Stuff that was important to me in 2013 (besides Beyoncé)

- “I’ve been dealing with my dad, speaking a lack of patience
Just me and my old man getting back to basics
We’ve been talking ’bout the future and time that we wasted
When he put that bottle down, girl that n****’s amazing
Well, fuck it, we had a couple Coronas
We might have rolled a white paper, just something to hold us”
 (see also this)

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This is exhausting

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 5.14.47 PM

“It’s too late for you and your white horse / to catch me now” – Oh wait, that’s the actual end to the song.

I’m not a huge fan of the Feminst Taylor Swift twitter because:

1) I think that a lot of feminist readings of Taylor Swift songs rely on basic misreadings of the songs, and the whole thing kind of implies that they are taking this totally unfeminist thing and altering it so it’s actually feminist. I mean, my feelings about Taylor Swift are complicated (I wrote that after Speak Now came out, which I still think is on the whole a pretty hard album to like, but I revised a lot of my Taylor feelings after Red, which is a pretty great album and turns her self-righteousness on obnoxious indie dudes which is a target I can get behind). But I still think that at her best as a songwriter she captures like, some pretty real stuff about being a young lady in the world. On “Begin Again” when she’s like “I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ’cause he never did”, it kind of perfectly gets at that moment when you realize the dude you were pining over was terrible and didn’t get you at all and that someone in the world actually might. I’m sure everyone has relationships where they feel like they have to downplay parts of themselves to get along with the other person, but I suspect that for reasons of society this is something that young women are very, very prone to. I know I was.

2) I worry that the consequence of feminists making fun of a very young, very feminine woman writing about her life and feelings in an excessive but really detailed and believable way is that…it sends the message that all those feelings are themselves un-feminist. It’s the same way I feel about “feminist” critiques of Zooey Deschanel that basically are like “she’s really twee and girlish, clearly this must be a ruse to attract dudes!” (Mostly thinking of one really notorious tumblr post.) It is not untrue that femininity is a set of social conventions designed to keep us down, but I have been alive for 30 years and I have yet to figure out the “right” way to deal with expectations re: how I present myself that would be totally outside the capitalist patriarchy. I generally am more the kind of feminist who thinks that “girly stuff”, the stuff that’s “ours” as female-identified people, can potentially be a really valuable site of meaning-making. (I remember reading a review of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines that complained about the memoirish parts where she talks about clothes and eyeshadow and nail polish and being like “but those were some of my favourite parts!”)

3) I still think that pop culture criticism that takes song lyrics literally and then says “This is unfeminist” is the lowest form of discourse.

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Fragment: There Is A Light that Never Goes Out

This weekend I rode the train out to Ottawa to visit my boyfriend. On the ride out I was tired so I read tumblr for a bit, then listened to music and tried to sleep. I played the Dum Dum Girls’ cover of “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out” twice in a row, because it’s lovely, and it reminds me of shivering in the beer garden of a City Road pub, singing that chorus off key with my Italian coworker from the hospital where I was a temp in London.

The weekend was a bunch of family stuff. It’s nice to see everyone, but I feel kind of like an alien. My “muted” dark red lipstick feels out of place and garish at a family dinner. At one point I waved at my cousin’s baby and she started crying. Alex went to pat one of the dogs and it started barking. But I was glad to see everyone, and everyone was glad to see us. Being there’s important.

On Saturday the dinner ended early, so we went to the new Bond movie. Even though it’s the second week there was a lineup outside the theatre for like 45 minutes before the show. The movie was pretty good, better shot and tighter than the last one, but it’s even more conservative than usual. It’s basically a Western, but with Scotland.

On the ride back Sunday night I was less tired. Feeling fancy because my mom slipped me a twenty for train food, I ordered the cheese plate and a tetrapak of red wine. I finished Green Girl.

I’d started it in September around but I’d had to take a break, I was just too fragile. I had a tough time after Alex moved away, and the combination of my nostalgia for London and Ruth’s loneliness cut a bit too deeply. I found myself watching myself the way Ruth watches herself, the way we watch her watching herself, the way the book watches her, and it was all just too chilling.

I grabbed the book for the trip on a whim, not even stopping to think about whether I was ready for it yet, which is always a good sign that you’re emotionally ready for something.

Since I stopped reading Green Girl, I’ve started to write the novel that I’ve been thinking about for the past few months. This was my ulterior motive for jumping back in. Whatever it is I’m trying to do is nothing like Green Girl, but I was interested in reading it again because it’s so heavily citational, and mostly because of what Zambreno did with perspective. The novel’s written in the third person, but it veers between being very closely tied to Ruth’s point of view, and a kind of cinematic (sometimes directly referencing cameras and films) authorially intrusive “pulling back” and looking at Ruth from the outside. I really like that slipperiness, it really resonates with me and what I want to try to do as a writer.

At one point, in the novel, Ruth smokes with an Italian colleague at the department store where she is a temp in London. Later on, Zambreno uses some lines from “There Is a Light” as an epigraph. I smile at the synchronicity.

