Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Wild Tales": Flying the Unfriendly Skies

There can’t be anyone who hasn’t heard by now the story of Andreas Lubitz. He was, of course, the Germanwings co-pilot who seems to have deliberately slammed a plane carrying 150 people into a mountain peak in the French Alps. The possibility of a suicidal maniac at the controls is just one more reason for all of us to shudder when thinking about our next trip into the “friendly skies.” But I didn’t expect the full horror of the situation to hit me at my local movie house.

Last weekend I finally caught up with Wild Tales (or Relatos Selvajes) the darkly comic film from Argentina that was nominated for the 2015 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Written and directed by Damián Szifrón, and produced by Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar, Wild Tales is a morbid but hilarious exploration of people behaving badly. This anthology film brings together six short vignettes united by the theme of revenge. Here the grotesque is the norm: death by rat poison, death by butcher knife, grim encounters with a hammer and an oversized mirror. One segment, “El Más Fuerte,” is a rapidly escalating tale about the consequences of road rage. Another, which translates as “Till Death Do Us Part,” kicks off with a joyous wedding reception, then introduces jealousy, sex, an orgy of destruction, and a blood-stained bridal gown. The stories are carefully crafted, and the ending of each is rarely predictable. (In one case a vengeful explosion turns a sad-sack into a local hero.) Basically, though, it’s hard to tell which comes off  worse: Argentina’s tangled government bureaucracy or basic human nature.

The opening segment, called simply “Pasternak,” is the one that took my breath away. It starts out with an attractive young woman, a fashion model, showing up for an airline flight. Once aloft, she discovers that each and every one of her fellow passengers has some sort of long-ago connection with her former boyfriend, a fellow named Gabriel Pasternak. There’s a music critic who barred his way into a conservatory, a teacher who labeled him hopeless, a shrink who failed to help him solve his problems, a best friend who let him down . . . .  And guess who turns out to be the purser on the flight, the one who’s just barricaded himself in the cockpit? There’s a final twist that I won’t spoil: it’s simultaneously delicious and horrible. Yes, life sometimes imitates art, but this coincidental overlapping of screenplay and current events was (not just for me, I’m certain) a bit too close for comfort.

But leave it to the Argentineans to look at the world through a glass, darkly. (I guess the cynical Argentine approach to life reflects a bizarre national history that includes, among other oddities, the eccentric regime of Juan and Evita Perón.) When I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, I was privileged to work with Héctor Olivera, best known for a sardonic 1983 political film, Funny Dirty Little War, that won international prizes. Though Héctor, a courtly white-haired gentleman, was a respected filmmaker in his own country, he seemed happy enough to direct Concorde schlock like Barbarian Queen and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. We’d come up with the scripts, send a few leading actors down Argentine way, and let Héctor do the rest. I worked directly with him on Two to Tango, an English-language version of an Argentine hit-man thriller, and on Play Murder for Me. (Yes, I have credits on both films.) 

Muchas gracias to Argentine journalist (and Facebook buddy) Andrés Fevrier for reminding me of those wild and crazy days. 


  1. Thanks for the mention, Beverly! Is always a pleasure to talk with you about Corman's world. And let me said that "Play Murder for Me" is, along with "Deathstalker II", the best of all Corman's movies produced in Argentina.

  2. Thanks, Andres. I enjoy staying in touch with you. Is Hector Olivera still involved in making movies?

  3. The last movie that he directed was "El mural" ("The Mural"), an expensive historical drama released in 2010 that didn't so well at the box office. And after that he produced a TV serie. In a few days (on April 5, the same day as Corman) he will celebrate his 84th birthday. His son, Javier, who is also a filmmaker, is going to release in a few weeks a documentary focusing on their relationship, among other autobiographical topics.

  4. Happy birthday to my old friend Hector. I'd love to know more about his son's documentary, Andres. Please keep me informed. Gracias!

  5. Terrible story about the sad fate of the plane - I'm sorry the movie echoed it so closely. There are a couple of shows and movies that before the fact echoed 9/11 - and my memories of watching them make me shudder a bit.

    I worked with a key grip here in Wilmington NC 20 years ago who told stories of working in Argentina on those movies (at least a couple of them.) His name was Mark Smith, and his IMDB page doesn't list any Corman movies that I can see - but he did tell the tales - including one about being a part of a call back to Los Angeles that there were no filmmaking equipment rental companies in Argentina - and therefore no camera dollies to rent. According to his story (which I pray is true, because it's wonderful) Mr. Corman asked if Argentina had grocery stores? The grip said, yes, of course they do - to which Mr. Corman replied "Then they have grocery carts - and you have a place to get a dolly."

  6. Great story, which I just discovered today. This indeed sounds like Roger, who was great at spur-of-the-moment thinking. But by the time the great Janusz Kaminski was director of photography on a Corman film (before he moved on to Schindler's List and an Oscar), Roger had decided that setting up dolly tracks just took too much time, so he banned them from his films (and the crew had to set them up on the sly).