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Alejandaro Amenabar's Tesis: art, commerce and renewal in Spanish cinema.

Something is afoot in Spanish cinema: generational renovation, industrial and legal changes, new blood to relieve the old guard, transformations in the sociological portrait of its audience, increasing media interest in its images..., different metamorphoses that, whether considered in combination or separately, are changing the face of filmic production in this country.

Carlos Heredero, in the introduction to 20 nuevos directores del cine espanol (1)

Since the mid-1990s, and after a decade of steady decline, Spanish cinema has been undergoing a renaissance in local and global markets. There are myriad practical explanations for this shift, as Carlos Heredero affirms in the above quote. Noteworthy particular changes range from the remodeling of Audiovisual! Communications departments, previously a concentration offered by Journalism schools, which enabled university students to gain practical experience in running television and film networks, to the rebirth of "escuelas de cine," prestigious film schools across the country that operate outside the university system but which carry national accreditation. Perhaps the principal reason for the recent success in Spanish filmmaking and spectatorship, however, resides not in the newly acquired equipment and training centers, but rather in what underlies these practical applications--a transformation in the Spanish philosophy towards the seventh art: the acceptance by audiences, directors, producers, critics, an d the media that art and commerce are not necessarily an incompatible combination.

One of the major forces driving this unlikely marriage of art and commerce is the quest of the newest generation of Spanish directors to appeal to their audience's "enjoyment factor" while presenting them with "quality cinema," seemingly a category conventionally reserved only for films that make little or no profit at the box office. New directors, most of whom were infants or toddlers when Franco died, have found success by virtually turning their backs on the themes of the Civil War and Francoism, as well as ignoring the work of their predecessors who had developed a cinema renowned for its socio-political commitment, but also for its stagnant themes and talent for boring its spectators. (2) These younger filmmakers have not entirely eschewed Spain's political and cinematic past, but rather the latter plays an integral and inextricable role in the conceptualization of their work. That is to say, many of their films incorporate a repressed historical memory, suggesting their reaction against Francoist ideol ogy and oppositional cinema (the Other) in their search for a contemporary identity (the One). In this way, they necessarily incorporate both thesis and antithesis in the process of their films.

This repressed past may surface in many forms: in cinematic technique, dialogue, image, and in the case of Alejandro Amenabar's 1995 thriller Tesis [Thesis], it appears in all of the aforementioned as allusions to Spanish cinema under the dictatorship. The casting of Ana Torrent as the female protagonist, Angela, for instance, recuperates the child star whose eyes and vision enchanted millions of Spanish filmgoers while inspiring them to interrogate their own inculcation into Francoist ideology, and then subsequently inspiring them to question this inculcation. Through her roles as spectator-in-the-text in Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmena [Spirit of the Beehive] (1973) and Carlos Saura's Cria cuervos [Raise Ravens, or iCria!] (1975), Torrent serves as the principal intertext for Tesis, recalling for the contemporary Spanish audience the cinematic and political referents of its predecessors. In the opening sequence of Tesis, for example, the metro authorities prevent Angela--and her off-screen audience, a lready drawn into her perspective through subjective point-of-view camera shots--from observing the suicidal "hombre partido por la mitad" [the man cut in half] on the train tracks just as she is (and we are) on the scopophilic, as well as physical (the train platform's), verge of witnessing the horror. This prohibition by authorities in turn expands into a type of self-censorship later in the film. While "viewing" a tape of a snuff film as a component of her thesis research on violence in the media, Angela deliberately reduces the contrast on her television to zero, hence eliminating any trace of image on the monitor. Arguably, this internalization symbolically represents the insidiousness of early Francoist censorship that prominent directors protested at the Salamanca Meeting in 1955. (3) Later, contrary to her initial unauthorized desire to view the severed body that had stopped her metro train, she often attempts to protect herself from violent images and sounds by turning away, shielding her eyes and ea rs with her hands, or abruptly turning off the TV, as she is both attracted and repulsed by the images displayed in front of her.

Chema (Fele Martinez)4, the male lead and Angela's cohort in revealing the snuff film production ring within the university, summarizes the breakdown of the opposition between Spain's politically committed cinematic past and its "disengaged entertaining present" with one pithy response. In a comically metacinematic moment, the announcement is made in a film class that Figueroa (Miguel Picazo), one of the communications professors (and Angela's thesis director), has suffered a heart attack and has died while viewing a movie in the screening room. Chema reacts to the news with a quip, "Espanola, seguro" [A Spanish film, for sure].

Chema's joke is not merely self-conscious jest. The 90's saw the worst and the best, respectively, of Spanish cinema in terms of spectatorship and markets. In 1994, after a steady decline, Spaniards' enthusiasm for their own releases hit an all time low, capturing only 7.64% of moviegoers' attention that year ("Boletin Informativo," 1994; "Estadisticas"). As we examine the end of the decade, however, it seems that Spanish films and filmmakers have made a remarkable comeback with their domestic audience. According to the daily El Mundo, September of 1999 figures reached around 16% of the domestic market (Hermoso) and one of the highest percentages of movie-going per capita in Europe (Rodriguez). (5) Currently, it is not uncommon to wait on long lines to get tickets for the premiere of a Spanish film, or to view a Spanish movie in a crowded theater, previously an exclusive right of Hollywood fare.

