On the comic book Mis problemas con Amenábar, Jordi Costa was desperate to find someone to share his antagonism towards Abre los ojos with. He finally decided to resort to two people he called the Wise Men, trusting their sensible criteria would help him unmasked the fake emerging genius of Spanish cinema, but he dishearteningly discovered that both were great followers of the director of Tesis. The first Wise Man was Xavier Pérez: the second one, Marcos Ordóñez, whom Darío Adanti drew as a benign colossus. Somehow, the caricature represented quite well the image many of us have of Ordóñez as the reference critic, someone we should always read and listen to, no matter whether we agree with him or not, because his point of view will always bring some new teaching.
Marcos Ordóñez has published fiction and biographies (of Gato Pérez, Núria Espert and Alfredo Landa, among others). In the last years, he has also explored a very personal conception of an autobiography, which started with the segment that closed the triptych Turismo interior, followed by Un jardín abandonado por los pájaros and concluding, for the moment, with the recently published Juegos reunidos. He has collaborated with the media, both in newspapers and specialised press, and since 2001 he writes for El País every Saturday, on cultural supplement Babelia, the section of theatre reviews Puro Teatro, in which he weaves the historical and current affinities between all that is produced in the theatre scene. Finally, he teaches drama (history of theatre, to be precise, but also directing and acting workshops), film (script writing) and cultural journalism in different universities. To the question of which word comes to mind to describe his profession, he answers as in a reflex act: “Writer, that’s what I’ve always been.” Is there a difference between fiction and criticism? “No. Writing is writing, and trying to tell stories. In the end, the structure is very similar. Or, at least, it is for me.”
These past weeks there have been published many interviews with Marcos Ordóñez due to the publication of Juegos reunidos. But the conversation you will read on the following lines is a bit different (among other things because it took place last summer, when the book still belonged to the future). On it we barely talked about his books, or his fictional (or self-fictional) universe, but we focused on his job as a critic, that other galaxy that feeds equally his imagination and his writing. It is, I must confess, a selfish interview, only moved by my desire of knowing more and clearing the doubts that this profession provokes in me (and that has ended up being my profession too), and in which our protagonist occupies a very important place, exercising it with passion and making Jean Douchet’s undying considerations come true: “Criticism is the art of loving.”
An interview with
By Gerard Casau
There’s something I’ve been willing to ask you for a long time. I don’t know anyone who says they don’t like music, or they don’t like films. However, I’ve come across many people who say they don’t like theatre. What do you thing this rejection is due to?
I can only assume that it is because they don’t know it. Or because their first experiences with it haven’t been exactly memorable and they haven’t continued to investigate about it… But I’ve noticed that more young people go to the theatre now than a few years ago. And, teaching, I’ve noticed that those who end up loving it more are the ones who were initially more focused on the film world and hadn’t even considered the world of theatre. By comparison, scripts are more difficult. And we’re talking about students attending a Communication faculty, who should be interested in them, but people are lazy when it comes to writing. And even more so when it comes to re-writing, they see it almost as a sentence… Although there will always be amazing exceptions, of course. In any case, I think it’s strange for someone to feel closer than some things and not others. What I do think it’s sad is abandoning the things we like, when people say that thing “I liked music when I was young…”
Do you see many differences between writing about theatre, film or television?
Yes… We could say that the targets are different. Let’s see; since I have a weekly fixed space for theatre, I have to choose. And I tend to opt for things that have really moved me, because that’s when I feel more at ease while writing. Some will find more pleasure in demolition… It’s also true that I can afford to choose what I write about, I don’t need to do it about things the editor proposes. Then, with films or TV shows it depends, but I tend to go towards what I like. It’s about raising a hand and saying, “hey, there’s something here that it’s OK.”
Then, do you think the critic is a prescriber?
Yes, of course. Establishing a relation of trust between the person who writes and the reader can be very useful. For example, the chat I do on Wednesdays on El País‘ web site is like a service. I try to give extra information on what I’m asked about: “if you liked that, watch this too because you might find it interesting…” The worse is when someone comes and says: “what you write on Saturdays comes in handy because then I don’t need to go to the theatre because I already have a point of view on the play”. It’s the horrible syndrome of the: “oh, someone told me that…” and the need to know what to say somewhere to appear as though you know what you’re talking about.