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Every Letter is a Love Letter

[Spoiler warning heads up thing: this contains pretty specific descriptions of the endings of both the film Letter From an Unknown Woman and the book I Love Dick.]

I.

Letter From an Unknown Woman is more or less I Love Dick in 1900 Vienna.

Okay, it’s a movie made in 1948, so it doesn’t have the whole fiction/memoir/conceptual art slippage that makes I Love Dick so important. But they are both about one woman’s radical want – and they both force you to watch (and sympathize with) a woman making a series of really bad love decisions.

It’s a story about a woman so consumed by her love (from afar) of a famous pianist that she keeps walking out on her conventional obligations. He lives in her building when she’s a young girl, and when her mom decides to move she actually runs away from the train station to go see him. Once she grows up and can make her own schedule she basically spends every night hanging out outside his apartment waiting for him to walk by. Until one day he notices her, they spend the night together (he buys her a white rose and they talk about travel), and then he has to leave on tour with his orchestra. He promises to see her when he gets back, she knows he’s lying. She still names their son after him. They meet again years later (after she’s married someone else), and he approaches her. She shows up to his apartment with a bouquet of white roses, and they speak intimately at first. Then, he asks coldly “So you travel a great deal?”

That moment is the Xeroxed letter at the end of I Love Dick. She realizes that not only does he not share her feelings, he doesn’t even remember who she is. The conversation at the centre of her emotional life was just his line.

The movie’s structured as a series of flashbacks, narrated with the text of the letter our heroine has sent to said pianist. She’s loved him since she was a girl living in the apartment next door, listening to him practice and watching him bring home a parade of different women. Eventually he gets to the end of the letter and realizes not only who she is, but that she’s died and it’s partially his fault. The film ends with him walking into a duel that will probably mean his death.

She devotes her time to “preparing herself” for him: keeping her clothes neater, researching the lives of the great musicians, even pickpocketing (and then returning) a program to his concert from a man on the tram. Her mother moves her away from Vienna and introduces her to a nice young man, but when he starts to propose she stammers that she’s secretly engaged to someone else – and then goes back to Vienna on her own. It’s painful to watch the same I Love Dick is painful to read – you cringe for her because you know the intensity of her love won’t ever be returned – but you also have to admire its clarity of purpose.

There is a shift once she returns to Vienna, from girl Lisa to woman Lisa, that is marked by the look. Girl Lisa is constantly gazing, almost invisible. She she’s peeking in windows and hiding in staircases, and the camera really follows her eye. Her perspective is overwhelming. But woman Lisa is constantly, aggressively visible. She actually works as a model in a dress shop; it’s during this time when Stefan finally looks back. But of course he doesn’t really see her. He just sees a pretty girl who’s making it easy for him.

Just like Chris in I Love Dick, the affair is so powerful because it’s so one-sided. At one point she writes to Dick:

You’re shrunk and bottled in a glass jar, you’re a portable saint. Knowing you’s like knowing Jesus. There are billions of us and only one of you so I don’t expect much from you personally. There are no answers to my life. But I’m touched by you and fulfilled just by believing.

I think Lisa, too, is fulfilled just by believing in Stefan.

II.

I’ve been reading Window Shopping by Ann Friedberg, and part of it’s about the development of the mobile female gaze through shopping, particularly within the institution of the department store, which was a respectable way for women to be out in public alone, in the 19th century (as a precursor to cinema). Letter From an Unknown Woman is set in this point of transition, and this is important.

Lisa sees Stefan’s things before she sees Stefan. The beginning of her enchantment is when she sees the movers bringing up his beautiful furniture.

Their one date sees them talking about travel as they sit in a “virtual train” at a fairgrounds. It’s a railroad car with a moving painted backdrop outside its window. This kind of protocinematic “attraction” was really popular in the 19th century and is generally understood as being a symptom of and/or helping to create a visual culture primed for the cinematic. A lot of early films were travelogues, too: it was another way to allow people to pay for an experience without having to actually leave.

The first real movie ever made is of a train.

Lisa’s fate is sealed by trains twice: once when Stefan leaves her, promising to return, though she knows he won’t; once when she contracts typhus from a contaminated rail car, the rail car she is sending her son away in, so he won’t be damaged by her decision to run away with a dissolute, aging musician.

I’m not quite sure how, but I’m convinced this somehow means that Lisa’s extraordinary devotion beyond all reason or logic (she knows how terrible he is, from the beginning, even) is somehow related to the consumer desires that modernity created for women. The way the course of her life is set forever once she sees him through a window. I think that one interpretation could be to frame it as a kind of paternalistic cautionary tale about the dangers of female commercial/erotic desire. You know, women just can’t handle the gaze. This makes sense when you consider that it came out just after WWII – which certainly was a time when there was a lot of anxiety about women being outside the home.

But that reading ignores a pretty crucial thing: she has absolutely no regrets. She knows exactly how the choice is bad for her but she does it anyway because her heart won’t let her do anything else. It’s not like the “good” choices that she has are all that good. She can marry some boring military prig or other. She can, it’s implied, become a prostitute like the other “models” she works with. She can either be the commodity or she can be the one who desires and consumes.

