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Vikings or cowboys, tough guys. In cinema, until recently,

 men were only this” [1]


An interview with Cesc Gay about masculinities and Catalan cinema.

Cristina Fernández Recasens & Antonio Terrón Barroso


The characters of your last three films—A Gun in Each Hand, Truman and The People Upstairs—seem to share some traits when representing masculinity. Was this a major topic for you right from the start or did you have another starting point?

 In the case of A Gun in Each Hand, definitely. It is a film made from five stories centred on the fact that men are idiots when it comes to our emotional part, with how we relate to what we feel, how we repress ourselves through all that we cannot express. The film addresses this idea from its very title and the five stories I made also revolve around it, around the fear of losing pride, for example, and how men cope with it. The actors surprised me a lot because they took a very fast lead, exactly because of that, because it was challenging for them... I remember some conversations I had with some of them. It is not easy for a male actor, especially for powerful actors such as Ricardo Darín, Eduard Fernandez, Eduardo Noriega, Lluis Tosar... They usually act as strong and tough men. That’s maybe why they were so attracted to their roles in this film and to understand that they could express themselves as actors in a type of character that focuses on a different side. 
Regarding Truman and The People Upstairs, the truth is that I started them from another perspective and with other objectives in mind. As you suggest, a common ground on the question of masculinities could be found in them too, but they were not initially made from this clear idea as in the case of A Gun in Each Hand.


The topic of non-communicativeness is a key issue in Truman. Julián (Ricardo Darín), one of the main characters, constantly refers to his inability to communicate. We also see that men need alcohol to openly speak about their feelings and they depend on the communicative work done by women around them. Do you think this issue is important for defining Julián’s masculinity?

 Of course. I have always specialised in this type of men, and they have come out of me because I found them much more interesting. What happens in Truman is that we are dealing with a thread as powerful as facing death and accompanying someone in a disease process. In such a complex and difficult context, I guess I'm portraying a man and his way of dealing with it, right? But I don't agree very much with you in the sense that I believe Ricardo Darín's character—Julián— might be the most transparent and bravest male character that I've ever written. For example, there is a scene in which he stands up and tells another character: “I'm about to die, you know? You could at least say hello, couldn't you?” But I understand there are some traces of Ricardo's personality in the character that can be close to all that we are talking about, to that type of masculinity. I think the film is written from a perspective which I believe is closer to that of the character of Tomás—Javier Cámara’s role. He is a much more common type, someone who has more problems. He is actually the one who has trouble telling his friend: “I'll miss you, I love you, I'm here”.


We also want to look more closely at the role women play in this communicative process between men. For example, in Truman, the ex-wife—Gloria— performs this communicative work between the father and their son while Paula—Julián’s cousin—also facilitates communication between Julián and Tomás. Tomás, in fact, is only allowed to cry after having had sex with Paula, and this serves to point out even more starkly how men seem to use women to free their emotions. I don't know how you see it, as a criticism or...

 No, no, it’s not criticism. I've always made films about feelings and about people in relation to our emotional and sentimental lives. And I don’t think this can be criticised, right? It's interesting to see, I agree, but that’s it. Obviously, it reflects society in general or at least generations like mine. Maybe this is changing little by little now. For example, the generation of my parents, who are now 80 years old, had a distant, colder and a much less emotional tie with their children, and that is, for example, something my generation has already overcome. The tie we have with our children is closer now. I mean, men are already making progress with these changes.

 We also live in a society where therapy seems to be something fashionable. If you're not depressed or distressed, you're not a proper human being. I would like to say that we are now talking more about anxiety, feelings, and that means that men are slowly losing fear of expressing our weaknesses, something we were always taught to hide, “to be strong” instead. In this respect, women, in general, have much deeper roles in my films. They are much more natural, and this is what Paula's character—played by Dolores Fonzi—represents.


The question of the animality that materializes in Julián's relationship with the dog (Truman) may also refer to the question of barriers to communication. Can you tell us about the dog character and how you built this relationship between the dog and Julián?

