Spanish Cinema Against Itself: Cosmopolitanism, Experimentation, Militancy

Spanish Cinema Against Itself: Cosmopolitanism, Experimentation, Militancy

Today at Mediático we are delighted to present an essay by Steven Marsh, Professor of Spanish Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is currently Head of Hispanic and Italian Studies. Marsh is a specialist in Spanish film and is author of Popular Spanish Film Under Franco: Comedy and the Weakening of the State (Palgrave, 2006) and editor (with Parvati Nair) of Gender and Spanish Cinema (Berg, 2004)

The essay he has generously shared with us, below, is adapted from the introductory chapter of his new book Spanish Cinema against Itself (Indiana University Press, 2020). This monograph maps the evolution of Spanish surrealist and politically committed cinematic traditions from their origins in the 1930s—with the work of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, experimentalist José Val de Omar, and militant documentary filmmaker Carlos Velo—through to the contemporary period. Framed by film theory this book traces the works of understudied and non-canonical Spanish filmmakers, producers, and film collectives to open up alternate, more cosmopolitan and philosophical spaces for film discussion. In an age of the post-national and the postcinematic, Marsh’s work challenges conventional historiographical discourse, the concept of “national cinema,” and questions of form in cinematic practice.

There will be an online book launch for Spanish Cinema against Itself on November 20 with the participation of Jacques Lezra (UC Riverside), Camila Moreiras (independent scholar and filmmaker), Sarah Thomas (Brown University), Patricia Keller (Cornell University) and Julián Gutiérrez Albilla (University of Southern California). The event will take place at 14:00 Eastern Time (US and Canada) and 19.00 GMT. Zoom link:




By Steven Marsh

Experimentation with form—all that determines, conditions, and shapes filmic practice—is what defines Spanish Cinema Against Itself. And it is within that framework that I seek to explore the concept of Spains national cinema from the margins that outline it and film studies as a discipline. In my new book I attempt to mobilize the politics of global filmic practice and its materialities beyond the nations sterile confines. Part of my critical intervention seeks to disentangle films produced within a specific geographical space from the baggage of identity. This title, Spanish Cinema Against Itself, points to the plurality of affiliations at work within the territorial space known as Spain, the otherness that dwells within its frontiers as well as that which seeps beyond them. Its a title that points to a displacement suggestive of a sense of movement, of the ground itself seismically shifting, and of the yawning abyss of the conflictive and productive void. And it posits, within that transit or passage, a notion of allos, the alter, alterity, the other, the alternative.

Spanish critics and commentators have recently coined the phrase the “other Spanish cinema” to define a new era in the history of independent filmmaking in Spain that has emerged in the wake of the popularization of digital technology and the new (often online) formats for the distribution and exhibition of films. The phrase has since been adopted by British and North American critics and commentators as well. I argue against such classification, and any other. I dispute the emphasis on naming, periodization, and historicity that has determined and limited much study of national cinema, and particularly that of Spain. Instead I argue for a disruptive otherness lurking within, beneath, and against such historical formulations and for a heterogeneity or “spectral duplicity” that interrogates claims to origins and undermines efforts to forge an autochthonous canon.

By mapping a genealogy of underground film that harkens back to the surrealists to draw out its traces, my book seeks to disrupt the temporal certainties that conventional historiography defines. The proposal here is to read film and its history otherwise—to create a counterhistory via a live, mobile, unruly, and overflowing archive and to disorder chronology. It is this teleiopoiesis—the play on words that Jacques Derrida conjures by combining telos, poiēsis, and tele (the poetic effects of transformation produced in transmission and telecommunication; the pun on dispatch, distance, and sending; and the impossibility of closure, completion, or arrival at a final destination)—that defines the cosmopolitanism to which I refer in the book’s subtitle. I offer a critical cosmopolitanism, an alternative to economic globalization, and a politicized worldliness. It is a cosmopolitanism marked by the heterodox, or difference, characterized by transference, discordance, and displacement over origin, equivalence, and correspondence. It is an abrasive cosmopolitanism of ill-fitting hybrids over assimilation.

At the paradoxical heart of my work is the idea of an outsider cinema operating within, a filmmaking at the periphery that inflects the center. I analyze film production connected with a single territory but only insofar as that territory is singular by virtue of its conflicting regional, national, and transnational elements that, in turn, exceed their own definitions. It examines a cinema that is worldly in ways that are indifferent to identification with a nation-state and exceptional to the interests implicit in such identification. I posit the unfamiliarity of experimentation against the reassurance of home. This is not to deny the specificity of place, nor the sense of belonging associated with it. Of interest here are questions of how film can disturb location while still acknowledging the placeness of place and how film can provoke awkward surprises in the quotidian, and generate discomfort in that sense of belonging. Contrary to dominant discourse and traditional ways of thinking, this sense of belonging has nothing intrinsically to do with origin or an arbitrary birthplace.

