(The) Power (of) Walking

(Image taken from: http://www.active.com/walking)

Due to a change in personal circumstances, I am not currently working in the academic sphere nor am I able to dedicate much, if any, time to my academic work. This is not to suggest that I’ve given up on academia. Far from it. In the last few months, I have edited and submitted the final version of a journal article following peer review (I wrote about this here), peer-reviewed three articles and I’m at present completing a book review. I have also very recently signed a book contract for my first monograph. With limited protected time for academic work, my usual working processes are no longer an option. Instead I’m having to find new ways and means of carving out valuable thinking and writing time.

One of the main ways I’m doing this is through walking. I’ve always, or at least for as long as I can remember, found walking both therapeutic and productive. I’m clearly not alone in this given the recent attention paid to concepts such as walking desks, walking meetings and the like (you can read about these phenomena here and here). When I was completing my PhD, I went for a walk every day. It was sometimes only a brief 10-minute stroll around the block, sometimes slightly longer. The main purpose of this walk, which I usually took after eating lunch, was to get out in the fresh air. But I also found the act of walking coupled with time spent not consciously thinking about whatever I was working on would often lead to breakthroughs in terms of my thoughts and ideas connected to my research. The act of allowing my mind to wander unanchored in conjunction with the physical exertion demanded by walking facilitate, for me at least, the emergence of new synergies.

To give a concrete example, earlier this year I was working on an article following peer review. The article contains two main strands of argumentation and one of the peer reviewers had commented that I should explicitly connect these two lines of thought and that this would reinforce my argument. Though in agreement, I could not see, in the little time I had to spend working on the edits, how I might do this. I spent a good few hours puzzling over this during some elusive #acwri time. I got nowhere. It was only when I went out for a walk, during the sleepy mid-afternoon period, that things clicked into place.

I am very lucky to live in an area with beautiful walks on my doorstep. I particularly enjoy walking away from roads where possible. I’ve recently devised a route around the village that takes me along a disused railway line which backs onto fields and then into our local country park before heading along a wooded path back home. There is something very relaxing about being surrounded by nature and away from houses, cars, roads, people. My plan is to keep walking in the hope that the thoughts, ideas and inspirations continue to flow in spite of the limited time I have available to act upon them.

What about you? Does walking aid your thinking? Are there any other activities you find similarly productive? I would love to hear others thoughts on this!

Politics, Performance and the Heteronormative Couple: Ocho apellidos vascos (Martínez Lázaro, 2014)

Figure 1: Ocho apellidos vascos

One of my recent projects has been the production of an article on the 2014 box-office smash Ocho apellidos vascos (Figure 1). The article is to be included in a special journal issue on the film. The title of my piece is ‘”marriage itself as theater”: The Performative Politics of Marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos. My contribution focuses on the pivotal role of marriage in the film specifically in terms of its interlocking with performance and performativity. I propose that within the film marriage functions as a form of utopian unificatory politics that works at both personal and political levels.

 
I completed the article in the summer of 2016 and have recently been asked to make some changes following peer review. As a result, I’ve rewatched and been thinking and reading about the film again. I thought I’d write a post to facilitate some of the ideas I’ve had as a consequence of the extremely thought-provoking questions raised by the reviewers. I’m aware that this a rather messy and untidy piece and what the writing of it has revealed is that I still need to spend some more time mulling over what I think about this film.
In the original version of the article, my argument followed two main strands: the first concerned the performativity of the marriage ceremony and of regional identity in the film while the second linked this to what I termed utopian unificatory politics. By this I mean that the film proposes marriage as a tool for the union of the distinct autonomous regions – specifically Andalusia and the Basque Country – in Spain. One of the reviewers’ suggestions is that I link these two strands more cohesively and consider the extent to which the paradigm of performativity and the utopian unificatory politics are connected in film.

