Thursday, May 7, 2009

Films Franco Forbade Come to the WRT: Buried Catalan Cinema Makes Tardy Debut

From May 8 through 12, at the Walter Reade Theater, courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives a group of films, most of which have never before been seen in the USA, sporting the group title of Clandestí: Forbidden Catalan Cinema Under Franco. The series -- for which the FSLC has exhumed these banned and/or underground films of Catalonia from the 1960s-70s -- plays for five days and features the work of a group of independent/nonconformist filmmakers who produced, distributed, and exhibited their radical films in Catalonia.

First in the series is a newly restored 35mm print of Jacinto Esteva-Grew’s Far from the Trees, (1963-70 and unseen by me), a still from which is shown at right. Billed as a kind of “update” to Buñuel's classic Land without Bread, the film was shot on weekends over seven years and is said to be a meditation on Spanish traditions involving pain and death and a conscious protest against the then-fashionable image of Spain promoted by the regime of a rapidly modernizing nation.

One of the filmmakers, director Antoni Padrós, is slated to appear in person with his two-hour-plus, 1973 film Lock Out (a still from which is shown below) on Saturday and Sunday May 9th and 10th. With its IMDB non-rating (due to garnering less than 5 votes), clearly Lock-Out has been little-seen in the 36 years since it was made.

According to the press material from the FSLC, many of these filmmakers shot their work (while probably worried about being shot) under the pretense of amateur filmmaking, hiding within crowds of protesters to produce their creative and experimental work using the optical track of a film strip or mere short ends –- bits of unexposed footage leftover from shoots -– made available to them by sympathetic professionals. Though most of them were one generation too late to have personally fought in the Civil War, still, they managed to chronicle the ongoing social/psychological/cultural effects of the war. Often forced to choose between exile and abject compromise, they managed to put their art into the service of their politics and thus, perhaps, alter the course of Spanish history. Some of the filmmakers remained anonymous in order to protect their identities; consequently certain of these films have no credits.

For those of us who've never lived under a dictatorship such as Franco's, the Greek generals' or that of Chile's Pinochet (not to mention all the Communist countries of the Cold War era), it is difficult to understand the kind of repression that went on. (Torture and other crimes against humanity did not begin, nor will they end, with George W.) So these movies -- made, I suspect, more for their repressed countrymen than for outsiders -- are less heavy-handed than subtle about what was currently going on. If you've followed Spanish cinema over the past half century, you cannot help but be aware of how this subjugation dictated what could and could not be shown in cinema, and how Spanish film has opened up wildly in the decades since the end of Franco and the start of a new try at democracy.

The Clandestí series is divided into five programs: “Morality & Society,” “Countryside and the City: The Struggle to Make a Living,” “The Ongoing Political Struggle,” “Aesthetic Subversion: Anarchy and Absurdity,” and finally, “Over the Edge: The Aesthetics of Outrage.” (For the full schedule -- dates, times and ticket prices -- click here.)

Lack of time has permitted me to see only three of the eleven films being shown, but each was worth that time, to some extent. Happy Parallel (El Allegre paralelo), a half hour documentary from 1964 and part of Program One, show us the El Paralelo district of Barcelona, known evidently even during the Franco time as an area rife with prostitution and naughty nightlife. This black-and-white short shows, rather than tells, and its visuals are sometimes as strange as they are compelling or disturbing: We see a young man rolling around in the street (a psychedelic drug reaction? This was the 60s, after all), a look at the exterior-only of a popular assignation hotel, and even a long-distance shot of the old Cinerama logo (later we see this up-close), which shows, I suppose, that Spain was trying to "keep up" commercially with other western nations. There are some interesting shots, too, of a popular burlesque show that makes a fine antidote to the current subversion going on via A Wink and a Smile. For comparison's sake, while watching this odd little film, think of "Swinging London" during this same period, and you will quickly realize the difference between an open society, for all its silliness and faults, and a dictatorially repressed one.

I am no fan of bullfighting. Rather, I'm a fan of that old (was it by Ray Bradbury?) story in which an alien power, bent on making humanity better and wiser, in the blink of an eye forces an entire bullfighting audience to experience the pain of the bull in the ring and thus brings this "sport" to its immediate end. That said, the half-hour short in Program Two titled 52 Sundays (52 Domingos), a still from which appears above, is worth seeing for its up-close look at a group of young men in mid-60s Spain, all poor and with few prospects, training and hoping to become the next flashy torrero. The photography is beautiful; so are some of the young men. It will be difficult to watch this film, I think, without being put in mind of life in various "projects" across the U.S., in which black youths practice basketball, for the same reason that Spanish youths did bullfighting: because it, too, seems the only hope for rising above what is too often perceived as one's place in life -- and, under a faulty system of politics, economics and culture, too often becomes that place.

The showpiece of Program Five -- the the 95-minutes Sexperiencias does not need (nor does it get) any title translation, yet it is hands-down the most interesting of the three films I've seen in this series. Experimental, impressionistic, repetitive (not always to good effect) and alternately fascinating and annoying, the movie melds frequent use of world newspaper headlines and stories with the journey of a very attractive young woman (Maria, I believe she is called) who, left alone by the disappearance (or is it imprisonment?) of her lover, begins an affair with a middle-aged man named Carlos, who earns his living as an engraver. A folk song and its singer intrude, as does everything from a weirdly disjointed and seemingly random soundtrack (only appearing now and again) to fantasies (most of this movie may be a fantasy), to a lengthy and truly bizarre scene in a cafe peopled by students who begin to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Is not the over-fifty-yearold crowd entitled to jobs? the movie asks at this point. But then the students insist that "the older generation will never let the younger occupy positions of power." Both points of view ring true in their way, as do all the horrible headlines we see from the news of the day -- prompting several heavy-duty moments of plus ça change.

There is a most unusual and wonderful scene in which the young woman seems to make a stationary train start to move. This is done via stop motion, sound effect, repetition and imagination (Later, we get another such scene, much shorter, using a stagecoach.) Sexeriencias, a still from which is shown above, was made in 1968, a year that students in would-be democracies around the world, from France to Italy, the US and Mexico, were protesting and sometimes bringing their countries to the brink of violence --- and beyond. Spain was having none of this, of course, which is what your good old-fashioned dictator can accomplish. Sexperiencias, not surprisingly, offers a number of moments of soft-core sexuality and is also full of celebrity posters of people like Che and Marilyn, and music by Dylan (more plus ça change). There is also a running joke in which the girl tries to get her lover to smoke some weed, but he is having none of this. Police knock upon the door; the couple cowers. As the film washes over us toward its finale, Maria toys with taking on a lover nearer her own age, but then she's traveling again -- or is it simply the beginning of the movie, having come full circle? Whatever. This is Spain of the 60s, and it's a sad, shadowy place.

I very much want to see a fourth film if time permits: Lock-Out, which is the whole of Program Four. If I do, I'll add a section to this post later, with an addendum notice published up front....

All photos above and Clandesti logo come
courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

No comments: