The cinema, an inexplicable dream
Dear Academy Members:
Talking about the confusion one feels when obtaining such a high honour, at the same time as one makes a confession of modesty, saying that one does not really deserve to be on this stand, seems to be a normal way to start this type of speeches. Well, what could sound like an introductory topic is, this time, an objective reality. In such a difficult situation I can’t but apologize from the beginning in case the confusion that overwhelms me results in rambling speech and a shaky reading.
In fact, one of the reasons that made me choose my profession was searching for protection for my shyness by hiding behind the camera, enjoying the anonymity directors had in those days, eclipsed by the actors’ stardom. And allow me to keep thinking, especially at this moment, that there is nothing more gratifying than being an invisible man, that is, just the man in the street, free to stop in front of shameful shop windows or escape from the possibility of being gawked at in a public event like the one you are living right now and I am suffering.
Anyway, I must say that, despite the rough time, this ceremony offers me enough reasons to feel satisfied and proud, especially if the illustrious auditorium has the courtesy to show me tolerance and affection. So, here I am, with tepid courage, feeling honoured to accept a place in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, not so much on my behalf as on behalf of the Spanish cinema, which is a little broken and weak, but still with enough spirit to feel proud and add its gratitude to mine before those responsible for opening the doors of this noble institution to us so generously.
Personally, I must add to this collective gratitude my recognition of the gesture of modernity, I would even say audacity, if I think of certain organisms petrified in their solemnity, of the honourable academics Mr. Ramón González de Amezúa, Mr. Manuel Rivera Hernández and Mr. Juan José Martín for suggesting that a film maker should occupy a chair in the Academy, of the rest of the Academy members for accepting this unusual proposal and, especially, of the Director of the Royal Academy, the Honourable Monsignor Federico Sopeña, for his sponsorship and support of this awkward operation, which has the purpose of accepting me to represent my hardly prestigious profession in an institution with so much history and prestige, in such a way that this act of admission takes on an exceptional nature by becoming the definitive consideration of the category of the cinema as an elevated artistic expression, from the highest authority in the matter. However, I must point out, as a paradoxical thing, the fact that I have been the chosen one, the visible figure of this coming out and coming of age celebration for an art which was minor until now. I’m saying this because I have to admit that I have great doubts regarding this topic. Doubts about the nature of my profession, which I hope to be able to dissipate with the warm academic welcome.
I want to go back to my youth in Valencia, when I comforted my sentimental deficiencies surrendering to my imagination and giving my artistic interest free reign. In a gloomy time, affected by the dirty, stupid and useless cloud of smoke of a country at war, I allowed myself to imagine wonderful futures where I visualized, perhaps as a prelude of my subsequent interpretation of the universe, scenes in which success as a more or less accursed poet, as an artist near the magic realism or as an architect with a precise urban mission were confirmed, always from my solitude. There were no limits to my optimistic teenage devotion to the dream of Art. But life ended up bringing me down to earth, much to my regret, making me feel the bitter taste of frustrated vocations. I soon discovered that my talent for writing verses wasn’t much better than any other mobilized recruit’s, the same way my ability as an artist was nothing more than that of a simple, naïve Sunday painter and my hopes in the field of architecture were demolished by an absolute incompetence regarding exact sciences.
It was obvious, before those failures to reach Art, with a capital letter, that my interests should derive towards more modest, but always creative, aims such as the cinema. From my childhood I was impacted by the fascination that came from the screen of the cheap and run-down buildings where the adventure gathered us. A wish to build worlds, a desire to repeat dreams, came over me out of a simple symbiotic reaction, in these buildings. But it was always as a magical transfer, from hat to hat, a pleasant magic game, never as an ambition to create and give form to a work of art. A task I saved for those high disciplines in which, unfortunately, as I said earlier, I only obtained the humbleness certificate failure gives you. My approach to the cinema was purely visceral, a fundamental enchantment, far from any intellectual intention. Watching a film was like a ceremony, a rite in which magic enveloped you and the frustrating everyday reality disappeared. Buying a ticket was the safe-conduct to various outstanding experiences overflowing with sensuality. Looking at the façades of the cinemas, which I recall, full of light bulbs, like a permanent Christmas, offering a magical landscape which I don’t know why I saw as unattainable, through the posters. Or following, hypnotized, the light from the torches of generous guides who helped us get through the door to the extraordinary, sitting us in the cheapest sections, normally on uncomfortable wooden benches, where, with enthusiastic shouts, we celebrated, on the screen, the deeds of spies, thieves or explorers, booing slightly when the main characters engaged in a love scene which was too elliptic and inexplicably boring for us. But, anyway, we openly enjoyed the prodigy, without worrying about the origin of the wonder, whether this or that director was responsible for it, or whether the photography was rich in chiaroscuros or not. Discovering the ins and outs of the extraordinary could be a heresy similar to that of revealing the tricks of the magician or disappointing that ineffable and constant spectator who, according to René Clair, waited for the lead actress to come out every night with a bunch of flowers on his hands, with the sad reality. That’s why, contrary to filmologists who try to codify, regulate and, what’s worse, explain the dream, I still defend the rash impulse. The cinema is there, that’s all it is, and that “that” acquires the sufficient ectoplasmic dimension to give me back my dream and my equilibrium at the same time. That is why I ask for an act of contrition and I confess, dear Father Sopeña, that I have said in some interviews that I saw film makers as entertainers in a booth, conjuring up offers of fantasies with the hocus-pocus of the “Step right up and see for yourself” rather than on an academic chair. That is, I feel, or I felt, as a worker in show business more than a member of the cultural phenomenology which has been added to the festive invention.
