We explore 1947’s Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, and compare it to Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of the material, which we find superior in almost every way. Mike in particular finds, in the reflection of Goulding’s version, useful ways to appreciate del Toro’s, which at first blush he found uninspiring. We discuss the portrayal and use of the geek, the differences in the introduction of the protagonist (played by Tyrone Power and Bradley Cooper in the old and new films respectively), del Toro’s greater focus on mood and scene setting, and how thoroughly Goulding’s film adheres to the noir genre. And we express our joy at seeing del Toro’s version at the grand reopening of the Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, which we completely forgot to do in the last podcast.
We talk swoony visuals, alcoholism, a femme fatale pastiche, moral descent, Bradley Cooper’s sexual presence and more in our discussion of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.
A bank holiday labour of love. 1800 people turned up, from all parts of Mexico, coach loads of people to hear Guillermo del Toro speak of cinema, and watching this one totally understands why. This is a translation of the first of three great lectures on cinema he gave at Guadalajara, followed by a subjective selection from the Q&A that followed. It’s possibly an imperfect and certainly a rushed translation. But I did it in the hope that those of you who don’t speak Spanish might be able to understand what Del Toro has to say on cinema in general and The Shape of Water in particular. There’s no one I love hearing talk on cinema more. My hope is that someone else will pick up the baton and translate the other two of what is a series of three great lectures. This is the first.
Guillermo del Toro: The Viceroyal Chair. Thank you. Leonardo García Tsao! Let’s go!
Leonardo García Tsao: There’s something that preoccupies me. Can you hear?
Toro: Can you hear?
Tsao: More or less? OK we’ll speak louder.
Toro: Is this better?
Toro: That means with balls.
Tsao: Where do you keep so many awards.
Toro: I have a big shelf, where we design, and I keep them all there, from the first from Cronos, some don’t have a base, another the trophy dropped off. The one from Havana fell over. There’s a very pretty one I no longer have the base for. I don’t even know who’s responsible. But they’re all there from Cronos to now.
Tsao: You have a pile from The Shape of Water
Toro: Yes a pile. And when we go to design, we move a bit to the side
Tsao: We’re going to talk about The Shape of Water
Toro: Sure. We’ll do forty minutes and open it to the audience for another twenty.
Toro: That’s good.
Tsao: I saw it again recently on a flight. And as an experiment, I saw it without sound.
Toro: That’s what I do on flights. I see films. But without sound.
Tsao: And I realised that the film is told without the necessity of dialogue.
Tsao: It’s practically a Silent Film.
Toro: yes, yes. In fact the very very first incarnation of the film was in black and white and silent. That is the very first time I thought it should be told with pantomime. And then I thought no. Let it be black and white. And then I thought no not even that because I thought two things: black and white was a chess piece I wanted to sacrifice to be reasonable. When we talked about the film we said ‘it’s a film about a mute woman who may or may not be human who falls in love with a man fish in a government lab. It’s a musical, comedy and melodrama and in black and white. So they asked me, ‘could it be in colour’ and to appear reasonable, I said of course, of course. But the truth is that in black and white it appeared to me to be pastiche, kind of postmodern, self-reflexive and I didn’t want it to be. Thus it was very easy to abandon black and white and codify the colours as part of the language (of the film). Now to me, all the films I make, I’d like them to be understood without dialogue. That they could be understood through movement, attitude, acting, colour, light. The language of cinema is something that preoccupies me. This year I’m doing three interviews of two weeks each, it was going to be two, now they will be three with different directors, to discuss their craft exclusively in audio-visual terms. The discourse on cinema has changed a lot in the last few years and what’s discussed are the two things that cinema shares with other narrative forms but that are less interesting on a cinematic level. That is the plot and the characters. That is to say on the most superfluous level. And to me it’s very important to bring in arguments that are super basic. It’s not the what, it’s the how. Kubrick used to say that the level on which cinema lives is infinitely more mysterious and beyond the plot and the story. And I agree with that. I’m very interested in what the film does. A moment in cinema can be a person turning their head, the camera moving in, and a flash of light in the character’s eye. Magic, perfect, completely cinematic. And that is less and less talked about in discussions of movies. There’s talk of what it’s about, what happens to who. Film is rarely discussed on a formal level, that is to say, when we discuss painting, if we talk about a Van Gogh and say, what’s it about? A shitty little room, brother. There’s a bed, a chair. Phhhft! That’s the way we talk about cinema. But the truth is that the vigour of treatment, the composition, the colour, the emotive content of lighting — all that should be discussed in depth about a film — isn’t being discussed. And these three interviews of two weeks, tentatively with Michael Mann, George Miller and Ridley Scott, which I’d like to repeat with other people every two or three years, and what we’d discuss is lenses, dollies, movement, light, editing, the assemblage in editing, the mise-en-scène. To put it in those terms to recuperate that language. Sorry, that wasn’t even a question and I gave you a whole torrent.
