Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sometimes It Pays to Do Your Homework.

As anyone connected to me via social media / telephone lines / bleary library eye contact is already well aware, I spent the better part of December 2012 & January 2013 writing numerous words about Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. (Or—well—many days stressing over & avoiding those words, & then several frantically churning them out like the overcaffeinated spawn of the Tasmanian Devil & a racecar battery.) Anyhow, the whole process was somewhat hazy & bonkers & left me all but zapped of brain matter—but ultimately, it paid off, in this case rather literally.

As it turns out, one of the essays I wrote was selected as the winner of the first annual Andrew Sarris Memorial Scholarship Award for Film Criticism. Aside from how endlessly honored & humbled & floored & ecstatic I feel (to have any tiny part in the legacy of the critic who established auteur theory, to know that greats like Molly Haskell & Caryn James read my prose & found it even remotely pleasant), the title also comes with $750. Which is just beyond.

Anyhow, several people have since asked to read the essay in question, so, for those interested, here it is below—only slightly altered from its submitted form, to fix typos & some phrasing that proved intolerably wonky upon re-reading. (Also, if for whatever reason you want to read a similar argument articulated over 25 pages through transwomen & Judith Butler—AKA, my senior thesis—let me know, & I can certainly make that happen.)

"Positively Anti-Realist"
Art, Artifice, and the Power of Fiction in the Films of Pedro Almodóvar

Since his career began in 1978, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has become one of modern cinema’s most prodigious and recognizable auteurs. Though his oeuvre spans decades, with eighteen full-length films and many awards and accolades (including two Oscars) to his name, all of his films seem to bear certain signature stylistic traits: bright colors, strong female characters, melodramatic tone and plot twists, celebration of queer sexuality—even a cadre of recurring performers (including current household names Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, both of whom owe their success in large part to roles in Almodóvar’s early films). However, beyond these somewhat superficial similarities, there seems to be a deeper uniting thematic trend that spans his body of work: regardless of the specific circumstances of his films’ plotlines, Almodóvar proves himself time and time again to be a creator obsessed with the process of artistic creation. His films repeatedly focus attention on the borderline between reality and artifice, fact and fiction—and show it to be permeable and difficult to maintain. Indeed, many of his films—such as Law of Desire (1987), Bad Education (2004), and Broken Embraces (2009)—explicitly chronicle the travails of filmmaker protagonists and thereby engage directly in the practice of metafilm, implicitly (sometimes, even explicitly) laying bare the inner workings of their own cinematic construction. This somewhat jarring process necessarily forces the viewer to recognize the suspension of disbelief required to engage with film—to reconcile the undeniably artificial nature of what one is seeing with the extent to which it is still affecting. Moreover, even in films of his that don’t explicitly explore the process of filmmaking—for example, All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), and his most recent output, The Skin I Live In (2011)—Almodóvar still seems intent on investigating the influence of art, whether by including explicit references to (or even clips from) other films, or by foregrounding other artistic practices, such as theater, dance, and sculpture. In each case, Almodóvar showcases the ways in which artifice can have a direct and powerful influence on the “reality” of each film’s diegesis; performance, deception, and the production of art are all central to the stories he seeks to tell. One might even term Almodóvar’s films “positively anti-realist,” as theorist Paul Burston does in his essay “Genre Bender,” in that his films constitute “a world which regularly draws attention to its own construction” (143). Indeed, by commenting so frequently on the ways in which art affects life, Almodóvar seems intent on breaking down the presumed hierarchy that privileges reality over artifice, even on destabilizing the very notion of “reality” altogether. Ultimately, Almodóvar’s films represent a collective ode to the power of fiction—a recognition that, in many cases, art can be more “real” than reality, or at the very least equally as relevant.

