La Cabina: Creating Horror from the Absurd
In Madrid’s Chamberí district there is an anonymous, gated service road that leads to an equally anonymous, privately owned plaza. Compared to other, more colourful plazas in the city, this one is unremarkable – and yet it hides a secret. In the long, hot summer of 1972, during the twilight years of General Franco’s 1 autocratic rule, the late Spanish film director, Antonio Mercero, 2 chose this location to shoot the opening scenes for what is arguably his best known work outside of his native country – a controversial short film titled La cabina (The Telephone Box a.k.a. The Booth/The Cabin). 3
Part black comedy, part psychological horror, La cabina won Mercero the 1973 International Emmy Award for Best Fiction and soon after gained a cult following. In style and content the film occupies the middle-ground between Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but before venturing into the Kafkaesque world of that innocent looking telephone box, let’s take a moment to briefly cover the career of the man behind the camera.
Born on the 7th of March 1936, Antonio Mercero Juldain (to acknowledge his full name) initially graduated in Law, before studying film making. He made his directorial debut with a short film about a shepherd boy, titled La oveja negra (1960) 4 and in 1962 he won his first award, for the children’s short film, Lección de arte. 5 Post-graduation, Mercero worked on a variety of self-penned projects, also paying his professional dues as an assistant director, a 2nd unit director and screenwriter, before breaking into television in 1968, with the documentary series Fiesta. 6
The 1970s and ’80s saw Mercero perfecting his directorial style, both in film and television. Amongst his many credits is the drama series Crónicas de un pueblo (1971-1973) 7 – essentially a reflection of Franco’s idealistic vision of small-town life – although he actually left the series in 1972, on ideological grounds. Building on his success with La cabina, Mercero’s comedy-drama about a rebellious three year old boy, La guerra de papá (1977) 8 and the international award winning war story La hora de los valientes (1988) 9 secured his position as one of Spain’s finest directors. Meanwhile, the TV series Verano azul (1981-1982), 10 which followed a group of youngsters on an adventurous summer holiday, had proven to be so popular that even to this day it remains one of Spain’s most loved domestic dramas from that decade.
Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium success continued to find Mercero, most notably with Farmacia de guardia (1991-1995), 11 a comedy series about the day-to-day running of a pharmacy, and the critically acclaimed, award winning film, Planta 4ª (2003), 12 set in a children’s cancer ward, but sadly personal tragedy was already on the horizon. His last film, ¿Y tú quién eres? (2007), 13 was a family drama about Alzheimer’s, all the more poignant for barely two years later he was diagnosed with the same disease, retiring from professional life shortly thereafter. 2009 also saw a fitting, final addition to the many honours Mercero had received across half a century of film making, when the Spanish Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts selected him for an Honorary Goya Award, generally regarded as the Spanish Oscar.
“In all of my works I have used three concepts: pain, love and humour…It’s a strange cocktail, I know, and often I’ve asked myself how I could mix elements potentially so different from one another. But, in practice, they have been landmarks in developing my creations.” Antonio Mercero. 14
Mercero died at the age of 82, on the 12th of May 2018, at home and surrounded by his family. He had always wished to leave this world whilst watching his favourite American musical, Singing in The Rain. It would be nice to think his wish was granted. To friends, colleagues and numerous fans, he will be remembered as an intelligent, kind and humble man – albeit one with a dry wit, a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a keen sense of the absurd.
By way of a personal recognition of Mercero’s contribution to the psychological horror genre in particular, this article will take an in-depth look at the making of La cabina; from origin and development, via government interference, to eventual international acclaim. However, this is also a story about a simple idea that inadvertently gave rise to a bizarre paranoid delusion that, in its own way, contributed towards La cabina becoming a Spanish cultural icon. So, for those readers unfamiliar with this unique slice of Spanish film making history, let’s begin by answering the question: what’s it about?
The Telephone Box Plot
Four anonymous men from an unnamed telephone company install a shiny red telephone box in the aforementioned plaza then depart in a flatbed lorry. Minutes later, after walking his young son to the school bus, a middle-aged man enters the phone box and attempts to place a call, only to find the line is dead. Meanwhile, the door closes slowly and traps him inside – like a specimen in a killing jar.
What at first appears an absurdly comical situation becomes increasingly embarrassing for the man when, during failed attempts to free him, a crowd gathers and views his predicament as a source of entertainment. Shortly after the police and fire brigade arrive on the scene, the telephone company men return, load the phone box and its occupant onto the flatbed then exit the plaza, with the crowd gaily waving goodbye. Driven through the streets of Madrid, like a parody of a Holy Week procession, the protagonist’s journey grows ever more perplexing and when he sees another man trapped in an identical phone box, his discomfort rapidly transforms into desperation, then a genuine fear for his life as he realises the real nightmare has only just begun.
