Cría Cuervos (1976) – film directed by Carlos Saura *BEWARE! some spoilers!*

The first group scheduled event for Spanish Language Lit Month is to post on the film Cría Cuervos*.  This is an off-kilter and beautiful film starring an adolescent Ana Torrent.  The title translates as Raise Ravens, which refers to a Spanish proverb – “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.” (Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes).  Set in Madrid, during the final days of Franco’s Spain, it tells the story of one dysfunctional family from the perspective of the middle daughter, Ana.

The film opens with Ana finding her father’s dead body in bed, as his lover flees the house.  Her mother has only recently died of cancer – after suffering both physically from the disease and emotionally due to her husband’s infidelities.  Ana blames her father, played by Héctor Alterio, for her mother’s pain and has mixed a powder she believes is poison into his milk.  Now orphaned, an aunt & grandmother arrive to look after Ana & her two sisters.  The earthy housekeeper, who acted as nurse to Ana’s mother, completes the household.

Cría Cuervos is billed as a “psychological drama”.  In the 70’s that must mean minimal dialogue; an indordinate amount of time spent focused on the Torrent’s huge, haunting eyes and abrupt switches mid-scene between reality and Ana’s memories.  Snarkiness aside, those are kinda’ the things I loved about it.  The main plot line is deceptively simple. The girls have no real concept of what death is.  But Saura brilliantly shows how they have absorbed and processed the events taking place around them.  In one scene they dress up and amidst much giggling, re-enact a scene they must have witnessed of their parents fighting.  In another Ana offers to assist her disabled grandmother die by giving her some of the same “poison” she gave to her father.   In a final scene the eldest daughter sums up the feelings of uncertainty, fear and confusion all three are experiencing when she tells Ana of a nightmare from the previous night as casually as if it had no relationship to her real life.

More complicated is what the director is attempting to say about Franco’s regime and its legacy to the people of Spain.  Ana’s father, we learn, fought beside the Nazis in Germany.  There is a sense of decaying luxury within the walls of the family’s Madrid home (where almost all the scenes take place).  The swimming pool is empty and neglected.  We’re told repeatedly that the house is in disarray.  There is Ana’s casual approach to death, which is partly due to her 9-year-old lack of understanding but also serves as a commentary on the atmosphere in which she was raised.  She feels no remorse or guilt, despite believing she killed her father.  And her older self, who appears sporadically throughout the film to attempt to explain the actions of the younger Ana, no longer seems to have a connection to or understanding of the psyche of the child she once was.  What will become of this post-Franco generation, is the question Carlos Saura seems to be posing, who have grown up in strange times with only their parents as examples?

Visually, Cría Cuervos is beautiful – and the remastered Criterion Collection edition I watched was vibrant and crisp.  The film’s color palette and the slight awkwardness to the actors’ performances  reminded me of a Wes Anderson film.  As did the song “¿Por qué te vas?” (Why are you leaving?) which was played repeatedly throughout.  One review I read pointed out that in the film Ana’s mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin (who also played the adult Ana), speaks Spanish with an English accent – as does the singer.  The adult Ana speaks with a “pure” Spanish accent.  The reviewer put forward that the reason Ana repeatedly plays the record is because the singer reminds her of her mother’s voice.  Which, to my mind, makes perfect sense. Cría Cuervos is full of small, subtle touches like that.

My final review? I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to (I’m not really a fan of 70’s cinema).  So much so that I’ve already added El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) – an earlier Saura/Torrent collaboration) to my Netflix queue.  It was, overall, a wonderful way to begin Spanish Language Lit Month.

*I’ve posted my review early because I’m a dope who’s never been good at reading directions.  You should definitely check out Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de recuerdos this weekend for links to everyone else’s brilliant (and on time) opinions of the film.

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KINO by Jürgen Fauth

KINO.  The title was the first thing I loved about Jürgen Fauth’s debut novel.  Short for Kinematographie (German for cinematography), it’s the nickname of the story’s tragic hero.  But more importantly, it embodies the glamour of Berlin between two World Wars – a town of cabarets, never-ending parties, sex, cocaine (Zement), a new and prospering film industry and an economy teetering on a highwire… DAMN! what’s not to love?!

