Tag Archives: Blancanieves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lyrics of the song are as follows:

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te llamo y no me contestas/

No sé por dónde estarás

(I look for you but I cannot find you/

I look for you but I cannot find you/

I call you and you don’t answer me/

I don’t know where you might be).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blancanieves: A brief review

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 Image from http://www.mevio.com/feeds/chronicrift.xml

 ***This post contains spoilers; please do not read if you still want to watch the film without knowing what happens!***

On Saturday afternoon, I finally got the chance to watch Pablo Berger’s 2012 film Blancanieves.  The film touches on several topics pertinent to my PhD thesis; in writing this, I’ve realised how much I need to unpack what I think about the film, particularly in terms of performance, gender, and nation.  As a result, this post is a rudimentary introduction to the film, which I hope to follow up with more nuanced interpretations at a later date.

Berger’s Blancanieves was one of three cinematic retellings of the Snow White tale to be released in 2012: the other two were Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White, which was directed by Tarsem Singh with Julia Roberts in the role of the evil stepmother; and Snow White and the Huntsman, which was directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the evil stepmother.  Though I haven’t seen Mirror Mirror, the distinctiveness of each of the three retellings is evidence of the richness and adaptability of fairytale narratives, which continue to provide fuel for our imaginations.

Stylistically, Blancanieves is the most ambitious of 2012’s three retellings of Snow White: set in 1920s Spain, the film is both silent and black and white.  The likenesses between it and the Oscar-winning The Artist are not difficult to see; however, it is worth noting that Berger’s project has been in development for a number of years (read an interview with him here (in Spanish) where he talks about his inspiration for the film, the years he put into the project and so on).

Berger’s adaptation sees the Snow White narrative take on a (somewhat stereotypical) Spanish twist.  The protagonist is a young girl named Carmen (Macarena García), daughter of bull-fighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and flamenco performer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).  While Antonio is treated in hospital following an accident in the bullring, his wife is also in hospital, and dies giving birth to their first child.  Nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú), learns of this and works her way into Antonio’s life.  According to the ‘Making Of’ feature on the DVD, the role of the evil stepmother was written specifically for Verdú.  Blancanieves is, in this respect, akin to Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman in its casting of an attractive young woman in this role.

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Image from http://iberosphere.com/2013/02/spain-news-cinema-its-goya-time/7942

Following the death of her mother, and her father’s remarriage, the child is brought up by her maternal grandmother (Ángela Molina), who teaches her to dance flamenco.  When her grandmother passes away, Carmen is sent to live with Encarna.  She forbids the child from ascending the stairs to the first floor – where her wheelchair-bound father lives.  Carmen is forced to sleep in a squalid outbuilding, and to work relentlessly on the estate.  One day, she decides to defy her stepmother and venture upstairs.  Carmen and her father develop a close bond: he teaches her the art of bullfighting; and she dances flamenco for him.  Encarna discovers this betrayal, and slays Carmen’s pet chicken Pepe.  She then arranges for her lover to attack Carmen in the woods.  Unconscious, and with no memory of who she is, Carmen is taken in by six bullfighting dwarves.  They label her ‘Blancanieves, como la del cuento’ (‘like her from the fairytale’).

ImageImage from http://www.contraplano.es/rodajes/pablo-berger-convierte-maribel-verdu-madrastra-de-blancanieves.php#.UXVbwtxwbIU

Through them, she rediscovers her knowledge of bullfighting.  She begins performing with them, becoming famous in the process.  As the story unfolds, Encarna becomes aware of the true identity of ‘Blancanieves’, and attempts to poison her with an apple following a victorious performance in the Plaza de Toros in Seville.  Slipping into a coma, the girl continues to function as a spectacle.  Patrons pay a small fee to be able to kiss her on the lips, in the hope that she will awake.  The film ends with one of the dwarves kissing Carmen on the lips: the camera closes in on the corner of her eye, detailing a tear brimming at its edge.

I’ll begin at the end, simply because the image is strikingly ambivalent.  The film avoids the conventional fairytale, ‘happily ever after’ ending.  Carmen, our Spanish Snow White, does not awaken from her slumber with a kiss from a Prince.  In fact, she’s not even shown waking up.  The tear is thus ambiguous: has Carmen/Snow White awakened?  Or is this an automatic bodily response, akin to those of the comatose female bodies of Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella?  Is this a tear of joy?  Or of sadness?  For me at least, the absence of a Prince opens up feminist possibilities within Blancanieves and the Snow White narrative more generally.  (This is supported by the fact that it is not Carmen who takes care of the dwarves after they take her into their home; it is, rather, cross-dressing dwarf Josefa who carries out such duties).  However, the question remains as to where Carmen/Snow White’s freedom lies in this film.  Her ambivalent tear leaves these distinct interpretations open.

The ambivalence of Carmen/Snow White’s character is apparent throughout the film, particularly with regard to her familial and national heritage.  In the first instance, the name Carmen is of the utmost significance in terms of the complexities of Spanish national identity.  The figure of Carmen was created by Prosper Mérimée in his 1845 novella of the same name.  The novella was later adapted into an opera by Georges Bizet.  Crucially then, Carmen is a French creation, an icon of Spanishness imposed upon Spain from the outside.  She is a product of nineteenth-century Francophone Romanticism, which figured Spain as the exotic Other of Europe.  (For more on this, see my post ‘Spaniards, Immigrants, and Tourists in Contemporary “Spanish” Cinema’).  Over the years, Carmen has been consistently reappropriated, her story retold in a variety of distinct contexts (see the excellent volume Carmen on Film: A Cultural History or Ann Davies’ chapter ‘The Male Body and the Female Gaze in Carmen Films’ in The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema for examples of such adaptations).  Despite her appropriation by Spaniards, the most iconic filmic examples being Florián Rey’s Carmen, la de Triana (1938) and Carlos Saura’s Carmen (1983), she remains an icon of cultural complexity in the Spanish context, an ambivalent figure that is at once Spanish and foreign, self and other.  In this respect, the recasting of Snow White as a Spanish Carmen adds a further layer of intricacy to the conceptualisation of Spanish national identity.

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Image from http://www.blogdecine.com/criticas/blancanieves-y-los-siete-enanitos-toreros

Furthermore, as the daughter of a bullfighting father and a flamenco-performing mother, Carmen is imbued with (albeit stereotypical) Spanishness.  Both pursuits have become synonymous with Spain, certainly from out with Spanish borders.  Significantly, it is through the pursuit of bullfighting that Carmen regains her memory.  This, coupled with the fact that the film is set in the 1920s, points towards a reclamation of Spanishness and/or a sense of identity more generally, through an engagement with the past.

In sum, Blancanieves delves into questions of the performance of national identity, by combining an engagement with stereotypical symbols of such an identity with a narrative format that is not confined by national boundaries.  This identity is, it seems, commandeered by the past, both in terms of the film’s setting in the 1920s, and in relation to the importance of memory for the protagonist in her reclamation of her own past.  (We should note that it is through bullfighting – rather than flamenco – that her memory returns, indicating a particularly strong affinity with her father).  While the absence of a Prince to save Carmen/Snow White strikes me as potentially feminist, the film continually closes down the girl’s possibilities for freedom and/or independence.  As I’ve already mentioned, this post has aided me in articulating my initial thoughts on viewing the film, and while writing, I’ve realised that there is still a lot I need to think through more carefully.  Suffice to say for the moment, that Blancanieves is an intricately layered film that requires much teasing out – a task I hope to fulfil in my chapter on Performance, and perhaps in another blog post (or two!).