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Adult Education

I have to admit the possibility that there may be people who have decided to Google for ‘Bad Education Movie’ in the hope of getting access to someone’s considered opinion of the forthcoming Hugh Jackman film (not actually on release yet, I think) – well, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nor is this the place to be should you (for whatever reason) be interested in the movie spin-off of the sitcom starring Jack Whitehall, which came out a few years ago (the temptation to say that if this is the case, you should maybe rethink some of your life choices, is almost irresistible). Seriously, they ought to do something about people re-using titles on films.

Anyway, the Bad Education we are here to discuss is the 2004 movie from Pedro Almodovar, originally known as La mala educacion. Not that this really does a great deal to eliminate potential confusion, as that’s just a direct translation into Spanish, of course. No Almodovar movie seems to be completely bereft of a certain kind of humour, but this is certainly one of his more serious films: perhaps that’s a big enough point of distinction. It’s not as if this is a film which it’s easy to mistake for anything else, though.

When I was writing about Talk to Her I ventured the suggestion that there was an undercurrent to it which was almost Hitchcockian in its tone and style – almost from the start, it seems that this influence has grown enormously, for the opening credits and music suggest nothing as much as an energetic pastiche of films from Hitchcock’s own late 50s-early 60s imperial phase. It takes a little while for this to show up in the actual story, though. Much of the film is set in 1980, and concerns (amongst others) Enrique (Fele Martinez), a film director looking for his next project. His ruminations are interrupted by the appearance of an old school friend named Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Ignacio is an actor and writer, looking for work, but he also leaves a short story entitled The Visit with Enrique – apparently it is a sort of roman-a-clef, partly based on their own experiences together.

The film then shifts its focus, apparently presenting the story of The Visit. This concerns fictionalised versions of Enrique (Alberto Ferreiro) and Ignacio (still Bernal), with the considerable difference that the Ignacio in the story is a transsexual nightclub singer, going by the name of Zahara. With the aid of her friend Paca (a brief but very big performance by Javier Camara), Zahara is out to get revenge on Manolo, the Catholic priest who abused her as a boy (the priest is played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho), intent on blackmailing him for the money that will pay for her sex-change surgery.

Obviously, this strikes a significant chord with the real-life Enrique, and brings back all kinds of memories of his childhood friendship – more than friendship – with Ignacio, a friendship which ended when Manolo had him expelled from the school they attended together. He decides to go ahead with the movie, even though Ignacio seems greatly changed to him, almost unrecognisable as the same person…

It all sounds relatively straightforward when you write it down like that, but Bad Education is really far from straightforward in terms of its narrative – I have skipped over some of the many ambiguities and sleights-of-hand in the plot; for instance, it’s not made at all obvious at first that Ignacio and Zahara are both played by Bernal. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly dense and subtle in its storytelling – there are, as you can see, lengthy flashback sequences, and also a film-within-the-film. Elements of these echo and repeat each other, and the line between the two is eventually elided, up to a point. This is a film you do have to give your full attention to, but Almodovar maintains an exemplary grip on what could have been an extravagantly confusing story.

Is it really valid for me to compare it to one of Hitchcock’s entertainments, though? Well, obviously Hitchcock never made a film as graphically explicit as this one, and it’s difficult to imagine him openly addressing material like transsexuality and child abuse, or even homosexuality, in one of his films. But, on the other hand, the tricky and repetitive structure of the film, the eventual appearance of long-buried blackmail and murder, and the fascination with identity – how well can you really know a person? How much can someone change, over time? – are all things one would easily associate with some of Hitchcock’s finest films. Pedro Almodovar has a reputation for making big, sensuous, emotional films dealing with issues of sex and gender, but it seems to me he has all the necessary tools in the kit to be considered a terrific director of thrillers, as well.

