10 December 2004

On Hiatus.

The Eiffel Ninety-Four is going on hiatus. Although I write every day and will continue to do so, I won't have time for the typing, which is admittedly, a fucking exhausting racket. All I think about when I'm doing it is how I could be putting these fingers across the cover of a book or along the keys of a piano, rather than chasing these poorly arranged letters around. I think a December spent doing those things is a much more relaxing one.

Also, in preparation for a month-long stay this January in South America, I will be focusing on some research and some ideas for possible articles. Daily postings will resume again when I return at the end of January, and probably be focused on what I find is going on in the southern hemisphere. If you haven't already received an email and would like to know when I'll be posting again, hit me at markthelow@yahoo.com, and I'll keep you informed. Thanks for your continued patronage, swimming through my lengthy, drawn out observations.

Below is a link to a webpage of pathetically minimal proportions. Available for download is a file of edited and revised works that appeared here over the past few months. Entitled "The Eiffel Ninety-Four, Fall 2004," it contains 30 of the best pages I felt like collecting into one slim volume.

Go to this webpage and download the text. My only request (and its just a request) is that you print it out, and read it on actual paper if you can possibly find some. I would feel much better knowing my work isn't the curse of your eyestrain and perpetual scrolling, but instead a resting place for coffee rings, potential lovers' phone numbers, greasy chip fingers, cigarette ash, and the blood of your enemies.


01 December 2004

Almodovar's "Bad Education."


It is never a mistake to move beyond the audience’s expectations of your work. Director’s approach a threshold where they feel dissatisfied sketching the structures established by their earlier films. Their characters pander a little less for our sympathy. In Hanna And Her Sisters, Frederick (played by Max von Sydow) ignores our sympathies entirely. Holly (Dianne Wiest), does not court charm, and becomes admirable in spirit for her willful individuality. When characters are drawn without the audience’s comfort in mind (even antagonists can pander to us with a perfect kind of ‘badness’) they haunt our ability to distinguish motive. We think, "I dislike every decision this character makes - so counter to my own sensibility is theirs - yet I am fascinated at what they do next." Almodovar has never given us lackluster characters. But never have they attempted to entertain us so sparingly as do the characters who populate his latest film, Bad Education.

The Village Voice reviewed Bad Education. For the review, Michael Atkinson went back to Talk To Her to make a point about Almodovar's current approach to filmmaking. Nothing like a little revisionist reviewing (holiest of tricks in a critic's bag), which allows the impending deadline to seem like something time forgot. In the review, Atkinson faults Almodovar's previous film for failing to display a scene where a comatose woman is raped by a mentally handicapped male nurse. Although the episode furthers the plot, Almodovar chooses to exclude it. I can only agree, as it would have added nothing to the film except to indulge someone's (not the director's, not this reviewer's, perhaps the Voice's) desire to see borderline dementia/necrophilia together in porn. Tarantino, in Kill Bill Vol. 1, includes precisely this same scene, and I believe this is instructive. Our expectations for foreign films are wholly driven by freakshow curiosity; these films are always focused through the prism (the oppressive fog might be better) of the image we craft of ourselves in film. We demand to be shocked if we came to be shocked. On every DVD back-cover of every film he's ever done, Almodovar is bound by what we constantly refer to as his "sexually explicit!," "controversial!" hedonism. He defends shock value where none exists, and controversy becomes our expectation when we buy our ticket. Instead of a challenging, intelligent film, which we are presented with, we yearn for a bearded lady on a unicycle.

But even reviewing from the perspective of the challenging, intelligent film can lead us deeper into our own fog. Stephen Holden from The New York Times calls it a piece of film noir, but its too gay to be that. Characters like Holly Martens from The Third Man or Captain Quinlan from Touch of Evil would command a silence too begrudging for this film. Almodovar's characters populate their silences with speech - even inconsequential speech -and voice-over narration fills in the gaps. What film noir possesses and Bad Education severely lacks is a faith in a character’s presence. There is an underlying faithlessness in the script, which the writer betrays with excess dialogue. Although the protagonist and all of the supporting characters possess the ambiguities of character necessary of a noirish plot, they do not translate into a deeply engrossing space where the actors have presence at their disposal. The praise, "Almodóvar's newest film is a delirious, headlong immersion and re-invention of film noir, a style that has lured countless film makers onto its treacherous shoals.” doesn’t work. He does not reinvent, he weakens it by comparison. Best to leave film noir alone.

I watched Kinsey a few nights ago and although I hadn’t seen Bad Education I knew the typical plot devices employed in biopics like Kinsey would be spared of me. I was wrong. Although nothing was added about Kinsey’s character after the film’s end, Almodovar gives viewers a paragraph on each of his fictional characters at FIN; the last of them implies Almodovar himself may have had some connection with the young director (the film's pseudo-hero). What is this cheap nonfiction device doing in a piece of film noir?

And nothing in the Bad Education prepared me for the bland “whodunnit”-ness that nearly derailed Eyes Wide Shut, another of my favorite films. In that film, Kubrick let the ambiguities play themselves out, and much to the critics' disdain. I wish Almodovar avoided wrapping things up so neatly. Film must question our motives, must take the characters as representatives of our emotions and ask us if we've ever really had these emotions before. His films have never demanded a suspension of disbelief I did not willingly pursue. But at the end of Bad Education, Gabriel Garcia Bernal's character gives in to the plot's machinations (you can see it in his face), and so do we. His character, in an expressionless dash, rushes out to the street to stanch the flow of his unravelling lies. This has been, for us, two hours in the making. Emotionless, he carries himself (the director almost pushing him) to the gates of his lover's house. He cannot confess anything. He cannot lie. We have just come to expect it from him and he can only muster the truth. I could have lied for him. But it's too late. His lover leaves us with a brilliant line. I feel insulted. Such a line does nothing to smooth the rough edges.

But the film has ended. And although I put too much faith in a director who has always ignored convention, I am reminded of an article about Bob Dylan I discovered in a 1974 issue of The New Yorker. Almodovar is quickly becoming my Dylan of film. So I feel this excerpt is more than instructive:

"When people expected acoustic, he gave them electric. When they expected funk, he gave them mysticism. When they expected psychadelia, he gave them simple country tunes. When they finally learned not to expect anything in particular except genius, he gave them mediocrity."