Recent DVD Releases of Spanish Avant-Garde Film (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Matt Losada
Adolpho Arrietta: Works 1966-2008. A four-disc DVD box set, including thirteen films. Spanish, French, and Italian dialogue with English, French and Spanish subtitles. Color and B&W, total running time of 507 min. An Intermedio release, www.intermedio.net.
Paulino Viota: Works 1966-1982. A four-disc DVD box set, including nine films. Spanish dialogue with English and French subtitles. Color and B&W, total running time of 388 min. An Intermedio release.
Pere Portabella: Complete Works. A seven-disc DVD box set, including twenty-two films. Catalan and Spanish dialogue with English, Spanish, and French subtitles. Color and B&W, total running time of 869 min. An Intermedio release.
Del Éxtasis al Arrebato: A Journey Through Spanish Experimental Cinema. A two-disc DVD set, including thirty-one films. Subtitles in English and Spanish. Color and B&W, total running time of 225 min. A Cameo release, www.cameo.es.
Val del Omar: Elemental de España. A five-disc DVD box set, including seven films by José Val del Omar. Spanish dialogue with English subtitles. Color and B&W, total running time of 447 min. A Cameo release.
Antoni Padrós: Cinema Margins. A four-disc DVD box set, including eleven films. Spanish and Catalan dialogue with English subtitles. Color and B&W, total running time of 523 min. A Cameo release.
Avant-garde and experimental film is everywhere marginal by design, but in Spain for much of the twentieth century its invisibility was compounded by efforts of the state. Francoism’s authoritarian gaze managed to keep the above-ground cultural field cleansed of most things unconventional, but with the benefit of hindsight and several recent Spanish-label DVD releases—all of whose films are subtitled in English—the cracks in the monolithic facade of mid-century official culture have been widened. Spurred on by an increased interest in lesser known work on the part of filmotecas and cultural centers, these releases contain films that had long gone unseen, several of which had taken on maudit status. This reappearance has been possible in large part thanks to the work of Barcelona-based publishers Intermedio and Cameo, as well as institutions like the Filmoteca Española, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona—which fostered the 2010 retrospective that was later published in the anthological two-disc set “Del Éxtasis al Arrebato.” At the same time, there is a burgeoning community of more contemporary experimentalists, as evidenced by the recent foundation of PLAT (Audiovisual Diffusion and Research Platform), a free-of-charge independent online archive of experimental work.
Under Francisco Franco’s nearly four decades of rule, the state was never hesitant to impose its will on producers of culture, but in its final years the increasingly desperate dictatorship clamped down on dissidence, especially after the 1973 assassination by bomb in downtown Madrid of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s long-term right-hand man. But by this time much of the country’s youth had grown out of the cultural chastity belt inherited from the moralizing official culture industry of the mid-century, and the writing was on the wall. As the recent releases show, filmmakers increasingly exposed to foreign avant-garde culture stubbornly persisted with their work, regardless of whether or not it was regime-safe, which often meant they had to work in clandestinity.
During a brief period in the 1960s, the state had permitted and even subsidized a state-sponsored auteurist cinema, which was criticized as counterproductive by many in the opposition for staying strictly within the realm of the possible. The resulting imperative to transgress made marginality a badge of honor for many of the filmmakers whose work is included in the recent releases. In Spain, as elsewhere, most of the films produced and screened in the underground are notable for their critique of the illusion produced by commercial film and for their use of production standards that made filmmaking accessible to those without access to commercial funding. The films were rarely shown outside of a very restricted and often clandestine circuit of private homes and university film clubs, and in some cases legitimate screenings of films were hindered by self-censorship on the part of festival organizers. With the arrival of democracy, the lifting of the inhibiting legal framework made self-marginalization far less meaningful, and, as the state and industry cooperated to revive a national cinema on a “quality” commercial model in the 1980s, those previously working the fertile ground of opposition found themselves without any space at all.
Critics and scholars have yet to fully engage with these films. Although book-length studies and articles have begun to be dedicated to some of them, others, such as Adolpho Arrietta (also spelled Adolfo Arrieta, among other variants) remain unknown even to cinephiles. Intermedio has released a four-disc set dedicated to the complete works of Arrietta, one of the most intriguing figures of underground European culture of the last half-century. He was born in Madrid—and given the name “Adolfo”—under the fascist regime as the Second World War was rumbling on elsewhere in Europe. Still in his teens he made several enigmatically poetic shorts on 16mm, before heading into self-exile in Paris, where he made films like Les intrigues de Sylvia Couski (1974) and Tam Tam (1976), which both fictionalized and documented—Gérard Courant called this work “almost Rouchian”—a pansexual Paris underground where myriad desires rubbed up exuberantly against social norms. Today this may not sound like anything new, but no one has combined modest production values and poetic invention like Arrietta, especially in Pointilly (1972) and Flammes (1978).