Even to this day the climax of the film leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, and for good reason. Mercero offers no explanation for why kidnapped middle-aged men are being abandoned in a secret underground warehouse, far from human habitation yet populated by desiccated corpses in phone boxes. The dénouement simply shows a replacement phone box being installed in that same plaza and its door left open invitingly – and yet from the first scene to the very last, not a single drop of stage blood has been spilt. Therefore the true horror of the piece lies entirely in the mind of the viewer. So, with that being said, it’s time to look at how La cabina came into being.
Three Spaniards Walk into a Bar
Early in 1972, following a regular Monday morning business meeting, Mercero’s close friends, the film maker José Luis Garci 15 and the screenwriter Horacio Valcárcel, 16 took him to lunch at their favourite watering hole. The trio chatted about the news, football and, not surprisingly, film making, during which Mercero mentioned a surreal comedy sketch he’d begun writing in 1970, but had later abandoned. 17 Allegedly based on a short story by the Spanish journalist and writer, Juan José Plans Martinez, 18 its subject was a man attempting to escape from a sealed telephone box.
The idea greatly amused Mercero’s companions. Valcárcel helpfully suggested a few extra details whilst Garci wondered how Alfred Hitchcock would resolve the dilemma. Consequently, Mercero’s sketch was resurrected and added to an anthology of short, fantastical tales already under development, collectively titled Trece pasos por lo insólito (Thirteen Steps to the Unusual). Unfortunately, when submitted to Televisión Española (TVE), the sole national television service at the time, the anthology was rejected, but Mercero wasn’t one to be dismissed so easily.
Artistic censorship was on the wane 19 as the regime was actively promoting a new, liberal image of the country in its latest bid to join the European Community. TVE had, likewise, adopted a more progressive policy, encouraging ideas that could be developed for international competitions. So Mercero later re-submitted the anthology and as leverage he cited the Crónicas de un pueblo series, which even the TVE executives conceded was little more than soft, pro-Franco propaganda. Therefore, from Mercero’s point of view, TVE owed him a favour in return. Accordingly, Mercero was ‘rewarded’ with a small concession. Two scripts were approved. One would later become the black comedy, La gioconda está triste (1976), 20 in which Da Vinci’s masterpiece loses her enigmatic smile and humanity is destroyed by a sudden cataclysm, and the other was Mercero’s surreal telephone box sketch. The rest, Garci later recalled, were “put into a drawer and never heard of again.” 21
The nascent La cabina script had been saved, but owing to professional commitments elsewhere Valcárcel was only involved with the early stages of development, leaving Mercero and Garci to see the project through to completion.
A popular cultural belief has it that one Spring day Mercero was taking a leisurely stroll through Madrid, pondering the phone box problem, when inspiration suddenly struck. He envisaged an eerie subterranean world in which middle-aged men were slowly dying inside telephone boxes, so he immediately contacted Garci (from a phone box, appropriately) and told his co-writer they had to rewrite the script, with their protagonist now permanently trapped and facing his own, inevitable death. Thus the direction of La cabina changed – from surreal comedy into something far more sinister – but, assuming that cultural belief is true, what might have inspired or influenced Mercero to include a subterranean world in the rewrite?
Influences or Coincidences?
Spanish cinemas, at the time, were dominated by Hollywood spy movies and Italian made ‘spaghetti’ westerns, 22 so consider this synopsis of a short scene from the 1967, Paramount Pictures spy-comedy, The President’s Analyst. 23 A man becomes trapped inside a phone box, is kidnapped by a team of anonymous men from a phone company, then transported to a secret underground destination. Sounds familiar?
Also from 1967 is a Spanish TV advert, 24 part of the Las matildes series, 25 promoting the sale of shares in the telecommunications company Telefónica. Set in a small plaza, which looks remarkably similar to the location used in La cabina, a man mistakenly thinks he’s become stuck in a phone box, albeit briefly, after finishing a call. He even makes hand gestures against the glass panes, identical to those made by Mercero and Garci’s protagonist. Coincidentally, the actor in both this advert and La cabina is the same person – José Luis López Vázquez de la Torre. 26
Of course it could be argued that a scene from an American spy movie and an old TV advert do not constitute definitive proof of influence on the development of Mercero and Garci’s script. The above mentioned similarities are, admittedly, speculative suggestions made by this writer. Maybe Mercero never saw The President’s Analyst and perhaps Vázquez simply drew on elements of his performance in the Las matildes advert to help build his role in La cabina. Coincidences do happen.