Tsao:., no, no, it seems to me quite good.
Toro: …but that’s the idea; and I do that in airplanes. John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, I see it without sound. To have it in the palm of your hand, enchanted by seeing it, …it’s important to recuperate that.
Tsao: The Shape of Water in the hands of another would have been absurd.
Toro: In fact recounting it, it’s almost impossible not to seem nuts….musical etc. But I repeat. There’s a level of film in which it’s not the what it’s the how, and how you sustain that with faith, style, and balls…or great ovaries. It’s sustained only with that. The faith that the combination of those elements is new, that is to say cinema isn’t chemistry. It’s not a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s alchemy. It’s taking elements that you transform, transmute and return converted into gold. That is why for me, since the beginning with Cronos to now, the basic arguments are the archetypal ones in the film: a man who dies, returns, lives in a box, is affected by light, has to drink blood. For sure there’s nothing new in that. But it’s a box of toys, a middle class Mexican family, etc. etc. The how, and the where, etc. etc. The adjectives are what give a film its personality. It’s a series of actions that I think are brought together by the director. The auteur theory badly understood is that the movie is the act of a single person. That’s nonsense. But the most intimate dialogue between the film and those that make it is done through the director because he’s the only one that controls the pulse of all the other disciplines that are interconnected. For example, when someone says ‘what good photography’, they are also saying what great art direction, what good costuming. I understood this when Guillermo Navarro, when we were analysing how Cronos looked, and we were analysing a scene from The Godfather and Guillermo told me, ‘look at this, the scene is in sepia, and for sure we were using a filter that could be a tobacco, could be chocolate, but the art direction predisposes and presupposes. The colour is white but it’s not neutral. The colour of the walls evokes nicotine etc. etc. If you give me a horrible room with horrible walls….it’s the conjunction of things that matter. It’s all one discipline. The same with the sound design. It’s very important to understand that.
Tsao: you have 13 nominations.
Toro: What I think is beautiful is that from Labyrinth, we arrive as a foreign film but with six nominations. That’s lovely because there’s a level in which the making of, the craft, is appreciated it on an academic level, on a technical level, on an artistic level. And to arrive with your team is the best way of arriving.
Tsao: You have basically worked with three cinematographers: Guillermo Navarro, Gabriel Edelstein, who’s here somewhere, and Dan Laustsen,
Toro: yes, it’s an evolution. The basic things remain. Gabriel, Guillermo, Dan know that the placement of camera, movement, choice of lenses, that’s more me but the light is completely theirs. I had a beautiful moment with Gabriel and Wesley Snipes, where I said why don’t we use an 18mm lens and he said ‘if you want your star to hate you, by all means’. We were going to do a close-up. It’s a film where I used more wide lenses. Also Pacific Rim. Normally I think the relationship with the cinematographer is the most important in a film. Day to day it’s the most intimate. There used to be a lovely ritual that no longer exists, which was to see rushes. You came out of work tired, sweating and you went to see a film on a big screen. It was very beautiful.
Taso:..and well there’s a colour you like very much which is that boggy green that dominates The Shape of Water.
