Back to the Future: "Androids Dream" and "El Futuro"

Exploring two art-house gems from emerging voices in Spanish cinema, one a Philip K. Dick adaptation, the other a 1980s party film.
Michael Pattison

MUBI will be exclusively showing El Futuro April 11 - May 10 and Androids Dream April 12 - May 11, 2016 . 

From this very moment, I want to appeal to the political forces, the institutions, the autonomous regions, provincial and local councils, unions, business corporations, the media, and to every sector of national daily life so they feel integrated and support this collective mission: to consolidate democracy in Spain and to overcome the economic crisis… No citizen should feel alienated by this beautiful mission of modernization, progress, and solidarity.

—Felipe González, Spanish general election victory speech, 1982 

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick  

A siren sounds and a man is shot. Before that, buildings—and plenty. The first five minutes of Ion de Sosa’s Androids Dream are everything. A chase sequence, a ruthless execution, the hum of some distant generator. But for a solitary human figure in the thirteenth shot, however, the opening 37 contain nothing but skyscrapers: if not their leaky, moribund interiors, then their tessellating rooftops, arranged in method-madness harmony and framed with postcard precision. Between these Jenga stacks, roads of uniform gray, eerily inanimate like in a still photograph or on a preschool playmat. Urban planning sponsored by Fisher Price—and colored in by a six-year-old whose felt-tips selection was limited to red and yellow and pink and green.

In many respects, this is a pretend city. Located on the Costa Blanca coastline in Southeast Spain, Benidorm was a fishing village with a population of 3,000 in the 1950s. In the seventh year of that decade, the then town mayor Pedro Zaragoza initiated Spain’s first General Plan for Urban Organization—a comprehensive blueprint for transforming Benidorm into a fully functional tourist hub. When he died in April 2008, one obituary pointed out that Zaragoza “faced excommunication from the Catholic Church for introducing the bikini to Spanish beaches. But he won Francisco Franco’s blessing, and in the depths of the dictatorship, this engaging operator arguably brought more sunshine and fun into the lives of ordinary folk than anyone else in Spain.”

Zaragoza’s idea was to build up rather than out: “If you build low, you occupy all the space and have a long walk to the beach. If you build high, you can face the sea, and leave room for gardens, pools and tennis courts.” As of 2014, Benidorm’s population was 69,000 (half a million each summer), with a density of 4,000 people per square mile. It has more high-rises per capita than anywhere in the world, and enjoys—for better and worse—a reputation for binge-drinking Brits seeking sun, simulacra and brief respites from their insufferable working year. With tourism more prone than ever to snobberies and other tenets of class war, no resort lends itself more readily to judgment, criticism, parody, disdain. A sanctuary for topless tanning and kitschy excess, Benidorm goes by the name of Little Manhattan—after another city whose own jaggedly ambitious skyline was formed by means of overnight construction booms.  

On first appearance, Androids Dream is a contemplative landscape film rather than some kinetic urban thriller. There’s no reason, of course, why a film can’t be both—and for this sparse, minimalist interpretation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), de Sosa and fellow scriptwriters Chema García Ibarra and Jorge Gil Munarriz re-map the bare necessities of Philip K. Dick’s novel (lonely rooftops, abandoned apartments, perfunctory murder) onto a preexisting historical terrain. Whereas Ridley Scott felt he had to create a Dickian cityscape when adapting the same novel into Blade Runner (1982), de Sosa—working on a comparative shoestring—had to find one.

Benidorm does fine. Though Androids Dream’s setting (“The Earth, 2052”) is ostensibly futuristic, its otherworldly feel is rooted in old media and oral traditions: in its 4:3 framing and 16mm glow, and in that unexpectedly moving acapella rendition of “En la provincia de Jaca”—which our protagonist (Manolo Marín), a bounty hunter hired to off androids impersonating humans, belts out while driving along the N-332 highway (framed against the Torre Intempo, the tallest residential building in Europe and another of Spain’s many botched cloud-touching vanity projects). While Harrison Ford’s Deckart had an origami unicorn to cue us of his possibly fabricated memory system, Marín’s unsympathetic assassin sings a song about an old garrison town in Northeast Spain with strangely pathetic gusto, as if he’s a little too keen to tether himself to an authentic past (“She was so beautiful / Everyone would throw her their hats”).

