Spain under Generalísimo Francisco Franco was an ideological and experiential break with the vibrant culture of the Second Spanish Republic. But it was precisely during these moments of expressive impossibility that the real visionaries emerged. During the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, two Spanish directors shined. The first was Luis Buñuel, whose film Viridiana challenged the static state of the Spanish cinema. The second was José Val del Omar, whose film Feugo en Castilla [Fire in Castile] showed that the senses in Spain were still awake, in spite of all the drowsiness. Val del Omar’s film work survived under the constant, ignorant gaze of censorship, hidden away in his house laboratory or “garden of machines,” as he called it. For almost four decades his vision dug deeper under the surface of the regime, expanding further beyond the boundaries of the screen. In this way, too, his work creates a temporal nexus, gesturing towards a distant future.
Anthology Film Archives pays homage to Val del Omar with a retrospective that chronologically explores the three main elements of his work: his interest in pedagogy and human perception, his cosmic vision of the world, and his technical experimentation with sound and image. The first program explores Val del Omar’s first encounters with the moving image while working as a cinematographer and projectionist for the Pedagogical Missions sponsored by the Second Spanish Republic. These missions were an attempt by the government to fight illiteracy in rural Spain by expanding “the communication of culture.” Not content to offer a standard institutional education, they instead promoted the development of subjective cultural perception.
Estampas [Scenes] (1932) and Fiestas Cristianas/Fiestas Paganas [Christian Feasts/Secular Feasts] (1935) both comprise portraits, extreme closeups of objects, panoramic views of the landscape, and low-angle shots of religious imagery, among other images of rural Spain. The advanced cinematic language of these films shows how Val del Omar was starting to investigate the capacity of cinema to develop human visuality. He was interested in its value as a kinesthetic pedagogical tool that could connect audiences physically through the senses. In his films, viewing becomes an active participation where human perception is at the center.
Val del Omar develops this further in his Elementary Triptych of Spain (1953 – 95), the subject of the retrospective’s second program. This series actually comprises four films: its first film, which is not part of the triptych, is Vibración de Granada [Vibration of Granada] (1935), which opens with images of the Alhambra palace and closeups of the water that runs through its canals and fountains combined with impressions from the lower part of the city and its people. Although the film is silent, the murmur of the water is constantly present and mentally reconstructed. Under the external appearance of a documentary, this film-poem cautiously emerges as an early example of Val del Omar’s multisensory cinema.
Later on, the triptych continues on this journey, crossing Spain diagonally from west to east. Val del Omar is not documenting anymore; he is unfolding a multisensory cinematic space.
Just as Germaine Dulac envisioned a “pure cinema” based solely on movement and rhythm, Val del Omar understood cinema as a non-narrative cinegraphic experience composed of both visuals and sound. In Aguaespejo Granadino [Water-mirror of Granada] (1953 – 55) the architecture of the Alhambra and the water of its canals, fountains, and gardens dance with the rhythm of siguiriya (one of the oldest flamenco styles from cante jondo, which means “deep song”). In between, a parade of bodies marches in symbiotic relation with the water and the landscape. Sections of the film are toned in Omeya green (one of the historical colors of Granada), accentuating the connection between the images and the multisensory past of the city. The film was enhanced by Val del Omar’s diaphonic sound, technique in which sounds are combined in opposition and collision by situating one sound source behind the screen and another with non-diegetic sounds behind the audience.
In Fire in Castile (1958 – 60) Val del Omar continued the technical exploration of his polysensorial cinema, while developing his own vocabulary to describe it. First, he expanded the image with what he called the “apanoramic” overflowing of the image: a simultaneous concentric double projection that surpassed the limits of the screen. This would combine the image of the foveal area of the traditional screen and the extra-foveal image that unfolded along the walls of the theater. And although the films will be stripped of their diaphonic sound and apanoramic projection at Anthology, they still operate in a peculiar intimate space with the audience and their sensorium. Secondly, Val del Omar gives dimension to the religious sculptures from the National Museum of Valladolid and the Castilian Holy Week parade through his “tactile vision” technique, which was based on the illumination through filters drawn with geometrical shapes creating what Val del Omar called “temporal cubic perspective.” This technique recreates texture cinematically evoking the emotion that these sculptures inspire. The vibrancy of Val del Omar’s textural “cinema of the senses” involves the body in the act of seeing, requiring an embodied response in tune with Gunning’s “cinema of attractions,” where the image provokes an immediate bodily response.
Acariño Galaico (de Barro) [Galician Caress (of Clay)] (1961/95) is the least technical film of the triptych and was finalized posthumously. The mysterious and magical soul of Galicia is encapsulated in a combination of negative and positive images, which observe the landscapes of clay and stone of the region, its traditions, and the local sculptor Arturo Baltar. It is more focused on the structural capacities of montage than the other two. Val del Omar envisioned a rhizomatic structure with interconnected sections that can be accessed at any point allowing multiple experiences around the same object. The viewer makes decisions and opens sensorially to the point of becoming an experiential co-editor. Hence, the concatenation of disorganized images evokes a visual pleasure that takes over the desires of narrative.
Originally Val Del Omar envisioned a fourth short film called Ojala [Hope], which would function as an annex of the other three films, but which never materialized.
The title of the retrospective’s final program, “Never Ending,” refers to the closing sentence of all of Val del Omar’s films, which reads “sin fin,” or “without end,” instead of “the end.” This is yet another of his attempts to experientially overflow the screen and kinesthetically stimulate intuition. Variaciones Sobre una Granada [Variations on a Pomegranate] (1975) combines detailed images of the red pomegranate flesh, kaleidoscopic visions composed with optical devices and multiple lumic and color techniques. It is a cinegraphic textural still-life that continues Val del Omar’s investigations into cinema’s capacity to have an immediate effect on the human body as a whole. Tira Tu Reloj al Agua [Throw Your Watch Into the Water] (2004), by Eugeni Bonet, is a re-assemblage of unedited Val del Omar footage—a restructured mosaic of images that follow an internal rhythm composed by Bonet.
The new composition code and technical investigations developed by Val del Omar transform experience into a playful dream that unfolds the power of perception and the supremacy of his cinema of sensations. It is a neverending cinema that reconstructs itself over and over again in the subject’s perceptual space. In Fire in Castile, Val del Omar claimed that “whoever loves, burns. Whoever burns, flies at the speed of light. Because loving is to become what one loves.” Here, Val del Omar is proposing a mimetic game, where the viewer gets so close to the film that they become one with it.
“Distant Touch: José Val del Omar” runs March 16 – 19 at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Avenue, New York).