Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation

17.9.2003 | Von:
Ramón del Castillo


First of all, I would like to make one point clear.

The cause of my distrust is not Almodóvar´s cinema itself but rather Almodóvar as both cause and effect of a social sensibility. I don´t care so much of his cinematic aesthetics itself, but of it as expression of a much more general mentalité or style of living associated with the Spanish democracy. As Pierre Sorlin (see his European cinemas, European societies: 1939-1990, London, Routledge) I would consider movies not as evidences of social changes, but as active ingredients in social change. Social reality is as it is partly because it is represented in a certain dominant way.

Both for the better and for the worse, Almodóvar had provided Spaniards with elements for achieving a new identity after an era of brutal political and cultural repression, an identity which, as Almodóvar´s style, has evolved since the funny 80´s. According to this new identity, Spanish soul can be still different; it can still remain between the French esprit and the German Geist, between elegance and solemnity. Thanks to stylists as Almodóvar now we can be extremely glamorous although in our own grotesque way; and we can discover something of a tragic hybris within us, provided that we administrate it with that irony and humour which supposedly German authors (people?) do lack. Thanks to this new imagery, indeed, we reinvented our historical fame of rude, funny and histrionic people, showing off about a new and glamorous type of affective excess and a disarticulated mode of society. Since the funny 80´s we, Spaniards, had showed to France how to combine kitsh, camp, pop and popular culture with a naïve touché of sophistication, how to mix sordidness and refinement, crummy life and elegant fashion. At the same time, something of that Latin cheerfulness that some Germans like to associate with us is recreated by Almodóvar in a world of dragged and creeping characters, but much less tragic and sinister than those invented by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (Italy, one could say, compete with us for the sprit of comedy, but there is many ways in which the Spanish ideal of openness and straightforward manners claim for its own place).

In fact, the ideal of sociability Spain displays before the European public was mainly based on traditional values such as spontaneity and frankness. Values which in a new context meant things like this: we know a lot about human relationships, love, pain, conflict and passions; we really know how to meet the secrets of life and death, but we don´t need neither the French art of allusiveness nor the German propensity to seriousness. We speak a different tongue, the tongue of swearing whose directedness would allow us to understand anything without mediation. Even if some European student of sociology, literature, art or culture (I have met some of them in Germany) can rack their brains thinking on All about my mother and Talk to her as intricate and complex plots, the real promise of Almodóvar´s social creed is that we, the real Spaniards don´t need many intellectual stuff to understand this marvellous world. That´s the flower of our social secret: listening to simple traditional love songs, Latin American boleros, enjoying tacky soap operas, discovering the funny side of our folkloric past and enjoyed Hollywood melodramas without the political prejudges some leftist militant adopted in the 60´s (See what Almodóvar says on Gone with the Wind or his predilection for Douglas Sirk). It seems that our vernacular sociability depends on a strange and invisible organ, somewhere located between our stomach and our sex.

As Guillermo Cabrera Infante one said, "Almodóvar does not owe anything neither to film criticism nor to that useless exercise which social criticism is" (see "El Indiscreto secreto de Pedro Almodóvar", en Cine o sardine, Madrid, 1997). Openness, familiarity –let´s say–is our only and true social force, no matter if sometimes it can result too rough to exquisite palates from the old cultivated Europe or politically incorrect to left or right wing puritans from the United States. Doubtless, at the same time we like to adopt the role of a passionate South-Europe, we can also exhibit our culture before the United States as the promise land of an unworried social consciousness. As Almodóvar claimed early, in 1984: "For me, pleasure is not an ideology, nor a motive for militancy" what, among other things, meant that American gays and lesbian mistake completely the point. Someday around the early 80´s Spaniards suddenly took queer life for granted (as if they discover in it an instinctive sense of compassion and tolerance) and willingly accepted that your catholic father became transsexuals or that you yourself could change your gender twice or three per day. Magically, this new sexual culture could transforme our traditional willingness (shared both by fascists and communists, right-winger and social democrats) of talking continuously about sexual organs and bodily functions as a mean of sociability. We don´t need non-offensive terms, nor political correction, since we know how to turn the offensive into the funny, the discriminative in the mutual, the suffering of social stigma into the delight of the social exoticism. The same culture of explicitness with which we can insult and humiliate somebody by reason of race or gender, turns out to be mysteriously valid in a more and more open-minded society. Equality is a question of promoting a more hedonist culture (everything is a question of taste) and not of irritating group consciousness. Make social habits, customs and styles "explicit" and you will have done the right thing. Latin "naturalness" does the work for you.

Definitely, thanks to Almodóvar we are still and we will be "latinos" forever, but of a different kind: maybe of a postmodern type, since now we know how to ionize with elements derived from traditional popular culture in the way of a glittering image of tolerance and pluralism. We enjoy –to be sure-- a postmodernity without modernity. We are even more postmodern than other rich industrial societies, just because we can compensate our historical delay with an amusing celebration of the very lack of any historic sense. Since we never took part of the History, now we can export happily our own lack as an advance.

The first Almodóvar, in fact, recreated a new young culture based in both transparency and amnesia. Transparency, indeed, because his movies (he does allude to Law of Desire) "had to avoid the metaphor and to insist in transparency... that is what hyperrealism means: just calling a spade a spade" (Patty Diphusa Barcelona, Anagrama, 1991, texto de 1987), or in other words: the new culture could invent a language with no indirect references to people like homosexuals, travesties, drug addicts, transsexuals. Curiously enough, Spain was the cauntry in which iconoclast sexuality was represented openly in movies, while some plain political facts would never be named directly. Whereas sexual liberation acquired publicity, politics was condemned to euphemism. Transparency, in fact, and evasion from ideologies were well-matched. "Everything has changed. Everything –he had says in the early 80´s-- Nowadays you cannot take refuge in ideologies. After a 60´s of militancy, the superficial 80´s represented a very active political attitude" (Sineast 83/84 quoted by Sasa Markus: La poética de Pedro Almodóvar, Litera Books, Barcelona, 1998).

