I began playing the Ten Films in Ten Days game on Facebook. The instructions were: ‘I was nominated by Andrew Grimes Griffin – One movie a day for 10 days. No explanation, no reviews, just the poster of the movie that greatly influenced my film-loving life.’ However, the no-explanation bit annoyed people so much that I decided to offer it, and since I am writing them, I thought I´d also share them here:
I was nominated by Andrew Grimes Griffin – One movie a day for 10 days. The no explanation bit is annoying people so: I saw this at the Montreal Film Festival when it came out and was completely delighted and shocked it came from Spain. I then went to the Toronto Film Festival and they had a mini retrospective of his work and I was so excited about that that I went to Madrid and interviewed Almodóvar at his flat. He was watching on replay the bit in Written on the Wind where MeryLee goes up the stairs and does that frenzied dancing no one who´s seen the film has forgotten. I annoyed him by mentioning I liked Gutierrez-Aragon´s films. The result was published in Descant, a literary magazine I think no longer exists. This then led to me doing an MA on Almodóvar and The Law of Desire with Thomas Elsaesser at UEA, in the midst of which I also remember going to Spain and with great difficulty getting all his early films from his production company to aid with my research. So this film is what led to an academic career, and the irony is that the schedules and finances of academic life, or at least mine, never permitted me to do that kind of research again, the being able to travel, interview, and then having a year of doing nothing but reading, seeing and writing. Voila.
Carlos Sánchez Pérez, the celebrated painter, illustrator and graphic designer best known by the sounds of the first letter of each of his names, (Ce, ese, pe) — Ceesepe, — died of Leukemia in Madrid on the 7th of September. RIP. Ceesepe was the painter of the scoundrelous (is that a word?: ‘el pintor de lo canalla). He did the great credit sequence for Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, etc, the posters for Labyrinth of Passion, Entre Tinieblas and The Law of Desire.
His images are a vivid conjuring of the Spain of ‘La movida’ covering as they did albums, comics, advertisements for bands, all the night life of the Madrid of the period.
His work was even sought after outside Spain:
This is one of my favourite alternate posters he did for Law of Desire:
Writing on Las cosas del querer in the year 2000 (see reference at end) ….I noted how the film re-imagines and re-images Spain through the ‘figure of the homosexual and through homosexual culture, i.e. what in the film’s narrative is exiled from Spain, the film itself re-constructs and re-inserts into the representation of nation. When Mario (Manuel Bandera) is discharged from jail at the beginning of the film, the warden contemptuously hands him what he sees as his faggotty castanets and tells him, ‘in this Spain of peace there is no place for reds or queers’. But in the Spain of Las cosas, queers are in fact everywhere: cafes, toilets, and aristocratic drawing rooms; on-stage, backstage and, most importantly in the audience. When María Barranco sings that she is delighted to be ‘single for life’, the campy boys in the audience respond in the feminine, ‘nosotras tambien (we are a well)’.
A pivotal moment in Las cosas, one which demonstrates how the film draws on gay culture and the folklore film is the scene below, where Mario (Manuel Bandera) sings, ‘Te lo juro yo (I swear to you)’ to Juan (Ángel de Andrés López). Structurally this is the climax of the film where Mario declares his love for Juan, rejects the Marquis and insults the Marquis’ mother, thus setting in play the mechanisms for the dénoument. We are first shown Mario in long shot. The song begins. Mario, looking intently at Juan in medium close-up, abruptly turns away to face the empty theatre as he begins to sing, ‘Yo no me di cuenta de que te tenía hasta el mismo dia en que te perdi (I didn’t realise I had you until the very first day I lost you)’. Mario sings of his suffering and begs for love. When the lyrics gets to the point that the break-up was all his fault because he slept around, we are shown the Marquis spying on the performance, a clear reference to Mario’s own sexual appetite. However the key moment is when, in close-up, Mario, eyes brimming with tears, turns abruptly back to face Juan and sings the lyrics, declares his love, directly to him ‘mira que te llevo dentro de mi corazón…mira que pa mí en el mundo no hay na mas que tú….por tí contaria la arena del mar, por tí seria capaz de matar (Look, I carry you within my heart..Look, for there is only you…for you I would count the sand in the sea, for you I would be capable of killing)’. Juan squirms with embarrassment but Mario will sing the rest of the song directly to him.
