Friday, September 8, 2006
If there's one thing that ties all of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar's films together it's love. Not simple, easy love but desperate, passionate, stop-at-nothing love. With his new film Volver coming out this November, Sony Pictures Classics has decided to strike new prints of eight Almodovar films and package them together for a showcase called Viva Pedro! (beginning September 1 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). If you love cinema, don't miss this event.
Pedro Almodovar is quoted as saying, "Cinema has become my life. I don't mean a parallel world, I mean my life itself. I sometimes have the impression that the daily reality is simply there to provide material for my next film." And Almodovar spins reality into fiction like no one else.
Almodovar was born in a small town in a poor region of Spain called La Mancha. He faced the challenge of growing up gay during a period of repression when homosexuality was against the law. He left his small town for Madrid in the late 1960s and might have studied filmmaking if it wasn't for the fact that Franco's regime had closed the film schools in the early 1970s. So he educated himself by buying a super 8 camera and making short films. When Franco died in 1975, film censorship began to relax. By the late 1970s, Almodovar became a force in Madrid's post-Franco pop cultural movement known as "La Movida." After all that repression, Almodovar as well as Spain began to revel in newfound freedoms. In addition to film work, Almodovar sang with Fabio McNamara in a punk-glam-rock band, began publishing "confessions" of a fake porn star name Patty Diphus, and contributed to comics, underground magazines and theater.
Almodovar's films were not only successful in his native country, but they also became Spain's most popular cinematic export since Luis Bunuel's works. His films did well at festivals around the globe and in the U.S. market. He soon became known as the "Almodovar Phenomenon." In one respect, Almodovar's international fame is surprising because his films are very specifically Spanish, and he displays an affinity for characters who, like himself, dealt with the confusion and heady rush of freedom after the death of fascist dictator Franco. Yet Almodovar's films also deal with very universal themes of love, family and desire. His work is also heavily influenced by Hollywood filmmaking, which may in part explain why his films strike a cord here. Then again, maybe it's just because he's an exceptionally talented filmmaker whose work is simply impossible to ignore.
Part of that talent lies in his ability to fuse diverse elements: a sense of Spanish identity with Hollywood storytelling; the tragic with the comic; melodrama with sophisticated artistry. He has a certain self-conscious sense of narration but counters the alienating quality of that approach by employing the trappings of melodrama and Hollywood narrative structure, both of which have a primal emotional appeal that pulls audiences into his stories. He understands the allure of melodrama and its ability to work across genres in both comedy and tragedy. His work is influenced by Hollywood filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk who created such melodramas as There's Always Tomorrow, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Like Sirk, he recognizes how melodrama can be subversive through stylish excesses (in Almodovar's case that kitschy colors and decor, bold visual design). Rather than working through intellectual or literary means, this approach works on audiences through emotion and visual style.
Almodovar is not an overtly political filmmaker in the way that say someone like Costa Gavras is. But like Sirk, he recognizes that melodrama's realm of family and gender is a perfectly legitimate ground for serious political struggle and commentary. He emphasizes ideas and issues that Hollywood would typically gloss over, and deals with the politics of love and passion. Within this world he tends to focus on women. He offers a gallery of complex women but simple men who are often rooted in cliched roles (cops, priests, abusive or philandering husbands). He has been called misogynistic (mainly for films such as Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and High Heels, two films left out of this series). But I think the criticism is misplaced. He may not present women who are the best or most positive role models but as an artist he offers us a rich array of complicated women who often pursue socially transgressive emotional and sexual desires. Plus they tend to be women who simply cannot be ignored.
Almodovar's particular talent is to take traditional values and morality but lay them onto a world filled by very untraditional characters and families. He frequently deals with characters that society might deem unconventional at best and perverse at worst. He understands that a sense of the scandalous or bad taste can be used to good effect to offend the morally haughty or stuffily intellectual. So Almodovar peoples his films with homosexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, masochists, nymphomaniacs, a Mother Superior lesbian drug addict, and a woman turned on by killing her sexual partners during orgasm. Extreme characters to some yet they are perfectly normal within Almodovar's universe and we identify with them.
That's another Almodovar trait--his ability to make us care for his characters no matter what horrible things they may do. He imbues his characters with humanity and refuses to pass judgment on them. You may not condone what some of his characters do yet you can always understand what drives them--which is usually love or desperate romanticism--and you can see something human even in their flaws. They are often flawed and know it, or struggling with inadequacies.
The themes that run through his films involve a search for love, pleasure and passion. He also focuses on gender and sexual orientation in a manner that would not have been allowed under Franco and Spain's earlier censorship restrictions.