Casting the Grey Man
Mercero and Garci’s protagonist represented the stereotypical, middle-aged Spanish male: short, balding and moustachioed; coincidentally just like Vázquez. The character was essentially a cypher with no name, no backstory and definitely no future. Garci had wanted an actor of the same calibre as Marcello Mastroianni 27 or Vittorio Gassman 28 – contemporary stars of Italian cinema who could easily switch from comedy to drama within the same scene – whereas Mercero sought a mime and already had his sights set on Vázquez. A long-established star of the Spanish stage and screen, Vázquez had recently delivered a tour-de-force performance in the controversial black comedy Mi querida señorita, 29 in which he played a woman who questions her sexuality after discovering that ‘she’ was born male, but raised as a female. It was this role that apparently caught Mercero’s attention and in a recent (paraphrased) interview for Spanish television he commented:
“I thought that he had to be our grey man because he had the skill of a mime…[and could]…describe so many moods in such a short time with such force. The graduation of feelings [for the grey man] was very important and had to be done with a great actor who had to express everything only with his eyes.” 30
It was during a trip to New York in April of 1972 that Mercero convinced Garci they should offer Vázquez what has come to be regarded by many modern film critics as the defining role of his later career. Vázquez was working on Pedro Lazaga’s 31 El vikingo 32 when he received the script and he read it during a break in filming. Astonished by the themes Mercero and Garci were exploring with La cabina, Vázquez contacted his agent with instructions to rearrange his filming commitments so that once he’d finished Lazaga’s film he could focus solely on this new project. Sharing that same television interview with Mercero, Vázquez stated:
“The script seemed to me a very hard, very dramatic, tragic story. Above all else it symbolised the human state, the end, the life of human beings, the total annulment of the senses; disintegration. It caused me to feel restless.” 33
Restlessness is certainly a key factor in Vázquez’ captivating performance and his legacy is evident in the influence that performance has since had on other artists. From stage to screen to the small screen – and now the internet – his iconic role has been repeatedly copied, parodied or even just referenced in passing, becoming an internationally recognised meme in the process.
Joining Vázquez on this journey to oblivion was Agustín González; 34 another long-standing, character actor of merit, who became the second unfortunate soul trapped in a phone box. His was a cameo role, yet essential for reinforcing the unnerving quality of the middle third of the film. For the earlier scenes shot in the plaza, Mercero and Garci drew from a rich vein of Spanish stage and screen actors to create an array of everyday background characters. However, amongst the housewives and impudent children, authoritarian policemen and casual bystanders, several characters do stand out. There’s señor corpulento (the heavy-set man) whose hubris is brought tumbling to the ground by his inability to free the man in the phone box. There are the two middle-aged señoras who knit and revel in the spectacle before them, like twin versions of Madame Defarge 35 from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Then there’s the tall, gaunt pastry thief and the glazier with his logical approach to problem solving. Each in their own way helps accentuate the off-kilter, circus like quality of these scenes, whilst Vázquez skilfully plays against them and the crowd, en masse.
Communicating only by hand gestures and facial expressions, and resembling a tragi-comic figure from the era of silent films, Vázquez is that mime that Mercero sought. His timing is without par and every interaction is a mini master-class in itself.
Politics, Problems and Locations
With a budget of 4 Million Pesetas (approx US$27,000 by today’s exchange rate) and an officially approved shooting script, Mercero still had to contend with government interference before filming had even started. The Ministry of Information and Tourism ‘requested’ that Mercero included footage of a modernising Madrid, to boost the international image of a new and vibrant Spain. Mercero complied, in a manner of speaking, but through the lens of his camera, modern apartment blocks became little more than glorified concrete boxes, the skeletal frame of a new build in process seemed barely able to support its own weight and images of a gentrified suburbia were juxtaposed against scenes of junk yards and rural decay. This was a Spain that was clearly still at odds with itself.
As any film maker knows, location is a powerful storytelling device – and none more so than the plaza – which encapsulates the protagonist’s combined sense of public exposure, isolation and entrapment. The surrounding buildings loom over the scene and effectively show the viewer a man inside a glass box, within another box, within another, larger box – a claustrophobic touch of Matryoshka doll symbolism from the inventive mind of Mercero.
Filming commenced on the 17th of July 1972, continuing into late August, but the initial seven-day shoot in the plaza proved to be a trial of endurance for Vázquez. In the suffocating heat of the relentless summer sun, the actor had difficulty breathing inside the phone box. The glass panes had already been replaced with perspex (for safety reasons, during a scene in which señor corpulento throws his weight against the box), so for close-ups the lower panes were removed to allow fresh air to circulate, thus giving Vázquez some small measure of relief. Coincidentally, Mercero and Garci had chosen the colour red for the phone box, to symbolise anguish and torment – and here was Vázquez genuinely suffering for his art!