Gay male audiences were avid and knowledgeable consumers of the folklore genre and the films, songs and stars of the genre were, and continue to be, an important part of Spanish camp culture. Jo Labanyi in Screen has written that the ‘early Francoist folklórica has in recent years enjoyed a revival with Spanish gay audiences because of its camp exposure and the evident constructedness of its representation of gender roles. Las cosas not only puts the gay audience back in to the picture diegetically but also addresses gay in the audience through a mode of narration that acknowledges and utilises a camp appreciation of the genre at various levels.
The climax of Las cosas del querer is the declaration of love of one man for another through a song that has rich connotations. Lola Flores famously performed ‘Te lo juro yo’ to Fernando Fernan Gomez in Morena Clara (Luis Lucia, 1954, see clip above). She was the happy-go-lucky gypsy, he the stiff lawyer. Lola is leaving hims because his mother has convinced her that she would damage his career. So she sings him this song as a way of saying goodbye and with an intensity of feeling and a sense of self-abnegation that echoes and begs comparison with Bandera’s more restrained and less skilful performance. But what is also carried through is the memory of Lola Flores and what she signifies both in the folklore film and in gay culture. Leonardo Rojic has rated her as one of the greatest camp icons. Roger D. Tinnell calls her the ‘Queen’ of Spanish music. She was also a mythic star of folklore cinema in the Spain of the 40s and 50s. Román Guber compared these folklore stars to monsters: ‘in times of (economic) depression the cinema converts itself not so much to a factory of dreams as into a factory of nightmares. The Americans invented King King, we invented the folklóricas‘.
It’s a cruel remark, Lola, so famous and beloved she was called Lola of Spain was seen to represent what was best about Spanishness: talent, wit, pluck, energy and of course alegría (gaeity). She embodied this in such an exaggerated way that it became camp. SeeingManolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, Netflix, 2017) it was interesting to see Blahnik and John Galliano bonding together through a campy appreciation of Lola Flores (see image above) which demonstrates both their love for her and her continued sub-cultural significance.
What I didn’t know when I wrote the article on Las cosas in the year 2000 is that the song was also performed by Sara Montiel in Varietés (see above). So the use of the song in Las cosas del querer has associations not only with one diva but with two; two stars associated with outsiderness and transgression; two figures central to camp appreciation in Spain from the late forties right through at least the 80s and beyond, two transgressive figures, through which male homosexual audiences in Spain learned particular ways of being gay and a particular gay culture which they could contribute to, participate in, change; and in doing so find an imaginary space through which to construct an identity, a culture and a society in a country in which they were forbidden to; where their very being resulted in censure and punishment.
It’s interesting now to see the same number in Las cosas as a re-presentation of queerness in Spain brought together in a declaration of homosexual love that speaks through a collective memory of a camp appreciation of both Lola Flores and Sara Montiel, processes that Almodóvar dramatises so well in relation to Montiel in La mala educación/ Bad Education.
You can see Almodóvar’s hommage to Flores below:
And here is his hommage to Sara Montiel:
Three versions of the same song across three films from different decades, sung by two gay divas and one homosexual speaks a particular gay culture, its development, change and uses, as is evident in Almodóvar’s appreciation of both.
José Arroyo, ‘Queering the Folklore: Genre and Re-presentation of Homosexual and National Identities in Las cosas del querer‘, Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell (eds), London: Intellect Books, 2000, pp. 70-80. All other references can be found in this article.
In the post-war period there were a hand-full of European stars who enjoyed international stardom without recourse to Hollywood: Bardot, Mastroianni, Dirk Bogarde, María Félix, a few others. Sara Montiel was one of those stars. Her films were popular all over Latin America, most of Europe and even in the Middle East. They were so successful, and there was such a demand for them, that the release of Mi último tango had to be delayed so that her previous film, Carmen la de Ronda/ A Girl Aginst Napoleon (Tulio Demichelli, 1959), could enjoy its full run.
Aside from her work in Spain, Montiel had starred in popular films in Mexico, such as Necesito dinero (1952) and Piel Canela (1953). She’d also been in popular Hollywood films such as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper (1954). But after the extraordinary international success of El ultimo cuplé she is reported to have said, ‘why should I return to Hollywood to play Indians’. Her accent and perhaps also her skin colour limited the roles she was offered. Thus even though she was married to Anthony Mann, one of the best and most successful Hollywood directors of the period, she never made a film in Hollywood again.
