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.
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.