Adolpho Arrietta’s Queer 1970s: Les Intrigues de Sylvia Couski (1974) and Tam-Tam (1976)

February 7, 2018
Juan A. Suárez
7 Feb 2018

Its American origins made it unsuitable to Spain’s cultural isolation during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975) and to the prevalence of Spanish cultural motifs in underground works. At the same time, the term’s foreign origin aptly revealed the Spanish underground’s assimilation of various strands of French and Anglo-American experimental culture—the writing and cinema of Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet, the underground comics, the New York underground cinema, the writing of the Beat Generation, psychedelia, and rock (especially progressive, glam, and punk, all of which had Spanish homegrown versions).[1] In addition, the ‘under’ in underground describes well the conditions under which Spanish countercultural artists worked through the 1970s: artisanally, collaboratively, and semi-clandestinely; they disseminated their unconventional, anti-authoritarian work through marginal channels, such as mimeographed fanzines and cheaply produced periodicals, cinema clubs, small galleries and exhibition spaces, bars, clubs, and performance venues. These channels usually managed to elude surveillance, but they were selectively targeted by the authorities. Artists, editors, and organizers of cultural events ended up enduring censorship, fines, closings, police beatings and jail terms, even in the aftermath of Franco’s death. Still, despite the repressive tenor of the times, the underground enjoyed an astonishing vitality and a considerable following. Pau Malvido, one of the scene’s best chroniclers, pointed out in 1976 that “in Spain, or whatever we want to call this peninsula, there is a lot of ‘underground’ culture. . . . Here, all that is true has been made under the ground, because on the more visible surface there will continue to be a mind-numbing television, a cartoonish political scene, a stark separation between the bosses and those bossed around.”[2]

The underground was not an exclusively queer development, whether in Spain or elsewhere, but one of its most visible ingredients was its unconventional sexual politics. Spanish underground magazines like Ajoblanco and Star, devoted to alternative culture and politics, published queer comics, reported on the emerging sexual liberation, reviewed queer experimental film, and their “Contacts” sections reflected a broad sexual range. The two-day anarchist festival (“Jornadas libertarias”) in Barcelona in 1977 included a deranged drag show by painter-performer Ocaña, comic book artist Nazario, and some of their friends; and the Canet Rock festival, a Spanish “gathering of the tribes” celebrated yearly between 1975 and 1978, was held in an atmosphere of sexual freedom, with groups of men attending in drag and performers like Pau Riba flirting with gender ambiguity. A short list of queer artists active in these underground scenes, besides Nazario and Ocaña, would include writer Eduardo Haro Ibars, whose book Gay Rock (1975) glossed the glam phenomenon for Spanish audiences and highlighted its confluence with gay and lesbian liberation; punk bands like Kaka de Luxe, and filmmakers Iván Zulueta, Pedro Almodóvar, who started shooting in 8mm and Super-8 in the mid-seventies; and Adolpho Arrietta.

Born in Madrid in 1942, Arrietta (originally spelled Arrieta), painted and made movies from his adolescence. After failing the entrance exam to Spain’s only cinema school, he started to make personal narratives with a second-hand 16mm Kodak purchased in a street market. These were purely amateur efforts assisted by friends such as painter Juan Guiralt and actor-collaborator-companion Javier Grandes, whose performing career was solely restricted to Arrietta’s productions.[3] Arrietta’s first two films, El crimen de la pirindola (1965) and Imitación del ángel (1967), which incorporates footage from two aborted projects, are haunting, elusive stories filmed in black and white; they combine Cocteau’s poetic surrealism, Jean Genet’s outsider (a)morality, and Arrietta’s own fascination with enigmatic angelic figures. According to historians Llorenç Soler and Joaquim Romaguera, these films made its author an isolated pioneer in Madrid[4] at a time when marginal film production was concentrated in Barcelona.

Imitación del ángel closes with one of its protagonists (played by Grandes) taking a train to Paris, something that the actor did in real life after completing the film. He was followed there by Arrietta, who remained in France for the next two decades. Only in the late 1980s would he start producing work in Spain again, when he was commissioned an episode (Kiki) of the series Delirios de amor for Spanish national television (TVE). Arrietta’s lengthy exile, which he claims was more aesthetically than politically motivated, was far from unusual. Many other experimental filmmakers and video artists who came of age in the 1960s developed much of their careers outside of Spain, escaping from the repressive military dictatorship and early transition governments, and looking for more favorable artistic and social milieus.

Arrietta evidently found such a milieu in Paris. El crimen de la pirindola was shown at the Cinematheque Française and he was quickly adopted by Marie Meerson, Henri Langlois’s main collaborator there, and by Cahiers du cinema critics Jean-Pierre Biesse and Jean-André Fieschi, who remained steady supporters in years to come. Arrietta’s following two films benefitted from a growing circle of friends and acquaintances in the Paris film intelligentsia. Le Jouet criminal (1969) featured Cocteau’s star and lover Jean Marais, with whom Arrietta became friends; future novelist Florence Delay, who had acted in Robert Bresson’s Procès de Jean D’Arc (1962); and Michèle Moretti, one of Marc O’s main performers. And Le Chateau du Pointilly (1972), later renamed Pointilly, starred Françoise Lebrun, a performer in Jean Eustace’s and Margarite Duras’s films, and Dyonis Mascolo, Margarite Duras’s former partner and later on an actor in Jean-Luc Godard’s films as well as her own.

Read the rest of the essay here.

Image: Marie France. Les Intrigues de Sylvia Cousky, Adolpho Arrietta, 1974.