Instead, she chose to make films like Mi último tango, light musical comedies, with a loose structure in which to hang some musical numbers, with Sara modelling an endless array of glamorous ‘looks’ (see below,) and co-starring a European or Latin American star, really only there to fall in love with her, watch her triumph marry her at the end, and help with the distribution in at least his country of origin. Here it’s Maurice Ronet (see above), fresh from his triumph in Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold/ Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and René Clément’s Plein Soleil/ Purple Noon
I’ve chosen to put examples of each of Montiel’s many ‘looks’ in the film, and by this I mean not only dresses (by Humberto Cornejo and Rafael Ballester) but also hair-dos (Carmen Sánchez), make-up (Carmen Marin), jewels, accoutrements such as boas and hats, etc, because they not only help tell the story — very evident when, as above, one shows them in chronological order — but also because appreciating and discussing these looks was one of the great pleasures of watching these films for filmgoers of the era.
The plot is a ludicrous one, Montiel is Marta Andreu, the daughter of an impresario that unsuccessfully tours opera across the provinces, where no one wants to see it. They go broke and Marta gets a job as a maid to a temperamental star, Luisa Marivel (Laura Granados). One day the star is so nervous –her impresario doesn’t want to buy her a house — that she loses her voice on stage, and Marta has to sing her song offstage whilst the star mimes, just like Debbie Reynolds in Singin in the Rain. Miravel decides to take Marta and her aunt (Isabel Garcés) to Buenos Aires, where she’s got an engagement. But the impresario buys her the house and she decides to stay but informs her maid that no one must know she’s not on the ship as that will affect the outcome of the lawsuits to come. Thus Marta impersonates Marivel, enjoys enormous success, and renews her acquaintance with Dario Ledesma (Ronet), who falls for her but can’t marry her because he feels obliged to a young woman who’s in a wheel chair. Just as he’s resolved that problem and is about to propose to Marta, she goes blind in a fire after her last triumphant performance in Buenos Aires. She refuses his proposal, fearing its due to pity, and not wanting to limit his future happiness. But he will get her cured and all will be well. It’s all nonsense really, merely an excuse to hang the songs, in this case some of the most famous tangos in the history of popular song; even Gardel makes an appearance, with Milo Quesada miming to Gardel’s records.
I here want to highlight only three things from the movie. One is simply the ‘maniquí’ number which you can see below.
I post this for its reference to Singin in the Rain and for its subsequent deployment in Almodóvar’s La mala educación (1999), which you can see below:
I also want to highlight Montiel’s singing of Gardel’s great ‘Yira, yira’ because the number is done in drag with Montiel’s wearing a man’s suit. At the end she takes her hat off to reveal her flowing hair, thus ‘normalising’ her gender, she’s now a woman again. This might not seem like very much but it was considered very transgressive at the time, when, as Montiel writes in her autobiography, Vivir es un placer, ‘the censors prevented me from even showing leg above the knee’ (p.357) and wearing men’s suits in public was considered scandalous. Its worth noting that all the great stars of these years who became gay icons dragged up in men’s clothes in some of their most famous films (Dietrich in Morocco, Garbo in Queen Christina, Davis in The Great Lie, Garland in various numbers including one of her most famous, Get Happy, etc.
Lastly, I want to point to possible borrowings and influences. I’ve already mentioned Singin’ in the Rain (and you can see it in the ‘maniqui’ number above) but there’s also the scene at the train station, very reminiscent of Crawford’s great moment of longing in Possessed (see images below)
And lastly, a bit of a joke but who knows? Sara Montiel wore it earlier and wore it better:
Mi último is very light fare, occasionally campy and ludicrous but also very glamorous and with a great score that offers Sara Montiel the opportunity to sing classic tangos in her own very imitable way and showcases all that audiences then and now love and admire about her to advantage.
Isabel Garcés, a beloved comic actress of the Spanish cinema of this period, with a very distinctive high-pitched yet raspy voice, is delightful as Montiel’s aunt.
