I’m pretty sure that Kika was the first Pedro Almodovar film I ever got round to seeing. I can remember trailers for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but I also remember renting Kika based on the insane amount of buzz created by the film and the links it forged between art house cinema and the fashion industry.
If you look back at the comments on my What Have I Done to Deserve This? piece, you’ll find me discussing the importance of Tartan’s Asia Extreme imprint in developing a new generational audience for art house and world cinema. Much like my other area of cultural interest — literary science fiction — art house film reached the 1990s in a state of acute cultural decline. The flea pit cinemas that once dotted London’s West End had been closed by waves of 1980s gentrification and Channel 4 had stopped filling their schedules with cheap foreign films. To this day, whenever someone talks about what it was like to be a cinephile in the 1960s and 70s, it’s a bit like reading a fantasy novel when one of the characters talks about the fall of some great and benign magical kingdom. What-once-was, is now lost and What-shall-be, is yet to come.
Nowadays, when people talk about the popularisation of transgressive images in 1990s popular culture, they use terms like ‘edgelord’ and portray the whole thing as a rather silly and immature experiment in cultural machismo. As someone who was there at the time, I won’t deny that a lot of what drew me to transgressive works was an adolescent and post-adolescent desire for extreme imagery. That aesthetic and those values were fucking everywhere at the time. However, while that aesthetic did create grimdark and usher in a load of problematic tropes that are only now being exiled from common usage, it also served as a really good way of introducing people to culture that they would otherwise never have sought out by themselves. Tartan’s Asia Extreme label may have been constructed to make the most of the J-Horror boom that followed the breakthrough success of Ringu but it did get me used to seeking out and watching obscure and sometimes difficult films.
I remember seeking out Kika because the trailer and marketing materials stressed its transgressive credentials. I also remember thinking that it was all rather light-weight as Almodovar invariably presents his darker ideas and themes in quite a light-hearted manner. Returning to Kika nearly twenty five years later, I can see why I struggled and why I arguably should have struggled more. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.
“The problem with postmodernism is that when the moral purpose of the deconstructive process is overlooked or downplayed (as in films like Natural Born Killers), the techniques of postmodernism result in little more than the commercial process of updating old ideas in an effort to sell them to contemporary audiences. Almodóvar’s films have always been postmodern in so far as they subvert and distort elements of mainstream Spanish culture but while earlier films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? use their transgressive images to articulate profound emotional truths; Kika seems content to transgress for the sake of transgression meaning that the film’s imagery winds up feeling not just insubstantial but actively exploitative. Turns out that even the most fabulous dresses struggle to conceal the emptiness inside.”
My fourth review from the recently released Almodovar Collection! Having adored What Have I Done to Deserve This? and been thoroughly unimpressed by Law of Desire, I find myself charmed by Almodovar’s greatest success; the gorgeous melodramatic farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, my review of which can be found at FilmJuice over here.
British people retain a fading racial memory of the art house films that Channel 4 used to broadcast before it went into the business of bashing marginalised groups. French people, on the other hand, retain similar memories of the days when French TV would broadcast live performances of new plays. I’m too young to remember what any of these plays were about but I do remember a lot of romantic misunderstandings and a lot of slamming doors. The reason for these memories is that French theatre and comedy retain a long-standing commitment to the aesthetics of the farce.
The discourse surrounding British comedy places most works on a graph mapping movements from light to dark and realistic to stylised. For example, The Office is realistic and moderately dark while The IT Crowd is stylised and light-hearted and Dad’s Army is realistic but light. As is often the case in Anglo-Saxon cultures, the darker and more realistic your stylings, the more seriously you are taken…
Continental comedy seldom travels to Britain as it can come across as overly broad. The reason for this is that, unlike British comedy, continental comedy traditions have steadfastly refused to get sucked into the same grimdark aesthetic hierarchy as the Anglo-Saxons. On the continent, people realise that a good French farce can be just as high-minded and socially aware as a bitter sweet BBC comedy-drama dealing with depression (and possibly starring Martin Clunes). I mention this as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a superb example of an intelligent European comedy in that it says really interesting things about the emotional lives of women but reflects these ideas through a maze of silly sight gags and knob jokes.
