Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Woody Allen lays self-indulgence on the line in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"


Woody Allen is a psychological feminine, my friends tell me. I guess so, because his insights constantly show up in his movies and screenwriting, however frantic. That’s particularly true of his latest opus, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as if to take the two lead female characters and make them a “family.”

That’s a bit misleading, although they do have one brief lesbian encounter, among many of the pairings in the movie. But first, let’s state the production facts. This is another collaboration between MGM and The Weinstein Company, with Mediapro. It should have been filmed in 2.35 to 1 so that the spectacle of Barcelona (like Gaudi’s “Park Guell” and Sagrada Familia) and would open the film up. The film is seasoned with the incidental bizarre architectural artifacts all over the city.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) arrive to spend the summer near Barcelona. The Narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) starts talking and imparting Woody’s eccentric but straightforward story, really. It’s a paradox. Quickly they meet a Bohemian painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to a weekend in another town. He tries to get Christina in bed, and she throws up. But pretty soon, the various combinations of pairing start to occur. Vicky has a nice fiancĂ©e Doug (Chris Messina) back in New York, who flies to Barcelona to celebrate everyone with a surprise wedding. Antonio has a crazy ex-wife Maria (Penelope Cruz). It gets even more complicated than this.

At one point, Doug says that Juan has essentially two “Mormon wives.” Then, just before a retrospective conversation about the lesbian encounter, Doug makes an existential comment (like something out of one my own books or blogs) that society can’t function this way forever.

Another interesting tidbit: Vicky majors in "Catalan Studies", as if to make a ploy on the political situation in Spain with its autonomous "countries." Imagine the movie being made in Bilbao instead! I even remember that chess has a "Catalan Opening."

The story also makes an interesting sideline into the techniques of photography, whether old-fashioned dark rooms and silver nitrate can do a better job of capturing the spirit of this special city than digital cams. It brought to mind a co-worker who flew to Barcelona two weeks after 9/11 for a long weekend just to prove to himself he could still run around, like these characters. (That’s when Jesse Ventura was telling everybody in Minneapolis, where I lived and worked, “it is safe to fly.)

The “relationships” in the story pop up spontaneously, out of natural, earthy chemistry. Yet the tone of the movie (which has more than the usual beginning, middle and end), along with Doug’s one “moral” comment, makes me wonder about the rest of us who are less exuberant. We’re supposed to prove that we can pay our dues, keep society sustainable and compete in their games until we are heard from. That is, unless we have the “power” of Woody Allen.

I visited Bilbao and San Sebastian myself in April 2001 (but the rest of the country).

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