Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Class: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Garlic Mushrooms in Red Wine (Champiñones al Ajillo con Vino Tinto)
Fried Eggplant With Honey, Mint, And Sesame Seeds (Berenjenas Fritas con Miel, Menta y Semillas de Sésamo)
Gazpacho de Pepa
Spinach with Pine Nuts and Raisins (Espinacas con Piñones y Pasas)
Orange & Brandy Pancakes with Cinnamon Ice Cream (Pescajus Naranja con Helado de Canela)

Was very pleased with the class today, though I wished, as always, that we had more people in attendance. Nevertheless, it all went very smoothly. And, as always, big thanks to the staff at Central Market for helping me pull it off.

I've never been a huge fan of Almodóvar's later films, but this one I think is my favorite and his best. It's very skillfully executed but never takes itself too seriously. So many perfectly shot scenes.

The idea to do the film came about because Central Market was doing this whole "Passport to Spain" thing and they asked me to come up a movie to do and this was the first one that popped into my mind, especially for a matinée class. And it was perfect and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it and researching the notes for the class.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is available to purchase from Amazon and is rentable via NetFlix.


"It's easier to learn mechanics than male psychology. You can know a motorcycle from top to bottom. But a man, never."

Pepa, the lead character of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) recites this line, but the same could said of a woman, and certainly of the women in what has been described as a self-aware, post-punk, retro-pop farce. (You like that? I thought I'd toss out all those hyphenated terms all at once.)

"As Raphael used to say, 'men also cry,' but I think women are better at it," wrote writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. "That's why the title is 'Women on the Verge...' and not 'Men....' It's not my point to deny that boys suffer, and that solitude is such a burden as heavy on our shoulders as it is on women's, but... who's interested nowadays on making a film on the subject? I'm definitely not."

While Women on the Verge is a post-modern mix of influences and references to Hollywood films and pop culture, its point of departure began in Almodóvar's desire to film Jean Cocteau's play (actually a one-hour monologue) La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice). The entire play is of a woman on the phone with the man she has just broken up with. It has been filmed most notably twice: in 1948 as one of 3 short films by Italian director Roberto Rossellini, released as L'Amore, and starring Anna Magnani (the film is also known for being the one and only film acting performance by director Federico Fellini); and as an American TV-movie starring Ingrid Bergman in 1966, directed by Ted Kotcheff (who later became known for such films as First Blood & Weekend at Bernie's). In addition, it was turned into an oft-performed one-act opera with music by Francis Poulenc. (As well, Women on the Verge was also turned into a Broadway musical last year, but opened to bad reviews and closed before its initial engagement was up.)

"When I started writing the script for [Women on the Verge], I was thinking about a free adaptation of Cocteau's monologue," Almodóvar recalled. "In that work, the absent lover has no voice, even when he calls her up and she answers the phone, we can't hear him. 'The Human Voice' is hers, recounting the endless catalog of her daily suffering, in contemplation of which she suffocates like down a bottomless well. Because that's what absence is, a black and crystal-clear mirror which only reflects the anguish it sees."

Wanting to expand on the story for a feature-length film, he wound up devising a script about the 48 hours leading up to that call, and in the end a new ending replaced the call - and turned it into a comedy. "Cocteau's La Voix Humaine had utterly disappeared from the text - apart from its original concept, of course; a woman sitting next to a suitcase of memories waiting miserably for a phone call from the man she loves," Almodóvar said. However, he believes he was still being faithful to Cocteau's work: "[I]f Cocteau had been able to see the film or read the script, he would have thought it was absolutely faithful to his idea of the work and to the feelings of this abandoned woman." Almodóvar may have also been influenced by a story by Algonquin Round Table member Dorothy Parker entitled "A Telephone Call," about a woman waiting for a telephone call from her lover.

Speaking of telephones, Women on the Verge, Almodóvar wrote, "is a ferocious attack against telephones and answering machines. It isn't true that humans communicate with one another on the phone. Telephones are good just to show others how little we care about them. And the answering machine is just a tool for liars. For this film I've allowed myself to release my subconscious, and the protagonist throws the telephone out the window twice and the answering machine once."

