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«Enric Bou Many, many years ago, the study of literature in Spain was ruled by the strict code of German philology. Critical editions, extremely ...»

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On Almodóvar’s World: The Endless Film1

Enric Bou

Many, many years ago, the study of literature in Spain was ruled by the strict

code of German philology. Critical editions, extremely detailed literary

histories, and stylistic critical studies were the natural outcome. Imbedded in

the German philological tradition was the idea that by examining key texts

from any literature (German, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, etc.), one could

demonstrate how writers constructed themselves as examples of authentic discourse, the speech used by people in real life at a specific time in history.

Attention to biographical detail and explanation of the text attempted to prove that you could glean the historical sense of a given period through the study of a text. Similar approaches were developed in Italy, France, and Spain. De Sanctis appropriated concepts from Hegel (imagination and creation, organic form and dialectical development) in his studies on Dante and later in his Storia della letteratura italiana (1870–71). Idealistic approaches by Benedetto Croce, Karl Vossler, and Leo Spitzer introduced the idea that it was possible to find elements within the individual peculiarities of a language expressing a psychological state of mind.

Menéndez y Pelayo and some of his followers (Menéndez Pidal, along with Amado Alonso and Dámaso Alonso, Martí de Riquer, and later Francisco Rico) followed the example set by the German school in discovering and mapping out a nationalistic version of Spain. Over a lengthy span of time, this approach produced spectacular works such as Manuel Milàs i Fontanals’ De los trovadores en España (1861) and that of his follower, Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s Historia de las ideas estéticas en España (1883– 1891), and more critically astute works such as Auerbach’s Mimesis, René Wellek’s studies on literary criticism and theory, or Amado Alonso’s Materia y forma en poesía.

Inspired by the Russian formalists and French Structuralism and its aftermath, a swift revolution started in the 1960s that dramatically altered the study of literature. The current status of literature within the scholarly practices of the humanities has been affected by the rejection of old twentieth-century approaches such as philology and stylistics. An increasing Hispanic Literatures and the Question of a Liberal Education Hispanic Issues On Line 8 (2011) BOU ♦ 43 number of young scholars in Spain purposely deny any involvement with the old school, that of their old masters and professors or mentors, while some even dare to venture into cultural studies territory. Yet the looming menace for the study of literature in Spain is not the choice between a philological or theoretical approach, but one of readership. As the numbers of literature students grow smaller by the minute, the challenge is no longer how to read a text, but to (or with) whom to read it. Many of these potential readers or students of literature are lost en masse to the new “Facultades de Comunicación.” Recent developments in the United Kingdom and the United States in the field of Hispanism may offer a solution. I am referring to the growing interest in the study of film by younger students. The flexibility of academia in both communities has allowed scholars to make a shift, and they have included film as a legitimate teaching and research subject with great success. Many of our colleagues from across the Atlantic look puzzled at this new development.

Nevertheless, most of us come from a post-stylistic pre-postmodern world in which we were trained as literary critics: that is, to read texts. My focus in this piece will be the unfortunate proliferation of studies on cinema that are written from a literary perspective while ignoring the specific language of movies. Movies deal both with words—language—and images in motion; thus, film uses language in imaginative and powerful ways to various effects. It is our job to sharpen our students’ critical skills and transform them into more reflective members of the multiple communities to which they belong. A critical reading of Pedro Almodóvar’s films may shed some light on the kind of exercise our students are facing nowadays.

