Friends invited me to play a game listing one ’80’s song a day for a week. Since I really don’t know much about music, I made it about the music that meant most to me rather than what may or may not be ‘best’. It turned out more autobiographical than I expected but might be so in ways where the individual connects with broader social currents or where memories simply intersect and might be of interest to others
I’ll begin near the beginning. I turned 18 in 1980. Finished high school, not yet at Uni, still living at home on the Plateau in Montreal and going regularly to a new disco called Secrets that had replaced an old post office on the corner of Clark St and Pine, near where we were all still living. We all played at being sophisticated and I liked to dance to this, which had just become a big hit:
I loved Grace Jones throughout the 80s and love her still. In 1982, I lived on Park Avenue, opposite the Rialto theatre. It was one short hop on the bus to the Garage, the first gay club I was a regular at (and which the old Nightingale in Birmingham had huge and very sleazy posters of hung all over its lounge), where I used to dance until two on weekdays which is when they closed; and they always ceremoniously finished the evening off with Jones’ version of ‘La Vie en Rose’, which I love still. But I see that that’s 70s so have chosen this one, which evokes that period of ‘Nightclubbing’ in the early 80s just as vividly to me and is just as good or better:
I don’t like rap but bought this when it came. I grew up an immigrant working class kid in Quebec between two referenda on separation, formally designated allophone, ethnicised as Hispanic, and constantly interpellated as not belonging, sometimes invisibly and sometimes to the point of violence – Althusser’s notion that ideology has a material force is something I always understood. This song spoke to me…and we danced to it.
Jimmy Sommerville has to be on my list in some form as he was so important to me then. I remember buying the Bronski Beat’s’ Age of Consent Album and making sure I got a bag to hide the pink triangle on the cover in case I should see anyone I knew. But what to choose? ‘Smalltown Boy’ has already been picked by some of you; I loved listening to The Communards’ version of the Doris Day ‘Sentimental Journey’ but it doesn’t hold up as well to listen to, at least on my computer. So it was a toss-up between ‘I Never Can Say Good-Bye’ and this. I chose ‘I Feel Love’ because of Donna Summer and its validation of 70s disco and gay culture, because it’s got Marc Almond, because the video is so camp, and because that thrilling voice was an affirmation of feeling at a time when the AIDS pandemic was just coming into being and refocussing everything once again on sex and death.
To the dismay of many friends, I loved Tom Waits throughout the 80s and beyond. I once went on a camping trip with some mates where they got so fed up with his growling that they unreeled my compilation cassette and hung it over a pine, like a junkyard Christmas tree. But I didn’t care. Tom Waits was blue valentines, and waiting for the heart of Saturday night, and hoping I didn’t fall in love with you and being drunk on the moon. He inspired romantic longings of a gutter life redeemed by moments of poetry. The gutter I would get to know well; I’m still hoping for the poetry. This song, played often, seemed to express how I felt about the person I was then in love with.
I’ve never been a ‘leader’ but I’ve always liked contributing; and I was heavily involved in all kinds of activist causes throughout the 80s: translating for the various waves of Latin American refugees in Montreal; advocating for Victor Regalado and against obscenity laws; marching against apartheid and for gay rights; etc. It was all exciting and moving and worthwhile and was accompanied by a lot of parties. I could have chosen many songs to commemorate and evoke this; ‘Shilpbuilding’ is the one I most regret leaving out; but this, in which Elvis Costello was also involved, better conveys all the elements — including the communal and the celebratory — of protests in those Thatcher-Reagan years.
It’s the last day of the 80s challenge and I’ve left out so much music that was important to me in that decade: Québécois pop (Diane Tell, Diane Dufresne, Beau Dommage, Charlesbois and particularly the Dubois of ‘Comme un million des gens’ and ‘Infidèle); salsa (Celia Cruz and Rubén Blades), The Clash, all the superstars of the era (Madonna, George Michael, Prince, Michael Jackson, Sinead O’Connor, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper); it’s also when I came to love opera.
