Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The rain not in Spain

The more astute of my two readers may have picked up on the fact that I was a couple of days late in getting last week’s column uploaded and may even have speculated as to the reason. Yes, it’s true. We went off on another week’s holiday on the European continent. And, in another bit of never-ending self-sacrifice, I scoured the territory for filmic significance.

Specifically, we went to Spain’s Costa del Sol. Now that we are tied to the school schedule like most everyone else we know (except my actual contemporaries, whose kids are mostly out of school by now), taking advantage of our free time has become more important than ever. And given the fact that we are now well into the Irish autumn/winter, it is likewise important to go somewhere sunny and warm. My personal calculations led us to the Costa del Sol as meeting my criteria of being sunny and warm at this time of the year and less-than-a-three-hour flight away and speaking a language that I can actually understand. Within hours of the Munchkin’s school’s Halloween disco (once again we lied to her; we told her Halloween was on the 28th), we were winging our way to sun-drenched Málaga. ¡Olé!

I was looking forward to going to an arid, dry place with palm trees and where everyone speaks Spanish. It would be like going back to my hometown in central California, except the flight wouldn’t be as long and not as many people would know me. And it was kind of like that. Except for all the British and German tourists. I was really looking forward to speaking Spanish again, especially after my frustration with the language in Italy last spring. Spanish is the language I actually know best, after my own native tongue of English. But it had been a very long time since I had last been in Spain. How long? Well, let’s just say that, on my most recent previous visit, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was not only alive but that his health was fairly robust. When I was a student in Bordeaux, I made a number of weekend trips to places like San Sebastián, Madrid and Barcelona.

And, as with my recent visit, I always looked forward to the opportunity to use the language of Cervantes and Unamuno. But a strange thing happened, on my first visits to Spain. After having spent six weeks in an intensive French language course, followed by immersion in French university life, I found that whenever I opened my mouth to say something in castellano, it came out in French! It was the darndest thing I ever experienced. I could understand what people were saying to me (although to my American-trained ears it sounded as though the Spaniards all had lisps), but the part of my brain that dealt with español had been overwhelmed by the part actively absorbed by my French studies. On this latest visit, I found I could speak more readily. But I did get strange looks and, occasionally, corrected. It did not take long to figure out the problem. My last major immersion in the Spanish language was in Chile in the 1970s. Not only were my usages specifically Chilean (people there like to joke that they speak chileno as opposed to Spanish) but they were 30 years out of date! I must have sounded like a refugee from the New World who had stepped out of a time capsule. But there was no problem understanding people and they understood me just fine, even if their brows were knitted. Besides, in the shops and restaurants, we were likely to be dealing with Germans or Brits or any other nationalities anyway. I remember in particular one young dark-haired server in a place called Harry’s American Brasserie pleading with me to speak to her in English, not because my Spanish was inadequate but because the young lady (who, I finally realized, was not Spanish at all but was probably eastern European) herself understood English better than Spanish. And at that, her speech was much easier to understand than that of the young English lad whom we found incomprehensible due to a combination of cockney accent and possible hangover.

I had gone on this journey with no clear idea of how it would play out in my personal cinematic dream life. Would I have surrealistic experiences that would evoke the memory of, arguably, the greatest director Spain has produced, Luis Buñuel? The holiday did have its surreal moments, although nothing approaching the level of life in, say, the west of Ireland. And, really, Buñuel belongs to the world, not just to Spain. In his mid-20s he left Madrid for Paris, where he made the iconic Un Chien Andalou with Salvador Dali. (I did meet dogs in Andalusia and, surreally, they were extremely pampered and completely non-bound by pooper-scooper laws.) At 30 he went to Hollywood but turned down a contract with MGM, offered after the critical success of L’Age d’or. In his 30s he dubbed dialog for Paramount and Warner Bros. in Paris and Madrid. He made a documentary about the Spanish civil war and then became exiled in the U.S. when Franco emerged victorious. He moved to Mexico in 1946, becoming a citizen and remaining there for the rest of his life. He made Los Olvidados there, although he went to France to make films like The Exterminating Angel, Belle de jour, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire. He did get invited back to Spain in 1961 to make Viridiana (what was Franco thinking?), but it wound up getting banned there.

No, I didn’t meet Luis Buñuel’s ghost in Andalusia. But maybe, I thought, traveling with the Missus and the Munchkin, they would become my own personal Geraldine Chaplin and Ana Torrent in evoking the guilt and confusion of childhood à la Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos? Maybe we would take in some flamenco dancing and be reminded of Saura’s filming of the late dancer Antonio Gades’s Blood Wedding and Carmen? Or maybe we would get caught up in passionate melodramas and kinky situations that would evoke the movies of Pedro Almodóvar? Or maybe our holiday would become a narrative that gets turned inside out and on top of itself, like the movies of Julio Medem?

No, there was very little on the Costa del Sol that reminded me of the Spain that I had come to know in the cinema. In fact, this particular corner of the Iberian Peninsula is strangely drenched with the aura of a minor, but perhaps growing, film subgenre: British expatriate gangster flicks or, more specifically, flicks about British gangsters on the Costa del Sol. I only actually know about two films in this subgenre. The better known one is Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, the 2001 movie that got Ben Kingsley a fistful of acting award nominations for playing a brutal gangster who rather insistently tries to recruit safecracker Ray Winstone, who has retired from his life of crime to the Costa del Sol, for one last big job. More recently, Nick Love’s The Business showed up in the British Isles a couple of months ago. In that one, a young lad escapes from south London during the Thatcher 80s to the Costa del Sol and is taken under the wing of a suave hood, introducing him to a life in organized crime, upon which incidents ensue.

Apparently, this concept of British gangsters on the Costa del Sol may actually have some basis in reality. We took a cruise from the center of Marbella to Puerto Banús and, before landing, innocently asked one of the crew what there was to see in Banús. He laughed and replied, “Expensive cars. Expensive boats. Expensive shops.” This fit in with what an English woman living in the area (I happened to read in a newspaper after we arrived that one out of four properties on the Costa del Sol is British owned) had told us, when we mentioned we were taking the boat to Banús. “It’s full of gangsters,” she said. When we arrived there, it was indeed full of all the expensive things mentioned above. I also noticed, in the expensive shops, more than one stocky, bald Englishman being very aware of his surroundings. Hmmmm. This was all very interesting, but hardly all that fascinating to a movie buff.

So, was I to have no magical cinematic epiphany, as I had had in Italy? As it happens, I was. More about that next time.

-S.L., 10 November 2005

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