Earlier on you were complaining about the view of people who say that music is something you listen to when you’re young. But, for instance, you stopped doing music reviews regularly quite a while ago.
I did music reviews, among other things, because you got the albums for free and could attend any concerts. That was wonderful. What happens is that I find writing about music very difficult, because I don’t have a text to comment on. That’s why I’ve almost never written about dance, for instance. There I feel at a loss; not because there are particular codes, but because I lack the textual element to start from. I don’t mean to say that theatre is only about the text of the play; it’s a lot richer: you have the mis en scène, the interpretations… there’s a lot there. On the contrary, with music, if I have a powerful emotional implication with what I’m listening too, I find that difficult. I guess that this comes in part from my taste as reader: people like Lester Bangs, someone who had an almost wild relationship with records, influenced me. Some of the best things I’ve read about Van Morrison are his, when he practically said that Astral Weeks had saved his life. But, obviously, emotional reviews aren’t always valid. You can’t repeat every week on the pages of Ruta 66 the same story of “this is the best thing, man, it runs through my veins…” And I always had problems with concert reviews, I never managed to get out of the same pattern: “they jumped onstage, played this and then that…”
It’s funny you saying that because I see some similarities between concerts and theatre performances. In both cases you’re watching something that is being built live. No matter how rehearsed it is, there’s always the risk that something will go wrong. And the fix you get from seeing it turning out right is very similar.
Yes, that’s what live performances are all about. Then there’s another thing that is common to all the arts. I was going to say performing arts, but no, because it can be applied to literature as well: the structure, the musical construction, the rhythms and the melodies. A work can’t happen without all that, be it theatre, literature, film… Wait, before we move on to something else, I wanted to say something about the problems I would have now writing about music: the need to be up to date. When I did the blog for El País, I made up a section called Gramola Galáctica, in which I talked about music again. But since I decided the contents, I didn’t need to write about the latest thing. I could write about Mina or Wilco or Manel… The common element was that all their music had touched me. And I also had the advantage that the length was more or less free. Look at the little space newspapers devote to music. When I started, at the beginning of the eighties, music still had some weight, but now they cover what has a more or less mass appeal and that’s it. It’s difficult for someone to publish a review of a band they’ve seen in a small club.
I’d like to go back to the idea that, in general, you write about what you like. Jonas Mekas said that maybe we should only talk about what’s beautiful, because what’s ugly takes care of itself. Do you identify with this sentence?
It’s well thought, yes. I used to be wilder; there was a lot of passion in what I wrote, but also a lot of spite. With time you become more conscious of the people who will read the text, something I’d like to talk about later, and also about the medium that publishes you. On a newspaper like El País, a negative review will spread widely. So if I sometime write about a play that I didn’t really like it will be because I know that its authors are quite sure about what they do. It’s not the same criticising, let’s say, Lluís Pasqual, than a young company that is representing something in a small alternative theatre, because for them the blow is going to be really harmful. I’m not sure this happens in other sectors, but in theatre, past bad reviews still weight a ton.
What do you think is the specific element of theatre? What determines the approach of the review?
It’s its ephimeral nature. One of the most beautiful things of writing about theatre is that you somehow are leaving a testimony of something that happened, and won’t be repeated again. Those of us who are already of a certain age know that from one generation to the next it’s inevitable for some things to get lost. And in order to know what happened in the past, either you trust your memory as spectator or, if you never saw something, you need to resort to those who wrote about it. That’s the greatness of this job, and I say this with all the humility in the world.
I, who have never written about theatre, this is one of the things that calls my attention the most: when you review a film, you can go back in time knowing that he references you use, even if they’re not so well-known, at least will be more or less fixed and easy to find. There’s no problem about talking of La grande bellezza and La dolce vita on the same text, for example. But up to what point does make sense to take the reader back to a Hamlet performance from twenty or thirty years ago? How do you manage that background?
