Monday, January 22, 2007

The Week in Review

I'm going to introduce a new feature to this blog by borrowing a leaf from the book of Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit. I see more films in a week than I can write about (seeing as I do have a full-time day job). The Week in Review allows the opportunity of a little shorthand, documenting the week's cinema-related activities that may promote some discussion if anyone is so inclined. Any and all comments are welcome. Without further ado, here's the past week's digest.

  • The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
  • Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)
  • Stone (Sandy Harbutt , 1974)
  • Various short silent films (Georges Méliès, 1895-1908)
  • Dark Habits (Entre Tinieblas, Pedro Almodóvar, 1983)
  • What Have I Done To Deserve This? (¿Qué He Hecho Yo Para Merecer Esto!!, Pedro Almodóvar, 1984)
  • Matador (Pedro Almodóvar, 1986)
  • Law of Desire (Le Ley del Deseo, Pedro Almodóvar, 1987)
  • Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know (Jennifer van Sijll, 2005) - completed
  • On the History of Film Style (David Bordwell, 1997) - 10% read
  • A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovóvar (Mark Allinson, 2001) - started


Marina said...

I like this new feature!

"Dreamgirls" was entertaining but a bit disappointing for me. Fun but not as great as everyone was making it out to be.

Looks like someone is catching up on Almodóvar!

Anonymous said...

Paul, the best Alomdovar films or my favourites are Talk To her and Live Flesh. These are his best, in my book. I haven't seen Volver yet but I plan to very soon.

Paul Martin said...

Marina, if Dreamgirls was released here in 2006, it would have made it to no. 3 on my worst films list. I posted some comments about it on At The Movies.

Regarding Almodóvar, never has a director interested me so much, in whose work I find so many things to dislike. Yet somehow I strangely like his films. I'll have more to write on Almodóvar in the future.

Anonymous, I'm working my way through his films chronologically. I haven't seen Live Flesh yet, and did see Talk to Her when it was released. I can't remember it well, though, and intend revisiting it. Based on my reading of blogs, it's his most revered film.

Seeing Pepi, Luci, Bom was fascinating, as so many devices in Volver were also there in his first film. Seeing many of his films back-to-back is quite illuminating as to Almodóvar's evolution (or, some would say, his lack of).

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I'm really enjoying your work and like this new feature too.

I hope some late comments about Volver aren't out of place here. Your review of Volver was very insightful. I'm glad I'm not alone in being underwhelmed by Volver. I thought it was big on stylish flourishes ( colour, camera treatment, the perving on Cruz's beauty, the camp and noirish overtones) but it was emotionally shallow and farcial.

Almodovars tries to construct strong female characters that obviously he idealizes but I don't see a lot of love in his depiction of women. Most of the women in women in Volver seem enraged, hysterical and desparate in their self-sufficency especially Cruz whose so-called strength is a reaction to the crimes of that despicable species - men! The theme of this film is 'men who needs them'. And yet Cruz's behaviour is quite ruthless although it's harder to see this given that Almodovar's is continually focussing on her beauty. I read an article about the prosthetic arse Cruz wore in the film and think Almodovar's reasoning for getting Cruz to wear a bigger arse is truly bizarre.
I don't think he sees men or women as a complex whole. The reference to Cruz's "parts" says it all. He has a fragmented view of women as well as men which is why I think the film unsettled me. I'm not sure why Cruz thinks he's a genius. I don't see much to smile about at all.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for the comments, Anonymous (a name would be nice, even if you don't leave any other details, at least to identify you from other Anonymouses).

My post is full of Almodovóvar, so certainly anything about Volver is appropriate. Tangents on anything are welcome; one film always inspires comparisons, contrasts, etc with other films. In fact, your comments are the first I've had on Volver that I was trying to arouse: a discussion of his treatment of gender and humanity. So I'm very appreciative that you've taken up the baton.

As I've been subjecting my partner to successive Almodovóvar films on video, we've been discussing his gender characterisations. I've been pointing out some oft-repeated stereotypes - and how heterosexual sex is usually cold, emotionless and a totally selfish male act that the woman has to endure. My partner astutely observed that the sex that women initiate or that gays engage in might be more passionate but is no less cold. It's not 'making love' per se, but another type of 'fucking', ie just a coarse act.

