La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

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La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (a.k.a. The great beauty, 2013).

Score: contemplative.

Some works of art are born looking at another work of art. Admiring it, wanting to revive it, to make it eternal, to tell the world how much it meant to the creator. Some works of art are born grabbing the ankle of that masterpiece that came before: La grande bellezza came into the world grabbing La dolce vita’s ankle.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a sexagenarian socialite in present-day Rome. He writes for a magazine, parties all night and sleeps all day. Forty years ago, he wrote a novel that went unnoticed and everybody keeps asking why he never wrote another one. It might be because he spent those forty years too busy trying to find trascendence in the unredeemably banal.

La grande bellezza is made of vignettes so brief and minimalistic they might as well be social network posts and lavish panning shots of Roman iconic locations so painfully beautiful they might as well be pornographic. We get glimpses of the life around Jep: his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), trying to make it big as a playwright and begging for the love of his abusive, narcissistic girlfriend; his Platonic romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the forty-something stripper; Botox parties, priests and nuns right next to drugs and orgies; children raised by butlers while their parents are out for dinner.

Unlike La dolce vita, La grande bellezza is ambiguous about whether it loves or despises the void debauchery it portrays. It’s probably both. The past century has really made artists lose interest in trascendence; we’ve become so hedonistic we look at these people drinking, smoking and arguing that they’re the greatest artist in the room and don’t think much of it.

For obvious reasons, the debauchery needed to be amped up. Having sex at a prostitute’s house is no longer enough, we need to introduce things like a middle-aged stripper who works at her father’s club; he’s disappointed she doesn’t like drugs, since they would have a hobby in common, then. The fake miracle scene is updated as an interaction with an elderly nun, clearly alluding to Teresa of Calcutta.

All in all, desperately beautiful and a love letter to the void, to all those things we desperately want to give meaning to our lives but simply won’t.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964).

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Les parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy (a.k.a. The umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964).

Score: endearing.

Though The umbrellas of Cherbourg has consistently been on various Best Films of the 20th Century lists, it recently came back to the spotlight for being one of Damien Chazelle’s favourite movies and an essential influence on La la land.

It tells the story of Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), two young lovers in the small town of Cherbourg, Normandy. Guy works as a mechanic in a gas station, while Geneviève helps her mother (Anne Vernon) with the umbrella shop she owns. Being in a dire economic situation, Madame Emery would very much rather that Geneviève married rich and handsome jewellery merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Everything becomes more complicated when Guy is drafted for the Algerian war.

The umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special kind of musical drama, in that every line of dialogue is sung in a recitative style, but there are no actual songs in it. Recitative is used in opera to accelerate narration and introduce a scene or aria; it’s not common to use it on its own because it gives the impression that the characters are going to start singing a song soon but they never do. This can make this film annoying if one was expecting a musical in its conventional mode; when all is said and done, it’s an artifact that the director decided to use in a certain way and achieves an effect. Nothing more, nothing less.

While La la land is very different, once you finish The umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can see very clearly what Chazelle lifted from it.

***SPOILERS FOR LA LA LAND AND THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG***

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Under the skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

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Under the skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer (2013).

Score: eldritch.

An unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) finds the corpse of another one and steals her clothes. Then, with the help of a mysterious motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams), she drives a van around Edinburgh, preying on single men who live alone. Widely known for being the movie with full frontal nudity that Scarlett Johansson made, if you came to it out of curiosity, you will stay for its awesomeness.

If you want this film to challenge and surprise you, I suggest you stop reading now.

The opening sets up the tone for the movie. An outer-space, geometrical composition, very much like 2001 and then some long, naturalist shots, reminiscing of the opening scene of Invasion of the body snatchers. We have identified the science-fiction visual code: something alien is going on here, but we’re not told what it is.

The pacing is intentionally slow but the movie provides new information constantly. It’s one of those movies where you have to pay attention to what is going on, because there isn’t any exposition dialogue. Characters will not explain things to each other for your benefit, you need to watch and arrive at the correct conclusion. It has this charm that older, lower-budget science-fiction films have: since it can’t afford to show, it has to make an effort to suggest, and it works thousands of times better than actually showing. It manages to be deeply unsettling: I was watching it with the lights out since the photography is quite dark and had to turn them back on halfway in because I wasn’t feeling safe.

***SPOILERS***

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The neon demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

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The neon demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2016).

Score: insubstantial.

Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just arrived at Los Angeles to become a model. Apparently, she’s a natural talent and every door opens for her: model agency manager Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks) hires her right away and prestigious photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) agrees to take pictures of her right away. Fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) will do anything to bring her down and preserve their positions in the fashion business.

