Upon its release in 1996, Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis was praised as a groundbreaking achievement in the history of Spanish cinema due to its superior appropriation of Hollywood’s audiovisual and storytelling æsthetics. (1) While critically championed, Tesis did not manage to attract a massive audience to the movie theatres until the Spanish Film Academy awarded it seven Goyas, including best film. Scholars have hailed Amenábar as the ultimate representative of a new breed of Spanish filmmaker who understands the necessarily commercial co-ordinates of the film market. In Tesis, commerce and art form are brilliantly integrated for the sake of establishing a different kind of Spanish cinematic product, one that recognizes the demands of the filmmaking as a fundamentally capital-driven practice and, at the same time, self-consciously incorporates the heritage of Spanish cinematic form. (2)
I propose to re-evaluate Tesis within the violence-overloaded audiovisual panorama of the mid-1990s in Spain. The film exploitatively employs a transnational generic register to express an utter rejection of the privileged status of violent imagery in the broader Spanish mediascape. Through a series of metacinematic devices, Tesis points to the spectators’ pleasurable consumption of these images as directly related to their ubiquitous presence in the cultural sphere. At the same time, the film utilizes the viewers’ irrational attraction to violence to persuasively guide them through the meanders of its generic universe. Tesis appropriates a range of codes of the “Hollywood global vernacular” – more specifically, as Christina Buckley suggests, those of the “horror thriller” – and reflexively interrogates its operating mechanisms by the strategic alternation of the contrasting æsthetics and “reality effects” of the film and video images. (3) Banking on the shocked Spanish collective unconscious at the time of its release, the film explores the problematic inseparability of the rejection of violence from an ethical standpoint and the parallel fascination with the sensational allure of violent images that characterizes the contemporary spectator’s consumption of mass media.
In the mid-1990s, “reality shows” had become star programmes in the different Spanish TV channel’s rosters. In addition, in 1993 the brutal killings of three female teenagers in Alcasser, a small town near Valencia, shocked the entire Spanish population. After a long-lasting search in which the frozen faces of the three smiling teenagers in a poster had become an omnipresent common place in the collective consciousness of Spanish society, their bodies were found in a ditch. They had been brutally murdered and raped. TV channels rushed to Alcasser to give a live coverage of the grief that overwhelmed the parents of the three deceased teenagers. Moreover, the trial of the two arrested suspects – since the third one, Antonio Angles, was never found – became a prime time Spanish TV showcase. Canal 9, the Valencian regional channel, covered the trial daily, featuring the father of one of the teenagers and a private investigator hired by the families as their main guests. Esta Noche Cruzamos el Mississippi, Tele 5’s prime-time late night show, also dealt with the case in detail, and the channel’s star host of the time, Pepe Navarro, gave continuous updates on the developments of the trial on a quasi daily basis. Both Tele 5’s and Canal 9’s “shows” featured gruesome pictures of the teenagers’ corpses, preceded by standard warnings to the audiences.
Ángela Márquez (Ana Torrent) – Tesis’ protagonist – is Amenábar’s stand-in for the millions of anonymous Spanish others who were repulsed and simultaneously attracted to the horrific images of violence of the Alcasser “species”. Amenábar addresses the Spanish cultural anxiety in relation to the representation of violence in audiovisual media by contaminating the horror-thriller mainstream discourse with the fringe snuff genre. It constantly reminds the viewer that the snuff world is real and exists out there – so real that, towards the end of the narrative, Amenábar effectively manipulates the spectator into the disturbing belief that Tesis, “the horror thriller”, might have changed registers and turned into a snuff film.
Tesis also chronicles a shift in the representational value of audiovisual products due to the dramatic impact of the emergence of digital technology in the human body’s perceptual re-organization of mass media consumption. The rise of the digital master narrative has had a tremendous impact in the way in which audiovisual media embark in their mediation of the real. The film incorporates the very materiality of digital video – at this point in history, early 1990s, still clearly distinguishable from the film image, and, therefore, endowed with a different kind of epistemological relationship to the real – in order to account for the production of a different type of sensory culture across the different social strata. Tesis, to a great extent, creates its “horror effect” by resorting to the video image’s capacity to engage the spectators’ bodies in the film due to its immediate appeal to the real, especially within the carefully woven narrative structure of a genre film.
