Vulnerable Bodies

As I have already mentioned, the secondary but memorable presence of death and old people is a key reminder of the futility of youth in both Barrio and El Bola. In El Bola, Pablo helps his mother wash his grandmother but looks away while he holds her in the shower. His family's attitude to the body and death is very different from Alfredo's; the latter discusses his godfather's illness, and at one point the whole family and some friends joke about farting in the car. They have a tactile relationship with the boys which contrasts with Pablo's father's distant nagging and aggression. The behavior of Pablo's father reveals a denial of his emotional ties with his son but also a crisis of the old patriarchal model.11 This crisis is particularly evident in Barrio, where Javi's mother seems to be the one ultimately wearing the trousers, not only by imposing the presence of her father in the family but also starting most of the arguments and eventually reporting her husband's violence and having him evicted.12

Also important for this study are the scenes of masturbation that take place in both Barrio and Krampack: the discovery of sex is a rite of passage that in both films transgresses the limits of the private to become an act of public pleasure. In Barrio, the scene seems to confirm that for the boys sex is experienced as an anticlimactic and out-of-reach fantasy. Having examined the sex ads of a newspaper with a bitter sense of humor, and having used all their cash on a frustrating call to a sex phone line (only to suddenly get cut off), now their masturbatory pleasure (already mediated by the security cameras, through which they can see Rai's brother and his girlfriend) is interrupted by Rai's gun-in-mouth Russian roulette game.13 The Russian roulette is an anticipation of Rai's real death by gunshot, but the flirtatious play with the phallic gun in his mouth and its visual reference to fellatio is also part of a feminization process of his body throughout the film. Were it not for the arrest and police interrogations about drug dealing, one would be led to assume that Rai's dark dealings with the mysterious middle-aged man who follows him around in a car could be of a sexual nature. Both Manu and Javi refer to him in feminine terms on several occasions, touching his long hair and jokingly suggesting that he sells it to be made into wigs or dolls' hair (Manu) or calling him "guapa" (nice-looking girl) when he wears a wreath around his neck at the cemetery. If we accept one of the implicit precepts of Mulvey's gaze theory (1975), the feminization of Rai would be consistent with his objectification throughout the film: he is the only boy to be shown bare-chested (in bed), and the vulnerability of his body is made clear through his obsessively risky behavior (through his delinquent activities) but also metaphorically with the Russian roulette and his walks on tightropes (actually walls or wires found lying on the floor), in one case with a premonition just before his death. This vulnerability is also heightened by his continual references to death: his jokes about Manu's mother, his stories about seeing a drowned man on Baywatch, and his story of having been born dead. Drowning becomes a metaphor for his inability to escape the claustrophobic barrio and, ironically, the interior city of Madrid, but also for his powerless-ness and eventual death.

Despite the lack of scenes of any sexual nature in El Bola, Alfredo's father's job as a tattooist and Pablo's physical suffering provide many opportunities for the boys to discuss and draw attention to their own and other bodies. Various shots depict Pablo as if overcome with fascination as he stares at photographs of Alfredo's dad tattooing a client. When Alfredo explains to Pablo that tattoos hurt the most in the bony areas, Pablo reacts by saying that his penis has no bone and ''I bet it hurts like hell'' there. As Mañas acknowledges (El Bola DVD interview), Alfredo's tattoo (done by his dad in a loving ritual) offers a sharp contrast with Pablo's bruises, also done by his father but in a very different context. When Alfredo's dad invites Pablo to witness how he tattoos his son, Pablo's gaze at his friend's body mirrors that of Alfredo when he accidentally discovered Pablo's bruises earlier on. Both children are symbolically marked by their father, but Pablo's marks represent hatred and frustration, whereas Alfredo's tattoo is a symbol of love, growing up, and bonding with his dad. When Pablo has to miss school due to a particularly bad battering, his father tells his teachers he has tonsillitis, unknowingly revealing the very sick nature of his action and its physical consequences. Ironically, when Pablo arrives back at school, the teacher is giving a lesson on bodily functions such as circulation and excretion. Like Rai in Barrio, Pablo talks about the inescapability of death and even his desire to be cremated (he does not want to be buried in a hole, like his brother),14 and his vulnerability is also marked by powerful metaphors, such as his calling himself ''Pellet.'' The pellet (the small metal ball that he carries around as an amulet) symbolizes his being kicked around and abused by his father and his school friends, his lack of control over himself and his destiny. Notably, he drops it while he is being examined at the hospital toward the end of the film, marking his awakening. Nowhere in the film are we more aware of physicality than during Pablo's final declaration. The description of his father's abuse includes references to being kicked, his hair being pulled, his skin being burned with cigarettes, and being forced to drink urine and to take laxatives, as well as being spat on.

