Crimson and Cloverfield

I am posting in spite of my blog’s messy look. Sorry for that; Adam helped a bit, but I can’t get it tweaked quite right yet and I’ve been superbusy (it’s that time of year for us), so I haven’t been able to tinker.

Anyway, I want to tell you about this (danger: spoilers ahead):

Because I’m a fan of Lost and watched Felicity religiously (shut up), I was eager to see the J. J. Abrams-produced feature Cloverfield, the plot of which was shrouded mostly in secrecy lo these many months, although it was made obvious from the teaser trailer that something attacked New York City during an all-out hipster goodbye party, but that was about it.

The film is, at heart, a basic Orpheus/Eurydice retelling in a very contemporary version of Hades with one pissed off (and hungry) hellgod wandering around. Boy secretly loves girl, boy loses girl, boy treks through semi-destroyed metropolis to rescue girl from her burning apartment while large creature systematically kills everyone he knows.

(This is my “oh shit” face.)

What makes Cloverfield strong, in my opinion, is some of the conceit that made it noteworthy to begin with. The first-person camerawork is strong and well done here. The limited perspective does add a lot of tension and suspense, and the audience is encouraged to identify with the likeable and usually nervously humorous character holding it, whose only role is to film the entire thing. We like Hud because he reminds us of ourselves: well-meaning, kind, really into a girl who doesn’t realize he exists, loyal, etc.

(Is it Cloverfield or Flashdance? Or both?)

Even though Cloverfield seems to be about an extraordinary event changing people’s lives forever, it smartly keeps actual danger on the periphery, in the vein of Jaws. For much of the film the characters aren’t in actual danger, but the threat–like the idea of terrorism in our America–is always present, always looming. And when people die, they aren’t forgotten. Witness, for instance, one character’s phone call to the mother of a character who died, having to explain it to her during a brief lull while they hide out in a subway station. The film remembers what it means to be a person, that even under supernatural circumstances, we don’t lose our humanity; we retreat into it.

Much has been written already of the film’s liberal use of shaky handheld camera; narratively, the entire film is shot in near-real time using a characters’ digital video recorder; for the viewer, this means when he runs, you feel dizzy and disoriented. Only in a few scenes did this bother me. The true strength is the way the camera resists omniscience: you want it to move back, to look at the horror dead on, but it can’t, it won’t. It turns the film into what film theorists would call “pure spectacle.” It reduces the viewer to a powerless victim of the film rather than participant in it. There is no power for the viewer here.

The cast of unknowns intensify the sense of reality television that exists here. As an audience, Americans are becoming too comfortable witnessing trauma second-hand through the cameralens, and Cloverfield knows this about us, wants us to both love it and hate it about ourselves. Anyone who watched on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center understands the powerlessness of watching disaster strike; we understand it in a way real witnesses won’t—-and vice versa.

I left the theater feeling both shaken and shaky–in fact, it took me a few minutes to relax after the film ended. I didn’t feel scared, really. It was a stressful film to watch, but the emotion was legitimate, not constructed. I appreciated that.

And I’m even going to go see it again.

OMG (Oh Myra God!)

Last weekend I finally watched the much-reviled film version of one of my favorite novels, Myra Breckinridge, starring Raquel Welch as the titular “T” and film critic Rex Reed as her masculine alter-ego. Rounding out the wonderful—but odd!—cast are Farrah Fawcett as the bland and stupid Mary Ann, John Huston as former film star and “happy ending” enthusiast Buck Loner, and Mae West—yes—as the foul mouthed sexaholic talent agent Leticia Van Allen.

First, I thought Raquel was absolute genius as Myra. To wit:

Myra is a classic Hollywood-obsessed instructor at a hippy-dippy acting school in LA. She wears outlandish, drag queeny outfits (a pre-cursor to Ugly Betty‘s Alexis Meade, perhaps?) and seeks to “destroy the American male in all its forms,” which she does in the butt:

The novel is brilliant, and while the film has its troubles, I think audience response to it—widespread panning—was due primarily to its frank confrontation of sexual mores and sexual liberation. A homosexual member of the school’s faculty talks openly about being gay and at one point, even dismisses himself by saying he has to finish putting his make-up on. Was America ready for this then? Probably not. Nor were they ready to see a studly young man get ass-bumped by a beautiful woman who may or may not be anatomically correct.

But I’m ready. At least, I was ready.

“I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man shall possess!”

The Flower of My Secret

Over the holiday weekend I was pleased to find Netflix sent me an Almodóvar film from my queue. The Flower of My Secret tells the story of Leo, a highly successful romance novelist with a nom de plume that protects her from worshipping fans. Leo’s husband Paco is serving in the army in Brussels and they never get to see each other. It has turned Leo’s usually “pink” world “black”—her romance novels, which once flowed quickly and easily, have turned into books like her recent manuscript The Cold-Storage Room, about a wife who kills here husband and hides him in a neighbor’s restaurant freezer after she discovers he committed incest with their daughter.

The film begins with a simulation run by the National Transplant Organization. A woman is being told her teenaged son has been killed in a traffic accident and has no brain activity. Would she like to donate his organs to save lives?

If these sound familiar, it’s because the first aspect is the plot of Almodóvar’s most recent film Volver and the second, the basis of the film All About My Mother.

