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Spanish Cinema

In: Film and Music

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Global Studies 298: Barcelona
Winter 2009

Cinema History in Barcelona and Spain

Cinema reflects the voice and culture of a nation. It documents important changes in politics, lifestyle, and even language. Barcelona was the birthplace for Cinema in of Spain. During the silent period of film all of the biggest Spanish directors including Marro, Chómon, Gelabert, and Bános were based out of Barcelona (Alvarez 6). The first films that had sound where shown in Barcelona before anywhere else, although without sound due to the lapse in technological capabilities (Alvarez 7). Barcelona’s movement in film did not stop there. Throughout the years and generations Catalan cinema has been a part of Spanish culture and has in its own right fought to survive. In the beginning Barcelona was the sole player in Spanish Cinema. Madrid, the other major metropolitan area, was more concerned with traditional forms of entertainment such as bullfighting and la zarzuela (musical theater) (Alvarez 6). The first Spanish film was actually that of a group of church goers leaving Sunday Mass which was entitled Salida de la misa de doce del Pilar or in English: “Leaving the Midday Mass at the Church of Pilar in Zaragoza.” This film was already the way from 1896 and would seem to show an enthusiastic future for film if it were not for such factors as foreign competition, government, and an overbearing church (Stone 14). During the turn of the century in particular themes of the church dominated with films such as The View of Campo Valdés Taken at the Leaving of Midday Mass, Leaving the Midday Mass at the Church of Saint Peter, and Voyage of His Majesty to Albufera (Stone 15). The first fiction film did not come along until 1897. The director was Fructouso Gelabert who was born in Barcelona and was a carpenter and photographer by trade (Stone 16). His first film, Brawl in a Café, reflected the Catalan mindset of revolution and separating from its current government (which back then was not quite yet under Franco’s rule, allowing this films sediment to be expressed). The film was only 48 seconds long, and the story reflected the title: two gentleman fighting in a café only to be separated by a good Samaritan. Much like Gelabert, even those of middle class status showcased their wealth by sponsoring films that featured boats and trains(Stone 17). Gelabert, however, was the one who tried to pull stories into these silent films. He went on to do several literary adaptions such as Terra Baixa and Mala Raza, the latter of which he was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism (Bentley 6). He had a sense of humor and enjoyed utilizing special effects in his film as illustrating in his films Cerveza gratis and Choque de dos translánticos respectively (Bentley 6). By the time he died he had produced over 111 films (Bentley 6). Another notable director was Segundo de Chomón. Chomón studied film in Paris, but experimented in Barcelona (Bentley 7). He brought not only color to the industry, but was the first one who introduced the concept of moving a camera while filming and thus inventing the traveling shot (Stone 18). He also introduced stop motion into the industry with his well known film El hotel eléctrico (The Haunted Hotel) which consisted of a couple checking into a hotel and witnessing inanimate objects moving by themselves (Bentley 7). While the concept may sound cryptic, the film was actually done in a very light hearted and humorous manner (Stone 18). Chomón eventually teamed up with Joan Fuster Gari to start a production company of which they turned out thirty seven films, but only two of these films were picked up for distribution, making the company unprofitable. Fuster abandoned the company leaving Chomón without a studio or equiptment, and thus ending another period in Spanish and Catalan film (Stone 19). Around this time a war erupted that would change the face of cinema all over. World War I had begun, and while Spain was doing its best to stay out of it while dealing with Catalan and Basque autonomy, much of the film industry had relocated to a safer haven; the US. The US had not been a major player in film until then, but was able to develop its production while Europe faced its own affairs. This effected Spain greatly, as by 1918 the US had taken 50% of the market (Bentley 25). Even after the war was over, no European production company’s became anywhere near as big as what existed in the US. In particular, Spain was hindered by “no laboratories to manufacture film stock, was short of necessary capital investments to create a viable industry and in any case lacked an infrastructure to give it a competitive edge, in spite of some interesting technical developments and innovations (Bentley 25). After the war, and with some national unrest still in the air, film did once again start to take shape. Madrid began opening up studios to compete with Barcelona (although with only relative success at first). It was in Madrid that the first Spanish film