(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)
Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
“Films have to be finished,” says the director of the film within Almodovar’s film, “even if you do it blindly.” The fact that the director actually is blind adds to the statement’s resonance, but doesn’t it also make it seem a little crass? Well, maybe just over-enthusiastic then, for Almodovar is certainly one of cinema’s great enthusiasts. His films are highly entertaining, although with minor variations they’re usually entertaining in much the same way, and I’ve yet to have any desire to watch any of them a second time (Live Flesh sticks in my mind as my favorite, but it might just be that this was my first discovery of him in his lusher latter-day mode). He’s a great creator of unique structures, placing flashbacks within flashbacks and films within films, gleefully celebrating complications of gender and desire and health and economic circumstance; this restlessness can seem though as if he’s always turning away from something before it gets really difficult. The pleasure you take from his films is usually similar to what you get on completing a particularly challenging and aesthetically dazzling jigsaw, which is to say that if you really wanted to appreciate the picture, you wouldn’t have chopped it up in the first place.
All of that said, Broken Embraces is as engrossing as his best (although a little too long). The blind director spins the steamy story of how he got to be that way, involving a love affair 20 years earlier with his lead actress (Penelope Cruz), while making a movie financed by her elderly husband. It refers to dozens of other movies (explicitly or otherwise) and clearly delights in its characters; Almodovar’s facility in conveying his pleasure at his creations (and at his own luck) is one of his most endearing traits.
Backstory and Cinema Museum (Mark Lewis)
Lewis is previously unknown to me, but he’s a notable multimedia artist (Canada’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale), and this rich, stimulating program of two short documentaries links to an upcoming series at the Cinematheque. Backstory illustrates the longstanding device of rear projection (where material shot with actors in the studio is foregrounded against a previously filmed external backdrop); in the current Cinematheque program, Lewis cites its invention as the point when film “became fully and definitively ‘modern.’” The interviewees – filmed, in an example of form reflecting content, against an ever-changing series of rear-projected locations – are all members of a longstanding family business: in their heyday they just did one job after another (in the 80s in particular they owned everything from the Rocky movies to The Naked Gun) but in the digital age they struggle to get anything going at all.
The film is mainly a work of anecdotage – the father and son jawbone about everything from past love affairs to Sylvester Stallone’s directorial ineptitude, but they don’t address their contribution other than as craftsmen. As such it’s an entertaining piece, and oddly beguiling – the visual illusion clearly works even though the entire film is devoted to reminding us of it, embodying how cinema not only survives deconstruction but even thrives on it. The relationship of light and focus and positioning in Lewis’ images gives the film a textured structure of a kind that, whether because of new technology or relative indifference to composition nowadays, seems inherently old-fashioned and rather poignant.
Cinema Museum takes us through a cluttered archive of cinematic artifacts in London (it’s called a museum, but the vast majority of the contents – in the manner of those stacks of boxes that sat in your cellar for decades - don’t even seem to be practically accessible, let alone being formally displayed). The curator takes us from room to room (the building used to be a workhouse, where the young Charlie Chaplin briefly resided) – moving past books, cans of film, posters, random old signs and fixtures from long-destroyed movie houses – chattering away (with enthusiasm, but no particular insight or finesse) while the camera sometimes follows along, sometimes wanders off, in a series of extended takes. Cinema itself is secondary here to the medium’s immense capacity for generating ephemera and brands and traces of various kinds; until recently at least, the medium’s inherently social nature allowed (if not demanded) that it function as much as architecture and science and cultural engine, and if one so chooses (and many do), the detritus of these collateral processes becomes as mesmerizing and consuming as the images themselves (and with the advantage that the images can’t be grasped, whereas an old “House full” sign certainly can be). The museum does have some (marooned-seeming) artifacts from recent movies like Chicago, but belongs overwhelmingly to the past, embodying a physicality that again is surely diminishing in an online world. Lewis doesn’t necessarily suggest this necessitates a decline in what cinema can mean or achieve, but virtually everything we see in the film connotes an inadequately catalogued loss.
L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea)
Another great body of cinema’s mythology lies in its what might have beens, in films dreamed of but never realized, or even more tragically, actually started but never completed – Orson Welles, as I’ve written before, fascinates his followers (like me) almost as much for his stranded fragments and cul-de-sacs as for his “official” body of work. In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for The Wages of Fear and Les diaboliques, began work on what was to be his masterpiece, L’Enfer. The plot was relatively straightforward – a man is consumed by jealousy at his wife’s imagined infidelities – but Clouzot intended to create a new cinematic language for the husband’s inner landscape, to tangibly depict the contours of inner torment and delusion. With a generous American-backed budget, he launched into the project in style, carrying out extensive tests, and then descending on his lakeside location with a massive crew. But once he got there, he seemed to lose his way (“searching with 100 people around him,” as someone puts it), endlessly reshooting scenes already carried out or merely freezing in indecision, and his always tough manner with actors became destructive, so that lead actor Serge Reggiani stormed off the set, never to return. Clouzot soldiered on, but then suffered a heart attack, and L’Enfer was dead.
The footage survived in storage however (although missing a soundtrack) and this documentary – also drawing on interviews with surviving participants, and using new actors to provide vocals for some of the scenes - gives a terrific sense of what might have been. Much of the footage remains stunning, and the film would surely have enhanced lead actress Romy Schneider’s already iconic standing, although there’s also a fair chance the movie would mainly be viewed now as a somewhat dated and maybe overwrought curio. Its final sentiment is that “you have to see your madness through” (a reasonable restatement of the Almodovar dialogue I started with), and if Clouzot didn’t quite manage that, his labors at least now find a more coherent ending.