Auto Focus (2002) – Made Free, Yet Everywhere in Chains

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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REVIEW – Flower of my Secret (1995)

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.

 

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 – Law of Desire (1987)

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”

 

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.

The New Girlfriend (2014) – What Lies Beneath (Ain’t So Bad, Ain’t So Bad)

François Ozon is to Claude Chabrol as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are to John Wyndham.

John Wyndham is a post-war British science fiction writer who has long been tarred with the masterful brushstrokes of Brian Aldiss who dismissed his work as a series of cosy catastrophes. The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ stems from the fact that Wyndham was terribly fond of narratives in which everything winds up being destroyed except for the novel’s protagonists and the middle-class lifestyle and values to which they cling. For example, The Day of the Triffids opens with a meteor shower that blinds the majority of the British population. Hoping to make their way out of London, the protagonists wind up being trapped by a mad visionary who is building a new civilisation in which the sighted are manacled to the blind and forced into polyamorous relationships. Needless to say, the characters wind up escaping to the Isle of Wight where they meet up with other sighted individuals and pursue what we are lead to believe will be a more conventional middle-class lifestyle. Fear of change and yearning for the familiar is also present in Wyndham’s later novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which humans are impregnated with human DNA resulting in the emergence of a group of super-powered children who wind up being destroyed before their powers can pose a threat to the rest of humanity. One of the more interesting things about The Midwich Cuckoos is that it was published in 1957, six years before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created The X-men, a series of comics in which super-powered youngsters fight to change the world for the better.

All three writers used science fiction to expose the instability of the status quo and explore the possibility of revolutionary change. However, while Jack Kirby and Stan Lee seemed to welcome these changes with open arms, John Wyndham struggled to see beyond the confines of his own middle-class existence.

The well-educated child of rural pharmacists who moved to Paris for his studies only to discover a love of cinema, Claude Chabrol first made his name as a film critic before following his contemporaries out of the magazine business and into the world of art house film. Early films such as Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins may bristle with the town-and-country animosity of a man who never considered himself Parisian but the films that made him an immortal all speak to the fragility of middle-class identities.

Like many worldly and privileged people, Chabrol was both drawn to and repulsed by the kinds of lifestyles that would have been considered abnormal or unacceptable by ordinary middle-class people. Les Biches – the film that began his most celebrated period – involves bisexual women, gay men, and an assortment of misshapen love triangles that speak both to the ‘straightness’ of Chabrol’s lived experience and his desire to understand what lay on the other side of propriety. By today’s standards, Les Biches seems rather old fashioned as Chabrol presents non-heterosexual relationships as being not just different but downright alien.

Chabrol’s inability to empathise with Les Biches’ characters may explain the rapprochement with the crime and psychological thriller genres that followed. Indeed, while Les Biches suggests that middle-class identities dissolve into something alien and beautiful, films like The Unfaithful Wife, The Beast Must Die, and Just Before Nightfall all suggest that the destabilisation of middle-class identities begins in sex and ends in violence. Many of Chabrol’s finest films are defined by their ambivalence in so far as they function like psychological mysteries that lavish attention on beautifully enigmatic characters before inviting us to make a leap of the imagination that will help us to understand why the characters felt compelled to do the things they did.  This approach to the question of social and psychological otherness is particularly evident in his late-stage classic La Ceremonie, in which two peculiar young women make friends and wind-up murdering the middle-class family who showed them kindness. Why would someone do such a thing? Chabrol doesn’t understand, cannot understand, and must understand.

François Ozon is a director who has always been at ease with the forms of love and affection that lie outside the boundaries of conventional middle-class living. His first film Sitcom describes a family who descend into sexual transgression after the family patriarch brings home a small caged rat. The insane and disproportionate nature of the family’s reaction to the new pet echoes Chabrol’s ideas about the instability of middle-class identities but Ozon dares to suggest that the geeky teenage son might be happier having orgies in his bedroom and that the grumpy teenage daughter might very well be better off as a vicious dominatrix.

Like Chabrol, Ozon’s films frequently revolve around murder but, unlike Chabrol, Ozon chooses to depict these murders as either cathartic (as in Swimming Pool) or simply as the growing pains of a new – and stronger – subjectivity (as in In the House or Jeune & Jolie). When characters do remain wedded to the old status quo (as in Under the Sand) it is inevitably treated as a sign of emotional stagnation and psychological morbidity.

Ozon’s last film The New Girlfriend is an interesting point of comparison as it not only deals with a new subjectivity emerging from the ruins of conventional middle-class lives, it also positions Ozon’s tanks in Chabrol’s front garden by being not only an adaptation of a story by one of Chabrol’s favourite writers but also an adaptation that replaces the blood-soaked ending of the source material with an ending that is beautiful, empowering, and supremely progressive.

 

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