My project though also maps a counterhistory, though inevitably a selective one. It is a spectral historiography, a subterranean history, and a history of interruption written in the spirit of Walter Benjamin. It is not so much an untold history (though it is that, too) as it is a different way of conceiving and writing history. Mine is a critique of traditional historiography and particularly of the historicist approach to national cinema that has distinguished and diminished criticism within Spain. I explore, more specifically, time—to which history, of course, is central;  how time affects, configures, and constitutes film. Interruptions in temporal flows, the exceptions that disturb efforts to shape and define time, are the points, I argue, at which filmmaking becomes interesting.

Temporality is both a discourse of power—the codification and modulation of time for particular interests—and a key feature of the processes involved in film’s diegetic components. Film makes use of time in ways that few other cultural modes are capable of, and in a manner that is uniquely convincing. Flashbacks, rhythm, fast-forwards, slow motion, simultaneity (split screen effects, superimposition, and cross-cutting), and instantaneity are but a few of these filmically specific time effects. More than that, though, film can elongate time through the creation of pauses, intervals, interludes, and temporal parentheses. The recent critical interest in “slow cinema” is a clear symptom of this. If temporality is governed by and shaped discursively into manageable units, film can undo that regulation, and it can divide the instant. One of my key arguments is that it is precisely otherness that undoes such efforts to shape time. The field of operations of film, I propose, is found in the other of time, or, in what Patty Keller, invoking Jacques Derrida, has dubbed “now and other,” the other of now.

The paradox of filmic time is that, despite cinema’s characteristic freeze-frame, the film still, and the photogram, it never stands still in the present. The single most visible aspect of time is that of change—backward and forward, past and future, alternation and alteration. Its condition is that of the untimely. This has political potential. I seek to home in on the relation of time to change and to form itself to focus on and propose a filmmaking practice whose very gesture is able to perform a transformation. Part of the project of my book is to argue, in this spirit, for a new definition of the term performative film. Performativity, in the sense of the word as Derrida conceived of it, not in any theatrical sense, as repetition, the miming of identity, but as radical speech act, is a particularly apt tool of film analysis in the age of digital filmmaking.

As a discourse of power, temporality establishes a regime of order that I seek to question. My interrogation of systemization passes through the prism of temporality to other such regimes of normativity, categorization, and genre. I propose a critique of the concept of identity (and “national cinema” as a concept both assumes a univocal identity and interpellates the spectator as the subject of that assumption) as disjunctive rather than as the key element in classificatory discourse. In my view, the phrase “other Spanish cinema” is frequently reduced to a fetishized slogan that disregards its potential for disruption and establishes yet another criterion for forging the kind of identity that this book seeks to challenge.

An insistence on identity runs counter to these movements, because identity requires an origin. Origin, of course, similarly requires an end point, a destination. It suggests, in turn, a telos, an order, a beginning and an end, an aperture and a closure. I question such ideas through a series of theoretical paradigms, from the linguistic sign, to the citation, to the concept of legacy or inheritance, the prosthetic, and the postal motif. Identity, of course, also requires an ontology, a defining essence (or being). These theoretical terms are mobilized throughout this book to question such an ontology. Moreover, the evolution of the technologies of the moving and the sonic image has cast doubt on identitarian discourses, as testified to by the onset of the so-called digital revolution. Among other things, the ontology of the photographic image (the title of André Bazin’s hugely influential 1945 essay) is what I seek to engage with. The resurgence of critical interest since the 1990s in Bazin as a theorist as well as a return to auteurism in the context of transnationalism, slow cinema, and queer studies are but a few of the many symptoms of the shifts happening now in film and in its academic study. My contribution to such debates is to argue for a theoretical lineage that connects Benjamin with Bazin and then with Derrida.

Just as I pose theoretical questions about history and identity in the film studies of Spain, I also consider the constituent elements of representation itself; this is at the center of my spectral interpretation of Spanish film. What Hubertus von Amelunxen, in conversation with Derrida, has referred to as the “division of the instant” points to the doubled quality of the photographic image—that element produced at the very moment of its emergence that haunts it. The “instant” is the temporal difference between liveness and its ghostly other that marks the difference between the actual and the virtual, the here and the elsewhere, the shadow and its subject.

