Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice

 

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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.

American Honey

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American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

The after-effects of watching Andrea Arnold’s latest film American Honey made me feel it etched a defining signature for this generation and era of youth the way Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show did for the beginning of the 70’s. It’s a real and raw take of the “seize the moment” youth culture that has seeped into the central theme of several coming-of-age films, most of them tawdry offerings like Paper Towns. What sets American Honey apart however is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will. Star, an 18-year old dreadlocked girl, jumps ship from her borderline abusive boyfriend and two kids who aren’t even her own to join Jake, a young salesman she catches a glance of through a dingy van window. That split-second eye contact was enough for Star to seize an opportunity to join a ragtag group of magazine sellers looking for a quick buck.

Star’s journey ends up being a crossroads of American culture. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Every passionate kiss between Star and Jake goes in and out of focus as the camera tumbles along with them on the grass.  Its akin to many of the things that connect directly with a millennial culture that embraces imperfection, and a spontaneous jubilance for discovery.

Then there is of course, the money aspect. Star’s new job and love are hampered by the presence of Krystal, the leader of the magazine business, and much to Star’s devastation, the one who Jake answers to beck and call. In a pivotal sequence in the film, we see Star on the verge of losing her job and forced to watch Jake apply lotion to Krystal’s bare thighs. As their conversation goes on the sound of skin slapping and lubricant sliding grows ever louder and Star’s body begins to shake with ruin. It becomes clear that the newfound freedom still has its strings. At the heart of the film, thumping on the blood pumped through a carefully meditated playlist of songs including Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, Mazzy Starr’s “Fade Into You” and Raury’s “God Whisper”, the film depicts a camaraderie of a generation, all searching for an individual goal but finding solace in a companionship between equally lost and wandering souls. Despite the fact that their “job” is a sham, that Krystal’s grip of money and power may dampen what should be free enterprise, and Star’s own rollercoaster of falling in and out of love with Jake several times, the characters who populate Arnold’s remarkable story hang their hopes on a feeling, one they get from each other and through the film’s music.

Call it a musical, a coming-of-age drama or even a road movie, but American Honey is a generational film, one which drips with the feeling of growing up in this era, seizing a moment, a glance through a dingy window, riding in a packed van with misfits, never knowing where you’ll end up next, but knowing that they are there, and just as lost as you.  

Growing Pain

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Ratcatcher (Lynn Ramsay, 1999)

One of the more inventive things about the beginning of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is that it managed to subvert my own assumptions about the early staging of a story of a young central character. The first kid that popped on screen in this movie was a handsome young man with blondish hair, the kind of kid you’d expect most people to cast in the leading role of a film. Even his name, Ryan Quinn, is that of a hero. As he ditches his mother and goes in the back near the canal to play with his friend, I found myself settling in. Essentially, the thoughts that here’s the central character of our story; we’ve already built his relationship with mother (she doesn’t have much control over him) and now he’s with his scrawny, big eared weird looking friend, perhaps the proverbial ‘sidekick’, goofing around. What I didn’t expect was the scene to end with Quinn’s death, drowning in the canal accidentally after horse-playing, and James Gillespie, the scrawny and weak-looking supposed sidekick, now becomes the central figure in our story.

Throughout the rest of the film, I found myself again being subverted from my own clichéd assumptions about a story which clearly plots itself as a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). This is why Ratcatcher is so remarkable. There’s hardly a moment in the movie in which I just knew what was going to happen next. Cinema about children is often confused with children’s cinema, and in the same sense, the narrative structure of such cinema is easily stacked into cemented bricks of clichés. The arch of overcoming the doldrums and destitute existence of underprivileged youth is bread and butter for the coming-of-age tale, but Lynn Ramsay clearly has other ideas.

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Her story is set in Scotland during the Garbage Strike, a very conscious choice, as piles of garbage stack up on the sides of the road, in apartment courtyards, and inside of homes. The strike signifies the metaphorical lawlessness of the land, wherein the despicable and derogatory acts of the children go unnoticed in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic setting. It is a time when children, especially one like James who’s home-life is comprised of a stepfather who treats him like a bastard child, and a mother who heeds beck and call to her borderline abusive boyfriend to the detriment of her own kin, James, are thrust into an unforgiving world and forced to swim. The idea of ‘maturation’ which is the stamp of approval for most adolescent stories is almost laughable here. Perhaps in the cozy quarters of one’s middle-class suburban life, dealing with the facts of life can be hard and maturation of character signals the success of the individual having grown up (come of age), but in Ratcatcher, the holding on of sanity and morality for James, who witnesses the girl he loves, Margarete Ann, getting gang-raped over and over by older kids, having to hide and bury the guilt of having been involved in the death of Ryan Quinn in the canal, and the continuous neglect of his parents, is an impossible battle in and of itself . The depravity that James succumbs to both outside and inside the walls of his home is in many cases, a fight for maintaining his innocence, a fight against growing up, because if the truth of the world is this horrifying, then why accept it? ‘Maturation’ seems almost like giving up.

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At the same time, what really magnifies this depravity is the few sequences of utter relief and beauty within the film, most notably when James hitches a busride with money he steals from his stepdad, and travels to the last bus-stop far away from his neighborhood. He sees empty houses, many of them newly built and untouched, surrounded by a golden wheat-field that shimmers in a stunning sunlight. It is here we see James smile genuinely for the first time. The second sequence is the surreal moment in which James’ animal-loving friend Kenny, ties his pet rat to a balloon and sets it afloat in the air. We see the mouse go up and the camera cuts to a shot of the rat attaining orbit in outer space. It’s a feel-good moment, one in which we envision along with the children an escape from their grounded desperation, a place where all the garbage rats get together, near a crater on the moon and happily socialize with each other. It’s a literally other-worldly scene, soon cut short later by James, at the brink of hopelessness, telling Kenny that his rat is not in outer-space but is in fact, dead. Kenny, out of frustration brings up the death of Ryan Quinn as James fault, a brutal stab back in James’ direction snapping the last straw in half.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 12.24.46 AMI was reminded of similar other films which depicted in rather matter-of-fact detail the uncompromising lives of kids in destitute situations, namely the early films of Harmony Korine. In Gummo and the controversial Kids, which Korine scripted, the children were abjectly cruel, again, signaled by a seemingly post-apocalyptic setting such as “the recent tornado” which devastated Xenia, Ohio in Gummo. Unlike Korine’s movies however, which tend to revel and take a perverse joy in their lawlessness, Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher remarks on the tragedy of youth as a fight against coming-of-age. It subverts the bildungsroman to suggest that James’ situation, which forced him to mature, lead to his own self-destruction; that his resistance, his naïveté, was what was keeping him alive. He did not feel the utter heartbreak of watching Margarete Anne getting gang-raped until he found love for the first time. He didn’t truly feel loneliness until his friends betrayed him. He did not truly feel guilt until Ryan Quinn’s mother cried over her son’s death on the sidewalk and offered James his old shoes. He did not understand the difficulty of escape until he bought his own bus-ride out of town to a better place. These moments ironically, signaled the maturity of our central character, and yet, were stepping stones to his own demise, his own hopelessness. It is why Ratcatcher is a painfully honest, and remarkable subversion, from beginning to end, of the coming-of-age cliché. It tests our own maturity as film-watchers, film-appreciators, to how we can react to a movie which refuses to treat us like children.