Economic Devastation Is Not the Only Fruit: Michael Pattison reports from Seville

Published on: November 22nd, 2013

Stray Dogs

Some films are unavoidable, immovable boulders; monsters that must be grappled with, teased away, defeated and be done with before any others can be given equally serious thought. One such film is Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs (Jiao you), to which this critic has been drawn back again and again and again.

Following the film’s first public screening at the tenth Seville European Film Festival (SEFF), I tweeted that “every film gets the audience it deserves. Only the year’s best causes walkouts both 5 and 130 minutes in.” I was half-joking. From its few opening shots, it’s apparent that Tsai’s latest work is going to be a challenge: disparate in its scene-to-scene progression, slim on dialogue and incident, elusive in its final meaning.

But also cumulative: if you haven’t walked out by the time the film gets halfway through its penultimate shot – a gruelling, near 14-minute battle between outward stasis and internal epiphanies – it’s kind of silly to do so there and then, having by that point endured the almost frozen frame of one character eyeing a mural for what feels like a fortnight (it’s less than seven minutes) before stooping low to piss, or a scene in which another kisses, crushes and consumes a cabbage before breaking down into an uncomprehending flood of tears (10 minutes 43 seconds). I was also, then, half-serious.

Given that Stray Dogs might be Tsai’s last film, it’s hard not to interpret the uncompromising length of these final shots as an act of both hesitance and defiance on the director’s part. In the first instance, the absurd length of that penultimate shot (and that of the one which follows, though it isn’t as long) might be a sign of unwillingness to leave the seventh art behind; or else a sign of regret that Tsai feels he needs to leave it at all, retreating ahead of an artform characterised by a growing philistinism – one that pervades its spaces of consumption possibly less than its professional critical circles.

Too many jobs rest at present on the assumption that the masses need to be told what to watch and when and how to watch it – when in actual fact we watch what we’re given. At that near-future point when the critical dust settles, though, here will stand a film that dared to express human misery not in zeitgeist-loving handheld or bankrupt shallow-focus imagery, but in compositions of such immediate strength and in narrative passages of such idiosyncracy that those for whom grim ’n grit must look and feel murky still won’t know what hit them.

In the second instance, length doubles here as an act of defiance: against the Harvey Weinsteins of this world and against the increasingly conservative (because profit-dependent) arthouse exhibitors who’d have to make programming compromises in order to squeeze it in between the third and fourth daily showing of the latest Roger Michell film – whose theatrical run they’re possibly prolonging on the basis of something called “audience demand.” Audiences demand, indeed: length can also be an act of defiance against, more than anyone, those undeserving pundits for whom the prolonged sight of a disenfranchised couple sharing one last difficult moment of unspoken intimacy is all too much.

Nuclear Waste

Walkouts in a palpably and deliberately challenging 136-minute film that oozes ‘serious artwork’ levels of brilliance are one thing. Walkouts in a 25-minute short are quite another. This was the unfortunate case for Ukrainian work Nuclear Waste (Yaderni wydhody), which concluded a programme of five shorts at SEFF. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s fourth short – following Incident (2006), Diagnosis (2009) and Deafness (2010) – premiered at Locarno last year, and depicts a typical day in the lives of Sergiy (Sergiy Gavryluk) and Svetlana (Svetlana Shtanko), a couple who work and live near Chernobyl: he as a truck driver for a radioactive waste plant, she in a radioactive decontamination laundrette. While it looks and feels like it might have begun as a documentary, Nuclear Waste is in its finished form a highly stylised work, with both expertly composed shots and a very deliberate pace.

Slaboshpitsky’s film opens on a caravan of trucks heading along a road in one direction before it picks up on Sergiy’s truck driving in the other. Already, our protagonist is against the metaphoric tide, a sole, indefatigable figure heading one way when the world’s axis seems to be spinning another. The sound of Sergiy’s truck as it crawls through this snow-swept landscape immediately stands out – an inhuman, almost electronic wall of hiccupping cacophony, a cross between the dated sound effects of an ancient videogame (or perhaps an Aphex Twin loop) and the final gasps of a dying animal. Such harsh sounds seem to heighten the film’s belaboured pace: Sergiy’s truck slowly – almost ritualistically – makes its way through one frame, and then begins anew, trudging again through a fresh (but somehow the same) cartography.

Early on, Nuclear Waste had a few members of the SEFF paying public visibly agitated. When Sergiy finally alights his vehicle and enters the decontamination quarters of his work – stripping down to shower – he does so in the presence of a fellow trucker, one who has also been, we presume, trekking through the Ukrainian snow at a snail’s pace. Conversation is minimal. Movements are robotic, automated, machine-like. We cut to the woman who we will later learn is Svetlana, Sergiy’s partner. She bundles clothes into a washing machine that looks like some left over prop from the set of a long-forgotten Soviet sci-fi – once the very image of technological advancement, now a strange reminder of a history suspended into a frozen present-tense. To be sure, the violently circular movement of the washing machine is immediately symbolic: not only a hypnotic and therefore draining (if alluring) force, but also a churning, cyclical routine whose only function is to rinse and renew something for repeat use.

