MLA Manual Not Included
A REVIEW BY CHRIS VOGNAR
All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema
Edited by Bradley S. Epps and Despina Kakoudaki
University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 488 pages
Pedro Almodóvar films, as any fan knows, are fastidiously designed and art-directed to the nth degree. They provide grist for mills aesthetic and ideological, emotional and intellectual, on themes that run the gamut from post-Franco Spanish politics to the travails of transsexual identity.
But here is the man himself, writing in his “Filmmaker’s Diary” on the making of Volver: “In this job, intuition is what rules.” The “Diary” is the last piece of writing in All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema, a collection of very academic essays that demonstrates too little of the spirit or spontaneity by which its subject swears.
Take Linda Williams’ piece “Melancholy Melodrama,” in which the author, with a little help from her friend, describes a gun: “Rather, it functions much more like the phallus that Judith Butler argues is ‘no longer determined by the logical relation of mutual exclusion entailed by a heterosexist version of sexual difference in which men are said to ‘have’ and women to ‘be’ the phallus.” Is there any possible context—or possible language—in which this tangle of words would qualify as quality writing? Not all of the syntax is tortured in this anthology, and many of the ideas on display do justice to an artist who embraces the complexity of the human experience. But complex doesn’t have to mean obtuse, especially not when you’re dealing with a filmmaker who, for all of his theory-friendly qualities, is about as lively as they come.
He’s also a Rorschach test of sorts, viewable through whatever prism, and open to whatever interpretation, suits the particular theorist at hand. The book’s editors, Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki, know what kind of chameleon they’re dealing with. As they write in their refreshingly readable introduction, “in the last thirty years, Almodóvar has been, by turns, an experimental voice of the Spanish Movida, a social and political provocateur, a cultural iconoclast, and enfant terrible, a punk, a queer, and a quirky genius whose appeal transcends national boundaries and generic formulations.” For the past decade or so, beginning with All About My Mother in 1999 and running through last year’s Broken Embraces, Almodóvar has also become an almost mainstream international superstar: 2002’s sublime and haunting Talk to Her, one of the most frequently discussed films in this volume, broke the language barrier to win an Oscar for best original screenplay.
But that’s the newer, less controversial (and less confrontational) Almodóvar. In previous incarnations he enjoyed a penchant for shocking even his target art film audience, often through unlikely combinations of sex, humor and violence. This is the subject of Peter William Evans’ essay “Acts of Violence in Almodóvar,” one of the stronger pieces in the book. Looking at films including What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Matador (1986), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and Live Flesh (1997), Evans cannily points out “Almodóvar’s treatment of violence is not confined to a reflection of social patterns of abuse involving real-life violators and victims.” For Evans, interplay between dominance and submission in Almodóvar makes the filmmaker “a cinematic poet of fantasy—and of the pain and pleasure of sexual desire.”
As you may have guessed this is not a layman’s guide to Almodóvar, nor does it mean to be. Queer theory (even queer use of music, in Kathleen M. Vernon’s “Queer Sound: Musical Otherness in Three Films by Pedro Almodóvar”) gets a good workout, as do melodrama (aside from the Williams essay there’s Mark Allison’s “Mimesis and Diegesis: Almodóvar and the Limits of Melodrama”), performance theory (Isolina Ballesteros’ “Performing Identities in the cinema of Pedro Almodóvar,” which bridges the gap between 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion and 2002’s Talk to Her) and a heaping dose of Freud. All About Almodóvar has theory coming out of its ears, some of it even explainable and relevant.
In other words it’s a book written by academics, for academics, unless you’re the type of person who likes to throw the word “cathexis” into casual conversation. This is all well and good I suppose; professors, after all, have a mandate to publish or perish, and it’s no secret that this generally means trying to out-MLA each other’s vocabulary. All About Almodóvar is like an echo chamber inhabited by very smart people who know very well how smart they are. One can imagine Almodóvar himself, Mr. Intuition, getting a chuckle out of the lengths gone here to explain his work before acknowledging that theorists must theorize, and tenure must be attained.
Still, the essays that work best in All About Almodóvar manage to convey complex and provocative ideas without making the language weep like Marco in Talk to Her. Ironically, two of the most successful in this regard untangle Almodóvar’s gleeful gender mash-ups and divide up the boys and the girls.
Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s “Almodóvar’s Girls” digs deep into narrative structure to look at, well, Almodóvar’s girls as both characters and, more importantly, storytellers. The writers conduct a nifty dance between art and life and even manage to have some semantic fun with the title of “All About My Mother.” Which brings us to Marsha Kinder’s “All About the Brothers,” a smooth cross-textural analysis of Law of Desire and the underrated Bad Education that even makes room for the Godfathertrilogy and Kieslowski’s Three Colors.
All About Almodóvar is a fine survey for the hardcore cinema studies student or insatiable Pedro fanatic with a dictionary at the ready. But don’t pick it up looking for pleasure or for an introduction to the Almodóvar oeuvre. For that there’s always Faber and Faber’s Almodóvar on Almodóvar. Or, better yet, a repeat engagement with the films themselves.
Chris Vognar, Movie Critic at the Dallas Morning News, was the 2009 Arts and Culture Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. His favorite Almodóvar film is Bad Education, which he has found to be a rather unpopular choice.