Just a quick post from me (after a long hiatus, I know!) to share the link for my forthcoming book, Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance, which is now available for preorder with Bloomsbury. If you would like to preorder it, you can click here.
In Spring 2018, I taught an Honours course entitled Transnational Cinematic Childhoods at the University of Aberdeen. It’s been on my to-do list since then to write a blog about the course as there was a lot of interest in the course when I tweeted about it at the time. Finally getting round to writing that post now! Life has been somewhat busy in the interim, what with retraining, finishing my book & having a baby! I’m sharing some insights here but I’m happy to share more in the way of course documentation if folks are interested. Just drop me a line either in the comments below or on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).
The aims of the course were to explore the ways in which cinema constructs children and to interrogate the significance of cinematic constructions of childhood (Figures 1 and 2). The word construction is key here. Children on/in film are just that. Constructions, representations, figures. Furthermore, cinematic depictions of children and childhood are typically shaped not by children but by adults. Adults write, edit, frame and direct children onscreen (Figure 3). That said, one cannot deny the agency and presence of the child actors who perform the roles of cinematic children. Indeed, child actors are often lauded for the power of their performances and praised for their authenticity and natural presence. Caught between these tensions, cinematic children are rich sites with regard to the human race and the big questions that inform our existence.
As cinematic figures, children onscreen carry significant symbolic weight. I proposed a flexibly broad definition of the child and childhood, encompassing adolescence and even adults grappling with difficult pasts (Figures 4 and 5). The child is a figure for what we once were and what we will never be again. The child carries connotations of innocence, of hope and of regeneration. But that which is innocent is subject to corruption. The child is also a site of cultural anxiety around which preoccupations concerning gender, sexuality, life and death cluster. And it is precisely these anxieties that my course sought to explore.
Figure 4: Trapped by a Traumatic Childhood (The Devil’s Backbone)
Figure 5: The Adolescent as Child (The Virgin Suicides)
The corpus of the course was, as suggested by the course title, transnational in scope. It included films from the UK, US, Spain, France and Mexico. The corpus was as follows:
A Story of Children and Film (Cousins, 2013)
Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris, 2006)
The Virgin Suicides (Coppola, 1999)
Waterlilies (Sciamma, 2007)
The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973)
Raise Ravens (Saura, 1976)
The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2001)
Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006)
Who Can Kill A Child? (Serrador, 1976)
The Others (Amenábar, 2001).
There was an emphasis on Hispanic cinemas due to my expertise in that field. But the course was taught to students undertaking the Film and Visual Culture MA at Aberdeen so actively sought to make transnational links across the films studied. The categorisation of films along national lines is problematic in any case given the increasingly transnational character of funding streams and channels of exhibition and distribution. Many of the films chosen reflect this complexity. For example, The Others (Figure 6) is directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar but filmed in English and stars Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman who hails from Australia. Is the film Spanish? Anglophone? A Hollywood production? All of the above? With these dynamics of transnationalism in mind, my students and I sought to trace a cinematic map of children and childhoods across national borders, while remaining sensitive to local and national specificities influencing childhood and its cinematic depictions.
Course readings were similarly diverse in scope, ranging from nationally specific readings of the films that pay particular attention to their sociohistorical production contexts to theoretical takes on the significance of cinematic children and childhoods. They included, as examples, Karen Lury’s The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairytales, Emma Wilson’s Cinema’s Missing Children and Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child; Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. I chose readings that complemented the films in question and that encouraged the students to think through the significance of cinematic children and childhoods in diverse ways (Figure 7).
The course was organised around five key themes with each theme spanning two weeks and encompassing two films as case studies:
Framing Childhood (A Story of Children and Film / Little Miss Sunshine)
Boundaries and Borders (The Virgin Suicides / Waterlilies)
Childhood as Transition (The Spirit of the Beehive / Raise Ravens)
Transnational Childhood (The Devil’s Backbone / Pan’s Labyrinth)
Death and the Child (Who Can Kill A Child? / The Others).
