By Luis E. Parés
Omissions create legends and despite what people might believe, legends create knowledge. The history of Spanish cinema contains many gaps, so many that our cinema has often been considered to be a set of discontinuous lines, or a series of paths which lead nowhere, in a kind of never ending maze, and worse still, with no tale to tell. The gaps included that of a film industry that was always arguing against, which means that it was against everything, even cinema itself. A film industry, that were it to go beyond talk itself, would shake up the system in order to become something revolutionary in its own right (which involves a lot of hot air in itself). This gap in our cinema was covered by Antonio Maenza. The problem is that his character was, in turn, also full of gaps.
What is a film? Beyond definitions which lie between mysticism and pragmatism, it can be said that a film is the temporary articulation of images in order to generate a discussion: in other words, a film is a set of edited images. In the case of many films, we have only seen fragments, records, unedited takes, rushes. They will not be films then. No more discussion has reached us than that which we are able to construct ourselves based on a few unrelated images. What remains then, is the gesture.
What cinematographic gesture could be more revolutionary than that of dispensing with film itself. Flash: Kábala 9 en 16 para 4 en 8 was going to be a film shoot in which nine people participated on 16mm film whilst another four shot another film on 8mm. However, the director voluntarily decided not to put any film in the 16mm camera. He made a film, with performing actors that would never be shown. It was not direct-cinema, it was live cinema. Cinema without a film, that only happened once. The director who was behind that camera without any film was Antonio Maenza, the Spanish director who understood better than anyone that modernity was fragmented, incoherent, eclectic and capricious. That the message of a speech is made up of pieces of other speeches.
Antonio Maenza was born in Teruel in 1951. Teruel was a backwater in which however, Maenza very quickly learnt to read everything that was synonymous with modernity at that time (and consequently, with revolution): structuralism, situationism, Marxism… From there he went to Zaragoza to study Philosophy and Arts, where he became a regular participant and organiser of cinema clubs and a pioneer of the city’s underground movement. There he received a grant from the university to make his first film, El lobby contra el cordero, after which he moves to Madrid, where he meets the group of independent filmmakers (Augusto Martínez Torres, Iván Zulueta, Vicente Molina Foix…). He decides to abandon his studies. After Madrid, he moves to Valencia and meets Eduardo Hervás, an avant-garde poet and adolescent outsider, with whom he begins to shoot his second film, Orfeo filmado en el campo de batalla. After arguing with Antonio Hervás, he decides to go to Barcelona and convince Pere Portabella to produce one of his films, which he succeeds in doing. Portabella provides him with a technical team that is equal to the task (the photography is done by Manel Esteban and the make-up by Fabià Puigservert) and Maenza shuts himself away in a country house with the cream of the contra-intelligentsia: Emma Cohen, Enrique Vila-Matas, Carlos Otero, Xavier Miserachs. Soon after, he is conscripted and he does military service, firstly in Zaragoza and then in Huesca, in December 1969. During this time he is subjected to continuous humiliation and frequent arrests. He completes his military service in May 1971, which coincides with his mother’s death and shortly afterwards, the suicide of Eduardo Hervás. He attempts, unsuccessfully, to rebuild his life and his group in Valencia. His mental health gradually deteriorates. In 1974, he is admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Bétera, where he receives seven electroshocks. In 1976, he is admitted to Teruel Psychiatric Hospital. At the end of November 1979, he is found badly wounded at the door of his building in Teruel. He is transferred to a hospital in Zaragoza where he would die on 12 December 1979, the reason for his wounds remaining unknown. The idea of suicide emerges as an unproven theory.
Following his death, his films were lost, having vanished in anonymous files. In 1991, the historians Javier Hernández and Pablo Pérez began to track them down. They found his first two films in the Arturo Pousa archives, and numerous documents, including the rest of his literary and cinematographic works at Vicente Ponce’s house. Pere Portabella possessed copies of Hortensia. In 1991, his novel, Séptimo medio indisponible, was published. Maenza began to emerge from his own ruins, or in other words, with his own ruins, films that were unfinished to such an extent that nobody can agree on the degree of their unfinished status.
