On the Writing Process

When I started writing this blog a few months back, I thought that I would focus primarily on Spanish cinema as the subject matter for my posts.  However, in the last couple of months, I’ve read so many useful links, usually posted on Twitter, about the processes of PhD research, and academia in general.  These links have prompted me to reflect on how I work, what I find useful, and how I could improve.

As I indicated in my last blog post, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks writing and redrafting a section of my thesis.  I’ve thus felt inspired to write something personal reflecting on the writing process as I experience it, and I’m intrigued to know how other people approach tasks relating to this process.

When writing, I tend to work through four key stages:

  1. Planning;
  2. Writing main body;
  3. Outlining;
  4. Writing introduction/conclusion.

Planning

Typically, when I approach a piece of writing, I begin by compiling a Word document in which I map out a prospective outline.  I tend to do this in a linear fashion, beginning with contextual information before moving on to the specifics of my argument.  In the process of compiling this document, I also rely on the use of some more old-fashioned tools: a pencil and paper.  Using these tools, I mind-map the key ideas that I want to feature in the piece.

Writing main body

Having constructed my plan, I then proceed to the writing.  Beginning with a blank document, I tend to write, as with the plan, in a linear fashion.  I write quite quickly, not dwelling too much on word choice, but trying to focus on expressing the ideas as coherently as possible.  My thoughts, I’m not afraid to admit, are often very sketchy and under-developed in the pre-writing/planning stage; it is through writing that I begin to cultivate my ideas.

Outlining

Once I’ve written the main body of my piece of work, I usually have to re-read through it, and map out my argument – usually in the form of a flow chart, again with my trusty old favourites (pen and paper).  I often struggle with the writing of introductions and conclusions, largely because I find it difficult stating my argument in clear terms.  I am in my comfort zone when working at the level of the micro reading, and I am particularly confident writing close analyses of my films.  I am not so confident when making big claims, and I do not relish making that move from micro to macro.  I find that mapping the outline of my piece of writing helps me to understand the direction of my argument, although I would happily admit that I’ve much to learn about stating my claims clearly.

Writing introduction/conclusion

My final moment in the writing process is to frame the piece with an introduction and a conclusion.  As I mentioned above, I always find writing these components particularly difficult.  I’ve usually written a very rough introduction when writing the main body – typically ending with a wee note to myself in brackets along the lines of ‘Come back to this when written main body!’.  I re-work this based on how my argument has developed.  My conclusion usually traces the line I’ve taken throughout the piece, recapping my main points, and gesturing towards a claim, even if not stating it coherently.

With all of this in mind, I’m intrigued to know how other people experience the writing process.  What shape does your writing process take?  Do you plan before you write?  How do you plan?  How much do your plans change in the process of writing?  Do you plan mid-writing, based on how your writing differs from your original plan?  How do you tackle the writing itself?  Do you write in a linear, segmented, or anti-linear fashion?  How do you tackle the introduction and the conclusion in particular?  Do these elements constitute the starting point, midpoint, or endpoint for your writing?  Any comments or questions gratefully received!

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part Two

Back in October, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One’.  I expected to return to the topic in my subsequent post; however, that was not the case.  Finally, I revisit this theme – a mere three months later!  I have no idea as to where the time has gone.  But I do think that the PhD path never turns out quite as one may expect.  And no matter how well or how much you plan things, there are always interruptions, distractions, and unexpected twists in the road that end up leading you down a different route.  The last few months have seen me alter my working methods dramatically (see my previous post ‘On Working Methods’), and this has entailed a shift in focus.  Throughout my PhD, I’ve tended to work on one particular topic/chapter at a time, concentrating on the reading, watching, and thinking associated with that aspect of the thesis before moving on to the next section.  In the last few months, I’ve begun to move between and across the three chapters as I tie up the loose ends of research I have to complete for each chapter.  This is at once a deliberate move to keep my interest alive, as well as part and parcel of approaching the final stages of the project.  The reason I return to my work on cinema and death now is because I have to submit words shortly to one of my supervisors, and so I’ve chosen to rework that particular section of my thesis.

In my last post on cinema and death, I offered a very broad overview of the history of death in theoretical meditations on the medium of photography and cinema, summarising the stances of Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes.  I then briefly described the conceptualisation of early cinema as both a storage vessel that protected against death, and as a medium that had the ability to capture the moment of death; this line of argumentation has been extensively explored by film scholar Mary Ann Doane, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time.  In this post, I reflect on the status of cinema as a spectral medium, utilising Jacques Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as a framework.  This is still something I’m working through in my thesis so I appreciate any comments, feedback, ideas, and suggestions.

My research on the significance of death in the context of film theory has revealed an interesting trend.  From a chronological perspective, there are two key moments in which death emerges as a theoretical concern: the first is in the late 1970s, evidenced by Barthes and Susan Sontag; and the second is at the turn of the millennium, exemplified by the work of Doane, but also D. N. Rodowick and Laura Mulvey.  Of these two moments, the latter is of the most importance for me, given that the films I analyse in my chapter on the immigrant – of which this section on cinema and death is a part – were all produced in the last ten to fifteen years.  Death thus emerges as a theoretical concern in connection with technological change: the late 1970s brought the shift to video and the inauguration of a new generation of special effects, while the 2000s bore witness to the widespread employment of digital filmmaking.  In each case, these changes specifically concern the materiality of the medium, a topic which is further emphasised by contemporary digital culture and its increasing immateriality.