Toro: The way that we classify colours in each films…In Blade Gabriel and I sat down and Gabriel said why don’t we make night yellow and the days blue and I thought it fantastic because for a vampire, night is day and day is night. So we made of night a sodium and for days we did the colour timing in blue. You sit down and codify the film in some way. For example, the red that in Crimson Peak signifies the past, sin; here, red is love and cinema. When she makes love with the amphibian God, red begins to appear on her clothes and dominates. It appears in the drops of water. It appears in the light. Appears on a telephone…it begins to appear. In the cinema, the entrance to the cinema, the seats are red. Finally love concludes – there’s a beautiful symmetry that is very simple which is that when she meets the Amphibian God he’s bleeding from the bottom left and at the end when they get together and he saves her he’s bleeding from the lower right. And it’s a moment of symmetry with the colour red. And she loses the red shoe, which is animated, because the underwater scenes that begins and ends the film are filmed with a process called ‘Dry for Wet’ where there’s not a single drop of water. It’s smoke. It’s smoke and slow-motion camera. So she didn’t have the shoe on and so we animated it along with the bubbles etc. So you continue classifying the film and the blue that was the past, the old world in Crimson Peak, here we only used it in her apartment, because for her it’s important to convey the message that she’s aquatic, that she’s probably not human, she dreams of water, she cooks in water, she finds her morning pleasure in water, and so her apartment is all done in blue, with damp stains, as if it had been submerged. And in fact there’s an engraving of that big wave by Hokusai, that’s rendered through damp stains on her wall. Now that I tell you, you can see it in the film. But that’s the blue. The golden, orange, apple, yellow is used for the rest of the houses. The Bad Guy, Selda, the spy, it’s colours of air and sun. No one else belongs to the water. And green is the future, the future that encompasses the whole world. That’s the way we classified. In the film we classified, colour, form and texture so that they would bear narrative weight. And so that light, camera movement etc would also bear narrative weight. The screenplay for me exists on three levels: the literary screenplay; the audio-visual screenplay that you write with adjectives for camera and sound design, and the last one which is the editing screenplay which is where you write your film with the alphabet you constructed for yourself during the shooting.
Tsao: marvellous. It’s your most loving film. There’s a melancholy in your film that manifests itself in endings that are not always happy. Like in Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak.
Toro: Yes, of my ten films, nine are about loss and nostalgia. And this is the first that has hope. It’s curious because the last five years have been very hard for me in lots of ways. And came a very difficult time for me where I thought it important…I think what there’s a great shortage of at the moment is hope and we needed something to feed the soul. So we began working on this film in 2012. And five years later the film is finished. And during that whole trajectory it was one of the hardest films to make. But I felt that if I could make it, I wanted it to be like a song, like one of those songs that you get in your car, turn the volume up and sing along with it. That’s the effect I wanted the film to have. For it to be a song made up of images, light and colour. And that above all, that there should be beauty. Because I think the voluptuous act of creation is that of beauty and mystery. The two things that generate art are beauty and mystery. It could be in equal measures, in different measures, but if you generate those two things, you’re there. The rest I repeat, what we share with dramaturgie, theatre, television, literature – that’s interesting but much more interesting to me is how film remains very much like music, an art that moves people emotionally,
Tsao: and both exist in time.
Toro. Yes, and moreover if you ask me to explain exactly how it works, I can explain the process of creation but Labyrinth destroys me, The Devil’s Backbone destroys me. This movie destroys me. There are moments in each of my films where I get very emotional. And that’s very beautiful.
Tsao: This has more humour.
Toro: yes, after the Hellboys. But Hellboys are more of an American sense of humour. A genre sense of humour. For example I love the moment where Barry Manilow sings in Hellboy 2. But aside from that, I think this is the film where I have the best casting I’ve ever had from beginning to end.
Tsao: All character actors; no stars.
Toro: On the whole, written for them. I wrote the roles for them. Sally Hawkins, I wrote the role for her. Michael Shannon, the bad guy, I wrote the part for him. Octavia Spencer, etc. etc. Richard, I didn’t write for him. But he’s the first actor I went to. I went to him and said ‘Do you want to do it?’
Tsao: And he’s wonderful
Tsao. And there are moments. I find interesting how you like violence to the face. The face is very sensitive. And in all your films, well in many, Labyrinth, Vidal gets cut a new mouth, in Crimson Peak they put a knife through his eye….
Toro: There exists for me a violence that provokes a sensation has to come from unusual places. In most films people get stabbed and you don’t feel a thing. So you can have the scar like Bruce Willis here on the forehead with the little trickle of blood. Or they shoot you in the shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter, you don’t understand. But if you’re stabbed by a screwdriver on the knee… Well, we’ve all hurt ourselves on the knee. Since you have to make a leap of what would it feel like? Because the Bruce Willis type of wounds, are film wounds. But in the armpit, the audience goes, ‘Oh yes, the armpit’. There’s nothing thematic with the face. I just tell myself, where would it hurt me most? Well, there. But in Labyrinth and Backbone, the wound evolves to make monstruous that which was originally immaculate, which was the villain. The three villains – Jacinto, the Captain and Strickland — originally appear immaculate, appear attractive and powerful, and little by little they decompose. In Strickland’s case, the fingers. He tears them like chicken wings. He asked me, ‘how do I do it?’ Do it like chicken wings. In the case of the Captain the decomposition comes from here (he points to the mouth). They indicate, in a very visual manner, without words, the decomposition (undoing) of the villain.