In Krámpack, the boys' bodies serve as explicit references to their growing-up process: Nico (played by a real-life acrobat) wears muscle shirts and is often seen topless. He is a master of performing masculinity: when meeting the girls for a party he stresses the fact that he has just shaved and wears a formal suit. He is proud of his toned body and especially his pronounced Adam's apple, which he shows to Dani as proof of his grown-up status and sexual appeal, saying that girls notice it when he drinks at the bar, and adding that they love it because ''a big Adam's apple signifies other things.'' In response, Dani points out that his feet have also grown, perhaps unconsciously drawing attention to his own phallic power. The mutual masturbation scenes of the film's title are noteworthy as they clearly define the heterosexual boy as the one in control and also the one who would adopt the ''active'' role sexually.15 Dani has learned to send his hand to sleep by sitting on it before masturbating, so that it feels like someone else's hand. Nico breaks the palpable homoerotic tension by saying that he was thinking it was the hand of a famous female newscaster. In the next krámpack, Dani switches the light off for intimacy. What for Nico is a mechanical act of pleasure is for Dani an intimate act of love. The camera shows him from behind, with soft lighting drawing attention to his backside, and then he performs fellatio on his friend. References to his sexual role are more explicit in the third erotic scene between the two boys, which takes place just after Dani interrupts Nico's sexual adventure with Elena. After Nico confesses that he is fed up with the krámpacks and with spending so much time with Dani, Dani suggests they have penetrative sex and immediately adopts the receiving position (the act never materializes, as Nico reaches the orgasm before penetration). While the bodies of the two boys are equally exposed and presented as attractive, Nico, the heterosexual, is seen as the one in phallic, penetrative control and Dani, like Rai in Barrio or Pablo in El Bola, as the vulnerable passive other.16


One of the most striking similarities between these three films is the prominent presence of the railroad tracks and the railway system, partly reminiscent of the classic El espíritu de la colmena, to which I referred at the begin ning of this essay. Ironically, in Barrio, the tracks are also symbolic of the boys' stasis and inability to move beyond the city and to escape their tough realities. It is on a train that Manu and Javi embrace each other on learning about Rai's death, as if the rootedness evoked by the tracks were to blame for the tragedy. The tracks are also metaphorically linked to the family ties (especially in the case of Manu, because of his father's old job as train driver, and as Marsh has argued [171], the parallelism between his brother's punctured veins and the city's underground system). Similarly, in the first half of El Bola, Pablo is drawn to the railroad tracks, which in his case are symbolic of his fascination with death and destruction but also of escapism at a literal (the game) and metaphorical (the train) level; yet it is also at the tracks where he realizes that his friendship with Alfredo is much more valuable than the superficial relationships with his school peers, based on the competitive and suicidal games that are associated with the old macho style of his violent father, which his new friend is not prepared to accept. Pablo's final declaration to the police is crosscut with close-up shots of the tracks. The pellet is abandoned there and is finally smashed by the passing train, symbolically marking the end of his old, repressed self as ''Pellet'' and his new start as Pablo. Finally, in Krampack, the tracks mark the separation between the city and the coast, with all the implied binarisms: winter and summer, families and friendship, heterosexuality and homosexuality, and so on. For both Dani and Nico, the station is the borderline between the reality of their everyday, separate lives and their idyllic time on holiday together. It is also at the station where they playfully wrestle and embrace, conciliating a modern style of masculine friendship with no hang-ups about sexual orientation.

I use the tracks as a convenient reminder of the three aspects studied in this essay—strong family ties, friendship, and the vulnerable body—but one which is also symbolic of the main themes of these films, as for these boys, the tracks also mark their coming-of-age when they eventually manage to reach the other side by facing the harsh realities of life. Despite the connotations of immobility, I would like to argue that the tracks can also be seen in their more literal meaning of forward movement and become a positive symbol of progression, as the boys in these stories (especially in El Bola and Krampack) seem to leave traumas behind and welcome a more flexible model of masculinity.

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