The question of (im)materiality in relation to cinema invites, for me at least, a reading through the lens of spectrality.  I’ve already detailed my struggles with Jacques Derrida (read my post entitled ‘Digesting Derrida’ here).  However, in reworking my ideas on cinema and death, I’ve begun to see his usefulness in terms of cinema, spectrality, and the immigrant.  To summarise, the concepts of spectrality and hauntology constitute the framework of Derrida’s seminal text Spectres of Marx[1].  In the book’s preface, Derrida outlines four key aspects of his analysis: presence, justice and the other, and time.  With regards presence, Derrida details the curious status of the spectre that is at once both present and absent.  In this way, the spectre defies the framework of ontology, and exposes its limitations.  Because of this problematic, Derrida coins the term ‘hauntology’ as a means of discussing the extraordinary existence of the spectre.  The spectre’s paradoxical state of being chimes with the medium of film – if we reach back beyond the digital culture of our contemporary age – insofar as what it produced were not actual, material bodies, but were rather, images, projections, shadows of human figures on screen.  The shift from film to digital does not, however, alter the medium’s spectral quality.  If anything, it increases the spectrality of the cinematic image, given that images are no longer dependent on an indexical trace, but rather can be created digitally from a string of numbers.  Further enhancing the spectral aspect of the cinematic image is its potential for repetition and reiteration.  The distribution, circulation, and screening of films are even more widespread nowadays due to the global networks within which films are produced.  To relate it to the films I analyse, the immigrant character may die but he or she is immortalised through the film image, and can be brought back to life through rescreening the film.  In this way, the cinematic medium underscores Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as ‘A question of repetition: a specter [sic] is always a revenant.  One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Spectres of Marx, p.11).

Returning to Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre, and to the themes of justice and the other, he remarks that his meditation on ‘ghosts, inheritance, and generations of ghosts’ is in other words a means of speaking about ‘certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ and that this is conducted ‘in the name of justice’ (Spectres of Marx, xviii).  The idea of the spectre who returns because of unfinished business has become a common trope in popular culture – examples include The Others, El Orfanato, or The Sixth Sense.  However, Derrida’s linking of justice and the other is of particular significance for my work on the immigrant, given that the majority films I consider are by Spanish, rather than migrant, filmmakers.  They thus do not just speak of the immigrant, but inevitably speak for the immigrant.  I am still thinking through what this means in the context of cinema as medium.  Does the alignment of immigrant with spectre in contemporary Spanish immigration cinema evidence a call for justice?  Does this line of argumentation risk falling into the trap, so beautifully outlined by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters, of universalisation and/or romanticisation of the immigrant other?

Finally, Derrida’s text centres on the question of time, circling around the idea, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of the time being ‘out of joint’.  For Derrida, the spectre’s relationship to time is epitomised by this idea: ‘Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter [sic] does not belong to that time, it does not give time’ (Spectres of Marx, xix).  Again, I’m still thinking through the significance of this both for the immigrant, and for the medium of cinema.  However, I have noticed that this idea is indeed dealt with in one of the films I work on: Biutiful.  The film begins and ends with an encounter between protagonist Uxbal and his dead father, who fled Franco’s Spain and went into exile in Mexico only to die two weeks later of pneumonia.  In this encounter between father and son the time is most certainly out of joint, given that the father is in his twenties and the son in his fifties.  In addition, it is spectral, insofar as both characters are dead.

To conclude, and as I said above, I’m very much still working through these ideas concerning the link between cinema and death, and in terms of cinema as a spectral medium.  Derrida’s conceptualisations of spectrality and hauntology should prove useful as a means of interpreting this link with respect to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films.  Any comments, questions, feedback welcome!


[1] DERRIDA, J., 2006. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York; Oxon: Routledge Classics.

On Working Methods

Motivation has never been something I’ve struggled with during my PhD.  There are, I think, a number of reasons for this.  I’ve always loved my topic.  I’ve always counted myself lucky to be able to work on films and texts that inspire me.  I’ve always been motivated to work hard.  I’ve always had the fortune of having a supportive network of people around me – both within and outside of academia.  I’m extremely grateful for all of these things.

However, the last couple of months have proved a challenge precisely with regards motivation.  Nothing has changed.  I still love my topic.  I’m still inspired by the films and texts I’m working on (for the most part).  I’m still working hard.  I still have the same – if not more – support.  And yet, I seem to have reached a crucial point in my doctoral research.  I don’t know if this phase has an official name, but, having spoken to several friends who have recently completed PhDs, it is apparently a recognised phenomenon.  Typically, this phase seems to encompass: tears; procrastination; more tears; more procrastination; and a diminished sense of self-belief.  I’ll call it the writing-up blues for now.