Tsao: in those moments, the audience pulls back. I’ve tested it.
Toro: for me the idea is to sensorially transmit something, or something on the level of emotion, well that comes from those codes.
Toro: There’s also something about bathrooms.
Toro: Yes, well I love their design. From Cronos, where there was clearly an onanysm. Jesus Gris locked up in the bath. But as a room, in terms of image design, it’s always fascinated me: the mosaic, the porcelain, the colours. Almost all the bathrooms I make are green. Almost all. Who knows why. Maybe my grandmother’s was green. I don’t even remember.
Tsao: In The Shape of Water it’s very important; the bathroom is where they make love for the first time.
Toro: And that why she doesn’t….I thought it important…Two things that are very clear, the egg, which tells you I offer you that which was loneliness. And the fact that she’s Latina. Because when you’re chamaco for the first time in the bed where she was alone something interesting happens, when she suffers her loneliness she’s Latin, it’s woven in with images from Hellboy, Labyrinth, Backbone, Cronos. It’s of a piece. And in some ways The Shape of Water incorporates, rounds off.
Tsao: Yes it brings it all together.
Toro: Yes, it rounds off the other nine. And thematically I tell you if you see the mixture of characters, you can see them in Backbone, to conquer a common enemy; it’s in Hellboy, there’s already a love story with an Amphibian man in Hellboy 2;
Tsao: Yes, there’s a similar character
Toro: Yes in the cylinder, it’s completely the opposite in design. But like a first cousin. An amphibian man is an amphibian man is an amphibian man…Just as when you design a gorilla everything’s going to go back to King Kong, this goes back to Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s the DNA.
Tsao: The difference is that Julie Adams never surrendered to him. And here yes.
Toro: This is what provoked the whole film for me. When I was young in Channel Six they had a show, ‘Cine permanencia voluntaria’ on Sunday, they usually screened films from Universal Studios the whole day. And it was Sunday. So it was usually Church and movies. And I would sit on my knees to watch the film and I was watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and I saw that beautiful image and I was very moved. I started drawing it. I drew it obsessively with crayons, eating an ice cream with Julie Adams, taking a bike ride with Julie Adams, dancing with Julie Adams; and my grandmother kept those drawings for a long time; and then my grandmother died and they threw them away. They asked me, what do you want of your grandmother’s? The drawings. And they said, ‘we threw all those papers out’. And I said well in that case no. There’s nothing. I kept two or three photographs my grandmother had. There are not too many photos of my childhood. I kept two or three, not very edifying ones but there they are. In one of them I’m wearing cowboy boots and reading the newspaper. And in another I’m dressed as a torero. I don’t know what happened there. And in another I’m a vampire.
Tsao: When did you decide to put in a musical number? Because that’s an extremely risky move.
Toro: extremely risky. The same elements that constitute failure constitute success narratively. That is if you’re not scared of what you’re going to tell, it’s very likely that it won’t provoke emotion in anyone. And that was risky. One is aware of which moments will prove powerful because the day we were going to shoot it you ask yourself ‘what am I doing?’ We arrive and there are fifty musicians from Toronto in white dinner dress and a Man-Fish and a woman in evening dress. Is this the weirdest party you’ve ever seen? And there’s a moment where your faith tells you ‘no it’s fine’. But I’ve had moments in other films where you get to that difficult moment and people don’t react well. They react badly. I’ve had moments where my calculations have failed me. And it’s really terrible. You’re in a roomful of people and all of a sudden you feel the bad reaction. When we screened the film for the first time. This moment came. There were two moments that were very difficult, three. We can call them hinge moments. Spielberg explained it beautifully. The place where two train carriages are lined is a place where no one thinks is important. But without them, the train wouldn’t move in the same direction. They’d be separate entities. There are three important hinge moments. One is when the creature first peeks out of the surface of the water and blinks. That’s a moment if we make it well, light it perfectly, you believe it’s organic. An organic creature. That’s one. And then you can believe what follows, the egg, the salt etc. The second moment is where she takes off the dress, enters the room and closes the curtain, we spent more time lighting that scene than on anything else. If you put too much light, it’s funny. Too little light and it’s too aesthetic, if the lens isn’t wide enough, if you’re too close, etc. We spent almost three or four hours on this, which in a film of this size is a lot. And the last hinge moment is the dance. I wanted to shoot it old fashioned, but not black and white, like with Stanley Donen where the camera rises and falls, swoops around. Because normally George Stevens would have chosen a wide shot and let them dance. But here I had to participate because it’s the moment where she’s full of joy. It’s a moment where she who can’t speak, want to say how she loves him, and like a good Mexican, what one learns is that to talk about love one has to sing.
