Tag Archives: I Like to Watch

What I’m Watching at Night: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

A surprising illustration that could double as a storyboard frame for the future Talk to Her twelve years later

Anxiety can be a good thing sometimes, as long as it doesn’t hang around. I worked on the novel for so long that I forgot what it felt like to be in a silent period, to be in a space where a project wasn’t exactly even in working shape. I’m working on stories right now, but not necessarily a collection [1] There’s a novel in note form, but even those lines are scant. Summer is here, though, and a good friend and I are exchanging work on deadline, however shaky the drafts might be. Something is bound to take shape.

It’s folly to openly take inspiration from other artists.[2] A couple of weeks ago, though, Pedro Almodóvar was on my mind, mostly because my friend Chris had sent along The Skin I Live In for my fortieth birthday. I skipped the film in the theater because I had been so disappointed in Broken Embraces and didn’t have the heart to sit through a second dud, especially after I had read the reviews. But after watching The Skin I Live In, I found I was really happy to see that Almodóvar had kept up exploring his own particular notions of identity and shifting relationships, and that even his time demarcations (like the ones that divided Talk to Her) were at once familiar and freshly aligned with new material.

I shouldn’t have been surprised though. In preparation for this film, my friends and I screened his 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which I hadn’t seen since college. I was alert to how his preoccupations have always been evident. Witness this fun shot:

A screw

The visual pun really delighted me, and its placement was harmless enough: if an audience thought it sophomoric, at least it was near the beginning of the picture, where it assisted the tone, but didn’t necessarily interfere. Later, though, I started to recognize what might have been the stirrings of the core of Talk to Her, the diminishment of a male body as it goes in search of its obsession.

The scuba diver in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

In Talk to Her, the scuba diver pun gets extended—thrillingly—into a full-fledged scene, going well beyond a sight gag into an imaginative culmination of what it means to really get inside someone. [3] I like to think it takes a long time for artists of that echelon to recalibrate early obsessions [4] to become not just the money shot itself, but the foundation of scenes with enough dimension to carry other, perhaps unintended, digressions and permutations. It’s the kind of thing that gives me hope—that there’s nothing wrong with going back across previous ideas, that revisiting them sometimes yields even deeper pleasures. After all, I can always count on Almodóvar to give me certain things over and over again, like intriguing title designs, primary color schemes, some great song, and beguiling art/set decorations. And beautiful faces, which always satisfies.

Antonio sleeps (and we can watch him all night)

  1. [1] A story called “High Heels Running in the Rain” came out in Eleven Eleven and a new one, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” is due out next year from Glimmer Train, but I have no idea if they are part of the same book.
  2. [2]There’s always some pendejo in the world who doesn’t know the difference between imply and infer; I’m doing none of the former and hope said pendejo (or -a) does none of the latter.
  3. [3]If you know the film, it may be its most unforgettable sequence, though not necessarily its best.
  4. [4] I suppose this begs the question of my own obsessions, but that’ll have to wait for another time, like when I post about Muriel Spark…
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What I’m Watching at Night: 1949’s Pinky

Jeanne Crain, lit accordingly, lest the audience forget she is white

I still don’t quite know what to make of Elia Kazan’s 1949 risible melodrama Pinky. Netflix was all set to remove the film from my digital queue at the end of May and I hadn’t been exactly chomping at the bit to screen this picture about a young woman who’s been able to pass for white as a nurse in Boston, but returns to her swampy Southern town to deal with her racial truth.

More often than not, the old “racial message” pictures from pre-1970 [1] grate on my nerves, mostly because of how easily they conjure up notions of nobility and righteous suffering.[2] Pinky did little to shake up those notions, but I was also surprised by how timid the script actually was in providing the main character with morally complex scenarios.

It doesn’t take long for Pinky to admit, upon her return home, that she’s been passing for white, much to her dismay of her grandmother Dicey (played by Ethel Waters). But if she’s guilty of any ambiguous behavior, it’s happened offscreen and it’s in the past: the picture begins with that admission, and now Pinky has little to do but accept the shame brought on her grandmother.[3] It isn’t a punishment, exactly, but it’s part of the reason she accepts Dicey’s request to take care of the white neighbor, Miss Em, the owner of a large house with an even larger lawn, where Pinky was once unceremoniously tossed out.[4]

Pinky thinks it over (alone on a bridge in the middle of the swamp, no less)


It’s in the early part of the picture that the most potentially daring turns take place. Pinky’s surprise at how she might have to negotiate her identity anew is showcased in two crucial early scenes. In one, Pinky wanders a murky road in the swamp late at night, and makes the mistake of mouthing off to two white men who offer her a ride. Instead of “passing” for her own safety, she indignantly tells them who she really is. The two men promptly turn on her and, for a briefly alarming moment, the film has the violent charge lurking beneath the danger of passing.[5]

I should know better than to wish a story arc had taken another direction. And I’m well aware that the time period very nearly demanded a more saccharine take on race relations.[6] Yet it’s too bad that the film didn’t take this more electric course, choosing instead to guide Pinky along a thwarted love story (her white boyfriend comes into town looking for her, hardly fazed at all by her past or her real identity) and a courtroom drama (Miss Em’s estate, predictably, is willed to Pinky, only to be contested). The real energy comes in moments when Pinky must be decisive about how she declares her identity, and the audience can intuit the immediate repercussions of her choices. Early on, for example, she very nearly walks away from interrogation when police break up an argument she’s been having with an African-American couple. The policemen treat Pinky quite respectfully, but are coarse with the couple. Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the girlfriend (complete with a switchblade in her stocking), sasses the police officer: “Why you two white men ma’am’in’ her?” she asks, about to reveal Pinky’s secret. “She’s nothing but a lowdown colored gal!”

