Viva Pedro! Almodovar's Desire to Desire: Part I

Part I of III

Celebrating the work of the prolific Spaniard director Pedro Almodovar in a series called “Viva Pedro,” Sony Classics is releasing theatrically eight of its sixteen films, which will tour from city to city until his new, highly acclaimed picture, “Volver,” opens in the U.S., in late October.

It's an interesting idea, and hopefully the series will be embraced by large audiences, since many of the films shown were made in the 1980s, when Almodovar was just beginning to leave his imprint on the American and international cinema.

This essay (Part I) describes the origins and nature of Almodovar's unique cinematic sensibility, beginning with three significant quotes from the master himself.

“I find the cliches of popular culture both very funny and very alive. I like to play with them, to create a narrative angle that makes them
part of my movies, as they are of my life.”

“I use cinema in a very active way, never as a pastiche or homage, because for me, a film is something that once I have seen it, it has become part of my experience.”

“I put these movies in the middle of my films and they become part of the story, but never in the sense of being a cinephile like Tarantino or De Palma.”

Status in World Cinema

For at least a decade, Almodovar has been one of the premier filmmakers working in world cinema, a director whose work has been winning awards in festival after festival.

The turning point in Almodovar's international status might have been in 1988, when he made “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,” his most successful film, in which gaiety, violence and tragedy jostle together dangerously and hilariously. “Women on the Verge” was named Best Foreign Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle; Almodovar was named Best Young Director at the EFA (Europe Film Awards); and the movie won the Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered.

In 1999, “All About My Mother” took the Director Prize at the Festival de Cannes, and won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. In 2002, “Talk to Her,” won the Oscar for Original Script.

Opening the Cannes Festival in 2004, the dark and noirish “Bad Education” was voted Best Foreign Language by the New York Critics. Though it was expected to win a more major award, “Volver,” his latest, received the Writing and Acting (for the whole female ensemble) at Cannes this year.

Early on, he was dubbed by some as “Spains Andy Warhol,” of “Gabriel Garcia Marquez crossed with John Waters.” Later on, critics compared Almodovar's dark, irreverent gaze to that of his compatriot Luis Bunuel, who worked most of his life in exile.

Nonetheless, within a few years, Almodovar made it clear that he's not the flavor of the month director, or just a fleeting pop-culture sensation. Based on his track record, Almodovar's now earned the recognition of being one of Europes finest, most industrious and most reliable directors, having made 16 features and several shorts in 26 years.

Countering Franco's Repression

Always writing his own scripts, Almodovar has been most effective with caustic, irreverent, and often shocking comedy. Mixing high fashion, TV melodrama, comic strips, and street corner pornography, Almodovar has spun off absurd stories. Openly gay, he has created characters that are mostly outsiders and “deviants”: homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Seen from a mainstream perspective, the young Almodovar and “perversity” go hand-in-hand, which he took as a compliment.

Almodovar has special affinity for the confusions and desires of people, like him, who came of age in Spain after dictator Franco's death, in 1975, a turning point in Spain's modern history. In a climate of repression and denial, such as under Franco, each sin, no matter how casual, stands out with clarity and bears significant results for the perpetrator and his/her victims.

The critic David Thomson has contrasted Almodovar with Carlos Saura, whos a generation older than him, in order to show differences in psychological and philosophical orientations that
also translate into differences of sensibility and style.

If Saura made intensely measured and psychologically reflective films with the innate secrecy of someone raised under the Franco regime, Almodovar is more optimistic director, who nenefited from the new political climate in making excessive, outlandishly inventive, and irrepressible.

As noted, being openly gay has allowed him the freedom to deal in fresh and candid way with various sexual confusions (gedner-bender) and various forms of human love. Almodovar's mode is satiric yet generous and free from preaching or moralizing.

One of the most-welcome explosions of the 1980s, Almodovbar was at once the product and a sign of the New Spain. His historical role cannot be under-estimated: In addition to pumping new blood into Spanish film after France's death, Almodovar has also blazed the path for a camp style around the world.

Elements of Unique Sensility

Almodovar dares to splash the screen with primary emotions and primary colors, adding layer upon layer of tragic possibility and darker palette until the mixture of the serio and the comedic turns into a hilarious yet coherent and poignant farce.

Almodovar's seemingly sillier, trashier frolics have always co-existed with the more cerebral; he chooses to wear his outrageousness the way some display visual style. Amazingly, after two decades, Almodovar's ability to outrage remains intact, even though it's not his primary goal anymore; over the past decade, new emotional and cinematic maturity is evident in his work (See Part II and III)

Overall, Almodovar's work (early and late) is marked by complex narratives, stylized sets, dazzling costumes, fast pacing, and irreverent send-ups of the most taboo issues. Take Law of Desire,” a polymorphous bittersweet, anarchic gender-benders tale, a firm proof of liberalization of Spanish cinema.

In “Pepi,” the frame contains sex gags, scatology, attacks an authority, media and showbiz satire, but there's no denying that one of “Pepi”'s major points is that authority can be more perverted than its dissidents. Deliberately tasteless and punky, and unabashedly gay in its viewpoint and characters, “Pepi” is a true underground movie.

If “Law of Desire” and “Matador” are more sultry and erotic, “Women on the Verge” is funnier and sexier, perhaps due to Almodovar's unique celebration of women a motif which runs through all of his film (even the few with male protagonists). Standing out even among Hollywood's women directors (George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk), Almodovar constructs female characters that are multi-nuanced and surprisingly complex.

Almodovar may be the only major director who sets out to tickle himself and his audience. As a viewer, you remember the details of his most convoluted plots. Moreover, after watching his pictures, you tend to feel better about yourself and the whole world around youYou could not say about many other directors, past or present, American and foreign.

After half a dozen films, Almodovar understood that an energy like his needs to keep expanding and changing, or else risk becoming mannered and predictable, which motivated him to chart fresh and dangerous territory.

Remarkably, Almodovar has not violated his basic principles in the movies he made during the second decade of his career. This may be due to the fact that his approach begins and ends with freedom and pleasure, all kinds of pleasure, narrative, psychological, and visual. Almodovar possesses the distinctive talent to make the artificial look sexy and the sexy look artificial. The artificial is what triggers Almodovar. His early movies have little to do with what passes in cinema as naturalism or realism, which earned him the label of the 1980s' most original pop director.

His technique is to blend kitsch, melodrama, fantasy, and humor into an assured exploration of human feelings. His sensibility is campy, but not smirking or denigrating to his characters; he offers a morbid and satirical but non-judgmental look at all kinds of underworld, gay and straight, fetishistic and more “normal.” A typical Almodovar progression goes from obsessive, doomed love to violent death to melodramatic denouement.

Anxiety of Influence, Homage, Tribute

Almodovar himself has acknowledged his debts to Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Bunuel and Frank Tashlin, though as the above quotes indicate, Almodovar insists that his debt is by no means expressed as a tribute or homage to those directors.

Hence, if Almodovar borrows form Tashlin a cartoon-like abandon and color delirium, his cinematic consciousness and sub-consciousness are different from Tashlin in its affection and generosity. Like Hitchcock, hes a master of depicting the exterior and inner lives of objects, such as typewriters, blenders, answering machine, microphones, knives, and guns.

Though Almodovar's generation has been insisting on throwing out his country's past, he has resisted temptation to work in Hollywood, instead staying in Spain and surrounding himself with a striking troupe of actors, notably Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Marisa Paredes, and more recently Penelope Cruz. Hes smart not to make an American film, though he speaks English and knows inside out American pop culture. Its hard to think of any Spanish director who has worked successfully in Hollywood.