Friday, 28 February 2014

Project 2014

    As outlined in my Belated Birthday post, I'm changing focus this year to look at Spanish cinema from a different angle; I'm going to investigate what Caimán Cuadernos de Cine have called 'el otro cine español' and also the increasingly noticeable trend for 'cine low cost'. I'm at the viewing stage of this project at the moment, and expect to be for a while. I'm currently working my way through Intermedio's Pere Portabella boxset, which may seem like going off at a tangent but I actually think that it would be difficult to discuss 'non-mainstream' cinema originating from Spain (and the autonomous communities) without looking at his career, because what's happening now is not completely 'new': there have always been 'other' cinema(s) at play, but perhaps the perception has 'resurfaced' or these films have become more visible in the past 12-18 months (for a variety of reasons to be expanded on at a later date). Of Portabella's 6 features and 16 shorts, I have 2 features and 5 shorts left to watch (which is uncommonly speedy for me): I will write about the set once I've finished it. 
    At the same time, I've been taking Caimán's list of 52 directors who they think pertain to this 'other' cinema as a jumping off point for my viewing. I have issues with the list (and, again, I'll come back to that at a later date), but it's as good a starting point as any, and has introduced me to some names I didn't know. But I am also looking at directors not on the list, who don't fit Caimán's criteria but who seem to me to be ploughing a similar field. I'm not going to write about every film at the time of viewing, and there are some that I probably won't return to later either, but I want some kind of record of progress on here: I'm going to post a still from each film viewed and tag it 'project 2014' (if it relates to this) [UPDATE (Dec 2014): As the project will be continuing in 2015, I'm going back through the posts to change the tag to just 'project']. Rather than post what I've watched so far all at once, I'm going to schedule an image to be posted each day this coming week. I'm not going to post any of the Portabella ones because I am going to write about them soon. The 'other' cinema and 'cine low cost' overlap but they are not synonymous, so I will probably tag the images with one or the other (or both) of those as well, but I'm starting primarily with the former.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Reconstructing the Past

    Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerín, 1997) is one of the films that has been mentioned multiple times in relation to El futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, but it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerín's film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in November 1930, amateur filmmaker Gerard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The film is in such a fragile state that it cannot be projected - some confusion due to the lack of English translation meant that I initially thought they had managed to reassemble it when in actual fact Guerín recreated it (it's a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as the actual 1930s film).
    The film opens with this 20 minute home movie, showing Fleury's extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then move to 'the present' and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the home movie). It is at this point that Guerín's film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections, as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the 'layering' of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside - in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerín and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

    In almost a cross between Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerín slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the family film to follow the sightlines of those on camera (it is striking that the woman at the centre of the sequences Guerín focuses on so often returns the camera's gaze) and give new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image, in order to bring hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerín plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a 'witness' to the supposed veracity of what we're presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director. The sequences that 'reveal' the most are then performed in front of us anew in colour (which is quite jarring and the point at which the fakery seems most apparent) with the camera moving between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

    This film casts a spell as a once grand, still-impressive house is depicted as a repository of memories that sporadically flicker into life on its faded and peeling walls.
    Aside from a group of schoolchildren being shown the house part way through the film, we learn little of its history or the specifics of the people who once lived within it. It is old and has been expanded at various junctures with different historical tastes and styles being integrated into what nonetheless feels like a coherent space. That said, we do not really gain a sense of the geography of the house; rooms are shown in isolation and it is difficult to work out where they are in relation to each other. Likewise, the film is made up of a series of windows, mirrors, and doorways that frame the interiors but reveal little: they frame what we see inside but offer no outer view (we only see the grounds from the outside, although they are sometimes half glimpsed through shutters or net curtains), and the sense grows of the house as an enclosed, hermetically-sealed, entity. The passing of time has marked its surface, as nature has reclaimed every nook and cranny, vines like veins that take life rather than sustain it (and add to the sense of the house being sealed); a scene where the caretaker (Luís Pescador) starts to remove them from the facade seems like it is breathing life into a suffocated surface even while bits of cement audibly crumble and fall away. Renewal and death. Death and renewal. 

