A Family That Is Not A Family: Familia (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1996)

A middle-aged man opens his birthday gifts surrounded by his family.  He receives a sports top from his adolescent daughter and a stopwatch from his mother.  From his youngest son, he receives a pipe.  His reaction to this last gift is one of anger.  He irritably accuses his son of screwing everything up, of being an idiot: ‘¿De dónde ha salido este idiota?  ¿Por qué no sabe que no fumo?’ (‘Where did you find this idiot?  Why does he not know that I don’t smoke?’).  His wife urges him to calm down, noting that he is upsetting his son who apologetically declares that he loves his father.  ‘Pues no me lo creo’ (‘Well I don’t believe it’), he responds, adding that ‘Yo no quería un hijo gordo […] ni con gafas’ (‘I did not want a fat son […] nor one with glasses’).

The first feature-length film of Spanish socio-realist filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa, the critically-acclaimed Familia (1996) focuses on Santiago, a middle-aged man so lonely, he hires a troupe of actors to perform the role of his family on his birthday.  Like many of León de Aranoa’s subsequent works, Familia takes the heteronormative family unit as its starting point and gradually reveals its dysfunctionality over the course of the film.  Performance and representation constitute key themes of this work, epitomised by the unwanted birthday gift of the pipe.  Recalling Magritte’s pipe which is not a pipe, the family in Familia is not a family but rather a representation of a family.  In this post, I discuss the opening credits of the film in terms of the ways that they immediately signal the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s central concerns.

A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)
Figure 1: A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)

From its opening credits, Familia addresses the relationship between reality and representation.  The film begins with a series of extreme close-ups detailing the various characters upon whom the film will focus.  These extreme close-ups all form part of a family photograph, which is revealed in its entirety along with the title of the film (Figure 1).  The extreme close-ups concentrate primarily on the faces of the individuals as well as on their hands (Figure 2).  Rather than remaining static, the camera zooms into and pans across the photograph, enacting a scrutinising gaze that is unable to penetrate – at least at this point in the film – the performance that masquerades the underlying reality of this family portrait.  Transitions between shots typically take the form of dissolves, combining the distinct individuals together (Figure 3).  While initially this appears to emphasise the familial union of and relations amongst the distinct generations depicted in this family photograph, these fusing dissolves read retrospectively as highly ironic.  As actors performing roles, both diegetically and non-diegetically, the connections amongst these individuals are not familial but are rather wholly fictional.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Holding Hands (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective

A second aspect of the opening credits that highlights the relationship between reality and representation lies in the figure of the photographer responsible for creating this family portrait.  As Figure 1 (above) shows, the photograph includes the photographer through the use of a mirror that incorporates the individual responsible for taking the photograph by means of their reflection.  The implied presence of the photographer, of the person who facilitates photographic representation, is made manifest in this image through the mirror, which can itself be understood as a means of visual representation.  Through this incorporative gesture, the family photograph in Familia recalls Diego Velázquez’s infamous royal portrait Las Meninas (1656) (Figure 4), an image which plays with perspective and representation and which exposes the gulf between representation and reality.

The pairing of image and word in the credits of Familia constitutes a third dimension of the interaction between reality and representation.  Following the listing of the principal cast and the revelation of the film’s title (see Figure 1 above), the sequence proceeds with the pairing of technical credits with appropriate images.  As an example, the title of ‘ayudante de producción’ (‘production assistant’), fulfilled by José Luis Gago, appears superimposed over an image of the grandmother’s hands clasped tightly together (Figure 5).  The image of two hands intertwined appeals to the notion of assistance.  Further examples include the superimposition of the title of ‘maquilladora’ (‘make-up artist’) (Milu Cabrer) over an image of one of the women’s lips and of ‘vestuario’ (‘wardrobe’) (Maiki Marin) over an image of one of the men’s suit jackets.  In this way, Familia self-consciously draws attention to its status as a constructed image, a representation fostered by a host of individuals and not just those present in the image.

Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)
Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)

As this brief analysis demonstrates, Familia immediately foregrounds the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s primary concerns.  This film is one I want to work on in more detail moving forward with my research and I’m still processing my thoughts and ideas on this work.  I’m currently preparing a book proposal for a monograph on the films of León de Aranoa which features a chapter on this film.  I’m also considering including Familia as a case study for a monograph focused on performance in contemporary Spanish cinema, which will in part be based on my doctoral research.  With that in mind, any feedback on the ideas I’ve presented here would be most welcome!  Please feel free to leave comments below or to contact me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).