Nevertheless, this is one of his darker films. While there are some beautifully lyrically scenes early on, depicting the childhoods of the characters and everyday life in the school they attend, the tone grows steadily more serious as it progresses (Javier Camara’s big comic turn only appears in the early part of the film). There is still humanity in the film – the present-day version of Manolo, when he eventually appears, is a pitiable figure, and we are encouraged to pity him despite his terrible offences – but it is overall less optimistic and warm than in previous films, and the ending is inconclusive and ambiguous. Then again, perhaps there is no other choice here: the film is ultimately about the life-long emotional damage done by child abuse, and the ripple of collateral damage spreading out through the friends and acquaintances of those at the heart of it. Almodovar is too good a director to be excessively on-the-nose about this, but the shadows lie deeply on all the survivors at the end of this film, and the implication is clear. This is another well-acted, well-directed and exceptionally well-written film, dark and complex without feeling excessively grim or heavy: colourful and deft enough to be genuinely entertaining, but still a work shot through with a profound seriousness.

Girlfriend(s) in a Coma

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her (title en Espanol: Talk to Her) opens rather theatrically, which may not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with this director – the curtain rises and we are treated to a display of interpretative dance from Pina Bausch. Watching it are the two main characters of the film, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), although at this point they know each other as little as we know either of them. Marco is moved to tears by the performance, a fact which does not go unnoticed by Benigno.

Slowly a narrative begins to form, piecemeal and out of chronological order. Marco is a writer, mainly of travel books, though the story from his point of view starts when he is sent to do a piece on up-and-coming female matador Lydia (Rosario Flores). After an unpromising start, mainly because both of them are carrying baggage from previous relationships, romance seems to kindle between them.

Bullfighting is a bit of a cliché in many people’s idea of Spain, and it’s obviously a controversial topic. All that aside, Almodóvar’s presentation of scenes set in the bullring is exceptional – they are beautiful and grotesque at the same time, colourful and vibrant but also laced with horror. That the danger is not all on the bull’s side is reinforced when Lydia comes off second best in a bout with a bull and ends up in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state – in other words, a coma, and one there is virtually no chance she will ever emerge from.

Marco, who has never been the most articulate of people, has no idea of how to cope with this, but finds himself making friends with Benigno, who is a private nurse employed on the same ward. His duties only extend to looking after one particular patient: Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dance student who was involved in a car accident. Benigno is clearly a deeply committed and very caring nurse, who happily talks to Alicia about everything going on in his life; he is completely unlike Marco. And yet the two of them do become friends.

However, this is a friendship that is soon to be put to the test. Not all is as it initially seems in these relationships, and the story is about to move into some very strange and dark territory…

Yes, I know, if two Almodóvar reviews in a week was a bit irregular, three in a fortnight in really pushing it. Well, I warn you, they’re reviving Bad Education this week, and thank your lucky stars I’m away on holiday the week this revival season concludes with Volver. What can I say? Blame the late-summer interesting-movie drought. And while I know I’m ridiculously late to the party, I’m still kicking myself for not checking Pedro Almodóvar’s back catalogue before now: he deserves every bit of his reputation.

Talk to Her is, first and foremost, a really excellent movie, fully deserving of its reputation as one of the best made so far this century. However, it is also one of those films it is somewhat difficult to write about in detail without venturing into spoiler territory. I turned up to watch it with only the vaguest idea of what the story was about – the non-chronological nature of the plot means that the Wikipedia plot summary isn’t especially rewarding if you only skim read it – and the fact that it’s almost impossible to predict which way the story will go at any given moment is one of the pleasures of the film. You really want to know as little about the story in advance as you can manage.

So what can I really say about Talk to Her? Well, the first thing is that this is not quite the schmaltzy romantic melodrama it looks like it’s going to be – in fact, Almodóvar is relatively restrained when it comes to the plotting this time around; there are none of the outrageous coincidences that often pop up in his scripts. His subtlety and playfulness are still entirely intact, and you could argue that for much of the film he is cheerfully engaged in misdirecting the audience, turning their expectations against them. You are watching it and enjoying what has so far been an engaging and very well-made romantic drama, touched with elements of tragedy, and then suddenly and without your really being aware of it, the film has taken on something of the aspect of a psychological thriller – the kind of film that Hitchcock might have felt moved to have a go at, had he spent twenty or thirty years in therapy. Elements of the story which have previously been wholly innocuous suddenly look horribly suspect, and you question just exactly what kind of people some of these characters are.

