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Durham University News

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Celebrating influential art and cinema

(27 May 2016)

Research into influential Spanish film director and artist Bigas Luna, who launched the careers of Hollywood stars such as Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, is behind an international celebration of his life’s work.

A homage to Bigas Luna, whose films include the popular comedy/drama Jamón, jamón,  will be held in Newcastle upon Tyne from June 8 to 12 and will feature an exhibition of his artwork and film screenings.

Work by Dr Santiago Fouz Hernández, Reader in Hispanic Studies, in Durham University’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, has informed the tribute which is part of a series of international events that started in San Francisco in 2015 and will continue with planned events in Barcelona later this year and in Los Angeles in 2017.

Here Dr Fouz Hernández explains his research.

Q: What does your research look at?

A: For most of my career I have specialised in the study of men and masculinities in contemporary Spanish cinema. The films of Bigas Luna have been a central case study in my work dating back to my postgraduate studies. He was a very prolific filmmaker for over four decades, but his most famous work internationally is the ‘Iberian Portraits’ trilogy (which will be screened in Newcastle in its entirety as part of the homage this June). Those films capture a very important historical moment in Spain, when the country was readjusting after four decades of dictatorship. National identity was being reconfigured, inwards with nationalist movements gaining momentum, and outwards with the entry into the European Union in the late 1980s. In all its comic excessiveness the trilogy makes some serious observations about a country at the crossroads between a rural, arguably simpler distant past and a new economy based on fast urban expansion, obsessive consumerism and globalisation. All these factors had an important impact on evolving gender roles too.

Q: How important is Bigas Luna?

A: I would say that he is one of the most important Spanish filmmakers of all time, perhaps not at the same level of Buñuel or Almodóvar, but his work has been and continues to be immensely influential. His films lend themselves to the critical study of Spanish culture and stereotypes. They are also full of references to iconic Spanish art including paintings by Goya and Dali. Bigas Luna was a very productive artist and his films have a painterly quality to them. A survey conducted in the 1990s in British Universities revealed that his film Jamón, jamón was among the most studied texts in Hispanic Studies. However, his films were not always well received in Spain partly because they insist on aspects of older and perhaps stereotypical models of Spanish national identity that younger generations of Spaniards rejected. In part the films are very critical of those models, but one could also argue that there is an element of nostalgia in his films’ intense visual investment in them. Some films were also quite controversial due to their explicit or politically-incorrect content that was often misunderstood. Some critics accused Bigas Luna of being a misogynist due to the way in which women are objectified in his films. However, his films also became famous for objectifying men in similar ways (famously Javier Bardem in the Iberian Portraits trilogy). Towards the end of his career, Bigas Luna seemed very preoccupied with this view of his work. He planned, although sadly never completed, a trilogy about women and success, which included the 2010 film DiDi Hollywood (which will also be shown at the Tyneside Cinema on June 12th). Another reason why his work is well known is because he wrote career-defining roles for actors who then became very successful internationally. Oscar-winning actors Penélope Cruz and her husband Javier Bardem are good examples, but there are many more. I look forward to discussing this aspect with Consol Tura at the Q&A sessions that will follow screenings at the Tyneside. She starred in some of his early films but was also Bigas Luna’s casting director throughout his career.

Q: What can art and film tell us about society and cultures?

A: The popularity of Film Studies in an increasingly wide range of disciplines illustrates how much film can teach us. Many studies show that film is one of the most powerful cultural artefacts that define a country’s ‘brand’ internationally. In part, it can also influence social change. I am referring to narrative cinema, but one could make an even stronger case for documentary film. It is quite telling that countries like France, for example, have historically invested in their film industries, which has made an enduring impact on their cultural prestige. In Spain, unfortunately, investment in film is highly politicised and therefore vulnerable, which puts quantity and quality of productions at risk, and yet Spanish cinema produced filmmakers and actors (and some excellent films) that became very successful internationally (with 5 Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category, for example).

I would add that the current trend towards international co-productions, although partly motivated by the global financial downturn, also reflects transnational tendencies in contemporary culture. Most Spanish films are now co-productions with other countries in Europe or Latin America. Again, Bigas Luna was quite a pioneer, as he made a lot of co-productions and worked with Italian, French and North American actors.

Q: What are the next steps in your research?

A: I am currently completing an edited collection of essays that traces the history of Spanish erotic cinema from the silent period until today. Then I will complete my monograph on Bigas Luna. After that I intend to continue my work on masculinities in Spanish cinema, albeit exploring the depiction of ageing men on the screen from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Q: Who funded you research and who did you collaborate with?

A: I received some support from the British Academy at the start of this project. This allowed me to spend a period of research leave at Harvard, where I organised a workshop with leading scholars in my field from various US institutions. I also coordinated a number of conference panels with colleagues from various countries. The papers presented at those panels and two workshops formed the basis of the book that I am currently editing. I also collaborated with five other Bigas Luna specialists from Australia, Costa Rica, France, the USA and Manchester for a special journal issue that I edited, which was published earlier this year. Some of these colleagues have also agreed to participate in the next stage of this series of events to honour the work of Bigas Luna, which will take place in Barcelona in December.

Image caption: Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Jamón, jamón (1992), the film that launched their careers. (c) Lola Films. With permission.

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