Reflections on Saura's Carmen

Introduction with Autobiographical Comments

My baptism into the art of flamenco took place in Milwaukee around 1985. The rites were presided over by Manuel de los Santos Pastor, El Agujeta. Agujetas, as he is sometimes called, was in his forties, tall, muscular, exuding defiant self-confidence ratched up to the last notch. He was dressed all in black. Billows of curly black hair framed his scarred face - a far cry from the frail figure that appears in Carlos Saura's Flamenco (1995). About a dozen people gathered late late at night - late at least by Milwaukee standards - in a local tavern. We all underwent rituals of lubrication in keeping with the tradition of flamenco events. And then Agujetas began to sing, though at the time I would have said that his voice was not singing, so much as ripping and tearing at his soul. Standing about two feet from my face singing fire and pain, Agujetas had me transfixed and my wife unnerved. As he sang closer and closer, she dug her nails into my arm deeper and deeper. I could feel her tense body now approaching - yes-yes - now avoiding - no-no - his powerful song. I cannot speak for my Catherine on the matter, but for myself the subsequent years of study and practice in flamenco artistry have been intensely and persistently yes-yes-years.

Since these early electric experiences, I have continued to study towards an intellectual appreciation of canteand baile, while working more physically towards an understanding of toque. In Spain I studied guitar with Eduardo el de la Malena, a wondrously enigmatic artist who died a couple years ago, and also with Peter Holloway "El Inglés" and Juan del Gastor. Catherine and I sampled the artistry in more than our share of tablaos, peñas, and festivales - oh, that wondrous night in Córdoba listening to Vicente Amigo and El Pele, and that festival in Morón listening to Camarón, in Puente Geníl listening to El Cabrero and Paco del Gastor. In Seville's la Carbonería I ate fish fried by Juan del Gastor and then wash it down with a tumbler of wine while I listened to him accompany the irrepressible Juan Cama. I've spent extended hours chatting with some of the most passionate and generous men I've ever encountered including Paco Lira, Romualdo Molina, José María Velázquez, Pedro Turbica, Mario Gómez Martín, Juan de la Plata, Gerhard Steingress and José María Pérez Orozco. My entry into the world of flamenco documentary film was faciliated by Brook Zern. Thanks to his cooperative spirit, the University of Wisconsin was able to acquire the documentary series Rito y Geografía del Cante - one-hundred programs aired on Spanish television between 1971-1973 - an acquisition which we celebrated with a symposium in 1988 attended by Pedro Bacán who played and lectured and then sang till the sun came up.

I continue to pursue my guitar studies, performing here and there with local dancers, but the bulk of my energies go towards the study of flamenco documentary and their significance. One can, I suppose, think of such documentaries, from Neville's Duende in 1952 to Saura Flamenco in 1995, as filmic versions of a flamenco museum or a flamenco hall of fame. They are, after all, repositories for the classic sights and sounds of flamenco and also they are shrines built to honor the late great singers, dancers, and guitarists in the flamenco tradition. But my own approach to these documentaries goes beyond marveling and wondering at the power and passion of a young Menese or an old Borrico. I take these films to be windows onto a larger world where art sleeps with politics. Such a perspective is appropriate - and does no injustice whatsoever the art and artistry - insofar as aesthetics in the modern world, the appreciation of bodily experience and the attribution of significance to human passion, has always born hefty political freight. Back in the eighteenth-century, the very struggle for individual freedom against the oppressions of rational law was framed in bodily movements and emotional songs, and since that time, artistic expression has continued to be a player, though usually invisibly, in the game of politics. From my perspective, then, flamenco documentary films give us two gifts, first, the gift of encounter with the hallowed artists of another era, and second, the gift of resources for understanding the linkages between their art and the political pushes and pulls that dominated their world.

Here I begin the series with comments on a feature film, rather than with strictly documentary material, Carmen by Carlos Saura. My purpose is to introduce the idea that film does double duty, celebrating flamenco, while simultaneously exercising politics. Subsequent essays will explore the art and politics of flamenco in Rito y Geografía del Cante, in the documentaries that preceded this Rito series (Duende, 1952 and A través del flamenco 1971), in Ciertos Reflejos: La Chunga in the mid-1980s, in An Andalusian Journey (1989), in the feature film La Lola se va a Los Puertos (1993), and in Saura's Flamenco (1995).