Here is a rundown of the films in the series. In All About My Mother, a single mother witnesses the death of her only son on his 17th birthday as he runs to seek an actress's autograph. She seeks out the boy's father, a transvestite named Lola who never knew he has a child. Along the way she also meets her friend, Agrado (also a transvestite); a young nun bound for El Salvador; and the actress that her son admired. The film pays homage to All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire.
In Bad Education , Almodovar lays bare the essence of his film within seconds of the initial fade in. The music harkens back to Bernard Herrmann's work for Alfred Hitchcock; and the title sequence offers a tabloid mix of Catholicism and the cinema. This is a film that owes as much to Almodovar's childhood as it does to American film noir. The film focuses on a trio characters that encounter each other in three different decades. The film opens in Madrid in 1980, a time when Spain was reveling in newfound freedoms, a time that Almodovar sees this as perfect for having his characters take control of their own destinies.
Bad Education began as a short story Almodovar wrote in the 70s as revenge on his religious education. But the film ends up being a much more complex and mature work that's asks how do we know who to trust. Almodovar knows that audiences tend to trust a film's narrator. So he switches narrators during the course of the film and suggests that each is unreliable. Each version of the story reflects reality in a different way and the film becomes like a hall of mirrors. As in many of Almodovar's films, the characters' lives are tied up inextricably with the films they see. When two characters are plotting a murder, they attend a film noir festival. When they emerge from the theater, they note that it was as if "all the movies were talking about them." Bad Education allows Almodovar to reflect on the films he loves by paying tribute to directors like Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, and specifically to films such as Double Indemnity and Vertigo.
The Flower of My Secret involves melodrama in a very direct form by focusing on a character, Leo Macias, who pens successful sentimental novels but hides under the pseudonym of Amanda Gris.
Law of Desire takes on filmmaking, dysfunctional families, sexual ambiguity, the Catholic Church, and the city of Madrid. The film has an autobiographical feel, but as with all of Almodovar's personal films, that sense of autobiography feels once removed. Here a gay director tries to find a perfect romantic love. He is pursued by a man (a young Antonio Banderas before Hollywood smoothed out his rough edges and raw passion) who will commit murder to prove his affection. The film has a spectacular performance by Carmen Maura (an Almodovar favorite) as a transsexual who mothers those around and complains about her inability to find a man who will love her.
Live Flesh, the weakest of the collection, focuses on a young man who is born on a bus during Franco's repressive regime, ends up in a scuffle with cops that lands him in jail, and as he pursues revenge for his imprisonment, ends up falling in love with the woman that he blames for his bad fortune.
In Matador (one of the few Almodovar films I still have not see), an ex-bullfighter gets turned on by killing while a female lawyer suffers from the same problem. In addition, a young man's over-religious upbringing drives him crazy. A black comedy about the dark side of human nature. Again paying tribute to American movies, Almodovar has his lovers watch King Vidor's Duel in the Sun , which depicts an American take on lurid passions.
Talk to Her offers a lady bullfighter, a comatose ballerina, a male nurse and a man prone to tears. Almodovar, like Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is obsessed with exploring love in the extreme and with depicting characters whose definitions of love push conventional boundaries. In Talk to Her , Almodovar offers two men in love with comatose women. These are, in typical Almodovar fashion, simple men and complex women, or more accurately, men trying to figure out the mystery women present. Having the women in comas simplifies the situation for the men--they don't have to deal with the complexity of a fully functional woman. The women may be physically comatose, but it's the men who are in emotional comas from which they need to be awakened.
Along with Bad Education, my favorite of the series is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. If Bad Education is Almodovar's homage to Hitchcock, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown pays tribute to screwball comedies and Preston Sturges.
A woman's lover leaves her, and she tries to find out why he's left. She confronts his wife but she proves as clueless as her. Meanwhile the woman's friend is afraid the police are looking for her criminally inclined boyfriend so they consult a female lawyer who just happens to be the new lover of the woman's ex-boyfriend. You with me? Anyway, everyone keeps crossing each other's path as the film spins into the terrain of wild comic chaos. But here the absurd resonates with genuine emotion, and campiness reveals depth. Again Carmen Maura shines.
The films (in Spanish with English subtitles and all recommended for mature audiences only) screening as part of the Viva Pedro series are, in chronological order, Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), The Flower of My Secret (1995), Live Flesh (1997), Talk to Her (2002), and Bad Education (2004). For a complete schedule of the films go to www.landmarktheatres.com .
Companion viewing: For more Almodovar check out Kika, High Heels , and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. To check out some of his influences, try Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow , Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.