A little something I wrote for Viewfinder about what I learned from teaching in Cuba, which I hope does justice and celebrates what a great school EICTV is, particularly on its anniversary year:
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Juan Madrid was, alongside Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano is named in homage to the Catalan writer), González Ledesma and Andreu Martín – one of the founders of what came to be known as la novela negra Española, a combination of hard-boiled detective novel, investigative journalism, a semi-Marxist analysis of structures, a thrall to the darker dimensions of sex and society, all textured within a pulp style of story-telling..
I have a particular love for the novels of Vázquez Montalbán, with his cynical attitudes to the rich, his love/hate relationship to literature (“For forty years I read book after book, now I burn them because they taught me nothing about how to live”), and his various recurring relationships (“My girlfriend is a call girl. My technical assistant, waiter, cook and secretary is a car thief called Biscuter. My spiritual and gastronomic adviser is a neighbor called Fuster”).
I taught at Ramon Lllul university in Barcelona at the turn of the last century, and reading Vázquez Montalbán’s novels was a way of learning about the city; in each, investigator Pepe Carvalho burned a book, cooked a dish, and was badly beaten up exploring one element of the city’s structure – the construction industry during the Olympics, football, etc.—through the investigation of a crime that then proceeded into an investigation of corruption at the heart of the city, its neighbourhoods, its social structures; all with a wise-guy lippyness and a lightly-worn learnedness, one tinged with the ennui of a man who knows too much, that’s simultaneously funny and sad.
Madrid was in EICTV in San Antonio to launch his new novel, Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia, already winner of the 14th Premio Unicaja de novela Fernando Quiñones in Spain, but published in Cuba as part of the Colección ORBIS, Editorial Arte y Literatura, by the Instituto Cubano del Libro.
I’d not had the chance to read Juan Madrid’s work before but his talk, impressively erudite, ranging from the quotation of Marx’s opening sentence in The Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe”), to a history of the formation of national police forces in Europe, their rationale (to preserve order and protect the interests of the ruling class) and so on, made me want to read Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia (which translates literally as ‘Made’ Men Don’t Fear the Rain).
It’s a novel with a world one happily sinks into and is absorbed by: it’s structured as a paternal melodrama, which gives the resolution of the crime not only a hook and a coda but also texture, an extra layer of depth. The spark that starts off the drama is a missing DVD of an S&M orgy featuring the rich and the powerful. Liberto Ruano is the lawyer who gets embroiled in the case and, in exploring the links between high finance and the mafia, ends up finding out who he is. The ingeniously plotted narrative is set in a Madrid of low-rent brothels and long-standing watering holes in the process of change. Though it’s set in the present, Madrid’s Madrid is always dialectically imbricated in the past; thus an exposition of a particular place, is also an explanation of what it once was, what it meant, who owned it, who went there and how much a meal cost.
The story is set now but the Francoist Spain of the sixties with its strictures, norms and power relations are an important, even necessary, part of the story and its telling: the answer to the castrations of the present lie in the forbidden sexuality of the past, yesterday’s taboo is today’s totem. I was also very intrigued by the paraphrasing, so light as to be almost an unacknowledged quotation, of the Johnny Guitar dialogue (‘Lie to me. Tell me that you love me’) I wrote about recently here; or rather by the way the protagonists in the story, Liber and Ada, use it to talk to each other; they reiterate but without attribution. Thus, to the uninitiated, the impression is of a heightened romanticism; to those in the know, that plus a suggestion that what links the characters is a love for what Johnny Guitar represents, precisely this type of heightened, fatalistic romance. I liked Los hombres mojados no temen a la lluvia so much I scoured central Havana to find another novel by Madrid and succeeded in finding Pájaro en mano/ Bird in the Hand (2007), which I liked just as much. I mean to read more.
I wanted to interview Madrid. Some of his novels have been adapted into films: Dias Contados (Imanol Uribe, Spain, 1994) is especially notable for Javier Bardem’s extraordinary performance as a rattled drug addict and small-time police informer. He also wrote the script or the Brigada Central TV series. I wanted to find out more about his views on noir and on cinema and also about how one of the key chroniclers of Spain’s transition to democracy and its aftermath is now being published in Cuba and printed by the ‘Imprenta Federico Engels’. I sense there’s a story there. But though we met and I told him how much I liked his talk, I was too shy to impose any further.
Paul Bush from the National Film and Television School arrived at the Escuala Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in Cuba on Monday to show some of his films and talk about his practice. He’s of the Damien Hirst generation that studied Fine Art at Goldsmith College he says, but was always more interested in conceptual art than painting and somehow drifted onto film (I was amused by the translator, who was excellent with all the difficult terms and technical language, not knowing who Damien Hirst is, as was evidenced by the many different gos she had at the name).
He puts a picture of a cow onscreen, not showing the film but indicating how that was from his first film, entitled The Cow’s Drama (1984), the result of following a cow in a field in Wales for two days, and how it took him over a decade to make the first film he was paid for, His Comedy (1994), a stop-motion rendering of Dante’s Inferno, using Gustave Doré engravings as a model through which to cut right into the celluloid. The cutting into the colour film was a surprise, as he found himself also scratching into layers of colours, thus creating a series of striking colour effects, at first unintended, then worked through and consciously deployed.