 

 

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#KONY2012

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

It is a cornerstone of the Pop Culture and Feelings governing aesthetic that emotions are a hugely important part of our cultural, political, and ethical lives. However: feelings aren’t an unqualified good, and just because you have sincere feelings about something doesn’t make it true or more pure or less evil. It can be more evil.

Feelings are a great starting point for an analysis. My politics and my criticism are very much informed by my feelings. But a feeling isn’t an analysis.

Did you cry watching the Kony 2012 video? I did. I watched after reading a lot of the critiques that have emerged. (There are heaps more, please read some.) I still cried when it got to the interview footage with the young boy talking about his experience with the LRA. (Though I’ll admit my tears were partly from his situation and partly from my discomfort at how exploitative the interview felt. How did he consent to that? Who could have consented for him?)

But my tears don’t mean I’m in favour of US-backed military intervention by the Ugandan army in an unstable region, an intervention that has the potential to make things worse for the people it’s meant to help.

“The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

I am generally on guard against the demonization of sentimentality because I think that it’s usually sexist, but the sentimentality of well-meaning white dudes is a bigger danger. Because the sentimentality of well-meaning white dudes seems to invariably involve paternalism. And charging in with guns.

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With Pleasure: The Artist and Entertainment Value

Still from "The Artist"

I saw The Artist at the right time in the hype cycle (post-Golden Globe nomination, pre-Oscar nomination). Maybe if I’d seen it earlier on I would have felt it was too derivative, or too slight, to merit the awards attention it’s been getting. But now that it’s starting to get backlash – for being too much of a light, frothy entertainment, or too much of an uncritical pastiche – I feel like I can appreciate it properly as a defender.

The first complaint that people have about it boils down the fact that it’s not “serious” enough. To me “seriousness” is not a legitimate criteria for evaluating a movie. Every year when the Academy nominates a bunch of serious po-faced melodramas about “issues”, people complain that skillful comedy doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Now that they have actually nominated a “lighter” movie, it’s not profound enough.

I am more sympathetic to being cynical about the value of an old Hollywood pastiche in 2012. I’ve seen a lot of 60s and 70s Hollywood pastiches – like, there are enough that it’s a legitimate sub-genre – and a lot of them aren’t really worth all that much, especially the more upbeat ones. Pennies From Heaven over Movie Movie forever (that’s an essay I should write, though I’m sure it’s probably been written already). But only to a point, because one of my favourite movies of all time is basically an old Hollywood pastiche about the death of silent cinema and how silent stars dealt with the emergence of sound.

Also, part of the reason I have seen a larger than average number of 60s and 70s Hollywood pastiches is that I have been fascinated for as long as I can remember with the idea of Hollywood and what it means to us (and what Hollywood wants it to mean to us). I think this is one of the big problems of postmodernism, and one that no one really wants to talk about, because it involves an admission of sentimentality, but the fact is we know classic Hollywood is fake, we know it’s all constructed, we know a lot of the behind-the-scenes stories, we think it’s sexist and racist and the storylines are generic and overwrought, and yet it’s still seductive. I mean, I guess, it doesn’t damage fantasy to know it’s fantasy, but why these fantasies?

The plot is drawn mostly from Singin’ in the Rain – the end of silent cinema, the fan meeting a movie start and making it big on her own, the swashbuckling silent star looking ridiculous with the coming of sound, the jealous bleach blonde costar, the blustering but benevolent studio executive, the rain – combined with A Star Is Born – the alcoholic washed up star falling for the new it girl, even helping her define her signature look – so this movie is basically already on a direct line with my heart, because I watched those two movies so much as a teenager that they form a huge part of how I relate to movies.

But also, why is something less good because it’s “entertaining” as opposed to offering something more challenging? Per Richard Dyer, “Entertainment” has its own set of values; it’s not necessarily about complications – it’s about simplicity, about openness, about a fantasy of what utopia would feel like. (See Dyer’s “Entertainment and Utopia” in Only Entertainment for more on this; it’s also a great book to read in general.) This kind of the long version of what I meant on Twitter when I kind of glibly was like “well, it’s made to entertain people” when someone compared The Artist unfavourably to the work of Guy Maddin. I never got a chance to really explain myself because I was in the middle of packing for a trip, but basically I feel like it’s not really comparing the same thing. Maddin co-opts Hollywood language (and the language of German expressionism which is pretty interlinked with Hollywood but this is beside the point) to tell these weird, impressionistic but intensely personal stories. The Artist isn’t co-opting Hollywood language, it’s just speaking it.