I love neon aesthetics and it is apparent that so does Winding Refn. The movie is visually beautiful, with an artificial and ethereal look to it. But the problem is, there’s nothing beneath to support it.

Cutthroat bitches in showbiz has been done to death. From All about Eve, passing through All about Eve with strippers, a.k.a. Showgirls, to Black swan; Glamorama to Zoolander. Laughing at the fashion industry is not funny anymore, unless you’re going to give it a twist, which isn’t the case here. The movie uses long, symbolic, ambient scenes that ultimately lead to a very trite conclusion.

***SPOILERS***

Unless the movie is a total trainwreck, when I don’t understand something about one, I assume the director or writer did things for a reason, and I try to guess what that reason is. So many weird things happen in The neon demon: a mountain lion sneaks into Jesse’s motel room; Sarah licks Jesse’s blood eagerly. Everybody tells her she’s a sublime model that has something, despite being inexperienced and naïve (which would mean she’s a total pain to work with and would need extensive training). She says, nonchalantly: “I know what I look like. Women would kill to look like this.” I kept thinking there was a reason for all that nonsense, and my money was on something supernatural. Like the actual demon from the title; that would explain those eternal, seizure-inducing scenes where she kisses herself, because she’s so pretty.

But the movie reaches the end and you’re left with that you had at the beginning. They’re all jealous of Jesse because she’s this natural talent and raw beauty and end up cutting her down. Period. It just goes downhill from the moment Ruby molests a corpse at work: it’s a plain non sequitur. A corpse is the complete opposite from what Jesse is supposed to be: the room is in winter and she’s the sun. Also, I don’t know whether Gigi and Sarah actually ate Jesse and I don’t want to find out.

Sing Street (John Carney, 2016)

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Sing Street, directed by John Carney (2016).

Score: heartwarming.

Dublin, 1985. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is the youngest of three siblings. The dramatic economical situation of his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) forces them to pull him out of the Jesuit school he was attending and send him to Catholic Synge Street instead. One day he meets a mysterious girl called Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who wants to be a model and would be interested in appearing in a band video. The only thing Conor needs to do now is form that band.

This movie is pure love for music for the sake of music. Conor and Eamon (Mark McKenna) are natural-born musicians. They live music and breathe music; they aren’t scared of failing, they just keep making music, even if their means and abilities are scarce. Music also vertebrates Conor’s relationship with his elder brother Brendan (Jack Reynor): they spend precious time together listening to records and watching musical programmes on TV. Brendan enjoys becoming a mentor in music for his little brother and watching Conor get excited about the new sounds that he had already discovered.

Music is a relief and a companion to Conor’s life: it helps him grow up and cope with harassment from the school bully, the abusive priest that runs his school and his parents’ failed marriage in a time and place where divorce is illegal and they can’t even afford to get separated. And of course, music is essential to his relationship with Raphina. Music is a means for Conor to sort out his feelings, get to know himself and become an adult, one step at a time.

In a society where everyone wants to be rich and famous at any cost, making art for oneself is too often seen as a waste of time. That’s why I love that Sing Street doesn’t address once the matter of the band going professional (though they do discuss leaving for London to seek their fortune). They make music because they love music, no strings attached.

Sing street is also exhilaratingly optimistic: in a dire social and economical situation, the characters make a place for themselves out of sheer force of will. Even though they aspire to see the world and live life to the fullest, they still look at the place where they were born and raised and recognise it as a shaper of who they are, full of fond memories.

All in all, Sing street is a sensitive and beautiful movie about what music can do for us and I definitely recommend it.

El verdugo (Luis G. Berlanga, 1963).

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El verdugo, directed by Luis G. Berlanga (a.k.a. The executioner, 1963).

Score: unforgettable.

Young undertaker José Luis (Nino Manfredi), who has the aspiration to emigrate to Germany to become a mechanic, starts a romance with Carmen (Emma Penella), the daughter of government executioner Amadeo (José Isbert). Having conceived a child out of wedlock, José Luis is forced by social convention within the Francoist dictatorship to marry Carmen and provide for his family. Amadeo has been granted an apartment for being a civil worker, but he will be retired by the time the building is finished, so José Luis is forced to take up his father-in-law’s profession, despite his deep rejection of ending another person’s life.

For context, death penalty during the Francoist period was carried out using a method called garrote vil, which involved tying the convict to a chair and adjusting a U-shaped metal piece around their neck; the piece was adjusted until it caused death either by severing the spinal cord or by asphyxia. 112 people were put to death using this method during the dictatorship, the last of which were Salvador Puig Antich and Georg Michael Welzel in 1974. Executioners were, as shown in the movie, civil workers tasked with operating the device; since there were so few executions, they were kept on the payroll and had other jobs or occupations.

