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‘What circus are you from?’ A Round Table Discussion with Alex de la Iglesia


Presented by Christiane Passevant.

Alex de la Iglesia has a unique role in contemporary Spanish cinema. His work simultaneously encapsulates its major tendencies while defying classification. From his first feature film, Accion Mutante(‘Mutant Action’, 1992) to his recent A Sad Trumpet Ballad (Balada triste de trompeta, 2010), and passing through The Oxford Murders(2008), 800 Bullets(800 balas, 2002) and Perdita Durango(1997), he envelops us in an outrageous, iconoclastic universe of bad taste and dark humour. As he bluntly says: ‘We often prefer the bad guy in a film. This is the most interesting character’.

And this is why de la Iglesia focuses on abnormality and freaks. It is what John Waters did, undeniably a major influence over Spanish directors like Pablo Almodovar, Bigas Luna and de la Iglesia. The idea is to put a damper on social hypocrisy, manipulations of all kinds and fashionable violence. His characters are anything but conformist. They are against conventions, against hypocritical tolerance, and for an in-your-face amorality, in contrast to a society that does the same but without the courage of saying so openly.

Physically handicapped space-pirate terrorists attack corrupt capitalists in his first feature film, Accion mutante. They kidnap the daughter of a powerful industrialist. The metaphor of the space-pirates is evocative of the Basque terrorist organization ETA and the allusion is quite clear, as are the historical implications of the fascist repression opposing it. For various reasons, it is possible that this film could not have been made today.

De la Iglesia’s films are to be understood in part as having influenced the beginning of a series of films of the fantastic made by a new generation of directors freed from conventions heretofore prevailing. Examples of this new tendency are Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos, 1997) and The Others (2001), Paco Plaza’s Second Name (El segundo nombre, 2002) and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Ophanage (El orfanato, 2007).

Special mention in this regard must be made of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006). These films combine a concern for the consequences of fascist dictatorship with the paranormal phenomena typical of the fantastic genre. The former film takes place during the period of the civil war and the second during the early years of the dictatorship. Here we see the preoccupation with historical memory, but it is a sublimated memory expressed poetically.

In light of these new films, analytical questions can be asked about how this new genre of the fantastic, with its origins in the movida (the countercultural new wave following the demise of the Franco dictatorship), was triggered by Alex de la Iglesia who, it might be said, opened Pandora’s box and allowed the surrealistic spirits of Bunuel and Dali to escape once again into the atmosphere.

The following exchange took place at the Mediterranean Film Festival in Montpellier, France, in October 2009. Taking part were de la Iglesia, festival president Henri Talvat and Yves Montmayeur, director of the documentary, Viva la muerte! Autopsie du nouveau cinéma fantastique espagnol (‘Long live death! Autopsy of the new fantastic Spanish cinema’, 2009).

Henri Talvat (HT): After having seen Yves Montmayeur’s documentary my first question is about this generation of filmmakers who are interested in the cinema of the fantastic and who seems to appreciate the work of others.

Alex de la Iglesia (AI): Let me say that I’m happy to be here, not only for the retrospective of my films but also in my capacity as president of the Spanish Film Academy. It is a pleasure to see Spanish cinema appreciated outside the country’s borders. But maybe this is part of the Spanish character? It’s a bit like living under torture… No! Don’t translate what I just said. We are in a republic here! Well, I like the title of the documentary very much, ‘Viva la muerte!’. This quote is from a declaration made by Milan Astray, the nationalist general who was Franco’s right-hand man during the civil war. He looked a lot like Peter Cushing, but with one eye less, and an arm too. He said it at the University of Salamanca in the presence of Miguel de Unamuno: ‘Long live death! Down with the intellectuals!’ To which Unamuno responded: ‘You will be victorious, but you still have not convinced us.’ This response is also mythical. The affirmation is in the image of where the Spanish are coming from.

