Gilbey on Film: Curious collaborations

Our critic picks five unlikely couplings from the world of cinema

The past few days have felt like a variation on one of those "key parties" that provided such grisly amusement in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm; all weekend there were two needy partygoers left vying for the single set of car keys languishing in the bowl. Then Gordon Brown excused himself from the undignified dance, volunteering an as-yet-undecided junior to take his place in Nick Clegg's groovy waterbed (to stretch the Ice Storm analogy). Once we become accustomed to that idea, it was time to grapple once again with the spectre of a Clegg-Cameron love-in ("Clegg to be Cameron's deputy PM", tweeted Mark Thomas after chucking-out time at the Lib-Dem meeting, "though in Eton they still call it fagging"). Ever since the early hours of 7 May, this country has been forced to consider the prospect of strange bedfellows in all their permutations.

So now we know it's Cameron and Clegg. Or Cameron and Osborne, with Clegg on the Z-bed. But let's be optimistic, if only for the sake of variety. Offbeat collaborations can sometimes yield unforeseen advantages. Don't press me on the details right now, but take heart instead from the list below of random, film-related odd-couplings or unusual rapprochements. All have produced ripples of pleasure, even if some of them might appear initially to go together about as well as Adam Boulton and Alastair Campbell.

Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl

Olivier's disdain for his co-star in this 1957 film (adapted by Terrence Rattigan from his own fizzy play The Sleeping Prince) is by now notorious. Judge for yourself if the rancour is kept entirely off-screen when the picture is screened this week at London's BFI South Bank as part of a season celebrating its cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (who would rank as a legend even if he had shot nothing but his Powell and Pressburger hat-trick -- A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes).

David Lynch and a $45m science-fiction shaggy-dog story

New light is shed on the folly of Lynch's Dune by this six-minute excerpt from the video diary of one its stars, Sean Young. Sting chows down in the catering tent, Jurgen Prochnow trips up, Francesca Annis flashes her underwear and Young provides some distracted theories on what she considers to be Lynch's failure of nerve.

Bill Murray and Emily Dickinson (and others)

The reigning genius of US comic cinema reads poetry to New York construction workers. Obviously. Like the man says -- "A pretty nice piece of bliss..."

Lynne Ramsay and the pop promo

A season of Ramsay's work would barely fill an afternoon. Good job it's all so original and absorbing. While we await her film of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, here are two different edits -- one here, another here -- of her video for the 2005 Doves single, "Black and White Town." Her mastery of the shorter form remains as assured as it was in early shorts like Gasman and Small Deaths; this promo plays like an x-ray of the people who pass before the lens. Ramsay proves the adage that most of a director's work is done in the casting. Look at these kids' faces, at once lamblike and yet so hard and angular they could have been bashed into shape on an anvil. Also, watching this makes you realise what a vital influence she has been on fellow Brits: the most visually striking films of the last two or three years -- Red Road, Fish Tank, Hunger, Better Things and Helen -- have all followed in her trail.

Blondie and Bond

Debbie Harry gives it the full Shirley Bassey in Blondie's live romp through "Goldfinger" for German TV in 1977. Feisty fun, though it lacks the daredevil thrill of Tommy McCook's reggae twist on the evergreen Bond theme. (As a not-unconnected bonus, here are Arctic Monkeys with "Diamonds Are Forever" from Glastonbury 2007.)

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser