Carla Marcantonio is an Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies and a scholar of transnational/global cinema. Carla’s articles and essays have appeared in collected editions as well as in journals such as Social Text, Women and Performance and Cineaste. Her new book, Global Melodrama: Nation, Body, and History in Contemporary Cinema is available for purchase on Amazon.
You just joined the SFTV faculty. What drew you to LMU, and how are you enjoying L.A.? Before arriving at LMU, I was teaching in an English Department, an experience that I really enjoyed. Yet, the prospect of being able to bring my teaching and research into the context of a film school ultimately lured me here. I have the somewhat romantic notion, which hopefully will turn into a reality, that my teaching can inspire aspiring filmmakers to make films that are cognizant of the history of film as well as critical approaches to film. I don’t think that the critical study of film is antithetical to filmmaking, but rather the opposite: I think an understanding of film history and criticism can inform films and the stories written for film in interesting ways. I was also attracted by LMU’s commitment to social justice. I think that film has often been a tool used to raise awareness of the world, or, at the very least, it provides us with access to lived realities that we otherwise would know nothing about. My own research interests, which delve into melodrama, neorealism, gender/sexuality studies and biopolitics, were already implicitly addressing issues of social justice.
I have to confess I was not so sure how I would like Los Angeles! I was used to East Coast cities like New York and Washington, D.C. but I am really liking it here. The first thing I cannot complain about this winter is the weather: it’s been a nice respite from the East’s frigid cold! (Though impromptu snow-days can be nice too).
Tell us about your new book, Global Melodrama: Nation, Body, and History in Contemporary Film. Melodrama is a fascinating genre, protean and thus complex to define. For me, one of melodrama’s most interesting facets has to do with its link to the national imaginary. In other words, melodrama has been a short-hand form for helping narrate and represent the kind of community that any given nation imagines itself to be at any one point in time (this is true even when films are about the past because such films tell us as much, if not more, about the present in which they were made).
Given how skillfully the melodramatic mode has met the task of narrating/visualizing the nation, my wish to write the book departed from a desire to understand how melodramatic narratives have adapted to a geopolitical landscape where globalization is now a dominant reality. The reason this is interesting is because globalization places certain central paradigms of the nation in crisis: its dependence on a clearly demarcated territory (i.e. globalization drives the notion that we now live in a borderless world) and, given the rise of new technologies that have expanded the capacity for communication, it organizes transnational communities that can often supersede the centrality of the national community (think of diasporic communities, for example). Given how closely allied melodrama has been with the national imaginary, the book explores how certain directors worldwide have re-adapted the mode in order to be able to narrate and represent this new, global reality. In doing so, the book also revisits, in order to reformulate, some of the central paradigms that have defined what we understand as melodrama.
The book makes broad claims on the basis of close-reading films that I take to be paradigmatic. My hope is that its methodology can be tested on other films and put to broader use. For example, my last chapter elaborates the deep connection that exists between neorealism and melodrama, something many film scholars acknowledge, but, because it seems that they should be in opposition to each other (i.e. melodrama as the opposite of realism), it is a connection that is underdeveloped and that, in my opinion, could continue to be explored.
One of the chapters in your book explores two films by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In. What draws you to his work and how he has influenced your career? If I think hard about it, the truth is that my turn to want to study film is very much influenced by my experience of watching his films. The first of his films I ever saw was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I was still an undergraduate student and, at the time, a biology major. I had never seen anything like it. I remember being particularly struck by the film’s color palette, its humor and its storytelling capacity. But it was not until much later that I eventually decided to take up film as a subject in school. I never missed any of his films from that point on, and wanting to understand them always led me in interesting directions. I followed up on any reference he planted. It was through tracking these references that I first learned to appreciate film history: if there was a reference to a Cukor film, I would watch it. When there was a reference to Autumn Sonata, I would watch that too, and so on. Almodóvar is not just an accomplished filmmaker, he has an astounding understanding and appreciation for all film. I came to value how he “riffed” on these references in original ways. You could hardly bump into a more well-versed historian: be it about genre, a particular star, a director, a composer, you name it. This is part of what also draws me to his work, which is as entertaining as it is encyclopaedic.
You’ve actually worked quite extensively with the filmmaker as his interpreter. How did that relationship come about? It was pure serendipity. I was a graduate student at NYU when Sony Pictures Classics was looking to hire interpreters. I was approached by a friend of a friend who knew I was bilingual and that I studied Almodóvar’s films. I first worked as a interpreter for Javier Cámara for Talk to Her, [and] that’s when I first met Almodóvar. But it wasn’t until Bad Education that I began translating for him. I now am lucky to have done so through is last film, I’m So Excited!. My work with him happens primarily during the interviews that he grants when he comes to the U.S. for the premieres of his films. Though I am not a professional translator, I think the fact that I am a student of film and that I know his films so well ended up making me a good fit to be his interpreter. I have learned a lot about what drives the plots of his films while listening to his interviews, which has then also provided me with interesting avenues to pursue in the academic work that I do.
What are the top three films you recommend every film student watch? Well, the first two films that came to mind immediately were Vertigo and Metropolis. You cannot be a student of film and not have seen these films. Then, for spot number three, I begin to have a debate that includes about ten films or so, films that I love for one reason or another. Vertigo and Metropolis are both visionary films for very different reasons. They are films whose basic premises filmmakers have returned to time and again. In some odd way, one could even argue that Vertigo is a modern version of Metropolis. A woman resembling herself is at the center of both of them, both films deal with, among other things, obsession and loss: themes near and dear to a myriad of cinematic stories. For example, you cannot wholly comprehend Blade Runner without Metropolis (and that’s just one of so many science fiction films for which this could be said); Nor can you appreciate Mulholland Drive without Vertigo (nor without Sunset Boulevard, for that matter). And, speaking of Almodóvar, one could argue that Talk to Her, Broken Embraces, and The Skin I Live In are all informed by Vertigo in some way.
I would argue that Metropolis is the film that effectively turns the Frankenstein myth into the kind a story worthy of sustained cinematic inquiry – it has as much to say about the cinema and its technological transformations as it does about the ages-old trope of human beings wanting to play God. Vertigo has begun to surpass Citizen Kane for the title of “best film ever made” – and not that I put a lot of stake in such things, but if pushed to do so, I would agree. The reason being is that Vertigo with its themes of simulacrum, creation and re-creation, has more to say to our present moment: a time when the creation of digital images makes us all the more aware that reality itself can be made to order.
Other films that I like because they move me deeply are: Talk to Her, Chungking Express, The Spirit of the Beehive, Hiroshima, mon amour, Sunrise, and La Jetée. A movie that I never get bored of watching is Now, Voyager. Gilda is another favorite. It’s hard to just pick three!