I find it stifling that the society portrayed in this movie existed a mere fifty years ago right where I’m standing now. The characters keep yelling at each other that they are decent people, and that nobody should deviate from the norm because what will the neighbours say then?? My dad has lived through all that and has some perspective; he kept commenting that José Luis was making such a fuss of it all, but my heart was completely with the main character. See, if birth control hadn’t been banned back then, José Luis and Carmen wouldn’t have had an unwanted pregnancy; they could have sought economical stability and then decided whether they wanted to start a family or not. If José Luis hadn’t been forced to attain a standard of living out of his reach, he wouldn’t find himself in a situation where he needs to betray his moral principles. The movie is so effective because it both criticizes the society it was born into, and also appeals to a universal feeling: how miserable it is to have to give up on your dreams due to circumstances you can’t change, and what a nightmare it is to get to the point where your whole being is corrupted by actions you are forced to take.

Nino Manfredi is heartbreaking after the deed, shielding his eyes with his hat and muttering that he will never do it again. In the warm sea waters of Mallorca, men and women are dancing on a boat, completely oblivious to the fact that a man has just been put to death by the government.

El hombre de las mil caras (Alberto Rodríguez, 2016)

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El hombre de las mil caras, directed by Alberto Rodríguez (a.k.a. The man with thousand faces, 2016).

Score: interesting.

Based on the investigative journalism essay by Manuel Cerdán Paesa: el espía de las mil caras, El hombre de las mil caras tells the true story of Luis Roldán (Carlos Santos), former chief of the Spanish Civil Guard, who stole about ten million euro from the Guard’s Treasury and disappeared for a year in 1994. According to Cerdán and reflected in the movie, Roldán was hidden during that time by diplomat and secret agent Francisco Paesa (Eduard Fernández). To make it more intelligible, the whole plot is framed with narration from Paesa’s friend, airline pilot Jesús Camoes (José Coronado).

This all happened when I was a kid. I don’t remember much from it, except for the fact that everyone hated Luis Roldán. For this reason, the whole ordeal was really interesting to watch. Some details have been changed for dramatic reasons, but as far as I’ve been able to gather, the whole thing is pretty much factual. Even for someone like me who doesn’t speak bank, it’s fairly easy to follow and interest is retained all through the movie.

It has this mesmerizing charm that secrets out in the open have: the notion of a Spanish spy seems almost laughable, given the image we have of ourselves as a country. Only cooler countries have spies, maybe only John Le Carré novels do. But it’s clear that something fishy was going on in this huge corruption case that ended up with the downfall of PSOE in Spain; and finding out what it might have been is really exciting.

There is an almost voyeuristic quality to the character of Luis Roldán: we get to see the boogeyman, public enemy number one, being intimate with his wife and newborn son; in his darkest hour after many months of isolation, sobbing and shivering because he couldn’t finally find the courage to jump off a window.

To wrap it up, worth a watch.

Allies and saviours: representation in contemporary fiction.

Allies and saviours: representation in contemporary fiction.

My sister and I grew up playing the Legend of Zelda franchise. As much as I love those games, female representation in them was pretty deficient, especially during the Nineties. When our parents decided it was enough videogames for the day and told us to go play outside, it was hard to keep playing Zelda. Zelda is supposed to be wise and powerful, but the only thing she ever does is wait to be rescued. So we had to play that we were genderbent Link, or make up our own characters.

When Ocarina of Time came out in 1998, I was nuts for Nabooru. She was a very minor character that appeared for five minutes in the second to last dungeon but I adored her because she was powerful, proactive and sexy. My favourite RPG as a kid was Lufia II, and I think one reason was Selan was in it. More importantly, I was fascinated by Erim for being the only major female villain.

Girls nowadays have it much easier, as they can play a female Commander Shepard, a female Dovahkiin, Max and Chloe, Ellie or Bayonetta. What I mean is we all like to see people like us in fiction. It makes us realize we are important too and we can play a role as whatever we want. But even more important than personal inspiration is the matter of stopping cultural colonialism.

Lots of people have complained that La la land would have been a much better movie if it hadn’t been about white people. I get where this comes from: I felt something similar about The King’s speech. The premise that I have to feel sorry for a member of royalty was hard to swallow. The premise that I must want to be like them is even worse.

You can’t really judge a movie for what it isn’t: West side story is not scary and they don’t dance and sing in Alien. Still, as a white writer I have been thinking about this a lot. If I only write about what I know, I’m being ethnocentric. If I write about the Other, I risk becoming a saviour instead on an ally, for many reasons.

