Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for Pedro Almodóvar. Pick practically any movie from his extensive filmography, which now spans over 40 years, and chances are you’ll recognise it instantly as un film de Almodóvar. He is one of world cinema’s most resilient voices, seemingly incapable of being anything other than fascinating and vivid. I’m not a fan of the word auteur, but Almodóvar is one of the few filmmakers who truly deserves that title. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is one of Almodóvar’s cornerstones. It has never quite become an all-out classic like, say, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or any film from his late-90s output, but it showcases a crucial moment in his development as a filmmaker.
After finally being embraced worldwide as a force to be reckoned with thanks to Breakdown, Pedro put his new-found acceptance to good use by making one of his most controversial and divisive efforts to date. While the subject matter made many uncomfortable, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is nevertheless an incredibly assured piece of filmmaking. It showcases Almodóvar in total control of his craft. The performances, set design, colours, music and tone are all perfectly in key. I would even argue that this is the film that established the now-instantly recognisable Almodóvar aesthetic: bright colours, skewed compositions, large, passionate performances and a world steeped in a love of cinema, sexuality, and pop culture. This is the moment Almodóvar stopped trying to find his voice and started speaking fluently in it. All of a sudden the Almodóvar universe was crystalline.
Ah yes, the Almodóvar universe. One of the great pleasures of Pedro’s body of work is that it all seems to share the same canvas. The appeal of a filmmaker as singular as Almodóvar (or Brian De Palma, or Steven Soderbergh) often lies in the collective of movies rather than the individual titles. I’m not going to dissuade anyone from the standalone strengths of films like All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver or The Skin I Live In, but the reason they are so appealing is because of the man responsible. The real star of these films is Almodóvar himself. The flip side of this is that once you’ve seen enough of them, the films start to blur together and the details overlap and entwine. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate one from the other, not just because they share the same author, but also the same faces, thematic concerns and design. I wondered if I was alone in this thinking but in a printed conversation between Wes Anderson and critic Kent Jones accompanying Criterion’s edition of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the notion is actually brought up by Jones:
When we were talking about Almodóvar, we kept getting the films all mixed up—the characters, the situations, the stories. This is as it should be. For us and for most of his admirers, I believe, his body of work feels like one ongoing movie, a great traveling caravan of endlessly unfolding and evolving beauty, emotion, and desire. And as audience members, we are all welcome to come aboard.
So how does Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! play into all this? Well firstly, it is certainly one of Almodóvar’s strongest films, and a personal favourite of mine. Not just because of its stylistic and thematic confidence but because it really demonstrates Pedro’s ability to provoke and titillate, sometimes in the same breath. We can’t deny the uneasiness felt from seeing Antonio Banderas tie Victoria Abril down to a bed so that she will eventually develop Stockholm syndrome and fall in love with him, but you also can’t escape the fact that this is a very sexy movie. Both Banderas and Abril are incredibly easy on the eyes (Banderas especially, and this is coming from a straight male) and the chemistry between them is as colourful as Almodóvar’s palette. It’s a hot-blooded film, explicit and naughty in all the necessary ways. The film was initially branded with the dreaded X rating, definitely overkill on the MPAA’s part (they eventually downgraded it to NC-17), but it says something about the film’s content when they slap it with a rating usually reserved for hardcore pornography. As fun as all these ingredients are, Tie Me Up! is still mostly interesting because of its writer/director. Were this a one-off by a lesser-known filmmaker, I’m not sure it would have stayed with me as much. I don’t often think of the film in isolation (whereas I do think about Volver or The Skin I Live In that way). Apart from being a creative breakthrough for Almodóvar what does this movie do for cinema in the grand scheme of things? Not a whole lot.
In stark contrast to this (quite literally) we have Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a film which will stand out in any crowd. A nightmarish helter-skelter of bulging eyeballs and bared teeth gorgeously rendered in black-and-white 16mm grain, Shinya Tsukamoto’s seminal cyberpunk/body horror film is one of those cinematic freak-outs you just can’t forget. A sort of Eraserhead for the restless circuit board generation, Tetsuo is a wild, frenzied experience. Tsukamoto’s technique is so dizzying that you just daren’t look away, even when you desperately want to escape the sights in front of you. I first saw this film with all the lights turned off in the early hours of the morning. I actually remember looking away from the screen for a few seconds to marvel at how the film’s strobing imagery was igniting my walls with a frantic light show. I imagined some drunkard walking home outside and looking up at my flashing window and assuming I was some sort of twisted inventor blowing sparks on my latest creation. It’s fitting for a film that can be seen as a metamorphic Frankenstein’s monster of genres and visuals. To watch Tetsuo is the next best thing to having your retinas burnt right out of your skull. That’s a compliment, by the way.
While Shinya Tsukamoto didn’t invent cyberpunk, Tetsuo’s aesthetic seems to define that genre for me. The violent smashing together of man and metal, flesh and technology, is so fierce in these 67 minutes that it’s really hard to better. It’s even more impressive considering how low Tsukamoto’s budget was. This is a great example of financial restrictions becoming strengths. It feels blasphemous to imagine this film shot on anything other than 16mm or with special effects more elaborate than the scrappy hell Tsukamoto fused together. It’s probably this very reason that prevented Tsukamoto’s own Tetsuo follow-ups from catching on the same way the original did. Even today, it looks like a seminal work. While it’s still rightly filed under “cult” rather than “classic,” there’s no denying how far the film’s influence reaches. Hell, would we ever have had Darren Aronofsky were it not for Tetsuo: The Iron Man? Probably not. I agree with Juan’s assessment that this would make a terrific double bill with David Cronenberg’s Crash. They feel like two sides of the same coin and Tsukamoto and Cronenberg themselves would probably have a lot to talk about were they to ever cross paths (has that ever happened, please someone tell me it has). Like Cronenberg, Tsukamoto is a true original with a voice of playful fury and formal bravura. He’s definitely more showy and electrified than Cronenberg but the base concerns feel the same. Videodrome’s immortal final lines, “long live the new flesh,” would not look out of place on the one sheet for Tetsuo.
While Almodóvar’s films often work best in context with his oeuvre, Tetsuo stands totally alone. It took the Spanish master a handful of films to establish his own style whereas Tsukamoto managed it with just one. Tetsuo is a seminal, singular piece of work that breaks out of any box you try and put it in. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodóvar showcases his usual fascination with the dark side of kink but Tsukamoto blows that out of the water with images of dick fused with metal violently exploding through human flesh. While Almodóvar asks you to flirt with your own inner S&M tendencies, Tsukamoto takes you to the deepest, darkest edges of phallic perversion. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a truly nightmarish vision that scars your psyche unlike anything you’ll witness before or after. It’s a testament to its virtuosity and strengths that a film as strong and impressive as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (which even boasts Criterion’s stamp of approval) comes across as disposable and minor in comparison. Think about this film being unleashed on the world in 1989 and try and think of anything else in that year, from any country, that could come near it in terms of sheer visceral originality. There’s something definitive about it. It feels so complete in it’s execution – in many ways a perfect sensory experience. And really, how the hell do you top that?
The winner: Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Both films are in print and can be purchased on Amazon or rented at your local independent video store.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!; directed by Pedro Almodóvar; written by Pedro Almodóvar; starring Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas; 101 minutes.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man; written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto; starring Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, and Shinya Tsukamoto; 67 minutes.