Day Four: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)
Seeing Law of Desire at the World Film Festival in Montreal in ’87 started a life-long love affair with his work. A retrospective at TIFF a year or so later cemented the relationship. I interviewed him just after, in his flat in Madrid, and several times since. I can measure my adult life, where I lived, and the flow of all my important relationship through his films. I cried to this song from Kika for almost a whole year after the break-up of an early long-term relationship which coincided with the film’s release in 1993. On another day I would have chosen another of his films. Today it’s All About My Mother because I saw All About Eve on TV last night. I remember doing a day school at Film House in Edinburgh when the film came out, and watching all these middle-aged, middle-class ladies come in with their House of Fraser bags and thinking ‘shit. How are they going to react to a film with transvestite hookers, nuns dying of AIDS, etc etc.’ Within half an hour the whole audience was as one in tears (and in laughter). It reminded me of Almodóvar’s great ability to get practically any audience to identify with and feel for those whom their society most marginalises and oppresses. It’s a gift he’s not been making much use of recently.
Like the lovers in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997), Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dream of visiting the Iguazu Falls. Marina and Orlando have just moved in together, and in fact Orlando has bought tickets to go. But he’s older, can’t remember where he’s put them and offers her an IOU. That evening, they go to bed in their usual manner but he suffers an aneurysm during the night. As she searches for the car keys, he goes out the door and falls down the stairs. At the clinic, they ask Marina about her relationship with Orlando, begin to twitch that she’s transgender, and the problems begin. As Orlando is declared dead at the clinic, those problems will get worse.
The police arrive, and since the change in her ID is still in process, insist on addressing her as a man and treating her as a criminal rather than a bereaved partner. Gabo, Orland’s brother, arrives and apologises to Marina, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this.’ But his obligation is to ‘the family’, which she is most emphatically excluded from. Soon, the ex-wife comes in to kick her out of the apartment that is the home she shared with Orlando. It starts off polite but ends up being forceful; the police come in, ostensibly to help, but really to humiliate her; the son and his friends will kidnap Marina, distort her face with tape, and dump her on a side street. I expected much worse and find it interesting that the film chooses to end it there and not focus more on physical violence.
The violence in A Fantastic Woman is all psychological but no less powerful for that. Marina is denied her history, her identity, her relationship, her apartment, her dog; and even the right to mourn the person she loved, which she insists is a human right. Any gay man d’un certain age will be familiar with this story, particularly those who lost loved ones at the height of the AIDS years and before wider legal and social acceptance of homosexuality. The partner who you loved and cared for dies and you’re left with not even a place at the funeral in case your very presence might offend the congregation. The fight for trans rights is a logical continuation of the fight for lesbian and gay rights; this film vividly, in a very personal way, demonstrates the hows and whys.
A Fantastic Woman is a complex and fascinating meditation on mourning and on the complexities of identity. Instead of, as is typical, showing us Marina’s effects on people, everything, including that effect, is filmed from her point of view. Her feelings, identities, wishes, desires, dreams are the focus on the film. And people’s well meaning but ignorant, passive-aggressive and ultimately violent denial of her humanity is what the film movingly demonstrates. But she will withdraw, survive and live to fight another day, and with beautiful music.
The film is imaginatively shot by Benjamín Echazarreta and there are some very striking and evocative images. The film is directed with a poetic touch as well, as it moves into dance numbers to evoke Marina’s feelings; dream sequences that evoke the complexities of her situation and her desires, and there are thrilling musical moments, first when Marina performs a salsa song in a nightclub (Periodico de ayer) later, the classic numbers she sings, particularly at the end (Handel’s Ombra mai fu).
The film has been compared to Almódovar’s work, which surprises me. Yes, there is a transgender protagonist; and yes, it’s a great film. But what strikes me most about this film is the absence of camp. Marina is strong and she suffers; and there are moments of rage; but it’s her quiet, polite, elegant, strength that is the focus of the film. In her home, she might box away her frustration. But on the street she’s soft-voiced, cultured, polite with a quiet strength that will not compromise winning a particular battle for the thrill of an easy laugh. It’s the quiet strength necessary to achieve justice, one embodied by Daniela Vega’s impassive but understanding gaze, that is to me the central thrust of the film. Particularly, in instances where she gazes directly at the camera, as if saying, ‘bear witness to what the world is doing to me; to what it takes for me to live in this world, your world’. I’d like to see it again.