Thursday, April 19, 2007

Vote For Pedro!

I was never much for Spanish culture. A couple of years ago, had you asked me to talk about my favourite countries, Spain wouldn’t have been let in my top ten. Even after a short visit to my aunt’s villa didn’t captivate me, I was always more enamoured with France to give it’s southern neighbour much respect. I associated it with bad Europop and awful holiday destinations, sunburn and tackiness.

What was I thinking? Two main things changed my perception of the country. The first is this passage, written about my favourite band.

“Elements of the Banshees’ music always had that Spanish feel – the chord structures, even Siouxsie’s voice has flamenco flavour to it. The whole thing about it being a culture of cruelty and of beauty, the bullfights and the religious iconography, influenced both of us. It was passionate and colourful, and there’s a dark side to it.”

- Marc Almond, speaking in “Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Authorised Biography” by Mark Paytress

And the second thing that changed my mind?

Pedro Almodóvar is my favourite living director.

You can take your Tarantino, stuff your Scorcese, forget your Fincher and any other alliterative distain you can think of, only Almodóvar can truly captivate me, move me, make me laugh and cry simultaneously. His sense of colour is outstanding and he is a master of coaxing great acting out of his leading actresses (like George Cukor before him, Almodóvar is a great women’s director). He’s been writing and directing films since the early 1980s, as a frustrated boy kicking out against the Spain in which he grew up in. His work features transsexuals, drug dealers, gay people, kidnappers, bad mothers, murderers and rapists but nobody is ever judged. He presents people as they are, faults and quirks and petty differences and all. He is a director who loves cinema, fondly referencing All About Eve and a Streetcar Named Desire in his own films.

"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."

I haven’t watched all of his work, but I have seen nine of his 16 films so I feel I can talk about them with some level of confidence. This post will probably veer between fan-girl idolatry and serious critique, with the emphasis on the former.

Growing up in Franco’s Spain, he was immersed in the twin churches of religion and cinema. He attended Christian schools and went to the cinema for escapism. It is said that although he lost faith in God at this time, he gained faith in the power of cinema. His debut feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980), is a brash, disjointed piece of work. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. There’s none of the elegantly framed shots of his later work, nor is the storyline fully realised, but a careful viewer may be able to spot a hint of the greatness yet to come. There’s the concentration on strong female characters, an off-beat sense of humour and a perverse joy in rooting for life’s outcasts. It also represented the beginning of a six-film partnership with actress Carmen Maura. Made on a shoe-string budget over a period of two years, Pepi, Luci, Bom must have been a startling watch at the time, in a country emerging into the light, blinking from the oppresive shadow of General Franco.

What Have I Done To Deserve This (1984) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) are quite similar, in that they are early-Almodóvar finding his feet. Both feature Carmen Maura, whose reassuring solidness helps to ground some of the films’ more bizarre moments. She also has a playful quality, which is needed for storylines including, for no discernable reason, a young girl who can move things with her mind.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was the film that broke him out into the mainstream and I’ve read many reviewers describe it as his best. Again, it’s pure camp melodrama with a whole rake of characters and it messes with the audience’s perception of the roles of wife, son, prostitute etc. It’s also very surreal and camp, but for me, it lacks the emotional wallop of his later work.

There’s a good barometer of whether you’ll “get” Almodóvar or not in a line from What Have I Done To Deserve This. Miguel, a young boy of about 8 comes back to his mother after being given to a creepy pedophiliac dentist for adoption and says,

“At first it was fun, but I am too young to be tied down.

If you think that’s perverse or stupid, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy the rest of his oeuvre.

An endearing quality of his work is his habit of using the same actors over and over again. Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Cecilia Roth and Carmen Maura pop up over and over again. His films are sometimes like a really flamboyant game of Where’s Wally. An actress who doesn’t get enough credit is Chus Lampreave, who fits into the “hilarious old woman” role with ease. There she is, adopting lizards and dispensing advice in What Have I Done To Deserve This, as an elderly neighbour in Women on the Verge, as a cameo role in Talk To Her and was recently blinking through bottleglasses in Volver. I’d like to guess that Lampreave reminds Almodóvar of his mother or granny, it seems fairly plausible. Whenever she appears on screen she’s always funny, the gum-toothed comic relief who’s just one link in the chain of Pedro’s favoured actresses.