As a means of countering this unexpected bump in the PhD road, I was advised by my brilliant supervisor, Dr. Julia Biggane, to alter my working methods.  As a starting point, she recommended writing a list of tasks to be completed, and then calculating how long each task will take.  Although I have a penchant for making ‘To Do’ lists, I’ve recently realised that matching tasks with appropriate chunks of time is something I find more challenging.  A consequence of this failing is an almost perpetual sense of dissatisfaction: no matter how many items I check off the ‘To Do’ list, there remain a plethora of tasks still to be completed.  And that, unsurprisingly, does not aid motivation.  A trick recommended by Julia is to allow significantly more time than you think you will need to complete each task.  An excellent piece of advice: if you happen to be slow off the mark/interrupted/tired etc., and you in fact need the extra time assigned, great – you’ve still achieved your goal; if, however, you finish ahead of schedule, even better – you’ve achieved your goal and can reward yourself (with an evening off, a trip to the cinema, a big fat cake with that afternoon coffee) as appropriate.

To put this into practice, I indulged my inner geek and prepared a table in Word with tasks to be completed colour-coded according to diverse activity types: organising, watching, reading, writing, redrafting.  I also calculated how long each task would be likely to take.  I update the table frequently according to the distinct tasks I’ve achieved throughout the week.  This allows me to chart my progression through the endless list of objectives to be met.

Another aspect of working methods I discussed with Julia was the construction of a weekly schedule.  After pencilling in the various other commitments I have outside of the PhD (part-time work, appointments, exercise classes etc.), I assign different tasks to the mornings and afternoons throughout the week.  As a morning person, I reserve the more taxing work for mornings (writing/theoretical reading), and the less strenuous mental exercises (watching films/lighter background reading) for the afternoons.  By varying the types of task undertaken over the course of the week, I am able to maintain a sense of motivation and am less likely to become disheartened with my research.  My project is ideal for this approach, given that each of my three main body chapters focus on a distinct figure in contemporary Spanish cinema – the child, the performer, the immigrant.  The diverse subject areas, as well as the fact that I am now nearing the end of my project, allow me to move between chapters, and thus keep my interest alive.  To aid me in this, each week I have a ‘Sunday meeting’ in which I decide what to work on in the coming week, and map out my week in timetable format.  I allow for a certain degree of flexibility, updating my schedule as the week progresses depending on how quickly I reach my goals.

The final alteration I’ve made to my working methods is my conversion to the Pomodoro method.  Briefly, this method entails working in half-hour segments throughout the day, concentrating solidly on the task in hand – no interruptions (i.e. checking e-mails/Twitter/phone; sending an e-mail/tweet/text message; looking up the reference for that library book) – for twenty-five minutes, before taking a five-minute break.  After four Pomodoros, take a longer break of between fifteen and thirty minutes.  Working Pomodoro-style has both forced me to take more breaks (something I’ve struggled with in the past) and taught me that my attention span is significantly shorter than I thought!  I’ve found it extremely helpful, and would absolutely recommend it.

To conclude this self-reflexive post, I thought I’d list some of the links on working methods that have inspired me over the past couple of months:

“I’m so excited”: Los amantes pasajeros Teaser Trailer

I’m so excited about Pedro Almodóvar’s forthcoming film Los amantes pasajeros – see the latest teaser trailer here.  Already contemplating how the cabin crew’s camp, lip-synched performance of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m so excited’ (shown in this trailer) resonates with the plethora of performance sequences that populate the Spanish auteur’s oeuvre, as well as how it relates to my PhD chapter on the Performing Body.

Bardem in Bond

Shadows and Mirrors: Otherness and Stardom in Skyfall

Joint Blog Post with Niamh Thornton

*Spoiler alert

In his seminal work Orientalism, Edward Saïd exposes the constructedness and mutual dependence of the categories of the West and the Orient.  His claim is as follows:

as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.  The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other (2003, 5).

Unhinged from the specific geographical context set up by Saïd, this framework has since become foundational in academic and theoretical explorations into the enigmatic figure of the Other.  For Saïd, this figure functions as a mirror that reflects back on the culture responsible for its construction.  And it is precisely through this lens that we propose to read the coupling of Daniel Craig’s James Bond with Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva in the latest instalment of the Bond franchise, Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK-US co-production).  Through an exploration of the visual and verbal mirroring of Bond and Silva, Craig and Bardem, as well as an interrogation of the relationship between the pair and Judi Dench’s M, we argue that the film passes an implicit commentary on two key issues in contemporary British politics: the war on terror and Scottish independence.  It also challenges us to reconsider the film in the light of a star villain whose campness and marked Hispanic/Latino Otherness has a resonance beyond the fixed markers of the Bond franchise.

