I’m So Excited & Salinger

September 21, 2013
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It’s slightly disturbing to be sitting on a airplane writing about I’m So Excited, set almost entirely on an airplane. It could’ve been worse. There are real life docu-dramas such as United 93, where one spends the whole movie waiting for the plane to thump into a field in Pennsylvania.

I’m So Excited is a film about a disabled aircraft, but also a comedy, so it never seems likely that everyone is going to die. Having said that, it is also directed by Pedro Almodóvar, meaning anything is possible. The biggest surprise is that Almodóvar has put the brakes on the maturing process which kicked in with All About My Mother (1999) and continued until The Skin I Live In (2011). Instead, he has returned to the anarchic campery that characterised his early efforts such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982).

One has to be forgiving about those 80s films because they acted as shock therapy for Spanish culture in the era immediately following the death of General Franco. If Almodóvar has suddenly decided to make an updated Carry On film, we have to presume that the state of Spain today was a motivating factor.

The grandiose metaphor behind this story is Spain as a jet-liner with faulty landing gear. It’s about an economy that flew sky-high, and is now going round in circles, heading for an inevitable crash landing. The passengers in economy class – the working classes – are all asleep, having been drugged to keep them quiet. The action is in business class, with a group of representative figures of the new Spain – a famous dominatrix, a shady ‘security advisor’, a virginal psychic, a popular actor, a crooked property developer, and a pair of glamorous newlyweds. The entire scene is presided over by three ultra-camp stewards, who act like the Three Graces while drinking themselves into a stupor. Meanwhile, in the cockpit – a part of the plane that has never seemed so aptly named – the pilot and co-pilot try to come to terms with their uncertain sexual identities.

Described in this way, I’m So Excited may sound rather mechanical. In fact, it’s a perpetual riot, with one mini-crisis following another as the plane circles Toledo airport. Regardless of any deeper meanings, the film is a farce – not so much a sex comedy as a smut fest. Although it is packed with sex acts and explicit dialogue (en Espanol!), there is very little flesh on display.

The original Spanish title, Los amantes pasajeros, may be translated loosely as ‘The Loving Passengers’, although Passengers of Love might be a better option. The English-language title is a nod to the film’s major set piece when the three stewards perform an energetic cabaret routine, miming to the old Pointer Sisters’ number – which is no less of a gay disco classic than I Will Survive.

Like Cesc Gay’s A Gun in Each Hand from earlier this year, I’m So Excited is a virtual Who’s Who of Spanish talent. The story begins with cameos by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz playing a pair of ground staff whose joy at impending parenthood distracts them from their day job. Consequently the chocks are not removed from the plane’s wheels, jamming the landing gear.

Could it ever happen? The only point of this scene is to set the story in motion. The flight itself is dominated by the three stewards – Joserra (Javier Cámara), the alcoholic chief steward , who has only “one catharsis per flight”; Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo), more cocksure, but just as devoted to drink and drugs; and fat Fajas (Carlos Areces), who remains calm by worshipping at a portable altar.

Much of the banter is about who has fellated whom, or might be worth fellating. The psychic, Bruna (Lola Duenas), has predicted that she will lose her virginity on this flight. There is willd speculation about Norma, the dominatrix (Cecilia Roth), who is reputed to have a secret stash of videos and backmail photos of Spain’s most powerful men. Perhaps the most engaging subplot concerns the actor, Ricardo (Guillermo Toledo), who is trying to convince a former mistress to keep an eye on his most recent girlfriend, who has suicidal tendencies.

As you may have gathered, even though everything unfolds within an aircraft cabin there is nothing static about this film. On the contrary, it veers cheerfully into the realms of excess as the stewards try to loosen their passengers’ inhibitions by slipping mescaline into a batch of cocktails. I’m So Excited is every bit as absurd as Almodóvar’s early comedies, but a far more sophisticated feat of story-telling and direction, assisted by an excellent score by Alberto Iglesias. It may be tempting fate when an entire plot revolves around the anticipation of disaster, but somehow Almodóvar manages to bring this flying orgy safely into port.