Why so much anger about telephones? Well, when he first came to Madrid and was saving up to buy his first Super 8mm camera, Almodóvar spent 10 years working at Telefónica, the Spanish telephone company. He has said, "My very presence at Telefónica was rather scandalous; I had long hair and didn’t dress like anyone else. I led a kind of double life. From nine to five, I worked as an administrator and in the evenings I was something else entirely. But the years I spent at Telefónica were very important for me because I learned about the Spanish middle class, which I’d never observed in any other place. This discovery had a great influence on my films. Until then, all I knew about was the rural poor."

And his advice to any lovelorn person sitting by a phone waiting uselessly for a call: "[T]hrow the phone out the window. It's much better than hanging one's self with the phone cord."

One of the strange throw-away bits in the film is the old woman who is cast as the anchor of the television news broadcasts we see on the television. There is no explanation given, and in the context of the movie none is needed - we simply accept it as part of the strange world we're visiting in the film. But in fact, the old woman is Almodóvar's mother! He has said it was a decision, not just to give his mom a part in the movie, but to add to the sense of an idealized version of Madrid he was depicting - "a city in which even an old lady from a tiny village can end up getting a job as a newscaster."

There are lots of references to other films in Women on the Verge - the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, and the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies. During the scene where Pepa is sitting on the street outside Ivan's former wife's building, her eyes wander to the goings-on in other apartments, and she spies a scantily-clad girl dancing by herself through her open window. This, shall we say, is "lovingly lifted" from Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Above, is from Women on the Verge. Below, from Rear Window.

Other Hitchcock films referenced in Women on the Verge include Dial M for Murder, Suspicion, and Psycho (note the music in the airport sequence). But Almodóvar borrows not just visuals but (as with many of his films) it is difficult to nail down what genre he's working in. On the surface it appears to be a comedy, but.... such is the plight of being a post-modernist. As he himself noted, "I love genre movies, but at the same time I can't respect the rules of genre, so I often change genres in my own way. Normally I begin with something very kitsch, but as I develop my ideas they tend to take on more gravity.”

After Women on the Verge was completed, the director and the star he had now done seven films with, Carmen Maura, had a falling out. It would be 18 years before they would work together on another film, Volver (which in Spanish means "to return") in 2006. Perhaps it is not our business to ever know what exactly happened, but it was deep and painful. At the Goya Awards in 1990, according to the New York Times: "Maura, it seems, was the hostess, and Almodóvar was presenting an award. They had neither seen nor spoken to each other in over a year. And right there, in front of millions of Spanish television viewers, Almodóvar walked up to Maura and handed her a box. So many supposedly indestructible barriers have come down lately, he said, 'I wonder why the barrier between us can't come down.' Inside the box was a piece of the Berlin wall."

Back in 1996, he said, "After Women on the Verge... our relationship became impossible for personal reasons. And it continues to be so. It has something to do with the intense way I work with actors. My relations with Carmen entered non-professional areas. It caused us both a great deal of pain. It’s a long story...." But then in 2006 speaking about Volver, he added that they eventually became friends again, but for a while "I didn’t really have a part that I thought was right for her – and when I had it, I immediately asked her to do it."

Almodóvar twice revisited Women on the Verge in later films in two very different ways. In the first case, it was actually the sets of Women on the Verge that were revisited. Almodóvar recalled how he was inspired to write his next film, Atame! (aka Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), partially because, "[Women on the Verge] was also the first film I shot almost entirely in [a] studio. We didn’t have much money and my brother [the film’s producer] would often tell me how expensive it all was. So I suggested we make a film which would re-use sets of Women on the Verge..., thereby recouping some of the outlay. So Atame! was born...."

Then, in his 2009 film Broken Embraces, a film director is making a film within the film and that film is... Women on the Verge.

When Women on the Verge was released, it became the biggest grossing Spanish film of all time and made Almodóvar an internationally- and commercially-recognized star. The film was nominated as Best Foreign Film by both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and swept all the awards at that year's Goya Awards.


In the film Pepa and Ivan both work as voice actors, dubbing movies into Spanish. (The film they're dubbing is Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar.)