Arrietta’s actors are a very charismatic lot. Javier Grandes, Arrieta’s longtime friend and muse, appears in almost all his films. Jean Marais, of mid-century stardom in Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête (1946) and Orphée (1950), stars in Le jouet criminel (1969). Others include Françoise Lebrun, the slow-burn star of Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain, and Dyonis Mascolo, Italian worker, French resistance member, left intellectual, and designated father of Marguerite Duras’s child. Like Marais, in Pointilly Mascolo’s craggy face seems carved out of granite, one of those that gets more powerful with age. He plays the father to Lebrun’s character, and a line she speaks reflects the paradoxical nature of desire in Arrieta’s films: “Since I was a child, I can’t recall a single moment when I wasn’t watched by my father. I used to like that surveillance, it didn’t bother me at all.” Of Pointilly, Duras wrote that “the purity of Arrietta’s story, in my opinion, is of such great rigor that it seems difficult to surpass…The material Arrietta makes use of is admirably bare, transparent, empty, one might say. One sees nothing, whereas one sees. One understands nothing, while one understands everything.” The Intermedio set contains Arrietta’s complete filmography from 1966 to 2008, as well as a sixty-page booklet featuring pieces written by Duras, Enrique Vila-Matas, Jonas Mekas and others.
Another very recent four-disc release from Intermedio contains the complete works of Paulino Viota, whose singular Contactos (1970) was considered one of the most important films of the 1970s by the critic and filmmaker Noël Burch. No small feat for a clandestine opera prima made on a microscopic budget, Contactos is a narrative film of a formal rigor on the level of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. The other feature-length films are Con uñas y dientes (1978) and Cuerpo a cuerpo (1982). Viota refers to Con uñas y dientes as the first Spanish film since the Civil War to deal with the class struggle. It is formally more conventional and didactic than Contactos, but its narrative focus shares the perspective of labor militants in opposition to combined state and corporate power. Given the political and economic situation of Spain at present, maybe the film has become relevant again, or maybe it always was. Cuerpo a cuerpo, Viota’s last feature to date, ties together several stories about the loss of youth, and employs footage filmed in two stages, fourteen years apart. Its characters had come of age in the last years of the dictatorship only to find themselves alienated, their hopes and youth gone, after the long-awaited return to democracy. The discs come accompanied by a sixty-page booklet with an illuminating interview with Viota and several essays that otherwise shed light on his intentions and conditions of production, describing his search for a more effective realism through formal experimentation.
Last year Intermedio released a monumental seven-disc set containing the complete works of Pere Portabella, known recently for his 2007 Die Stille vor Bach, but more lastingly for the powerfully original combinations of image and sound in his resolutely political films of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, includingNocturno 29, Vampir-Cuadecuc and Umbracle. Il Cinema Ritrovato named the release 2013’s “best DVD box set.” [See review in Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Fall 2013]
Cameo is another publisher participating in the revival. In recent years, it has released several sets, including “Del éxtasis al arrebato,” the impressively comprehensive anthology of Spanish experimental film from the 1950s to the present, and two auteur sets. One of these, “Val del Omar, Elemental de España,” features the uniquely unmediated power of the Tríptico Elemental de España (Elemental Tryptich of Spain), a mostly solo project of José Val del Omar, the mid-century “cine-mystic” and prolific inventor of audiovisual technologies. The Tríptico is unlike any film anywhere, a decades-long quest to integrate the cinematic apparatus into Spanish mysticism.
Another figure to be rescued from the oblivion of unavailability is Antoni Padrós, one of the most radically countercultural of all filmmakers under the Franco regime. Cameo released of a four-disc set entitled El cinema i els seus marges (“Cinema Margins,” as the set awkwardly translates it), a complete filmography of this least digestible filmmaker of the Spanish underground of the late-dictatorship period. Padrós worked so beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy of the officially possible in Franco’s Spain that his films and their screenings happened exclusively in extralegality and clandestinity. Here his work appears for the first time for everyone except those very few who saw it on screens the first time around. Padrós refreshing total disregard for the viewer as consumer, and thus for the film as a pleasure-producing commodity, results in an outright rejection of the formal and narrative conventions that allow for a comfortable encounter between a work and its consumer. Times have changed, and many of today’s viewers will benefit from the insightful and informative accompanying essay by Xose Prieto Souto in order to engage with Padrós’ films.
Each of these releases represents an important contribution to a revision of Spanish film history, but there remain many wonderful films that are difficult to access in the United States and elsewhere. Iván Zulueta’s 1980 feature Arrebato, the underground masterpiece of the cultural ferment of the transition to democracy, is the first to come to mind.
Matt Losada is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky.
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