“I had crossed the line and people feel uncomfortable with those who do so”. Other than its director’s first film, this exhibition of punk elitism is also noted for containing the sole acting performance of the English musician Kevin Ayers, who was residing in Spain at the time. The film’s tone unmistakably reminds one of those pretentious Spanish shorts screened in the early eighties prior to the main feature. Except that this is a feature. The first time I heard of Percusión was c. 1984, when I saw it displayed in a video store and was emphatically advised by a woman store clerk against renting it. I forgot about it until a few years later, when I was reading a back issue of the Spanish film magazine Dirigido por… and came across a report by the critic José Enrique Monterde on a film festival, that of San Sebastián, if memory serves. Percusión was one of the films shown and the clearly unsympathetic Monterde commented that it did, at least, make one think about “the inscrutable motives that may lead a producer to lose money in so obvious and inexcusable a way”. It goes without saying that I became immediately curious about it. A further few years later I ordered the film from the Video Instan archives in Barcelona: it was listed on their catalogue but, as it turned out, their only copy had got destroyed. Finally, via the trading market I have been able to obtain a copy of this, the opera prima of Josetxo San Mateo (Madrid, 1949), a sound engineer, comic book writer and assistant director to, among others, Eloy de la Iglesias, Antonioni and Pontecorvo.
Percusión starts with the image of the nameless character played by Ayers (who also composed the music score), bleeding in his bathtub in the midst of his suicide bid, as he muses on his past, which leads to the flashback that is the script’s main body. Ayers’s character is a comic book artist, amateur drummer and regular consumer of drugs and whores, who has just, perhaps understandably, been left by his wife (Miriam de Maeztu) for a runtish little man (the late Ricardo Franco, Jess Franco’s nephew). The scruffy Ayers character (simply identified as the “hero” in the final credits roll) leads a carelessly easy-going life, seen walking the streets of Madrid and insulting or playing pranks on whoever comes his way. At one point, he (rather effortlessly and convincingly) passes for a beggar and starts to ask for money from real destitutes. In another, earlier scene, he visits a pompous painter friend and causes the man to cry after he ridicules his artistic efforts.
SPOILERS. The man’s run-down existence experiences a turn when he starts feeling that someone is following him, apparently the establishment’s punishment for his lifestyle. As the film draws to its close, what seemed to be mere persecution mania seemingly turns out to be real. Gun in hand, a mysterious man enters the “hero’s” premises. An encounter follows and the hero outwits and kills the stranger. He may have been the pursuer of his obsessions or perhaps a mere common thief. In the belief that more pursuers will follow in future, the “hero” opts for a sweet suicide in his bathtub: “@#@# you, you shitty murderers! You didn’t count on me dying a happy, peaceful death. You wanted to screw me with your violence, but in a way, I’m the one screwing you guys”. SPOILERS END.
The pursuer was apparently some kind of emissary of society, out to punish the “hero” for his transgressions (“I was guilty of my life, of violating their principles, upsetting their assumptions. They had to destroy me”). Lots of fine talk but all we have seen the “hero” do is antagonise acquaintances, neighbours and passersby, and loaf around in his dark glasses. He comes off as no different from numerous people one may have encountered in a bar or as a flatmate. The script gives the “hero” a self-employed job, but he looks more like the prototype of the unattached unemployed male who smokes too much dope, lying somewhere between the Jeff Bridges character from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (but far more aggressive) and Abel Ferrara’s driller killer (but without the murders).
This complacency extends to the director’s style, forever indulging the antisocial “hero” in long scenes, sometimes sequence-shots: Kevin Ayers pissing into the toilet seat; Kevin Ayers making out with a girl by the bathtub; Kevin Ayers playing the drum; Kevin Ayers ridiculing his publisher; Kevin Ayers doing drugs; Kevin Ayers on the phone, ordering a prostitute from an agency and trying to convince the operator herself to come; Kevin Ayers goofing away… The film’s first half brings it dangerously close to “poor excuse for a movie” territory, and the bad acting from some non-actor supports does not help. Ayers is inevitably dubbed (by Javier Dotú, if I’m not mistaken); the rest of the film is mostly in direct sound, except for two minor players, who sport familiar voices. One shudders to think what they must have sounded like given the tolerance shown for Ricardo Franco’s feeble line-readings. Things, however, improve in the second half, when the “hero” goes some way towards breaking his onanistic shell and granting some access into his world to a variety of characters (well played by the likes of Marta Molins, Mercedes Sampietro or José Manuel Cervino), who he presumably considers worthy of his respect.
Alternatively tedious and interesting, Percusión does inspire a certain obscene fascination in its apparent refusal to critically distance itself from its obnoxious “hero” and his pretentiously dopey statements. At a party, he tells a friends that “years ago we might have changed all this but we didn’t know how to” and his voice-over narration includes such gems as “pursuers need people like me to exist, but I don’t need them”. Amidst all the cheap philosophising, what emerges is a highly credible portrayal of a bohemian /marginal/ festive milieu in early eighties Madrid.
Following the film’s failure, Josetxo San Mateo found a means of support on TV: his resumé there includes directing some chapters of La banda de Pérez, the Civil War comedy series created by Ricardo Palacios. In the year 2000, San Mateos resumed his career as a theatrical director, returning to urban settings and rebellious attitudes rather convincingly with Báilame el agua, starring Pilar López de Ayala, of Vicente Aranda’s Mad Love. For his part, writer-producer Pepón Coromina was in the midst of a successful career, producing, among other things, Almodóvar’s first feature film and Bigas Luna’s Anguish.
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