I chose this, which is 1990, ma qua importa, because it combines my love of Annie Lennox and Cole Porter; and because it so well evokes to me that period of the late 80s when people one loved so much, and as young as one was then, were already very ill and dying . One felt simultaneously so helpless, and lucky and scared and angry. This was also used in Jarman’s Edward II and there captures the feeling and anger and activism. Here it’s mainly about the love:
327 Cuadernos is a beautiful and complex work on biography and on the intersection of memory and history, both individual, as a reconstitution of fragments of the self; and collective, as a shared social history; one that simultaneously examines the intersection of expression and re-presentation whilst keeping in play the various ways in which they differ: very moving.
Andrés di Tella, one of Latin America’s foremost documentary essayist, arrives in Princeton to find writer Ricardo Piglia, a colleague at the University and someone he’s interviewed before many years ago, packing up to return to Buenos Aires after having worked in the U.S. for many years. Piglia’s kept a diary since the age of 16, when politics –the aftermath of the coup against Perón in ‘55 – meant his father, a lifelong Perón supporter, moved the whole family from Adrogué, a suburb of Buenos Aires, to the relative safety of Mar de Plata. His father defended Perón in ’55 and was in prison for a year as a result. “It’s really tough when you’re a kid and your old man is taken away by the cops. That’s really ugly: a strange feeling. But anyway, that’s how it was”.
‘’’55 was the year of sorrow; ’56 was prison and ’57 was even worse” says Piglia, “the trip (to Mar de Plata) was like an exile. Since then, where I live has never really mattered.” In the film, the old writer’s return to Buenos Aires is rhymed, accompanied, contradicted, by that first exile that would turn the displaced and disturbed teenager into the writer of these 327 notebooks; though, interestingly, the images that accompany the latter will be reconstructed, re-imagined and even re-imaged ones. Thus, like we see in the rest of the film, the self, the past, history and society are all both documented and, via acts of interpretation, also to a degree imagined; they offer no immediate or clear access; they’re always mediated, often by more than one element or source.
“There’s nothing more ridiculous that the aspiration of recording one’s own life,” says Piglia, “It automatically turns you into a clown.” But something propelled him into keeping a diary, one that would eventually sprawl across the eponymous 327 notebooks, and he believes the displacement and the diary that ensued as a result was transformative and might have been what turned him into a writer. The film begins with the exposition of a point of origin – that ‘exile’ to the provinces of the film’s protagonist — in which the subject at the film’s present – the return to Buenos Aires from another type of exile in America –- may be found, whilst at the same time acknowledging the narrational and fictional dimensions of such a search. “The art of narration is the relationship the narrator has with the story’s narratives’, says Piglia, ‘that’s what defines the tone”.
Initially, Di Tella announces the film’s project as ‘‘To keep a diary of the reading of a diary”. But who and what does a diary document? The problems begin at the beginning: “I have the impression I’ve led two lives. The one written in the notebooks and the one fixed in my memories. Sometimes when I re-read it, it’s hard to recognise what I’ve lived. There are episodes set down there that I’d completely forgotten. They exist in the diary but not in my memory. Yet at the same time, certain events that endure in my memory with the vividness of a photograph are absent as if I’d never experienced them.”
Thus begins a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history, how the self is narrated to oneself but also to others, socially. Di Tella consciously delineates a series of methodological problems: How does one film the diary of a writer? What’s a film’s present tense? Who is the narrator and who and what is being narrated? What is the connection between documentary and fiction.
“I can’t even make out my own writing,” says Piglia, “The diary allows you to integrate what happens with a certain documentary style … but (uses) the genre and its tricks to make fiction, an imperceptible fiction. There’s a con there: there’s fiction, and then there’s my real life, my experience; and in between there’s an area of experimentation in which I experiment also with possible lives, you know”.
Piglia’s diaries are not just what’s written in them but also the doodles and sketches they contain – Evita, for example, figures — what falls out of them when opened — pictures of Brecht, an airline ticket from a trip to Cuba, newspaper clippings — ‘Demons Reluctant to be Exorcised– etc; and also what they convey: what does a ranking of boxers reveal about Piglia?
“There’s always a propensity to lists,’ he says, “I think one makes lists in order not to think, right? To rid one’s head of ideas.” He sees another list: love, meaning of life, politics, days of soccer, theatre, movies, literature. “It’s another list but more internal, see? The meaning of life! Isn’t that marvellous. And here it is, side by side with boxing!”