But as I am here, accepting this chair in the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, and if Monsignor Sopeña has seen fit to absolve me, I must make an act of contrition and think that I was wrong, in part. So, I find myself needing to reflect over the artistic qualities of the cinema, although in my films I have always looked for an intuitive, and perhaps a little chaotic, spontaneity, instead of the impeccable perfection and academic tone. Having said that, I would like to dive into the nature of my profession, in a somewhat profane way, if you like, to try to discover the merits it has to be considered as one of the fine arts.
At the end of the World War of 1914, the Absolute Arts, which Tolstoy had already denounced as a product of an obsolete quintessence, almost hermetic arts, since they were less and less available to the public at large and more suited to elitist circles, until they made literature only for men of letters, music only for musicians or paintings only for painters, were suddenly questioned.
Renan had already wished for the death of Art, Whitman calmly cancelled the Parnassus with the same serenity that Nietzsche did away with God. A civilization, which discovered itself as vulnerable and agonic, was becoming extinct. A parallel socialization of the creations of the spirit was added to a political and economic socialization. It was at that moment when the cinema underwent a sudden development, joined a little later by the radio and, finally, that electoral agent of any power known as the television.
So, minor arts were born, in a little contrived way, mystified among tricks which were more ideological than aesthetic, but that immediately conquered the ground that pure Art had lost. Films entered the hearts of the masses quickly, and not surprisingly Governments smelt the power of cinema immediately and culturalized it, magnifying it to lean on it, and instrumentalizing it as a sophisticated weapon at their service. And it just needed an Italian critic and essayist, Ricardo Canudo, to catalogue it as the Seventh Art for nobody to dare defend the cinematographic camera as a recreational device to serve the show business industry.
There’s no need to prove the importance of the cinema in modern life. The numbers speak for themselves. Despite the crisis we’ve been dogged with, everyday millions of people go into one of the thousands of dark cinemas where the rites for this new religion of shadows are celebrated.
The amount of money being handled is no less eloquent. But statistics don’t show the essential. The importance of the cinema, from the so-called cultural point of view, is that it constitutes the main channel, and almost the only one, through which the urban population and a good part, which is getting bigger and bigger, of rural population can be in touch with art. If the great legislators of the state school were relying on eradicating illiteracy by teaching the written language generally and advertising books as a tool for learning, the appearance of audiovisual means came to increase the possibilities of bringing culture nearer to people. The 20th century civilization is substantially tied to these new means of expression.
So, the curious sideshow game, which was shown together with the sirens, the sword swallowers and the carrousels, had an astonishing and unexpected development for its inventors when the new technique discovered the possibilities of a language that opened the doors to its universal expansion. It was as if society unconsciously responded to its message. A mysterious fertilization occurred when, what until then had been no more than an innovation to animate images got in touch with those obscure latencies which every civilization keeps within its secret sub-conscience and that have been satisfied by a form of art in every era. For example, epic poems and architecture in the Middle Ages, painting in the 16th century, the theatre in the 17th century or the novel in the 19th century. The cinema will be the popular art of our time par excellence.
Besides, the language of the cinema is easily assimilated even by a novice public. When a film was shown to African tribes, they didn’t take long to consider it as natural a phenomenon as any other, after the first shock. Something similar happened during the first public showing by the Lumière brothers. The spectators were frightened when they saw a locomotive rushing towards them. But during the next days, the cinema was full of people wishing to be run over by that train which brought them a new and appealing hypnosis. If the cinema is immediately understandable it is because of the specific and universal character of images. The cinema’s paradox is, precisely, that it must express the abstract idea through the concrete representation of reality. That’s where its power lies, but also its danger. The screen only shows things, prompting a feeling of objective reality in our sub-conscience. It is the responsibility of every creator, with an intimate demand towards the freedom of the human spirit, to make sure that that power of persuasion is not used with ideological manipulation or propagandistic purposes.
Because we must be aware, as members of a visual culture, of the unlimited power of expression the cinema has. By way of an admirable synthesis it can be said that it has all the artistic possibilities which belong to the novel, drama, music and visual art separately. Interestingly, the cinema, a fleeting form of art, gives eternity to the ephemeral. The screen can end up being, always during a short period of time, not only the ideological pamphlet I mentioned earlier, but also the most beautiful painting, the most lucid book to write about an idea or develop a story, or the ideal space where science joins art, in perfect symbiosis, to capture and fix light and its changing rhythms.