For some time, I considered making the main character in my first novel a Latina. The reason was that I wanted to help their representation. I could do some research: visit Latino cultural associations, mingle, read about their culture and so on. But soon I realized it wouldn’t work: I wouldn’t manage to imitate their Spanish dialect, even in written form; I wouldn’t know their nursery rhymes, how they celebrate their birthdays, the kind of music my character listened to as a kid, what her school was like, her mum’s cooking, the tales her grandma told her before sleep. I could try to imagine, but I would never know what it is like for her to be Latina in a white country such as Spain. It wouldn’t be honest: what I would produce would be my view of what it means to be Latina through the prism of my own education as a Southern European.

Some time ago, I read a tumblr post by a young man who wrote YA fantasy and complained that his novel had been rejected because the publisher already had another novel with a homosexual main character and a second one wouldn’t sell for being too niche. What really drew my attention, though, was that he made a comment along the lines of: “I’m sure the other author is not even gay himself”. So, if I wrote about a Latina, I would produce a white woman’s version of a Latina and so probably prevent a Latina from publishing her own story. That wouldn’t be using my privilege to help, that would be advancing cultural colonialism.

Westerners, including myself, think we have it all figured out. We think our way of doing things is the best and we need to know nothing else. We see ourselves in every screen and every billboard and don’t think anything of it. We squirm at the sight of someone different. We really need to stop using that lousy excuse in the form of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” to make any trace of cultural difference in our everyday lives disappear. Stop arguing about whether women should wear a hijab or not, bother to ask them what they want to do, and support whichever the answer is.

Some of us feel bad about such state of affairs and want to help. How can we put our privilege to good use? The answer is simple: we don’t. We shut up and listen. Those of us who make art, we keep making art about what we know. And then listen to what other artists have to say. Step aside and make space for their own art. Support it. Appreciate it for what it is, and avoid imposing your own values to it. You might learn something that enriches yours.

We might not like the kind of world we live in, but while it stays the way it is now, it’s much more effective to go to your local cinema to watch movies made by people from other contries, cultures and ethnicities than it is to complain on the Internet about how whitewashed everything is.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

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Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011).

Score: not surprising.

Drive tells the story of an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who sometimes does some getaway driving on the side. He also works as a car mechanic with a man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who mingles with mobsters Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) because he wants money to restore a racecar for the main character to drive. The Driver starts a romance with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and adores her little son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but everything goes south when Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) comes out of jail earlier than expected.

The first half of the movie is pretty slow and atmospheric. It can get boring at times. There are just sequences of driving around under the streetlamps, the Driver playing with Benicio, Irene staring longingly at the Driver. I was getting really annoyed at the character. Why does he care? Why do I have to care? What are his motivations? The movie would work much better if it was his wife and his kid, he would have a reason to care then. He has no reason to care about a kid that’s not his, this is making the script more complicated just because. But then, halfway in, it dawned on me.

***SPOILERS***

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Life, animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016)

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Life, animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2016).

Score: beautiful and understanding.

Autism, like many other mental disorders, is barely understood by the mainstream. There is a trend in fiction to introduce highly-intelligent, socially inept characters such as Sheldon Cooper (he’s not crazy, his mother had him tested), Criminal Minds’ Spencer Reid or BBC’s Sherlock and people will automatically assume they have an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger syndrome. Even Mark Haddon had to say that The curious incident of the dog in the night-time wasn’t actually about Asperger’s, because he came so close to its popular conception that people assumed he had done extensive research about it.

This is why the existence of movies like this one makes me very happy. Life, animated is a documentary about Owen Suskind, the son of journalist Ron Suskind, who suffers from autism. Using home videos of Owen as a kid, original animated sequences and present-day footage and testimonies from the Suskind family, Owen’s progress to almost total autonomy is charted. In the early years when Owen wasn’t able to speak, his family realized that Owen really enjoyed watching Disney animated movies with the rest of them. He started repeating lines from the movies (a phenomenon called echolalia) and Ron eventually found a way to speak with him using a Iago the parrot puppet.

His therapists explain that Owen’s autistic disorder means he has a very hard time managing as many stimuli as everyday life exposes him to, but cartoons, for its simplified and predictive nature, provide him with a way to perceive the world in a tractable way and act as a gateway to autonomy. Hear me out: don’t we all use fiction in a similar way? Don’t we all use it as a mirror, as catharsis, as a self-knowledge tool? Like David Mamet said, we don’t go to the theatre to forget, but to remember.

This is Life, animated’s greatest virtue: it doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Owen, it wants you to relate to him, and it’s very easy to do. There is some explaining of Owen’s disorder but the documentary is mostly focused on showing how he has improved and overcome many obstacles in his life, with the help of his therapists and a close-knit community. The fear and reject some may feel towards people with mental disorders would be much smaller if we knew them better and saw they’re people just like everyone else, who want to be happy and loved.

This documentary is a great step towards that direction.