Away from the plaza, locations included the grand sweep of Madrid’s Scalextric de Atocha elevated road system (since demolished) and the Tunel de María de Molina, the latter deliberately selected to foreshadow the terrifying climax. Passing through the eastern district of Hortaleza, Mercero mounted the camera on the rear of the flatbed, to capture both Vázquez’ silent pleas for help and the amused reactions from support actors outside the bar at No.32 Calle de Jazmin (today a café), although a few unsuspecting locals inevitably found themselves included in the footage after the film’s release.
The recently completed cargo terminal at Madrid’s Barajas Airport provided a conveyor system, used to ferry the victim to his doom, which was seamlessly edited into the final scenes. To the west of Madrid, in the historic province of Salamanca, Mercero selected locations near the villages of Vitigudino and La Zarza de Pumareda. In Portugal, close to the Spanish border, a dusty road between Mogadouro and the Torre de Moncorvo became the stage for the symbolic ‘dwarf with the ship in a bottle’ scene, whilst the long, snaking descent to the town of Poblado del Salto de Aldeadávila featured during the protagonist’s journey into the deep of Las Arribes del Duero valley, marking the geographical Spanish/Portuguese border proper. Here too is where the approach road to the hydroelectric dam of Aldeadávila de la Ribera made an appearance, passing through the Spanish sculptor, Pablo Serrano’s La gran bóveda (The Great Vault) 36entrance to the dam’s internal road network; a symbolic highway to Hell blasted from the surrounding rock.
In the libretto for Mare Films’ 2014 remastered release 37of La cabina, the renowned Spanish film critic, Javier Tolentino 38states that Mercero originally intended to shoot the film’s climax on an ‘apocalyptic grotto’ set, to be built on the Paseo de la Habana in Madrid’s eastern district of Chamartín. However, whilst scouting the neo-Gothic exterior of the Aldeadávila dam with his cinematographer, Federico G. Larraya, Mercero became fascinated by its foreboding netherworld of tunnels and dimly lit caves. Vázquez was equally impressed, declaring the location to be a suitably “devastating end…A finale that the spectator does not want to see or want to know” 39 – and so the stage was set for the protagonist’s last few minutes on film.
The penultimate scene, in which the man in the phone box is carried away by a crane, was shot inside the dam’s turbine room; a vast chamber, eerily reminiscent of a Bond villain’s secret lair. As Vázquez would later recall, this marked the one point during the entire shoot that caused him to fear for his safety. “They hung me from a crane and I said to myself ‘Oh Mother, I hope the floor of the cabin can support my weight. I don’t want to fall out, or for the crane to slip and drop me.’” 40Ever the professional, Vázquez drew on that fear to drive his performance and so make his character’s terrifying end all the more convincing for the viewer. He succeeded admirably.
Reception, Reaction and Controversy
If it hadn’t been for Mercero receiving the International Critics’ Award at the 1972 Monte Carlo Festival of Television, La cabina might never have been seen by Spanish TV viewers. Was Mercero’s strange little film symbolically criticising the Franco regime, as some at TVE feared, or was it just a bizarre fantasy, as Mercero claimed? Whilst the TVE executives awaited a ministerial decision, the transmission date was suspended, but with the Spanish press lauding Mercero’s success in Monte Carlo and the additional lure of lucrative foreign sales to come for TVE, the balance quickly tipped in Mercero’s favour. La cabina was officially approved, on the condition that one very brief scene was cut because it allegedly showed ministry property. It didn’t. Mercero’s camera merely followed the flatbed as it passed the frontage of an underground railway station – Nuevos Ministerios (New Ministry). Nevertheless, the offending scene met the cutting room floor, and on the 13th of December 1972, at 10pm, La cabina finally aired, on TVE’s LA1 channel.
That night Spaniards went to bed unsure about what they had just watched. Over the following days and weeks the film became a hot topic for discussion in homes, workplaces and bars, although many found the story confusing, even disturbing. As curiosity about a hidden message began to grow, La cabina was released in America, where it gained critical acclaim, leading to Mercero’s Emmy (the first ever awarded to a Spanish film director). Whilst there would be further awards for the director, lead actor and film, a legal problem suddenly threatened to mar Mercero’s continuing success. The German composer, Carl Orff 41 sued Mercero for the unauthorised use of a cantata from his operetta, Trionfo di Afrodite. 42 Apparently Mercero had simply ‘forgotten’ to approach Orff for permission. To avoid a scandal the issue was resolved with an out of court settlement after Orff met Mercero privately, viewed La cabina, then subsequently approved the use of his music.
