Tenemos 18 aņos

I have a question for the folks at the Criterion Collection.

First of all, before I ask, let me say thanks for all the high-quality DVDs you've put out of some of the classics, great and small, of world cinema. Thanks, too, for your efforts to preserve and restore films before they are lost forever — your work is worth of the hefty price we have to pay for your disks. And thanks again for bringing the Criterion treatment to the Warhol/Morrissey horror flicks, and to classic B-movies like Fiend Without a Face, The Blob, and the four films of the Monsters and Madmen collection (though I feel I need to point out that four of the B-movies I just mentioned were all produced by the same guy, making your choices seem a little... I don't know... incestuous, I guess). So anyway... thanks.

But my question is this: if you're really, truly interested in preserving the rich history of cinema, and helping us DVD consumers understand the art form and its capabilities... then where the hell are your Jess Franco disks?

Oh, don't look at me with that mock-outrage on your faces. After all, you've released movies by Michael Bay. Yes, I know: he's on the board, and he's got the money to invest in worthy projects... but you know perfectly well where he got all that money. He got it through movies like Armageddon... which you yourselves released! I mean, come on, guys — Arma-fucking-geddon! Now there's a movie that's closer to cinematic prostitution than any cheap hardcore movie Jess Franco ever did to fulfill a contractual obligation.

And yes, I do know that some of Franco's best work has already been released by other companies, and I do know that a lot of his other films are either hardcore sex films or are so erratically filmed that they're nearly unwatchable. And some are both. So what? Franco is an important voice in 20th century cinema, whether you choose to admit it or not.

Let me put it in slightly higher-brow terms that you might be persuaded to understand: in the mid-20th century, a number of artists including the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and the Hungarian poet György Faludy expressed their disgust over the fact that many so-called "experimental" artists were more concerned with their experiments than in actually producing successful results. Their opinions were initially met with scorn, but over time it's become apparent that their critiques ring true — at least for most art forms. But cinema is a little different. Movies are too complex: they require too many people's involvement and too much of other people's money to be simply discarded if they fail (Tarkovsky himself worked for most of his career within the Soviet studio system, which ironically gave him a great deal more freedom from production difficulties than directors in the West). Most movie-makers don't have the luxury of making films for their desk drawers. Thus, if you're a relentless experimenter like Franco, who never wants to rely on the established rules even to make a quickie porn flick, your failed attempts are probably going to be released, and will become part of your permanent legacy... because your producers need to get at least some of their money back. So yes, it's true that a large percentage of Franco's output is probably undeserving of your consideration, albeit for the best of reasons.

But oh, the rest!

I tell you what, Criterion. I'll even make it a little easier for you: I can recommend a perfect film for you to restore, subtitle and release to general acclaim and astonishment. It's Franco's very first feature: a stylish, technically-accomplished, formally-daring comedy called Tenemos 18 años (We Are 18 Years Old).

I know, I know... today that title makes it sound like a porn film; and since Franco's made more than a few of those, it's easy to see why you might be apprehensive about it. Well, you needn't. Tenemos 18 años is a surprisingly innocent movie from the man who went on to be labeled the world's second most dangerous film-maker by the Vatican.

Terrence and Philip in drag?
The story, such as it is, concerns two 18-year-old students in Madrid, the idealistic, Shirleyish Maria-José and the down-to-earth, Laverne-like Pili, who are collaborating on a sort of "How I Spent My Winter Vacation" story. The girls have bought an ancient, broken-down car (painted bright yellow, no less) from their untrustworthy sad-sack of a cousin, Mariano (played by goggle-eyed comedian Antonio Ozores). They'd intended to go together for a trip down south, to see the sights and have some adventures. Unfortunately, the girls are too poor to have any real adventures, so they make up for the tedium of their daily lives by inventing bizarre episodes and writing them down.