The theme of 'men, who needs them' has been there in virtually every Almodóvar film. It's gets boringly repetitive when you view his films back-to-back. You can tell when a male is being set up as a cold bastard that we must all despise. I mentioned one such incident in Volver. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, we have virtually the same scenario: an extreme close up of the male's miserably thin lips.

I agree with your statement about so-called strong female characters. These women are celebrated for the faults.

Cruz's prosthetic arse has had about the same amount of attention as Nicole Kidman's nose in The Hours. It gets tiresome. As for the breasts, I've read that she's had enhancement, so I find that unimpressive. Thanks for the link; I had read elsewhere about the arse. Almodóvar has said that the women in his village who had such large breasts also had large bums.

I'm not drawing any conclusions yet as I'm still researching the cultural and other aspects behind Almodóvar's work. However, my initial impression is basically one of agreement when you say "He has a fragmented view of women as well as men which is why I think the film unsettled me". I see the view of both men and women depicted in his films as highly dysfunctional.

Kirsty said...

I think that one of the things that Almodovar does is unsettle the cinematic gaze that we are used to seeing in so much film which is essentially one that is a male heterosexual gaze which Laura Mulvey famously discussed in her essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. The subsequent criticisms of Mulvey not withstanding, I do find that some of these comments about Almodavar's visual techniques and characterisation of women and men seem to arise from a reaction to the decentering of this heterosexual male gaze.

For example, the comments about Cruz's breasts and buttocks seem to be interpreted from the perspective of a heterosexual male who has learned feminism, and is *genuinely*, I think, trying to read the film in full awareness and sensitivity to the implications of feminism in his reading. However, there's something about the tone of the comments that make me feel uncomfortable. The derision directed towards the apparent fakeness of Cruz's body feels to me like another form of telling women how to be, what is appropriate or not. Women are still being punished for making decisions about their bodies.

For this reason, I wonder if Almodavar's 'genius' is that it leaves the heterosexual male gaze of narrative cinema with nowhere to look. With nowhere to look, this decentred gaze sees only superficialness, empty stylistic flourishes, shallow relationships and, goodness, that old classic dismissal, 'hysterical' women . This discussion, and Paul, your initial post, has made me think that Volver is not about or for heterosexual men and that goes against most of the history of cinema. I wonder if the reaction is to being denied sight, as it were.

I said in my response to Paul's cross-post at Sarsaparilla that I enjoyed watching Cruz's body in Volver because I thought it was a celebration of the female form outside of its usual framing as the spectacular object of a heterosexual male gaze. Yes, a celebration of her body for her own sake. I can understand that by being denied any kind of entry into the film, the heterosexual male gaze is registering this as a criticism of all things heterosexual and male, but I think that heterosexual maleness just doesn't exist in this film, and for me, since it exists almost everywhere else, this is not such a problem. For this reason, again, I find the dismissal of the relationships between the women to be quite telling. This is a film about the relationships *between the women*, it's not about the women's relationships with the men in their lives. And surely, it's okay to have one film every now and then about that?

ps Sorry about this long comment Paul, but obviously I've been thinking about this for a while.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Kirsty. No need to apologise, long comments are more than welcome.

I think we see cinema differently. I don't think of stories as male stories or female stories or homosexual stories, etc. I take a film as a human story. If a film is predominantly aimed at a target audience (chick-flicks, bloke-flicks, etc), then it's less likely to interest me. If Volver is a chick-flick, then it fits into that category, which I think diminishes the importance of Almodvar as a film-maker.

As an aside, I loved Sin City, though it was largely aimed at males in my opinion. My biggest complaint with it was that the males had all the interesting roles and the women were simply window-dressing that had very uninteresting roles. They were just there to be all tits-and-ass.

I'm probably about the only male that's complaining about Cruz's breasts - those two pieces of silicon-enhanced flesh have had the most attention of any body part in film circles since Kidman's nose in The Hours. My perspective is not a heterosexual male perspective, but a [gender-non-specific] humanist's perspective.

Maybe the bulk of Hollywood films can be grouped according to the above-mentioned gender-oriented classifications, but much if not most non-Hollywood films are not like this. I don't care where a film is made or by whom. I'm just interested in human stories and judging a film on this basis. And I don't think this has anything to do with my gender or sexual orientation.

