Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Late Show: Alfredo Landa

My contribution to Shadowplay's Late Film Blogathon, in which I should be discussing Luz de domingo, but mainly focus on the career of Alfredo Landa because I really disliked the film.

Alfredo Landa, 1933 - 2013

     In the introduction to the edited collection British Stars and Stardom, Bruce Babington states that indigenous stars:
'[...] give things to home audiences that Hollywood luminaries cannot - reflections on the known and close at hand, typologies of the contingent, intimate dramatisations of local myths and realities - which, when they fit into Hollywood's categories, make the performers who embody them world stars, while others remain local stars - but no less meaningful for that.' (2001: 10)
It has often struck me that while there is a certain amount of pride manifested when one of 'our own' makes it in Hollywood (they're ours! we spotted their potential first!), often those who remain geographically closer are regarded with greater affection; they're more clearly marked as belonging (exclusively) to us and we can pat ourselves on the back for having recognised a talent that is (we think) under-appreciated elsewhere. [Possibly it's only the British who have this sense of smugness with regard to our actors, but I think it's probably universal]. I happened to be logged in to the blog's twitter account when the news of Alfredo Landa's death broke back in May, and for the rest of the day my timeline was filled with an outpouring of affection from Spain that seemed universal (there was no sign of the usual twitter phenomenon where people feel the need to berate those who are moved by the passing of someone they didn't actually 'know'). What was striking though, was the range of films and characters that were mentioned - while Landa owed his iconicity in Spain to a particular set of films (which resulted in a sub genre, landismo, being named after him), his career as a whole had three quite distinct stages (his fame originated from the middle one). So while the blogathon requires me to focus on the end of his career, I'm going to start by outlining how Alfredo Landa's image / persona developed.

     Having started out in the theatre, Landa entered the Spanish film industry, in his own words, 'por la puerta grande' [by the big door] - his first proper screen credit was as part of the ensemble cast (José Luis López Vázquez, Manuel Alexandre, Agustín González, Cassen, and Gracita Morales forming the illustrious company in which he made his debut) in José María Forqué's Atraco a las tres / [Bank Robbery at Three O'Clock] (1962) [the opening credit sequence, which introduces the characters, is above] in which a group of bank employees decide to rob the branch they work at. It is probably my favourite Spanish film that I've watched this year - a timeless comedic masterclass that to my mind recalls the best of Ealing. Landa's character, Castrillo, is the youngest of the group and the most reluctant to take part in the robbery (all quavering voice and tremulous glances), but is eventually made the getaway driver (in one set-piece they teach him to drive). There followed a series of supporting roles / ensemble parts in films such as El Verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963), Casi un caballero / [Almost a Gentleman] (José María Forqué, 1964), Historias de la television / [Stories of the Television] (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1965), and La cuidad no es para mí / [City Life is Not For Me] (Pedro Lazaga, 1966). 
     In the late 1960s Spain was undergoing a period of massive economic development and extremely slow liberalisation as the Franco regime attempted to attract foreign investment - this was known as desarrollismo (literal translation, 'developmentalism'), and initiated the transformation of Spain from a largely rural country to an industrialised (urban) society. This was however tightly controlled by the regime and its expression on film came out in markedly different forms. On the one hand, you had the proponents of the 'nuevo cine español' (filmmakers such as Carlos Saura and Víctor Erice) who represented the fractures in Spanish society (necessarily) opaquely via metaphor and symbolism, and on the other you had the popular cinema in the form of the paleto (country bumpkin) comedies and la comedia sexy ibérica (iberian sex comedy) - it was in the comedies that Landa made his name by representing a masculinity under threat, filled with social anxieties caused by rapid social change (including the changing status of women), often living the life of the economic migrant, and manifesting the conflict between tradition and modernity. In this context, Alfredo Landa came to stand for 'the average Spaniard'. In the late 1960s, Landa represented the likeable rogue, a charmer driven by irresponsible pleasure-seeking (usually sexual) desires, an anarchic imp who was nonetheless usually reined in by the end of the narrative and married off to a nice Spanish girl to settle down within the expected norms of conservative Spanish society.

