Category Archives: Conferences

WISPS 2017: Virtual Shut Up and Writes

Today (Saturday 11th November 2017), I presented virtually on the phenomenon of virtual shut up and writes as part of a roundtable on Digital (R)evolutions in Academic Writing. I was honoured to be asked to participate in this panel by Niamh Thornton (you’ll find her on Twitter at @enortee) and delighted when she accepted my suggestion that I present something virtually. If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, it’s on YouTube and I’ve embedded it here:


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



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.

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

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.

Spanish Cinema Symposium with Icíar Bollaín, University of St. Andrews, May 2014

Last week I attended the Spanish Cinema Symposium with Icíar Bollaín at the University of St. Andrews.  I was very much looking forward to the event, not least because it allowed me to escape my huge pile of marking for the day!  I did live-tweet throughout the day, but I found that I was unable to keep up with the demands of live-tweeting and note-taking.  I decided to write up my notes into this blog post, for those who were following my tweets and were interested to learn more about the day’s proceedings.

After a brief welcome and introduction by St. Andrews’ own Bernard Bentley, the day kicked off with Professor Núria Triana Toribio (University of Kent), and her presentation entitled ‘Cine es pañal: Spanish “Realismo Social” and Icíar Bollaín’s Mataharis’.  Triana began by noting that Bollaín positions herself, and is positioned by critics, as part of a European realist tradition, before arguing that Mataharis constitutes a moment of rupture within this framework.  In an inspired reading of the opening credits, Triana argued that the image in which one of the female detectives changes her baby’s nappy (hence the talk’s title, ‘Cine es pañal’ (nappy)) represents a dramatic shift both in terms of Bollaín’s filmmaking, and within the wider context of Spanish cinema.  In the context of Bollaín’s oeuvre, this moment, and more generally this film, marks a departure from the social realist tradition of which she is a part.  For Triana, the inclusion of this nappy-changing moment indicates a turn to the quotidian, in comparison with the filmmaker’s earlier focus on the ‘big topics’ or ‘headlines’ of social realism: the depiction of immigration and social integration in Flores de otro mundo (1999) and the treatment of domestic violence in Te doy mis ojos (2003) are examples of this earlier trend.  With regards Spanish cinema more broadly, Mataharis’ reworking of the film noir genre is demonstrative of the turn to genre in 2008.  Triana traced this turn to genre in Spanish cinema through a series of changes at the level of practice within the Spanish film industry, including television companies venturing into film funding, El Orfanato – a horror film – winning the Goya for Best Film, and the realisation that genre allowed filmmakers to speak to both national and international audiences.  She concluded her talk by comparing detective Eva (Najwa Nimri) and her return to work – which can only occur once she has run the bath, organised dinner, and settled the children – with Jeff’s return to work in Out of the Past (1947) – which occurs after a dramatic revelation and passionate encounter with the lady in his life.  With this comparison, Triana demonstrated her thesis: that Bollaín’s Mataharis reworks genre/gender with a focus on everyday realism.

Nimri in Mataharis
Nimri in Mataharis

After a brief break for coffee and cakes (which were delicious!), Dr. David Archibald (University of Glasgow) offered a presentation on the topic of ‘Cinematic Representations of Anti-Fascist Women in the Spanish Civil War’.  He focused on representations of women fighting – or not – in the Spanish Civil War, and how this concept is treated in different cinemas.  His presentation offered a survey of diverse films and their depictions of women in the Spanish Civil War context, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (Wood, 1943), El árbol de Guernica (Arrabal, 1975), ¡Ay, Carmela! (Saura, 1990), and Libertarias (Aranda, 1996).  He then turned his attentions to Tierra y libertad (Loach, 1995), starring Bollaín, arguing that this film illustrates the complexities of the female figure at the front.  For Archibald, Bollaín’s character is politically aware but also displays warmth, solidarity, and compassion with her comrades.  However, he acknowledged the film’s limitations in terms of the representation of women in conflict, given the symbolic use of the female body through the character of Blanca, who is shot in the back precisely at the moment in which the POUM are betrayed.  Overall, Archibald’s paper offered an overview of how leftist women have been differently depicted across distinct geographical and historical contexts.

Following a break for lunch, we returned for a screening of También la lluvia, introduced by the director herself.  I have seen the film a number of times, but it was such a pleasure to see it on a big screen again.  It contains a number of actors I enjoy watching (Tosar, Bernal, Arevalo), and I find the metacinematic dimension of the film really interesting.  I am not going to spend time unpacking the film in any more detail here (perhaps a future blog post in that…).  But I wanted to at least mention this element of the programme, because I think it was an inspired decision.  Not only did it allow the audience to relax after lunch (always a sleepy moment in the day for me!), but it also provided fodder for the question-and-answer session that followed.

