Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Spirit of the Beehive

The Spirit of the Beehive (aka "El Espiritu De La Colmena") (Victor Erice, 1973) Victor Erice is the Terrence Malick of Spain (though to be correct it should be the other way around). His films are precise and planned so carefully that he has made just three films since 1972's The Spirit of the Beehive, his most famous work and the one that seems to have seeped into the public world-wide consciousness the most.

Spirit tells the story of two Castillian children, Ana (Ana Tennant) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria); Father (Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a bee-keeper, Mother (Teresa Gimpera) is a repressed housewife. That "repressed" thing is going around: The Spanish Civil war has just ended (it is 1940) and the outlying areas are barely recovering from the turmoil of the conflict and are just starting on the long march to Franco's fascist regime.  Hind-sight is 20/20 and Erice's film was made towards the end of the Francoist government.
One day, a travelling projectionist comes to town.  The children go to see a matinee of James Whale's Frankenstein, (it's 1940 and the movie has been out since 1933 but there was this little thing about a war going on) which deeply affects the youngest, Ana. She wonders why, in a pivotal scene, the monster kills a young child (in the film it's never seen) and if the monster is real. She's told by her older sister that the monster is a spirit who will come at her call—"Hello, I am Ana." And Ana begins an obsessive quest for the monster that she believes exists and walks among the countryside.
It's relatable. I was obsessed with Frankenstein's monster when I was young and in my single digits. There was nothing "deep" about it. I was not concerned with its origins as the brainchild of Percy Shelley's wife, or of the Monster's representation of the unnatural brought to life. I knew nothing of it's overarching theme of man's desire to be God and re-animate life from death, and more than nothing about it's sequel's of man's desire to be Woman and create life as a collaboration. No, what I knew was he was tall and green, had a flat head and bolts in his neck (which were pretty cool). And his suit didn't fit. And his shoes were massive. And he was a monster, impure and simple—no bats, no bandages, no dual identity to complicate things. What you saw was what you got and the monster's visage (and director Whale's way of shooting him) had a dynamic I liked.

Grrrrrrrr.  Monster gooood!
In a natural world this vast, something un-natural must fascinate.
And I certainly didn't think that Frankenstein's monster could be used as a symbolic stand-in for a repressive regime that would instill look-over-your-shoulder dread in its citizenry in the same way a lightning-blasted corpse-quilt come to life would the umlaut-stricken in a bürger-hamlet.

Or instill it in any child anywhere in the world.

After all, Ana and Isabel's childhood world/playground is a vast canvas of Nature, where an unnatural thing (like the Monster) would be completely out of place and at odds with the rhythm and hum of the way things are, much like a war would, or an industrial revolution, or an imposed order.
Ana sees this monster, this inarticulate creature, who yearns to learn—much as she does—but fears it for the way it could destroy her (like the little girl with the flowers in the movie). The Monster is magical in a way that the world is not. It's her boogey-man in the closet that she hopes she can control like everything else in her world. And when she is told by her Sister that the monster's spirit walks still and probably lives in that barn "over there," Ana must investigate.
This sets in motion a series of events that juxtaposes life and freedom, identity and society, death and repression. Erice made this in the last echoes of the Franco regime and the citizens of the post-war world walk around in a form of zombie-state, their expressions impossible to read. That the Frankenstein monster is also seen in this context as a symbol of life and freedom shows what a palpable symbol it remains, and how malleable.

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