Speech by Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia
Honourable Mr. Councillor of Culture, Education and Science, Honourable Chancellor of the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Honourable Chancellor of the Universidad Miguel Hernández, dignified authorities, members of the University Community, ladies and gentlemen:
My teenage strolls around Valencia inevitably took me to the walls of the schools run by nuns, especially Godella, to long for the girls locked up there, adorable receivers of the light and tender love letters that José Luis Colina, Vicente Andrés Estellés and myself threw, together, weighed down with stones, over to the other side of the walls; stones which, I’m sure, split some heads covered with a wimple open.
But, from time to time, I looked beyond the romantic frontiers of boarding schools. Long before my cinematographic vocation, without knowing where it came from, a strange curiosity made me walk round the city street by street, balcony by balcony, square by square, looking for settings, however small, in which by positioning myself in the appropriate place, and due to the characteristics of the façades, the streetlights, the trees, and shop window designs, my mind’s eye could disembark in places as distant and different as Hong-Kong, London or Timbuktu.
Was it a mere imagination game, a latent wish to escape or perhaps a premonition of the value sets have in filming? I don’t know, but in any case, in that search for spaces of magic realism there was also another obsession that has been with me all my life: Valencia, as a city to decipher. That game of tampering with landscapes could also be the dream of somebody who diversifies his spaces, multiplying the range he wished for his development as a stroller, through that transvestited vision.
I myself wonder, at this moment, what I will do, what I will look at, what I will wish when at quarter past seven this afternoon I stop at any pavement, no less than in the middle of the space, to think of the city I yearn for. And I might discover that, behind this vertigo, there may be a God complex, ignored by Freud, which consists of creating our own universe; a complex with which film directors and architects are specially contaminated.
So, it is easy to understand why I see myself as first of all a citizen of the world, although I have never stopped highlighting some personal characteristics that bind me to this city and to these coasts, where we receive the foam from those waves that bring us the Mediterranean charm.
I have always stated that my films have the air of a falla, are pyrotechnic and shot based on spontaneous inspiration, that is, the “pensat i fet” (no sooner said than done) philosophy of which we boast, at least I do, and I hope some of those present do, too.
However, I must reveal certain contradictions in that Valencian background I have just described. To do that I must enter into the vocation I had in my youth towards the world of Architecture, which honours me so much today, to which I could not dedicate because the two years of Exact Sciences required to enter the School, became an impenetrable brick wall.
One of the contradictions I referred to earlier was based on why a Valencian, who already had that visceral connexion with an excessive baroque sedimented, could get excited about the refined and Pascalian rationalist movement which we discovered after the relationship with the Bauhaus of Gropius, Van der Rohe and the simultaneous isms. What did my admiration for the festive constructions by Cortina, Villalba or Regino Más, the paintings by Pinazo, Sorolla, Muñoz Degrain, Mongrell or the sculptures by Benlliure have to do with Mendelson’s expressionism, Alvar Aalto’s expressive functionalism, Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture or Le Corbusier’s radiant city? In what direction did these so violently different pendular loves tilt my creative processes?
Except for some sketches that may still be around in my lofts, the solution was categorical. The cinema condemned me to the magic option. I remember I made my decision in the Rialto cinema, half way through a projection of a film by Pabst and, almost as a miracle, as if I were Bernardette and the screen were the cavern in Lourdes where the Virgin appeared, in this case, the film. Earlier, I hadn’t been influenced by circumstances such as the fact that an uncle of mine, Luis Martí Alegre, had shot before “El Faba de Ramonet”, the first spoken film in Valencian, or the fact that another relative had shot family videos with a Pathe Baby. This duplicity of my artistic loves didn’t happen at the cinema. Between Bergman, Bresson, Antonioni, and Lubistch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Chaplin, Keaton or the Marx brothers, there were no doubts or concerns. Comedy became the messenger of my ideas and, from my first film until even “Blasco Ibáñez”, my last work, humour won the battle. Apart from the fact that I think comedy is the genre per excellence, what would be the right place to put my cinematographic work? All my films have the same discourse under their humorous shell. They start with somebody who has a project for the future in which the wished for well-being and the funding to achieve it are included, naturally. And with it, obviously, personal freedom as a paradoxically pressing need.
But the main character can never achieve his/her objective, in any of my films, from “That Happy Couple” through to the last one. Society deviously sets the necessary traps to make sure his/her dream, whether individual or collective, does not come true. The overdue instalment in Plácido, the sale of intercoms by the Catalan manufacturer who pays for a hunting expedition to be able to achieve his objective, the Castillian village which disguises itself as an Andalusian village to welcome the Americans and their Marshall plan, the scientist who escapes from his country and seeks refuge in a small town called Calabuig, the Parisian dentist who gives up everything to lock himself up with a doll and, especially, the poor undertaker’s employee who ends up becoming an executioner and legally killing a citizen to be able to get married and obtain a house to live are, in summary, where the main characters turn their lives, or I should say, my films into the chronicle of a failure.