We can be moved looking at the Venus de Milo but I don’t think we feel any less admiration watching Greta Garbo’s silhouette. If we are still astonished by the light captured in a painting by Velázquez, it is also true that we enjoy the fascination of Marlene Dietrich’s face, lit through the smoke from her cigarette. Our senses are doubly shaken before the fully statuesque and disturbing quality of a Rita Hayworth, thanks to the charm of movement. Fred Astaire has been able to reach the highest level through the volatile state of the grace of dance. Some film soundtracks, by Gerswihn, by Maurice Jarre, by Nino Rota, have already become classics. And if we praise the colours of paintings by Goya, by Van Gogh, by Matisse, must we then despise the colour and texture of the photography in films by Minelli or Kubrik?
Every work of art is such inasmuch as it is the exponent of a historical era or of a human feeling. The Parthenon translates to visual forms all the Greek thinking, and a Beethoven’s symphony turns the sounds of the romantic interests of its author into harmony. But the cinema is, more than any other form of art, a reflection of life, because its forms are not symbolic or enigmatic, but real and expressive, and its purpose is not only aesthetic but also ethic. The cinema will hardly become “Art for the sake of art”, but it will always be “art for the sake of life”.
However, the risk this conjunction entails, this “Summa Artis” that we suggested the cinema could become, is that it could turn into a mere expositive showcase of the different artistic elements it contains, without finding its own identity as an independent creation, precisely because of this variety of aesthetic references. In short, the only possible definition of the cinema is that spectators decide to be invaded by the stimuli which move them, insofar as the screen fulfils their requirements, at each moment, with each frame. Spectators feel alive in the cinema with a magical and multiple personality, and this feeling which is, in short, an artistic feeling, can only be given by the film, as poetic sublimation of references from reality.
Before a life which is bitter, uncomfortable and sad, human beings want to be stunned, to escape their world, to be distracted, because their humanity is too narrow. Individuals, submitted to a constant everyday frustration, overwhelmed by their obligations, by their family and working environment, paying with stress the high price of emotional bankruptcy and crumbling spirits, however, find in the collective ceremony of the film session a form of particular therapy. Sitting on the chair, which acts as their passport from darkness to the illuminated universe of the imaginary reality, they establish some sort of adventure with the screen. They can feel that the look of invitation to sophisticated pleasures from Brigitte Bardot is directed to them, they can feel on their lips Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick-tasting kiss, they can share Errol Flynn’s gallantry and Clark Gable’s charm and seduction. They fly through the air, they cross the Seven Seas, they cross outer space. Even knowing their emotion is shared with the rest of the spectators in the cinema, the nuances are, however, their own. They extract an individual benefit from a phenomenon of social catharsis, the perfect fusion between reality and wish.
It is a film maker’s obligation to dive into the life of the modern man, life in today’s society. Above oneself, one must observe others to achieve a piece of work which is near to everyone. We have to know those who live around us: what they’re like, how they live, whether they are happy or suffering and why. The pedestrian we meet in the street may have an incredible story behind him, full of human feeling, although his existence may look very banal. Their problems are our problems too, because we cannot be oblivious to anything that happens around us, insofar as we are part of humanity. The most fascinating, endless and fundamental sources of inspiration, meditation and creative creation must come from there. Personally, I think the most adequate cinematographic way to go more deeply into the conflicts of today’s spirit is in a genre normally despised, to which I have dedicated my work for years with more or less fortune: I am talking about the comedy. In front of the accusations it gets of trivializing life with the insignificance of humour, I think, on the contrary, that it is precisely through humour that we can achieve the straightforward portrayal, the incisive insight which allows us to explore the contradictory nature of the human spirit. Laughing is, many times, a defence reaction against everything we fear. Comedy presents in its substantial background a naked vision, behind the curtain of the grotesque, of the hidden reality of the society we live in.
We learn more about the real character of the human conflicts in a film with Buster Keaton facing the continuous aggression of calamity, in a comedy with Howard Hawks dissecting puritan hypocrisy, in a fantasy with Fellini inviting the ghosts of reason to dance, than in a grandiloquent drama full of false transcendence, pompous dialogues and affected situations. In the future, when somebody wants to write the History of the 20th century, to know what we were like, what our strengths and weaknesses were, our complex attitude towards the fearful and wonderful life, they will have to watch the comedies filmed during that time to see our most accurate portrait.
From the cake in the face, through to the unpleasant character’s fall, the excessive controlled chaos in the grotesque, the laugh out-loud will always serve as confirmation, even if it is in a cruel form, of our everyday miserabilization, of the limitations we have as simple mortals, full of faults and subscribed to error. In short, the ironic distancing will always be the best cure for the vanity that lurks around us all with the temptation of the granitic pedestal.
And, to end this dissertation, precisely to escape from vanities and doubting whether the reflection set out has been able to clear up the state of confusion of my ideas, I can only say that, whether it is art or not, we will go on looking for the emotion of light and shade, for the possibilities of the illusion in the cinema until we can achieve, as an aim from the heart, the absolute dissolution of our conscience, taking in the ether from the screen, lost in the fascinating spell of that dream factory which, let’s not forget, was invented simply as a recreational toy.
Luis García Berlanga
* Speech by the academic elect, the honourable Mr. Luis García Berlanga Martí, read in the act of his Public Reception on 18 June 1989. San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid, 1989.