Everyone knows Carlos Saura´s work as a filmmaker: Cría cuevos, La caza, Los golfos; the peerless flamenco trilogy with Antonio Gadés: Bodas de sangre, Carmen, El amor brujo; and so much more. I knew he´s been celebrated as a photographer. But I did not really know that aspect of his work and I was really bowled over by it. His 1950s ones are classics but very powerful to see enlarged. The Chaplin pictures are intimate and beautiful, I include a selection of others like the one of Margot Fonteyn in Seville and the Lola Flores and Buñuel just because they´re fab and I imagine some of you will be interested. Such a great exhibition. His notebooks, full of drawings, water-colours, compositions, plays on light, are a real demonstration of the preoccupations of a 20th century visual artist, and I include a sampling as well.
An excerpt from a 1980s interview with Lola Flores by Lauren Postiga where she discusses her funeral arrangements. I found it amusing and rather touching, partly for its acknowledgement and accommodation of a gay audience at a time where it wouldn’t have been a given, certainly not publicly: ”I’d like to die in Madrid. Then after the embalming I’d like to be taken to the theatre of my successes, the Calderón in Madrid. I’d like to be left in the lobby for quite some time so that all the gay boys who love me very much and all the other people who also love me very much and are great admirers of my art, so that all may have a look, forming a little orderly queue so that all can see. ‘Poor Lola’, they’ll say, ‘how sad. And she was so amusing.’ I know exactly what they’ll say. And after being a little while at the Calderon theatre, I’d like to be taken to Seville with a great orchestra behind me like they used to have in the Alameda playing ‘La zarzamora’.
This is why some people are gay icons and some not: acknowledgment of appreciation, inclusiveness in ritual, drama, theatre, and a big funeral send-off, like in Imitation of Life, but, since she’s a Spanish gay icon, playing coplas instead of spirituals.
Lola Flores, designated ‘The Pharaoness’, or ‘Lola of Spain,’ was the leading star of Spanish folklore musicals of the Franco years, a period where, as a popular saying had it, ‘everything that wasn’t obligatory was forbidden’. She introduced many hits that marked an era — ‘Ay pena, penita, pena‘, La zarzamora’ , ‘Limosna de amores‘, ‘Lerele’, ‘Al verde limón‘ — and that would be associated with her throughout her life. Her back catalogue was the soundtrack to an era and continues to evoke it.
Legend has it that when she appeared in New York, The New York Times headlined her review with ‘She can’t dance, she can’t sing but she is unmissable/ No canta, no baila, no se la pierdan’. I think her a marvellous dancer. One only needs to look at the care she takes with her hands and fingers — every part of her body is expressively deployed. Though a perfectly adequate singer, particularly in her younger years, when her voice was higher, she was the first to admit that there were better ones than she. Her acting on film is bit stiff and awkward in the dialogue scenes and a bit overblown in the musical numbers. On stage no one could touch her; she was arguably the defining figure of show business in Spain for several generations. She became a star on stage barely out of her teens and remained one until her death.
As her career progressed, her stardom expanded to radio, records, film and she finally entered everyone’s home with television, where she became even more beloved, a towering myth made as knowable as one’s neighbours, part of the psychic furniture of homes across the nation. Her stardom extended throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often signifying a Spain of flamenco, bullfighters, and the gypsies she was almost always relegated to play on film. To my Mom, she was a ‘whirlwind of joy/ un torbellino de alegría’.
It’s interesting to read Camilo José Cela’s La colmena/The Hive, with Lola Flores in mind. That bleak wintry Spain of hunger, secrecy, and surveillance was the other sign of the coin represented by Lola’s radiance, sexyness, and the freedom of spirit she embodied and evoked. The characters of La Colmena might have looked askance on Lola but she signified the liberty, plenitude and joy they lacked but wished for themselves. She still does.
La danza de los deseos, whilst far from a good film, might be one of her best in spite of the excessive melodrama and moralism of its plot. She plays Candela, the daughter of a gangster who is killed whilst trying to escape the authorities on a boat. She gets marooned on an island and is raised by a blind recluse and his assistant.