Of course, this foregrounding of the importance of art is perhaps most explicit in the Almodóvar films that specifically focus on the act of filmmaking, as, in both style and subject matter, they suggest a correlation between the endeavors of their filmmaker protagonists and the work going on behind Almodóvar’s camera. Indeed, in each of these three films-about-filmmaking, the protagonist is a male director, and each one bears varying degrees of resemblance to Almodóvar himself. Law of Desire, for example, revolves around young director Pablo Quintero, an apparently successful member of the up and coming queer Spanish film scene in the 80s, just as Almodóvar was at the time. Also, Almodóvar has since revealed in interviews that certain aspects of Pablo’s character were based on his own actions—for example, writing the “perfect love letter” he would like to receive himself, then asking his lover merely to sign it and send it back, as Pablo does with his lover Juan early in the film (Smith, 79).

In Bad Education, this linkage between diegetic and actual directors becomes formally explicit, even to those with no knowledge of Almodóvar’s personal backstory. As the opening credits sequence comes to a close, we see the customary closing title card “Guión y Dirección [script and direction] Pedro Almodóvar.” However, after a few moments, Almodóvar’s name fades, the background image dissolves from its harsh black, white, and red palette to full Technicolor, and the words “Guión y Dirección Enrique Goded” fade in over what is now a picture of several flight attendants in colorful uniforms posing by the silhouette of a plane. As a disembodied voice begins to tell the story of a motorcyclist who froze to death while on the highway, the camera slowly pulls back from the image of the flight attendants, revealing the edges of an ornate gold frame, and then begins to pan to the left, revealing a young man, sitting across the desk from another man, reading aloud. The first man finishes his story, and Almodóvar settles into a close-up on his face, as he qualifies it to the man across the desk: “It’s a wonderful image. A dead young man drives his motorcycle across the icy plain, escorted by two patrolmen. … There is a story here. I’ll cut it out and keep it. It might inspire me.” Thus, the set-up is clear: this is Enrique Goded, a filmmaker seeking material for his next project; the image of the flight attendants is a framed poster for one of his past films—one of many that we can now see decorate his office. Of course, as we will learn by the end of the next scene, Enrique is also specifically a gay male film director, again like Pablo and Almodóvar. However, the specific choice to fade from Almodóvar’s credit to Enrique’s makes the viewer’s association between them that much stronger: not only are they paralleled in personality, or even implicitly as obsessive creators working in cinema—as Almodóvar is with Pablo—but here, Almodóvar has almost seen fit to give Enrique a directing credit—or, at the very least, to place his name rather literally on the same level as his own.

Perhaps the most direct parallel between Almodóvar and his film director protagonists occurs in Broken Embraces, with Lluís Homar’s portrayal of Mateo Blanco. Though this time a straight man—whose on set romance with his female star is, in fact, the driving force behind the conflict of the narrative*—Mateo’s linkage to Almodóvar is nonetheless explicit, in that the film we watch him attempt to make, titled Chicas y maletas (“Girls and suitcases”), bears a striking resemblance to Almodóvar’s farcical Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). From the names of the main characters (“Pepa” versus “Pina,” both of whom have a love interest named “Ivan”), to a plot spurred by the leaving behind of a suitcase, down to even smaller details like the mention of gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills, there is no question that Mateo’s creative work is a reference to Almodóvar’s previous endeavor. Moreover, at the start of Broken Embraces, Almodóvar introduces us to the dual nature of his protagonist’s identity: when asked, in the first line of the film, “What is your name?” the man we see pictured responds, “Harry Caine.” However, immediately after, a voiceover explains: “I used to be called Mateo and I was a film director. I was always tempted by the idea of being someone else as well as myself. Living one life wasn’t enough, so I invented a pseudonym, Harry Caine.” Coming as he does after these other pseudo-Almodóvarian characters, Mateo might be said to represent a version of the director aware of his own past attempts to fictionalize himself—of his ability to thereby, in a sense, “become [his] pseudonym,” as Mateo has.

Of course, the intent behind detailing these parallels between Almodóvar and his onscreen directors is not merely to expose these films as somehow autobiographical. True, both Bad Education and Law of Desire do touch upon elements of Almodóvar’s past (e.g., his brother’s molestation by a priest), and these characters certainly seem to function as undisguised porte-paroles for his own creative passion—exercising their artistic impulse the same way he does and therefore especially well-realized, as their characterization was likely informed by personal experience (Kinder, 269). However, what is most interesting about these explicit connections between Almodóvar and his director protagonists is the self-questioning, even apparently self-sabotaging, metafilmic dimension such paralleling exposes. By focusing on characters who make films for a living, Almodóvar is able to do this in an expressly straightforward way, by cutting back and forth from the film we’re watching to his film-within-a-film at key moments.