“As was already obvious in Law of Desire, Almodóvar’s women are complex and paradoxical creatures while his men are nothing but objects of desire that illicit feelings more complex than they could ever hope to experience for themselves.”
Day three of my odyssey through the recently-released Almodovar Collection. Today we look at Pedro Almodovar’s fifth film Law of Desire, my review of which can be found over here at FilmJuice.
It is easy to see why Law of Desire would have been considered a breakthrough upon its initial release. Aside from being celebrated by the Spanish film establishment and being far more technically proficient than Almodovar’s earlier works, Law of Desire is one of the first Almodovar films to draw on autobiographical detail and break with the Sirkian tradition of using straight women as proxies for gay men.
The academic Jose Arroyo’s introduction implies that because the personal is braver than the fictitious and making films about gay men is braver than making films about women, Law of Desire must — by definition — be a braver and more substantial film than any that Almodovar had previously attempted. While I lack the theoretical tools to delve too far into this issue, it does strike me as quite interesting that film about the life of a wealthy, successful gay man like Law of Desire might be considered inherently braver than a film about a working class woman like What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Privilege theory argues that all individuals are embedded in matrices of oppression made of the different elements of their socially-constructed identities. The matrices range from those applied to wealthy, straight, white men (who are least oppressed/most privileged) all the way down to disabled, queer, mentally ill Black and Minority Ethnic people (who are oppressed and disadvantaged by almost every aspect of their identities). One unfortunate thing about the structure of Privilege theory is that it is very difficult to avoid falling into the trap of playing oppression Top Trumps and placing people in hierarchies according to how oppressed/privileged they happen to be. Once you fall into this trap, you’re effectively indulging in the liberal equivalent of ranking people according to their cranial capacity as you’re assuming that it is possible to make meaningful and objective generalisations about whose words should carry the most weight and thereby wind up reifying and reinforcing a set of arbitrary social hierarchies. For the record, I don’t think Arroyo does fall into this trap but I think viewing Law of Desire as a more important film than What Have I Done This? based on its subject matter does shine an interesting light on how the cinephile community construct ‘quality’.
I think this issue is particularly relevant to Law of Desire as while the subject matter may be more directly personal than in Almodovar’s earlier work, the film itself winds up being one of his more generic offerings to date:
“Another thing that distinguishes Law of Desire from some of Almodóvar’s earlier films is that while his fifth film does include a strong female character, that character is forced into the background by a gay man. This turns out to be rather unfortunate as while Carmen Maura is superb as the passionate and conflicted Tina, Poncela’s Pablo comes across as little more than a generic creep whose refusal to take responsibility for his own sexual desire results in the death and suffering of those around him. Part of the problem is that while Pablo is said to have been modelled on Almodóvar himself, Almodóvar struggles to imbue him with much substance beyond the kind of helpless passivity required to oil the narrative mechanism of a Hitchcockian thriller”
As I said when I linked to my review of Dark Habits, I have spent many years failing to appreciate the films of Pedro Almodovar because I couldn’t see beyond his tendency to play his own subject matter for laughs. If you have shared my failure to get your head round Almodovar then I think What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an excellent place to begin addressing your mistake. My review for FilmJuice can be found over here.
Much like Dark Habits, the film is an ensemble piece whose tangle of sub-plots and melodramatic themes are not without a certain resemblance to television soap operas. However, unlike soap operas where the melodrama is something of an end in itself, What Have I Done to Deserve This? uses that combination of misery and silliness to provide a critique of contemporary Spanish society. If I had to boil this film down to an elevator pitch, I’d describe it as what might have happened had Douglas Sirk been an Italian Neorealist.
