Almodovar: What Makes the Spaniard Maestro Pedro Run?

Early Life and Career

Almodovar’s official biography gives September 25, 1951 as his date of birth, but his friends told me he was actually born in 1949. Almodovar has used his background and his region, in Calzada de Calatraya in La Mancha, in few of his films, most notably in “Volver,” in 2006. Most of his films, though, are set in Madrid, and to a lesser extent in Barcelona (see below).

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

The young Almodovar was not suited to provincial life, as he later recalled: “My family, like that of Sole and Raimunda in ‘Volver,’ is a migrant family which came from the village to La Mancha in search of prosperity. My sisters have continued to cultivate the culture of our childhood and have kept intact the inheritance received from my mother. I moved away from home very young and became an inveterate urbanite. When I returned to the habits and customs of La Mancha in ‘Volver,’ I had to ask my sisters to be my guides.”

The happiest times of Almodovar’s childhood were spent by the river: “My mother used to take me with her when she went to wash clothes there, because I was very little and she had no one with whom to leave me. There were always women washing clothes and spreading them out on the grass. I would sit near my mother and put my hand in the water, trying to stroke the fish that answered the call of the fortuitously ecological soap the women used back then, which they made themselves. The women would sing while they were washing, which is why I’ve always liked female choirs. My mother used to sing a song about gleaners who would greet the dawn working in the fields and singing like joyful little birds.”

Years later, he would sing fragments of these songs to the composer of “Volver,” Alberto Iglesias, only to be told by him that it was actually a song from the operetta “La Rosa del Azafrán.”

The river was a place for communal celebration. It was also in the river where, a few years later, he discovered his own sexuality and lost his virginity, though he has never disclosed details about the circumstances. He observed nostalgically: “Undoubtedly, the river is what I miss most from my childhood and adolescence.”

In 1967, Almodovar moved to Madrid, but he couldn’t afford any schooling. Instead, he worked as a clerk at the National Telephone Company between 1970 and 1980. The job in the Spanish company enabled him to save some of his salary to buy a Super-8 camera. In the 1970s, Almodovar took an active part in the city’s emerging artistic underground, the Movida Madrilena (Madrid Upsurge), specifically in the rock ‘n roll scene, recording and performing with his own band. He became a central figure of “La Movida,” whose elements served as subjects of some of his earlier films.

In those years, Almodovar acted with an avant-garde theater group, “Los Goliardos,” and he also wrote comic strips, articles and stories in underground papers. Almodovar published his funny, nasty and parodist observations under the pseudonym of Patti Diphusa (a fictitious international porn star).

In 1974, Almodovar shot his first film in Super-8, “Dos Putas, O Historia de Amor Que Termina en Boda” (which translates into “Two Prostitutes…..). This was followed by the super-8 “Folle, Folleme, Tim,” in 1978.

In 1980, Almodovar made his first feature film, “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom,” a 16mm feature, which he also blew up to 35mm. Ät the same time, he continued to publish Diphusa’s highly popular memoirs.

Almodovar’s earlier films were campy melodramas about new characters in Spanish (and world) cinema–homosexuals, heterosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals, all steeped in the liberal post-Franco culture. Speaking for a new generation that rejected Spain’s political past Almodovar was committed to the pursuit of immediate and visceral pleasures. As he said: “I never speak of Franco. The stories unfold as though he had never existed, because for people who are 15 or 20 years old today, all of their points of reference, their traumas, the specters of their past are unrelated to the dictatorship.” Almodovar’s postmodern sensibility reflects the spirit of these youths, known as pasotas, or “those who could not care less.”

The artistic influences on Almoodvar’s work have been varied. They include classic American melodramas and comedies, as well as Spanish black comedies of the 1950s, by directors such as Fernan Gomez and Luis Garcia Berlanga. Among American directors, he has acknowledged his debt to Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Frank Tashlin.