Performing Antón's 'gay' alter-ego in No desearás al vecino del quinto (Ramón Fernández, 1970),
     Landismo arrived with No desearás al vecino del quinto / Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour From the Fifth Floor (Ramón Fernández, 1970), a film that attained such a high level of box office success that its record remained unbeaten until the release of Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios / Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988) almost twenty years later. The film effectively launched Alfredo Landa as a national star and led to the coining of the term landismo, which has been defined as:
'[...] the offspring of the confusion and the uncertainty, in a country immersed in too many changes that it did not understand too well. It also shows a code half-way between perplexity and doubt...characters trapped on the crossroads between tradition and modernity, the new Spaniard was undecided between the stability he had just abandoned and the fuzzy and uncertain perspectives that were slowly forming on the horizon' (Diccionario del cine español, p.493 - translation taken from Vivancos 2012: 45)
This is summed up early in the film by one of the characters describing her generation as being too modern to be provincial, but too provincial to be modern - Landa often occupies that no-man's land in between these two sides of Spanish society. The plot of No desearás... concerns a young, handsome gynaecologist (Jean Sorel), working in provincial Toledo, who is continuously assaulted by husbands, fathers, and brothers outraged that he has seen their womenfolk in a state of undress. In the same town is Antón (Landa), a boutique owner and fashion designer who spends all day around scantily-clad women without any of the physical threats because he is widely assumed to be gay (homosexuality is never actually mentioned within the film - the coding is done visually through Antón's dress and modes of behaviour). However when Sorel's character goes to Madrid for a conference, he bumps into Antón in a club and discovers that the 'homosexuality' of the latter is just a masquerade to allow him to develop his business without violent misunderstandings - he's actually a randy heterosexual male who spends a week of debauchery in Madrid every month, seducing Swedish air hostesses who cannot resist his iberian charms (suspension of disbelief is required for this latter aspect and it is a source of the comedy that ensues when Antón takes Sorel's innocent character out on the pull). The friendship that develops between the two men leads the townsfolk of Toledo to believe that they are having an affair (Antón is the eponymous fifth-floor neighbour of the title) - 'hilarity' and more violence follow, alongside a conventional ending of sorts that sees both men reunited with their respective spouses (in secret) but maintaining the charade of their own relationship for business reasons.
     The film was loudly dismissed by commentators at the time, in the way that 'popular' cinema often is (for example, the President of the Association of Film Distributors declared in 1982 that '80% of this country's film output is not culture' (cited in Triana-Toribio 2003: 114). Bless), and alongside other popular films of the era it has been paid little attention in a critical sense until relatively recently (because of their supposed lack of artistic merit). Spanish friends I have spoken to about landismo (this is the only one of those films I've seen so far) seem to regard the films as something of an embarrassment, a bit naff. The film is definitely of its era but Landa's affability shines through despite the dodginess of the film's gender and sexual politics - to me, it didn't seem all that different to the British Carry On series, insofar as there is a lot more tease than show (it's something of a misnomer to call them sex comedies given the lack of sex, or indeed actual nudity) and the central performance is one of genial familiarity (there is also a parallel with the Carry On films in the way that, over time, an extended group of familiar faces who share multiple screen credits build up a linked association in the minds of the public). But landismo came to an abrupt end as censorship faded out in the late 1970s and the destape (literal. 'undressing') took off - no need for films that hint and tease when anything goes. What followed was Landa's reinvention as a 'serious' actor (the third stage of his career), which is widely agreed to have been achieved with three particular films: El puente / [The Bridge] (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1977); El crack (José Luis Garci, 1981); and Los santos inocentes / The Holy Innocents (Mario Camus, 1984).   
        I haven't seen the first of those films, but it apparently takes the temperature of the nation by having Landa cross the country on a motorbike and having a series of encounters with different social / political groups. El crack, which I'll return to as it connects to Landa's last film, showed a darkness in the actor that had previously gone untapped, but it was with Los santos inocentes that he cemented his reputation as someone to be taken seriously - Landa shared the Best Actor prize at Cannes with his co-star Francisco Rabal (who gives an extraordinary performance). The film is an example of the cine de calidad (quality cinema) pushed by the then-Socialist government (a reaction to the already-stated perception that most of Spanish cinema didn't count as 'culture') - they were mainly fairly staid literary adaptations with high production qualities and low audience turnouts; the cine de calidad generally didn't tap into the audience desires of 1980s Spain (perhaps because so many of them harked back to Spain's past, which a lot of people were trying to forget), which were perhaps better served by the comedia madrileña and directors such as Fernando Trueba, Fernando Colomo, and of course Pedro Almodóvar. Based on the book by Miguel Delibes, Los santos inocentes is about a way of life, as the inhabitants of a rural estate (in the 1960s, if one can take the women's fashions as a marker) seem to be stuck in the servitude of the previous century and live in terrible poverty and squalor. Landa plays Paco, el bajo (Paco, the low - that is how he is referred to by other characters) who loyally serves his señorito Iván (Juan Diego) to the detriment of his own health. He is famed for his sense of smell, and in one sequence crawls on all fours sniffing out the game shot down by his master. Landa was atypical casting insofar as his performance took many by surprise (I would describe his performance as minimalistic, in sharp contrast to his usually ebullient manner in the comedies), but in some ways the film also taps into the rural associations created by his earlier roles (the flat cap is a continuity of iconography in Landa's image and career), an association that continues in films such as El bosque animado / [The Enchanted Forest] (José Luis Cuerda, 1987) and La marrana / The Sow (José Luis Cuerda, 1992).