To some extent, some of those who felt liberated in the 80´s nowadays would admit that this kind of revolt (something of a festive liberation of impulses rather than a conflictive struggle for real political resources) could have operated as a consolatory substitute for the real social change that never came to happen. Spanish transition –Mark Allinson have said–"necessitated a cultural revolution to compensate for the absence of a political one...Almodóvar´s films provided not only an image of Spain consistent with the national will towards collective memory loss, but also a colourful, festive image of Spain which appealed to foreign audiences" (A Spanish Labyrinth. The Films of Pedro Almodóvar, I.B. Tauris, London, 2001, my italics) In the 80´s –he says in 1991-- "we didn´t posses memory and we imitated whatever we wanted... the more we plagiarized the more authentic we felt. We were full of pretentiousness but our own lack of perspective produced the contrary effect. Some circles from Madrid were identical to some circles of New York. Vicious circles, circles without exit, I mean... There was no sentiment of solidarity, neither political, nor social, nor generational" (Almodóvar, Patty Diphusa y otros textos, texto de 1991).

When, for a moment, he turned to a rough social satire as What Have I Done to Deserve This? more than one had to admit that, fortunately, social criticism could discover new and innovative ways. Almodóvar, however, did adopt a much more sophisticated aesthetics centred in tragic love (as in the flamboyant Matador or the in much more sensitive Law of Desire) or in that sort of fashionable high comedy which American Academy would nominate for Hollywood (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Progressively the overly dramatic sensibility of the 80´s gave way to a more and more stylized mise-en-scène. Mannerism farce is substituted by melodramatic plots that illustrate something of a morality without society (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!; High Heels and Kika), a world of human emotional conflicts mysteriously resolved between individuals in their solitude. Mature Almodóvar, in addition, also would offer a Latin version of the old woman´s picture: In 1984 he declared: "There is a strange sentiment of reciprocity between women and me. I usually provoke in them maternal sentiments, and women usually provoke on me maternal sentiments. That is why I and actresses understand each other so well (Patty Diphusa, 1984). Starting from The Flower of My Secret, Cabrera Infante did not doubt in defending the traditionalism of Almodóvarian sprit in an age of virulent feminism and political correction: "Almodóvar´s women suffer –he said-- as women used to suffer before cinema turned to be feminist, that is, when movies were really politically incorrigible. Some authors know women better than most of men and better, of course, than most of feminist". Almodóvar, in consequence discover for men and women the legacy of Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas), or Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce, Sacrificio de una madre, en cast.) now in the way of an ironic version of the melodramatic suffering.

High Heels, The Flower of my secret and All about my Mother, then, showed to that postmodern world that solidarity is a "feminine" virtue, and Talk to her remain us that women´s energy (even that of the accidentally inanimate ones) is and will be a secret for a world of insecure and fragile men: "Woman´s brain –the main character from Talk to her declares–is a mystery, and it is still more in this state. Women have to be taken in account... they have to be talked. One must to repeat to them than they really exist, than they are alive, than they do matter to us" (Talk to her).


I´m not suggesting that Almodóvar´s movies are not socially useful because some European and Spanish problems do not appear explicitly in it (class, racism, immigration, unemployment, political disenchantment, economical exploitation), but on the contrary because his way to approach ordinary life procures a too much politically useful sublimation. In addition to a more explicitly political or social cinema, we really need a cinema on styles of life, ways of feeling, customs, moralities and modes of sensibility. But I don´t understand exactly why French and German Films Festivals reward a kind of subrogate social idealization as Almodóvar´s one (or why some Americans adore such unreal image of a subaltern new Europe).

Probably a depressed Europe need this kind of coloured image of ordinary people (as Spaniards are supposed to be). However, I guess (in fact I positively know) that some Spaniards would curiously identify the state of their soul more with characters as Von Trier´s idiots or Vitenberg´s distressed ones than with the Almodóvarian ones, no matter if for some other Spaniards experiments as Dogma 95 only represented the revival of an old-fashioned European obsession for "authenticity". It doesn´t matter if Danes and Spaniards have something in common (this is not the important question); what matters is that, even the sunny part of Europe some social anxieties result to be as strange as some young Danish authors represented them (I could also mention other authors whose micro-social approaches had drawn the attention of Spanish audience: Zonka, Ozon, Kassovitz or older figures as Tavernier). Probably authors as Almodóvar nowadays only represent a generation of people that had really fun in the 80´s but which throughout the 90´s contributed to an official culture of false pluralism and tolerance.

Some References:

Allinson, Mark: A Spanish Labyrinth. The Films of Pedro Almodóvar. I.B. Tauris, London, 2001.
Almodóvar, Pedro: Pathy Diphusa y otros textos. Barcelona, Anagrama, 1991.
Cabrera Infante, Guillermo: Cine o sardina., Madrid, 1997.
Mazierska, E & Rascaroli, L.: From Moscow to Madrid: Postmodern cities, European cinema, I.B. Tauris, London, 2003.
Saša Markuš: La poética de Pedro Almodóvar,Litera Books, Barcelona, 1998.
Smith, P. J.: Desire Unlimited. Verso, London, 1994.
Triana-Toribia, Nuria: Spanish Nacional Cinema, Routledge, 2003.

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