One emblematic sign of this cultural adjustment of Spanish audiences toward domestic fare is the fact that in January of 2000, for the first time in the history of Spanish cinema, a film directed specifically at Spanish adolescent audiences, El corazon del guerrero [The Heart of the Warrior] premiered without justifications or inhibitions, and to apparent critical success. Since the critical establishment has historically been the last stronghold of the high/low art opposition, it is even more noteworthy that the screenwriter and director of this film, Daniel Monzon, is a former critic. This transformation in mindset has come to fruition with the youngest generation of directors, Amenabar, Medem, Bollain, de la Iglesia, yet it was spear-headed much earlier by directors such as Jose Juan Bigas Luna and Pedro Almodovar who served as a bridge between generations. Almodovar in particular has negotiated the high-low culture divide for most of his career, with national and international audiences flocking to his p ostmodern brand of quirkily Spanish melodramas, while many Spanish critics were reluctant to attribute his success to thematic and cinematographic innovation and creativity, preferring to give more disdainful credit to his marketing savvy.

Monzon's example notwithstanding, Spanish critics have been more resistant to the kind of cultural change represented by Almodovar's cinema than have the mass media and film industry, who have become their own experts in self-promotion. A New Year's 2000 edition of El Pais's weekly cinema and television magazine El Espectador was dedicated to the "gran salto" or great leap that Spanish Cinema made in the previous decade and to its predictions for a healthy future for Spanish films as well. The insert is divided into three main sections, which clearly indicate Spaniards' newfound comfort in combining art with commerce. The first is a model photo spread of highly recognizable Spanish actors that treated as much the clothing the actors sport and who designed the apparel as it does the films in which they will appear in the upcoming year. The second section deals with the celebration of Almodovar's career, culminating in his most recent success at the time: his award at Cannes in 1999 as "el ultimo me]or directo r del milenjo" [the last "best" director of the millennium]. Yet, the dedication hardly focuses on his cinematic achievements. Rather, it is comprised primarily of a photo essay of his adolescence through adulthood, portraits in which he is often accompanied by his mother, and of captions that reinforce his personal loss with her death in 1999. It thus privileges Almodovar's private persona over his professional accomplishments in attempting to create a public image. (6) In the final section, just as reminiscent of Fou cault's "authorfunction" as the Almodovar spread, the reader was presented with El Espectador's "director-function" which provided renewed "author"ity to the rest of Spain's most important directors, whose photographic portrait is carefully placed in the centerfold.

This cult of the auteur, however, is hardly a new phenomenon for Spanish Cinema. Marvin D'Lugo posits Spanish cinematic production's most defining characteristic in the latter half of the twentieth century as its emphasis on author cinema in large part as an effort to combat its subjection to cinematic imperialism ("Authorship," 335). D'Lugo argues that although Spain is not considered a Third World culture, the Spanish film industry "has occupied roughly the same position as culturally colonized national cinemas in the Third World" in its relationship with Hollywood. He goes on to link the oppositional nature of film production under Franco by auteurs such as Bardem, Berlanga, and Saura with the project of redefining Spanish national culture as a whole (335-6). (7) Ironically, what in the 50s and 60s constituted oppositional cinema--the allegorical denunciation of Francoist cinematic and socio-cultural censorship--has had to be suppressed in the 90s and in the new millennium in order to regain popularity wi th current domestic Spanish audiences, and to win over international spectators once again. In other words, it seems that auteur cinema in Spain is gradually turning from a privileged discursive function of oppositional filmmaking, to a privileged discursive function of the market. This may, in essence, constitute a new type of opposition cinema in that Spaniards typically resist the phenomenon of name recognition as "brand" in the realm of art.

Yet, markets have played an important role in filmmaking and auteurism from the advent of cinema, particularly for those marginal cinemas that have had to compete with Hollywood's invasions and monopoly. Perhaps then, this shift takes place not at the structural level, but rather in its components. As D'Lugo further explains, in previous decades, producers and directors such as Elias Querejeta and Carlos Saura consciously sought the interest of an international public through film festivals, which in turn, were essential for attracting domestic audiences. They did so through crafted yet subtle cinematic indictments of Francoism which were celebrated first abroad, and later domestically, by audiences eager for images that rejected (Spanish) fascism (339). Generally, auteurs under Franco were as concerned with audiences as they were with the raising of socio-political consciousness (indeed, since the latter necessitated the former, it was easy to veil market savvy behind social commitment), while contemporary directors are more obliged, willing, and able, to embrace their positions as pragmatic professionals as well as artists and social revolutionaries. (8)


