in Contemporary Spanish cinema and genre


Robert Sklar

For film historians and theorists, being able to hold two opposing ideas in the mind isn’t a possibility. It is a necessity. The first idea is that ‘national cinema’ and ‘genre’ are valid concepts that are instrumental in understanding how films are made, distributed and received by spectators. The second is that they are not. The editors and authors of Contemporary Spanish Cinema and Genre animate these conflicting propositions with lively and probing dialectical flair.

To simplify, the notion of national cinema is tied to the state, and that of genre to the market. Historically, governments have founded and financed film industries and institutions. They regulate, legislate, censor, permit or forbid films to be made or shown. It seems sensible to denote films under the sway of such aegis and power as constituting a nation’s cinema. The elements of culture, ideology, customs, styles, language and landscape that adhere to the state and its inhabitants, as they appear in films, provide further evidence of the coherence and usefulness of the national cinema idea.

Similarly, genre as a marketing tool predated the advent of cinema, and was imported and elaborated in the new medium for its utility in classifying and diversifying films. Film industries have used and still use genre as a tool of publicity and sales, first to the exhibitor, then to the spectator. It functions like a brand, evoking in the consumer familiar associations and tastes. It takes away the guesswork of deciding what film to see. Joined together, national cinema and genre can produce potent signifiers. Italian spaghetti westerns. Bollywood melodramas. Spanish horror films.

Against this – the negation of these formulations – is the fundamental premise that all definitions and categories in cinema are porous. Borders and boundaries are continually passed over or through. Transnational cinema is not only a phenomenon of late capitalism and twenty-first-century globalisation, it came into existence simultaneously with the invention of the medium. Exactly the same is true for genre hybridity. Ideas, sources, styles, languages, technologies, personnel, financing, production companies – all have moved across national frontiers with varying ease or difficulty in the century and more of cinema. How does one specify what is national or specifically generic in any given film? Is Alejandro Amenábar’s Los otros/The Others (2001) a Spanish horror film? What makes it so, other than the nationality of its director?

I am writing from the perspective of a North American filmgoer. Although I have seen Spanish films at festivals and retrospectives, and of course DVD makes possible new opportunities and rediscoveries, my experience of Spanish cinema inevitably has been filtered through decisions made by US film distributors and exhibitors. Perhaps something similar could be said for spectators in the UK and other English-language venues. If so, then perhaps our experience suggests the existence of art cinema as a genre of its own, founded on the principle of authorship. Spanish cinema in US art houses has been a cinema of auteurs: Luis Buñuel (and what national cinema should we assign him to?), Carlos Saura, Pedro Almodóvar; latterly, Alejandro Amenábar and perhaps Isabel Coixet; with the exceptional one-off, Víctor Erice’s 1973 classic, El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive.

One might interrogate the extent to which this kind of spectator-ship – in another country, in an art house – challenges the values of national cinema and genre even more thoroughly than transnationalism or hybridity, or perhaps hand in hand with them. How useful is ‘Spanish cinema’ or ‘Spanish genre film’ or even ‘Spain’ in this particular context? We know more or less of Spanish history, the achievements and conflicts of contemporary Spain, the look and feel of the Spanish landscape. A further complication is that the Spanish language, and Spain’s colonial heritage, are strongly present in the Americas. The English speaker’s ear and eye may not know how, or care, to differentiate among accents and cultural styles. Moreover, Spain is itself a construct in Latin American cinema, as a place of return, of exile or refuge, as in Alfonso Aristarain’s 1997 Argentine film, Martín (Hache). And to which national cinema belongs Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)?

Many of the authors in Contemporary Spanish Cinema and Genre are concerned with this question of ‘Spanishness’. It takes several forms. One involves the ways that a film may communicate or register the distinctive qualities of a place or a culture; what intonations, gestures, sights, manners, social relations mark a way of living that speaks specifically of Spain. And underlying this theme is a larger anxiety, or ambivalence, that several authors raise: maybe ‘Spanishness’ is an attenuated phenomenon; maybe it’s too subtle or complicated or fraught to be addressed in the contemporary transnational cinema context; maybe the marketplace is not interested in what makes Spain Spain.

The framework for these concerns is Spanish history. A generation ago, Spain was emerging from a nearly forty-year dictatorship. Tourism notwithstanding, the view of Spain from outside – in Europe and North America – was of reactionary, repressive, backward society, out of step with the rapidly growing prosperity, sophistication and internationalism of neighbouring Western European countries. Then, seemingly overnight, to those observing from afar, Spain transformed itself, with much less strife and recrimination than might have been expected, in the template of its European counterparts. In no time, Spain, too, became prosperous, sophisticated and international. An underlying concern in several chapters here is whether, in so successfully becoming an equal partner, indeed in some ways a leader, in modern European culture, Spain may have lost something of its ‘Spanishness’.