Advertisements

Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012) (BAFTSS 3rd Annual Conference 2015)

As described in my last post, I recently attended the 3rd annual BAFTSS conference at Manchester Metropolitan University (16th-18th April 2015).  While my last post provided an overview of my experience at the conference, in this post I discuss my panel and presentation in more detail.

Myself and three colleagues – Dr Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr Paula Blair (Newcastle University) and Dr Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen) – proposed a panel entitled ‘Performing Woman/Women: Visual Representations of Body, Voice and Space’.  You can read our panel proposal and individual abstracts here.  As the panel title indicates, body, voice, gender and space constituted the thematic and conceptual constellation at the heart of all of our papers.  Alongside my paper were the following presentations:

  • ‘Adaptation and the Problems of Representation: Dead Female Bodies and Human Waste in The Bridge’ – Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University).
  • ‘Mediated Women in Post/Conflict Northern Ireland – Paula Blair (Newcastle University).
  • ‘Hearing Her: Voice, Gender and Performing Surveillance Systems’ – Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen).

All four of us were concerned with the interrelations amongst body, voice and space in contemporary feminist contexts.  The strength of the panel lay in its expansive and inclusive scope, encompassing visual media such as cinema, television and installations from a range of diverse contexts including contemporary Spain, the US-Mexico border, Post/Conflict Northern Ireland and contemporary Hollywood cinema.

My presentation – ‘Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012)’ – launched our panel and focused, as the title suggests, on Pablo Berger’s black and white adaptation of the Snow White narrative, set in 1920s Spain.  While I offer an overview of my presentation here, if interested you can view my accompanying Prezi here and listen to an early practice version of my paper here.  An earlier response to the film can be found here.

I began by discussing the manifold ways in which Blancanieves silences its eponymous protagonist: as a child in lidded glass crib at the beginning of the film (Figure 1) and as a young woman and a silent spectacle at the end of the film (Figure 2).  As a means of analysing Snow White and her absent voice, I opened with a quotation from Mary Ann Doane on the transposition of the voice onto the body and intertitles in silent cinema and proposed to examine three aspects of Blancanieves: the body as silent spectacle, the intertitles in terms of who speaks and music in its relation to the maternal.

Figure 1: The Silencing of Blancanieves Part I
Figure 1: The Silencing of Snow White Part I
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II

My discussion of the body centred on my initial approach to the film as a potentially feminist rewriting of the Snow White narrative in Blancanieves.  I considered the way in which the film dispenses with certain fairy-tale tropes which are difficult to reconcile with a feminist position, such as the Prince Charming character and the dismissal of the Snow White character as passive and maternal.  By opting to have one of the dwarves, Rafa, save Blancanieves and to replace her as the dwarves’ caretaker with cross-dressing dwarf Josefa, the film enacts a feminist, perhaps even queer, rewriting of the Snow White tale.  That said, the silencing of Snow White across manifold levels in the film tempers any feminist potential it might hold.  Her formal silencing – in that this is a silent film – conjoins with her physical stifling in the film.  She is silenced both as an infant and as a young woman, contained within glass cribs and coffins as seen above, as well as throttled by her evil stepmother’s henchman, her breath literally squeezed from her throat.  As a means of relating this to voice and cinema, I drew upon Kaja Silverman’s work in which she discusses the construction of the female subject as a body and champions the notion of the disembodied voice as a feminist strategy – a possibility that formally escapes the women in silent cinema.

Building on this idea of the stifled female voice in silent cinema, I turned to the film’s intertitles.  Various voices make themselves heard through the film’s intertitles, including those of the film’s third-person omniscient narrator, Blancanieves’ father, Blancanieves herself, her stepmother, the dwarves and Pepe, Blancanieves’ pet chicken.  The voice missing from these intertitles is the voice of Snow White’s mother, which is of particular significance when considering theoretical interventions focused on voice and cinema.  Such frameworks, featured in the work of Doane, Britta Sjorgen and Michel Chion, frequently draw on psychoanalysis and as a result draw heavily on the notion of the maternal voice as a means of conceptualising the spectator’s experience of cinematic sound.