Personally, I am of two minds when it comes to the debate between dubbing or subtitling films. For me, the problem lies in the quality of both the translation and the "acting" of the dubbers. In my recent post on Amarcord, I noted that I prefer the dubbed version because I feel the subtitles miss out on a lot of the subtlety of the dialogue, and the dubbed version was of a generally higher quality than most done in the US. In this film, I find the dubbing to be awkward and poorly done, and thus prefer the subtitling.

Some arguments against dubbing are that they sound phony and you miss the film actor's full performance. But subtitles "have spatial and temporal limitations: they are only on screen for 5-7 seconds, only 2 lines at a time, a maximum of 70 characters with spaces (35 without spaces) per line.... Subtitles should accompany the images as close as possible, a practice which can require condensing messages."

The debate over dubbing versus subtitling has gone on for over half a century. Some people prefer one, some the other. Also some European countries tend to dub all (or most) of their foreign movies (France, Italy, Germany, Spain -sometimes known as "the FIGS group") and other don't (Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands). The reasons for and against dubbing are steeped in the specific country's history and culture, as well as economics. On the economic side, obviously the cost of dubbing doesn't make sense in the smaller-populated countries, though, for example, Hungary and the Czech Republic prefer dubbing. Another thing to keep in mind, is that for the most part, Hollywood still dominates the industry so the majority of the films being dubbed or subtitled (except in English-speaking countries) are English-speaking films.

After World War II, France, Spain, and Italy established quotas on the number of foreign films allowed to keep Hollywood from completely dominating their homegrown industries. While both France and Italy eventually loosened their quotas, Spain's remained stricter. Why? General Francisco Franco.

From 1936 to 1975, Franco and his Nationalist Party ruled Spain. In the past, I've mentioned my disgust of human trait of tribalism. I find it one of the most useless remnants of primitive times where clans and tribes fought over land and resources. The notion that someone is more or less human or worthy based on arbitrary or human-drawn lines of geography, language, color, blood, or beliefs continues to be the main cause of our own collective undoing.

To quote from Wiki: "Franco's Spanish nationalism promoted a unitary national identity by repressing Spain's cultural diversity. Bullfighting and flamenco were promoted as national traditions while those traditions not considered 'Spanish' were suppressed. Franco's view of Spanish tradition was somewhat artificial and arbitrary: while some regional traditions were suppressed, Flamenco, an Andalusian tradition, was considered part of a larger, national identity. All cultural activities were subject to censorship, and many were plainly forbidden (often in an erratic manner).... The legal usage of languages other than Spanish was forbidden. All government, notarial, legal and commercial documents were to be drawn up exclusively in Spanish and any written in other languages were deemed null and void. The usage of any other language was forbidden in schools, in advertising, and on road and shop signs." This was mostly directed against the Galican and Catalan languages, which were spoken in the Northwestern and Southern regions, respectively, of Spain. But Franco's desire to keep Spain speaking Spanish only also established the tradition of dubbing over subtitling foreign-language films.

From 1945 to 1953, there was also a United Nations embargo against Spain which dissipated by the mid-1950's since the US was anxious to get Spain on board in its fight against Communism. And so the US was willing to ignore Franco's human rights abuses. By the mid-1960's, more foreign language films were being shown. But throughout his reign, though loosened in the 1960's - but only ending with his death in 1975, censorship reigned, and Spanish filmmakers, for the most part, were only permitted to make films like Spanish Civil War epics and other approved subjects promoting nationalism. Some Spanish filmmakers, such as Luis Buñuel, spent decades in exile. But by the mid-1960's, however, Spain got involved with many international co-productions, including big budget epics like King of Kings and Lawrence of Arabia, and then later serving as the backdrop for the Spaghetti Western films (see my post on A Fistful of Dollars).

But even after the embargo, in 1955, for example (PDF), "American distributors could only bring 80 films a year to Spain. Out of these 80 films, 68 had to be dubbed." Martine Danan, in her article, “Dubbing as an Expression of Nationalism (PDF),” wrote that "Dubbing is an attempt to hide the foreign nature of a film by creating the illusion that actors are speaking the viewer's language.... Dubbing, in short, is an assertion of the supremacy of the national language and its unchallenged political, economic and cultural power within the nation's boundaries."