For example, in Bad Education, towards the climax of the film itself, we are also presented with a scene of the shooting of the climax of Enrique’s film, La Visita. Of course, prior to describing this particular scene, it’s crucial to explain the convoluted history of the entire film shoot: La Visita is inspired by a short story of the same name, written by Enrique’s childhood schoolmate and onetime lover, Ignacio—a story that is itself based in part on their shared past experience. In the story, Ignacio—an adult and now a transwoman called Zahara—goes back to their old school and attempts to blackmail Padre Manolo, the priest who molested him. Enrique acquires the story at the very beginning of Bad Education (just after reading about that frozen motorcyclist), when Ignacio visits him for the first time in sixteen years to present “La Visita”—and to suggest that Enrique adapt and direct it, in order that he, as an aspiring actor, can play the lead role of Zahara. Enrique initially turns Ignacio down but ends up reading the story anyhow—and, as he reads, his voiceover speaking out the title and first few sentences, describing the town where the two went to school with its decrepit “Cine Olympo” theater, the image onscreen fades from Enrique’s nighttime apartment in Madrid to show that theater. From here, Enrique’s voiceover disappears, and what is presumably the plot of “La Visita” is visualized, without narration, for Almodóvar’s audience. Significantly, Gael García Bernal, the actor who plays Ignacio, also plays Zahara in this visualization—which would seem to make sense: given basic filmic convention, combined with the knowledge that “La Visita” is based on a true story, and especially in light of Enrique’s occasional intercut emotional reactions, this sequence has all the trappings of a traditional flashback.

However, as the film progresses, Enrique discovers that the man (played by Gael García Bernal) who first delivered “La Visita” to him is not actually Ignacio, but is in fact Juan, Ignacio’s younger brother. Still, Enrique doesn’t disclose to Juan that he’s discovered his ruse—rather, he gives him the part of Zahara, just as he wanted, and continues to act as if he were Ignacio. Though certainly an important twist in terms of plot, this uncovering of Juan’s true identity also makes manifest an important stylistic shift for Almodóvar’s audience: rather than an actual flashback, what we were watching as Enrique read “La Visita” for the first time—the way in which we apprehended that story—was footage from his film adaptation, La Visita. Moreover, this fact is explicitly made manifest for the first time in the climactic scene at the film shoot previously mentioned: the scene begins with a medium shot of Juan as Ignacio/Zahara—wearing the same outfit that Zahara wore throughout the initial scenes from “La Visita”—facing away from the camera, as we hear the expected behind-the-scenes pre-take banter (e.g., “rolling”) from off screen. After a moment, a traditional clapboard bearing the chalked-on title, La Visita, is held up into the middle of the shot: in this moment, Almodóvar clearly identifies that his camera and Enrique’s camera are, for now, one and the same. Once the clapboard is removed, we hear Enrique call “action” from off screen, and Juan turns around to begin the scene, his dialogue relating the breaking point of Ignacio’s fight with the (now revealed fictional) Padre Manolo over the intended blackmail. Mere seconds later, however, Almodóvar cuts to a shot, head-on, of Enrique in his director’s chair, surrounded by production assistants, watching the take transpire, sitting next to the camera through which we were just looking—separate, explicitly, from the production of La Visita. Moments later, however, Almodóvar returns to the same shot as before, once again in line with Enrique’s camera—and from here, Almodóvar seems almost to forget himself, diving fully into the scene of La Visita: cutting to a close-up of Juan, then a close-up of the actor playing Padre Manolo, then on through a series of varying shots typical of a traditional film scene, as the story of La Visita continues to play out. Of course, according to the on-set scenario painstakingly set up by the scene’s opening—the clapboard, the shot of Enrique in his director’s chair—this sequence as presented is physically impossible. Given how the first shots of this scene highlight the tediousness of filmmaking, and that the premise of this sequence is of an “on set” atmosphere, to then present these varied compositions (close-ups, panning shots, dolly shots) without any reference as to their construction, simply in the natural course of an edited scene, is necessarily somewhat jarring. By calling attention to the behind-the-scenes nature of film production, then acting as if it never happened, Almodóvar has thus succeeded in making the seamless, captivating flow of traditional film editing noteworthy, even bizarre.

