Monday, 17 June 2013

The industrial contexts of national stardom: a Spanish case study

    Last week I attended the three-day 'Revisiting Star Studies: An International Conference' at Newcastle University. I really enjoyed the conference - it was lovely to meet so many other people researching my own specific area of interest, but also interesting to hear different facets of star studies being investigated in a multitude of cultural contexts.
   My own contribution was a paper on the industrial contexts of Spanish stardom. I'm posting the paper in its entirety, complete with the slides from my powerpoint presentation. It's my habit to write notes / digressions in the margins of my papers, usually in abbreviated form - I've included those here by putting them in square brackets within the text at the point at which I mentioned them (likewise my instruction to myself to change the slide is also included). If I expand this into an article (the 20 minutes time-limit does restrict the level of detail), aside from going into more detail about Noriega's star image (which I only touch upon briefly here) and a broader take on the industrial issues, I'd also like to develop how he fits into the panorama of contemporary Spanish stars (including box office trends and track records). If you're interested, a post I wrote last year looks at his star image in a bit more detail and in a slightly different context (you'll see that a couple of sections - particularly in relation to the Amenábar connection - are almost identical to the conference paper, but the focus is on a specific film - Mateo Gil's Nadie conoce a nadie / Nobody Knows Anybody).

   Industrial contexts are important in relation to national stardom because the majority of stars first ‘break out’, or achieve stardom, within their home market; the industrial and the national are by no means mutually exclusive given that any film industry (traditionally at least) makes films primarily for its native audience. Stars are drawn from the cinema that is being made in a given period, and cinemas are shaped by a combination of cultural and industrial imperatives; changes within a film industry can result in changes in the type of star and stardom produced. This paper will argue, following Andrew Willis (2004), that stars cannot be separated from the industrial contexts of their production, and that they can also be seen to be as reflective of their industry as they are of contemporaneous cultural assumptions. I'm going to be using Spanish cinema and stardom from the 1990s onwards by way of illustration, and for the purposes of this paper Eduardo Noriega will be my central example. [SLIDE]

Noriega emerged in the mid-1990s and he therefore overlaps two quite distinct ‘groups’ of contemporary Spanish stars of the last twenty years: that of Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Jordi Mollà in the early 90s, and a later group that could be said to centre on the 2002 musical comedy El otro lado de la cama / The Other Side of the Bed (the central male cast of which have worked together multiple times) - arguably this overlap is manifested in how his stardom shares different traits with both groups.
    As the boundaries of ‘Spanish cinema’ have expanded (to produce an increasingly internationalised form of cinema), industrial imperatives (i.e. what the industry requires of its stars) gradually increased their influence over the star image after 1992 [an important year – a cultural flashpoint for Spain] and an overt relationship with the national became less important. So while in the cases of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, overtly national factors and characteristics were the more important aspects at the start of their careers (and remain ingrained in their star images), with Eduardo Noriega the balance starts to shift towards the industrial imperatives and the more generic aspects of stardom. For example, although like Bardem and Cruz, Noriega has many explicit interactions with the national onscreen, Chris Perriam notes in his 2003 study of stars and masculinities in Spanish cinema that while most male Spanish stars are presented as 'normal / ordinary' rather than 'glamorous', the younger Noriega was consistently 'presented as first and foremost gifted with special sex appeal' (2003: 7) -and arguably this is increasingly becoming the norm for new male Spanish stars. Edgar Morin emphasises the importance of the role that turns an actor into a star ([1960] 2005: 29) because that role shapes the career and stardom that follows, and the differences in how Spanish stars are shaped by the contexts of the Spanish film industry can also be traced back to their respective early roles, suggesting that just as ‘nationhood is always an image constructed under particular conditions’ (Higson [1989] 2002: 139) the same is also true of national stardom. With this in mind, I now turn to the state of the Spanish film industry in the 1990s, and then how Noriega's star image fits within it.
    In the early 90s, the Spanish film industry was stagnating, reaching its nadir in 1994 when only 44 films were produced and Spanish cinema received just 7% market share of audience figures. Eduardo Rodríguez Merchán and Gema Fernández-Hoya link the culmination of problems in 1994 in part to the lack of specific support for new directors between 1990 and 1994 (when there were no subsidies for directorial debuts); they argue that the reinstatement of that specific subsidy was a decisive factor in the upturn and cambio generacional that Spanish cinema then experienced (2008: 28-29). [SLIDE]

