Today in art house cinemas, professional film programmers link together films that complement one another –a kindred theme, a particular star or director. However, home streaming habits often involve off-the-cuff double bills – based on whims, whimsy, or whatever titles most recently were released by Hulu, Amazon Prime, or Netflix.
The other evening, I watched two features just because they had risen to the top of my movies-to-see list. They happened to be Meeting Gorbachev and Pain and Glory. After viewing the films, I realized I had created an interesting double bill, just by chance.
Meeting Gorbachev is a traditional documentary about Mickhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union. It was made by a world class filmmaker, Werner Herzog. He is a prominent member of the New German Cinema movement, and Roger Ebert and Francois Truffaut praised him to the heavens. I do not disagree. Herzog is known for Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre, and many other fictional films and documentaries.
Through a series of interviews with Herzog asking the questions and Gorbachev answering, we learn about the work this “good Russian” accomplished in the mid-late 20th Century with Ronald Reagan and other leaders. We have interviews with fellow statesmen, plus newsreel and television footage showing Gorbachev in his years of service.
Gorbachev is praised for his good work. He is said to have ended the Cold War. He eased human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. The documentary is very kind to him, downplaying negative aspects of his career, such as standing by as the Soviet Union collapsed, which brought about economic woes and the rise of Vladimir Putin. Even so, Herzog has given us a solid, informational work.
It was an interesting double bill with internationally successful Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory because both films are cinematic biography, or at least cinematic memoir. Herzog uses the most conventional methods to depict the life of Gorbachev and convey Gorbachev’s own take on his life. Almodovar has a similar mission, however he uses highly creative cinematic approaches.
Pain and Glory is Almodovar’s quite unique look at his own life -- lived not always well. He chooses to portray his personal experiences in the genre of semi-fictional memoir. His lead character is a film director named Salvador Mallo. Notice that the letters in the character’s name are those of Almodovar. Mallo is interpreted by Antonio Banderas, whose professional relationship with Almodovar goes back to the filmmaker’s first international hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. In some scenes, Banderas actually wears clothes belonging to Almodovar to further connect the character to its truth.
At 70, Almodovar reports that he is no longer the social butterfly he used to be. The character Mallo is the same. I can remember my friend Karen telling me that at an opening night party for The New York Film Festival years ago, Almodovar was the belle of the ball. Karen was vying with Lauren Bacall and other big names just to have a few words with him. He was all mischievous smiles and loving the attention. This was 30 years ago. Now he tells interviewers that socializing exhausts him. In the film, Mallo has a number of debilitating maladies, and he often chokes on just a sip of water. Pain and Glory includes scenes of Mallo’s pre-adolescent days, his first desire for a male body, his strongest romantic relationship, his problems with creating more artistic works, and his last experiences with his beloved mother.
Parasite beat out its chances for an Oscar, but that fact does not diminish its importance as a remarkable work of creativity. Pain and Glory may be a memoir film about an artist who has trouble working, but ironically Pain and Glory has turned out to be a major work of art.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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