For example: no sooner do have (fictional) Maria-José and Pili set off in their yellow death-trap — with their baggage, a lantern and a live owl in the back — when they simultaneously get lost and break down. Along comes a batty old lady on a bicycle (Ozores in drag). Daintly, the old lady reaches under the hood of the car and fixes it. Then she rides away, humming to herself. Except this little episode doesn't seem vivid enough to Pili, who rewrites it: this time the old lady is a violent lunatic, who attacks the engine with a hammer and pulls out lengths of cable and hose with her teeth before riding away, cursing.

Ozores also pops up in the girls' imaginary adventures as a charming car thief, who leaves them temporarily without a vehicle. Why anyone, even Ozores in any guise, would want to steal the old heap is anybody's guess... but in any case, the robbery forces the girls to take other picturesque methods of transportation, giving us a nice picture-postcard view of Southern Spain. Eventually, by coincidence, the girls recognize their owl cage hanging in a window, and are able to "steal" their car back.

But these little vignettes are just warm-ups for the three extended sequences that form the heart of the film. In these sequences, the girls (not to mention Franco) get to indulge their imaginations, and stretch their storytelling skills as far as they will go. The first of these sequences is a mock gangster film: an exaggerated mafia-type comes across the girls in a forest clearing, where they've camped after one of their innumerable breakdowns. Needing an escape vehicle — even an unreliable one — the gangster kidnaps Maria-José and Pili at gunpoint, and forces them to drive him and his loot to the seacoast. Just as he's about to make his escape, maria-Jos— grabs his breifcase full of money and runs off down the beach. In a series of shots alternating dramatic distance-shots with closer shots, in typical gangster-movie style, the mobster chases after her with pistols blazing. At the last moment, a soldier from the border patrol sees what's happening and shoots the criminal dead. The villain falls theatrically into the pounding surf...

Of course, gangster movies are easy to rip off, and the humor of this first episode is perhaps a little thin. Not to worry; the girls are just getting started. It's with the second extended episode that things really start to get interesting. This is the point at which the film suddenly and unexpectedly turns into... a Jess Franco movie!

Damn it, now you're giving me that look again. You're probably thinking: what else would it be besides a Jess Franco movie? Jess Franco made it. Well, not so fast! remember, Tenemos 18 años was Franco's feature film debut. The whole idea of the "Jess Franco movie" as we know it today (some 200 movies later) didn't exist yet. And that's what makes it so remarkable: the young Franco seems to be quoting himself, from movies that wouldn't be made for many years.

All along there have been some amazingly prescient moments — for example, when Maria-José first runs into her cousin Mariano, she's humming "Amor, amor", the song that later turned up as the first nightclub number in Gritos en la noche/The Awful Doctor Orloff four years later. A scene in which a professor lectures a disinterested class looks forward to many such scenes in Franco's output, in which a Person of Authority gradually lapses into total meaninglessness... the most famous example probably being the English-language version of the reading of the will in A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Even the idea of two women setting off on a dangerous, slightly surreal journey would become a trademark of Franco's early films: witness Labios Rojos, Bésame, Monstruo, Sadisterotica, etc., all the way on up to the recent Seda Roja.

But these are only hints of the Franco that was to come. Once the second major episode of Tenemos... arrives, the Jess Franco film is born (though admittedly, there are some Franco tendencies we won't see in a film of this vintage, since both the zoom lens and the crotch shot came slightly later in cinema history). The girls come up with this part of the story when they're slightly drunk after a party: after yet another breakdown, Ozores shows up again as the masked and disfigured Lord Marian, who "rescues" the girls in his horse-drawn coach ("Lord Marian" would pop up again in the 70's in Franco's Noche de los assassinos; the horse and coach, meanwhile, seem to look forward to El Conde Dracula — as does a later "attack" by a stuffed bird). Lord Marian takes them to his strangely-familiar castle (its most famous tenant would be Dr. Orloff, but it would also appear at least in external shots in several other Franco films). Once in his crumbling mansion, Lord Marian tells the girls his terrible story: how, as a child (cue the flashback), he was cursed by moon-madness... in a disconcerting moment, an equally goggle-eyed baby begins giggling in Ozores's voice. Later on, Marian-as-a-boy asks his grandfather to tell him a story, and when the story fails to amuse him, he pulls out a revolver and shoots the old man dead.

