FilmJuice have my review of Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille. Which, despite being one of the most insanely popular French films of all time, remains largely unappreciated by English-speaking audiences.
Set during World War II, the film involves a pair of bumbling Frenchmen being sucked into the resistance movement and deciding to help three allied Airmen escape into unoccupied France. As I explain in my review, this image of ordinary French people as ‘citoyens resistants’ was part of a concerted effort to re-write history by replacing the truth about French collaboration with a myth that restored pride to the French military, honour to the French political class, and self-respect to ordinary French citizens:
Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.
The question of French collaboration and the policies of the Vichy regime has been one of my favourite historical riffs since I first saw The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the strange things about having spent my entire Childhood in a French school is that I grew up with a very clear myth of Frenchness that stretched from the caves right up to the figure of the citizen resistance fighter. The Sorrow and the Pity really helped me to see beyond that propaganda and considerably darkened my vision of humanity.
This being said, it occurs to me that something really needs to be done about the British equivalent of the ‘Citoyen Resistant’ myth as British politics is shifting further and further to the right and this move to the right is being at least partially fuelled by this myth of Britain as a plucky little nation that managed to survive on its own outside of Europe. Indeed, one of the things I really like about the British TV series Peaky Blinders is that it portrays 1920s Britain as an ethnically diverse and deeply multicultural place where the Establishment either murdered its opponents or plied them with money in an effort to bring them into line. At a time when people like Winston Churchill are being lionised by fascist revanchistes, Peaky Blinders dares to present him as nothing more than an Edwardian supervillain.
This summer saw the launch of a new genre magazine called Big Echo. While regular visitors to this site may remember that I ‘have views’ on the world of online genre magazines, something about their lack of ego and their desire to put ideas first really made me sit up and pay attention to the Big Echo project. Having decided to pay attention to their output, I was delighted when the magazine approached me and asked me if I might consider something for publication. In fact, I was so delighted that I decided to give them something that I had sort of half-decided never to make public: A cultural history of the New Weird entitled Nothing Beside Remains.
Somewhere behind us and nearly out of view sit the remains of the New Weird. While other moments left behind them great fortresses, haunted houses, and vast space stations, the New Weird left nothing but a few vaulted ceilings and a promise of what might once have been. As we look back over our shoulders we catch sight of the ruins and mistake them for other things from other times. The further the ruins slip below the horizon, the more our minds shape them into the symbols we need to drive ourselves forward.
I’ve been tinkering with this piece for a few years now and readers of my Future Interrupted columns for Interzone may well recognise some of the ideas it contains.
The reason for this is that I’ve been using the Nothing Beside Remains document as a kind of critical unconscious where half-formed ideas were left in the dark to grow for months on end before being dragged back to the surface and re-worked for public consumption. As a result, this essay brings together a number of loose ideas to form something approaching a full articulation of how I see both recent developments in the history of science fiction and how genre culture functions as a set of institutions and communities.
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.”