    Little by little we work our way into the inner life of the house. The film starts outside with a discussion between two archaeological workers about the neglected state of the house and garden, which ends with the observation that there are signs of someone trying to take on nature and reclaim the house from its grasp. The rest of the film follows this caretaker as he commences a concerted effort to bring the house back to life (to what end, or why now, is not something we discover). It is a film with many textures as almost every wall we see is peeling or is in some way marked, the remnants of lives and previous incarnations left on the surface: the house is littered with tactile reminders of times past. Director José María de Orbe unfurls the house for the spectator, utilising layered spaces within single shots that are revealed or concealed by light and shadows (the use of light is beautiful) via the very deliberate opening and closing of doors and windows as the caretaker makes his way around the building.

    The film largely unfolds in silence apart from the diegetic sound of the local environment and the physical actions of those onscreen, and a series of short conversations between the caretaker and the local priest (Mikel Goenaga). Those conversations - about bones found in an archaeological dig in the grounds of the house (which is next door to the church), the senses that last longest after death, and a terrible white light (unseen by us) that starts to plague the caretaker - point to what the house will reveal as its layers are peeled back and raise the issue of whether some things are better left undisturbed. To begin with, it seems that 'breathing life' in to the house just involves repairs and sprucing it up, but about halfway through the running time something unexpected happens and the house becomes a living entity in and of itself, a repository of memories (of the house, its inhabitants, and the locale). As a storm lashes the house in the dark, and the rain running down the window ripples down a tiled wall in shadow form, making it seem as though the wall is trembling, the house suddenly flickers into life (the sound of the rain still on the soundtrack).

    The images projected onto surfaces of the house – mainly the wall of the grand hallway and that of a small bedroom - are history of the house (which can be seen within the footage) and its locale. Blending archival footage of the Basque Country (which is where the house is although only the archaeologists at the start speak in Basque; the caretaker and the priest converse in Castilian Spanish) with film of the house and the eponymous Aita (the Basque word for 'father') (Pedro Mayor) shot in the same style, the deliberately degraded and manipulated film stock (Antoni Pinent has the credit 'manipulación de 35mm') recounts sadness, suppression and the hidden, and the forgotten ghosts that populate the interstices of history. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the director says that they wished to create a new dialogue between the fragments of archival film and the house. Images that you would expect from early cinema (people enjoying themselves - we see a beach and later men dancing) are interspersed with sights that have a sinister undertone (priests and men in white coats seeming to torment children and young people in different contexts) and those of destruction. Looking at the end credits, the sequence showing men consumed by smoke (which finds an echo of the sequence where the caretaker smokes the woodwork of a grand fireplace) as they vainly attempt to tackle an enormous fire, may be footage from the bombing of Guernica (the town is named but there is no date given – if the fragments are listed in the order in which they appear, then ‘Guernica’ matches this section); if it is footage of the aftermath of the bombing, the deliberate degradation of the celluloid (the warping of which ripples, tremulously, across the surface of the image), with the effect of seemingly layering fire over fire, obliterating the past, is an eloquent and elegant indictment of the act. 

    But the footage that specifically relates to the house is both mysterious (we are given no context) and threatening (the small bedroom, which already generates a sense of foreboding, is seen within the footage); the spectral beings that appear in those 'memories' seem to relate to the white light seen by the caretaker (who sleeps in that bedroom when he stays at the house). In one sequence the ‘light’ obscures a girl's face, rendering her anonymous and denying her an identity (again, a suppression), but in the sequence relating to the bedroom, it passes from the spectre to the man in bed, engulfing his head (an attack). The lack of contextualisation lends the images an almost stream-of-consciousness poetry: vestiges of the past witnessed by the house are replayed on its walls without an obvious narrative structure. The related short film (50 minutes) Aita, carta al hijo (2011) is essentially a reworking of the feature but shorn of all conversation scenes and adding a voiceover (as well as some additional shots such as rooms viewed from a different angle and a few more inserts of archival footage). The voiceover (performed by the director himself) is that of the current owner of the house, who has been sent the papers found by the caretaker in the aftermath of a break-in, and takes the form of a letter written from a father (the father / aita we see in the fragmented archival footage?) to his son asking that he try to break from the cycle of violence and hate propagated in the region as if it is a tradition to be handed down through the generations. The lack of human interaction in the short (although it does include the footage of the atheist caretaker apparently finding some solace in listening to the harmonies of the church choir) adds an additional layer of melancholy.