While my critique of historicist teleology is central, its intimately related critique of representation as traversed by temporality returns it again and again to the work of Fredric Jameson. Jameson has consistently maintained that there is a correspondence between representation and the political reality of its production. He has argued that this link is manifested through allegory and through coherent temporal patterns in a process he calls periodization. My point is not the argument often leveled at Jameson by scholars of Asian, African, and Latin American cultures—that such a position is generalizing and ignores specific conditions—but rather that it seeks closure and it conceives of representation as a correlation to social reality, not a means by which to challenge it or of being discordant with it. Jameson’s work seeks to classify, define, pigeonhole, and enclose within periods. My doubts concerning periodization as the codification or shaping of temporality for the purposes of analysis emerge at several points throughout this book as part of its broad conceptualization of the otherness of time and its proposal for a spectral time. Regarding allegory, I think of Benjamin’s outline of the concept as fragment or ruin, as metonym, rather than Jameson’s more conventional use of the term as extended metaphor corresponding to a defined, objectified entity.

Ghostly Antecedents

The history of experimental film in Spain stretches back almost to the beginning of cinema itself, but my focus is in mapping a spectral genealogy. The enduring legacy of surrealism is found in the work of contemporary Spanish filmmakers from Ramiro Ledo to Isaki Lacuesta, from José Luis Guerín to Jacinto Esteva, and from Pere Portabella to Óskar Alegría. This legacy, though, is not only that of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí—the most celebrated of the Spanish surrealists. As explored in this book, non-Spanish surrealists Antonin Artaud, Germaine Dulac, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and others have left their mark on subsequent generations of filmmakers. However, my project is not about surrealism; rather, it follows the ripples that surrealism has left in its wake, its traces and its spirit.

Surrealism is only one of the antecedents of contemporary experimental filmmaking in the Spanish state, albeit an important one. The latter years of the Francoist dictatorship witnessed a number of avant-garde initiatives. These include the 1967 Jornadas Internationales de Escuelas de Cine, a conference in Sitges that provided the stage for fierce cultural and political debates among the opposition and several emerging experimental and independent filmmakers and the Encuentros de Pamplona in 1972 (attended by, among other avant-garde celebrities, John Cage). In addition, several gatherings, exhibitions, and publications took place in Catalonia, notable among them being those promoted by the conceptualist circle called the Grup de Treball, which included filmmakers such as Pere Portabella and Carles Santos. Similar groups existed in Madrid, among them the Grupo Zaj, with whom celebrated performance artist Esther Ferrer collaborated. Other artists working in this experimentalist milieu (and making experimental films) included Isidoro Valcárcel Medina in Murcia and Jorge Oteiza in the Basque Country. Several links exist between Salvador Dalí and the 1960s Catalan filmmakers—most notably, Jacinto Esteva, the leading figure of the Barcelona School filmmakers. Likewise, Pilar Parcerisas has extensively documented Duchamp’s lifelong fascination with Catalonia.

Aside from formal experimentation and the surrealists, there is a long-standing tradition of politically committed cinema in Spain that flourished during the 1930s and whose connections with subsequent filmmaking have been neglected by both critics and film historians. The term militant film only enters the parlance of film studies in the 1960s and largely as a result of anticolonialist filmmaking in the Third World, yet there is a case to be made that the politically committed cinema of the 1930s set a precedent for future filmmakers both in the 1960s and for the present day. Nonetheless, I am more concerned with the theoretical configurations presented by militant film than with documenting its different historical development and evolution. There is important work currently being undertaken by scholars in Spain and the United States in the field of Spanish political film and cultural memory, from which my work differs in its emphasis on the notion of spectral distance. It is important to draw attention to the early predecessors of political filmmaking in Spain as they emerge in the 1930s. It owes much to the work of leftist filmmakers prior to the Spanish Civil War, of whom Buñuel was only one. The documentaries of Carlos Velo (both in 1930s Spain and during his lengthy exile in Mexico) are exemplary in this respect, and his work features ghost-like in that of certain contemporary filmmakers. That militancy also has a formally experimental, disjunctive character that emerges more explicitly in the productions of filmmakers such as Buñuel, Velo, and José Val del Omar.



Spectral time is that of the untimely; it is the temporal connection between what is impossible to connect. Or, once again in Derrida’s terms, it is the other of now. The disjoining of the present from the contemporary means that time is always already fraught with its own sense of the untimely and its out-of-joint condition between the not yet and the no longer. Spectrality is the virtual other that makes its presence felt.