It works as well as it does because of the brilliant performances given by the two leads – the two women in the comas are also good, but perforce have rather limited scope to participate in the film. Camara is very good in a hugely challenging part, managing to find all the subtlety it requires; Grandinetti has the tough job of playing someone who isn’t naturally very demonstrative, but finds the chinks in the armour that make it work. But the magic of the film is in the scripting and direction – as mentioned, there is a very black cheerfulness at work here, and an immense deftness when it comes to tone (just when you think you have the film figured out, Almodóvar throws in the eye-popping silent movie vignette).

But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is Almodóvar’s ability to retain his humanity and compassion even in a film which deals with topics as dark as the ones here. There is always room for subtlety, no-one is wholly good or bad, they are simply human and worthy of at least a little understanding. And beyond this, he even manages to conclude the film on a quiet moment of hopeful promise, something that would have seemed impossible only a short time before. As I said, Talk to Her is an excellent movie in every way.

Wrack and Ruin

There is a sub-genre of science fiction known as the ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I almost think qualifies as one of those great and useful categories only slightly let down by the fact that there’s virtually nothing to go into it. It was coined by Brian Aldiss for his history of SF, Billion Year Spree, with particular reference to the work of his near-contemporary John Wyndham, his definition running as follows: ‘The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.’ In later life he was particularly scathing about conclusion of The Day of the Triffids, in which the main characters find themselves compelled to go and live on (oh, the horror!) the Isle of Wight.

The thing is, that for all that Aldiss confidently pegs Wyndham as ‘the master of the cosy catastrophe’ it’s not as if this is a genre in which he was particularly active. Day of the Triffids probably qualifies, although there is a case to be made that this book is much less cosy than it initially appears to be (there are multiple suicides throughout the story), and there is a touch of it to The Kraken Wakes, too, although the catastrophe here is a protracted one and not especially comfortable for the protagonists (one should also probably mention the original, unpublished ending of the story, in which they are implied to die off-page and the book ends on an ominously ambiguous note). But The Chrysalids is post-apocalyptic, not catastrophic, The Midwich Cuckoos concludes with a potential disaster averted, and Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge, Chocky and Web don’t come close to resembling Aldiss’ metric.

Things get to the point where articles listing ‘Ten Great Cosy Catastrophe Novels’ end up stretching to include the likes of The Time Machine and Childhood’s End, two (great) books which are surely only linked by their interest in the future evolution of human beings (an idea which they take in radically different directions). Neither of them remotely resemble Aldiss’ idea of what a cosy catastrophe is, and one finds oneself wondering if this is a genre with a single bona fide exponent.

And then one stumbles across the bibliography of John Christopher (one of the pen names of Samuel Youd) and it initially looks like the motherlode. I first became aware of Christopher as a writer of what we nowadays call ‘dystopian YA fiction’ – perhaps most famously the Tripods books, but also the really excellent Prince in Waiting trilogy. Both of these are kind of post-apocalyptic – the Tripods story is set about a century after an alien invasion, while the Prince in Waiting books take place centuries after some kind of immense natural disaster has toppled civilisation – but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Christopher himself cheerfully admitted in later life to being the greatest serial killer in the history of literature, having at various points killed off civilisation through famine (The Death of Grass), a new ice age (The World in Winter), and a plague causing premature ageing (Empty World). It looks like we have found, at the very least, a pretender to Wyndham’s unasked-for throne.

And then one reads the books. Catastrophes? Certainly. Cosy? Well, there is the issue, isn’t it? Frankly, they are not: the writer Christopher Priest once produced his own take on the genre, entitled (if memory serves) The True Nature of the Catastrophe, suggesting that the real devastation was psychological, not social or physical. Christopher’s books are not cosy, because they are to a large extent about the effects of the calamities on the minds and personalities of their protagonists – John Custance in The Death of Grass starts off as a nice middle-class chap, but is willing to condone cold-blooded murder by the end of the book – civilisation has been lost forever, in more senses than one.

wits

Christopher tackles this theme most directly, I think, in his 1965 book A Wrinkle in the Skin (the title is not the book’s strongest feature). The story opens on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, with a glimpse of the life of Matthew Cotter, reasonably contented small-holder. Cotter is almost totally self-sufficient in emotional terms, not feeling the need to develop strong attachments to anyone – the only exception being his grown-up daughter, who has moved to the mainland. The opening chapter features a dinner party, and a discussion of a series of immense earthquakes which have afflicted New Zealand and other remote places – discussion of a casual, disinterested kind.