Tsao: it’s the first time in a fantasy film where the monster gets the girl.
Toro: I don’t know if it’s the first one.
Tsao: Mel Brooks did it in Young Frankenstein
Toro: What happens is that the uniqueness of the film, which is very difficult to explain, is that the elements that are combined are not usually elements that go together. Never. ‘What films did you see to prepare for this’, they ask me? Melodramas. By Douglas Sirk and William Wyler. Why are you going to watch monster films? What’s lovely is to act counter-intuitively. I’m going to make a very melodramatic story of a Man-fish and a mute woman. Three elements that shouldn’t go together but that for me is like Japanese umami, the conjunction of flavours that form a whole. That is to say if to make a fantasy film and you consult fantasy films, you create an echo. Who does it very well is Ridley Scott, who to make a science fiction film like Alien consults horror movies. The counter-intuitive is extremely valuable in creation, what I can tell you is that it’s the only domestic melodrama, musical, spy film, comedy about a man fish and a mute woman. Those are the ones that are worth doing. The ones that no one else will make
Tsao: Well let’s move on to take questions from the public.
Here my translation ends but I enclose a summary of some salient points:
‘If you see one of my scripts, it’s fragmented, almost like a poem; that is to say everything that is put in a script, as maestro Jaime Humberto Hermosilla would tell us, every adjective in the script has to be an adjective that has to be proved by or referenced to the camera or sound. Period. ….I put shot/reverse shots etc that give a rhythm to the page. Also you construct the set in relation to what you’ve written so, say, a wall can move to allow the crane in. Planning exists so that improvisation can take place. Everything is completely storyboarded.
You create a system in which you can be free. The only condition is that at the end of the discussion, I’m right.’
‘I wanted the Fish-Man to eat the cat as is his nature and that to happen before the love scene, because as in every relationship, the sooner you eat the cat, the more real the relationship.’
‘There’s a reason I’m here today; and that’s youth; the new generation. I believe the only thing one leaves of value is a path. All we do loses importance….but if I left a path where someone could turn to the right, that would be marvellous.
He tells a story where someone says, ‘Why would I want a Mexican if I already have a gardener.’ Then recounts the ups and downs of his career where he spent almost a decade without filming.
When they ask me what’s Mexican about your films, I say ‘Me’. Virtues and defects are exactly the same. There’s a zen saying ‘the obstacle is the path’….There’s a vocation that’s totally Mexican…You could make films wherever and it’s point-of-view is going to be your point-of-view. How are you Mexican? How are you not? If I suckled here for 33 years before leaving how the hell am I not Mexican. I mean that’s it. One thing is to have roots and another to have a passport. I’m Mexican but I have a passport.
He talks about starting a film school saying; the first thing to ask, is what can I do with the means I have? What can my friends and I do with the means we have? And begin with that.
For me the best education in cinema is to make films with pals. And to see movies.
We must create opportunity here. If they don’t offer it to us, we must create it ourselves.
