Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.
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Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)
Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:
Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”
Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.
This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins. Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.
There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.
Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.
Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince Amazon.com to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.
FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.
Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…
Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:
Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.
The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through the entirety of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. While some of those films were new to me and others were old favourites, each new encounter gave me the opportunity to write at length about the work of a film-maker I had long adored but been reluctant to engage with in a critical fashion. I sometimes find it quite difficult to engage with work I genuinely love as I am always a bit worried that my attempt to ‘read’ a film will tie me to that reading in future and cause me to forget all of those little moments and gestures that do not fit within the confines of a single read. In this respect, my voyage through Tarkovsky has been nothing short of transformative as I have come to realise that great works like Stalker and Nostalgia cannot help but inspire fresh readings every time you watch them.
This voyage concludes with my review of The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film. The film tells the story of Alexander, a famous theatre director who retired to rural Sweden in order to pursue a critical vocation. The film follows Alexander and his family as they try to make sense of what would appear to be a nuclear catastrophe happening right on their doorstep. While I did not enjoy The Sacrifice as much as I enjoyed either Stalker or Nostalgia, I was intrigued by the suggestion that Tarkovsky may have been on the verge of adopting an entirely new (and arguably more conventional) aesthetic:
One of the interesting things about The Sacrifice is that it seems to begin where most Tarkovsky films end. Indeed, films like Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalgia all devote the majority of their running times to the construction of these vast symbolic systems only for these systems to collapse and leave the film’s protagonist trapped alone in a world that has been stripped of all spiritual meaning. The Sacrifice begins at the point at which most Tarkovsky films end in that Alexander begins the film having realised that culture, religion, and philosophy are all a meaningless waste of time. In effect, the film’s night of nuclear terror can be seen as an attempt to expand one of those great Tarkovskyian concluding shots and explore the full psychological impact of finding yourself trapped in a world that is overflowing with evocative images but devoid of any and all spiritual truth.
Watching all of Tarkovsky’s films also put me in mind of an old In Our Time podcast about Christopher Marlowe. The discussion ranges back and forth across the usual Marlowe talking points before coming to rest on the question of how he compares to Shakespeare and whether our impression of Marlowe is inflated by the fact that he died both prematurely and at the peak of his powers. One of the academics argues that Marlowe was a lesser writer than Shakespeare because he never tried his hands at comedy but I must admit that to preferring Marlowe precisely because he never turned out anything as horrifyingly smug and unfunny as Much Ado About Nothing.
Tarkovsky is as close as art house film gets to a Shakespeare but he died like a Marlowe on the verge of becoming something different. The Sacrifice introduced a three act structure, characters, and substantial dialogue but without really adding very much to the ideas and aesthetics that Tarkovsky had already developed over the course of his six earlier films. Tarkovsky died prematurely at the age of 54 but The Sacrifice did leave me wondering whether he might — like Kit Marlowe — have died well for the purposes of posterity.
I conclude my canter through the generally excellent Almodovar Collection box set with a look at his 1995 film Flower of my Secret, the FilmJuice review of which can be found over here.
Before I move onto my usual commenting around the review, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to dwell on the Almodovar Collection itself. When proper critics review collections, they usually take the time to address not just the works the collection contains but also the collection as a cultural artefact in and of itself. I feel that the history of home media releasing means that we appear to have by-passed this stage completely and now appear to be teetering on the brink of an age where directors’ entire back catalogues are simply available as part of a subscription model.
The Almodovar Collection is an interesting box set as it has appeared recently enough that we can avoid leaping to the conclusion that the contents of the collection is the product of rights issues. Too many directorial box sets are presented as being critically neutral, making it rather difficult to get a read off the company’s choice of films and so work backwards towards a particular critical viewpoint with which it might be possible to engage critically. Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about working my way through the Almodovar Collection was the sense of a critical intelligence at work in the wings. The collection begins with Almodovar’s ensemble melodramas, drifts towards his unsuccessful attempts to break with those narrative structures and concludes with one of his strongest films, a work that manages to be as emotionally complex and morally serious as the director’s earlier works whilst also demonstrating all the ways in which his direction had improved and shifted with the passage of time. The Almodovar Collection could have showcased Almodovar as a queer film maker with a love of camp and provocation but instead it chose to show him as a great maker of women’s films in the great art house tradition that began with Douglas Sirk, passed to Rainer Werner Fassbender and currently exerts a pressure on the works of Francois Ozon:
“While it is often observed that Almodóvar writes very well for women, the desire to market him as a queer filmmaker who produces joyfully camp and transgressive comedies serves to obscure the roots of his talent. If we consider the history of art house film, we can trace a straight line from François Ozon to Douglas Sirk via the work of both Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That line is evident not only from the later directors’ fondness for musical numbers and transgressive silliness but also for their willingness to psychologically complex and morally serious films around the figure of the strong-but-vulnerable woman. This filmmaking tradition is as old as the Hollywood hills but it pivots around Sirk as Sirk was a director who, despite making films for women and about women, would often use his female protagonists and commercially-successful story forms to critique American society with particular attention to the injustices surrounding both gender and sexuality. Flower of my Secret finds Almodóvar at his most powerful and insightful; it is a brilliant film in the grand tradition of Sirkian melodrama as well as the much-lamented and under-appreciated genre known as Women’s Films.”
Watching The Almodovar Collection made me yearn for a box set of Women’s Films. The weird thing about Woman’s Film is that while the genre is now seldom spoken of, most of its great works are still in circulation and relatively easy to get hold of. It’s just that rather than having a proper Woman’s Film box set with specialist commentaries and video essays explaining the importance of the genre and how it fit into the Hollywood system from the silent era all the way to the 1960s. You can buy a Douglas Sirk box set, you can buy the films of D.W. Griffith, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls.You can find women’s films in film noir box sets. You can even buy Joan Crawford and Bettie Davis box sets. But there are no commercially-available box sets exploring the Woman’s Film genre and I think that’s a terrible shame.
Anyway, The Flower of My Secret is one of the better films in the Almodovar collection as it plays entirely to Almodovar’s strengths and contains some scenes of dazzling emotional complexity and genuine psychological anguish. The scene in which Leo diminishes and retreats from Madrid in order to become a little old lady who spends her days weaving and gossiping is endlessly wonderful and even a little close to home. Ahem.
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.