Amenabar's Tesis is one of the pivotal Spanish films that are challenging Hollywood's hegemony by co-opting its methods and improving upon them. Axiomatic for new directors is the belief that cinema is an economic undertaking as well as an artistic endeavor. Tesis is of further interest for this study as much for its direct address of these issues as for its inconsistencies in representing them. Moreover the film has arguably had the most impact in improving Spanish cinema's reputation at home and abroad. (9) It swept the 1997 Goyas, winning best picture, best original screenplay, and best new director, among others, and went on to cause sensations in Berlin and Brussels. Financially, when Tesis premiered in 1996, despite the fact that it was Amenabar's first film and was competing with others by well-known directors such as Fernando Trueba, Vicente Aranda, and Pilar Miro, it became the eleventh highest grossing film of that year, and the eighth highest of 1997, (10) while his second film, Abre los ojos [Ope n Your Eyes] (1998), soared to the third spot in highest grossing Spanish films of 1998 ("Boletines" 1996-1998). Although Abre los ojos did not achieve the domestic critical recognition in Goyas that its precursor did, it improved on Tesis's international critical success. Not only did it win three important international prizes in Berlin, Chile, and Tokyo, this last one the highest honor of the Tokyo international film festival--best overall picture--but Tom Cruise purchased the rights to the film for its US remake, Vanilla Sky. Additionally, Amenabar's latest release, Los otros [The Others], which was co-produced by Cruise under a $20 million budget and stars Nicole Kidman, has been well received in North America both by the public and by critics. (11) After 12 weeks in cinemas--four of which it spent in the second position for highest box office draw, beating out even Spielberg's A.I.--the movie has grossed $95.2 million in US cinemas alone (movieweb. corn/movie/top 25.html). On the other side of the Atlan tic, although Los otros premiered in Spain almost a full month later on September 7, its critical and financial success has been just as tangible. As of this writing, the film has been in Spanish cinemas for seven weeks, five of which it spent in the number one position, and has grossed more than $30 million dollars worth of pesetas, edging out Torrente II to become the biggest box office draw in Spanish cinematographic history during an opening weekend ( Thus, Amenabar, more than any other of the newest generation of Spanish directors, has at once succeeding in challenging, even by small measure, Hollywood's monopoly on Spanish markets as well as in creating inroads into the conglomerate itself.

Perhaps due to the films embarce of a popular genre, Tesis has received little critical attention beyond the usual series of movie reviews. (12) For this reason, I would like to focus my remaining remarks on this film precisely as it is positioned in relation to th eeconomic and aesthetic contexts I have thus far discussed.

"El realizador debe ser consciente de lo que [su violencia] hace" [The filmmaker should be conscious of what {his/her violence} does...] starts Angela before she is abruptly cut off by her professor, "El realizador no debe hacer otra cosa que lo que el publico pide" [The filmmaker is obliged to do nothing except deliver on the demands of the audience]. In examining this exchange between Angela and her new thesis advisor, Jorge Castro (Xavier Elorriaga) who replaces her former collaborator Figueroa, it becomes clear that his philosophy resonates not only within the walls of the Spanish university, but in New Spanish Cinema as a whole. The law of pleasing the consumer seems to be one of the standards most consciously adhered to by the newest generation of Spanish directors. Castro is initially presented to us as he delivers a rallying cry to students and fellow colleagues on the power of the market for Spanish cinema:

?Que es el cine? No cine es una industria. Es dinero. Son cientos miles de millones invertidos en peliculas y recaudados en taquilla. For eso no hay cine en nuestro pais. Porque no hay concepto de industria. Porque no hay comunicacion entre creador y publico. Hemos ilegado a un momento critico en el que nuestro cine solo se salvara si es entendido como un fenomeno industrial. Vosotros sois alumnos de imagen. Sois el futuro del cine espanol. !Salvadlo! Alli fuera esta la industria norte-americana dispuesta a pisotearos y solo hay un modo de competir con ellos. Darle al publico Jo que quiere ver. No lo olvideis.

[What is cinema? Don't fool yourselves. Cinema is an industry. It's about money. Million invested in films and recouped at the box office. Our country has no cinema because there's no concept of industry. There is no communication between creator and audience. We've reached a very critical stage in which our cinema can only be saved if it is understood as an industrial phenomenon. As students of cinema, you are the future of Spanish cinema. Save it! The American industry is out there poised to trample on you, and there's only one way to compete with it: give the public what it wants. Don't forget that!]

Soon after delivering this impassioned and well-received speech, however, Castro himself is discovered to be involved in the marketing of snuff films produced by some of his students in which others of his students are actually tortured, murdered, and then quartered. One might thus assume that the film's tone is facetious in communicating this consumer-controls-all philosophy. Indeed, how can we trust the statements of a professor who justifies and condones murder for the sake of the market? Castro's death by his own bullet in the various plot twists questions Hollywood's cinematic philosophy and renders those who imitate it not only uncreative but innately evil and eventually unsuccessful or ill-fated.

Furthermore Tesis's representation of the market itself becomes increasingly problematic. The film implies throughout that the mainstream movie and TV viewer is irresponsible, regularly and utterly absorbed by the images s/he consumes--or rather is consumed him/herself by those images-particularly when these involve violence. This underlying assumption is made explicit in the last scene of the film when Chema asks his hospital mate to read the dedication in the book Angela has just given to him as a gift. The exchange begins when the older man asks Chema as if he were a child asking his parent "?Podemos ver ya La tele?" [Can we turn the TV on now?], to which Chema responds with his own request. The man begins reading from the top of the page, including all of the editorial information, and finally glosses over to Angela's invitation, "Te invito a un cafe" [I'll treat you to coffee], as if it were part of the printed bibliographical material. The implication of the scene is that even when given a simple readin g task, the average media viewer regresses into a child-like state, unable to discern the significant from the irrelevant.

