Spanish practices and Cuban homophobia

Vision Machines
August 23, 1996

This volume does what we have come to expect from Paul Julian Smith's previous books, and more. The stimulating connections between texts and theory are impressively up to date.

The range of media covered is extended to include conceptual art as well as literature and film. And, above all, Smith insists on placing the recent Spanish and Cuban works discussed (almost all available in English) in their historical context. The attention to the works' different critical reception in Spain, France and the English-speaking world reveals some important misunderstandings as a result of critics' ignorance of Hispanic culture.

The book takes considerable risks, tackling films that have been badly received (Pedro Almod"var's Kika, Nestor Almendros's Improper Conduct, Julio Medem's The Red Squirrel) and demolishing one that has been internationally acclaimed (Gutierrez Alea's Fresa y Chocolate). It also grapples with the crucial issue of where and what reality might be in our postmodern world of simulacra. The answer seems to be that reality is written on the body by the regimes of power (state and other) that submit everyone and everything to a "trial of visibility". The book's title Vision Machines (borrowed from Paul Virilio) refers to the culture industries' collusion in this use of technology for enlightenment/surveillance: a process which can be resisted but not escaped.

Smith is particularly sensitive to the ways in which "visibility is constantly inflected by sexuality and nationality". Analysis of camerawork is central to his discussion. Mario Camus's film of The House of Bernarda Alba is seen as an example of socialist-government-funded cinema which exposes political repression while reinforcing heterosexual norms. By contrast, the melodramatic excess of Lorca's original play and Almod"var's film Dark Habits (a brilliant coupling) is shown to make female-female relations visible. Almod"var's Kika is viewed as a comment on video's facility for instantaneous "real-time" recording, making representation and reality coincide. Smith reads the film through Teresa de Lauretis's analysis of the "technologies of gender" and Danna Haraway's "cyborg politics" (the cyborg being Victoria Abril as TV reality-show presenter, with her sci-fi outfit and video camera on her head).

The middle section on Cuban writing and film bravely attacks English-speaking defenders of the Castro regime for refusing (unlike French and Spanish critics) to acknowledge its repression of homosexuals. Almendros's use of documentary techniques in his series of filmed interviews, Improper Conduct, dismissed by English-speaking critics as retrograde, is justified as a strategic reversal of the "trial of visibility" to which homosexuals have been subjected in Cuba. A similar strategy is seen at work in Arenas's autobiography Before Night Falls, which makes homosexuality "extravagantly" visible. The success of Fresa y Chocolate is explained by its focalisation of events through the eyes of a male heterosexual, and its stereotypical depiction of its homosexual character as a decadent lover of bourgeois art, leaving gender norms intact but also suggesting a nostalgia for "the elite pleasures of high culture".

In the third section, returning to Spain, Medem's The Red Squirrel is read through Gianni Vattimo as an ironically "emptied" representation of stereotypes of gender and Basqueness. The chapter on the representation of Aids in Spain tackles critical writing and works by the novelist Haro Ibars and the sculptor Pepe Espali, both of whom died from Aids-related diseases. Smith notes that, contrary to US and British life-affirming strategies for representing Aids, Spanish writers and artists have insisted on confronting death and the vulnerability of the body, but also on metaphorical forms of statement deriving from a culturally specific concept of privacy.

This is a brilliant and moving book.

Jo Labanyi is professor of modern Spanish literature and cultural studies, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Vision Machines: Cinema, Literature and Sexuality in Spain and Cuba, 1983-93

Author - Paul Julian Smith
ISBN - 1 85984 944 X and 079 5
Publisher - Verso
Price - £39.95 and £12.95
Pages - 179

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