VOLVER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2006, 7)
Late Almodovar has a way of sneaking up on me. Almost a week after seeing this movie, I’ve already convinced myself that I’ve under-rated it (though that may just be the hangover of two major year-end disappointments — CHILDREN OF MEN and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER). I’ve had more-or-less the same reaction to all four of Almodovar’s *late* films — TALK TO HER, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and BAD EDUCATION. A ‘7’ walking out of the theater, and then growing afterward in my head and (in the first two cases) on subsequent viewing.
Michael Sicinski had a similar, if slightly more-negative, reaction to his first viewing of VOLVER (scroll down a little). We both made the mutual mistake of initially reacting to VOLVER based on our expectations of previous Almodovar films. Mikeski mentions the film’s lack of sex or sexual transgression — Penelope Cruz’s plunging neckline (the pervs can look to the right) being, by the standards of Pedro’s 80s films, practically a nun’s dark habit. To which I’d add the fact that VOLVER is never that I can recall laugh-out-loud funny. Although some of his films are relatively somber (LIVE FLESH, TALK TO HER), you would still describe most of Almodovar’s films as comedies or black comedies. And even as grim as TALK TO HER often is, it still has one sequence (“The Shrinking Lover”) that is simply one of the funniest in recent movies. VOLVER has nothing equivalent — a major all-comedy set piece. And with no sex or sexual transgression and little comedy, the film felt a bit insubstantial as I was watching it, like there were no stakes to it. Don’t get me wrong — never did I think VOLVER was anything but consistently entertaining and interesting (and occasionally amusing), and I was never even slightly bored. As I left the theater, I was debating between 6 and 7, so I obviously liked it initially more than Mike did.
But what VOLVER did have is key to ultimately what it’s all about — it’s got an infectious sense of all-around geniality, charm and good cheer, without ever seeming to push it into “Feel Good Film of the Year”-territory. You enjoy being in its company and its atmosphere and “vibe.” That “vibe,” though most prominent in such later films as ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and FLOWER OF MY SECRET, is a constant feature of Pedro’s films — even “the early, smutty ones” that you could never guess from just reading a plot description and their bizarre subject matter. His films are consistently sunny and happy (“gay” in the old sense, one is tempted to say), and never sunnier or happier (though never, as I said, exactly *funny*) than in VOLVER. Almodovar’s typical high-key lighting, geometric framing and candy-stripe color schemes are pleasing to the eye, and unthreatening. Sunny. The lead review at the IMDb describes the film as “vivacious” and seldom has an adjective fit a film better. But this kind of sunny vibe of fabulousness (am I moving up the Kinsey scale here at all) can sometimes feel like a lack of heft or ambition as has happened to me before with other Almodovar films.
But is there a “there” for this “sunny gay vibe of fabulousness” to serve? Hooray for what Jen told Michael to look for — this is a film about love in a female community (and without a hint of *that* for the pervs). “Ethic of care” is not the term I would have thought of first, but it’s certainly as good as any other. VOLVER shows a community of women, virtually without men (the most significant male is killed in the first reel), dealing with situations (a restaurant, another death, a death in the past) and personal and familial crises primarily in terms of how they relate to one another. And doing so successfully — think of how Penelope Cruz gets the restaurant restarted by borrowing a day’s worth of money and food from the other women in the neighborhood; and of how she disposes of another problem, twice, with the help of other women who neither doubt her motives nor deny her the help she needs (moving a refrigerator is “a man’s job” if ever there was such a thing).
Yes, VOLVER does have that slaying, plus a very dramatic, portentous score that Michael (rightly) compares to Bernard Herrmann. But that points in the other direction. The killing occurs offscreen so we primarily see how it affects the women in the movie, and in a very specific and defensible context that we’re never given cause to doubt. The blood is shown not being shed, but being cleaned up. Further, VOLVER never even hints at becoming a suspense thriller, even though the early plot events seem like a setup for such a film. The death is just put off the side while the real plot — about a sick aunt (Chus Lampreave), the appearance of the ghost of a dead mother (Carmen Maura), and issues surrounding these deaths for two sisters (Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas) and Cruz’s daughter (Yohana Cobo).
