A Tale of Two Pedros
Viva Pedro: A Festival of the Best of Pedro Almodovar raises some questions -- namely, which Almodovar? The Pedro gloriously festivaled and happily familiar now to middle-class film-goers is an aging, camp-centric teddy bear, a man who has made transgender game-playing and comic vamping safe for the arthouses and has done more than any other filmmaker to modernize the throbbing '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Idealizing the family, thumbing his nose at antique authority, celebrating the impromptu bonds of women in a careless man's world -- he's virtually a Spanish Nora Ephron, only with a man's libido and a yen for tastelessness he can no longer always indulge.
The other Pedro is one of the most reckless, diabolically inventive voices to arise from, or at least alongside, the post-punk years of Reagan culture. (Of course, his real incubator was the oppressive Franco dictatorship, which ended with the generalissimo's death in 1975, when Almodovar was 26 and eking out a non-living making shorts -- among them 1976's Trailer de 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' -- that established his reputation in Madrid's alt-culture circles.) Take, for a sharp-edged example, the opening act of Matador (1986), which conflates bullfighting carnage, a depressed ex-bullfighter masturbating to TV slasher gore, and the sexual day trip of a sultry lawyer-seductress who picks up a loser, kills him in mid-fuck with a hairpin through the back of the neck, then rides his corpse to orgasm. The film, arguably Almodovar's most vividly outrageous, proceeds from there along a path of psycho-romantic sex-death that deliberately echoes hysterical Hollywood classics like Duel in the Sun, and in the process shines an X-ray on Spanish blood-sport culture. It all felt brand-new then and seems remarkably savvy still.
Such pretty poison, executed with Almodovar's customary flair, was a rare drug in the '80s; Almodovar himself more or less gave up his nasty streak with the lovable detour that became his international calling card, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). It's hard to begrudge that deadpan, Gummi-colored farce its success, but it's easy to mourn the loss of the danger and disrespect that permeated the previous year's Law of Desire, a fierce soap-opera parody unfolding in a gendernaut demimonde of movie directors, stalkerazzis, transsexual lesbians (Carmen Maura, sassily trumping Felicity Huffman by almost two decades), fetishes run amok and crazed man-love obsessions.
This selective Pedro retro is structured for maximum convenience: Each of the eight "best" features are given what amounts to at least a week's re-release. But we leap right over the uneven but sparky psychomania of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991) and Kika (1993), and instead get The Flower of My Secret (1995), a strangely limp woman's drama about an unhappy middle-aged writer (Marisa Paredes); the promisingly titled Live Flesh (1997), a Ruth Rendell-derived romantic quasi-noir that knots up rather contrived entanglements for five characters after a fateful shooting; and All About My Mother (1999), Almodovar's second career spike in popularity. As unrebellious a film as one could imagine coming from a once-terrible enfant (even considering Penélope Cruz's pregnant nun), My Mother's womb-like warmth and post-camp bathos has only led him to more conservative areas. If well-considered grand slams like Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004) dance with "scandalous" material (coma rape, priest lust), they do it off-camera, ironic and affectionately amused, as if nothing were at stake. So little seems to be: Look at the different take on bullfighting between Matador, which boils down convention into acid rain, and Talk to Her, which, though sweet, interrogates nothing much at all.
Calling Bad Education a Vertigo-Mildred Pierce mishmash gets at its failings as well as why it is so beloved. Derivativeness can be read as homage, and the mere presence of sexually ambiguous characters suggests a sop to compensate for the film's convoluted evasiveness. (Again, compare the experience of Maura's Law of Desire quasi-vamp to Bad Education's clichéd tragi-queen.) What's missing in these later movies is risk, and the sulfurous charge to be had from the earlier films -- including Dark Habits (1983), a very special doped-dyke-nuns comedy -- and from Kika, which transgressed perhaps further than any other film in the oeuvre (specifically, with a long comedic rape scene that revolted many but called the cards on our pop-entertainment amusement with some kinds of violation, like murder and torture, and not others). An utterly fearless carnivale, with enough plot for three movies and a Gaultier costume-design attack that verges on cyborgian hysteria, the unjustly maligned and hilarious Kika is the most Buñuelian of Almodovar's movies and seems the one in need of a re-release.
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