Difficult Loves

Notes on Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches Espana

It tends to blur in my mind now: what happened and did not. the streets for the first time, the days, the nights, the sky above me, the stones stretching beyond. I seem to remember looking up a lot, as if searching the sky for some lack, some surplus, something that made it different from other skies, as if the sky could explain the things I was seeing around me. …

After much careful study, I can safely report that the sky here is the same sky as the one above you.

Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things”

In a short address before Buenas Noches España, Raya Martin apologized in advance to those who were “sensitive to light or sound”. Apparently an apology wasn’t enough to keep people from leaving not less than ten minutes into the film. By the end, approximately 60 people had walked out of the theatre for (what could only be presumed to be) “various reasons”, sensitivity to light and sound no doubt being among them.

The synopsis from the program of the 10th Spanish Film Festival described Buenas Noches Espana as the story of a couple that mysteriously teleported from contemporary Spain to the Philippines under colonial rule. Instead, what could be passed as a plot gave us two people taking the scenic route to the Museum of Fine Art in Bilbao, where they look at studies from Juan Luna’s Spolarium. Quick cuts and repetitions layered what was otherwise a spare (and arguably absent) narrative, and whatever coherence can be derived from the film had to be picked out from beneath and entire silo of edits and a droning score provided by Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia.

To top it all off, it is impossible to distinguish if what you are watching is in black and white, or color. Of course this matters granted the kind of mood evoked by either option; but by negating either option, Buenas Noches maintains its status as an object. Light and sound, check; plot, incidental. Allowing that blank to be filled in by whatever is being evoked.

When it comes to evoking an experience or an emotion by way of an object though, your mind can only go as far back as a place where it’s already been. And this is one of the bitter truths about our own small lives which fiction easily remedies. We immerse ourselves in other people’s stories because they fill in the blanks in our own. It is in the absence of these stories that any form of creative output becomes “difficult”.

The general consensus is that there is nothing wrong with difficult art—with the label “art” sometimes being affirmed by its difficulty. But there is that other implication that the only difficulty worth enduring is that over which we can smugly proclaim our victory; fact is another person’s creative output does not owe you, the viewer, any favors. The door stays open and you’re free to go, but to do so would miss the whole point of having been there in the first place.

It’s possible that Martin’s film was recognized as coming from that same place where so much disdain for art/Art comes from; that place where we are free to throw the “elitist” and “pretentious” cards. But to define an object as a work of art would be to recognize the set of instructions implicit in its use. We know this much about film: we know that we’re supposed to watch what happens onscreen, and to look for movements in the plot, and this is what has come to define the “viewing experience”. It sounds simple enough, but the tensions between those words become apparent when one considers the entire universe of difference between viewing and experiencing. Heck, you don’t even have to dip too far into your vocabulary for film to understand that “seeing things” means both looking and making it up, while “screen” means both to conceal and to present. And if a movie can tel you that much, is it worth walking out on?

This is where the uses of art and the way we understand words comes into debate: while there is nothing flat about our realities, there is an undeniable flattening when it comes to the way we experience it. From this, the idea of teleportation can come to mean as little as closing one’s eyes or limiting one’s field of vision to the frame of a painting. Or a gallery. Or a darkened cinema. That and giving oneself over to the truth that our experience of the world is limited to these tiny moments which restrict us from going any further into the future than anyone else has ever been. In fact, why do we need to insert teleportation into a narrative in order to blow our minds, when the simple act of asking how we got here in the first place is enough as it is?

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