Pain and Glory: How to Tell a Love Story in 5 Minutes

In today’s day and age, speed is what matters most. You don’t want to bore the viewer. You want to deliver him the most vital information in the shortest amount of time. You want him to experience feelings within a short time span. You want him to get the juice of the story before he decides to switch channels or fast-forward, which, let’s admit it, we all do.  One could say that the main challenge for a filmmaker is to give the viewer what he wants when he wants it. Not an easy thing to do considering how simple it is then to mess up the crucial part of the story or worse yet, mess up the whole movie. Fortunately, Pedro Almodovar, the legendary Spanish film director of the modern melodrama, embraces this challenge in his latest Oscar-nominated film, Pain and Glory.

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Salvador is in a world of pain.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a chronically ill film director who is at a point in his life where pain is overshadowing his creativity, to the point that an old friend of his turns him onto heroin. The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s past as a young boy in rural Spain, travelling with his mom to a new house in the countryside (which turns out to be a cave) and attending high school at a seminary for priests, to his pain-filled present, with him lying around his house, struggling to get up from bed and refusing to get back to work on a new project. However, halfway through the film, Salvador’s old friend and actor Alberto Crespo, with whom Salvador had a falling out on his most acclaimed movie thirty years prior, digs up a monologue that Salvador had stored away in his computer. The monologue turns out to be, in Alberto’s opinion, the director’s greatest, most personal piece of work, and the actor insists on putting it up at a local theater. What follows, is the movie’s best five minutes of runtime.

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The staged monologue.

The premise to Salvador’s love story is in the scenes where Alberto recites the monologue to an audience. The monologue recounts the film director’s early days in Madrid in the 80s, where he had to put his career on hold in order to take care of his boyfriend, who at the time was struggling with a heroin addiction. This premise is painful. As painful as Salvador’s present day illness. What Alberto does not know, however, is that Salvador’s real-life former lover is in the audience watching his performance. Tears streaming down his face. A broken smile. A slight twitch to his eyes. Turns out he’s in Madrid for work and decides to pay Salvador a visit after the show.

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Federico in the audience.

With this in mind, we enter the best five minutes of the entire film. Five minutes which will serve to tell the love story of a lifetime. The two lovers meet in Salvador’s apartment. They’ve both aged. They’re both worn down. They’ve both moved on. And yet, the moment they see each other, it’s like time stopped in their days of youth. Almodovar’s simple and effective staging of this scene allows us to savor every moment of this  long-awaited reunion because we already know the backstory thanks to the preceding monologue, where through Alberto’s performance we learned of our protagonist’s most painful secrets and memories.
The tears have already been shed. We know what both Salvador and his former lover, Federico, have gone through together. Thus, in the five-minute-long reunion there is no need to go back down memory lane. Salvador and Federico can remain in the present moment. As an audience we are aware of how incredibly important the moment they are about to share is and thus Almodovar can play this scene without directly addressing us. We are already in it.

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Sharing a glass of Tequila.

Their conversation is bare. Simple. Federico tells Salvador about his current life in distant Buenos Aires. His restaurant. His kids. His parents. But from time to time, there is a spark between the two in the form of brief moments that allude to a shared past, when Salvador says, ”I needed Madrid. I also needed you. But not in that state.” And Federico replies, ”Love is not enough to save the person you love. You say it in your monologue.” 
Almodovar proceeds to unravel the love story through the acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence. Like any good filmmaker, he believes the viewer is up to the challenge of putting the pieces from the monologue together without having the characters explicitly have to re-tell their backstory. The weight of how much this scene means is entirely up to you to figure out for yourself. When Salvador says, ”You didn’t interrupt anything, Federico. On the contrary, you filled my life like nothing and nobody has filled it until now,” it hits particularly strong, because by now we’ve witnessed how empty and trivial Salvador’s current life seems on the surface. Like a sudden plot twist, we are unexpectedly met with this rich, absorbing love story that has already taken place. We are only allowed to witness the remains of it. Almodovar achieves this without the use of flashbacks perhaps because the past Salvador and Federico have shared is better to be re-lived in the present as it is. Live the moment, not the memory (which, ironically enough is something that Salvador does throughout the entire film, except for this scene.)