We spent three years designing the creature. We began in 2013. In 2013 I began to pay out of my own pocket to two sculptures that made 12 variations on the creature, reptilian, more fish, amphibian, and combining those various characteristics we made various models and then combined aspects of each to come up with a creature we could present the studio in 2014. I showed it to friends. I had dinner with Iñarrítu and his wife Maria Hilaria and I asked them what they thought. And Maria Hilaria said I wouldn’t kiss him. The body was fine but the face wasn’t. So I hired another sculptor Mike Hill and we spent weeks sculpting only the face, moving the eyes…The face is extremely simple: it’s two eyes and a mouth. But the mouth had to be sculpted an infinite number of times so that it would be sufficiently human but wouldn’t look too exaggerated
There are many more questions but I’ve run out of time. I hope people find this useful…The eyes. It’s like an emoji. If you turn them too much one way, they seem malevolent, if move here it’s too neutral and seems cold, this way they’re alien. If you separate them, he doesn’t seem intelligent. If you join them together also. …in design you learn one thing: the silhouette is the most important element. And you sculpt three times. In traditional materials. Then in painting which should be counter-intuitive to that of the sculpture. …and lastly you paint with light.
I began writing the script in 2012 and finished it in 2016 so it was four years.
When we speak of faith and hope, which sounds like a Sunday sermon, we must also speak of rage. Rage is very important…Rage is a potent element for youth and creation. Rage is a condition that must be cultivated and is a key aspect of faith.
I was invited to participate in a discussion on Una mujer fantástica/ A Fantastic Woman with the legendary Rosa Bosch, now also Honorary Visiting Professor at Warwick, and thought I’d grab the opportunity to lasso her from her busy schedule and into a conversation on her extraordinary career. In fact no lassoing was necessary, and she was as open and generous with her time, experience and knowledge as anyone could wish for. And great fun.
Born in Barcelona in 1962, part of the last generation to have experienced Franco’s dictatorship, Bosch depicts her career as peripatetic. She dropped out of studying chemistry, fell in love with an American, moved to LA around 84-85, and began working at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where because of her language skills, her first task was looking after Agnès Varda, Yevtushenko, and Tarkovsky. When the AFI decided to send someone to Havana, the American embargo and Bosh’s speaking Spanish contributed to her being chosen as the delegate. The Havana film festival was then the focal point and agenda setter for Latin American film cultures world-wide; and as Bosch tells it, Latin American cinema and culture has been, in one way or another, at the centre of her life ever since.
Names like Pedro Almodóvar, Fernando Trueba, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Fernando Birri, Gabriel García Marquez (Gabo), and Julie Christie pepper the conversation. She’s got a connection to Warwick through John King and pays homage to Sheila Whitaker who brought over to London to help bring Latin American cinema to the London Film Festival.
Bosch shares anecdotes about the screening of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone at the Toronto Film Festival falling on 9/11; about the great Maria Luisa Bemberg taking her under her wing; about the making of The Buena Vista Social Club and about how Julie Christie sparked her re-connecting once more with The University of Warwick. The conversation ranges through various aspects of her extraordinary career – she’s been engaged with the business of culture in almost every capacity from curating to finding money for films like Amores Perros to developing campaigns so that films succeed in reaching their audience– right up to her producing the legendary Karl Lagerfeld/Chanel show in Cuba, which catwalked its way down Havana’s legendary Prado and evoked a clash of ideologies still heatedly discussed today.
The conversation can be listened to here:
Many thanks to Alison Ribeiro de Menezes and the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick for arranging the event and making the interview possible.
A discussion of the great Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water, a film full of what he’d describe as eye protein. It’s beautiful to look at and that visual beauty is shaped for meaning and feeling. We discuss how the opening shot evokes Sirk in Written on the Wind, Sally Hawkins’ performance; we have problems with the conceptualisaton of the Richard Jenkins character; note how the film, though it’s set in the Kennedy, era feels 30s. We discuss why all the musical clips are from Fox musicals of the classic era. In short, we discuss its characterisation, its performances, its cinematography, its relationship with the classic cinema and fairytales from which it builds. We use the word “beautiful” about two hundred times. Michael Shannon retains my vote for best actor of his generation in spite of playing a one-dimensional type rather than a fully rounded character. He conveys more with the planes of his face than other actors do with soliloquies. A fascinating but not perfect film.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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Mike and I have not seen all the films nominated. But we have seen most of the work nominated in the main categories and, with those qualifications in mind, we engage in preliminary discussion on the films, performances and cinematography nominated in the major categories. It’s also an opportunity for us to revisit and renew our appreciation of some our favourite films.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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Thank you very much for your feedback. It’s most welcome. It’s already led to some changes we hope you see as improvements. And it’s always great to have a dialogue on film so please keep the comments coming.
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 Passion and 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.