Can this pessimism, this mistrust of the society that gives me shelter, be transferred to my own biology? Probably. We are experimenting a social aging which takes us, inevitably, towards a solitude which we are not prepared for. In one of my films, “Tamaño natural” (Life Size), already sensing this tendency towards confinement, I depicted a character who, having the lucidity to guess this robotic programming, decided to invent a recreational solitude. He left his wife, his lover, his friends, his profession, etc., confining himself in a place to enjoy life without sharing as much as possible.
His mistake was to share his isolation with a life size doll, which ended up becoming the Trojan horse from which all the viruses he had wanted to eradicate came out: a forced relationship, routine, jealousy, the mortal seductions of desire, which ended up pushing him to commit suicide. By the way, it was the only suicide in my filmography.
But even if this story were fiction, real life is much worse. Today we are nearer to the impossibility of people shaking hands with one another. Except for during mass where, apart from the fact it is imposed as a ceremony, you can’t accompany it with the necessary warm talk. There are already a lot of beings locked up with one toy only. Today it will be the Internet; tomorrow, some other invention which turns virtual reality into a journey without return.
I am not going to ask for help to stop this. There have already been people who have managed to enrich this solitude, creating a made to measure universe with androgyny as its only census. I’m talking about my friend Pierre Molinier, the surrealist painter who would be the pioneer of a society able to eliminate all that’s collective, like sects, religions, political parties, ideologies, states, etc; a society which would start to free individuals, who would, in turn, generate their own habitat; a possible society, in short, a society which would one day be within our reach. In any case, allow me the utopia. But while we are waiting for it, let’s try to calm our landscapes, take pollution away from our looks and try and weather the storm a little happier than we are now.
I could give an example: Valencia. If we look at any street plan of Valencia, preferably Father Tosca’s, we will clearly see that its ground plan is exact to a section of a snail, whose centre would be the Plaza de la Virgen and the end of its spiral would be the Torres de Quart. This centripetal and centrifuge characteristic would give the vital body, enclosed within, the double option of locking itself up or helping it to escape. I think this is the proposal our city has always made; to project itself towards the outside at human level. The Torres de Quart would be like the snail’s feelers, testing the opening towards a Spain which has always kidnapped our creativity. But regarding the material aspect, the biological body and its vital excrements, the tendency has always been centripetal, ending up destroying its own embryo, the Ciutat Vella, with time and eroding the rest of the gastropod mollusc.
At this moment, this city-snail, which has knocked down my cradle and that of so many others; this city, which refuses to get nearer the sea to caress it, or the other way round, it hasn’t allowed the waves to enter through its windows; this city, which some foolish person baptized as “the city of flowers”, although there aren’t any on its balconies; this city, which is happy with not losing the Sun for the Botanic Garden, instead of demanding an increase in its green space; this city, which takes years to restore its most genuine Palace, the Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas, which cannot manage to inaugurate, during Ausias March year, the great Maritime Museum it deserves, or make the surviving sector of its historic centre alive, healthy and functional; this city, which is losing the splendour of its “huerta” (a fertile, irrigated region), which freezes the hope of some citizens to be able to sit on a bench in the promised Parque Central; this city, I repeat, which we know can be improved, is irremediably demanding everybody’s effort because, although the achievements of the institutions are obvious, we must banish from us, from the citizen, the absurd comfort we have to think only the institutions can fix our lives. And even more in Valencia, where we put our traditional “seminfotismo” (I couldn’t care less mentality) against the so-called manna of the Welfare State, an indifference that sometimes shames us with few public mobilizations at times when the whole of Spain went onto the streets.
Precisely these two enormous concentrations which we all know were spontaneous and, especially, not called for by any organism, magnify a civil response which can take the streets with supreme authority. Perhaps these two events are the desperate goodbye of responsible citizens, but in any case, this reaction could serve us to solve some present deficiencies.
I am in exile in Madrid, but I remain in touch with these problems through the Consell de Cultura (Council for Culture) of which I am a member. And I would like all the Valencians to be able to get in touch through it and exchange cards just as we used to do when we were kids. I am not talking about a “booth system” where we can make proposals that look like votes. It would be about arranging conversations between those who could articulate possible solutions, and not overambitious or fanciful ones, to be able to break the barriers between the Administration and the administrated; that that sudden presence, unwritten, be the beginning of a public participation full of hope in the restoration of our common house, which is not only Valencia, but all the houses and land in the Valencian Community.
And since it looks like we cannot do it with philology, let’s do it, at least, with all those things in which consensus is assumed. Let’s start to talk among ourselves, not only about football or charity raffles; let’s start to look at our cities, as I said at the beginning of this speech, putting enthusiasm into each corner, into each urban building; let’s spatter, then, this wish with hope. And when this city-landscape, that is, the set for the film is finished, I hope, let’s open the streets, the houses, the parks, the museums, the theatres, the hotels, the shops, etc. to the main characters which, in this case, would be, or better said, to the whole neighbourhood, so that they can tell spectators stories which remind us of those by Blasco Ibañez. And, especially, that the end of the film isn’t even the Millennium.
Thank you very much.
Luis García Berlanga
* Speech by Doctor Honoris Causa by the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, the Honourable Mr. Luis García Berlanga Martí, read during the investiture ceremony on 2 October 1997.