Tag Archives: performance

Reflective Response to Diana Taylor’s Performance

As I’ve already detailed elsewhere on this blog, I’ve not currently got much time available to dedicate to research. In spite of this, I do have a work schedule to uphold as I have a monograph, on performance and politics in contemporary Spanish cinema, under contract (if interested, you can read the proposal here). The monograph is based in part on one of the chapters of my PhD thesis but it radically reworks and expands that material, also incorporating new research. The manuscript is due to be submitted in April 2018. Of late I’ve been trying to spend any research time I have reading as I have a wealth of sources I’m keen to work through prior to getting down to some serious writing. That said, I’d also ideally like to keep up something of a writing habit if at all possible. Inspired by a conversation on Twitter with Dr Nathan Ryder and Dr Helen Kara last week, I thought I’d write a wee reflective blog post on the source I most recently finished reading: Performance by Diana Taylor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Diana Taylor Performance Book Cover

Originally published in Spanish in 2012, Performance (2016) constitutes not just a translation but rather ‘part introduction and part reflection on some of the uses of performance that interest [the author] most – the power of performance to enable individuals and collectives to reimagine and restage the social rules, codes, and conventions that prove most oppressive and damaging’ (xiv). The original volume was, in the author’s own words, ‘a little glossy book on performance’ and won a design award (xiii). The reworked volume is also very visually appealing, a textual and visual performance in itself due to its layout. Rather than being presented in a conventional format, the book has an engaging textual interface that combines distinct fonts and font sizes alongside bold and capitalised text. There are in addition a plethora of images throughout the work. These images interact with the text in interesting ways, offering illustrative examples of the theoretical frameworks and ideas under discussion. From a disciplinary perspective, Performance presents a playful and innovative means of academic engagement with image and text.

 

In terms of content, Taylor focuses primarily on performance in the context of performance art though she does also consider other activities under this rubric. While my book project concentrates more specifically on cinematic representations of performance, Taylor’s interventions are still of interest to the material that forms the core of my analyses. Her first chapter, ‘Framing [Performance]’, offers an analysis of how she understands and defines performance. She begins by pinpointing the role of the body in art from the 1960s onwards (1) before stressing the wide-reaching character of performance: ‘PERFORMANCE is not always about art. It’s a wide-ranging and difficult practice to define and holds many, at times conflicting, meanings and possibilities’ (6). She offers an overview of how performance has been defined by various people including artists and theorists. She suggests that performance ‘is not limited to mimetic repetition’ but also ‘includes the possibility of change, critique, and creativity within frameworks of repetition’ (15). This therefore reserves a certain potency in performance. It is a mode that challenges existing paradigms precisely through the manipulation of those same paradigms. She also charts the value of performance as ‘vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated actions’ (25). She glosses Judith Butler in a discussion of the relationship between performance and gender (32) before defining performance as ‘a practice and an epistemology, a creative doing, a methodological lens, a way of transmitting memory and identity, and a way of understanding the world’ (39). At the same time, however, she acknowledges the importance of context: ‘Performances are neither universal nor transparent; their meanings change depending on the time and context and framing of their realization’ (40). This introductory chapter serves as a succinct and yet detailed overview of various definitions of performance and will be of interest to those seeking a way into thinking about performance in its diverse iterations.

 

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are all of notable interest for my book project. Chapter 2, ‘Performance Histories’, surveys the history of performance art. Crucial for my purposes is her assertion of a strong historical link between performance and politics: she defines performance art as ‘anti-institutional, anti-elitist, anticonsumerist’ and contends that it is in this way that performance ‘came to constitute, almost by definition, a provocation and a political act’ (49). Again of interest to my work is her third chapter, ‘Spect-Actors’ in which Taylor unpacks the significance of spectatorship in relation to performance. She charts theoretical paradigms of spectatorship in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Artaud, Rancière among others, reaching the conclusion that ‘Performances ask that spectators do something, even if that something is doing nothing’ (86). Taylor’s fourth chapter is titled ‘The New Uses of Performance’ and surveys contemporary deployments of the rhetoric of performance with a particular emphasis on the political: ‘Political advisers know that performance as STYLE (rather than ACCOMPLISHMENT) generally wins elections’ (90). Through these chapters, the author charts both the emergence of performance as concept via the history of performance art and its contemporary deployments.

 

The middle section of Performance concentrates on the current status of performance art and performance more broadly. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 deal with distinct modes of performance. Chapter 5, ‘Performative and Performativity’, engages with the paradigm of performativity in relation to gender and the body, unpacking the role played by language with regards performance. Chapter 6 explores two key concepts, the scenario and the simulation, and analyses the ways in which performance facilitates the garnering of knowledge. Finally, Chapter 7, ‘Artivists (Artist-Activists), or, What’s to Be Done?’, provides detailed consideration of key works that subscribe to the notion that ‘Performance […] is the continuation of politics by other means’ (147). Read together, these three chapters outline the main conceptual paradigms at work in contemporary understandings of performance.

 

The final two chapters offer a nod to what awaits both performance as mode and performance studies as a discipline. Chapter 8 considers the future of performance, but of course to invoke the future is also to invoke the past. Taylor explores the significance of the archive in relation to performance and performance art, paying particular attention to the Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present as an instance of how both past and future are imbricated in performances. Chapter 9 continues with the notion of the future in relation to performance by surveying the discipline of performance studies. She proposes that ‘If the norm of performance is breaking norms, the norm of performance studies is to break disciplinary boundaries’ (200). After examining distinct ways in which performance is thought of within the field, she concludes that ‘What they have in common is their shared object of study: performance – in the broadest possible sense – as a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world’ (202). Ultimately, Taylor contends that ‘performance constitutes a means of communication, a doing, and a doing with and to’ (208) and that ‘Performance is world-making. We need to understand it’ (208).