Two figures dominate Skyfall’smise-en-scène: mirrors and shadows.  While references to shadows are explicit throughout the film – we will return to this below – the symbol of the mirror remains within the domain of the visual.  The most striking sequence involving both mirrors and shadows is the Shanghai confrontation between Bond and Patrice (Ola Rapace), which takes place in the darkness of a glass building, bathed in the reflected fluorescent lights of the city.  A later instance involves the use of a mirror to confuse Silva’s men as they attack the Skyfall mansion in Scotland.  This visual recourse to mirrors and shadows establishes a connection between Bond and Silva as mirror images, alter egos, counterparts to be read in tandem.  However, the cipher of Otherness is ambiguously assigned throughout the course of the film, circulating between the two male characters.  This is underscored by the fact that the two sequences we have referenced here – the altercation between Bond and Patrice in a stunning glass skyscraper, and the climactic confrontation between Bond and Silva at the ‘Skyfall’ mansion – are set in geographical locations marked as Other in relation to Bond’s homeland.  However, these scenes were actually filmed in England (thanks to Laura Aitken for drawing this to our attention).  In Skyfall then, confrontations with the Other are falsely presented as taking place in sites that are geographically Other.  This confirms Saïd’s framework of Otherness not as a means of approaching the Other, but rather as a mirroring device that reflects back on the culture constructing said Otherness.

The similarities between Bond and Silva are acknowledged throughout the film, both visually and verbally.  A number of visual echoes exist in the physical appearance of the two men.  The typically dark-haired Bardem adorns a silvery-blond wig, thus mirroring the fair-haired Craig, in a move that recalls the initial speculation at the prospect of a blond Bond when Craig was cast in the role back in 2005 in Casino Royale (examples of which are here and here ).  The angular facial features of both men are underscored in their first encounter during the film through the use of close-ups.  An intriguing contrast, however, is also drawn between them at this point.  Though both men wear suits, it is Craig who wears the darker of the two – a black tuxedo complete with silk lapels teamed with a white shirt with ornate buttons; while Silva wears a brown waistcoat and trousers coupled with a patterned seventies-style shirt, and topped with a cream suit jacket.  The visual coding of the two men thus disrupts the typical association of light with ‘good’ and dark with ‘bad’ (one more frequently played with in the contemporary Western), and is an example of the circulation of the cipher of Otherness between the two men.  This is further underscored in the subsequent scene, in which Silva challenges Bond to a William Tell-style shoot-out, placing a shot glass filled with Macallan whisky – prefiguring the film’s retreat to Scotland (which we will discuss below) – atop Bond girl Sévérine’s head, and inviting Bond to take the first shot.  Bond’s presence is framed as incongruous.  Positioned centrally, his sharp black suit contrasts with the sandy surroundings and the muted tones of Silva and his associates, drawing the viewer’s eye.

Physical resemblance apart, the two characters are quickly identified as sharing similar origins and backgrounds.  Before Silva is introduced and identified as the film’s villain, M shrewdly observes that the enemy they seek is one of them.  Informed by Gareth Mallory (a former Army Officer, employed to prepare MI6 for M’s retirement) that those at MI6 cannot keep working in the shadows, M retorts that both Bond and the enemy that they are fighting are from the same place, the existence of which Mallory refutes: the shadows.  References – again, both visual and verbal – to shadows are rife throughout the film, lending support to the idea that Bond and Silva constitute mutual alter-egos.  Moreover, the identification of villain Silva as one of their own confirms the film’s introspective self-assessment as more significant than its concern for the Other.

It is worth reflecting here what Bardem’s star text potentially signifies in this film in the light of his Othering.  Star studies is undergoing another turn in its evolution, so it’s useful here to refer to where it lies at the moment.  Joseph M. Vukov provides a useful overview here .  He cites, Richard Dyer’s assertion that the star “functions by mediating a specifiable concept to a certain group”, on the one hand, and are “images existing in films and other media texts” that are ultimately “structured polysem[ies]”, whose image suggest a “multiplicity of meanings and affects,” (Dyer, qtd in Vukov: 2004, np).  So, should we look at Bardem as a metonym for all Hispanics, or, through the lens of his own multiple performances, onscreen and off, as a star?  It might be worth approaching this from both sides.

These two approaches are complementary rather than exclusive.  Firstly, we will consider a brief biography of Bardem.  Born on Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, he is one of a dynasty of Spanish actors and directors.  His mother, Pilar Bardem, was a respected actor on stage and screen, whilst his uncle is the renowned film director, Juan Antonio Bardem, to name but two of his lineage.  Therefore, in Spain he is read through this perspective first.  His star image was soon established through a series of risqué roles in the early 1990s directed by the notorious Spanish director, Bigas Luna, Las Edades de Lulu (1990, The Ages of Lulu), Jamón, jamón (1992), and Huevos de oro (1993, Golden Balls), at home and abroad (the latter at least in the Art house circuit).  After several other roles, in Spain and elsewhere, his fame and reputation has developed as a committed, risk-taking actor whose performances have been varied and challenging.  He was the gay Cuban poet and writer, Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000), a struggling, Galician unemployed docker in Los lunes en el sol (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002, Mondays in the Sun), a Galician paraplegic who campaigns for the right to die in Mar adentro (Alejandro Amenábar, 2004, The Sea Inside) and a Catalan single parent dying of cancer in Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñarritú, 2010).  Although, he has also taken a few lighter roles, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008) and Eat, Pray, Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010).  In both of these he conformed to Hollywood clichés of the Latin Man: passionate lover, flamboyant and dramatic.  In one he is Spanish; the other he is Brazilian.  However, his reputation is generally as a serious actor, who has attained many awards, including winning an Oscar for No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2007).