A related issue raised in these chapters, perhaps more fundamentally, concerns the ‘Spanish imaginary’. If the topic of ‘Spanishness’ addresses the signs and appearances of what Spain is and what it looks and sounds like to be Spanish, then the ‘Spanish imaginary’ denotes how the Spanish nation and its peoples construe themselves discursively, how they view themselves and construct a set of values and narratives out of their recent experience, and the links and gaps between their present and their past. If one were to argue that sometimes it is difficult to locate ‘Spanishness’ – leaving aside flamenco and bullfighting – in contemporary Spanish films, nevertheless it is possible to make the case that nearly every Spanish film participates in, may illuminate, and perhaps shape, the ‘Spanish imaginary’.

To be sure, there is another important difference between ‘Spanishness’ and the ‘Spanish imaginary’. As an inventory of signs, ‘Spanishness’ is concrete and specific; a sign exists whether the spectator picks up on it or not. The ‘Spanish imaginary’, however, is a site of contestation. Any attempt to articulate it is liable to evoke dispute on ideological or regional or gender or generational grounds, or from whatever other configurations of conflict in Spanish society. To take one easily observable example, the visitor to Barcelona immediately encounters a Catalan cultural, historical and linguistic environment. In bookstores, the literature shelves are divided between works in Catalan and works in Castilian – ‘Spanish’ may be read and spoken here, but not by the unitary and dominant name with which we are familiar. From this perspective, what we think of as the Spanish language appears to be regarded as merely one regional idiolect among several within the borders of the Spanish state. Is this a major rupture in the ‘Spanish imaginary’ or merely an element of the nation’s diversity, tolerable and picturesque? How does it compare in disruptive potential to the ideological struggles between right-wing and left-wing viewpoints in Spanish politics?

How to understand the role and significance of Spanish cinema within this larger discourse and its discontents is one of the challenges for the English-language spectator, in the UK, Australia, North America or elsewhere, viewing films from a social, cultural and geographical distance. Amenábar’s Mar adentro/The Sea Inside (2004), which won an Oscar from the Hollywood industry as Best Foreign Language Film, could be appreciated as a moving individual story of a paralysed man, wonderfully portrayed by Javier Bardem, seeking death by assisted suicide, without awareness that the work was based on the actual life and death of a man fighting for the right to die against Spanish law and the Catholic Church, whose situation was highly publicised throughout Europe. How much further one follows this film into the realms of the ‘Spanish imaginary’ – for example, how Catholicism functions in contemporary society, the autonomy of Spanish institutions in the framework of new Europe, Spanish concepts of death and dying – is a matter for spectators to choose.

Almodóvar’s Carne trémula/Live Flesh (1997), however, makes a different kind of demand on spectators. The film opens with a blackand-white graphic in large block letters declaring the establishment of an ‘estado de excepción’ (‘state of emergency’) throughout the country. As the document continues, certain words are highlighted in red, demarking the suspension of laws affecting freedom of speech, residence and association, as well as the right of habeas corpus. Only then does a further graphic identify the place and date as Madrid, January 1970. Then the narrative begins (in colour), at a brothel called Pensión Centro, with a working girl (portrayed by Penélope Cruz) going into birth labour, while in the background a radio voice explains that ‘minority actions . . . part of an international plot’ obliged the government to act. She and the Madame go into the deserted streets and hail an empty bus, in which the baby is born. The sequence concludes with black-and-white mock-NO-DO (Noticiario Documental) newsreel footage showing the mother and newborn being honoured by the state and receiving free passes for the buses. The action then jumps forward twenty years and no further allusion to 1970 is made.

The ‘state of emergency’ operates in part as a pun for the condition of Cruz’s character, but also presents a deadly serious statement about the Franco dictatorship. Historically, no state of emergency actually was declared in January 1970, but that date was bracketed by states of emergency promulgated in January 1969 and December 1970: the first in response to strikes by university students; the second by actions of Basque separatists, in which the rights marked in red on the screen were each time abrogated. Almodóvar does not need this opening in order to tell a story set in the 1990s, yet it is clear that he is pointing the spectator to think about the gap between Spain the dictatorship and Spain the democracy, and how a very different past may lie like an unseen stratum beneath who we are and how we act.

Drawing on this cinematic moment, one might say that the problems of ‘Spanishness’ and of the ‘Spanish imaginary’ identified by the authors in Contemporary Spanish Cinema and Genre come together and find their strongest foundation in the problem of historical memory. It may be that neither the state nor the market is positioned to foster works that confront this aspect of Spain’s contemporary circumstances, but one looks to the creative and resourceful filmmakers, who are the subjects of this provocative and illuminating book, to find a way.

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