 

Figure 2: Marriage as central in Ocho apellidos vascos

 

My article details how marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos is a romantic ideal that, while sustained as the primary objective throughout the film, is ultimately unattainable and perhaps even unnecessary. The plot of the film, and indeed that of its sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes, hinge upon the prospective nuptials of protagonist Amaia (Figure 2). We quickly learn that Amaia has been ditched by her Basque fiancé Antxon. Reluctant to reveal the truth to her estranged father Koldo, Amaia persuades sevillano one-night-stand Rafa, whom she meets on her no-longer-required hen do, to pose as Antxon. Though the couple do reach the altar, Rafa is ultimately unable to go through with the marriage. In spite of this, the film concludes (spoiler alert!) with Amaia travelling to Seville to declare her love for Rafa. This ending thus sustains the heteronormative couple, unmarried though reunited, as the desired object.

 
How does one negotiate this network of ideas surrounding the heteronormative couple then? The film provides an embittered critique of matrimony. Amaia is jilted not once but twice: initially (and outwith the diegetic content of the film), prior to the wedding, by the unseen Antxon and subsequently, at the church altar, by Rafa posing as Antxon. Early on in the film, we witness the protagonist attempting to return her custom-made wedding dress, willing to take a cut-price refund for the item. She later, having been dumped by Rafa, tosses it on the fire in her home, watching the dress disappear into the flickering flames. The wedding dress therefore becomes a symbol of disillusionment with the heteronormative institution of marriage.

 

Figure 3: Performing heteronormative romance

 

Furthermore, there are no examples of happy marriages beyond the central coupling of the film (Figure 3). There is no mention made of Rafa’s parents. Amaia’s parents are separated. She is estranged from her father and has been for six years and her mother, who does not appear in the film, is apparently in a new relationship with a man from Seville. Merche, who poses as Rafa’s mother, is widowed, her Civil Guard husband presumably a casualty of the Basque conflict. The heteronormative institution of marriage, the film appears to suggest, is, if not an unobtainable ideal, then most certainly an outmoded and redundant concept.

 
With its renunciation of marriage as the ultimate objective of the heterosexual couple, Ocho apellidos vascos conforms to the genre paradigm of the contemporary romantic comedy. While the genre is renowned for its adherence to the narrative pattern that concludes with the happy ending, specifically the union of man and woman (Mortimer 2010: 4), contemporary works have shown a tendency to replace the romantic relationship with friendship (Deleyto 2003: 182). But, like the contemporary romcom, while the film might dismiss marriage as an antiquated idealism, it retains the heteronormative couple as the ultimate objective for its protagonists who are reunited in the concluding sequence, as mentioned above. In this regard then, Ocho apellidos vascos offers no escape from the heteronormative structures and structures that dominate society, politics and culture.
Without wanting to produce a dichotomous or reductive reading, should we interpret this position on marriage positively or negatively? How are we to understand the depiction of the unmarried couple and its function within familial relationships? How might the personal politics, epitomised by the unmarried couple, at the core of this film map onto national politics?

 

Figure 4: Forged families

 

In my original article, I was quite sceptical about the underlying politics of Ocho apellidos vascos. My initial reaction was that the film is proposing the utopian unification of the nation, in which similarities rather than differences are emphasised, by means of a romantic relationship, if not marriage, between two individuals from distinct autonomous regions within Spain. However, having rewatched and thought some more about the film, I’m starting to wonder if the film is amenable to a more nuanced, and perhaps more generous, reading of kinships and affective relations (Figure 4).

 
The traditional nuclear family, which typically revolves around the mother and father (or, in other words, the heteronormative married couple), is absent in Ocho apellidos vascos. In its place are a series of affiliations forged through choice: Rafa and his friends, who appear to be a substitute for his family; Rafa and his “mother” Merche; even Merche and Amaia’s father Koldo, who will become romantically involved by the end of the film (and whose love will be rekindled in the sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes). With this in mind, to map the politics of the personal onto the national in Ocho apellidos vascos necessitates a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the family and the nation. What I’m starting to realise, especially in the writing of this post, is that this relationship, and the associated political stance of the film, is more complex than I initially thought. This is not to suggest, of course, that the film is without issues or flaws but rather that I need to unpack in more detail the undercurrents of personal and national politics at its core.