When Chema runs after Angela to accept her invitation, it is evident that the older man's attention span for the written word is entirely eclipsed by the television. Instantly mesmerized by the images splashed across the screen, he unconsciously drops the book into his lap. The characterization of Chema's hospital mate as an elderly man initially invites the spectator to hypothesize his potential senility, yet as Angela and Chema walk down the hallway to the elevator, the camera sweeps the rooms of the other patients of all ages (with the notable exception of children and teenagers) who are revealed as a mass of automatons before the "idiot box," dressed identically with the same vacuous stares and entranced expressions. In fact, we, the spectators of Tesis, are also implicated in this mindless consumption of visual images. As the television screen framed within our film expands to fit the dimensions of our own movie screen, we literally join company with the non-thinking masses.

Nevertheless, the film's "moralizing" becomes suspect in light of Tes is's own framing which both encourages the full absorption of the spectator, and applies itself to just such a sensationalist/commercial schema--the Hollywood thriller--a genre whose production has historically been driven by market demand. Indeed, it would seem that Tesis was intentionally tailored to the typical filmgoer, a profile detailed by Victor Fernandez Blanco of the Sociedad General de Autores Espanoles (SGAE), an agency dedicated to securing the royalties of authors:

Tras haber revisado todo ese conjunto de caracteristicas se puede extraer la impresion de que el cine tiene su publico especialmente entre los individuos jovenes, con un nivel de formaci6n medio-alto, solteros o, en general, con pocas cargas familiares, ligados al medio urbano y con un nivel de renta medio o medio alto. Los estudiantes son un colectivo especialmente atra ido por el cine, no en vano presentan un perfil que se adapta perfectamente al aqui qpuntado

[After reviewing the whole range of characteristics, one can extrapolate that the cinema's public is primarily composed of young people, with a mid to high level of education, single or, in general, with little family responsibilities, linked to the urban space and with a mid to upper middle level salary. Students are a group particularly attracted to the cinema, and not incidentally since they fit perfectly into the profile outlined here] (77-78) (my emphasis).

Similarly, Abre los ojos seems to shun the very scientific technology upon which it bases its sci-fi thriller appeal. As one critic declares of this film's representation, "In the wake of rapidly advancing computer technology, cryogenics, virtual reality, and the global economy, what threatens to proliferate is Eurocentrism, American capitalism, and the suppression of 'difference' (Barros, 1). (13) Perhaps in response to this irony, Amenabar, like many other young Spanish directors, addresses in almost every interview his desire to make movies that will entertain audiences, as well as force them to question what they may passively accept. One of the primary strategies that Tesis employs to accomplish this latter task is the constant deferral of violent and gory images it promises to deliver. The abrupt truncating of Angela's (and the spectator's) desire to witness the bloody corpse of the man who has thrown himself on the metro tracks just before the opening sequence of the film prepares the spectator for a f eature length movie of similar deferment. After our orienting peek at the gruesome violence in the snuff film that ostensibly induced Figueroa's heart attack (the implication being that snuff films not only murder their actors, but their spectators as well), we subsequently view little blood or guts, but rather only hear blood-curdling screams and sounds of beatings, while the camera deliberately fixes on the expressions of the protagonists as they watch and listen. The film's commentary regarding the spectator's complicity in the marketing of violence, and its heavy-handed treatment of the theme in the final sequence already discussed, closes on the same motif with which the film opens. As the newscaster announces the images--excerpted from the snuff films made by Bosco (Eduardo Noriega) and edited by Castro--about to be screened, a warning concerning their violent and crude nature occupies the spectator's entire film screen and is accompanied by diegetic silence. With a cut and the roll of the credits, this frame becomes the last scene of our film, and its technique of final deferment underscores Tesis's play with the horror film's conventions whereby it constructs a critical perspective towards contemporary Spanish, US, and international society's voyeuristic pleasure derived from viewing violence.

For distribution purposes Tesis was categorized as a "thriller" but it may be more accurate to consider it a horror-thriller that frames within its narrative a specific sub-genre of slasher cinema--the snuff film. Given this genre hybridity, it will prove useful to examine in more detail some of the ways Tesis embraces and attempts to improve upon that genre. Carol Clover's seminal study, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, drawing on Laura Mulvey's pioneering essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," as well as on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, is the most thorough investigation of horror and its various sub-genres to date. Clover first establishes various elements imperative for the elaboration of the slasher film, all of which coincide with Tesis's characteristics: the Killer who is a male propelled by some type of "psychosexual fury" (Bosco's pattern is to kill women with whom he has slept); the Terrible Place, an "intra-uterine" safe haven turned trap that is as unca nny as a womb (Bosco's basement at first shelters Angela from the rain, but then becomes the space where Bosco reveals himself as the Killer, an uncanny place that Angela has never been before but is immediately familiar to her as the setting for the "snuffing" out of her classmates); Weapons which are "pre-technological" so that proper pain and suffering can be inflicted (before Bosco cuts up his victims, he bludgeons them with his bare hands); the Victims who are often sexual transgressors (this is liberally interpreted since they have become involved with Bosco despite signs of his psychopathy); and lastly, the appearance of a Final Girl who is unlike the Victims in that she is not sexually active, but rather active in her gaze whereby she seeks out and tracks down the Killer (23-42).

