Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

So You Say You've Got a Bad Education

“I liked it all the way until the last fifteen seconds.” I had just told my friend Mark that we had gone to see “Bad Education,” the new film by Pedro Almodovar. He was referring to the trite boxes of text pulled out of the frozen final frame, detailing the fates of the main characters in the years after the 1980 date of much of the action. “American Graffiti” this wasn’t, and we really didn’t need to speculate about the future, let alone be given any definitive take on it.

But then again, nothing in “Bad Education” can be seen as an accurate rendering of the truth, so why should we believe that Almodovar is doing anything but having a little fun at the ending? This is a movie about a movie director who reads a story (and films a movie based on it) about a short story about events in the life of the director and the writer, with all the mirror images spiraling inward upon themselves that this might imply. It is also about the unreliability of memory, and the ways in which we use our tales of what happened to change what happened. Oh, yes, and it’s also about obsession, a powerful impulse often confused with love, and in Almodovar’s universe, something which can be turned on and off at the first sight of a new piece of ass.

Enrique Goded (played by Fele Martinez) is a successful director combing through the tabloids desperately in search of a story idea for a new film when he is visited by an extremely beautiful man (Gael Garcia Bernal, last seen in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) purporting to be his childhood school chum Ignacio. And we are off and running. Ignacio was Enrique’s first love, we learn, after this man, now calling himself Angel because he has become an actor, hands over a story which could inspire a movie. “The story is based on our experiences at school,” Angel says, “And then the adult experiences I made up.”

School was dominated by Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a nasty little priest who, of course, attempts to sexually abuse Ignacio. The boy manages to resist his advances, though the father, not quite brazen enough to successfully use his powerful status to complete the seduction, keeps giving it the old college try. Ignacio and Enrique begin some bumbling efforts towards their own sexual experiences. When Manolo catches them, Ignacio, unbeknownst to his friend, agrees to give in to what the priest wants him to do, if he won’t expel Enrique. Unfortunately, Ignacio gets fucked twice over, since his first love gets sent packing anyway.

This back story gets told fairly clearly, but not much else afterwards is so straightforward. In Angel’s story, Ignacio grows up to be a drag queen who threatens Manolo with exposure of their past – all written down in a story within the story – but doesn’t quite have the skills to pull it off. He leaves without a resolution. When Enrique decides to film the story, he changes the script to have Ignacio killed by another priest trying to prevent the blackmail from occurring.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we learn that the real Ignacio has been dead for three years, and that Angel is his younger brother Juan. (This explains why the lovely nudity of Enrique isn’t enough to seduce Angel when they go skinny dipping together, in a hot scene of sexual frustration and beauty.) Then we learn that Manolo is no longer a priest.

As Juan/Angel portrays his brother’s drag persona Zahara in the film, Enrique meets the very ill Manolo, who tells his tale of the two brothers. Now, we see the adult Ignacio not as a transvestite, but as a junkie transsexual with two enormous fake breasts and not much else in the way of surgery. He is bribing Manolo, but the ex-priest has become obsessed with Juan, who is not above stringing him along with sex in exchange for gifts. (The scene wherein Juan uses his new Super 8 camera to film one of their trysts – remember, this is 1977, a time not only pre-AIDS, but pre-video recorders – is a hilarious and mildly disgusting bit.)

Juan decides Ignacio has to die because he is ripping off his mother, and Manolo, who doesn’t have enough money to pay off both brothers, is ready to go along. So, Juan scores some extra-pure heroin, and Manolo gives it to Ignacio, who falls onto his typewriter in a particularly juicy neo-Hitchcockian death. (Hitchcock’s ghost was almost certainly hanging out in Almodovar’s studio when they filmed this flick.)

Who are we going to believe? This looks like the truth, and everybody pays the consequences as if it were the truth. Enrique loses his obsession with Juan and Ignacio; Manolo has no more chance of ever getting Juan back (as if he ever did), and Juan has nobody left in his corner but the make-up girl who, in the postscript, he eventually marries.

I’m leaving out so much of what makes the film great, because I haven’t mentioned the Bernard Herrman style score mixed with Spanish music (including a cool rock’n’roll cut from the 60s), the spectacular splash of bright colors, the extravagant cutting between odd long shots and tight close-ups, the bits of humor, the juxtaposition of erotic scenes with attention to other details. If I see this again sometime, I’ll look to see if there are obvious clues to the shifting points of view; the first time through, I was too dizzy just keeping up with the delirious motion of it all to catch anything subtle.

Another way of looking at the ending is to see it as a way of balancing the beginning. Enrique and Juan have just definitively parted, and nothing can move in this film without their relationship. The opening shot, appearing at the tale end of some of the coolest film credits I’ve ever seen, is a closeup of one of Enrique’s movie posters. The only motion in the first few seconds is of his hand cutting out a newspaper story. Then Juan arrives at the door, and the motion begins. When Juan leaves at the end, everything stops, and we are left with words, just as we were when he was not there. (In the middle, after Juan couldn’t bring himself to sleep with Enrique (yet), and he left town, Enrique was back to cutting out another story; he cannot move without this object of desire.) These words are not necessarily any more believable than the tabloid stories; in fact, the most unbelievable of them all may be that Enrique went on to make more movies.

So, did Almodovar discover this tale in a tabloid clipping? Or is it autobiographical? Or is he playing around with the sources of artistic inspiration? Can a film spring fully formed from the stuff of life, or does it need to be blended with seeds of other sources of imagination? Good questions all, and while I have my own versions of the answers, I’m not sure they’re the only ones possible after watching “Bad Education.”

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