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Some feelings…

The two smile looking at each other, maintaining a distance while sitting in Salvador’s living room and sipping on a glass of Tequila. But their eyes are watery. And their smiles are just like Federico’s broken smile when he was listening to the staged monologue. There is a long, rocky story behind them. And only they have access to the full version. And that is how you tell a love story in five minutes. You give the viewer an idea, a suggestion, but you trust him enough to expand on it by himself. You don’t give him cues. You don’t push him toward a clear answer. You keep him in the dark. You give him a flashlight and tell him, ”Go ahead.” And you’ll see for yourself, the pay-off to such a scene is devastatingly moving.

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…never fade away.

Like a Playlist

David Lynch once said;

“I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

These words ring incredibly true since since most audiences want their films to be straightforward, accessible, easy enough to understand, simple enough to accompany their hot nachos with cheese sauce dripping all over the floor. Is that really what movies are for? To make things simple? Some, of course, yes. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed with the family, the girlfriend, boyfriend; movies with loud explosions, witty dialogue, packed with action and a smart plot, something along the lines of the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys, RockyThe Wolf of Wall Street, etc. The second category is the one that demands a viewer’s full immersion; a complete dedication to the viewing experience. The director of the film needs you to get sucked into the world of the film he or she are presenting to you. Otherwise it’s pointless. David Lynch is one of them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. But above all, Terrence Malick is one of them. And his latest film, Song to Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, is the ultimate piece of evidence to this statement.

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Are you ready for the adventure?

Malick, a wealthy biologist and oilman, as well as one of the most introvert film directors that have ever walked the earth, presented the movie himself at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Yes, a man who has been avoiding cameras, award shows and interviews for the past 40 years finally emerged on the surface of an indie film festival to present his latest movie about love. What this could mean is that Song to Song holds something special, not only for the audience, but for the director himself. What could be the reason for this? As I watched the film a few nights ago, I realized how Malick’s incredibly intricate take on life really is. We know and love him for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, his most accessible works that proved he had enough skill to go from making indie road movies to making large-scale war epics in a span of 20 years. But then something happened and Malick went from seeing directing movies as a hobby more than anything else to dishing out a film every 2-3 years, (3 in the last year and a half!) and doing this by using a very alienated style of filmmaking that has been perceived by most audiences as a ‘pretentious, slow, plotless bore.’

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You have to be ready, because Malick doesn’t let up.

Song to Song may not be his most accessible film. It isn’t. But it has the same emotional kick that The Tree of Life had, the last film that saw Malick be up for an Academy Award in 2011, and that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups lacked.  What makes it stand out from the rest of his improvised, slow, meandering epics, is that it manages to portray life, and people dealing with it, in an extremely honest and heartbreaking manner. While The Tree of Life focused on the concept of family, and successfully so, and while To the Wonder  and Knight of Cups dealt with very little, in fact remaining an unfocused artsy mess, Song to Song talks about the concept of love using all the tools Malick’s collected over the years of experience. Love is not easy to capture on camera. Most love stories don’t succeed in delivering the right message. Aside from La La Land, there’s not a love story that I can think of worth considering in the last couple of years. Then along comes Malick and his bold vision of love makes you realize how great the cinematic medium can be at times.

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Malick and Lubezki at their finest.

Here, Malick delivers the oldest, most well known story in the book: a love triangle, two good friends, a musician (Ryan Gosling) and a music producer (Michael Fassbender) falling in love with the same girl (Rooney Mara). What at first seems like the usual snooze-fest of falsified emotions for the screen, soon turns into a compelling character study that uses time, as per Malick’s tradition, to tell the story the right way – the only way. Malick, similarly to what Lynch said, does not want the viewer to understand what happens on the silver screen. He wants the viewer to imagine what happens, and he does this by telling what could have been the most linear story out there in a way most filmmakers would not dare to. Song to Song works like a music playlist turned on ‘shuffle mode’.  It jumps from song to song, from album to album, changing melodies, moods and tones. It plays with different emotions at different times, and all of this is never meant to reach an end, just like a playlist set on ‘repeat’. At first, we meet the characters, who introduce themselves by looking devastated, shell shocked, victims of something that has happened not so long ago. Again, we are not meant to understand, we are meant imagine what song has just finished playing and what song is about to come on next. We cannot predict it. We can only imagine. And that is how this film develops from that point on.

