Cravan vs. Cravan, 2009. In Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon’s Remembrance of Things to Come, a thoughtful and illuminating survey of Denis Bellon’s photo-reportage between the two world wars, the filmmakers provide a framework for the interpretation of Bellon’s artistically rendered, zeitgeist images as prescient, historical documents that, in hindsight, provide an insightful glimpse of the looming, profoundly transformative world events that would unfold at the first half of the twentieth century. However, in this subjective, often arbitrary process of contemporal assignment of the meaning of images, the intersection between logical deduction and extrapolation continues to be amorphous and untenable. In this cognitive processing of “history as prophesy”, when does documentation end and mythification begin? This ambiguity lies at the core of Isaki Lacuesta’s elegantly conceived essay film Cravan vs. Cravan on the enigma of Arthur Cravan – the legendary poet-boxer, Dadaist, writer, critic, eccentric, provocateur, editor of the notorious Left Bank cultural publication Maintenant (whose readership included such notable personalities as Ezra Pound, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein), and nephew of famed Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde who, in 1918, set alone on a boat off the coast of Mexico bound for Argentina to reunite with his expectant wife, poet Mina Loy, and disappeared.
Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd in Lausanne, Switzerland, Cravan’s early life would be marked, not only by the abandonment of his father soon after his birth, but also by the family’s closely guarded silence over a quietly buried scandal involving the family’s famous uncle (Wilde’s imprisonment under homosexuality charges of gross indecency). Whether in search of a father figure, or simply fascinated by the sensation caused by the taboo circumstances that led to his uncle’s downfall and marginalization during the final years of his life, Cravan would become obsessed with the idea of him, even reporting fabricated sightings and conversations in articles that would be carried by such reputable newspapers as The New York Times. But more importantly, this potent combination of celebrity and scandal may also be seen as a catalyst to Cravan’s immersion in the avant-garde community of turn-of-the-century Paris, relishing his role as instigator, provocateur, and cultural critic who equally attracted the attention of Dadaists, Surrealists, Impressionists, Fauvists (most notably, his friendship with Kees Van Dongen), and especially the Futurists, whose aesthetic fascination with the speed and strength of mechanization not correlated favorably with the radicalism and bluntness of Cravan’s writing, but in some ways, also personified the physical ideals of industrial machinery with his ruggedly handsome, charismatic, intimidating, and complex persona as a pugilist and intellectual.
Moreover, in filming re-enactments and conducting personal interviews from the perspective of Frank Nicotra whose own unusual career trajectory as boxer turned filmmaker and writer (and occasional poet) bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Cravan, Lacuesta illustrates the often colliding interpenetration of documented reality and subjective memory, between creation and fabrication. This permeability of historical record may be seen in the controversial classification of Cravan as a painter, an attribution that, ironically, evolved from Cravan’s practice of publishing under an array of pseudonyms, specifically, in his use of the name Edouard Archinard for an article in Maintenant that links him (whether validly or not) to a series of paintings by an obscure, turn of the century artist, Edouard Archinard (a connection that is dismissed by Cravan scholar and editor, María Luisa Borrás). Similarly, this historical distortion may be seen in Cravan’s self-created celebrity, a penchant for fictionalization that is perhaps best exemplified by his instigated exhibition match in Barcelona with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack “Galveston Giant” Johnson (who, then plagued in America by controversy over his interracial relationships, sought refuge in France shortly after his second marriage), claiming several nebulous and unverifiable titles across Europe (including a purported match with an Olympic champion in Greece) in order to position himself as a valid contender. Sustained in the ring for six rounds only by Johnson himself who had consciously tried to prolong the fight as requested by the event’s sponsors, Cravan was easily overpowered by the heavyweight champion, a defeat that would inevitably punctuate Cravan’s departure from Europe and migration to New York City, once again turning to his cultivated associations with the European avant-gardists – a community increasingly in self-imposed exile from the Great War – this time, hosted by famed artist Marcel Duchamp (that led to his fateful encounter with Futurist muse and poet, Mina Loy).
Incorporating elements of biographic documentary, historical re-enactment, and essay film, Cravan vs. Cravan, too, invariably serves to reinforce the subject’s inexhaustible sense of irreconcilable contradiction and self re-invention, in essence, orchestrating an elaborate semblance of real-life performance art that enabled – and continues to inspire – the very transfiguration of personal memory to public mythology. Concluding with the blurry, disintegrating archived footage of Cravan in the midst of his workout – perhaps for a boxing match – unfolding in slow speed, the degraded image encapsulates not only the elusiveness of Cravan’s ephemeral (and often veiled) persona, but also the tenuous, often indefinable bounds that exist between the contextualization of a historical image and its signification.