While the maternal voice is absent in terms of the intertitles, I argued that there is an interesting point of connection between voice and the maternal through the music in Blancanieves.  The mother of the eponymous protagonist dies in the opening scenes.  However, she posthumously reappears at other points in the film.  Such appearances are connected to music.  As an example, consider the scene in which a young Blancanieves sits beneath the table, sulking because her father has not attended her first communion.  A flamenco rhythm begins and an image of a gramophone followed by a moving image of her mother dancing and singing appears superimposed on the tablecloth.

The lyrics of the song are as follows:

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te llamo y no me contestas/

No sé por dónde estarás

(I look for you but I cannot find you/

I look for you but I cannot find you/

I call you and you don’t answer me/

I don’t know where you might be).

The notion of searching for something and not being able to find it, of calling out for someone and not receiving a response chimes with the absence of the maternal voice within this film.  In a later scene, Blancanieves performs to one of her mother’s records for her father, her image morphing into that of her mother during the performance indicating the connection between music, memory and the maternal in this film.  Music in Blancanieves thus renders the maternal voice present, audible in a film which otherwise formally stifles not just female, but all vocal presences.

But what’s even more striking about this is the fact that the voice we hear is not that of Inma Cuesta, the actress who plays Blancanieves’s mother.  Rather, it is the voice of Catalan singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz (Figure 3).  In other words, the maternal voice conceals another female voice that represents not just the repression of female voices, but also those of peripheral nationalities in the Spanish context.

Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia
Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia

Relating the relationship between music and the maternal to theoretical explorations of voice and cinema, I drew once again upon Sjogren who describes ‘female voices-off’ as ‘expressly musical’ (65) and upon Chion who draws a connection between the recorded voice and death: ‘Ever since the telephone and gramophone made it possible to isolate voices from bodies, the voice naturally has reminded us of the voice of the dead’ (46).  Given that Blancanieves’ mother dies at the start of the film, the film draws clear connections between music, the maternal voice and death.  At this point in my presentation, I had rapidly ran out of time so had to come to a rather abrupt halt!  I’m still thinking through the significance of voice in Blancanieves and hope to work further on this in the near future.  Given that this is a developing area of interest for me, I would be especially keen to hear any feedback you might have so please do not hesitate to get in touch via Twitter (you’ll find me at @FionaFNoble) or via the comments function below.

BAFTSS 3rd Annual Conference (16th-18th April 2015, Manchester Metropolitan University)

A couple of months back I attended the 3rd annual conference of BAFTSS, the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.  I’ve been meaning to write up my reflection on the conference ever since I got back but I’ve been busy with other things (more to come on that in future posts!) that I’m only just getting round to it now.

The conference took place between Thursday 16th and Saturday 18th April 2015 at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Day 1 kicked off with a pre-conference session aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers entitled ‘The Road to Publication of your PhD: A Q&A Discussion with Publishers Attending the Conference’.  The event was hosted by Matthew Frost of Manchester University Press and Laurel Plapp of Peter Lang and was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the conference.  As an ECR myself, this session was extremely useful in terms of learning more about the process of turning doctoral research into a viable book proposal.  Matthew opened the discussion by talking about the mechanics of the academic publishing industry before offering advice on how to prepare a book proposal.  His key points were as follows:

  • When trying to decide on a publisher, look on your bookshelves – who publishes the books you read/work with in your research?
  • Contact a reputable publisher; find their guidelines for proposals online and follow these – DO NOT send a general proposal around multiple publishers!
  • Source who to send it to – be sure to spell their name correctly!
  • DO NOT send your entire thesis saying you can rework it; send a proper proposal.
  • DO NOT call your work your ‘PhD thesis’; refer to it as your ‘research’.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge of your market and wider readership.
  • Think about whether you want to publish your thesis as a monograph or as a series of journal articles.

Matthew handed over to Laurel who gave us some more specific advice about how to prepare your PhD thesis as a book proposal.  She began by noting some differences between a thesis and a book, before giving us some questions to think about with regard to the transition between the two.  These included:

  1. What’s your goal?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. Does your thesis require substantive revisions?

She encouraged us to think about the concept of ‘nearby audiences’ when considering possible markets for book projects and gave us a very helpful handout with further tips and advice.