But at the end of that first chapter, a colossal earthquake strikes the island – and, we are invited to infer, most of the world. Cotter survives through a sheer fluke, but virtually all buildings are levelled, the lie of the land itself is shifted, and – to Cotter’s initial disbelief – the English Channel is drained, exposing most of the sea-bed.

However, Cotter is not the only survivor, digging a pre-teenaged boy from the ruins of one house, before encountering another group under the thuggish leadership of a man named Miller. Cotter is a useful lieutenant to Miller, but Cotter doesn’t much care for the role, especially when he is constantly thinking of the possible fate of his daughter, somewhere on the mainland. In the end he and the boy gather their supplies and set off, walking across the sea-bed to England in search of her. But what awaits them there? Isn’t he just risking their lives in the futile pursuit of a fantasy?

A Wrinkle in the Skin doesn’t stint on the catastrophe, but it is one of the least cosy novels imaginable. One of the strong points of Christopher’s other books is the convincing detail used to depict the gradual falling away of the old order as civilisation gradually collapses – but in this one, everything is destroyed overnight, virtually in a matter of minutes. The majority of it takes place in a physical, social and moral wasteland, as Cotter and the boy encounter various other survivors and Cotter reflects on human nature and how people are responding to what eventually gets christened the Bust.

Once again, it’s the strength of the book’s characterisation and the articulation of its moral premise that make it memorable: there are at least two things going on throughout most of it, the first being the gradual erosion of Cotter’s sense of detachment from the people around him (in favour of his absent, idealised daughter) – he discovers the capacity to take responsibility for them, to genuinely care and achieve empathy and understanding. What gives the novel its distinctive flavour is the dark counterpoint to this theme – the building awareness that the humanity Cotter is starting to appreciate is essentially base and brutal. Cotter encounters a handful of lunatics, a few decent middle-class people, but mostly ruthless and amoral scum (it’s doubtless a sign of the book’s 60s origins that only one of the female characters has any agency worth mentioning or is characterised in more than the most superficial manner – but the character that is, is probably the strongest in the story). One character suggests the catastrophe has brought on a form of mass psychosis. For much of the book Cotter is ambling along relatively comfortably, and assumes the same is true for the others – but then April, the female character I just mentioned, quietly informs him that rape (of one form or another) is a fact of existence for all the women who’ve survived the Bust: five times, so far, for her, in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Would things really be so bad? Pray God we never find out for real, but Christopher makes it all horribly and emphatically plausible. The book is fairly bleak throughout, but this sets the tone for the final section, which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Road as a man and a boy make their way through the desolation on a futile quest. Christopher’s writing does a good job of pointing up the distinction between the depressing and the tragic (this book is both, not always at the same time though); it gets so dark I almost considered bailing out before the end.

Perhaps it’s all a bit too close to reality – at least with triffids and the like, you can reassure yourselves that it’s never going to happen. But even Christopher backs away from what feels like the logical conclusion to the story. In the end Cotter repents of his foolish attachment to the dream of his daughter (not least because circumstances force him to) and there is the prospect of a somewhat happier life for the survivors in the time come. Only a prospect and a suggestion, though – it’s as though Christopher is aware this would be a total about-turn in the theme and tone of the book, and can only imply it as a possibility. Actually showing it would turn the novel into a rather hokey melodrama, and he’s too good a writer for that.

This is a pretty tough read, and conventional SF ideas are thin on the ground; it’s a lot less reserved and cerebral than a book by Wyndham, but grittier and more humane than some of the similar works that J. G. Ballard was producing at around the same time. It’s not the same kind of blitz of a thriller that The Death of Grass is, but it still shows off Christopher’s skill as a writer. Even so, you do come away wondering if we really would prefer our catastrophes to be just a bit cosy.