Following a scent in Los santos inocentes
     So, back to El crack and Landa's professional association with director José Luis Garci. In total, they made seven films together: Las verdes praderas / The Green Meadows (1979); El crack (1981); the imaginatively-titled El crack 2 (1983); La canción de cuna / [Cradle Song] (1994); Historia de un beso / The Story of a Kiss (2002); Tiovivo c.1950 (2004); and Landa's last film, Luz de domingo / Sunday Light (2007). Las verdes praderas was Garci's third film and along with his first two (Asignatura pendiente / [Pending Subject] (1977) and Solos en la madrugada / [Alone in the Small Hours] (1978)) could be considered the tail end of what was known as the cine de la tercera vía (Third Way cinema), an attempt (engendered by producer José Luis Dibildos) to make films that engaged with the social change that was underway, in a form acceptable to the regime, but that were also commercially viable. They were aimed at the middle classes and those who felt that the Spanish comedies that were dominating the box office were somehow beneath them. Las verdes praderas is essentially about the middle-class hell of the responsibility of owning a weekend getaway in the countryside, as Landa's self-made man (prized by his ad-exec bosses for his 'common touch') finds it nigh on impossible to get any time to himself when he and his family visit their chalet for the weekend. It is as dull as that sounds, although Landa's innate likability makes you root for him - certainly his wife's (María Casanova) decision to 'liberate' them by torching the place at the end felt like the right decision (although I may have just been pleased that it signalled the end of the film). But there's enough 'supposed' comedy in the film for it to operate as a crossing over point for Landa.

      In El crack - widely considered one of the actor's best films and performances - Landa plays detective Germán Areta, looking for a missing girl and finding that he pushes a lot of noses out of joint as a result. When the powers that be decide that the best way to get him to back off is to mess with his de-facto family - his girlfriend (Casanova again) and her small daughter - he instead goes on full attack. The film has dated and although it aspires to noir status (it's dedicated to Dashiell Hammett) it doesn't quite pull it off - for all that Garci is acclaimed as an aficionado of classic cinema, it only ever feels like a copy rather than an original - but Landa is completely transformed; there is no lightness to his performance, and the heaviness of the burden his character carries is reflected in the seemingly infinite sadness in his eyes. I haven't seen the sequel (it doesn't appear to have ever had a DVD release), and aside from the Cuerda films mentioned above, the only other role of note that Landa had in the late-80s / early-90s was as Sancho Panza to Fernando Rey's Don Quijote (a genius casting pairing) in a luxurious TV series directed by Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (I've watched one episode of the five parts so far - it is available on DVD with English subs - and am enjoying it immensely). I also haven't seen Canción de cuna, which brings us to the next Landa / Garci project, Historia de un beso, which along with El crack is the only one of the Garci films that I rate in any way. Told through the framing device of Julián (Carlos Hipólito) in 1949 returning to the village where he grew up for the funeral of his uncle (celebrated author Blas Otamendi (Landa)), the film concentrates on the events of 1925 and the parallel coming-of-age of the nephew and a late romance of the uncle. Blas is an outsider - an author better-known outside of Spain than within and unwilling to kowtow to the regime or the Church - but respected within his community and adored by his nephew. The film is sentimental but not in a sickly fashion, and both it and Landa have a twinkle in their eyes that allowed this viewer to pack away her cynicism for a couple of hours.

The trusty squire and the knight errant
     As I also haven't seen Tiovivo c.1950, that means that we have finally reached the purpose of this post: to discuss Alfredo Landa's last film. Should I take part in the Late Film Blogathon again, I will make my choice a little differently - namely by choosing a film of interest rather than simply a late film of someone I'm interested in. Because there's no way around it: Luz de domingo is a dud. It would be more enjoyable if it were out-and-out awful, but it's merely forgettably mediocre. Landa announced his retirement before the film was actually released and, although it's useless to speculate about such things, he doesn't really seem as if his heart was in it. I don't understand the critical acclaim that Garci has received and his films are generally an anathema to me - although accusations of wallowing in nostalgia are regularly levelled against him (and he proudly declares himself to not be a 'modern' filmmaker), he is usually described as a good director of actors and generally proficient on other fronts. And yet this is someone who won't use just one establishing shot when he can use five (usually to show how many extras are in the scene but in a way that fails to give a sense of spatial relations), regularly leaves shots to hang for a couple of seconds longer than required (is someone about to come through that closed door? No. Oh ok, then), and arbitrarily crosses the 180 degree line in the middle of a scene (and by arbitrarily, I mean that the change in camera position doesn't seem to reveal / signify anything beyond suggesting that the director changed his mind part way through filming the scene). All of which makes his filmmaking sound considerably more interesting than it actually is - the reason those things stick out is because of how pedestrian the rest of it is (as I said in my previous post, Tyne Tees' Catherine Cookson dramas were directed with more verve). It's fair to say that it wasn't my cup of tea, and in fact it (or more accurately, the scene outlined below) put me in a foul mood. [Warning: spoilers follow]