The larger issue at stake for Clover concerns the particular appeal of the slasher genre for adolescent boys and the social norms that engender their identification with the Final Girl. Clover hypothesizes that these spectators ultimately identify with the Final Girl as their on-screen double, since she, like they, is physically inferior yet triumphant. She observes that although this heroine turned hero reflects the greater prominence of women in positions of power during the 70s and 80s (the era of the slasher film), the fact that she is a masculinized female returns her to a male dominated paradigm (42-64): "The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality" (51).

It is this last concept that I would like to develop in regards to Tesis. Of the inventory that Clover cites, only the Final Girl differs in Amenabar's version. That is, Angela employs an active, investigating gaze, but is otherwise portrayed as different from the rest of the women in the film, not because she is sexually inactive or because she is immune to Bosco's charms (which she is not), but because she has the wherewithal, ultimately, to do away with him. Unlike her mother, who is taken with Bosco's good looks, her sister who flirts with him in a stereotypically "feminine" fashion, (14) and the women he kills who make the mistake of becoming physically and emotionally involved with him, Angela falls for Bosco from a distance. That distance, however, is problematic (15) in that it allows her in the final scene not only to save herself from him, but to save Chema from him as well. Nevertheless, this agency still fits perfectly within a male-centered narrative. Angela is thus, as her name suggests, other w orldly, unlike other women not because she is masculinized (and hence does not have the typical male name as do the most famous Final Girls, the quintessential example being Sigourney Weaver who plays "Ripley" in Aliens), but because she is patriarchally figured as the girl whose exception proves the rule of female weakness. (16)

Moreover, the fact that the Final Girl is coupled with a Final Boy at once challenges rugged American individualism, but is also necessary to authorize the Final Girl's active investigating gaze. Throughout the film, despite the fact that the "tesis" of the title refers to Angela's project, it is Chema whose ideas and thorough research drive the plot. Although Angela makes the initial discovery of the snuff film that begins their investigation, Chema makes all of the crucial connections: the cuts in the video that imply the victims know the killer and call him by name, the secret room off of the video archive that serves as a warehouse for the snuff film master tapes and that implicates Castro in their production. Chema is cinematically rigorous enough, if not perversely daring enough, to watch the scenes without diverting his eyes like Angela, and he is perceptive enough to realize that the gaze is turned back on them in the form of vigilant cameras placed strategically throughout the university. While Ange la's discoveries involve lying and deceit (she makes off with the tape that killed Figueroa and sneaks onto an employee's computer to find the name of the purchaser of the cameras used to make the snuff films, etc), Chema's discoveries are based on intelligence and intellect. What is more, before Angela saves the two of them, Chema will have saved her not once, but four times. (17) The fact that we actually witness Angela shoot and kill Bosco in a juxtaposed point-of-view shot through the video camera he has set up to make a snuff film of her impending torture and murder suggests a more negative, rather than triumphant, act in that the presumed victim has now become victimizer. Angela, who set out to reveal the disturbing tendency of society to enjoy violence in visual image has now herself become the orchestrator of a snuff film. (18) Thus, while Tesis is a slickly packaged, metacinematic reflection on society's attraction to violence, its representation of gender is less self-aware. Even in films that featu re active women as protagonists, and societies whose women present positive role models, patriarchal structures apparently die hard.

Another contradictory aspect of Tesis's representation concerns the irony that a filmmaker raised on visual technology would direct a film that implies that the mainstream viewer is "made stupid" by media images, while he remains discerning of them. Tesis's harsh criticism of the television and film viewer is also quite ironic in light of the symbiotic relationship between the two popular visual media forged in the decade since Pilar Miro was appointed Director-General of Cinema in 1983 (Martin-Marquez, 177-178). From 1990-1998, Spain's public television subsidized 13-24 percent of the average Spanish film budget, and further financing was typically advanced by Spain's private pay-TV channel Canal Plus in exchange for domestic TV screening rights and foreign sales rights (Besas, 251-252; Von Sundahl, 8). One of the most recent developments in television's support for cinema is TVE 2's popular program "Version Espanola," [The Spanish Version] hosted by actress/journalist Cayetana Guillen Cuervo, which typical ly consists of an introduction, the screening of a film, and a post-viewing interview and commentary with the director and other film and television industry personalities. In 1999 the series ventured into uncharted terrain by screening short films after each feature length presentation and discussion, usually with a brief introduction by the short's director. These were judged in the middle of the summer by selected professionals of the industry, and a contest was conducted in which three films were given top honors, as well as funding for their directors' next projects. This type of exposure and financial backing for budding young filmmakers who lack experience, money, and connections is unprecedented. (19)