Match(stalk) Pair

Ah, it’s probably one of my favourite films – the story of the insignificant clerk Lowry, perpetually hassled by his overbearing, critical mother, and only ever to find some respite through the sheer power and vibrancy of his imagination and his dream life. Unfortunately, that is not what we are here to talk about – well, not exactly. I’m talking about the premise of Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Brazil, but the film on the docket is Adrian Noble’s Mrs Lowry & Son, a film which appears vaguely similar on paper, but is entirely different once you actually film, edit and project it.

I think there’s something more than a bit ironic when an artist in one medium owes most of their fame to a piece of work in another, especially one which they didn’t actually make themselves. Yet here we are with the case of the painter L. S. Lowry, a prolific recorder of scenes of industrial Lancashire life in the early and middle 20th century. I think a lot of people in the UK are probably aware of Lowry and his work, but I also suspect that most of them would genuinely struggle to actually name a Lowry painting, far fewer than could sing the chorus to ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, a rather sentimental novelty record about the artist which was a substantial hit a few years after his death. (Yes, I know – I could have sworn it was Matchstick Men, etc., too…)

The song does not appear in the movie. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall do turn up in the title roles (I will leave it to the on-the-ball reader to surmise who is playing Mrs Lowry and who isn’t). It is 1934 and the duo are sharing a house in Greater Manchester; she is essentially bedridden and almost wholly dependent on her son, who has a small-potatoes job as a rent collector for the council. The late Mr Lowry was apparently a bit of a rascal and left significant debts behind upon his death, which is an issue, possibly for her more than him: Mrs Lowry is very aware of her own social status, still thinking of herself as middle-class and appalled to be living in such a proletarian neighbourhood, to say nothing of actually owing money to other people.

Lowry is famous as a painter, of course, something which the film naturally acknowledges from its opening moments, but we’re a fair way into proceedings before the fact of his putting brush to canvas is acknowledged in the story. This is because Mrs Lowry is implacably disapproving of the fact he spends all his free time either sketching or sitting in the attic working on his canvases – she’s never liked any of his paintings, feeling they are ugly, primitive daubs, and feels his time would be much better spent cultivating the right kind of social circle. Naturally, he disagrees with her – but will the possibility of public recognition of his art lead to some kind of reconciliation between them?

I suppose you could also say that this film also bears something of a resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner from a few years ago, in that it’s the bio-pic of an artist starring Timothy Spall as the man with the magic touch. Well, again this is probably something of an optical illusion, as the new film is much more limited in its scope, less of a test of endurance, and – perhaps most importantly, for many people – does not feature Spall rumphing and gronking and making other strange noises all the way through.

This film started life as a stage play (the original playwright, Martyn Hesford, adapts), and really not much has been done to it in the process of bringing it to the screen: it mostly takes place in Lowry’s terraced house – mostly in Mrs Lowry’s bedroom, come to that – and Spall and Redgrave have the only significant roles. Nor is it the case that the two undergo a dramatic emotional transformation together. It’s clear from the opening scenes that she is a clinging, self-pitying snob obsessed with petty issues of class and status, while he is a dutiful and caring son who is nevertheless conflicted because of his calling to be A Great Artist, and this is the dynamic which essentially plays out for the rest of the film.

Not exactly even-handed, then: Lowry is by far the more sympathetic of the two. And this does feel like a bit of a rigged game: we all know that Lowry is destined to go on to be A Great Artist whose paintings sell for huge sums and who will have maudlin pop-folk songs written about him, and so we are naturally sympathetic to his desire to sit in the attic and paint. Mrs Lowry doesn’t know this, and surely this mitigates somewhat in her favour. If the film was about some anonymous schmo living with his elderly mother who spends all his free time in seclusion painting rather odd pictures, who the audience doesn’t know will end up with a major arts centre named after him, the tone of the film would surely be rather different: rather than being quite so sympathetic, one might be minded to call the social services.

