The Girl as Angel of Death: Ana Torrent, Pt. 2 (Cría cuervos)

Despite being wildly popular in her debut film, The Spirit of the Beehive, Ana Torrent was never meant to act again.  Her father, who was bothered by the turmoil wrought in Ana’s life by the process of filming as well as its aftermath, forbade her to appear in another film.  But Fate had other plans.  As it so happened, noted Spanish director Carlos Saura had seen the earlier movie and decided he had to have her for his next project, Cría cuervos.  Saura created the film as a vehicle specifically for Ana Torrent, and he informed the girl’s father that if Ana couldn’t be in his film, it simply would not be made at all.  Talk about persuasion!  At that point Saura was internationally famous, having ten full-length feature films to his credit, including what was his most significant one up to that date, Peppermint FrappéWith that kind of clout, it was apparently an offer Mr. Torrent couldn’t refuse.  Whatever the case, Saura won the day and Ana Torrent performed in the second of what would become a lifetime’s worth of movies and television episodes thereafter.  (Note: her third film would be another Saura project, Elisa, vida mía, though this time in a supporting role.)

At any rate, it is easy to understand why Saura was so impressed with little Ana, and why he wanted her for his movie.  For one thing, Torrent would spend much of her time in both films interacting with the young costars who play her siblings.  For another, both films are really political allegories masked as family dramas, and both are ultimately critical of the Franco regime, so viewers who saw The Spirit of the Beehive would’ve already had those associations in their minds when they first saw Cría cuervos.  With her debut film, Torrent had already become a mascot for anti-Francoist sentiment, and Saura merely extended that concept.  Finally, both films artfully extract the deep tenderness of the little girl’s strikingly large peepers.  There is little question that Torrent was ideal for this role.

With that in mind, we begin our analysis of the film.  Our story takes place in Madrid, Spain, modern times (mid-1970s, when the film was made).  The first shots in Cría cuervos are of pages from a family album, beginning first with images of Ana (Ana Torrent), the middle daughter of three and the main protagonist of the film, who is looking through the album in question.  These photos are interesting in that some are clearly real family snapshots of Torrent, since she is much younger in them than the character she is playing, which means they must’ve been on loan to Saura from Torrent’s parents.  Note the bathing costumes, which are topless—quintessentially European, no?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (1)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (1)

The next few pages of the album expands our cast to include Ana’s sisters, Irene (Conchi Pérez) and Maite (Maite Sánchez).  Family photographs like these are symbolically important to the film and will be seen several times throughout.  Photos can be understood as memory placeholders, with memories being a central theme in Cría cuervos. It is relevant that Saura began his career as a photographer before he became a filmmaker, so he understands the language of still photography, which lends this photo album a realism that doesn’t feel forced or fake.  In this case, where sisters are seen together, these photos would’ve been taken by Saura.  I like that some are black & white and some are in color.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (2)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (2)

The next page reveals photos of her parents’ courtship.  We also see a photo of Anselmo in his military uniform—he is an officer in the Franco military regime.

When we first meet Ana herself, she is descending a staircase in the dark of night, having caught the sounds of two people whispering to each other in the downstairs master bedroom.  It is her father, Anselmo, and his lover, Amelia.  Semiotically we may read this as a child’s descent into the sordid world of adults.  Ana stands in the darkness, dressed in white, a classic symbol of innocence and purity threatened by the moral corruption all around her.  As she quietly waits, she hears her father gasping for breath, and then silence.  What is going on here?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (3)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (3)

A beautiful young woman—Amelia—suddenly flees from the master bedroom in haste, heading out of the house and into the street.  Ana immediately enters her father’s bedroom, only to find him lying dead in his own bed.  Now we know why his mistress booked it out of there.  Did she kill him?  In contrast, Ana seems mysteriously unaffected by her dad’s death.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (4)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (4)

Upon confirming that he is dead, Ana scans the room until she locates a mostly empty glass of milk.  This she takes to the kitchen, washing it and carefully putting it away, Ana proceeds to the refrigerator to fetch lettuce for her pet guinea pig. If you look carefully at the bottom of the fridge, you will note a plate of raw chicken feet.  We will see these again.  The chicken feet are, in fact, an allusion to the film’s title, which translates to Raise Ravens.  The title itself comes from an old Spanish proverb: Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos (Raise ravens, and they’ll take out your eyes).  The proverb is believed to have been started by Álvaro de Luna, Duke of Trujillo, in the 15th century.  The story goes that de Luna was hunting in the forest one day when he happened upon a blind beggar with scarred eyes.  The beggar remarked that he had affectionately raised a raven for three years, only to have it attack him one day and leave him blind, to which Don Álvaro responded with the now famous line.  Although it is not yet apparent, the meaning of this proverb in application to the film will be obvious soon enough.

Ana’s mother appears for the first time in this scene as well.  There is clearly great love and affection between Maria (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of silent film star Charlie Chaplin and a frequent collaborator with Saura) and her daughter.  It is nice to see Torrent smile, something she doesn’t do much of in her earlier film.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (5)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (5)

Ana takes lettuce to her pet guinea pig, Roni, whom she adores.  Roni and the family maid, Rosa, are really her only true friends.  Although the sisters do love each other, Irene is too preoccupied with boys and her own life to pay much attention to Ana, and Maite is too young to understand her.

Next we see all the girls in the bathroom, along with Rosa, getting ready to attend their father’s funeral.  One thing you’ll notice about European family dramas is that there is almost always a bathroom scene, usually with one or more children being bathed, and these scenes generally do not shy away from nudity.  Although none of the children are bathing this time, later we will see Maite being bathed while the other two girls hang out in the bathroom.  American films, by contrast, rarely feature such scenes, or if they do, they tend to be quick and there is almost never any nudity.  And you certainly wouldn’t see the entire family hanging out in the bathroom while one of the children is bathing.  Why the huge difference?  For one thing, Europeans generally are much more laid back about nudity.  It is accepted as a part of life and not necessarily viewed sexually.  Whereas Americans seem to have trouble dissociating nudity from sex, even when it is a child’s body that is nude.  There is something oddly violent and barbaric about this notion that we cannot help but impose sexuality onto the nude body.  It is not unlike how certain Islamic cultures insist on making females cover up.  Anyway, these scenes are often communal and intimate in nature, signifying the closeness of the family.

Ana’s mother suddenly appears in this scene, combing her daughter’s hair and being playfully affectionate.  Isn’t it curious that neither of the other children seems to notice she’s there?  In fact, as we soon learn, this is all in Ana’s head, as was the earlier appearance of Maria.  You see, Ana’s mother is dead, having passed away at some unspecified point not too long ago.  Ana has visions of her mother frequently.  She also begins to have visions of her father, though these are of an entirely different nature, far less romanticized.  With the death of their father, the girls are now orphans, but they remain in their home, with their mother’s sister, their aunt Paulina, now raising them.

Thus, like her character in The Spirit of the Beehive, Ana is another starry-eyed dreamer.  It now becomes evident that Cría cuervos is more than just the spiritual successor to Erice’s film.  There are far too many similarities.  One can almost think of it as a sequel, with the Ana from Beehive growing up to become the mother of this Ana, and the sibling from Beehive now raising her sister’s girls.  Do you recall how I pointed out that Isabel would do well under Franco?  Paulina is obviously very similar to Isabel—there is something of the cruel fascist in her, as we will soon see.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (6)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (6)

At their father’s funeral, each of the girls is asked by Paulina to kiss their father and pray for his soul, which both Irene and Maite do dutifully, but Ana refuses, arousing her aunt’s contempt.  It has been said that Saura predicted the death of Franco with this film, as he died not long after the film was released.  In that case, Ana is yet again a political allegory, a symbol of the growing resistance and antipathy toward the aging dictator.  The disobedient Ana hides behind her grandmother, who is feeble and voiceless and can’t really protect her, but it’s comforting to Ana nonetheless.  Amelia, whom Ana understandably dislikes, also shows up at the funeral.  Ana tries to hide from her.  On the political level, Amelia is Franco’s dark side, his dirty secret, which isn’t really a secret because Ana (representing Saura) knows about it, even if she never speaks of it.