 The truth is that the presence of the dog has more to do with the construction of the film itself. I needed to find an element that gave it a kind of internal structure. I wanted to provide Julián with something to worry about apart from dealing with death. Death is always there, but I wanted him to be worried about something practical. And here came the idea of having a dog. It was good for a man like him to have a dog, love the dog and have, as you say, some communication with the animal. In fact, relations with animals are very deep. And that’s how we thought it was a good idea to have Ricardo’s character involved with a pet. However, I never thought that the fact of having a dog somehow is reflecting what you are pointing at about communicative difficulties. Relationships with animals can be seen from different angles, that’s true.


In A Gun in Each Hand Ricardo Darín’s character, who anxiously pursues his wife, refers to John Wayne: “I'm sure he (Wayne) wasn't anxious about anything”. Men seem to suffer because of that pressure that tells them they must be like Superman. The reference to Westerns seems to point to the fact that cinema has projected these masculinities. And, in fact, I think Superman is mentioned in the film. Can you talk about this question and the role that cinema has played in your way of shaping male characters?

 Sure. The title of the film comes from this idea you’ve just mentioned. One of the female characters says at some point: “That's because you (men) go around with a gun in each hand!”. When we were editing the film, this sentence caught our attention, and I thought it was a good one because, among other things, it had this crepuscular smell of Westerns. Vikings or cowboys, tough guys. In cinema, until recently, men were only this. For gay characters to appear and to begin to be a global film trend, we had to wait until the 1980s. Previously, they had appeared in some productions, but not as main characters, as in Philadelphia with Tom Hanks. And then, another sensibility began to be ascertained in cinema. Cinema started to understand or at least to open up to other emotions introduced by homosexual characters. I think that’s how it was, but I don’t know for sure. What is true is that until then, it was difficult to see a man expressing himself from a different perspective.  In my childhood, and I'm fifty now, we had Kirk Douglas and Westerns, and men almost always had to get drunk to express themselves openly. Almost always, that’s the truth. If we were to look for or retrieve images of men who began to break down a little, to let themselves go, to express themselves in a more intimate way, they would certainly have had a few too many drinks before doing so.


In this film we also noticed that women do not seem to be the centre of interest in your works and that they somehow contribute to portraying or supplementing the portrait of masculinities. Do you agree?

 Yes. Absolutely. It is a five-episode film about this idea of men and how badly they relate to emotions and feelings. And from there, female characters are created in relation to the needs of each story and each episode.


In these two films that we've discussed so far, you don't seem to propose solutions or catharsis for male characters. Instead, they are portraits of men who are trapped, in crisis, broken or in the process of breaking down. But there is no proposal for a liberated masculinity.

 No. I've never made films from that point. I've always focused more on showing. I'm possibly more interested in the portrait itself, but not as an entire liberating or cathartic journey. For example, while trying to finance the script of In the city, I received a script analysis saying "in this film nothing happens". Why? Because films are understood as places where there are conflicts. We've gotten used to seeing them happening in films constantly. I was in fact trying to make a film that talks about people who live to avoid conflict or keep it private. I believe I made a film that is much closer to people than the typical scene in which you fight with your husband, or your partner, and you throw everything out of the window, right? This scene we've seen a thousand times and is a stereotype. But who in real life knows someone who has done that? No one.

 By this I mean that cinema, literature, has deceived us, and I think I am much closer to the truth, to how we work. Of course, it is true that women are doing better in this respect. I do think they're more natural with their feelings than men, who see feelings as problems. The films I have made address that.


In The People Upstairs, we are very interested in the dialogue that takes place between the different masculinities of the characters of Julio and Salva. Julio would represent a more traditional one, unable to communicate and accept other ways of understanding partner relationships. And Salva, on the contrary, would approach a more subversive masculinity. Do you agree? How did you build the contrast between these characters?

 I believe this opposition here has nothing to do with masculinity. It has to do with two models or ways of living embodied in two different couples who are facing each other. The film comes from a play that I wrote about marriage and couple life and how the visit of the neighbours generates a kind of snowball that puts the couple at risk.


Another aspect that we find interesting is that of heteronormativity. The characters are mostly heteronormative and monogamous, but at the same time they appear to be drowning within these categories. Also, homosexuality in these last three films of yours is scarce and monogamous, that is, in many cases it reproduces heteronormativity-like schemes. How do you see that?

 I have worked with non-heterosexual characters in both Krampack, for example, and In The City. But it’s true that I have not touched on the concept of monogamy, nor the fact of establishing different emotional ties, which is a subject that has become more and more fashionable over time. I think in the end it is just another trendy topic, nothing else. Nowadays there is a sort of movement encouraging people to be this or to be that. It's not something I've touched so much, no.