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Who are we, really?

Soon, the two friends get into an argument and two different women appear alongside Rooney Mara’s character. One is broken and self-destructive (Natalie Portman’s character), the other one is mature and experienced enough to know when it’s time to go away (Cate Blanchett’s character). Malick shapes these relationships like Polaroid snapshots; quick, unfocused snapshots that serve as a temporary time capsule. As viewers, we witness specific moments in each relationship; the first kiss, the first argument, the first disconnection and the first realization of how things really are. All of these moments mean nothing on their own, just like snapshots. But once Malick puts them together, creates a photo album out of them, that’s when it all comes around like a strong tide rushing in to blow over the sand. It is only then that we start seeing the bigger picture, and that is, Malick’s incredibly unique take on life.

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A simple love story.

With the help of one of the greatest living cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick uses his camera like a spy. We get the chance to go through empty hallways, enter concert stages and observe our protagonists from a safe distance. Every now and then, the camera pushes in close, almost in a threatening manner, in order for us to get a better look at what our characters really think and feel, which leads me to my next point about Malick’s take on life. Most people act as if his characters (especially Ben Affleck’s from To the Wonder and Christian Bale’s from Knight of Cups) are nothing but empty, shallow cartoon characters with paper-thin background and paper-thin everything. In some cases it may seem so. But in Song to Song we get the complete opposite. Only a fool could not read the facial expressions of our protagonists. The voice-over, a vital element of every single Malick film, does not mean a thing in this case – it is useless. Song to Song plays out like a silent movie accompanied by two elements – music (ranging from hard rock to classical, hip-hop to religious chants) and character’s close-ups. In the rare instances we get to be close to each character, we get a slice of honest, clear emotions. Malick does, in fact, bring the best out of his cast. Mara plays her usual innocent-looking self but this time, cuts deeper than usual. Same goes for the rest of the players. They are like songs. They hit different notes at different times their interpretation varies based on time and their presentation. Take Fassbender’s character, for example. He’s the greedy producer, the wealthy jackass who got rich thanks to other people’s talent. At times we interpret his greed as mean-spirited, evil and crooked, as he snorts lines of coke, goes from party to party and mistreats people around him. And yet, at times his character’s greed is presented as a method of self-defense against loneliness, alienation and disappointment. His only weapon. His only way of being. Like life, Fassbender’s character is a messy, off-beat song that never quite reaches a stable melody. It never sounds the same way.

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A hand – threatening and gentle at the same time.

Going from location to location, moving across time and space, across desert landscapes, city streets and beautiful sunsets, Song to Song injects life into a simple love story that could have been the biggest misfire in Malick’s career. We get to observe characters that are intricate and real. Some are too broken to be repaired, like Natalie Portman’s character, who cannot cope with the weight of life and a newly-found love. Others wish they could turn back the clock, like Rooney Mara’s character, who acts like a little girl, afraid of what can possibly await her on the next turn. The two friends never clash with their emotions. Like in life, there is a certain understanding right below the surface that never allows them to express themselves explicitly face-to-face. They are trapped. And that’s partly the beauty of how this story is told. Don’t let IMDb’s 5.8 rating fool you. This is a movie that has the ability to speak by being silent. Whereas other directors would have inserted unnecessary dialogue, Malick remains silent, letting the camerawork, the music and the actors do the work. It is not a masterpiece but it is an experience. It treats life head-on and does not let up for a second. Most importantly, it never tries to understand itself. It simply is. Like life. Like the next song on a playlist.

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Let it sweep you off your feet.