Regardless of all of that, much of the film does have a rather uncomfortable and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere to it: many scenes in the bedroom of Mrs Lowry bewailing her lost middle-class youth and backhandedly putting down her son, and him quietly accepting all the abuse. It almost put me in mind of a strange variation on Steptoe and Son, only without the jokes. Naturally, there are two star actors here, and the performances are impeccable, but I did feel they were taking their characters on a journey from A almost to B. All the most interesting stuff seems to be going on around the fringes on the film – their neighbours seem to be having quite interesting rows, for instance, and the most interesting and uplifting (not to mention cinematic) part of the film comes when Lowry is out and about in a series of non-naturalistic scenes where he talks about his inspiration and art.

In the end there is a sort of emotional and dramatic climax, but it feels a little contrived, and by the end we are more or less back to the status quo from the start of the film. There’s a weird coda where Lowry appears to travel through time to visit the present-day Lowry in Salford (shades of that thing Richard Curtis wrote about Van Gogh), but this really only adds to the impression that all the really interesting parts of Lowry’s artistic career happened outside the time-frame of this movie. Mrs Lowry & Son is well-mounted and well-performed, but it does fall into the trap of suggesting that the most interesting thing about L. S. Lowry was his home life, and doesn’t really engage enough with all the thing he is remembered for, and the reason why he is deemed movie-worthy in the first place.

 

Project Fear

Just when it looks like the late-summer interesting-movie drought is a thing of the past, the UPP goes and closes for its annual week of maintenance. Sigh. Still, when it returns, it is at least with an amusingly tongue-in-cheek choice of subject matter for its usual revival season – the weeks leading up to October 31st feature a series of films under the umbrella title of Apocalypse, Now?, connected by the fact they are either dystopian or downright apocalyptic British-set movies. One can appreciate the joke even if, fingers crossed, recent events mean that Halloween no longer has particularly ominous associations this year.

I expect it says something about me that most of the films in the Apocalypse season are ones I’m already rather familiar with. It includes A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and you’ve already got two classic films there at least. The curve-ball of the season, however, is a film which wasn’t originally made for the big screen, and, well… it’s a very different kind of beast from those others. It is Threads, from 1984.

If I may digress a moment, a few years ago I was in Prague for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was a nuclear bunker in the suburbs of the city. We had an engaging time exploring the facilities, putting on the gas masks and having our photos taken in them, and so on, and then the guide pointed out to us that the mirrors in the bathrooms were all sheets of polished metal, rather than the usual glass. And when we asked why, he explained it was part of the policy to make the bunker suicide-proof, because it was anticipated that even the survivors of a nuclear strike would be very likely to contemplate ending their own lives. And suddenly we felt a bit subdued and queasy, and everything was considerably less jolly.

Threads is a film which will give you that moment of uneasiness and recognition of what is really at stake here, and stretch it out to 108 minutes. It was first broadcast on British TV in 1984, and even before the transmission it was drawing complaints – even the front cover of the BBC’s TV listings magazine was considered to be too disturbing and explicit. I was much too young to watch the actual film when it was shown then, but the cover did lodge itself in my memory as a grisly, haunting symbol of the film.

Quite when the film is set is a little ambiguous – based on the dates given on screen, it appears to be a near-future 1988, but it is clearly mean to be contemporary, although it does not identify specific politicians. In the opening scenes, we meet lead characters Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), a young couple living in Sheffield, getting on with their lives, not paying much attention to the world situation – Russian troops have recently moved from the USSR into eastern parts of Iran. Ruth falls pregnant, and in the absence of any other options, they decide to marry and move in together, although Jimmy’s commitment to the relationship seems far from complete.

They buy a flat, start to think about a wedding; the two sets of parents get to know each other. But while all this is going on, tensions are building in the Middle East, with both the Americans and Soviets building up their forces in the region, and the rhetoric becoming increasingly antagonistic. Slowly it impinges on the characters that armed conflict is a possibility, then a likelihood. There is panic-buying in the supermarkets. The TV broadcasts public information films about how to convert part of your home into a fall-out survival room, and what to do if someone dies while you are in there. Key personnel and resources are quietly moved into locations of safety.