Anyway, I realize that pastiche is generally viewed as really tired at best or often kind of criticized as being “unoriginal” or “empty.” Being unoriginal and empty is of course point of pastiche, because the whole idea is about making the point that it’s impossible to be either original or profound. What happened really quickly (as with a lot of postmodern aesthetics) is that any of its political potential was pretty effectively neutered when it was adopted by Hollywood. You could definitely also argue that the ease with which it turned into a bunch of cheesy tributes and empty spectacles shows how little political potential postmodern pastiche actually had – but I do think that there is a way to transform pastiche into something that is still potentially useful to people, and the way to do that is entertainment. Because entertainment is about the sensation of utopia (without necessarily breaking down the present conditions of oppressive capitalism, just kind of ignoring all the things that make them bad), it’s hard to quantify “entertainment value” – but for me it’s partly about skill, and partly about wonder. The reason I love Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and Fred Astaire and Barbara Streisand is their total ease at transferring feeling to their voices and their bodies. (This is obviously a function of the writing and the direction and the format of their movies, not just their talents – you can listen to Lea Michele sing and still see how often Glee fails to achieve this, for example – but the point is that it’s always presented as effortless. In A Star Is Born, Garland’s character is meant to be singing “The Man That Got Away”, one of her great vocal performances, in a casual rehearsal space. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance performances are always narratively presented like they’re thrown together and the dance comes out of their affection.) To me, The Artist has that same kind of feeling – it’s an ease of playing with tone, switching from serious (George Valentin setting his old movies on fire and almost dying) to hilarious (Uggie the dog trying to convince the policeman to come save him) in a moment, of surprising people (the use of sound) – there’s a wonder to it. Obviously it’s not a perfect or a “great” movie, but I can’t think of the last time a movie I thought was really great won Best Picture. (Besides No Country For Old Men, maybe.)

But I do think I’ll always remember that wonderful moment at the close of the movie – after a dance routine that admittedly pales in comparison to the original – and diegetic sound finally comes in (after a couple of dream sequences. The first sound we hear is the stars’ heavy breathing at the close of the number. It’s kind of an electric moment, as the camera pulls out, slowly revealing the activity on the set around them. Then we finally hear Valentin speak. Remember, throughout the movie he’s been silent, and looks devastatingly American, very Barrymore-esque. The off-screen director asks if he’d do it again.

“With pleasure,” he responds, heavily French-accented.

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Of literary seductresses and confessionalism

I want to talk about this whole “Adrien Brody” situation that if you follow a certain subset of media-oriented tumblrs was everywhere this past couple of weeks, if only because maybe if I publish this I can stop thinking about it. If you don’t follow said tumblrs basically what went down is:

  • Marie Calloway, who is 21 years old, wrote a story called “Adrien Brody” about a sexual encounter she had with a 40ish internet intellectual type, who had a girlfriend (and might still?). It starts out with the text of emails they apparently exchanged, and then continues to describe the time they spend together, which culminates in them having sex, and then it turns out he maybe didn’t share her sense of a deep mystical connection, and he Apparently it was originally posted on her (now-deleted) personal blog, but with the writer’s real name, and pictures, one of the writer and one of her face, apparently covered in the writer’s cum, before a site called Muumuu House picked it up and removed some of the identifying information about the writer. (Not enough that it wasn’t pretty clear who it was if you read lots of literary somewhat intellectually oriented stuff on the internet, which I do. My own feelings on the writer in question before this whole thing that is that he was smart and is not a bad writer but his stuff is mostly a bit too clever and theoretical and “objective” for my personal taste. This wasn’t really changed by this whole thing, though obviously I don’t know if all the details in Calloway’s story are 100% “true.”)
  • Emily Gould wrote a really thoughtful piece in response to it at her blog, placing “Adrien Brody” in a history of uncomfortably honest, kind of embarrassing to read women’s writing that includes Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and that Katha Pollitt thing about spying on her ex on the internet. I thought Gould’s piece was interesting enough that I wanted to read I Love Dick and have a real opinion about it.
  • The New York Observer ran an article about Calloway that called her a “literary seductress” and a “famewhore” as well as quoting Emily Gould and Tao Lin, the writer who runs Muumuu House. One salient detail in the Observer story is that a Hairpin advice column received and ran an anonymous letter asking for advice on how to deal with the fact that a blogger had published a detailed post about a one-time sexual encounter with the letter-writer’s long-term boyfriend, which has since been pulled.
  • A lot of people did not have positive things to say, about Calloway’s writing, or the state of affairs that basically means that women only get literary notoriety by fucking people and confessionalism. Tao Lin responded to that first link by writing a whole long deliberately obtuse thing and basically telling its author that he should watch Shrek 2. My dismay with the whole situation is more to do with the way the Observer presented the story than the story itself.
  • Calloway’s put up a bullet-point response to her critics where she talks about what she was trying to do with the story, which makes it clear that she really did have, like, ideas about what she was writing and wasn’t just studiously writing down the details of a sexual encounter mechanically. (I think that it’s fully possible to disagree on whether she succeeded.)
  • Other notable links: The Rumpus Interview with Calloway; Kate Zambreno writes about it.