Following this introductory session, we were officially welcomed to the conference by Professor Phil Powrie (Chair of BAFTSS) and Dr Andy Moor before we attended the first of the conference’s parallel sessions.  The session I attended was called ‘Genre, Gender and Transforming Concepts’ and featured papers on gender in 1990s detective dramas, heroes and villains in Westerns and the absence of queer visibility and its relationship to sound in Italian cinema.  Given my interest in queer theory in the context of Spanish cinema, I was particularly interested in the latter paper, presented by Elena Boschi (Liverpool Hope University), in which she discussed the queer resonances of sound and music channelled through the queer stadom of composer Gianna Nannini in the film Sea Purple.  Elena’s paper gave me much food for thought in terms of the relations amongst music, inclusivity and otherness in terms of queer characters in Spanish cinema.

The rest of the day’s schedule suffered from a few unfortunate incidents.  The Q&A with Nicola Shindler of Red Production Company, the studio behind Last Tango in Halifax and the recent Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, was unfortunately unable to attend.  In her place was Jason Wood of Home, Manchester, whose unapologetic views of what he termed ‘specialist cinema’ coupled with his repeated derogatory (read: misogynistic) remarks about women involved in cinema (from Cher to Jennifer Aniston to Judi Dench) only served to create a disgruntled audience.  Furthermore, the planned film screening of Christine Geraghty’s ‘Desert Island Film’ Dance Hall (Charles Crichton, GB, 1950) did not go ahead as the film had not been sourced for the event.

Day 2 began with another series of parallel panels.  I attended the panel entitled ‘Representations and Performances of Masculinity in Contemporary Comedies’ and thoroughly enjoyed presentations by Claire Jenkins (University of Leicester) on ‘Parenting, paternity and male anxiety in the contemporary mom-com’ and by Lauren Jade Thompson (University of Warwick) on ‘“Hard” and “soft” masculinity in Crazy, Stupid, Love’ (the latter not just because of all the Ryan Gosling stills!).  Lauren’s paper was excellent, highlighting the trend for greater visibility of the soft masculine body in contemporary rom-coms before conducting a close analysis of the distinct ways in which Cal (Steve Carell) and Jacob (Gosling) are coded as soft and hard respectively in the film.  Other highlights of Day 2 included Socha Ní Fhlainn’s stimulating presentation on Nolan’s puzzle films and Martin Paul Eve’s plenary session on open access, in which we learned about open access expectations for REF2020.  I also presented my paper on Blancanieves on Day 2 – but I’ve written on that elsewhere.

Day 3 of the conference began with a particularly stimulating set of parallel panels and I struggled to choose which to attend.  In the end, I went for ‘Questions of Childhood’.  The session was excellent.  The panel was composed of postgraduate researchers whose presentations were extremely professional and highly engaging.  Eve Benhamou (University of Bristol) offered an insight into the generic hybridity of Frozen while Maohui Deng (University of Manchester) discussed the extent to which children perform.  The session was brought to a close by Karrie Ann Grobben (University of Exeter) whose paper compared The Wizard of Oz with Tim Burton’s recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in terms of their cinematic construction of girlhood.  Her arguments were accompanied by detailed close analysis of her key texts and provided intellectual fodder for my own work on the child.

Overall, I enjoyed the BAFTSS conference as it gave me the opportunity to present in a panel alongside three of my colleagues and friends (more on this here) as well as to meet other postgraduates and early career researchers working on cinema in the UK.  However, I have a couple of criticisms.  In the first instance, I think there were too many parallel panel sessions.  Attendance at the conference was modest and with five different panels typically on offer in each session, panels could not possibly be well attended.  I know of at least two panels where the presenters outnumbered the audience!  Furthermore, with five different panels to choose from, there was so much I missed out on that I would have been interested in seeing had I had the option.  A second criticism concerns the length of each parallel panel session.  In my panel, each presenter ran short of time.  The length of our session had been altered in the final conference programme in comparison with earlier drafts and when we looked at the programme more closely, we realised that the parallel sessions were all different in length, ranging from 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 50 minutes, regardless of how many speakers there were in each panel.  While I appreciate that the organisation of conferences is a complex process and that things are bound to slip through the net, I do think BAFTSS would do well to consider such aspects when organising next year’s conference.