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others.  Everyone wanted to drink with me, get  high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was a lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz – the whimsical poet who wore a sailor’s uniform wherever he went – eyed me funny and asked if I wasn’t a bit young to be working for the cinema, “für’s Kino.”

I had my mouth full of lamb stew, so Steffen came to my defense. “Don’t you read the papers?  Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!”

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger.  “Joachim,” I said.  “I don’t work für’s Kino.  I am Kino!”

When two German film canisters appear on Mina “Wilhemina” Koblitz’s doorstep she puts her life on hold to track down where they came from and what they mean.  Her grandfather was Klaus Koblitz –  the enigmatic German filmmaker of the 1930’s known as Kino.  A wunderkind whose entire oeuvre, with the exception of a Hollywood B-Movie, was lost in the war.  That missing work attained a legendary/cult status among serious film buffs.  And Mina quickly learns that the reels of film in the canisters hold what many believe to be his masterpiece – Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief). 

Jürgen Fauth has written a wild adventure full of intrigue, conspiracy theories and family history.  Who to trust?  What is the truth? Whose side are you on?  That last question might be the most difficult to answer.  As the book progresses we are introduced to the entire Koblitz clan – and a more miserable bunch of Arschlöcher I’ve never encountered.  Or a more fascinating. Tolstoy, apparently, was right.  Over the top, extreme in every way, the Koblitz’ motivations and responses are always realistic.  Fauth has accomplished something which I think can be very difficult for a novelist.  His characters hang together like a family.  You can read the Koblitz genetic code in each of them.  They resemble one another yet retain their individual personalities.

As the convoluted narrative unfolds we see Kino in 3-D.  He’s dissected in journal entries, friend’s and family members’ memories and – of course – the films themselves.  All interpreted through the 21st Century eyes of Mina.

I don’t know what I expected, honestly.  Something ponderous and silent, German expressionism or whatever.  It started with a logo I’d already sort of seen in our apartment, holding the film up to the kitchen lights.  Then, a pair of huge eyes:  a close-up of a little girl, staring straight into the camera.  Her father, whose face we don’t see, Peanuts-style, is reading her a bedtime story.  The cover of the book he’s reading from supplies the title credit:  Tulpendiebe.

Right away, Dr. Hanno started to whisper to me like a real-life DVD commentary track.  How back in the twenties, farming devices were all the rage, Dr. Caligari being the most obvious example.  He translated all the intertitles, even the one that said “Holland, Anno 1636.”

The main part of the movie is set in a picturesque Dutch seaside town, canals and fields and windmills and so on, but it’s all done in the studio with painted backdrops, making it looked stylized, like a kid’s book, with extras in clogs and bonnets and pantaloons.  Fake, but sort of charming.  Would have been better in color.

Fauth has created in his portrait of a man something reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian KnightKINO is densely packed with ideas.  The story plays out against the backdrop of Mina’s life, the year 2003 and the Iraq war.  Obsession, an undeniable part of an artist’s make-up, is a major theme KINO explores.  How much is an artist willing to sacrifice for his or her art?  And still remain within the bounds of what society deems acceptable?  What, as a reader, do you find tolerable?

And then there is the history.

I’d guess there have been thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of books, fiction & non-, written about WWII and the Holocaust.  KINO is also a part of that tradition, giving a thoughtful portrait of the toll Nazi Germany took on its own people.  The shattered hopes, dreams and lives – broken friendships & communities.  There is a hint of it in Daniel Stein, Interpreter.  Viktor Frankl touches on it briefly in Mans Search for Meaning. I thought of the musical Cabaret a few times while reading the novel (in a good way that I don’t usually associate with musicals).   But KINO hones in – forcing the reader to pause and consider what this man might have become if the rise of Hitler could have been removed from the equation.   From there it’s not so hard to make the leap as to how we might behave if the same situation was inserted into our own lives.