Meanwhile, controversy of a far stranger kind had been brewing on the streets of Madrid, for just as Alfred Hitchcock had transformed a shower into a symbol of terror in his infamous Psycho (1960), so Mercero achieved the same result with the humble Spanish telephone box. Rumours about Madridilians becoming trapped inside phone boxes began to circulate, birthing an urban legend about kidnappings by a shadowy agency and causing those of a more suspicious nature to ensure phone box doors remained firmly open during calls. Perhaps fearing this rumour would affect its share price, the response from Telefónica was intriguing, to say the least. Putting a spin on the paranoia of the moment, it re-engaged Vázquez for a new Las matildes advert, 43 in which he parodied his iconic role in La cabina.
So, who’s afraid of the big bad phone box? With 21st century hindsight, it’s tempting to laugh at what we perceive as ignorant, superstitious behaviour, yet even in this age of social media, urban legends continue to abound, frequently tweeted and shared without fact checking first. The point being that such tales become, by definition, a form of modern folklore, effectively giving voice to primal human fears. Therefore it’s important to place this seemingly irrational fear of Spanish phone boxes in its proper historical context. In the earlier, more brutal years of Franco’s rule, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards became Los desaparecidos (the disappeared) during purges of political opponents and alleged dissenters. So it’s possible that La cabina resurrected very real, disturbing memories (especially amongst older Spaniards), which found unconscious expression through this strange phobia.
In a lighter vein, despite exhaustive research, not a single authenticated account of anyone, anywhere in Spain ever having become ensnared by a telephone box has been found, although it’s curious to note that those few Madrid phone boxes fitted with internal latches underwent ‘routine maintenance’ before the international release of La cabina, during which the latches were discreetly removed. So it’s not surprising that these ‘upgrades’, coupled with the general phone box paranoia, actually helped cement the film’s burgeoning cult status abroad, even leading to incidents of strange graffiti in the UK. Following the BBC2 Television release, on the 25th July 1981, black silhouettes of desperate outstretched hands mysteriously appeared in red telephone boxes around London and elsewhere.
Here, the tale might have ended, except that in this new millennium the iconic ‘man trapped in a telephone box’ meme has reappeared – in Ireland. It seems the grey man stubbornly refuses to die!
Yet More Controversy!
Twenty six years after the release of La cabina, in 1998, the Spanish advertising agency Tiempo BBDO was commissioned to announce the launch of a new telecom company, Retevisión – marking the end of Telefónica’s monopoly. The agency engaged Vázquez (then seventy-six) to step into a telephone box and duplicate his grey man role. Only this time the phone box door magically opened as an instrumental version of The Proclaimers: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) 44 symbolically freed the man to enjoy a new lease of life, presumably with Retevisión as his telecom provider. How liberating!
Upon seeing the advert, Mercero was furious! Interviewed by the Spanish daily, El País, Mercero said:
“It’s terrible that they use an idea of yours without asking your permission…On top of that, a lot of people think that I’m the author of the ad and I’m covering myself with advertising.” 45
Some might say this response was a touch hypocritical, coming from a man who may have been influenced by that scene from The President’s Analyst, but had certainly used Orff’s work without permission. All the same, accusations of plagiarism were laid against Tiempo BBDO, which retaliated with a statement to the effect that “A [phone] booth and José Luis López Vázquez do not belong to Mercero, or anyone.” 46 Mercero’s response was “My lawyer will decide.” 47 Mirroring the Orff v Mercero case, the issue was resolved out of court (yet again) with Tiempo BBDO acknowledging that its advert was indeed based on La cabina.
Parodies and Homages
Coincidentally, that very same year La cabina was parodied by the Spanish comic duo, Juan Muñoz and José Mota, otherwise known as Cruz y Raya (Cross and Stripe). They had a highly successful series that ran from 1987 to 2004 – and little was sacrosanct in their eyes. The sketch, titled La Cabina, 48 appeared in RTVE’s (previously TVE) This is not the Friday Programme and thoroughly lampooned Vázquez’ iconic role. By all contemporary accounts, he enjoyed it!
In 2005, the film maker Javier Fesser, 49 founder of the Jameson Notodofilmfest, 50 entered a short and very dark comedy-drama into that year’s festival, titled LA CABinA. 51 An obvious homage to the original, it featured a middle-aged man entering a phone box and finding a message stuck to the glass pane: ‘If you leave the cabin, I’ll shoot you.’ – with a little smiley face added for good measure. Another message stated ‘If you call the police, I’ll shoot you again’ – with a little sad face added as a warning. Meanwhile, in an apartment overlooking the scene, a dishevelled young man with a hunting rifle and ‘issues’ has an itchy trigger finger. Not a good combination!