I don't find Almodovar's films unsettling in terms of what he focuses on. His films remind me of a low-budget film I saw many years ago on video called "Preaching to the Perverted", which I enjoyed in spite of it's obvious B-grade qualities. I like the ambiguous sexuality and morality.

What I do find unsettling is Almodovar's world view. I'm still researching Almodovar, so anything I say is subject to change. However, I find he has what I consider unhealthy attitudes to both men and women. I'm not big on psychological terminology, but there's some kind of unhealthy fixation on women. And an unhealthy aversion to hetero men.

If Almodovar is writing just for women or non-hetero males, then not only is he not writing for me, then he's also not writing for women who similarly have a broad humanistic and inclusive world view.

Yet somehow his films intrigue me in spite of their faults. Do I think Almodovar is over-rated? Maybe, but I don't think I would be arrogant enough to say that or put it in those terms. His films are what they are, and people can make of them what they are. I don't think people in general see as deeply into his films as I do, or see the issues that I do, because most people don't care or understand the issues as I do. I'm not putting myself above others, but I do have perspectives that are largely (read, almost universally) not considered.

But the fact that we can have this kind of discussion over a film or films that may not be that deep is really quite fascinating, don't you think?

Kirsty said...

Ah, see this is where we differ, I'm not a Humanist. I don't think it's possible to adopt a truly universal approach/perspective or at least not one that isn't simply another manifestation of the dominant ideology which further entrenches existing privilege and disadvantage. So we have a really deep-seated philsophical difference: what you see as all embracing, I see as diminishing important, to-be-celebrated, differences. We can be comforted that this particular philosophical difference has been battled over by many much more learned people than ourselves.

I don't know if you've read the Mulvey essay, but I guess I'd recommend it to understand my perspective further (not that you have to). Your description of how I might approach films doesn't resonate with me exactly. From the perspective of genre, there are clearly specific genres that are associated with male or female, young or old etc, audiences, but I wouldn't not go and see a film if it was ostensibly a 'male' film.

I don't think that Almodovar sets out to make so-called chick flicks (and I do tend to bridle a bit that this term is equated with substandard films), but if we consider him to be an auteur--and he is discussed in this way--then he does have a singular vision, and there are themes etc that recur across his body of film-making.

I think that Almodovar's vision is probably so out of sync with the dominant hetero-normative perspective, that its failure to affirm the values implicit in that world view is an enormous challenge. The depiction of cold, heterosexual sex is obviously not something that rings true for a lot of people, but it's clearly a recurring motif in Almodovar's films. Not all of us have to like that, but what other, specific, rather than universal, ways of seeing might it offer us?

Paul Martin said...

Kirsty, I used to consider myself a feminist, and by my use of that term, I mean a person who believes in gender equality. Then, over time, I noted that many people under that banner were not interested in gender equality, but rather furthering the interests of women only. I found that limiting, unbalanced and incapable of solving any social imbalance without a more wholistic approach. So now I consider myself a humanist, and by this I mean an inclusive perspective.

I don't agree with some feminists' concept of 'the dominant ideology'. There is selective use of facts to portray women as oppressed and males as oppressors. Anything that contradicts this view is overlooked.

Like you, I am not interested in a film if it is "ostensibly a 'male' film" nor if it were a 'female' film. I'm just interested in human stories. I've seen lots of so-called queer cinema, films by gay directors, etc. Greg Araki and John Cameron Mitchell come to mind. I don't have a problem with a female or gay perspective. I just think Almodovar has a dysfunctional attitude to people of both genders and relationships in general. At least that's what impression I get from his depictions of people in his films.

Briefly (at the risk of sounding repetitive), he demonises adult heterosexual males (who have no good qualities), he idolises women (whose many faults are their wonderful strengths). Sex by hetero males is selfish, cold and disgusting. Yet, when he depicts sex by women or gays, it may be more passionate, yet it is still unfeeling, lacking emotion and sensitivity - just fucking. Almodovar has a reputation of being a party animal, and that shows in his on-screen depictions.

We have different perspectives. And that's OK. We can disagree.