It’s not difficult to imagine Nuclear Waste as an extract from a Tsai feature, about the comings and goings of a demonstrably disparate and quietly desperate band of shift workers in a place that all but precludes any idea of interaction or romance. At the end of their respective workdays, Sergiy and Svetlana have sex in a tragicomic scene whose absurdity stems from the documentary feel previously established. Devoid of love, sex is reduced to its perfunctory base, an act from which all basic joy has been sucked by alienating labour.

It was the final straw for those sevillanos already agitated by the film. As several walked out, I recalled the small but telling numbers who had admitted defeat and abandoned Stray Dogs. It seemed to confirm to me that I was watching something challenging, something worthy – as if the sex scene finally brought the truth of a wasted economic system crashing down heavily onto an all-too-relatable domestic scenario. There might be something snobbish about such thoughts (and contradictory, given my earlier suggestion that philistinism is less pervasive in the cinema’s exhibition spaces than among its critical elite) but perhaps there is something to be said in defence of upsetting one’s audience with what I took to be a sincere and logical scene.

Chernobyl is the perfect choice for such commentaries. Its historical and geographical uniqueness should go without saying, but in setting a film about the oldest human relationship there, Slaboshpitsky frames family (“nuclear” here is double-edged) against the corrosive, prolonged traumas of the capitalist workplace (“waste” is also double-edged). Just as the effects of the 1986 nuclear-plant disaster are still being felt today – with children in its neighbouring towns suffering from cancers – so an outmoded economic system continues to infect the home and prohibit something as simple and inalienably human as pleasure. Put another way, capitalism itself is radioactive, its harmful effects trans-generational if not immediately visible. Meanwhile, neither Sergiy nor Svetlana has the energy to ask why their sex life has become an extension of their respective daily grinds, just another atomised task to get out of the way before tomorrow’s cycle of rinse, repeat.

Procreation in such settings might be ill-advised. While no children appear in Nuclear Waste – its cyclical visual riffs do suggest some are surely on the way – it anticipates Stray Dogs thematically as well as aesthetically. For Tsai’s film follows the disintegration of the nuclear family into all-out despair – presents such disintegration as its opening gambit, in fact. Those supposedly unbreakable domestic bonds, those enduring “family values” upon which capitalism has time and again sought to foster its own image, have already at the beginning of Tsai’s film been thoroughly severed. Such seeds are sown at the end of Slaboshpitsky’s film, in which the demands of the capitalist workplace have made something as joyous but long-term as a family decidedly untenable.

Plaza de Armas

I saw Stray Dogs and Nuclear Waste in Plaza de Armas, the entertainment and retail complex to the immediate northwest of Seville’s centre. Plaza de Armas (literally, “Square of Weapons”) is a fitting name for the venue of a culturally and financially embattled film festival. Exiting the complex via its northern doors and looking west across the Guadalquivir River, one sees the unfinished Cajasol Tower, which was to be the headquarters of Spanish savings bank Cajasol.

Construction on the 40-storey tower began in March 2008. Cajasol was in 2008 one of five savings banks in the Andalusian region. In June 2010, after running into severe troubles following the 2008 financial collapse, it was forced to join ‘Banca Cívica’ with three other savings banks.

Banca Cívica was Spain’s first institutional protection system – a group of banks whose solvency risks and profits are shared without each bank having to formally merge. In March 2012, less than two years after its formation, Banca Cívica was also in trouble, and was forced to merge with CaixaBank. CCOO, Spain’s largest trade union, reported that between 2007 and 2012, 5,600 jobs were lost in the Andalusian finance sector alone.

By December 2012, there were 5,695 bank branches in the region, nearly 1,400 less than in 2008. The 20% closure rate was the highest in Spain. Not unlike the skyscrapers that stand proud and mocking as Lee Kang-Sheng’s protagonist trudges through a field of mud in Stray Dogs, Cajasol Tower seems to embody a social paradox. If we visualise the region’s workforce on a horizontal plain, Seville is a more sparsely populated region now than it was five or six years ago. The incongruous verticality of Cajasol Tower sticks out like a sore reminder of the barrenness of the land on which it is built. How can it be that unemployment has risen in Seville alongside an increase in the hefty sums required of a savings bank’s 40-storey headquarters?

Cajasol Tower

Early in 2012, the Spanish press reported that UNESCO were opposing Cajasol Tower, claiming that it had a “highly negative visual impact” on Seville’s old town and the UNESCO World Heritage Sites found there – from which Cajasol Tower is located only a mile away. Cajasol Tower’s Wikipedia page says its building “is” to be finished in the first trimester of 2013 (emphasis added). Clearly, the verticality of the Cajasol Tower has another highly negative impact: it comes to symbolise a concentration of capital – a redistribution of wealth that is upward both literally and socially.

Meandering around the area, I thought of two Spanish films at SEFF. On the one hand I thought of Cristóbal Arteaga Rozas’ The Sad Smell of Flesh (El triste olor de la carne), and on the other of Fran Araújo and Ernesto de Nova’s debut feature El Rayo. The former film, fittingly enough, screened as part of the festival’s inaugural Resistencias strand, while the second was part of its Panorama Andaluz strand. In Rozas’ film, a bankrupt Spanish businessman tries desperately to conceal his property prior to its confiscation by liquidators, cashing in heirlooms and jewellery and withdrawing what money he can from a cashpoint/ATM.