2009 saw Mercero’s film briefly spoofed by the Spanish screenwriter and director, David Díaz, 52 in his seven minute comedy, Españolada a la plancha (Typical Spanish Platter). Also in 2009, the Madrid based rap band, La excepción que confirma la regla (The Exception that Proves the Rule) 53 paid homage to Mercero and La cabina in its video, La verdad mas verdadera (The Truest Truth). 54 A short, two-part film detailing the making of this video is available on You Tube. 55
Charlie Brooker, creator of the Black Mirror anthology, stated in a Spanish newspaper interview 56 that La cabina was one his favourite films. So it was probably inevitable that he would reference it at some point, which he did during the final scenes of an episode from Season Two of Black Mirror, titled White Bear (2013). Also in 2013, a young Spanish artist, Eva Marinac chose to depict Vázquez in his phone box, in clay. She stated, “I…have a special affection for him. I think he was an actor who was worth as much in comedy as in the most dramatic roles.” 57 Another artist, Jorge Itachi even went so far as to recreate the iconic phone box in miniature – complete with a miniature phone, but alas, minus a miniature Vázquez. 58
One of the strangest homages was paid by the Spanish painter and sculptor, Enrique Tenreiro. In 2014, as part of the Agra Directo festival in Coruña, Galacia (NW Spain), he began by distributing fake bank notes in the street, then locked himself inside a glass refrigeration unit 59 and mimicked Vázquez’ grey man – much to the amusement of locals and visitors alike.
On a more serious note, La cabina also inspired an anti-drugs campaign, run by the Dirección General de Tráfico (DGT), an autonomous government department responsible for the Spanish road network. In 2014 DGT released a short, public awareness video titled Saca tus drogas de la circulación (Take your drugs out of circulation) 60 in which a man, high on cocaine, is completely unaware that he’s been involved in a fatal road accident – until he realises that he’s permanently trapped in his car, alongside other vehicles with occupants in the same situation. The film is surreal, yet succinctly makes its point.
Stepping back a few years to 2008, a new film festival was launched in Spain. The La Cabina: Festival Internacional de Mediometrajes (International Medium Length film festival) 61 clearly took its name from Mercero’s short film, aiming to showcase work of 30-60 minutes in length that has a ‘defined statement of purpose: originality, exclusivity, innovation, culture…an international spirit and attention to design.’ 62 Held in the city of València (on the East coast), the festival ran for just five days in its first year although by 2010 that had been extended to a ten-day run. Now regarded as one of the most prestigious medium-length film festivals in Europe, it has recently attracted entrants from as far away as Israel, America, Serbia and South Korea. The spirit of the original La cabina lives on in a new generation of film makers.
One Man’s Initiative
Shortly after Mercero’s death, the Spanish screenwriter and one time Chamberí resident, David Linares launched an online campaign to erect a replica of the infamous red telephone box as near as possible to the original filming location. 63 He began with an open petition on change.org, then the campaign quickly spread to social media. With the hashtag #UnaCabinaParaMercero and the support of Mercero’s family and friends, the Spanish Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts and the Telefónica Foundation, Linares gathered thousands of signatures. The Municipal Board of Chamberí joined the initiative and when presented to the Madrid City Council, it was unanimously approved.
On the 24th of July 2018, the council met in a plenary session, during which the councillor for Chamberí and Carabanchel districts, Esther Gómez assured all those present that “The citizens’ proposal will be a pleasure to carry out. We are going to look for the best possible site to…develop this initiative.” 64 However, since the original plaza is privately owned and presumably the residents wouldn’t welcome hoards of Spanish horror film buffs peering through the railings (which is slightly ironic, considering the circus like plaza scenes in La cabina) an alternate site had to be found. Consequently, in March of 2019, in accordance with Linares’ suggestion, the Plaza del Conde del Valle de Suchil was selected, just 300 metres from the original location. 65 All that remains now is to await the return of a cultural icon to the streets of Madrid.
So, what began as a surreal joke about an ordinary man in an absurd situation is now to become enshrined as a national monument. Perhaps the last laugh really is with Mercero.
When a controversial film as rich in symbolism as La cabina gains wider attention, the search for a hidden message inevitably leads to speculation, theorising and even the projection of various ideologies onto the source material.
