Rightwing Film Geek

Gay … in the old sense


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.

CruzMichael 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.

December 27, 2006 Posted by | Michael Sicinski, Pedro Almodovar | Leave a comment

For your a-hatin’ needs

martin_lutherLuther 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.

December 27, 2006 Posted by | "Martin Luther", Alfonso Cuaron, Jeffrey Overstreet, Steve Greydanus | Leave a comment