I have to say, I really didn’t feel the same way a lot of people did about the story. It does, to be sure, lack polish, and could have benefited from some editing, but it was nevertheless a pretty fascinating read, even without the kind of whodunit mystery about who the writer in question is. Continue reading

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Twilight and “unacceptable” desire

The Hairpin just ran a great piece by Sarah Blackwood about Twilight, Bella, feminism, and “strong female characters”:

And, as Part One of Breaking Dawn arrives in theaters this week, we all get to revisit just how very much Bella Swan is not “a strong heroine.” Spending a lot of time in bed, on couches, and being carried around by burly boys, Bella is passive to the point of immobility. Her great love Edward is a controlling stalker, and the novels appear to extol the virtues of abstinence, teen marriage, and feminine “purity.” Yet the Twilight Saga, I would argue, has the potential to revitalize a number of our larger conversations about feminism, especially those related to sex, pregnancy, desire, and autonomy.

She talks a lot about Twilight‘s portrayal of pregnancy and childbirth and how underneath the vampire parts, there’s actually a core of emotional truth there. I really recommend the piece. She ends by arguing that, if Twilight doesn’t show a lot of interest in challenging gender, it does do an awfully good job at explaining what it’s like to have a gender, and leaves feminism (obviously feminism isn’t a monolith, but I’m guessing she’s talking about the standard white American feminism of “actualization”) with some interesting questions:

If, as feminists, we believe in girls’ and womens’ autonomy, how do we understand the autonomy-shattering power of desire? Do we determine that some desires (to be dominated? to be beautiful? to get married?) are bad and others good? Because we want very much for girls not to get pregnant too young, do we bar them from even imagining what it would be like and what it would mean?

I confess to not having read the Twilight books. While I have a nearly endless appetite for trashy TV and movies, I just don’t have a lot of patience for trashy novels. I did like the movies and have written about that in the past.

I find the argument that Twilight is bad for teenage girls because it portrays Bella as really passive and to be really spurious, because I remember being a teenage girl and being able to think critically. I’m not saying I was a feminism expert, but like, I remember basically understanding the concepts of being able to think critically about books and movies. And you know, understanding they aren’t real life or models of how to live my life. For instance, when I was in high school, I always found the girl who was into the brooding, mysterious guy storyline (like early Buffy and Angel) really tedious. But I do think that it works wonderfully as fantasy because while on its face the whole thing is ludicrous, it’s emotionally really true, if that makes sense, about teenagers and desire and how they’re kind of constantly told it’s wrong from all angles. Certainly it took me right back to the simultaneous desire and fear and guilt I felt about sex when I was a teenager.

I generally find myself feeling a bit cautious when conversations about feminism shift to desire and the pursuit of pleasure – not because I think it’s wrong for feminism to acknowledge that women have desires and those desires aren’t always politically correct – but more because I don’t think we can really totally separate our desires from the cultural. We grow up in patriarchy, of course our desires reflect that. (I’m sure someone will tell me it’s biology, but just because our bodies respond to something doesn’t mean that it’s completely separate from our minds or thoughts, which are inextricably linked to the culture we learned to think in, and sure, there’s some biology but it’s probably a complex interaction whose causes are beyond our current comprehension.) So while it’s not exactly breaking the glass ceiling to admit we just sometimes want a sparkling man to carry us around and insist we marry him, it’s probably important that we talk about it without apologizing or treating it as a personal failure.

This is really easy to say but surprisingly hard to do.

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The Skin I Live In: Horror, Melodrama, History

I’m so glad this was good. What an improvement on Broken Embraces which I need to rewatch but is probably my least favourite Almódovar movie – it really just seemed stuck. Almodóvar had been kind of “returning” to his cinematic past a lot in the previous set of films (from All About My Mother through Volver, which literally translates as “to return”), and in Broken Embraces, about a blind director who was remembering falling in love with his muse, it felt to me like he was kind of obsessively reworking stories he’d told before, and a lot of the emotional content felt really perfunctory to me. It’s become increasingly clear to me that Almodóvar’s work is dominated by the past. In his early work there was such a strenuous denial of the past – he tried to make movies as if Franco had never existed, as if homophobia and sexism never existed – but more and more the past kept creeping in, until you get the ghosts of Volver and Bad Education, with characters haunted by childhood abuse only able to move forward when they confronted their trauma, while other characters hung around from beyond the grave (Volver‘s presumed-dead mother, Bad Education‘s younger brother masquerading as his dead elder sibling). These stories also reflect on his earlier work: Bad Education is set in the 80s with a film director main character very similar to the one in Law of Desire, and Ignacio’s story in it is very close to Tina’s backstory in the same film; Volver has the story of a novel the protagonist wrote in The Flower of My Secret and also brings the return of Carmen Maura, who was Almodóvar’s first leading lady and hadn’t worked with him since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as the somewhat neglectful mother of his new leading lady Penelope Cruz.

