On Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Other Insufferable Tosh

Saturday, June 20, 2009, 8:24 PM

I posted on Twitter this morning about having watched Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona last night, and that I hadn't disliked a movie so much in ages. There were a few comments on my Facebook wall in response, so I thought I'd elaborate here, and tie it in to another topic that's been floating around the Interwebs in recent days.

Sometimes a film is poorly made; sometimes it has a turgid script, or bad acting, or uninspiring photography, or any number of faults. I can't say Vicky Cristina Barcelona (henceforth known as VCB) had any such flaws. It was certainly a well-crafted film, as one would expect from Woody Allen. But I used the word 'dislike'. There are many movies that I think are bad, but there are few I actually dislike. Because dislike is personal. Dislike means something in the film actually bothered me. One film I dislike, for instance, is The Devil's Own. I don't dislike The Devil's Own because it's a formulaic and predictable thriller; I dislike it because it displays a shocking ignorance of, and insensitivity to, its own subject matter.

I approached VCB with a positive frame of mind. For one thing, I have visited Barcelona three times, and it is one of my favourite places on earth. For another, I generally have a lot of time for Woody Allen. And yet another, the movie has an excellent cast, and not just in terms of eye candy. Thus, I was hopeful as I inserted the Blu-Ray into my player.

I think the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard feeling began about fifteen minutes in. The problem was this: these characters meant nothing to me. The story, in a nutshell, centres on two young women summering in Barcelona. They are approached and individually seduced by a local artist, and matters are further complicated by his unstable ex-wife. All well and good. But then my inverted snob started to rear his ugly head.

The two young women had no visible means of support. One is studying for a Masters in Catalan culture (as an aside, all the Catalan characters strangely spoke Castilian Spanish, rather than Catalan, which is the dominant language of the region), while the other had just spent many months making a twelve minute film. In other words, they were trust fund kids, living off their fathers' money while arsing about in Europe. In yet other words, they were feckless young adults who had grown up with no idea of the realities of life or the issues that affect most people day to day. While they're mooning around, whinging about the pain of love and desire and commitment, real people are working their guts out and wondering if they can make the next mortgage payment. When the intrusive narrator (and that was one specifically bad part I neglected to mention) tells us how the artist, played by the excellent Javier Bardem, bought his beautiful house with its rambling rooms and gardens from another artist, he neglects to tell us how the artist paid for it. I don't know a single artist who can afford anything other than a normal standard of living, at best, let alone a life of luxury. Then along comes Penelope Cruz, playing a deranged ex-wife whose deep love for the artist drives her to violent rage while she drives us to slap her about the head and shoulders.

So, despite their good fortune in life, these four characters are not a happy bunch. I wish I could afford to be that bloody miserable. While I didn't grow up in poverty, things were tough. I know my mother often went without so that us kids could have basics like shoes or milk money for school. I grew up in a house where a can of Coca Cola was a special occasion luxury. By special occasion, I mean Christmas, or the time I nearly lost my little finger to a school gate, and I got a can of Coke for being brave as the doctors worked on my damaged hand. How can someone like me (not to mention anyone who grew up in real hardship) be expected to feel anything but contempt for a cast of characters who are so vacuous and self-absorbed as those in Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Is there a film genre specifically for those privileged few who have been cushioned from reality all their lives?

As I watched the movie, all the time resisting the urge to just press the Stop button, I couldn't help but think of recent online debates on literary versus genre fiction. There was the Esquire article, and Jason Pinter's response, and then this little gem brought to my attention by Lisa Kenney via Facebook. The argument in that second piece was basically that if the unwashed masses would only give literary fiction a chance, we might have an epiphany and forever leave the intellectual deserts of our crime and romance books, and discover the delightful oases of cerebrally challenging and important works at the higher end of the market.


There is good and bad in all fiction, whatever the genre. And whatever some might like to think, literary is just another genre, a means of organising the shelves in bookstores. I have read as many works from the literary shelf as any other genre. Some of it was brilliant, some of it was tosh. But here's the problem with literary fiction versus other genres: bad literary fiction is insufferable. I simply can't endure the kind of middle-class navel gazing that bogs down the literary field. Good crime novels are just as capable of shining a light on the human condition as good literary fare. Bad thrillers may be unbelievable, shallow, or even manipulative, but bad literary novels are self-important and pretentious. And worst of all, bad literary novels, and bad art-house movies for that matter, are just plain dull.

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Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Uh, no, it is not a well-crafted film (some Woody Allen film's are masterpieces, and others are drek - is that the same as tosh?)

Here's why, for starters:

Disjointed story telling at its worst. Annoying VO narrator. Hello! Telling, not showing.

Vicky, in the beginning, sounds just like the neurotic characters Woody played in his early films (Hello! Author intrusion!) instead of the character she settles into later in the second act.

It's funny when it's Woody delivering the glib neurotic lines because you know he's not even acting, but when another actor is his surrogate - it's like watching a bad puppet show.