But while I rant about tribalism, I also realize the need for cultural diversity. I mean otherwise every movie I'd write about I'd have to pair with the same cuisine, right? But is it possible for us to allow for cultural differences without one culture also being made to feel judged less human or worthy by the other culture? Can we avoid deluding ourselves that we are being marginalized when in cases that we aren't? It's a fine line between preserving ones' culture and, well I guess it's not "Nationalist" when it's not a nation, so let's call it "Culturalist" (apparently some do that) which you wind up acting in the same way as the Nationalists who once suppressed your culture upon your own culture. Are you confused?

Well, here's how it works... While up until 1975, as noted, Franco forced people in the Catalan region to stop speaking Catalan, now the local Catalan government is forcing Catalan on its citizens. Last year, they passed a controversial law forcing 50-percent of all films shown to be dubbed in Catalan. While it was being debated, theater owners shut their doors for 24 hours in protest of it passing. Of course having subtitled versions would be easier - and there is a small rise in subtitled films distributed - but Spanish (including Catalan) audiences continue to prefer dubbing over subtitling. According to a 2009 article in Variety, "[S]ubtitled films [in Spain] attract much smaller audiences. Local film fans, as in Germany, prefer their blockbusters dubbed." It should be noted that the Catalans produce many local movies, almost 100 last year, but while the Spanish film industry is still trying to find its international legs, for lower budget domestic films, having to find the money to record a dubbed Catalan version, rather than just go with cheaper subtitles, could mean the difference between getting funding and having to abandon their project. And with Spain's economy in turmoil at present, finding money for film dubbing won't come easy. However, the new law doesn't go into full effect until 2017, so we'll see how it continues to develop.

Who knows? Perhaps Spain's future is to be a smaller nation if people don't want to share some kind of commonality and not figure out how to be unified and culturally diverse at the same time. It kind of comes down to that everyone wants to be different, but just like everyone else. Hopefully we can do that without killing each other.

But back to our movie. It was only 13 years after Franco's death that Almodóvar made Women on the Verge. When he first moved to Madrid in 1965, Franco had just closed the National Film School. It wasn't until Franco was pretty much on his deathbed that Almodóvar began experimenting with short films. The themes and style of his films would never have been allowed in the Franco years, but Franco's shadow was still evident in 1988, when Women on the Verge was released, as this quote from an interview with Almodóvar shows: "My way of fighting against Franco is not to allow even his shadow in my films. I don’t recognize him in any way.”


Policeman: "What's in the gazpacho?”
Pepa: “Tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, onion, one garlic clove, oil, salt, vinegar, some day-old bread, and water.... The secret's in mixing it right.”

What exactly is gazpacho? You might answer, as Wikipedia does, that it's "a cold Spanish tomato-based raw vegetable soup." Well, just a quick search will yield many recipes which don't have even a single tomato in them. How about one with cauliflower? Care for an all-green vegetable gazpacho? Or feel like a watermelon gazpacho? These days "gazpacho" simply means some kind of "cold soup."

The original gazpacho appears, however, to predate the arrival of tomatoes and peppers from the New World (see my post on Charade for a history of tomatoes). Raymond Sokolov, in his book Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats, notes that if you look at different traditional recipes for gazpacho from the Andalusian (Southern Spain) region, they all share a few common traits: "oil, vinegar, garlic, and bread. These ingredients are mashed and then diluted with water, then seasonings and other flavorings are added. The soup is served at room temperature."

Sokolov disputes the Arabic/Moorish origins of the name, which some have suggested. Meanwhile, Spanish author Jose Briz suggests the dish's history has Jewish roots, from the Hebrew word "gazzaz." Others say the name comes from a word "caspa," which some claim is Iberian or Arabic. For anyone who might be entertained by this kind of thing, here's an entire page of people discussing where the word may have its origins from.