Much like the earlier Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a profoundly humane and moral film. Sure… its plot is littered with murder, prostitution, drug dealing and a mother who sells her pre-pubescent son to a paedophile dentist but Almodóvar never once allows social transgression to become exploitation. The film’s final shot only serves to underline the director’s moral seriousness as zooming out from Gloria on her balcony to a shot of three vast apartment complexes serves to universalise the lessons of the film. This is not about one woman’s fight to retain her dignity; this is about a battle fought every day on every street and in every building.
There are — arguably — a couple of better films included in the Almodovar Collection box set but none of them do a better job of showcasing the director’s ability to combine absolute moral seriousness with transgressive imagery and extreme light-heartedness.
A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to take a look at a newly-released box set of remastered films by Pedro Almodovar and despite having nothing much else to write about at the moment, I hesitated.
I think that my hesitation was born of a historic inability to parse Almodovar’s sense of humour. Indeed, despite enjoying many films whose themes and images are reminiscent of Almodovar’s work, I have always struggled with his tendency to make light of his own subject matter. In hindsight, I wonder whether this blockage might not have been due to the fact that when straight guys make light of melodramatic women and camp gay men, the mockery comes from a very different place to when the laughs are created by members of those groups. As a result, I would see the transgressive jokes about sex and death, be reminded of the 1990s and feel that the entire scene was rather tired and unpleasant. The thrills of transgressive imagery can only last so long. For an example of this jaded world-weariness that is actually a form of emotional constriction, look no further than this review I wrote all the way back in 2007. I’d like to say that I outgrew this lack of sensitivity but this review from 2013 suggests a similar (albeit less blinkered) frustration with Almodovar’s sense of humour.
Despite my hesitation, I agreed to review The Almodovar Collection and I am so glad I did as I now realise that Almodovar is so much more than transgressive images and a succession of dick jokes. My Road to Damascus moment came about half-way through watching Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits. I reviewed it for FilmJuice over here.
One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrify the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.
I reviewed all six films included in the superb Almodovar Collection box set and I’ll link to a different review every day this week.
Nostalgia is a film that rather took me by surprise. Much less well known than the science fiction films Solaris and Stalker, and less-widely discussed than the historical epics Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, the film can be viewed as an attempt to isolate and explore the same devout ambivalence towards the search for spiritual truth that exists in all of Tarkovsky’s films but without the genre scaffolding that accompanies his better-known works.
As with Mirror, Tarkovsky responds to the lack of genre boundaries by exploring experimental narrative structures: In Mirror, he used a non-linear structure inspired by the idea of images flashing before the eyes of a dying man. In Nostalgia, he uses a structure known as a mis-en-abime in which different layers of reality run together:
Nostalgia is a film that is fuelled by Tarkovsky’s unhappiness at the realisation that he would most likely never be able to return home to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky explores these feelings through a complex narrative structure known as a mis-en-abime. The structure begins with the figure of Gorchakov, a respected Russian poet who visits Italy in preparation for writing the biography of a composer who left Russia a serf and returned a celebrated artist only to wind up ending his own life in a fit of despair. The fact that Gorchakov’s situation resembles that of Tarkovsky is evident from the details of the two men’s lives, from the fact that Gorchakov’s first name is Andrei, and from the fact that the film is littered with references to Tarkovsky’s real-world films and writings. The second level of the structure revolves around the subject of Gorchakov’s book, a man who left Russia a slave only to find success and later return home before killing himself in a fit of despair. The life of the composer thus serves as a warning to both Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky blurs the boundaries between himself and his protagonist, he also blurs the boundaries between his protagonist and the composer in a series of dreams that could just as easily feature the family of the poet as the family of the composer. The term mis-en-abime comes from the French and refers to the practice of painting blocked up windows to look like real windows through which one could see the world. Thus, the world is literally placed in an abyss, a truth refracted back up to the surface through layers of text and metaphor all pointing straight to the anguish that Tarkovsky was feeling about his looming exile.
What surprised me about Nostalgia was the fact that I think I now prefer it to Stalker.