    But the mystery and melancholy are not affectation and neither is the poetry of the film. It is rare that a film feels utterly original, but that was how Aita felt to me. I recommend watching it in darkness because the play of light and shadow is magical.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Belated Birthday

My favourite of the Spanish films I've seen in the last twelve months, Atraco a las tres / [Bank Robbery at Three O'Clock] (José María Forqué, 1962)

     An email telling me that the Nobody Knows Anybody twitter account had turned three alerted me to the fact that I had forgotten the blog’s birthday (on Thursday 6th). Caught up in other things, it had passed me by; I have entered the fourth year of this blog’s existence in much the same way as I conducted the third one.
     2013 was not a brilliant year for me. There were some positives: I finally managed to get a full-time job, after years of being stuck in part-time employment; I delivered a paper at an academic conference for the first time in more than five years; I started going to the cinema again, after a couple of years of not really bothering (a combination of it being too expensive to be a regular habit and an increasingly ‘meh’ attitude to life in general and recent cinema in particular – La grande bellezza shook me out of the meh-ness (I saw it three times on the big screen), and full-time hours mean that I can now afford to go more often); and people started writing guest posts for the blog (which is exciting for me and something I really appreciate – so, thank you Fiona Noble, Michael Pattison, and Rowena Santos Aquino). But the negatives were at times overwhelming: three weeks after I started the job, the institution I work for announced a full restructure and I (along with all of my colleagues) had to reapply and be re-interviewed for a reduced number of jobs (I hung on to my job, but the process took a couple of months and the aftermath of redundancies and reassignments, and the general feeling that good people have been messed around, was horrible and still lingers six months later); and a member of my immediate family was in hospital for surgery on three separate occasions (the last just before Christmas), which has been stressful and emotionally draining.

So, bring on 2014!

