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Tuesday 22 June 2010

You Don’t Speak Spanish, Do You?

Recently I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control, an enigmatic, dream-like play on the adventure of a hitman. I liked it very much indeed. There are many allusions in the film – to John Boorman’s Point Blank, Jean- Pierre Melville films like Le Samourai and a lot more - and many jokes, such as the running matchbox McGuffin, where the main character – the Lone Man (none of the characters have a name) - receives a matchbox, reads the small note inside and then swallows it; at his next meeting he hands the empty box to the next person and receives another with a small note inside,
and so on. We never get to see the note, but he does get to throw away the last matchbox.

His recognition sign at the venue of each meeting is that he orders two small cups of espresso coffee; the password for the meeting is ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ (see the title of this post).The shifts in the film are marked by the protagonist’s change of the colour of his clothes from one iridescent sharkskin suit to the next. There are three. One for Madrid, another for Seville and a third for the countryside, particularly Almeria.

But here I want to talk about one of the things that most struck me about the film: probably the best series of snapshots of Spain I have ever seen. It is pitch perfect - unsentimental, charming and accurate. In Madrid, Jarmusch uses the extraordinary Torres Blancas (White Towers, see first photo) by the architect Sáenz de Oiza, a block built in the late sixties of the so-called ‘organic’ school. The building is supposed to be some sort of socialised tree in reinforced concrete without pillars blocking the interior spaces. The problem is that the builder of the White Towers ran out of money before the white cladding could be put on. Age and traffic fumes have worked their dingy magic on the concrete so that it now resembles a tall cement factory, the kilns placed upright.

Another building Jarmusch uses in Madrid is the ‘Reina Sofia’ – the national art gallery containing works by Picasso and after. It is a restored and fairly austere palacio with modern adjuncts, now showing a little damp. Some of the paintings (Juan Gris, Tàpies) are apparently used to convey information to the protagonist.

His third main use of Madrid is a small square, which is even more restored now, but in the film is seen aspiring to the kind of public space folksiness municipalities everywhere favour. Naturally, there are some examples of graffiti on the walls.

The old quarter he uses in Seville is a marvel. Graffiti is everywhere and - one of the film’s best touches - so is the noise. I once read a report saying that, after Japan, Spain is the noisiest country in the world. If they say so. I’d say the Spanish are noisier. There is one scene where the protagonist lies down (he never sleeps), while the sounds of cooking, singing and speaking from the surrounding houses go on and on.

Then there are the images of the countryside. Several Spaniards have told me that Britain’s countryside is strange because it has no great stretches of land without people or with any sign of human influence. Parts of Spain are big enough and barren enough to show human activity simply as scars or stark impositions, and there are houses that look either abandoned or absurdly protected and small against the space around them.

And finally there is flamenco. Many years ago an old lady in Andalusia told me that she never heard flamenco as a child. It had risen ‘for the tourists’. White horses, black bulls, girls in Sevillana dresses, and flamenco. Tourist Board folklore. This is, of course, not entirely fair but I feel I have done my quota of listening to and seeing stamping feet and wailing voices.

Of course it depends who is performing.

One very old form of flamenco which is used in the film is the petenera – it is like ‘the Scottish Play’ of flamenco music, in that it is considered to bring bad luck. The password of Jim Jarmusch’s film, ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ and the title of this, was apparently Mr Jarmusch’s case. But this is the flamenco form he asked for and got. It is quiet and beautifully done.

If you would like to listen to a version of it, you can click here. You will hear echoes of the 14th century through the lute to La Celestina, the great novel by Fernando de Rojas.

As with the film, you will love it or hate it.

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