Of Borges and Almodóvar…

Two popular stalwarts of the Pre-U Paper 4 syllabus have been revamped for the 2019 exams, with Julieta replacing Hable con ella in the Almodóvar section and two new stories replacing La casa de Asterión and Emma Zunz in the Borges collection.  Syllabus designer Robin Wallis discusses the changes with former Pre-U candidate Holly Rose.

5HR       Starting with Borges…  How did the current half-dozen stories end up as the Pre-U Paper 4 selection?

RW      I remembered as a student finding a number of Borges stories gripping, but others unfathomable.  For Pre-U I went back to the former…  My goal was to identify ones that had a strong action and adventure element and a sting in the tail.  Those were the ones that I thought Pre-U students would enjoy and find accessible.

HR      Any particular favourites?

6RW      When I first read El encuentro and La casa de Asterión I thought the endings really sent a shudder down the spine.  Ultimately, though, I think of La muerte y la brújula as the classic Borges short story: the dystopian version of Buenos Aires makes for a great setting, and the resignation and almost ennui that besets the ‘symmetrical’ antagonists at the end is Borges at his most haunting.  El jardín… and El sur are, to my mind, the other classics.

HR      Why the two new stories?

RW      To broaden the range of questions that can be asked, and to introduce fresh material so the selection doesn’t go stale for the teachers.  And, of course, to prevent the ‘context’ passages becoming too predictable. (winks)

HR      Tell us about the two new stories.

7RW      The settings of La forma de la espada – first Brazil, then civil war Ireland – are particularly atmospheric.  It deals with powerful themes: bravery, cowardice and treachery.  The final ‘reveal’ is one of Borges’ best.  El milagro secreto offers a good dose of humour and heroism.  I enjoy the contrast between the humble protagonist and the immense challenge that he wills upon himself – a great response to a no-hope scenario.

HR       What do you most enjoy about Borges?

RW      In most of the stories he takes the protagonist out of his familiar landscape and leaves him high and dry, facing immense odds in a forlorn reality, as though suddenly transported to a Salvador Dalí landscape.  The way Borges achieves that transition is remarkable, as is the characters’ response to it.  I think that’s why the stories are so memorable.

HR       Looking now at Almodóvar….

RW      He’s good, too… though perhaps a little inconsistent?  He’s written and directed three sublime works (Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella and Volver), but, I think most viewers would agree, he’s also made some less memorable films.  Post-Volver, we were all waiting for another masterpiece as though we could expect that as the norm.  By 2016 we could wait no longer and were glad to embrace Julieta, which came as a relief….  As with all artists who hit the heights, it’s unreasonable to complain just because they don’t achieve stellar results every time.

HR       And Julieta is now on the Pre-U syllabus.

RW      Yes: it’s a natural fit alongside TSMM and Volver.  It also meets the key criterion for academic study, which is that it’s worth watching more than once.

HR       Any spoiler-free pointers for those who don’t know the work?

RW      I’d call it a relationships drama.  You can imagine Almodóvar starting by writing ‘Julieta’ in the middle of a sheet of paper and then drawing spokes out connecting her (as protagonist) to the other characters in her life – mother, father, child, spouse, rival, etc.  The film then explores those connections.  The truc de théâtre is the use of two actresses to play the lead role at different stages of her life, and how that transition is accomplished.8

BAS    You imply that you don’t rate it a masterpiece…

RW      That’s a tough criterion to use. In my opinion it’s a very good film.  If the gears grind a bit, it may reflect the challenge of adapting it from three short stories [by Canadian author Alice Munro].  Is that why we get shots that look as though they should be meaningful, such as the stag seen from the train window, but that don’t seem to connect to the rest of the work?

BAS    You referred to inconsistency in Almodóvar’s work: how do you explain that?

RW      His early work was designed to shock, which was a successful strategy in that post-Transition era.  I think it was deliberately rough-edged, low-budget, cult cinema, rather than an attempt to make work of lasting value.  It’s crucial to his career because it built his audience, enabling him to raise financial backing and improve his production values, in movie jargon.  As to his more recent films, I think that people working alongside a proven genius are understandably reluctant to query that person’s judgement.  Making films about deseo is what drives him: if he chooses to focus on the types of deseo portrayed in La mala educación or Los abrazos rotos, that’s a valid new direction for him to take, even if the eventual outcome lacks the sublime quality and balance of the three masterpieces.  And let’s not forget that Mujeres al borde… was Oscar-nominated, and that Carne trémula is also outstanding work, to mention but two.  So it’s not just a matter of excellent or ‘inconsistent’.

BAS     His new film Dolor y gloria is scheduled to open in 2019.  Might we see that on the syllabus soon?

RW      Almodóvar turns 70 this year so it’s great that he’s still making films – even if the theme of the new film (the impossibility of continued film-making for an ageing director) may be a hint that the well is running dry.  If it lends itself to analysis at Pre-U level then Dolor y gloria could be on the 2022 syllabus.  That said, El cine de Pedro Almodóvar, alone among the Paper 4 Topics, has been on the syllabus since Pre-U began.  That’s a tribute to the amazing depth of his work, but can it possibly run on beyond 2021?  We shall see.