      Certain things were also clarified for me. I enjoyed the conference, which surprised me because I’ve not had good experiences with academic conferences in the past (in my experience they seem to attract people who need to make others feel small in order to make themselves feel big –a lot of unnecessary point scoring– but on this occasion everyone was lovely) and having listened to so many people researching one of my main areas of interest (but in a variety of different contexts), I left feeling that my spark of enthusiasm had been reignited. However you’ll note that I said ‘listened to’ rather than ‘spoken to’; I find navigating large groups of people I don’t know to be a bit of an anxiety generator, and it sometimes brings out my shyness to an incapacitating degree. I’m fine in small groups, or one-to-one, but I avoid large gatherings if possible. But I felt I had to go, and that I had to submit a paper, if only to prove to myself that I could and that my brain was still capable of functioning in that way. So I went. But I also know that that probably isn’t the forum I would choose to put myself into again anytime soon. What it also clarified is that I don’t think that ‘academia’ is what I’m aiming for; I want to write about films but not necessarily in that way. That’s not to say that I won’t write something up as an article and submit it to an academic journal if I have an idea that suits that setting, but I’m not setting out for an academic publications profile. The purpose of creating and sustaining a list of (academic) publications is usually to acquire an academic position / footing, and I don’t want to be ‘an academic’. But I also think that there are different (and more immediate) ways to share information, ideas, and arguments about films (from my personal perspective, Mediático and Modern Languages Open are interesting developments in that regard). I realise that whatever form you choose to work or publish in, there are hoops to be gone through, but I find that I am quite picky about which hoops I will choose to jump through. At the same time, some ‘requirements’ don’t seem like hoops at all because they’re part-and-parcel of something you enjoy doing and how you view the world. But I'm more interested in textual analysis than theoretical frameworks, and I'm currently trying to find my voice with that focus. 
      I have made a start with considering different forms / arenas of publication, but I won’t mention particulars unless / until I have something concrete. That said, I have ‘signed up’ (and am looking forward) to contributing to Mediático (initial topic still to be decided), a new blog focussing on Latin American, Latino/a, and Iberian media and film studies (find them on twitter @MediaticoMFM). In terms of what I write about, I’ve come to a number of conclusions in the past year: the blog is really helpful for working through ideas because I think by writing, and something larger can be approached piecemeal and without pressure to be ’perfect’, and it can be returned to as and when I'm ready, so that over time I can hone my thinking and can see the shape that the argument or discussion needs to take (a case in point is the Javier Bardem ‘issue’ I kept returning to, which has now turned into something else entirely and which I have submitted for consideration at an online (open access) journal); I should draw a line under some of the topics that were the basis of my PhD and look at other things; I need to be more focussed because the ‘random viewing’ thread, although it does reflect my viewing habits most of the time, does not allow me to be consistent or coherent in thinking things through; I don’t need to write about every Spanish film I watch (this relates to the previous point, but sometimes I just don’t have anything to say about a particular film and at that point I should just move on); in order to improve and expand my writing, I should write about cinema more broadly (i.e. not just that which originates from Spain). 
     So, the blog will continue but with a few changes. One element of my PhD research that I haven’t done much with is the industrial component, which I think is currently an interesting topic because the Spanish film industry has been generally imploding for at least the past 12-18 months. An offshoot of that has been the development of what is being referred to (by Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, at least) as ‘El otro cine español’ and the general trend for ‘cine low cost’ and initiatives and / or platforms such as #littlesecretfilm and Márgenes. I’m intending to mainly focus on these topics (and how they interrelate; not everyone thinks that the low cost development is good for the future of cinema made in Spain) for the next year, initially by watching a lot of films and getting a sense of what this ‘movement’ (if that is what it is) comprises and what it doesn’t; I will be looking for connections but will probably write about the films individually, or by director, to begin with. But from now on I won’t be writing about every film viewed. I’ll probably post a full list at the end of the year or something like that instead. My Carlos Saura Challenge will restart, hopefully soon, but I’m not going to attempt to give a timetable because I always break from it (but my aim has to be for more than another 6 films in the next twelve months, otherwise it'll take me more than six years to work my way through his filmography). I hope that there will be more guest posts – please tweet me or comment below if you have an idea for a post. It can relate to any aspect of Spanish cinema; starting a dialogue with people was one of my original intentions with the blog. Which brings me to my last point: writing about cinema outside of Spain. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do or how I’m going to do it. In relation to Spanish-language cinema (that isn’t technically 'Spanish’), I may still just post that here (as I did with my Pablo Larraín post), but I have also got a couple of ideas for things that in no way relate to this blog, so I will have to have a think about that. If I argue (as I do) that the emergence of specific actors / stars doesn't happen in a vacuum, that there is an industrial as well as a cultural context to their creation, the same is also true of Spanish cinema(s) more broadly; 'it' (cinema in Spain is not singular) exists within a wider network of events and circumstances and my trips to the cinema in the second half of 2013 highlighted for me that I need to pay attention to that wider context as well. So something non-Spanish should start appearing at some point in 2014 (later in the year, if I’m being realistic).
     Ordinarily by this point in the year I have posted ‘my top 5 of [previous year]’ and ’10 films to look out for in [the current year]’ posts. I’ve decided not to do that this year. My top 5 post would relate to Spanish films from 2013 and 2012 (because I mainly see things on DVD the year after their Spanish release) but I didn’t see enough films from those years in the last twelve months (I saw five, so it would be like just putting them in order of preference rather than actual favourites, and there were at least two of them that I didn’t rate) – between Carlos Saura and Alfredo Landa, I watched a lot of older films last year. In terms of the films coming this year, a couple of the ones I highlighted last year have still yet to be released (generally due to funding falling through) and at least one has stalled in pre-production (the Saura one, obviously), so there didn’t seem much point in attempting another full-blown list. Of the ones outstanding from last year, I am still interested in: Murieron por encima de sus posibilidades (dir. Isaki Lacuesta) and Presentimientos (dir. Santiago Tabernero) (the latter has been released in Spain in the past week or so). Of films that are ‘finished’ or well into production (as far as I can tell) and due for release in 2014, I will keep an eye out for: Magical Girl (dir. Carlos Vermut); La novia (dir. Paula Ortiz); Carmina y amén (dir. Paco León); La isla mínima (dir. Alberto Rodríguez); and El niño (dir. Daniel Monzón).