club, Cineclub Español, was founded in October 1928 (Bentley 40). Barcelona soon followed suit the next year and opened their own club, the Mirador Cineclub (Bentley 41). Along with this re-emergence came avante gard film. This experimental style was popular with French and Spanish artists of all realms, and borrowed from the surrealist movement that was happening. Of this period came one very notable Spanish director; Luis Buñuel. You cannot speak of Spanish film without mentioning his short film, Un Chien andalou. The style of the film was a “juxtaposition of images, scenes and sequences that allow a narrative to be inferred, but it has the consistency of dreams where the situation is constantly changing through associations and without appearant causal relationships,” (Bentley 43). The importance of this film is that it made movies a recognizable medium for surrealism (Stone 23). Perhaps because of this, French surrealists tried to claim him as their own, but the fact remains that Buñuel’s surrealist roots come from his time studying in Madrid with other artists such as Dalî (who helped him make Un Chien andalou) (Stone 22). On the heals of this phenomenon sound began to be incorporated into film. This was a problem for Spanish cinema because most screens did not have the capacity to support sound in their theaters, so movies like The Jazz Singer were shown in places like the Cineclub in Madrid with only a small orchestra to accompany its performance (Bentley 50). It wasn’t until September 19th, 1929 that the Barcelona Coliseum became the first theater in Spain to be fitted with sound thanks to foreign investments (Bentley 50). This still put Spain behind in the film industry, and less films were produced in Spain and Barcelona during this time (even with the French industry developing progressively so close by). As a result of lacking sound capabilities, most Spanish films were either done abroad or where sent abroad to process sound (usually to Paris). Hollywood, in particular, still saw a viable market and reshot a number of movies with Spanish actors as dubbing and subtitles were not available yet (Bentley 51). These movies were unpopular because they used actors from all nationalities and began what was referred to as an “accent war,” (Bentley 51). The first Spanish sound film was not until four years after The Jazz Singer was released. Toda la vida was directed by Adequi Millar and released in 1931 (Stone 26). Shortly after this, however, the Spanish Civil War would end and Franco would take over and change the face of Spanish cinema. This effected Barcelona greatly, as it was no longer recognized as the capital of Spain and was greatly repressed during this period. Companies like the Compania Industrial del Film Español were geared towards making Francoist propaganda films (Stone 28). The nationalist government had tight control over its film industry, and even films that were pro-Franco were not approved for distribution because they were “not good enough to be effective propaganda,” (Bentley 85). However, films that did meet the standards were titled “of national interested,” and their producers were given lucrative licenses for distribution. Out of this came cine cruzada; films which glorified Spanish imperialism (Stone 38). This period extended over a large part of Spain’s cinema history. Even after Franco died his predecessor did little to change the direction of cinema. Eventually that did slowly change. In the late nineties “productions and spectatorship… slowly reconsolidated and cinema [was] invigorated by a new generation of directors well versed in different cinemas and wanting to emulate, in their own way, what they enjoy[ed] on screen,” (Bentley 320). In the 1990’s, despite efforts from the US to put tariffs on film and television, two films from Spain received Oscars for Best Foreign Film: Belle Epoque and Todo sobre mi madre (Alvarez 184-185). Film continues to flourish in Spain today. While productions are now more evenly split between Barcelona and Madrid, Barcelona still holds a place in cinema history. In 1995 Barcelona hosted the “100 Years of Spanish Cinema,” conference (Alvarez 244). Although, because of war and politics, film has had a slow start in Spain it continues to flourish and find directors such as Isabel Coitex both teaming up with foreign production companies and producing their own native cinema. As time goes on we will only see cinema continue to grow in Spain.

Works Cited
Alvarez, Inmaculada, Rosana Blanco-Cano, Anitra Grisales, Alejandra Osorio, Tatjana Pavlovic, and Alejandra Sánchez. 100 Years of Spanish Cinema. New ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Print.
Bentley, Bernard P. E.. A Companion to Spanish Cinema, Tamesis Books, 2008. Print.
Mira, Alberto. The Cinema of Spain and Portugal (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 2005. Print.
Stone, Rob. Spanish Cinema (Inside Film). New York: Longman, 2001. Print. Spanish cinema: Calling the shots (Leeds Iberian papers). Great Britian: Trinity And All Saints, University Of Leeds, 1999. Print.

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