Saturday, November 16, 2013

Notes on Uncle Jess

After reading Brad Stevens' recent homage to Jesús Franco in Sight & Sound, I write a confessing email to Mr. Stevens, expressing my agreement with him about the new turns in the relation between the spectator and the film/filmmaker, and that how as a result of such drastic shift, a more complicated, and not necessary admiring,  relationship with Jesús Franco can be fully understood and maintained.

Since my early encounter with Franco's world, I was aware of the unhealthy view on women and a comic perversity in whatever he was depicting. What I liked in Franco's longish filmography, and I still do, is the representation of architecture and I've enjoyed being taken to isolated chateaus, spooky castles and flashy modern apartments which turn into vessels of crime and lust. Of course, all the location shoot for Franco was merely a way of completing a film in the state of the low-budgetary and  the lack of elaborate sets, or in many cases, any set at all. The limitation led to an interesting use of a wide range of built spaces. (When shooting a jungle scene, quite abundant in Franco's films, it becomes simply dreadful.)

For instance, take a look at this ultra kitsch architecture from La comtesse perverse (1976). One could see such amazing examples of Mediterranean garbage only in a Franco film, and at best, the man's solemnity in relating the story to this spaces is no less than Michael Mann's or Italian masters'.

Or examine the shot below from 99 Women, one of Franco's better films which brings to foreground his favorite theme of fascism as perversion. Obviously, such shots, not necessarily well-woven into the narrative, are not rare in his films. And these bits give a tiny little feeling of importance and visual competency that make Franco more interesting than most of the festival attractions of contemporary film

In addition to that, Franco was known for being a huge jazz fan (and judging from his compositions for film, a lousy musician) which made him more attractive to me. Though, I went mad to see pseudonyms (which he had many) such as Clifford Brown are used in the credit of some of his worst films, like the picture below from Célestine... bonne à tout faire.

Later, I was surprised to learn Franco was coming from a cultured family and was the uncle to the famous film critic and historian Miguel Marías whom I've met in Italy. I searched to see if Miguel Marías, who loves Leo McCarey, Jerry Lewis and Mitchell Leisen, has ever commented about the cult uncle, but I couldn't find anything alluding to his interest in Uncle Jess.

However, his brother Javier [right], a famous novelist, had raised the hat in April 2013, a day after Franco's death. Javier Marías' Uncle Jess and the Lights On, which appeared on El Pais, confirms some of my notions about Franco:
"It had been many years since I last saw Uncle Jesús, but I have mentioned and remembered him lately, in the novel I’m trying to write. It was him who usually stayed away from the family. Not out of anger or anything, but because as my mother – his older sister who had taken care of him as a child (she was 17 years her senior) – used to say 'Jesús is very descastado [= someone who doesn’t like to socialize with his relatives], he cannot help it.'"

Franco's fascination with sex started early, and somehow influenced the young Javiert too:

"I used to visit my grandparents – his parents – who were very religious, and had no idea that Jesús kept in his room an array of erotic magazines, something hard to find under the dictatorship. Those magazines opened my eyes wide."

Javier Marías tells how he was often benefited from Franco's generosity:

"I will never forget his favors, and will always be grateful to him. Because of him, I earned my first salary as a writer. He asked me and my cousin Carlos Franco to translate several screenplays for Dracula and Fu Manchu and eventually made movies about those characters in the seventies for the British producer Harry Alan Towers. In one of them, about an evil Chinese character created by Sax Rohmer, my cousin Ricardo Franco [who later became a filmmaker] and I worked as extras. He forced us to walk and run barefoot down a stony hill towards the edge of a lake, and some other dangerous things. No one would recognize us, as we wore black hoods, were dressed as Chinese henchmen."

For Marías, albeit the odd favors and troubles of being around Uncle Jess, there is hardly any reason to complain, because on the set of Uncle's films he could meet icons like Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Herbert Lom and George Sanders. When Franco was living in Paris, Marías, then 17, visited him and wrote his first novel, Los dominios del lobo [The Wolf’s Domains], in his Paris home.

One of his too many spatial jumps: Fu Mancho and co. stand atop an Antoni Gaudí building in Spain and watch a dam breaks in Turkey. From The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

According to Marías, Franco, also, could easily tell lies. He pretended to be a dozen years younger than what he really was and usually baffled the interviewers with incorrect information. Marías who prefers uncle's early films (Gritos en la noche, Rififí en la ciudad, Tenemos 18 años and the "absurd musical" Vampiresas 1930) admires his talents and laughs at his fears:

"Among his countless films there is a bit of everything, but you cannot deny that he had imagination, audacity and dare...According to my mother he was very fearful and apprehensive, as the character he played in the legendary El extraño viaje by Fernán Gomez. Every night he used to wake half of the family up with an emergency, the most striking of which was when one morning he announced to his worried parents and siblings that he was about to die: 'I've swallowed my Adam’s apple, I'm drowning without remedy.' He could not sleep without the lights on and, as my cousin Ricardo (who was the assistant director of many of his films in the seventies) confirmed, even in his later years he had that fear. Maybe that's why he made so many horror movies. I hope that in his last hour the room was not in darkness."

The debate about Franco's films can go on forever, as for instance, the person who kindly translated the El Pais piece for me, Lidia Merás, takes my half-baked interest in the man as a waste of time on a misogynist filmmaker. It is true that his films, though advanced in some visual areas, are quite imbecile in their depiction of women, minorities and "others". But are his men, majorities and his "us" less flat, docile and sexually exploited than the other group? I don't think so. My take is that in his cinema of exploitation everything remain inevitably primitive. This is the cinema of Homo floresiensis, just cleverly blended with the elements of the 20the century.

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