While the children are playing in a small park near their townhouse, Ana has a strange vision of herself standing on the roof of a nearby building.  Is she a bird up there?  A raven perhaps?  She imagines herself leaping from the building, flying around above their heads and looking down from the sky.  This child will never be accused of lacking an imagination!  But the scene reminds us that Ana is an unreliable narrator.  Not everything she sees can be believed.

Ana sneaks off into a storage cellar near her house in search of a can of baking soda, which she has mysteriously hidden here.  We learn that Ana’s mother once told her that this can of baking soda was a powerful poison as a way to motivate Ana to dispose of it.  This is exactly the kind of white lie parents use all the time to manipulate their children’s behavior.  Little did she know that Ana would keep it around for her own purposes.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (7)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (7)

This scene cuts away to Ana as an adult (also played by Geraldine Chaplin).  She is a narrator who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera, saying, “Why did I want to kill my father? I’ve asked myself that question hundreds of times, and all the answers I can think of now, with twenty years hindsight, are too simple. They don’t convince me. The only thing I remember very clearly is that at the time I was convinced my father was responsible for all the sadness that embittered the last years of my mother’s life.”

And now Ana’s apathetic reaction to her father’s death, and her unwillingness to kiss his corpse, makes perfect sense, as does the glass of milk she carried from his room and washed.  Ana believes she got away with murder.  Of course, baking soda is hardly poisonous, but Ana doesn’t know that.  Her father’s death is purely coincidental.

More photographs appear in the next scene, this time of Ana’s mother as a child; in one of them she’s dressed in a bizarre low-cut swimsuit.  It is revealed in this sequence that Ana’s mom was a highly proficient piano player, as was Carlos Saura’s mother.  Many of the elements of this film are autobiographical, in fact, but piano playing mothers resurface again and again in Saura’s films.  Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Saura filmography will know that music plays an important part in almost all of them.  So to this one, in the form of a song that Ana likes to sing along to, which we will discuss in a bit.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (8)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (8)

When we see the three girls next, they are eating dinner with their aunt.  Paulina lectures the girls about their bad eating habits and informs them that she will not have them behaving improperly, which is almost amusing in light of Ana’s murderous impulses.  Ana continues to resist her aunt’s control, back-talking her in this scene.

We cut to a scene of Ana helping Rosa clean.  Men are pigs who only want one thing, Rosa informs Ana.  She tells Ana that her father was a philandering horndog and had even
come on to her, which sets Ana’s imagination rolling.  She sees her father come in and flirt with Rosa, but the maid encourages it rather than resisting him as she claimed she had.

This transitions into a scene of Irene and Maite discussing Irene’s fascination with the boy who lives across the street.  Irene apparently sent him a love note, but he has not yet replied.  Irene is already boy crazy.  She even points out how handsome her father’s soldier friend (Nicholas, who is waiting downstairs) is while they all cut out images from magazines for Irene’s scrapbook.  Meanwhile, Ana listens to her favorite song, Porque te vas sung by Jeanette.  It’s a sad tune about missing someone who has gone away, a concept Ana is clearly familiar with.  Ana’s mother’s death continues to haunt her.  Though largely unheard of until this film came out, the song became a hit throughout Europe thanks to Cría cuervos.

The children then decide to dance to this song.  This scene was not choreographed.  Saura told the children to dance however they liked, which they did.  They pair off in traditional couples, starting with Irene and Maite, then Ana and Irene, and finally Ana and Maite.  The giggling girls obviously enjoyed this scene immensely.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (9)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (9)

While their aunt is away, the children get into her makeup and clothes, playing dress-up.  They then concoct a little play that mimics the adults in their family, with Irene portraying their father Anselmo, Ana playing their mother (who else?) and Maite taking on the part of the maid, Rosa.  The scene they recount is one they are all no doubt very familiar with: Anselmo returns home late in the evening, much to Maria’s consternation.  An argument ensues, and Anselmo accuses Maria of making his life miserable with her whining.  Maria accuses him of being what he is: a philanderer.  When their aunt returns, she is irritated but also somewhat amused.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (10)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (10)

Next we have the bath scene, which is almost de rigueur for European films of this type.  Maite gets a bath while the other two girls wash the makeup off their faces and watch their aunt bathe their sister.  When Maite jumps right back out after being put in because the water is too hot, Paulina struggles to get her to go back in and stay in, much to Irene’s amusement. This was clearly not planned, and Maite’s complaints indicate the water really was a bit too hot for the little actress.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (11)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (11)

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (12)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (12)

Then we see the narrator again, the adult Ana.  She says, “I can’t understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time of one’s life.  It certainly wasn’t for me.  Maybe that’s why I don’t believe in a childlike paradise or that children are innocent or good by nature.  I remember my childhood as an interminably long and sad time filled with fear. Fear of the unknown.  There are things I can’t forget.  It’s unbelievable how powerful memories can be.”

Saura’s take on children is a sensitive and generous one.  It’s one of the things I think distinguishes good childhood dramas from bad ones.  European filmmakers tend to do these better than anyone, and I do not think this is coincidental.  They do not whitewash childhood or force it to conform to some comfortable, idealized shape the way Hollywood often does.  Because of that, it is evident that European audiences have a better understanding of childhood than Americans do.  Consequently, I believe that, on the whole, they tend to be more tolerant and sensitive parents than Americans, who often size their children up against Hollywood’s idealized version, which real kids will inevitably fall short of, disappointing their parents.

Anyway, it is subsequently revealed that Ana’s mom was sent home from the hospital to die, since there was nothing more they could do for her there.  She has cancer.  Ana, who is the only one of the girls there (along with Rosa), finds her mother in agony, half out of her head. This is, of course, another scene from Ana’s memory.  Ana can’t stand to hear her mother’s cries of pain so she covers her ears, only to wake from her daydream afterward.  Later, she has another late night encounter with her mother’s memory.  She asks if she can stay with Mama, who replies, “Do you know what time it is? It’s very late.” Late here has a double meaning, referring both to the time of day and to death (as in, the late, great so-and-so . . .)  But it has an additional meaning as well: it is too late for Ana to save her mother, which Ana, being a child, feels somewhat guilty for, as if she had any power to stop terminal cancer!  Ana asks her mother, “Why don’t you play that song I like so much?”  Notice the photo hanging on the wall, directly between mother and child.  In the photo the positions of the figures are reversed in relation to the film characters—Maria was once a child, and Ana will someday be a mother.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (13)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (13)

Ana then gives her mother a kiss before heading off to bed.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (14)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (14)

This leads to another memory: when Anselmo comes in late, Maria discovers he had fun that evening without her.  Meanwhile, she is suffering and wishes to die.  It is easy to understand how Ana concluded that her father’s shenanigans are what killed Maria.  Anselmo doesn’t believe her when she tells him she is ill—he negates her at every turn and treats her like a child, even as he claims to love her.  A nice metaphor for fascism.

After a dream about her mother, Ana wakes in tears, calling out, “Mama! Mama!” in one of the most poignant scenes in the film.  When Aunt Paulina shows up to comfort Ana, the little girl informs her aunt that she wants to die too.  When her aunt begins to tell her a story that her mother used to tell her—Little Almond—Ana then tells her aunt she wishes she would die as well for daring to try to replace her mother.  Ana is obsessed with death, and no wonder, having lost both parents at such a young age.  She dwells on death far more than she should, and her feelings about it are mixed and complex.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (15)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (15)

This leads into a scene of Ana playing in an empty, abandoned swimming pool in the park.  Ana the adult narrator points out here that: “Not all of my memories of that period are sad.  Among my fondest memories, few can compare to that weekend.  I can’t really think why that particular trip remained vivid in my mind.  I don’t know, but I felt free, new, different.”