Thematically, the two films are very similar in that they are both heavily symbolic works that deal with man’s search for meaning and conclude on images of profound spiritual ambiguity. They are also quite similar visually in so far as they both feature long takes comprising beautifully composed shots of architectural decline that mirror the protagonist’s mental state. What surprised me about Nostalgia was the way that it seemed to do pretty much everything Stalker tried to do but does so in a far more focused and purified manner, almost as though someone had taken Stalker and boiled it in a enormous cauldron until all that was left was a thick black paste of existential alienation. Where Stalker provokes, Nostalgia demands. Where Stalker eludes, Nostalgia disappears.
I did not expect Tarkovsky to make a better film than Stalker and yet Nostalgia is precisely that.
Another reason Nostalgia surprised me was that I have only just seen it for the first time and have encountered it at a time when my relationship with science fiction is in something of a state of flux.
Much of the coverage of contemporary science fiction revolves around the battle between people who want the genre to become more diverse in its representation and people who want to genre to remain wedded to the same old characters and story-patterns. Despite being both instinctively sympathetic to calls for more diversity and instinctively unsympathetic to the suggestion that science fiction should focus upon pandering to the deplorable tastes of right-wing Americans, I am struggling to find anything of interest in the output of genre imprints.
The problem is that the big genre imprints appear to be cutting back on the kind of experimental or difficult books that I have grown accustomed to reading. As margins are squeezed and companies become more risk-averse, the rational choice is to focus on the more profitable market sectors and my choice of novels has always been something of a minority interest. Given that I do not enjoy reading commercial genre fiction, the question of who is represented in those kinds of works can never be anything more than an irrelevant abstraction, at least as far as my choice of reading matter is concerned. It’s almost as though there were a debate raging about the diversity of professional rugby league teams: Instinctively, I am naturally inclined to defend the people calling for more diversity but even a suite of perfectly diverse and representative rugby league teams would fail to get me to go and watch a game of rugby. This is why my Future Interrupted column has tended to look at works that are published on the margins of the genre.
This alienation from the field has also had the knock-on effect of prompting me to consider the purpose of genre storytelling. The conventional defence of science fiction is that it allows writers to explore ideas and areas that are difficult to approach from a mainstream perspective. Works like Nostalgia suggest that this is completely and utterly false: Nostalgia does everything Stalker and Solaris try to do and yet does so without a single genre trope.
So, given that films like Nostalgia do science fiction better than science fiction and much of the interesting works of literary science fiction are being published by non-genre imprints, is it time for me to abandon science fiction to the people who want nothing more than character-based escapism?
Interzone #266 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.
This month’s non-fiction begins with an editorial by Stephen Theaker who compares his experiences organising the British Fantasy Awards to the administrative difficulties involved in striking a balance between the need for good, fair, and systematic institutional governance and the need to prevent an organisation like the Hugo Awards from surrendering their identity to a group of easily-manipulated alt-right interlopers. While I no longer pay that much attention to the Hugo Awards, it is interesting to look back over the last couple of years and compare the actions of the World Science Fiction Society with the recent actions of the Labour party. I think the big difference is that while the Labour party have responded to a massive increase in membership by seeking and any all reasons to exclude and disenfranchise their new members, the World Science Fiction Society have used their position to blunt the Puppies’ teeth and funnel them into a form of engagement that is more respectful towards existing power structures and affinity groups. Of course, you might very well ask why any institution should be encouraging fascists to engage, particularly at a time when genre culture is supposed to be addressing its questionable political history but that’s really none of my business.
Elsewhere, Nina Allan‘s column takes in the British folk scene while David Langford announces (somewhat alarmingly) that he has managed to copyright the term “ansible”. Nick Lowe‘s film column finds him being uncharacteristically charitable towards Justin Lin’s shameful Star Trek Beyond and Tony Lee is rather puzzled by Tarkovsky’s Stalker. So much wrongness… so much.