Interviews with Bardem talk about him as an actor of quality, reinforced by the aforementioned family links.  However, his star text also plays on his ability to morph into this other Bardem, the sex symbol, who appears happy to play with his attractiveness, as this interview with him in The Guardian with Emma Brockes, attests,

After these kinds of roles, I wonder if it’s possible that the actor finds himself sinister. “Every time I wake up,” Bardem replies, and laughs loudly. “I look at myself in the mirror to brush my teeth and it’s very sinister. Ugh, look at that nose; look at those eyes. Ugh, my tone of voice.” Of course, a movie star married to Penélope Cruz can afford to talk this way without fear of being taken at his word. But still; Bardem’s casual self-mockery makes him seem a very European kind of actor, away from the worst narcissism of his profession.

She clearly reads him as handsome, reads his ‘self-mockery’ as exaggerated, and positions him in a serious ‘European’ context, rather than that of Hollywood.  Having Cruz as a wife also complements his star text, they are read as equals. He can claim to be unattractive, expecting to be read against the grain in Skyfall.

In his career, there is precedence for him turning up in Skyfall as a generic Hispanic, as we have already mentioned, he has acted in a multiplicity of roles which have called on him to change nationality and perform a variety of Latino men from Spaniard to Cuban to Brazilian.  He is not the only Spanish-speaking actor to do this.  Others include Spaniards such as Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, Gael García Bernal, Salma Hayek and Diego Luna from Mexico, and Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro, to name but a few.  What is the problem with this lumping in of all Latinos into one?  In some ways, there isn’t one.  The arbitrary tides of history resulted in a continent that has Spanish or Portuguese as a first language in most countries, and there were attempts in nineteenth century to create a single united republic during the period of independence from the European colonial powers that have continued into theoretical debates, subsequently.  In the US political and cultural rhetoric Latinos are often spoken about as if they were a homogenous group (for example, prior to the 2012 presidential elections there was much discussion about the ‘Latino vote’, see here ).  The problems with this characterization are multiple, but we will consider two.

Firstly, it elides racial differences.  Latin Americans range from being blond and blue eyed to black and brown eyed, and all other variants.  They are of European, Asian, African, and indigenous origin.  This panoply of races is not necessarily well-represented in Latin American films, which has its own troubling history of racial shorthand, but the grouping together of a multiplicity of nationalities that traverses linguistic and cultural differences, as well as ignoring local historical rivalries and tensions, appears to be a sop to the political context of the US aimed at creating a single group where the reality is more complex.

Secondly, it plays up the otherness of this Latino subject.  From the malevolent gun-slinging Revolutionary in the classic Western to the threatening illegitimate child in films like The King (James Marsh, 2005), the Latino Other has loomed large in Hollywood cinema.  So, Bardem, as Raoul Silva, is not only drawing on a long history of mis-representation of Latinos as racially Other, but also reinforces an homogeneity to this group that is not there.

There are further complications in his name(s).  With a first name of French origin and last of Spanish/Portuguese origin, Silva becomes pan-Hispanic and teeters over into the Euro-villain territory of exotic, dangerous Other.  However, in a further slippage, he is also referred to by Bond as Tiago Rodrigues. This is a name that definitively places him in a Lusophone culture, suggests at the multiple identities of being a spy, and the difficulties inherent in committing to a single meaning attached to his name, which further opens up his character to other possible cultural affinities, unlike Bond, who is always clearly marked by a particular type of Britishness and all that it implies.

Skyfall plays with locatedness and Otherness in many ways whilst never quite resolving the conundrum.  Another way this is done is through using Bardem’s wig as a key character feature.  Brocke likened it to an “albino polecat…draped across his head” and references the (in)famous hairstyle, which was integral to the look of his character, the murderous psychopath Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men.  In the way of star texts, Bardem (Mendes) is referencing his most famous role, thereby providing us with a visual cue as to his threat and malice, and playing with both his dark Latino look and his reputation as a handsome leading man.  It is, if you like, a form of knowing wink.  It plays on our awareness of his star text and foregrounds the role as a performance, thereby reminding us he is a star in this film.

That Brocke calls it an ‘albino polecat’ references two absurd features of the wig: both visual shorthand, one for Bardem as star, the other for Bardem as Latino.  It is over the top, therefore, he is obviously dressing up for a role.  Look, we are being told visually, this is Bardem acting as a Bond villain.  It supports and promotes his star text.  The wig in its blondness is also a form of racial transvestism, which, as Marjorie Garber suggests, is a “figure that disrupts” (70).  Again, we recognize that he is traversing what we understand to be a key physical characteristic of not only Bardem, but of the Latin man, his dark hair.  It plays with our expectations, but through the use of Bardem it draws attention to itself, rather than challenge what we may think of the stereotypical Latino.  However, because it does it through Bardem, the star and respected actor, it is a slippery thing, never sure where or how to resolve the racial identity.