Figure 8: Dead, Violent, Ghostly and Killer Kids (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Who Can Kill A Child?)
Across these themes, we asked questions of cinematic illustrations of children and childhood. We analysed child sexuality, the applications and implications of gender norms in relation to the child and childhood, violent children and child ghosts (Figure 8). We considered children as liminal, in transition, queer.
Because I was on an hourly paid fixed term contract while teaching this module and live a considerable distance from campus, I requested that my lecture and two hour seminar for the course be scheduled back-to-back. The only timeslot they could give me for this was 1-4pm on a Friday afternoon. I was convinced my students would be completely unimpressed at this but I was pleasantly surprised. The group of students who opted to take my course were the most dynamic, engaged and enthusiastic bunch of individuals I’ve had the pleasure of teaching in the 10 years I taught at university level. I always had to call the discussions to a close at 3:55pm as they had so much to say!! I think I was fortunate to have such a great group of students but I’ll also take some of the credit for compiling a course that inspired interest, debate and even controversy (we’ll skip over the one student who complained about the overtly feminist course content and that I was gender biased against him …).
Overall, this is undoubtedly the most successful course I’ve designed and taught. The students raved about it (for the most part) and wanted to know if I’d be back teaching them again the following year. It’s just a shame those in charge of hiring at the university have (thus far) not seen recruiting myself to the department as an option. I’ve not taught at university level since I delivered this course and it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity in the near future. But I want to share the details of this module in the meantime as its work I’m particularly proud of and would love to see it engaged with by others.
I’m currently lying in bed catching up on Twitter and I felt moved to write on the horrific images emerging from Catalonia during and following today’s so-called illegal referendum. Barcelona first stole my heart back in 2005 when I took a weekend trip there from my temporary Spanish home in Alicante. I then lived and worked south of the Catalan capital, in the spectacular Sitges, for a year after completing my undergraduate degree. I am shocked, sickened and saddened at the displays of police brutality in the face of a population seeking to exercise nothing more than their right to a democratic vote on the matter of independence. It is just a short time ago that similarly violent images emerged from the city of Barcelona in August’s terror attacks on Las Ramblas. However, the perpetrators are not evil Islamic terrorists, posited as radical outsiders who threaten state coherence and unity, in this instance. Rather, it is the state itself behind such aggression.
For Hispanists and those familiar with recent Spanish history, this violent repression recalls the all-too-recent state-sponsored suppression enacted by Francoism. To this date an unknown number of individuals, murdered at the hands of the Francoist state, lie in unmarked mass graves, their remains never afforded a proper burial, their relatives never permitted a fitting memorial or mourning process. Secrets of violent suppression under Franco remain unspoken, perpetrators have not been brought to justice more than 40 years since the death of Franco and with him Francoism. But the spectre of his legacy lives on. I cannot help but think that to respond in this unnecessarily heavy-handed (to put it mildly) manner undermines the claim that this is an illegal referendum. Two illegal wrongs do not make a right.
Just the other day I was putting the finishing touches to my analysis of the silent Spanish film Blancanieves (2012). The film is a case study in the first chapter of my forthcoming monograph on the interrelations of performance and politics in contemporary Spanish cinema. Directed by Basque filmmaker Pablo Berger, the film tells the tale of Snow White but with a difference: the story has been transposed to 1920s Spain and Snow White is a kickass female bullfighter. Oh and the film is both black and white and silent. I read this formal silencing as a political gesture, one that underscores the extent to which certain voices, namely those that do not conform, suffer from a violent silencing and suppression. I made reference in my conclusion to the current events in Catalonia. Tomorrow I will rewrite this section with reference to today’s horrific developments.
Memory is short. History repeats. Fascism once again rears its ugly head not just in Spain but across Europe and beyond. I fear the events of today will have caused irreperable fissures between the people of Catalonia and the Spanish state. My solidarity is with the innocent bystanders who sought only to cast their votes, to have their say in a supposedly democratic society. Barcelona, you have my heart.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Thoughts on Spanish cinema, academia and other related things