Javier Beltrán, Robert Pattinson, Matthew McNulty, Marina Gatell, Arly Jover
US theatrical: 8 May 2009 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 8 May 2009 (Limited release)
Little Ashes is the cinematic brother of C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. In this “scandalous” 2005 biography, the author and longtime gay activist claimed that Lincoln’s primary sexual orientation was towards men via a number of spurious connections, most famously that Lincoln and his longtime bachelor friends often shared the same bed, as if this in itself was “proof” of some sort of sexual relation.
The problem is twofold. First, such interpretations impose contemporary understandings of social behavior onto past contexts in which those practices might have had very different meanings. Second, and more importantly for the case of Paul Morrison’s film, attempts to reclaim historical figures for sexual political ends often end up reducing complex persons to one-dimensional stereotypes.
Certainly, sexuality is an aspect of identity that shapes how we see the world as well as how the world sees us. And yet that is hardly the whole story of who we are and why we act in the ways that we do. Little Ashes ignores this complexity, finding in the thwarted love affair of Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) and Salvador Dalí (Robert Pattinson) a too-simple explanation for their lives, artistic productions, and personalities.
The film opens in 1922, in the famous “Residencia de Estudiantes” in Madrid, with Dalí‘s arrival at the university. He meets García Lorca and Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty), and the three quickly become avatars of the avant-garde, rejecting the strict conservatism of their country and Western art more generally. They read Sigmund Freud, argue over the need to revolutionize artistic forms, and stay up all night in jazz clubs, drinking gallons of alcohol. It’s a thoroughly familiar cliché of the modernist artist.
As the film has it, it is because he is homosexual that García Lorca is more willing to embrace such changes. Historically, there is little question about his orientation: his very first play, El Maleficio de la Mariposa (The Butterfly’s Evil Spell), uses the thwarted love of a cockroach for a butterfly as a thinly veiled allegory of homosexuality. Still, it wasn’t until after Franco’s death in 1975 that García Lorca’s sexuality could be publicly acknowledged in Spain. And so Little Ashes imagines his desire to live openly and the impossibility of doing so as the driving force of his artistic genius as well as the great tragedy of his life.
This reduction of García Lorca’s life, art, and politics to such desire is further narrowed late in the film, which chronicles, all too briefly, his activities during the rise of Fascism and the opening salvos of the Spanish Civil War. During the early 1930s, García Lorca toured rural Spain with the student theater group, Teatro Universitario la Barraca, presenting modernist adaptations of classic Spanish drama to peasant audiences. He also delivered his famous lecture, “Play and Theory of the Duende,” in 1933, a theorization of the links between art and death that also made proto-nationalist connections between art and native soil.
And yet, Little Ashes glosses over García Lorca’s political investment in rural justice and his natalist sympathies, and insists that his activities at this time were still driven by his inability to be “out.” At a gathering in Madrid, García Lorca lectures a group of artists and intellectuals about the necessity of democratic freedom, not so much because of the immediate context of the increasing unfreedoms of social and political life in Spain, but because of his own ongoing experience of oppression. His demand for democracy is motivated by his need and right to be “whomever I decide to be.” García Lorca’s rhetoric evokes similar sentiments of the Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s and of Queer Nation in the 1980s and ‘90s, demonstrating the risk of slippages during such historical reclamations.
Little Ashes is equally reductive in its representations of Buñuel and Dalí. Despite being the most vociferous of the three in his demands for revolutionary change, Buñuel is unable to shed the vestiges of bourgeois conservatism (at least until much later in his relationship with García Lorca, a rapprochement the film leaves woefully unattended). Confronted with the fact of García Lorca and Dalí‘s intensifying romance, an outraged Buñuel redirects his disgust by going out at night to a well-known gay male cruising spot and taking it out on a man who propositions him. Buñuel is, it seems, mostly if not merely a bullying, violent, homophobe.
Dalí suffers Little Ashes‘s most simplistic depiction. Similar to Buñuel, he appears unable to overcome the entrenched homophobia of Spanish culture, despite his desire to embrace the modernist maxim of “no limits.” It’s only once he has removed himself to France that Dalí recognizes the importance of his love for García Lorca. His bad choices and subsequent regret apparently produce the cartoonish figure that too often passes for Dalí in popular culture.
Dalí‘s characterization here represents the apotheosis of a kind of gay reductionism. Rather than a carefully crafted performance that was an extension of the ethos of surrealism and a challenge to bourgeois social norms, the only possibility that Little Ashes can imagine is that Dalí‘s persona is entirely the result of a closeted and stymied homosexuality.