The slippery character of Bardem/Silva’s racial identity in Skyfall is coupled with his similarly slippery sexual identity.  This is particularly apparent in the triangular relationship between Bond, Silva, and M, which lends itself to a psychoanalytic reading (an example of which can be found here ), with M as the mother-figure and Bond and Silva as the two sons.  Indeed, M has a powerful hold over both characters, evidenced by the film’s dramatic finale in which Silva urges M to kill them both with the same bullet, and which culminates with a (somewhat clichéd) reverse Pietà, a visibly emotional Bond cradling the dying M at the altar of an abandoned church.

What concerns us about this psychoanalytic reading is the much-discussed queer overtones of the first encounter between Bond and Silva earlier.  In an understated entrance, Silva is introduced to the screen by emerging from a phallic lift shaft into a large room, furnished only by an array of computer servers.  Bound to a chair, Bond watches Silva approach from the other side of the room.  The viewer identifies with Bond at this point, due to the camera’s positioning over his right shoulder.  The soft lilting tones of Silva, as he recounts a metaphorical tale about an infestation of rats on his grandmother’s island, sharply contrast with his height and bulk, gradually revealed by his approximation to Bond, to the camera, and, thus, to the viewer.  Pulling up a chair directly in front of his captive, Silva carefully unbuttons Bond’s shirt, gently running his finger along his collarbone.  He then parts Bond’s legs, shown in a suggestive point-of-view shot from Bond’s perspective, and taunts him, asking what the protocol is for a situation like this.  Bond responds that it would not necessarily be his first time, thereby alluding to a pansexual Bond that has heretofore never been revealed.  Reading this explicitly homoerotic sequence – along with Silva’s camp demeanour – in tandem with the Oedipal relations established between him and M, risks falling into the Freudian trap of understanding homosexuality as the result of an unsuccessful transition through the Oedipal phase.  However, it is also muddled by the chemistry between the two men and the fact that both play on the sexual overtones of the moment.

That Silva’s queerness is styled as camp is significant.  In the aforementioned scene in which Silva has Bond held captive theirs is a playful, flirtatious and knowing dialogue.  Interestingly, Bond flirts back.  It is not a challenge to Bond’s sexuality, which has long been over-determinedly heterosexual, but signals what may be a new departure for Bond as a polyamorous bisexual, implicit in the dialogue, albeit never visualized.

Daniel Craig, as Bond, is another whose attractiveness is part of his star text.  This is reinforced throughout Skyfall, but also has precedence in a renowned beach scene in an earlier Bond film, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) notorious for the display of his body and his muscular physique (referenced in a swimming pool scene in Skyfall, where he wears the same blue trunks).  In the capture scene with Bardem in Skyfall the gaze is on Craig.  Curiously, this positions us (whatever our gender and orientation) alongside the queer admiring gaze of Bardem, which is a radical act in a franchise that generally focuses the determinedly heterosexual gaze on a series of so-called “Bond girls”.

The camp villain also has a long and inglorious history, most notably the camp Nazi (or Nazi-style) villain that can be found even in otherwise exemplary films such as Roma, città aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945, Rome, Open City) and in others, such as, the blockbuster Indiana Jones series (Steven Spielberg, 1981-2008). The linking of queerness with evil is dubious, erroneous, and reinforces its Otherness, especially when it is seen as a source of Silva’s unresolved development.  However, when it is also toyed with and validated as a sexuality that Bond is happy to (at least) flirt with, the message is a confused one.

A further troubling aspect of Silva’s queer character relates back to the notion of the Other.  The casting of Bardem in the role of the villain – as Noble has indicated elsewhere – raises questions about the Hispanic figure in mainstream cinema.  As ethnically Other, yet hailing from the same place as Bond, Silva constitutes a rogue element, an element that has been cut out and cast off, only to return to haunt his former site of belonging.  Silva therefore takes on a spectral quality, an image enhanced by the revelation that he attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule having been given up to the Chinese government by M during the handover of the control of Hong Kong.  His attempt was unsuccessful; ‘life clung to me like a disease’ he remarks, before revealing the severe physical deformation he retains as a consequence of this suicide attempt.  The conflation of villain, Other, and queer in the character of Silva is thus potentially racist and homophobic.

Indeed, this confusion of belonging is at the heart of Skyfall, evidenced in particular by the film’s befuddled politics.  This is apparent in the shift from the global cyber terrorism with which the film opens – a nod, it has been argued (for example here ), to the Wikileaks phenomenon, heightened by the physical resemblance of Silva to Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange – to the personal vendetta that Silva wages against M.  However, nowhere is this more explicit than in the enquiry into MI6’s operations, at which M speaks as a witness.  Having been critiqued for antiquation, M defends the need for MI6 in a contemporary world that frightens her, precisely because enemies are unknown, faceless, not traceable on a map, not identifiable as nations, uniforms or flags.  While her speech remains concordant with the discourse of the war on terror, its content is rendered ironic, given that at that precise moment, indicated through the use of intercutting, Silva is preparing to storm the hearing, and kill M, dressed in a policeman’s uniform.  Her commentary on unknown, faceless enemies is thus contradicted by the fact that the enemy who has just escaped from the clutches of MI6, and who is preparing to kill her, is familiar, known to her, and wearing a uniform she should, and would, trust.