Maenza did not finish any of his films, if we understand ‘finished’ to mean adding a sound track and editing a final and immutable version, to be repeated in that form showing after showing. In fact, many of them are just invented titles that were never shot: Vaquilla del Ángel, Boda de mi hermano, prohibido el paso, Las ruinas, Conversaciones con Luis Buñuel… More important than filming, was the act of imagining that through the surrealists we identify with the act of subverting. There are three more films: El lobby contra el cordero, Orfeo filmado en el campo de batalla and Hortensia-Beancé. However, despite the unfinished nature of these three works, we hear an echo: from a time where the world could be changed by a film that shocked the bourgeoisie, revolutionised minds and opened up expressive pathways. Maenza showed us the missing link and undeveloped path of Spanish independent cinema: a truly free, committed and radical film industry. There are also a few scripts, synopses, notes, even theoretical articles where he points out what the films of the future should be like: very similar to those which he made.
At one point, El lobby contra el cordero (1967-68) lasted four hours, although in the end the author managed to reduce it to just under two hours. That is the copy that we received. The film never had an audio track. We do not know what the screenings were like, although a previous script said that the film would be full of sounds that would work as a counterbalance. Here the subversion is pop, and there are fragments in colour, with a character wearing a red leather jacket who we see stealing a book. The narrative structure is a hotchpotch where everything coexists in a happy disorder: icons, cinema posters, manifestos, situationism, Rimbaud quotations, meta-cinema (“This film was made with a 500W zoom, ancient Paillard viewfinder”). El lobby is a pop collage, a coming of age film and a provocative, wild, street happening, in which having a good time was key, because this was the way of making the authorities suffer.
Orfeo en el campo de batalla (1968-1969) was filmed in Valencia and we have an edited copy with a narrative logic lasting 36 minutes. There is no sound track but we know through Luis Puig that this was added to the film during screenings, using records (Orfeo by Monteverdi and songs by Frank Zappa) and a text that was read in three voices. In the opening scene we see two men holding a door in the middle of the street. Written on the door we can read: “The origin of our infant disorders is in the kitchen”. The door opens and a series of people go through it carrying several sheets with words written on them. The phrase that they make is: “The revolution consecrated a sacrilege into a new sacred principle”. In the penultimate scene we see two men and a woman engaged in a threesome whilst they are reading in a room featuring a poster of Trotsky or whilst they are writing phrases such as “The aesthetical value of a film is the distance between the form of the sign and its content” or “In a para-fascist state it is not possible to act in semi-hiding but only in total hiding” on a blackboard. Orfeo is a testament to a youth lost amidst dates but which remains inspired by a full sacrifice (or a suicidal sublimation).
Where Hortensia/Beancé (1969) is concerned, it is known that Maenza put together a montage with Manel Esteban, with music by Carles Santos and that this montage lasted 120 minutes. The montage has been lost and what remains in the 240-minute copy, from which it is difficult to extract an interpretation and narrative structure. The scenes are carefully put together and the photography is precise, which illustrates a significant jump in relation to his two previous films. The film is a nod to the happening, that was so en vogue at that time, and a meditation on cultural alienation, with the omnipresence of the American flag, such as in the scene in which Emma Cohen lies on the floor with her legs open and the camera zooms in in a tracking shot of her vagina. Hortensia is Maenza’s mature work, if by maturity we understand technical savoir faire. But the objective was the same: to mix the nouvelle vague with Mao in order to move forward with a new society.
Today, what remains of Maenza’s work is the gesture of filming for the pleasure of subversion and for the moral imperative of the uprising. The adventure of going out onto the street to launch manifestos that would be recorded in 16mm also remains. As does the notion of cinema as a house which can accommodate all kinds of things and influences. Maenza’s films show us that in film anything goes, as in a powerful asymmetrical collage, anything from political meetings to erotic performances, from private jokes to literary essays. Rebelliousness and the awareness that film is another philosophical tool, like psychoanalysis or poetry, also remain. So does the need to keep building counter-discourse, based on his ruins, which lend themselves not only to reconstruction, but especially to reinterpretation, appropriation, absorption. And creation.