 

Forever Gazing

What is that one thing we can’t put our finger on ? That one feeling, that sense of burning right in our guts that we can’t put out? That tremendous force that gives us strength in our weakest moments?
Love has been the subject of many, many, many, many movies. Some bad, some horrible, some good, some very good, and then there is John Cassavetes and Krzysztof Kieślowski. I’ll write about Cassavetes some other time. Today I’ll focus solely on the man himself, the angel of cinema; quite simply –  Kieślowski. His films were always stripped naked, torn apart and put back together. They were and still are to this day, in my opinion, the essence of cinema. They embody the power a film can carry, be it political, emotional or physical. Krzysztof Kieślowski was in my eyes both a student and a professor. By creating his movies, doing what he loved, he learned a lot and he taught a lot. His films weren’t just celluloid moving pictures – they were tales, parables, poems and reports. After having spent most of his early career making documentaries, he had the natural eye of a hawk. He wanted to know more about why we are here and why we act a certain way. He studied violence (A Short Film About Killing), he studied the concept of a soul (The Double Life of Veronique), he studied betrayal and spirituality (Decalogue: Two, Decalogue: One), he studied grief and anger (Three Colors: Blue), he studied chance and fate (Blind Chance), and after all of this, he also studied one of the most complex themes in movie history: love in A Short Film About Love (the extended version of Decalogue: Six).

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Tomek.

What made it so special? What was so accurate and poignant about  Kieślowski’s take on love? Well, for starters it presented love in a difficult situation. Tomek, the young protagonist, is lonely and misunderstood. His only way of approaching the woman he is so in love with is by spying on her through a stolen telescope. The woman he spies on is much older than him. She is also lonely, just like him, but manifests it differently; by inviting each night a different lover to her apartment. Tomek’s love is a hardship. He witnesses as Magda makes love with countless nobodies, men who do not appreciate her the way Tomek does. And it’s nothing physical. Kieślowski is not vulgar at all. Love is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy that can be crushed by anything at anytime. It is incredibly fragile. If someone sees him spying on Magda, it’s over. If Magda turns her back to him, it’s over. If the telescope malfunctions, it’s over.

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When the observed becomes the observer.

Kieślowski’s camera is again, an object meant for spying. We are spying someone who’s spying someone else at the same time. It is as if the director wanted us to feel Tomek’s pain, angst and fear of being discovered. Like all of Kieślowski’s films, this one is very personal and I think it doesn’t only apply to me or Kieślowski himself but to all of you too. Magda begins to watch Tomek. Everything all of a sudden turns upside down. She wants to observe her observer. She wants to feel what he feels. She wants to taste something she hasn’t tasted in a long time. Is love only a game of who watches who?
Piesiewicz, long time screenwriting partner of Kieślowski, and Kieślowski manage to add a flavor of simplicity, youth and uncertainty to this unique study. Their version of love is not sexual. Their version of love is beautiful but also dangerous and cruel. It can be both fatal and life saving. It’s a feeling that can keep you trapped for the rest of your life. And in a way, as we watch the story unfold (and all of the Decalogue, really) we get a feeling we’re trapped with the characters  living in an austere apartment block in communist Warsaw (the series was filmed in 1987, but released world wide only ten – fifteen years later). We find ourselves stuck the whole time between two windows opposite each other; Magda’s and Tomek’s. What is the point Kieślowski’s trying to make? Is love’s strength limited? Is it painful and monotonous? Can it be cut in half? That’s the thing with Kieślowski. He doesn’t give you answers. He formulates ideas, he paints heartbreaking and honest pictures, he suggests to you, his audience, to pay attention to a certain theme or emotion, and then he lets it flow.

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Love is life. Without love there is no hope. Without hope there is no future, and how can there be no future? Yes, no matter how sad, melancholic, brutal and honest Kieślowski’s films are, especially A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, there is always hope. There is always something we look forward to. The taste in your mouth at the end of his movies can be bitter. The feeling in your stomach can be prickly. But whatever happens, there is always something. Here, Tomek looks up at Magda, and there is a vibration, and intensity between them. In Kieślowski’s movies the simplest of all things can become significant – a look, a blink of an eye, a gesture, a hint of a smile, a bit of love.

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The simplest of all things…