Like Tsai’s film, this too takes some kind of familial collapse for granted, beginning as it does after the dramatic twist of someone’s ruination: we seem to have moved beyond a cinema that warns what might happen if we don’t correct the financial collapse, and into a cinema that accepts the economic system as fundamentally irredeemable.

Is the protagonist of Rozas’ film a banker? We’re not told, but the film manages – especially in those long passages of dead-time in which its protagonist simply sits stewing in the back of a taxi – to elicit sympathy for the man at the same time as it holds him up as the walking symptom of a failed system. Sympathy for a devil? Rather a father and a husband whose domestic functions are consumed and destroyed by the very thing that has enabled them: capital and the pursuit of it.

During economic booms, of course, cities attract and welcome migrants, whose enthusiasm to work they happily exploit. Walking around this part of Spain, I wondered also about Hassan, the resilient Moroccan-born farm labourer who drives the tractor named El Rayo through the Andalusian landscape, returning home in search of work – no longer able to find any in Spain. Perhaps, I mused, he could have worked on the completion of Cajasol Tower… But then the irony might have been doubled: who would want to prolong and encourage a finance sector, whose control and concentration of wealth and whose daily financial speculations would only further marginalise a working farmer like Hassan?

Isla Magica

Cajasol Tower stands in an area of Seville known as La Cartuja, the former site of 1992’s Universal Exposition of Seville, otherwise known as Expo ’92, which took place between April and October that year. The motto of Expo ’92 was “The era of discoveries”. It brought together 108 nations to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas. In 1997, an amusement park named Isla Mágica was built on the Expo ’92 site. Isla Mágica’s motto is “fun without limits”. On the day I walked there, hungry for fun, it was closed.

Cartuja translates in English to “charterhouse” – i.e. a monastery built by and for the Carthusian order. La Cartuja takes its name from the , the charterhouse still found there. Columbus lived at the monastery while planning the first of his four transatlantic voyages; he is buried in Seville Cathedral. The monastery was built in the 15th Century. In the early 1840s, Carlos Pickman, an English-born merchant, bought the site and converted it into a factory to produce ceramic tiles and porcelain china. Pickman chose the site because of its proximity to Triana, a residential area not far to the south boasting a tradition of skilled potters.

Monasterio de Santa María...

Triana was the 1469 birthplace of Juan Rodrigo Bermejo, later Rodrigo de Triana, the son of the nobleman Vicent Bermejo – who, true to the region, was also a potter. Rodrigo de Triana is reported to have been the first crewman on Columbus’ ship, the Pinta, to spot in 1492 the land of the Americas. After his discovery of land went uncredited, Triana apparently travelled to Africa (to Morocco, perhaps, like El Rayo’s pilgrim?) and converted from Christianity to another religion. Were he alive today, what discoveries would Rodrigo de Triana make from the top of Cajasol Tower?

Would he see a barren landscape? An impoverished landscape? I doubt it: though it’s quieter in La Cartuja and Triana than it is across the Guadalquivir in Seville’s centre, the physical manifestations, the visible symptoms of a failed transglobal economy, are not physical or visible at all. They are emotional, they are psychological. For the protagonist of The Sad Smell of Flesh they are all too internally felt. In Stray Dogs and Nuclear Waste, the sad state of things is barely acknowledged by the characters who have to endure them. Indeed, a ground-level perspective seems to deny an assessment of how systemic and pervasive the cancer of capitalism truly is.

On the other hand, the fine view that I presume the Cajasol Tower’s fortieth floor offers wouldn’t yield any more damning results. It’s very possible that bankers remain genuinely blinkered from the uglier effects of their trade precisely because the landscapes viewable from their skyscrapers remain, to the naked eye, unchanged.

The Triana Bridge, which connects Triana to Seville’s city centre, is more formally known as the Puente de Queen Isabel II, as it was finished in the 1850s, about midway through Queen Isabel II’s 1843-1868 reign. It was during these years that a then unprecedented – and since unparalleled – construction boom took place in Seville. Streets were paved and street lighting was implemented; in the half-century that followed, the urbanisation of Seville expanded eastward. Urbanisation involved the construction of railways; in 1901, the Plaza de Armas railway station was built, northeast of Triana Bridge.

Today, Plaza de Armas also denotes the aforementioned retail and entertainment complex, host on its first floor to a five-screen cinema – one of five festival venues used by SEFF. The complex retains the railway station’s building. Across the road is Estación de Autobuses Plaza de Armas, an international bus station. It was built the same year as Expo ’92. The back of the building overlooks the Guadalquivir River, and almost stands today in the shadow of the unfinished Cajasol Tower — a building named after a bank that no longer exists.

Michael Pattison
22nd November, 2013
landscape photographs also by Michael Pattison

[ an index of all writings on SEFF 2013 by the author/photographer can be found here ]

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