This month’s Book Zone is its usual cavalcade of riches with reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Ian Hunter, Jack Deighton, Elaine Gallagher, Stephen Theaker, Andy Hedgecock, and Wendy Bradley.
This issue’s fiction includes:
- Tade Thompson’s “The Apologists”
- Georgina Bruce’s “Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion”
- Ray Cluley’s “Sideways”
- Aliya Whiteley’s “Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden”
- Malcolm Devlin’s “The End of Hope Street”
There is also my Future Interrupted column considering the merits of Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North, which I vigorously recommend to anyone interested in the kind of great science fictional narratives that are currently coming out from mainstream publishers.However, you will have to wait a few months for that review to be republished.
This month’s reprint dates from the beginning of the year when I found myself moved by this piece by Nathalie Luhrs about the Locus Recommended Reading List. The interesting thing about this piece is that rather than limiting itself to the usual hand-wringing about the field’s lack of representation, the piece actually considers how much of this problem is due to factors more fine-grained than simple prejudice. Indeed, the section that really caught my attention features a load of graphs proving that your chances of featuring on the recommended reading list improve vastly once you’ve been included at least once. In other words, while the field does have a representation problem, this problem is at least partly down to the fact that people tend to read and nominate the work of people who are already familiar to them. Historically, this problem would have been addressed by critics going out of their way to find new books by new writers but the progressive marginalisation of critical voices means that new authors wind up entirely at the mercy of their marketing departments. As a result, I decided to spend a year writing exclusively about recent (-ish) first novels with a preference for work published outside of the genre mainstream. I began the series by writing about the Australian author Lisa L. Hannett’s debut novel Lament for the Afterlife, a book I found both impressive and baffling.
Lisa L. Hannett’s long-form debut Lament for the Afterlife recalls Nina Allan’s The Race in so far as it is neither a conventional novel nor a conventional short story collection: Unlike a short story collection, the individual sections make a lot less sense when removed from the context provided by the rest of the book. Unlike a novel, there is no unifying plot and the sense of continuity provided by character and setting is tenuous to say the least.
The links between the book’s chapters feel unstable because Lament for the Afterlife contains almost no conventional exposition. Rather than telling us about people, places, and events, Hannett invites us to construct these things from the detritus of subjective experience as provided in paragraphs like this:
Peyt’s legs twitch, left right left right, and he’s got a desperate urge to piss. He’s seen the kind of questioning Cap’s talking about. Back at camp, with some twelve-year old runner they accused of squealing. Peyt carried the kid’s body away on his stretcher. “I’m no Whitey. I can’t read this fucking guy’s mind. Never could.” Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake?
What is happening here is that Hannett has positioned her authorial camera so close to the characters’ streams of consciousness that their thoughts and feelings blot out the people and places that inspired them in the first place. Trapped within the event horizon of the characters’ emotional maelstrom, everything we learn about the world of the novel comes from its reflection in streams of consciousness and pages of barely-contextualised dialogue.
The book lacks the unifying effects of narrative and character because of the difficulty involved in extracting these things from the literary equivalent of raw sense data. We may know for a fact that someone is feeling scared or happy, but we can never be sure whether the people and events provoking these reactions are the same as in previous chapters. Certain names and terms may recur but Hannett not only works to destabilise the meanings of words, but also explores particular events from sometimes radically different perspectives. A few hundred pages of this and you cannot help but become aware of how much you take for granted every time you form an opinion. Reading Lament for the Afterlife may be an almost singularly difficult experience, but it is also immensely thought-provoking.
By making us work for basic elements such as character and internal chronology, Hannett is encouraging us not only to think about the artificiality of conventional narratives but also the tenuous nature of our own identities. Do we experience a coherent self or a stream of emotions and thoughts, which are then stitched together into something that resembles a character from a novel? Lament for the Afterlife is part of a literary tradition that questions the intellectual underpinnings of the conventional novel except that Hannett’s book goes much further than conventional anti-novels.