Atame! (1990) is a very, very fun film. It features a young Antonio Banderas who is clearly having the time of his life. Like a lot of Almodóvar, it’s a story of an unconventional relationship, in which Ricky (Banderas) leaves prison and sets out to find an actress, Marina (Victoria Abril), who he once slept with. When she rejects his amorous advances, he kidnaps her and ties her up. Their relationship is bizarre, she both hates and loves him, he clearly loves her but keeps her tied to a bed. It’s dealt with in a very humorous, warm way and although there is a happy ending, it’s slightly ambiguous. I’m reminded of the lovely subdued ending in The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross sit together contentedly at the back of the bus, whenever I see it.

Live Flesh (1997) wasn’t one of my favourites, perhaps because the characters didn’t engage me as much as they did in his other work. Still, even a lesser Almodóvar is intriguing. The main character in this is David, a paraplegic basketball player who’s wife is having an affair – we delve into their past and revisit the night David lost the use of his legs. The storyline is more twisted and bizarre and fun than a lot of Hollywood fare, and I was amused to see it was based on a Ruth Rendell novel, she wasn’t exactly the kind of writer I’d associate with Pedro.

Now we come to All About My Mother (1990), the first Almodóvar I watched. It is my favourite Almodóvar film, my favourite foreign film and, hell, my favourite film of all time.

My parents owned the dvd for years, ever since it came out in 1999. I never took much notice of their dvds until one Friday in late 2003, when my younger sister was at a sleepover and they asked would I like to watch it with them. I had no idea what to expect, the box wasn’t much help but I had nothing better to be doing and so I settled down on the couch to watch.

Two hours later I was in shock, with a tear-stained face. I wasn’t exactly sure what I had just seen, an absurdly melodramatic plot encompassing pregnant nuns, lesbian drug addicts, A Streetcar Named Desire, a handful of transsexuals, Truman Capote, AIDs, motherhood and death, filtered through an outstanding sense of colour, sprinkled with humour and pathos and Alberto Iglesias’ haunting score.

Since that night I’ve watched it countless times and on each viewing I can find something else I love about it. The last time I saw it was on Sunday night, and, knowing the storyline, characters and script almost off by heart, I found myself marvelling at the cinematography, the dissolves from Esteban’s notebook to the twinkling bulbs of the dressing-room, the colour scheme, the thought and effort put in to make every shot framed beautifully. It’s his most mature, poetic work to date and if he never makes another film as good as it, he will still remain my favourite director.

Basically, All About My Mother is a story about a mother, Manuela (perfectly played by the Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth) who lives alone with her son, Esteban. Now, males don’t really get much of a fair deal in Almodóvar films usually, but the character of Esteban is great. The film begins on the eve of his 17th birthday as he and his mother sit down to watch the Bette Davis classic, All About Eve. Before the film starts, they chat and we learn a couple of things from their short conversation, that Esteban and his mother have an unusually close relationship, that there is no father in the picture and that Esteban is a talented and determined writer.

On his birthday, Manuela takes Esteban to the theatre to see A Streetcar Named Desire. We, the viewer, are allowed to see a small clip of the performance. Afterwards, the mother and son wait in the rain outside the theatre, sheltering under a doorway. He wants to wait to see the actors leave, she wants to get home but it’s his birthday and so she lets him. Esteban asks about his father; Manuela sighs and promises she will tell him who his father is once they get home. In a short, heartbreaking scene featuring an astonishingly real display of grief, Esteban is hit by a car and killed, while chasing after the actress who played Blanche in Streetcar for an autograph. It’s a shocking moment, even more so in that there is no prior indication of the tragedy. But, it serves to further the plot in a tasteful way, Manuela is destroyed by grief but manages to pull herself together enough to make the train journey back to Barcelona to find Esteban’s mysterious father. The viewer wants to know about this man, needs to learn about him, just because Esteban never had a chance.