It’s in Secret that we first meet Manuela, the grieving heroine of Mother, in a prescient setting: signing away her dead son’s organs. The simulated grief in Secret becomes the real, unbearable, unlivable grief of Mother and even Marisa Pareides, who plays Leo in Secret, appears in the later film as world-weary, love-lorn actress Huma Rojo.

And the story of Volver has uneasy coincidences with Secret too. In Volver,, the film opens with heroine Raimunda cleaning off the grave of her dead mother in their remote village. In Secret, Leo’s mother begs to return to the village where the family once lived, and by the end of the film, she does, taking Leo with her. These sets are the sets of Volver, this house, this courtyard, this village. It’s the setting of Leo’s unpublished novel.

Like the other films, the color red is crucial in The Flower of My Secret. Here, it is a marker of passion, both artistic and romantic, and probably also insanity to some degree as Leo’s grief over losing her husband envelops her.

It’s why Almodóvar is a genius, these nested films butting up against each other in his oeuvre in an odd, surprising way. It gives me a new concept of body of work. His work is a single body.


Fassbinder’s final film, Querelle tells the story of the titular sailor in the French navy who, while ashore in the town of Brest, embarks on a voyage of sexual awakening…in what we might call “the company of men.”

It’s a strange film, oddly-hued with burnt yellows and oranges, conspicuously filmed on a sound stage. Among the accoutrements of the set are, atop a stone retaining wall, large turrets that—I’m not kidding—are sculpted to look like enormous cock-and-balls.

Fassbinder’s vision of the Jean Genet book upon which the film is based is nearly laughable (now) in its use of fetish and stereotype of gay experience:

We first encounter Querelle under the loving gaze of his lieutenant, who routinely narrates into a tape recorder the ups and downs of loving Querelle, who seems unaware of his lieutenant’s affections. As the lieutenant speaks, Querelle dutifully shines one of his commanding officer’s boots, his skin sheened with sweat, light reflecting off the contours of his muscles.

Querelle hears that, in town, at the local brothel, the owner challenges every man to play dice. Winners get their pick of the women; losers must allow themselves to be screwed by the owner himself. Querelle immediately dashes off to the bar, where he runs into his brother (Robert), a “police officer” wearing leather fetish gear, and the owner, a large African American man behind the bar.

Querelle cheats and loses at dice, then bends forward over a table to take his lumps.

A side story features the same actor who plays Robert as Gilles, a mason who is torn between his affections for a young man and his obligation to become romantically involves with the man’s sister. The other masons verbally abuse Gilles, effectively calling him a sissy and driving Gilles to murder a coworker, which lands him in jail. Querelle sends the poor guy up the river after seeming to “fall” for him.

Querelle is a tough character to like. He seems empty, shapeless—soulless. To get revenge against his brother, Querelle seduces the prostitute Robert loves (played inexplicably by Jeanne Moreau). He murders another sailor and blames it on Gilles. He smuggles drugs. He lies, cheats, steals, mostly to get laid and mostly to avoid being perceived as a homosexual. But Fassbinder’s direction of the film is loving, gentle—hazy, like a fond memory of the past. The dialogue is strange, jarring, non-narrative, even postmodern at times, and Fassbinder cuts in title cards with strange quotes, some which seem to come from Genet’s novel. Top this off with a voice-over narration from an unknown omniscient observer and well, you’ve got quite a cinematic puzzle on your hands.

The film isn’t homophobic, however, by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, I think it seeks to capture the oppression and exclusion of the closet. Brest is a city full of phallic masonry, fetish gear, and overt graffiti (“Younger man seeks boys with huge cocks,” for instance), and yet, all the man-on-man encounters, even the loving and non-sexual ones, occur away from everyone else, in alleys and bedrooms and around dark corners. That one man murders another in response to the victim’s harassment of him is almost vindicating in a we’re-not-going-to-take-this-anymore…especially as Gilles, the killer, is the film’s one and only sympathetic characters, victim of circumstance himself, wanting so desperately to love the man he knows he shouldn’t…

What is wonderful about this film, though, is Franco Nero.


Más Almodóvar, Por Favor

I saw in the most recent issue of The Threepenny Review a symposium on the films of Pedro Almodóvar. It’s been a few months since I’ve had my favorite filmmaker in my life, so I quickly devoured the essays inside—brief though they were, they were delicous.

What I loved about this symposium was that people from a small variety of backgrounds were asked to respond to Almodóvar’s films in a personal manner. I’m not sure there’s any other way to respond to his work, really. One wrote about seeing Talk to Her in Spanish with French subtitles while traveling abroad; another, about returning to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown after twenty years of separation.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what I love so much about his films, why they speak to me, but I can say that I see myself in his work. I mean, I see a representation of myself there. This is how I see the world: full of hyperbole and histrionics, full of marginalized people who are perhaps more authentic than the legitimate people. And there—the question/burden of authenticity, both in art and in life (for Almodóvar’s films are as much about being films as they are about approximating life).

As Agrado describes in All About My Mother (my favorite, easily): “I am very authentic” (muy auténtico), just as she explains all the ways in which her body has been surgically altered to appear female. Because authenticity is an internal definition, not external. Her physical modifications, which would seem the opposite of inauthentic from an outside perspective, serve to make her body and complete self-image more in line, more authentic, in the end.

Almodóvar, for better or worse, gave us Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz.

What he is, really, is an artist of appropriation. He pulls, steals, borrows, clips and cuts from all manner of traditions and art forms: other films, visual art, performance art, cabaret, architecture, melodrama…

I want to be the place where things converge, the way he is.