For quite some time, Pedro Almodóvar’s movies have been the powerhouse of Spanish cinema. Revered abroad, encountering less forgiving audiences at home, and identified with the renewal of Spanish culture after the end of dictatorship, his movies have done much to create a sense of national and collective renewal, giving voice to the worries and needs of marginalized groups such as women and gay men, and creating at the same time a personal world that is shaped by his own obsessions and shared realities. Almodóvar’s world is constructed upon a careful consideration of issues of sexual identity, marginal cultures, and art’s expressivity, most prominently film (sub)culture. Almodóvar’s world is unique in that it is easily recognizable from the opening shot of any of his films.2 His world strongly figures themes of vindication and provocation, and includes unique graphics and views of the world. At first sight, Almodóvar’s world could be summarized in a few particularities: his skill at self-promotion (like Dalí or Warhol); the extremely different reception of his movies in Spain and abroad; the existence of what we can call an “estética Almodóvar.” As one reviewer recently wrote in The New Yorker: “His world is as hard to the touch as it is elusive to the understanding; there are motives that lurk and scurry behind those walls which we will never trap” (Lane). Almodóvar HIOL ♦  Hispanic Issues On Line ♦  Fall 2011 44 ♦


likes to include ugliness and clichés, self-reflexivity and a fondness for reversed situations.

What do Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent movies, La mala educación (2004), Volver (2006), and Los abrazos rotos (2009) have in common with his first productions, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1978) and Laberinto de pasiones (1980)? To what extent is the shocking, provocative approach of his first movies only justifiable against the background of the so-called “movida madrileña” and especially the construction of a fictional framework around a world of comic strips, punk rock with a “tonadillera” (kitschy pop song) aftertaste, and a strong anti-establishment feeling? To what point have they been completely abandoned in favor of a more “mature,”3 less provocative model of cinema, more in tune with the consideration of Spain as a part of Europe? Almodóvar’s example represents a unique phenomenon in contemporary world cinema (Epps and Kakoudaki), but nevertheless one that has arisen in a very specific time and place. Even though he has been extremely sharp in establishing a world reputation, the origins of his world are easily identifiable, to a certain point, with Spanish culture right at the tail end of Franco’s dictatorship. This was a moment when artists and writers were fighting for freedom of expression and successfully making connections with the West in the gloomy atmosphere of a decaying, corrupt political regime (Bou and Pittarello).

Experimentation with camp became a fruitful slogan, and Almodóvar’s world was not immune to this trend. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag emphasized the artifice, the frivolity, the naïve pretentiousness and scandalous excess of the middle class as key elements of camp. And so we can consider as camp those fragments of songs, objects that communicate a comical version of Francoism, as a way of escaping the pact of forgetting, in a manner similar to that of other contemporary writers and artists: Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and his Crónica sentimental de España, Juan Marsé in Si te dicen que caí, the films of Víctor Erice, or even better, those of Basilio Martín Patiño, particularly in Canciones para después de una guerra. These artists stopped doing camp a long time ago.

In Almodóvar’s films one can witness the shadows of a camp reality. It has frequently been said that Almodóvar normalizes deviance, and so manages to centralize an alternative canon (Ballesteros). But it is also true that in some of his latest movies (Hable con ella and La mala educación, for example) he trivializes this deviation from the norm, although in the opinion of the audience he confirms and expands his provocative attitude.4 I wish to present a global reading of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, focusing particularly on the features that, from his earliest films through his most recent ones, remain unchanged or are only slightly modified. Thus, by tracing these basic elements in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, I will endeavor to outline a paradigm of his endless film. This kind of reading was already suggested by the filmmaker himself in a public address at Harvard University in 2004. He declared that his latest movie (La mala educación) was a summary of his HIOL ♦  Hispanic Issues On Line ♦  Fall 2011 BOU ♦ 45 whole trajectory. This could confirm the unity of his world and the nature of the “film of films.” More recently, Marsha Kinder has coined the term “retroseriality” to refer to the serial bonds with earlier films, reinterpreting, revising, and even revitalizing stories, situations, characters, and actors. In

her own words:

his films increasingly perform an evocation of earlier works (both his own and intertexts of others) that leads us to read them as an ongoing saga and to regroup them into networked clusters. [...] [H]is films remind us that new works influence old works just as old works influence new ones, for new variations lead us to reread older works in new ways. (Kinder 269) What this demonstrates is that he works with a well-considered structure that reappears time and again.