Still from the film

So I couldn’t be more optimistic than when I read that Almodóvar was reuniting with Antonio Banderas to make a real horror movie. The reason: a lot of his movies have had things that felt like horror movie scenarios – televised rapes, plastic surgery involving face-switching, serial killers, kidnapping, stalkers, lots of other kinds of rape – but they’ve always played them off with comedy or sexiness or a tendency to romanticize the villains to the point that you had to do a certain amount of mental gymnastics to remember that, say, a character had actually raped a comatose woman, and no matter how messed up he is and how well things worked out for her, he still actually raped a comatose woman. Antonio Banderas’s characters in Almodóvar’s films were almost always the kinds of characters who did horrible things in sympathetic ways: in Matador, he was a muddled, sensitive young man who attempts to rape a woman to prove his virility (but you wind up feeling bad for him because he’s haunted by his psychic visions of a series of horrible murders), in Law of Desire he’s a crazed stalker who murders the main character’s boyfriend and deceives his sister (but he just wants love and is muddled by the main character’s sexy, sexy movies and you wind up feeling bad for him when he dies at the end of the movie), in Tie Me Up Tie Me Down he’s an escaped asylum inmate who kidnaps a movie star (but even the woman he kidnaps winds up feeling bad for him because he’s just so sensitive and tortured). His characters are always so tortured by feelings that you as an audience member work to sympathize with them despite the horrible things they’ve done – but in The Skin I Live In, we don’t really get that luxury. He plays a cold and impassive plastic surgeon who is keeping a woman imprisoned in his house while he experiments on her with a new kind of skin that’s much stronger than regular human skin – and, it’s implied, he’s performed surgery on her to make her look like his wife, who died after trying to leave him. For a while it looks like the new woman’s somehow fallen in love with him, in a repeat of the Stockholm syndrome-y story of Tie Me Up, but then they go to sleep and we get a flashback that recontextualizes everything we just saw. I don’t want to give it all away here, but the implication of this structure is – you can’t just live in the present, you can’t ignore the history of a situation to make things simpler. Context is everything. It turns out that the woman isn’t wholly an “innocent” victim, but it’s hard not to feel that her punishment far, far outweighs her crime.

Still from the film

Without giving too much away, her character has a bit in common with some of Banderas’s early characters. They’re always in sway of feelings too strong for them to control, victims of external forces that bend them – the media, religion, antiquated ideas of masculinity – to do bad things that they don’t wholly realize are bad. This isn’t exactly what we see in Elena Anaya’s character, though, and the line drawn is significant. In the early Banderas-Almodóvar films, Banderas was a victim-hero redeemed through love. In this film, Anaya’s character isn’t redeemed through love, she’s redeemed through punishment. Meanwhile, Banderas is a character that we very, very rarely see in Almodóvar’s work – a pure villain. This is what makes this more of a real horror movie, with Banderas in the “mad scientist” vein1. Even when we learn what motivated his imprisonment of Anaya’s character, we still don’t really understand his actions. He’s still horrifyingly opaque, and what he does is pretty much unfathomable. I’ve always held that Almodóvar makes morally complex postmodern melodramas – forcing his audience to confront the moral difficulties of an order where there are no clear lines of right or wrong – but I think that Almodóvar’s character was something new in his work. He does something so disturbing and weird that the audience laughs when we hear Anays’s character explain it to someone else. We typically get so much lush emotion from all his characters – even ones that might be “villains” in other stories – that Banderas’s coldness stands out. In an interview with Sight and Sound, Almodóvar says he asked Banderas to watch the impassive performances in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge as a reference point. I can’t imagine a less Almodóvarian filmmaker than that. But pulling this kind of switch with Banderas – an actor who more often is too much or too passionate for the characters he’s playing – really pays off. He’s a great villain: cool, tastefully dressed, with a beautiful, tasteful home. He’s got all this surface and we never really come to understand what’s underneath. Even in the flashbacks that “explain” the trauma he’s been through, we still don’t see a lot of warm emotion, and his wife was still unhappy with him. This is where I think it shifts to horror for Almodóvar: melodrama’s a genre that explains everything, it’s all about naming and stating and revelation. Horror’s always got something fundamentally inexplicable about it – there’s always a nagging “why” at the centre, a sense that there’s really no rational explanation for the events that we’re seeing. Whereas the appeal of melodrama derives from the sense that there is an order to the seemingly chaotic universe, the appeal of horror comes from a fleeting acknowledgement that there really isn’t.

Still from the film

I don’t know what this means for Almodóvar’s future as a melodramatist. The main thrust of the film still has a lot of melodrama in it, and we’re still really put in the position of sympathizing with someone who’s done something pretty horrible, with horrible consequences, but what’s new here is the moral position we’re in. Usually we have characters who live in a world without rules and try to work out how to live morally in it. In this film, Almodóvar has a man – a rich, white, heterosexual man – for whom rules don’t seem to exist at all. What happens when you try to build an unbreakable woman from the outside in? What happens when you unilaterally ignore the rules of personhood and identity? What happens when someone takes everything away from you? How can you rebuild yourself? The film’s answer – art2 – shows where Almodóvar puts his faith.


  1. As September’s issue of Sight and Sound pointed out. 

  2. Specifically, the art of Louise Bourgeois and Alice Munro, which is probably significant from a feminist standpoint, and the importance of woman artists. 