Although he dies within the first 15 minutes, Manuela’s son haunts every scene of the film. She keeps his notebook on her coffee table and a framed picture of him in her bag, she mentions his name frequently, other characters learn about him. He is gone, but not forgotten.

A cast of characters are brought into play when we reach Barcelona. The first one we meet, Agra do, is the film’s comic relief; she’s a male-to-female transvestite with a skewed outlook on life and a self-deprecating sense of humour, nearly every scene she’s in has a few good laughs, but she also delivers the film’s centrepiece in the form of a dramatic monologue. Huma Rojo is the actress Esteban chased after to get an autograph and Penelope Cruz plays Sister Rosa, a young nun dedicated to helping the poor and sick who eventually becomes pregnant. Their storylines intersect and weave together beautifully, each with their own problems and each helping others out in their own way.

All of these women are, in a sense, caricatures. Not that any of them are one-dimensional or poorly drawn, but there is a sense that each one has a specific motiff. There is no hiding this fact; it’s made blatantly clear even from the film’s trailer:

Part of every woman is a MOTHER (Manuela)

Part of every woman is an ACTRESS (Huma)

Part of every woman is a SAINT (Sister Rosa)

Part of every woman is a SINNER (Agrado)

What Almodóvar does beautifully is to highlight these caricatures. Part of the central theme in the film is roles, especially the roles women play. The storyline, impossibly camp though it is, never veers into farce or ridicule. Themes that may seem petty in the hands of another director take on a whole new lease of life, breathing with colour and music and drama. It’s a rich, warm, inviting film – and I end up blinking back the tears on every viewing.

Talk to Her (2002) is another masterpiece, a twisted love story. It was only the second film by him that I watched, and after All About My Mother I knew that nothing was going to compare in quite the same way, but I was gently surprised by it. In Talk To Her, two men form a bond as they both look after their girlfriends who are in comas in the hospital. Both couple’s stories blend together, inspersed with dance scenes and haunting music. It’s a very Spanish-tinged film, bull-fighting is a primary theme. I find this sport horrific and barbaric, but it has inspired great art and literature in the past and Talk to Her is a nice addition to this tradition. The sport is portrayed in an almost religious view. The scene in which the leading character is getting ready to enter the ring, putting on the clothing of the bull-fight, is given a strange reverence.

If you need one reason to watch Bad Education (2004), here it is: it stars Gael García Bernal in drag.

And, handsome as he is, Bernal makes for one convincing woman.

I’m not too sure how I feel about Bad Education. It’s been described as his Hitchcock-effort, his Film Noir, his most masculine film. Confused, would be my initial response. The plot twists and turns in on itself, a cinematic spiral; it’s about a film-director who is visited by a childhood friend, who is now an actor, who has written a play about their childhood together in a Christian Brother’s school. That’s the very distilled version of the plot, it would take too much energy and brain-power (both of which I simply don’t have) to properly explain it. Plus, I probably need to watch it again.

I don’t like it as much as his other stuff of this period. Mainly because, if I’m in the mood for Hitchcock, I’ll put on Hitchcock. If I’m in the mood for Almodóvar…well, you get my point.

It does have two wonderful aspects though; music and cinematography. There’s a handful of breathtaking scenes, one by a riverbank, one underwater in a swimming pool and another of a group of priests playing football – none of these scenes are especially integral to the development of the storyline, but they’re extremely pretty to look at. When you compare scenes like the slow motion shot of a cassock-ed priest diving to save a goal in the twinkling sunlight to some of his earlier work in Pepi, Luci, Bom, there’s really no comparison. It’s wonderful to see a progression like this and to be able to track it.

Volver is a Spanish verb meaning to return, or to come back. It is a suitable title for Pedro’s latest, which sees him return to the themes of mothers, sisters and women in the same melodramatic flamboyance that he perfected in 1999’s All About My Mother. It was a return to female-orientated pictures after a couple of more masculine (if that adjective can ever really be used to describe an Almodóvar picture) works and also a welcome return for his former muse, Carmen Maura.

