Screams and gasps accompany a dark, black and white image of a gun fading into focus. A shot is fired and a paper explosion escapes from the barrel of the gun, which is not a lethal weapon but rather a prop in an artistic performance (Figure 1). This is the opening image of Noviembre (2003), a relatively little-known and under-studied Spanish film directed by Achero Mañas. (The film is available to view for free on Youtube, with English subtitles). Though extremely brief, this pre-credits scene microcosmically embodies the key themes and ideas of the film as a whole, which include the intermingling of performance and everyday life as well as the relationship between representation and reality. Noviembre is one of the films I am currently working on as part of a book proposal based on one of my thesis chapters and this post constitutes a starting point for me to think about the film in more detail. In what follows, I address the legacy of performance to which Noviembre alludes as well as the film’s reflection on the politics of spectatorship. Beyond this post, I am interested in further unpacking the ethics of spectatorship, and its therapeutic potential, in this film and I am keen to analyse the sequences involving death in this regard. Please feel free to leave feedback through the comments function below if you have any thoughts you would like to share on these or other related matters; you’ll also find me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble). More than a film, Noviembre is an artistic manifesto that produces a potent political statement about the radical potential of the arts, not just in the context of twenty-first century Spain but also more broadly in our contemporary globalised world.
Like Familia (which I discussed in my previous post), Noviembre playfully interrogates the relationship between representation and reality by means of acting and performance. Both films focus on a company of actors but while Familia concentrates on a troupe of actors hired by a lonely middle-aged man to impersonate his family on his birthday, Noviembre features a group of creative youngsters who seek to unveil the revolutionary potential of the arts by means of independent and interactive street theatre. The film follows protagonist Alfredo (Óscar Jaenada) and his comrades, documenting their performance pieces and their developing personal relationships, both of which become more dramatic and intense as the film progresses. Although fictional, the film presents itself as a documentary, interspersing the action from the film’s present (1997-2001) with talking-head-style interviews involving the film’s protagonists as middle-aged individuals in an unidentified future moment. Thus, performance functions on multiple metacinematic levels in Noviembre.
With the philosophy of taking theatre out onto the streets, the performance pieces of Alfredo and his colleagues in Noviembre clearly draw from the legacy of the Transition to democracy and to the counter-culture that emerged during this tumultuous political period. An example and clear reference is Andalusian performance artist and painter José Ángel Pérez Ocaña, whose work and life form the subject of the cult documentary film Ocaña: Retrat intermitent (Ocaña: An Intermittent Portrait) directed by Catalan theatre director and filmmaker Ventura Pons. (You can watch short clips from the film here, here and here). Instead of framing their performances as theatre, Alfredo and the others perform as a diverse range of characters on the streets of Madrid. In ‘La dama caliente’ (‘The Horny Lady’), one of Alfredo’s female companions lifts her skirt up to reveal the racy lingerie she wears beneath her clothes in a clear homage to Ocaña’s revelatory performances. Other pieces include ‘Punkis alegres’ (‘Happy Punks’) in which the group, dressed in outfits and wearing make-up reminiscent of circus clowns, perform musical numbers on the Madrid metro; ‘Querubines del demonio’ (‘The Devil’s Cherubs’) in which the boys, covered in red make-up and bodypaint and wearing over-sized nappies, run riot on the streets, half-heartedly pursued and chastised by their female artistic companions playing the role of their mothers; and ‘Los olvidados’ (‘The Forgotten’) in which the youngsters dress as social outsiders, including gitano, drug addict and disabled characters and beg for money in a packed Madrid city centre. As their theatrical interventions become more and more daring, the group repeatedly find themselves in trouble with the police, who apprehend them and confiscate their theatrical props on multiple occasions. That the group’s transgression of the theatrical space and their attempts to fuse reality and representation prove a threat to the local authorities only compounds the political, revolutionary even, potential of the ethos at the root of their performance practices.
One of the main tenets of their theatrical code concerns spectatorial engagement, emphasised in a sequence filmed in the El Prado museum in Madrid. The scene begins with a close-up on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) (Figure 2), also a reference in Familia, as detailed here. Alfredo and Lucía, his girlfriend and a fellow performer, stand before the painting. They exchange a series of increasingly insulting remarks in hushed tones before Alfredo embraces Lucía, informing her that he is feeling unwell, that he is starting to feel dizzy. He falls to the ground, his body twitching uncontrollably. Lucía comforts him as one of the museum guides calls for help. The camera approaches his body, zooming in on his face. He turns his head, opens his eyes wide and sticks his tongue out at Lucía. This act constitutes another performance. As they leave the museum, Lucía somewhat infuriated with Alfredo, the middle-aged Lucía informs the spectator, in voice-over, that this moment marked the birth of ‘Documentary Theatre’ for the performance group and that she was its first audience.
The reference to Velázquez is by no means coincidental here. As I discussed in relation to Familia, Velázquez’s Las Meninas plays with perspective and representation, exposing the gulf between representation and reality. More importantly, what Las Meninas and Noviembre have in common is their treatment of the spectator and of spectatorship. Velázquez’s work interpellates the spectator, who ‘sees his invisibility made visible to the painter and transposed into an image forever invisible to himself’ (Foucault 6). Similarly, the performance pieces produced by Alfredo and his comrades in Noviembre concern the creation of (at least initially) unknowing spectators in everyday scenarios. In both cases, the spectators become part of the works in question, active participants in their aesthetic fields. At stake is the role of the spectator, with Las Meninas, the performance pieces in Noviembre and the film itself all demanding a dynamic, ethically-motivated and politically-conscious mode of viewing.
Nowhere is this mandate more apparent than in the final image of the film. In a cyclical gesture that returns us to the opening sequence (see Figure 1 above), the dramatic dénouement of Noviembre (of which I will say nothing so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it!) concludes with a shot of the prop gun lying on the ground. The intertitle reads ‘El arte es un arma cargada de futuro’ (‘Art is a weapon loaded with the future’) (Figure 3). The potent symbolism of this closing image follows a dramatic performance piece entitled ‘Atentado’ (‘Assassination’), in which the troupe enact a street shooting that results in criminal charges for the members of the group as well as an intense intervention in a performance at the Royal Theatre. In another historical reference, these performance pieces recall Surrealist André Breton’s declaration that the purest Surrealist act would be to walk into a crowd firing a loaded gun. Given its production at a time in which terrorism preoccupied the popular imagination on both local (ETA) and national (9/11) levels, Noviembre draws interesting parallels between art and activism, between terrorism and performativity. With its closing mantra, Noviembre lays bare the politics of performance and the performance of politics in our contemporary globalised world.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. London: Routledge, 2005.