In short, the Spanish film industry has internalized the notion that in order to compete with Hollywood it is not enough to join it. It must find innovative and reflexive ways to co-opt as well as reckon with this previously overwhelming force. The blurring of hierarchical divisions between high and low culture is at the core of this innovation, and is one of the most positive effects of a potentially deleterious situation. It has helped create a new brand of oppositional cinema that is unembarrassed to acknowledge its commercial underpinnings. It is also a cinema that follows in its predecessors' footsteps more than it will admit since it is in no way bereft of social critique, as demonstrated by studies that have proliferated over the last decade which reveal Spanish cinema's sophisticated commentary on the socio- politics of Spain, Europe, and the international arena. Tesis, shares with works by a number of other young Spanish filmmakers, such as Julio Medem's La ardilla roja (1993), Iciar Bollain's Hola, ?Estas sola? (1995), and Alex de la Iglesia's El dia de la bestia (1995), an integration of what had been for previous generations an antagonistic relationship between commerciality and quality art, in order to engage both domestic and international audiences. Like the pioneering Opposition directors of the 50s and 60s, Spanish filmmakers of the 90s and the new millennium envision themselves as the innovators of a redefined Spanish cultural imagination. While markets, revenue, and competition with the Hollywood conglomerate have always mattered, in the current context, the primary force driving the new generation of Spanish directors is no longer a political dictatorship, but rather a financial fascism which, in spite of itself, has helped to engender Spanish cinema's renewed creativity. (20)


(1.) "Algo se mueve en el cine espanol: renovacion generacional, mutaciones industriales y legislativas, relevo profesional, transformaciones en el retrato sociologico de su audiencia, creciente interes mediatico hacia sus imagenes... diferentes metamorfosis que, bien tomadas en conjunto o bien por separado, le estan cambiando la cara a la produccion filmica de este pais."

This and subsequent translations are my own.

(2.) Peter Besas attributes this phenomenon largely to the "Miro Law" of 1983 (coined for its author, Pilar Miro) which, although well-intentioned, proved disastrous for the reputation of Spanish film among domestic audiences:

In effect, the Miro Law decimated the ranks of those not within the inner circle of "serious" production. It lavished money on new "talent" and on the by-now aging anti-Franco centurions with their penchants for politics, the Spanish Civil War, and "educating" audiences... [it] in fact proved so crippling that Spanish film is still reeling from it... Not only did production plummet to about fifty features per year, but far worse, local audiences were turned off by the majority of Spanish films... Repeatedly disappointed by pictures that had been hyped by film critics, many of whom were often in cahoots with the filmmakers, Spanish audiences started to shun local fare. (248)

(3.) Marvin D'Lugo writes of the Salamanca meetings: "... Many [young filmmakers] protested the absence of explicit criteria upon which films were judged by the censors. Such an absence, it was correctly argued, forced each scriptwriter to invent and internalize the patterns that appeared to him to be 'safe' cinematic representation" (D'Lugo, Saura, 22). Although the internalizing of "'safe' patterns" refers to a distinct socio-political context, its representation vis-a-vis Angela's analogous auto-censorship is no less persuasive, nor less pervasive throughout the film.

(4.) Martinez won the 1997 Goya in the category of best new actor for this role.

(5.) Such statistics however must be considered within the context of what has recently been coined "El efecto Torrente" [The Torrente Effect]. That is, with the release of one or two Spanish blockbusters, percentages of box office share captured by national cinema, can and do, surge. For instance, coinciding with the release of Torrente II in March of 2001, market share statistics of Spanish films for the first quarter of that year were 5.7% higher than those corresponding to the first quarter of 2000. Similarly, Spain's 18.9% interest--the all time high in March of 2001--in its own films ("El Efecto Torrente," 3) still pales in comparison with France's and Italy's enthusiasm for domestic fare, regularly over 30% (Diaz de Tuesta).

(6.) Access to Almodovar's persona is intensified here in that the caption are written in the first person singular by Almodovar himself.

(7.) One of D'Lugo's major goals in the article is to chart the fickle treatment the auteur has received by film theorists (in essence, to revive the dead author), so as to acknowledge the historical and contemporary significance of the cinematic auteur. On the other hand, the artificial importance of the auteur will likely be heightened by what Argentine director Eliseo Subiela has coined the "era of film democratization" in the wake of digitalization (quote excerpted from Subiela's presentation at the Cine-Lit 2000 Conference in Portland, Oregon, February 20, 2000). If, due to advances in computer technology, anyone with creative ideas and access to a digital camera and editing equipment can now be the director of high quality cinema, the threat of market dilution necessarily encounters the backlash of an emphasis on the auteur. The director, the film industry, and the media help create a cult of the director that models itself after the cult of the actor; that is to say in the form of a star system which re cognizes a few among thousands who will never make it. Thus, what initially begins as the democratization of the industry meets with the deepening of auteur concepts.

(8.) For astute readings concerning recent Spanish films as socio-political allegory, see Paul Julian Smith's The Moderns (London: Oxford University Press, 2000), and Vision Machines, London and New York: Verso, 1996 (particularly, "Julio Medem's La ardilla roja [The Red Squirrel]: A Transparent Society?," 128-145), the articles in the first two sections of Marsha Kinder's edited collection, Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997, especially the pieces by Marvin D'Lugo (concerning Jose Juan Bigas Luna's La teta i la lluna [The tit and the moon] (1994)), Marti-Olivella (regarding Arantxa Lazkano's Urte Ilunak [The dark years] (1993) and Pilar Miro's El pajaro de la felicidad [The bird of happiness] (1993), and Kinder's introduction (which includes a polemical political reading of Alex de la Iglesia's El dia de la bestia [Day of the beast] 1995), and Carlos F. Heredero's 20 nuevos directores del cine espanol [20 new directors of Spanish cinema], Madrid: Alia nza, 1999. Also, Susan Martin-Marquez's 1999 book, Feminist Discourse and Spanish Cinema, is the most thorough and perceptive analysis to date of the endeavors of women film-makers and of the continuum of feminist discourse throughout Spain's 100 years of national cinema.