Tosar and Bernal in También la lluvía
Tosar and Bernal in También la lluvía

After the film had finished, we had another quick coffee and cake break before the Q and A session with Bollaín.  Bernard Bentley collected questions from the audience and wrote them on the board.  Bollaín offered responses to most of the questions raised, talking openly and articulately about her life and work.  She began by discussing why she wanted to become a filmmaker as a means of telling her own stories, noting that it stemmed from her career as an actress, in which she felt that she was a vehicle for someone else’s story.  She spoke in detail about the process of script-writing, about how she prefers to work with a co-scriptwriter rather than on her own, about how she spends a lot of time researching the topic she is working on in the film.  She stressed the need for more female authors in the film industry, noting the male bias which persists even in the contemporary context.  Picking up on Núria Triana Toribio’s earlier presentation, she discussed the motivation behind Mataharis, which reflects her life at the time of production – in which she was dealing with babies and nappies, juggling work and motherhood.  For Bollaín, this film represented what was missing from the big screen: representations of women in their 30s, simply dealing with everyday life.  She was also asked about her methodologies when working with different actors, detailing her recent forays into working with non-professional actors (in También la lluvía and Katmandú, un espejo en el cielo (2011) in particular), and praising an actor with whom she has worked several times: Luis Tosar.  The conversation was frequently punctuated with clips from Bollaín’s oeuvre, including the very amusing short (featuring the aforementioned Tosar) ‘Por tu bien’ (which you can watch here – and you should – it is very funny!).

Tosar in Por tu bien
Tosar in Por tu bien

In addition, Bollaín also spent a considerable amount of time speaking about the creative processes of filmmaking.  She noted that she loves editing, finding it the most creative part of filmmaking (other than the writing of the script).  In a lovely metaphor, she compared it to going to the market to get the ingredients you need, but it is when you start editing that you start cooking.  She also commented that she always changes the endings of her films during the editing process.  She spoke at length about the procedures they had to follow in Bolivia when making También la lluvía, including going to the local assemblies to ask permissions, having to provide materials for the local communicates and so on.  Finally, she spoke about her current project, which is a documentary about Spanish people, with qualifications, leaving Spain and working in menial jobs in other countries.  She stressed a desire to convey the reality of their situations, which is at odds with how Spanish politicians portray their circumstances, in that they insist that these people have made decisions to better/further their careers and so on.  She also noted that she will be filming another script written by Paul Laverty – who wrote the script for También la lluvía – next year.  As a closing remark, she observed that she is impressed by the way academics dedicate themselves to film.

All in all, this was a highly enjoyable, successful event, and a real pleasure to attend!

Centre for Sex Gender & Sexualities Summer Workshop 2013

Yesterday I attended the Centre for Sex Gender & Sexualities Summer Workshop at the University of Durham.  The theme of the event wasReimagining Gender, Reimagining Sexualities, and the day incorporated two keynote presentations – from Prof. James Messerschmidt on the topic of hegemonic masculinities and from Prof. Wendy Chapkis on gender dynamics in the context of the medical marijuana movement in the US – four parallel research methodology masterclasses, two parallel panel sessions, before a round table discussion to close the workshop.

Myself and two colleagues – Dr. Rebecca Ferreboeuf (Durham) and Dr. Tara Plunkett (Queen’s University, Belfast) co-ordinated a panel for the event entitled Gender in Flux: Re imagining Sexualities in Varied Modes of Cultural Production. The premise of the panel was that cultural production provides a fruitful site for the articulation of alternative gender and sexual identities. Each paper centred on the fluidity, flexibility, malleability and multiplicity that characterises gender and sexuality. Given the diverse subject matter at the heart of each paper, our aim was to consider the extent to which medium specificity impacts upon the expression of gender and sexual identity positions. Our core question was: How can the arts shape new currents of discussing gender and sexual identity?


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Tara’s paper was entitled Beholders of Beauty: Overcoming the Subject/Object Dichotomy in the Surrealist Self-Portraits of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington.  She focused on two works by each artist, underscoring the complex position they occupied given their engagement with an artistic movement heavily centred on the sexualised female body.  This was further complicated by their decision to work primarily with the self-portrait – a genre historically regarded as the domain of the male artist.  Tara argued that although adopting distinct approaches, both women succeeded in artistically reflecting on their own sexual identities within the restraints of a typically masculine and misogynist movement and genre.


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Rebecca’s paper was entitled ‘Pamphlet against Myself’: René Crevel’s My Body & I.  Crevel, the only homosexual writer of the Surrealist group primarily remembered for his premature death by suicide in 1935, was the focus of her paper.  She provided close textual analysis of his 1925 text Mon Corps et moi, and utilised contemporary queer theory to illuminate the particularities of the difficulties Crevel faced at the time of writing.  She argued that Crevel expresses a conflicted attitude towards the homosexual self, whose identity is not only challenged at the level of the social but also at an individual level.