Yeah, Fauth has written a novel crowded with ideas. 

KINO challenged me all the way to its final, fabulous last sentence.  It is absolutely flawless.

Publisher:  Atticus Books, Kensington Maryland (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 9832080 7 5

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (with comments on the movie trailer)

The film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go came out last week.   I’ll be waiting for the DVD – but even without seeing it I know that whoever cast Keira Knightley as Ruth was inspired.  I wonder if Knightley realized that Ruth was the better role, despite Kathy being the book’s heroine and narrator?  Kathy is passive and accepting – a character that allows life to happen to her.  Ruth is angry, hungry, constantly needing something to believe in – she burns hot and fast like a comet.   Maybe Knightley just got lucky.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels are usually set inside the mind of the narrator.  They are memories – comprised almost entirely of flashbacks.  The facts have all been filtered through individual perception, interpretation and personal bias.  What emerges is complicated, fascinating and always skillfully written… but generally doesn’t contain a lot of action.  The narrators remain passive observers, even when they are in the thick of the action.  They are like Dickens’ Scrooge, revisiting scenes from their pasts with us as their spirit escorts.  Reading an Ishiguro novel is to be inside someone else’s head, peering out at the world through their eyes.  How will that translate onto a screen? I believe quite well. Despite the challenges the writers must have faced adapting this book for film, the trailer looks absolutely beautiful and the performances emotionally raw.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy and her two friends, Ruth & Tommy.  It opens, again like most of the author’s novels, with the narrator nearing the end of her life and looking back on the path it has taken.  But Kathy is only 31 years old.   Most of her memories are of the  mysterious, private boarding school called Hailsham where she was a student.  It was an idyllic place somewhere in the English countryside – a non-magical version of Hogwarts.   In many ways she and her friends have had the perfect childhood.  Yet something seems… off.

Parents are never mentioned, instead the children are cared for by “guardians”.  They seem to have no memories of, or contact with, the world outside Hailsham.  We learn that they cannot have children of their own.  That it is much worse for a student of Hailsham to smoke cigarettes than it would be for anyone else.  Hailsham students are special and it is very important that they keep themselves healthy.  And then there is the unexplained requirement that all the children be artistic – their best pictures are taken away by “Madame” for her Gallery.  No one knows why.  Much is left unexplained, so the students create their own explanations.  Until one rainy day on the veranda one of their guardians, overhearing them, explains it all.  She does it quickly, brutally, like ripping off a band-aid.  Only, we are the ones who flinch.

If no one else will talk to you… then I will.  You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.  But I’m not.  If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.  None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars.  And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day.  Your lives are set out for you.  You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll…

What they’ll do, why they are special, is the pivot point of the novel – which I’ve decided not to spoil.  (Though, if you really want to know, Google is there for you).  One of the most beautiful aspects of the story is the way in which the layers of the plot are slowly and carefully peeled back.  Knowing the secret won’t ruin the novel – what their guardian reveals is shocking, but there are still 207 pages left to read.  I just believe that knowing it too soon compromises the book as a whole.   Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s meditation on mortality and what it means to be human.  It is incredibly haunting.  Not just beautifully written, like all his novels are, it is also filled with beautiful ideas. ( Which is even rarer).  His characters face a horrible future.  Yet Ishiguro doesn’t seem to feel that future limits or defines them.  He doesn’t seek to shield them (or us)  from it.

“If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you”.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree Are of equal duration”.  This novel attempts to prove Eliot’s hypothesis.  Kathy’s, Ruth’s & Tommy’s lives contain the complete human experience – innocence, love, loss, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness and the opposite of forgiveness.  Abbreviated.  Ishiguro uses his three characters and their very different personalities to explore the choices we make when faced with death.   And while the science fiction element of the story (the secret) and its ethical implications can’t be ignored, these are not his central motifs.  The author is much more ambitious than that.  Considering the subject matter he is taking on, perhaps because of it, Never Let Me Go the novel is amazingly successful and powerful.  The film has the potential to be absolutely devastating.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2005)
ISBN: 1 4000 4339 5

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