(9.) Other directors whose work could be included in this category are Julio Medem, Iciar Bollain, and Alex de la Iglesia. In the latter's case, Almodovar had already taken a great interest in de la Iglesia's work and produced his first feature length film, Accion Mutante [Mutant Action] (1992), when de la Iglesia's second feature, El dia de la bestia [Day of the beast] (1995) swept the Goyas in 1996 with six awards (one year before Tesis's landslide of seven) including best director and best special effects. With the success of El dia de la bestia, de la Iglesia is offered the plum opportunity to direct a film in the US on a $10 million budget, and to star Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem. The two original screenplays based on a Barry Gifford novel (the same author of The Story of Sailor and Lula with which David Lynch made Wild at Heart) and written by Bigas Luna (with collaboration from Cuca Canals) on one hand, and by Gifford himself on the other, had not impressed de la Iglesia. When Bigas Luna abandons the project because of disputes with the producer, David Trueba writes a different screenplay based on the novel that convinces de la Iglesia to work on the project and which eventually becomes Perdita Durango (1997) (20 nuevos directores de cine, 188-216). This complex narrative may challenge my assertion that Amenabar's work has been more influential for national and Hollywood cinema than de la Iglesia's; however, the lukewarm critical reception and disappointing box office sales that Perdita Durango garnered did not nearly meet expectations and de la Iglesia returned to Spain to direct Muertos de risa [Dying of Laughter] (1999), a film with whose genre and themes the young director felt more comfortable. (Also noteworthy is that the local video store buys and stocks Almodovar, Medem, and Amenabar films in the "New Releases" section, but not any other Spanish directors' work). De la Iglesia's latest film, La comunidad [The community] (2000) was popular with domestic audiences and has earned its weight at the bo x office, but critics seem to be torn as to its cinematic merits. Although the films of Julio Medem and Iciar Bollain have also been critically well received and influential in altering Spanish cinema's national and international reputation, the former's films seem to have achieved more success on the international film circuit, and the latter's with domestic audiences. For instance, while La ardilla roja won the best young director prize at Cannes in 1993, Tierra [Land/Earth/Soil] (1996)--Medem's third feature--won the best picture award in Montevideo in 1998, Hola ?Estas sofa? [Hi, are you alone?] (1995)--Bollain's first feature--won both the Public's choice award and the prize for best new director at Valladolid's festival in 1995. In comparison of numbers of spectators, La ardilla roja had 178,139, Hola ?Estas sola? 300,386, Flores de otro mundo [Flowers from another world] (1999)--Bollain's second feature--372,261, and Los amantes del circulo polar [Lovers of the arctic circle] (1998)--Medem's fourth fea ture--had 749,277, but 854,735 people have seen Tesis, 1,416,712 have seen El dia de la bestia, and 1,791,842 have seen Abre los ojos (Cine y Artes Audiovisuales).

(10.) The overall top-grossing film in Spain in 1996 was Independence Day, which sold 13-1/2 times as many tickets as Tesis, but in 1997 Jurassic Park's profits amounted to only 6 times that of Tesis's. although it was the top grossing film of that year in Spain (Boletines 1996-97).

(11.) Well known critics from New York to Los Angeles published positive reviews of the movie, comparing Amenabar to Hitchcock and taking advantage of the phonetic similarity between Almodovar and Amenabar to emphasize this young director's new (as represented by Hollywood) importance to the Spanish cinematic industry. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine declares that Amenabar is an "expert technician" in the art of "turning the screws of psychological terror," and Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle writes, "It's that most rare of spookshows: a literate and mature ghost story that works on multiple levels simultaneously." One of the most pithy statements comes from Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, "Mr. Serling would be pleased."

(12.) Two notable exceptions are Mark Allison's discussion of violence in Spanish cinema of the 90s, which treats Tesis along with two other films (see Works Cited) and Carlos F. Heredero astute although more journalistically inclined critique of Amenabar's film in 20 nuevos directores del cine espanol.

(13.) In light of this posturing by Abre Los Ojos of technological advancement as ethical and aesthetic disparagement, further irony lies in the fact that Amenabar has stated in interviews that he does not read music, yet he composes the score to all of his films by taking full advantage of computer technology in collaboration with professional musicians. (Espejo de miradas [Mirror of gazes] 94).

(14.) Sena (Nieves Herranz) demonstrates her practiced femininity and successfully inculcated gender norms by reproaching Angela for allowing Bosco to help set the table, as she plays tug-of-war with him for the dinner plates.

(15.) Chema constantly condemns Angela for defending Bosco, accusing her of having fallen for "ese psicopata" [that psychopath]. Although she consistently defends herself against his accusations, late in the film Angela discovers that Chema has filmed her in her bedroom, kissing a freeze frame close up of Bosco's face on her television, confirming for the spectator Angela's attraction to Bosco. This moment is highly problematic in that it exposes Angela's rejection of Chema's accusations and of Bosco's sexual pursuit of her as typical feminine wiles. Thus the spectator is encouraged to reify the misogynist myth that all women mean yes when they say no and are innately deceptive, impenetrable creatures descended from the original female conniver, Eve. The most infamous rendering of women as impenetrable can, tellingly, be attributed to Freud's phrase "Was will das Weib" [What does a woman want?], cited in Ernest Jones, M.D., The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, volume 2: Years of Maturity 1901-1919, New York: B asic Books, 1955, 421.