In the early days of his artistic life, Almodóvar’s efforts could be related to those of the bulk of young filmmakers looking for alternatives to the auteurs’ films of the last years of the dictatorship. The so-called urban film had its moment of glory at the beginning of the 1980s in the so-called “comedia madrileña” (Madrid comedy). These young filmmakers separated themselves from a symbolic cinematographic model, that of Carlos Saura, which had its apogee in the last years of the Francoist dictatorship. From this perspective, a phrase that Almodóvar enjoys repeating makes sense: “mis películas no son antifranquistas, porque yo, en mis películas, ni siquiera reconozco la existencia de Franco. Están hechas como si Franco no hubiera existido” (Strauss 30) (My films are not anti-Franco because in them I do not even acknowledge Franco’s existence. They are made as if he had not existed). A film like Ópera prima (1980), by Fernando Trueba, paradigmatically represents this break with the previous film model and marks the emergence of the comedia madrileña. The films of Fernando Colomo, José Luis Garci, and even some by Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, such as Maravillas (1980), to cite just a few, are representative examples of how filmmakers were exploring new ways of expression at the end of Franco’s dictatorship. However, Almodóvar’s voice almost immediately became noticeably different from the rest of this group.

Almodóvar offered a strong, unconventional attitude from his very first movies. What most particularly characterized his world, at first glance, was the inspiration it took from the underground, which paralleled, for example, the efforts of the “Warhol factory.” In Almodóvar’s case, this world was deeply indebted to the movida madrileña. He continued to color, revise, and soften this inspirational axis, which was so decisive in the beginning of his work and was never fully abandoned, and which has, in fact, become perhaps the most defining characteristic of his particular universe. As Marvin D’Lugo demonstrated, Almodóvar’s “auteur” films are inspired in HIOL ♦  Hispanic Issues On Line ♦  Fall 2011 46 ♦


part by Andy Warhol’s radical concept of authorship: a rejection of originality (recycling and plagiarism) and the incorporation of a marginal world populated by homosexuals, transvestites, and transsexuals (82–84).

Almodóvar has been able to create his own aesthetic through an apparently unintentional amalgam of the previously cited elements.

A quick review of the ample bibliography generated around Almodóvar’s films reveals the great interest provoked among critics by two issues. Their attention to ideology, rather than specific technical elements, is not unheard of. In general, Spanish film (and literary) criticism has been beleaguered by ideological issues, thus replacing aesthetic discussion and turning a deaf ear to more theoretical or philosophically oriented approaches.5 Those who are most attentive to the problematic of sexual orientation, an issue which is evidently dominant in Almodóvar’s films, declare this aspect of his art the most decisive one.6 Farfetched connections have been made on many occasions. We will look at two examples. In Paul Julian Smith’s opinion, Pepi, Luci, Bom’s explicit references to North America (the use of English-language pop music on the soundtrack, the appearance of a drag queen claiming—implausibly—to be from New York) suggest we should look more closely at the relationship between gay cinema in the two countries (Smith 175). Bradley Epps also emphasizes this

characteristic of Almodóvar’s films:

Frenetic, effervescent, wild, and rapturous, they are also willful, deliberate, and self-conscious. They focus on dispersion, center on marginality, and concentrate on excess. They seem designed, almost systematically, to scandalize and trouble; they seem fixed, almost obsessively, on the movement of sexual desire. They are also, of course, framed largely around figures of femininity and homosexuality: figures subject, in Almodóvar’s eyes, to nervous anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and flamboyant histrionics: to hysteria. (“Figuring Histeria” 99) It is clear that this focus exists in Almodóvar’s films. But concentrating solely on it is a partial and reductionist reading of his films, since among the millions of spectators who are fascinated (or terrified or surprised or scandalized) by Almodóvar’s movies, only a small portion expects this kind of reading.

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