Now, as far as the generation of the cinema of the fantastic is concerned, I was sort of the precursor of it, being the first to make this kind of film. I began ten years before the others. Some others tried, but only haphazardly. I was happy to open the doors in Spain. The difference between my cinema and that of the younger filmmakers is that I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. So I change with each new film.

Yves Montmayeur (YM): For me, Accion mutante is a kind of bomb at the end of the movida. A group of terrorists violently attack a bourgeois woman. I can’t help thinking that this was a violent, parody-like way of saying: ‘The movida is now over. It’s finished!’ Alex de la Iglesia makes films like preparing a meal in the kitchen. He mixes lots of things together, a bit of comic books, a bit of classical culture, a sprinkle of B-movies, and it comes out like a slow-fused bomb and, in the end, explodes. But is it a bomb, or a firecracker? Who knows? The force of his films is his love for this type of film. We see it in all his films. He was indeed the first to open the way for the cinema of the fantastic that, in my opinion, had disappeared in Spain.

AI: It is true that Accion mutante signalled the death of a certain type of cinema. It is not for nothing that Almodovar produced the film! And I was totally conscious of it. There is a scene in the film when a group of idiots, some monstrous freaks crash a party and ruin it. It is a little like putting an end to the movida. It’s like they went to a party at Almodovar’s house and they trash everything. This is why, deliberately, I asked some of Almodovar’s actors and actresses to play in this scene. They were all friends, Bibi Andersen and some others. Well, my characters kill Almodovar’s who came to the set when we filmed the scene, and he said to me: ‘Isn’t this a caricature of my people?’ And I said no, not at all. It’s a homage to them. Anyway, in this film the desire to stop this kind of film is clear. We had to get rid of the old cinema. When my film was released I was invited to the Montreal Film Festival where I met Jan Kounen and the director Gaspar Noé. They are both friends and Noé is even more explicit than me in a scene because he wipes his ass with the Cahiers du cinéma.

HT: In the reference to Spanish culture, are you part of the carnivalistic, nasty movement that makes fun of everything?

AI: This would mean that we hate our parents and love our grandparents. For a long time we have struggled against this transitional Spanish cinema, the one just before our own generation. We were against, for example, the films of Carlos Saura, who I love today and who is a close friend. But at the time we wanted something else. We wanted the cinema of the 1950s and 60s, which is frankly extraordinary, with great directors who made dark comedies, people like Luis Garcia Berlanga[i], Marco Ferreri[ii], and José Maria Forque[iii]. You should see Ferreri’s El cochecito, which is better than The Little Apartment. In El cochecito the protagonist is an old man, which already changes everything. And all his friends are as at least as old as he is, although they are worse-off physically and confined to electric wheelchairs. They play in their chairs [De la Iglesia imitates the sound of the electric wheelchairs] and he feels excluded when they go out to play because he is the only one who doesn’t have one. Because of this he asks his family – who, like all families, are repugnant – to buy him an electric wheelchair. They refuse because it is too expensive and they point out that he doesn’t need one. In response he pretends to be sick. Well, a lot of things happen in this film, but to sum up he ends up killing the whole family because they refused to buy him the wheelchair that he wanted so badly. At the end of the film he leaves in his wheelchair accompanied by two policemen. He got what he wanted. This concept of the burlesque has long roots in the burlesque theatre of the nineteenth century.

HT: In Yves Montmayeur’s documentary, you say that dark comedies began with Don Quixote. Surprising.

AI: The character of the Spanish people can be seen in the failure of the main protagonist. Put another way, failure is not an event, but it is part of one’s life. Therefore, I become crazy and I can no longer tell the difference between reality and fiction. This is what happens to Don Quixote who goes over to a world of knightly chivalry that no longer corresponds to reality. His best friend, Sancho Panza, constantly brings him back to reality. Failure and disappointment in the face of reality can lead to another way of seeing the world. The philosopher Emil Cioran, of Romanian origin, is an exponent of pessimism and he claims there have been two important historical moments in the evolution of our thinking. The first was during the decadence of the Roman Empire, and the second during the Golden Age of Spain. He says it is failure that creates character in that the experience causes suffering to be transformed into virtue. We can imagine the religious consequences! This is something that exists inside us but that cannot be described. It’s like a kind of magma.