He’s been largely influenced by the late Spanish maestro Luis Bunuel (1900-1980), especially in his use of non-rational, illogical, and surreal tales, though Almodovar’s work—even the best films–lacks Bunuel’s subtlety, delicacy, and light touch. But like Bunuel’s Almodovar’s narratives are suffused by the surreal and irrational, and so do not adopt conventional logic or mainstream morality. Beneath their frenzied surfaces, each of his films touches on a social issue or a problem, particularly male violence and sexual abuse (rape), which are recurrent themes.

In Almodovar’s early films, influenced by Frank Tashlin, there’s a deliberate cartoonish abandon and conscious delirium, but also strong belief in (and use of) Freudian psychology and the working of the subconscious and the unconscious. Unlike Tashlin, however, Almodovar makes the artificial world both more seductive and more realistic in the sense that his characters are grounded in easily recognizable, not cartoonish, social contexts.

Like Hitchcock, Almodovar’s has become a master of visual style and mise-en scene, and like the maestro, he’s been obsessed with the depiction of what could be called as the life of objects. typewriters, telephones, answering machine, microphones, even blenders, abound in his work.

Almodovar is flattered when critics describe him as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, crossed with Andy Warhol, crossed with John Waters, crossed with Vriginia Woolf.

When Almoodvar began his career, the most internationally famous Spanish director was Carlos Saura. Nearly 20 years older than Almodovar, Saura belongs to a different social and cultural generation. Saura is known for making intensely measured and psychologically reflective films, infused with the innate secrecy of someone raised under the Franco regime. Many of Saura’s films revolve around or celebrate national folklore, particularly flamenco dance.

Almodovar’s narratives are personal, colorful, and complex, due to the fact that, like John Waters and Todd Haynes, but unlike Gus Van Sant, he has always written his own scenarios, which has given him complete control over his work. Despite many offers, he has resisted going Hollywood, opting to work in Spain with a reliable crew of collaborators and a terrific troupe of actors, most notably Carmen Maura, Marisa Peredes, Penelope Cruz, and Antonio Banderas.

What saves his films from mean-spiritedness is the tension between their witty cleverness and the grim and bleak social situations they depict. Beneath the cheap jokes and lurid touches, there’s a sardonic and revisionist strategy at work.

Mixing together high fashion, TV soaps, movie melodramas, comic strips, and street corner pornography, Almodovar has spun off absurd stories. His narrative strategy blends kitsch, melodrama, fantasy, and humor into assured exploration of human feelings: “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 part of my life.” His sensibility is both campy and morbid, offering a satirical look at the increasingly fetishistic world and underworld.

What marks his earlier, blood-hot, trashy frolics is a strong sense of pleasure, real joy in telling stories, entertaining the audience with dazzling, irreverent send-ups and zany antics. Like Waters, he is a director who sets out to tickle himself and the audience. To accomplish that, he doesn’t violate his principles, which begin and end with the commitment to freedom and joy.

Almodovar saturates the screen with primary emotional and physical colors, particularly red—which is another influence of Hitchcock. His best films add layer upon layer of narrative strands until the mixture curdles into incredibly zany farce.

Almodovar still wears his outrageousness easily and effortlessly. After three decades, his ability to outrage and shock is still intact, as was evident in his latest, creepiest work to date, “The Skin I Live In.” However, as he grew older and more mature, he started by his own admission, “to look deeper inside myself,” which led to the expansion of the reach and range of his movies.

Career Phases

It’s possible to distinguish four phases in Almodovar’s still evolving career. They are more or less divided by decades. In the first phase, from 1980 to 1989, Almodovar’s work was excessively garish, outlandishly inventive and joyously irrepressible. The highlights of this phase are “What Have I Done to Deserve It?” in 1984, and “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,” his first acknowledged masterpiece, in 1988.

The second career phase begins with the controversial “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” in 1990 and ends (more or less) with his most conventional melodrama, “The Flower of My Secret,” in 1998.

The third, most accomplished phase, begins in 1999, with the masterpiece “Äll About My Mother,” and goes through “Volver,” in 2006.

The fourth phase, which finds Almodovar at his most stylish and elegant, begins with “Broken Embraces,” in 2009, and includes “The Skin I Live In,” his latest feature, in 2011. Both features indicate a turning point in Almodovar’s ongoing career.

 

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).