(16.) I have borrowed and recontextualized this pithy phrase from Susan Martin-Marquez's description of Miro's "contradictory feminism":

Miro's rhetorical strategy is [...] to exclude herself from the category 'woman' through her insistent use of the third-person form of the verb. Rather, she prefers to set herself apart from other women as an extraordinary being, thus playing to--if not playing along with--patriarchy's grudging recognition of the exception who simply proves the rule of female inferiority. (142)

(17.) He warns her of imminent danger with a phone call to Castro's office, keeps her from panicking and revealing their whereabouts in the bowels of the university, distracts and then kills Castro in self defense just as the latter is about to murder Angela, and then appears at Bosco's house on the very night that we retrospectively assume Bosco plans to have sex with Angela and then kill her. Heredero offers his particular critique of the repetition of finales, and hence the deferral of an ending: "...todo el nucleo dramatico de la pelicula acaba por reducirse, asi, a un unico y casi exclusivo juego: averiguar quien entre todos los personajes es el villano de la intriga" [thus, the entire dramatic nucleus of the film ends up being reduced to only one and almost completely exclusive game, solve the mystery of who amidst all of the characters is the villain] (20 nuevos directores del cine espanol, 36)

(18.) Although these are the precise circumstances under which Chema kills Jorge Castro, Chema's act of self-defense is not charged with the same contradictory nature as he does not set out with the goals that Angela does.

(19.) Of particular interest in regard to alternative promotions for novice directors is the theater "La Enana Marron" [The Brown Dwarf] which regularly screens independent feature and short film series with monies from the Instituto Cinematografico de Artes Audiovisuales (ICAA) [Spanish Film Institute].

(21.) I would like to thank Erik Ching, Leslie Dann, Guido Cruz, and Victoria Ruetalo for their invaluable suggestions regarding this study.

Works Cited

Allison, Mark. "Not Matadors, Not Natural Born Killers: Violence in Three Films by Young Spanish Directors." Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 74 (1997): 315-330.

Anuaria SGAE de las Artes Escenicas, Musicales y Audiovisuales. Madrid: Fundacion Autor, 2000.

Barros, Joanna. "The Paradox of Reality in a Culture of Appearance" (unpublished MS. Furman University, 2000).

Besas, Peter. "The Financial Structure of Spanish Cinema," in Refiguring Spain: Cinema/Media/Representation, ed. Marsha Kinder, 241-259, Durham and London: Duke UP, 1997, 241-59.

"Boletin Informativo." Documentos de archivo del Ministerio de Educacion y Cultura, Instituto de la Cinematografia y de las Artes Audiovisuales, 1990-1998.

Cine y Artes Audiovisuales. Ministerio de Educacion, Cultura, y Deporte. 31 March 2001 <

Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Diaz de Tuesta, Maria Jose. "El perfil del espectador de cine responde a jovenes urbanos y de clase media-alta." El Pais 29 Aug 1999, sec. Cultura: 22.

D'Lugo, Marvin. "Authorship and the Concept of National Cinema in Spain," in The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi, eds. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1994.

---. The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

"El Cine Espanol da el gran salto." El Espectador 2 Jan 2000.

"El Efecto Torrente." Academia, 69 (Junio 2001): 3-5.

"El Espectador" El Pais 2 Jan 2000.

Estadisticas. 4 Dec 1999 <HtmlRes Anchor>

Fernandez Blanco, Victor. El cine y su publico en Espana: un analisis economico. Madrid: Fundacion Autor, 1998.

Heredero, Carlos F. Espejo de miradas: Entrevistas con nuevos directores del cine espanol de los anos noventa. Madrid: Festival de Cine de Alcala de Henares, 1997.

---. 20 nuevos directores del cine espanol. Madrid: Alianza, 1999.

Hermoso, Borja. "El cine espanol gano dos millones y medio de espectadores en un ano." El Mundo Digital 18 Nov 1999. 18 Nov 1999 <>

Martin-Marquez, Susan. Sight Unseen: Feminist Discourse and Spanish Cinema. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Rodriguez, Emma. "Los espanoles superan la media europea de asistencia al cine." El Mundo Digital 19 Jan 2000. 19 Jan 2000_<>

Smith, Paul Julian. Vision Machines: Cinema, Literature, and Sexuality in Spain and Cuba, 1983-1993. London and New York: Verso, 1996.

Von Sundahl, Ingo M. ""Arte o industria? La recurrente polemica del cine espanol" (unpublished MS, Universitat de Barcelona, 1997).

CHRISTINA A. BUCKLEY is assistant professor in the Modern Languages and Literature Department at Furman University (Greenville, S. C.), where she teaches Hispanic film, literature and culture. She has published primarily on Spanish and Latin American cinemas and is currently working on projects involving the representation of Latin America in the Spanish cinematic imagination, and the burgeoning short film industry in Spain.
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Author:Buckley, Christina A.
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Date:Jan 1, 2002
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