstanding scholars - established and young - from Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Just as the volume stresses the transnationalism of Spanish cinema, we have wanted to offer readers a sample of the best scholarship in all three national critical traditions. In presenting a wide range of critical approaches, we aim not only to give a rounded picture of Spanish cinema but also to offer readers a sense of the possibilities open to them in their own future critical work. We have deliberately not tried to iron out the differences of approach between our twenty-six contributors, since we regard these differences as one of the volume's strengths' (p.11)
Whatever your own particular area of interest (for example, directors or actors, genre, or maybe the more technical side of filmmaking) in Spanish cinema, you will find something in this book for you; ideas of 'national cinema', directors, and star theory are of specific interest to me, but I also became engrossed in the chapters on genre, television, and the technical aspects of image and sound. Each section includes a bibliography and there is also a 'further reading' list at the end of each chapter. Unusually for me, I didn't find myself skimming vast swathes of the book - I think that the mix of voices (and also the broad range of films analysed) kept me engaged but I was also genuinely interested in the topics covered. Recommended (although from a library - much as I enjoyed reading it, I couldn't pay that much for it).
   As is usually the case with book posts, I am including the table of contents below - I am using the same format as the book itself, so although the authors for each chapter are indicated, the titles of their individual sections are not given. I will add the book to part 2 of the 'Books on Spanish Cinema' post.

1: Introduction - Jo Labanyi and Tatjana Pavlović
Part I: Reframing the National
2: Transnational Frameworks - Gerard Dapena, Marvin D'Lugo, and Alberto Elena
3: Echoes and Traces: Catalan Cinema, or Cinema in Catalonia - Brad Epps
4: Negotiating the Global and the Local: Andalusia, the Basque Country, and Galicia - José Colmeiro and Joseba Gabilondo
Part II: The Construction of the Auteur
5: Auteurism and the Construction of the Canon - Marvin D'Lugo and Paul Julian Smith
6: Strategic Auteurism - Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, Steven Marsh, Susan Martin-Márquez, and Santos Zunzunegui
Part III: Genre
7: Comedy and Musicals - Steven Marsh, Chris Perriam, Eva Woods Peiró, and Santos Zunzunegui
8: Melodrama and Historical Film - Jo Labanyi, Annabel Martín, and Vicente Rodríguez Ortega
9: Film Noir, the Thriller, and Horror - Jo Labanyi, Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, and Vicente Rodríguez Ortega
Part IV: Stars as Cultural Icons
10: The Construction of the Star System - Kathleen M. Vernon and Eva Woods Peiró
11: Stars, Modernity, and Celebrity Culture - Tatjana Pavlović, Chris Perriam, and Nuria Triana Toribio
Part V: Image and Sound
12: Photography, Production Design, and Editing - Vicente Sánchez-Biosca
13: Soundtrack - Román Gubern and Kathleen M. Vernon
Part VI: The Film Apparatus: Production, Infrastructure, and Audiences
14: Censorship, Film Studios, and Production Companies - Josetxo Cerdán, Román Gubern, Jo Labanyi, Steven Marsh, Tatjana Pavlović, and Nuria Triana Toribio
15: Film Clubs, Festivals, Archives, and Magazines - Ferran Alberich, Román Gubern, and Vicente Sánchez-Biosca
16: Audiences - Manuel Palacio and Kathleen M. Vernon
Part VII: Relations with Other Media
17: Cinema, Popular Entertainment, Literature, and Television - Sally Faulkner, Vicente Sánchez-Biosca, and Paul Julian Smith
Part VIII: Beyond the Fiction Film
18: Newsreels, Documentary, Experimental Film, Shorts, and Animation - Josetxo Cerdán and Vicente Sánchez-Biosca
Part IX: Reading Films Through Theory
19: Isabel Coixet's Engagement with Feminist Film Theory: From G (the Gaze) to H (the Haptic) - Susan Martin-Márquez
20: Becoming a Queer (M)Other in/and/through Film: Transsexuality, Trans-subjectivity, and Maternal Relationality in Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre - Julián Daniel Gutiérrez-Albilla
21: The Space of the Vampire: Materiality and Disappearance in the Films of Iván Zulueta - Brad Epps