As times change, so do the questions that a movie prompts. Had I seen Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education in another season, I might have begun this review by asking about the new possibilities the movie finds in the old devices of film noir: the heartsick voiceover, the dark and secretive settings, the love object in the blond wig. Or, dazzled by the narrative structure, I might first have looked into Almodóvar’s use of frames within frames: for example, the flashback envisioned by a man who is a character in another character’s screenplay. The film’s emphasis on reading deserves investigation–for the first half of Bad Education, people do almost nothing, on a literal level, except pore over texts–and so does the personality of the lead actor, Gael García Bernal, who is much more convincing here than as Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. (Why so? Because, unlike Che, his present character is supposed to put you in mind of Julia Roberts.)
I’d like to ponder all these matters. But I saw Bad Education in the last weeks of the election campaign, when the United States plunged further into the condition of a church-based autocracy; and so two questions about Bad Education obsess me above all others. Can Almodóvar be considered a political filmmaker? If so, what difference does it make?
Certainly his career has benefited from, and reflected, a great political change. Almodóvar made his first, short films in 1974-79, as Franco’s church-based autocracy crumbled and fresh air came rushing into Spain. His first features, made in the early 1980s, breathed a druggie, anticlerical, polysexual atmosphere, which seemed designed (as J. Hoberman wrote) to give a heart attack to any senior Phalangist who strayed into the movie house. But if you think this information pins down Almodóvar’s politics, you have temporarily forgotten the possible coincidence of queer fun and political reaction. (Witness Interview magazine in that same period, with its celebration of the world’s most fabulous fascists.) Also, you might recall that Almodóvar’s characters almost never discuss public events or try to influence them. Except for a single scene, involving a street demonstration–an action carried out by frustrated medical workers–politics as such have scarcely entered his films.
So why do I keep wondering if Bad Education has a political nature?
No definite answer springs from the plot, or the fraction of it that I can reveal in good conscience. Enrique, a young filmmaker (Fele Martínez), is working in his deeply shadowed office one day in 1980, casting about for a story to tell, when an unexpected visitor drops by and announces himself as Ignacio, an old friend from boarding school (García Bernal). “My first love,” says the wonderstruck filmmaker. The reunion falters slightly at first, then becomes more deeply awkward once the visitor explains that he is now a professional actor, who is available for work and also happens to have with him an original screenplay. Unable to beg off, Enrique agrees to read the script and soon discovers that it evokes his youth, when the two boys fell in love at a provincial Catholic school and were harshly separated by Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), a literature teacher with a tormented, hands-on infatuation with Ignacio.
That’s a lot of domination for one movie–and we’re still in the setup. Father Manolo, in the “true story” flashback, wields unjust authority over the boys; Ignacio, in the screenplay, returns to the school years later (as a blond drag artiste) to exert a dubious power of his own, by blackmailing the priest; and Enrique, in the present-day story, makes full use of his right to film the script or reject it, to hire the would-be actor or dismiss him. I suppose these contests could be called political, especially given the role in them of a large and forceful institution. (As Lenny Bruce used to say, it’s the only the Church.) But as the film unfolds, its power relationships turn out to be unstable and are played out within an invariably intimate domain. The struggles enter the public arena only to the extent that they supply material for a film–and then it’s an intensely personal movie, since Enrique not only puts his own story on screen but also serves as the unmistakable double of Pedro Almodóvar.
Once again, possible political meanings slip away; and yet, because of the film’s chronology, they never disappear completely. The elaborate narrative scrambling in Bad Education forces you to notice that it’s 1964 when the boys fall in love and are torn apart, in the depths of the dictatorship. When Ignacio returns as a blackmailing drag queen, it’s 1977, when so much that had been repressed in Spain came bursting forth. Enrique decides to shoot Ignacio’s script in 1980, when Almodóvar released his first feature. As I reflect on this time scheme, and on the facts that ultimately do not come out in Enrique’s production, I am reminded of an eloquent passage in a recent article by Colm Tóibín, about the mood in Spain immediately after the dictatorship:
History resided then in locked memories, half-told stories, unread archives. In some families the silence was complete; the children, as they grew up in the bright new democracy, simply did not know what their parents had done in the war. Many people born in the 1950s and 1960s have unfond memories of their father growing grumpier and more silent as the war was mentioned, or having one story, which seemed to mask other more dangerous stories, told over and over, until it came to resemble a bad alibi.