It’s a very beautiful work and led to his being able to make a living making short films, a considerable achievement. He says he was of course aided by the founding of Channel Four in those years which had as its remit a provision of minority programming, which aside from works for the disabled, people of colour, gay communities etc, also included a remit for experimental cinema, a term he says he dislikes due to its connotations of seriousness and dullness. He says he likes movies, shown in a theatre and that there’s room for frivolity and fun in seriousness.
Bush also showed his latest work, The Five Minute Museum (2015), beginning with stop-motion images of stone, then swords, porcelain, chairs, clocks, all giving the impression of being constantly in flux. The most striking of these was a montage of the drawings on Greek pottery, through which he created the striking sensation of the history of the world being all about love, sex, art and war all in communication with each other and all exploding together before ending in a museum behind glass.
His work is intriguingly conceptual; in Furniture Poetry (1999), he takes Wittgenstein’s question of ‘Is a chair a chair when we’re not looking at it? Does it become one only in response to our gaze?’ a starting point to show us tables changing before our eyes, then green apples turn red, apples turn into pears and so on, converting before our eyes, 24 x a second. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2001), Bush uses the same set-ups that Victor Fleming deployed in the 1941 MGM version with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, but condensed in stop-motion and accompanied by dream-like excerpts from the original soundtrack to create an effect similar to human schizophrenia by subtly changing every single frame but leaving the narrative superficially intact. It’s marvellous.
Bush offers the usual advice to students — ‘keep your collaborators with you as long as you can even though there will be fights’ – but what I remember most is his example of the concept of ‘tree’; how when we read the word ‘tree’ in a book we all share in the imaging of a tree but the tree which each of us actually imagines is different, and thus the role of the filmmaker is to create that ideogram, that image which each member of the audience can share but also take hold of, create something with it they can treasure, that is also uniquely theirs. Lovely thought from a stimulating talk by a charming man.
José Arroyo, EICTV, April
A young girl nicknamed Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) works is an assistant at a beauty salon, living a quiet live with her mother and enjoying a close friendship with Marylène (Florence Giorgetti), the owner of the salon, a bitter, aging romantic who seems to lay herself open to any new relationship only to be regularly dumped. Marylène and Pomme go on vacation to Couburg, on the coast of Normandy, so that Marylène may recover from her latest heartbreak. This happens swiftly and Pomme is left alone, to her own devices, and rather vulnerable. Pomme is quickly spotted by François (Yves Beneyton), a tall angular bourgeois who’s charmed by her reticence and purity. They fall in love. He tests her, asking her to close her eyes and follow his directions so that he takes her right to the edge of the cliff to prove her trust in him. But really she shouldn’t have.
On their return to Paris, and wrapped up in each other and in a haze of love, they quickly set-up home together in a tiny apartment. Soon, however, class differences appear, start pecking at their happiness, and eventually shatters it: She doesn’t know how to handle the cutlery at dinner in his parents’ country house; the best his mother can say about her is that she’s honest; she can’t really participate in the conversation with his radical intellectual friends. But he really can’t explain the dialectic to her, much less its historical materialist variant. For all his tremulousness, delicacy, and shows of concern, he’s a selfish phony. Eventually, he leaves her. He’s surprised and guilty that she offers no resistance. But she sinks into a depression, faints on the street and is brought to a sanatorium. He goes visit her, but Mr. Sensitive needs his friends to come along for support. He’s more interested in being reassured that he hasn’t done anything wrong than in seeing how she really is. He asks her what she’s been doing. She’s been to Greece she says. Has she been with other men? Oh yes, many. He takes his leave and she returns to the sanatorium reading room, adorned by tourist posters of Greek holidays she’s obviously only been to in her dreams, as she starts to knit her lace; her future a reliving of the only love she’ll ever know, from one, who like her father, and like all of Marylène’s friends, wasn’t worthy.
It’s a lovely film, edited in languid rhtyhms, and interestingly feminist. The film begins at the salon, women beautifying themselves, making themselves up, putting on masks of femininity so that they can perform the masquerade as they leave the salon, masks which Pomme rejects: she can’t help being too much herself; she’s got no guile; it’s what will attract François to her and the reason he’ll eventually leave her. Despite living for the ideal of romantic love, none of these women get to experience it past the first stage of courtship and sex, except the intellectual Marxist friend of François, the independent woman, who by the end of the film is settled with her husband and expecting a baby.
Isabelle Huppert is extraordinary, first as a plain girl, barely past adolescence, then someone mysterious and astonishingly beautiful (one can understand why François is so taken with her) and lastly as someone so withdrawn she’s barely there, with a measured tentative walk and a pinched blank face; her future an endless clicking of herneedles; her lace-making ensuring that any thought is kept mechanically but efficiently at bay. A close-up image of her so made-up that she’s like a mask of the woman she thinks he wants — which then turns out to be the moment he chooses to reject her so that the mask is shattered by tears — is moving, beautiful and mysteriously resonant. It’s an extraordinary performance and the main reason to see the film.
But not the only one. Claude Goretta is probably best known in Britain as one of two young Swiss filmmakers (Alain Tanner was the other) so inspired by the two first Free Cinema programmes that they were inspired to make the marvellous Nice Time (1957) documenting London’s Piccadilly on a Saturday night. But abroad, Goretta made a name for himself in the 70’s and 80s with acutely observant and complex films such as Pas si méchant que ça/ The Wonderful Crook (1974) and La Provinciale. Pauline Kael said of the former, rather derisorily, ‘we know we’re seeing films made by artists’. But we do; and we are; and they’re worth seeing again. The Lacemaker is an excellent place to start.
Seen at EICTV in Cuba