The Legend of Time, 2006. Named after legendary flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla’s groundbreaking record album (which, in turn, was inspired by the works of Andalusian poet, Federico García Lorca), Isaki Lacuesta’s The Legend of Time melds the improvised encounters of Johan van der Keuken’s ethnographic documentaries with the quotidian intimacy of Mercedes Álvarez’s El cielo gira to create a understated, yet meticulously observed meditation on grief, identity, and self-expression. Composed of two, self-contained chapters capture the disparate lives of figurative outsiders from Camarón’s ancestral hometown of San Fernando, Cádiz – a gypsy boy, Isra who decides to honor his father’s memory by refraining from singing during the family’s self-imposed period of mourning, and a young Japanese woman, Makiko who leaves her ailing father behind in order to follow in the footsteps of Camarón and learn cante by immersing herself in the culture – the film is also a lucid and thoughtful essay into the inalterable nature of change, resonance, and connectedness.
In The Voice of Isra, a boy who bears a vague resemblance to a young Camarón with his long, curly hair and charming smile, struggles to come to terms with the subtle, yet profound shifts in his personal life, both as a younger brother who sees his relationship with his elder brother transform from that of playmate to surrogate father figure, man of the house, and, more importantly, disciplinarian (a change in the family dynamic following their father’s death that is suggested in the film’s poetic introductory sequence, when Isra plays with his brother Cheíto by pretending to bury him in a mound of fake snow), and as a maturing adolescent trying to win the affection of his brother’s pretty friend, Saray. Chronicling Isra’s maturation through seemingly mundane, yet insightful episodes of sibling rivalry (tersely encapsulated through Cheíto and Isra’s arm wrestling contests), self-proving acts (initially, in Cheíto’s goading of Isra to spray paint graffiti bearing Saray’s name on the side of a tower, then subsequently, in the Japanese expatriate, Joji’s feigned rite of passage with a sharp knife), and illustrations of time’s passage (the advent of Mardi Gras, Isra’s breaking voice, and Saray and Isra carving their measured heights onto a tree), Lacuesta uses the trauma of Isra’s deliberately silent, then “lost” voice as a metaphor for the gradual formation of his own identity.
Similarly, Makiko’s immigration to Spain in The Voice of Makiko is also one of self-discovery. In an early episode, Makiko, inquiring about referrals for cante instructors at a flamenco dance class that caters to a predominantly Japanese clientele, instead receives a tip from a student for a possible waitressing job at a local Chinese restaurant. This idiosyncratic image of interchangeable, borrowed identities becomes a reflection of Makiko’s search for her own identity as well, a quest that is implied in the image of Makiko lip synching to Camarón’s performance that opens the film. For Makiko, singing cante becomes inextricably bound to the exhilaration and adventure of immersing in a new culture as it is to a profound sense of guilt, grief, and dislocation (in an unexpectedly intimate scene, Makiko talks to her father from a public phone about her nursing schools studies as she speaks in voiceover of how her father taught her to suppress her display of emotion, a haunting image of imposed distance that grows more poignant during a subsequent, routine telephone call to her father). As in Isra’s story, Makiko’s identity and transformation emerge from the trauma of (paternal) loss and separation. Framed against the characters’ personal stories as cross-cultural reflections of Camarón’s inextinguishable spirit, Lacuesta creates an eloquent allegory for the cante itself as the embodiment of an eternal collective consciousness in its weathered, intertwined expression of joy and sadness, beauty and banality.
Los Condenados, 2009. The delineation between reality and mythology, ideal and application also provides the catalyst for Isaki Lacuesta’s first fiction film, Los Condenados (The Condemned). The rupture is prefigured in the opening image of a gaunt, Argentinean expatriate, Martín (Daniel Fanego) undergoing a CT scan at a Spanish hospital, the implication of cancer suggesting a hidden, indefinable turmoil that continues to haunt the consciousness. For Martín, the sickness resurfaces in a message from longtime friend and former guerilla fighter, Raúl (Arturo Goetz), inviting him to an excavation of mass graves under the ruse of a university-sponsored archaeological dig in the remote countryside to search for the desaparecidos, in particular, a comrade named Ezequiel who went missing after being kidnapped by the state some thirty years earlier during the “dirty war”. With Ezequiel’s widow, Andrea (Leonor Manso) and mother, Luisa (Juana Hidalgo) in tow, Raúl has also enlisted the aid of Vicky (María Fiorentino), a dissident who, like Martín, had been held captive in a network of undisclosed jungle prisons. Idolized by the younger generation, especially Vicky’s son Pablo (Nazareno Casero), Martín’s complacency and distraction proves a stark contrast to his reputation as elusive rebel leader and ideological godfather – a friction that forces them to re-evaluate their own imperfect memories over their mutual, buried past. In its elliptical, organic structure and images of the jungle as a metaphor for interiority, Los Condenados suggests kinship with Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Moreover, inasmuch as Vargas’s homecoming reframes the intrigue of his past into the banal in Los Muertos, Martín’s journey also represents a demythification. Curiously, it is this dismantling of the heroic myth that also resolves the mystery of the disappearances, confronting the romanticism of failed revolution and, in the process, reconciling the hidden spaces between history and memory.
Acquarello, 2007-2009 [reprinted]