The trip to which she is referring is one where Paulina takes the girls to visit family friends Nicholas and Amelia (the latter being her father’s illicit lover, of course) in the country.   When they arrive, Paulina and the girls are greeted by Nicholas and Amelia in front of their huge country estate.  Ana is used to cramped city life—little wonder that she remembers this weekend so vividly.  Outside, on their own, the girls decide to play hide-and-seek.  Ana counts down while Irene and Maite hide.  The rules here are slightly different than traditional hide-and-seek—when Ana finds Maite hiding behind a tree, she insists that Maite must lie down and play dead.  The same goes for Irene when Ana finds her.  This is a continuation of Ana’s obsession with death.  Ana then kneels and prays to her guardian angel, asking that the angel not leave her alone and bring her sisters back to life.  A strange ritual added to the original game.  If only it were that easy to raise people from the dead . . .

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (16)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (16)

When the adults decide to take a walk outside, Ana imagines both her mother and father among them.  Maria strolls with her sister while Anselmo naturally walks alongside Amelia.  Mother tells Ana to go find her father, and when she does, she finds him making out with Amelia in some nearby woods.

Back home, Ana chides her baby doll for peeing her pants, then pretends to breastfeed it while Rosa works nearby.  Ana has quite the interesting conversation with Rosa here.  She asks about Rosa’s own children, and Rosa shows her how to properly hold a baby to burp it.  Rosa points out that Ana’s father was angry when she was born, because God had cursed him with another girl.  (Maite will, of course, make a third when she comes along.)  She also says that forceps were needed to pull Ana out of her mother’s womb, causing dents in her head.  Rosa also claims she had to nurse Ana because her mother was too weak, though with a bottle, not her breast.  Strangely, Ana pesters Rosa to show her her breasts, which she refuses at first, but finally she flashes them.  It is unclear whether this actually occurs or takes place in Ana’s head.  “They’re so big,” Ana whispers in awe.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (17)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (17)

In the next scene, Ana helps her grandmother look at the wall of photos.  At this point Ana has developed a keen interest in her grandma’s history, pointing to certain photos and asking about them.  When Ana begins to recount a story about a hotel in one of the photos, linking it with her grandmother’s honeymoon, Grandma begins to feel uncomfortable.  It brings up too many memories for her, and she becomes depressed.  Ana asks the old woman if she’d like to die, to which the woman nods in ascent.  Ana
has a solution, saying she has a poison she can give her.  Grandmother seems willing at first, but when she realizes the poison is merely baking soda, she changes her mind,
genuinely disappointed.

It is peculiar to think of Ana as an Angel of Death, but it demonstrates that her interest in poisoning people isn’t all selfish.  In the course of the film, Ana has wished for or offered death to nearly everyone in her family, including herself.  Is it perhaps that she believes they will all be reunited in the afterlife?  At any rate, it is clear that she doesn’t fully comprehend what death is.  She only knows that it takes people away, and she does not see it as evil in itself.  After all, she loves her grandmother and only wants to help her.  Perhaps she is flirting with the idea of suicide, verifying through her grandmother that it is an acceptable way to end one’s pain and sadness.  She is not a terribly happy girl, and the fact that it has even occurred to her that death might be a solution to one’s problems is the greatest tragedy of all here.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (18)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (18)

Her obsession with death will only be amplified when she returns to her room and finds her guinea pig dying.  She comforts him as he passes away.  And, of course, she buries him in a shoe box in her yard, saying the Lord’s Prayer over the casket.  Maite comes
out to watch, and she is confused about death, asking Irene what happens when people die.  Irene says, “I don’t know, they just die.”  Ana smears mud on her face, perhaps to be
closer to Roni—they are sharing this sacred earth.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (19)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (19)

Later Rosa and the girls decide to clean Anselmo’s office.  “What did daddy do during the war?” inquires Irene.  Rosa isn’t sure.  He fought alongside the Nazis in Russia, she states.  Meanwhile, Ana finds the pistol her father promised would be hers one day.  Rosa orders her to put it back, but Ana says, “It’s mine!”  Ana refuses to give it up, so Rosa tells her to ask her aunt about it.  Ana promptly marches into the parlor and points the pistol at Aunt Paulina and Nicholas, who are being intimate on the couch.  Earlier Nicholas had confessed to Paulina that his marriage was a sham and that it was Paulina he really loved.  This looks like a disaster waiting to happen, and it nearly is.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (20)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (20)

“Ana, why do you want a gun? Guns are for boys,” Nicholas tells her.  Her father gave it to her, she informs him.  Nicholas identifies the gun as a Luger Parabellum .38, a gun commonly carried by Nazi officers.  When he asks to see it, revealing it’s loaded, Paulina slaps Ana in the face out of fear.  The slap is real, and so are the tears that follow.  Poor Ana Torrent.  Does she remember this scene, I wonder?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (21)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (21)

Back in her room, Ana again listens to her favorite song, mouthing the words along with it and primping.  “Turn that music down,” she says, mimicking her aunt.  “I hope she dies,” she adds, the second time she has willed death on her aunt.  This gives her the idea of poisoning Paulina.  She mixes up some of her false poison concoction, giving it to her aunt.  Of course, it doesn’t kill her.  Paulina reveals her own weakness and insecurity here, breaking down when Ana asks to leave while she is trying to tell Ana that she’s doing her best to fill her mother’s shoes, something Ana doesn’t really want.  Ana later finds her aunt napping, believing her dead.  She is proud of herself as she washes the glass and puts it away.

When Ana opens the fridge, the camera pans in on the raw chicken legs for the third and final time, and the message is clear: raise ravens, and they will scratch out your eyes.  Ana, the potential cunning murderer and death obsessive, is a product of her environment: a father who wanted sons, not daughters, and treated her mother horribly even as she lay dying, ignoring her pleas and dallying as he would.  The political message is echoed herein: a government that treats its citizens badly should not be surprised when those citizens reject its principles or rebel against them outright.

Ana, satisfied with what she believes was a well-orchestrated murder, goes to bed happily for once.  The next morning, she is surprised and gravely disappointed to find her aunt very much alive.  Her misery is not over, it seems.  Poor Ana.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (22)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (22)

The final scene is of the three girls walking down the streets of Madrid, headed to school as the camera slowly pulls back and pans across the city.  Ana’s favorite song plays over this scene, as the girls enter their school, and over the closing credits.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (23)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (23)

Though Ana appeared in three other films as a child, the final article in my Ana Torrent series will be on the last of these, El nido, directed by Jaime de Armiñán.

After School Memories

Reading RJ’s post about High Feather and after-school memories made me think of the times my sister and I would come home from school and watch cartoons. It seems strange now, but I remember us getting jazzed about watching He-Man and Masters of the Universe. I guess it was just something to do because the plots were obvious, the characters totally unbelievable and there was this annoying moral at the end of every story. However, there was this cute superheroine that appeared in two episodes so I get to share my reminiscences with you.

She is called the Starchild and besides being cute as a button, she has superpowers which others are trying to use for their own selfish purposes.

Filmation - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Bargain With Evil (1984) (1)

Filmation – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Bargain With Evil (1984) (1)

In the first episode she appears in, two factions are arguing over custody and the main characters have to intercede in the best interests of the child. She has the power to make people like her, but her powers can be used for protection when needed. To demonstrate that she gets manhandled quite a lot from people, ogres and other creatures in the first episode.

Filmation - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (1)

Filmation – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (1)

Filmation - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (2)

Filmation – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (2)

Filmation - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (3)

Filmation – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Starchild (1983) (3)

In the second season, she is abducted by a sorceress who desperately needs her as barter so she can free her father from the Realm of Evil. In the end, Starchild has to help our heroes get through a portal to escape from that realm.

Filmation - He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Bargain With Evil (1984) (2)

Filmation – He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Bargain With Evil (1984) (2)

Growing up, I figured that He-Man was just another kids show until I started watching the Sut Jhally videos. It happens that when my sister and I were in school, regulations regarding prime time children’s television were severely relaxed and programmers no longer had to pretend to provide educational or uplifting material to young viewers. He-Man was the first show invented completely to sell toys (Mattel action figures). The idea was that kids would walk to their drugstore or whatever and collect the figures—crying to their parents the whole time until they got what they wanted.