There was a massive influx of new directors after that point. While the new group of filmmakers who arrived in the mid-to-late 90s have few elements in common other than the coincidence of the timing of their arrival in the industry, the sheer number of them profoundly changed the make up of the Spanish film industry, and Spanish cinema, as their work encompasses a disparate range of styles and genres. 
    This commercially adept and cine-literate generation of filmmakers overtly and explicitly took inspiration from Hollywood films and formats, and reinvigorated Spanish cinema. Many of the new directors were within the same age range as their intended audiences - and in common with their cinema-going peers, they wanted to watch films that were entertaining; their capacity to see cinema as a commercial venture meant that many of them embraced genres that had previously been -and arguably still are in Spain- looked down on, and made their films financially successful. Barry Jordan and Mark Allinson argue that these directors have succeeded in balancing the commercial and the artistic, with the influx of talent leading to ‘the emergence of a broadly commercial, entertainment-driven, Spanish cinema, involving new sets of narrative, generic, thematic, stylistic, technical, and casting concerns and choices’ (2005: 30).
    In combining cinematic influences from inside and outside Spain, these new directors are integral to the creation of Spanish stars in this period; the Spanish stars who have emerged in the last twenty years (effectively a 'post-Banderas' generation [he made his Hollywood debut in 1992]) reflect the cultural hybridity that is increasingly inherent to Spanish cinemas, as evidenced by their own increased ability to operate transnationally. At the same time, the filmographies of the stars I have mentioned are also indicative of the heterogeneity of Spanish cinema in this era, as a variety of genres and styles are represented by a range of both new and established directors; they offer a Spanish illustration of Ginette Vincendeau’s observation that in smaller film industries there can be a ‘co-existence of mainstream and auteur cinema in a single star’s image’ (2000: 2).
     Alejandro Amenábar is usually the example given (alongside Álex de la Iglesia) when commentators discuss the visual and narrative changes that this new ‘generation’ of filmmakers heralded for Spanish cinema, and it was in Amenábar's early films that Eduardo Noriega started his screen career. [AA remains a key part of EN’s ‘star narrative’ – still mentioned in EN’s interviews/profiles – their friendship predates their arrival in the industry - they made short films together while AA at uni & EN at drama school - the roles in the features were written for EN] Making his debut in Amenábar’s work positioned Noriega within this generational shift in a different way to either Javier Bardem or Penélope Cruz; although those two were undeniably at the vanguard of a new generation of Spanish stars in the early 90s, they started their ascendancy in collaboration with established directors (Bigas Luna and Fernando Trueba) whereas Noriega did so alongside a new directorial talent and a different set of industrial contexts -what 'Spanish cinema' consisted of was already undergoing change. [SLIDE]

That Noriega's star image avoids the stereotypically Spanish is not mere happenstance given that he emerged in a Spanish film industry that was becoming increasingly globalised through the use of genres not commonly associated with 'Spanish cinema' (epitomised by Amenábar's films).
    The two feature-length films that Noriega made with Amenábar - Tesis and Abre los ojos - both ostensibly avoid overt Spanish references and settings - Amenábar has suggested that the films could be set in different cities (and countries) without changing the narrative (Payán 2001: 45) [Abre remade as Vanilla Sky]. The two films approach the national in an abstract manner through the themes of urban alienation and the fragility of contemporary masculine identities… [SLIDE] 

…although Paul Julian Smith argues that the highlighting of certain architectural features means that 'Amenábar's transnational shooting style is [...] firmly anchored in settings as distinctively Castilian as the spoken accents of his young stars' (2013: 147). At the same time, the alienation effect that occurs in a Madrid made foreign in Abre los ojos is not only indicative of Amenábar aiming for an international marketplace, but also representative of Spain coming to see itself differently in light of social changes and the resulting uncertainty as to what Spanishness now ‘is’. Noriega’s early characters – and this is true of other films he made in the late 90s as well as the Amenábar collaborations - are correspondingly unsure of their place in the world and arguably project a fear about losing touch with cultural roots and what will happen as Spain continues to change (will it still recognisably be Spain?). 
     The Amenábar films contain several elements that continuously resurface in Eduardo Noriega’s later films and star image: psychological instabilities; the act of looking / significant looks; a link between geographical dislocation and a fragile sense of identity; an emphasis on his beautiful face; the thriller genre; and collaborations with new directors [EN has appeared in a significant number of directorial debuts] - these films also placed a greater emphasis on the generic over the nationally-specific in Noriega’s star image. [SLIDE] 

He has multiple interactions with the national in his later films [see slide] but he is not perceived as explicitly representing ‘the Spanish male’ (unlike Bardem), and instead ‘seductive menace’ and 'fragile identities' have become dominant star traits. There is generally a greater emphasis on the requirements of genre than on national specificities within his films; his most successful films are usually thrillers (the genre in which he made his name).
     Although he has consistently been associated with the thriller, and he is considered 'bankable' by Spanish producers (de la Torriente 2007: 84) because of his box office track record with that genre, he is not a 'star brand' in the sense of a commercial formula that is repeated over and over. [and I don't think he would be interested in doing that] [SLIDE] 