Most of impressive of all are these actresses. Can we just come out and say now that Pedro is the greatest director of actresses since … um … George Cukor? I was floored by my first view of Carmen Maura, who was in almost all of Pedro’s early films but none since she became the definitive Almodovar heroine almost 20 years ago in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (the film I’d say VOLVER most resembles). But she’s still her same fabulous self behind the wrinkles. Pedro also manages to get a good performance from Penelope Cruz, who actually acts like a human being in this movie — even better, one who’s capable, smart, lovable, has believable tics. And can sing marvelously. You root for her and she carries the film.¹ But every one of the lead roles is strong (even though Chus Lampreave’s “dotty old lady” is a role she could play in her narcoleptic sleep). Lola Duenas plains the plain-Jane role that never gets praised, even though she has what Michael rightly describes as the film’s key shot — running into a roomful of men and deciding against their aid — and its impact depends on her nailing the reaction shot, though Almodovar’s cutting and soundtrack help. So it wasn’t a cop-out for the Cannes jury to award an ensemble prize. Indeed in a sense, that very female-communal spirit is exactly what VOLVER is about.
¹ I’m of two minds on whether Cruz actually is just a better actress in her native language than in English (a perfectly understandable and precedented phenomenon. Sophia Loren was splendid in Italy, especially working with DeSica; a hypermammary abomination in Hollywood). Or whether Cruz is just as bad an actress in Spanish, but this monoglot Anglophone can’t see it for the language barrier. Still …. while I can’t converse with a native, I think I understand Spanish well enough to spot a simply bad actor. I’d appreciate some feedback on this point from anybody who reads this site but can speak Spanish like a native.
Luther at the Movies sees CHILDREN OF MEN and says …. ANATHEMA SIT.
Great minds thinking alike — we even both made analogies to Hitchcock’s Macguffin. Actually, I think Luther’s piece an even better rant than the one I wrote last night (HT: Peter Chattaway … and thanks for linking to me also).
Luther describes exactly what’s wrong with the Michael Caine character (which I didn’t address), though Caine himself doesn’t have how to give an unfunny, undroll performance. The fallen-away monk also amplifies such matters as the changes in the characters played by “Chewy” Ejiofor and Julianne Moore; the clearing away of James’s Christian worldview and the damage it does to plausibility and point of what Cuaron keeps.
One broader point about adaptation-itis. I obviously don’t speak for Luther but he seems of a mind with me on this point. It’s not simply that Cuaron wasn’t faithful to James (which would be a retarded point to score against a movie). But rather that he was faithless to it, and dragged her novel into a film he already wanted to make, without any need to do so. Find a different premise for the dystopia and retitle the film 2027 or somesuch, and I at least would not object (or at least not in the same way). And what’s even worse is that this film has now become the definitive film text for CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s not the novel I’m concerned about — it will survive (or not) on its own merits as all badly-adapted novels have. But now, CHILDREN OF MEN is off the table as a film. It cannot be made anytime soon by a talented film-director who is more in tune with James. And that is just a crime.
UPDATE 1 (hat tip to Peter again): The New York Times compares the James novel to the Cuaron film. And as with our initial reactions to the film, I have a much more harshly negative reaction that Peter. Yes, “no one should have to choose between Clive Owen and P. D. James,” to cite reviewer Caryn James’s opening sentence. But what is simply silly is saying that “Those prescient social themes” … C. James refers only to immigration (poor P.D. James could not have foreseen “Homeland Security”) … are what “give the book its resonance.” Particularly in a piece that, as Peter points out, makes no mention of religion. Zero, zip, nada … not even a mention, followed by a pooh-poohing pat-on-the-head rejection of religion as fundamentally an epiphenomenon of raceclassandgender — which might be explicable, even reasonable, as a matter of reader preference. But this is the New York Times, you understand. Xan is seen by C. James solely as a political signifier about “the intoxication of power” (Is there a more hackneyed theme in this day and age than “power bad”?)