The Girl as Political Model: Ana Torrent, Pt. 1 (The Spirit of the Beehive)

In 1973, young Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice created his debut film: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive).  It is widely considered one of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema, an opinion I happen to share.  The film has been widely influential, and its imprint can be seen in dozens of other films, among them Carlos Taboada’s Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies), Gabriele Salvatores’s Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared) and, perhaps most notably, Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth).  Aside from its masterful direction, the key to its success was its young star, little Ana Torrent, who had never acted before and was not from a family of actors.

The film operates on two levels: The first is a story of a little girl growing up and learning to face her fears, a classic coming-of-age story.  The second is a political allegory, a veiled critique of the Franco regime which, unlike its Nazi and Fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy respectively, still had a grip on Spain at the time this was filmed.

The dominant party under Franco was the Falange, and we immediately get a sense of its presence when we see the Falange’s logo on the side of one of the buildings in the town of Hoyuelos, where the story is set.  A truck has arrived in this sleepy Spanish village, a mobile cinema.  For these rural children in 1940 Spain, a movie is something of a novelty.  When a Spanish-dubbed version of the classic Universal picture Frankenstein is screened in the town hall, nearly the entire village—or at least its younger segment—shows up to watch it, including sisters Ana and Isabel (Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería).  At first they blend in with the rest of the children, like bees in a hive, but eventually we get a closeup of their rapt, apprehensive faces.

The relationship between Ana and Isabel is a more complicated one than it appears on the surface.  Many have interpreted the two of them as the opposing factions in the Spanish Civil War that only just ended in the period in which the film is set, and so will we.  Isabel, the older and more dominant sister, represents the nationalists under Franco, who won the war and now rules Spain, and Ana represents the leftists, who did not.  There is still some fighting as the Francoists clean up the countryside, but basically the war is over.

Before the film itself plays, the film-goers watch a government-approved addendum that is clearly intended to be political propaganda, wherein democracy is compared to the monster: a frightening man-made creation that subverts the natural order of things.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (1)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (1)

While the children of Hoyuelos are being enthralled by Frankenstein, the girls’ father, a beekeeper named Fernando, is working with his bees.  The beehive is a symbol that will appear throughout the film, most prominently in the form of the honeycombed windows of the manor house that Fernando and his family live in.  Fernando’s beekeeping costume also makes him resemble a medieval monk, and thus a stand-in for God looking down on Spain from above: although he attends to it faithfully, he disapproves of it, criticizing it as tightly-controlled but essentially mindless and soulless.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (2)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (2)

Meanwhile, the children’s mother, Teresa, writes a letter to her absent lover, whom we may assume is a soldier of some kind.  In her letter she explains how the war has torn the family apart emotionally.  Indeed, the family is never seen together as a whole until somewhere near the end, when they are breakfasting.  We see a recurrence of the beehive theme here, in the manor house’s windows, which we will see again and again.  Teresa writes by the golden light streaming through one of these honeycombed windows.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (3)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (3)

When Teresa visits the train station to mail off her letter, she walks through the smoke and steam issuing from the train, echoing the smoke Fernando uses to calm his bees into submission. Smoke or steam is another oft recurring nod to the beehive in this film. And the train has long been a symbol of industry and progress, playing well into the ideology of the newly appointed authoritarian governments of Europe, who each utilized the unity and pride of workers as propaganda to bring them into the fold. Trains, of course, were also used to carry soldiers and prisoners of war to their destination.  This train will be seen again.  In the partial breakdown of society after the war, it is one of the few connections the isolated village has to the world outside.

As Fernando is reading the newspaper, the sound of the film in the tiny village floats into the house, distracting him, and he steps out onto the balcony to get a better listen. Here we see those yellow honeycombed windows again, only this time Fernando is on the other side of them.  He is, in his own way, just another bee, another cog in the Francoist wheel.

Then we’re back to the theater again.  This leads into the scene where Frankenstein’s monster encounters the little girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who offers him a flower.  But the monster winds up killing the girl accidentally by tossing her into the water, believing she will float like the flower the girl threw into the water. This becomes the lynchpin scene for Ana, the beginning of her obsession with the monster.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (4)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (4)

Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most complex in literature.  In the novel—a literary classic written by a 17-year-old Mary Shelley—the creature is a tortured being who can not only speak but has the soul of a poet and can wax eloquent about his own suffering.  He wants only to find his place in the world and people who will care about him, and when his creator refuses to help him to that end, and his own searches reveal only people who fear and despise him because of his monstrous size and hideous appearance, it is only then that he becomes a murderer.  By the end he has lost his faith in both humanity and himself.  But the movie monster was somewhat different.  Reduced to guttural grunts and growls, he is not the creature of great intelligence and sensitivity we meet in the novel.  He is slow, both physically and mentally, although he means well and his intentions are often misunderstood.  The best literary analogue is probably Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (5)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (5)

Ana is terrified and spellbound. As a little girl herself, this scene really hits home for her. Torrent’s large expressive eyes help to sell what she is feeling as she watches the scene play out.  It should be noted that Ana Torrent was not given much preparation for this role and in fact was not even familiar with the script.  Erice wanted the children to behave as real children, and he fed them—or at least Torrent—a line at a time.  Thus, Ana’s confusion and terror in the film are often real.  Today we would probably consider this exploitative, but few can deny the power of Torrent’s performance.  Still, her experiences on the set of The Spirit of the Beehive were likely troubling to her father, who wanted to prevent her from acting after this film.  Luckily for her this did not wind up being the case, but we shall discuss her other films another time.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (6)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (6)

Although the scene in Frankenstein where the monster tosses the girl into the water was actually shot, it was excised from early cuts of the film because it was considered too violent.  It is rather tame by today’s standards, but at the time the censors thought it too frightening for audiences to see.  This small edit actually becomes important in The Spirit of the Beehive, because it leads to Ana’s confusion about what really happened to Maria.  First Ana sees Maria befriending the monster, and the next thing Ana knows, the girl is inexplicably dead.  The older, more experienced Isabel, on the other hand, knows exactly what happened.  Politically, you could say that Isabel has bought into the propaganda entirely.  Ana is a different story.  For her it is not initially clear what connection the monster has to the dead child, and in that sense there is still hope for Ana to see the monster in a more sympathetic light.  But she is uncertain.  Hence, her obsession. The monster will haunt Ana in a way it never can Isabel, who has already made up her mind about it. This is exacerbated by the fact that, although Isabel agrees to answer Ana’s question after Frankenstein is over, she never really does.

Later, when the girls are in bed, Ana asks again, but the jaded Isabel, who knows something about how movies are made, simply explains that it was all fake. Ana is, of course, unsatisfied with this answer because it does not address the issue that’s
troubling her. Indeed, Isabel only adds insult to injury by playing on Ana’s gullibility, telling her younger sister that the monster now resides in their own village. She adds that the monster is essentially a disembodied spirit who only comes out at night and can sometimes take corporeal form, which really enflames Ana’s imagination. Isabel even tells Ana how to summon the monster.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (7)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (7)

Fernando continues to wax philosophical about the bees, seeing only futility and soulless toil in their frenzied activity, ironically failing to see how he and his wife (and by extension, Francoist Spain) have become exactly like the bees.  His wife (who is significantly younger than her husband), by contrast, does get a sense of it, even if she can’t quite identify it for what it is, as she points out in one of her letters to her lover.  In that sense, husband and wife echo Isabel and Ana. Isabel, like her father, is a conformist at heart, whereas Ana yearns for something more, something she does not fully understand but sees represented in the form of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. She is the dreamer. We get a sense that Isabel will survive just fine under Franco, but we worry about Ana, who stands in for a future democratic Spain. She is open and questioning, and therefore vulnerable.  At any rate, while Teresa finds her solace and distraction in writing letters, Fernando finds his in his work and in his routines like smoking cigarettes and taking his tea (both of which produce smoke of sorts, thereby tying back into the beehive symbolism).

