The Criterion Collection Review | ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ and ‘Cameraperson’
The Criterion Collection has recently released two notable films either by or about women. One, nearly 30 years old, is a frantic, gloriously hysterical contemplation of female camaraderie. The other, released in 2016, is a quiet, deeply intellectual meditation on the very function of cinema in its relation to truth, and the way a cinema camera, simply by being switched on, invades human lives. One could say that both films seek to get to the heart of the matter, and both have themes of the way fictionality obstructs – or aids – the truth.
Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (a.k.a. Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios) was his sixth film, but was many Americans’ first introduction to him, as it was the first to garner any sort of serious release and/or award consideration Stateside (it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards). Women remains one of the better examples of his exuberant style and fondness for deliriously overblown soap-opera-like melodrama. It also, like many of Almodóvar’s films, contains a meta-textual double narrative, gently draping a comforting linen of fiction over its very real – of heightened – emotions.
The story is complex and bonkers. It follows an actress named Pepa (Carmen Maura) who is smarting from her breakup with a handsome older actor. The two of them used to dub American movies (notably, Johnny Guitar), and he used his “actor” voice to seduce Pepa – and other women too, it turns out. Pepa – in her emotionally wounded state wherein the fictions of her job inform the facts of her life – eventually gets involved in a weird intrigue involving terrorists fleeing to Sweden, a drugged pitcher of gazpacho, a sinister lawyer, a Beavis-haired cab driver, and the son of her ex (a very young-looking Antonio Banderas). The volume of plot complications evokes one of Shakespeare’s later comedies, and the film only gets more exciting for every introduced twist.
Almodóvar’s films take place in a heightened universe where the brightly-colored clothing, and rich, opulent interior decor is just as vibrant and explosive as the tempestuous hearts of his leading ladies. Nervous Breakdown (which may actually be better translated to Panic Attack) bundles up a group of women who have, each in their own way, been betrayed by men, and streamlines their resulting manic disappointment into something like a sororal regard. In a later scene, Pepa approached a lawyer (Kiti Manver) asking for aid for a friend who may have fallen in with the wrong man. When the lawyer shoots her down, Pepa pleas for understanding, as they are both women. The lawyer’s betrayal of that sisterly trust – the film seems to indicate – is seen as one of the greatest possible affronts to social decency.
Almodóvar’s visual style has developed and become more subtle over the years, so modern audiences may be struck by how ’80s-tastic the look of Women might be, but it’s difficult to deny the film’s lasting manic energy, aesthetic and emotional power, and feminist underpinnings.
Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, in terms of its tone and energy, is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Released just this last September, Cameraperson is a semi-autobiography constructed almost entirely of B-roll and excess footage of the documentary films that Johnson on which acted as photographer. Twenty-four films are re-mixed effectively into a gently stirred miasma of meditation, contemplation, and self-invasion. Throughout the clips, we hear Johnson, and others, talk about how the camera offers her access to other people’s intimate lives, and how the camera, in its very ability to observe and record, breaks down all the walls of intimacy. Cameraperson is one of the more effective films one may encounter about the very philosophical heart of cinema itself. What is film a priori? Cameraperson has the ambition to answer.
Its philosophical nature may have been informed heavily by Johnson’s work on the 2002 film Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman. Jacques Derrida does have a cameo early in the film, and, quite naturally, he discusses the place of philosophy in the world.
But this is not a film of narrative or even of remixed reality hacking. Almost randomly, we skip about in time and in location, from Darfur to New York to wherever Snowden was hanging out (she photographed Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning doc Citizenfour), talking, not taking, observing, looking at our own shadows. We have a few moments of candor from some of the subjects, but it is usually presented without context. Johnson is not trying to recontextualize her clips to fit some sort of contrived “arc,” but is merely inviting us to observe, perhaps silently begging us to consider what we do to the subjects when we watch. Cameraperson is a form of aesthetic quantum mechanics. You change the results by measuring them.
And, lest she be accused of taking a distanced, Olympian view of her subjects, Johnson also includes – perhaps as a form of confession – clips from her own life. We see her twin toddlers in her apartment, and observe several scenes of her mother, suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Johnson is not asking for pity in these scenes – these are not mawkish scenes of “look how hard I work” martyrdom – but is simply testing her hypothesis on herself. How much can a camera destroy her own intimacy?
The subjectivity vs. the objectivity of art has always been a sticky, unending topic for critics and professors, most of them far more intelligent than I. Cameraperson possesses a philosophical ambition about photography and documentary filmmaking that other films typically take for granted. It will become essential viewing to anyone interested in the deeper facets of the art of cinema. It’s a next-level argument presented gently – almost incidentally – on a pillow of collage. It’s perhaps one of the best films of 2016.
Top Image: Laurenfilm S.A.
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.