Watching it for the second time last weekend on dvd, I was struck by how subtly Almodóvar inserts his primary theme of “returning” into every aspect of Volver. It is present from the very opening shot, which is classic Almodóvar. The camera pans across a graveyard on a blustery day. Amid the wind and tumbling leaves are a plethora of women busily scrubbing down the graves of their husbands, sons, fathers. The discerning viewer will note that the credits roll across the screen from right to left, an unusual stylistic trick. We are more used to seeing things go from left to right (take reading this, for example) and it is slightly disorientating to see them going backwards – backwards, or returning. This theme is present in everything from the casting of Carmen Maura to the ever-turning windmills that occasionally slip into shot. People come back to life, history repeats itself and Penelope Cruz gazes longingly into the distance and sings a torch-song with the same name as the film.

Carmen Maura and Pedro Almodóvar must be one of the all-time great film partnerships. He wrote great parts for her and she acted wonderfully for him. Think Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Hitchcock and blonde women. He directed her in 6 films, but after Women On The Verge… they parted ways. Here’s what Almodóvar had to say on the topic,

"Our relationship became impossible for personal reasons. It [had] something to do with the intense way I work with actors. My relationship with Carmen entered non-professional areas. It caused us both a great deal of pain. It's a long story”

In Volver, Carmen Maura is achingly funny as the grandmother returned from the dead. She’s greying now, but still retains her strange impish beauty. Her slightly wrinkled face is always cracking into a smile of delight or a frown of disapproval. She’s totally animated, and it’s a relief to see that her feud with Almodóvar is over. I’d love to see them do another couple of films together, perhaps addressing their ageing. However, unfortunately, he’s moved on. Move over Maura. There’s another Muse in town.

Penelope Cruz was a pretty, pale, minor character in his other films, but Volver is finally her chance to glow. Her Raimunda was my favourite performance of 2006 and possibly of all time. If she was slightly wooden in All About My Mother, here she is bursting with life, reacting and interacting with the trials of her everyday life with humour, pathos and incredulity. In an Almodóvar film, we must expect bizarre happenings and Volver is no different. Raimunda deals with the death of her aunt, the murder of her husband, her mother coming back to life, the terminal illness of her friend and somehow manages to run a restaurant amid all of this. With another, weaker actress, the part would be overwhelming, but Cruz tackles it head on.

In one scene, Raimunda is frantically destroying evidence of a murder. She rinses the blood-stained knife in the same sink she was washing the dishes in earlier. The mop is utilised to wipe the floor around the corpse. It’s a woman’s job; doing the housework, disposing of her husband’s body. Suddenly, a ring of the doorbell startles her. Hurriedly she shuts the kitchen door, adjusts her hair and opens the door to her apartment, trying to look as innocent as possible. It’s her neighbour asking her for a favour, and as they talk, the viewer notices a smidgen of blood on Raimunda’s neck. There’s a sickening knot in our stomach, will the neighbour notice? Of course he does, furrowing his brow in worry and asking her if she’s alright. Cruz blinks for a moment, and we think the game is up. She shrugs nonchalantly and pulls her shawl closer around her. “Women’s troubles,” she explains.

This scene is a perfect example of what Almodóvar is all about. It’s funny and suspenseful, a sly wink at the viewer, filled with meaning and a poetic sense of cinema. And in Raimunda’s casual line, there we have his entire oeuvre distilled into three seconds.

Pedro Almodóvar may be a man, but he knows “women’s troubles” better than anyone else. His love for women (and his main vision, as far as cinema is concerned) is articulately expressed in the dedication at the end of All About My Mother, far better than I ever could:

"To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother."


Ninquelosse said...

Oooh. Almo...alma...*copy+pastes* Almodovar is one of those directors I keep hearing people praise, but don't actually know anything about. His films sound fun though...I'll have to track one down. Which one do you suggest I search out first?

Catherine said...

All About My Mother, most definitly.