Candela grows up a child of nature taking pleasure in the people around her, the sun and the sea, innocent and loving, wild and free. On her birthday, as she dances on a cliff for the man who raised her and now calls grandfather, she’s spotted by rich people on a boat. Juan Antonio (José Suárez), a young millionaire, goes to the island to seek her out. She becomes instantly besotted and swims after him to his yacht after he leaves. The rich people bring her with them to Marseilles but she overhears a conversation between Juan Antonio and his betrothed in which she’s spoken of a threat to their relationship and runs away.
She’s so innocent that she’s instantly picked up by a pimp in a dive and exploited into the lower depths of a Marseilles of cabarets and whorehouses. The image above showing the wild innocent she used to be, associated with nature, on the right; and the fallen woman she’s become, on the left with her drink, cigarettes and the leg as advertising of the goods for sale, vividly communicates this transformation.
I initially wanted to show you the clip above to make a point about the social construction of race. There’s a moment in the clip were a black Cuban approaches the pimp and he says that it’s a white girl he wants today, referring to Candela. Now part of the reason Lola is often associated with gypsies is because in Spain, she’s as dark as one can be without Spanishness coming into question. But in England, for example, she’d easily pass as a South Asian, and in India she might be mistaken for a native. However, next to a black woman from Cuba in a Spanish film with a Marseilles setting, she’s ‘white’. People often think of markers of race as absolutes dictated by skin colour whereas as we can see so clearly in the film, how we reads the colours and features of skin, faces and bodies are a construct.
The other reason I wanted to show the clip above was to praise the narrative economy. In five minutes a young girl gets corrupted, moving from a millionaire setting to a low-down dive and ultimately, through a bottle of rum, we’re told she’s been taken advantage of by a man who wants to first use her then sell her. It’s very fast and very skilful, like the plots of early Warners films.
But one can also see in the clip above the extraordinary display of skills in the mechanics of direction. Florian Rey, does the whole thing in very impressive long takes, with the last one that begins with a close-up of the bottle of rum, moves back to show us the pimp with Candela in bed, his disdain and her shame, all in one long take would be impressive on its own. But just as you think the film is going to cut, the maid enters the room and the patterned movement of the take is repeated once more but this time with the maid.
I extracted the clip above as an example of the type of song, the copla, of the period and also as an example of the musical number so typical of Spanish musicals of this period, though this one constructed with greater skill. Note how Rey films the whole thing in medium long shot so that we can see Lola perform, but then at the end moves to close-up for the song’s refrain: ‘I no longer believe even in death/ Let it come free me/ Why can’t I be lucky enough to die and rest/ I no longer seek in consolation/ I don’t even believe in myself/ But when I look up at the heavens/ when I look up at the heavens I believe in God and you’. Note also the camaraderie amongst the women, with no discrimination as to colour.
As you can see above, the millionaire who in spite of himself led Candela from nature and innocence to the corruption of the big city, rescues her from prostitution and jail. But by the time he brings her back to the island it’s too late. She’s dying. She arrives on the island only to say hello to her blind grandfather. Whilst he thinks she’s off to marry her millionaire, she is in fact buried practically in front of his face, without his knowing, and next to her father.
The messages in this film are mixed. There’s no place in this Spain for gangsters and prostitutes. But millionaires who cavort outside the borders are destructive even in spite of themselves. On the other hand, there’s the image of Lola Flores, dancing her joys and her pain, even though they’re joys that are not meant to exist outside of marriage and pains that are not allowed to exist at all.
I’m often moved by Spanish films of this period. They’re so rickety. So low budget. So poor in terms of means, ideas, skills, aspirations. But contra all of this, one of Florian Rey’s camera moves, or a Lola Flores, will leap out of all that poverty and oppression and assert something powerful and fundamental about what it is to be human that all the censorship by Church and State simply can’t dampen. They’re moments. But they’re moments that assert a huge gap between the way things are and the way things should be. They’re moments to cherish. They’re moments to seek out in a cinema too easily dismissed for its obvious faults.
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.