Ángela, a PhD candidate writing her thesis on “media violence”, comes across snuff videotape in the process of doing her research. She teams up with a cult and low-genre film aficionado, Chema (Fele Martinez), to uncover an underground production and distribution network of snuff films based on the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. Bosco Herranz (Eduardo Noriega), a fellow student, heads the list of suspects. Although all evidence points in Bosco’s direction as the snuff videomaker and serial killer, Ángela becomes fascinated with his persona and can hardly hide her sexual desire for him. After a series of plot twists, Bosco knocks Chema unconscious, ties Ángela to a chair and sets up his video camera to record a snuff film, featuring Ángela as the protagonist. Ángela escapes and shoots Bosco dead. The video camera that Bosco had set up to shoot the snuff film records Ángela’s act of murder. Unlike in the rest of the film, an act of sheer violence, Ángela’s killing of Bosco, is visually and narratively privileged.
Throughout Tesis, Amenábar repeatedly denies the spectator the direct display of “gratuitous” violence – either by confining it to the off-screen space and the audio tracks of the film, or showing quick glimpses of the snuff films characters view diagetically, avoiding the spectators’ direct exposure to gory images. However, in this resolution scene, under the alibi of the horror-thriller generic register, violence presents itself at its fullest before our eyes. The standard narrative resolution of the commercial thriller – the heroine overcoming a life-threatening situation and finishing off the villain – is tainted with the visual imagery of the snuff film. However, the very alternation between film and video images ultimately questions the ethical dimension of Tesis’ manipulation of snuff imagery for both artistic and commercial purposes.
In the opening scene of the film, subway officials evacuate a train crowd. A man has committed suicide by jumping into an incoming train. His corpse lies cut in half on the subway tracks. While most of the passengers proceed to leave the station, Ángela steps out of the crowd and joins a few onlookers who hope to catch a glimpse of the dead corpse. Before Ángela achieves her purpose, a subway official pushes her away. Both Ángela and the spectators are denied access to the gruesome image of the dead body for the first time.
Throughout the film, Amenábar effectively plays out the dynamics of onscreen/off-screen space to constantly promise the visualization of gory imagery to frustrate it invariably. Ángela becomes the diegetic vehicle through which the parallel fascination and horror that these images arise in the spectator’s psyches and bodies are played out. Moreover, he structurally codes this paradoxical attraction/repulsion towards violent imagery by putting in motion a whole arsenal of conventions of a transnational register: the horror-thriller. While Tesis denounces the exploitative nature of the ubiquitous presence of representations of violence in contemporary media screens, it simultaneously utilizes their sensorial appeal to construct a narrative that continuously defers their direct onscreen display to exploit it eventually within the accepted coordinates of the horror-thriller register.
After Professor Figueroa (Miguel Picazo) dies of an asthma attack watching a snuff film, Ángela sneaks in the screening room where Figueroa sits dead and steals the tape. Significantly, Ángela becomes fascinated with Figueroa’s corpse and touches it. At home, she places the tape in her VCR and is set to watch it. In the last moment, she hesitates, lowers the TV monitor contrast to make the image invisible and hits play. A series of screams shatter our ears. A blank screen reflecting Ángela’s disturbed face. The camera dollies in and gets closer to her. She is physically and mentally shocked by the violence she has chosen to hear but simultaneously irrationally attracted to it. Like she did with Figueroa’s body, she reaches for the TV screen and touches it.
Later in the story, it is revealed that Ángela’s infatuation with Bosco also occurs within the audiovisual universe. In the course of her investigation, she tapes an interview with him. Sitting at home, she plays the interview on her TV and touches Bosco’s image on the screen. While she may think he is the snuff videomaker, she is fascinated by his recorded image. It is as though audiovisually mediated representations of violence would be more real for Ángela than actual life experiences. Rather than accessing visual media within the terrain of the symbolic, Ángela repeatedly attempts to attach her body to the image. She touches the screen to experience it physically, and from that direct contact understand the irrational appeal of violent imagery.
Amenábar initially utilizes Ángela in the role of video spectator within the film to draw us into his generic ride in a double manner: first, by making her embody the problematic attraction to violence that exists at the core of our own subject position as Tesis’ viewers; second, by situating her character in the flexible generic slot of “victim/hero” and directing our secondary identification to her. Ultimately, Amenábar makes Ángela cross over to the other side of the video camera lens, resorting to the horror thriller’s generic apparatus. Non-diegetic spectators reach for Ángela then, mimicking her previous reactions to the viewing and listening of snuff, and, at the same time, are caught up in the hyper-calculated frenzy of Amenábar’s masterful rendering of the genre product.