Introduction: Reading Carmen (1983)

For American aficionados, Carlos Saura's film Carmen is a mezmerizing model of flamenco artistry. Its hypnotic powers emanate from the piercing eyes and the graceful but oh-so-well-controlled bodies of the dancers. We cannot help but be drawn into their web, more tightly, perhaps, with each viewing. As a model, this film hints at the point and purpose of flamenco, but always quietly if not subliminally. The master artists glide through their art, working hard, but never laboring. Antonio Gades, for one, has taken his dance inside himself to the point that his simplest step can stop our hearts. And as for Paco de Lucía, well, for many of us, Carmen offered a first glimpse of his complete control of the style. He slips in and out of his art with the nonchalance of a guy slipping in and out of his shoes.

In the more than ten years since my first viewing of Carmen, I've given it quite a few viewings and lot of thought, all enhanced by some very helpful reading - John Hopewell, Marvin D'Lugo, Marsha Kinder. I've come to the conclusion that it is an extraordinarily complex film. Complex? Never mind the choreography! And don't get hung up on the music! This film is complex because it dares the viewer to step outside and beyond all the obvious challenges. Carmen is complex because it's a tough read.

"Reading" is an activity most often associated with books and other literary texts, but here I will use it to describe the handling of the film text. As a term, "reading" may be singular, but it always operates with a certain a doubleness. Let me explain. One reads any text by deciphering expressions (words-on-a-page or images-on-a-screen) and assigning the expressions a meaning. In this way, I "read" the words on line 31 of my 1040 form, ascribing a fairly specific and literal meaning to the strange term "adjusted gross income." Similarly, Gracie Allen, in George and Gracie's classic comedy routine, always did a literal reading of George's sign-off phrase "say Goodnight Gracie." She read those words literally and responded guilelessly but inappropriately, saying "Goodnight Gracie." You can see, from these examples, that literal reading is a fairly mechanical process, one that assigns meanings without reference to anything outside of the text and its language. However, in a second moment of reading, we also pursue - all of us except Gracie - critical reading. Nothing fancy or high fallootin' here: critical reading is simply the task of interpreting expressions according to their context. Let me offer a homespun example of a critical read. My wife and I were strolling downtown last week. As we walked, I pointed to a small red car parked along the street. My wife looked at my pointed finger and then looked at the car, and, in a stroke, she knew exactly what I meant. She had done a quick critical read of my gesture. Her critical reading process consisted of matching my gesture to the surrounding physical context and simultaneously to my persistent interests. It is likely that she began by considering the possibility that I was pointing to the ticket on the windshield of the car, and chuckling in my annoying way at the poor schnook who would have to pay the parking fine. Then, chances are, she considered the likelihood that I was fingering this zippy red Miata as the car of my dreams. But in the end, she discarded both meanings when she read the car's vanity plate FLMNCO. Having rastered through her knowledge of my experiences and interests and through her perceptions of the world beyond my finger, she arrived at the properly critical interpretation of my gesture. At that point she leaned over to me and said, "Another aficionado, eh?" I confirmed her remark with a grunt and a smile, and we went on our way. The moment passed in the blink of an eye, and it only dawns on me now that her simple street-side interpretation might help illustrate the process critical reading.

Reading Carmen critically is no different from guessing at the meaning of a pointed finger. Initially we work our way along mechanically, recognizing sounds, identifying performers, and following the plot. But even as this mechanical reading is proceeding, we are cranking up our critical faculties, asking ourselves, why all the mirrors? Why does Gades spend so much time staring, not only staring at his dancers, but at himself. What is the significance of the play-within-a play structure? Such questions do and should come to mind as part of a critical reading of this film. And as happened with my wife and my pointed finger, one can only find answers to these questions by examining the larger context in which the film was conceived, produced, and presented.

In the case of Carmen, the critical reader needs to refer to history, and not just Saura's personal history, but to the larger and very public history of Spain during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. More pointedly, Spain's history made its mark and put it stamp on Saura's films because of the political regime of Francisco Franco (1939-75). Nothing in Carmen, not the dance, not the guitar, not the mirrors, not selection of Bizet's opera as a point of departure, not even the theme of flamenco itself makes any sense if the Franco regime is left aside. After Franco died in 1975, Saura said as much: "I believe that when Franco was still alive, I had a moral obligation - more for myself than for society - to do everything that was possible within my form of work to help change the political system as quickly as possible." Why so? Why this passionate search to find an alternative to Francoism? Because Franco's regime was much more than ham-fisted police-tactics and clumsy censorship. It was a moral climate of paranoia and a Manichean cultural politics of black hats and white hats with nothing in between. It was an insistent and often backward-looking program of unrefusable likes and dislikes. And by the end, the regime generally succeeded in narcotizing most dissenters and deadening most minds.