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies,” says Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. His creator would have seconded that sentiment had he been able to see the way he would be portrayed in Salinger, a long-anticipated documentary on the great, reclusive American writer.

One of the pleasures of watching such a movie in an otherwise deserted cinema on a Sunday night, is that no-one can hear you retching at the lame dialogue, the bombastic music, or any of the other refinements that make Salinger a two-hour insult to the intelligence.

The film is the fruit of a ten-year research project by Hollywood script-writer, Shane Salerno, and is accompanied by a 698 page tomb that smugly refers to itself as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film.” The capital letters, as Holden might have noted, are unmistakable signs of a phoney. Salerno obviously wants us to know what a swell guy he is, and what a hot-shot.

But what is the point of interviewing 150 people over nine years, if the results are to be stitched together into a shambles of a film that leaps around with no pretence at continuity? The bio pic and publication are little more than scrapbooks. We meet old friends who haven’t seen Salinger for decades; we meet former lovers; actors and writers who sing his praises; a bevvy of biographers and critics; and even one devastating idiot who ambushed the writer at his gate and was “disappointed” that “Jerry” didn’t care to share his wisdom.

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) published only six books in his lifetime, with The Catcher in the Rye (1951) being his only novel. His last appearance in print was a story in a 1965 edition of the New Yorker. At the height of his fame Salinger withdrew to a house in the woods, near Cornish New Hampshire. He had nothing further to do with the literary world or the press, although he remained friendly with many of the townfolk.

Salinger’s self-imposed seclusion and the rumour that he was continuing to write – “almost every day” by some accounts – has acted as a lure to obsessive fans, journalists and would-be biographers. They all get a run in this documentary, which occasionally feels like a manual for stalkers. We learn a few new facts, announced with full orchestral accompaniment. Repetitive shots of Salinger’s house and fence are presented as if we had just stumbled upon the hideout of the Unabomber.

Salerno’s breath-taking revelation (cue earth-shattering music) is that there may be five new Salinger books awaiting posthumous publication. It would have been more of a revelation if the news had not been all over the internet for months already.

There is much in this film that could be described as ‘intolerable’. It is an indigestible mixture of fawning hero-worship and character assassination. It has a musical score by one Lorne Balfe (“lawn barf”?) that would be better suited to the latest Hollywood superhero epic, in 3D. It tries to add drama to Salinger’s life as a writer by plonking an actor on stage in front of a typewriter while words and images are projected behind him on a gigantic screen. It is padded out with newsreel footage of the Second World War, in an attempt to portray Salinger’s work and later life as the legacy of his war-time traumas. I could go on and on.

There is no doubt that Salinger was both a neurotic perfectionist and an oddball. After the war he contracted a short-lived marriage to a former Nazi, and took her back to America to meet his Jewish family. He had a life-long passion for teenage girls, writing hundreds of letters to them – a strangely Victorian past-time, shared by Lewis Carroll and John Ruskin. In the case of Joyce Maynard, with whom he lived in the 70s, when she was only 18, he would suffer the indignities of a tell-all memoir and see his letters sold at Sothebys.

Arguably the low point of the documentary comes when we learn the sensational news that three American psycho-killers, including Mark Chapman who shot John Lennon, were carrying copies of The Catcher in the Rye. In typically tabloid style the film seems to suggest that Salinger should have broken his seclusion and made some kind of public statement. It would have been an interesting exercise: apologising for a book that has been read by about 90 million non-murderers. Surely it is far more reprehensible to make an appalling documentary about a celebrated writer, evoking homocidal rage in countless, unsuspecting film-goers.

 

I’m So Excited, Spain, rated MA 15+, 90 mins

Salinger, USA, rated M, 129 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 21, 2013