Then, as a young man, Lord Marian meets a beautiful singer and loses his heart to her. For the first and only time in his life, he believes himself to be happy, and free of his madness. But the showgirl gets tired of him and his money, and dumps him. Marian goes completely insane: first he strangles the woman; afterwards, obsessed with his lost love, Marian travels around the world strangling other young women who remind him of her. His crimes are punctuated by headlines from the local newspapers: first the London Times... then, in some cartoony version of Arabia, by an Arabic newspaper... in America, by Indian smoke signals... and in Africa, by native drums. Finally, in 1920's New York, a flapper girl in a speakeasy sings him a song about the moon, leading him to think he has found his soulmate at last. But the girl isn't pleased by his attentions, and throws a bottle of sulfuric acid in his face.

Here starts the grand Franco tradition of madmen abducting showgirls to satisfy their twisted compulsions. Although the sequence is played for laughs, it's not far removed from the queasy delirium of his genuine horror films. It's all here: the crazy camera angles; the nightclub scenes; the odd cuts away to closeups of the architecture and decor; the throbbing, atonal music (improvised by Franco himself); and of course, the tormented loony at the center of it all, no less disturbing for being played by a broad comedian.

After this tour de force, this amazing bit of insanity, anything that follows would have to be something of a let-down. The third and final extended episode is a melodramatic re-imagining of the first one: the girls find and excaped bank robber unconscious outside their tent. Unlike the first episode's gangster, the robber is too weak to chase the girls; and instead of trying to run away, Maria-José and Pili decide to help him.

Each of the stories so far has ended up with Maria-José put in some form of dire peril: in the first she is nearly shot, and in the second she is killed with a sword-cane. But the third is the most painful of all for her, as she begins to grow attached to the desperate fugitive — an attachment that only leads to tragedy in the episode's conclusion.

This is rather serious, even sentimental territory for a Jess Franco film of any vintage, so it's hardly surprising that once the last imaginary episode comes to an end, Maria-José decides to stop imagining her adventures and get on with being alive. Dismissing her stories as child's-play, she and her new fiancé scatter the pages to the winds, including a page bearing the enormous word FIN.

But instead of finishing the story (or stories), Franco was really scattering pages he'd chase for the rest of his life. And that's why I urge you, oh Criterion, to hurry up and release this first film by one of the most important names in the true history of cinema. And you'd better hurry, because at the rate other adventurous DVD companies are turning out Franco disks, you may find yourself with nothing left to release. Either that, or you'll be left with a few titles like Fellations Sauvages, which might look a little out-of-place next to the Bergmans and Viscontis.

So come on, guys: let's not make this one of those dreary Posthumous (hypo-)Critical Re-evaluations. It's depressing when the arbiters of what is considered good in art wait until a controversial artist is dead before granting him or her the attention they deserve... look at the directors Fukasaku and Fulci, for example. While they were still alive, the international critics could barely be convinced to look past the first two letters of their names ("F-U"). Once they were good and dead, all that changed. At least there are some people who are starting to recognize Franco while he's still alive and can appreciate it. And while I doubt if he'd care whether you recognized him or not, for the sake of your own dignity I'm begging you: do it sooner, rather than later.

Franco embodies three traits that are sorely lacking in today's film industry (as exemplified by, say, Michael Bay): imagination, originality and courage. True, these traits can come together to produce a really sucky movie... but I say, better a good honest suck than the joyless dry-hump we get so often from the movies these days. Now's your chance to reaffirm these traits for yourselves: bring Jess Franco into your catalog, and acknowledge a part of cinema history that must no longer be overlooked.

And so it begins...

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