Economic Entertaining: Tenemos que hablar (Serrano, 2016)

Last week I watched Tenemos que hablar (We Need to Talk), a 2016 romantic comedy directed by David Serrano whose previous works include Días de fútbol (2003), Días de cine (2007) and Una hora más en Canarias (2010). The film is currently showing on UK Netflix. It stars Michelle Jenner (who I also saw recently in Almodóvar’s latest offering, Julieta) as Núria, a young woman recently engaged to her Argentinian boyfriend Víctor (Ilay Kurelovic). Her forthcoming nuptials mean that she must make contact with her ex-husband Jorge (Hugo Silva) to whom she is still married. A misunderstanding leads Núria to believe that Jorge is suicidal following her declaration that “Tenemos que hablar”. This in turn leads to Núria’s decision not to reveal her recent engagement to Jorge and her fabrication of a false reality whereby she attempts to convince Jorge that all is well in her and her parents’ life in an effort to improve his psychological instability.

I had initially watched Tenemos que hablar in some much-deserved downtime with the expectation that it would provide nothing more than light entertainment. I was by no means expecting the film to inspire an intellectual response. However, it quickly gripped me as being invested in a political commentary informed by the current economic climate, and concurrent related societal phenomena, both within and beyond Spain. The film appeals to me for two main reasons, both of which correspond to my forthcoming monograph on the politics of performance in contemporary Spanish cinema. Indeed, while I have already selected my case studies for the book, I may make reference to this work in the introduction to the text. The reasons for my interest in Tenemos que hablar are: 1) that it explicitly indexes the contemporary economic climate in Spain with specific reference to political involvement in this crisis; and 2) that it deploys performance as a means of dealing with this situation. In this post, I focus on the first of these aspects. I hope to write a follow-up entry on the role of performance in the film but want to rewatch it and spend a bit more time thinking about the significance of this trope. I welcome any thoughts on either of these themes. Feel free to share these with me either through the comments function below or via Twitter (@FionaFNoble).


Figure 1

Seseña: The Future Centre

The film immediately positions itself within the spatio-temporal framework of the current economic crisis gripping contemporary Spain. The scene-setting prologue takes place between the years of 2006 and 2012 with specific reference to the economic crash and its impact on contemporary Spain. The action begins in 2006 with a confident Jorge instructing his future in-laws to invest in a new-build apartment in the neighbourhood of Seseña (Figure 1) – one of Spain’s so-called ghost towns, situated to the south of Madrid. Half-finished towns like Seseña are the result of the 2000s construction boom, a phenomenon about which you can read here. While Jorge’s mother-in-law expresses concerns about the isolated locale of the apartment block, she is reassured that this is an up-and-coming area and will eventually be well-connected – a fact that the audience know not to be the case from the contemporary vantage point of 2016. They make reference to Spain’s financial buoyancy with Jorge self-assuredly asserting that things are only set to improve.

The subsequent scene takes place in 2007 at the wedding of Jorge and Núria as the hapless couple persuade Núria’s parents to invest in a company called Fórum Filatélico – a well-known pyramid scheme that defrauded thousands of investors. This is followed by a scene in 2008 in which Núria’s mother bemoans the fact that they’ve still never found anyone to rent out their flat in Seseña. Jorge advises them to put up their print shop as collateral as well as advising them to rent two units in the infamous Castellón airport – like Seseña, a spectral remnant of earlier economic buoyancy. Built to the tune of 150 million euros, the airport only welcomed its first flights – thanks to budget airline Ryanair – in 2015 despite opening in 2011 with the politician responsible for the project currently behind bars for tax fraud (you can read more about Castellón airport here). When Núria’s parents express concern at the contemporaneous economic climate, namely the crisis in the US, the young couple insist that this will not reach Spain, that Spain has the most solid banking system in Europe.