Works like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie critique the conventional novel by stressing the fallibility of experience and the tenuousness of human identities. However, because the anti-novel is a reaction to traditional novels, it shares mainstream literary culture’s commitment to the real world. This means that while the anti-novel may chronicle streams of consciousness and feature loads of sentence fragments placed out of chronological order, the currents of subjectivity all flow towards the oceanic depths of a world that is both fixed and comprehensible. Lament for the Afterlife does not share this commitment to the idea of a world independent of experience.
Hannett’s book is set in a world that appears to have been devastated by centuries of total warfare pitting the human race against a people known only as the greys. Somewhere along the way, humanity appears to have acquired a mutation that causes its innermost thoughts to become physically manifest in a cloud around the owner’s head. Touching the manifested thoughts causes the thoughts themselves to be changed and so the boundary between interior psychology and external physicality is rendered virtually non-existent. Hannett further explores the blurring of thought and world by pointing out that, while people continue to fight and die, nobody has actually seen or spoken to a grey in living memory. In fact, Hannett even goes so far as to suggest that the greys might be little more than a figment of humanity’s over-active imagination. However, given that this is a world built with genre tools and contained within a book published by a genre imprint, we must question where fallible human perspectives end and unstable metaphysics begin. For example, it is all very well saying that the greys might be the product of human fears but this is a world in which thoughts are physically manifest meaning that the greys could both be real and a product of humanity’s constantly-evolving fears. As Nick Harkaway suggested in The Gone Away World, the boundary between truth and fiction tends not to stick around once you do away with the distinction between thought and reality.
Lament for the Afterlife is a terrifyingly difficult book that takes no prisoners and makes no concessions to accessibility in the form of familiar genre tropes, gripping narratives, or strong characters with whom to empathise. This is high literary art as a towering rock face and the only finger-holds available to readers are those they are able to carve for themselves… and therein resides the problem with this sort of book.
Survey the history of experimental writing and you will find that deconstructive cleverness has always been linked with the belief that formal innovation would serve to open up emotional and intellectual vistas that had been blocked off by the formal conservatism of the modern novel: When Anne Garréta’s Sphinx recounts a love story without gender-specific pronouns, it is out of a desire to explore a romance shorn of all gender dynamics. When Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves moves between stilted academic writing and typographic collage, it is out of a desire to show the limited and fragmentary nature of human comprehension and how cognition can both move us closer to understanding, and divorce us from reality. While experimental fiction can actively mess with form, structure, style and typography, it needs to find a way of connecting with readers or it runs the risk of feeling like an academic exercise. For all its references to war, fear, loss, and forgetting, the intellectual core of Lament for the Afterlife is a feeling of profound bafflement.
Reading this book is like being asked to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle using clues extracted from a plate of alphabet pasta: It’s brilliantly clever and nobody has ever done it before, but only people with very specific tastes are going to want to spend their time wading through a book that is even less comprehensible and forgiving than the world itself. Lament for the Afterlife reads like an intellectual exercise aimed at people who are already in the business of writing; Ambitious stylists will tear the book apart, extract all of its technical brilliance, and channel that cleverness into communicating ideas and emotions that are more compelling and hospitable than bafflement. For all its intellectual power, this is a book that feels destined to provoke passionate debates in hundreds of seminars and shrugs of bemusement everywhere else… and that’s actually kind of okay.
One of the things that experimental work can do is force audiences into fresh relationships with an artistic form. Just as the impressionist painters made us realise that humans see reflected light rather than objects and early literary modernists reminded us that we glimpse the world through a thicket of subjective impressions, writers like Hannett draw our attention to the fact that we still expect our novels to feature characters, coherent worlds and profound meanings that surrender themselves to our interpretative skills. What are demands for profundity if not an echo of the much-derided requests for likeable characters? Where are the strong themes to which we can relate?!
Not everyone reads for the same reason and not everyone relates to books in the same way. Lisa L. Hannett’s debut work of mosaic fiction is a book for people who want to be aware of the broken bones that lie beneath the skin of narrative.