Paula Wolfert, in her book, Mediterranean Cooking, offers a story she was told by Spanish author Pablo Amate: “A poor peasant had appeared in Cadiz in Roman times with a dish consisting of water, oil, garlic, onion, and bread, which Julius Caesar realized would make good sustenance for his troops. Later, with the discovery of the Americas, tomatoes and other vegetables were added, until, by the 18th century, the word ‘gazpacho’ described a dish eaten by laborers from the wooden bowls in which they crushed and pounded vegetables.”

Wolfert goes on to quote another Spanish culinary writer, Gonzalo Sol, who extols the virtues of gazpacho: “Each ingredient [serves] a vital function: water hydrates the body, salt retains it in the system, vinegar refreshes, oil’s fat content builds up energy reserves, bread supplies carbohydrates for quick energy, and garlic provides a vitamin and mineral supplement and, more significantly, exerts a dilating effect, which promotes perspiration.” Of course, tossing in barbiturates as Pepa does in Women on the Verge adds a whole other layer to these effects, no?

America's love for this dish goes pretty far back in our own culinary history, as well. A recipe can be found in The Virginia Housewife By Mary Randolph published in 1836, which is "considered by some to be the first truly American cookbook and by all to be the first regional American cookbook. This work is still in print and still forms the basis of traditional Virginia cooking."

But to boil it all down, a long time ago people figured out how to make something called 'bread.' The thing about this 'bread' was (and is) that after a short period of time it goes stale. And sometime between the time it goes stale and the time it gets moldy, it can still be eaten if softened with some kind of liquid. I'm sure at first our ancestors dunked this 'bread' in hot water, then figured it would taste better if dunked in something a bit tastier - like oil, and/or vinegar, and/or anything else besides water. And eventually more stuff got added and it turned into gazpacho. End of story. As always, cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!

Gazpacho de Pepa
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4 (or 8 as a tapa)

4 ounces day-old bread (not stale), crusts removed
1/2 cup tomato juice (or water)
2 pounds tomatoes (homegrown or "on the vine" type, they taste better), cored and quartered
1 medium red bell pepper, about 7 oz in weight
1 medium green bell pepper, about 7 oz in weight
6 ounces English cucumber, roughly chopped (plus about 1/4 cup finely diced for garnish)
2 ounces red onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (use the good stuff for this!)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Assorted Garnishes (optional):
finely diced bell peppers
finely diced cucumber
finely diced black olives
chopped hard-boiled egg
diced Spanish ham (Serrano, Iberica, etc...)
chopped parsley or mint
cracked black pepper

Soak bread in tomato juice for 5-10 minutes in a nonreactive bowl. Make sure all the bread is coated. (I recommend using tomato juice over water, as it adds more tomato flavor.)

Wash and remove seeds, veins, and stems of the bell peppers. Reserve 1/3 (about 2 ounces) of each of the bell peppers for garnish (finely dice them). The other 2/3rds (about 4 ounces), simply quarter.

Add tomatoes, bread, onion, cucumber, peppers, garlic and olive oil to food processor or blender. Blend to near desired consistency.

Add vinegar and salt, adjust for taste. Then finish blending.

Chill for at least 1/2 hour, up to 3 hours. Serve topped with diced peppers, cucumber - and your optional choice of other garnishes. You could also drizzle some olive oil on top. Sleeping Pills Are Not Recommended.

Official Pedro Almodóvar Website
Psychoanalysts to break down films of Pedro Almodóvar @ The Guardian UK, Mar 29, 2011
Almodóvar, On the Verge @ NY Times, Apr 22, 1990
2006 Interview with Pedro Almodóvar
The World of Dobaje in Spain @ Voices en Espanol
Dubbing & Subtitling Industries @ Film Reference Online Encyclopedia
A Case Study: Spain as a Dubbing Country @ Translation Journal, Jul 2004

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown DVD
Almodóvar Early Film Soundtracks CD
Almodóvar on Almodóvar, edited by Frederic Strauss
All about Almodovar: A Passion for Cinema, by Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki
Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar, by Paul Julian Smith
BFI Modern Classics: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, by Peter William Evans
Mediterranean Cooking, by Paul Wolfert
La Cocina de Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain, by Penelope Casas
Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas

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