UPDATE 2: Jeffrey Overstreet at Christianity Today liked CHILDREN OF MEN way more than I did. But what I’d most like to draw attention to is a post in his combox by “Richard”:
Sacramone (who reposted the review at Luther at the Movies on the First Things blog here) seems to have a “thick” conception of what constitutes a morally serious work of art; Jeffrey’s, on the other hand, seems to be rather “thin.” What I mean by this is that Sacramone would likely insist that a work be–in the tradition of Dostoevsky–be suffused with Christian assumptions; provided that these assumptions are present, full exploration of the psychology of evil is possible without becoming prurient. Jeffrey’s take seems to be simply that any work that doesn’t actively endorse evil–and that treats moral issues with sufficient ambiguity–is (or is capable of being) morally serious. I’m open to the possibility that Jeffrey’s right, but color me skeptical: perhaps I’m insufficiently post-modern in my approach to artistic works, but it seems as though all Jeffrey’s approach requires is that the work be sufficiently ambiguous to allow the viewer to bring his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen. And that strikes me as a bit naive–not to mention failing to give the work the respect it’s due.
I find this interesting because I split the ticket on this one. My general critical approach is what “Richard” describes as “thin” — i.e., I tend to give great liberty for works of art to depict bad conduct in a neutral way, as long as the work doesn’t exclude a moral stance.¹ Or even if the “thick” stance is merely implicit or can be inferred extratextually, rather than as an explicit textual matter. But I think even the “thin” critical approach can’t defang the (near-identical) criticisms of CHILDREN OF MEN made by “Luther” and myself. Cuaron’s film is an adaptation, not an original script, and that very fact precludes “the viewer [from bringing] his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen.” In the case of CHILDREN OF MEN for a Christian, P.D. James’s worldview has always already been scrubbed off the screen in the adaptation process. We know that whatever else may be on the screen, a Christian worldview is not. So to pretend that one can bring that worldview to bear on the film of CHILDREN OF MEN is, in this case, a delusion that does violence to a text that we can know from the adaptation process was specifically produced to preclude such an understanding.
¹ As an example of what is still possible under the “thin” approach, here (HT: G-Money) is Steve Greydanus giving a really strong ‘dis to THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Though one would generally describe Mr. Greydanus as of the “thick” school, notice how he uses the “thin” approach here, giving every liberty to incomplete or imperfect truth about subject matter, in the admittedly extreme case of the depiction of Jesus, fully divine and fully human (which is to say, something impossible in our experience). And still he can find the film wanting and indefensible.
CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Britain, 2006, 4)
What a disappointment.
There’s no doubt that this adaptation of P.D. James’ Christian dystopia is thrilling in pieces … particularly, the single-take escape as the camera goes into, out of, through and around a fleeing car. But by the time we got to the bravura closing scene (already dubbed “Fireman, Save My Child” by some wag), I was in such intellectual rebellion that I had long ago emotionally checked out of the film.
What caused this intellectual rebellion is that Cuaron made the material incoherent by completely secularizing P.D. James’s themes and characters, and decoupling them from what concerned her. He soft-pedals her judgment of the contemporary culture of death in order to make a politically-correct presentist smirkfest against Bush, Guantanamo, immigration, fascist jackboots, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera. P.D. James as rewritten by LULAC.
Let me be explicit about one thing. It’s not that immigration might not be a valid topic for a movie, or even a liberal take on the subject.¹ But rather that it doesn’t belong in an adaptation of P.D. James’s CHILDREN OF MEN. In her plot (thanks, Matthew), immigration is actually encouraged (albeit on morally dubious terms) because of the labor shortage; there’s no widespread and deadly campaign against immigrants or the constant public exhortations against them that Cuaron imagines (and even if there were, **under these dystopic conditions,** why would they not be justified — lifeboat ethics and all).
