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Director Ron Howard takes advantage of the wealth of archival photos and videos of the Beatles to recreate their touring years in his most recent film, Eight Days A Week. The documentary captures that sense of wonder that fans of the Beatles once had as this new phenomenon emerged and became a cultural icon. The style of the documentary is straightforward, as is the narrative, which follows a chronological, linear direction. The talking heads in the documentary are interspersed with stills and abundant video footage of the Beatles in action, some of it never seen until now.

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At the end of June Spanish filmmaker David Trueba was in Miami to present his new film Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. I spoke to him via phone to discuss all the prestigious awards the film has won and how both John Lennon and the little known Spanish school teacher who met him inspired the film. The younger brother of Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), David seems incredibly grounded, and he brings that humility to his film craft.

Though it won six Goyas (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) in major categories, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, which Trueba wrote, the filmmaker maintains a healthy perspective on his film beyond the awards. “I try to do the film the way it needs to be done,” he declares, “so the awards for me are always a surprise and encouragement to keep doing what you have to do than compromising to whatever is the current fashion of film.”

He says his main source for inspiration comes from people, an apt detail considering the humanity at the heart of this film, which never feels overshadowed by both the celebrity of Lennon, who is never depicted on screen, nor the ominous shadow of Franco that feels ironic during the heyday of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Trueba says when he learned of Lennon’s presence in the narrative of his country it came as a surprise, and it sparked a curiosity that led to this film. “I’m usually attracted to characters more than plots or histories or anecdotes,” explains the filmmaker, “so in this case, I remember I was on holiday in the South of Spain, in Almeria. It was 2006, and they were presenting a monument to John Lennon, explaining he was there shooting a movie in 1966 [How I Won the War].”

Trueba notes Lennon was at an interesting place creatively, a bit exhausted with the fame of the Beatles and turning to acting to try something different. “He was very isolated at the time,” says the director. “He just finished a long, long tour with the Beatles.” However, the filmmaker never wanted to explore Lennon’s specific experiences in Almeria. He was more interested in presenting it as a backdrop to the adventures of a trio of characters who road trip to meet Lennon.

The travelers are composed of 18-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), who ran away from home after his father threatened cut his mop top; a young, pregnant woman (Natalia de Molina, who won Best New Actress Goya) looking for safe passage to her mother’s house; and the film’s lead: a bald, slightly chubby, bespectacled teacher named on Antonio (Javier Cámara, who won the Best Actor Goya). Antonio is based on a man some img1hardcore Beatles fans may know as a footnote in Beatles history: Juan Carrion. Trueba explains Carrion’s significance:  “He was teaching English with the lyrics of the Beatles, and he just made the trip to get to know John Lennon and ask about some lyrics he couldn’t understand, to translate, and at the same time forced John Lennon to put the lyrics on the albums because he was explaining to him that that was very important to him to motivate young students to learn.”

Trueba’s decision to create a fictional version of Carrion, who he notes only recently turned 90, and has become a friend, comes from the idea that the director did not to feel restrained by a slavish commitment to history, which might undermine his film’s message. “That was just a decision I made from the beginning because I didn’t know the guy,” says Trueba. “I was more interested in the story as a metaphor, and I didn’t want to make a story about this guy and investigate his personal life … and I didn’t want to make a film about John Lennon. I only wanted to use Lennon’s presence to illuminate the characters, the Spanish characters. I’m not trying to make a documentary of him or a biopic of him.”

Real life, however, still informs the movie on other levels. Fitting to Trueba’s interest in the more abstract elements inspiring his movie, the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” has an important presence in the film. It’s as witty as a shop keeper offering Antonio a giant crate of surplus strawberries for his road trip, but also as resonant as the film’s title, which alludes to a lyric in the song. The revelation that Lennon composed the song while shooting How I Won the War with director Richard Lester is a little-known fact. “At the time, [Carrion] didn’t know that Lennon was composing or had composed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Almeria,” notes Trueba, “and even Richard Lester, the director of the original movie they were shooting there. He got in touch with me after seeing the movie. He didn’t know that Lennon composed ‘Strawberry Fields’ during the shooting. That was something Lennon explained before he died in some interviews, so I use all these coincidences to make a stronger and more real film.”

You can read much more of my chat with Trueba on this film and see it’s trailer, by jumping through the Cultist logo below, where I first covered Trueba’s visit to Miami:

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Hans Morgenstern

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema through July 17. Visit gablescinema.com for details and tickets.

Update: The movie expands to O Cinema Miami Shores Thursday, July 17. Visit o-cinema.org for details and tickets.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Today J.D. Salinger passed away. The author of the Catcher in the Rye was 91. The Associated Press released the obituary for the author just two minutes after 1 p.m. today. They said his son broke the news in a press release.

Just as much as most people knew him for his 1951 book, they also knew him as a recluse who hated the spotlight. All kinds of craziness was published about the mysterious writer in the wake of his self-imposed exile from the public. That never concerned me much. I’ve only read that one book by Salinger, but it had a profound influence on me since I read it in high school. At the same time, the book was well known to have been banned in many schools since is publication. I remember my 11th grade teacher warning us that it was for the use of the word “fuck” toward the end of the novel, but I later learned it was deeper than that. The many bans on Catcher was more about the deeper social fear of the possible romanticism of a rebellious and, in my opinion, an independent thinking teen in the protagonist of Holden Caulfield.

Sure, the book was blamed for the notable evil it supposedly inspired in Mark David Chapman who called John Lennon a “phony” before shooting him dead in 1980. But, God, do we live in an era surrounded by so many phonies who brainwash or have had their brains washed. Today’s society celebrates as many phonies as it produces: those who strive so badly to assimilate into whatever the popular culture is dictating, a news media more interested in bandwagon jumping than giving people the information they need, etc. I could go on, but I shan’t rant. This is not to say anyone should be shot dead, but they should be called out (my list is too long and dull, but I welcome you to post any thoughts on who I might be thinking about). 

My celebration of independent thinking artists in this blog, would not be possible, if it were not for the effect the Catcher in the Rye had on my persona. It is not solely responsible, but it without a doubt a part of it.

So in that spirit, let us hope that Salinger enjoyed his last days knowing he held super creative control over the use of his iconic book, clinging too the movie rights to the bitter end (Salinger never allowed for any movie producer to take his book and adapt into a film, and he never even liked the idea of cover art on a novel, saying the words should speak for themselves, so to speak). But now, with his passing, the possibility remains that his kids may inherit the movie rights (dear reader, correct me if I am wrong in this assumption). Because they are less precious about Salinger’s work, it might just be possible to see a movie adaptation?

Before you call me a sell out, let me say that I would never consider a film adaptation in any way a substitute for the experience of literature or vice versa. They are completely different mediums that one experiences in utterly different ways. I would never say “the book was better” about any movie that was adapted from a literary source, and I have no patience for those who do. I do think the proper question to consider in film adaptations is whether or not they do justice to the spirit of the source material or even raise that material to another level.

That said, I doubt anyone could raise the Catcher in the Rye to a higher level than the literary masterpiece that it already is, but I think there are directors that can capture the spirit of the book and should be allowed to try. One director who immediately pops into my head is Gus Van Sant, whose recent works on youths and melancholy rebels (see Elephant and Last Days respectively) have been unparalleled in the manner they capture the spirit of young people in the throes of cynicism. Do you have any other ideas on which directors should take such a job and to what effect it might have, interpretation-wise? Do share…

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)