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My paper was entitled Elastic Masculinity: The Fluctuating Gender Identity of Javier Bardem, and considered two films that more or less frame the actor’s career to date: Jamón jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992) and Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012).  I selected the films for a number of reasons, including their temporal distance from one another, their discrete production contexts, and the distinctiveness of the character played by Bardem in each case in terms of gender and sexual identity: while his character Raúl in Jamón epitomises the ‘macho ibérico’ – attractive, athletic, arrogant – his character Raoul in Skyfallhas certain camp characteristics.  My claim was that Bardem, in spite of being associated with a hegemonic masculinity, demonstrates a fluid gender and sexual identity across the distinct roles he has played.

Our panel was followed by an excellent presentation by Durham’s own Santiago Fouz Hernández on Tactile Optics & Erotic Perception in the Recent Films of Bigas Luna.  Fouz Hernández’s paper explored the director’s most recent – and sadly his final (he passed away suddenly in April of this year) – works: Yo Soy La Juani (2006) and Di Di Hollywood (2010).  His analysis considered the ways in which these films appeal to the senses, echoing and drawing upon recent developments in film theory such as Laura Marks’ haptic visuality, Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenology of film, Patricia MacCormack cinesexuality, and Jennifer Barker’s work on tactility.

Overall, the event provided an interesting forum for discussions centring on sex, gender, and sexualities for scholars spanning the arts and the social sciences. The organisers were able to keep the costs of the event to a minimum – each participant/attendee paid a small fee of £10 – which is crucial for postgraduate and early career researchers (such as myself and my colleagues) who have less and less access to funding. The catering was superb, and although myself and my colleagues were unable to stay, evening entertainment – including a poetry slam – had been organised for all participants. All in all, an inspiring and highly enjoyable event!

Spaniards, Immigrants, and Tourists in Contemporary “Spanish” Cinema

As promised in my previous post, this post details my recent research on Spanish actor Javier Bardem.  At the beginning of November, I attended the Hispanic Cinemas: En Transición conference at the Universidad Carlos III, Madrid.  The paper I presented there was entitled ‘Tourists and Immigrants on the Spanish Cinematic Screen: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008) and Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2009)’.  The subject matter is only tangentially related to my PhD research, and so felt like somewhat of an experiment.  I am still trying to work through these ideas and their correlations, and so I am hopeful that in this post, I will be able to articulate my thoughts in a coherent manner.  Here, I conjoin some of the key ideas of my paper with more recent thoughts I have had on the subject.

The theme of the conference was transitions.  This concept has a very particular, concrete meaning in the context of twentieth-century Spain; specifically it has become synonymous with the political transition from dictatorship to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.  However, in my abstract (read it here), I had outlined my intention to focus not on the political transition, but rather on two interrelated transitions which emerged in part due to this political shift: firstly, Spain’s transition from a country of emigration to a country of immigration; and secondly, Spain’s positioning as the exotic Other of Europe to its expression of a consolidated Europeanised identity.  Crucially, I problematised the concept of transition as a finite process from one ontological state to another.  Instead, I focused on the figures of the tourist and the immigrant as resonances of these former states – that is Spain as a country of emigration, and as the exotic Other of Europe.

While the paper was initially motivated by the figures of the tourist and the immigrant, I quickly realised that their significance lay in their couplings with Spanish characters, and in particular those embodied by Javier Bardem.  In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bardem plays Juan Antonio, an attractive, mysterious, passionate painter, who swiftly elicits the interest of North American tourists, Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall).  Following a brief and unexpected sexual encounter with strait-laced Vicky, Juan Antonio becomes romantically involved with free-wheeling Cristina, who quickly moves in with her new beau.  Their domestic bliss is short-lived however, interrupted by Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, María Elena.  That María Elena is played by Bardem’s real-life partner, Penélope Cruz, indicates both the commercial appeal of Allen’s casting, as well as an underlying desire to ground the film and its Spanish characters in the terrain of authenticity.  In Biutiful, Bardem plays Uxbal, a middle-aged father of two, who is diagnosed early on in the film with terminal cancer.  Like Juan Antonio, he too has an ex-wife suffering psychologically; however, the emotive characterisation of Maramba (played by Maricel Alvarez) is far removed from the quasi comical treatment of María Elena’s neurosis.  Uxbal is deeply embedded within a diffuse web of corruption and lies in which the film’s many immigrant characters are also implicated.  Both films meditate then, in distinct ways, on the construction of Otherness.