And then, one Thursday morning, the air attack warning sounds. As an industrial city not too far from USAF bases in England, Sheffield is targeted and struck by several nuclear warheads.

The first half of Threads has something of the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama – something gritty and naturalistic, about the real lives of young people today, albeit one punctuated by occasional captions giving supplementary information, and contributions from an omniscient narrator (Paul Vaughan). The very nature of the production means it has an extraordinary atmosphere of impending doom, and a weird tension – you’re kind of anticipating the moment when the world comes to an end, and wondering what it’s going to be like, and yet at the same time you are dreading how the actual reality of it is going to be presented to you.

And your instincts are quite right, because the second half of Threads is probably the most soul-crushingly bleak hour of TV ever broadcast in the UK – yes, even worse than the final episode of Blake’s 7. And the tone and nature of the film feels like it undergoes a quite radical shift. Some of the documentary realism persists, but it is mixed with an almost impressionistic approach to portraying the scenes of nightmarish horror which ensue: we see fragments, odd scenes; montages of photographs take the place of live action. We almost seem to be seeing events from the point-of-view of Ruth and the other characters as they teeter on the edge of madness. Perhaps this was necessitated; even on a pretty big budget by 1984 standards, the BBC was probably quite incapable of naturalistically presenting the sheer scale of the horror of the aftermath of a UK-wide nuclear attack. And perhaps even the writer’s mind recoiled from the magnitude of the task he had been charged with. The film covers the decade-and-a-half or so following the attack, and we are presented with an increasingly disjointed set of snapshots of the dismal future world which comes into being. But the horror of it is tangible: survivors breaking up farmland with hand tools, swathed in cloth to shield themselves from post-nuclear UV exposure; children being taught to read using fuzzy pre-apocalypse video recordings; and the concluding sequence of the film, suggesting that the damage extends far beyond the severing of the threads of civilised society, even to the essential humanity of the survivors.

There is perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the creative team behind Threads – the writer was Barry Hines, otherwise best-known for the working-class bildungsroman A Kestrel for a Knave (famously filmed as Kes by Ken Loach), while the director was Mick Jackson, who would go on to make rather more cheerful Hollywood movies like LA Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano (more recently, he also directed Denial). Apparently there were creative tensions between the two of them on set. But together they produce something which does full justice to a weighty remit – Hines’ script is loaded with social and political anger, although it resists the temptation to make explicit political points and still finds time for formal quirks (one major character simply vanishes out of the film, midway through the bombing sequence) and heart-breaking moments of pathos (we see that Ruth is still carrying around tiny, useless mementoes of her dead loved ones, years after the end of the old world). Jackson brings documentary realism to the early parts of the film and a willingness to go big and cinematic in the key moments depicting the attack. The film is superbly made, even if it is also in a very real sense awful to watch.

It would be nice to say that age has worked wonders to diminish the ghastly power of Threads, and rendered it a bit of a cold-war era curio, a reminder of what kept our parents and grandparents awake at night with alarm, something we have moved on. Certainly, all the video tapes and fake TV news broadcasts do give Threads the feeling of a period piece. But the last time I checked, we still have nuclear weapons, we still have international tensions, we still have foolish politicians who want to look like strongmen in the global media. (That nuclear bunker in Prague could be made fully operational again in only 48 hours.) We have not stepped back far enough from that brink: Threads suggests it is impossible to step back too far. This is one of those pieces of art which transcends time and place.

Intro Retro Pedro

Whether or not you feel the last few weeks have seen a bit of a drought when it comes to interesting and worthwhile filmgoing experiences is, of course, a matter of taste, but there are signs of an upturn of sorts (although again, you may find your mileage varying). You do not often find films like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (title Espanol: Dolor y Gloria) turning up in UK multiplex cinemas, but here it is – is it simply because of the director’s formidable reputation, acquired through decades of quality work? Or is there honestly not much else around to occupy that particular screen? One would like to think the former.