Simplistic symbolism 101: the red dress (the only time a colour that vivid is worn in the film) signals imminent danger in the form of the red motor car they are watching approach
    The film primarily concerns itself with the wrangling between two political factions in the small village of Cenciella in the early 1900s -one headed by the corrupt mayor, the other by one of the few landowners who doesn't bow down to him, Joaco (Landa). Into this mix comes outsider Urbano (Álex González), the new idealistic council secretary who promptly falls in love with Joaco's granddaughter, Estrella (Paula Echevarría). The newcomer wins over the grumpy older man with his sincerity. But when both men displease the mayor (Joaco by refusing to sell him some of his land, Urbano by refusing to let the mayor pass new taxation laws that are designed to bankrupt Joaco into submission), he decides that his only recourse is to hurt the person they have in common: Estrella. More or less out of the blue comes a gang rape sequence where the mayor sets his three wastrel sons on the young couple the weekend before their planned wedding: Urbano is tied to a tree and forced to watch (along with the audience) while his fiancee is brutalised by the three men and their servant. This is by no means Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002), but for all of Noé's provocations, I find the brutal trauma of the attack on Alex (Monica Bellucci) in his film more honest in the style and execution of its filming than the 'artfully' composed and framed assault filmed by Garci. This scene seriously disrupts the world of the film - and it should do given the impact on the life of Estrella (who almost entirely disappears from the film after this point - the incident is never discussed in her presence and she barely utters another word), but it is not in keeping with the tone of the film up to this point. [One of the Spanish reviews argues that the scene divides the film in to two and that the second half is more like something directed by Michael Haneke, which feels wide of the mark to me but is an indication of the tonal rupture it causes]. The rest of the film feels unsettled but also strangely placid; Urbano marries Estrella as planned, they leave the village (it transpires that she's pregnant as a result of the rape) without recourse to the law, and Urbano refuses to let Joaco defend the honour of his granddaughter. The young man reaches for saintliness and is fairly uninteresting as a result. In fact the older generation provide most of the colour of the film, and it seems revealing that the young couple are rarely shown in conversation (their romance is communicated via a series of vapid smiles); the more interesting interactions transpire between people with 'pasts', whether the boarding house landlady from Seville and the much-travelled musician in love with Vienna, or the Uruguayan bar owner who shows Joaco a series of postcards detailing her life in New York (where Joaco has also previously lived). 

One of the more interesting pairings in the film
    The conversations with the bar owner are among the few sequences where the spark returns to Landa's eyes, and although he received top billing he doesn't dominate the film until right at the end when, with Urbano and Estrella packed off the New World, Urbano gives Joaco the all-clear to finally extract revenge for his granddaughter. Violence erupts once again (but too late for there to be a sense of catharsis) as Joaco shoots two of the mayor’s sons as they ride through the forest and then parades their corpses through town for the church congregation to witness. He shoots the remaining son and the mayor himself in a stand off as they exit the church, before being shot and killed himself by the guardia civil. There’s a certain poignancy to his dying onscreen in his last role, but I was left with more sadness that the opportunity to give him a memorable last appearance was frittered away. To a certain extent, at least in terms of the theme of vengeance, Joaco could be said to hark back to Landa’s performance in El crack (men who hurt the women his characters love meet a violent end at his hands in both films) but this echo really only serves to highlight that of the films he made with Garci, only El crack really endured as part of his star image or persona. The more personable and affable side to his persona was established at the start of his career (in films that are apparently subject to countless repeats on Sunday afternoon TV in Spain), and I would argue that despite his proving himself in ‘serious’ roles, it is those early comedies (possibly in conjunction with the TV sitcoms he appeared in the 1990s/2000s) that hold the key to the enduring affection with which he is regarded by Spanish audiences. He was awarded the Goya de honor the year following his retirement and ended his speech by saying that this was ‘adiós, y para siempre’ [goodbye, and for good] – he stuck to his word.