When Chema and Ángela view the snuff film for the first time, Amenábar only lets us see glimpses of the actual snuff recording, most of them through tight shots so that we are not fully exposed to its characteristic gore æsthetic. The scene centres on Ángela’s struggle to look. Initially she is repulsed and frightened by the images. Eventually, she pulls herself together and looks at the screen. In that precise moment, Amenábar zooms into her eyes to capture Ángela’s psychophysical reaction and cuts to a zoom into the snuff film victim’s eyes. Ángela and Vanessa, the snuff victim, have been graphically matched. Amenábar uses a standard editing device of continuity action-based narratives to collapse the parallel narratives of the snuff and thriller genres and, by doing so, he reminds spectators of the seemingly uncomfortable source of their film viewing pleasure. Are we watching a horror-thriller or a socially acceptable version of a snuff film? In addition, the graphic match between Vanessa and Ángela’s eyes foreshadows the ultimate placement of Ángela as a snuff starlet on the other side of the TV screen, and, disturbs, a posteriori, the generic deciphering that spectators must mobilize as the narrative ultimately seems to advance towards our own identification with Ángela’s previous subject-position as a snuff viewer. Viewing the snuff images, Ángela, as the spectator within the film, is “caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body on the screen” (4). We are equally overwhelmed with horror and fear, along with Ángela. (5) However, the analytical aspect of the thriller takes over. Then, Amenábar’s exploitation of the video image’s reality effect comes to the fore.
While viewing the snuff videotape, Chema realizes that, even though the film presents itself as a single take, there is a series of quasi-invisible jump cuts that are not narratively motivated. He concludes that the victim knew the name of her murderer and screamed it during the recording. Consequently, the snuff auteur edited the film to hide his identity.
While Chema and Ángela discuss the implications of their discovery, the snuff film keeps playing in Chema’s VCR, beyond the limits of the onscreen space. We don’t see snuff images but we continuously hear the victim’s screams, as the backdrop of Ángela and Chema’s conversation. In Chema and Ángela’s first viewing of the snuff film, the action centred on Ángela’s simultaneous attraction/fear to the viewing of snuff images in contrast to Chema’s detachment. The second screening of the snuff film is, otherwise, framed within the coordinates of the horror-thriller investigation process. However, the snuff audio track qualifies Tesis’ narrative drive as an aural reminder of the exploitative character of the “controlled” violent imagery that characterizes the Hollywood mainstream generic discourse that Amenábar appropriates.
At the end of the film, when the standard generic code of the horror-thriller takes grip of the narrative and Ángela manages to release herself from Bosco and kill him, we are back in a comfort zone in as much as the genre film is a socially acceptable discourse for the representation of violence. However, when the video image strikes back in the very moment that Ángela pulls the trigger, the distinction between the real and the fictional, the acceptable and the degenerate, disappears.
Bosco ties Ángela to a chair and explains to her with painstaking detail the film we are about to witness: her own slow murder. He carefully frames his shot and prompts Ángela to stare at the digital video camera viewfinder. Video displaces the film image from the screen and we see how Bosco approaches Ángela wearing a ski mask and punches her once in the face – the standard opening sequencing of the snuff film. Ángela manages to release herself, as the film image returns armed with its powerful generic weaponry, gets hold of a gun and points it to Bosco. He tries to allure her into the belief that he won’t attack her but, as he attempts to get the gun away from her, she shoots him in the head and kills him. In the very instant in which she pulls the trigger, Amenábar cuts back to the video camera’s point of view. He uses a match-on-action cut – one of the basic principles of continuity editing – to transition between film and video footage.
In this context, Tesis’ metafilmic drive interrogates the very act of viewing/listening of violence via the changing set of subject positions the film spectators and the video spectators within the film inhabit as the narrative unfolds. Tesis repeatedly collapses the film and video worlds with a dual effect: it satisfies the generic expectation of the horror-thriller genre while contaminating it with the ethical dimension of snuff imagery. In addition, it denies the promise of direct visualization of “real” violent images by interrupting the snuff narrative at the points in which the direct display of gruesome footage is set to appear before the spectator’s eyes. In these narrative nodes, Amenábar resorts to the deployment of several of the “horror thriller” generic codes – most importantly, the interplay between on/off-screen space – that structure the film and displaces snuff to a secondary function: the repressed and non-fictional other of mainstream narratives of violence. In other words, Amenábar’s deployment of snuff imagery acts as a diegetic reminder of the perversity involved in the pleasure-driven commercial consumption of violent imagery.