Then there are all the ways Cuaron secularizes James’s text — Julian is no longer a Christian, nor are the Fishes identified as such, Julian no longer carries the miraculous baby, the baby isn’t baptized, a Wiccan midwife is added, there’s no reading of the title Psalm from the CofE Book of Common Prayer, and religion itself is shifted to a “Repent Now” cult glimpsed on the side, like in Stanley Kramer’s ON THE BEACH (which CHILDREN OF MEN resembles in some ways). And maybe worst of all, the wholesale killings of the elderly are re-presented as a voluntary suicide kit.
For James and many other Christians and conservatives, collapsing fertility rates in the West are the ultimate sign of hopelessness — a self-hating culture of death contracepting itself into oblivion (and the basic demographic data are pretty much beyond dispute, as is the response — to import more immigrants). Western Civilization (Europe especially), the argument goes, has put itself on the road to extinction through its embrace of radical selfdom, feminism and sexual hedonism (and the consequent rights to frustrate fertility and then murder babies). So the novel’s premise is simply a radicalization of what already is going on on these matters. It doesn’t make sense as anything else.
What trips Cuaron into thinking this is detachable from the “no child has been born for 20 years” premise is that he misunderstands the nature of hope, or at least the nature of Hope, the theological concept. He says:
What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise. I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it. But the premise kept haunting me. It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.
He has it exactly backwards. Sure … obviously the material is about the Death of Hope, with infertility as a metaphor for that. But the Death of Hope isn’t neatly separable from infertility. To have a child is the ultimate irrational act of hope, both a vote of confidence in the future beyond one’s own life, and the participation in this future’s creation. To lack all hope is to sink into depressive who-gives-a-damn torpor. Indeed, there are scenes from ON THE BEACH that resonated much more with me than anything in CHILDREN OF MEN — the auto races.² This is why James’s dystopic England is so terribly tranquil with low crime, rather than Cuaron’s Hobbesian war. Indeed, in a perverse way (and obviously whatever else might be said of them), the guerrillas and terrorists and fascist jackboots that Cuaron peoples this film with don’t lack hope — indeed, they have little else.
In short, by short-shrifting James’s religiosity and taking infertility as merely a “point of departure” for matters of today, Cuaron makes the situation’s central premise completely incoherent. A non-signifier that drags the film down because it makes no sense, even as a mere Hitchcockian Macguffin. If you want to rant about U.S. treatment of immigrants or terrorists, you don’t need to set it in a world like James’s (nor is it very helpful to do so). I don’t know how any film of CHILDREN OF MEN could have adequately handled or made explicit James’s background concerns. But Cuaron just wasn’t interested, and as a result has made a sci-fi dystopia that doesn’t hold any water.
And it’s not as though the immigration material that Cuaron DOES add is even really handled all that well. Because it has nothing to do with infertility, it just feels clunked on top of what would otherwise be just an elaborate chase scene like THE NATIVITY STORY or APOCALYPTO. It’s just, as Cuaron almost says, a bid to provide a veneer of topicality. I once wrote a piece on LEGALLY BLONDE 2, where I compared that film’s liberalism to product placement. That’s exactly the level at which Cuaron deals with practically every topic in the film. We see out the side of our eyes some people in hoods, and the liberal viewers and reviewers solemnly cluck “Abu Ghraib” as if they’d just a sublymonal ad for Sprite. Those images have nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary immigration, much less the economic logic of a society short of youth and workers. But why let the facts interfere with a good inflammatory smear? The film has bumper stickers and badges and old newspaper headlines against the Iraq war on walls and desks and other places where such things show up. But if the world has gotten this screwed up in the 25 intervening years, shouldn’t there be fresher protest icons — maybe a “to hell with Hillary” over her nuking Pakistan, say? There are vague ones, sure, but nothing that anyone could derive anything from. But no … not when the real audience for these ads-from-the-future is contemporary liberals and their fantasies, wish-fulfillments and self-vindication.³
¹ Though I will admit a pretty thoroughgoing contempt for Mexicans who bitch about how mean and inhumane are US immigration policies and practices. They are a model of charity and humanity compared to Mexico’s policies and practices.
