Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Little Ashes

My first experience working in a museum was when I volunteered at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. This was around 1990 (whoa...20 years ago?!). I had just moved to Florida with my family, and I was trying to make friends and get involved. When I visited the museum for the first time, I remember being enthralled by the beauty of Dalí's paintings. I realize this may seem odd, because beautiful isn't exactly the word one thinks of with regard to Dalí, an artist who in his Surrealist phase noted an inate fascination with blood, feces, and semen. Indeed, the thought-provoking Persistence of Memory (1931), or the evocative but disturbing Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936), are typical of his work. But the majority of the pictures on display at this museum reflect a post-Surrealist Dalí, who in a more classical phase responded to religion and science with large-scale paintings that leave you mesmerized by their complex hidden meanings. One of the more popular “attractions,” for instance, is when people are instructed to stare at his enormous painting The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-70), and while the figure of the Venus de Milo rotates, the face of a toreador comes into focus on the canvas.

Most of my time, I worked in the museum gift shop, and had I continued as a volunteer I would have pursued giving tours. The docents would give good overviews of the artist's life and career, from early subjects while at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, to his later pictures with their complex unconscious fears played out in symbolic form. But of all the pictures that were on display at this museum, one that was never discussed by the docents or curators was his 1954 painting Two Adolescents (image from the Dali Planet blog).

This picture was dwarfed by his more symbolic studies and large-scale paintings. It still does not appear on the museum's website. It doesn't take much to figure out why no one spoke about this painting at that time. After all, what do you say about two full-frontal nude youths on a beach, one lying in the sand with the other above him, both staring at each other from faces that are meant to be distinct but have been blurred out? It's obviously homoerotic, but since it didn't fit in with the rest of Dalí's oeuvre, it could be ignored. Back then, I was not "out," so naturally this painting both titillated and disturbed me. And, like everyone else who had entered the museum, I was hesitant to ask about it. The Dali Planet blog cites this picture as an example of his subconscious battle over the memory of his older brother, who had died before the artist was born and thus always lived within his shadow of perfection. But then why the nudity? Why the distinct hair colors and facial features? Why the beach-like environment? And why the sexual tension between these two youths?

It seems that one possible answer to these questions can be found in the film Little Ashes (2009), which I finally watched last night on DVD. Directed by Paul Morrisson and written by Philippa Goslett, the movie is inspired by the early lives of three of Spain's greatest modernists: the painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900-1983). All hailing from different areas of Spain, the trio were students together at the Academy in Madrid in the early 1920s. This was a period in Spain's history when fascism and democracy were battling for dominance and would eventually explode in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, which led to the dictatorship of General Franco. García Lorca was among the first to be executed by the revolutionary forces that year. At thirty-eight years of age, he was shot by a firing squad for his anti-fascist propaganda and, very possibly, for the crime of being a homosexual.

For Americans, the one reason why this film has any notoriety is because the twink actor Robert Pattinson plays Dalí, and because the film explores the homosexual relationship between García Lorca and Dalí (i.e. Pattinson kisses another guy). I'm not a fan of Pattinson's acting, and while certainly he gave it his all the madness that one associates with Dalí is played out histrionically by Pattinson to the point that you want to laugh. His needle-like mustache and frequent bulging eyes are like borderline farce. That said, Dalí was all about artifice. Die-hard Dalí fans want to play up the artist's madness as part of his misunderstood genius, but his ability to market himself and his work throughout his career shows that he wasn't as insane as people want to believe he was. This in no way changes the fact that Dalí was certainly talented and innovative. And, in all fairness, I am convinced that Dalí did have psychological problems. He was probably bisexual (despite his insistence on being exclusively heterosexual), but more likely I believe he was asexual, for it is said that even after he married his muse Gala Eluard, she continued to have love affairs with many other men, and that he was known to watch them.

Despite the emphasis in American cinema on Pattinson/Dalí, the heart of this story belongs to García Lorca, played magnificently by Javier Beltrán. When the story opens, he is already recognized for his own talents as a poet, but he is encouraged by friends like Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) to be less romantic and more aggressively political. García Lorca, however, finds himself smitten by the newly arrived Dalí, much to the chagrin of his female friend Magdalena (Marina Gatell), who struggles to find her own place in society as both a lover and a feminist. The story of García Lorca and Dalí unfolds as a romance. As they open up to one another creatively and emotionally, becoming first acquaintances than very close friends, their passion for one another eventually overcomes them. The scene where they kiss for the first time in the moonlit ocean is truly a beautiful scene and stands out as one of the best romantic scenes in gay cinema.

But despite his desire to live artistically and emotionally without limits (the Spanish title for the movie is in fact Sin límites), Dalí has inner demons that prevent him from completely opening himself up to García Lorca. Worse, their emotional connection is threatened by Buñuel's discovery of their relationship, which he finds repulsive on moral grounds and, in a brilliant but predictable twist, because of his own secret desires. Rather than threaten the couple directly, however, Buñuel destroys them by enticing Dalí with dreams of stardom in Paris among the Surrealists. The two go there, leaving García Lorca behind, and become successes in their respective careers. In 1928 Buñuel and Dalí collaborated on a 16-minute film called Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog), which is still considered a landmark in cinematic history, with its shocking eye-slicing scene and inexplicable dreamlike sequences that epitomize the chaos and psychology of Surrealism itself. García Lorca saw the film as a stab at him by his former friends, as he came from Andalusia (a region historically looked down upon for its provincialism and gypsy population) and because of scenes that, in this new movie’s context, reflect Dalí’s rejection of García Lorca.

This film is about the memory of García Lorca. Of all the attempts to create a biopic that shows a man as a sentient being who cares about his people and his country, and who also happens to be a homosexual, this is surely one of the best. If there was one regret on my part about this film, it was that I wished it was in Spanish and not English. Some of the most moving parts are when Beltrán recites García Lorca’s poetry in Spanish, and although one wants to be able to understand them, the voiceover in English was frustrating. I would have preferred subtitles so that I could at least hear the cadence of how García Lorca’s poetry should be spoken.

Years ago when I was working toward my M.A. degree in Humanities, I took a course on Surrealism in which among other things we looked at Dalí’s paintings, read García Lorca’s plays, and watched Un Chien Andalou. Although we studied them for their associations with the unconscious mind and the dream state, we never considered them in relation to one another. Because of Little Ashes, whose title refers to a painting by Dalí in which García Lorca identified himself, I now see these works so much more intertwined in a way I never realized before. It has inspired me to want to read more of García Lorca’s work, albeit in translation. And perhaps it’s time also to revisit the Two Adolescents and recognize that picture for its unspoken meaning: a paean to innocence, inspiration, and love, an acknowledgment that regardless of what came afterwards, there was a brief moment when one man accepted Dalí as a true genius, a man who showed him his potential self, without limits.

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