Until the filming, Piglia’s never re-read his diaries. He started to type them up at various times but failed to follow through. Now, as he tries going over them once more, problems arise: ‘It’s hard going back over your own life. It’s not easy’. Moreover, he sometimes can’t make out his writing, often doesn’t remember the events described and eventually declares: ‘ ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like anything I’m reading. That could be the title of the film.’
Half-way through the film, Piglia develops a serious illness which the film doesn’t reveal but which we now know to be Lou Gherig’s desease. Thus the film has to change tak. Piglia now needs help writing and an assistant is found for him. The scratching sound of the pen that has accompanied most of the film until now gives way to the tapping on a keyboard and it’s as if the change in sounds leads to a change in tone.
The illness leads to a series of interrogations on the nature of the project and thus of the intersections of biograpy/autobiography/ fiction: Autobiography could be a collage (of other autobiographies); the project could re-focus on what wasn’t written down but is still remembered; memory comes to us as splinters, flashes, full of light, perfect, unconnected; that’s how it should be written, affirms Piglia. He experiments with putting diaries in third person; he talks about himself as if he were someone else. “A writer’s diary is also a laboratory. Not so much experiences but rather experiments”. He re-writes, makes changes. Literature, he says, is the place in which someone else always does the talking. He thinks on the connection between his fiction and his diaries:
“It’s as if in my novels there’s always this anchor. Hooked to something that actually happened. Sometimes found in diaries.” He fantasises about publishing the diaries under the name of one of his fictional characters, Emilio Renzi (which is how the first volume has since been published). Sometimes, he just dreams of setting match to paper, burning them all and be done with.
De Piglia’s illness becomes more serious and Di Tella is unable to film for two months. What to do? Di Tella does as Enrique Amorim did in the 30s and films Piglia’s friends, tries to talk about him through filming them: Roberto Jacoby, Tata Cedrón, Germán Garcia, Gerardo Gandini. Gandini like possibly Horacio Quiroga in Amorim’s filming, dies unexpectedly shortly after these images were filmed. Even as the film tries to bring Piglia to life through various means and in various guises, death haunts this project.
327 Notebooks is a complex and sustained exploration of memory and history. The times when one feels part of a historical event, when a historical event intersects with one’s personal life, changes it and one is tossed about by the waves of change and feels part of history are few. For Piglia, “’55 was a moment were history enters life”, so was the coup of ’66 and the death of Che Guevara: “It rained a lot that day…I have an image of myself crossing the street flooded with rain with the awareness that Che was dead.”
The film uses found footage gathered from a private archive of Super 8 films, as well as the leftovers of 16mm footage shot for news reports (what was broadcast has been lost; but the trims survive). Thus Piglia reading of events he lived but can’t remember is interspersed with historical events (people waving their white handkerchiefs as a symbol that Cristo Vence! (Christ Wins!), Peron’s wife giving an emotional speech from the presidential balcony, the debates around whether the photographs of Che Guevara’s corpse are authentic), some home movies, other people’s memories but with the people now dead or scattered away so that they can’t re-invoke them; someone’s else’s home movies standing in for a social memory, something akin to what one might have experienced.
As the film unfolds this interlayering of history, the social, the personal, the personal as history, events unremembered, memories unrecorded, all these partial but interacting layerings of aspects, of parts we sometimes reconstitute into a whole and call the self, becomes more deliberately metaphoric, thus we’re asked to interpret the meaning of a polar flight with huskies being pushed onto a plain, or at the end of the film, a horse tamer, bronco-ing through the horse’s every attempt to throw him.
In voice-over Di Tella recounts how according to Piglia: “in the diaries an unknown man appears, unknown even to him, an intimate character who only exists in the pages of the notebooks; someone darker, more violent, sentimental, vulnerable. It’s not the same man his friends know.” The man that appears to us in the film is probably also different to the man that appears in the diaries, or the person who unfolds and changes through history and who write them in the process of changing who that self, those various selves, was in the very process of transformation, of perhaps altering into someone else. It’s a great film that manages to convey all of this whilst interrogating the various grounds of each step of the representation itself. And the found footage also gives it a touch of the poet, those powerful images that evoke a social history one recognises but can’t quite pin down into a singular meaning. Very beautiful.
In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passionand not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983)or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.