With Tesis, Amenábar attempted to re-evaluate the increasing explicitness and sensationalistic coverage of violent images in the Spanish media within the context of an ongoing re-articulation of the individual’s sensorium in the wake of the rapidly expanding digital technologies. While the film does indeed reject the brainless consumption of violent audiovisual, its narrative trajectory simultaneously points to the inevitability of such an act, while emphasizing the thin line that divides mass consumption of generically coded narratives of violence and its respective underworld: snuff. Furthermore, in Tesis snuff itself is presented as a genre with a set of audiovisual and narrative conventions, which are integrated within the overarching structural codes of the “horror-thriller”. By foregrounding the very æsthetics of snuff filmmaking within Tesis’ diegetic world and destabilizing the thriller’s audiovisual style with the repeated assaults of the video image, Amenábar blurs the distinction between these two types of generic products and, consequently, frames the spectators’ viewing pleasure in terms of the unstable differentiation between thriller and snuff, the fictional and the real. In the course of the scene leading to Ángela’s act of murder, a series of editing choices frame Bosco and the spectators themselves as snuff videomakers. After Bosco has finalized his profilmic set-up, Amenábar places the spectator on Bosco’s former point of view – behind the digital camera viewfinder. Then the film image returns to depict the horror thriller’s psychopath-victim final confrontation. Ultimately video comes back to offer us a resolution: the villain is killed. The spectator’s desire to see Bosco dead is visually and aurally linked to that of the consumer of the horrific and distasteful snuff spectacle. We are the snuff videomakers. Ángela has turned into a generic anomaly.
In the closing scene of the film, Chema and Ángela leave the hospital together as a TV anchor sternly announces the imminent broadcasting of a snuff film. A sweeping camera shows a series of mesmerized hospital patients, looking up at the TV monitors. Ángela and Chema proceed to leave in silence, rejecting the snuff spectacle. The patients’ eyes remain fixed on the TV screens, invisible to the side of the frame. Their gazes parallel our own. They are as ready to devour media violence as we, as Tesis’ spectators, were, constantly frustrated by Amenábar’s repeated displacements of violent imagery beyond the edges of the frame. The genre film has conveniently and timely rewarded us. They haven’t been fulfilled yet. In a matter of seconds, Vanessa will directly stare at the TV viewers’ eyes, off-screen, as she is being snuffed – exactly like Ángela had stared at us before. Ultimately, the TV image fills the cinematic frame and a cautionary warning appears before our eyes. End credits roll. The full integration of film and video image links our viewing experience of Tesis with the broader spectrum of audiovisual discourses that characterized Spanish society in the mid-1990s across the different media – from film to TV to underground video networks.
Simultaneously, Amenábar self-reflexively re-asserts Tesis’ constructedness as a carefully woven genre piece. (6) A film that is set to denounce the media’s exploitation of violent imagery for commercial and sensationalistic purposes, and that, paradoxically, ends up exposing its own manipulative strategies in its appropriation of a transnational generic register with similar effects.
- Phillys Zaitlin, “You Are Being Watched: Metafilmic Devices in Tesis”, Letras Peninsulares, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Fall 2001.
- Christine Buckley, “Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis: Art, Commerce and Renewal in Spanish Cinema”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 21, Issue 2, Winter-Spring 2002; Rosanna Maule, “Death and Reflexivity in Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis,” Torre de Papel, Vol. 10, Issue 1, Spring 2000.
- Miriam Bratu Hansen brilliantly situates the role of modernist æsthetics in the mediation and articulation of a different mode of human sensory perception emerging in the period between 1920 and 1950. She then proceeds to state that American movies of the classical period constituted the first global vernacular because of their pivotal function in mediating “a global historical experience”. (“The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity Vol. 6, Issue 2, April 1999, p. 67.) Hansen concludes her essay affirming that “Hollywood did not just circulate images and sounds; it produced and globalized a new sensorium; it constituted, or tried to constitute new subjectivities and new subjects. The mass appeal of these films resided as much in their ability to engage viewers at the narrative-cognitive level as in their providing models of identification for being modern. Similarly, the optimization of digital technology in the last decade and a half has dramatically changed the ways in which human beings consume media products and reshaped the ways in which the transnational Hollywood Empire exerts its mechanisms of global market domination.” (Ibid., pp. 59-77.)
- Linda Williams, “Film Bodies”, Robert Stam and Toby Miller (Eds), Film and Theory: An Anthology, (Massachusetts: Blackwell, Malden, 2000), p. 270.
- In her discussion of pornography, horror and the ‘weepie’ as low genres, Linda Williams clarifies that the spectator of these three genres may not literally mimic what is on the screen; however, the success of these genre films seems to be directly proportional to their capacity to elicit a bodily response. Williams, op. cit., p. 270.
- Buckley, op. cit., p. 19.