Art, Costume, And Scenery of Major Feature Films of the 1980s
Kiss of the Spider Woman. Hector Babenco, 1988.
Adapting The Kiss of the Spider Woman to the cinema presented a unique challenge to filmmakers. The story is set in a jail cell, and largely takes the form of dialogue between two prisoners: Molina, a homosexual window dresser, and his cellmate, a fiery radical named Valentin. To pass the time, Molina tells his cellmate stories. The dank, dark cell where the two men wear relatively minimalistic clothing is a stark contrast with the beautiful, melodramatic films that Molina narrates. Occasionally, some brightness will intrude into the jail, such as when Molina cooks for Valentin or when he puts a scarf around his head. Molina may make an attempt at drag, but it is relatively minor given the tools at his disposal. "Hurt wears a kind of improvised drag, mostly involving shawls, a kimono and a towel used as turban" (Graham 2001). The jail cell for the most part is dark and depressing and Molina's real 'drag act' and theatricality is revealed in his telling of various films, not in his clothing.
The films chronicled by Molina are shot in black-and-white, much as cinema from the 1930s and 40s might look. They have the texture of older films, but Molina narrates them in the present tense. Occasionally, Valentin interjects, such as when he expresses disgust at the Nazi propaganda movies that Molina adores. A crucial aspect of the film is that the cinematic stories of the propaganda film and the film about the trapped spider woman are not supposed to be interesting in and of themselves. Unlike some films with parallel narratives, they never take on a life of their own. Rather, their significance lies in the meaning they have for the prisoners, and how they become a method of communication between the two men.
At the beginning of the film, Molina has such little regard for politics that he does not care if a film he is watching is a work of Nazi propaganda, so long as it is beautiful. In the end, he sacrifices himself for Valentin's cause, refusing to 'name names' in exchange for treatment, knowing that Valentin is enduring torture in prison for the sake of his ideals and that if Molina speaks, people will die. Over the course of the film, Valentin softens to some of the ideals of Molina. He admits he still loves a woman on the outside, even though he has tried to inflexibly commit himself to overthrow the government, and sacrifice all of his humanity and personal life for a cause.
By talking about the films, the two men reveal themselves. The narrated films unfold in black-and-white before the viewer's eyes, showing exotic settings such as a cafe with a beautiful cigarette girl and handsome soldiers, as the men debate their ideas. The overheard narrative of Molina and Valentin put the film in quotes, and the viewer is aware that Molina may even be remembering the film incorrectly, as he can only give his version of events, not that of what really happened.
Only after Molina leaves the jail cell upon his release, when he is being watched by prison authorities does a new texture insert itself into the film. Before, the film shifted between a claustrophobic dialogue and shorts of unrealistic, beautiful film noir. The film then takes on a gritty texture in which Molina is constantly being spied upon by the authorities. Molina has entered the types of films he used to love to watch, in the sense that he is a character in a political drama; only the reality is far less beautiful than his aspirations and ultimately destroys him.
She's Gotta Have It. Spike Lee, 1986.
She's Gotta Have It by Spike Lee was the director's first major film effort. It was considered radical when it was first released, given that it portrayed black, urban life in a manner that did not focus on the tragedies of poverty or lives shattered by crime. Instead, the film is an upbeat, feminist epic about a woman who is in control of her sexuality. The attractive, desirable female protagonist has 'gotta have it' -- i.e., she wants to enjoy herself without guilt or attachments. "In 1986, few American independent films looked and sounded as distinctive as She's Gotta Have It, and Lee upped the ante further by seeming to promote a theretofore-unrecognized new Harlem Renaissance. From the jump, She's Gotta Have It announced that it wasn't going to define black life in terms of crime and poverty, just as it wasn't going to bind independent filmmaking to moribund realism" (Murray 2008).
The characters in the film look as if they were shot in a home movie. This suits the personal nature of the film, although it also reflects the low budget of the production. Its style, partially intentionally, and partially unintentionally, gives the viewer a sense that he or she is watching a 'slice of life.' However, Lee also has enough cinematic verisimilitude, even working on a shoestring budget, to introduce elements such as a musical number, to show a contrast between 'real life' and art. Despite the film's realistic texture, designed to highlight the reality of black, professional life and joyful black sexuality, as opposed to dark and tragic suffering, the film also has a sense of playfulness and hyper-reality that is encapsulated in its smart, witty dialogue and humor. While the characters dress like recognizable professionals, their clothing is slightly more exaggerated, much like the character types they play, to convey the texture of humor and style Lee wishes to emphasize in his film.
Vagabond. Agnes Varda, 1985.
The 1985 film Vagabond is the retrospective biography of a placeless woman -- the drifter of the title. At the beginning of the film she is found frozen in a ditch in a farm. The actress who plays her looks young and childlike -- she is shown playing with a blanket and sleeping in a brightly-colored tent when she is on the 'run.' She can also appear fierce, defiant, and adolescent. She is seldom sexualized, even when characters desire her (at one point, she is asked if she would like to be a porn star). The title character wears baggy clothing, much like many individuals who must live on the street. Her shoes are large and ungainly, much like the backpack she carries. However, although she is not beautifully dressed, there is a beauty to the landscape she traipses, as well as a beauty to her defiant attitude.
By showing the seductive nature of this young woman's attitude towards others, the film conveys the nature of the vagabond lifestyle. A number of individuals with normal existences pick her up, and their lives and attitudes are contrasted with hers. One of the most humorous incidents is one in which a woman who picks her up and gives her a ride is shown, perfectly coiffed, taking a bath and complaining about how much the young hitchhiker stank.
The film is a fantasy -- a fantasy of freedom in the life of the young woman, and that of those who project their fantasies upon her. At the beginning of the film, she is just a corpse, and everyone wishes that the corpse could speak and tell them her story. "Soon the authorities are there with their clipboards, recording those things that can be known, such as the height and weight and eye color of the corpse, and wondering about all the things that cannot be known, such as her name and how she came to be dead in a ditch" (Ebert 1986). People come forward to speak about her, people whose guises span everything from farmers to academics, all of whom look quite different than the young woman. However, ultimately, the reasons for her desire to wander are obscured, perhaps even from herself.
The film asks the question: "Although many have shared our time, how many have truly known us?" (Ebert 1986). No one really seems to know the girl emotionally, although they have interacted with her. The moments of joy the film conjures up, such as when the girl drinks with an aristocratic woman or finds the companionship of friends, or simply enjoys the out-of-doors grow fewer and fewer as the environment grows harsher with winter. Ultimately, we cannot survive without others, Vagabond suggests -- emotionally or physically.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pedro Almodovar, 1988.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown looks like a cinematic version of a cartoon, or a sitcom like I Love Lucy from the 1950s. The women are dressed in cartoonishly bright clothing, with overly styled hair and makeup. The humiliations they endure, such forgetting to drink a bowl of soup spiked with sleeping pills, accidentally harboring terrorists, and constantly mistaking the intentions of their loved ones suggest farcical comedy, which is underlined in the style of the film. One of the most…