To date Noriega has appeared in 25 Spanish feature productions, and as well as the successes shown in the slide, he also has 10 films that have accrued fewer than 100,000 spectators during their Spanish theatrical release. [His filmography encompasses the spectrum of Spanish production – from super-production Alatriste (>3 million spectators) to, at other end of scale, indie drama Petit Indi (<12,000 spectators)] He has had a very diverse career -due to a concerted effort on his part to reside within the art-house categories of cinema- but his star image is integrally connected to the mainstream generic frameworks of his more successful films and the increasingly international form of cinema being produced in Spain. Philip Drake says that stars are ‘a means by which Hollywood has been able to present itself as a global rather than national film industry’ (2004: 76); the newest Spanish stars are symptomatic of the aspirations of the Spanish film industry to tap into the global film market and not be restricted by their national boundaries - it is noticeable that several of Noriega's forays into English-language cinema position him within the genre that he has had most commercial success with at home, for example, Vantage Point (2008) and Transsiberian (2008) [both in the thriller spectrum & interestingly both engage with his existing star image in terms of the moral ambiguity he can bring to a role]. On the one hand this supports the reading of cinematic genres as ‘the meeting place between a variety of diverse forces that necessarily operate within but also across territorial spaces’ (Beck and Rodríguez Ortega 2008: 1), but it also arguably points to Noriega's star image translating to, or being readable in, other national spaces.
     Although the increasing ease with which contemporary Spanish stars now circulate abroad is indicative of their having participated in, and been shaped by, this international-style cinema at home, the increasing number of Spanish actors attempting to start international careers (Abril 2009) also highlights the perception of perpetual ‘crisis’ in the Spanish film industry. [SLIDE] 

At a basic level, the boost in production caused by the influx of talent does also have negative aspects - namely that the Spanish marketplace cannot support the volume of Spanish films being made. But at the moment a number of factors are contributing to a particularly dark outlook for Spanish cinema - the box office takings so far this year in Spain (for all films, not just Spanish ones) are down 40% on what they were in the same period in 2012 (García 2013) [this is being specifically linked to the tax issue & the rise in ticket prices]. Despite the commercial success of a range of Spanish films in the last twenty years, the Spanish film industry is still perceived as an unstable entity that is overly reliant on a handful of key directors to keep it buoyant - there is a widespread belief that ‘Spanish cinema’ is sporadically (if not permanently) in ‘crisis’, and this has contributed to the decision taken by a range of Spanish stars to work abroad. [SLIDE] 

The periods of absence that are increasingly prevalent in the careers of big names (for example, Penélope Cruz was absent from Spanish cinema for five years between 2001 and 2006, and Javier Bardem had a similar gap after the release of Mar adentro in 2004 [most famous example of extended absence = Banderas – 1992 until 2011 & Almodóvar’s La piel que habito]) are also an outward sign that all is not well within Spanish cinema. Arguably it leads to a vicious circle wherein industrial instability leads the stars to work abroad, which in turn leads to further instability. It should be noted that Noriega, despite an increasing number of projects abroad (10 films so far -mainly in France and the US), has continued to average at least one Spanish film a year - but he has started to become more proactive in developing projects for himself. [SLIDE]

This year will see the release of a film, a psychological thriller, that he co-wrote and in which he takes the lead role. He has also taken another career path that is becoming increasingly common, and branched into television -it is fairly common for Spanish stars to start their careers in television and indeed a number of them continue to switch back and forth between the two formats, but Noriega has no prior relation with TV - but in 2011 he took the lead in a TV series, one that again hooks into the genre expectations of his star image. [he plays a criminal psychologist – consultant to a homicide unit]
      In summary, it is with Noriega that we start to see a distinct change in terms of how the star image interacts with the national in Spain, in a way that can be clearly traced back to the industrial contexts of his initial films. For many of the newest Spanish stars, an overt relationship with the national has lost some of its importance in terms of what the industry requires of its stars; national specificities shape the form that Spanish stardom takes only to the extent that the star (and the film industry) feel it is politic for their image to be shaded with national ‘colour’ and there is increasingly a greater emphasis on the generic elements of stardom. Nonetheless, these stars and their images still originate from (and circulate within) a Spanish context. Ultimately Eduardo Noriega relates to a specifically Spanish cultural environment through the themes, concerns, and narratives of his films, but just as his increasingly transnational career is simultaneously symptomatic of both the success and crisis of Spanish cinema in this era, overall his star image is more obviously defined by the generational shift in Spanish cinema and the accompanying changes in visual and narrative style.

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de la Torriente, E. (2007) - 'Noriega da el gran salto', El País Semanal, 18th November, pp.78-85.
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