² I’m tempted to just come out and say ON THE BEACH is the better film. But then I remember Fred Astaire trying to act, Anthony Perkins trying to act, and Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck “spreading fertilizer” in the wheat fields. And I’m cured of that temptation.
³ Greatest irony: Behind all the “fuck Bush” product placement in the movie, you would never guess that apropos the film’s major concern, i.e., immigration, that Bush is one of the “good” guys — pushing for a major amnesty for (potentially) more than 10 million illegals and that he is widely distrusted among non K-Street/Wall-Street conservatives, i.e., we fascists, on precisely this score.
This strike by Barcelona’s Ronaldinho in the Champions League against Werder Bremen last week is the second-cheekiest goal I have ever seen. The Brazilian star hits the shot weakly along the ground, but he timed it perfectly with the Werder Bremen defensive wall jumping, like a Goofy Golf shot so as to roll under the wall right into the goal untouched:
But as I said, it’s only the second-cheekiest goal I’ve ever seen. The one that bests it, also a Brazilian free kick, is here, in this Japanese 1974 World Cup highlight reel. In a quarter-final game between Brazil (yellow) and East Germany (blue), Rivelino fires the ball right at the Commies’ defensive wall, only a couple of Brazilian players are in the middle of the wall and at the exact moment, they duck. Ball goes right into the net.
You’d think East Germany, of all countries, would be more proficient at building a wall than that. But that Rivelino goal resulted (to my memory at least) in a major change in world football. Henceforth attacking players would be kept away from defensive walls on free kicks. Like Dan Marino and his fake “spike the ball” call, it could only be done once. I wonder if either others will try the Ronaldinho trick or whether defenders will henceforth no longer jump in such situations.
THE NATIVITY STORY (Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 3)
It would have been easy enough to ignore this movie or maybe enjoy its small favors or appreciate its (efforts at) piety if it had been made a few years ago. But we are now after THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and are in an era when the phrase “Passion dollars” means something other than the 50-bucks you leave on the nightstand of the rent-by-the-hour motel. Every studio and his brother is launching a Religious Division or some or another Jesus project. But THE NATIVITY STORY has all the faults of “Contemporary Christian Cinema (Music)” — and without the excuses.
This was not the $100,000 work of a bunch of inspired amateurs (in the best sense of both words) from a Georgia church. This was a major film with a $30 million budget, an Indiewood A-list director and cast, location shooting in Italy and Morocco, a premiere at the Vatican.
And for what — to produce a rote Christmas pageant so lifeless, so lacking in dramatic juice that you come away more interested in the gossip about the child of Keisha Castle-Hughes (Mary) than about the child her character was carrying. This isn’t dispositive, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that a religious film should leave you wanting to know more about the religion. After I saw Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING … well, I didn’t go shave my head and get fitted for saffron robes, but the film certainly made Buddhism “attractive,” in a certain sense. But THE NATIVITY STORY fails completely on that score — it’s a dramatically inert series of picture postcards, relying 100 percent on pre-programmed responses. It’s one thing to assume that the audience knows the basic story and accepts it as truth in order to take our emotions in new directions, as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST does; it’s quite another to require the audience to provide those emotional responses too.
This should be a Marian story, as she is the principal human protagonist. But Castle-Hughes plays the Blessed Virgin in a manner so blank-faced that you have to think she was either not directed at all or is trying to act “numbed.” The problem for the latter is that she has not been convincingly “shaken up” in the first place, which would have required either a more interesting conversation or a different sort of “presence” from the angel Gabriel, or a bitterer family quarrel. Give me Maia Morgenstern’s Mary from THE PASSION every second of every day.
In fact, the whole movie is boringly low-key and conflict-free (i.e., no “drama” in the usual sense). It’s trying its durndest to be devout and uncontroversial, but that only makes its deadness on the screen comes off as offensive. Say what you like about Gibson again, but surely one of the lessons of the PASSION is that religious controversy sells, at least if it flows from real conviction. But hey, if what you want from movies is that they not use the filthy words they had in GONE WITH THE WIND and that they have a more moral “uplift” than SAW 3 (and some do) … then rush out and see this by all means.