Figure 2

2012: Jorge’s Final Attempt

The final scene of this opening prologue takes place in 2012 with Jorge asking for what little money his in-laws have remaining for an investment in priority shares that will purportedly allow them to recuperate what they have lost (Figure 2) – a scheme that clearly fails as the opening scene of the film proper depicts Núria and her new partner Víctor as he proposes to her. This prologue thus provides a panorama of the Spanish economy, and its interlacing with politics and society, in recent years. In so doing, it offers a pessimistic survey of contemporary Spanish society.
This sequence sets the scene for the rest of the film which meditates on the hopelessness of individuals such as Jorge, who we subsequently discover is unemployed and flat-sharing with Lucas, the manager for whom he previously worked. Indeed the first post-credits scene featuring this pair reveals that they scrape by financially by letting out their spare room on Air BnB. In spite of its initially disheartening tone, the film does conclude with a triumphant ending in which [*SPOILER ALERT] Jorge successfully wins back his ex-wife’s affection. For Lucas, the fact that am unemployed Spaniard steals the girlfriend of an Argentinian is some victory!

Corpses and Cows: The Representation of Death in A Perfect Day (León de Aranoa, 2015)

Scanning through Netflix the other day, I happened to discover that A Perfect Day, Fernando León de Aranoa’s latest film, is currently available to stream in the UK. His sixth full-length feature film, A Perfect Day is the critically-acclaimed filmmaker’s first foray into English-language filmmaking. The work blends the director’s acute visual style, combining dynamically composed images (for example through the use of mirrors – a technique deployed throughout his filmography) and an impactful soundtrack, with noteworthy performances from a star-studded cast including Tim Robbins and Benecio del Toro. The film garnered a host of critical nominations at the Goya, Feroz and Cinema Writers Circle Awards in Spain, with León de Aranoa picking up the Goya for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film is based on a novel called Dejarse llover by Paula Farias).

Though I watched the film earlier this week, I haven’t had much of a chance to collect my thoughts on it as yet. But there were a handful of images and tropes connected to representations of death that caught my attention during my viewing of the film. I wanted to record these ideas here as León de Aranoa is one of the filmmakers I work on in my research and I may well analyse this film further in the future.

Netflix categorises A Perfect Day as a comedy and while the streaming site’s cataloging of films is sometimes questionable, this work does indeed deploy León de Aranoa’s now trademark acerbic sense of humour alongside the more dramatic and tragic events of its plot. The action takes place in 1995 during the Balkan conflict and revolves around a group of aid workers attempting to resolve a complex situation within a conflict zone. The problem? A corpse submerged within a well, contaminating the region’s water supply. The film focuses on their attempts to remove the corpse from the well, having to negotiate with both locals and intervening military and peacekeeping factions.

Figure 1: The Silhouetted Corpse


Figure 2: From the Perspective of the Corpse

The corpse is a recurring motif throughout the film. Given that the plot centres on this troublesome dead body, it is perhaps unsurprising that it figures centrally within the cinematography. While the corpse itself is not shown explicitly instead silhouetted and framed from below (Figure 1), the camera frequently adopts the perspective of the corpse. These point-of-view shots form an important visual component of the film’s aesthetics. Indeed such an image adorns the promotional poster for the film (Figure 2).  To adopt the perspective of the corpse is to position death and the subjectivity of the dead at the core of the film in aesthetic terms without sensationalising the image of the dead body.


Figure 3: Cow = Carcass or Corpse?

The corpse in the well that appears in the opening sequence is the first of many dead bodies that feature throughout the film. The carcasses of cattle appear as road blocks on a few occasions, apparently placed in the road in order to divert traffic towards landmines buried by the roadside (Figure 3). Whether these constitute “corpses” or not is a dilemma diegetically addressed by the volunteers, sparking a subtextual debate about the line between humans and animals as well as suggesting that conflict brings out the savage characteristics of the human race. These carcasses additionally symbolise the political role of death in conflict – that is, an obstacle to be negotiated according to political ends rather than an abhorrent phenomenon eliciting compassion and inciting action.

The most striking scene involving dead bodies concerns the parents of a young local boy who winds up accompanying the volunteers. When the group arrives at his home, they discover that the house has been ransacked and the parents of the boy have been brutally murdered, their bodies still hanging in the internal courtyard of the house. This scene is arguably the most powerful of the film. The bodies remain just out of view of the camera, framed in a similar manner to the corpse stuck in the well. Furthermore, a dark and rocky cover version of the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” accompanies the scene, echoing the impact this harrowing event has on the young French volunteer. We learn that this act was sparked by the cross cultural relationship between the boy’s parents. This once again reinforces the savage nature of war.

