REVIEW – Kika (1993)

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.”

 

 

REVIEW – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

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.”

 

 

REVIEW – What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

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.

REVIEW – Dark Habits (1983)

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.

REVIEW — A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Roy Andersson’s deadpan existentialist comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence.

I must admit that this film caught me completely by surprise.  Prior to this review, I was only really familiar with Andersson’s first film, the wonderfully moving teenage love story entitled — aptly enough — A Swedish Love Story. Having now seen a couple more of his films and read a few interviews, I now realise that A Swedish Love Story is completely unrepresentative of the talent that emerged after a long depression-linked hiatus. Andersson may have gone to work in advertising as a successful maker of sentimental films but he returned as a bleakly existentialist comic who produces what can only be described as the cinematic equivalent of Chris Morris’s Jam.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence takes place in a darkly surreal version of the Swedish city of Gothenburg where the futility of everyday life is periodically interrupted by eruptions of surrealist energy that allow the residents fleeting moments of happiness or sadness before returning them to their anhedonic stupor:

Characters flirt outrageously in one scene only to wind up being unceremoniously dumped in the background of another while complete strangers lambast each other for having the temerity to suggest that a Wednesday might feel like a Thursday. The only things that seem to keep the utterly defeated population from outright madness are moments when the past unexpectedly erupts into the present and sends Napoleonic armies marching through the streets while bawdy barkeeps sing about exchanging drinks for kisses while their patrons cheer them on.

The release of this film coincides with the release of a box set including not only A Pigeon and A Swedish Love Story but also Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. I recommend it to anyone capable of finding humour in the pointlessness of existence.

 

REVIEW — Paper Moon (1973)

FilmJuice have my review of Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon, a film I did not expect to like but wound up absolutely adoring.

The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? left me with what I consider to be a healthy scepticism of American films set during the great depression. Though many a director has set out with a head full of social realism and the urgent need to capture what things can be like for capitalism’s victims, most of them wind up getting distracted by the slang, the hats, the music and the endlessly photogenic poverty. Add a few fast-talking grifters to the mix and what you have is a recipe for self-mythologising nostalgia: Sure the excesses of capitalism can destroy communities and drive people from their homes but these are also moments of opportunity for the kind of lovable rogues who not only benefit from other people’s misery but actively legitimise the capitalist system by proving that America is still a land of opportunity for those who are smart, lucky and charming! I approached Paper Moon expecting another lesson in America’s capacity for economic re-invention but what I found was a beautiful and genuinely funny character study of one fucked up little girl:

Aside from the film’s gritty look, what keeps the film on the right side of sentimentality is its willingness to share Addie’s profound distrust of human relations. Only child of a woman who made her living as a bar room honey, Addie’s skinny frame, ugly clothes and fondness for cigarettes display all the signs of historic neglect. Before Addie even opens her mouth, we are shown the ‘warm-hearted’ Christian neighbours who are so desperate to get rid of her that they literally dump her on the first stranger who passes through town. Addie is desperate for family but rightly wary of people who would proclaim their righteousness only to reveal their hypocrisy in secret, she warms to Moses precisely because his displays of piety are understood to be nothing but an act.

And when I say ‘beautiful’, I mean genuinely jaw-dropping. This Masters of Cinema release is dual-format but the screener I received was DVD-only, which genuinely surprised me as I can’t remember the last time I saw a DVD look this perfect.

 

Consider, for example, this shot of a factory from early in the film, it’s not just that the buildings themselves look amazing, it’s also the composition and the attention to detail as Ryan O’Neal gestu8res to his daughter while workers toil in the background:

 

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Despite producing three back-to-back hits that made a shit-ton of money and won people armfuls of awards, Bogdanovitch’s place in the canon of American filmmaking is far from guaranteed. It’s not just that the quality of his films seemed to decline as his career progressed, it’s that his ability to produce great films seemed to evaporate the second he parted company with his wife and production designer Polly Platt. Both Peter Biskind and David Thomson float the possibility that Platt was the real talent behind Bogdanovitch’s directorial throne and the complexity of Paper Moon‘s art direction certainly supports this theory. For example, look at how much detail is crammed into this image from a short scene in a diner… It’s not just the composition and how the straw in the bottle of Nehi seems to split the screen, it’s also the positioning of extras so that the men are clustered on one side of the screen while women are mostly clustered on the other:

 

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The Masters of Cinema release comes with some interesting discussions of the film and one of the point that people make is that Paper Moon is a film in which everything is always in focus and how the positioning of background details not only aid the composition but also help to create the impression of a real world. The extras point to this exquisite combination of shots from when Moses tries to get rid of Addie by sticking her on a train:

 

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Note Addie looking sad in the background and compare it to the shot that immediately follows it:

 

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Look over the ticket-seller’s shoulder and you’ll see kids playing with a ball.  This not only echoes the shot of Addie looking sad, it also foreshadows the questions posed in the final act about whether Addie is actually in a position to make her own decisions and whether she is right to stick with Moses. In the context of these two shots you have a sad-looking Addie standing next to Moses and a pair of kids playing happily on the other side of the rail road buildings.

 

Another thing the extras reveal is that Platt not only convinced Bogdanovitch to work on Paper Moon and dressed the sets, she also served as a location scout meaning that all of the film’s evocative scenery was chosen by Platt rather than Bogdanovitch. Bogdanovitch started his career as an actor before falling into film criticism and many people seem to associate him with the rise of auteur theory in American film-writing. The auteur theory would certainly struggle to account for a production designer with the capacity to pick up on locations that are literally idiot-proof:

 

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REVIEW – Gregory’s Girl (1981)

GGFilmJuice have my review of Bill Forsyth’s unimpeachably wonderful Romantic Comedy Gregory’s Girl.

I have seen Gregory’s Girl a number of times and each time I return to it, I am struck by another wonderful little moment. Set in urban Scotland in the early 1980s, the film takes place in a surprisingly well-mannered state school peopled with a variety of wonderful and colourful characters including the passionate chef, the diminutive football coach, the furtively light hearted head master and, of course, the charmingly naive Gregory. Tall and somewhat gangly, Gregory loses his place on the football team to a particularly athletic young woman:

One of the most striking things about Gregory’s Girl is the thoroughly progressive manner in which Forsyth handles Gregory’s growing obsession with Dorothy. These days, even relatively benign high school movies such as Easy A and Mean Girls go out of their way to sexualise their young female characters in a way that not only turns the audience into voyeurs but also speaks to Hollywood’s lack of confidence in an audience’s ability to empathise with female characters. A remade Gregory’s Girl would linger on Dorothy’s shorts and marvel at her thighs but Forsyth uses Dorothy’s athletic prowess as little more than the distinguishing characteristic that brings her to Gregory’s attention. Before Dorothy, Gregory viewed women as fantasy objects but losing his place on the football team to a girl means that he is suddenly able to relate to that girl as a real person and so falls hopelessly in love with her.

The reason I stress the important of the supporting characters is that Forsyth makes wonderful use of them as a means of providing a sense of emotional scale to what Gregory is undergoing. For example, the film opens with Gregory and his mates peeping at a nurse getting undressed but while Gregory’s realisation that girls can play football allows him to realise that women are people rather than sex objects, two of Gregory’s friends remain stuck in a state of adolescent sexuality and so spend the entire film talking about Caracas where the women reportedly outnumber the men. Also wonderful is the way that the film’s female characters usher Gregory into adulthood by urging him first to look after himself and then to realise that there are plenty of women in the world who are people despite the fact that they do not play football. Without the people around him, Gregory would not be anywhere near as memorable a character. Without the people around him, Gregory would have struggled to grow up.