The scene of La Visita continues for several minutes—including Ignacio’s death, as a another priest enters, gags him, and snaps his neck—and as the action appears to draw to a close, with Manolo praying over Ignacio’s limp body, Almodóvar suddenly cuts to a wide shot of the entire set, the left half of which contains the scene in which we were just immersed, while the right half overflows with production personnel and apparatus—Enrique atop a giant camera cart, lights, tripods, exposed planks, and an intrusive boom mike hovering, we can imagine, just above the frame line of the shot we just saw. Even more so than at the start of this sequence, Almodóvar asks us in this moment to recognize the simultaneity of film and filmmaker—how the thralls of fiction are inseparable from the reality of those who produce it. Moreover, by bookending the sequence with references to its production—reminding us at the start of the scene’s constructed nature, allowing it to transpire just long enough to draw us in, and then disrupting that involvement with another assertion of the scene’s fundamental artifice, even including in all of this the ultimate uncanny filmic miracle of a faked death—Almodóvar makes clear not only how a film scene is constructed, but more importantly, just how easy it is to forget that fact, caught up as we are in the narrative.

One might also recognize this as the very same process achieved by the film’s overall structure, as the reveal that Enrique’s “flashbacks” are in fact excerpts from his fictional film reminds us on yet another level of film’s ability to fool: Almodóvar implicitly asks us to care for Enrique and for Ignacio, for their troubled childhood and their thwarted love, before he shows us that those were all actors—that, at this point in the film, we haven’t even met the real Padre Manolo. Of course, in coming to these realizations, one also has to recognize the absurdity of the idea of a “real” Padre Manolo, as he is a fictional character—but this is exactly the seemingly paradoxical register on which metafilm operates: what theorist D. N. Rodowick calls “a classic Freudian Verneinung,” in which, by explicitly “striking an opposition of imaginary”—or, in this case, constructed—“and real as two different narrative registers represented within the same film,” Almodóvar’s fiction thus “asserts all the more stridently its status as ‘reality’” (5).

Indeed, it is crucial at this point to specify that highlighting film as artificial does not necessarily mean proclaiming it somehow meaningless or otherwise ineffectual. Ultimately, it seems that Almodóvar’s goal is precisely the opposite—to prove that there are cases in which fiction can match reality in meaning and import. For example, at the end of this sequence, when the take of his death scene is over and the bustle of production staff begin setting up for the next shot, Juan remains on set, sobbing uncontrollably, clearly moved by what has just been painstakingly proved false. We find out by the end of the film that Juan was directly responsible for his brother’s death, so one might infer that his playing out this sequence, a fundamentally unreal action, was nevertheless genuinely emotionally cathartic.

This use of an artificial or fictional medium to express a crucial emotional development is repeated throughout Almodóvar’s oeuvre. For example, in Broken Embraces, cuckolded mogul Ernesto Martel finds out via film footage—notably, film footage with no recorded sound, such that he has to hire a lip reader to speak the voices—that his girlfriend, Lena, is cheating on him with Mateo. Moreover, when Lena arrives, improbably, at exactly the moment in the footage at which she confesses her love for Mateo, she demands of Ernesto, “Focus on me,” and rather than turn around to look at her in the flesh, he keeps his eyes on the screen, as she speaks from the back of the room, adding the soundtrack to her otherwise mute filmed image. In this case, not only is an important story element conveyed through an artificial medium, but also what Lena identifies as “me” in this moment, as the most relevant version of herself, is the version represented onscreen. In Law of Desire, too, characters’ feelings are repeatedly expressed through art. Pablo’s sister, Tina, while performing Jean Cocteau’s one-woman monologue, La Voix Humaine, uses the words of the play to express frustration to her ex-lover who stands in the wings. Also, Pablo himself seems to have staged this play about tragic distance from a lover as a desperate plea to his own lover, Juan, to return from abroad, something Pablo is repeatedly unable to express to him directly.