Tom Gunning, in his essay “To Scan a Ghost: The Ontology of Mediated Vision,” draws attention to the technology of visibility to highlight another aspect of filmic spectrality: the role of the materiality of the apparatus itself. In his analysis of Murnau’s Nosferatu, Gunning writes that the film “explored the play between the visible and the invisible, reflections and shadow, on- and off-screen space that cinema made possible, forging a technological image of the uncanny.” Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Gunning uses the figure of the “phantasm” “to focus on the term medium . . . its very materiality and its paradoxical aspiration to immateriality.” He notes that the transparency of the ghostly body is like that of the strip of film, the very material of the moving image, “a filter of light, a caster of shadows, a weaver of phantoms.” Furthermore, the techniques of montage bring forth optical effects and make visible the invisible in the same way as other materialities of film do (with lighting, lenses, mirrors, sound equipment, and so on).

The exact verisimilitude of the object filmed and the projected film image—its capacity to represent reality—that led Bazin to insist on its ontology also establishes an uncanny distance between the profilmic event and the image projected in the public auditorium. Its present is deferred in time (its “now” is “other”), and its presence is illusionary. Additionally, the effects of film beyond its extraordinary capacity to play on time by means such as ellipsis, doubling, and distortions of sound give film a particularly ghostly resonance. Given film’s intangible materialities (such as light and shadow) and capacity for reproducing reality, it is ideal for hauntological analysis. In the same vein, filmic mise en abyme, seen particularly in the kind of experimental film that comprises much of the work discussed in this book, with its frames within frames and mirroring effects—like the ghost itself—marks the shimmering threshold space that blurs the border dividing life from death, absence from presence. My work theorizes that limit and the legacies that arise from it.

"Sergio Caballero’s experimental Finisterrae (2010) is a film populated by ghosts while also having a spectral predecessor in Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae (1929). "

Screenshot from FINISTERRAE (Sergio Caballero, 2010)

Sergio Caballero’s experimental Finisterrae (2010) is a film populated by ghosts while also having a spectral predecessor in Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae (1929). As their titles suggest, both films focus on the historical end of the known world, the limits of Europe. Both films play around the imprecise edges of the European continent. Each also, in very different ways, resorts to the rich and mixed haunted legacy whose vestiges are to be found at the very margins of European culture. Caballero’s film inherits a geographical eschatology from Epstein’s and, arguably, also from Buñuel’s La vía láctea (1969). While Epstein’s film is an example of a poetic cinema of nature, Caballero’s is a film about ghosts who speak Russian and travel the route of the historical pilgrimage of the Way of Santiago in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Such a haunted genealogy is never a straightforward or linear matter; its legacy resounds like an echo and leaves its imprint in the form of a residue, or afterimage, or glow fading on the horizon. Film, to paraphrase Derrida, is a ghost that comes back from the future. Spectrality for Derrida is both revenant and arrivant.

I conclude then with a contemporary example that serves as a metonym for my paper. The contrasting images—dividing lines between the materiality and immateriality to which Gunning refers—the porous or the translucent and the opaque, and the screen and the ground that distinguish the filmic aesthetic are important features of this book. Such images of doubling pervade the work of Isaki Lacuesta, a leading figure of the younger generation of contemporary filmmakers in Spain. Lacuesta’s films suggest another important encounter intimate to the filmmaking process: that between surface and depth. A filmmaker of traces and historical fragmentation, of unearthing the buried and concealed, Lacuesta is also a cineaste of apostrophes (that turn away) or revenants (that return, turn back, turn toward).

This material filmic disjoining is illustrated in the complexity of one of the final sequences from his 2010 film La noche que no acaba (Not to sleep all night long [see the film’s trailer below]), based on the years US actor Ava Gardner lived in Spain. Using footage from Gardner’s films shot in Spain from different periods, the montage generates an unanchored encounter in a wavering disjunction between surface and depth—the visual and the aural—between the younger and the older actor. It is enacted through the overlaid spectral voices of the two most emblematic Spanish women actors of their respective generations (Charo López and Ariadna Gil), who alternate reciting the text of Robert Graves’s poem Not to Sleep, which is dedicated to Gardner and from whose first line the film takes its title. The invisibility of the two actors generates visibility, a translucent presence to the ghost, and amid the acoustic mix, the spectral figure of Ava Gardner emerges—a flickering transparent apparition whose voice is in the mouths of others—from beyond the grave and from the depths of the archive to extend and float ethereal through the space and the ground of the image, without origin or destination.

[For full bibliographical references to the above chapter excerpt  please consult the published book version]