In the Catholic girls’ school the sisters attend, they are faced with putting together their own sort of Frankenstein’s monster in the form of Don José, a puzzle of the human body where certain organs can be added and removed, used as a teaching tool by their instructor.   In a deeply symbolic scene, Ana is asked by the teacher to place the final missing piece: the eyes. With her dreamer’s soul, Ana offers the much-needed vision that her Francoist peers lack. This will foreshadow a later event in the film, when Ana has an honest to goodness hallucinatory vision.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (8)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (8)

Later that day, on their way home from school, the girls encounter an abandoned building with a well near it, which Isabel tells Ana is the home of the monster. Note how Ana stands on the mound here while Isabel is in the trench. Isabel runs to the well and then goes into the building while Ana, too afraid to approach, watches her. When Isabel emerges, the girls run home again. Later Ana returns on her own, repeating the steps of her sister: looking in the well first (even going a step further by shouting and dropping a stone into it) and then entering the building.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (9)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (9)

Then, we see the children mushroom hunting with their father.  Fernando explains to them that he always obeyed his grandfather (representing tradition), who instructed him on what to do if he encountered a mushroom he didn’t know: don’t pick it. The irony here is that, if no one had ever tried any mushrooms at all, they would never have discovered that some were good to eat.  When they encounter a mushroom Fernando knows is poisonous, he tells his daughters that, although this particular mushroom is young and smells pleasant now, when it begins to rot its true nature will be revealed.  Ana seems uncertain about this.

Look quickly for the honeycomb pattern in the seat of the horse-drawn carriage Fernando climbs into in the next scene.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (10)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (10)

The girls indulge in a little horseplay before school, jumping on their beds and pillow fighting (a scene somewhat echoed in the opening sequence of a later film, Du är inte klok, Madicken, which came out in 1979), and we hear Isabel repeat the universal refrain of children everywhere who are caught misbehaving: “She started it!”  Then, Ana plays in the soapy water her father shaved in earlier that morning, much to both girls’ amusement.  These scenes serve to remind the viewer that these are real fresh-and-blood children and not just walking, talking metaphors.  Scenes such as these help ground the film.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (11)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (11)

I haven’t much to say about this next scene, other than that I found it a particularly touching one.  Ana blows on the bees inside a wire mesh cage, perhaps attempting to agitate or stir them up, interrupting their usual pattern of behavior.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (12)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (12)

Next we see Isabel (whom, you’ll recall, represents the Francoists) displaying her tendency for cruelty when she throttles the family cat.  She is rewarded for her actions with a painful scratch on her finger.  Her own blood fascinates her, and she uses it to paint her lips darker red and admires herself in the mirror afterward, thus tying violence to sexuality.  Violence and sex . . . we are firmly in the realm of adulthood here, and thus we are getting a glimpse of the woman Isabel will likely become.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (13)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (13)

The violence against the family pet leads Isabel to another idea, and here is where she turns her tendency for nastiness against her sister.  Isabel fakes a violent attack against her person, pretending to be dead, which she knows Ana will interpret as an attack by Frankenstein’s monster.  She even breaks a potted plant and leaves the balcony windows open for effect.  The prank goes on far longer than it should, as Isabel continues to milk it for all its worth.

Finally, when Ana runs off to seek help and, not finding anyone, returns to the scene of the crime, she finds Isabel gone.  But alas, someone sneaks up behind her and grabs her, frightening Ana near out of her wits. It is of course Isabel, dressed in a heavy coat and men’s gloves. On one level, you have to admire Isabel—she is an artist of sorts, and this was her pièce de résistance.  Ana, who is already haunted by the idea of Frankenstein’s monster, will likely never forget this prank at her expense.  It’s no wonder she takes it to heart then.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (14)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (14)

Isabel, lit by the sun as it streams through the honeycombed windows, gloats over her accomplishment.  She looks utterly devious here.  I must say too that, while Ana Torrent certainly commands the screen, Isabel Tellería holds her own with Ana well enough.  Isabel is the perfect compliment to Ana’s generous and trusting nature, and there is just something inherently playful and puckish (and perhaps a tad sinister) about Tellería’s face.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (15)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (15)

This incident divides Ana and her sister, leaving Ana without anyone she can really trust and look up to.  Her parents love her, but they are emotionally distant, preoccupied with their own lives.  Isabel was Ana’s only real friend and confidante, but that trust is likely forever shattered now.  When Ana sees Isabel playing with other neighborhood girls afterward, running and jumping through the fire, she does not feel compelled to join in, merely to watch from afar.  One thing Ana Torrent has said about this scene is that she was awed by Isabel leaping through the fire, and that, while they were only a year apart in age, she always felt like her costar was much older than she.  These are the magnifications and exaggerations of childhood, when everything is fresh and new and slightly overwhelming.  It serves as a reminder that we should never underestimate a young child’s tendency to see themselves as small and inadequate in the face of a huge world ruled by much bigger people.

Later that evening, Ana sneaks out of the house by herself, not bothering to wake Isabel, her former partner-in-crime.  She finds the courtyard and surrounding woods spooky and foreign.  Ana’s loneliness and sense of betrayal are almost palpable here.  When she returns to her bed the next morning, waking Isabel, and her sister asks where she’s been, Ana refuses to answer.

    Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (16)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (16)

When Ana finds a wounded resistance fighter (arrived by train) hiding out in the abandoned building she and Isabel like to play in, she of course invests him with her own mythology.  This is where the spirit of the monster is said to lurk, so this must be a physical manifestation of the monster.  She offers him an apple, mimicking the scene in Frankenstein when Maria gives the monster a flower.  She continues to bring him clothing and food (including, notably, a jar of honey) and to help him in small ways like tying the shoe on his wounded foot.  In return, he entertains her with magic tricks.  These little acts of kindness by Ana help to restore some of her faith in mankind.  Of course, it is short-lived, as the fighter is caught and killed, and Fernando soon realizes what has been happening when his coat is found on the corpse. Torrent says she was particularly moved by this scene when she first saw the film herself, and felt quite proud of tying the soldier’s shoe!

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (17)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (17)

Ana returns to the building and finds the fighter missing, with copious amounts of his blood left behind.  When her father confronts her here, she runs away into the woods.  The death of her new friend feels like the ultimate betrayal to Ana, and she cannot bear it.  As luck would have it, she soon encounters one of the poisonous mushrooms her father warned her against picking.  It is unclear here whether she attempts suicide by consuming some of the poisonous mushroom her father told her to avoid, or whether the poisoning is accidental, but whatever the case, she begins to hallucinate, seeing the monster’s face in her own reflection in the nearby river.  Meanwhile, her mother burns a letter she intended to send to her absent lover, and we soon realize that her lover and the resistance fighter were the same person.  Now that he’s dead, it makes no sense to continue sending the letters.

A little later she has a face-to-face encounter with the monster, shivering in fright at the prospect of a repeat of the scene in Frankenstein.  In this case, because of the mushroom poisoning, the monster may very well represent the prospect of death here.  Ana passes out from fright from the encounter.  Torrent claims this scene had to be filmed numerous times because whenever the monster appeared, she would run away in tears, even though she was aware that it was a man in a costume.  Fear can sometimes overrule what we know to be true, and that probably goes double for small children.  After all, this was her first experience with film—she had no way to be certain if it was an entirely safe experience or if Erice (who was coaching her through the script) was telling the complete truth.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (18)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (18)

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (19)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (19)

A posse of townspeople, including her father, who have been searching for her all night find her sleeping near the wall of a demolished structure.  She continues to hallucinate even at home, but a doctor assures her mother that she will get over it.  His words are not terribly reassuring to Teresa, or to the viewer, for, although the hallucinations will surely end, the emotional scars are likely to persist for the rest of her life.

Later Isabel slips into the bedroom where Ana is resting.  The older girl seems to be genuinely remorseful for her actions which led to this state of events.  This is reinforced when she sees shadows moving on the wall and covers her head, offering her a chance to empathize with Ana.  It also contrasts with what happens with Ana at the end.

 Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (20)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (20)

The honeycombed windows look quite different in the moonlight. Seeing something from a different perspective can change one’s interpretation of it.  Ana has undergone a profound transformation, a revelation brought on by her psychedelic experience.  In the final shot of the film, Ana literally and metaphorically turns her back on the night—she no longer fears what she doesn’t understand, which means she might well become an active voice for change in the future, whereas Isabel, even though she should know better, is still frightened by shadows moving on the wall.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (21)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (21)

Thomas Cooper Gotch: A Golden Dream

Thomas Cooper Gotch began his professional life in the boot and shoe business.  Then it happened that in his twenties he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.  There he was friendly with Henry Scott Tuke; Tuke is distinguished for having almost his entire oeuvre consisting of nude boys.  Tuke, Gotch and fellow Slade student and Gotch’s future wife, Caroline Burland Yates, became associated with the Newlyn art colony, first visiting in the late 1870s and residing there during the late 1880s.  The Newlyners were mostly Methodist teetotalers and are remembered for their en plein air realist rural style.  Gotch, however, is not remembered for his Newlyn period works despite being an associate of James Whistler and one of the founding members of the New English Art Club.

Gotch and his wife relocated to Florence in 1891 which had a significant effect on his style.

Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Child Enthroned (1894)

Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Child Enthroned (1894)

Gotch then began to compose in the manner for which he is best known: called by Pamela Lomax “imaginative symbolism” in her book, The Golden Dream.

“His new combination of symbolic female figures, decorative Italian textiles and the static order of early Renaissance art finally brought him recognition.” (Betsy Cogger Rezelman)

Together with the other Pre-Raphaelites, Gotch was inspired by Medievalism as is evident in his Alleluia (1896).

Thomas Cooper Gotch  – Alleluia (1896)

Thomas Cooper Gotch – Alleluia (1896)

Gotch’s daughter Phyllis appeared in several of his paintings, as well as modeling for the Newlyn-associated artist Elizabeth Forbes.  The Gotchs traveled extensively, not only in Italy, but France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and Australia and South Africa too.  Gotch was fortunate to have enjoyed recognition during his lifetime.  In his older years he continued to paint children in an increasingly textured style.

Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Flag (1910)

Thomas Cooper Gotch – The Flag (1910)

Eclectic Typology: Jacques Sonck

Although Jacques Sonck (born 1949 in Ghent) likes to call his photographs archetypes, that is rather misleading because archetypes represent that which is universal. Instead, the artist likes to choose subjects that are unusual in some way. Like a kind of contemporary August Sander, he brings us the extremes of human diversity.

He was born to a family that had no time for art, but as a child he would walk by photo shops looking inside at all the different cameras. At 10, he got his first camera and eventually studied photography at the Narafi in Brussels. He went on to work at the Culture Department of Antwerp, photographing for exhibition catalogs. As a civil servant, he enjoyed a kind of financial security that allowed him to work on personal projects in his spare time.

For almost four decades, Sonck roamed the streets of Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels collecting models for his portraits.

I know when I want to make a photograph of a person. They have to be special. They have to strike me for their appearance on the street. It can be anything. Maybe it’s their clothing, or their physical appearance.

Jacques Sonck - (Untitled) (Antwerp, 1980)

Jacques Sonck – (Untitled) (Antwerp, 1980)

They would appear singly, in pairs or even triples. Gay or straight, young or old, overweight or rail-thin, tall or short or androgynous, he would approach them and ask to take their portrait. If they agreed, he would seek out “a good background”—something indistinct that would give his photograph a timeless quality, like a hedge or a door. In the last 20 years, he began shooting some of his subjects in his Destelbergen studio (near Ghent), producing formal, square portraits. For these images, he uses only gray or white backgrounds which the artist says makes them even more timeless and further accentuates their peculiarities.

Jacques Sonck - (Untitled) (Date Unknown)

Jacques Sonck – (Untitled) (Date Unknown)

I focus on the details of a person. Their faces or some part of their body—maybe their feet or the backs of their arms.

One of his most delightful examples really is an archetype, The Three Graces. The only disturbing implication is what this image says about child nudes in our society—that they are a rare oddity.

Jacques Sonck - (Untitled) (After 1994)

Jacques Sonck – (Untitled) (After 1994)

Although Sander comes immediately to mind when viewing Sonck’s work, he names Irving Penn and Diane Arbus as his influences. Some of his images are clear homages to Arbus.

All images are untitled and, in the artist‘s opinion, they do not need much information. Instead, he invites the viewer to fill in the details with their own imagination. He never develops any kind of relationship with his subjects and does not inquire into their personal lives—not even asking their names. He takes less than 15 minutes for each photograph and then moves on. Despite this air of impersonality, the photographs are very much alive to him; they are like his children.

He retired from the Culture Department in 2009 and now focuses exclusively on his art. He says he shoots more than ever before.

Sonck does not seem to have an official website but a number of galleries feature his work (here and here).

Addressing a Commenter

I had intended to let this go as I generally feel that giving ignorant people the time to voice their views here is unbecoming of a professional art blog, but I have decided to address it in a post without letting the comment through, since I did not want to share this particular  commentator’s information with the public.  Consider it a kindness to her, since we have some passionate fans who might pursue the matter beyond this blog, and at that point it is no longer in our control.

This commenter has apparently made it clear that she has reported our site to the NCMEC, since she seems to be under the impression that no one has ever tried this before and that NCMEC is somehow unaware of our existence, which is absurd for a blog of this size and importance.  Nevertheless, I shall take on each of her points one by one, so that other readers will be aware of how ridiculous her position is.  Here goes . . .

I am not an artist;

That is resoundingly obvious, as pretty much any artist worth his or her salt would be well aware of the laws pertaining to these issues, which you so clearly are not.

I happened on your website by chance.

I somehow doubt that.  There are people who make it their business to search out and target anything that they consider offensive.  But, if you did happen here by chance, all the better, since it means our site is easily reached and available to everyone, as it should be.

Some of the artwork is beautiful and some is thought provoking.

And yet . . .

However, there are many many photos of young girls in full frontal nudity.

. . . as if the child’s nude body cannot be both beautiful and thought-provoking.  At any rate, these images are constitutionally protected art.  They are not pornography, even those which address youth sexuality in some way, and certainly those which feature simple child nudity.  Every image here has been vetted and recognized as art.  The vast majority of these images have been published in other venues.  In fact, almost all of them have been taken from books which are easily available, many still in circulation, or from other art sites.  We do not post images here unless we know where they came from and we know for a fact that they meet the legal criteria for art.  We have always been extremely scrupulous about this, and that policy will continue for as long as this site remains extant.

And yes some do have a “lascivious display” of genitalia.

No, they don’t.  To suggest this to be utterly ignorant of both law and art.  Simply because genitalia is visible does not mean that they are lasciviously displayed.  Lascivious display has a legal definition, and it requires an extreme focus on the genitalia and/or genitalia which is displayed in such a way as to be deliberately sexual.  None of the images here meet that definition.  If they did, then the artists who produced them would be in jail.  A few of these artists (like Jock Sturges) have been arrested on spurious child porn charges, but they were always absolved of any wrongdoing in the end.

Perhaps in and of themselves there isn’t a problem. But to group so many photos together in one website seems to me to be a potential pedophile’s paradise.

Whether it is a “potential pedophile’s paradise” is really in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?  I have little doubt that pedophiles have visited our site, just as I’m sure they have bought the books or visited the websites of the artists themselves, but so what?  It is not the intent of this site to cater to pedophiles, but if we net a few in the process of making our larger point, so be it.  We are not willing to sway from our course in the interest of avoiding a few people.  It is absurd to completely change our longstanding cultural values of artistic and philosophical freedom in the interest of curtailing the prurient interest of a few.  Moreover, I suspect many of the people who oppose this site understand this and are masking their real objections to the dialogue itself by slapping the child porn label on art because they know that it’s generally a quick and effective way to silence the debate.  But I do not frighten so easily.  I am better informed than my enemies will ever be, and that is why I know that, outside of a fascistic crackdown on the whole of artistic expression itself, they cannot win.

If these photos were of women, full frontal nudity, they could be teetering on porn.

