Monday, December 15, 2008

El Ultimo Trago

I had fond fantasies of doing a lot of writing last weekend, but like so many fantasies they failed to materialize. I did manage to read and watch some movies, so I don't feel totally useless. The reading was mostly old Lawrence Block mysteries, originally published in the 60s and 70s under pseudonyms but recently reissued under his real name; but I finally finished reading James Traub's very annoying The Freedom Agenda, which I'll discuss at greater length another day. I also reread Noam Chomsky's pamphlet The Umbrella of U.S. Power, on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, mostly to get the taste of The Freedom Agenda out of my mind; and began Pearl Cleage's 1993 book of essays Deals with the Devil, and other reasons to riot. I'm also going through Alan's War, a graphic novel/memoir by the French artist Emmanuel Guibert about a young American's experiences during and after World War II.

The movies I watched were, first, The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), an action film starring Geena Davis and directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin. Davis plays a former CIA assassin who emerges from eight years of amnesia and thwarts an Agency plan to fake a terrorist attack in the US. Of course, it will be a real attack, killing 4000 people, but it will be blamed on "the Muslims." This scene has apparently excited a number of people who see it as a foreshadowing, if not a prophecy, of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks... which reminds me, I've been meaning to do a post on conspiracy theories, but that too will come later on.

I hadn't watched The Long Kiss Goodnight in several years, but having just bought the DVD, I sat down Saturday afternoon and had a look at it. Like most action movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight isn't particularly coherent, but it has some good set pieces. I spent too much time looking online for a clip of one of my favorite scenes to embed here, where Davis's character kills a hitman in an alley, but no luck.

Sunday I watched Pedro Almodóvar's La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret), the 1995 melodrama that makes a sort of fulcrum between his earlier 'outrageous' films and his later 'mature' ones. I had also watched Flor before and was curious to see it if it would move me as much as it had the first time. It didn't quite do so, but I still enjoyed it. It's a little less color-coordinated than many of his later films, which share with his earlier work a tendency to bright, almost blinding primary colors. Here the production design is generally more subdued. The script may not hold together as well as, say, Volver or All About My Mother -- I haven't really made up my mind about that -- but it has some deeply felt emotion, with a minimum of campy irony.

Flor is the story of Leocadia Macías (Marisa Paredes), whose ability to write the trashy romance novels (under the nom de plume Amanda Gris) that have made her well-off is deteriorating along with her marriage. Grasping at straws, she decides to try writing literary criticism for a newspaper literary supplement, which leads her into an ambiguous friendship with Ángel (Juan Echanove). Ángel is a grey-bearded, red-eyed butterball, in contrast to Leo's handsome, lean and hungry-looking husband Paco (Imanol Arias), a career military man on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia. I'd quickly and uncharacteristically developed a crush on Ángel the first time I saw Flor, and he's even cuter now. One thing that had prompted me to revisit this movie was the remark of some critic that Ángel is gay, which I hadn't remembered and wanted to check. I don't see it. Presumably the critic made this leap because of Ángel's passion for old movies like Casablanca and his fondness for Amanda Gris' romances. But he seems to be interested romantically in Leo, and I didn't see any subtext.

Still, I enjoyed seeing La Flor de mi Secreto again, and will probably return to it sometime. Another attraction for me in Almodóvar's films is his use of music. There's a scene in Flor where Leo, having hit bottom pretty hard, sits in a coffeeshop while a gorgeous old woman in a red poncho sings on the TV. I liked the song and the performance, so I looked for it in the credits: it's "En el Ultimo Trago" by Chavela Vargas. I couldn't find a clip of that performance online, but the one at the beginning of this post will give you some idea of it. Vargas was born in Costa Rica in 1919, but moved to Mexico as a teenager and built a career there. Almodóvar apparently is a friend of hers and has used her music in several of his films. In the past few years, she came out as a lesbian, bless her. (According to Wikipedia, there are rumors that she and Frida Kahlo were once an item.) Look at this 1968 clip of her; she's evidently always been a knockout, as she is to this day.