Interersting premise of a couple who's troubled relationship is much improved by the addition of a third person, but ultimately it's an excuse for pervert Woody Allen to get to watch Scarlett and Penelope make out.

Sub-plot characters/storylines feel tacked-on, not necessarily woven into main plot....

Contrived, cliched conflict.

Patricia Clarkson is wasted here; just last night watched ELEGY, wherein she played much the same character, but to much more dramatic effect.

Javier Bardem *sigh* Good movie? Bad movie? Who cares? It's Javier!

I just put CASSANDRA'S DREAM on reserve at library. Woody's making some great thrillers these days. Who knew?

Have you seen MATCH POINT? Certainly shows the same people-of-privlige but that's very much part of the plot in much the same way Highsmith uses it in RIPLEY books - about a down-and-out working class guy wanting to infiltrate the world of the idle rich.

So much more interesting when it's what drives the plot than when it's the distracting back-drop that Stuart describes.

MATCH POINT is much better crafted than this film.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Of course, I'm still reeling over the fact that Mr. Windswept-and-rugged-the-famous-hand-model nearly lost a finger!

9:35 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I really can't stand Woody Allen, to the tune of turning off every film I ever had the misfortune to come across within two minutes. I mean I CAN'T STAND the man or his films. So no worries here; I won't be wasting my time or money.

And I don't really like romances either, whether they go well or are doomed to fail miserably. So strike two.

And gee, you said such nice things about it...

Strike three. It won't make my list.

I always turn off films I don't like. Carlin won't, though. What is it with you men, wasting your time like that? Wouldn't your time be better served staring at the wall or a game or something?

10:26 PM  
Blogger freddie said...

Even after all that, I still want to see it. I just gotta see Javier Bardem be attractive in something after watching his creepy performance in No Country.

Totally agree with you on the genre vs. lit fiction subject.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the can of Coke, only in our house it was Pepsi, and I never nearly lost my finger in a gate, but we ate lots and lots of spaghettios or peanut butter sandwiches.

I really can't stand Woody Allen, to the tune of turning off every film I ever had the misfortune to come across within two minutes. I mean I CAN'T STAND the man or his films.

OMG, I knew I loved that woman. (Betsy, I mean. Not Woody Allen.)

2:49 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

OMG, I knew I loved that woman.

We srsly have to meet. We live close, you know, Aerin. We're plotting your stalking as we speak...

5:52 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

And yeah, I never got Coke either. Or potato chips. That was for "company".

Now that I can have it all the time, I rarely do...

5:53 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

The trailer alone put me off VCB. So I was spared from enduring the movie.

The flaw I find in the arguement made from the lit fic pov is the separation of art and entertainment. They are, as we know, one.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Mark David Gerson said...

The fingernails-across-the-blackboard feeling kicked in for me almost immediately. And by about 15 minutes in, the screeching was so unbearable that I had to stop.

It's rare that I don't watch a movie all the way through, even rarer that I don't give it at least 20 minutes.

VCB has the dubious distinction of being one of those exceptions. But I could muster up absolutely no interest in these two women or their story...so why bother?

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't seen VCB, this is more about the lit/genre fiction spat.
I've always been of the opinion that literary fiction is not a genre so much as something that is defined by not fitting into any other genre.

To my mind it's harder to work inside an established genre with all the various tropes and expectations and create something genuinely fresh and entertaining than it is to write something that has no rules to abide by/subvert.

I'll happily read ten passable genre books rather than wade through one turgid self-consciously-literary "work".

I'm allergic to prose that is purple, could just be me though...

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually love Woody Allen. Years ago I approached his films cringing with caution, but with time, became a convert. After enjoying a few out-loud laughs during "Whatever Works," I thought I'd rent this film in anticipation of his good-old reliable self-absorption, which he did deliver. However everything I liked about this film was deleted forever by, as you so well put it, "the shocking ignorance of, and insensitivity to, (the film's) own subject matter." I lived in Barcelona, a place where the Catalans have been aching to separate from the rest of Spain, even insisting that courses in all schools are taught in Catalan. Their culture is distinctly different - and they are (rightly) proud of it: the music, the cuisine, a completely different language than that spoken throughout the film, Castilian. Many Catalans, if asked, do not know, or have any interest in, flamenco music, an import from the south of the country. And Mr. Hottie, who reminded me of a past-it torero or mis-cast boxer, was so UN Catalan that it was grating - as any visit to that region or better, the studios of Catalan artists (such as in the village where Catalan artist Salvador Dali lived) will bear out. Vicky's pseudo intellectual drive to "study Catalan culture" ran vapid to me, which I thought might play out as her character developed, but in fact, never did. Another huge flaw - the narrator: who - and why? And Vicky's fiance/husband, a Nice Guy, was unfairly portrayed as a silly American and poked fun of simply because he had those American traits...and loved her. I mean, we all knew he would never be able to match his unshaven rival the moment he spoke on his cellphone. Meanwhile the stereo-typed, raging Latina ex-wife, well-played by Cruise, was sadly out of place in Catalunya.

8:42 AM  

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