Yes, I know: you wait nearly ten years for an Almodóvar film to be reviewed and then two turn up in the same week. What can I say? The first thing that makes Pain and Glory a slightly odd fit for the typical multiplex is, obviously, that it is in Spanish, the second is that it is also really an art house movie. It features a couple of famous performers, but it doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre and is arguably not the most accessible of films, on a number of levels. I won’t say the film is one long in-joke, not least because it isn’t actually a comedy, but a degree of familiarity with Pedro Almodóvar’s life and works will probably help you to appreciate where the film is coming from.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mello, the world’s most famous Spanish film director, who as the film opens has not made a movie for some time, primarily for health reasons (or so he says). His rather listless existence receives a jolt when he is informed that one of his films from thirty years ago is to be revived, and presented to a new audience by the lead actor (Asier Etxeandia) – to whom Mello hasn’t spoken since it was finished, following a big row between the two.

(Already there are multiple layers of self-referentiality and irony going on here for the in-the-know – it is fairly clear who the character of the world’s most famous Spanish film director is based on, and the plot is likewise informed by the fact that Banderas and Almodóvar had a major falling out when the actor – who Almodóvar discovered – went off to make English-language movies, and didn’t work together for twenty years afterwards.)

Well, one thing leads to another and Salvador finds himself reconnecting with all manner of people from his past, from artistic collaborators to his first real boyfriend (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He also picks up a bit of a drug habit, which seems to lead to his having vivid dreams about his youth half a century earlier, and the fraught relationship between his parents (his mother is played by Penelope Cruz, another actor with a long track record of working with this director). But is this all just a sign of a slightly sick man settling into a premature decline? Or can Mello find a way to get himself out of this slump?

It quickly becomes apparent that Pain and Glory has little of the colour and vibrancy that many of Almodóvar’s most famous films are distinguished by. This is a sober, restrained piece of work, both introspective and retrospective – it’s very hard not to interpret it as the director looking back on his life and career, with appearances from other actors who he has worked with in the past – Cecilia Roth, from All About My Mother, has a small cameo, for instance. It almost seems to have a valedictory quality, which is surely a bit premature given that Almodóvar is not yet 70.

However, the film retains much of the clever playfulness and subtlety of his best-known films, not to mention his fondness for outrageously implausible plotting. Almodóvar is never afraid of using a credibility-strangling coincidence to move one of his scripts along, and this happens here in a couple of places too. The trick is that you become so invested in the characters and their situations that you suspend your disbelief, and this does happen here as usual – it’s curious to think that Anglophone audiences tend to think of Antonio Banderas as either a light comedian or (more bizarrely) an action hero. Perhaps Almodóvar’s imprecations that he would waste his talent in Hollywood had some truth to them, for here he gives a very strong and rounded dramatic performance, in what can’t have been especially easy circumstances (he is essentially embodying the writer-director of the film).

I note that Penelope Cruz has managed to wangle herself the ‘with the special collaboration of’ credit on this movie, which I’m guessing is the Spanish version of ‘special guest star’ and indicates the actor is doing the director a favour by turning up. Well, her charm and ability are undiminished and she is also caught up in the artifice of the film’s structure – towards the end the distinction between the film’s flashback sequences and its present day setting is knowingly collapsed, raising the possibility that Cruz is not just playing the Almodóvar-substitute’s mother, but playing herself playing that role – but this is not dwelt upon unduly.

If our thesis is correct, and Pain and Glory is really an introspective film about Pedro Almodóvar considering his own life and the key moments and relationships within it, do we learn much? Well, it does seem that the director is feeling his age a bit, but also that he has lost none of his warmth and compassion, nor his willingness to be open about some of the more intimate elements of his life – if the film is to be interpreted in these terms, the suggestion is that he may not have had the easiest of relationships with his parents, for instance. However, you could certainly argue that the film is arguing that it is through human contact that life acquires genuine significance – it is through recollecting his own first real romance, and before that the initial awakening of his sexual desire, that Salvador begins to find the answers to his own problems and sets out on the path to a kind of redemption.

This is a film about getting older and considering the choices you have made along the way, but it is also an ultimately humane and optimistic one. It is a more measured Almodóvar than has perhaps been the case sometimes in the past, but the director’s skill is still fully in evidence. This is a fine and often moving drama.

Dance Monkey Dance

If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’ ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.