“Teetering on porn” is a ridiculously vague description of what you find offensive, but whatever it is, it still isn’t porn.  Full frontal nudity, adult and child, has been a staple of art since the beginning of its history.  If one took the time to actually peruse this blog, they would soon realize that this is part of the reason the blog exists in the first place: to educate people to that fact.  And again, I suspect the real objection to our site is because it so effectively makes that clear.  Enemies of artistic freedom thrive on spreading ignorance and fear about the issues to which they object, but we can see through that ploy a mile away and are not susceptible to intimidation and threats, and we’re willing to call them out on it, which means that we are more dangerous to them than real child porn ever will be.  That’s exactly why this blog is so important and so valid, and why we persist in the face of great opposition.  Many of the artists we feature here are friends of the site.  They understand how vital our mission is, and exactly how unique we are in the artistic world, because most people who have tried what we are doing have caved at the first sign of trouble rather than faced down the fear-mongers like they should have.  We will not do that.

In siding with the conservative, I’ve reported your website to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Wonderful!  And when this site is still standing months or years from now, we can point to this fact, and it will only fortify our position.

Nothing, or something may come of it;

Yes, something will come of it: you and your ilk will continue to look more and more ridiculous for your astounding degree of ignorance of artistic and legal precedent.  So, please, by all means, keep inundating us with your uninformed and sanctimonious opinions and keep reporting us to people who have better things to do with their time than dealing with an art blog posting well-known and already legally vetted art, so we can keep strengthening our hand.

I’m sorry and I know you disagree, but we’ll let a third party decide.

Please.  Stop with the patronizing nonsense.  You may be many things, but sorry is not one of them.  Admit it: you have no qualms with trying to destroy us.  And third parties have already decided.  This site has been in existence since February of 2011; we have already faced worse threats than you and we are still standing proud, just like this little girl . . .

Diego Sandstede - Malena

Diego Sandstede – Malena

Maiden Voyages: June 2015

I know there has not been too much activity this month, but items of interest do continue to come across my desk and I feel it necessary to make them available to you.

Surfing the Net: There are a handful of readers who surf the net regularly and send me little tidbits. They are interesting items but not important enough to make into stand alone posts, therefore, from now on, I will post them on upcoming Maiden Voyages as they come in.

Mary Ellen Mark dies: A reader just informed me about the death of photographer Mary Ellen Mark on May 25th.  Although Pigtails has only covered her work once (here), she was a prolific and talented artist worthy of mention.  There is also an iconic image of a girl in a wading pool and smoking which Pip intends to cover in a future post. [added 0604]

6-Year-Old Gassed in Auschwitz: There is a poignant account of the testimony of Judith Kalman, a Jewish Hungarian-born writer living in Montreal, during the trial of Oskar Gröning, known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz. It centers around the fate of her family, most notably a half-sister she never knew, Eva Edit Weinberger—gassed at Auschwitz ten years before Kalman was born. An excellent consolidation of this material can be found here. The site includes commentary and links to more complete information.

Hashtag Culture: There is a cute YouTube video of a little girl named Lily going through a series of personal observations associated with her tweets.

“Faces” Art Exhibition: The Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels (Bozar, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles) is having a retrospective called ‘FACES NOW’. The idea was to collect intriguing examples of faces in the fine arts since 1990. Although the reviewer, Mario Zilio, found the exhibit mundane, an intriguing image was used to promote the exhibit. The photo is titled Sonya (2000) by Sergey Bratkov and came from his series ‘KIDS’ submitted by The Regina Gallery.

Legal Briefs: Chris Madaio, through his experiences with the legal system, has become a paralegal himself and has offered to share some of his research and insights. The ongoing distractions and challenges due to his conviction has caused him to seek to educate others while giving him a way of focusing his efforts in a productive way.

I would like to research state-by-state (and also on the federal level) First Amendment and/or pornography laws relating specifically to photographers/artists who take pictures of children, minors, and very young adults.

Madaio is cognizant that people who have downloaded bona fide child pornography should be brought to justice. However, those laws meant to prohibit and prosecute such activities have also been loosely interpreted and used as a weapon to harass legitimate artists (like Jock Sturges or Graham Ovenden) simply because they personally disagree with the artists’ choice of content.

The study would not be limited just to what’s on the books, but also to how it’s applied through “case law”. I would also include…parents who’ve been hassled/convicted because of photos like their kids playing in the bathtub. In fact, even if a photographer/artist/parent is acquitted, one could argue that a considerable amount of damage has already been done.

As I receive new reports from Mr. Madaio, I will include them at the end of future Maiden Voyages posts and readers are welcome to suggest cases they heard about for Madaio to research.

Louis Malle, Part 3: Pretty Baby

After Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Pretty Baby (1977) is perhaps the most popular metaphor symbolizing the cult of the girl child. Beyond that, this film features one of America’s most breathtaking beauties, Brooke Shields. Like most Malle films, a coherent plot is not paramount and, in this case, we are really seeing a series of vignettes expressing the human condition in a particular time and place. The story takes place in the 1917 New Orleans Storyville district. Such places, which were seen in many other big cities as well, were designated vice zones—presumably to keep them “contained”. They tended to be named after a particular alderman, whose role it was to placate a morally-outraged and fearful public. I read similar accounts of such a district in Chicago in Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul. In the opening scene, we see a closeup of Violet (Shields) watching as her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon)—one of the house whores—gives birth to a baby boy. Sarandon and Malle must have had a good working relationship because he also used her in his film, Atlantic City in 1980.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (1)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (1)

Although Violet is excited about having a baby brother, the others seem unmoved by the news. She is still considered a child but old enough to help around the house. There are other children there as well and they play together. Given the low status of prostitutes and their children, no one has any qualms about black and white children playing together or with Violet having friendly conversations with the exclusively black servants.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (2)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (2)

One day, Monsieur Bellocq (Keith Carradine) arrives and requests permission from the mistress of the house, Madam Livingston, to shoot some of the girls. Violet tries to size him up as he makes his case.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (3)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (3)

Malle has done his homework and has integrated real people and real anecdotes into his story to make it believable. E.J. Bellocq was a real photographer who seemed to have an obsession with shooting women who worked in brothels. However by all accounts, he was an ugly man and in no way resembled Carradine. Although he maintains a respectful distance from the bustle of house business, he does stick out like a sore thumb. Violet tries to chat him up to find out why he never goes upstairs with any of the girls. He gets upset when she calls him a cream puff and there is an ongoing tension between the two of them as she tries to validate that she is desirable while he has trouble opening up in this convivial environment. Shields must have been coached on her Southern accent which drops out at times in some of the more emotional scenes.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (4)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (4)

Apart from the obviously frank sexual world she was raised in, there is also the looming reality that she is growing up. In one scene, she practices her banter with one of the regulars in the joint and he plays along, but when Livingston suggests that he go upstairs with her, he is outraged and insists he was just kidding around. In another scene, her mother mentions that “she’s only for French” because of her age.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (5)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (5)

Finally comes the big night. Violet gets dolled up for her big debut and she is carried out on a platform for all the dinner guests to see before they bid on her. One of the guests indiscreetly asks what her age is and Livingston refuses to answer saying, “Do you want me to go to jail?” When I first saw this scene, it struck me how often I heard it mentioned that a girl of 12 is considered old enough to get into the “business”. Two examples come readily to mind: Sin in the Second City and Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) apparently inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Nell.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (6)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (6)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (7)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (7)

No matter how much Violet knows or practices, the first experience of intercourse is always a shock. Afterward, the ladies go upstairs to console her and Shields does a beautiful job of conveying a mixture of distress and laughter as they try to joke around about it. Despite the surface professionalism, we do see the dark side of this work.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (8)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (8)

One gets the feeling that all the younger women are pinning their hopes on meeting a man who will marry them and take them away. In order to achieve this, Hattie pretends that she and Violet are just sisters so that a prospective husband would not be turned off by the extra burden. Hattie and her new beau announce their marriage and Violet is left to fend for herself. But Hattie assures her that she will tell her husband the truth in time and come back for her later.