YM: Don Quixote is especially an anti-hero. In your films the characters are all anti-heroes who, if they have convictions lose them in the end. They are cowards but, in spite of everything, touching. This also is a Spanish trait.

AI: In The Day of the Beast (El dia de la bestia, 1995) this is clear. The priest is Don Quixote with Sancho Panzo at his side.

HT: In 800 balas, it’s the hanged man who reads the newspaper at the entrance to the village.

AI: The story comes from the shooting of Accion mutante. An actor was tied up and when we went to eat we left him there because it was too complicated to free him. We were three kilometres from the set and when we returned, three hours later, he was trying to move a little. It was a strange sight and so I used it in 800 balas. I must say that, between what I [like to watch] and what I shoot, it is often quite different. I like ‘white’ comedies, but when I shoot a film I do something very different. In fact, I think there is a relation between pain and humour. If there’s no pain it isn’t funny. For example, when someone falls down people always laugh. If it is a young person, it is only half funny. If it is a handicapped person it is worse. But the more a person is respected the funnier it is. If, for example, the Pope falls down… nothing better. I laugh the most at mass and during funerals. Once I was in a church with a friend. I started to laugh at the beginning of the sermon, and the priest noticed. Well, I restrained myself when he looked sternly at me, but I couldn’t suppress the need to laugh and, when he even referred to us during the sermon, I exploded into laughter. This is how I learned that ridicule is very important and that it has something to do with failure. Putting one’s self in a ridiculous situation, in making a film, is to directly expose one’s self. It’s like going naked in the street. All artistic creation is like this. The stronger the exhibition, the better the film. It’s like tearing-off a piece of your self. When I discovered that we offer up something of ourselves when we make a film, I asked myself what would happen if I revealed things about myself without wanting to. In fact, this is the key, ridicule. It’s the most humiliating thing, and this is what I am best at. This is what makes a film.

Question from the audience: How did young people react to The Day of the Beast?

AI: Yesterday, my daughter saw the film for the first time. My companion likes my films, generally, but she thinks I take too much time making them. I would like to tell you about a script that doesn’t yet have a title. It’s the story of a man who gets excited, masturbates and generally makes an ass of himself. The first scene [de la Iglesia – who loves comic books – acts out the story, using mimics and improvised sound effects]: We see a motorway jammed-up with traffic [makes sound of car horns]. In the sky is a helicopter watching the traffic jam [sound of helicopter]. The pilot of the helicopter says over the radio [de la Iglesia imitates the pilot speaking into the microphone], ‘There is a man on the motorway dressed in a rabbit costume. Yes. He is disguised as a rabbit and is masturbating on the motorway. Now he is running.’ The whole scene is seen from the helicopter – the man disguised as a rabbit with his pants down. Finally the police catch him. In the next scene, the man is telling his story to a police psychologist.

Question from the audience: If this is a film, what is it trying to reveal?

AI: Very good question. To reveal is ridiculous, but it reveals nevertheless. We are ashamed of people who believe in something. I do, and I’m ashamed. In Accion mutante, I wanted to tell the story of a group of terrorists who attack beautiful and happy people. But there are other things behind appearances. I was in Bilbao [the Basque country] in the 1980s and lived in a pre-war atmosphere. And even if we disapprove of the groups in activity there, we feel a certain admiration for them. In this film, and in Perdita Durango, there is also the theme of treason.

YM: You mention Perdita Durango, but how did the shooting of The Oxford Murders go? This is a thriller and not at all a comedy.

AI: Quite well. When we detest something we end up loving it.