Of course, Almodóvar’s characters’ use of artifice to express themselves also, by extension, exposes his own: his films are littered with references to other texts, whether the clip from All About Eve that begins (and is explicitly shown to inspire the title for) All About My Mother, or the fact that the film centers, in large part, around a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire and the parallels the protagonist draws between her life and Stella’s. Even the Pina Bausch dance routines that bookend Talk to Her echo the film’s themes of helplessness and codependence, with their images of, for example, women with their eyes closed flailing through a room of overturned furniture which one lone man must attempt to knock away. In each case, just as with Tina’s and Pablo’s use of Cocteau, these incorporated texts serve to illuminate and exemplify aspects of the film that might otherwise remain underexplored. For example, the work of Louise Bourgeois, a main proponent of confessional art, appears repeatedly throughout The Skin I Live In. Not only is there a shot of her coffee table book in the film’s opening sequence and, later, a clip from the documentary about her art, but also, once these references have been established, we see the protagonist, Vera, making sculptures in Bourgeois’s style. Because The Skin I Live In centers around Vera’s loss of identity—stripped, as she is, by a vengeful plastic surgeon, of every physical aspect of her former male body, even of her former name, “Vicente”—to see her mimic the artistic tradition espoused by Bourgeois, one that privileges physicalizing the psychological, proves her inner strength despite her seeming external powerlessness (McCrae).

By incorporating these outside artworks into his texts, Almodóvar demonstrates the power of art—artifice, created product—to enrich and affect reality, sometimes even to supersede it. Meanwhile, his films, by strategically calling attention to their own construction, also simultaneously assert their effectiveness as the kind of art that can have this power. Ultimately, all taken together—the sum total of the films themselves, as well as the many overlapping themes and correlations, the repeated examination of the effects of fictions—Almodóvar’s oeuvre reminds us of the importance of art to the proper operation of reality, of the fact that, just because something is constructed doesn’t mean it can’t function as, for all intents and purposes, “real.”

* It’s worth noting that, according to interviews, even this attraction to Cruz is authentic to Almodóvar’s experience (France).


All About My Mother. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Antonia San Juan. DVD. 1999.

Bad Education. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez. DVD. 2004.

Broken Embraces. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar. DVD. 2009.

Burston, Paul. What Are You Looking At?: Queer Sex, Style, and Cinema. London: Cassel, 1995.

France, Louise. “Pedro Almodovar and Penélope Cruz … the mentor and the muse.” (2009, 22 August) The Guardian UK. 11 December, 2012.

Kinder, Marsha. “All About the Brothers: Retroseriality in Almodóvar’s Cinema.” All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema. Ed. Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. p. 267-294.

Law of Desire. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Esuebio Poncela, Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas. DVD. 1987.

McCraw, Trisha. “Louise Bourgeois. Maman: From the Outside In.” Art&Education. 11 December, 2012.

“Pedro Almodóvar.” The Internet Movie Database. 10 December 2012.

Rodowick, D. N. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

The Skin I Live In. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Antonio Banderas, Elena Ayana. DVD. 2011.

Smith, Paul Julian. Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar. New York: Verso: 1994.

Talk to Her. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Writ. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Rosario Flores, Javier Cámera. DVD. 2002.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

A few nights ago, I happened to catch Flesh opening for Bow Wow Wow at The Grand Victory, & I've since become a little obsessed. In short, these songs contain just about everything I like in my organized noise: boppy hooks, brooding, Bauhaus-y vocals, & best of all, Morphine-reminiscent saxophonage. The band describes their sound as "1950's post-apocalyptic surftacular bizarro rocknroll"; I'd call it "The Addams Family Band plays your undersea-themed prom" or "Ian Curtis does the Beach Boys." Of course, they don't have a proper website—but what they do have is a Facebook page &, more importantly, a SoundCloud, which is now perpetually open in my browser. Check it out.

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