The title Pretty Baby itself speaks to the contradictory signals a young girl must get about being both too young and too old. In one scene, she is taking an innocent bath when Livingston shows up with a customer. In an instinctive display of modesty, she covers herself with a towel as they enter. But this is no place for that and the madam whisks away the towel so the john can see what he is paying for.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (9)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (9)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (10)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (10)

Bellocq has meanwhile become a regular fixture in the place and all the whores are quite friendly with him and have given him the nickname “Papa”. They are horsing around the house and decide to play Sardines. Violet is the first to find him and takes this moment alone to kiss him. She can finally assure the other girls that he is not a cream puff.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (11)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (11)

As mentioned before, Violet is allowed to play with all the other children, both black and white. However, there are limits. She teases the boys about being virgins and they insist they are not. She and the white boy get carried away and Violet manages to pin the little black boy down. The remarkable thing about cultural improprieties is that they are enforced equally severely by members of both races in the house.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (12)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (12)

We get small clues throughout the film that, because of her great beauty, Violet is a little spoiled. This abrupt interruption of her innocent and naive play made her angry enough to run away to stay with Bellocq. He is quite civil with her and she has to push hard to break through his barriers, but he finally gives in.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (13)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (13)

When she wakes up the next morning, he is not there but there is some food out and a note. We find out a little later that she cannot read and so did not know where he was. Here we see her share her meal with a cat.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (14)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (14)

Naturally, he makes use of this turn of events and gets her to pose for him.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (15)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (15)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (16)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (16)

It would have been easy for Malle to indulge in a little fantasy here and pretend Violet is more mature than she really is. But more realistically, she tires of all this posing and the two of them get into a fight. Another interesting detail is that she scratches up one of his glass negatives. In fact, one of the peculiar expressions of ambivalence by the real Bellocq was that most of his images were violently scratched out—perhaps a strange form of self-censorship or punishment.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (17)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (17)

She tries to return to the brothel, but there are protesters outside; it seems inevitable that this establishment is going to be shut down. Violet ups the ante by dressing up in her finest outfit and proposing marriage to Bellocq. We are given a respite from the tension of the story as the couple goes out to celebrate with the other women as they make plans for their future.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (18)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (18)

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (19)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (19)

The thing that impressed me about Malle is how skillfully he draws the audience into the plight of this young girl. Sure, Bellocq is not perfect, but for the most part, Violet has done well for herself and is a self-possessed young woman. It’s hard not to want a happy Hollywood ending for this couple, despite the ethical ambiguity. The tables are suddenly turned when Hattie and her husband show up, ready to take her to a new home. All of a sudden, she is transformed from a woman back into a little girl. The final shot is of her standing with her mother and little brother as her new stepfather takes a family snapshot at the train station.

Louis Malle - Pretty Baby (20)

Louis Malle – Pretty Baby (20)

In a sense, Malle satisfied the Hollywood censors by offering us this moral ending, but he makes no bones about keeping us in the air about what is really best for Violet. Even the business about the snapshot at the end is a kind of statement about the superficiality of conventional family life. Living the life of an artist is a rich but risky adventure—represented by the fussy and perfectionistic Bellocq—and flouts society’s conventions. While the proper family life—represented by the mundane family portrait—offers security along with a dull lifestyle which may not appeal to everyone.

This lynchpin post opens the door to some other important work involving Brooke Shields. A number of noted photographers have shot her and I intend to feature three of them here: Garry Gross, Francesco Scavullo and Steve Mills. Not all of her experiences with these artists were salutory which may be why when Shields was cast for The Blue Lagoon (1980), body doubles were used for all the nude scenes.

The Maxwell Simpson “Controversy”

I don’t ordinarily like to post family snapshots here.  Not because they aren’t artistic, but because they are generally intended to be private, and I respect that.  In this case, however, I am going to make an exception, because these images are already widespread across the web, and because they perfectly highlight the disconnect between the child welfare types and most people who take photos of children, whether for art’s sake or for personal reasons.

Recently singer Jessica Simpson posted a couple of images of her toddler-age daughter Maxwell posing in a swimsuit.  While most people find these images to be fine, there is a small minority of critics who have, as such types always do, generated a lot of controversy over nothing.  So, here are the images originally posted to Instagram (here and here):

Jessica Simpson - (Title Unknown)

Jessica Simpson – (Title Unknown)

Jessica Simpson - Kiss

Jessica Simpson – Kiss

What is immediately apparent about these images is that they are no different from perhaps millions of innocuous family photos of little girls in swimsuits that have been taken by parents nearly since the advent of photography.  The key difference is that Maxi’s mom is a celebrity, and one known for being sexually provocative as part of her act.  Are some critics perhaps transferring their impressions of her mom onto little Maxi?  Or, are they simply seeing sexual intent where it does not exist?  Either way, what it means is that, because a few people cannot look at innocent pictures of toddlers in swimsuits without thinking sexual thoughts, we are all now forced to reassess what we otherwise probably wouldn’t have given a second glance to, and to actively consider the sexuality of this three-year-old.

There is the problem with the child sexualization debate in a nutshell, and it has repercussions for the debate over child pornography.  If the interpretation of whether something is child pornography is about perception rather than content, as some legal experts argue it does, then the very act of considering whether such an image is sexual makes sex offenders of us all.

Officer Friendly: Did you look at the image of the child puckering her lips and think any sort of sexual thoughts?

Viewer: Well, yes, but . . .

Officer Friendly: Well, then, you are under arrest.  You have the right to . . .

If this scenario strikes you as absurd, consider that there have been cases where people were arrested for owning or producing what would’ve otherwise been perfectly legal images simply because others perceived those images to be pornographic.  When it comes to borderline images like nude shots of children, intent is everything in law.  Which is why it is important that we challenge this mindset at every opportunity, in the name of legal precedent.

 

 

Before there was Facebook

It is now commonplace with digital cameras and social media for young people to express themselves. Some of these expressions are controversial and have lead to debates about personal freedom versus protection. When new technological developments become ubiquitous, it is hard for the new generation to imagine what life was like before. How did we ever manage?

I came upon this image on a sales site and just had to keep it in my files. I find it curiously compelling and I was especially delighted to learn that the photograph was shot by a child and there were once organizations promoting the development of artistic expression in children.

(Artist Unknown) - From The Child as Artist Exhibition (1967)

(Artist Unknown) – From ‘The Child as Artist’ Exhibition (1967)

I was intrigued by the following commentary:

This is a black-and-white print of one of the 28 color photographs in an exhibit entitled THE CHILD AS ARTIST adjacent to the theater in the U.S. Pavilion at EXPO 67. The attached 8 × 10-inch glossy and the four-foot color prints on display are enlargements from 3¼ × 4¼-inch Polaroid Land Polacolor photos snapped by children who previously had never used a camera. The 8 to 12-year-old youngsters from the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City shot the pictures on display and many others during a six-week summertime course aimed at “teaching them to ‘see’, to recognize and use visual language—color, shape, relationship of forms and content.” Disciplining their ability to “see” was done through the viewfinder of an instant-picture Polaroid Land camera which their instructor, professional photographer Miss Susan Wood, selected “as a teaching tool because they could see their results in 60 seconds and improve by reshooting on the spot.”
The 28 enlargements in THE CHILD AS ARTIST exhibit were made and donated by Modernage Color, Inc., of New York.

I asked an associate to look further into this but the current staff at the Henry Street Settlement were unable to add anything substantive and nothing else is known of Wood. Some arts programs are being offered at the Abrons Art Center which is associated with Henry Street such as: Big spaces/big art, Saturday morning cartoons, Fragmenting Realities: Still and moving digital images and Studio collectives. However, none of these programs offer anything similar in scope and breadth to the “freelance” or “street” photography genre that had been previously offered. Of course, the logic may be that with the proliferation of digital cameras and phone cameras (and tightening arts budgets), there is little benefit to a supervised program like this. In those days, 60-second photography was an exciting innovation; today, it pales in comparison to Photoshop and instant messaging.