In short, death permeates both the narrative and mise-en-scène of A Perfect Day, reflecting upon the centrality of death in war without sensationalising images of the dead victims. While the film deals with dark subject matter, it balances this with a lighthearted tone that serves to render the topic more palatable. Overall, a film that merits further consideration – which I hope to afford the work in due course.

Transnational Cinemas: Deborah Shaw Talk and Workshop, Durham University

Last week – amidst the chaos of A LOT of exam marking – I had the pleasure of attending a talk and workshop on the topic of transnational cinema delivered by the brilliant Deborah Shaw, Reader in Film at the University of Portsmouth. These events were organised by the World Cinema and Cosmopolitics research group, an interdisciplinary research cluster in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University, coordinated by Abir Hamdar, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián and Dusan Radunovic. Having found these events particularly productive and inspiring at such a challenging and intensive time of year, I wanted to write a post to reflect on some of the topics of discussion that arose from Deborah’s talk and the related workshop. This post by no means accounts for the breadth and depth of the discussions that took place over the two events but rather focuses on what, at least for myself, were the salient points addressed.

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Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas Conference (Royal Holloway, University of London, April 2016)

 

RHUL-CNWC-Logo

I’m currently sitting in departures at Heathrow Terminal 5 having spent the last few days at Royal Holloway, University of London attending the Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas: Borders and Encounters since 1980 conference. With plenty time to kill before my flight, now seems as good a time as any to write up my experience of the conference – which, in short, was one of, if not the best conference I’ve been to in my academic career so far.

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#AcWriMo 2015: Day 15

So today marks two weeks since the start of #AcWriMo 2015 and the halfway point of the initiative.  This is the first time I’ve engaged in #AcWriMo – short for Academic Writing Month – despite following the trend on Twitter for the past few years.  I signed up for it on a bit of a whim in the last week of October, thinking that I didn’t have much on the go.  November has conversely turned out to be an extremely busy month for me work-wise: I’m checking page proofs of a co-edited book on the avant-garde which will be published in Spring 2016; I’m participating in a Pecha Kucha event next week at the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen; I’ve a book review due in at the end of the month; I’ve an abstract for a journal article due mid-December; not to mention all the other various publication projects I’ve currently got on the go in relation to my PhD thesis!  I also work part-time (three full days a week) which limits the time I have to work on academic stuff.  So signing up for #AcWriMo and pledging to produce the first draft of an article that I’ve not yet done a whole lot of research for was perhaps not the smartest move I’ve ever made.

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“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts (you can read the first two here and here) about the viva.  In this entry, I’m going to list the bibliography of resources I used, the list of questions I came up with to ask myself as practice questions, a handy checklist of equipment you might need and my final hints and tips, in the hope that it might prove useful!

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“I Will Survive” (The Viva): Part Two

While my last post focused on viva survival from the perspective of preparation, in this post I deal with my experience of the event itself.  As I mentioned in my earlier entry, every viva is unique.  So while I anticipate this personal account might not be of much use to others, I think it’s important to share our stories – as Dr Nathan Ryder encourages in his “Viva Survivor” podcast series – about the examination in order to debunk some of the myths that surround the whole experience.

My viva took place at 10am on a Monday morning, which, for me, was ideal.  I am a morning person.  I work better in the mornings than in the afternoon/evenings.  I’m most productive and alert in the morning.  And I was also extremely nervous on the day of the examination, so knowing that it would be taking place first thing was definitely a plus for me.  In terms of nerves, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so nervous.  Prior to the viva I had been fortunate enough to have been interviewed for a few academic jobs, which had stirred similar feelings of anxiety.  However, the interview feels like less of an unknown, given that there is a host of material online about how to approach academic interviews, the sorts of questions you might be asked and so on.  The viva felt like much more of a mystery to me.

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