There’s noting you can do against that. For someone reading the text, five years can be a huge amount of time. I’m conscious that I sometimes talk about things that people in their twenties, or even thirties or forties, might find difficult to relate to because they haven’t seen them. But then, what should I do? Do I have to discard that tradition? Because that’s the word: tradition. I’d even go beyond that and call it “legacy”. Because people working now haven’t just popped up like mushrooms. They are all “sons of…” When I talk about an actor, I usually say, “He’s between this one and that one.” And some people might not like it, but you can’t be thinking about what to say and not to say all the time. I want to establish those links, but try to do so with measure. It’s not about overwhelming people with twenty-seven names, because there are always twenty-seven names. If you start by saying “he’s a bit like such and such, and the next one, an the other…” if you go up that river, you end up getting back to silent films!
One thing that us characteristic of your reviews is the mix of references and quotes of other disciplines.
Because they are communicating vessels, not isolated compartments. And where what you’re watching takes you to naturally. Look, it happened to me very recently with Josep Maria Pou’s Sócrates. At the end, when Sócrates has taken the hemlock and his body is becoming paralyzed, the image that came to my mind was that he was turning into a statue. Poison is transforming him in bronze, and after that he will enter the Legend dimension. I thought it was a powerful vision to explain that moment. Then, I remembered the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are surrounded by five hundred thousand Bolivian soldiers and they decide to throw themselves in the arms of death. On that moment, the director of the film, George Roy Hill, did something very simple but with great force: he fixed the image that shows the moment in which they start, that image that we have seen a thousand times, and he changes the image’s tone into sepia. Somehow, that too turns to bronze, to Legend. I guess some people will find strange mixing Sócrates with a western, but to me both are important. What other people understand as a reference, which is a word I dislike because it sounds too academic, I see as vital elements; people, things and subjects that have touched me and have changed me one way or another. And it’s not an arch I deliberately choose to open. It’s the image that appears in my mind right then, what contacts with a given element or closes a process… Once, I even found myself writing about chewing gum! It was on a text where I talked about two different plays; one was ABBA’s musical Mamma Mía!, and the other a play by Javier Daulte, ¿Estás ahí? I liked the latter very much, I’d seen it several times and each one I found something new. Then, I remembered a chewing gum called Bazooka, I’m not sure whether you’ve heard of it, it was hard, one of those you can chew for ours and remain juicy. Well, Daulte was the Bazooka. And then there was another chewing gum, the Dunkin, which was pink, and you chew that when there was no Bazooka. There was the parallelism: Mamma Mía! might have its charm; it’s certainly not boring, but deep down it’s a substitute. It’s what you take when what you like is unavailable. In the end, these are ways to describe the feelings that something transmits, and they can be purely intuitive. The other day I was watching a film from Otto Preminger’s last good period, In Harm’s Way, John Wayne is on it. The thing is that watching Wayne there I would have bet that Jon Hamm based his Don Draper on him! Even the built and the moves brought Draper to mind. By the way, it’s funny how close this film is to John Ford’s…
Since you’ve brought actors up, I wanted to talk to you about a problem I’ve encountered and which I think it’s very common for people from my generation: we have grown up so much with the idea of the director as sacred author, that we barely know what to say about actors. I’ve been trying to work on this and correct it for a while, and in fact what I liked most about La vie d’Adèle was precisely that it was a film you couldn’t talk about without mentioning Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.
Well, the thing is that you can be the cleverest guy in the universe and have a hell of a script, but if you don’t have those two gals, there’s no movie. My fascination for actors and actresses goes back a long way. A while ago, my novel Comedia con fantasmas was re-printed; it is, in essence, my love song to comedians and theatre actors. One job I would have liked to do is casting director, because I thing I have a very good eye for actors and I like nothing more than I do watching them work. These days I’ve been watching this TV3 series, Cites, and it might have its good things and its bad things, but the acting is very powerful, and the younger ones leave you speechless. I like watching Spanish and Catalan films for this reason. And I think we’re beginning to grow over the stupidity of the “well, but they’re just TV actors.” That doesn’t exist. There are actors, and that’s it, and they work or don’t work. A while ago I told someone, “Carmen Machi is amazing!”, and they were like “oh, the one that did that commercial and was on Aída, right?”, just like that, with a look of disgust. Look, you might watch five minutes of Aída and it might be horrible, but when Machi appear and you see the way she acts! It’s the same that happened to me while I was writing my book about Landa. And I’ll tell you another thing: the more you know the actors, the more interesting they are, because they love talking, and asking, and sharing stories, and telling you about the process they follow to create the characters… Funnily enough, in the world of literature I almost have no friends, because there isn’t much to talk about. Conversation topics are usually reduced to money, and to people not paying attention to one, but never about the job itself. Each one has their own parcel, their own chapel, and that is that. It’s difficult to exchange ideas: they will go on for hours about what worked for them and what hasn’t, but forget about learning how the whole thing works. There are egos among actors as well, obviously, as I suppose there will be among lawyers, but it’s quite logical, because they’re the ones there on the front line. If a play doesn’t work, the director can quickly turn the page, but the one getting the blows is the actor defending the character every night.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of the readers of the review. Who are you referring to exactly?