 

In sum, this is an engaging and insightful volume that offers a reflective overview of the concept of performance in contemporary society. Taylor does focus on the field of performance art specifically which, for my purposes, makes the work less relevant to my book project on performance and its representations in contemporary Spanish cinema. That said, the author does also provide an original take on the theoretical paradigms governing understandings of performance both historically and nowadays.

 

Book Proposal: Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance

My main research project at present is the production of a monograph entitled Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance. The book takes inspiration from one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, but significantly reworks this material alongside new research. Inspired by a recent post by Ellie Mackin, I have decided to share the book proposal I submitted to I. B. Tauris last year to give an overview of the project and in the case that it should be useful for others currently working on a book proposal. I was offered a book contract and I am currently preparing the manuscript for submission in April 2018.

IB TAURIS BOOK PROPOSAL – The Politics of Performance in Contemporary Spanish Cinema

Politics, Performance and the Heteronormative Couple: Ocho apellidos vascos (Martínez Lázaro, 2014)

Figure 1: Ocho apellidos vascos

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.

 

Figure 2: Marriage as central in Ocho apellidos vascos

 

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.

 

Figure 3: Performing heteronormative romance

 

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?

 

Figure 4: Forged families

 

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.

The Politics of Performance in Noviembre (Achero Mañas, 2003)

Figure 1: The Gun as Performance Prop (Noviembre, 2003)
Figure 1: The Gun as Performance Prop (Noviembre, 2003)

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 here).  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.

Continue reading The Politics of Performance in Noviembre (Achero Mañas, 2003)

A Family That Is Not A Family: Familia (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1996)

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.

A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)
Figure 1: A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)

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.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Holding Hands (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective

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.

Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)
Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)

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).

Reflection on New Forms of Transmission and Performing Independence Workshop

On Thursday I attended a one-day workshop at the University of Aberdeen entitled New Forms of Transmission and Performing Independence.  This was the third in a series of workshops organised and co-ordinated by Nerea Arruti (University of Aberdeen), Gustavo San Román (University of St Andrews), and Kathryn Crameri (University of Glasgow).

The workshop was inspired by a series of key questions:

  • Are the new media and speedier platforms of communication creating new transnational networks that impact on new formations of mobilization and new social creativity?
  • Does the media create new artistic expression?
  • Does the speed of exchange create a new way of performing politics and art?
  • What is the role of the arts and cultural policy makers in such differing contexts?

The day began with an informal introduction by Nerea, who conjoined the ideas of conflict, emotion, performance, and the body as crucial themes for discussion.  Nerea spoke in particular about the Basque situation and about the role of the witness in relation to both Rikardo Arregi (who visited the University of Aberdeen to perform a poetry reading in November 2013) and his collection of poems It Must Be Said Twice and the 2010 ETA ceasefire, which was announced twice because the first was barely acknowledged.  She also called upon Jacques Derrida’s essay on forgiveness as an act of performance.

This was followed by a presentation from Mari José Olaziregi – Cultural Co-ordinator for the Etxepare Basque Cultural Institute in which she foregrounded the work that Etxepare do in terms of the promotion of the Basque language and Basque culture in Spain and beyond.  In particular, Mari José discussed the difficulty of promoting Basque language and culture within the Spanish culture, and the usefulness of programmes such as Hispanic Studies (UK) and Iberian Studies (US) as means of integrating Basque into existing formats.  The paper’s respondent was Neil Curtis (Head of Museums, University of Aberdeen), who offered a reflection on Mari José’s presentation with reference to the role of the museum in terms of a culture’s promotion.

 

Etxeparelogoa
Image from http://www.euskalkultura.com/news/the-etxepare-basque-institute-will-be-at-midem-in-cannes-and-at-the-expolangues-fair-in-paris?language_sync=1

After a lively discussion among the participants and attendants, journalist and writer Iñigo Astiz offered a presentation entitled ‘Writing the Reader: Literature and Press Reception in the Basque Context’.  Iñigo argued that while the focus of the last decade or so has been the production of Basque culture, our attention should now switch to the phenomenon of reception, with particular consideration of the demographics of Basque readership in terms of age.  The key question of his paper: who reads what we produce?  The discussion that followed addressed many topics, including the instability of bilingualism, the notion of preservation in relation to language and culture, and the role of digital publishing.

A quick lunch break ensued, and we returned to a paper from Josep-Anton Fernàndez (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) on the topic of ‘Constructing Identities, Mobilising Emotions: New Forms of Political and Cultural Activism in Catalonia’.  Josep-Anton addressed the dynamics of Catalanism and independence in the contemporary context, discussing the various movements and activities that have been organised in recent years, including the Via Catalana.  Respondent Kathryn Crameri offered a comparison with the current situation in Scotland, with particular reference to the differing role of emotion in this context.

 

Via_Catalana
Image from http://www.lavanguardia.com/participacion/20130911/54381300106/via-catalana-lectores.html

The day was rounded off with a poetry reading of a selection of Iñigo’s poems in Basque, with myself reading the poems in English translation.  Iñigo’s poetry addresses some of the themes we had been discussing throughout the day, such as bodies and viscerality, the importance of place and the relationship of the local and the global, and intergenerational transfer and emotional bonds between people.  The poetry reading provided an example of the crucial role that art and culture plays within the sphere of academic and intellectual debate.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative day.

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!).

“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.