Almodóvar’s Julieta


The critics are right: Almódovar is not the same. Julieta, his latest movie, is nothing like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which catapulted the Spanish director to international fame almost thirty years ago.

Julieta is more mature, serious and, in many respects, a lot better, reflecting the evolution and progressive refinement of a seasoned maestro. Of course, some fans will miss the raw humor and shock value of his earlier movies, which celebrated la movida madrileña, the cultural movement of the late 70s and early 80s that stood in direct opposition to the values and life style of Franco’s dictatorial years. In those days of la movida, it was necessary to burn the cultural bra to make a point. Those times are over, though. Besides, for more nostalgic viewers, quite a few of his movies of that era are available on Netflix, at your fingertip.

original

 Julieta, on the other hand, belongs to the 2010s. It is allowed – strike that; required is the precise word – to be simpler and more contained. Nevertheless, it has kept the director’s inimitable voice and style: the bright colors, the Madrid touch, and the inscrutable strong women are still there. And even Rossy the Palma, one of the muses of his early years as a filmmaker, makes a comeback; her wondrous nose, uneven eyes and twisted mouth working their magic, in the role of a modern-day Cassandra.

Rossy de Palma La Ley del Deseo

Rossy de Palma in the 1980s.

I find it unbelievable that many critics will say that Almodóvar has never mastered the skills to tell a story. His narrative powers are weak, some say. Obviously, these critics abide by only one model of storytelling: the commercial cinema of Hollywood. Although I respect the claim that some narrative elements and archetypes make themselves present one way or another in every story ever told, they should be rearranged in as many different ways as creative directors can come up with. Almodóvar’s storylines do follow a structure – although an idiosyncratic one. Digression plays a big part in his method.

Without the digression, Julieta would be a simple tale about guilt. It’s the digressions that allow Almodóvar to present the viewer with unique images (an elk running in slow motion alongside a moving train at night; the bluest sea shown though the open windows of a living room in Galicia; the Swiss Alps shot in all their glory); intriguing metaphors: references to Homer’s Odyssey and the power of the sea to entice men like Ulisses and Xoan, pulling them from the safety of their houses and the comfort of their families; and one of the most original transitions between youth and old age in movie history: actress Adrian Ugarte is replaced by Emma Suárez at the sudden removal of a red tower.

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Pedro Almodóvar

Julieta is a delight to the eyes. You could just sit back for hours watching these beautiful women move around in fashionable clothes, stepping in and out of fascinating Madrid buildings, walking along its narrow cobblestone streets or just sitting in close-up against the backdrop of stunningly decorated apartments.

With the help of great actors and a stunning musical store by Alberto Iglesias, Almodóvar turns the straightforward story of a family marked by tragedy into a Hitchockian thriller – with echoes of Vertigo. Viewers will be met by twists and little surprises at every turn, relishing the journey. Almodóvar has developed the fearlessness of those who have nothing more to prove. He shoots his movies out of sheer pleasure. Who can blame him?

Au revoir

Jorge.

 

 

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5 features that make a movie or TV show great


In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.

Paintings in the Movies: Art within Art


I’m fascinated by the game of mirrors and metalinguistic reflections reverberating from the use of art inside art inside art inside art, and all the implications and possible interpretations that result from this spiraling labyrinth. More precisely, this post is about famous paintings that feature in movies either as a direct element of the plot, or, more subtly, as an aid to help compose the fabric of the subtext. I’ll cover 3 interesting instances of clever uses of famous works of art and artistic style in the movies, which always cause a jolt of pleasure in the viewer who recognizes them, and, as a consequence, is able to connect the dots and understand the references.

1. The Skin I live In, by Pedro Almodovar, 2011. Let’s start with this brilliant and fairly recently Almodovar, which was heavily criticized when it first came out for its alleged shift of style from what the director had been famous for. Well, if these critics meant the movie adds layers of complexity to Almodovar’s previous works, I couldn’t agree more. However, if they are implying the movie was not funny, I don’t think they got it. It’s hilarious, although in a somewhat dark way. In addition to the humor, one important aspect of the movie is the theme of the contrast between culture and nature, between what is innate and what is fabricated and handed down by civilization; how far can one go to change what is considered natural? Without going into too much detail about the plot of the movie, let’s just say it’s about a surgeon who thinks it’s OK to recreate the human skin in order to improve it. And he tests his theory on an unlikely guinea pig: the man who allegedly abused his daughter, and whom he has turned into a woman, through an unauthorized gender reassignment surgery! Too weird? Maybe. But the point here is to discuss the symbolic meaning of the painting that decorates the surgeon’s mansion in Toledo, and keeps popping up in the scenes where he goes up and down the elaborate staircase: The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538. This painting summarizes the main theme of the movie: the idealization and beautification of the real world. In this case, a beautiful goddess, with flawless white skin, concocted by an artist, conveys the impossibility that she could be recreated outside of this imaginary world. She will not leap off the painting and exist in real life.

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

 

2. Skyfall, by Sam Mendes, 2012. By far my favorite 007 movie. Everything works perfectly to make this a classic: action-packed opening scene, dreamlike credit sequence showcasing Adele’s song, a lot of fighting and shooting throughout, stunning locations (London, Istanbul, Shanghai), sophisticated dialogue, superb acting. And, as the underlying theme, we are to led to confront the universal and always worrying issue of the inexorable passage of time and how human beings cope with it. The main theme is made explicit in an anthological scene (see video clip below) where an aging 007 meets his new and young quartermaster: Q. They are both at the National Gallery in London contemplating Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838, which depicts an old ship being tugged somewhere to be destroyed. These are the best lines of the blistering dialogue that ensues:

Q:    Old age is no guarantee of efficiency.

007: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Do I need to explain anything else?

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

 

Q meets James Bond:

3. Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, 1973. In this movie the symbolism does not come from showing a specific artwork. However, you can tell the cinematography and art direction are heavily influenced by the style of Caravaggio. You seem to be watching the application in movies of Caravaggio’s artistic principles: Scorsese, just like his baroque predecessor, depicts the contemporary world (1973 New York) of the Italian Mob, shown in beautifully staged scenes where the technique of chiaroscuro or tenebrism predominates. Every scene seems to have the lighting coming from a single or, sometimes, two naked light bulbs carefully placed to focus on the foreground, where the action is taking place. The background is dimmed or blackened in shadows. The characters seem to behave as modern versions of Caravaggio and his mates themselves, rambling through the dark streets of VII century Rome (1973 New York) after nightfall, going to taverns (bars, and pool joints) and whorehouses (stripclubs). They are constantly gambling, getting involved in brawls and fights, some of those – in the movie – nicely choreographed to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles songs. In addition to that, you hardly ever see a shot without an element of the Catholic iconography featuring prominently in the setting: images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, photos of the pope and the interior of churches themselves. What would we call this? Post-modern baroque?

Caravaggio's Cardsharps, 1596.

Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, 1596.

Let us know what you thought of this post: write your feedback on the comments section of the blog.

 

NOTE: If you are into art, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

 

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.