Admittedly, the idea of the enemy within resonates with the discourse of the war on terror to the extent that it insists upon the notion of ‘home-grown’ terrorists, those brought up within Western countries such as the UK and the US, with national citizenship.  This is further underscored by Silva’s apparent embedding within the police force – an organisation that typically represents order, and which is entrusted with the security of British society.  Following his escape from MI6’s headquarters – relocated to Churchill’s underground bunker – Silva is handed a package by two policemen.  The package contains a policeman’s uniform, which Silva quickly adorns, and as mentioned above, wears when he storms the MI6 enquiry.  Silva’s use of the image of the police in this way raises questions regarding the boundaries and limits between self and other, inside and outside.

On this note – and taking a slight sidestep away from Bardem, it is worth mentioning Bond and M’s – and indeed the film’s – retreat to Scotland.  Silva’s dramatic entrance into the enquiry prompts Bond to take swift – and unofficial – action.  Kidnapping M and ditching her Jaguar for his vintage Aston Martin, Bond heads north to Scotland, and for his childhood home – a deserted and remote mansion named ‘Skyfall’.  There, Bond, M, and gamekeeper Kincade (who, as an aside, has the most bizarre “Scottish” accent we have ever heard) prepare home-made bombs and set a series of traps in advance of Silva’s impending arrival.  The retreat to Scotland thus establishes a crucial dichotomy in terms of the politics of Otherness at work in the film.

On the one hand, Scotland represents backwardness, lawlessness, and savagery – an idea underscored by the harsh landscape and rural location of the mansion, as well as by Silva’s gradual dishevelment as the battle progresses.  On the other hand, however, the retreat to Scotland is also steeped in nostalgia: Bond’s nostalgia for his past, his parents, his childhood; M’s nostalgia for a simpler time in terms of espionage; and the film’s nostalgia, in its fiftieth year, for its own history – signaled most notably by the return of the emblematic Aston Martin, but also by the recourse to Scotland, the homeland of Sean Connery, the first actor to play Bond.  Moreover, Silva’s inability to cope with the mode of combat employed by Bond et al at the Skyfall mansion – a fact he directly acknowledges when he tells Bond that the only consequence of all this running around is exhaustion – reveals a further layer of nostalgia for a former age in which Britain was firmly in control, both at home and abroad.

That Scotland should be the site of this nostalgic display reflects on the internal tensions currently bubbling on the surface of British politics, what with Alex Salmond’s political dominance in Scotland and with the independence referendum set for autumn 2014.  To return to the question of Otherness and belonging, does this portrait of Scotland as backward, lawless, and savage therefore constitute the country – like Silva – as a formerly compliant, rogue element?  Or does the film conversely express a wistful desire for the reinstatement of these values within the context of a united United Kingdom?

The politics of Skyfall remain somewhat opaque.  Though the action begins with an act of cyber terrorism that threatens the security of the UK, but that undoubtedly has global ramifications, the film’s plot development hinges upon a transition from this international politics to the sphere of the personal, evidenced by the focus on Silva’s vendetta against M, which becomes the central plotline of the film.  This is confirmed by the geographical traces of the film, the trajectory of which is as follows: Turkey, London, Shanghai, Macao, Hashima Island (Japan), London, Scotland.  Skyfall therefore becomes increasingly introspective, emphasising the import of the internal tensions currently at stake in the UK.  To return to Bardem, the Hispanic Other who is more similar than different, the film thus demonstrates Saïd ’s contention that the framework of Orientalism – in this context detached from the Orient and reassigned to the figure of the Other – reveals more about the West than it does the Other.  And in this respect, the figure of the Other and the cipher of Otherness enables a reading of Skyfall as a confused self-assessment of contemporary British culture and politics.

Through these various strategies, is Skyfall trying to satisfy many audiences?  Is it unresolved about differences, be they sexual or racial, which leads to this troubling vision that simultaneously celebrates and besmirches difference? Then, what of the political issues?  The terrorist is known and unknown, unidentifiable and clearly identified, and is to be defeated by a mix of surveillance equipment, out-moded technology, clever ruses and single hand combat instead of an arsenal of weapons, yet comes bearing his own big army and high tech weaponry.  The confusion is symptomatic of the anomaly of a franchise that is anachronistic and harks back to an age of Empire, while trying to evolve into something that resembles the norms and mores of the twenty-first century, as well as exploring the unresolved sexual and racial tensions that such a franchise has long played on.

Books referenced (all other sources are hyperlinked)

Garber, Marjorie (1992) Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London & New York: Penguin Books.

Saïd , Edward (2003) Orientalism London: Penguin Books.

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.

All About Javier

As a brief update  – and taking a momentary pause from cinema and death – I’ve spent the last few weeks preoccupied with just one man: Javier Bardem.  Work-wise, I’ve been preparing a conference paper – which will be the subject of my next post – on two of Bardem’s recent films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Biutiful.

Outside of research, I went to see the new Bond film Skyfall in which Bardem plays camp villain Silva.  Though I may be slightly
biased, I thought Bardem’s performance was brilliant.

The sinister Silva is far removed from the exotic Spanish Other played by Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (or in Eat Pray Love for that matter), and conjoined with his previous appearance in No Country for Old Men, the film opens up a particular set of questions concerning the significance of Hispanic villains in mainstream/North American cinema.