For example: L’Humanité, the former French communist newspaper, at the time declared La cabina to be the ‘gravest criticism of the Franco regime’, an opinion still echoed amongst viewers’ comments and reviews on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), whilst the telephone box itself has also been interpreted as a symbolic Procrustean bed (an arbitrary standard to which all must conform). Bizarrely, some viewers in the 1970s considered the film a metaphor for an alien invasion, 66 whilst religiously inclined viewers instead saw the plaza scenes in particular as a metaphor for Man’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. Alternatively, from a modern-day perspective, the tale has been said to highlight the loss of individual liberty in a world increasingly subservient to corporate interests – hence the anonymous phone company. Poetically speaking, La cabina may be an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s The Seven Ages of Man, 67 although the Spanish psychologist, José Antonio García Higuera saw the telephone box as representing “A cave from which we can leave, but which we do not want to out of fear of the outside.” 68
In the midst of publicity surrounding the film’s international release, Mercero repeatedly dismissed the Franco metaphor. For instance, when replying to questions put to him by a journalist from the now defunct Terror Fantastic magazine, he stated:
“José Luis Garci…and I, recognised that when we wrote the script, we were closer to the world of science fiction and terror, than any political theme…We also realised that our story had many readings and that that was its richness and complexity…I would say then, that La cabina is a parable open to all kinds of interpretations and according to the sensitivity, culture and formation of each one, it will be interpreted in a different way, and those multiple interpretations will always be valid.” 69
Make of it what thou wilt, seems to be the essence of that statement. More recently, in 2009 (the same year that Vázquez died and Mercero was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s) Mercero was interviewed by RTVE and he made a statement that seemed to finally reveal what personal message he took from La cabina.
“All human beings have boxes that we have to get rid of. There are boxes of the moral type, there are boxes of the educational type, there are boxes of the mental type; economic boxes that imprison us and I believe…that life is a continuous quest for freedom from each one of these boxes. In order to be free, spontaneous and happy, each person has to see which box imprisons him…and try to free himself…that is our destiny.” 70
Alas, the grey man failed to gain his freedom, as did his creator, who became trapped within the debilitating mental confines of his own prison. However, in this writer’s opinion, Mercero’s last revelation is the real message of La cabina and, as such, it is just as relevant today as it’s always been.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Franco ↩
- Antonio Mercero.https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0580318/Also see: http://www.cineyteatro.es/portal/DETALLEPERFILES/tabid/64/xmmid/394/xmid/2554/xmview/2/Default.aspx?bus=ANTONIO%20MERCERO (Spanish language) and https://www.antoniomercero.eus/en (English language) ↩
- La cabina. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NKRNpn-1ek. A better quality version is available to download, for free, at http://rarelust.com/the-telephone-box-1972/ ↩
- La oveja negara. https://www.antoniomercero.eus/en/denbora-lerroa/cinema/la-oveja-negra ↩
- Lección de arte. https://www.antoniomercero.eus/en/denbora-lerroa/cinema/leccion-de-arte ↩
- https://www.antoniomercero.eus/en/denbora-lerroa/television/fiesta ↩
- Crónicas de un pueblo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0211143/ ↩
- La guerra de papá. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076116/ ↩
- La hora de los valientes. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0182236/ ↩
- Verano azul. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077094/ Also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verano_azul ↩
- Farmacia de guardia. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098794/ ↩
- Planta 4ª. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0319917/ ↩
- ¿Y tú quién eres?. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0829326/ ↩
- https://www.antoniomercero.eus/en/bizitza-pertsonala ↩
- José Luis Garci. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0305054/ ↩
- Horacio Valcárcel. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0883553/ ↩
- Gutiérrez, Marisa. Extract from ‘Garci-Entrevistas’ (Garci. Interviews). 2010. Page 10. See:https://www.scribd.com/document/379324854/Garci-Entrevistas-Jose-Luis-Garci (Spanish Language) ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Jos%C3%A9_Plans ↩
- Higginbotham, Virginia. Spanish Film Under Franco. Texas: University of Texas Press.1988. ISBN-10: 0292776039. ISBN-13: 978-0292776036 ↩
- La gioconda está triste (The Mona Lisa is Sad) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255192/ ↩
- Interview with José Luis Garci. ‘La Cabina de Mercero’.2011. RTVE2. 04.50-04.52 minutes. See:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXEbM6Uqhjk (Spanish Language) ↩