We are also interested in the vision of women's orgasm offered in The People Upstairs, which is often a taboo dread. Anita, in fact, wants to protect the orgasms of her neighbour, Laura. The representation of this sorority among women is not very common. 

 What you have just mentioned was actually a comment that Leonor Watling made when we were rehearsing A Gun in Each Hand at Alberto Sanjuan's house. We were doing a little reading, and at a pause, I told them I was writing a play on this subject of neighbours. And Leonor said “but if you go upstairs and tell her that you can hear them, you're going to cut her. And it's so hard to have a good orgasm...”. That comment stayed in my head. I liked it very much. It made me think that women have another way of experiencing an orgasm. And I used it. In that sense, I did not invent it, I simply had the ability to see that her comment was interesting.


The characters of these films have brought us closer to a notion of hegemonic masculinity that begins to break by accepting disease, death, infidelity, professional 'failure' or sexual impotence. To give visibility to this kind of uncommon masculinity, at least in feature films of our cultural contexts, has an important moral and social value. Don't you think so?

 I've written these characters and made these films because what surrounds me is like that. If I'd made another kind of portrait, I would have felt like I was lying. It seems that I've emphasized an attitude and a way of being that might not be entirely correct, or that needs improving. Be this as it may, I get there from a natural place, because I don't know any other reality, or any other way of being.


To what extent has the historical context and visibility of feminism affected and/or enabled these views on the men you portray?

It hasn't affected me. When I started making films, feminism didn't have the presence it has now. I tried to make these types of films alone, and I felt very alone indeed. But women always had a very warm response to my films and some even said "it’s about time to see men like this!” And maybe that upset some men. What I can say is that I have been always very well received by the female public.


Barcelona is the backdrop of some of your films but there is no mention of the Catalan conflict or its identity dimension. Why do you choose this view?

 The problem we have with cinema in Catalonia is that if you film in Catalan, no one watches your films or watches them dubbed. You know that, if you film in Catalan, that is the only option you have. The whole phenomenon and everything that has happened now with Carla Simón's film Alcarràs is very interesting, because it is a Catalan film that has been very successful. It comes from winning the Berlin festival. However, back in Spain, the film has had to face reality, which is that outside Catalonia, the film is being screened dubbed or subtitled, and we're talking about a film that has won an international prize, with a lot of projection. This is our big problem.

 I would love to do cinema in Catalan. Indeed, many times I write in Catalan, and I must translate afterwards. That's why when I wanted to make Truman and I proposed it to Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara, I thought about going to Madrid to film it. I asked myself, what am I doing making this film in Barcelona? My job has some things that I love, like this possibility of going away to film. What I would really like is to be able to make bilingual films. That is the type of cinema I would naturally do. I come from a bilingual society. I spend the day speaking in Catalan and in Spanish. Perhaps more in Catalan because in my house we speak Catalan. But I come from the reality of Barcelona, and I cannot show it as it is. They won't let me do it, either the Spanish or the Catalans, huh? So, the problem with identities is that there's no middle ground, and that's a problem that all filmmakers from Catalonia have. We're not developing our cinema naturally. And I always say that being Catalan is very complicated. I think it really is. We are what we are, right? A country without a state, a culture without a state, all this complexity of the Catalan issue.

How I'm going to end, I don't know. Now, for example, I would be very happy to film in Catalan, but I must assume first that the type of films I would be able to make will be only screened in Catalonia and in four or five theatres in the rest of Spain. One of the things I also hope for is that platforms bring subtitles closer to people. Many people who were not used to watching films or television programmes with subtitles are slowly getting used to them because of streaming platforms. Perhaps a whole generation of young people in the future will not want to see dubbed cinema anymore.

[1] This interview took place on May 24th, 2022.

Special thanks to Míriam Soriano Procas, Anna Codony, James H. P. Lewis and Institut Ramon Llull.

To cite this interview: Fernández Recasens, Cristina & Terrón Barroso, Antonio (2022).  “Vikings or cowboys, tough guys. In cinema, until recently, men were only this.” An interview with Cesc Gay about masculinities and Catalan cinema. Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi (ed.). University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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