De Sosa shot Androids Dream across three consecutive Octobers, and in many ways the film is a document of life during Benidorm’s less hectic off-season. Tableaux vivants depict local pensioners posing proudly with various paraphernalia in their own time-frozen dwellings: flamenco garb, patterned crockery, an inexplicably large fairground teddy propped up on a living-room chair. Later, we encounter the neon-splattered gay bars and geriatric discos of a phantom city—fringe quarters ditched by younger generations understandably seeking securities and certainties elsewhere. Many of the protagonist’s victims are found enduring the menial dead-ends of the service sector: print shops, kitchens, hotels. It’s almost as if they’re being put out of their misery; Spain’s unemployment rate rose from 19% to 23% between 2010 and 2014.

De Sosa was born in 1981, a year before Blade Runner’s release and, more significantly, a year before Felipe González—General Secretary of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party—won the country’s second general election after Franco’s death in 1975. González’s success (he remains Spain’s longest-serving President, having served from 1982 to 1996) is the explicit starting point of El Futuro, the debut feature by Luis López Carrasco. The latter film opens with the radio announcement, over a black screen, of González’s victory—with a snippet of his victory speech—before cutting to the interior of an apartment in which, across the next sixty or so minutes, a motley crew of twenty- and thirty-somethings revel the night away. 

That López Carrasco was also born in 1981 is as unsurprising as his producer credit on Androids Dream: both films share a built-in melancholy in responding to the austerity measures currently plaguing Spain. If de Sosa’s film employs contemporary landscapes to evoke some near-future catastrophe (a plausible strategy when your economy’s already in the toilet), El Futuro is a wryly-named evocation of an all-too-brief moment in Spanish history—the democratic election of a socialist government following decades under fascist rule—when young people had something to celebrate.

The links deepen. As Nicholas Vroman’s article in the May 2016 issue of Sight & Sound notes, “López Carrasco and de Sosa were students together at ECAM (Madrid Film School) and were neighbors in Madrid and Berlin, where de Sosa now lives.” In addition, de Sosa was director of photography on El Futuro—which might account for why the house-party conveyed in that film could feasibly be set in one of the abandoned apartment blocks of Androids Dream: it has that same 16mm grain, which tends to brighten the image, immortalizing the apartment’s décor and the actors’ sartorial choices in an ersatz shimmer—the wooden furniture, the stray wires, the drearily authentic lighting, the denim and period mustaches. It’s the kind of shindig at which Manolo Marín’s bounty hunter would fit right in—finding time in this utopian frolic, perhaps, to mingle with those doomed androids he might on another day gun down.

On first viewing it’s the soundtrack that grabs you. On second, those haunting, lingering silences that follow the party itself, when the blemishes of the film stock begin to take hold and something unsavory, like a hangover, begins to kick in. But on a third viewing—and a fourth—El Futuro is also striking for those moments in which López Carrasco (and de Sosa, as cinematographer) captures the individual faces of people trying to fit in, find a place, partake in this suddenly collective project to make things work. And they all overdo it. No democracy, we know, can be taken for granted.

Ambiguity, inscrutability: vulnerability and strength. For all the persuasive depictions of people coming together in El Futuro, these fleeting, candid moments in which we see their apparent solitude are even more powerful. Rushing to a computer to file a dispatch after seeing its world-premiere one morning during the Locarno Film Festival in 2013, headily infected by the film’s romantic haze, I wrote: “At one point, just before the film’s midway interlude of still photographs [family albums from the Franco era]—to the beguiling sound of Aviador Dro’s ‘Nuclear Si’—I became transfixed by one image in particular, of a young woman, perhaps my own age. Framed in profile to the left of the image, she listens, watches, smiles. She is beautiful and makes me want to be there and to know her. Perhaps in some alternative future, I might. "

Here, the partygoers are an essentially lonely bunch, their chitchat repeatedly drowned out by a succession of new wave songs whose synthetic, pioneering sound comes today with a dynamic, inescapably bittersweet melancholy. Consider Linear Movement’s “Night in June,” which could have easily been the theme song of Blade Runner: “You took my hand, you called my name / You knew I’d heard everything you do / I love your face and I like your smile / When I’m in love I just call for you.” Try hearing or reading that simple switch between past-tense finality and present-tense optimism without feeling a pang of passing. A joy dimmed is not defeated. 

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Ion de SosaLuis López Carrasco
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