In the film's single best scene, Pinky already knows the danger in admitting the truth


The remark earns her a slap and, sadly, an early exit from the picture itself, which is really too bad. McKinney’s brief presence on the screen displayed a lot more of the forced silence (and the humiliation engendered by that silence) that should have been apparent in Crain’s performance.[7] Do I blame the spineless script? Perhaps. But by placing one of Pinky’s first decisive moments offscreen (and in Boston, no less), half the drama is already over, and we don’t get to witness the protagonist’s game-changer.[8]

Pinky en chinga, debating late in the film what she really wants from her life

  1. [1] I just screened Hal Ashby’s fascinating The Landlord and will post about it soon.
  2. [2]Or, conversely, how they end up showcasing white guilt, like Sandra Bullock’s embrace of her housekeeper as her only amiga in Crash, a moment that my own mother found laughable.
  3. [3] Jeanne Crain, who played Pinky, earned a Best Actress nomination for this role, perhaps for her convincing collapse at the foot of the bed once she’s endured Ethel Waters’s withering stare. For most of the picture, she adopts a low, wary voice without a lot of variables, like Eleanor Parker after she’s hardened doing a stint in women’s prison in Caged.
  4. [4] To drive home the point of Miss Em’s exclusions, Kazan includes a scene of Pinky returning to the gate, only to find a young African-American girl staring longingly at the estate, an Eden in the midst of the swamp.
  5. [5]Maybe I’m being too hard on Kazan: he helmed the luridly sexualized Baby Doll, with a Tennessee Williams script that wasn’t afraid to keep the simmer high.
  6. [6] They tend to get better as the years go on, from 1959’s Imitation of Life, which has camp qualities as an engine of enjoyment, to the very agreeable (but little seen) A Patch of Blue, from 1965 with Sidney Poitier as a young man who befriends a blind girl (a winningly wistful Elizabeth Hartmann) and Shelley Winters in an Oscar-winning role as her hateful mother.
  7. [7] “Message” pictures often have that problem, since the burden is often on the actor to make up for the script’s lack. And lest you think this is the domain of mainstream cinema, allow me the guilt of association by calling out the unwittingly hilarious Colby Taylor/Jeremy Tucker adult film, Blur, in which a blind Harvard graduate is shunned by his friends for his interracial-dating ways. Give me a nip of bourbon and I might argue that Taylor’s performance is more self-aware than Crain’s. Who knew Harvard issued letterman jackets?
  8. [8]And speaking of witnessing game-changers, and since I’ve already gone off the deep end by bringing up an adult film, why not just finish out the association game and run off into the wilderness with the truly absurd?
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Movie Night: Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry

Tucson isn’t the easiest places to see first-run art films, but I’m surprised by how often they actually arrive. I consider myself lucky to have been able to see two prime big-screen movies this year, Tree of Life and Melancholia, as they were meant to be seen, and while each of them held small disappointments, I found them absorbing enough to (sort of) wish for the days when I could attend films like that at a Sunday matinee at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan, a nine-block walk from my old apartment, with a little stroll in Central Park to think about whatever it was I had seen.

I’m not that contemplative in Tucson and am not always eager to see something on the big screen in the same way. Walking back out to a parking lot just doesn’t have the same appeal. I’ve been better about movie-going this year, though, and maybe my habits will change now that I’m kicking myself over having missed Poetry.

I’m a sucker for films with prominent female leads, and after the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Yun Jung-hee as Best Actress, the film shot to the top of my Netflix queue. Offhand, I may have been dissuaded from seeing it when print reviews reduced the film to a sober drama about an older woman dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s by taking a poetry class. The story is more complex and riveting than that. The film opens with the discovery of a dead girl floating in a river, and the revelations of how and why she got there are a surprising entry point to the otherwise small drama of Mija, the older woman who gets by a tiny government subsidy and some part-time work taking care of a disabled man.

It was difficult not to think about what some writers might have made of the film’s embrace of poetry and observation as a vehicle for self-discovery. “Writing isn’t therapy,” I remember hearing as an undergraduate, but the privilege of putting words to paper is, in this film, brought back to its humanistic root. It’s treated here as a human urge, mostly ignored, that could provide great solace for its practitioners. Sometimes, for writers at a particular level (especially those of us who teach), it’s easy to forget that the act of writing is, for many, the first experience with truly reckoning the self within the world. Writers might recognize the itch for pastoral as soon as the flowers and trees appear, but for Mija, the exhortation to look and involve herself in making meaning turns her into a sharp observer. While there were many shots of Mija looking up into the shifting leaves of a tree or the petals of a flower before she scribbles away, there were also many camera setups which showed her as a newly keen observer of human nature, perhaps even awed by the difficulty of describing what has always been before her.

Indeed, for many of her classmates in the poetry class—the very act of searching for a subject goes hand in hand with self-determination, if not self-worth. At times, the film cuts to various students defining moments of beauty in their own lives: some struggle, but most come up with something, the building blocks for the single poem each is asked to write by the end of the class. Mija’s own life, though, is filled with far larger complications than her silence can potentially hold; for all its quiet pacing, Yun Jung-hee’s performance is tender-hearted on the surface, but her questions about how and why poetry comes to be voiced become the basis for her startling meditation on how poetry can best serve not her voice, but someone else’s. It’s really quite lovely—and startling—to see her progress toward her final act, all the while with some frustration about how others around her fail to see the world with any complication.

The composition of a key confrontation at the kitchen table brought me back to Tree of Life and Melancholia: I may have been dazzled by the cosmos and an encroaching planet, but the small drama at the head of a meager kitchen table may have rewarded me just as richly if I had given it a chance on the big screen.

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