A bad alibi: When Almodóvar’s early features came out, they too contained a silence beneath their insistent, hectic transgressions–a silence about the nature of the society that had given birth to the filmmaker, back in the 1950s, and had nurtured him to adulthood. To Almodóvar’s fans, there was nothing significant about this omission. The mere existence of his movies was said to be revelatory enough; and faced with Almodóvar’s extravagant talent, many of us who sensed something hollow in the fun were willing to put aside our doubts.
To Almodóvar’s immense credit, though, he did not stop doubting. Starting about ten years ago (around the same time that he began to write Bad Education), he transformed his work, shifting its mode from travesty to melodrama and imbuing it with a new emotional maturity. Now, in Bad Education, he retraces his career to its beginning and, through the figure of Enrique, imputes to himself a guilty secret–not the worst secret that the characters bear, but creepy enough. Within the confessional setting of this film noir (so appropriate to the story’s ecclesiastical background), Almodóvar owns up to having founded his work on dishonesty, manipulation and misdirection.
Perhaps you will interpret these sins as entirely personal. Maybe, going further, you will also see them as the source of artistic failings. (At the end of Bad Education, Enrique sets out to create films with “PASSION”–the word fills the screen–leaving us to wonder what truths might be obscured by those giant capital letters.) Or, thinking of the silences in post-Franco Spain, you might sense that the confession has wider implications. Surely it’s significant, in a movie that’s so concerned with reading, that when Enrique scans the newspapers for story ideas, he never bothers with the front page but prefers to sift through the disasters and oddities in the column-fillers. Like all but the most scandalous and doomed of the characters, he’s engaged in a strategy of avoidance–until the story of Bad Education breaks in on him.
So yes, Almodóvar may now be considered a political filmmaker. He is concerned here with the aftermath of the Franco period, rather than the religious dictatorship itself, and he focuses his attention narrowly, not on civic life but on the troubled personal responses of individuals. But, that said, he has now touched on the political context as never before, and in so doing has retrospectively deepened his entire body of work.
Does it make a difference?
As the shadows fall over my half of the population–the half that is taunted as “elite” while being utterly disempowered–I think that Bad Education may have something to tell us about living through the next years. Not that Almodóvar offers any advice. What he tells us becomes intelligible only on the actors’ faces: the look of fear as two boys try to hide in a darkened bathroom; the visible anguish of a culpable priest praying for mercy; the contortions of self-righteousness and self-disgust that play across Enrique’s features; and most fascinating of all, most unreliable, the multiple faces worn by García Bernal as victim, villain, ingénue and opportunist.
This is Almodóvar’s version of political expression. Look: These are now our moral possibilities.
The faces and bodies of the Parr family are expressive, too–wildly so, since they belong to cartoon characters–but may perhaps be enjoyed best when you don’t think about their politics.
The pleasure comes just from seeing them work. As created by writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) and realized by the animators at Pixar, the Parrs are the magically crafted central figures of The Incredibles: Mom, Dad and three kids living in a modest 1960s Moderne house in the suburbs and trying not to let on that they possess superpowers. In the old days, in the big city, father Bob was famous as the heroic Mr. Incredible, and mother Helen was almost equally celebrated as the crime-fighting Elastigirl. Now, as it happens, they have to conceal their abilities, as do their children–until duty calls, as it must.
“Whiz,” “bang” and “gee” are the words that first come to mind, as the stretch-suited Parrs zoom off for battle on an island fortress that could have belonged to a nemesis of James Bond, had any of them hired designers half as clever. The setttings in The Incredibles are endlessly inventive, the action exuberant, the laughter frequent and the characters a bottomless toy box of delights. Students of animation history have been suggesting that Bird and Pixar have developed the first truly engaging human cartoon characters. I cannot comment on the technical side of 3D computer animation; but, setting aside my longstanding affection for Elmer Fudd, I will agree that cartoon people have rarely been so much fun.
The reason, according to Bird, is that the Parrs’ strange talents are rooted in normal family traits. Fathers are supposed to be strong, so Bob can bench-press a freight engine. Mothers are always being pulled ten ways at once, so Helen is elastic. Young Violet can become invisible, as teenage girls sometimes want to do, and Dash is just a wonderfully energetic little boy, ratcheted up to 200 mph.
Bird’s biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that. Bob’s buddy Frozone, the main nonwhite character in the movie, can instantly create ice; black people are cool. The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity.
The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march.
Light in the Darkness: I join with all cinephiles in welcoming the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Video back to its renovated home on New York’s West 53rd Street. A world innovator when it was founded in 1935, the department continues to lead the way with an inaugural, seventy-five-work series titled “Premieres.” It opens to the public on November 21 with the world premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s Moments choisis des Histoire(s) du cinéma. Information: www.moma.org.