- https://www.ukessays.com/essays/film-studies/spanish-cinema-during-the-dictatorship-film-studies-essay.php. Also see: Peré Adán, José. Cine y sociedad, prácticas de ciencias sociales. Ediciones Internacionales Universitarias. Madrid. 2004. Page 119.(Spanish Language) ↩
- The President’s Analyst (1967). Paramount Pictures. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062153/ ↩
- Publicidad años 50 – Las famosas ‘Matildes’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3cc4RUBoYE. 01:24 – 01:44 minutes. (Spanish Language) ↩
- http://todofondosdeinversion.com/las-matildes-historia-de-las-acciones-de-telefonica/ (Spanish Language) ↩
- José Luis López Vázquez. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0007023/ ↩
- Marcello Mastroianni. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000052 ↩
- Vittorio Gassman. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002094 ↩
- Mi querida señorita. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067425/ ↩
- RTVE. La cabina. Presentation by Mercero and López Vázquez. See: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/television/mercero-lopez-vazquez-presentan-cabina/393271/ (2:23-3:00 minutes)(Spanish Language) ↩
- Pedro Lazaga. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002815/ ↩
- El vikingo. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069462/ ↩
- RTVE. La cabina. Presentation by Mercero and López Vázquez. See: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/television/mercero-lopez-vazquez-presentan-cabina/393271/ (3:20-3:54 minutes) (Spanish Language) ↩
- Agustín González. .https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0328020/ ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Defarge ↩
- Pablo Serrano Aguilar. Westerdahl, Eduardo. La escultura de Pablo Serrano. Ediciones Polígrafa. Barcelona. 1977. ISBN 8434302616 9788434302617 (Spanish Language) ↩
- http://marefilms.com/la-cabina-6/ (paragraph 24)(Spanish language) ↩
- Javier Tolentino. http://blog.rtve.es/septimovicio/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Orff ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trionfo_di_Afrodite ↩
- Telefónica’s parody of La cabina. 50 años de TVE – Antonio Mercero. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HujJmwxXGo. 01:45-01:57 Minutes. (Spanish language) ↩
- The Proclaimers: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbNlMtqrYS0 ↩
- https://elpais.com/diario/1998/01/14/sociedad/884732411_850215.html (Spanish language) ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Cruz y Raya. La cabina parody.1998.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrlkG55JtGc ↩
- Javier Fesser. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0275250/ ↩
- http://www.jamesonnotodofilmfest.com/ ↩
- LA CABinA.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNFm39yyxZQ ↩
- David Díaz. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3533255/ ↩
- La excepción que confirma la regla.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Excepci%C3%B3n ↩
- La verdad mas verdadera. https://vimeo.com/3841531 ↩
- The making of ‘La verdad mas verdadera’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHuZPUQrrr8 ↩
- Brooker comments on La cabina and White Bear. https://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2013/03/18/television/1363611580.html (Spanish language) ↩
- Eva Marinac. http://artesaniaconmanoypincel.blogspot.com/2013/06/jose-luis-lopez-vazquez-en-la-cabina.html ↩
- Jorge Itachi miniature phone box. http://www.mundodvd.com/edicion-numerada-y-limitada-de-la-cabina-metacrilato-mercero-1972-a-127439/ ↩
- Enrique Tenreiro’s street performance: https://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/coruna/2014/10/25/enrique-tenreiro-mete-dentro-nevera-plena-calle-barcelona/0003_20141020141025174441356.htm ↩
- Take your drugs out of circulation. Short film by DGT. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5J1qo2Sr8U ↩
- La Cabina: International Medium Length Film Festival. https://lacabina.es/?lang=en ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- http://cinemania.elmundo.es/noticias/una-peticion-de-change-org-busca-instalar-la-cabina-de-mercero-en-madrid/ ↩
- Esther Gómez: la cabina de Antonio Mercero es un regalo para Chamberí. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up2pF_ZiYKc. 01:30-01:38 minutes (Spanish language) ↩
- https://somoschamberi.eldiario.es/monumento-cabina-mercero-conde-valle-suchil/ ↩
- Juan Carlos Ortega (Narrator). La Cabina de Mercero. La mitad invisible. 2011. RTVE2. 08:32-08:34 minutes. See:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXEbM6Uqhjk (Spanish Language) ↩
- As You Like It. Act II, Scene VII. Jacques’ speech to the Old Duke. ↩
- José Antonio García Higuera.http://www.rtve.es/television/20111005/cabina-proximo-estreno-mitada-invisible/466296.shtml (Spanish Language) ↩
- An interview with Pedro Yoldi. Terror Fantastic. 16th of January 1973. http://www.thecult.es/Cine-clasico/la-cabina-antonio-mercero-1972.html (Spanish Language) ↩
- RTVE: La cabina. Complete film with presentation by Mercero and López Vázquez. 27th of January, 2009. http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/television/mercero-lopez-vazquez-presentan-cabina/393271/ (08:51-09:22 minutes) (Spanish language) ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.