More on Bardem to follow in my next post!

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One

Over the past few weeks, my PhD research has been focused on the convergence of cinema and death in Spanish immigration films. At the level of narrative, death is a prominent theme in my corpus of films – which includes Biutiful, Amador, Retorno a Hansala, and Ilegal. However, the significance of death extends beyond narrative, given its prominence in theoretical explorations of cinema, and of visual technologies more generally. Indeed, the spectre of death that haunts cinema does not originate with the medium of cinema, but rather is inherited from cinema’s representational predecessors, in particular photography.

Theoretical explorations of death and photography begin with three B’s: Benjamin, Bazin, and Barthes. In 1939, Walter Benjamin remarked, in his essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, that ‘The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock’. In the mid-twentieth century, in his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image, André Bazin posited photography and cinema as the latest incarnations of the plastic arts, whose aim is to embalm the dead. And in the 1970s, Roland Barthes conducted a slightly bizarre personal reading of the intersection of photography and death in his book Camera Lucida, firstly through his search for the essence of his dead mother, and secondly through the presence of death within the photographic structure, given that each image contains the potential for ‘the return of the dead’. While Bazin views photographic technologies as a means of preservation against death, Benjamin and Barthes tend towards the photographic image as a prediction of death-to-come.

Like photography, the medium of cinema has been haunted by death since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Early cinema is imbricated with death in two ways: firstly, initial reactions to film are characterised by the Bazinian view of this new technology as a medium capable of combating mortality due to its ability to preserve the image of those no longer present; and secondly, early cinema witnessed the emergence of death as subject matter in the subgenre of the execution film, examples of which are here and here. For more on this, see Mary Ann Doane‘s The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

My interest lies in cinema’s conceptualisation as a spectral medium, an idea which has gained further currency in the last decade with the transition to digital, and which has been explored in detail by D. N. Rodowick in his book The Virtual Life of Film. In my next post, I’ll write more about the connection between cinema and spectrality, and how it relates to my chapter.

London / Luis Tosar / Mientras duermes

Last week, I had a short break from PhD work and went off on my travels to London.  While there I attended the Mientras duermes  screening at the London Spanish Film Festival, which was preceded by an interview with Luis Tosar.

***DISCLOSURE: As an avid fan of Tosar and his work, I cannot promise that this review will be impartial!***

Asked about why he decided to become an actor, Luis explained that an early inspiration was a school teacher of his who encouraged him to read and to perform in class.  He discussed his early work in Galicia, and his timidity when his career carried him beyond the territory of his home region.  He spoke of his continued commitment to Galician cinema, and of the work involved when promoting regional culture elsewhere in Spain.  When an audience member asked how far (in geographical terms) his work would be likely to take him, he responded honestly that he was not sure, but that he saw himself in Spain for the moment – he commented that given the current state of affairs there, many of his colleagues have left and those who can afford to stay, like him, should do so.

Erudite, endearing, and witty, Luis revealed an astute awareness of the political possibilities of film.  Discussing the impact of cine social in Spain, he commended the way in which the genre had succeeded in making contemporary issues visible.  For Luis, this is further underscored by today’s culture in which news items appear so quickly and immediately, only to disappear again within an instant, and without the opportunity for reflection.  Cinema, by contrast, provides both time and space for the treatment and contemplation of topical social matters.

Though not an example of the cine social genre, Mientras duermes does contend with a number of key issues pertinent to contemporary society both within and beyond Spain.  The central theme is trust and its violation, given that the film’s villain occupies a position of responsibility.  Tosar plays César, the caretaker of a modernist apartment block in Barcelona.  Desperately unhappy, César believes he has two options by which to improve his state of mind: take his own life, or make the residents of the apartment block in which he works as miserable as he is.  Calling into question the boundaries of inside and outside, of security and threat, the film is tense and claustrophobic – an example of this is the repeated high angle images of César in his cramped shower cubicle.  Moreover, the film’s subversive play extends into genre conventions, particularly with regard to typical patterns of identification.  By aligning the spectator with villain César rather than with his victims, the tension created provokes an uneasy and ambivalent reaction in the viewer.

I hesitate to say more about the film as it is due for UK release in January 2013 – definitely worth a watch!
(Thanks to Rebecca Naughten, whose Spanish Cinema blog alerted me to the festival and this event)

Digesting Derrida

I’m currently working on Jacques Derrida, in particular Echographies of Television and Spectres of Marx.  Recently I produced a draft version of the third chapter of my phd thesis, which considers how immigration and death intersect in contemporary Spanish cinema. While researching this chapter, I happened to read Spectres. I find Derrida particularly challenging and not overly enjoyable to read- something that makes me reluctant to engage with his work. However, my supervisors were both taken with the way I applied his ideas, such as spectrality and the twin facets of occupation and exorcism, to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films.
I’ve since adapted my usual reading pattern – usually I read relevant material in its entirety rather than reading small sections – and have been working through Derrida in digestible chunks (i.e. a chapter a day) so as not to lose my patience! This is already proving more productive  -I’m finding his work much easier to stomach!