A Bit on the Side: On Having Future/Sideline Projects

As I indicated in my first post on this blog, I am currently in the writing-up year of my PhD in Hispanic Studies and Film & Visual Culture.  This is the fourth year I have spent working on my doctoral dissertation.  I love my topic.  But this does not mean that, from time to time, I look forward to future projects I will be able to tackle once my thesis has been submitted.  This is an experience I’ve seen my friends go through.  As they near the end of their time as doctoral students, as they become experts in their fields, as their area of research becomes increasingly familiar, and thus arguably less exciting, new thoughts, new ideas, and new projects become all the more attractive and inviting.  I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in this experience.  And I think that it is part and parcel of being a researcher – having a keen interest in learning, learning more, learning new things.

ImageImage from http://www.freeimages.co.uk/galleries/workplace/office2/slides/notebook_and_pencil.htm

It is for this reason that I have a ‘Future Projects’ notebook.  In fact, this is something I started in November 2010, when I had just entered the second year of my PhD.  It was recommended by my supervisor following a meeting in which I had identified a motif in Spanish cinema that has yet to be explored in detail – the depiction of food and mealtimes.  This has nothing to do with my doctoral project; it was simply a recurring theme that I had picked up on when scouring several different Spanish film objects to compile my filmography.  My supervisor advised me to write it down in a notebook, and to label this notebook ‘Future Projects’.  Since then, I have dutifully scribbled down any ideas I have in terms of things I’d like to work on when I’ve finished my doctoral research.  I have no clue as to whether any of these future areas of investigation will prove fruitful when/if I carry them out.  But for now, simply knowing that I have a handful of ideas I can turn to on submission of my PhD, to fill the PhD void (another common sensation after completion according to those I know who have submitted) is both comforting and exciting.


Image from http://www.raindance.org/lightbulb-jokes-for-filmmakers/

While these ideas constitute fodder for future conference papers and/or articles, it is worth noting that the experience of doctoral students today, at least as far as I have seen, is epitomised by the act of balancing their PhD research alongside a number of other ‘sideline projects’.  On a personal level, the last four years have been a juggling act between PhD research; teaching on multiple modules in different departments and disciplines; other paid work; writing conference papers; attending conferences/workshops/seminars; organising conferences/workshops/seminars; keeping up with family and friends; and finally, trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.


Image from http://www.oxfordschoolblogs.co.uk/psychcompanion/blog/category/psychology-as/stress/

This can of course become extremely stressful at times; however, what it also does is allow you to appreciate the importance of your doctoral research.  When there are other constraints on your time, the time you do have to spend on your own work becomes even more precious, and can lead, again at least in my own personal experience, to higher levels of productivity.

For me, the value of having ‘a bit on the side’ while completing your PhD is thus twofold.  On the one hand, the promise of future projects is exciting, is something to look forward to, and inspires you to keep going.  On the other, the contemporaneous sideline projects, the ones that take you away from your research, force you to evaluate the significance of your work, to refocus your energies and motivation precisely at the point that they are waning.

Any feedback/comments/questions welcome!  How do you cope with juggling your PhD research alongside other projects and commitments?  Do you have a ‘Future Ideas’ bank?  What form does it take?  What constitutes your ‘bit on the side’?

The Queer Child: Kike Maíllov’s Eva

The blog has been rather quiet in the last month, as I’ve been writing like mad for thesis deadlines, and I’ve been unable to channel my writing energies in any other direction!  With a brief pause before my next deadline, I thought I’d write a short commentary on the film Eva.  The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, I recently saw the film thanks to my lovely friend Fran, who bought the DVD when she was in Spain over the festive period (the film has not been released in the UK); and secondly, I’ve spent the last couple of months working on my immigrant chapter and will shortly be returning to the child chapter – I therefore thought that writing on Eva would ease me back into thinking about the child.  As a warning, this commentary contains spoilers, so do not read any further if you’ve yet to see Eva, and do not wish to know any more about the plot!


(Image taken from http://www.esodecimostodos.com/2011/10/22/eva-pelicula-de-ciencia-ficcion-espanola/)

Eva is the debut feature-length film from Catalan director Kike Maíllov.  Maíllov’s other directorial credits include the animated Catalan TV series Arròs covat (2009-present) and two short films: Los perros de Pavlov (2003) and Las cabras de Freud (1999) (available on youtube in two parts, here and here).  It was released in Spain in October 2011, premiering at the Sitges Film Festival.  In terms of genre, the film is classified as drama, fantasy, and sci-fi on IMDB.  The film centres on a reserved robot programmer, Alex (Daniel Brühl), who returns to his hometown to work on a secret project.  The project is to create a robot-child, a task he started then abandoned years ago with Lana (Marta Etura), a fellow robot-programmer, and an ex-girlfriend of Alex’s.  His return to his hometown brings him back into contact with Lana, who is now romantically involved with Alex’s brother, David (Alberto Ammann).  Lana and David have a young daughter, named Eva (Claudia Vega), whom Alex meets by chance, before he is even aware of the fact that he has a niece.  Alex quickly becomes fascinated by the girl, and is keen to base his child robot on her.  As the two spend more and more time together, Alex’s feelings for Lana are rekindled.  It soon becomes apparent that Eva is the product of Alex and Lana’s relationship – not in the biological sense.  Rather, she is a robot, the creative outcome of their working relationship.  The film reaches a dramatic conclusion when Eva inadvertently causes Lana’s death, and Alex is entrusted with the task of ending Eva’s life – with the poetic command ‘What do you see when you close your eyes?’.