HT: There is a curious thing in the new cinema of the fantastic. When this kind of film appeared in the 1930s, in the Italian cinema, in the Hammer films, gothic themes were taken up: the vampire, King Kong, the crazy scientist, the werewolf. And when you took up this genre, you did something very different without using these themes. For example, the living dead, that is linked to Spain, the child king, the unknown and lost child, the house that remembers… In Common Wealth [La comunidad, 2000] the house plays a leading role. It is a person. Is all this haphazard, or does it come from history?

AI: Here what interested me was the staircase. In fact, it is the haunted house, another classic theme in horror films. The example of Narciso Ibanez Serrador is important for us. But since he has been filming [mostly] for television, he has not made [many] films for the cinema. He is certainly one of the best Spanish directors. He made The House That Screamed (La Recidencia, 1969), a classic. It is also essential to see another of his films, Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?, 1976). In this film, the children are armed and they kill. It’s terrifying. He is a completely different director. In television he mocks many things, and I feel very close to him.

YM: Serrador has also made a series for television: Historias para no dormir [‘Stories to keep you awake’, 1964-82]. The generation of people making films of the fantastic saw this series when they were very young. It is the equivalent of Hitchcock’s television series.

HT: Bayona’s The Orphanage takes place in the same place. Like [in] Paco Plaza’s and Jaume Balagero’s REC [2007], the allusion is made to Historias para no dormir. I think this is why this generation of the fantastic genre is different from the previous ones. It is no longer necessary to go down into the basement to be afraid. What is more terrifying, what is more horrible, is the past, what is past, and what remains in the memory.

AI: I made an episode, The Baby’s Room [La habitacion del nino], in [a follow-up series, 6 Films to Keep You Awake(Peliculas para no dormir), 2006], and it is certainly the most terrifying thing I have made. A father installed a camera in his infant son’s room in order to keep an eye on him and he discovers an unknown person near the crib. But there is no one in the room. The camera films the same house, but in another world. There is a door that doesn’t exist in reality, and the father opens it and enters into another world.

Question from the audience: You spoke of a subject for a film [A Sad Trumpet Ballad] about Luis Carrero Blanco.[iv] How would you treat this subject?

AI: As in my other films, indirectly. The main character is a clown who intends to kill a child. The clown says to the child: ‘I’m not afraid of you’. At this very moment a car arrives. It’s Carrero’s. Carrero then flies up into the air and comes down in the courtyard of a convent. The clown finds himself in front of terrorists. He is wearing his mask and they are wearing their hoods. The clown says to them: ‘What circus are you from?’

Christiane Passevant
is a journalist and film editor who writes on the cinema. In 2004 she published Cinéma Engagé, Cinéma Enragéwith Pascal Dupuy and Larry Portis.

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[i] Luis Garcia Berlanga made The Executioner (El verdugo) in 1963. In this film an executioner arranges for his son-in-law to take his position upon retirement. The young man believes there is almost no chance of actually having to perform an execution. But then he must do it. It is important to know that in this year, 1963, two anarchist activists, Joaquin Delgado and Francisco Granado, were garrotted for a crime they did not commit.

[ii] Marco Ferreri was Italian, but before making Blow-Out (La grande bouffe, 1973) he made films in Spain, notably The Little Apartment (El pisito, 1959) about the housing crisis and El cochecito (‘The little coach’/‘The wheelchair’, 1960), a ferocious, satirical comedy about ageing and the family.

[iii] José Maria Forqué was a prolific director who, from the 1950s, made films like El diablo toca la flauta (‘The devil plays the flute’, 1954), Robbery at 3 O’clock (Atraco a las Tres, 1962) and Black Humour (Umorismo in nero, 1965, in collaboration with Claude Autant-Lara and Giancarlo Zagni).

[iv] Luis Carrero Blanco was one of Franco’s officers who became an admiral and eventually prime minister and probable successor to Franco. In December 1973, he was assassinated in Madrid by a car bomb placed by the ETA, in a street near the cathedral where Carrero habitually attended mass. This important event contributed to the end of the Franco era. The ETA’s action, that they called ‘Operation Ogro’, was depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Ogro(Operacion Ogro, 1979).



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