Oh, yes, yes! Let’s see, when I write a theatrical review I realise I write for many different readers. First of all, for the audience: so that those who haven’t seen the play might get an idea of the ambience and the energy created; and also so that the ones who have seen it can contrast different points of view; then, for the director, and for the actors, who are to me as I said the most important thing, and for the rest of the team; and, last of all, for the programmers. I try to call their attention about plays that I liked and I say, “this should tour around Spain, this should be seen,” although this is becoming more and more difficult, because there are less and less tours. Sometimes I get a director or a producer and they asked me whether I’ve seen something abroad that I liked, something not to expensive to do. For example, I was very happy to know that a play I saw last year in London, The Nether, is going to be programmed on the Teatre Lliure. Here it will be called L’inframón. It’s by a young author, Jennifer Haley, a thriller in a virtual world. You’ll see it’s very powerful!
I don’t know up to what point this feedback between critics and actors exist in other sectors. It could have that kind of impact. The fact that one of your recommendations finally crystallised must be very exciting, I guess?
Of course! The thing is I don’t see myself as someone on the other side, I feel part of that family. When I went to see La clausura del amor, a play with Bárbara Lennie and Israel Elejalde, the author, Pascal Rambert, was flabbergasted when he saw me standing up and shouting “bravo!” He said that in France it’s unthinkable for a critic to break barriers in such a way. It’s true that this has changed through time, and before it seemed that everything was much more coded and that critics shouldn’t mix with actors and all that. I admit that it can get tricky sometimes. But, well, if a friendship is broken through a bad review might be because the relationship wasn’t very close… Criticism is a long road, and it’s undertaken in parallel and with the company of many other people.
When reading you, that can really be felt, the fact that you’re accompanying these people and that your relationships evolve. I remember that in the compilation Molta comèdia you yourself underlined on a footnote how your feelings towards the theatre of Sergi Belbel kept on changing, from indifference to a point of communion.
There are things with which you immediately connect and other discoveries that are more progressive, to put it somehow. It happened to me as well with Lluïsa Cunillé, to whom I devoted a piece on the newspaper Avui entitled Aprengui a estimar la tònica, because with her I had the same feeling as when you taste tonic water for the first time and you think, “oops, this is very bitter, it tastes weird…” but little by little… In the end, the act of writing a review can be summarised in two capital questions: What did I feel? If it’s a comedy, did I laugh? If it’s a tragedy, did it moved me? And the other: did this work, be it a play, a record, a book or a film, told me something that I hadn’t heard? That’s very important too, because there are many things that can come into the picture there: your prejudices, the way you feel that day…
Of course, and with this we reach the fundamental question: how does a critic recognise beauty, and truth? I’ve been trying to avoid for a while expressions such as “leg-pull” when I write a text. The work might convince me more or less, but I don’t feel authorised to sentence something in such a way.
It all depends on the tone. Truffaut defined this very well when he said that a critic’s morals were measured by whether his attitude was one of “what a pity, he got it wrong!” or “excellent, he got it wrong!” And you can tell that at a glance. Another thing is how you learn to perceive where truth lies through ten thousand processes and by destroying the walls that have blinded us all one time or another. But there are moments in which something touches your heart in an absolute way, and you might even be fighting against it, thinking, “they’re not going to convince me, I know better!” But if the arrow points at the right direction, it goes through you. And you know what can make you terribly happy? When you review what you fell in love with at six, twelve or seventeen. Some things won’t be the same. Maybe you just loved them because that evening you got laid or ate a huge cake. But if that fascination remains intact, the feeling of happiness is very intense and you think, “wow, I was right, back then I already noticed that this was good, that there was some truth in this.”