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Movies, July 11-August 21

Such long stretches between posting! To be fair, I keep, like, going to theatre and mainlining entire seasons of TV shows (Breaking Bad, unfortunate analogy not intended) and freaking out because the fabric of society appears to be unraveling before my very eyes, so I haven’t had as many movies to write about. Anyway, because of the long break, I tried to keep all the write-ups on the side of capsule reviews.

  1. Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961): I’m pretty sure that this was the “cultural vegetables” of its day. When I got home, I was like “I bet Pauline Kael hated this.” I googled around and couldn’t find a full review, but I did find this total gem quoted at Slant: “Cultural diehards…are still sending out five-page single-spaced letters on their interpretation of Marienbad. (No two are alike, no one interesting.)”
    Which gets at it exactly. It’s definitely a cultural vegetable, but since it also has a frisson of sexual violence it was kind of the Mulholland Drive of its day.
    This was my second time seeing it all the way through, and my first time seeing it in the cinema. This is probably a good methodology for Marienbad-watching because I was not too distracted by trying to piece together the elaborate riddle of a plot, and was able to enjoy the intensely gorgeous art direction, the cinematography, and to soak in all the tense, hushed repeated whispers of atmosphere. I wish the whole movie was long tracking shots of baroque ceilings and whispers. 1 Everyone just talks about Chanel and coldness and narrative trickery and lumps it in with La Notte, but I found myself completely surprised to get to the end of the movie and realize that the most obvious interpretation is basically that X is a stalker who raped A, and is desperately trying to rework the narrative so that this wasn’t the case. (“It wasn’t by force” he keeps insisting, “it couldn’t have been by force.”) I mean, it’s not really about figuring anything out really, but I found it pretty chilling that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet use sexual assault as just another figure in a game like that.

  2. Mars (Pavel Klushantsev, 1968): This is a delightful Soviet educational film. It’s basically about the best scientific guesses as to what life on Mars would be like circa 1968. Everytime you start to get bored it dresses a dog in a spacesuit and has it run around with simulated Martian plants.
    (Still one of many glorious images from this wonderfully exhaustive French site devoted to films about Mars. I usually don’t worry about crediting still sources when they are from review sites or press materials, but this is such a web 1.0 labour of love that I needed to pass it on.)

  3. Toward Meeting A Dream (Mikhail Kariukov & Otar Koberidze, 1963): This is a Soviet film about the world banding together to save an injured alien lady who crashed on Mars. What is cool about it is how different it is from alien movies that were being made in America about this time, where aliens are always the enemy and dangerous and scary. In this one the aliens are sexy people with weird headpieces, and they need our help! There are some pretty boss effects, though. And – fittingly enough for a movie about how the Soviet space program is at the centre of the world’s great hope – it turns out all to have been a dream?

    (Image from that same great site!)

  4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010): Loved this. It’s so strange and sad and matter-of-fact. My negative reaction to Tree of Life a couple of weeks back wasn’t something a lot of people agreed with – but it is really hard to fault people for liking something that was so lovingly put together and obviously deeply felt – but I guess I just have a taste for a different kind of slow-paced, reflective drama on life and death? This is a very different beast from Tree of Life. Apichatpong said in interviews he tried to make each reel evoke a different kind of movie, and there are some supernatural elements that are introduced and treated totally matter-of-factly: a ghost, a monkey ghost that was also the protagonist’s son. In one unexplained period sequence, a princess has sex with a catfish. The whole thing is strange and beautiful. It’s about a dying man and about reincarnation, and I didn’t really understand all of it (probably at least in part because of cultural differences). “When you make a film about recollection and death, you realise that cinema is also facing death,” Apichatpong said. If cinema is dying, then Uncle Boonmee seems to have hope that it will come back in a new form.

  5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (David Yates, 2011): I’m not sure what the point of writing anything about this would be now. There are lots of political things you can say about Harry Potter and lots of fan things and lots of analysis things, but I feel like more committed people than me have really done all that. The movie itself? I don’t think it was the best Harry Potter adaptation (a lot of people like The Prisoner of Azkaban, the one that Cuarón made, but I actually think Yates is the best straight adaptor of the books – I think the last three he made were all pretty great at capturing the tense, particularly British political atmosphere of the whole world Rowling invented). There was just so much packed in to that last book, and so many little final moments of grace for all the supporting characters that had to be given short shrift in order to turn it into a functional movie, it was sad to see so little of really everyone besides Neville in this one, when there’s such a big universe there. I don’t know, maybe this would have worked better as one big movie? I know this was the big battle we’ve been waiting for for literally ten years, but there was just so little build-up and so much battle that it was hard to get excited when things ramped up, you know?

  6. Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958): On the face of it, the story looks a lot like a middling 1930s screwball romcom. The hero likes the ladies, so he tells women that he’s married and can’t get a divorce so they won’t want to nail him to a commitment. He meets and falls in love with the heroine, but then she realizes that he’s been playing her and decides to get back at him by inviting another man to her apartment; but it all kind of backfires when he has decided to tell her he’s getting “divorced” so they can actually get married, and happily ever after. It winds up feeling like a bit more than it is because it’s made with two people who probably could have played it as young dizzy young people in the 1930s but are now old enough to be sick of fucking around: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. This was, in fact, Bergman’s second Hollywood movie since running away with Roberto Rossellini. So this was a film about adults – it was imbued with a clear mature sexuality (Grant rents the apartment below Bergman near the beginning of the affair and is always “coming up for a nightcap” at like midnight), and the performances really give the love story way more weight than it would otherwise have. Bergman plays it all 100% earnest – and she and Grant have such great chemistry. (Much as I love him, I can’t think of a lot of female co-stars that I actually believed he wanted to, much less actually was, having sex with.)