(Image taken from http://sca.as.nyu.edu/object/stocktonmorton_sca_fall09)

The film is of interest to me primarily because of its child protagonist.  As I have previously indicated on this blog, one of my PhD thesis chapters is dedicated to the representation of the child in contemporary Spanish cinema.  I am particular interested in the queer child, a figure that has been theorised by Kathryn Bond Stockton in her excellent book, The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century.  In this insightful study, Bond Stockton analyses fictional accounts of the ghostly gay child, which she defines as an ‘emblem and icon of children’s queerness’ (p.3), as a means of making visible the previously-neglected queer child.  Bond Stockton’s key claim is that ‘every child is queer’ (p.3), that the child as a general idea is a problem, representative of ‘who we are not and, in fact, never were.  It is the act of adults looking back.  It is a ghostly, unreachable fancy’ (p.5).  She argues that ‘the child from the standpoint of “normal” adults is always queer’, and that ‘despite our culture’s assuming every child’s straightness, the child can only be “not-yet-straight,” since it, too, is not allowed to be sexual’ (p.7).  In my thesis, I utilise Bond Stockton’s concept of the queer child in my analyses of El laberinto del fauno (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) and El espinazo del diablo (Guillermo del Toro, 2001).  Such films are complicated cultural objects.  On the one hand, they have been critiqued for their commercialisation of the past, and their capitalisation of the current trend for nostalgically revisiting the past through film (a trend not limited to Spain).  On the other, their representation of the child, particularly because of the association with death and with a lack of futurity, render them works worthy of further study.  While del Toro’s films specifically engage with the historical import of the Spanish Civil War, there are several other films which fit this framework, some of which evoke a return to the past in general rather than to a particular historical moment: Dictado (Antonio Chavarrías, 2012); Pa negre (Agustí Villaronga, 2010); Hierro (Gabe Ibáñez, 2009); El orfanato (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007); The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) – to name but a few.  Indeed, the roots of the queer child, associated with the past and with death, are traceable to the 1970s, and especially to the films which launched the career of the ultimate Spanish child star, Ana Torrent: Cría cuervos (Carlos Saura, 1976) and El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973).  My chapter reconsiders these two works, which have typically been analysed in terms of their political content, and repositions them in relation to contemporary Spanish cinema’s investment in the queer child.


(Still from Cría cuervos)

To return to Eva, the child’s queerness is not only bound up with death, but also with her status as a robot.  Bond Stockton considers the robot child through the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001).  For Bond Stockton, the child in this film constitutes ‘the quintessential innocent child […], because he is wired for unconditional, undying love and supreme obedience, which later make him fragile’ (p.34).  While both films reflect on child-parent relations, designating parenthood (whether biological or mechanical) as a creative act, Eva’s robot child deviates from Spielberg’s model.  She is precocious (albeit in an endearing way), labelling Alex a pervert in their first encounter, poking fun at Alex’s house robot Max, and deliberately lying to Alex about the relationship between Lana and David.  Her culpability over Lana’s death by the end of the film places her in direct contrast with the aforementioned innocent child of A.I..  While A.I.’s David (Hayley Joel Osmett) is, as far as Bond Stockton is concerned, queered precisely by his innocence, Eva’s Eva is queered by her attraction towards Alex, and her desire to forge a relationship between him and her mother, Lana.  In this way, she corresponds, in part, to the child queered by Freud, a concept elaborated by Bond Stockton, and defined as follows: ‘the not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes […] threateningly precocious: sexual and aggressive’ (p.27).  The problem of the queer (robot) child is solved through death, and it is in this way that Eva is linked to her cinematic child predecessors, such as Ofelia in El laberinto del fauno and Santí in El espinazo del diablo.

The trajectory of the child in Spanish cinema is thus marked by death.  While the film Eva is somewhat of an anomaly in contemporary Spanish cinema – I have not yet come across any other robot children in my doctoral research –, what is striking is the commonalities that can be traced between Eva and her fellow child protagonists.  Whether the film in question is a science-fiction film set in the future, or a historical drama set in the past, both are equally concerned with the death of the child and the child’s futurity.  In other words, both are concerned with the queer child, the child queered by death, and by an absent future.