During the regime itself Saura and other were blocked in their efforts to present open and public resistance. The censors came down on them like Maxwell's silver hammer. Instead, he created subtle symbolic subversions, strange, obscure, and twisting moments of film that the censors accepted as art-for-art's-sake, but which still transmitted their appointed political punch. For example, in his 1970 film "The Garden of Delights", the main character, who has lost his memory as a result of a head injury in an auto crash mutters, "My head! My head! Do what you want to my body, but don't touch my head!" Such powerful but elusive moments in the films of Saura and others of his day came to be known as the "franquista aesthetic."

This "aesthetic" lived on in Saura's films of the 80s including Blood Wedding, Carmen and A Love Bewitched, and because of the ambiguity and obliqueness associated with these films, you and I find our abilities as critical readers challenged in a special way. Reading my pointer toward the little red car challenged my wife, even though I wasn't trying to be obtuse. Reading the carefully concealed meanings of Carmen is far harder because the relevant political context, Franco's Spain, is more distant, and because Saura intentionally cloaked his political meanings and pawned them off as merely clever moments in an artful film.

So then, what of the stare? What, now, can we say about those awful eyes: Antonio Gades scrutinizing his dancers in search of a Carmen; Gades, visually dissecting the mirrored image of his own dance with those same laser-like eyes; the eyes of Laura del Sol breathing back fire to match each elevated degree of heat in Gades's own? The eyes have it, to be sure. But what exactly are these haunting eyes saying? The key may lie in the mirrors which abound in these films (as they also do in Saura's most recent work Flamenco). In the mirrors, Carmen's actors scrutinize themselves in the very same moment that we, the audience, scrutinize them from our seats. And the lesson that hangs in the balance is self-scrutiny. We, the viewers, find ourselves identifying with Antonio, emulating his penetrating gaze, and imitating his self-scrutinizing eyes. Like him, we are pushed to reflect back on ourselves, using our eyes to weigh and test the very vision that serves as the medium of the test. Let nothing be taken for granted. Let nothing in ourselves pass without critical reflection. We must live, as Antonio lives, with eyes wide, with head alert, and with all bodily systems ready to confront the meretricious agenda that comes down from the central office.

Self-scrutiny modeled by the intense gaze of the flamenco dancer is a power political theme in Carmen. However, curiously, it is paired here with another theme in which flamenco dance operates less as a vehicle of resistance than a target. Flamenco, the symbolic embodiment of critical scrutiny, is also presented as a stand-in for all that is seductive and oppressive in Franco's Spain. Paradoxically then, flamenco dance symbolizes the problem at the same time that it is portrayed as a solution. Viewers are brought face-to-face with the "problem" of flamenco late in the film, when del Sol's Carmen appears before Antonio in a stereotyped Andalusian outfit. He responds, accepting both her and her guise, saying "Why not all the trite commonplaces?". With this seemingly insignificant acquiescence, Antonio reveals the disturbing result of his whole-body commitment to discipline of flamenco performance, namely that his mind, so fiercely independent and directorial in the early going, has become submissive in the end to the artifice of the performance. His downfall is brought on by a devotion to dance that is so whole-hearted that he ends up confusing dance with reality. His bodily discipline as a dancer has gotten in the way of his good sense. With this, it becomes apparent that art, so potent a symbol of self-scrutiny, can become a source of precisely that sort of self-delusion that was endemic to the Franco regime. Morever, with this symbolic treatment of flamenco-as-danger, Saura revises the simplistic message of his earlier film ("Do you want you want to my body, but don't touch my head"), and forces us to ponder the disconcerting possibility that disciplining the body may be tantamount to disciplining the head.

The mystery and the challenge of Carmen lies in its paradoxical imaging of flamenco, in its symbolic treatment flamenco dance as source of, and solution to, the political problem of Francoism. In Saura's hands, flamenco is simultaneously virus and vaccine. It plays on both sides of the fence, symbolizing now, oppression and now, resistance. He neither wholly celebrates it, nor completely condemns it. Instead, he tells us that it is a promising danger and a dangerous promise. Like Clint Eastwood's William Muni in The Unforgiven, its promise and its danger are fused into one reality; it wears a white hat and a black hat at the same time. As a study of flamenco, Saura's film shows no inclination to simplify it, as do so many literary studies of the 60s and 70s. For Saura, flamenco is not just duende, nor wholly Gitano, nor consummately Andalusian, nor entirely national, nor completely anything else. For him, flamenco music harbors a multitude of voices, often singing against one another. All the more reason for us, like Antonio, to scrutinize it as we perform it.