  7. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954): This movie’s so French. It’s about the founding of the Moulin Rouge and the popularization of the cancan (and was obviously a big influence on Baz Luhrmnan’s Moulin Rouge!). There are a lot of affairs and singing and Edith Piaf and half-naked women – which feel so novel to see in a 1950s musical. Everyone’s so devastatingly bitchy to everyone else, and then they just forgive each other and have some champagne. I’d have to see it more times to say much more sophisticated about it, you pretty much just get swept up, it’s so buoyant and fun.

  8. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974): This is so good. It’s like the ultimate 1970s movie: it has a conspiracy, it has surveillance, it has a completely unlikeable anti-hero, it has Teri Garr, it has John Cazale, it has a young, sinister Harrison Ford. It’s inspired (pretty strongly) by Blow Up, but instead of seeing a whole murder scheme in a picture, the hero gets it in a conversation – but the twist ending is that he gets it totally wrong. There are a few really clunky bits of “it’s not your job to think about it” dialogue, but the whole thing is so well put together and so quiet and tense that it still plays pretty well. I don’t know, do I need to explain The Conversation? It’s about the consequences of surveillance and panoptic culture, not so much for the surveillee, but for the surveiller.

  9. Death By Hanging (Nagisa Oshima, 1968): So this starts out as a fairly earnest docudrama about a hanging that is clearly meant to demonstrate how the death penalty is wrong – but things slowly but surely devolve into Brechtian absurdity. R, a Korean man convicted of murder, is sentenced to be hung – but the hanging isn’t a success. R can no longer remember who he is. The group of cold Japanese officials overseeing the execution endeavour to act out his past and his crimes to remind him of his guilt, so they can execute him. They get drunk, they say a lot of racist stuff about Koreans, they pretend to be little girls, one of them somehow actually eventually really kills an imaginary woman. Made only a couple of decades after the War, it’s a pretty interesting and messy meditation on “guilt” and innocence and what oppression means to both those things, and there’s also a lot of sex and confusion thrown in. Obviously we don’t hang people anymore, but there is probably still something to be gotten out of a film about a racial minority being executed for a crime that he needs to be convinced he committed, by men who are just as guilty as he is.

  10. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009): I saw this movie for two reasons: I really like zombies and I really like Emma Stone. I also think Jesse Eisenberg is really, really good. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say I “like” him, because I can’t think of a celebrity whose whole persona is less warm. I don’t want to hang out with Jesse Eisenberg, but he plays a certain type of nerdy dick just so well. (My favourite little bit was when he made fun of The Facebook.) Zombieland was smart and well-constructed, but generally felt pretty slight, more funny than scary. It did feature my second-favourite Bill Murray-as-himself cameo. (My first favourite is still from Coffee and Cigarettes.)

  11. Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Pasolini, 1975): I’ve had this on loan from a coworker for months now, but I’ve been avoided watching it. Though I kind of take it as a point of pride that I love to be shocked and challenged by movies, I’d read enough about this one to know it would be tough to watch even for someone who thought Saw was kind of boring. And I mean, yes, it was tough to watch. I did spend like a lot of it wishing for certain parts to be over (like, the entire shit-eating section). It is designed to be hard to watch. It’s a very severe, almost coldly emotionless, 2-hour film about sexual torture. Pasolini adapted the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom for film and updated it to fascist-era Italy. So it’s about how fascism is bad, and turns people into objects – but in a way that really forces you to deal with the people being turned into objects, because you have to stare at it and think of nothing else for two hours (actually, except the scene with the bishop and his assistant guy having sex, that scene is almost confusing because it’s like, these two people are having sex in a normal way and no one has gotten shot yet, and you’re like, wait, where’s the cruelty? and then some people get shot, and then some more people get brutally tortured). The whole film is supposed to be this kind of removed allegory. Like, per wikipedia, Pasolini intended the scene where a crying, naked girl is forced to eat shit as a commentary on junk food. But how seriously are we supposed to take this? Yes, we certainly can understand the metaphor Pasolini is driving at when we see fascists treating shit like a delicacy, but we have also just watched an intensely, intentionally cruel scene of a girl being forced to eat shit. For me, the visceral impact of that has a life of its own: I can’t think of it as just allegory. With a movie this extreme, and with its story so pared down, it kind of by necessity becomes at least in part just about the very act of watching bodily abjection. I think Pasolini probably knew that, and that’s probably why he closes with the torture sequence only shown through the irised “binoculars” of the in-film spectators.


  1. I am really not exaggerating, I would watch that, I loved Russian Ark

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