In my abstract, I had suggested that both the immigrant and the tourist were individuals in transit(ion), figures of Otherness engaging with, and exposing, the constructedness of any (projection of) Spanish national identity.  However, when preparing my paper, I reconsidered this perspective, arguing instead that the tourist (at least as far as Vicky Cristina Barcelona is concerned) functions conversely to position the Spaniard as a figure of Otherness.  Reading Bardem’s performance across the two films reveals precisely how Spanish subjectivity depends both upon its conceptualisation as that which is Other in the context of the Western world, but also upon its construction in relation to a plethora of other Others.

This duality is underscored by the film objects I analysed in the paper, neither of which sits unproblematically under the rubric of ‘Spanish cinema’.  I categorised the films themselves as ‘migrant’, insofar as while both films are set and filmed on Spanish soil, they are also both directed by filmmakers who are not of Spanish origins (Allen is North American; Iñárritu is Mexican); and they are both co-productions (the BFI list them as follows: Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Spain-US; Biutiful – Spain, UK, Mexico).  The films’ conceptualisation of Spanish subjectivity is therefore presented, at least partially, from an external perspective.  In this way, they recall the Anglo- and Francophone nineteenth-century Romantic tradition of representing Spain as Europe’s exotic counterpart, the most renowned examples of which are Alexandre Dumas’ remark that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ and Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona underscores its exteriority from the outset.  Take the lyrics of the song accompanying the opening credits – ‘Barcelona’ (lyrics in Spanish/English here) by Giulia y Los Tellarini – which highlight the strangeness of the Catalan capital (‘Barcelona, mi mente está llena de cara de gente extranjera: conocida, desconocida y vuelta a ser transparente’), and the lack of certitude it produces in the visitor (‘No existo más Barcelona, siendo
esposa de tus ruidos, tu laberinto extrovertido’).  The same process is applied to Bardem’s character Juan Antonio, whose charm and good looks spark the rapid disintegration of Vicky’s respect for fidelity and tradition.  Like the city of Barcelona then, Juan Antonio’s strangeness inspires ontological uncertainty in tourist Vicky – an idea demonstrated by the use of the dissolve to transition between shots as they share their first kiss.  If the function of the tourist is to conduct a process of Othering on the Spaniard, then this process is most likely driven by a fear of ontological uncertainty when faced with the strangeness of the Other.  The film thus evidences Homi K. Bhabha’s conceptualisation of the stereotype as ‘a complex, ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation as anxious as it is assertive’ that requires compulsive repetition, so that ‘the same old stories […] are differently gratifying and terrifying each time’ (see his book The Location of Culture, p.70 and p.76).  And within this framework, Vicky Cristina Barcelona reveals the extent to which Spanish subjectivity remains concordant with its historical status as the exotic Other against which the Western world measures itself.

The matter of exteriority is equally present in Biutiful.  As stated above, it is not the Spaniard who figures as the Other in this film; rather, the film renders Otherness multiple and diffuse, demonstrated by the array of immigrant characters, most notably of Asian and African origins, but also by the interrogation of diverse states of Otherness, such as the Otherness of the father, unknown to his son; the Otherness of the body as it submits to cancer; and spiritual Otherness, symbolised by the visual doubling of the dead throughout the film.  In spite of, and partly because of, this, Biutiful treats Otherness in a similar manner to Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  That is, Otherness is projected outward onto another being (or, in this case, multiple beings).  Despite the lack of attention paid to the film’s migrant characters, the focus on Uxbal and his relationship with his late father, Mateo, yields an intriguing aspect of the film’s depiction of Spanish subjectivity.  Exiled to Mexico during the Franco regime, Mateo’s presence in the film is threefold: he appears as a ghost in the opening and closing sequences; he materialises as a dead body, exhumed following the sale of his niche; and finally, he emerges as a photographic presence, studied by Uxbal and his two children.  This gesture towards Mexico-Spain relations, by means of the father’s ghost, thus characterises Spanish subjectivity as spectrally uncertain, haunted by its past.

To conclude, I return to Bardem, who plays a key role in the contemporary cinematic construction of Spanish subjectivity, precisely due to his work across various national cinemas and cinematic industries.  His performance in distinct roles – such as the seductive Juan Antonio or the corrupt Uxbal – evidences the ambiguity attached to national identity in postmodern, globalised society.  Moreover, the roles he plays frequently rely on certain Hispanic stereotypes; for example the exotic, desirable Spanish Other – a role he has embodied not just in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but also in Eat Pray Love; or the Hispanic villain – as in No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Skyfall.  By drawing upon these clichés of Spanish subjectivity, the Spanish actor – in this case Bardem – demonstrates the extent to which national identity necessarily involves a mutual contract between inside and outside – an idea compounded by the portrayal of relations between Spaniards, immigrants, and tourists in contemporary “Spanish” cinema.